Saturday, December 03, 2011

My Grandmother Was Sew Right!

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far way (so it would seem) when I was very young I was a seamstress. As an adolescent I learned how to sew from my adored and adoring grandmother.

Both my grandmother and my grandfather worked with their hands. My grandfather was a watchmaker and worked in miniature -- I will write more about him and the Christmas Village he made for my mother in a post I plan to do over the 12 Days of Christmas.

My Grandmother was very beautiful and had an innate sense of fashion. I was her first grandchild. I was born at the end of World War II while my father was overseas and my mother was living with them. So I was born in the same town as both my grandmother and my mother. She was also my Godmother and I never realized how important that was to her until very late in her life. Not surprising on my part as she never -- or hardly ever -- went to church!

She made mother's wedding dress. They lived in Paterson, New Jersey, which at that time was a center for making textiles. Paterson is located just outside of New York City. In fact my parents met on a suburban train, the Susquehanna, en route to work in the City. But I digress ... Gram and Mom looked at wedding dresses throughout the area of New York City and Paterson, New Jersey. They brought all their ideas together and created an original. It was made of French lace, had tiny covered buttons down the back, and up the lower part of the sleeves and a train about three feet in length -- and it was blue, with a white satin underskirt.

Fortunately, there is one full length snap shot of her in the dress. Unfortunately, it is a bit blurry. I have looked at the dress many times and when I was a teenager used to try in on from time to time ...

When my sister and I were very small -- we were born 14 months apart --  we dressed exactly alike and she made all of our clothes. In the picture on the right I remember that my skirt -- that's me on the left -- had a salmon color stripe, and my sister's skirt had a blue one. At the time my father took this photograph we were living in West Hartford, Connecticut, where my father was teaching at the Watkinson School. One of the things I remember about these photo sessions was that one or the other of us or both would end up in tears and I have photographic evidence of this -- both of us with eyes brimming!

Below are two more examples of my grandmother's handiwork for two! The skirts worn on the left were bright red. The dresses on the right were rose with polka dots -- and her trademark smocking was on all the clothes she mad for us at the time. In the photograph on the right, my brother had joined the group and we were by then living in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. By the time this picture was taken, my beloved Grandpa John had died. One of the results of this was that  Gram threw all her attention onto us.

 By the time I was interested in learning to sew, our family had left Vermont and we were living in Torrington, Connecticut. Some time in the late 50's my grandmother arrived for the weekend with her second husband, another wonderful man, who adored her. This time, along with the bakery goodies she always brought she also brought fabric and a Simplicity pattern for a skirt and a simple blouse. She had decided to teach me the rudiments of making clothes -- for myself.

I don't know why she thought I would take to it. I was quite a studious child and tended to always have my head in a book -- when I wasn't fighting with my siblings, that is! (By then there were four of us -- I had another sister!) At any rate, I did 'take to it' and within two years, I decided I was ready to make a dress or two -- in fact I made three! Well, my mother was so impressed and praised me to the skies! I couldn't wait for Gram to come and visit so she could see how accomplished I had become" -- all on my own.

Well she took one look at the dresses all hung in a row before her. "No, no, no!" she exclaimed. "The sleeves are all wrong".

"What's wrong with them?"

"They are not supposed to have pleats in them. You've put three pleats in each sleeve."

"But, but, but the sleeve hole was too small and the sleeve wouldn't fit," I explained, crestfallen.

Well ... before I knew it she had the pattern out and the sleeves off the first dress! Then she showed me the word 'ease' on the pattern where the sleeve was to be set in and then she showed me how to do it -- and then she had me do the other one -- and stood over me, explaining how to manoeuvre the fabric, with the point of a small pair of scissors, so the sleeve would fit into place and the hem would be smooth.

She never raised her voice and was patience itself -- she wanted me to do it right and she made me want to do it right. And do you know I never had a problem setting a sleeve after that. I think that somehow she understood that I had a need to do something creative with my hands. I have found that, for me, a needle and thread has offered comfort and solace and peace of mind for something I could do well. However, years later when I made my living as a seamstress it stopped being a positive and creative experience. It amazed me that people would come to me and expect hand made clothes, including tailored jackets and coats, to cost less than what they would have to pay in the stores. After all they had friends who could make their own clothes at a fraction of what you could buy them for! Oh well, I gave it a go and decided after a year or two that enough was enough and went back to an office job that was a lot less hassle and paid a lot more money.

And then I enjoyed sewing once again until married life interfered with the ability to have the space I needed for a working environment that conformed to my needs. The effort required to get things out and put things away whenever I had a project frustrated and irritated me -- and took away the joy I usually felt when immersed in a project. So ...

Over twenty years ago I put away my sewing machine and haven't used it until two days ago, when I decided  it was really going to make a very basic sewing job a lot easier than if I did it by hand. A simple task really -- The Man asked me if I could lengthen a pair of lined curtains for some French doors in a flat he is preparing to let. I groaned at the thought of hemming them -- yes by hand. It would have taken hours. It had been so long since I'd even seen the machine that I didn't even consider machine stitching! However, as it happened, I had bought some trousers recently that needed hemming and one pair that needs some alteration in the waist (taking in!!!) and so in the back of my mind the thought came that I could do this easily if I got the sewing machine out. Also, my new desk space meant that I had some room where I could spread out.

