I grew up in a family of seamstresses: my mother always sewed all of her own clothes as well as ours, for as long as I could remember, and my dad was manager of the Graphic Arts department at the Singer Company. For years, I never knew what size I wore other than what was represented in a Vogue or McCall’s pattern. In fact, I honestly didn’t know the first thing about buying clothes in a store until I grew up.
The basement in our house was Sewing Central. It was home to any number of sewing machines, so that several of us would be downstairs together, listening to NPR and chatting as we sewed away. The walls were lined with huge, industrial-strength, metal shelves that housed yards and yards of fabrics and tons of patterns. There was an ever-present ironing board set up, and the washer and dryer worked hard in another corner. It was nothing for us to come home, head downstairs and whip up a new outfit for the next day. Both of my sisters and I sewed all our clothes once we were teenagers. None of us took “Home Ec” classes; we just taught ourselves.
My mother’s philosophy was that the inside of an outfit should be as beautifully sewn as the outside, and so whenever I made an article of clothing, I knew it would immediately have to pass my mother’s strict inspection. Invariably, as I displayed my finished products to her, I would cringe, since she would immediately turn the fabric over to see the hems, and with an air of disgust, she would often roll her eyes at me, only to say something like “Tsk,…well, you did a bum job on that, young lady!” It taught me to finish seams off beautifully and to take pride in what I made.
If any of us did make something with a hand-sewn zipper, or if we did a good job of matching up patterns on a fabric, or if we used bound buttonholes or sewed French seams inside a dress, she would exclaim with delight. She instilled in us the love of good fabrics and good sewing practices.
Our favorite patterns were Vogue, and we were on a constant quest for beautiful fabrics. My older sister Mary Kate reminded me recently of the time we were at the Galeries Lafayette in
Now, if I sew at all, my sewing tends more towards making pillows, curtains and slipcovers and the like. I rarely sew clothes for myself any more, but whenever I do, I think nostalgically about that basement and the hours of mad creativity that bubbled up out of there.
“Asking a seamstress to mend is like asking Michelangelo to paint the garage.” (-Unknown)