Have you ever sewn something?
I’m not talking about returning a button to its place of residence on a shirt or jacket. I’m talking about creating a shirt or jacket. Starting with a rectangle of fabric and transforming it into an article of clothing suitable for wearing in public. Not an easy task. Sewing is hard. Sewing is geometry and engineering and art all rolled into one.
My Grandma Maggie understood how to sew. Born in 1909 in a small Oklahoma town, learning to sew was part of life for this young woman. Maggie only had a fourth-grade education and yet understood the geometry, the engineering, and the art of sewing.
In the early 1900s sewing wasn’t about math or science or personal expression. Sewing was a necessity. Life was hard. Practical life skills were valuable and knowing how to construct your own clothing was a useful instrument found in the average woman’s toolbox. There wasn’t an overabundance of anything in those days. The cupboards were not stuffed with food from a nearby megastore. Wardrobes were simple and sparse; closets were not walk-ins.
Working took precedence over formal education. Maggie and her siblings worked at home growing and canning food. Entitlement was not a part of the vocabulary in that era. Hot summer days found the children employed picking cotton in neighboring fields. The money earned was used for the family to purchase shoes and household supplies.
As a young mother, Maggie honed her pragmatic skills, making clothing for her daughter out of colorful cotton flour sacks. Not an uncommon practice in the 1930s. In the ’30s and ’40s, thriftiness was not a hobby; it was a way of life. Flour sack manufacturers, noticing their plain cotton sacks were being recycled as fabric for clothing, began using pretty colors and prints for the sacks. Some even had patterns for creating children’s pillows and blankets.
Such a stark contrast to our world of indulgence today.
Over the years, priorities have shifted from creating to buying for the typical household budget. Everything you need or want is available at the end of a short drive or at the click of a button.
With seamstress skills no longer required in day to day life, I am not well versed in the art of sewing. Not for lack of effort on Grandma Maggie’s part. Attempts were made to pass the sewing torch to Mom and eventually to me. Mom was more interested in being outside enjoying tomboyish activities.
As for me, my level of expertise didn’t proceed far past making pillows, blankets, and tablecloths for my Barbie dolls. And sleeping bags for those times Barbie and friends went camping outside. After all, I am an amalgam of family traits, Mom’s tomboy nature and Grandma’s utilitarian disposition.
I have struggled through the challenging process of constructing a few articles of clothing. The myriad of oddly shaped pieces of a fashion puzzle awkwardly connected together with trepidation into a recognizable garment. YouTube videos and the seam ripper are my close friends when I begin a sewing project.
Grandma Maggie was forced to give up sewing when her eyesight began to fail. When she died, we found drawers full of fabric purchased but never transformed into works of art. Old habits die hard.
I still have Grandma Maggie’s sewing box. I’m sure she smiles a little every time I open it to find just the right item that I need for my latest project. Rarely do I have to buy thread or other sewing supplies. I already have what I need. Sometimes I wonder if Grandma Maggie’s sewing box is enchanted. Magically containing a lifetime supply of needles, thread, and memories of time shared around the sewing machine. Grandma would sternly disagree with this thought. She would never have entertained such a fantastically unpractical idea.
I’m back to making pillowcases and tablecloths again. Adornments for my own home instead of for the benefit of Barbie and friends. The construction of clothing is better left in the hands of the mass production professionals than in my amateur fingers.
Valuing the practical importance of skilled labor, sewing included, is on the decline these days. That’s too bad. Society doesn’t fix things anymore. We discard, with disturbing ease. The shiny newest toy capturing our attention for its fleeting moment in the spotlight.
I don’t think Grandma Maggie would approve of the disposable society we live in today. An expression of quiet disappointment would be written on her face as she witnesses her granddaughter’s participation in society’s reckless and irresponsible ways.
I worry where we are headed and what happens when we get there. Perhaps my concerns for humanity are no different than the generations before me. My worries may be unwarranted.
Life is still hard. Practical skills are still valuable. Perhaps the difference lies merely in the toolbox. As the future of pragmatic necessities shifts with societal changes, so shifts life’s navigational skillset. The toolbox of the future may be a computer in the palm of your hand instead of a hammer or a sewing machine.
Still. I’m going to keep Grandma Maggie’s sewing box. Just in case it really is enchanted.