And Sew It Goes

Vintage sewing machine

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, 50s dress Patterncolored 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.

Sewing RoomAnd 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?

Wrong.

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

With apologies to Mr. Bunker..

images-7Boy, the way Glenn Miller played. Songs that made the hit parade.

Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.
And you knew who you were then, girls were girls and men were men.
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.
Didn’t need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

Those Were The Days, written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse

Maybe so, Archie, and yes, we never locked the doors and it was safe to walk the streets at night.  You knew the images-4neighbors,  people helped each other.  Life was slower, simpler… BUT

Elastic on underwear was not sewn in but only threaded through casings, and if  it broke (and it frequently did), you were literally caught with your pants down!  And then there was hair care.  Curls were the thing, but there were no “home” permanents  Hair was rolled onto rods, and baked on electric rods in beauty shops.  Need I say more?  And hair color?  You might end up with  green or purple hair in an attempt to be blonde.  And it was permanent.  Nice

Unknown-2Canning today is cool.  It’s fun to grow your own strawberries and make your own jam.  Or to buy pomegranete/boysenberry jam tied up with a boquet of lavendar at the Farmers’ Market.  But “back in the day,” canning was a necessity.  Home freezers didn’t exist.   Fresh fruits and vegetables were available only in season so they were harvested or purchased  in large quantities,  and canned for the winter.   This had to be done quickly to avoid spoilage.  The entire family participated and the work was frequently  shared among families.  Children washed jars and  peeled, men cut food  into slices and  carried the heavy baskets and jars, ladies cooked and put into jars.  It was dangerous, hard and  tedious work.  And uncomfortable. The weather was almost always hot (no AC).  And it was far from an exact science  It didn’t always work.

But most of all, we forget (or never knew) about laundry.  Almost an afterthought for us, accomplished automatically in the imagesbackground while we do other things, laundry for our grandmothers was a day-long, weekly arduous task.  There was no liquid soap or stain remover.  Stains were removed on wash-boards with bar soap, often home-made.  Unlike the pretty bar soap we buy today at boutiques, they contained no oatmeal flakes, rose petals or lavender beads.   It was either lye soap or lard soap, and it didn’t smell good.  There were no dryers;  washing machines had wringers.  Laundry was hand-cranked between  rollers,  the wet soggy mess dropped into laundry baskets,  lugged to clotheslines and  hung with clothespins to dry – unless it rained.  Then laundry was hastily retrieved and draped over everything in the house that was upright.  Today,  although drying laundry on clotheslines in the fresh air has some merit, it’s an alternative to the dryer.  We seldomimages-6 iron today. But most clothing and linens were ironed in the “old days.”  Laundry was  soaked in  liquid  starch prepared by dissolving a powder in boiling water,  and then ironed while still damp with a dry iron.  No spray starch, no  “permanent press.”

So, Mister Bunker, you have a point.  But if we’re honest, we don’t really want our grandparents’ lives.  Their lives were harder and their world was far from peaceful.  Most lived through two world wars and a depression.   So instead of pining for the “good old days,” we should be focusing on making these days better ones.  After all, they’re going to be the “good old days” for our grandchildren.

Author’s note:  Inspired by newspaper columns  by Mrs. Juanita Agan in the archives of the Minden Press Herald.