Aunt Mae’s mittens, and the needlework of other women

IMG_8715Last weekend, when I brought Lydia and her belongings to college and helped her with some initial unpacking, I came across a thrift-store dress I had altered for her last summer. As I handed it to her, I remarked with some wistfulness, “I’m just realizing that I didn’t do any sewing or mending this summer.” Perhaps that’s what led me, a few days later, to tackle the cleaning and mending of some old crewel work pillows I saved from the trash bag at a friend’s deceased mother’s house.

In graduate school at Simmons College (2001 – 2004), I encountered a poem by Adrienne Rich — one of her first, promising poems that brought her to the attention of a wide audience — that was characterized by the professor as a statement of strong feminist ideology. Called “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” it explores the power, the agency, in a woman’s needlework while at the same time commenting on her fixed position in conventional, patriarchal marriage. Read it here: link.

I could sense, in the context of the seminar, that I was supposed to love this poem. I didn’t. In fact, it angered me, and I wondered if Adrienne Rich, of whose work I am a serious fan, had ever picked up a needle or crochet hook herself, if she knew what it felt like to be inside the work of stitching those “bright topaz denizens,” stitch after stitch, pricked finger after pricked finger, and squinted eyes under a poor light.

I thought of my Aunt Mae, a celebrated knitter of mittens, who made new pairs every year for all the grand nieces and nephews, and some for charity too. Although she did more than this — she was also a talented, self-taught piano player — in my mind and heart I imagined her knitting as the production of nervous energy, sadness, and even fear of what couldn’t be done.

In needlework, we do what can be done.

I can become bitter about this, even though I myself have spent plenty of time with sewing and knitting needles and machines made by Singer and Kenmore, and I have stood for long minutes in the Notions aisle in fabric stores. (I also love that it is called the Notions aisle, and I love the notions: thread, bias tape, ribbon, snaps, hooks, and needles of all sizes and uses.) And this week, I took apart, cleaned, mended, and reassembled the needlework of a woman I never knew and gave it back to a family that is not mine.

three pillows (before)

three pillows (before)

Why not burn these things, cast off our burden as makers of tiny stitches and declare that our skills and industriousness can accomplish more useful things than sofa pillows? Continue reading

Teacher sets words aside and dreams a new self and new start

In this dream, I was sewing. Professionally.

An MIT friend and colleague, Juhan, had hired me to make 12 small quilts for baby beds, which he was going to install in a blank room to showcase wearable technologies for babies. The devices would be hidden under the colorful, hand-sewn quilts, so that when a viewer turned back the quaint covering, she would be surprised by hardware underneath. The room would be white, as well as the frames of the baby beds, so that the only color would be provided by the calico quilt squares. The hardware would be a buffed steel color, soft and glimmering.

In this dream, I also was aware of myself as a sophomore at MIT, a student mainly studying the liberal arts. I didn’t have a sense of myself as an adult living a youngster’s life; I really dreamed I was age 20, young and looking toward the future. (In other dreams, when my life situation is of a younger person, I am still aware of having a husband and children, and it is only the situation that is altered, not myself.) From my freelance quilt-making project, I suddenly realized — dream/realized — that I wanted to change my course of study from the liberal arts to something that would set me up to work in fabrics.


I had an epiphany: materials science. The dream/plan crystallized. I started to worry. Dream/self realized that I hadn’t taken any science or math since high school, and I would need some to get into materials science. So I decided to enroll in Introduction to Biology for the spring. Then… then!… I can immerse myself in materials science next fall, I thought to my dream/self, who was very excited.

Hmmm, I worried. I might not be able to cram a whole major into two years of college. I might have to add another year onto my undergraduate degree.

Oh, so what? I said to my dream/self. You’ll be able to afford it — you’re at MIT, and when you graduate, you will start making some real money. Not liberal arts money. ENGINEERING money.

Dream/self was very proud of herself. She felt certain that she had had an insight into her deep, real, and abiding interests, and that her true career love had been revealed to her. She was charting a course for a future that would always suit her, a career she would never doubt. Her interest would never flag.

She was starting. She had a plan. Before too long, she would be designing the fabrics of the future*.

*And this is how I ended the account of my dream to Jimmy, when I described it to him this morning. I would be designing the fabrics of the future.

Image, Lego Dress, from Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology on Flickr via a creative commons license.

One dollar thrift shop dress

dress_hem_JaneMy three children, who are no longer actually children, like to shop in thrift stores: Boomerangs, Goodwill, and Savers in particular. They have led me down this path, too. I like a good price and the thrill of out-smarting mainstream retail. (Take that, Gap!) Until I wore them out, one of my favorite pairs of pants was a pre-worn, five-dollar tan pair with an Ann Taylor label bought at Savers.

Inevitably, one of the kids’ purchases of used clothing requires some mending or tailoring by the only person in our house who has practiced sewing skills. That person is me. Sometimes a button is needed, sometimes a new zipper. I have yet to take anything apart and put it back together again — although I do have an Eileen Fisher black silk sleeveless dress in my closet bought for $20 that needs the shoulder straps and armholes raised — but some repairs have been more complex.

