Saturday, January 05, 2008

A Stitch in Time

A child of the times, sewing was an important part of my life from the time I was quite young.

In my mind's eye it's evening, and my mother is in front of her sturdy Kenmore. She is sewing one of the many dresses she would create for me, most of which I can still remember.

Other girls at school had dresses their mothers made, as well, because it was the late 1950s and sewing was still the norm. It’s possible that more well-to-do families didn’t bother with sewing, but as I later figured out, we were far from that category. My mother did a nicer job on her homemade clothes than other moms did, or at least that was my belief. My dresses had little touches like embroidery on the white collars.

Now it is daytime, and I am sitting cross-legged in the living room with my mother next to me; she is showing me how to thread a needle and take stitches. For this first project, I am about to make a clutch purse for my beloved ponytail Barbie doll. She has cut a rectangle of fabric, folded it in half, and showed me where to sew along the two sides, wrong side out. But why take all those little stitches when I could just take a couple of giant ones? Pretty clever, huh? The flaw in that logic soon becomes very clear, however, so I will need to start again.

For several years, I made mostly Barbie dresses. Much of the sewing was by hand, but one glorious Christmas I got a hand-crank Singer chain-stitch children’s sewing machine. I was beyond excited; I was thrilled to pieces. I also got a wonderful pink and gold sewing basket that I still use to this day. Eventually Mama let me use her big Kenmore, too, and that was a different kind of thrill.

In the 1960s here in California we had an intermediate school for grades seven and eight. The excitement of leaving grade school for this bustling new world was overwhelming, such strange new things as going from one classroom to another, and having lockers for the first time. There were vending machines with snacks in them, and organized sports, and cheerleaders who intimidated me with their poise. There was the sense that the teenage life I'd vividly imagined while watching American Bandstand was just around the corner.

Most unbelievable of all, the school had sewing classes.

It's a new school year, and now I am walking into the sewing room for the first time, seeing all the Singer machines lined up for us to use. We sit down to unthreaded machines and begin to practice sewing lines and circles on paper, a roomful of punching sounds filling the air. There is a distinctive scent of old metal as the motors run. I can't believe my good fortune.

My mother and father were both artistically gifted, and helped my sister and me pursue arts and crafts from the time we were toddlers. My glamorous but still domestic paternal grandmother taught me how to crochet, and always gave me all her old Vogue magazines. The world of high fashion and glamour came to me through magazines and old movies.

Cooking and sewing and the needle arts came under the broad category of Home Economics, a dignified and sincere focus of women at the time. The war was over, and everyone went home to enjoy the American dream they had earned. I had a Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook. My bedroom was Wedgewood blue and white. My mother cooked our meals for us every night, and I drew my own paper dolls almost every day.

Whenever my mother wanted to do a new sewing project, we walked downtown to J.C. Penney to the fabric department. The little shopping center had just that one department store and not much else: a store called Grants with a hot dog counter; Chick's Donuts; a supermarket; a Chinese restaurant, and a Woolworth's. In small towns today when they don’t have the economy to justify renovation, you can occasionally still find this old style department store: the creaky stairs, the old bin-style display tables, the sound of chimes as one department calls another. The few left are fast disappearing.

Closing my eyes again, now I am sitting up on one of those tall stools at the pattern book counter, my feet not reaching the ground. A large black-and-white framed photograph of J.C. Penney himself regards us sternly from near the elevators. Together, Mama and I are looking through enormous pattern books. This is somehow magic, a suspension of time: one style after another, page after page, the immersion absolute.

From the first time I saw patterns, I adored them. I wanted to look at them, own them, dream over them. Patterns were a world of infinite possibilities. I loved the graphics, but also the whole idea that you could make anything if you just had a pattern, some fabric, and a great idea.

That the world was changing was obvious by the time I was in high school. My sister, three years my junior, took Metal Shop instead of "Home Ec" classes. And for the first time, boys could take a class if they wanted to learn to cook.

Looking back, I'm a teenager in Spanish class on a very warm spring day. Miss Galindo is reading to us from our textbook and everyone is getting sleepy. Suddenly a rubbery disc-shaped object comes flying in through the wide-slatted Venetian blinds, landing on the floor near her feet. Miss Galindo is appalled and tells us not to touch it. Within moments everyone is laughing and chattering as closer examination reveals it to be a pancake, apparently special delivery from the merry band of pranksters in the Bachelor Living cooking class.

Sewing was always the way I could have cute, fun clothes during high school without having much money. With a little sleight of hand I could put together a new A-line miniskirt for myself in an evening. During my high school years my mother worked at Macy’s in the drapery and decorating department, and brought home a lot of really great decorating fabrics for us to use for clothes. Decades later, I’m still fond of using these kinds of fabrics. My high-concept design tour-de-force was in my senior year when I got myself a Butterick pattern and made myself slim, bibbed overalls out of pale pink moire taffeta.

It was always fun putting together Halloween costumes, doll clothes, doll rooms, or making winter scarves. These things were just a natural part of my life, and I never questioned any of it. All the women in my family did these things in one form or another. In high school my best friend and I did sewing and crochet projects all the time, on into college and beyond.

Today, a mom will go online to order a poodle skirt for her daughter’s 1950s school dance, as a friend of mine recently did. Barbie doll clothes are made of polyester and Velcro, not miniature works of couture.

Crafts and sewing aren’t gone, but they have been streamlined. It’s true that craft stores like Michael’s are always busy, and I see a lot of women buying things like artificial flowers and candlemaking kits. You can buy pre-made aprons and squeeze tubes of liquid embroidery. But there’s a yarn department, and you can still buy embroidery thread, I’m glad to say. And I love things like iron-on interfacing.

She's been gone for years, but now it's autumn, and I'm in my grandmother's living room. She deftly works a miniscule metal hook as she converses, crocheting tiny medallions for a large lace tablecloth she would never finish. In thinking about those boxes of little off-white hexagons years later, I would finally understand the meaning of process, that the finished product was only half of the story.

As a child I was impressed when I watched her work, but it also seemed so incredibly, painfully Victorian. But in turn, a young person today would feel the same way if they saw me sewing beads onto a homemade evening purse or a doll jacket. Curious, admiring, but secretly a little bemused.

Decades have slipped by. Everything is different now: schools, classes, stores, sewing projects, fashions. My mother has been gone for over ten years. But I still have some of those dresses she made me, and I now have her Kenmore. Her gifts to me when I graduated high school were a typewriter and a sewing machine. She knew how excited I was to begin my apparel design studies in college.

Around that same time, that younger version of me once made—and wore—a pair of rose burgundy shorts I'd put together from some amazing upholstery velvet. I wore them with matching tights and turtleneck, and sleek knee-high boots. Sewing made possible the latest fashions on very little money, but it was more than that.

With gratitude, I realized I was becoming a designer.

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