Close Knit

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Great Aunt Lenore was one of those orbital family members I encountered a few times a year, and whose context in my early life was not entirely clear to me. I remember her mostly as a bosomy backdrop for costume jeweled brooches, with grey marcelled hair and a wall-eye that always looked away while she asked how did I like school. She was not a cheek-pincher. She was a spinster* who somehow knew that an ivory-colored vinyl manicure set was the perfect Christmas present to give to a nine-year-old girl.

We dispensed with the “great” and simply called her Aunt Lenore. She was Pappaw Watts’ older sister (by ten years), born in 1897. I came along in 1953, and as a child was a bit tentative around her. It might have been that eye which refused to look at me, or simply because her world was so different than mine. We didn’t visit her often, but the ebb tide of a memory— the occasional Christmas or Easter noonday dinner in her dimly lit Victorian dining room (my younger sister Dianne and I on best behavior)— sometimes laps at my feet.

The holiday ham would be festooned with Dole pineapple slices, tacked on by whole cloves, an exotic touch, and a far cry from our usual pit stop after church: the brand new McDonald’s off I-83. My shyness and disinterest in adult conversation pushed me into exploring the house’s dark shadows, punctuated by porcelain knickknacks and bright white spotlights of crocheted doilies draped on chair arms, a love seat’s back, or under an African violet.

Of all the objects I have traveled the decades with, one that somehow has never strayed is a patchwork Afghan throw that she knitted. It most likely was a wedding gift for my parents (my father was her nephew). I don’t know which is more incredible: that I still have it or that she made it at all. Aunt Lenore was legally blind.

Her niece, my Aunt Anna Mae, is the lone custodian of memories predating my birth for my father’s side of the family. Anna Mae was my father’s younger sister, up until he was electrocuted on the job and our world’s axis took a seismic shift. Natural questions that would have been asked became stillborn in the wake of our personal nuclear family incident. So I’m asking them now. I learned that Aunt Lenore’s blindness was caused the day she was born.

“They put the wrong drops in her eyes. I guess they put drops in babies’ eyes as soon as they are born. That is what I was always told. She could see to get around but was considered completely blind.”

She went to the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia to learn a trade, and came out a masseuse. Who were her clients? No one I knew while growing up would indulge in what is now standard luxury spa fare. But massage was likely the muscle relaxant most prescribed by doctors of the time. E.R. Squibb’s followers were still experimenting in pharmaceutical labs, test tubes clinking, while she worked out knots (and knocked out her knitting projects).

I wish I could talk to her right now, woman to woman, spanning the centuries over a cup of tea: one of us a relic of the Victorian age, and the other of the baby boom era. Both childless, we each mustered—maybe even mastered—a creative life within the triangle of fate, circumstance, and will. She never left her hometown. I fled to Manhattan. And with me, I took that Afghan quilt.

*This (derogatory) term reflects the time I am referring to.

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Our family – 1956

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Dianne & Aunt Lenore – 1957

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1960 – Me,  Great-grandfather Smolizer (Mammaw Watts’ father) and Dianne . . . and Aunt Lenore’s throw. Quite a contrast to our brand new mid-century modern living room!

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Easter 1961 – maybe a visit to Aunt Lenore’s after church?

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1971 – Aunt Lenore’s throw has cozied-up my first NYC apartment, just in time for visiting friends from high school

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1974 – my first Hell’s Kitchen studio apartment, and a visiting kitty.

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1975 – my second Hell’s Kitchen apartment

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1976 – what self-respecting fashionista  didn’t have those Reminiscence coveralls? (And gel-sandals??) Roxy (and all my cats) can’t wait to get her hair all over that throw.

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1979 –  Aunt Lenore’s throw is a backdrop for entering the New Wave era. And a security blanket that connects me to where I come from.

The shoe box of ancient family photos has yielded this gem. I never knew who it was, until I recently scrutinized the back. In pencil, it faintly says “Lenore 1913.” She is sixteen, in a field, wearing glasses and feeling the tall grass and wildflowers that she can’t see. Weaving it into her expanding world.

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copyright Sharon Watts 2016

Domestic Season

Pot holder rack

I happen to love pot holders. Humble little works of sewing art, they don’t seem to require a whole lot of expertise. Which is fine by me. I am not a world class seamstress and never will be.

My fabric is already here, ready to go, and has been for decades–I am a fabric hound. Once purchased, it either became something or not. I save scraps, and I still have yards of virgin territory.

A recent beneficiary of a new sewing machine (thank you, Kirk!), I am armed for the new season. After sewing up the four sides of my mini-masterpiece to the batting, I relocate to the corner of the sofa, manage to thread the needle, and slip stitch away.

As long as my attention span holds, I will turn churn out pot holders. I have no system, no assembly line; I just cut, pin, sew, admire, (rip out), and basically indulge in the sewing equivalent of comfort food. Some are already destined to be gifts, a few may be sold around the holidays. I’m not going to get rich here, but that’s not the point.

It just feels like the thing I need to do, that’s all. And that’s enough.

Pink Panther pot holder

Pink Panther quilted fabric remnant

Pink Panter 2

and the back…or front?

Park bench pot holder

One of 6 squares to be sewn, upcycled from a 1950s circle skirt

rose pot holder

Salvaged slipcover from the 1940s. On the back is denim from an old pair of jeans.

Groovy pot holder

Feeling groovy! From curtain panels that adorned a bedroom at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Sperm potholder

Fabric from “the sperm shirt” (his, not mine)–bought in Paris when I was married, in the early 1980s.

 

And here is part of my collection:

Old Mill pot holder

The Old Mill~ purchased on a early 90s road trip in Bat Cave, NC.

retro pot holder

1950s retro (a pot holder with mitts?)

Campbells Kids pot holder

Campbells Kids, erased by time. Mmm, mmm good!

chicken pot holder

My Japanese quilter friend made me this. I love the chicken feet embroidery stitches (give or take a toe).

Chicken bottom

The Japanese always kick our crafting up a notch!

Marilyn pot holder

Made by my crafty friend Marilyn! Love the fabric with buttons printed on it.

So, pass the casseroles!

Picking Up the Thread

sewing stuff

note the Smokey the Bear ruler I had to use, a freebie from the Lumber Museum

So.

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.

lingerie bag in faille

lingerie bag in faille

lingerie bag interior

insert lacy undies or love letters

Pete Seeger is 93 today! Happy Birthday!

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Pete Seeger is my neighbor, I am proud to say. I run into him in the post office and know I am sharing the room with a humanitarian legend. Here is an entry I submitted a few years ago to … Continue reading