To my knowledge, my grandmother never purchased a single item of clothing. She made everything by hand, including many of the patterns for her clothes. Mother continued this tradition, except she felt more comfortable using commercial patterns. I have fond memories of our trips to the sewing store. I loved the tall stools set in a row before thick catalogues of Butterick and Simplicity patterns. I loved flipping through the books, admiring line-sketched dresses and pantsuits and cloaks. Mother often let me choose patterns and material, though she steered me away from the complicated constructions and animal-themed prints that captured my young imagination.
I was the youngest of five children (two boys and three girls) so my closet was the final stop for most of our clothes. Every so often, a coveted item landed in my wardrobe, and then I was thrilled with the arrangement. But for the most part I resented being “forced” to wear shirts and skirts made from patterns and material chosen by my sisters. Additionally, I was pudgier than either sister, so my memory is dominated by clothes that were a pinch too tight.
Mother began teaching me to sew when I was in elementary school. We started with handkerchiefs and headscarves, then moved on to simple patterns for pillows and stuffed animals. Eventually, I was making some of my own clothes, and I quickly discovered why Mother preferred simple patterns and prints. I also discovered that it was easier to wear something made for my sisters, even if it was too tight, than to make something new for myself.
When I graduated from ninth grade, I got my first “store bought” dress. Mother let me pick it out, and I ended up with an ill-fitting froth of thin cotton, itchy lace, and uneven elastic. I loved the idea of my dress, but hated the reality of it. I don’t believe I ever wore it again, after our graduation dance.
Life sped up in high school. My parents divorced. Mother started working and went back to school for her master’s degree. My sisters went to college and worked and dated. I got better at picking out store bought clothes, and the sewing machine grew dusty with disuse.
Several years ago, Mother gave her machine to one of my sisters. Then she helped me load Grandmother’s old Singer into my car, even though it no longer worked. I put off getting it repaired until I almost forgot it existed. Last month, in a frenzy of cleaning up and clearing out, I called the closest repair shop and took Grandmother’s sewing machine to be fitted for a new motor.
A few weeks later, new motor in place, it’s ready to go. I have a list of projects in mind, but, for the moment, I’m happy just looking at it…