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I have my mother’s hands. When I stare at my hands now, at age sixty, the likeness shocks me. Like my mother’s, the joints of my fingers are swollen, stiff and painful in the early morning— particularly the fingers of my right hand. The rings on my right hand bump up against the knobby centers of my fingers, as my mother’s narrow wedding band and tiny diamond ring once did on her left. I watched her hands at work for many years—kneading bread, rolling pie dough, crocheting afghans and pillow covers, and deftly feeding slippery synthetic fabrics below the pounding needle of her last Singer machine, the one I remember best because it was the one on which she tried to teach me to sew.
I also have a number of things that belonged to my mother, who died in May 2011 at age eighty-six. Several essays written in her tidy, delicate longhand on pages of lined paper, from her years in a small rural high school. Lots of old photographs, some of them of her, including a colorized portrait—also from high school—in which her brown hair is darkened, her lips ruby red. Crocheted baby sweaters, handmade quilts, lace doilies, five-year diaries from her years as a young mother, recording loads of laundry washed, pies baked, hot summer nights when she and my father and my three older brothers slept outside in the backyard. And a spare closet full of items that she sewed, first for herself and then for me.
I gleaned most of these items during two rounds of sorting and clearing of the house where my three older brothers and I grew up and where my parents lived for sixty years, in a small town in southern Indiana. The first round, in which my brothers, sisters-in-law, and I divided or disposed of many of my mother’s things, happened at my father’s insistence, after she died. The second was more recent, following my father’s death in March 2018. That time we emptied the house completely, and I brought still more of my mother’s things home to my house in eastern Pennsylvania.
The human hand is a perfect machine until it isn’t. Like other machines, it ages, and breaks down. Ruth Brandon, author of Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, sees a true inventor’s imagination at work in both the sewing machine and the typewriter, each of which devised a more efficient—and completely different—means of accomplishing a task that was formerly much more cumbersome, performed by slow, unreliable fingers gripping a needle, or a quill or pen. Even work done with the aid of machines, though, can exhaust a human hand. Besides sewing, my mother worked as a secretary for much of her adult life; she sewed and she typed, gradually stiffening and wearing out both her hands.
She sewed happily, even serenely; sewing, for my mother, was a reprieve from the endless rounds of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and ironing that filled so much of her time. I can still see her, adjusting her glasses and leaning in to thread the machine, then aligning pinned sections of a dress or blouse, lowering the lever that positioned the needle, spinning the wheel at the side of the machine and putting her foot to the pedal below it. She guided the fabric—always something brightly colored, often floral, if she was sewing for herself—below the rapidly moving needle, producing a quick and perfect seam.
I have another, later, memory, from when she was still living at home with my father but using a walker to make her way through the first-floor rooms of the house because she’d been falling, at random and unexpected moments, for several years. This time she is sewing by hand, and what she’s making are tiny articles of clothing for my three-year-old daughter’s Barbies—a formal gown, a bikini, several skirts and tops. Did she use patterns for these? I don’t remember. She’d have had some still, probably, from almost forty years before, when she sewed Barbie clothes for me.
In this memory my mother smiles and laughs, chatting with my daughter at the kitchen table as her stiff and swollen fingers maneuver the tiny needle through fabric scraps my father has brought up from the basement. Her face and belly don’t yet display the roundness brought on by the steroids she’ll eventually be prescribed—the ones that will also make her diabetic. She’s probably in pain, though she says nothing about that. She would have gotten the diagnosis of polymyositis, a rare autoimmune disorder, at around this time. But she still wanted to make doll clothes for her granddaughter during one of our visits from Pennsylvania.
Until I was a young woman, she made a lot of my clothes. I still have two of the dresses she made for me and that I wore to work in Chicago in the mid-1980s—but stopped wearing to work when I moved to New York in 1987. There’s a photo of me from around that time, wearing one of those dresses and seated next to my mother in front of the Christmas tree in my parents’ house. One of my brothers has that photo and a number of other ones from one of the countless albums stacked on shelves in my father’s study during our final round of clearing the house. Maybe he’d scan them, he said, piling the albums on the floor with the good intentions most of us start with when emptying out our deceased parents’ houses.
