Random Thoughts

Adventures in sewing

... I learned my limitations

by Ann Robbins Talbot

Someone recently asked me what I missed by being “born too late”. I missed made-to-order clothing. My body never fit into dresses off the rack. I was not wide enough for chubbette but too short-waisted for regular. The only dress I remember fondly from my childhood had a dozen pleats front and back from shoulder to hip and eighteen round, white buttons. I credited many a lead in church plays with owning that cheerful yellow dress.

Then I hit seventh grade at Lincoln School. Once a week the boys went to shop and the girls went to sewing. Half a dozen treadle-powered Singer machines lined the wall daring us to master them. The first classes were spent learning to put the thread into the needle properly. The thread had to follow a complicated pathway or the machine would not sew. We were ready to embark upon our first project, a blue gym bag for transporting our gym suits to and from home. This taught us how to make a fairly straight seam, but I never recall carrying anything in the bag.

Our second project was a white apron with colored trim and matching headpiece in readiness for our eighth grade cooking class. This received weekly use the following year when we learned to make a mean apple compote without burning ourselves. We looked nothing like the Top Chef competition on reality tv. But I digress.

Our third sewing project was a real eye opener – we were to use a pattern. We got our mothers into the act, helping us to buy a pattern and enough fabric to create something wearable. At the store we pored through drawers crammed with hundreds of envelopes. Each measured about six by eight inches with sketches of a tall, long-legged woman wearing a garment on the front. She was no relative of mine. On the back was important information including how big the garment will be and how much cloth you would need to make it.  

When the envelope advertising a sundress with wide straps was finally purchased, I got to look inside. I found a packet of tightly folded tissue paper printed with words, arrows, dots and triangles, and, thank heavens, an enormous page of detailed instructions. Unwrapping the odd-shaped pieces of tissue and smoothing them out, I discovered how a piece of clothing was structured. My mother pinned the tissue together making half a dress. I tried it on and she made adjustments, shortening the pattern before cutting the cloth. The tissue was to be pinned to the fabric carefully so that none of the design would be upside-down. I had chosen a gray cotton with yellow and white polka dots, my favorite color combination at the time. Luckily, there were directions and diagrams for all of this. With mother helping me, I cut the pattern and, leaving the tissue attached by hundreds of common pins, I folded the fabric and transported my creation to school for further instructions.

Since we all could not sew at the same time, there was plenty of opportunity to participate in one another’s projects. I observed that pajamas had “French seams”, so much sturdier than any other garment. I have always wondered why. I saw that princess seams, from shoulder to hem, needed a steady hand so they would not pucker. And I was introduced to peplums, saucy little additions to short jackets. I learned tons of tips about using tailor’s chalk, pressing seams flat, and installing zippers. But I did everything possible not to make buttonholes using snaps, hooks and frogs instead. This became a life-long rule.

I did little sewing in high school. We were the sweater-and-skirt era, knowing nothing about designer labels. But in college I made some of my favorite clothes, and, because I could adjust the tissue paper patterns, they fit better than anything I could buy. I made excellent fabric choices – a light-weight black wool with tiny red and blue random threads for a suit, and a small blue plaid for a dress that I could wear for twelve hours and never have a wrinkle. A striped taffeta in aqua and purples for a ballet-length gown with a halter top was my all time favorite piece of clothing. When my roommate got married after graduation, I was ready to put my yards of taffeta and lace together to be her maid of honor.

While teaching in Newton, I took an adult ed class in tailoring. I bought the most elegant red wool and black velvet for a suit. The skirt fit me perfectly, but time ran out and the jacket was never cut. I borrowed a machine to make drapes and curtains for our new house sitting beside the picture window because we only had one lamp. A year later I dug out that red wool, cutting the front out of the skirt and fashioning a maternity top out of the uncut piece. It got me through two consecutive Christmas holiday seasons looking like an expectant Mrs. Santa.

Having sons rather than daughters to sew for, I seldom made anything until the living room couch needed a slipcover. With all that cloth and welting, I broke needle after needle and finally jammed my ancient third-hand machine, finishing the slipcover by hand. Thus ended my adventures in sewing.

March 6, 2009

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