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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More than just a Stitch in Time


My dearest friend Beth commented on the backpack I just made for my daughter, Sarah, and she inspired me to write this story about my childhood memories of my own mother sewing for me.  Beth's mother left an indelible print on Beth's memory-bank as well, as she recalled that in her own childhood her mother would sew for her like my mother used to do.  I thought it fitting to share my memories, as this blog is, in many ways, a collection of who I am and the people that have shaped my life, the things I love to do, my passions, my concerns, my hopes, the lessons I have learned along the way, and my memories.  I not only write to all of you, I write for my family, my children, and my dear friends, hoping that someday they'll be able to look back on the stories and the images and remember me lovingly.


Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I love to sew and paint.  I love to do other things too, like woodworking, crafting, decorating, playing the piano, singing, writing, riding motorcycles, gardening, and mowing the lawn.  I especially like it when the grass is green and just a little damp so that it leaves stripes when I ride the mower.  I'm nutty like that.


From the time I was a baby, my mother and father spoiled me.  Watching my mother sew and do things that she loved left a strong impression on me.  Seeing the joy on her face as she sewed, or how happy she was to decorate and organize our home, taught me many things about following my heart. 


This story, though, is about the memories from my childhood that shaped my desire to learn to sew, wonderful memories that my mother gave me like a gift on Christmas.  Take this picture, for instance, my mother made this dress for me and I remember feeling very pretty although I had my eye on a stuffed skunk in the toy box in the corner.  I was being inquisitive and not very cooperative in the picture taking.


When I was a little girl, my mother, Mary, used to take me to the fabric store when she wanted to start a new project.  We lived in Silver Spring, Maryland in a community called White Oak, just outside of Washington D.C. in the 1960s, and we would drive to a fabric store called Dannemann Fabrics in Wheaton Plaza, Wheaton, Maryland whenever she needed anything to sew.  It was a big store, or so I recall, and filled with what I thought to be every possible bolt of fabric on earth.  I got lost in all the textures and colors and pattern books.  For me it was like going to a toy store.


Mom would sit me down at the table with her surrounded by pattern books - McCalls, Butterick, Simplicity, Vogue, and she would show me where to look for a pattern for a dress or an outfit that was just my size.  Mom made it a point to show me where to find the patterns too and we'd go looking in the drawers for the one we picked out together.

She would let me carry the pattern and tell her what type of fabric she needed and then she would find that section in the store with the right fabric and have me look through all the bolts for just the right one for the pattern.  I recall running my hand across the bolts of fabric like they were fence posts, but instead of making noises with a stick, I was feeling the different textures beneath my fingers. 


My eyes would travel across those bolts until I came across one that caught my eye and made me smile.  Bright colors made me happy and made me feel pretty, and I somehow always managed to gravitate to the brighter colors.  Even now I find I gravitate to the brighter, happier colors.

Once I picked out one bolt of fabric, my mother would ask me to pick out 2 more and then decide which I liked best.  I loved that she let me pick out the fabric.  I felt valued and special and worthy of being involved in her project, even if it was for me!  Even today, I think it is so important for mothers to share special moments like this with their daughters as they grow up.  They truly make a positive difference.  I love doing things for my daughters, all 3 of them, and my granddaughter, Reagan too!  Girls are so special to their mothers - not that boys aren't, it's just different, and someday I'll write about how different it is, just know that I love having mother-son time too and doing special things for them as well!


Once I picked out the "special" fabric for my pattern, Mom would show me where the notions were in the store and show me on the pattern what we had to get to finish the dress or outfit.  She'd let me pick out the buttons or the zipper, and the thread.  I enjoyed it so much.



We'd push the cart to the register and the lady behind the counter would offer me a lollipop and again I would choose my favorite color and flavor.  "I want the purple one" I would say, knowing it was grape, and she'd hand it to me.  The wrapper was ripped off in 2 seconds flat and in the mouth it would go.  I'd hold my mother's hand and skip all the way to the car.  Those were special memories, special times with my mother.


I remember how pretty she looked too.  When we'd go out, Mom always wore something nice with a matching handbag and pretty shoes.  She'd put on her red lipstick and perfume.  I thought she was the most beautiful mother in the world. 


Mom liked to get her shopping done early, and she is still the same way today.  We'd get our shopping done at Danneman Fabrics just in time to have lunch at Hot Shoppes Restaurant around the corner.  We'd eat lunch together and I recall all the noise of the people talking and the clattering of the plates as tables were cleared.  I'd look at my mother and be so happy that we were spending time together.  I would swing my legs under the table and occasionally kick my mother by accident and she'd say "Stop that Susan.  Sit quietly and eat your lunch."  I'd continue to swing my feet under the chair, but just a little less.  I was stubborn like that (I still am!).


Lunch was followed by my favorite desert of all time - hot fudge cake.  You can't find this anywhere that I know of anymore and it's a real shame, and Hot Shoppes was the only place that served it.  Boy do I ever love hot fudge cake, and so did my dad.  We're talkin' two slices of pound cake with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream on top covered with steaming hot fudge, whipped cream, and topped with a cherry.  It was the best ever!