But eventually, when you’re sorting through sixty years of your Depression-era parents’ lives, exhaustion overtakes you. You have jobs and families to return to. You’ve already made three runs to the Goodwill drop-off center ten miles away that day. The people from the auction house are coming in two days, and the realtor needs a clean and empty house to list. And so a number of those photo albums, and a lot of other things, ended up in a twenty-foot dumpster parked in the house’s driveway. Including, I fear, my mother’s last sewing machine.
The dress I’m wearing in that photo hangs in my closet more than thirty years later, along with a random assortment of other articles of clothing that my mother sewed for me. A tiny baton twirler costume. A pioneer girl dress from our Indiana hometown’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1966, when I was five. Cheerleading uniforms from junior high. My high school Fiddler on the Roof costume, a gathered skirt and matching blouse, along with a vest made from a deep blue velvet not likely seen in any turn-of-the-century Russian shtetl. And a couple of jackets—one a wool blend, one cotton broadcloth—that were in keeping with the styles of the time but remind me, now, of the suit jacket David Byrne wore in Stop Making Sense.
The construction of every one of these items, down to every finished seam and every perfectly positioned shoulder pad, is impeccable. Most people would need a tailor to get a dress or jacket like the ones my mother sewed for me, and there would be a word for it: bespoke. One of a kind, made singularly for the person who would wear it.
The dress I’m wearing in that photo is made from a fabric with a bold black-and-red herringbone pattern—but not wool, something slicker than that, a bit shinier and softer to the touch. It’s a lovely dress, made from some sort of synthetic blend in a form-fitting shirtwaist style, hemmed to just below the knee and belted at the waist with a black faux-leather belt. It also has shoulder pads. I always think of this dress and the one hanging next to it in my closet now—this one more of a traditional herringbone, black and white, a wool blend, a bit shorter and best worn with black heels and black, semi-sheer stockings—as my Melanie Griffith in Working Girl dresses. I worked in Chicago for two years after college, and I wore those dresses regularly back then. Only when I moved to New York did I stop wearing dresses my mother made for me—except, apparently, when I returned to Indiana for Christmas and put on a dress my mother had made for me once again, to wear to church with her and for a photo taken in front of the tree.
My mother was a meticulous sewer. But the word sewer sounds wrong; the proper word would seem to be seamstress. But how can I opt for as archaic and gendered a word as that? Try finding other options though. Tailor. (Tailor, we all know, is male.) Tailoress. Dressmaker. Dressmaker also sounds weirdly gendered. And why is that? Only designer works for either gender, and as perfectly constructed as those dresses are, they were not designed by my mother. Everything she sewed for me was made by using a purchased pattern.
I still think you could call both of those dresses hanging in my closet bespoke though. They’re one of a kind—made from a widely available commercial pattern, true, but with a unique and carefully chosen fabric, and sewn specifically for me. Which makes the fact that by the time that photo in front of the Christmas tree was taken, I’d stopped wearing those dresses—except on trips back to Indiana to see my parents—seem kind of thoughtless and cavalier to me now. Someone, at some point, must have let me know that dresses sewn by my mother weren’t quite right for someone living and working in New York. That those dresses, lovingly bespoke or not, were in fact a little embarrassing. Eventually I wore mostly clothes with labels (not designer ones) bought from stores like Daffy’s and The Gap.
Funny, now, to recall my younger self feeling more confident in a dress straight off the rack. Made far away, no doubt by someone laboring under dreadful conditions, for pennies. Though ready-to-wear wasn’t quite so cheap back then, and stores like H&M and Old Navy weren’t yet open in the U.S. And no one was wearing yoga pants and a nice t-shirt to work, much less logging onto a laptop in the sweats they’d slept in. (Not that I’m averse to this; not needing a work wardrobe has been an undeniable boon of online teaching and meetings, for me.)
