rag dolls and woollies

rag dolls and woollies

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marking Darts and Pins in Your Mouth

Wow. I just got my sewing machine back from the repair guy. I had decided to get my money's worth out of the last oil job it received -- eighteen years ago -- and I must say it is like having a brand new machine! No jamming! The thread isn't breaking anymore. It sews zig zag again. Wow.

I can't sew without remembering how I learned. I was twelve and my best girlfriend's mother was going to teach both of us to make wrap around skirts. My eyes watered terribly in Vogue Fabrics on Main Street - perhaps it was something in the material that used to do that? We paged through Simplicity and Butterick, found our patterns, and tried to make sense of the bewildering array of fabrics.

I still try to make sense of the bewildering array of fabrics. I get cotton. I get canvas. I get lining material. But that's pretty much it. And now that I'm in Israel, all the info on the bolt is in Hebrew, so if I don't already know what it is, I'm not going to know.

Albie showed us how to lay out the pattern pieces. It seemed like part of that skill was to figure out how to put pins in your mouth and I was a dutiful study. She cut along the black lines, chewing her tongue as she went. She said it ran in the family. And although I wasn't family, I gave it a shot. Pin, baste, sew -- I got it. We went on to make sack dresses, skirts and shirts. And that was it. I never learned anymore from anyone else.

When my oldest kids were nine and ten, I became a homeschool mom sort of by accident. I was terrified by the incredible responsibility it involved and walked around gripping John Holt's Teach Your Own for support. He relates a great story about a man from colonial times who was a farmer, clerk, carpenter and I can't remember what all else. Holt pointed out that he didn't learn those things in school-in-a-building (as my daughter calls it) -- he learned it from others and by schooling himself. That story gave me courage to teach my kids. And homeschooling them was one of the most fantastic experiences of my whole life.

Here I am years (and years) later, sewing rag dolls for a living (sold five already!!). From Albie's lessons I learned enough to follow a basic pattern but also to embellish it. I can make up the dresses as I go (this surprised me).

And like the man in John Holt's book, I didn't learn it in high school or college. I was only twelve. My instruction was pretty casual; I learned by doing and watching. The whole idea of homeschooling and unschooling gets reinforced for me everytime I sit down and run that slickly oiled portable Brother machine.

And I see Albie. Pins in her mouth, chewing her tongue, making faces at the material. She was great. She sewed in the days when it really was cheaper to sew than buy new -- or used. There were patterns and piles of fabric surrounding her black Singer (with knee petal). The ironing board stood nearby and the room was comfortably cluttered with all the paraphernalia of a serious sewing woman.

With each of the skills I have there is a different mantra. I love watching violent movies while I spin. Knitting is always combined with visiting, talking and bitching. It's great in the car either as the passenger or driver (while stuck in traffic).

But sewing -- it's all about memories and snippets of conversation from long ago. When I see my sewing and my mess all over the house, I see her sewing and her mess. Pins in my mouth remind me of pins in her mouth. I can't even mark a dart without a memory.


  1. This is FANTASTIC, Paula. What a wonderful writer you are! And what a great memory you have. I'd forgotten all about Butterick and Simplicity patterns and pins in the mouth, although I certainly remember Vogue Fabrics. It tickles me to be part of your story. Isn't it amazing we've known each other for 50 years?!!!

  2. Hey Chris, I really do honor all the time I spent with you and your family. It changed my life and I learned lots more skills besides sewing. Remember grilled peanut butter and jelly? Cake making? I wouldn't be the person I am today if not for you and yours. xoxox

  3. Well, actually it was grilled peanut butter and HONEY....with the honey soaking through the bread and crystallizing where it touched the pan, and the peanut butter oozing out the sides.