Wednesday, March 31, 2010


She sits at a square card table with a green vinyl top. The white sewing machine sits in front of her, its whirring motor lays a warm hum over the entire room. From somewhere close by, I smell baking bread.

From my vantage point underneath the card table, I watch her foot on the black machine pedal -- push and release, the motor responds to each movement. I am playing with dolls, dressing them in clothes made by my mother --- though the project she's working on in this memory is something else, something much more mundane like curtains or hemming some pants. I watch her hand reach over the edge of the table and into a green plastic case of thread. She has a stack of fabric in the hall closet that I love to look at: orange flowers with green centers, red patchwork, lots of gingham check.

When the scene changes, I am older--- dressing Barbie in something polyester and horrible (though I love it). Again watching my mother sew, admiring the way she holds a pin in her mouth, her eyebrows drawn down in concentration. At some point, I start to grab fabric bits from the floor and twist them around Barbie in wild attempts at fashion. I use pins to hold things together, but eventually I realize that this idea of sewing could be useful.

I ask my mother to show me how to use the machine, but first she teaches me to use a needle and thread--- the basics of sewing, she says. She is patient as she shows the intricate in and out of the needle--- pushing it through the fabric, keeping things even.

Eventually I move on to the sewing machine. She tells me about the pedal, how it makes the needle go up and down through the fabric. She talks about threading the machine, filling the bobbin. I am given strict instructions to be careful, and go slow.

Which is what I do: sewing bits here and there. Black thread against pink flowered calico.

Sometime before high school I sew my first skirt: a simple affair, nothing fancy. We use a pattern. She teaches me how to pin the tissue-thin paper to my fabric, how to match the sides up before I sew. It's the last project we do together for a very long time.

There's a thread running through everything here: the patience of a mother, tired and busy with four children--- her daughter asking for a moment of time: teach me something. A lesson that will last longer than the doll clothes or the blue calico skirt.

When I sew, I inevitably think of my mother: rounded shoulders bent under yellow light. A quiet hum of busyness and industry.

It feels good to make something with my hands, to fashion a flat piece of fabric into something Bean will wear in the world. But sewing is more than making something out of raw materials. It's that same thread that runs through the lessons my mother taught me--- a line going from me, to my mother, to her mother, and to others--- following a line of personal knowledge shared and passed on from one generation to the next. Sewing isn't just an act of creation. It's an act of faith, a recognition of sacrifice, trading spare moments for a tangible garment that gives meaning to the women who have come before me.

All this, from sewing.

You can bet I'm going to teach my daughter.


Anonymous said...

Can I come learn, too?

clueless but hopeful mama said...

I loved this. Made me want to sew with Z and E around instead of always trying to do it when they're asleep, though I guess that time will come when they're older.

Beautiful post, Whimsy.

kately said...

love this post. i love that I am part of thread and have been blessed to have a mini-me to pass along bits of myself to her ..... :-)

Lynne's Somewhat Invented Life said...

This is written so lovely. It awakens memories of a mother who loved to sew and, sadly, of a daughter who didn't want her to. How I wish I could go back in time. Thank you for this. It's beautiful.

Spadoman said...

Very nice story of your recollections. Sewing is quite a skill to some, and second nature to others.
Mrs. Spadoman borrowed my daughter's machine to make hats, mittens and gloves this past Winter. Besides what the Grandkids wore, she donated a whole boxfull to the school.
She just had a birthday and asked me to buy her a sewing machine.
I'm sure she wishes her Mother was a sewing teacher. I'm sure she wishes she knew you!


wandering nana said...

I loved this story. I have not been a great one to teach my own children how to sew but now they are trying it on their own and doing really well. My mom was sewd(?) but by the time I would sew she lived a long ways away.... so I taught myself plus called her. I seem to be doing the same with my girls. I wish I had taught them. It is becoming a lost art. How many women know how to hem their husbands pants? Sew on a button? Mend and fix? How many of them have taught their sons and daughters? You helped bring back many memories for me. Thank you.