Labor of Love

This weekend while I was reorganizing I came across a box full of fabric that had belonged to my mother.  In the box were several yards of green flannel. I suspect my mother intended it for a flannel shirt, perhaps for one of my brothers.

For as long as I remembered, my mother sewed.  I thought perhaps it was because she was very tall and found it hard to find ready-to-wear clothing, or maybe it was the generation in which she was born, or even because she hated shopping.  Whatever the reason, her old White sewing machine was usually left open and our dining room was often strewn with patterns and fabric.

One of my favorites of Mom’s sewing projects was the snowsuit she made for my older sister, Martha-Jean.  Like many young couples, my parents’ income was limited, and heavy wool was a luxury she could not afford.  She cut up my father’s Navy topcoat for the outside and lined it in soft plaid flannel.  After Martha-Jean outgrew it, it became mine and when I outgrew it, I passed it to Robin.  I’m not sure how many Madison children the snowsuit survived, but whenever I see pictures of it, I smile at my mother’s ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Over the years, many outfits were fashioned in our dining room.  My mother, ever pregnant with yet another of her eight children sewed maternity jumpers to cover her swelling belly.  She made skirts and dresses for the girls, wool shirts for my father and brothers.

I never really appreciated what it took to clothe eight children.  In fifth grade I was to play the clarinet in the Memorial Day parade.  We were instructed to wear navy blue serge skirts, and I didn’t own one.  Mom went to her sewing machine and made a skirt out of gray wool that was left over from another project.  The morning of the parade the other girls pointed out how different my skirt looked from everyone else’s.  My cheeks burned as I looked at my gray in a sea of blue and realized that they were right.  I only thought of how embarrassing it was to stand out from the group.  I never considered that my mother had stayed up most of the night making do with what she could afford.  And although I never mentioned it to her, I never thanked her for it either.

When I was in junior high school I came home to announce that a boy had asked me to a dance that was to take place the next evening. My mother hid her dismay, smiled and worked most of the night to produce a beautiful blue dress.  She finished the hem minutes before my date arrived.  Far too late I appreciated the fact that she had taught school all day, cooked dinner for ten people and tucked her children into bed before she even started to cut the pattern.

As she did for many of my sisters, Mom made my wedding gown.  When I called her from Idaho to announce my engagement, she took my measurements over the phone, and went to the fabric store to select yards of sparkle organza and two dozen pearl buttons.  She carefully cut and sewed three underskirts, painstakingly created fabric loops for each button and meticulously measured and sewed tiny tucks in the bodice.  The dress was magnificent- a frothy confection of sheer layers with a long train and billowing sleeves.  I returned to Massachusetts only a few days before the wedding and again she stayed up late to hem the skirts and take in the waist so it would fit.  She never complained and although I thanked her for it, I didn’t fully realize how difficult and time-consuming a project it was.

Now that my children are grown, I know that my mother sewed partly out of necessity and partly because she loved to make something from nothing for the people she loved.  I know this because I did the same thing.  I sewed Bermuda shorts and matching tops for Elizabeth.  I made MC Hammer pants for Gabe.  When winter came and the children needed pajamas, I cut and stitched thick flannel to keep them warm while they slept.  And when Abby’s huge eyes grew large with envy at a classmate’s floral dress with a black velvet bodice, I sewed late into the night on Christmas Eve to finish one for her.

What I know now is that creating something from scratch for someone you love is an expression that speaks louder than words.  Every slice of the scissor, every stitch of the needle, every pressing of a seam sings the phrase “I love you.” 

So now that the holidays are over and I’m settled in for a long stretch of cold weather, I’m thinking that it’s time to pull out my sewing machine and work on a new labor of love.  I wonder who would like a shirt made out of that green flannel?

Notes from an Old Sew and Sew

I’ve decided to start sewing again.  When my children were little I sewed all the time. It was a hobby borne from necessity. The kids needed clothes.  The budget was limited.  It made perfect sense to buy fabric at discount prices and sew what they needed.


