In June and July of 2013 I accomplished a feat I had always dreamed of doing – creating a garment by drafting the pattern using body measurements, a ruler, pencil and paper. I learned the skill just in time in order to create the lining for my new daughter-in-law’s wedding dress. She had purchased a lace dress from the 1930’s and the lining had disintegrated. I was able to take her measurements and the lavender silk she chose to help make her dream a reality. I finished two days before she married my youngest son, Adam. I also had to live up to a rule of life I had mistakenly instilled in our children: “your parents can do anything,” by constructing a ninety foot by thirty foot organza canopy for a pasture and forty-five by fifteen foot drapery for the barn door.
I couldn’t help but feel like one of the women from 1968 Virginia Slims cigarette ad campaign, “you’ve come a long way, Baby.” It was a trip down memory lane to revisit my first attempts at sewing clothing.
I was in seventh grade, a few weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday. “Ramona, would you like to sew a pair of pajamas today,” Audry asked. My older sister was home from college for Christmas break. Years of admiration for my role model enabled me to answer without hesitation.
“I would love that,” was my enthusiastic answer.
Together we sorted through Mom’s stash of clearance fabric choosing a hot pink and white one inch stripe cotton flannel. Audry pinched the folded edge of the fabric between her right finger and thumb. She held it up to her nose and turned her head to the right. Her left arm stretched out as far as she could reach holding the length of flannel. “One, two, three, four and five,” she counted off as she deftly measured the yardage using her outstretched hands and nose as a tape measure. I was in awe. “Five yards, that is enough for pajamas. That’s a good first project,” my sister declared, “now help me clear dinner from the table so we can use it to lay out the pattern.
I listened carefully as she demonstrated the importance of measuring the long arrow on the pattern piece which the straight of grain. She pinned on the first piece and then handed me the vinyl yellow and black tape measure, tomato pin cushion and the next piece. I took what felt like a half an hour and pinned the next piece down.
“Let me check it before you do anymore,” she said with authority. “You are off about a half inch from arrow top to bottom. See, what I mean,” as she measured the line. “You need to correct it.”
I balked a bit at the thought of taking all the pins out and doing it over.
“Do you want to learn or not,” Audry asked impatiently.
I took the pins out and measured with more accuracy and soon had all the pieces pinned on the flannel fabric. After Audry inspected it and approved, I took the sewing shears and cut the pieces on the dark lines as instructed.
“Stitch the crotch seam from the top to the bottom,” Audry instructed as I pinned the two pieces of the pajama pant back, right sides together. “I’m gonna check the cake in the oven while you do that.”
I beamed as I held up the sewn piece when Audry returned to the tiny sewing/laundry room where I was working. She began to laugh as she inspected my work. “You sewed the legs together,” she pointed out as she held them up and showed me where I should have stopped. “Here’s the seam ripper, I guess you will learn how to take a seam apart.”
I finished the pajamas without any other memorable problems. I listened carefully to her expertise and asked questions when I didn’t understand.
A few months later during her summer break I had my next lesson. “How about making a dress this week,” Audry asked me. “I found this navy blue cotton with white dots. It would look really cute with white lace and navy velvet ribbon woven in the beading down the front, around the neck and sleeve.”
“Really…” I hesitated. I just couldn’t envision it.
“You can’t picture it,” she asked of me, “really you can’t see it,” I think Audry was a bit disgusted with my lack of garment sense. She sewed the dress herself and gave it to me. It was soon my favorite dress. She was right – it was really a nice combination. That incident began to teach me to envision fabric and accessories before I started a garment.
Home Economics class was a required course for all freshman girls when I entered Jesup High School two years later. During the clothing construction section I acted like I knew it all since in my eyes I knew how to sew. I had already made a pair of pajamas. I didn’t listen to instructions from the teacher and stitched fast and furiously on the sleeveless light blue floral cotton dress. My lack of skill and bad attitude created a sorry looking dress: the facings did not lay flat, the zipper was crooked and the hem resembled rolling waves. I turned in my project and proceeded to throw it in the trash when it was returned along with the disappointing and humiliating grade: C minus.
That lesson in how not to sew a garment was planted deep. Mom encouraged me to keep working at it. There wasn’t extra money for fabric so she went to thrift stores and purchased full skirts for a dime or twenty-five cents.
“Here, you can use these to make yourself skirts,” she said as I accepted them. The seam ripper became my friend as I took the waistband off, removed the zipper and pulled seams apart. I pressed the gatherings out straight and repurposed skirts into new garments for myself. Deconstruction taught me the proper way to construct. I read, and reread the pattern guide often speaking aloud in order for the instructions to sink in. I was driven to never repeat a C minus grade. I soon discovered a world of having new clothes. Up to that time of my life I had mostly worn hand me down clothes from my cousins or family friends. The next three years of high school were spent doing the normal high school activities of sports, clubs, drama, slumber parties with friends and sewing my clothes. By the time I graduated I had taught myself how to make my own jeans, slacks and jackets. I continued to take Home Economics, asked for help when needed and received straight A’s for all projects.
My first purchase for college was a sewing machine. I took in mending in that year to provide myself with spending money. Two years later in 1975 I wore my hand fashioned wedding gown.
My seventy-nine dollar sewing machine helped me make most of my own clothes, as well as my family’s clothes as our family increased from two to six over the next seven years. In 1987 my husband, Rick, announced he was buying me a new machine. I objected, “We don’t have the money.”
“I’ll find the money,” he said. “If you are going to sew for our family, I want you to have the best machine now, not after we have been married for twenty –five years. It will be your birthday, Christmas, Mother’s day and every gift for a while.” He knew the way to make my heart smile. He valued what I did and wanted to make my life easier. And together we picked out the machine I still use, twenty-five years later.
His support of my developing skill was the catalyst for learning to sew everything from my family’s unmentionable items to outerwear. I discovered public television and a program entitled, “Sewing with Nancy.” I watched faithfully and inhaled the new skills that were demonstrated. Sewing became part of my everyday routine. Most days I spent a minimum of two hours stitching seams and crafting clothing. It was once a topic of conversation at a party.
“I heard you make your boys and your husband’s underwear, Mona, is that true,” the inquisitive woman asked.
“Yes, I do, “I answered, a bit embarrassed.
“You mean, out of knit fabric? Does it have the fly front and everything,” she pressed for more details.
“Uhh, yeah,” I smiled not knowing what else to say.
“I’d sure like to see a pair,” she had pushed my mischievous spirit a bit too far.
“Rick, can you come here for just a sec,” I called to my husband in the other room. The group of ladies erupted in a laugh and that vein of conversation ended quickly.
My love of sewing continued to grow. I have enjoyed creating sixty plus baby quilts to give each new baby that joins our family, personalizing them and making each one unique. I learned speed sewing and can construct a pair of blue jeans in two hours from cutting fabric to fastening to the snap as the final touch. I went to win awards as best of show in local and county fairs and built business that turned in to a twenty plus year endeavor. I loved the challenge of hearing the words, “You made that,” more as a shock of disbelief rather than an affirmation that it looked homemade. But sewing without a pattern was a skill that I had not acquired. Not until the summer of 2013. I purchased a book with instructions on drafting a pattern. I practiced until I felt confident to line the lace gown worn by Alia, my daughter-in-law, and created dresses using body measurements, pencil, paper and ruler. My future plans for sewing - to transfer my love affair with fabric, needle and thread to my granddaughters and the skills needed to create their own masterpieces. I hope someday to tell each of them, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”