And do you know, that even though none of the paraphernalia that I needed was where I thought it would be -- I found everything without difficulty. My sewing machine, which was state-of-the-art when I bought it, cleaned up a treat and works like a dream.  I needed the instruction book -- found it in the first forage! Same with the box of tools and the little basket with spare bobbins. When everything falls into place, some might say that some things are meant to be ...

My Grandparents struggled mightily to get through the depression years. The above embroidery hung on my mother's living room wall throughout my life. Instead of throwing away a torn and threadbare pillowcase, Gram trimmed away the bad cloth and embroidered the rose, which she then framed and hung. I now have it hanging in my living room and it is one of my treasured possessions.


  1. This is such a beautiful piece, of days gone by, of treasured memories, of the comfort and pride in getting things done well. Since my folks were a lot like yours, naturally, I reminisced right along with you.
    The only difference, I never learned to sew! Just simple hemming becomes a frustrating experience.

  2. What an absolutely lovely post, Broad. Your loving memories of your Gram took me right back to my own childhood and my mother (who was a very fine seamstress) making clothes for my sisters and me. The smocking, the dirndl skirts, the hair-ribbons - those pictures could easily have been of me and my next sister who is only 18 months younger. Sadly my mother never succeeded in passing on her love for, and skill in, sewing to me and I only pick up a needle and thread to mend things. Knitting is my textile craft. If you were able to make your living from sewing you must be very good.

  3. I don't have any kind of sewing talent, and although I can do the rudiments my husband is sooo much better!

    I used to knit and have decided to start again. I have chosen a difficult - well it seems it to me - Aran pattern. I might blog about it soon as I may well need help.

    Perpetua .... can you do cable? ;o))

  4. Rosaria: Thank you for your kind words and the lovely thought of your reminiscing along with my words -- I like that idea very much indeed.

    Perpetua: Oh my goodness the hair ribbons! We had different ribbons for every outfit. I can't quite remember where they were kept, but I have a feeling there was some kind of contraption hanging on the closet door. I'm suddenly reminded of the song 'Scarlet Ribbons!'

    @Gaynor: Well it's not unheard of for men to be handy with a needle and thread! There was an enormous American football player named Roosevelt -- his last name was either Grier or Brown -- can't remember which one it was -- anyway he took to needlepoint and when he retired from football he even sold needlepoint. kits under his own name! As for knitting -- I am totally hopeless at even the basics. I am much better with a crochet hook than a knitting needle... Good luck with your Aran pattern -- I love that stuff!

  5. G'day Broad. A truly beautiful post. My mother taught me to sew on my Grandmothers treadle machine (which I still have), when I was a young girl. I have sewed ever since, though now and for some years past it's been patchwork and quilting that I have found to be my favourite.Take care. Liz...

  6. @Liz: I've never sewn on a treadle machine -- although that is what my grandmother used! Her doctor once told her that he thought it was due to her prolific use of the treadle that she had kept her girlish figure!

  7. I loved reading this post.

    What a labour of love to make the clothes in the first place, but to smock them as well! she must have been a really special and talented woman.


  8. Dear Broad,
    As Perpetua said, "this is a lovely posting." Your grandmother, I think, was able to teach you well because she so loved you. Also, she showed you great respect with that sleeve incident. She could have simply said, "Oh, yes. You did well." But she respected you enough to teach you how to do those sleeves. Maybe just that one incident is what led to your being such a fine seamstress yourself.

    And oh yes, I, too, remember the ribbons. And I still sing "Scarlet Ribbons."

    We lived on a farm in the '40s and Mom made all my skirts and sundresses from feed bags. The feed stores sold their animal feed in brightly colored and printed bags. I remember one sundress that was so lovely and I felt lovely in it!


  9. Beautiful post Broad. I remember my mother sewing my clothes too...she used a tiny hand turned Singer...but what she could make with that litle thing! My sister and I were the talk of our street in our gorgeous (and alike) dresses. Thanks for the lovely reminiscences :)

  10. This is all precious, down to that framed embroidered fabric. I really enjoyed every bit of your story. I'm glad you answered my [internal] question about whether your grandmother lived in Paterson (since I know the famous poem by WCW of that name). It's lovely to learn more about her here. I wish my grandma taught me to set a sleeve! She was a seamstress too, but she was gone by the time I was four. So nice that your sewing machine is still a dream. Mine is too: one of the old black Singers. Now I do quilting stitches by hand for my grandson's quilt, and my hands and wrists are weak, and my arm sore, so it isn't going too well. But I have to finish this one! I'm half done.

    Oh, and I can't believe people expected hand made clothes to be cheaper. :|

  11. I felt very sad when I got to the part about you losing some of your fun when you "went pro" as a seamstress. It does go that way, sometimes, unfortunately. As someone wise once said, the difference between work and play is that work is what we have to do and play is what we choose to do.


Receiving comments is a joy and I thank you all for taking the trouble and showing your interest. Makes me feel all gooey and stuff!