Can’t. Stop. Sewing.

I hope everyone who celebrates Hannukah had a good time because we certainly did. I’m starting to get this whole holiday thing down and find the memories in it for my kids. It’s harder than you might think to do that with a holiday you didn’t celebrate when you were a kid. But we baked and sang and gambled for chocolate until we were almost sick. We made cute homemade decorations and the kids got to light candles each night and take turns updating the menorah we painted on our window. There was even dancing this year.

My sewing machine is making unhappy noises that may imply that I work it too hard. I don’t know why it would feel that way. I finished all of the gifts that I had planned so far, except the
pajamas I was making for the kids. It turns out those are pretty hard to throw together without a pattern. It always irks me when I can’t figure out a pattern myself and have to buy one instead. I mean, what’s the point of sewing gifts out of what you have on hand, that would therefore cost nothing, if you have to go out and spend $20 on patterns in order to do it. I wish I was better at sewing, then maybe I could pull this one off.

(My maternal grandma was famous for being able to go to a store, turn some garment inside out, and come home and cut and put together something identical without ever using a pattern. I aspire to her level of coolth.) It strikes me as totally weird now because I never even took a home ec. class. My brother did and even designed a blouse for me that he entered in a pattern design competition. No one taught me to sew.

The first time this seemed to be a problem was the day in 10th grade when the choir director for jazz choir handed out purple satin and patterns and told us all that our first concert was in a month and to have dresses ready by then. I waited for someone else to speak up and say what I was thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding right? I mean what if we can’t sew, why are you assuming that that we know what to do with this?”

But no one said anything, so I didn’t either. I was afraid that they would think I didn’t deserve this coveted place in the “cool” choir. I took the fabric home with me, or to the neighbor’s house, I don’t remember. A week before I had started high school my mom left my dad and we lived at the neighbor’s house for a long time before a judge told my dad he had to let us have the house to live in. We didn’t own a sewing machine back then. The only other dress that had been sewn for me my mom had gotten my aunt to do it. Only she was my dad’s sister, and they weren’t speaking to my mom anymore.

I held on to that fabric and pattern for two weeks trying to figure out what to do. I was too proud I guess to ask anyone for help, and I wasn’t going to burden my mom with it. Finally at my new best friend’s house, I think, I pretended like I knew what I was doing and cut out all of the fabric, from the whole pattern, only I only left 1/4 inch seam allowance, though I didn’t realize it at the time. For almost another two weeks I stared at the pieces in front of me, waiting for them to magically assemble themselves. Nothing happened. Finally, the day before the concert I told my mom everything. She was upset, especially that I had left it to the last minute. She was also upset at my choir director for assuming that everyone could just sew themselves a dress, or afford to hire someone to do it. We didn’t have that option. It turns out that there are a lot of things in life that are actually quite simple and easy for other people, but my family didn’t seem to know about any of them. Sometimes we needed people to spell it out.

(Like how my teachers kept telling me I needed glasses so my mom took me to the family doctor. He said, “Yep, it looks like you need glasses all right.”

Then we left. My mom, who hadn’t come in with me asked, “What did he say?”

“I need glasses.”

“Okay”, she replied, leaving me to assume that she would take care of it. Four months later I was still standing right in front of the blackboard and squinting in order to see anything.
Finally one of my teachers asked if I’d been to an optometrist yet. I told her I’d seen a doctor and that I did need glasses but I didn’t know what to do now. She was the one who explained that we needed to visit an optometrist and get a prescription and purchase some eye wear. I was the one who searched the yellow pages, made an appointment, and dragged my mother along for the ride. I was 11. My folks were not very high on the life skills quotient, which still boggles my mind because my dad has worn glasses most of his life. How could they not know how to go about getting some? That little aside will help y’all understand how I turned out a control freak. 🙂

Anyway, I ended up calling all of the moms of the other girls in choir, who I barely knew and finally one of them took pity on me and spent all night assembling my purple satin pieces, which turned out to be skin tight because of that seam allowance I hadn’t allowed for. I wore too tight purple satin for an entire semester of high school. Eventually my mom bought some more fabric and enlisted help from someone and my dress looked normal, like everyone else. Purple satin with puffed sleeves is hardly normal looking if you ask me.

