Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sewing and other creative pursuits

My mother’s sewing machine sat on the dining room table. I can see it there, quite clearly, with a basket of mending in the corner behind the table and a project-in-progress next to the machine. When my mother died, she left behind an unfinished suit, the pattern pieces of grey and pink knit carefully cut but not yet assembled. She sewed quite well, as I recall. I have one of the dresses she made for herself: a floor-length, sleeveless, dropped-waist dress in an vibrantly swirled knit fabric. I wore it from time to time in college, and always loved the fabric, although it didn’t flatter my figure as well as hers. When we were younger, she must have done quite a bit of sewing. In her letters to her parents, she mentions making curtains, deck chair covers, and clothes for herself and for us. Indeed, curtains seem to have been a perennial project, recurring often in the letters – curtains for the apartment, for the house, for the office. She apparently used the remnants to make jumpers for me as a toddler, so my outfits must have matched the curtains. I really can’t remember if she particularly liked sewing, but she certainly took pride in her work.

I remember my mother showing me how to thread the sewing machine, which I found to be a very challenging task at first. I kept forgetting how to do it, and she had to explain it to me again each time I used the machine. I don’t remember if we sewed anything together, though. I have vivid memories of sewing with my maternal grandmother, who taught me the basics of garment sewing and guided me through my first quilting project. I was taught knitting by my step-mother (although I couldn’t cast on and never did much besides a scarf or two) and hand embroidery by her mother. Indeed, while I have many memories of making things in my childhood and adolescence, few of them include my mother directly. I remember drawing at the kitchen table and making colored sand landscapes in glass jars. I tie-dyed t-shirts one year for my friends, although the results were rather disappointing. I made a Mother’s Day card with glue-and-glitter in Girl Scouts; I remember the Scout leader making a sarcastic remark about my excessive use of glue. I sewed Christmas ornaments to sell for Junior Achievement. My brother and I made hooked rugs from kits filled with cut pieces of yarn, and wove dreadful hotpads with stretchy, polyester loops. I made necklaces strung from glass beads and pencil toppers with craft fur and googly eyes. I created countless finger woven belts and scarves, yarn dolls, and pom-poms. I remember the projects, but I don’t remember my mother teaching me how to make them or making them with me.

I wish I could say that I learned to sew (or crochet or embroider or make jewelry) from my mother. It would feel special to know that every time I made something, I could thank my mother for the skill she passed along to me. But while I may not have memories of chummy mother-daughter bonding over crafts, I have to assume that my mother fostered and supported my desire to create. She must have bought the supplies, at least when I was very young, and she tolerated the mess and disorder I undoubtably left behind with each project. When my brother and I were choosing the colors for our hooked rugs, she was standing behind us, ready to pay for our yarn. I remember her going with me to the bead shop and wearing the necklace I made for her (a mixture of green and gold beads with a stylized bird pendant).

And where did all those books come from – the Altair design coloring books, the craft books for children – several of which still reside on my bookshelf? Surely some of them were purchased by my mother. I remember that she bought us a paper airplane book and enjoyed the launch of each aerial creation (even the less successful ones); she might have even made a few of her own. I suspect, too, that she did guide me through some of these projects, as there must have been some adult supervision when we melted the wax to make Swiss cheese candles.

Perhaps I remember the creations as mine, not hers, because she encouraged my independence and ownership of the project, even as she helped. I remember sitting at the kitchen table making paper chains from green and red construction paper, which we then draped on our Christmas tree. My mother showed us how to make the first links in the chain, but we made the rest of them on our own.

My mother provided a rich context that supported my explorations in various handcrafts. She never belittled my creations or crushed my spirit, and I grew up with pride in what I made. She showed me by example – with her sewing machine and art supplies and with her inventive playfulness – that creativity is part of everyday life, not just the purview of artists. So maybe I can’t say that my mother is the one who taught me to sew, but I think she gave me something even more vital. She nurtured my drive to make things and gave me access to the world of possibility within me. If there was something I wanted to do, my mother gave me whatever she could to help me on my journey, cheering me along the way. It was, in part, her love and support that gave me the boundless optimism that I still carry with me today as I embark on a new project. And so what if she never taught me sewing or knitting or crochet . . . I can see her influence in everything I create.


Antonija said...

Thank you for sharing these stories about you and your mother. I was especially touched by how angry you'd get with her.
It's all familiar--I was the same way. Now, as an adult, I see the same thing you do--my mother's influence in anything I create. Thanks, again, for reminding me.

Deborah Stearns said...

Dear Antonija,

Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed reading the stories about my mother and that they resonate with your life. It's amazing how much we all have in common, even when our experience feels unique.