Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sewing Beginnings - Part 1

My Grandmother Eula Dunn Watkins surrounded by her grandchildren. L-R: My cousin Sherry, cousin Debby in front, me peeking out from behind, my brother Mike, and another cousin Bobby.

When I decided to start this blog/journal, I mainly wanted to remember the days of my life in 2009, but I also wanted it to be a place where I could record the few needlework projects I do. There won't be many, but I have pictures of things I've done in the past few years to make it seem like I do a lot.

I can't remember when I first thought about sewing myself. My first memories are the sounds of the sewing machine and scissors snipping and people coming and going and trying on clothes. My grandmother Eula was a talented seamstress who sewed not only for our family but for the public. She sewed effortlessly and well on that shiny black Singer machine. Pieces of fabric just seemed to magically turn into clothes and quilts and curtains. I don't even think she used a pattern most of the time. Many times I would come home from school to find a new dress to wear the next day (more than likely plaid). I just took it for granted and never asked her to show me how or expressed the least interest in it. She kept my brother and me and most of my cousins, and she probably preferred that we leave her alone.

She did teach me to crochet on long winter evenings sitting by the fire. Again, she didn't use a pattern but just taught me by telling me how many times to wrap the thread around my needle and how many stitches to skip until I had turned out yards and yards of lace. It wasn't until much later that I learned that those stitch combinations had names, and that you could make different designs by reading patterns. I never used the lace that I recall but was content to just mindlessly turn out long trails of it. She also tatted, although I never actually saw her do it. She supposedly tatted lace for my baby socks, and I have some pretty intricate collars she did. By the time I became interested, her hands were shaky, and she couldn't really remember. I do have her shuttles and finally learned a few years ago. I can see why she couldn't teach me. It's not easy!

Another thing she taught me was embroidery, just simple stitches, like the running stitch, lazy daisy, French knots, and I turned out many dish towels with flowers and animals on them - the types of things people love so much now - vintage! We didn't spend much time inside in those days, and I would always have a little bit of grubby needlework with me. I also don't ever recall those being used to dry dishes. Wonder why. She once made a quilt with the state flower for each state embroidered on squares, and she let me do French knots to my heart's content. That turned out to be the quilt she gave me.

Once I dropped out of college and was living and working at home, I had some time on my hands and thought I would learn to sew. I was also going to get married in a year or so and was feeling a little domestic. I bought a Singer teach-yourself-to-sew book and kind of taught myself with a little guidance from Grandma. She had talent, and I didn't (that gift went to Sherry), so she didn't have that much patience with teaching me how to put in zippers: "Just use your imagination," she once said. I guess I don't have much, because zippers still give me fits.

I did make a few things but I think got a little bored with it. Mama was just deciding she wanted to learn to sew (and did, quite well), so she was always making things. In fact, she made just about everything I wore for my wedding showers and parties and I think a couple of the bridesmaid's dresses. So that was my first brief venture into the sewing world and I pronounced it a little boring. I would then get married and move away and have no access to a sewing machine for several years.


  1. Well, I am the nameless stranger sitting on the left. I love your writing about all this and I'll try and write a little about her also.
    My mother, father , brother and I lived in Miami and only visited Grandma for a short time in the summer. I do remember coming to visit and seeing her sewing machine set up in the dinning room with scraps and stacks of fabric all about. Often she was sewing school clothes for Becky and Debbie. I was so envious. Occassionaly when we were there a customer would come by. I remember a black lady coming over to ask about Grandma making her a dress. Grandma told her, "if you bring me the fabric, zipper, etc, I'll make it for you for $1.00". What a bargain, even then. I remember her making 2 dresses for my when I was about 15. One was a red snug fitting dress with darts in the front and back (as that was the style)and an "empire" style dress made from a small yellow print fabric. Wow, I was so proud of those dresses.
    It was a few years before that I had the yearning to learn to sew myself. My mother did not sew, knit, crochet or have any interest in it, so my interest must have come from Grandma. I just knew I had to sew. We shopped in Miami at a huge new dept store, "Grand Union" ( I think). It was like a Wal-mart. They had everything--including fabric. I was dying to make a full shirt. You know the kind you put on and twirl around in until you skirt flares out 360 degees. I found this (ugly and cheap) green print fabric and bought 5 yards. That should be enough for a full twirling shirt don't you think? Only problem--I had no sewing machine and no pattern.There I sat in my room with needle and thread and mounts of this ugly green fabric making myself this prized skirt. Eventually I finished it. The buttonhole on the waistband must have been something to see (I don't remember), but I was so happy with myself. After a couple of attempts like this my Dad felt sorry for me and for my birthday (I think) bought me a little used Singer that didn't even go in reverse. Years later when I got married this is the machine I used to make my wedding dress. Just goes to show you, you can do a lot with a basic machine. I had my wedding dress all finished except for the hem and so when Grandma came down for the wedding I asked her to hem it for me.
    When I was about 17 Grandma made each of her grandchildren a quilt. When she gave it to me she said "now I want you to use this-don't put it away". The quilt was a scrappy drunkard's path and in the quilt was the little yellow print fabric and that horrible green print (the yards of leftover fabric from my twirly skirt). I did use the quilt and I am so sorry I did. It is worn and stained and is one of the only things I have that she gave me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. Grandma definely spurred my interest in quilting. When I was younger I had no interest in quilting, but later something just drew me to it and I am hooked. One of the memories I have of Grandma is her showing me an easy way to ease sleeves into a bodice. That was a great tip and so much faster that what I was doing. My professional career was in health care (oncology)and I loved it, but my passion was always fabric, and fibers. I only wish I had been able to spend more time with Grandma when I could appreciare learning from her knowledge, experience and talent. At least I must have inherited her love of sewing and even if I'm not as good as she was, it has brought me a lot of comfort over the years.

  2. Wow. She loved you better! I think she recognized your talent and knew you would take her advice. I had a picture of you in that wedding dress. I'll look for it. Or send me one, and we'll get it posted. I've never heard about that skirt made by hand. That's amazing. I think you deserved a sewing machine after that.

    Sorry about whiting out your name! I fixed it. I'm computer skills lacking!