Grandma's hands were always busy. If it wasn't a pair of britches to sew up or a child's doll arm to mend, it was an almost-new dress to sew from scraps for a first piano recital. Grandma was the rags-to-riches lady. From her, I learned what it was to be a woman of fiber.
She embroidered our birth certificates, recording the date, time and place in pink or blue on a white piece of fabric cut from a sheet after it had worn too thin in the middle. I loved to spend time at her sewing area, going through discarded bits and pieces and using my huge learner's needle and thick black thread to make my own creations.
But it wasn't just skilled hands that made you a woman of fiber. Mother had a knack for matching colors her pale-blue eyes would scan the boxes of scraps and squares and come up with a perfect combination. A bit of yellow left over from a summer dress would blossom into a daisy. Black fabric tied with white-thread "stars" covered me at night.
In the summer, the quilts would be aired hung out on lines and batted with tennis or badminton racquets. It was a great game for kids. The quilts were only washed when necessary. Over time, they eventually puckered and shrank. Then they would be passed along to a child who slept in a single bed, then on to a child in a crib. The quilts ended their days as cut-out layers for handmade slippers.
Mother cringed when I first asked to join the family fold of sewers. Patience was not one of my virtues. I scoffed at the idea of learning on "cheap" fabric, such as the flour sacks washed and dried on the line. (They became undergarments in harder times.)
Instead, I saved and begged and bought myself three yards of thick blue velvet something Scarlett O'Hara would have envied. I had a pattern and, eager to prove I could be a woman of fiber, I went ahead and cut out my creation.
The pattern was large. (Sizes? They come in sizes?) And I was not. But that eventually came to be in my favor.
I learned two things that day: Shrink fabric before you cut it out, and cut with the grain. My grandmother shook her head at my sad but expensive learning experience. Mother set out her mammoth mending pile and ordered me to start at the bottom.
I learned embroidery from my aunt, the special stitches that Mother said she "never had the patience for." French knots and cross-stitch still my favorite things. Years later, I learned quill embroidery from my sister, who had spent some time with native American women back east.
My grandmother has gone now. Mother is still sewing. Like me, though, the pile of fabric in her sewing room seems to grow with each trip to town or thrift shop. Craft magazines and patterns overflow our shelves, and we spend a lot of time fingering folds of fabric, measuring the yards, and getting that crafter's urge to begin a new project.
Friends join in, bringing swatches and leftover bits from the remnant bin. We make an afternoon "sewing bee" of it.
Grandmother would be proud.
Sometimes the cutting is against the grain and sometimes the stitches are uneven. Sometimes the pieces are sewn on backwards and have to be picked out, one stitch at a time. The needles are sharp and pins can get lost in the carpet, and oh! the time it takes to make something that could be so easily bought at the store!
But still I persist. I am glad to be a member of this most prestigious of societies: that creative circle of the Women of Fiber.