A few days before she headed off to college, Lydia brought home a long, granny-like dress from Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain (the best of the four locations, according to Eli) in her staple black & white. She asked me to hem it, and I promised I would before she left. Of course, we waited and waited and waited, as if that day of leaving would never come. Finally, with the prick of a deadline* to motivate me, I got out the sewing machine, pins, measuring tape, steam iron, and a makeshift ironing board (i.e. clean towel on the kitchen counter).


The price tag showed a markdown from $8 to $1, and surely the low price gave me permission to do a rush job: cut the extra length, fold the cut edge, avoid pins and hold it in place, and sew a quick row of fastening stitches. But why not do these things with care, if I’m going to do them at all? So I measured, cut, sewed on a length of hem tape to the cut edge, measured the hem and ironed and pinned it, and sewed the hem by hand using a hemstitch.

As I was sewing, I was thinking, and not just about the task. I recognized the ultimate inefficiency, really, of buying an inexpensive, pre-owned, not-quite-right piece of clothing and then getting someone (i.e., your mother) to spend 90 minutes of labor improving it. True, I volunteered for the task, but I can still put a price on my labor, which is worth more probably than the original price of the dress when new. Even if Lydia had hired the seamstress at the dry cleaner’s to do it, the fee would have boosted the net price of the dress to $21.

As I sewed, I mused longer on how this intimate labor is an act of love and therefore without cost or price. And, if my labor is an act of love, then that dress carries my love with it as it hangs now in Lydia’s closet or is worn by her.


At least a year ago, I bought a pre-worn Banana Republic sweater from an on-line consignment store. I loved the sweater on the website, and I loved it when it came out of the package, not only for how it looked but for its smell: there was a whiff, which stayed until I first dry-cleaned the sweater, of the perfume or deoderant or detergent used by the woman who previously owned it. As I wore this lovely cardigan, I smelled this other person and imagined her: my physical size, having a different life somewhere else, and yet transferring some trace of her in the anonymous selling of her sweater. We endow these objects with ourselves when we wear them.

So, too, I endow the thrift-shop clothing my children buy when I alter or repair it. There’s some essence of me in Lydia’s dress, Eli’s shirt, or Grace’s jacket. (And I suppose the previous owners of the clothing are with them too.)

dress_LydiaThis may be the detail that I have imaginatively focused on the most in helping Lydia prepare for school and getting her there. We did a lot of shopping, and new clothes and bedding and supplies were purchased. We packed. We tidied. All of this getting ready is so quotidian — the sheets, new towels, a box of pencils, extension cord, under-the-bed storage bin — to the point of boredom, really, and not narratable.

But the hemming of the dress… that felt to me almost epic, even if another person, looking at me from the outside, would have seen only a woman in her reading glasses bent over a piece of black and white checked fabric, crumpled in her hand, being pricked with yellow-headed pins. This moment, this dress and its hem: every moment I have ever loved my daughter, which is all moments that have passed and all of them that will come, I felt them with every stitch my hand and needle and thread made, piercing layers of fabric as delicately as I could, over and over and over until where I ended met the place where I started.

*Note: The phrase “prick of a deadline” is one I picked up from my friend Lisette Bordes, who once admitted how useful a deadline is to writing. It is a prick, an act of piercing something with a fine, sharp point, according to the dictionary.

Paper, thread, fabric, and glue: be still my heart

sewn pamphlets

sewn pamphlets

It’s winter break, and the MIT community offers weeks of workshops during its Independent Activities Period, or IAP. Some are brief, some occur over days, some help participants build work or academic knowledge, and many are just for fun.

This week, I went to the MIT Libraries’ introduction to bookbinding workshop. To get to the location, I followed a series of signs that began buildings away. In the library, the signs took us into the basement, through the rolling book stacks (‘wait, there’s something behind here?’), into a far corner, and finally into a room which opened into clinical brightness: the Curation and Preservation Services Lab. It was like the secret room in a secret-room dream.

The lab is a model of both warmth and order. The space is about the size of two undergraduate teaching laboratories (or, maybe equivalent to three medium classrooms hooked together). Walls are white. There are several workstations, a few bench height. There is a GIANT paper cutter, and I wish I had a photo of that — the lever was raised, and no doubt you could butcher a chicken with its guillotine blade. Over the sink, the staff had arranged its kitchen implements (e.g. a tea strainer) on the kind of peg board you’d use in a workshop. Everything I saw was in its place and clean. Pinch me.

One the largest workbench was an arrangement of small rectangles of decorated papers and others of solid fabric, spools of linen thread and hanks of colored embroidery thread, and a few tools. On other workbenches were compositions of workshop supplies, one setup for each participant: paint brush, white glue, a cloth paper weight (like a bean bag), a linen wrapped brick, paper to protect the work surface, and paper to sew into a pamphlet.

first steps at making case

first steps at making the case

Some people might get excited walking into a bakery or shoe store. The array of paper and the just-so placement of supplies made this heart beat faster. I also had one of those moments of thinking: It’s so awesome to work at a university. Everything good happens here.

