Today is the last day on which to celebrate National Sewing Month.
As I look back at the month, I will note that I did a bit of sewing: a button on a pair of black slacks, a few stitches to a pink cable-knit sweater where the body of the sweater was separating from the neck trim. I used thread and needle from my very own, fully-equipped sewing basket – a basket that’s pretty ugly (if there’s a way to make butterflies appear unattractive, the designers of my basket succeeded in finding it), but which I hang on to because my mother gave it to me.
My sewing basket doubles as a button box in which I keep the spare buttons and wisps of yarn that come with sweaters. Now that I think of it, it would also make a logical repository for all the mini-sewing kits I accumulated from hotel stays over the years. One more little item for the to-do list.
My mother always kept a separate button box, a round reddish-purplish tin box with flowers on the cover, and she’d allow us to look through it from time to time, examining the dozens of different colors and shapes of buttons she had saved there. I loved sifting through the button box, and if that sounds like something straight out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, all I can say is, back in the day there were only three channels on your black and white TV, and there was only so much to do when you were stuck in doors on a rainy day.
The buttons in my mother’s button box were the extras that came with a set she would have purchased for one of her sewing projects, or would have been stripped from an item of clothing that was destined for the rag bag. For years I, too, stripped the buttons from garments that were too awful to donate anywhere and were just going into the trash. (Let’s face it, I don’t need rags like my mother did.) That was until I took a good look at myself, old fashioned razor blade in hand, sawing away at the thread attaching that little white button to a button down shirt and asked, What in god’s name are you doing?
Anyway, other than the occasional minor repair or hemming job, I don’t sew. But I did grow up during The Great Sewing Your Own Clothes Era. At least it was that era in my house.
As I said, it’s not as if I ever sewed.
I did take sewing lessons at the Girls Club, but all I ever made was what I guess was a sleeveless muu-muu. I remember the pattern quite vividly: purple and green calico cats on an ecru background. And I have a quite vivid recall of my having sewed the yoke on crooked, so that it only appeared even if I hunched my right shoulder up. I’m not sure what the original purpose of the garment was – beach cover-up? – but it never made it out of the house.
If I had intended it as a beach cover-up, it was with ample reason, as one of the items my mother took it upon to sew for my sister Kathleen and I was a bathing suit. One of these beauties was blue and white striped ticking, with red rick-rack trim, the other a turquoise, black, and white geometric design. Neither one was exactly au courant for the early sixties, when every other girl had a tank suit or a madras two piece. The ticking one would not have been out of place on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, circa 1920.
Neither fabric was not exactly designed for frolicking in the water, either.
The ticking, in particular, absorbed water like a sponge and, unless you could manage to bunch up some sort of air pocket – not all that difficult, given that my mother believed that a bathing suit on an early-teen girl should pass the Amish mother modesty test – you sunk like a rock. Talk about don’t go near the water.
Most of my mother’s sewing jobs were not this awful. Some of the outfits she made us were actually quite stylin’. I had a nice paisley dress that even looked as if it could have come from a store.
We weren’t the only ones with home-sewn clothing, of course.
Kath and I were friends with a sister pair, the Shea girls, and one year we all wore matching corduroy jumpers for the fist day of school – one of the few days we didn’t have to wear matching green gabardine jumpers. Mine was a very nice royal blue, and I wore it with a blue and white striped blouse that was store-bought.
(Earlier on, my mother had taken apart my father’s naval uniforms and made us – that would be me and Kath; somehow, boys are exempt from home-made clothing, and Trish was not yet on the scene – shorts out of the whites, and spring coats out of the blues.)
In the Age of Sewing at Home, it was actually fun to look through the pattern books – Vogue and McCall - and pick out fabrics, but I will say that once I had the money to buy my own clothing, that’s the route I took.
And, unlike my sisters Kath and Trish, I never did learn how to sew.
One of Trish’s endeavors, while she was in high school, was making a nice plaid wool jacket. For me. In the course of stitching it up, she ran her thumb under the needle, necessitating a trip to the emergency room, as I recall. I’m still squeamish when I think of that incident…
I don’t think either Kath or Trish do much sewing these days, other than running up an occasional pair of curtains.
Trish did make her daughter Molly a kick-ass bee costume when Mols was two or three years old. Although Molly originally resisted putting it on – needless to say, much to Trish’s frustration – my brother-in-law was eventually able to convince her to wear it. Wish I had a picture to scan in here: it was ultra cute.
With the cost of clothing so low – thank you China, Bangladesh, Vietnam – and the growing emphasis on quantity over quality, I don’t imagine as many people sew their own any more. Maybe in states that have big 4-H groups and state fairs…
Whatever the current state of sewing in America. I am happy to salute those who get on their Singers and sew.
Just be sure to make sure you don’t run your thumb under the needle.