In the environment where I work, this is considered a freaky thing. Not just novel: strange. Like I’m suddenly Amish or something. Sewing, it appears, is akin to churning your own butter or making your own candles from goats’ milk. It’s a funny thing. Some stuff like this comes into vogue now and then. Like making your own pasta or putting up preserves. It becomes hip. But there’s a fine line between Martha Stewart and Ma Kettle. Sewing is apparently way-Ma Kettle.
I credit my ability to sew to my dear mom. She sewed clothes for us growing up, and my sisters were always the girls with the most elegant, unique, custom-made gowns at every school dance. If we wanted a new top or dress or skirt, we went to the fabric store and chose the perfect pattern, exactly the fabric we wanted, and voila: perfect clothes. There was never danger of arriving at school wearing the same thing as another kid. This was particularly cool because we lived in the tiny town of Vermillion, South Dakota, and the fashion selection was rather limited. We had to go to Sioux Falls – or even Des Moines – to buy school shoes.
Mom started us on sewing cards. I don’t think you can even buy those anymore. They were chunky, colorful cardboard objects with holes punched along the edges. You’d get a jumbo plastic needle, and you’d draw yarn through the holes to mimic different stitches. Then you could pull the yarn out and do it again and again. I remember the dry, dusty feeling of the yarn as it drew across the cardboard edges. I felt like a legit seamstress. And that was just the beginning.
Mom taught us the basics on an old, black Singer sewing machine. She would let me crawl down by her feet and push the electric pedal when she was sewing. We learned to thread the needle, make a bobbin and make a straight stitch on practice scraps. Then a zig-zag. Then a blind hem. But before we could sew real fabric, we had to learn to lay out a pattern and cut it. Mom always said that was the most important part of sewing: cutting the material. She said if you cut the pattern wrong, no fancy sewing could fix it. She was right. And if you had to sew the fabric you cut, you suffered for your own cutting mistakes. What a remarkable analogy: get the thing right in the beginning. Fixing something is always more work than taking time to get it right the first time.
The other thing she emphasized was to read the directions carefully and follow them. This was difficult for me. I am a learn-by-doing kind of gal, so I became good friends with my seam ripper – the instrument that un-does your sewing mistakes. I developed a similar relationship with White-Out in college. And the delete key later on in my professional life. Heck – an apology is probably the seam ripper I use most today. As mad as I was at myself when I sewed something inside out, I seemed to make the same mistakes more than once. It should have taught me to read directions diligently, but instead it seemed to teach me that it was best if I avoided jobs that required you read directions carefully.
My first big sewing project was a thrill: I made a Raggedy Ann doll. I was probably ten years old. To this day, I remember every detail of it. The iron-on pattern for embroidering the face and stitching in the hair. Sewing the elastic onto the cuff of her little dress. The bad stuffing job I did on one of her feet. The doll was not perfect when I finished, but all of her imperfections were hidden when she was dressed, just like the rest of us. I learned a ton on that project. My daughter still has this doll. The sweet, stitched-on smile my old Raggedy Ann wears seems to say, “Don’t worry, Kristi. No one will ever see the ragged-as-heck seam across my butt. It’ll be our little secret.”
When John and I were first married, we bought a cheap-o couch and loveseat. When it got trashed by our dogs, their litters of puppies, and our own babies, I would truck down to the cheap fabric and upholstery store and buy a bolt of material. I’d cut out big chunks of it, and lay it over each surface of the couch, inside out, then pin it together all along each seam. Then I’d sew wherever there were pins, cut off the excess, turn it right-side-out, staple gun the bottom edges, and voila: a new couch! I did that twice with the first cheap living room set we bought, and it lasted us ten years. I was obsessed. I could do it all in one night, after we put the kids to bed. I was so excited to have a new living room that I couldn’t stop until it was done.
I would tell my friends at work, and they couldn’t believe it. In fact, they didn’t believe it. Most of them had never met a person who could sew. Let alone upholster. I was like a mannequin in the Pioneer Museum with one of those prairie bonnets on her head.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t believe none of them sewed. What did they do when they needed to hem a pair of pants? Or fix a split seam? They didn’t even have a sewing machine? Turns out there are people who will do that for money. Wow. Sew a stupid seam. For money. Unbelievable.
When our two oldest girls were about 6 and 4, I sewed their dresses for my brother-in-law’s wedding. The dresses complemented one another without matching. I made them each a little lined jacket and a purse to match. One had scalloped edges. That’s huge. I was so proud of those girls of ours. You could tell they felt pretty and it made their day divine to have special dresses made just for them. In high school, the younger of the two did a painting based on a photo we took of them in those dresses. She is so talented. I love that painting.
My mother taught my kids to sew. In fact, our youngest and her friend once created calico wine bottles with hand-decorated labels sewn on, and sold them to our friends. They were the kind of thing you’d find in a high-end home accessories shop. I should have exploited those kids. I could have made a fortune. But I would go straight to Hell, so I opted not to.
Still, sewing seems to be a craft people have categorized as “for manufacturers only”. Not to be done at home. Like churning butter, come to think of it. One day at work I got a compliment from a colleague about the skirt I was wearing. I told her, “Oh, thanks! I made it.”
“SHUT up. You did not.”
“Uh, I most certainly did. It took me less than an hour.”
“SHUT up. You are kidding.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“I can prove it to you.”
“I’ll make one just like it tonight and wear it to work tomorrow.”
“You have two babies at home. No way could you do that.”
“Sure I could. If I can re-upholster a couch, a loveseat and an ottoman in one night, I can certainly sew a silly old skirt. You tell me what color and pattern you want it to be so I can’t pull some other skirt out of the closet. Be specific.”
“No way. OK. Make it something floral with lots of black.”
“You’ve got it. I’ll stop at the fabric store on the way home.”
“Done. I can’t wait to see this. No way.”
Way I thought.
So I did it. No biggy. Less than an hour.
Next day, I wore the skirt to work with a tailored black blazer. Gasps. You’d have thought I performed brain surgery. A real miracle to these city girls. “Wow. That is amazing!” they said.
So I’ve accepted that I may forever be seen as some old-fashioned enchantress with fabric powers. And my daughters carry the gift, too. I realize now that sewing is on a growing list of dying arts. Right next to writing “Thank You” notes.
Speaking of which…Thank you, Mom.