In my memory, my mother sewed exclusively on machines from the Singer Company. I never thought to ask why. I suppose I saw this as a choice like others in our home. Ford, not Chevrolet. The St. Louis Cardinals, not the Cincinnati Reds. The Louisville Courier Journal, not the Indianapolis Star. Democrat, not Republican—though the latter hadn’t been true for my mother’s family, who’d remained loyal to the party of Lincoln, as she sometimes reminded us, when others got on board with FDR and the New Deal. There was a logic to each of these choices, I suppose, though I never asked about it. I know my father admired Stan Musial. I once heard my grandmother, his mother, say that even the chickens on their farm refused to roost above layers of the Republican Indianapolis Star. And I now know that the Singer Company out-marketed, outlasted, or bought out its various competitors, dominating the sewing machine market until the 1960s.
Isaac Singer patented his version of the sewing machine in 1851, but Elias Howe actually came first, patenting his lock-stitch machine using double thread in 1846. There’d been others before them: sewing machine-related patents for the German Charles Weisenthal in 1755, the British Thomas Saint in 1790, the French Barthelemy Thimonnier in 1830. It was American inventor Walter Hunt who actually devised the crucial lock stitch, the thing that made a successful sewing machine—one that could produce something other than the easily unraveled, hand-sewn chain stitch—possible.
When, in 1838, Hunt proposed to his daughter Caroline that she begin a business manufacturing corsets using his sewing machine, she declined because, as a Quaker, she was concerned about the harm such a machine would do to the thousands of poor women who earned their living as seamstresses. Hunt apparently didn’t argue, and thereafter lost interest in his sewing machine. Meanwhile, after some years of fighting in the courts, Isaac Singer and Elias Howe joined as part of a sewing machine “patent combine,” or monopoly, comprising Singer, Howe, Wilson & Wheeler, and Grover and Baker, in 1856
Sewing machines were marketed to middle class men for their wives, though most were sold to garment manufacturers. In theory this was a development that would improve the lives of many women—middle- and working-class alike. Sewing machines meant the end of the dreadful pay and hours of “shirtwomen”—women who stitched shirts by hand, mostly in their homes. “With fingers weary and worn, / With eyelids heavy and red,” wrote Thomas Hood in a poem, “The Song of the Shirt,” published in the British magazine Punch in 1843, “A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, / Plying her needle and thread— . . . Sewing at once, with a double thread, / A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”
While a middle-class husband might spend $125 to purchase a sewing machine for his wife in the mid-nineteenth century (and the Singer Company made early, and canny, use of installment payment plans), no poor shirtwoman could afford such an extravagance. Instead, businessmen bought the heavier models manufacturers produced for tailor shops—in bulk, for around $100 apiece—placing them in lofts and factories and hiring former shirtwomen as laborers. And so the clothing sweatshop was born.
The sewing machine was perceived as a “machine for women”—a machine even a woman could understand. Though I have to say that I still struggle to understand the complex mechanics of a sewing machine, despite several long-ago years of attempting to learn to sew, first for 4-H projects undertaken with help from my mother, then for home economics class in eighth grade.
One big difference in using a machine to do your sewing was the placement of the eye of the needle: no longer at the top, wider part, but instead at the narrow tip. Thread wended through this needle’s eye meets up with additional thread rising from below, often arriving by way of a shuttle connected to a buried bobbin, and together these produce the crucial double-stitches, and a rapidly produced seam. A straight one if you can control the needle’s speed and hold the aligned edges steady. I can still feel that tug, the sudden pull on the fabric when you turned the start-up crank on the side of the machine and pressed your foot to the peddle below, launching the needle on its piston-like up-and-down journey and then controlling its speed with the pressure from your foot. It felt a bit like driving a car.
During our first round of house clearing seven years before, my father had asked us to please dispose of all the boxes and bags of fabric scraps and old patterns that were moldering away in the basement. And so we did. I’ve since regretted getting rid of so many of my mother’s things that day, though what would I do, now, with all of her old tissue-paper patterns, each folded and tucked inside its paper envelope with the cartoon-like image of a sleek model wearing the dress or pantsuit or jacket on the cover, under the name Simplicity or McCalls or Butterick? (Sell them on Ebay! screams a frustrated librarian friend—a quilter—in the margins of a draft of this essay. Donate them to a library!)
