Monday, May 11, 2015

A tribute to my mothers (and a new dress)

I was raised by a hard-working feminist.  She was a child of the 60's and 70's.  Over the years have I been somewhat confounded by what seems to be her complete lack of even the most basic home-ec skills.   I asked her about that.  Her response was something along the lines of "when I was in high school, the girls weren't taking home ec.  It was passe'"  This made sense to me.  My mother's generation fought to get women the right to work outside the home, to be more than just baby factories and glorified maids and cooks.  I appreciate their sacrifice and vision, because it has allowed me to be whatever I want to be.  It is more than a little strange that I chose to be a sewing, cooking, cleaning stay-at-home mom.  I like to think I made that choice, although the economic climate and astronomical cost of child care 7 years ago played a more than passing role in that decision.  Nevertheless, here I sit-- a stay-at-home mom/seamstress with a significantly feminist bent.

Now I don't mean to out my mother as home ec challenged, because truthfully she did sew and has a real knack for beautifully decorating a space.  In fact, she sewed all sorts of things for me as a baby.  She is always crafting, and is a creative explorer. Here is a photo of little baby me surrounded by a crib set and bunting my mother made for me.
I'm sure in 1979, gingham was all the rage.  I like the idea that she created a nest for me while nesting.

She learned to sew from her step-mother, Mary Emma, who was a school teacher and master seamstress.  Mary Emma also taught me to sew.  I drove out to her rural homestead when I was 19 and made my first garment... a beige cotton button-down sleeveless blouse.  Mary Emma has a stern and focused temperament, like any good school teacher I suppose, and we systematically worked through the steps of garment creation.  I wasn't inspired.  This was boring!  I wanted to be making magical dresses and trendy shirts!  What I didn't realize then was that I had THE most knowledgeable sewing source that I would ever have, and I was wasting it by being bored.  19 year-olds are extremely short-sighted and stupid. It would be 8 years before I attempted sewing again.

If I had payed more attention to Mary Emma the first time, I wouldn't have had to make so many careless mistakes.  The kinds of mistakes every newbie makes, I guess.  I sewed all sorts of dresses for my daughter, purses, scarves, curtains... everything really.  I was always eager to show her, and she was always very kind when she easily should have given me a tsk-tsk finger. As a (no-money-earning) mother of young children, our gift-giving budget was always very tight for the holidays.  I started making gifts for family.  I would give her a scarf (probably, like, way too many scarves actually) or a bag or something.  She would always graciously accept them.  As I learned more about sewing and crochet, I could look around her home and recognize that she had hand made nearly everything in it.  From the large tatted doily on the back of the couch, to the curtains (with valances and everything!), to the blankets, to her own clothing.  She had really managed to make a home with her own two hands.  Below is her wedding photo.  She made this dress in 1968 out of taffeta and organza by piecing two patterns together. 

When this is your grandmother, you have to step up your game.  She was flawless in 1968, and had spent over 40 years perfecting flawless.

She wasn't the only seamstress in my lineage, my great grandmother, Reba, and my paternal grandmother, Pearl, were also well-known for their expertly crafted clothing and housewares. Really, sewing used to be a necessity-- like if your kids needed clothes, you'd better know how to sew.  My great-grandmother left me her sewing box when she died.  It was full of crochet hooks, vintage needles and thread spools, and really cool notions.  I learned how to crochet just so I could use them.  She told me a story 10 years ago about how when my grandmother was "courting" she had to fix up her parlor so she could entertain guests.  She said she ripped up old furniture to upholster for valances, and sewed up curtains and pillows to class up the joint.  I always loved the way she recycled things, and even more, how fanciful her style was.  I like to think that is a part of my legacy as well.  As for my paternal grandmother, Pearl, she looked like a movie star.  This is my absolute favorite photo of her, with my father as a young boy.

That is a woman with enviable style and impeccable taste.  And a bad ass ride.

What I'm getting at here is that this sewing thing is a mothering thing for me.  It is a drive to adorn and create and swathe.  Sewing has become a connective thread between me and my mothers and my grandmothers and their mothers.  It is a way to carry with me my history, and use it as a fabric for my future.  I really hope to do their legacy justice.

I leave you this Mother's Day with my latest dress, a fun little cherry print fit and flare with red piping.  It was a quick and satisfying sew from a pattern I've used before, Simplicity 2444 (see the Atlanta Dress.)

Happy Mother's Day!


  1. What a lovely legacy! Thank you for sharing it. I have a complicated relationship with my mother but one thing I am uncomplicatedly grateful for is the way she sewed and crafted when we were growing up. We were pretty poor - my parents job shared so someone could always be home with the kids and things were tight - so sewing was partly a necessity, but it was also a joy for us. I had a strange moment the other day where I was sewing kids clothes for friends and realised I was probably a better seamstress than my mother is now. Very very strange.

    My paternal grandmother also made us clothes when I was a kid. Amazing, wonderful clothes (I will NEVER be a better seamstress than her). And she sewed a lot of her own wardrobe as well, up until recently when she's become too frail. We also have many many photos of her looking like a movie star. And she's still a better dresser than I am.

    I'm so grateful to have this expertise and legacy behind me, especially as my all-girls high school didn't offer home ec. They were 'educating the working women of the future' and apparently those women don't need to know how to feed themselves or mend their clothes, I guess. Oh well, luckily my forebears started me off and the internet helped me the rest of the way!

    1. You're right about that... The internet is my other mother! I can't imagine how hard it must have been before every bit of information was at your fingertips. That makes our mother's skills so much more impressive!