Monday, March 31, 2008

Sew Simple

Mama didn't teach me to cook. Whatever I know of following recipes, cleaning up as you go and seasoning to taste, I learned from other sources.

What she did teach me was to stitch a hem so delicate as to be invisible and so strong as to be unravelable, to set in a sleeve with no puckers and lay out a pattern with no waste of fabric. She taught me how to figure yardage, how to match thread, how to make a dart, a pleat and a tuck and how to put on a waistband.

By the time I took home ec in the eighth grade I was earning spending money by helping Mama who, as we used to say, took in sewing. I steam-pressed the seams and put in the hems of the dresses and coats and blouses she made for the ladies who, for some reason I could not fathom at the time, preferred homemade clothes to the ones hanging in the windows at Henry's and Tilli's and Belk.

I was, then, most resentful of Miss Williams's requirement that I use tracing paper to mark seam lines. Any idiot, it seemed to me, ought to be able to hold the fabric against the seam guide and stitch a straight line. I also couldn't understand why she would want me to make an apron when, heaven's to Betsy, I'd mastered that three years before in fifth grade 4-H.

I eventually won that battle and while everyone else was trying to figure out how to make their apron gathers uniform, I was obnoxiously trimming the facing on the neck of my dress and imagining how cool it was that my project was actually going to see use whereas my classmates' would most likely end up stuffed into their bottom dresser drawers.

Infinitely more satisfying, however, than being able to say, "I made it myself," is being able – as result of what my mother taught me – to recognize quality workmanship, an ability that transfers far beyond the walls of a clothing store and into more intangible endeavors. Unrolling a piece of fabric from a bolt and crushing a corner of it to test its hand is a good metaphor for determining the sincerity of a relationship. Matching plaids is akin to finding the right job or neighborhood or mate.

Even the terminology of sewing teaches lessons: Selvage and bias conjure up vivid images of the contrast between flexibility and rigidity. Seam allowance and presser foot and tension knob speak to the necessity, not just the unavoidability, of structure and rules.

All of which may be why no one learns to sew anymore. It requires time. It requires discipline. It requires stillness, quietness and concentration, all of which are commodities in short supply in a world where we drink instant coffee, send instant messages and long to be instant winners.

It's been a long time since I laid out my last pattern, pinned my last seam or threaded my last bobbin, but sometimes when I need to be reminded of the all I learned watching Mama hunched over a Singer sewing machine, its own peculiar song caught by the breeze through the open window and suffused into the summer night, I find my way to a store that still has an aisle marked notions. I take a deep breath and run my fingers over the rainbow of Coats and Clark spools, spin the button rack, flip through a few pages of the Simplicity pattern book and, in no longer than it takes to thread a needle, I am myself again.

Mama didn't teach me to cook, but what she did teach me was so much more important than that.

Copyright 2008

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