Tattered no more

Many readers or watchers of The English Patient (I preferred the novel) were swept away by the romantic story line: the Count and Katharine, their illicit liaisons, the plane crash, desert cave, fire. And I? In both the film and the book, I was drawn to the nurse’s story: Hana, her makeshift hospital, and her care of the burned and disfigured English patient.

Real love, in my view, is seldom epic. It’s steady and practical, and it accumulates in small gestures.

One of the to-do items on a long list of preparations and purchases for Eli’s move to college was mending. Months ago he left three pairs of jeans on the window seat in my room and asked me to make them wearable again. I don’t feel like mending during the school term — I’m too busy mending drafts, I guess — so I put off the task. Last week, a few days before my first child’s departure, I set up the sewing machine, looked at the pants with their three sets of problems, and sat down with scissors and sewing box.

Only one pair was ripped on a seam line, an easy problem to solve, although a rivet through three layers of denim created an obstacle for my non-industrial machine. Solution: remove the rivet, using a hammer and small chisel, and sew along the existing seam lines. Done.

Two pairs weren’t ripped so much as tattered. Eli, through use, had worn the fabric down in the seat and around his wallet pocket. “Couldn’t I just buy you two new pairs of jeans?” I asked him. “I love these,” he said. “Couldn’t you just try to sew them?” Then he flattered me: “Mom, you can do it.”

Anticipating that more fabric would be needed, Eli had given me an unloved pair of denim shorts to cannibalize. I cut patches from these shorts and pinned them to the tattered places. I tacked them in place using a zigzag stitch.

Then I dialed the stitch setting on the machine back to the straight stitch, and I randomly and repeatedly sewed back and forth across the patches. This was true patching, building up a new fabric, in a way.

I kept my foot on the power pedal, periodically pressed the directional switch to reverse (the “back” of the back and forth stitching), and watched the stitches gather and blur into each other. I switched thread color, from gray to light blue for the denim ones and khaki to stone for the corduroys, to increase the blurring effect.

I thought about leaving my signature somehow, writing a word in stitches that would be like a secret message — one so secret only I would know about it — for the mended pants to carry around as Eli wore them. Mom, Jane, love all seemed too corny. (Plus, how twisted would that be, to write your own name in your son’s pants?) I considered hieroglyphs, which would fit invisibly into the random stitching, or tattoos or Japanese characters.

No symbolic language, in the end, made it into the mended pants. After I finished sewing, I snipped all the loose threads and admired my own work. We threw them into the wash, and Eli folded and packed them into his suitcase* for college. The pants and Eli live in Vermont now.


*Wait, there’s more! In trying to lift Eli’s overstuffed suitcase into the back of the car, I hurt my toe. Of course, I had to find a way to write about that. I called it “Toe Story” and posted it on my other blog. Link. There were sequels: “Toe Story 2” and “Toe Story 3.” Link 2 and Link 3.

Desire and make

Desire is the spur for more than one kind of creation. In July I saw photographs of Margaret Oomen’s little urchins: crochet covered sea stones. I wanted them. Alas, her Etsy store was sold out.

So, I have been conducting a side project this summer. Based on instructions published by Oomen in the purl bee, I’ve been making some of my own, with stones picked on the shores of Cape Cod, Lake Ontario, and South Boston; a 1.40mm steel crochet hook; Valdani embroidery threads; and a darning needle. Voilà! the above stones.

On their bottoms I’ve been writing provenance, date, and sequence number:

What will I do with them? They’re like children — I made them, but I don’t have to cling to them. If I know you, and now you want one, please let me know. I’ll send you a surprise — a little piece of geologic history, and me.

– My very own teacher

I met with a graduate student today, whom I interviewed for a study I’m conducting on the poster session. At one point in the interview he paused in answering a question about himself and interjected, “I’ve got to give a shout out to my Dad.” And then he told me something he had learned from his father, a professor.

with first teachers, on the beach, 1966

Today is my father’s birthday. My father is a teacher, too. Although I am not aware of following exactly in his footsteps (he taught math), I’m sure I often tiptoe in them.

In honor of him, I share with you an excerpt of a reflection I wrote in 2003 for a grad school course on teaching writing. If you stick with it for a few paragraphs, you’ll find out how powerful it is to grow up with a teacher in your very own home.

* * *


First, a few words about my beloved third grade teacher, Mrs. Eva Doyle.  I remember three things I learned from her: the multiplication tables up to a factor of eight, all the state birds, and crocheting.  The state bird project sticks in my mind because of the pure pleasure for me in colored pencils, detailed work sheets, characteristics of each bird (a yellow throat, for example), and beautiful bird names.  Multiplication memorization and crocheting are also vivid, because of how Mrs. Doyle used the promise of a needlework lesson to reward math mastery.  When every student in the class had made his or her way through the tables, she told us, the class would learn to crochet, as a group.  Eventually, after some duration of time I do not remember, Mrs. Doyle brought in a bag of yarn balls and a crochet hook for everyone to keep.  We pulled our 20 or so chairs into a circle, and our teacher walked around our perimeter, leaning over our shoulders to give help. In this manner, Mrs. Doyle taught us girls and boys how to make a chain, then a daisy chain, and finally, a granny square.  The ambitious kids went on to make five granny squares, with a grab bag of colors provided by Mrs. Doyle (from her own money probably), and stitch them together to make a hat. I made one of those hats. Continue reading

– Summer’s punch list

tool wall 500

"Tool wall," by Valerie Everett

Often, I think seriously about changing this blog’s tag line to this: “What goes into planting, fixing, and writing.” I rarely use my skills in handwork to do much else than repair or fix stuff up. This month, for example, I’m painting the mudroom, tinkering with the garage door, and changing the latch set on a storm door.

Last week I bent myself over the sewing machine to hem a few pairs of pants for Grace, and yes she did appreciate my labor. It is good to know how to do things: When you do it yourself, you save money, and you’re on your own schedule. I hemmed those pants the same day I bought them, and I draped them over the end of Grace’s bed as she slept, so she could see them when she awoke.

(My mother did that occasionally for us when we were children. She’d sew late into the night to finish pants or a little jacket, and arrange them on a clothes hanger and then our bedroom doorknob so that, when we awoke, there would be a new outfit in a place where before there was nothing, just a door. Perhaps that is why I love — and I really mean love, and never tire of — that scene in Disney’s Cinderella where all the birds and mice work together to fashion a dress for their poor but beautiful friend. You can see that scene and the animals’ industry in this YouTube short between the 3 and 5 minute marks. If you let it play another 30 seconds, you’ll see the stepsisters tear that dress to tatters, and that, for me, is more upsetting than the missed connection with the prince.)

But!, this isn’t about making dresses, it’s about mending them and lots of other stuff. Continue reading

– Only the rain has such small hands.

Althea Crome Merback knitted Coraline’s sweater. She knitted these gloves, too.


In this short video on her work, Merback calls herself, as far as she knows, the “only person in the world who knits conceptual sweaters and garments on such a small scale.”

Seeing these gloves for no hands reminds me of a conversation I had last week with one of Grace’s teachers, who said, “Art doesn’t have to have a use. It’s just… because.”


Photo from haha.nu, which shows images of even more of Merback’s miniatures. And thanks to Rosemary, who gave me the idea to alter a line from a poem and use it as a post title. And to the late e.e. cummings, who wrote the poem, which I loved as a teenager. I see why.