Saturday, October 25, 2014

These Memories We Sew

I never really learned how to sew. Sure, I've taken some classes, and I know the basics of using a machine: I can thread a very ugly bobbin and sew a straight line. But start talking to me about selvage and darts and "the bias," and I get a stress pain in my right shoulder blade. It's there now, and I'm just writing about this stuff.

My mom, on the other hand, can sew really well. Once, when I was sixteen, I availed myself of her expertise and asked her for a lesson. But with my mom it's all pre-washing and pressing of fabric, cutting out a pattern, pinning, more cutting. The sewing takes an eternity to get to! Teenage me couldn't stand the wait. The session ended badly, with me giving up and my mom probably feeling mystified by a daughter who seemed to share none of her respect for mathematical precision. 

I would try today to learn to sew from my mom, but guess what: it would end badly all over again. I still can't stand the preparatory work, and the math of it all makes me seize up in fear. 

Enter this little fairy:

She's such a good kid, and when I happened to ask her what she wanted to be for Halloween at precisely the moment that a 10th-grade girl walked by us, all purple velvet and misunderstood in a goth-Wiccan hooded cape, and Vivian, enchanted, said, "I want to be Little Red Riding Hood," what else could I reply but, "Great! Would you like me to sew your costume?"

Thus committed, I found a free pattern at a site with the encouraging name of Fleece Fun. I am grateful to the woman whose site it is for sharing her work without charge and for walking newbies like me through each stage of the process, even if her tag-line, "Velvet is pretentious, but fleece is fun!" strikes a blow to Vivi's goth-Wiccan muse.

Last weekend I forced invited Vivian to accompany me to JoAnn Fabrics to find red fleece and to choose a color for the lining and ribbon. Being in that store and waiting for our number to be called transported me back to childhood. How many times had I waited in just such a store with my own mother as she sorted through McCall's catalogs? I had to share the experience with her:

Spirits were running high--in a good way. Energized, I assembled the pattern and laid it out on the coffee table. I shared a photo on Facebook of my domestic tableau. I shared, too, Vivian's prediction that I would utterly lose my shit before completing this project. "It's just who you are, Mama," she said.

This morning, a week later, I was back at it. At 7:00 a.m. I cut out the pattern and pinned it to the fabric.

See that purple and white thing in the background that looks like a brain? That's a finger labyrinth, one of the first things I cross-stitched when I took up the hobby, and, to date, the only thing I've cross-stitched for Vivian. You use finger labyrinths to calm you down when you're feeling stressed: you run your index finger back and forth through the maze, and when you're done, you've found peace. Standing by her prediction, Vivian handed this thing over to me a couple of days ago.

The pinning done, I began to cut. And now I treat you to the most boring 38 seconds of video on the Internet. You hear that sound? Not the high-pitched snip, snip but the lower sound of the blades cutting through fabric? That is a predominant sound of my early years. Takes me back to Saturdays a lot like this one.

Revery over, I stuck myself with a pin.

I don't want to make you pass out or anything, but that is real blood. Fortunately, I had some scraps of fleece around, so I was able to fashion a tourniquet out of those and a wooden spoon. I forged ahead.

I dusted off my sewing machine--nothing a little elbow grease can't handle--and threaded a bobbin and threaded the machine, too. I pinned pieces of fabric together according to the directions of my online guru, and I forgave myself for having pinned them facing the wrong direction and on the underside of my work. It was time to sew.

The hood was first and, no wuss, I opted to add lining in a contrasting color and fabric. Lodged deep within my cellular memory was the knowledge that stretch cotton is difficult to work with. It stretches! It might even slide. Good god, should I have cut it on the bias? Who knows. Ignoring the searing pain in my right shoulder, I continued. I even changed from red to blue thread while stitching the lining. Mom, I know you're not watching, but I feel like you are.

Note the pin placement: correct side, correct direction. I am getting this, people! Before I knew it--honestly, I think I blacked out for a bit--I had sewn a hood, a lined hood! I texted my mom.

As you can see, she was impressed. Then, because Bill was asleep, Vivian was at Alex's, and I was unshowered, I ran around the house looking for a model for my hood. I found a willing participant in this little lady right here:

I felt unstoppable. I had completed the most difficult part of the project, and it was only 9 a.m. Remember that old Army commercial, "We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day?" Yes. I was an Army of One. I tightened the laces on my boots and for-ward HARCHed.

But wait! What's this?

I quite literally hit a snag. To repair this problem I had to go behind the bobbin holder doohickey and figure out how to raise the little treads that move your fabric along. How on earth did they fall down to begin with? It took a good ten minutes to puzzle through this situation, and in that time I moved so swiftly from Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman--"I ain't gonna quit! I ain't gonna quit!"--to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad--"How do you work, BITCH?!"--that I surprised even me.

Having adjusted the doohickey and achieved inner peace, I assembled the rest of the riding hood: cape, shoulders, and, finally, ribbon.

And that was it. Behold: a little red riding hood!

 I've never asked my mom what it was like for her to sew costumes and clothes for my brother and me when we were young. She raised us on her own and worked full-time, so she would do her sewing at night. She'd stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., with old movies playing on channel 5 and her sewing machine whirring on the kitchen table. There'd be cigarette smoke and the steam of an iron. There'd be cold coffee--light, no sugar--in a cup that said "MOM." I can remember being in bed and hearing the sounds of her sewing downstairs, but mainly my brother and I would sleep through it; we'd wake in the morning to find her creations hanging from a drawer pull or a cabinet door. She'd be hard to rouse.

She had to have been so tired, but I think she also loved that work: the pressing, the cutting, the allowance of 1/2 an inch for every seam. I can see the appeal.

Hey, look! She just wrote me back:

Thanks, Mom.

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