Above: A lovely doll my mother made when she was learning to sew in the early 1960s. “She’s lost her face and is a little sad-looking but notice the fancy hairstyle and the gathers on the sleeves and bodice. She used to have a petticoat and pantaloons but they are gone now.”
How much did you love Debi’s Sew Grateful week challenge?
I’m running a bit late on all my posts–soon I’ll be sharing the story of how my beloved grandmother Melba taught me how to sew in a bittersweet week book-ended by a road trip to a Mississippi funeral and a scary ambulance ride to a small Georgia hospital–with some photos of her clothing from the 1930s to 2000s.
In the meantime, here is a guest post from my amazing mom Beryl Reid about how HER grandmother taught HER how to sew. (Along the lines of this family tradition, I think my mom will have to teach my daughter how to sew!)
“I grew up surrounded by women who sewed. My grandmother Drue was my first sewing teacher. I was living with her in Corinth, Mississippi in the summer of 1960 (I was about eight years old). There was, of course, a sewing room in the house, with an amazing pedal driven sewing machine.
“Me (in school photo) the year I learned to sew… in Corinth, Mississippi.”
I had been sewing “by hand” for a long time, for as long as my memory goes back. I had just finished making a doll that wasn’t really for playing with… it was a Civil War era doll that reflected my obsession with history. I wanted to make a really detailed and authentic period costume for the doll.
“This is a photo of us kids, sitting on one of the rag rugs my grandmother made at the house in Corinth. I’m on the far left.”
My grandmother decided I should learn to use the sewing machine for the doll’s costume. She sat with me for days, making sure I knew how to thread the machine and run it. Her method of teaching was gentle, but “hands off”. She let me make all my own mistakes and knew that getting me started was all that was needed. There was no “hovering” or nagging or recriminations… at all!
“This is a picture of my sister Melinda, my cousin Pam and my brother Michael… my grandmother Drue made all these clothes.”
Most of the time I was left alone with the machine, my imagination and time to figure out what to do on my own. She might suggest some techniques… especially the gathering of the skirts and pantaloons. She would show me, then leave the room. Often, she would be in the next room, working on one of her own projects.
Every woman I knew in my family and extended family did some kind of home sewing or “making.” Drue had grown up in the rural South, the wife of a sharecropper—and in that culture, you often couldn’t buy something nice to wear, but you could make it yourself. She loved to make clothes, quilts and rag rugs… it was a legitimate creative pleasure for her and the women of my family. Both of her daughters (including my mother) had learned the same outlook and were both skilled at sewing, knitting and the art of “making it yourself.”
“Drue (center, between my sister Becky and grandfather Garland) sets up a quilting frame in preparation for a quilting bee.”
By the time I returned to my mother and father after that summer, I knew how to sew. I had to re-learn it a bit when I started using my mother’s electric Singer, but that didn’t take too long. My mother Melba didn’t have to teach me. She added a few practical tips to my outlook on sewing, mostly of the time-saving sort:
- She scorned the use of pins… a few upside coffee cups on the pattern were enough.
- She also didn’t really believe in chalk or marking… a dart should be memorized and just done.
Speed was important to my mother. She worked full time as a book-keeper when I was growing up, so sewing was done after a long day and was often because she wanted a new outfit for herself or me and my siblings—it was a practical activity. She did love to dress up (she inherited this from her mother!). They looked like models from a magazine to me and I admired them as gorgeous, stylish and capable women.
By the time I was eleven, I had progressed to making my own dresses for school. I remember one dress, it was a turquoise blue “mini” dress (remember this was the time of the “British Invasion” and skirts were inching up!) it was sleeveless and had a large double ruffle around a scoop neck, almost like a big necklace or flower lei. I can’t tell you how proud I was to wear it to school!”
——Beryl Reid (aka Mikhaela’s mom)
Four (sewing) generations:Beryl, Melba (holding Mikhaela) and Drue in the early 1980s.
I’m afraid I don’t have any pictures of my mom’s ruffled blue mini dress, or of any of Drue’s beautiful quilts (my mom thinks there might be one in her attic but she couldn’t find it)… but here’s a bonus photo of me in 1980 as a newborn in an outfit my mom sewed for me–I love the sweet purple rick rack!
So tell me–do you have any family sewing traditions?
(Cross-posted in slightly modified form from my blog Polka Dot Overload).