After lunch we'd shop at Woodward & Lothrop and I was always looking for the Barbie section.  Yes, W & L had a Barbie section back in the 60s, right inside the front door in front of the elevators.  Mom usually said "no" to the Barbie doll, but I tried to persuade her.  Little girls are manipulative like that.  Especially if they have a willing, loving, and reasonable parent.  I figured this out early.  I also assumed that since the day was about buying for me, she might as well add a Barbie to the mix - and sometimes she would!  Of course there were those times when she would say "Susan, you already have too many Barbie dolls, you don't need anymore."  "Yes I do, Mommy!  I don't have this one in this pretty dress" and then I'd pout.  Sometimes it worked, and most of the time it didn't.



As soon as we got home, Mom would set out the pattern and fabric and get started on the dress.  I'd watch her prepare the fabric and the pattern and cut it out precisely.  I loved hearing the sound of the big scissors against the table cutting the fabric.



It usually took my mother about a week or so to make a dress for me.  She was busy!  She had a house to run, dinner to cook, and I had 2 older brothers she had to take care of too.  I was always anxious though for her to be finished.  If she was sewing something for me during the school year, I couldn't wait for the weekend because I knew I could watch her sew.  Sometimes she even let me help.



Mom showed me how to use her sewing machine when I got a little older.  At first, she was using an old, black, Singer sewing machine, but then for Christmas one year, when I was about 8 years old, my dad bought her a Bernina sewing machine with so many attachments and doo-hickeys I thought Mom could make anything.  That was an exciting Christmas that year, not just for us children, but for Mom too.  She hugged my Dad and cried and spent the rest of the holiday playing with her new Bernina.  I was so happy for her because I knew how much she wanted that machine.  I also knew that meant she would be making me more clothes.  I know what you're thinking - but hey!  I was a kid, what do you expect?!!

Sure enough, Mom made me more clothes.  She made me spring dresses and an Easter dress, summer clothes and shorts and fall school clothes.  She even made me some winter dresses.  We had to wear dresses to school back in the 60s.  It was the rule for little girls in school.

But Mom wasn't the only inspiration I had.  I was amazed by our neighbor, Mrs. Celia.  The Celia family moved in next door to us when I was about 5 years old.  They had 5 children and the youngest was Tina.  She was 5 years older than I and I loved her.  We became fast friends.  Tina's mother, Lucy, made many of Tina's clothes, and that is because she was a professional seamstress and tailor.  She also made wedding gowns and dresses, altered clothes and men's suits, made tailored clothes, and outfits as a profession.  Mrs. Celia worked out of their basement and had an incredible sewing room in the laundry room with a steam iron that hung from the ceiling and several dress forms.


Lucy Celia loved to sew and always had a smile on her face.  She had a strong Italian accent and didn't speak much English, but she was learning.  I would run over on the weekend to play with Tina and Mrs. Celia would open the door, which happened to be the door leading into her laundry/sewing room, and she would look so happy to see me, big smile, and say "Susie!  So nice to see you, won't you come inside?" and I would.  "Can Tina play"  I would say, and she would say "Sit here and I'll go see what she is doing."  She'd call Tina downstairs and while I waited for her to get dressed or eat breakfast upstairs, I would watch Mrs. Celia sew.  Sometimes she would show me what she was doing and I was mesmerized by her attention to detail and the gowns and suits she was making and tailoring. 

I thought Mrs. Celia was famous and I would ask her "Are you famous?"  I recall her belly laugh and she would smile and say "Oh no, Susie, I just sew for people so that they look nice.  You like?"  "Oh yes!  I hope I can sew like this when I grow up."  I said, and, Mrs. Celia would always say "You can do anything you put your mind to" and I never forgot those words from her. 



As I grew up, Mom sewed less and less, although she would make the occasional drapes or pillows for our home, and I sewed more.  We moved to a larger home in 1970, when I was 11 years old, and a few years later my parents purchased the Olney Inn Restaurant in Olney, Maryland.  It was a historic property and location in Olney and unfortunately, it burned down in 1978.  That was a tragic time for our family.



We loved the Inn.  When we bought it, the waitresses and waiters didn't wear anything special, but my father wanted to make it special, and so he asked my mother if she would make some long historic dresses for the waitresses to wear, and knickers and vests for the gentleman waiters to wear to work.  Mom agreed and again we went to Dannemann Fabrics, but this time we had carts and carts filled with beautiful, colorful fabrics of every design, eyelet trim galore, ribbon and buttons and more! 

It was a lot of work, but Mom did a great job.  She'd finish a dress for one of the waitresses and I would want one just like it - but that happened with every dress she made!!  The ladies wore hoop skirts under the dresses so that they were big and wouldn't get tangled under their feet.  Mom did make me a dress, too, and I helped with the salad bar and the coat closet when I was 15 and 16 years old.  I felt so pretty in that dress.  It was heavy too from all the gathered fabric around the waist, but my mother did a beautiful job making each one perfectly.  I was so proud of her and the dresses.  The ladies who worked at the Inn looked so pretty walking around in their long flowing dresses.  That was a special and memorable time in my life.



