I decided that these six mid-summer weeks at Neil’s barn would be the perfect chance to revisit an adolescent passion. I was going to sew. Again. And for the first time.
I’d made nearly all my clothing from seventh grade Home-Ec class through high school graduation, when it seemed crucial not to repeat an outfit within a two-week period. And in our household that meant not only did I need a part-time job, but also the ability to line a pattern to the fabric grain, insert sleeves, make gathers, and match plaid. Because I wore a lot of plaid.
There were caveats. I didn’t do notched lapels, button holes, or interfacing. Now I wrack my brain to determine the origins of those particular bugaboos. While a maxi-coat in maroon herringbone was fully-lined, its lapels were misaligned. I was no budding Schiaparelli, and besides, intentional asymmetry was not even on my radar.
My mother’s grumbling about lining up button holes festered in her eldest to a full-tilt phobia. To this day I have never even tried. I avoided blouses, and everything else could be fastened with a hook and eye, a snap, or even (when I was extremely lazy, or in a rush) a safety pin. Pinned on the inside, of course. At least I think so.
Interfacing just seemed so unnecessary. There was no need to give stiffness to the early 70s jerseys, double knits, and panne velvets. Even if called for, it entailed a tedious basting-in of something that never would even be seen, and prevented me from knocking out an outfit on a Sunday afternoon so that I could be a fashion knockout in the school halls on Monday morning. Besides, I was too busy experimenting with tie-dye, staining my mother’s Revere Ware with purple Rit.
None of this lack of attention to detail seemed to raise any red flags as I set my sights on a career in fashion design. It wasn’t until my first semester at Parsons School of Design that I got a slap upside the head what I had gotten myself into. This wasn’t just drawing from a fanciful imagination and then having my efforts somehow be magically transformed from sketchbook page to mannequin. A plastic implement called the French curve was the road sign that was harbinger to my design career’s derailment. I flunked draping and took up the much smoother path of fashion illustration instead.
But flash forward to now. I am sitting with Neil’s very elegant octogenarian mother, Jo Ella, as her layered bracelets softly jingle to effortless stitches. She is coaxing the hand-made bias tape around the curves of a lingerie bag that she is helping me assemble. The design is her own mother’s, an envelope bag for ladies’ “unmentionables.” I marvel at the way her hands adeptly handle the fabric and manage the tiny invisible stitches. She and her mother were professional seamstresses from an era that took pride in meticulous detail, both in clothing and in home furnishings, whose voluminous drapery and corded cushions predated the mid-century modern look that permeates today. I am very lucky to have her as a tutor for many reasons, the least of which is that, ironically, the artist in me has never been able to decipher the 2-D diagrams in a how-to-sew book.
We visit Jo-Ann Fabric store where she loads up for her own projects. She has just treated herself to a state-of-the-art Janome machine for her birthday. I have toted to Neil’s my thirty-year-old Singer and my own stash of supplies to work from. A fabric hound, I’ve selected some favorites that I wanted to turn into napkins, pillows, tote bags, whatever I imagined would either spiff up my life or someone else’s. I had no inkling that Neil’s mother would take the reins so assuredly and lead me into such intricacies as lingerie bags, jewelry pouches, and eyeglass cases.
Jo Ella falls into memories and patter of designers past: Dior, Schiaparelli, and (our favorite), Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy. As a young married woman she would visit the windows of Garfinkel’s in Washington, D.C. and memorize the couture designs that were out of the reach of her husband’s salary. Then she would dash to G Street Fabric’s pattern department and piece together her own versions, take them home to her Free Westinghouse sewing machine, and turn out elegant handmade garments that had her own personal stamp as well as a whiff of Parisian couture. Heads would turn at cocktail parties, and do to this day. Jo Ella never fails to look as if she were having lunch at La Grenouille, instead of simply going to the post office in this small, remote town in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
I told her of a little fantasy I have, to design a skirt that is classic and flattering and dirndl. One that I can wear as I age. That’s all it took. Jo Ella is on board and eager to help me deal with my former demons of draping.
Who knows, I may become a fashion designer yet. Or even better, have the grace and class of Jo Ella when I am eighty-six.