The Zen of Sewing

We can never know about the days to come, but we think about them anyway….

I come from a long tradition of sewing.

My grandmother was a talented seamstress, starting when she was very young, designing and constructing ensembles that were interesting in 1915, but could even pass muster in 1969, as well as today.


Marguerite Lovell (Grammie), circa 1915

Gram made all of my mother’s clothes – including her wedding gown – and continued on to make outfits for us, her lucky grandchildren. She was so artistic in design, and adept with a needle and thread, that Mom was recognized as a fashion plate by a buyer for one of the big stores of the era. Grammie and Mom would window-shop on Fifth Avenue, gazing at the well-turned-out mannequins of Bergdorf’s, Lord & Taylor, and Saks, while Mom mused aloud.

“I like that sleeve… and this neckline here… and oh, look at the drape of that skirt!”

When they arrived home, Gram would get busy with newspaper and chalk, drafting her own patterns. Then they’d go shopping again, for just the right fabric, buttons, and trims, and the old Singer would become a fixture in the dining room until one day…. Voilà! Mom would appear in the park on her lunch break, looking like a movie star in her unique and expertly tailored new duds.


Pat O’Toole (Mom) in Madison Square Park, circa 1947

Even while Gram was making clothes for the next generation, Mom took up the needle and sewed up a storm herself. Although no one was quite as prolific with a camera as selfie-obsessed people are today, I’m sure that somewhere in the trove of family photos are many showing us garbed in Mom’s handiwork – dresses, shirts, shorts, even coats (and plenty of knitted things, too!).

At some point, I realized that I, too, could fashion made-to-order clothing for myself, and at about the age of 10, Mom wisely sent me to Frankel’s Fabrics in Garden City to learn to sew. I chose a shift dress pattern with a sailor collar, making the dress itself from old polka dot curtains, and cut the collar from a many-times-bleached white cotton pillow case, trimmed with rick-rack. Kind of a crazy quilt of a dress, but I was determined to save money, so there it was. Anyway, the class provided me with all the basic skills, supplemented by Mom, and I was off and running.

I made culottes from the new-fangled spongey-backed fabric called bonded knit (which dissolved if nail polish remover touched it!), embroidered peasant blouses, designed shorts and shirt ensembles, matched plaids for dresses with big, balloony sleeves, hand-smocked the wide cummerbund of a billowy crepe dress. Twiggy and Vogue magazine were an inspiration, and Carnaby Street style filled my closet. I even accepted the challenge of making a swimsuit (and it actually turned out OK, although I tended to wear it more as a halter-top body suit  – yes! remember body suits?!).  One particular project, though, almost proved to be my downfall.

I’d been invited to attend a Christmas party with my older brother Steve, and his very cool friends – I was 16, they were 18 – and I wanted to have just the right dress to wear. So I spent hours combing through the pattern books – like now, I didn’t have anything specific in mind, just figured I’d know it when I saw it. I turned a page, and there it was – the dreamiest creation, exactly what I wanted. It was a (very trendy) midi-dress with a sweetheart neckline, princess seaming, flowing skirt, and puffy sleeves ending in multi-tucked cuffs, dripping with with 1930’s sophistication and Gunny Sax romance.

Roaming the shops of the garment district in the city, I discovered a bolt of claret-hued silk velvet – pillowy, soft and shimmering, with a drape to die for – and just perfect for my dress! For the next couple of days I busied myself with layout, cutting and sewing, barely taking time for anything else. And then it was time to put in the zipper.

Zippers? Bah! No problem! I’d done dozens by that point. So I threw myself into the task, knowing that I was nearing the end of the project. Oh yes, victory was soon to be mine, and I would be the toast of the party!

I guess I hadn’t paid much attention to that old Bible verse, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

At that point in my life, I was less interested in the journey, and much more excited about the destination. In other words, I was not so interested in sewing as an art in itself, and more in just wearing the damn clothes. So I blithely ignored my mothers tsk-ing and her advice to pin, then hand-baste darts, seams, etc, and routinely sped through projects just holding the fabric together with my fingers as I fed it quickly through the machine. So far, I’d gotten away with it.

Back to the event that nearly became my Waterloo. I actually did pin the zipper in, and whipped through the sewing, clipped the threads, and lifted the back of the dress up before me so I could admire my handiwork.

What the…?? I had sewn the zipper in upside-down!!

