Friday, October 8, 2010

Sew What?

by Eileen

Since Kimberlee shared the backstory of her journey to sewing as a creative outlet, I thought I'd offer mine, too.

Sewing was everywhere in my house when I was growing up. My mom earned a living with her needle, first working in a western-wear factory and then from home - a mix of alterations for a nearby dress shop, and everything from hems to custom work for her "ladies," mostly elderly wealthy women with names like Bernice and Maxine. She outlasted at least six different sewing machines that I can remember, and this back in the day when they were complex mechanical marvels built to last in industrial metal cases, not today's computer-chip-and-plastic concoctions.

Only one machine had a longer history. We had my grandmother's Singer treadle machine from the 1900s. I learned to sew on it, pumping the treadle and cranking out Hollie Hobbie and Barbie clothes. It lives in my dining room now, and is still in working order and complete with all its arcane attachments after a century; we even found some spare belts for the treadle when we lived in San Jose. (The photo is not of my actual machine, but a better-preserved one: the same beautiful carving is on the drawers, though.)

I don't think, growing up, that I had any store-bought clothing apart from underwear, my Girl Scout uniform, winter coats, and jeans. Which meant, of course, that somewhere in high school I concluded that I was never going to sew when I grew up. The thought of cutting tags off something store-bought was a magical idea to me.

And then I went away to college. My December birthday arrived, and Mom phoned to say that they had gotten me a sewing machine. They'd made arrangements for it to be picked up from the Sears catalog center in my college town.

Lacking wheels, my roommate and I took a cab there and they handed over the box. Opening it up back at the dorm, my heart sank. Inside was no gleaming-new machine, but a pea-green industrial critter that looked like the Waltons might have repaired it dozens of times.

Turns out it was a mix-up, the trade was duly made, and I bought a pattern and fabric at the local shop and ran up a skirt for the holiday concert.

The gene ran true (though perhaps not quite as strong as for my sister, who spent part of her working life managing a fabric store). I was hooked. I made us kimono robes for the trip to the shower down the hallway. Staying on campus one spring break, I finished my hall costume for a SF convention. I picked up a little extra money on the side, senior year, sewing clothes for a petite classmate from Hong Kong.

Since then I've slipcovered and upholstered and curtained, made a boatload of costumes and everyday street wear, stitched my own wedding gown and my baby's layette, and finished many a quilt. I've scoured the remnant bin at Liberty of London and haggled for silk in Cloth Alley in Hong Kong. Beads and yarn and other projects compete for my attention nowadays, but there's no sign of my original obsession going away any time soon.

Crafting is healing, and self-expression, but I think it's also something more: an expression of the highest human impulse, of leaving the world a little more inventive and pretty and diverse than you found it. Orson Scott Card has a series of books in which the central character is what is known as a "Maker." One of the life lessons for that character, very early on in the sequence, is that every act of Making helps to keep away the dark.

I like to think we're doing that with every stitch!

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