1960s | 1980s | Children

Sew Grateful Reflection: “Surrounded by Sewing”

February 13, 2012

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).

  1. My mother taught my twins sister and I to sew clothes for our dolls when we were five. We didn’t have a lot of money back then and my mother sewed many of our clothes and made us cloth dolls. Around seven or eight mom taught me to use the machine. By high school I was making my own clothes and costuming the schools theater productions. By twenty four I was well on my way to a career in the sewing arts. That was also the year I realized that student had surpassed teacher in skill and knowledge (which came with a weird sense of pride and embarrassment). Now when I go home mom usually has a few project set aside for me to work on for her. We share a passion for vintage sewing and many of my most lovely patterns have come from her collection.

  2. I really liked your post, those old pictures are very pretty, I don’t have any family traditions, even if one of my aunts used to sew she never told me how to do it, I was a teen when she died, also one of my sisters sew too but she lives in another city and never have sewed together 🙁

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post! My mother worked in a sewing factory so the last thing she wanted to do when she got home was sew. I learned a little bit of sewing from my great aunt, who did her sewing on an old Singer treadle machine. I wanted to learn so badly! Finally after I got married my dear mother in law who was an incredibly talented seamstress taught me everything I needed to know, then bought me a second hand machine. I haven’t looked back since! I Love to sew and have since taught my niece who is off and running with her sewing. We need to keep this art alive!!!

  4. Hi, I just came across your website by chance, and I loved reading you family sewing story. My Granma used to sew everything for herself and her two daughters, (my mum and my aunt) . She taught them both to sew. She also worked in a clothing factory making ladies bras! My mum taught me to sew when I was about 5 or 6. something I have always had a passion for, and 53 years later I still sew on a daily basis. It used to be clothes and soft toys for my 2 daughters, but these days I just make patchwork quilts and soft toys. Neither of my daughters were very interested in learning, but my eldest daughter is finally being drawn in! Last week I had the pleasure of helping a 6yr old poppet with her first sewing projects, and she made six lavender bags as gifts, she wants to do more projects and has told her mummy that she will need to visit me every Saturday now!
    I shall look forward to reading more stories on your blog!
    best wishes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.