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Sew What!

by Julia Sneden

One of the first things I remember about being sent off to kindergarten was the unpleasant discovery that not everyone in this world is friendly, or even kind. It had never occurred to me that some people wouldnt like me, and possibly wouldnt even give me the opportunity to demonstrate that I was a likeable individual. 

It didnt take long for me to learn the combative lingo of the schoolyard, phrases like: 

"Dare ya!

"Bet ya cant

"Games closed!

And, (in response to my angry: But thats not FAIR,) the ubiquitous and effective sneer: SO?

Theres not much to do, when youre confronted by the in-your-face nonchalance of  SO? but I quickly catalogued it for my own use the next time I needed a squelching response.

The very first time I tried it, however, my victim just shrugged, and chanted:

        Sew buttons.
         Sow seeds.
         SO WHAT?

Talk about one-upmanship!

So/sew/sow is one of those tiny little words (to, too, and two come also to mind) that have even more meanings than spellings.

I have a problem with so, in that I tend to misuse it as a superlative, forgetting that it needs a qualifying phrase, (Im SO happy! instead of  Im SO happy that or so happy because).

I also have a problem with sow. The problem is that I love to plant seeds. I love to see them growing. I absolutely hate tending them once theyre a few inches above the ground. So every spring, in a wild burst of enthusiasm, I sow a great many seeds, and every July I bear the guilt of crop neglect. If only I could get over the need to sow!

But the real bugbear of the trio is sew. Sewing is something that I know how to do, because dear Mrs. Tenney taught me. Its beyond me how she ever managed to bear a class of smarty-pants seventh grade girls, most of whom had their sights set anywhere but on the mandatory sewing class. 

But manage it she did, from the first lesson in how to thread a needle (Never sew with a thread longer than 18 inches, girls!), how to knot the thread, and when to sew with single thread (hems, seams) or doubled thread (sewing on buttons, hooks, snaps). She patiently took us through the simple stitches: the straight running stitch, the sturdier two-runs-and-a-back stitch, the hemming stitch (Hold your needle perpendicular to the hem, girls!), the buttonhole stitch (yes, we had to handmake a buttonhole on our little swatches of muslin), the feather stitch.  She was an elderly woman, and quite heavy, and her ankles were so swollen that they actually hung down in puffs over her sensible, black, lace-up shoes. She moved among us with a waddling, side-to-side motion that threatened to topple the desks and chairs as she walked down the aisles, checking our efforts.

Mine were not the ones she chose to hold up for the others to see. My hand-eye coordination has never been my strength. Like El Greco, I am heavily astigmatic, and anything I draw or sew tends to come out with a distinct slant to the right. I dont see it slaunch-wise; it just comes out that way. Unlike El Greco, my efforts are not in the least artistic. They are just efforts. Mrs. Tenney could see that I was really trying, however, and she cheered me along by saying: Perhaps youll find sewing on the machine more successful.

Lined up against the wall in the back of the room were several electric sewing machines. To start up the action and control the speed, you pushed sideways with your right knee on a lever that hung down below the machine. Girls who finished their simple hand stitching projects (Always wind your thread around several times between the button and the fabric before you knot it off, girls!) moved on to the machines, learning how to thread, sew forward and backward, and never to interfere with the tension control. 

As we became proficient, we were each allowed to make one garment. Mine was a three-tiered cotton skirt, and Mrs. Tenney showed me how to gather fabric on the machine by making three rows of stitching about 1/8 of an inch apart, and then pulling all three of the threads on the wrong side of the fabric, so that the material bunched up. Boy, was I proud of that skirt! The only problem was that after a couple of washings, the tiers began to drop off. My grandmother, who quizzed me about the process, finally realized that I had not secured the ends of my stitching when I had sewn the tiers together. In other words, I hadnt remembered Mrs. Tenneys admonition to knot the ends of the threads, or at least to sew a few stitches backward over the first stitches and the last ones. Any dreams I may have had of adequacy as a seamstress unraveled along with the tiers.

Actually, it is ironic that my grandmother is the one who figured out the problem. She was the daughter of a proficient needlewoman, and her two older sisters were also known for their fine work. When it came time for her to make her first dress (at about age 13), her mother sat down with her and led her through the process. According to Grandmother, she did wrong everything that could be done wrong, including sewing the sleeves in backwards and inside out. Twice. Patiently, she ripped out her stitches, and painstakingly redid her work. When at last she was finished, she modeled the dress for her father, who praised her well. Her mother, however, quietly told her: Abbie, youve seen this through, and Im proud of you. But when you are grown up and married, dont ever try to save your husband money by making your own dresses!

