This past semester, we had a new student join us on the Hill. Ann Travers hadn’t written much in a few years, but she wanted to polish one essay during the six-week session. And polish she did.
This is the draft she submitted for approval into the workshop. Pretty good, we thought. See if you agree:
I used to sew dresses with my mother when I was young. Sitting on tall stools, we flipped through the big Simplicity and McCall’s books, found a pattern we liked, then picked out material and notions listed on the back. My mother worked her way around the fabric store efficiently and with occasional extravagance. Quickly matching fabric to thread, hem tape and zipper, but pausing over colorful buttons, eyelet lace and ribbon. I would follow behind her, already seeing myself in that red plaid dress with a wide white lace collar, the ends of the bow tied at my back streaming behind me as I pumped higher and higher on the swing hanging from the maple in our back yard.
My nine-year-old patience wore thin as my mother carefully laid out the fabric and pattern pieces. She said the first part of dress making took more time than actually sewing it together. Folding the fabric with selvages even, lining up the plaid with arrows on pattern pieces, marking dart lines with carbon paper and tracing wheel. I helped fill in with straight pins securing the pattern pieces to the fabric and cut along the straight edges working carefully around notches and corners. With a final snip of the scissors I ran outside to swing as my mother continued, straight pins held between smiling lips.
I watched her as she pinned the front bodice piece to the back, right sides together, and stitched up the side seam. She had me sew the other side. I slipped the edge of the fabric under the presser foot, pushed my toe down on the foot pedal, and heard the slow whir of the motor. Forward then reverse to secure the ends with the 5/8 inch line marking my seam width. When I reached the end of the seam, I snipped the threads and turned the sewing machine stool back over to my mother. I pressed open seams for her with the steam iron, turned the sash right-side out using a safety pin to tease out the corners, sewed pearl buttons on the cuffs and hemmed the dress by hand.
I never really enjoyed sewing. It required more patience than I had to offer. I would rather be doing something else. When I was 17, I should have been sewing the peach satin bridesmaid dress for my brother’s wedding while my mother was at work. Instead, I made a quick pincushion out of a burgundy velveteen print with white lace around it. Exasperated, she asked what had possessed me to make a pincushion. I had nothing to say for myself except that the slippery peach fabric was no fun to work with.
My mother sewed two sleeveless cotton dresses for me the summer I was pregnant with our first daughter. One in soft lavender, the other a cornflower blue. They slipped easily over my head and were crisp and cool in their loose fitting waists and hems falling just above the knee. Perfect seams lying flat around the arm holes, fitting comfortably without pulling.
When my daughters were four and six, she made them identical cat dresses. White kitten faces on hot pink jersey with ribbed knit collars and cuffs on the short sleeves. They loved the sway of the skirts as they ran around the yard. It was my mother who taught them how to use the sewing machine. They would come home with their projects, blankets for dolls and eventually quilts for their own beds.
The day following the service, my father and I cleared out her closet and dresser drawers. He put clothes too worn to pass along in one bag. The others he wanted me to take. Beautiful pieces in soft satins and wools he’d bought to bring her pleasure over the years of caring for her. He kept only her wedding bands. Everything else he wanted gone, and I brought this small part of his grief home with me.
Her clothes sat in the corner of the extra bedroom to go through later when there was time. Weeks passed and they remained in the corner still smelling of her favorite scent. I would press a blouse to my nose and breathe in its faint aroma of lavender soap. Dipping in, putting them back where they stayed until there was time. Until her scent was gone.
I hadn’t sewn in over 30 years. But the day after planting tulip bulbs on her birthday in the raw October wind, I took a silk blouse out of the bag. I had decided to make a purse for my oldest daughter using this blouse. I thought a purse would be easy, a simple clutch with straight seams. Something small that would go together in time to get under the Christmas tree.
It was the last blouse my father bought her and she wore it last Christmas. A soft fawn color textured along the top with lace netting, overlaid with crisscrossed satin bias. I washed it in cold water and mild soap watching the color brighten and the fabric turn crisp. My hands ached in the water as I gently wrung it out and wrapped it in a towel before hanging it on the rack to dry.
I took the blouse to the store to find a pattern, but I was nothing like my mother in a fabric store. What should have been a 10 minute trip soon stretched to half an hour as I studied the instructions and searched through bolts of fabric for fusable fleece and interfacing. Deciphering cutting layouts with pattern positions and keys for fleece, wrong side of fabric, right side, lining, interface. Magnetic closures for which I was to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but found nothing to follow on the package itself. I took my purchases home where they sat until Thanksgiving.