Not Sew Perfect Anymore
Chevy claimed the “heartbeat of America” slogan in the 1980’s, but for me and many of my generation, the real heartbeat of the American household was the gentle hum and rhythm of the sewing machines our mothers and grandmothers used to do their great and noble works.
Great and noble? Yes, because the outputs of their considerable efforts were usually intended for others, not themselves. (My good friend Jan, I am thinking of YOU here!) When my mother was young, before things went badly in her life, she whipped up clothing and costumes, not only for her daughters but for their dolls. Even my impossibly miniscule Barbie got a nice wardrobe (imagine the little armholes on her dresses). Both grandmothers were equally adept. My sisters, brother and I didn’t have much by way of money or resources growing up, but jerry-rigged solutions to various material-related problems emerged from those whirring machines.
I was thinking of this and my own early forays in clothing and home goods production as I walked through a display at the San Francisco airport last week, where many historic sewing artifacts are currently on display. Have a look below. Do any of these items ring any memory bells for you? How about the apron pattern on the left? Did your Mom, Aunts, Grandmothers wear these? Do YOU know what a seam ripper is?
I was married at the age of 17, and got my own sewing machine shortly after. I made many of my clothes, including a “flower power” pantsuit. It was beautiful...the fabric was perfect - cheap scratchy cotton adorned with tiny orange flowers against a field of mud brown. I'd responded whole-heartedly to my urge to create, having been so inspired by the work of my forebears and the needs of my naked baby dolls, as well as toys like this growing up:
Unfortunately though, patience with minute detail was not my strong suit, and I was never skilled at placing zippers, but I tried, and learned a lot along the way about how things fit together. (Well, okay, there was this low-cut, stunning white gown I made that started to unravel at a New Year’s Eve party, but considering the circumstances, it was no big deal as I recall.)
At the very least, I came to appreciate a craftsperson’s work, although, alas, I seem to have been, no pun intended, cut out for other things in life.
Now this exhibit plate reveals a classical perspective on the matter of this most ancient of the textile arts…
I walked away from the exhibit shaking my head. What a world that was, trying to keep our hands busy and holding the demons of idleness away. Then I thought again.
Archaic as this historical vignette seems now, I have to respect the “comport” suggested as one approaches one’s creative task. Young ladies were once prepared so formally to address their work ("Hello, important task ahead, I salute you with my clean hands,tidy hair, and neat apron.") This indicates a profound respect for Simplicity - ah, again, no pun intended. It’s also an honorable, even Zen way to approach the tasks of a lifetime. Seems we have spent all too many decades trying to regain the self-respect inherent in the process of doing one’s careful best, regardless of the nature of the task.
We live in a world in need of refinements.
Plus, as the Zen saying goes, “See the work, do the work, stay out of misery.” Seeing equals noticing, even honoring the project before us. Being absorbed in addressing, respecting, and completing a task or project confers a nobility we could use more of in today’s world.
Still, I sometimes long for the days when my primary preoccupation was fitting these kinds of pieces together.