Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter

The wished-for dress for my first formal, 1965, my mother completing the finishing touches
The wished-for dress for my first formal, 1965, my mother completing the finishing touches

Watching my mother sew was witnessing a mistress of textile creation in her glory. With a light touch, lengths of fabric were fed under the flexible metal foot, that part through which a strong, sharp needle pierced material with dozens of stitches that always met their marks. She’d sever a tail of thread on the tiny razor edge above it, hold up the piece to examine the work, then get on with the next hem or zipper or seam if satisfied. The passion of her intention was clear. One interrupted only if there seemed a significant lull, or if she invited you to come on. Or if there was spilled blood involved. I wondered how she got done what she did with all of us.

I could often locate where she was by following the sound of the Singer’s (later a fancy Pfaff, which she disliked) machine motor as it revved up and slowed, or scissors snipping or perhaps frustrated vocalizations, sometimes punctuated with a “Thunderation!”–the closest she came to swearing. She was a tough quality assurance inspector of her work, scrutinizing each action. It had to be perfect because there was no other way an item would merit being offered to someone as proper clothing. Including hats; she was a milliner, as well.

I’d run upstairs and peek through the half-open door. I sat or stood nearby as she worked and talked, explaining the success or failure of her project. And she’d listen to my updates on school or some boy. Sometimes I came close and stayed quiet just to observe her hands flying as they measured and cut, adjusted the machine, smoothed out, tore apart to re-do, then realigned parts. Wherever the sewing machine had taken up residence, the most convenient at any moment–my parent’s bedroom or an empty bedroom or the den–was the space she would inhabit. That is, when not teaching elementary students, cooking and doing  housekeeping tasks,  intercepting  messages for our administrator/teacher/musician/conductor father, entertaining, working in the yard, attending church or community meetings, and overseeing the needs and wants of our family of seven. She made my daily grind, which felt slammed with activities, look like nothing at all. I hoped against hope I’d have her energy when I got old(er).

Mom was forty when I was born so that meant when a teen, my siblings had already gone on to college: I had her (and Dad) to myself. I began to appreciate the skill and labor it took to turn out one of my wishes. Decades of practice made her extra-dexterous, her sense of touch highly sensitive and her eye for design more refined. She knew how to resolve the knottiest problems. Her creative impulse and drive kept her going many nights when she should have slept more–but she would to be deterred from having my outfit done for an occasion the next day. I knew her work was expert, proud of what came of her efforts with a sewing machine, a needle and thread.

Mom sewed first because she and her sisters had been taught to sew when very young on the Kelly’s family farm. It was a necessary skill, required for repairing clothing rarely replaced, rendering basic items not affordable, and because the knowledge could carry them forward in life one way or another, perhaps provide them with employment. My two beloved aunts also sewed well. Aunt Mary, the feisty one who did occasionally swear and had been divorced from a reputed scoundrel, a scandal all around, was owner/ head seamstress of her successful business. She whipped up custom clothing, exquisite quilts and decorative items. I found her  as well as the business exotic; she was a big personality who managed to be financially independent even back in the fifties. My mother did the same, but on a vastly smaller scale in our home, making everything from formal gowns to down jackets.

But Mom also sewed because she was drawn to the beauty and challenge of design, to all the materials–including a wide array of fabric– needed for sewing projects. Visual and also visionary, she liked to draw a little, arrange flower bouquets and create appealing meals for a decked out table. She enjoyed crocheting and embroidering in the evenings or when not feeling well. She even reupholstered our furniture a couple times and made drapes. Her hands had to accomplish something for her to be most fulfilled and at ease; idleness didn’t have a place in her frame of reference regarding life.

I was mesmerized watching her lay out yards of fabric on our dining room table: scissors snipping away without any worry of crooked lines, her keen eye cuing an adjustment on a tissue-thin pattern as she suddenly got a better idea for style and fit. A half-dozen pins poked out between pressed lips; I worried she’d swallow one or it might nick her lip but neither occurred. She slid one out as needed, infrequently using the pin cushion when up to full speed. Then to the Singer she would go, and the creation began to take form like magic. She was known to make an entire dress in a couple of days.

Mom primarily sewed for my two older sisters and me, even as we grew up. As our two brothers gained stature and attitude, they were less willing to sport handmade items. Still, she sometimes made trim sport coats, slacks and shirts, even impressive leather vests (there were a few years she figured out how to make darned near anything out of leather for us all). And they had blue jeans to wear any time, they had flannels or simple T-shirts. We, on the other hand, had dresses, skirts, blouses, trousers and pantsuits, then miniskirts (“Not THAT short,” Mom warned) and beyond. She liked (we mostly liked) the classic look but when I turned into a hippie girl, I was on my own.

There were too many children to keep so well dressed; no doubt she was propelled by duty, as well. And it was no dishonor to wear these items. Her handiwork was widely admired by others in town and it pleased us to note, “Thank you, my mother made it for me.”

She also made her own dresses for concerts and other dressy events. They were jewel-colored, sumptuous of fabric, fit for a queen we all thought, as she descended the stairs to join our father in his suit or even tails. Both transformed. It seemed my parents were the perfect duet with matching silver-white hair, dignified bearing and good-natured ways.

We lived only about four blocks from the part of town called “The Circle”–businesses fronted a circular street system, a sort of modified clover leaf. I enjoyed walking up there, visiting the pleasant stores from home goods to pharmacies and a bowling alley and the only movie house. But one of my favorites was Hansen’s. Mom and I visited there when needing to select a pattern and fabric for one of my upcoming musical performances or school dances–or just some new outfits for the start of another school year. I bought things, too, but who didn’t enjoy custom clothing?

