I learned to sew mostly by osmosis. As a child, I slept under homemade quilts, and trick-or-treated in homemade costumes. My mom made a handful of clothing pieces for me and my siblings, but a lot more bags and toys and costumes, along with the curtains, quilts, and throw pillows in our house. My mom’s sewing machine was tucked in the corner of our playroom when we were tiny, and later the laundry room. Her machine sat on top of the sewing machine table on which my great-grandmother had sewn. There weren’t really any formal sewing lessons that I recall, though I do recall on occasion being allowed to operate the pedal of the machine while my mom sewed. As an adult, I realize that this is insane. I have sewn with various small children on my lap over the years, and have had lot of “help” with pins and fabric, but I can’t imagine letting a tiny assistant operate the pedal.
I can’t really remember the first time I sat down to the sewing machine on my own. During one summer during middle school, mom took me, as she had my sister a few years earlier, to the fabric store to pick out a pattern and fabric with the plan to teach me how to sew. I chose plaid for some reason that I cannot now imagine, and planned to make shorts and a shirt. (It really was as bad as it sounds. I blame the decade.) Mom and I laid out the pattern on the floor, and she showed me how to transfer all the markings from the pattern to the fabric pieces after carefully cutting along the appropriate size line. And that is as far as I got with that project. Mom eventually finished the shorts and shirt for me, and I think I even wore them once or twice. Though I would consider that sewing lesson a failure, I am confident that I learned quite a bit from my mother while I wasn’t paying attention. All those trips to the fabric store and impatiently flipping through pattern books, the hum of a sewing machine the soundtrack of many an afternoon, the vague familiarity with the tools of the trade- somehow it all added up to some basic idea of how to put two pieces of fabric together and end up with something beautiful and functional.
When I was fifteen, I agreed to help with the costumes for a high school musical. The drama teacher figured the entire chorus of 20+ girls should have matching drop-waist dresses and so with some combination of ambition and naivety, two other friends and I thought we’d tackle the project with very little sewing experience. Somehow, against the odds, or perhaps thanks to some fortunate timely intervention from our seamstress mothers, we managed to pull that off. Shortly thereafter, Mom gave me her twenty year old faded turquoise sewing machine that had been her first, and since then I have never been without a machine.
Since then, the story of my sewing career has been one that I make up as I go along. I don’t know that I do anything the way one is supposed to. When I teach others, I have to remember to use pins and precise measurements and instructions and occasionally an iron. So there’s a bit of trial, a whole lot of error, and lots of time with my close personal friend the seam ripper, but it mostly works out in the end.