It is spring. It is Saturday afternoon. The sun that slants through the living room window is more than enough light for me to do the close and tedious work of replacing a hem that has come undone in one of my favorite dresses. It has unraveled like the string at the top of Owen’s dog food bag and I am just a little exasperated that I have to take even a few minutes of this gloriously warm and bright day to correct the shoddy workmanship of whomever it was who put in these stitches, obviously by machine, not hand.
The sewing basket from which I take the needle and thread was my mother’s for many years and she gave it to me, freshly lined with new velvet and satin, when I first learned to sew. It was something like a father passing on his hunting rifle, a recognition that I’d gained enough skill at something that was important to her to be acknowledged and encouraged.
When I was growing up, Mama supplemented our family income by — as we used to say — taking in sewing. Day after day, night after night, our kitchen table was draped with fabric, the smell of dye drifting through the house as thick as the scent of pot roast on Sunday. She pinned crinkly, tissue-thin pattern pieces to the cloth like jigsaw pieces with barely an inch between them, she always needed at least a quarter yard less than the pattern envelope indicated. She cut around these pieces with heavy metal scissors that we were not allowed to use for anything else. And then she sat down to the brown Singer whose rhythmic rattle lulled me to sleep on many a summer night as its song drifted in and out of the open windows of our house.
When I was 10 or 12 — about the time that the sewing basket was passed on — I took on the role of assistant. My job was to steam press the seams of bodices attached to skirts, of fronts attached to backs, of sleeves attached to shoulders, to make sure that each one lay flat and even before it went back under the presser foot of the sewing machine to be sewn to the next piece. I can still feel the heft of the iron in my hand, the feel of the steam escaping from the top, the sizzle of the water as I refilled the port.
Handwork — hemming, attaching trim, tacking down facings — came later. Only after Mama had watched me press seams for a long time, only after she knew she could trust me with the thing for which she was well-known and which, to her at least, was the signature of a true seamstress.
Handwork is simple, but tedious. Make a double knot so that it will not pull through the fabric, but do not double the thread. A single strand is all you need for handwork — putting in hems, tacking down facings. Take short, flat stitches. Make sure that they are invisible from the front. This is accomplished by catching a single thread of the fabric with the needle, feeding it through gently. When you are done, if you have done it all correctly, there will be no sign of the needle or the thread. This is the mark of a master seamstress — that there are no marks.
The instructions are more than instructions. They are a mantra and it is stored not just in my memory, but in my hands. I knot the thread, take up the dress and begin.
What I know now that I couldn’t have known then is that the confidence Mama showed in handing me that first dress and saying, “Here. Hem this,” wasn’t confidence in my ability. It was confidence in hers. Her ability to teach, to model, to show.
It is no small thing to trust. No small thing to hand over something of value — your money, your reputation, your heart — to another human being and say, “Here. Take care of this.”
It is always an all-or-nothing gamble. Because the one you have to trust is yourself.