I love fabric. Everything about it. The look. The feel. The smell. Nothing puts me in a bright-hearted mood like walking the labyrinth aisles of a fabric store. There’s just something about the colorful categorized chaos that inspires me. It’s the playful paradox of cloth. And my life.
The inherent tactile nature of textiles is also intoxicating. With fabric, no matter how beautiful, getting an eyeful is never enough. It must be touched to be fully appreciated. For it is in the feel of the fabric that our emotions are thoroughly engaged. I am never in neutral when I’m around cloth. And the more senses involved, the happier I am. The richer the experience.
I love to run my fingers across deep luxurious smooth velvet. Or get lost in the grooves of the gorgeous cut versions. I’ve got a major crush on the crinkled kind. And don’t even get me started on my vibe for velour. I love the ridges of corduroy, whether barely-there baby wale or the chunky heavyweights. In the summer nothing says “the living is easy” like cotton. Bold and brilliant simplicity. Delicious ice cream colored pastels. Solid blocks of confident color. Or whimsical patterns drawn from nature. Sophisticated. Silly. Cosmopolitan. Or country. I love it all. And in the winter, my world is a wooly wonderland. I also love fabrics in the raw. Natural nubby silk, with its fusty scent, is quite simply divine. I could drown in a sea of unwashed denim. Even burlap is beautiful to me.
When it comes to fabric I am cut from the same cloth as Ma.
Little back story. Ma loved to sew. Her sewing machine, a chrome blue Kenmore beauty that The Old Man bought for her at Sears, was set up in our spare room upstairs next to “the boys” room. It sat on a table in front of the window, that stared directly into our neighbor’s identical window less than twenty feet away. In winter it was frigid wool-sweater-wearing cold in that room. In summer it was hotter than a baked potato fresh off the fire. But regardless of the temperature, the sewing machine hummed happily. The Kenmore came contained in it’s own case but because of its frequent use, the lid was rarely on. It was a wonder of modern post war technology. In fact, the basic design of that old lovely hasn’t changed all that much from the one I use today. I was in awe of Ma’s ability to thread the machine so quickly and efficiently. Expertly, her nimble fingers drew the thread through the various miniature levers and around the slits in the tension knob. Up and down. And all around. Through the eye of the needle with ease. And filling the circular silver bobbin. Pure magic. Connecting all of that mechanical mumbo-jumbo to turn fabric into something fashionable or functional. Nothing short of miraculous.
I loved all the brightly colored threads that Ma collected in her fabric covered sewing box. They were sweeter than candy and enough to make a rainbow envious. I loved their little barrel shapes. The hole punched through the paper top from their turn on the spool pin. The notch in the wood that held the end of the thread in place. Perfection all of it. The large-sized spools, with the basic black and white threads, were pragmatic and useful but not quite as interesting. It was the collection of small ones that grabbed my attention and set my imagination wandering. Even used-up naked spools had a purpose. I entertained myself for hours with these little squatty wooden people. I was the kid who had more fun with the cardboard box.
Ma used to make most of my clothes. What began as a necessity, became a passion. She had a flair for fashion and an artist’s eye for design. Fortunately for me, I was one of the main benefactors of this talent. One of the beautiful things about making your own clothes is their uniqueness. The one-of-a-kind distinction. There’s not another one quite like you walking down the street. This is universally appealing. Sometimes we want to blend in, be like everyone else. Feel like we belong. But we also want to stand out. Be special. Bask in our individual singularity. That’s what Ma’s designs did for me. I especially appreciated this once I became a teenager and my need to be “different” trounced my need to be just another cog in the wheel. Of course, for the most part I was just like everyone else but try telling that to a sixteen year old.
One of my fondest and proudest memories of childhood is that of wearing a different “outfit” to school each day. My favorite was the corduroy jumper. It pleased me to receive compliments on Ma’s handy-work, in particular from my teachers, whom I held in high esteem. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell Ma what the teachers said, watch her eyes light up to hear such honored praise for her sewing skills.
I don’t know if the ability to sew is in my genes exactly, but the love for it was definitely passed on to me from Ma.
By the time I got to grade seven, Ma started to teach me everything she knew about sewing. In Home Ec class, which was mandatory back then, the first thing we had to make was an apron. Without Ma’s guidance I would have failed that class. As it was I was challenged to knit a perfect pair of baby pink slippers and my macaroni cheese casserole was abysmal. But my apron was good and got me the passing grade. Once I was in high school, Home Ec was an elective. I gave it a pass in favor of music. I was much more interested in playing an instrument than playing with a measuring cup. Besides, by then Ma was the best Home Ec teacher a girl could ever have.
