Monday, January 19, 2009

My Sewing Backstory

This topic has been circulating on the sewing blogs thanks to LindsayT. I'm a little late, but here's my story which has been brewing in my head since I started this blog.

Sewing is in my ancestry. My grandfather was a tailor, who married a dressmaker. He also had a sister who was a milliner. I never knew my grandfather since he died three weeks before my parents were to marry, but my mother and aunt kept his memory alive with many stories about him. He started his own business in Somersworth, NH around 1900. He became quite successful. He also had a brother who was a photographer, so there are lots of pictures like the one above. In the picture below, he is the one on the right with a big smile. My grandmother immigrated from Canada and ended up being employed by him. I don't know how long she worked for him before they married in 1910. Around 1920 he moved his business over to the next town in Dover and added dry cleaning as a service. During the Depression, his business did very well since it was cheaper to repair and clean clothing instead of buying new clothes. He ended up being known more as a dry cleaner, rather than a tailor as his business grew. I have his pounding block and needle board which I treasure.

Growing up, most of my dresses were made by either my mother or grandmother. Grandmaman sewed wonderful clothes and knitted lovely, perfect sweaters. As she got older, she did much more knitting than sewing, but while I was young, she made my clothes like the ones below when I was three. I was the best dressed tricycle rider in the neighborhood.

I remember the dresses my grandmother had made for me when I was around 6. At that time I was her only granddaughter, so she helped my mother out by sewing school clothes for me back when everyone wore dresses. Since both my mother and grandmother sewed, I could not understand why my little girl friends would get excited about store bought dresses when the hand sewn ones were at least as nice and usually better.

Since I was always exposed to sewing, I was allowed to hand sew with needle and thread when I was around five. I was doing hems and buttons by the time I was eight. Around that time, I really wanted to use my mother's Singer, but was not allowed to. One day when she was out and we had a babysitter watching us kids, I tried to use the machine when no one was looking. I managed to run the needle through my finger! Ouch! This kept me away from the Singer for several years. In the meantime I would hand sew clothes for my dolls. Once Barbie became popular, I had a ball making clothes for her. The pattern companies were on top of this, and that was how I learned to read a pattern, cut & layout fabric and construct clothes for Barbie. This translated very well once I was old enough to actually use the sewing machine.

When I was 15 my mother signed me up for lesson at the local Singer dealer. Two other girlfriends were signed up with me and we had a blast. I made a wool plaid skirt and a wool doubleknit top for my first project. I look back now and realize I was quite ambitious. The skirt was a simple a-line with a zipper and waistband, matching the plaids was the challenge. The top had a zipper down the back and a short zipper at the wrist of each sleeve. When I first started the lessons, I did not realize that the projects would be entered into a local competition. competition. Needless to say, I did not win the contest, but gained so much confidence in my abilities. From then on, I made most of my clothes. I would tackle anything without fear, and did not know what a wadder was--I wore everything I made. Back then I was straight as a board, so fitting was not an issue. Of course, I made my prom dress! This was the first time I made a muslin which my mother insisted upon and I'm glad she did. She also taught me to perfect my darts.

During my teens, I was fearless. One special item I remember was a flowered cotton suit that I wore to see the Beatles! That was my first attempt at a suit, I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved wearing it. I made a couple coats for Easter, back when women wore lightweight Spring coats, and many, many dresses including my high school graduation dress made from white pique with a square yoke insert and worn with white gloves.

Once in college, I sewed on my vacations and occasionally at school. I mostly made lined skirts for days and dresses for semi-formal events. I went to college at Plymouth State in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and studied business. The only place there that sold fabric was J J Newbury's. The selection was limited, but there were some decent choices among the cheap stuff (that smelled!). One dress that I remember was a green brocade empire waist mini dress that I underlined. I wore this to a Christmas party and later to a pledge dance, then lent it out to other friends who asked to borrow it. It was a popular dress.

After graduation, I sewed work clothes, mostly dresses which were more popular than suits in the early 1970's. I had moved to Boston where there were more job opportunities and adventures. For graduation from college, my parents gave me a top-of-the-line Sears Kenmore sewing machine. I was in heaven. I still have this machine and use it mostly to insert invisible zippers since it has a great foot for that. This machine did so much more than Mom's old Singer. It actually did a zigzag stitch and made great buttonholes! Now it would be easy to finish off my seams which I did and went through more thread because of this.

