My grandmother, whom I never met, was a seamstress. That is how she supported her family of four daughters after her husband died, when my mother was 5 years old. I think she also worked for a time at JC Penneys, but mostly she sewed, for others, herself and her entire family
My mother told wonderful stories about leaving for school the morning of a big event, such as a formal dance, not knowing what her dress would even look like. And by the time she returned, the floor length wonder was done, usually with a matching shawl or jacket. Mother would attend the event feeling fabulous in her new garment and receive compliments and accolades all evening. Everyone would want a replica of her stunning dress and thought she was so lucky to have a new outfit for each occasion.
Mother also told about a time when she opened a closet and two pieces of fabric fell out. Her mother saw the fabric and thought they made such a nice combination, she made my mother an outfit from them. Mother always ended this story with a laugh and her hands on her hips, as if we could all see the amazing skirt and jacket make from the fabric on the floor.
My grandmother did not teach her daughters to sew at all, but they all did. I have no idea how my mother learned. She never said and I never asked. I imagine she taught herself, as she did everything else. Her motto – if you could read, you could learn to do anything. She grew up in hard times and doing for oneself just came naturally.
So my mother sewed – boy, did she sew! She made all her own clothing, all my clothing, all the drapes, curtains and bedspreads in the house and even upholstered the furniture. She made every tablecloth and napkin we ever used and then made gifts for family and friends.
My children were baptized in Nana’s handmade gown and wore her lovingly stitched outfits for holidays. Even my daughter’s dolls were privileged to wear Nana’s handiwork.
I remember a time when I was in sixth grade that parties were very popular and I would be invited to one almost every weekend. Mother made a special dress or outfit for me for each party. When I remarked to her how much work this was for her, she said, “If you have fun in the dress one time, it’s worth it.” I’ve never forgotten how special that made me feel. And I did have fun in every single garment, more than once!
I especially remember once when I was in college and I needed a somewhat “dressy” dress. She made the most beautiful turquoise wool sheath dress lined in silk with a matching plaid wool coat. It was stunning! I wore it for years, feeling very grownup each time I put it on.
She was a gem, my mother but did she teach me to sew? Not on your life! It was always easier and faster to do it herself than spend time teaching me. So I took a couple classes to get the basics down and continued learning as I sewed. It seems to run in my family. We women become excellent seamstresses but only pass on the desire and passion. We do not teach the next generation. Strange, but oh so true!
I have continued to hone my needle and thread skills through further classes, self-teaching, trial and error and imitating sewers I admired. I have found there is no limit to the ways one can improve. I have also made it a point to teach others every chance I get. I’m determined to break the chain of not on passing knowledge to others.
It has become apparent to me that sewing and needlework skills will be lost in the future if we, who are blessed with the skill and knowledge, do not pass it on to at least one other person in our lifetime. Whatever it is you can do, tatting, crossstitch, smocking, sewing, needlepoint, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, etc, it is your absolute duty to teach one person how to do it. That’s how we save these skills from extinction, especially in this world where too many people can’t even sew on a button.
So I sew, like my mother and her mother before her. I made all my children’s clothes when they were little. I’ve made bedspreads, curtains, drapes, tablecloths, napkins, aprons, and doll clothes. Now I quilt and make clothes for grandchildren, make pillowcases and recover chair seats. But unlike my ancestral mentors, I’m sewing in groups where knowledge, skills, ideas and encouragement are shared and everyone comes away a better seamstress and a better person. I have a sewing family where give and take is the primary rule, where the need of one is met by the excess of others and where the success of one brings joy to all.
As much as I love sewing and as much time as I spend at my sewing machine, I can’t imagine being immersed in this grand hobby all alone, with no excited conversation, no relating experiences, no trading patterns and fabrics, no sharing new tricks and tips and no communal joy in a job well done. I feel sad that my mother and grandmother missed all the wonderful benefits I have found and enjoyed.
They would have so loved being a part of my quilting group – I know they would have fit in. I know they would have blossomed under such love and care. I know they would have been the best teachers ever. How I wish I could have seen and been a part of such a touching scene.
But I can imagine it! And I can make it happen in my future for my descendants! That I can do!