I figured out how to thread a machine all by myself one day because I needed to. The first thing I ever did on a sewing machine was to sew the seam binding onto my little sister’s grade 8 grad dress, back in the day when kids still dressed up for those. Why? Oh yeah, my brother didn’t have time to finish it, and my mom was in college and taking off to the next province for a 6 week French immersion thingy and I was asked, so I figured out how. It turns out that it’s not that hard.

Oddly enough, the next thing I tried to machine sew, (I was good at hand sewing I’ll have you know), was another butt ugly choir dress. This time I was in University, second year, and had landed a spot in the coveted University Singers, the choir that recorded albums, sang at private functions, and toured Europe, on the school’s dime. It’s too bad the dresses looked like bath robes. I blame the fat ladies. Every classical choir it seems has at least a few in my experience. They were usually the divas as well. They had obviously chosen the dress style in an attempt to flatter their more ample frames. How else do you end up with a blue polysomething with roses worked into the weave in a monochromatic way, three quarter length sleeves, a wrap front that joined at the waist, a sash that tied around the waist, and a skirt that went to the floor. It was supposed to look like evening wear, but it really just looked like a bunch of fat ladies and a few others standing around singing in their blue polyester house robes. Classy. After landing my coveted role in this particular ensemble, I was given the dress of a girl who had graduated the year before and asked if I could alter it to fit me before the next concert. Of course. She had weighed at least 200 pounds and was a foot taller than me but sure, I’ll see what I can do. You know where this is going don’t you? I must be a sucker for punishment.

I was all by myself without a sewing machine in my little university town, so I arranged to tag along one weekend with an acquaintance who was returning to my hometown 4 hours away. My mom found some random friend who had a machine, and a serger, and I spent all of one Saturday at her house cutting and sewing and trimming and making a dress/bathrobe that wouldn’t fall off out of the mess of blue polyester. I did a pretty good job too I’d like to add. The only place that didn’t quite work was the waist. I was unacquainted with the ways of elastic, and I had not left enough give in the waistband. Once I got the thing on it looked just fine, but when I tried to get it off it got seriously hung up on my boobs and I had to struggle out of it. But I didn’t care, compared to my last experience, this was a rousing success.

The day of the concert loomed, convocation I believe, and I wore the ugly dress and sang. Then, because I am a very big nerd and was also the first at my University to attempt a double major in music on two different instruments, you should have seen them salivating when I auditioned on three right after they’d gotten the program approved, I of course needed to run off and change into orchestra clothes to play the other music at the event with the orchestra. (Orchestras let their members wear whatever they want, as long as the men are in tuxes and the women are in black and it’s long. Why won’t choirs catch on?) I may have performed this wardrobe change more than once to keep up with the program. I do remember being in a tiny bathroom with several other choir members when suddenly my waistband got hung up on my boobs again and I was stuck for a minute or two before I got free of that dress.

On Monday the director of that choir, who was also the head of the voice department, chair of some such and other and an imposing man with white hair and a grumpy scowl asked me to come to his office for a minute. As I sat there nervously he tried to begin. “I’ve never, well, I don’t know exactly how to go about this…I’ve never had to do something like this before…but something has come to my attention that I need to address…”

While I sat there wondering what on earth he could be talking about, and what had I done that was so terrible, he finally spit it out. “Several of the ladies in the choir came to me today and told me they think your dress might be too tight. NOT,” he stretched his hands out defensively, “that I noticed at all, I don’t even remember what it looked like, but 5 people came to me this morning and so I guess that I needed to say something.”

His ears were starting to turn pink. I was so relieved I laughed out loud. “So,” he continued, “I don’t know, it it possible to make it less tight?”

I told him I would see what I could do, which was mainly to not change in front of anyone but I didn’t tell him that, and then just because I couldn’t resist I asked, “Did they happen to mention whether it was the top or bottom that was too tight?”

The pink crept from his ears to the top of his bald spot and across his cheeks as he protested, “I have no idea, they didn’t say and I didn’t notice.”

Then he shooed me from his office as quickly as possible and I went wandering off to my locker with a look of bemusement on my face. At least, I assume it looked something like that because a friend of mine named Chantelle, a trumpet major, asked, “What happened to you?”

“Did you see my dress on Saturday, the choir one I mean?”

“Yes, they’re hideous, what about it.”

“Did it look too tight to you?”


“George just told me that several people in choir told him that my dress is too tight.”

