It was a long day in the car driving 500 miles to visit Grandma’s sister in Alabama. Daddy drove and Momma sat in the back so Grandma, who got car sick, could sit up front. My sister and I were young, and alternated between the front and back seats when we got bored or started picking on each other. To pass the time, Grandma brought hand crafts to work on, and as I watched, she held a piece of fabric with a hoop around it, filling in the printed design with colorful thread. I was used to seeing Grandma put in a hem or sew on a button, but this was different. “What is that?” I asked. “It’s embroidery,” she answered, pushing the needle down through the fabric, then pulling it back up again. I kept watching as miles of sugarcane and cotton fields passed outside the car windows. “Will you teach me how to do that?” I asked. “Yes, we’ll get you a piece to work on when we go into town.”
We visited the Five and Dime store the day after arriving so my sister and I could pick something to play with during the trip. I selected a doily, embroidery floss and a set of hoops. Back at Aunt Bonnie’s house, Grandma helped me place the hoops on the fabric, separated the strands of floss, and showed me the basic stitches. Though I worked on the piece the rest of the trip, it was months before it was finally completed. I made another piece and gave both of them to Momma. She used them on a dresser for years, before putting them away, returning them to me a few years ago.
Grandma also taught me to crochet. Starting with a basic chain stitch, I crocheted a yard or two of it before unraveling to practice it again. Once I had mastered that stitch, she showed me single and double crochet stitches. It fascinated me to take yarn and a crochet hook and make something with it. I have crocheted since then. One Christmas, when I didn’t have much money, I bought yarn and a pattern to crochet scarves for everyone on my list. Years later, I made a couple of afghans for my parents who always appreciated gifts made with love. I even made a few things to sell on Etsy. These days I crochet for fun. I love learning and practicing new stithces, and pull out my supplies when I need a change from writing or a break from everyday stresses.
Grandma moved to live near us when I was about five. I knew she sewed, having made and altered clothes for my sister and me our entire lives, but I saw just how much sewing she did. Besides doing alterations at a local department store, she also sewed for others from home. A room off her bedroom became a sewing room which was filled with stacks of neatly folded fabric with patterns and notes attached, tins of buttons and zippers, and spools of thread. Her black Singer sewing machine was usually threaded and ready to go, while works in progress hung nearby.
Watching her take flat fabric, cut out pieces, and sew it into clothes seemed like magic. I wanted to learn to sew. One Sunday I spent the night with her to help turn pieces from her scrap bag into clothes for my Barbie doll. After supper, I asked if we could start but Grandma said no. “The Bible says Sunday is a day of rest, so we don’t do work,” she told me. For her, sewing was work, understandable since she was paid for it, not a hobby or fun activity. Yet, even after retiring from the store, she continued making clothes and doing alterations. When she passed away, Momma found her sewing room was full of projects, some in progress and others waiting. It may have been work, but it also kept her busy.
Momma taught me how to thread her machine and do basic mending, but in my early teens I wanted to learn more and asked Grandma to help me make a dress. At the fabric store I selected white eyelet fabric adorned with small bouquets of blue flowers and a sewing pattern too complicated for my beginner skills. At Grandma’s house, we laid the cutting board across her bed. Following the pattern directions, she showed me how to find the grain of the fabric and how to lay and pin the pattern pieces for cutting. Using her sharp, heavy shears, we cut out the pieces then organized them in order. I was ready to start sewing, but first there were notches to cut, pieces to baste and darts to put in. Sewing, it turned out, involved a lot more than sitting at a machine sewing pieces together. Even after we started sewing on her Singer, there were more steps than I expected: taking out and re-doing stitches, putting in facings, and ironing pieces so the seams lay the correct way. Impatient to get my dress made, I got bored, lost interest, and quit going to Grandma’s to work on it. Eventually she finished it alone. I enjoyed wearing the dress, but it was always accessorized with a sense of guilt that I had let Grandma down.
I may have been bored, but I did learn to sew. Not only can I sew on a button or repair a hem, I have made and altered clothes for myself. I’ve volunteered in the costume department of local theaters. My favorite thing is to take pieces from different patterns and create my own designs.
I keep returning to the skills Grandma taught me, drawn to use my hands to make things. While I never saw sewing and crocheting from a pattern as being creative, thinking anyone can learn to do it, I was wrong. Though I never believed I was a creative person, I now realize that whenever I make something, I am, in fact, creating the final project. Taking raw materials and turning them into something else is an act of creation.
I am grateful Grandma took the time to teach me. I am grateful I have her shears, snippers and thimble to use. I am grateful I can carry on the tradition of creating things with my hands.
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Originally published at gladysstrickland.com on June 28, 2018.