One librarian introduced the workshop and described the purpose of the lab. It’s a “hospital” for the library, and they do both prevention and treatment. The staff also advises on disaster preparedness and disaster response. Honestly, I instantly felt that I was ready to change my occupation. ER for books, people! Continue reading

Thinking and sewing

Lydia took this photograph of me as I paused during some sewing on Thursday night. I was making a curtain for Eli’s new apartment and trying to solve some problems as I went. I’m guessing that, at this moment, I was thinking something through.

Jane_sewing&thinkingI like how the folds of my hand and the folds of the fabric seem to merge. I also like the presence of the word “Singer” in the image while at the same time my fist is scrunched up over my mouth.


Cinderella goes to the ball

Cinderella is Grace, and the ball is a Bat Mitzvah.

Today our house was a scene of cottage industry. I altered the dress I bought for Grace in the women’s department. The style and fabric were exactly what she wanted, but it was too drop-waisted, too long for a 5′ 1″ girl. Out came the sewing machine and ironing board.

sew dress 500

Meanwhile, Jimmy drove Cinderella to Target to buy some tights. He was shooed away by his daughter from the Intimates section of the store. I asked him where he lingered while waiting.  “Electronics,” he replied, with a tone that conveyed, “Where else?”

Later, I assisted with nail polish and jewelry selection and fastening. The black cardigan sweater, bunched up since the last occasion, needed some sprucing up with a damp cloth.

A check was written and greeting card found. Cinderella did her own makeup, and she is good at it.

wear dress 500

Purse, phone, hairbrush, and coat were gathered. Black slippers were slipped on.

I took some pictures.

Her carriage arrived. She went.

The ball, at a hotel in the adjacent town, ends at 11:30pm. Cinderella will be home around the stroke of midnight, in her customized dress, not-glass slippers, and pink tights from Target.

Mother and daughter, hat makers

Today is Crazy Hat Day at the arts camp that Grace attends (and Lydia serves as counselor in training). Sure, a person could buy a hat, but the thrills of using a glue gun are too intense to resist. So Grace made a hat last night, after rummaging through the basement for both junk and glitter. By this morning, the glitter had set, and the hat could be touched. This is where I came in: I had to find and sew on, to a hat made of cardboard and foam rubber, ties that would hold it on her head. Ribbon or shoelaces wouldn’t work — something stretchy was needed. Fortunately, there are numerous uses for nylon stockings, beyond covering the legs, and they came in handy this time too. I took two black knee-highs and sewed them by hand to the foam underside of the brim. Voilá, a crazy hat that stays put.

Old paper, new uses

Every September, when the kids bring home a stack of textbooks from school and a teacher’s order to put covers on them, I take out the brown paper grocery bags and get to work. An hour later, there is a stack of books all tightly and cleanly covered on the dining room table. I recall Eli once saying, with a touch of wonder in his voice, “Mom, this is your secret talent.”

Grocery bags, and other sources of discarded paper, make mighty nice gift wrap too. Last year, I wrapped some small gifts by turning the printed side in on two squares of paper from bags and sewing up three sides. Then I inserted the gift and sewed up the fourth side, with scrap paper appliqués. I tied them up with fancy string. This year, I might go totally green, and use bits of twigs instead of the colored paper scraps for embellishment.

Jodi Anderson, who keeps the blog Daybook, wrapped gifts this year with the brown packing paper she found in the box her husband’s new saw came in. She used long lengths of yarn in place of ribbon.

credit: Jodi Anderson, 2011

And if I had a lot of outdated sewing patterns, I might steal Lisa Brainerd’s method for wrapping the items she sells and ships through her Etsy store. In January, I received a plain brown box in the mail from her.  Opening my purchase was as satisfying as the item (a pin) itself.

first surprise: pattern paper

second surprise: a purchase, wrapped like a gift, and bonus acorn

third surprise: more pattern paper!

final surprise: the thing itself (alongside the bonus felt acorn with a real cap)

Speak, Memory, about a dress

On the road from World’s End to the harbor, we drove through Hingham center slowly enough that I could look at store windows as we passed. In one, I saw a dress that turned my head. The image of it hovered in my imagination as we walked through the farmer’s market, bought homemade cider donuts, and sat on the strip of sand, ate donuts, and looked out at the boats and one swimmer.

I wanted the dress that I was remembering.

In my mind, I saw dark wool knit more charcoal than black, trumpet sleeves wrist length, and the only ornament a double row of appliquéd rings the color of coffee ice cream on the bell of each sleeve.

my dress, from memory

I told Grace and Jimmy about the dress and said I wanted to stop and look at it again on our way back to the highway.

It’s funny how memory works: when we got back to the store and I was standing on the sidewalk and taking pictures of the dress, I could see how my version of the dress was both like and unlike the original. Already, my imagination had refashioned the dress into what I wanted it to be. Continue reading