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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fun Back Then and Fun Again (July 2, 2011)

Certain toys from childhood hold a lot of nostalgia, and have the power to take you back to the age you were when that toy meant so much. Recently I’ve been thinking about a child’s sewing machine I got for Christmas when I was nine or ten years old. I’d forgotten about it for many years, but today I searched online through hundreds of photos, looking for one that was similar to my first machine. Mine was pale blue and white, and somewhat angular. Here is a similar one:

Why are certain items an instant portal back in time? Maybe it’s not the item itself, but rather the age at which you used it. When I had this machine I was still a child. I hadn’t yet tripped and stumbled through the bewildering tangle of ‘tween and teen years.

I have memories of going to fabric stores with my mom when I was a young child. There was one store only a few blocks from our house and it seemed gigantic to me. I still remember the carousels of buttons and appliqués, the check-out stand and the ramp leading from the back door into the store. The long columns of fabric seemed as tall as Sequoiah trees. My little sister and I would wrap ourselves in the cozy velours, peeking out. I remember the textures and colors. It was a wonderland. There were other fabric stores Mom liked, too. I think one we frequented is still there, although under different ownership. It makes me happy that sewing is still popular enough that fabric stores stay in business. So much has changed in Southern California since the ‘70s. It’s nice to know that in spite of the omnipresence of technology, despite a culture that thrives on getting things NOW, sewing hasn’t gone the way of macramé plant holders. Sewing seems so antithetical to the culture dominating the 21st century in America. Sewing takes time, and we want things fast. Sewing is old school, and we want the newest, most technologically-advanced gizmos available on the planet. Sewing has history, and we want the future. (I do include myself in this generalization. I think the microwave takes too long to cook (!) and I do like using the computer and Internet. So I’m not seeking out an Amish lifestyle, devoid of machines and conveniences. But I do like to take the scenic path sometimes, forgoing the faster route.)

Mom sewed a lot of our clothes when we were little. She made my sister and me matching dresses for Christmas and Easter. As I grew a little older, I helped design some, choosing the fabric or buttons. Being the young artist, I had definite ideas about design. Perhaps this is why she got me my sewing machine.

The machine was much simpler than an adult’s machine and I’m not sure I did much more than sew a straight line with it. My plans to make Barbie clothes never came to fruition. But even if I didn’t become the next Betsey Johnson at age ten, I’m glad Mom thought to get it for me. Maybe it set the stage for a sewing adventure I’d seek out decades later, one I’m finally starting.

My second sewing machine also came to me as a surprise, decades later. One morning I biked through an alley in my neighborhood and saw the machine in its carrying case. I was thrilled, and raced home to get the truck. When I returned to the alley, the machine was still there, surely a sign that I was meant to be its new owner.

I’m embarrassed to say that it sat unused for the nearly nine years I’ve had it. The following year our first baby was on the way and most of my time since has been devoted to kid care. In the weeks after I got the machine, I ordered the owner’s manual online from Canada, and months later it arrived. But the instructions were lacking, and we didn’t have much space to set up the machine in our 1-bedroom apartment, so the machine went into hibernation.

One day recently, I finally set up the machine. It took hours to clear a space in my cramped studio/storage room/baby’s room, but I hoped that seeing it daily would inspire me to try to use it. For years I’ve collected info on where and when local sewing classes are held. I’ve also collected pieces of fabric for since I was a teen, planning to create wearable art someday. For years I’ve hand-sewn embellishments onto clothes, or altered hems and I created my own dresses for high school dances. I hand-sewed them myself, and I’m proud of how they turned out. Back then, I was the most outrageous person in my school, and my idea of what to wear to a formal dance was a little different from what the others wore, but that was fine! Here I am as a high school junior. I was (and am) very patriotic, and this dress shows it:

When I was creating these high school dresses, I could have asked my mom for help but I really wanted to be behind my own creation. Yes, it took a lot longer to sew by hand than it would have on a machine but I had time then. I remember vividly the details of the whole process: I started sketching dress designs in math class one day and after school drove to the fabric store we’d gone to for so many years. I found the right colors and fabrics, guessing at the amount I’d need. I was modeling the outfit off of a top and skirt I already had. At home I traced the top and skirt onto my new fabric, piecing it together with straight pins, and eventually sewing the seams. It turned out exactly as I wanted it to, and for the next year’s dance I also created something memorable. In college I modified some of my clothes but my hobbies shifted a bit and I didn’t do as much clothing art for a while. In recent years I’ve felt growing excitement again over clothes that are also art.

My good friend Roxie made me an adorable skirt recently. The collaboration was really fun. I found a pattern and various fabrics I liked, and Rox worked her magic. Rox and I have been friends for years but only recently did we talk about sewing projects. I asked Rox if she was interested in my hiring her to sew my skirt. She’s a busy mom of two and I said “no pressure,” but I hoped she’d say yes. She tried to convince me to let her do it as a gift but she has little time to herself so I insisted on paying her (I would’ve wrestled her to the ground to convince her, if necessary), and the partnership began. The skirt turned out just perfectly. I love the colorful, fun patterns, I love that I have a unique piece of clothing, and I love that a good friend made it for me. Here’s a photo of her beautiful creation:

It strikes me as significant that several of my closest friends sew. It’s not that they are artists, or that we met in fabric stores. But there must be something to it: three friends who sew are all nurturers, like I am, and sewing involves nurturing. It’s much easier and faster to go and buy something, of course. In times past many people sewed in order to save on cost, and as Roxie pointed out, these days it’s not always cheaper to sew something yourself. You do it not necessarily out of frugality but because you really want something to look a certain way or because sewing something for your home or someone you love involves gifts of effort, time and love.

Last month I took three sewing classes and while I’m not fluent in speaking machine, I understand enough to get started and I’m really excited about this adventure. Adrenaline-junkies might not think of sewing as an adventure, but there really is a thrill from dreaming up something and then creating it. Maybe that’s one reason I have such happy memories of my toy sewing machine: it connects me to a time when my creativity took me on a high and when anything seemed possible. It’s time for me to reconnect with that joy.

1 comment:

  1. Need more high school and young'un pix here. That's quite a gettup you got there, Uncle Sam.