Ebenezer Butterick made the first graded, or sized, sewing patterns, and patented these in 1863. But it was Ellen Curtis Demorest, publisher of Demorest’s Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, owner of a dressmaker and millinery shop and promoter of employment opportunities for both Black and white women, who made the first commercial sewing patterns available in the U.S. She did not patent her patterns though, which is why I never saw her name atop one of the envelopes in my mother’s vast collection, and only recently learned who she was.
Demorest was an exception. Fair employment, then as now, was not foremost in the minds of most clothing manufacturers. And the sewing machine, which did present women with more money-making opportunities than ever before, also enabled their horrific exploitation, as we know from accounts of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire up to the 2013 collapse of an eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh that killed over 1,000 people, mostly women; from our uncomfortable awareness of the global wage slaves in China, India, and elsewhere who have long made our affordable, and essentially disposable, ready-to-wear clothing; and, more recently, from what we may have learned about the women in southern Italy and elsewhere, sewing “made in Italy” designer items in their homes for wages that harken back to the lives of nineteenth-century shirtwomen.
Fortunately for me, even though I dropped sewing and eventually quit 4-H altogether, my mother continued to buy the patterns and the fabric, and she did the sewing for me. A new sewing project gave her something to look forward to, she told me once. Particularly when she was the mother of three little boys between the ages of six months and six years, in the mid-1950s.
“Sometimes I felt blue,” she said—a significant admission from my mother, who understood that feelings were real and gave others the space to have them but rarely, short of a few moments of hidden tears or especially vigorous banging of pots and pans as she made dinner, betrayed what she might have been feeling to us, her children. “So I’d get started on sewing something new. And that helped.”
The lives of both of my parents were nearly unimaginable to me as a child; they’re even harder to imagine, or depict, at this twenty-first century moment. They were the grandchildren of German immigrants and children of the Great Depression, from small and not especially prosperous farms in an out-of-the-way county tucked into the southern hills of an out-of-the-way state, long before the age of red state fury—which may be, at least in part, why I’m suddenly regretful over all the things I’ve forgotten or given or thrown away. Why I seem to have turned nostalgic for a world I don’t fully recall and can’t quite summon.
Sometimes, as a child, I played dress-up in some of the formal gowns that my mother had made for herself when she was a young woman. Back then it never occurred to me to ask where, in the rural corn- and soybean-belt town where we lived, my mother wore these elaborate, bare-shouldered, tulle-and-taffeta confections. But some years later, when I was in college, she told me: she’d made those dresses to wear to the high school prom—which she and my father, who taught agriculture and science classes at the local high school, often attended as chaperones.
It broke my heart when she told me that because I was, by then, snidely dismissive of things like the high school prom. How sad, I thought, that she was still making herself dresses for the prom as a married woman, not an ingenuous high school student. But my mother did not find it sad or strange that she made herself lovely gowns to wear to the prom, even as a young mother of three. Everyone made their dresses for prom, in her experience—and prom was the single occasion, in the world she’d lived in all her life, for dressing up in a formal gown. I have one of those gowns in my closet, too; it’s made of yellow silk and tulle, with pleated and stitched netting placed demurely atop the snug and strapless bodice.
My mother’s last sewing machine, a portable one, gathered dust in the basement during the seven years between her death and the death of my father, when we finally finished the job of clearing out our family home. I say “we,” but when it comes to the basement, I must acknowledge that I did very little of the clearing and cleaning of that space, which had depressed and irrationally frightened me for years. For a while it was just an unhappy workspace—home to the ironing board, the sewing machine, the washer and dryer.
