Sunday, August 02, 2009

Stitches in Time

When I was small my mother allowed me to use her old sewing machine once she replaced it with a new one. It was an old, blue Singer that was notorious for jamming. It drove me out of my mind. I had not yet developed skill so the least bit of resistance or malfunction tripped my frustration. Mom would happily sew away in her own little world and I'd want to throw the blue beast on the floor. I couldn't understand what on earth she enjoyed about sewing when all I ever got were tangles, knots, and a jammed machine. "Keep at it, don't give up, take your time. You're just a beginner. It will get easier." But I couldn't get past the frustration.

I could do basic repairs like sewing on buttons or fixing a seam by the time I entered Junior High when I had to take Home Economics. The teacher was a miserable woman who found out my mother was a seamstress and therefore expected perfection from me. This did nothing to endear me to the art of sewing. Mom got me through that class with her gentle patience and encouragement...as well as the secret agreement that my teacher was in fact being a completely nit-picky twit. In the meantime, I picked up crocheting from my grandmother. I did graduate high school knowing how to read a pattern and construct a basic garment, nothing too fancy or tailored very precisely though and it had to have explicit instruction from which I would not dream of deviating.

In college I picked up cross stitching and continued a little crocheting. I began to see how these sorts of things could be relaxing, contemplative, restoring, even meditative. I made a lot of gifts that way. Especially in college, in between reading, studying, and writing papers, it felt good to disengage the brain for a bit and focus on something else and yet have something to show for the time. I even went so far as to design some of my own pieces since I couldn't find patterns like what I wanted to do. Mom and Nana were delighted to see I'd found some sort of art involving needles and threads and that I enjoyed it and made it my own. They encouraged that and showed off my work to people they knew. I felt like I had accomplished some rite of passage.

Shortly after getting married I acquired a very old, very heavy, but very trusty sewing machine from our landlord. It had been his grandmother's and it seemed his fiancee turned up her nose at the old machine. I was delighted to receive it after giving it a try. It worked like a charm and had an external belt and other features that made maintenance easy. I could do repairs and minor alterations now without having to rely on mom's machine when we went to visit. I also had fun making just a few very simple outfits for Diana when she was a baby. Mom was thrilled to share some baby patterns with me and coach me along the way. Heavy as my machine was, I paid to ship it to Trinidad when we moved there.

Then in Trinidad I found I was pregnant with Calypso. Diana had been born in the middle of winter so most of my maternity clothes were winter-wear, which was much too heavy for the tropics. Off the rack maternity clothes were either hard to come by in Trinidad or extremely expensive. I had my mom send me some patterns and I set to work sewing since fabric there was very inexpensive. I had a couple of disasters and Mom was not close at hand to help me figure out how to fix them. It was just the machine and me. I ripped out mistakes and resewed new mistakes and jerry-rigged some I just couldn't cope with ripping again. I also had some nice successes. Mom wanted to hear all about it and see pictures. She laughed about my endless mistakes but commended me for figuring out how to make it work telling me that was a normal part of the process. I felt more confident. Then we were robbed and the thieves took my machine. We had a very high wall with broken bottle embedded in it. I will admit I prayed they all got a hernia or two trying to heft that machine over the wall.

When we came back to the US and Mr. Lime found a job, he got me a new sewing machine. It was a pretty basic model but it did what I needed it to do and has remained reliable. I continued to do repairs and minor alterations and the occasional item of clothes for the kids or me. Then came the challenge of costumes for the living history farm where the kids and I have volunteered. I was able to lay my hands on a basic pattern for the blouses and bonnets...VERY basic. Basic as in, "Here's a rough shape to cut out with a bunch of pieces but we aren't going to give you any directions as to how to assemble them. Oh, and for the skirt you're completely on your own. Here's a picture of how it should look." Yowza, I was just a wee tad nervous about this whole endeavor. Thankfully, I had some borrowed garments I could examine to see how they were constructed and I had a book that explained different techniques. I was thrilled when I managed to produce wearable, reasonably accurate costumes AND to have my mother tell me they were well-constructed. This is the woman who made my wedding gown, her gown, and all the gowns for my attendants, the woman who made my prom gown and Diana's, the woman who had been making quilts since before I was born (including one for me with scraps of my old baby clothes and kitchen curtains she had also made). This woman looked on my work, the work of a kid who used to scream and cry at the old blue beast sewing machine, and she pronounced it "very good."

So now I am working on this quilt for Diana. Mom and I worked together on the one I have on my bed but she did at least 85% of the work. I committed to make my first ever quilt from start to finish for Diana. Mom has advised me. She helped buy the fabric as a gift for Diana. Mom asked if I wanted her to help sew it or if I was determined to do the project myself. I told her it's my goal to do all the work myself on this one. It's the next rite of passage for the machine and me. She seemed to understand. The more I get to know my way around the machine the more accomplished I feel and the more I understand about Mom and the line of seamstresses, knitters, tatters, and quilters who came before her in our family.

This past week and weekend it's rained a lot so I have been catching up on this project because in three short weeks Diana heads off to school. The quilt needs to be done by then. In the process I am finding the stitches don't just bind fabric together. They are binding generations.

29 comments:

Gledwood said...

Best thing about electric sewing machines is the foot pedal... like driving a car.

Well the nearest I ever got to driving a car. Seeing as at 38 I STILL ain't got a driving licence!

Having said that my friend Lona was amazed I was able to sew patchwork bits on a quilt ~ and sew them straight ~ 1st attempt

jinksy said...

I love this machinist's rites of passage, especially since I had one fairly similar...except I delighted in screwdrivers and machine oil to keep any machine I laid hands on in tip-top order!

Mona said...

This reminds me that I have to buy a new sewing machine.

waiting to see the pictures of finished quilt!

Cocotte said...

