Monday, October 31, 2011

Sew What?

Sunday night's episode of The Amazing Race had contestants choose between two challenges in Malawi— make a toy truck out of milk cartons or finish a man's suit on a treadle machine (no electricity) at a tailor shop. I expected everyone to be making toy trucks and was surprised at the number of contestants who headed for the tailor. Each member of the team had to participate so the sewers consisted of several men as well, one a former pro football player. It also looked like the tailors finished faster than the truck makers, but that could have been editing. What surprised me most was that I didn't think anyone sewed anymore! I mean, there are quilters, and pillow and drape makers and tote bag constructors, but who sews their own clothes? Two of the women even described themselves as expert seamstresses.

I took advanced sewing as an elective in ninth grade. The year before was compulsory and totally spent on a dirndl skirt. Our grade in the second year would be based almost entirely on the projects we constructed and modeled for an end-of-the-year fashion show. I can't remember everything, but my piece de resistance was a bathing suit with matching skirt coverup. My grade was A-. When I asked Mrs. Finkel why I didn't get an A she said, "Michelle, you never used the electricity." So concerned was I for every stitch to be perfect that indeed I turned the wheel by hand from start to finish. I wasn't quick enough to ask her why she never bothered to tell me before. I'm also still trying to figure out the moral of that story. But when the Amazing Racers were given their choice of task, I knew which one I would have chosen.

Sewing became a necessary hobby. It was a hobby because other things (like school) obviously came first, but a necessity to create clothes that emulated what I saw in magazines. There was no "instant fashion" back then, no immediate knock-offs of the latest designer styles and practically no "bridge"market at all. Forever 21? Forget it. Plus clothes were expensive. A decent blouse was $3.98! And Egyptian cotton was 50 cents a yard! Patterns were 35 cents. Thread was a quarter for the big spool. But most important the color, pattern, trim, etc. was mine alone. Most of the time the thing came out. Perhaps I kidded myself that it was better than it was, but I don't remember any real disappointments, only some things that were loved a little less.

Sewing was a bonding experience (forget the pun) for my mother and me. I fondly remember entire weekends we did nothing but sew, taking breaks only for quick meals and leaving the sewing machine and ironing board up day and night. We would both have new outfits to wear on Monday. I sewed through high school and college and made one of the two dresses that were my wardrobe when I moved to New York (the other was a splurge from Bonwit Teller). Once I got to New York and had no sewing machine I was paralyzed. One weekend, desperate, I borrowed a Singer from a friend and lugged it both ways on the subway. The next weekend I bought my own on time ($5 a month) and had it for years. I'm trying to remember when I stopped sewing. The last project might have been when my husband was gone for two weeks on reserve duty. That was his last tour and my last dress for a generation. Nor do I remember when I got the urge to create again. By this time, however, patterns were $12.00 and even burlap was $6.95 a yard. I made a blouse the day Hurricane Ike was due to blow in. It took my mind off what was sure to be the end of the world. The resulting blouse was used to clean stuck leaves off the lawn furniture after Ike departed. Further attempts to sew were equally disappointing. At one point I made the garment in muslin first, but the real thing still turned out a disappointment.

Nevertheless, the urge has struck yet again! I felt it the other day as I accessed all the pattern companies online. Perhaps it's the need to have something tangible to show for this house arrest. Perhaps hope springs eternal. I will try again! Just how uncomfortable could burlap be, really?
Vogue 8763— Stay tuned

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