And why did my father inherit my first-floor bedroom as his “study,” once my brothers had all left for college and I moved upstairs, while all those domestic tasks were relegated to the basement? By the time I was reading Virginia Woolf and regularly asking questions like that one, my mother had begun falling, the washer and dryer and ironing board and new Bernina sewing machine had been moved to a room added on to the kitchen, and the first-floor bathroom had been reconfigured to allow space for her walker, and eventually her wheelchair.
During those last days of emptying the house I only went down to the basement a couple times, to gather the few things I wanted and to follow along as the auction house representatives made their rounds and told us what they would take to sell. I could have sworn they said they’d take that Bernina sewing machine. So I took a last photo, one that seems to have gone missing from my phone, and told myself to be realistic; my car was full, I wasn’t going to start sewing. I had nowhere to put a sewing machine that I wasn’t going to use. Then, a month after I got back to Pennsylvania, as the date of the auction of the items from my parents’ home approached, I had a sudden change of heart. But when I called to ask if I might make a distant bid on my mother’s last sewing machine, the man I spoke to searched their massive warehouse, then called back to say he couldn’t find it anywhere. Which probably meant it had ended up in the dumpster in the driveway.
I have no idea what that machine would have sold for, had it made it to the auction. I have no idea what I would have been willing to pay to get it back. Women I know who sew and quilt tell me that my mother obviously knew what she was doing, switching from a Singer to an Italian-made Bernina by the time she bought her last machine. Late-model Singers, they say, are mostly junk.
“It can be disconcerting to discover that the scenes of [your] youth are less idyllic than you remember,” say the writers of an online essay on the Merriam-Webster site, “just as it can be when realizing that a word such as bespoke might refer to something other than clothing.” In recent years bespoke has been used to describe pizzas, wines, vacations, web content, and more. It’s been used so much that its meaning may be shifting again, from custom-made or artisanal to—at least in certain circles—prepackaged, overdone, mass-produced.
If you live long enough, a word might come to mean its opposite in your own lifetime. That can be disconcerting—as can looking at the lives of your deceased parents from the vantage point of middle age. The word nostalgia, coined by a seventeenth-century Swiss medical student, originally meant homesickness. To be nostalgic was to be sick for home—longing for a home that no longer exists. That maybe never existed.
What is it that made me long to shed the past for so much of my life and then decide, suddenly, to cling to it after my parents’ deaths? What has turned me nostalgic when, in an era of simplistic and disingenuous reverence for a mythical past, I absolutely do not want to be? Why, after happily turning my back on a task like sewing—deeming it domestic, and gendered, besides finding it difficult and boring—do I so regret having lost my mother’s last sewing machine? Why do I have a closet filled with arguably bespoke clothing, some of it wrinkled and yellowing with age, its fabrics thinning and fraying, never to be worn by anyone again?
And why in the world, people ask me when I talk about these things, do I feel guilty for having eventually stopped wearing dresses that my mother sewed for me, and for not having held on to her last sewing machine?
The answer, I know, is that I actually feel guilty about other things. Like the fact that other people—first my father and then, when he was no longer able to do it, the nurses and aides who worked in my parents’ hometown nursing home—took care of my ill and aging mother. I feel guilt, and regret, and I continue to mourn the loss of both of my parents. I am also trying to understand how to live in a world that seems to be speeding, ever faster and more recklessly, toward its own thoughtless demise, blithely unaware of, or uninterested in, certain realities from its history, as well as from its present, like who makes its cheap clothing, not to mention who takes care of its growing population of ill and aging and dying people.
I am trying to stay conscious and to understand these things now, especially, as a woman. As a daughter mourning the loss of her talented, unappreciated, sometimes blue mother. As a mother whose own daughter is entering adulthood. And so those dresses and costumes that my mother sewed continue to hang in my spare closet, taking up space I could use for other things, like the items I loaded into my car and drove back from my parents’ house on that final trip in the summer of 2019: photos, diaries, school mementoes, bits of handmade lace, a crumbling ivory comb—almost all peculiar choices that make sense only to me. They’re in boxes stacked in a corner of the room where I type but do not sew. With fingers, like my mother’s, that grow stiffer day by day, pondering a sadness that I’m only beginning to recognize, and to name.
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