My mom has been a seamstress most of her life. Her mother, my Noni, was a dressmaker and taught her daughters to sew. Mom learned to sew by hemming the skirts and dresses Noni made. Up until two years ago when she decided to retire at age 86, Mom completed alterations and sewing projects for a loyal clientele. This weekend, Mom came out of retirement and we sewed together for the first time in twenty years.
When I was growing up, Mom’s sewing machine competed for space in what we all called the piano room – because, you guessed it, that’s where the piano was! I would practice violin and piano while Mom completed sewing projects. She would mutter under her breath, reading pattern instructions or complaining about uneven stitches, as I struggled with Bach or Chopin.
One more time with the zipper. If it doesn’t work, I’m DONE!
I don’t remember when I learned to sew. I think it was around fifth grade because that was when Mom and I disagreed about a dress she was making for me.
If you want it a certain way, maybe you need to learn to sew so you can just make it yourself!
After our disagreement, Mom let me sit with a skirt and showed me how to pin up the hem. She stood behind me as I stooped over the sewing machine, telling me how to adjust the pressure foot. When I broke a needle, she calmly explained how to change it and re-thread the machine.
Mom and I worked together on most of my early projects. I was allowed to help cut out the pattern pieces and pin them to the fabric, but she never let me cut the fabric until I completed sewing in seventh grade home economics class.
The best part of sewing with Mom was spending time in the fabric store. Mom and I would flip through pattern books, pulling out bolts of fabric and searching for matching thread. Florals or stripes? Cotton or knit? Zippers or buttons? Dad never accompanied us on these trips, knowing we could easily be an hour or two.
Scoliosis and my hip and elbow contractures made finding “store-made” dresses a challenge. Mom and I made all of my dresses and skirts in high school. When a dress or skirt started showing signs of wear, I would rip the seams out and turn it into pattern pieces for a new one.
My sewing skills landed me my first job. When I was fifteen, I started working as an assistant for a local seamstress. Mom would drive me to Judy’s shop after school three times each week where I would spend a few hours finishing dresses and jumpers. I ironed ties, sewed buttons and tied off threads. I learned how to topstitch and how to press seams open without steaming my fingertips.
I bought my first “store-made” dress in college. At the last minute, my friends and I decided to go to the spring semi-formal and I needed a dress. I found a green cocktail dress which fit for the most part – once I took in the shoulders and quickly hemmed it by hand in my dorm room.
At the end of the month, I will be a bridesmaid in my friend Sally’s wedding. Knowing my challenge with finding “store-made” formal dresses, Sally selected a pattern and fabric for me to use to make a bridesmaid dress. I have a sewing machine but no space for sewing in my apartment.
Mom, I need to make a dress. Would you let me come use your sewing machine?
Yesterday I spent the day sewing with Mom. I pinned fabric together as she ironed the interfacing onto the bodice lining. We laughed over past sewing projects and she reminsced about sewing with her own mother. We disagreed about which pins to use (I preferred the longer ones). We were in agreement over the first bodice – awful. I ripped out the seams so we could turn the scoop neck into a v-neck. She thought we should cut it wider in the bust. I wanted to eliminate the darts. In the end, we compromised and the result was much more flattering than the original design.
Six hours, four yards of fabric, three bodices and two strong-willed seamstresses make for one memorable Saturday. I pulled out of the driveway grateful to have completed the dress, but more thankful to have the opportunity to spend the day working on a project with Mom. Of course, I had given her a hug and said thank you before leaving. Her response made me smile again as I drove away.
I’m not saying I want to make another one of these, but it was a fun day.