My (nearly) seamless return to sewing
I do not consider myself a craftsy person. While my children wield hot-glue guns with happy abandon, constructing Ping-Pong-ball roller coasters from toilet-paper tubes, and fashioning doll-size spacesuits from old socks (and not-so-old socks), my own craftsiness is limited to the occasional re-adhering of a stubborn stamp to its envelope with a tab of cellophane tape.
So it was out of character for me to decide to embark on a sewing project. Nevertheless, I had seized upon the idea of an apron as a gift for a friend (who had recently written an essay honoring aprons for this very page), and what I had in mind - modeled after a handmade apron given to me years ago - could not be purchased ready-made. Furthermore, our from-the-heart friendship deserved a from-the-hands effort.
The solution, so it seemed, was to sew it myself. I would dredge my memory decades deep and petition the adolescent seamstress I once was.
Surely sewing isn't a use-it-or-lose-it talent, I reasoned as I pushed open the door to the quilt shop and found myself transported to that heady, optimistic moment of fabric selection.
Indeed, my enthusiasm overpowered my better judgment, and I found myself purchasing not one but two lengths of cotton: Gold clarinets and cellos on black for my writing friend, and purple pansies against beige for a neighbor's daughter at college who, I impulsively decided, should not be apronless (though as of this writing, still is).
As the salesclerk unwound the bolt, fabric billowed across the cutting board in a puff of expectation.
But with a snip of the scissors and a flick of her wrist, the clerk reduced the billow to a tidy folded rectangle, flat against the counter, no thicker than a comic book. I suddenly wondered if I'd remember how to thread my sewing machine.
With the limp sack of fabric now looped over my forearm, a featherweight manacle, I felt a pang of empathy for the imprisoned miller's daughter faced with spinning straw into gold. My task: sewing gold (clarinets) into apron.
Once home, I spread the yardage across my dining-room table, measured my prototype, and made the first brave cut. What was it I'd once loved about sewing? I remember learning rudiments of pressure foot and seam width while perched on my mother's lap, nearly eye-level with the needle. Her arms gently girded mine, guiding the fabric, protecting my fingers, as we transformed two dimensions into three.
During summers in junior high, I took lessons at the Singer Sewing Center, adding darts and interfacing to my sewing-girl resume. My teacher, a vivacious, sweet-powdered Fran, sewed even her lingerie, an extreme that amazed me then, and still.
I made low-slung elephant-leg pants, gray, that fastened with four mother-of-pearl snaps at the hip, and a red polka-dot dress from polyester double knit, daringly short. I sewed a pantsuit, chocolate brown with wide '70s lapels.
By high school, however, the satisfaction I obtained from my humble projects paled against the fluorescent convenience of mall shopping. I stopped sewing, except during November, when a local bank sponsored its annual Dress-a-Doll contest.
The week of Halloween, we contestants would pick up our bland-faced, hard-plastic dolls, and return them nattily attired by Thanksgiving. The dolls were displayed in the bank lobby during December, then distributed to needy children at Christmas.
The same woman snagged the grand prize each year by knitting elaborate ensembles: Snow White (with seven purled dwarfs), or Little Red Riding Hood (with puppet wolf and grandma). Her over-the-top approach set the standard for any of us wanting a dab of Dress-a-Doll boodle for ourselves.
I modeled my first entry after the world's most (perhaps only) famous seamstress: Betsy Ross. I stitched a tiny 13-starred flag, and won $10 in the under-16 division.
In subsequent years I dressed a gardener in overalls and checked shirt, and a bicyclist in stretchy black shorts, back-pocketed jersey, and papier-mache helmet.
I suspect it was the gimmicks (a potted philodendron for the gardener, a crude wire bike for the cyclist) that nudged my creations onto the winners' table. Still, it was not the prizes, but the process - the swells of pleasure when a cuff or collar came out right - that motivated my brief, erratic sewing career.
I had thought I would teach my own children to sew, and in fact I've tried a few times. But my husband's mother got a jump on me, sewing intricate, exquisite doll clothes with my children when they were merely toddlers - with much more skill and patience than I have.
Once, when my daughter was 4, we sewed a stuffed sheep. After a long, frustrating afternoon, my little girl, comparing our day with those spent sewing with her grandma, said consolingly, "Sewing sheep is way harder than sewing doll clothes."
I'd therefore chosen an afternoon when my children were at school to tackle my recent apron project, alone.
As I pinned the pocket, aligning it to keep the clarinets intact and vertical, I felt as if I were revisiting an old neighborhood, surprised by the familiarity of specifics: the tug of basting thread to tighten gathers, a clip of seam allowance for smooth, tight corners.
And as each step brought flat scraps of fabric closer to something real and whole, I recognized how remnant principles of this craft are with me still.
Sewing is not unlike the stitching of words, with similar undulation of optimism and misgiving, the backspace key now serving as my seam-ripper.
There is solitary engagement of imagination and expectation, surges of satisfaction tempered with struggle and critical eye, as bits of nothing are transformed into something that, I hope, at last resembles an apron, or essay.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society