I was wondering how the college quilt was coming along.....thinking of you this month, Lime.

Breazy said...

I don't know how you're handling the whole college thing, my baby went to middle school this year and I am about to have fits over it...lol.

Hope you are doing well and good luck on the quilt!

Hilary said...

Beautifully-stitched tale. I could feel its warmth embrace me like a comfy quilt. I hope you'll share photos of it once its done. :)

~Dragonfly~* said...

It must be a PA thing... did you pass on your skills to your children? I only have boys... but they all know how to sew. Look out loose buttons!!!!

Desmond Jones said...

Sweet story, Lime. I can't really say that I identify with what you're saying here, but I know women who love to sew, and they describe similar 'rite-of-passage' things to what you do. Or, just a kind of 'close-to-the-earth' providence, which is very earthily endearing.

For guys, I dunno what's analogous; maybe changing your own oil, or making repairs around the house?

Altho, just to show you what a nerd I am, I get a similar kind of 'mental relaxation' to what you describe, from working on math problems. . . ;)

NYD said...

I have learned to operate a lathe and create tools from steel. I can, and have, helped to put up structures for people to use, but needle, thread and especially sewing machines fill me with dread.

Bless you for your aquired talent and skills. can't wait to see what you will do wwith them.

Cooper said...

OK...so when I see a title like "Stitches in Time", I think...ok, what accident has happened now????

Ananda girl said...

I am a dedicated duct-taper! Sewing machines scream and commit machine-acide when I draw near. I envy anyone who can sew. Lucky you!

S said...

When I was learning to sew, my mom was the tough one. She'd take a look at a blouse I had made in home ec and say, "I'da made you rip this out and do it again!"
LOL
I hope you get the quilt done in time cant wait to see it!

Jazz said...

Nice story. Reminds me of my mom who was a seamstress and made all my clothes (including winter coats and the occasional bathing suit - there is nothing she can't sew).

And yet though I spent hours sitting next to her, watching her sew, I just don't get it. Put a sewing machine in my hands and mayhem will ensue. Guaranteed.

Craver Vii said...

Insightful. I like how this story is about people, and not merely machines or technique. Your mom must be beaming with pride and heartwarming satisfaction.

david mcmahon said...

Great post. A stitch in time, so to speak!

secret agent woman said...

I can do basic repairs and love to quilt and needlepoint, but working with a sewing machine makes me crazy. I just don't have the knack.

Beach Bum said...

...and quilters who came before her in our family.


My grandmother was a member of a huge quilting bee with other ladies in her church. I remember how those old ladies use to get together and gossip up a storm.

Whenever they got together all the menfolk around headed for the hills. Mainly for the chance to have some unsupervised fun.

indicaspecies said...

This lovely post brought a smile this way as it reminded me of my mother who was fond of stitching. Reached here from Authorblog.:)

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

the patchwork quilt is an analogy for life in my sewing box....as it has so much love and angst sewn into it...lovely post(s)

Malicious Intent said...

"In the process I am finding the stitches don't just bind fabric together. They are binding generations."

Nothing could be more true. My grandmother taught me to sew and crochet. I never did pick up the knitting two well. I did better with one needle, rather than two.

These skills they teach us are however, skills that create the treasures we carry through the generations.

EmBee said...

Lovely post Lime... If it's any consolation, all I had to show from 7th grade sewing class was a poorly sewn gym bag, a wrap-around skirt in which the seams had to be completely torn out and re-sewn and a D+ on my report card for all my effort.

I HATE sewing! However, I've often surprised myself with my abilities at turning out decent Halloween costumes through the years... A Puppy, A Unicorn, A Dolphin (head & flippers) and An Eagle (head & wings)... Give me a hooded sweatshirt and my trusty Singer and I can perform animal kingdom miracles.

Brian Miller said...

beautiful tale. well stitched together. fun that you have something to share between the generations. congrats on POTD.

Suldog said...

As I hope you know, I think you're one of the funniest women in the world. However, I think I have even a softer spot in my heart for your more-serious tales. I think it's because, while some depressing folks wallow in such stuff all the time, you only come to it when you have something truly interesting and/or lovely to convey. This is one of those. Nice job.

TechnoBabe said...

I have my sewing machine purchased almost 40 years ago. It still works great and I use it for the little stuff now, but I made clothes for my kids when they were growing up and some for me. A sewing machine is something that is handy and helpful just to have ready when needed.

Pinkerbell said...

Congrats on post of the day, what a wonderful account of your travels with your sewing machine and how awful that someone stole it from you! good luck with the quilt.

misticblu said...

You are so right. I have been taught to tat by my Great Gma, crosstich/knitting by my Gma, and crotchet by Mom. Had forgotten those facts until now....
Thanks for reminding me!

Jocelyn said...

There is no greater symbol of the legacy of generations than a quilt. Good for you for being stubborn and plucky (no surprise) about taking it on!

Willow said...

Wonderful post and completely deserving of POTD!

I identified with so much of this post. Had my sewing machine stolen, too. Grrr. Had an old one that jammed. Hated it. Now I have a brand new one, still in the box, waiting for me to open it and start sewing again.

elle dubya said...

my grandmother sewed out of necessity for her farming family of 12 (yep, 10 kids). my momma sewed out of habit while we were still babies and toddlers. i can remember her laying fabric out on the dining room table and pinning the tissue paper patterns before she'd cut them out with her good "sewing scissors" (that we were threatened within an inch of our lives if we ever used). i remember her tomato pin cushion and the measuring tape she would hang from her neck. i wish she had passed on the skills to me and my sisters. i have a basic sewing machine that i'm embarrassed to admit has only been used three times, and each was a "test" to see if i could sew a straight edge. i wish my momma had passed on the tradition to us girls. i feel like i'm missing out.