Time went on and the Inn burned down in 1978.  My father soon after had a stroke.  But that's another story.  I married a guy who was in the Army and stationed in Ft. Meade, Maryland and pregnant with my 2nd daughter, Kimberly, in 1981 when my parents decided to sell their home in Brookeville, Maryland and move to Florida.



Mom kept her Bernina sewing machine, but she gave me her old Singer and when my girls were babies I made them dresses and tops and shorts and skirts.  I made these matching dresses for my baby girls when they were little in the picture above.   I even tried my hand at making them doll clothes and stuffed animals, although the stuffed teddy bears looked terrible.  I taught myself how to make drapes out of bed sheets and pillows too. 

My baby girl Kimberly, spent a lot of time as a baby in Walter Reed Hospital because of her heart condition, and I made her a soft blanket with satin binding.  Unfortunately it disappeared from her hospital room and we never found it.  I made her a little stuffed doll too, the kind that the doll pattern and face and everything are printed directly on the fabric, all you have to do is cut it out and sew along the seams and stuff it.  Kimberly loved it and she would lay in her crib and hold it and look at it and play and coo.  I loved doing little things like that for my baby girls.



I made Barbie clothes for Kathleen and Kimberly's Barbies too - many of which were mine that I passed down to my girls.  Kathleen asked me once to make a skirt for a kitten she had adopted and I did that too.  That kitten looked ridiculous walking around with a skirt snapped around its waist, but it made Kathleen happy.  Kathleen used to sit and watch me sew - more so than Kimberly when they were really little.  Sometimes Kimberly would watch and ask me questions, but I think since Kathleen was so interested in what I was doing, Kimberly wanted to do something else.  She would organize all her Barbie clothes by color and style and create a home for them out of doll furniture on her bedroom floor.



Interestingly, Kathleen loves to sew and is very interested in fashion design, and Kimberly loves organizing and motherhood and decorating and she has a good eye for color, design, and style.  Each of my older daughters have inherited something creative from me, and thank goodness most of what they inherited are good things.  I am so proud of my girls!!  But, memories are what shape us.  It is the memories of my mother and Mrs. Celia that shaped me and sparked my interest in sewing, and seeing the joy they created for themselves in creating something beautiful for others that made me want to do the same some day.



My mother had memories from her childhood as well.  Her mother, my grandmother Margaret, who passed away when my mother was only 11 years old, loved to sew and quilt and make hats.  She even had her own millinery shop. My mother has told me that her mother made these dresses for her and her sister Helen and also the hat she is wearing in this picture.  My mother, Mary, is on the left.  This was about 1932.



My mother doesn't sew much anymore, although I have set up a 2nd sewing machine for her in my sewing room in our home where she lives with us.  Instead, she likes to come into the sewing room / sunroom, sit on the wicker couch, and watch me sew.  She helps me with the fabric, and helps me rip out seams too.  She reads my sewing books and we talk and share stories about sewing.



Now, I make things for my mother.  I am making this quilt for her bed and a blouse for her too.  She wants me to make a scarf for her out of some fabric she bought to make a blouse - however, she messed it up and the seams were all screwed up and so she decided to make a scarf out of it instead.  I've had my share of experiences like that too!


My mother, Mary, will be 86 in October.  She left the other day for Florida to visit my brother, Bill and his wife for a while.  Hopefully she will be back in time for the holidays and I will have a beautiful quilt wrapped up for her under the Christmas tree.  I just want to make her happy and proud.



For now, I have dresses and clothes to make for Sarah for the start of her 11th grade year, and something special to stitch up for my granddaughter, Reagan, for her 1st birthday in September. I made this romper for Reagan for her first Independence Day celebration and I made this dress for my daughter, Sarah, for a special date she had about a month ago.



I made this dress and hat outfit for my granddaughter Reagan too.  Doesn't she look adorable?!!



And, I made her this stacker too.  She enjoys playing with it and pulling on the ribbons.



I made this purse for my mother a few months ago and seem to be using it more than she.  I should probably give it back don't you think?  But I like it so much!!  I'll just have to make myself another and give this back to Mom.



I made these bibs for Reagan too out of scraps from dresses that I had made for my daughter Kimberly, Reagan's mother.  I think that the pink floral fabric is from the dress in the picture above with me and Kathleen.



I also made this blouse for myself with an embroidery on the left bodice, and I finished this backpack just this week for my daughter, Sarah, for school this year, and yesterday I made myself a new ironing board cover.

I've been busy!  But you know what makes it all worthwhile?  Knowing that I'm stitching up some "love" every time I sit down to my sewing machine.  It's my way of showing my family how much I love them and I hope that my children and grandchildren will carry these special memories with them throughout their life as I have with my mother, and her mother before her.



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