In the early years we had a three room apartment.  I sewed in the living room, among toys and books and the TV set.  Abby played with her Barbie dolls.  Elizabeth stood in her play pen, throwing blocks across the room.  Gabriel perched himself on the back of my chair, hands on my shoulders, as if standing watch from the helm.  We listened to Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers while I stitched and clipped.  It was warm, cozy, peaceful.  


When Abby started first grade, she needed school clothes.  I had a budget of thirty dollars to provide her with a full wardrobe and new shoes.  Undaunted, I marched all three children to the closest Walmart, where I found a pattern for multiple jumpers, fabric remnants for a dollar a yard, and a package of little boys’ white tee shirts.  I sewed three jumpers, decorated the tee shirts with coordinating embroidery floss, and fashioned matching friendship bracelets.  I even stitched hair scrunchies and matching bows for her socks.  With a pair of pink shoes bought from a “Lucky Size” sale rack, she looked every bit the first grade fashion diva she was.  Her teacher asked me what boutique I shopped.


I continued to make clothing for my family.  “MC Hammer” pants for Gabe.  Dresses and shorts for the girls.  Flannel pajamas to keep everyone warm through snowy New Hampshire nights.  I sewed in the afternoons when the kids were awake.  I sewed in the evenings while they slept.  It was an outlet for my creativity.  An opportunity for me to paint the world in the colors and patterns I chose.


Sadly, as the years passed, my ingenuity faded.  Once I went back to working full time, there was little time for sewing.  The machine gathered dust, only to be used to repair split seams and fashion Halloween costumes.


But now that the kids are grown and I am finding myself with quiet, empty evenings, I have the desire to once again make something. Create something new. My sewing machine beckons from the living room.  Here is my chance to repaint my life once again. I bought fabric and a pattern, and set aside a full Sunday to begin.


To my disappointment, I could not get the bobbin to wind.  I tried over and over, but it just sat there. Empty.  I took apart the housing, cleaned it, and replaced it. I tried different thread.  I tried sewing machine oil.  I tried prayer.  Finally, I gave up, exasperated, and began to search on line for new sewing machines.  Mine was, after all, at least fifteen years old.  The new ones are far more technologically advanced.  It would be nice to have something shiny and new.


Something inside be balked at the idea of giving up so easily.  I often complain that our culture has become such a “throw-away” society.  Television home improvement shows tell us that entire kitchens and bathrooms need to be updated every fifteen years.  Smash the old cabinets. Put up new ones.  Replace perfectly fine white appliances with stainless steel. 


 How often have I made a trip to the cobbler, rather than buying a new pair of shoes?  When was the last time I washed out a peanut butter jar instead of buying a disposable plastic container to hold leftovers?  My gosh- I even buy plastic bags so I have something new and clean to dump my trash into.  Didn’t I start this whole sewing thing out of a necessity to live a more frugal and resourceful lifestyle?   With great effort and resolve, I decided to try to fix the old machine, rather than buy a new one. 


Locating a repair shop was easier than I anticipated.  Yes, they do repairs.  Turn around time is about three days.  I could anticipate a cost of seventy dollars. 



 Ugh. Seventy dollars! For a fleeting moment, I considered closing up the machine and donating the fabric to charity, or worse yet, giving in to holiday sale flyers from the local Singer center. 


Instead, I gathered up the machine, and lugged it to the repair shop.  It has gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older.  Sweating, I heaved it onto the counter and sputtered, “The bobbin won’t wind.”    


He took a quick glance, rolled his eyes, and said, “I can tell ya what’s wrong already.  Whatcha got here is the wrong bobbin.”


Being the sophisticated elocutionary master that I am, my response was,  “Shut up!”


Now, I have no idea where the wrong bobbin came from.  Or where the bobbins I used in the old days have gone to.  But the man at the counter sold me two new ones for a dollar apiece.  I lugged my machine home, plugged it in, inserted the new bobbin and tried it out.  It wound the bobbin effortlessly, then zipped along as I sewed a trial seam, making perfect stitches. 


For two dollars.


Sometimes we have to retrace our steps to remember who we are.  Sometimes it helps to remember how creative we can get when the situation demands that we find an alternative route. I liked that resourceful young woman who took scraps of fabric and pieced them together to fashion a dress for her little girl.  I think I will spend some time with her and see what we can create together.  

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