The winter after graduation, I took my first sewing course since the Singer lessons. I signed up for tailoring so that I could learn how to make suit jackets and chose a Vogue Anne Klein pattern. I learned so much from the woman who taught this class. She sparked my curiosity to learn more about tailoring and dressmaking. I continued to take sewing and tailoring lessons for a couple years, then signed up for pattern drafting at The School of Fashion Design in Boston. My classes were with the night school and I attended for two years taking drafting, tailoring, dressmaking, fashion drawing, and draping twice a week. I learned so much, but my second year drafting instructor was so inferior, I did not bother to return for a third year since he would also be teaching drafting to our class. I should have complained to the management, but they must of known about this guy, since most of the students in my class complained to each other about him.

Over the years I continued to take classes and attend lectures at the Fabric Place whenever the sewing gurus came to town. I was making all my work clothes, mostly suits, and became a Vogue pattern snob for several years, usually spending my lunch hour at the pattern counter of the downtown fabric stores dreaming up new wardrobes.

After my second son was born, I became a SAHM for the next eight years, did alterations and started teaching sewing at the local Joanns evenings. I learned from the alterations since I had a few high end clients with beautiful designer clothes. It was great to be able to get inside these to see how they were constructed. I really did enjoy teaching, but Joann's kept changing the rules, and it became more and more difficult for me to teach (and get paid), so I broke ties with them. I gave private lessons whenever possible and held Saturday morning classes for the neighborhood 10 yr old girls for a couple of years until they all started middle school and I couldn't stand them any longer. I haven't taught for about 10 years now, but when I retire, I'm interested in returning to teaching.

I had dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but it was hard to stop my day job (when I was working) since it paid so well and I did not want to give up my lifestyle. I realize now that I am a dressmaker/tailor, not a fashion designer, and that is the field I could have pursued. I need to work on my fitting skills, so this is the area where I need to grow and improve. I also realized that I preferred sewing just for myself and my family.

I have been reading, sewing, and dreaming about sewing forever. It will always be a part of me.


Lindsay T said...

Marilyn, I really enjoyed reading your back story. You are so lucky you had the opportunity to take classes and learn from experts. No wonder you sew so beautifully. Thanks for sharing this.

Lindsay T said...

P.S. Love the photos!!

sarah said...

Dear marilyn-

thanks for this beautiful and moving post.I was so happy to be able to read this.

Clueless in boston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Marilyn,

I truly enjoyed your back story. It's wonderful that someone in our family has carried on the passion. I'm proud of you and are certain that Mom and our grandparents are too.


P.S. The picture on the porch is a classic!

Rachel Whelton said...

What a nice story. Thank you for sharing so much.

connieB said...

I loved reading this Marilyn. Such a wonderful story. I have a similar trike photo!

Cosiendo la Moda said...

Hola, me he interesado el relato de tu vida, es verdad quienes somos modistas sabemos la facinación que produce la investigacion y curiosidad de aprender cada día más hacerca de todo lo que se relaciona con la costura, la puntada y el hilo son los enlaces que nos conducen a la obra final: una prenda hecha por nosotros , es nuestra obra y diseño, me gusta tu blog espero puedas visitar el mío...

Gail said...

I found your story totally fascinating. One of the things that attracts me to sewing and the sewing blog as a modern take on this is the transmission of skills from generation to generation. Its a kind of feminist statement about values that are important. My father in law was tailor, but he's dead now. I wish I could have drawn him out but he didn't approve of me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful story. My mother used to sew all my clothes for me and my brother when we were young, she learned from her mother. I always wanted to learn to sew, but never really took the time to do my older daughter is doing figure skating competitions, and I had to learn real fast how to sew a skating dress, because there were too expensive to buy, since then I've been in love with sewing, regretting to have learned only at 40, I wish I would have tried earlier, now I'm making up for lost time and sewing almost every day for me and my family, all I think about is sewing, even while I'm at work.... I'm learning by myself, but my mother is very encouraging, and thank god for the internet! I did take a basic class, and later when I have more time, I will take more classes...I really like your story, and it's nice that this wonderful skill is passed down from generations. My daughters seem to be interested to sewing, I will make sure to pass on everything I know, and my love for sewing. Your story is very inspiring, thanks!