If my grandmother wasn’t in the kitchen, she was sewing, and if she wasn’t sewing, she was knitting. She took short breaks to sit at her dining-room table and deal herself a hand of solitaire, the cards softly clicking together as her cigarette burned down on its perch in the ashtray.
She was not what you would call “crafty”; she did not create to impress anyone, or even to express herself. Her work was purposeful, and yet there was always beauty, or at least grace, in the things that she made. She did things properly and thoroughly, with care and attention, and that lends to anything a certain grace that cannot be faked or reproduced.
And my grandmother was such a marvel that I was sure I could never match her skill. My mother used to tell the story of my grandmother walking into a department store, admiring a dress that was on display there, and then coming home and just whipping it up from memory, without the aid of a pattern or guide.
She attempted to teach me to sew when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. She sat me down on her green leather sofa with an old washcloth, a length of matching bias tape, and a needle and thread. I was to stitch the bias tape to the edge of the washcloth to make a potholder, which, she said, could be a Christmas present for my mother.
I’m sure I never finished that washcloth pot holder, but I know my sister finished hers. The finished product stayed in my mom’s kitchen drawer for years, and whenever I looked at it, I felt a little embarrassed.
I wanted to learn how to sew, but I lacked the patience to actually do the work involved. I became convinced that the sewing gene had just missed me. But yet — there was something that drew me back to it.
I tried sewing several more times after my grandmother’s failed experiment. In my junior high home economics class, I labored over a walrus-shaped pillow, producing a rather lumpy and unsatisfying result. In high school, visions of sewing myself a new wardrobe led me to take a sewing class, but following clothing patterns baffled me, and I never quite made peace with my sewing machine.
I came back to sewing as an adult, and have found it easier and more gratifying than it was in my youth, but I am still learning the craft.
I am not a maker like my grandmother was; I am still striving for the grace that showed in so much of what she did. So in the spirit of my grandmother’s simple grace, I offer an example of the work she made look easy: work that, for me, is still quite challenging.
Here is a look at what it took to make a very simple and familiar garment — a knit top with bound edges.
The pattern and material chosen.
Ready-made sewing patterns come printed on large sheets of tissue paper and must be cut out into individual pieces. One pattern may include numerous sizes or variations, so the first task is one of selection and familiarization, figuring out what is needed and getting it ready to go.
TIME: 5-10 minutes
Prepwork, pieces of the pattern.
Many patterns include specific instructions for cutting out pattern pieces. Mine did not, so I took care to note which ones were meant to be cut on a fold (producing a symmetrical piece of fabric) or cut twice (producing two identical pieces). I cut the front and back pieces so that the pattern is running the same way. For the narrow bindings at the arm and neck openings, that was less important. Since I was using slippery fabric, I pinned the pattern pieces to the fabric and cut out each piece, leaving a seam allowance around each one.
TIME: About 30 minutes
Cutting out the pieces with special fabric scissors.
Sewing patterns typically provide a very specific means of putting the pattern pieces together. Some of this is predictable, but other instructions are very specific. For this top, I sewed up one shoulder seam, then attached the neck binding all the way around, before closing up the second shoulder seam. For the side seams and armholes, I sewed the bindings on first, then sewed up the side seams and the edges of the binding.
As simple as this seems, sewing one seam usually involves at least three steps: pinning the fabric together, sewing the seam, and then finishing the seam (adding stitches to the raw edge so that the fabric doesn’t unravel). So even for a simple garment such as this one, that literally has three seams holding it together, there are a lot of steps within those three seams.
And even just pinning two pieces of fabric together can be a challenge. One of the things that bedevils me about sewing (as opposed to knitting) is the force and precision with which you must actually compel the fabric into behaving the way it ought to.
TIME: About 1 hour
After the last seam has been sewed, the garment is still not yet done. Each seam should be pressed, both to “set” the stitches, to help ease or smooth out any curved seams, and flatten out the insides of seams so they hang properly. It is usually recommended to press each seam as you go. Finally, there are many pieces of threat to be trimmed, and sometimes knotted or hidden, at the edges of seams. For this top, I chose to do a simple rolled hem, which is not uncommon on casual knit garments such as this. But for a dress, or something with a more polished look, a hand-sewn hem would usually be more appropriate — and substantially more time-consuming.
TIME: About 20 minutes
Finishing the seams.
TOTAL TIME: 2 hours
Modeling the finished product.
By Emily F. Popek
Bio - Emily F. Popek is a newspaper veteran, freelance writer and communications specialist who lives in upstate New York.