Thursday, May 3, 2012

Afternoons in the Sewing Room With My Mother

Like many young girls, I took great delight in watching my mother do things. I remember sitting on the toilet seat, watching her apply her make-up and curl her hair. I scrutinized details she was probably completely unaware of: the fingers she’d use to hold her hot rollers in place; the number of brush strokes she’d use to apply rouge on her cheeks; the way she’d steady her lips, curling them ever-so-slightly over her teeth as she applied her lipstick. I mimicked these motions silently as I sat and studied her.
I treated her grooming habits, her cooking skills, and the way she twirled the phone cord when she talked with her friends as though they were spectator sports.  But I’m not sure any were as magically soothing to me as the hours I’d spend watching her sew.
Suffice it to say, all of my clothes were homemade when I was growing up. I loved it. I had prairie skirts and long dresses. Knit pants and matching vests. Dresses with little umbrella trim around the collars and hem; tailored blouses with cat face buttons. All of them in fabulous fabrics that my mother had chosen specially for me.
We spent plenty of time at the fabric stores, looking through patterns and choosing prints and colors. I was amazed every time the staff worker cut off a 3-yard rectangle of material and then later watched my mother turn that nondescript polygon into something stylish to wear.
Just as I did when I watched her apply make-up, I sat and watched her hold pins between her straight-lipped smile and deftly secure the crinkly tissue-paper patterns pieces into place. I listened to the rasp of the scissors slicing through fabric and noticed her long, sure cuts – a skill I would later try to develop.
After she removed the jigsaw-shaped pieces of material, she let me have the oddly-shaped scraps of material that had fallen to the floor. To me, these were little pieces of possibility and I wondered what I might make from them. Doll clothes? A quilt? A new fashion design of my own?
As I fingered the cloth and imagined the possibilities, I listened to her sew. I heard the whip of the spool of thread as she winded it through the myriad of nooks and hooks on the Singer machine. I heard her drop the heavy presser foot into place and close the bobbin plate. Then she’d wind the dial just enough that the thread and needle were started. Then, always barefoot, she pressed down on the plastic pedal beneath the cabinet and the machine whirred to a slogging start. The electric sound of effort started each project, followed by a slow crescendo of chugging needle and thread as the machine accelerated, sending the presser foot on a ski trip down a precarious path. Could she race along the fabric and keep a straight line along the seams? Or would the bobbing foot veer off course? I didn’t have to watch her  to know when this happened. I’d hear a quiet curse under her breath and an aggravated flip of the switch in the back of the machine to release the presser foot. She’d tug the fabric away from the needle and the thread whined as it stretched. With a quick snip, she’d released the project and quietly undo the tangle of threads before setting the process into motion again.
These sounds, these sewing projects, are forever woven into my favorite childhood memories. I’m not sure my mother knows how much I loved these quiet afternoons in the sewing room, when I could sit and listen and dream. I’m not sure she knew what a gift it was just to watch her.


  1. This is such a lovely memory, Juliann. It truly stirred an inner peace in me. A nostalgia that isn't even mine. I feel like I could read this in a newspaper or magazine.

    You know, I don't think I ever had this kind of experience with my mother. I love her dearly, but I don't remember ever just watching her. Then again, she doesn't really wear makeup or do her hair, and she definitely doesn't sew… And I don't either. I wonder if that's because she didn't, and I wonder if that means my daughter won't either. (I mean, if I have a daughter.)

  2. Thank you, Kristan. I still love to watch her do things. She's never seemed to mind that I just sit and study her while she paints, or sews, or does other things. I see my daughter watching her, too. Perhaps it's just something about *her*.

  3. This is such a beautiful piece I can't even describe to you what it means to me. I don't know if this is about the mother as much as it is about the remarkable the girl. You were my gift from the day you were born and it's immeasurable that you returned the adoration to me. I'm so happy for you that those simple things were something you would end up thinking of as treasures." I recall all of the things you said,too! And I'm old enough to know that those are the kinds of treasures that no one can take away from you. Thanks for such a lovely tribute.

  4. Such a lovely collection of nostaliga you have about your mother, thats so sweet! Made me smile when you said she held pins between her straight smile, as my mum did that when she shortened my trousers for me, and as my wife does today! As a bloke though, I really cant get the hang of even basic sewing!
    Your mother must have had strong feet though, to control the sewing machine barefoot! Other memories of my mother include how she used to supervise us at the local swimming pool on sundays - she'd put on her cute vintage black swimsuit as a standby precaution just in case she had to dive into the water to help us, but otherwise would sit and watch us whilst knitting or filing her long delicate finger nails.
    After swimming, she'd cook a mouth watering sunday roast for us and always tuck my sisters and i into bed - rarely did i not get a good night's sleep!
    She embarrassed me one school sports day though, my new sports shorts had a tag left on them so she approached me just before the start of the egg and spoon race, bent over and bit off the tag - my white shorts had a nice lipstick stain on them, awful! She also got a little over excited at my uni graduation ceremony, but she loved her children so much!
    She's in her 60s now, but sadly got breast cancer - almost certainly terminal :( But glad she's lived to see her grandchildren become teenagers and she'll be with me eternally like your mum will be with you! :)

    1. I hope your mother pulls through and manages to beat the breast cancer, Kevin. It sounds like you have some beautiful childhood memories of your mother, just like I do. We're lucky.

      I can only imagine how embarrassing the lipstick incident must have been. I'm glad you can laugh about it now. I did, too. :)

    2. We'd be lucky Juiliann! But thanks so much for your response, was like a much needed hug of comfort!
      I forgot to mention when I was 18 and passed my driving test, I took her out for a ride and was so nervous as she could be quite strict and critical that I nearly crashed! But she remained supportive and i soon felt more relaxed with her as a passenger as most of my mates, or my then girlfriend! Buggered up my streetcred but what the heck, I was happy being with my mum! :)

      Thanks again sweetheart!