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HISTORY BY THE THIMBLEFUL

by Julia Sneden

The year that I was in the seventh grade, the girls school that I attended mandated a sewing class for everyone. I submitted myself to it with much grumbling.

I didnt look for sympathy from my grandmother or her sister, my Great Aunt Martha (both of whom lived with us), because they spent a lot of time sewing. My grandmother used an old treadle machine, but Aunt Martha sat in an old leather armchair that had belonged to her mother, and hummed to herself as she hand-stitched a fine seam.

But I expected my liberated mother, who really didnt like to sew, to understand that resisting sewing class made sense for a girl who had thus far spent her childhood in the tops of the trees, or swimming, or diving, or jumping rope, or playing ping pong. That active girl simply didnt want to learn to sew.

I found no sympathy there: Mother thought the class was a very good idea. For her sake, I tried to give it my best -- which turned out to be not nearly good enough. We started with simple hand sewing. Three or four of my peers were really quick to learn the skills and principles, and were soon upgraded to the five sewing machines that lined the back wall of the room. Not I.

Those machines were electric, but of early design. You provided the power by pressing your knee to the right as you sat at the machine, moving a lever that hung down from beneath the surface plate. It sewed in just two directions, backward and forward, and the only stitch option was a simple, straight stitch. We were firmly enjoined against messing with any of the settings.

The whole sewing experience was definitely south of successful for me, although I did survive the course, and was eventually (in the very last group) promoted to the sewing machines. I even made a disastrous skirt, about which I have written earlier in another column.

I was quite content to leave my sewing life behind me at the old age of 13, but a funny thing happened as I went along. I found myself rather proud that I knew how to thread a needle, knot the thread, hand-sew a split seam, or sew on a button. At summer camp, I was a sort of Miss-Fix-It for my roommates. In college, I often used the two-runs-and-a-backstitch method of securing a seam in an emergency. I soon found myself on a costume crew in the college theatre, as I was one of the few who knew how to run the sewing machines. One summer, I actually worked for an outdoor drama, happily ensconced in the costume shop with a dozen other people in an atmosphere of mayhem and cheerful gossip.

When my children were small, I was able to fix small disasters-of-clothing. My grand coup was whipping star-shaped red patches onto my kindergarten sons last pair of clean but knee-less pants just in time for him to run out the door and catch the school bus. Aside from repairs, I didnt make clothing for them. They were, after all, boys, and wanted only jeans and T-shirts. I turned my sewing skills to making puppets and teaching aids for my classroom, along with occasional curtains or bedspreads for my home. I didnt enjoy it, but I could do it because it was simple stuff.

A couple of times I tried making clothes for myself, but they were never satisfactory. I did do a lot of altering of store-bought stuff, to this day an on-going procedure because of my short-geared but ample body.

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