I am seven years old and it is warm with a slight breeze that rustles the grass, tickling my bare legs. My friend Sarah, tall and lanky, twirls her short, sunny orange hair between her fingers and remarks that her mother is taking her shopping for school clothes that evening. I consider this for a moment and, confused, ask her doesn’t her mom make some of her clothes for her? Sarah tells me, matter-of-fact, the her mother doesn’t sew and she seems baffled by my question, as if the notion of mothers sewing clothing was foreign to her.
Later as I walk up the hill toward our comfy, happy ranch house I contemplate this new paradigm with which I am suddenly confronted. Didn’t all moms make at least some of their childrens’ clothing? Their Easter and Christmas dresses if nothing else? My entire outlook on the world was challenged and I didn’t like this new reality. Poor Sarah, having to wear store-bought clothes all the time. I would not want to live in a family where the mom didn’t know how to sew. Somehow, the world seemed a little colder, less secure, not as friendly. I walked into the warmth of my cheerful house a little less innocent and a little more grateful for my crafty mom.
Now mind you – this was the 80s and my mom bought most of my clothes. Apparently I was blocking out of my mind all of those outfits and focusing only on the ones handmade by my mom. If I check the evidence now – pictures from that era – I plainly see myself clad in a majority of ready-made clothing.
This blue dress with its crisp white collar was handmade by my mom. I think she also made her sailor style top. I’m not sure about Kelli’s dress.
But I was still in my ego-centric years, just beginning to be confronted with the realization that not all families were like mine, not all experiences parallel to my own. And one experience I counted on was a trip to the fabric store before each major event of the year – school starting, Christmas, Easter, and the summer season. We’d walk in and sit at the familiar pattern counter, my sister and I spinning around and around on the tall, plastic stools as my mom flipped through the phone book sized catalogs.
After we were to dizzy to spin anymore we’d entertain ourselves by looking through the Halloween costume section of the pattern book and covet the elaborate costumes we were sure our mom would not make us. Mom was always willing to spend days crafting a complicated Christmas dress but she was much less keen on toiling for hours to make halloween costumes she knew would be worn for a grand total of three hours – ever (we would never even think of wearing the same costume for more than one Halloween, despite my mom’s stories about dressing as either a hobo or ghost every single Halloween of her childhood without complaining.)
Eventually mom would call us over to get our opinions – did we like this style of dress, did we promise to wear those shorts if she made them? We would usually get reprimanded for arguing and bickering right around the time my mom was making final decisions on patterns – when we thought it was high time we were moving on to the fabric-choosing portion of the event.
We would finally go and look at fabric – usually cotton, and here we had a respectable level of autonomy to choose for ourselves, allthought we were always gently guided by my mom’s taste and sense of decorum. Still, we managed to go home with, over the years, many “gems” of the fabric world including: a print of large, primary color, angular giraffes, neon pink fabric printed all over with neon colored sneakers, retina-burning coral fabric with electric blue seashells….. and probably countless others that were less than my mother’s top choices. But the important dresses – Christmas and Easter – were always crafted with more classic, tasteful fabrics.
After the pattern, fabric, and notions were chosen came the measuring, the fittings punctuated by accidental pin pricks, and the sessions of standing still for far too long while mom tacked up the hem just right.
Then, finally came the time when we could put on and proudly wear our very own kiddie-coture that I know we didn’t properly appreciate. I’d like to say that most of the outfits were worn regularly and treasured by us, but I’m sure that we occasionally frustrated my mom by ignoring and neglecting pieces she’d worked so hard on, relegating them to the bottom of our closets until they were, all too soon, too small. For me, this always meant the happy prospect of shiney new clothing, often for my sister it meant giving new life to my cast-offs – such is the downfall of being born second.
I grew up in this homecrafted way – wearing hand-made dresses, helping my mom bake our birthday cakes, receiving hand painted ceramics as gifts from my paternal grandmother, watching my aunts paint with water colors and design their own jewelry. I saw my dad and my uncles take pride in woodworking and woodcarving, my maternal grandmother doing ambitious needlework, my aunt crocheting intricate baby gifts for each new member of the family….. and on and on.
So I guess I come by my obsessions honestly and really had little hope of leading a normal – craft free life (not that I’d want to). Just as Randy was destined to play music, I think crafts are written into my DNA.
As much as I pictured myself as a modern, metropolitan woman on the move when I day-dreamed as a child, I find myself preferring to stay home and sew rather than go out and paint the town red. I suppose it is inevitable – so I salute my hand-made heritage and the multi-generational pattern into which I have so neatly and naturally conformed. I salute all the people I now emulate who do the seemingly illogical – spending countless hours and often substantial amounts of money making items that could be purchased easily and sometimes more economically, often with more consistent results. People who poured their heart and their sweat into customized and carefully thought out gifts that were all too often under-appreciated or worse, even dreaded by their recipients. I have to admit that I have been on that side of the coin – wishing to open a bland, mass-produced item I could have easily purchased myself.
But as I look back to all the material items I have kept over the years (and I’m not a “thing-keeper” by nature, so my collection is small and limited to the things that really made an impact on me), I don’t still have my long-coveted Eastland loafers or my stone-washed denim purse. I do have my hand crocheted baby blanket stitched for me by my great aunt Chris,
and the Easter dress my mom made me in kindergarten (though I didn’t get to wear it on Easter that year thanks to a nasty case of the chicken pox),
the wall-hanging my grandma stitched (its called Chirp and Squeek – isn’t that adorable!),
the ceramic bunny shaped jewelry box my grandma painted and fired, the cable purse my aunt knitted me for Christmas, even an ornament made for me by my 2nd grade teacher with my name on it.
I have these idealized fantasies of future Christmases with our future children: we’ve limited the store bought gifts – the things we could easily purchase any other time – and we revel in the handmade ones we’ve worked on all year for each other. I know my fantasy is just that – and the reality will fall somewhere between all commercial and all hand-made, but it is a beautiful fantasy. And it is why I continue to work on hand-made items despite the occasional frustration (‘why do i even do this? i suck! its no fun’) , the inevitable dissapointment when the reaction of the recipient does not match the time and excitment I poured into the project, and the endless marital struggles over the ever-climbing craft supply bill.
Lately I’ve been having some of those creative frustrations (Randy tells me I am creatively constipated) and I needed to remind myself why I do it. And in the end, its all worth it – where else would I get a dishtowel displaying a teapot eating a doughnut if I hadn’t made it myself?