During my mother’s childhood, my grandmother sewed the latest styles for her. My mother learned the basics of fine sewing in the process, but she rarely used those skills. “Sewing skips a generation,” my mother declared. My life has proved her adage true.
As a little girl, I pieced together outfits for my dolls. Then, for my eighth birthday, I received a copy of Coats & Clark’s Sewing Book (Educational Bureau of Coats & Clark, 1967). I studied the illustrations, learning how pattern pieces fit together.
When I was 9, my father bought my mother a sewing machine. I was enthralled by it. My mother bought herself a pattern for a skirt and jacket, and a cream-colored, floral jacquard. She cut the pieces and pinned a few seams, then put the project aside. For days, then weeks, then months, the machine sat idle, the fabric piled beside it.
I imagined many times how I would feed those skirt panels under the fast-moving needle. I could see how the garment would come together.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it. “If you show me how to run the sewing machine,” I said to my mother with a 9-year-old’s bravado, “I will make your outfit. I know how.”
My mother laughed. “If you’re going to learn, you have to do it right,” she said. “Before you use the machine, you must sew a dress by hand. You must learn to make beautiful stitches yourself. That’s how my mother taught me.”
My heart sank. Her challenge seemed impossible. Without a pattern or fabric of my own, I had no idea how to even start.
Then my mother surprised me. From the old pirate chest where she kept her treasures, she pulled two yards of cotton lawn printed with blue roses. My father had bought this length of fabric on a trip to Hong Kong. It was fabric she knew I loved. “You can use this,” she said.
We bought a pattern that afternoon, for a sleeveless, A-line dress. My mother showed me how to stitch a strong backstitch, and we salvaged a zipper and a pleated organza collar from a dress I’d outgrown. Then she left me alone. I worked all weekend, sewing stitch after stitch, each growing smaller and more even. When I reached the hem, she demonstrated a neat catchstitch. I recalled the illustrations in my book. What I’d read on the page now translated into actions my fingers could accomplish.
Finally, my dress was finished. I presented it to my mother for inspection. Turning the dress over, she said, “Uh, oh!” I’d sewn the zipper in backward. “There’s always at least one mistake. Your grandmother did this many times. I got used to undoing my dresses from the inside.” Then she led me to the sewing machine to teach me how to use it.
Recently, I found a photo of my mother, aged about 55. In the picture, she grins, wearing the cream-colored jacquard jacket, the first garment I sewed on her sewing machine. She wore that jacket until the end of her life. Since I made the jacket, I’ve sewn for myself, my husband, and my children. Despite my mother’s insistence that sewing skips a generation, I’ve thought, at times, that my youngest child would continue the sewing tradition. Instead, he’s become a master knitter. Perhaps, as my mother suggested, my future grandchild will take up the mantle.
Sherry Audette Morrow sews in Baltimore, Maryland.
Illustration: Alexis Seabrook.