Sewing is an honored skill in my mother’s family. My great-grandmother Belle Lewis was famed for her dressmaking, crocheting, and embroidery. One of her crocheted tablecloths remains, grayed, but still lovely. My mother embroidered beautifully, though she had no talent for dressmaking. I have a small bird on fabric, a wall hanging, which she embroidered as a child, as well as a sampler. Her most beautiful work was a wedding gift to my father, silk threads on silk, in muted shades of brown, orange, and green. It pictures a shepherd leading a flock of sheep down a path in the woods. The significance of this piece can be understood by knowing that when they were married, my father was an ordained Presbyterian minister.
My grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, was a talented seamstress. She made her clothing as a young woman, always looking elegant and well-turned out. It is not easy to look elegant on the Kansas prairie, but her old photographs show a stylish young woman. She made all of the clothing for her two daughters when they were growing up—lovely things with lace, tucks, and embroidery, beautifully made, as the old photographs testify. Other than a delightful and creative set of doll’s clothing made for me as a child and Christmas stockings, only one thing remains of my grandmother’s efforts. Saam Soon, my sister-in-law, and I found my mother’s wedding suit in her closet on our final day of cleaning out my parents’ home in 2002. We almost threw out the large plastic bag of clothing, but decided to carry it downstairs and look inside. We found several formal gowns, which I had never seen—wonder where she wore those?? In a plastic bag inside the larger container was a aqua suit with a hand written note “My wedding dress—never to be thrown away.” Dutifully, I brought it home and hung it carefully in the upstairs closet, where it remains to this day.
Hazel also made beautiful hooked rugs and large and small crotched items. I do not have any; I do not recall that she ever gave me a rug, though I have a few small crocheted egg shell holders [for small seeds]. It is sad to think that her beautiful things were discarded in all the family moves.
When I was a girl, my grandmother, Hazel, called “Dee Dee” by the family, made most of my clothing. Or, I wore hand-me-downs given to my mother from church members. Sometimes, my grandmother altered the used clothing for me, some of which was of very nice quality. I do not remember having a “store bought” dress until I was 18, when my white graduation dress, which became my wedding dress, was purchased at The Fashion in Salem, as well as another green dress.
One time when I was about 12, Dee Dee and I walked to “town,” meaning we walked to Fourth Street in Louisville from her home on Bardstown Road, a distance of three miles. Such trips to town were frequent events, but this one stands out in my memory. We purchased silky white fabric with an embossed white-on-white flower design. Down in her basement sewing room, she made a dress for me which was fitted at the waist and had a full skirt, with short sleeves. We made three small black velvet bows for the front. It was tacky-grand and way too dressy for church, which is where I wore it. However, it made me feel like a princess.
Her sewing room was the “maid’s” room in their large old house. The main floor of the house was almost a story above the street, so this room was only slightly below ground level. The ceiling was low and barred windows lined one wall, looking out onto the driveway. The room contained an old 1920’s style cookstove on which she cooked messy things, such as bean soup. Two huge old wooden office desks became cutting boards, dwarfing her small, treadle sewing machine. Fabric was stacked around the room, on the desks and low shelves. An ironing board was at the ready and a mirror hung on the wall to check results. It was a delightful room, cozy and cluttered.
My grandmother taught me to sew and for many years I attempted to make clothing for myself. Mostly my design aims were far beyond my skill and the things I made were ill fitting and odd looking. I liked the Vogue look, without having the skill or the quality of fabric to make my ideas look elegant. At age 16, the Vogue look is a bit inappropriate, though that did not deter my dreamy view of clothing. When I was 18, I made a lilac-colored dress. I remember wearing it for my “interview” with my first husband’ parents, so it was clearly my best outfit-of-the-moment. It had a cross-over bodice and a skirt with large, soft pleats. I also remember a soft yellow tank dress, Jackie Kennedy style, with a gray-yellow flowered jacket, worn to church and dressy affairs. It, too, was a search for elegance, gone somewhat astray, the fabric not quite up to the design.
Then I went to Purdue and took a clothing class during my one year excursion to Home Economics, which was pretty much a disaster, except for this one class. I made an elegant green dress, short sleeved, fitted at the waist, with a slim skirt. The soft green fabric was textured or slubbled like silk instead of being smooth. Luckily, the dress fit me well and I received an A. That is certainly the best work I ever did in clothes making. Like a lot of things in my life, once I had managed my “best effort,” I was mostly content to move on to other projects.
In future years, I started some projects and completed a few. Simple things like pants and skirts turned out better than my futile attempts at tailoring. I was an average seamstress, at best. I never improved much and my goal was to get myself to the point where I never had to make my clothing again.
I did make a few things for my home as a young mother, such as an embroidered/sequined Christmas tree and other Christmas ornaments. My final effort was an embroidered wall hanging of butterflies, which I gave to my grandmother for her birthday; perhaps her 80th, but somewhere between 70 and 80. It hung in her living room or bedroom until she died, after which my mother claimed it and it hung in her hallway. I retrieved it and it now hangs in my bedroom. The silk work my mother made for my father hangs on the same wall and the difference in skill is, well….disheartening. My mother’s talented hands played the piano and organ–and sewed so beautifully.