“Mama,” my six-year-old daughter, Annabelle, says, “let’s sew.” She looks at me, her eyes already sparkling with ideas for projects. Aprons, pillows, stuffed animals.
The truth is, I do many things well. I can cook and bake. I routinely throw dinner parties for 20 people. I knit and write books and give speeches in front of a crowd of thousands. I do these things without fear, some might even say with a good dose of ease. But sew?
“Mommy doesn’t sew,” I tell her.
I could add that this is why many of my coats are missing buttons. When a button falls off, it stays off. But instead of explaining, I get out paper and paint, and together we write and illustrate a book about a pig and a dog that are best friends. Writing and illustrating a book? No problem. Sewing is something else.
Back in 1972, when I was in ninth grade, girls were required to take home economics. Half a year of cooking, half a year of sewing. That fall the boys marched off to woodworking and shop, and we went into the home ec lab. There, countertops gleamed and stoves beckoned. I happily baked cookies and brownies that we later served to the boys on silver trays. But when we returned to school after Christmas, the cooking part of home ec was finished, and we began sewing. On the other side of the home ec lab, Singer sewing machines lined the wall.
“Ladies,” our sewing teacher barked, “by June you will have finished making a wraparound skirt, Simplicity pattern 101.”
Mrs. Wylie used to shave off her eyebrows and draw them in with a red pencil, too high on her forehead, which gave her a look of perpetual surprise. Unlike our cooking instructor, Mrs. Follett, a gray-haired grandmotherly type who also taught us sex education (“Making out is what happens above the pearls, and petting is what takes place below the pearls”), Mrs. Wylie snapped and marched and tapped a ruler across her palms to show she meant business.
At the fabric store, I stood paralyzed beneath the bolts and bolts of possibilities. Other girls easily chose baby blue cotton dotted with small forget-me-nots or happy pink-and-white stripes. But I couldn’t imagine how any of it could turn into a skirt, much less a skirt I wanted to wear. “Move along!” Mrs. Wylie commanded. Hastily, I grabbed the largest paisley print, angry brown-and-aqua teardrops on a yellow background. For the rest of the semester, I cringed whenever I had to look at it.
As Susan and Karen, my lab partners, pinned and cut, I poked myself with straight pins and mismeasured. My sweaty hands made everything even worse. By the time we moved to the sewing machines, I hated that hour of home ec more than anything else, more than the algebra I couldn’t quite understand, more than having to shinny up the rope in gym while our teacher blasted “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” on a record player.
Each week Mrs. Wylie fiendishly reminded me how slow my progress was, looking positively gleeful at my mistakes. “Ann,” she told me one day, “you may be getting an A in English, but you are not getting an A in home economics.” The sewing machine continued to jam, the bobbin remained mysterious, and thread flew off the needle regularly.
In desperation, the night before my skirt was due, I sneaked my pile of hideous paisley fabric home and begged my cousin to make it for me. She did. The next morning I arrived at the home ec lab early and slid the skirt under the needle as if I were just finishing it. Mrs. Wylie stood in the doorway, her penciled-in brows raised. She watched me, then marched across the room, picked up the skirt and said, “You did not sew this.” Before I could protest, she pulled one thread and unraveled the entire thing. On the day the ninth-grade girls got to wear their homemade wraparound skirts to school, I stayed home in shame.
Now I have Annabelle looking to me to be her sewing partner. Online I order a kit that promises anyone can make the three small stuffed--pillow patterns inside. Even beginners can master these easily! Annabelle, who often sews the insides back into her ragged stuffed pig, Piggy, will probably have no problem. Me? I’m not so sure.