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Sewing A Life

This title occurred to me today as I was contemplating whether or not to get out my seam ripper and remove a large exterior ad (i.e sewed-on label) on the back of a rather nice article of clothing I’d just bought. 

I looked at the loose running stitch.  The label is obviously a work of art as well as the shirt, and I think that either the artist herself or her employees, whom she has perhaps supplied with sewing machines, sewed it on herself.  I thought about providing my own label/ad.  My web page address?  A segment of watercolor, printed on cloth?  Tie-die, cut into a pleasingly proportioned rectangle?

But really, I was contemplating my grandmothers, and sewing.

All of my grandparents were born in 1888, and I knew them all.  My father’s father died just shy of a hundred years old, so I knew all of them as well as one can know an idealized Being, one who has Wisdom.  I’ve always adored seriously old people, and I wonder if anyone will similarly adore me.  I rather doubt it, but who knows. 

My maternal grandmother taught me several hand stitches when I was about five.  I think that, using them, I might be able to do a fair job of suturing if pressed.  The loose running stitch was  judged on its regularity.  She taught me a backstitch which I always use for strength.  Neat, invisible hemming stitches were the Pennsylvania/Chicago (where she was born)/equivalent of perfection:  something that no one else will see, but which is done with the light hand of a master, like good pie crust.    I use these stitches.  I know that using a double thread is, paradoxically, a sign of seamstress weakness, but I usually employ it.  I used her foot-pump Singer sewing machine when I was in high school to “run up,” as we used to say, my competitive dresses and skirts.  I say competitive because I was engaged in a competition with a classmate.  This was the age of the miniskirt, and apparently, from eyeing what remains of those efforts, I was Size Zero.  It took about a dollar’s worth of material to create a skirt or dress.  I was a rather lazy sewer, or a rather industrious sewer, depending on how you look at it.  I did not install zippers in a fancy way; I sewed them up one side and down the other and cut open the seam.  I did not use my nice stitches for hems; I used iron-on tape.  But on the other hand, I produced about one article of clothing per evening.  Sometimes, if I went for a fancy pattern (I had electric scissors, which were a godsend), it might take two.  Dirndl?  No problem!  Bell-bottoms? Ha!  I double-dare you.

Let me return, for just a moment, to my mother’s creations.  On that machine she “ran up” curtains for our Victorian Lady in Cincinnati, cool Fifties matching dresses with rick-rack trim for me and my three sisters, and holikus for us when we lived in Hawaii in 1960, as well as countless pretty things.  She flew small planes for the Civil Air Patrol in the Forties, and she took to the Fifties with that same verve. 

For my paternal grandmother, sewing was something she had mastered when a child.  She told me a story about when she was a girl in Arkansas.  Her mother had died, and she was saddled with the equivalent of the Evil Stepmother.  She had a blond-haired younger sister, called, in the Southern manner,  “Sister.”  My grandmother, when she was twelve or so, worked all summer on her own crop (she was also a formidable farmer) to earn enough money to clothe herself beautifully for school.  She and her sister went to school, at one time, using a handpump railroad car.  But I digress.

This young girl went to town with her hard-earned cash and bought many yards of material and some patent-leather shoes.  When blonde Sister saw them, she burst into tears, and the pressed parents went out and bought her those same things, leaving Grandma with the degree of resentment that is useful to novelists.  But I digress.

When I knew her, Grandma had a dressmaker’s dummy, and made all of her own clothes.  They were lovely.  They were Sunday-grade.  I looked at that headless figure, with its adustable segments, and longed for one.  I still do.  I don’t know anyone who wants to tediously measure for a hem while I stand on a stool and pin it up, iron it, and re-measure before sewing, with a flying hem-stitch.  Well, my husband might.  He probably would.  I’ve never asked him. 

So, as I look at this obviously hand-attached label, I wonder who sewed it on.  I don’t know, so I make up six lives for her.  Or him.   This is the fiction-writer’s sickness.  I make up stories. 

This is what I do instead of sew.

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2 comments

1 Nalo Hopkinson { 04.24.11 at 2:04 PM }

You sew, too! I didn’t know that. My mother gave me my first sewing machine for my 13th birthday. It was a new Singer, but since she knew I was afraid of the electric foot pedal, she had it installed in a traditional sewing table with a treadle for me. Learning to sew was one of the most frustrating learning curves I’ve ever voluntarily taken on; I’m biochemically short on patience for that kind of thing. Once, to my mother’s horror, I glued the seams for a calico blouse instead of sewing it. But I got more patient over the years (as well as learning some cool shortcuts). I still sew, and now I amass old sewing patterns from the 30s through the 60s as well.

2 Kathleen Goonan { 04.26.11 at 2:17 PM }

A few years back at WFC, you wore a lovely 50’s dress you made.

I like every clothing decade, and I’ve pored through patterns online, but I am most drawn to wanting to look like a Victorian; the lines seem to suit me. Not the colors so much; I am into Vivid. I also like the forties. My mother had a good job during the forties and had lots of classy, clean-lined dresses, suits and jackets. I have many of them, although I can’t wear them as I did not inherit her marvelous figure.

A few years back, I bought some Folk patterns and made my sisters, my mother, and myself heavy flannel prairie nightgowns with embroidered yokes. First mistake: I flaked on the buttons and wrist and neck and on velcro. This was in the early years of velcro, and the little hooks quickly filled with flannel. Second mistake: I was the only one in the family who liked sleeping with the winter wind gusting through the room. These nightgowns, over which I earnestly labored, became quite a joke to my sisters.

Despite having a treadle machine, I managed to run the needle through my thumb one day. I just sat there looking at it: hmmm, needle in thumb: and treadled once again to pull the needle out.

If superglue had been at my disposal earlier, I’m sure I would have used it!

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