I used a foot pedal-powered sewing machine like this one at my grandmother's house. One summer vacation at her farm in South Dakota I broke all of her hard-to-find needles while producing several outfits for school. I had to wait to get replacements until the next trip to town, a forty-mile round-trip, before I could start sewing again. This sewing machine is in the Smith House at the Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.
I grew up in a city full of designers — they sketched airplanes, though, not haute couture. Spotting a freshly minted B-52 was easy, but finding clothing as fabulous as the outfits in “Seventeen,” my favorite magazine, was harder to do. I was determined to be stylish, so that meant designing and sewing my own clothes. I learned sewing from my mother, who sewed beautiful outfits for us. After I started hogging her machine, she bought one for my sister and me to share.
I produced dozens and dozens of outfits over the years. One black and white checked dress had mutton leg sleeves, full skirt and a white pointed collar. I was particularly proud of the cuffs, which reached nearly to my elbows and sported six buttons on each cuff. The dress wasn’t very flattering, but my pattern-making skills were impressive. I wasn’t destined to be on the best-dressed list, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing I was Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly.
In my quest for high fashion, I bought untold yards of fabric and scores of spools of thread and assorted notions. Notions is a great word for all of those odds and ends involved in producing garments. You have a notion about some great outfit (or project), which inspires you to purchase a lot of stuff, which ends up in drawers in a tangle.
Even the wives of presidents sewed. This sewing machine, dress form and notions were in Edith Wilson's bedroom in the house where she and Woodrow Wilson moved in Washington, D.C., after they left the White House.
My friend Jan used to work in fabric stores, so she had first crack at the good stuff. She also put her rusty metric conversion skills to good use when European customers bought fabric at the store where she worked in Berkeley. She wrote about some of her sewing adventures and misadventures in I’m Sewing Mayhem.
Jan once wrote to me rapturously of a massive fabric store in Los Angeles, where you could find sumptuous material at rock-bottom prices. Bolts of fabric were stacked to the rafters on each floor. She’d found Nirvana, El Dorado and Paradise all in one location. She bought her wedding dress material there, which leads me to the story she likes to tell about my sewing skills. I was great on construction, but not so great on finishing. I appeared in Omaha just before her wedding with my bridesmaid’s dress still unpressed. Even the seams weren’t flat. Hey, those were the days when you were more concerned about ironing your hair than your clothes.
Which leads me to the next sewing phase — hippiedom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Peasant blouses, halter tops, jeans and t-shirts, Army surplus. Everything was baggy, sloppy, cut-offs, casual. (Hey, that sounds like now.) I embroidered flowers on my jeans and blue chambray work shirts and made patchwork outfits. Not much of the clothing required much skill. In fact, the natural look seemed to encourage a loosey goosey style. Some of the joy went out of dreaming up new outfits.
These dresses are survivors from my sewing frenzy when my daughter was about two. The rest were handed down -- those that weren't stained or torn -- to nieces.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I regained my fervor for sewing. I whipped out several gorgeous little dresses in an unusual burst of energy. As soon as my daughter came into her own fashion sense (When was that? Age three?) I stopped sewing so enthusiastically for her. You don’t want to pour your life into a dress with pleats, pin-tucking, ruffles and lace-trimmed collars when your daughter will only wear shorts and t-shirts.
All children take sewing in school in our school district these days, and my son and daughter both also took extra sewing classes. So, I say “Let’em sew for themselves!” Now my daughter, a young adult, is dreaming up and sewing her own fashions. Let the sewing circle be unbroken.