Upon entry, Mom and I were greeted by distinctive smells of a multitude of fabrics, the air a dry richness overlaid with acridity of dyes permeating bolts of material standing upright on tables. The wooden floor creaked; overburdened shelves were unevenly lit, a little dusty. Along with fabrics were all the odds and ends that were so critical to finishing a creation: rainbowed spools of thread in neat rows, windowed packages of zippers, packets of needles and pins, each in their own section. The fabrics were organized by type. I loved their names. Cotton and linen, wide- or narrow-wale corduroy, polyester and rayon, satin, taffeta, velveteen and velvet, woolens,  seersucker, organza, brocade, boucle, charmeuse, pique, rib knit, chiffon and many more. I would instantly become heady with possibilities, prickling with excitement as we took a handful in our fingers to test weight and texture. The drape of fabric was important; how the light awakened colors made a difference. The variety of prints held me in thrall as we made our way between a maze of narrow rows. The store seemed huge, choices endless (though, in fact, it was a modest place).

I would head to the table where a half-dozen large, heavy pattern books lay in wait. We pored over pictures, finally making the decision of appropriate style for material I preferred, then I’d locate the slim package in the file cabinets. I recall thinking how amazing it was that frail tissue paper boldly outlined could be pinned on fabric, then to evolve into a kind of wearable art. Occasionally we discussed redesigning a pattern, something she was adept at after years making clothing for discerning customers, too. Often I most looked forward to dressier fabrics and designs made for special events.

When thumbing through many photographs in search of those showing these clothes, I was surprised I could easily recall each handmade outfit worn, even the affair for which it was made. They were good, attractive, sometimes beautiful things. They were made more valuable by the patient, caring hands that created them.

She made clothing and blankets and quilts and more for her grandchildren, as well, a legacy of her love and also her industry. And some also have the ability and desire to make unique art or clothing or jewelry or furniture with their hands.

Photo: Naomi J. Falk

Fabrics, creating, and love: I thought of all this recently when viewing a photo Naomi, my oldest daughter shared. An artist, she took a workshop on dyeing fabrics, the Shibori method, she noted. The indigo color and designs are fresh, lush yet simple, too. I felt a stirring inside, a desire to engage in more visual art again. But mostly I thought of Naomi growing up with her two grandmothers, both talented seamstresses, and her trying her had at making things with them. I knew when she was a child she inherited what I did not, that something extra that enables her to use (ambidextrous) hands to construct surprising objects from unusual or ordinary materials. She once made a several yards-long quilted piece in memoriam for soldiers lost during the Iraq War, of organza, batting, flannel and thread with porcelain “bones”. It was entitled Recall(ed). She’ll continue to explore textiles as well as her chosen medium of sculpture; it’s all in the blood. I think how pleased my mother must be, that her granddaughter is still working with needle and thread.

But not me. I so tried to learn to sew well under my mother’s tutelage and her unerring hawk eye. I got the basics down, can mend, once made simple children’s shorts and dresses, a skirt or two for me. I can make pillows, the easiest projects. But do I have that more glorious finesse? Not so much. Maybe I gave up too quickly, a deep vein of perfectionism dooming me. Or it didn’t hold my interest; there were plenty of activities I early on found more fascinating. But I think of it, still. I have a covered sewing machine in my closet. When I go into a fabric store for a notion or yardage for grandkids’ projects I’m met with the feeling again that imagination’s doorways can be thrown wide open with a little fabric in hand.

Mom would be a consultant if she could but she’s long gone. I can almost hear her delighted laughter as she’d look over Naomi’s newly made fabric, an index finger alongside her nose as the questions and ideas poured forth. The thought of them together makes a happy picture.

And I know she didn’t care I was never a seamstress, didn’t find me some abject failure in the end. After all, she was a storyteller, too, and would ask me to read my latest writing to her as she sewed or washed dishes or sat awhile before bed. A year before she died, Mom read the first finished draft of a novel I’d long toiled over. She told me she couldn’t get enough of it, to keep at it, always be true to my passion.

Homecoming, 1966; dress by Mom
Homecoming, 1966; dress by Mom
Recall(ed) Quilt 2010-ongoing by Naomi J Falk
Recall(ed) Quilt 2010-ongoing by Naomi J. Falk

(Note: Some of Naomi’s other work: http://www.naomijfalk.com)

12 thoughts on “Handmade: Being a Seamstress’ Daughter

  1. Cynthia, this is so touching and excellent. You always write so well, but when you are writing about life stories, I think you just knock it out of the park. It brought back so many memories for me, not just of your mother, but also my mother sewing and then I took it up. It was mostly out of necessity since I couldn’t afford store bought things but it turned into a creative outlet for me. I often spent lunch hours from work going to a fabric store and pouring over the pattern books. Then it was pouring o ER the fabrics, pattern in hand. I even made Melanie’s prom dress. Then I got too busy to sew. I still have my Huskvarna but it sits folded up, covered with my color printer.

    Thanks for this beautiful piece. We’re currently in the corner of Pennsylvania and Delaware visiting Longood Gardens (we brought your mother here once) and the DuPont mansion and museum, Winterthur.

    Love, Judy

  2. You clearly are a storyteller. What a lovely read! I grew up in homemade clothes too, though my mum never worked as a seamstress. And I have the same childhood memories of going to the fabric store. It’s a magical place, still is.

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