So I guess I come by my sewing problems honestly, by heredity. Grandmother did persist enough to be in charge of repairs for our family. She had a sewing machine, an old White treadle model, and she wielded it handily for things like mending ripped seams or letting out the clothes of her growing grandchildren, or making napkins out of the remnants of old, double damask table cloths. 

I, too, have persevered, and am known to my family as someone who knows how to sew. Its a misleading reputation. I can sew, but the problem is that I rarely enjoy it. Its a true love/hate relationship. It doesnt help that I have friends who sew beautifully. My next door neighbor and best friend who was a good bit younger than I was given a sewing machine, took the Singer classes that went with it, and in no time at all was tossing off draperies and garments and clever crafts. By the time we were grownups, she was tailoring sports coats for her fiancé.

I have watched people who are proficient at sewing, and believe me, Im not. I start to sweat as soon as I sit down at the machine. My seams are often crooked; turning corners is always a challenge (and rarely do I achieve a uniform turn); and even though I have learned how to manage the tension control, I have trouble figuring out which needle size to use with which thread size, for which stitch length. 

In short, I would probably do better to find a good seamstress and pay for any work that needs to be done. I havent bothered to do so, partly because I figured that once my children were grown, I wouldnt have a lot of sewing to do. I hadnt counted on the needs of my elderly mother, who is shrinking at an alarming rate, which means frequent taking-in and re-tailoring of clothes. She also needs dressing aids like snaps sewn on to her shirts, which means taking off the buttons, sewing on the snaps, and then re-sewing the buttons atop the snaps. 

There are, of course, some kinds of sewing that I enjoy. I like to make things for my grandchildren: a play mat for the baby, a doll (rather hideous, alas) for a seven-year-old, a wall hanging for the little boys room. But even with those, I am always aware of my lack of craft. I have a stepsister who sews like an angel, and loves doing it. I envy her beyond the telling of it.

Perhaps I simply approach sewing with expectations too high, or with unrealistic hopes for my own competence. As I said, if I were smart, Id simply give away my machine and quit. But somehow, with every new project, I feel a surge of hope and determination that this time Ill actually get it right. My minds eye has vivid pictures of how it will be, and no amount of experience convinces me that this time wont be different.

So as you read this, picture me, poised with my scissors over a darling piece of fine wale corduroy, black with tiny pink flowers strewn across it, on which is pinned the pattern for an adorable size three jumper that I just know will be perfect for my granddaughter. And, please, wish me luck.

Observations from the Occasional Seamstress

1. If theres a bad place for a bobbin to run out, it willusually two inches before the end of a seam, or just as youre turning a tricky corner.
    Corollary: You wont notice that it has run out until you have finished the seam or corner.

2. If you sew for a child who lives too far away for constant fitting, the garment will be too short (tight) (long) (big), and will never be wearable.
    Corollary: You will find yourself just trying harder.

3. People who ask you just to run up a quick seam have no idea of the time theyre asking you to spend.
     Corollary: People who say things like just take up the shoulders a bit, have never in their lives had a sewing lesson or fitted anything.

4. You might as well let your sewing pile up, unless you can leave your machine set up permanently, because you might as well make the time spent hauling it out and setting it up worth your while.
     Corollary: If you find a spot to set the machine up permanently, it will grow dusty, because you will still let your sewing pile up.

5. If you try to save time by not basting things first, youll probably have to pull out whatever stitching youve done. 
    Corollary: pulling stitches out takes three times as long as putting them in!

6. It wont matter what brand of thread you use. These days, if youre sewing by hand, the thread will twist, knot and tangle. If youre using the machine, it will suddenly break. God knows what the manufacturers have done (or not done) to thread, but its just not the same as it used to be.
    Corollary: Dont bother to try straightening a piece of fabric by pulling a thread. According to the clerk at my fabric store, the way cloth is manufactured today, nothing is done on the true.

7. New bifocals may seem like the answer to the problem of threading a needle, but after about eight months the effect wears off.
    Corollary: Those little foil needle-threading devices are a wonderful invention.



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