She burst out laughing. “That’s just Karen and her friends. She’s just jealous because you look better in it than she does.”

Karen was the alpha soprano, and if you know anything about sopranos, you know what that means. She also fit the fat lady sings stereo type rather well.

I didn’t alter the dress. I couldn’t, I had used a serger to finish the seams. In the name of getting along I took a stitch ripper to an outside seam in the skirt that was a little less than an eighth of an inch from the serger seam. It made no difference whatsoever, but I could truthfully say that I tried to let it out if anyone asked. No one did. At the next concert George took a moment to put his arm on my shoulder in a grandfatherly way and whispered, “Your dress looks fine, thanks for fixing it.”

That would have been the end of it, except that the Christmas performance had a number that we performed with the brass ensemble. In the final rehearsal, as the horns filed out, George said, “Okay, we’re here on Saturday in concert wear.”

In a stage whisper, designed so that all of the guilty parties could hear, but not George, Chantelle leaned toward me as she filed past and said, “Yeah, don’t show up in that too tight dress ya big slut.”

And then we convulsed in giggles, until I had to explain to the very sweet woman beside me what was going on because she was so confused. At which point she took great pains to assure me that she had never been one of the people who had said anything like that and I assured her that I had never thought that she had.

I think that was the year that my dad, of his own volition, went out and bought me a sewing machine for my birthday. I still have it, I’ve dragged it along with me on every move, even the year I was sleeping on a church floor. It’s making sad little noises, and loud thumping noises that seem to say, “Half of my gears are plastic and you are working me to the bone, please give me a rest.”

But I can’t give it a rest yet, because the Girl has a birthday in one week, and the Baby turns one on Tuesday, and there are gifts to make, and slings to sew and eventually the poor thing will die. I’m very excited because I hope I’ll be able to replace it with a really good machine, but I will be a bit sad, because this is the machine on which I taught myself to sew.
Perhaps on a new machine I’ll get to be as good as my grandma.

all content © Carrien Blue

6 thoughts on “Can’t. Stop. Sewing.

  1. My word my dear you were destined to sew weren’t you? I have owned some of those satin chorus atrocities but I am thankful to say I have never attempted to alter any of them myself. I still can’t sew much more than a button.

    And I found the story about you and your eyeglasses very charmingly bizarre. What a “Through the looking glass” kind of family you must have grown up in. I just love the idea of it.

  2. Try a dab of cooking spray where it is clunking the worst. I babied my old Singer along for a few extra years thanks (I think) to dabs of cooking spray now and then.


  3. Oh, I wish I had known. I sold my machine at our garage sale before we moved. The theory was that I would get a new one on the other end, since they are not THAT expensive, and very heavy (they charge to move by weight).
    I did take home ec classes. Lots. But my best learning was just jumping in and doing. The time I reupholstered my mom’s fold-out sofa comes to mind. Just took it apart, cut out new material, sewed it back together and staple gunned it back on.
    My biggest sewing disaster, however, came at my friend’s wedding. I had agreed to sew the bridesmaid dresses, and was also in the wedding. So I sewed dresses for the four other bridesmaids. They were fitted bodices with puffy sleeves and full skirts. I sewed the bodices first, and had each woman try them on. When I was fully convinced that the bodices fit, I sewed on all of the skirts.
    On the night of the rehearsal dinner, I delivered the dresses. To a one, they all looked as though they had lost ten pounds. They were way too big!
    The fabric was very heavy (actually upholstery fabric!), and the full skirts added so much weight that they pulled on the bodices and made them fall completely differently on the women.
    That night, I had to rip the skirts off, take in the bodices, sew the skirts back on. . . and begin sewing my dress! My boyfriend (now hubby) stayed up all night with me, while I barked orders “Pin this” “unpin that” “Rip this” “Iron that”.
    We all looked gorgeous for the wedding, but I was exhausted. When my hubby proposed, the next thing he said is “Promise me you won’t sew anything for the wedding!”

  4. Oh how i laughed. I remember those dresses. I hated the red sweetheart neckline ones for jazz choir, which of course we had to sew ourselves. i remember mom helped me, which was funny since she doesnt sew and I do 🙂
    Love you dear.

  5. This brought back memories… they were very ugly and ill fitting. (and I’m SO glad those university days are over!!)

    I hope your sewing goes well. 🙂

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