The fabric whisperer

Quick–tell me what you see when you hear the word “sew.”

If you’re like me you are picturing a warmly lit room, reminiscent of a Renaissance painting, possibly involving a fireplace and a large somnolent dog curled up at the feet of a woman whose only thought in the world is the careful placement of her needle in the great scheme of the pattern she is following. She sits in a cozy chair, and next to her chair is a bright reading lamp illuminating her flawless handiwork. She is humming quietly to herself–“Amazing Grace,” or an old country song whose name she can’t remember.

Or maybe the room is windowed and airy, a  clean black-and-white photo, its stark white walls lined with neatly appointed shelves stacked with fabric and notions and such, and in the center of the room there is a large table upon which sits a sleek sewing machine. The seamstress leans over her work, her hands masterfully maneuvering the fabric as the machine hammers out a seam. She is humming quietly to herself–something classical and heady, which was playing earlier in the day as she meditated over the details of the pattern she is now turning into something tangible.

In my head this is the way sewing is supposed to be: organized, serene, productive. In my reality I have only a few things in common with the women I describe above: a somnolent dog, a floor lamp, and a sewing machine. I veer grotesquely into a much darker, murkier, less cozy place from there. Sewing for me is a deep, deep desire–I want the satisfaction of creating something useful, pretty, remotely wearable, and every now and then I drag my machine out because I start imagining myself in one of my fantasy sewing scenarios and I think, Hey, I can DO this. And I do, sort of, because I always manage to produce some semblance of whatever I set out to make, but the series of events leading to its completion are certainly not the kinds of things you would paint or photograph, and the finished product is not something I would want you to look at too closely.

First of all, I do not know how to read a pattern. I do not understand all those layers of lines, solid and dotted, and I do not get the presence of those little pointy triangle bits, and what the HELL is up with that flimsy, tears-oh-so-easily paper? Also, I am physically and mentally incapable of placing the pins in the right direction. You know the pins–the ones that hold whatever you’re sewing in place until you can get it under the needle. Do you know how many times I have nearly sewn my fingers to a piece of material trying to simultaneously dig out the pin and hold my work in place WHILE the machine was still running? I am generally a plan ahead sort of person, but when it comes to sewing I make it up as I go, and flying by the seat of your pants when sewing is nothing but a recipe for lots of seam-ripping, re-doing, and heavy cursing.

I bring all of this up because a few months ago, I lowered Mia’s bed as far as it would go, thus rendering the dust ruffle my mother made about 5 inches too long. I finally got around to hemming it on Saturday, because, having given birth to a descendant of Peter Parker, I broke down and converted the crib to a toddler bed, which involved the mattress removal necessary for accessing the dust ruffle; and when I trimmed off the excess fabric after the hemming process I thought, Hmmm, this would make a nice trim for a blanket. I should make Mia a blanket to match her dust ruffle. Since I had not planned to make Mia a blanket, I had to go out and buy some blanket batting, and since I am trying to be mindful and resourceful and reuse what I already have, I pulled out an old bedsheet that matched Mia’s room and trimmed it down to crib size. Cake! I pinned the trim in place and sewed it onto the recycled sheet, and it looked like something one might purchase at a boutique for posh little babies whose sweet little layettes are custom stitched I might have actually fallen asleep a few times during the sewing process. There were three different places where the back edge of the trim had not been even with the front edge, and thus did not get included in the stitching. And the corners–OH GOD, THE CORNERS! I wonder if it’s because I failed geometry. It took me almost an hour just to figure out how to make that long strip of fabric into a corner. Mind you, I once made a window seat cover for my bathroom with three dimensional corners, and it looks normal, decent even, but apparently I lack the instinct to recall the skill or the sheer dumb luck I relied on back then.

People who sew beautiful things for others are often overheard explaining how love went into every single stitch; I will no doubt have to explain to my daughter someday, when she asks why her blanket has quite a few random seams and uneven hems, that lots of really bad language went into my work, and that’s the same as love in every stitch, because I have been known to just toss the whole mess into the garbage, and the swearing means I cared enough to finish what I started.

I’d love to say that’s the end of my story, and end with a “heck no, I’m not taking any pictures of the finished blanket” and call it a day, but two days after the hemming and the sudden blanket-making frenzy, I stumbled upon a steal of a toddler bed that I couldn’t pass up, and so the dust ruffle I fixed on Saturday had to be re-hemmed to fit a brand new bed. The thought of repeating the pinning and the hemming and the cursing made me want to stuff the dust ruffle down the garbage disposal with a fork, so I knew I had to have help. I had to bring in the Fabric Whisperer.

My mom has owned a sewing machine for as long as I can remember. She has long frequented fabric shops and notions departments of stores, and she is often overheard in retail settings saying, “Don’t buy that–I can make that!” And she CAN. She really can. She can whip out a lined shoulder bag in an hour. She makes blankets and pillows and curtains. She can make pants! With legs that match in length! And shirts! Shirts that look like shirts, with shoulders and neck holes and actual sleeves! And even though she sympathizes with my criticisms of The Pattern, she can actually follow one, and her finished product looks just like–better than!–the little picture on the front of the package. She knows the meanings of words like dart and selvage, and she knows how to use them in context, and on Monday night when she re-hemmed Mia’s dust ruffle she didn’t curse, not even once. She did not wad the dust ruffle up and throw it on the ground, and she did not question the dust ruffle’s parentage, and she did not suggest that the dust ruffle do anything vulgar to itself. The dust ruffle loved her and yielded to her and did her will, and it’s happy now with its short new do on its adorable new little bed, and I will be happy to take a picture of it for you.

