When I was a child, I loved to eavesdrop while my aunt and grandmother sewed together and told family stories. I was inspired by the strong women in my family and wanted to grow into someone they would be proud of. My great-grandmother, Nancy Alice, was a model of persistence and made quilts even after she became blind, using a notch in her left thumbnail to guide her quilting needle. My grandmother, Bertha, ran a boardinghouse to provide for her children after she left her abusive husband in 1919. She needed a fashionable wardrobe to keep up appearances, so she would buy a suit, wear it to the ladies’ clubs, then change the collar and cuffs and wear it again. With sufficient alteration, one suit lasted three seasons, and a sturdy hat lasted even longer.
Her oldest daughter, my Aunt Alice, was widowed in her late forties and made a living doing alterations. A gift from her would be a length of fabric and a request that I tell her what I wanted. While we sewed and designed dresses
together, she talked about being patient with the fabric and, most of all, being patient with myself. She insisted that every mistake was a lesson so that something better could come of it. As she neared the grand age of 102, she told me she had removed more stitches in her sewing career than she ever put in and we laughed about how impossible that was.
I paid my college tuition by working in the theater’s costume shop. It was a busy workroom and speedy creativity was essential. I learned to be a fast—and often sloppy—seamstress. My costumes withstood a lot of wear, but I cringed to imagine what my Aunt Alice would say about my messy work.
Today, I teach sewing skills to veterans in transition from military to civilian life. I pass along the sewing techniques and life lessons from my matriarchs. The soldiers have been wounded, injured, or are facing serious illness. Many need new skills to navigate their changed world. Men and women come to the sewing group to learn everything from how to sew on military patches to how to make garments and quilts. They don’t expect life lessons, but those of us who sew know that we learn more than stitches and tailoring when sewers come together.
One of my students, Katie, wanted to make a quilt for her husband. Each week we worked together and chatted, as quilters do. I talked about my sewing matriarchs and how my aunt learned from her sewing mistakes. Katie and I laughed about the patience quilting required and how patience with herself was essential as she struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. On her last day in my class, she said, “My therapist says I’ve learned as much from sewing with you as I have in therapy.”
With another student, Matthew, I joked about how Aunt Alice had taken out more stitches than she put in. He didn’t seem impressed, but the following week, he returned and said, “If your old lady could keep ripping and sewing, I can, too.”
I believe my matriarchs would be pleased to see me passing on their wisdom and their skills. I feel them in the room as I sew with soldiers who are struggling, and I am grateful for their teachings and the chain of support they helped begin.
Nan Brooks teaches sewing to recovering soldiers.
Illustration: Alexis Seabrook