A Sewing Legacy | Closures Essay
The following reader story was the featured Closures essay in Threads #76, April/May 1998.
A sewing legacy
As back as I can remember, my mother had two dreams for me: that I attend college and that I learn how to sew. A Louisiana farm girl and the youngest of eight, she’d done neither herself. She’d struggled through reading and math in her segregated Black school, so college was out of the question. Mama, as my sometimes stern grandmother was called, did the cooking and sewing, while my mother was taught the drudge work of housekeeping: washing dishes and sweeping floors. And when she tried to strike out on her own and join the Navy WAVES, my grandmother forbade it. So, instead, she married my father and had three daughters.
Mother tried to make sure that we had the opportunities she didn’t, and learning to sew was one of them. To her, sewers were powerful because they had choices and the knowledge to take advantage of them. Sewers chose their own patterns, their own fabric, their own embellishments. With a sewing machine, they could snub the fancy department stores. Their own mothers couldn’t hold them back from expressing themselves in the very clothes they wore.
Early in life, she taught me that the books I curled up to read incessantly were important, but so was the pride that came from making a dress or sewing a roomful of curtains. She lured me into sewing with amazing and allegedly true stories of friends and relatives who could see a dress in a store, sketch the pattern on newspaper, then whip up outfits that were the envy of entire city blocks. “She made that and you can’t even tell,” was my mother’s highest compliment.
When I entered ninth grade, she made sure I took college preparatory classes as well as the elective sewing class. I made a dour apron and a green gingham tote on a Brother sewing machine, an uninspiring start. But I was on my way. I enjoyed prowling fabric stores, browsing pattern catalogs, and making sense of pattern instructions. My sister and I spent nights huddled around the sewing machine in a burst of creative passion. I made a skinny, lime green, spaghetti-strap dress for the senior prom and an awkward blue pants suit for the senior trip to Disneyland. I sewed a long floral dress that reminded me of the ’60s flower children and wore it under my graduation gown.
My youngest sister resisted the sewing cabal mightily. But years later, when she had three daughters of her own, she began sewing them dresses for church. Living on a budget, she was finally won over by Mother’s claims that sewing could save her money and enable her to put unique clothes in the closet.
Mother played Siskel and Ebert to our sewing efforts, a role we resented. After all, we could sew now. We were the experts, while she, in her own words, “couldn’t sew a straight line.” But Mom had her say as she drove us to the fabric store. “Don’t you think the fabric is too flimsy for that pattern?” she’d ask. “I wouldn’t put those two colors together,” she’d advise. “That hem wasn’t pinned right,” she’d observe. And the annoying thing was, she was often right.
I sewed less as I went through college and only marginally when I entered the corporate world. By then I could afford more expensive clothes, and my time was more valuable than saving money. But lately I’ve begun sewing again. Little things I can finish quickly and feel the sweet hit of accomplishment: table mats, curtains, vests, tops.
I enjoy what my mother always knew she was missing: the challenge of making something that’s your very own from start to finish.
I’ve again built up a war chest of fabrics that nudges me along. And there’s always Mom asking if I’ve made anything lately, and if not, well, why? My mother is proud that I’m a professional journalist. She reads my newspaper articles and shows them to her friends. But I never get the kind of compliments on my writing that she ladles out for a sewing project.
During a recent visit, my mother was awed by the gingham curtains I made for one of my guest bedrooms. “You made those, Sharon?” she asked. “They look so good!”
I know what she’ll tell her friends when she returns to California: “She made those curtains and you can’t even tell.” Thanks, Mom.
Sharon Broussard of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was an editorial writer for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and had sewed for 25 years when this essay was originally published.
Do you have a sewing story to share?
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Other Closures essays you may like to read:
“Specially Designed by Mom” by Paul Hadella, from Threads #200, Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019.
“Making Masterpieces” by Cynthia Pappas, from Threads #187, Oct./Nov. 2016.