My mom will tell you that she’s no Renaissance painting seamstress–her dogs bark and fart, and her fireplace doesn’t work–nor is her sewing room a picture of pristine order. She also makes a mistake now and then, and she admits to the occasional bout of swearing-while-sewing. But unlike me, with my dreamy little sewing fantasies, she probably has a more realistic vision in mind when she hears the word “sew,” and it looks like a little dress, or a pair of curtains, or a neatly hemmed dust ruffle, or whatever she happens to be working on at the time, and that is how she actually creates things and I end up drinking and glaring at my wadded up attempt at stitchery from across a darkened room at 3 a.m. And if you are feeling sorry for me, thinking you might leave me an encouraging comment along the lines of “Don’t give up!” or if you are considering sharing a story about your own adventures in sewing, well, I won’t stop you, but rest assured, I’m not putting my sewing machine on the curb. I’ll never stop dreaming. Or cursing. Or calling on the Fabric Whisperer to save my work from the garbage disposal.

9 thoughts on “The fabric whisperer

  1. as usual, I could have written this. Down to the fabric whisperer for a mother (she made Sassa’s entire crib set). Of course, if I had written it, it wouldn’t have been as funny, nor would I have enjoyed reading it so well.

    Dream on, Sister. I’ll be dreaming right along with you. Right after my fingers heal from my attempt to turn khaki pants into capris. (hint: I ended up gluing the hems..)

  2. two things:

    (1) my ex-gf and i decided we needed to learn to sew at some point… we took lessons. she bought a way-cool machine. in the class, we may a little zipper pencil case and this snazzy coverlet for the little packages of tissue. not a lined dress suit, but we were both pretty pleased. all we wanted to do was to be able to make some rice bags with nice flannel covers for our christmas gifts that year. i think we made my exgf one, and me one. and i forget what else was attempted. even after we broke up (which was not attributed to the sewing scandals we got into) i would go over her house while she *sewed* and when she started cursing too much and i could hear her pushing the machine (or was it trying to pick it up to toss out the window?) i would stop reading or watching tv or whatever, and go in and stand next to her and bump my hip into her and shoo her into the kitchen to get us some tea or SOMETHING and i could be on what she called “crisis management”….. aaah, i am going to copy and email your story to her. i know she will love it.

    (2) that year, after we broke up, but whilst i was still wanting to learn-to-sew (haha) my mom bought me a sewing machine. mind you….NOT the one i learned on, identical to my exgf’s (which would have made too much damned sense) but a totally different one. which would have taken too much brain power to figure it out… it has sat for years doing nothing and i have been contemplating selling it recently. but now you, you and your dreams of sewing. i am going to have to actually try now.

    you are a brilliant writer, by the way!!!

  3. When I think of the word “sew,” I see the horrid dress I made in 7th grade Home Ec. It was butt-ugly to begin with, but I ruined it somehow when I was trying to finish the neckline in the front. It was kind of like a polo front, only no buttons or buttonholes. And down at the bottom I got the stitches jammed in so tightly that I couldn’t even remove it with a seam ripper. I flunked. I deserved to flunk. Man, if things are ever so bad that we have to sew our own clothes or else go naked, put on your sunglasses, dude, ’cause my glow-in-the-dark skin will make you go blind!

    So if you’re able to finish something and have it look reasonably good, I bow in awe at your feet!

  4. Been there. In one early attempt, I tried to make Cari a stirrup pants jumpsuit (I know, but it was the early 90″s) and sewed the legs together. Seeing as how it was not meant to be a Halloween costume, the mermaid look did not go over well.

    You made me laugh “til I cried.”



  5. Great post, excellent story. It’s so much more interesting than just telling Mia, I made it with love. No, you made it with hardwork, help and investment. Even better! I love to sew and rather than throwing my projects out or cursing them, I start new ones. It is awful. As soon as I hit a point I think I may mess up, I suddenly need to begin a new project. It is really ridiculous. So I say, Way to Go! Great job knowing your limits, pushing past them and then asking for help.

  6. Halfway into reading this I was going to comment and tell you I could come over and show you what the obscure triangles on the pattern mean, but that was before I got to the Fabric Whisperer. Sewing brings pictures of great projects never finished in my mind, because I love love love to start things, buy the fabric and the pattern, cut and measure, pin and begin. However, I am horrible about concentrating on something for very long!!!

  7. About half way through, I wondered “Why not just ask your mom?” Glad she made it all better. She IS the Fabric Whisperer. It’s amazing the things she can whip up. I want her to open an Etsy store!

  8. Bwaaaa haaa… you’ve been hiding in my “sewing room” and watching while I’ve been trying to sew lately, haven’t you?

    And as far as the love in every stitch thing goes, I do the same thing with knitting. Sometimes when I’m making something for someone else and I find myself cursing it into oblivion I wonder if I’m really imparting some bad energy there. I really like your theory about caring enough to curse it. I’m going to use that.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this up. I have about three projects sitting upstairs now that I’ve never started because my fantasy about sewing involves lots of swear words and pins sticking into my fingers.

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