I learned to sew when I was ten years old. Mom was a genius at sewing clothes; she even made me dresses out of old feed sacks when I was a little girl. Back then, pretty flower fabric made up feed sacks; environmentally friendly before the phrase was coined. I learned to sew in 4-H; my friend Annette’s Mom taught me how to sew. 4-H Sewing was in winter. When spring came and our projects completed, we modeled what we made. That was the best.
My friend Annette’s mom taught me to sew on her old treadle machine. Too bad there’s not more working treadle machines around. Those are the best to learn on because a girl can go as slow as she wants, one tinsy stitch at a time. The first lesson, no thread, I just sewed on a piece of tablet paper, following the lines until I got rows of perfect straight holes all exactly the same distance apart. Mrs. T, that’s what I called Annette’s mom, because she was a grown-up and I always called grown-ups by Mr. or Mrs, or Dr. or Father, or Sister or Aunt or Uncle. I never called grown-ups by their first name all by itself, not even if they were nowhere around.
Mrs. T was serious as all get-out about being a mom. In between helping her three 4-Hers to sew, she made supper and folded laundry. That house was filled with the smell of laundry starch and boiled dinners. Mrs. T’s face looked like Santa’s in that poem, all roses and cherries and plumpness, only no beard of course, and Mrs. T had brown hair that curled up around her face like a halo that got a tinsy bit sweaty. She patted my hand and said, “Good girl.”
Annette told me her dad yelled at Mrs. T, because her big sisters’ bras and slips were all gray and dingy and no daughters of his should have underwear like that. I knew right then and there why you should never say stuff about people who you would never say to them, ’cause Annette’s big sister Marie came in with her barn coat pulled tight over her house dress, and all I could think about was the dingy slip she must have on. Marie was a real sweetheart, smiling and saying hello, not goofy like some of those other teenagers who were too busy combing their hair to even look at me. She looked right in my eyes when she talked to me. Marie would probably be a saint one day, even if she had dingy underwear.
I rode the bus over to Annette’s house after school for 4-H and Mom picked me up when I finished, ’cause winter was way too cold to ride my bike. Plus it was dark by the time we finished. One time when I got in a strangers car that looked just like ours, and it was just some lady wanting to buy Mrs. T’s farm fresh eggs. Except for that one time, which was horrible, getting picked up was the best part of 4-H. Lots of times I started talking before I even shut the door, and that’s just what I did with that lady. She got her socks shocked off, with some strange girl jumping into her car and jabbering away about whatever popped into her head.
“What did you learn this week,” Mom said. I showed her my tablet paper. She studied it, then handed it back to me. “That’s a fine first lesson.” I tell you, Mom’s smiled like I just did something super-duper hard, that no one else could possibly do, even though it was just boring holes on tablet paper, with no thread or anything. I looked at that paper again, and thought, I guess that is pretty neat.
Mrs. T. took it slow: next was blind-stitching the hem of a dish-towel, then gathering the skirt of an apron and last sewing on the waistband and ties. Blind-stitched hems got the persnickety-eyes of the judges twitching like there was no tomorrow. I had nothing to worry about ’cause I had two sets of persnickety eyes looking beforehand, first Mrs. T’s, then Mom’s. No stitches showed on the back side or the front side, that because I only snagged two threads before I dived the needled back into the fold and tugged just enough to make the thread disappear, ’cause too much, and the fabric puckered; not enough and sloppy loops sticking out.
Blue ribbon the first year and almost every year after that! Blue ribbon is the best possible.
Next came modeling. I loved this part. It was super-fun, almost as much fun as being in the dance recital.
Some lady, who knew what she was talking about, taught all the girls how to model. Ten year-olds only had to hold our heads straight above our shoulders, look forward, walk out on stage, walk straight forward, pivot, return to start, pivot, and walk off, and keep smiling all the while. My project got described by some man, who sounded just like David Brinkley from the news, and who somehow never, no matter how many years I was in 4-H mis-pronounced my name. The tricky parts were to end walking around exactly when the describing stopped and not to flinch when the man mispronounced my name. I had to smile all the while; that part was a cinch ’cause I loved modeling. It was fun. Older girls walked in a triangle, pivoting and pausing at each corner of the stage. Lady-who-knew-what-she-was-talking-about taught the teen girls how to walk in high-heels. “Land with your heels first,” she said. “Not your toes. Don’t clomp.” By the time I was old enough to wear high-heels, I knew just how to do it; plus, I knew not to walk on sidewalk grates ’cause Aunt Annie broke one of her stiletto heel clean off that way, and had to hobble around on one high heel. Frankie’s mom did the same darn thing at church when she walked over the cold air return on her way back from communion.
I learned how to sew in 4-H and how to critique my work. I learned even more from watching and listening to what was going on around me: sometimes you can make something really pretty out of what someone else might throw away, gossip is hurtful even when it never gets back to the victim, look before you jump in a car, and watch wear you are walking. Fifty years later, these are still pretty good lessons to live by. Oh yeah, and hold your head high and smile with your whole heart, because after a lot of work, it’s fun to show off a little.