In high school I became fashion conscious. I was awakened. Had an epiphany. A sudden revelation. For the first time, I realized that clothes actually said something about who you were. They were a way to express yourself. Make a statement.
I loved to comb through magazines picking out fashions that I thought were cool and reflected my inner being. Styles that spoke to me. I would show Ma little dresses that I liked and ask, “Can you make something like that Ma?” I remember so vividly one little dress in particular. It was a “baby doll.” All the models in the magazines were wearing them. Twiggy, the doe-eyed waif, looked especially smashing in her little number. I had to have one. Despite the fact that I was half Twiggy’s height and twice her weight, I knew I could look just as groovy.
Ma and I went straight to the fabric department situated on the top floor of Eaton’s. The Mecca for sewers in our small northwestern town. It was awash in bright sunlight and cheerful colors. First we scoured the pattern books for dresses that looked like the ones we saw in the fashion magazines. There were no exact matches but Ma was a wizard at adapting patterns and adding her unique touch to achieve my voguish vision. It was Spring and the seasonal cottons were in abundance. We combed through the sundry bolts of fabric until we found the perfect motif. Navy blue background adorned with tiny hot pink flowers with little viny green stems. Just like in all the magazines. Perfect for my baby doll dress. Ma had this idea to add some pink cotton lace around the bottom edge of the bodice and tiny pink buttons as accents on the sleeves and neck front. A Navy zipper, thread and seam binding completed our purchase. I was beside myself with excitement and anticipation. Step aside Twiggy.
Although I was learning my way around the Kenmore by this point, making a baby doll dress was not in my wheel house. I had managed to avoid making anything that required zippers or button holes and wasn’t about to start with something of this magnitude. Ma would be flying solo as the seamstress on this project. And I trusted her unconditionally to do an impeccable job. And she did not disappoint. In addition to being a wizard on the Kenmore, she was a bit like an elf in her industriousness. I went to school in the morning and came home to find a brand new baby doll dress waiting for me. It was perfect. Beyond my wildest expectations. Better than the one Twiggy wore in the magazine. It fit perfectly. I felt fantabulous wearing it. I wore it to school with navy tights and navy Mary Jane shoes. It was the best outfit I ever wore. And in many ways, nothing has made me feel that good since.
Over the years Ma made me many dresses. And I have made myself many as well, including my first wedding dress. I even made one for her. A soft powder blue floor length gown that she wore to some function with The Old Man. She looked beautiful. It was a labor of love. Payback for the baby doll dress and all the other marvelous clothes she so tirelessly made for me.
People who sew tend not to throw away fabric. It’s all so precious and dear. There are always scraps, bits and pieces left over from each project. Ma saved all these little bits from her sewing history. Then she gave them all to me.
Early in my first marriage, shortly after my oldest daughter was born, I began a project. It was ambitious, and as I look back on it now, I was probably suffering from post-baby hormones. The ones that make you do cuckoo things. What else could have made me embark on such an enormous undertaking? It was in this frame of mind that the crazy quilt began. It took about a year to hand embroider all the random pieces from a lifetime of sewing and stitching into a six foot by six foot masterpiece of psychedelic irregularity. Asymmetrical. Crooked. Uneven. The story of my life.
I used brightly colored cotton embroidery thread to hold all the individual pieces together. The delicate stitches were all the ones Ma taught me. Blanket, cross and chain. The occasional french knot just for fun.
As the crazy quilt grew bigger and bigger, it was like I could see my entire life unfurl before me. The bright pink checkered dance costume. The turquoise, teal and red baby wale corduroy jumper. The long multi-colored hippy peasant gown. The short lime green mini dress with the purple flowers. The white eyelet skirt. The embroidered dashiki top. The wedding dress. Assorted kitchen table cloths and placemat sets. They were all there. And when it was all done, I carefully spread it out on the bed I shared with my husband. It took my breath away. My heart and mind drifted back to that little room at the top of the stairs where Ma sat with her beautiful elegant piano fingers. Guiding the fabric along the steel plate of the blue Kenmore. Her foot steady on the speed pedal. The rhythm of the needle keeping pace. By day’s end a baby doll dress for her much loved daughter.