I love sewing. My mother sewed, and my grandmothers and their mothers before them. For my mother, it was cost effective, and my grandmothers had no other alternative. But there was something else about sewing; a sisterhood, a measure of womanhood. In my family, women who did not sew their own clothing, well, just didn’t quite measure up.
And their standards of a “good wife and home-maker” have stayed with me, below the level of consciousness, motivating me to sew, conjuring memories of trips to the fabric stores, of sitting with Mother at big wooden tables leafing through pattern books, matching fabric to patterns. I can see our dining room table draped with fabric, pattern pieces weighted with jelly jars, pincushions and thimbles strewn about, colored threads in sewing boxes, buttons in mason jars, scraps and pattern pieces littering the floor. I hear the crunch of scissors slicing through fabric, the whirr of the sewing machine motor, I inhale the musty-starch smell of new fabric. All is well. It’s magic. Something wonderful is being created.
Well, sometimes. Unfortunately, more times than not, even my mother’s finished product fell short of the vision in my head. First of all, my body bore little resemblance to the whimsical drawings of hourglass-shaped models. Secondly, neither of us was very good at matching fabric to garment, so the finished product never looked quite the way we had imagined.
My mother and grandmothers were all excellent seamstresses. I was not so blessed. I don’t have their patience nor did I inherit their sense of spatial relationship. Patterns always seemed to be written in some secret code. So it’s not surprising that my finished products left something to be desired. Hems were uneven, seamlines bulged, things were a little too loose here, too tight there. But so much had been invested! The fabric, the notions, the time! The pretense had to be maintained, at least for awhile. It wasn’t that bad! And besides, hadn’t Mother said, if you looked hard enough at a store-bought dress, you’d find mistakes? And the fabric in store-bought clothes is so flimsy things never last more than a season. That’s why we sew our own clothing….it’s just the right thing to do.
And so the charade continued through the years; untidy stacks of fabric hoarding closet space, sewing machines capable of every imaginable stitch and flourish, lavishly equipped sewing rooms, sewing classes. But still, garment after garment joined the procession from the front through the back of the closet, on its way to the charity bin. Each time I was sure this garment would be beautiful. I would build a wardrobe around it. I would be the envy of all my friends, whipping out these little fashion statements in my spare time. After all, I’m getting better at this, right?
Last week I began a pair of pants that I have planned for years. I bought the fabric during the Clinton administration. It was all the rage. And I had been waiting for just the right moment to whip them up. They would be stunning, long and flowing. Just the thing to set off a summer wardrobe. The pattern was dirt simple. What could possibly go wrong? I’d have it done in an afternoon.
But. It had pockets. Two of them. The first of which I put in backward. Twice. And then I sewed it in properly…on the outside of the pants leg. Once corrected, I put in the other pocket. Inside out. So now the top-stitching was on the wrong side. You get the drift. Each time I ripped out the seams, the edges frayed so that when they were re-sewn, everything got smaller. But after ripping out and re-sewing over three afternoons through countless Modern Family reruns, Viola! One slightly- smaller-than-expected-leg completed. Delighted, I held it up to the mirror. It was, well…awful. I tried to convince myself that it would look much better when the pants were finished and hemmed. Or perhaps I should just rip it out, put the pieces back together and make a skirt.
“What’s that?” my husband asked absently as I walked by carrying my failed pant-leg.
“Just something I’ve been sewing” I mumbled.
“But,” curious now, “what IS it?
“A pants leg?” I said defensively.
He looked confused. “You spent an entire WEEK on one pants leg? Aren’t there two?”
” Well, yes,” I said, “I ran into a little trouble. But now that I’ve got it down..”.my voice trailed off.
Amazingly, he didn’t laugh. “Did you enjoy doing it?” he asked, gently.
I said nothing.
“Hey! Give yourself a break! Go to Chico’s and buy some pants.,” he said, going back to his magazine.
Although the need for pants was never the point, I think I’ll take his advice. It’s been a painful lesson, too long in coming. I am just not good at this. It will be humbling to find a home for all that fabric, the patterns, and expensive dress form. But it’s such a relief to honor my limitations and give myself permission to do what I like rather than what I think someone else expects of me. For years I have tried to sew clothing to meet my concept of my mothers’ standards for a good wife and homemaker. Although I knew on a conscious level that the days are long gone when it was more expensive to buy than to sew clothes, the irrationality of my obsession to master the art of garment sewing completely escaped me. Early lessons are not easily unlearned, if ever. I bet my mothers would have jumped at the chance to shop at Chico’s. And I’m amazed that it took a week of rainy afternoons in retirement for me to realize that it was my unrealistic expectations, not those of my mothers, that have been hounding me all these years.
But I won’t give up the comforting connection with my mothers that sewing provides. I need something that doesn’t require a pattern or have to fit anything. And something I actually enjoy! Maybe I’ll try quilting. I can even use some of that fabric stash. I think my Mothers will be relieved. They must have been cringing all these years.
Photography from Flickr Creative Commons: Sewing room; Kristen Roach; Simplicity Dress: Carbonated; Sewing : plaisanter