Through a series of coinkidinks and a quirk or two in the space-time continuum, I found myself volunteering to help out with costumes for the Tokyo International Players’ upcoming production of Big River, a musical adaptation of the Huck Finn story set in 1840.
I felt pretty confident; I’d done costumes all through high school and college, even had a couple of professional gigs, so I dove right in, thinking it’s just like falling off a bicycle. You never forget, right?
First thing was to procure a sewing machine. I’d been wanting one anyway so went online and found what I thought would be good enough, the Janome Sew D’Lite for about $60.
It is very important to remember that you get what you pay for. I sewed a couple of seams on a curtain for practice and the stupid thing jammed. And then jammed again. And again. In time, I found myself buried up to my neck in bits of thread as I tried to convince the D’Lite that it could, in fact, sew. When smoke started coming out of my ears, I put it back in its box and took it to the neighborhood Janome store where then nice lady took it apart and poked around inside, then put it back together, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with this machine except that it’s a pile of crap.”
She pointed over her shoulder to where my Sew D’Lite’s twin brother was sitting. Next to him was a similar machine with a Hello Kitty design on it. The nice lady shrugged and said that it was a mass market model, not designed to sew through anything more challenging than a Kleenex. If I was intending to make costumes, she said, I’d need a professional quality machine. And then she recommended a $600 model.
Uh…let me think about it…not.
Instead I went back online and found a Singer for about $150. My mom had a Singer zigzag machine she won in a lottery and used to teach me. Among my childhood gender-appropriate toys was a Singer that only had one stitch, but it could sew through railroad ties. I’m not normally brand-loyal, but I have good Singer memories.
Ain’t she a beauty?
The next day, I met with the costumer who handed me a pile of cut fabric and a pattern…
…for a prairie dress and apron.
When I got home, I laid the stuff out and had a brief but very convincing panic attack. “There was a time when I knew how to do this, but it’s been more than 30 years since I’ve even tried! Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I don’t even know where to begin! I’m going to let everyone down and look like a total douche canoe. What was I thinking?”
But then I studied the pattern and saw words I hadn’t used in so many years: bodice, yoke, interfacing, raw edges, seam allowance, gather, pin, baste, stitch. A wave of memories rushed over me, memories of my mother passing on the wisdom her mother had passed to her.* My fingers began to remember how to manipulate fabric. I rediscovered the coordination among eyes and hands and foot that allowed the machine to run smoothly.
And then my senses came alive, hearing the contented hum of the sewing machine motor, smelling the warmth of freshly ironed fabric, feeling the brief but exquisite pain of a finger jabbed with a pin. The only thing that had changed from those happy childhood sensations was the need for magnifying glasses to thread the needle.
I can’t claim to have done a world class job, but I got it done and the world is now richer by one prairie dress and one apron. And through the process of creation, I realized that I spend too much of my life looking for what’s in it for me. It felt really good to do it for the sake of doing it, and in the end I got the satisfaction of seeing through a seemingly hopeless task and fulfilling a promise. I also got to explore a part of me that I’d nearly forgotten.
One more thing: I discovered something my mother didn’t teach me. A stuffed monkey makes a very good pin cushion indeed.
*During the great depression, my grandmother worked as a seamstress at a department store in Chicago. As more and more people in her department got laid off, she learned how to do their jobs so she could keep hers, and in due time, she taught my mother what she knew: lost arts.