Oh, what a wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, stamping feet, smacking my mother’s sewing machine with my palm, and damning the @#$%&-ing thing to hell. Mom rushed in from the kitchen to see what the ruckus was. Clucking disapprovingly, she started to say, “I told you,” then apparently thought better of it, and ended with, “if you’re going to curse and abuse my sewing machine, then you may not use it!”

“Fine!” I screamed, stomping out of the room and upstairs, “Just fine!”

After I cooled down (and realized that I’d never wear the dress to the party if I didn’t get over this), I crept back downstairs, offered an apology to Mom, and sat back down in front of the evil machine. Using a seam ripper and cursing under my breath, I carefully picked out each tiny stitch, and then hand-sewed the zipper in correctly. Yes, I finished the frock in time, went to the party, and felt smashing in my dress. Lesson learned – to some extent. I never sewed a garment again without at least pinning all the seams.

Fast forward through many more handmade outfits for myself, and a few for the boys, and then many, many years where, except for occasional repairs and minor alterations, my sewing machine never saw the light of day. Then when I hauled it out of retirement one day, my 30-year-old all-metal, heavy-as-an-anvil, college-graduation-present Kenmore that I’d literally dragged all over the country with me, bit the dust. Using some of the money left me by my father, I treated myself to a beautiful Janome machine (I’ll always think of Da when I use it, and I don’t think he’d mind if I curse occasionally!).

Inspired by some beautiful 60-year-old  fabric that my mom found in a closet (my grandmother had used it to make curtains for my parents’ new house in 1953), my first projects with the new machine were a Vera Bradley-style purse for Mom, and organizer/overnight bags for my sisters and me.

View album
40’s fabric bags
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A couple more years rolled by. I was cleaning out my own sewing closet a few weeks ago when I came upon a stash of fabric that I’d bought 15 years ago to make myself a summery dress, but had never gotten around to it (hmmm… there seems to be a pattern here with the old fabric, no pun intended!). The pattern I’d intended to use it with was from the days when I was probably a size 6, so I went out to Joanne’s, selected a pattern that would work with the fabric (I had just enough!), and settled down to create the dress. And that was when I discovered a new attitude about sewing – more patient – and a new appreciation for an aphorism oft-quoted by my parents, which drove me absolutely up the wall when they’d use it: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Instead of laying out and cutting the pattern pieces in an hour as had been my habit, I let that task drift over a few days (OK, I admit that that’s always been my least favorite part of sewing, so part of that was procrastination!). I took my time measuring, altering the pattern, hand-sewing tailor’s tacks, and other preliminary tasks, and just last night, finally sat down at the machine to begin putting the dress together. Pinning, sewing, trimming threads and excess fabric, slowly and carefully pressing open the seams. Suddenly and belatedly, I realized just how contemplative and relaxing an activity sewing can be.

I feel like I’ve come full-circle, joining up with my mom, grandmother and great-grandmother in an exercise that I now know brought them not only pride in a job well done, but an opportunity for enjoyment, diversion, and meditation during their normally harried days. My niece Maeve is currently interested in learning how to sew, and I hope I manage to pass on not only the skills, but an appreciation for the tradition and the work that many generations of women – and some men! – have brought to sewing.

PS: For anyone who might think that I’m just making up memories of some of my outfits, there’s no artistic license taken there. I could actually describe to you, in exhaustive detail, things that I wore even back to my first day of kindergarten! Believe it or not, I’m not at all what you’d call a clothes horse (and many of those years were spent in Catholic school uniforms), but I have a weird memory for details. My sister Pegeen thinks this is wildly funny, and one birthday years ago, she presented me with a wonderful little book that has since become a Broadway show. “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” is the title – I haven’t seen the show (I’d love to!), but I highly recommend the book. Even if you don’t have quite the memory of clothes that I do, it’s a really fun little read!

And one additional detail: When Mom didn’t wear her Grammie-made clothes anymore, they were cut up and re-purposed as other garments, and the buttons, belt buckles, and other special trims were saved in cans for the future. Some years ago, these were passed on to me, and so these special notions from the 1930’s – 1950’s have appeared on many of my own clothes over the years, and are still going strong!


About rangermoi

I'm a former park ranger and teacher, mother of two no-longer-teenage sons, avid cook and reader and the Official Family Memory. I thought I'd better get some of those remembrances down before they all leak out of my senior-moment-affected brain!
This entry was posted in Clothes, Family, History, Home, Nostalgia, Sewing, Work and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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