(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
In the fall of 1960, with Dad’s transfer to Naples, Italy I entered my teens. Whereas I had never wanted to have anything to do with making my own clothes, I was interested in style. Grandmom had made her living as a seamstress, working for a dressmaker who catered to a wealthy clientele in Philadelphia. Moma had taught herself to sew by reading McCall’s and Simplicity patterns after she began her perambulations with Dad’s military career. For really special occasions she would treat herself to a Vogue pattern. For as long as I can remember, we would comb ladies magazines, newspapers and catalogues for the new styles each fall and spring, discussing hem length, collars, and style lines. Could we, that is could Moma or Grandmom, modify the patterns in the drawer to update the style. I began to develop a sense of what I wanted to wear. Being a teen that meant something similar to what the other girls at school were wearing. As we never had a lot of money, I needed to develop a vocabulary that would allow me to explain to Moma what I wanted so she would be able to adapt her patterns. About the time I entered eight grade, I was given a subscription to Seventeen which, in addition to Moma’s magazines and patten books, helped me to describe clothing I liked. Moma often called these things “wish books”: I wish I had, I wish I could, I wish . . . Well, I began wishing I could look and dress like the models in Seventeen. I read all the descriptions of the clothing and analyzed each outfit.
Now, living as an expat in Europe, like everything else in life, has it plusses and minuses. In terms of dressing in the early 1960s, the good parts include delightful boutiques and some very good buys. The down side was that nothing in the shops was like what I was seeing in Seventeen. Moma had always made most of my clothing beginning when I was little by using the cloth from the cotton sacks that flour came in. As I grew and my clothing required more fabric she would purchase the cloth. As my elementary school years were in the 50s that meant lots of cotton dresses. As I entered high school, I wanted wool skirts, coordinated blouses and sweaters. Heaven forbid that the sleeves be gathered or the collar be pointed. Now the lines needed to be smooth with peterpan collars. I didn’t want any old fashioned gathered skirts, I needed pleats. The Italian stores had beautiful silks and gabardines and that wasn’t what Seventeen was showing. Moma tried buying fabric from Sears Catalog. Yes, that wonderful catalog had a section that sold fabric. Shipping at that time was by ship. Sears packaged the fabric, and sent it to New York where it was put on a ship whose primary goal was not to bring me fabric for a new skirt. One afternoon, after listening to my litany of how oppressed I was, Moma said that if I was so eager and particular about my clothing I could make my own. What!?! I didn’t know how to sew. My earlier experience was less than satisfying or successful. Even when I had attempted doll clothes it was frustrating and discouraging. How could she expect me to make my own things. When Dad got home from work he calmed things down and said that he would teach me to use Moma’s sewing machine, then she would show me how to begin making some of my simpler requirements. He then drew a series of connected lines on paper. Some were straight and others curved. We sat at Moma’s sewing machine which was an early 50s era White that sewed in a straight line and had an attachment with changeable cams that allowed one to make buttonholes as long as they were one of the sizes made by the cams. I was told that when I could perforate the paper on the drawn lines, Moma would give me a length of fabric. Straight lines weren’t too bad if I didn’t push the knee lever which controlled the speed too hard. Curves were horrible. Paper doesn’t want to turn on the ridged dog feed that propel fabric under the needle of a sewing machine. As I practiced I pictured making a pleated plaid wool skirt, a smooth shouldered blouse in a nice soft fabric that would drape. After I had “mastered” the paper lines Moma handed me a floral printed length of cotton. I was to make a dirndl skirt without a pattern. That meant the same old cotton, gathered skirt in the same silly little floral patterns. I was told money could not be spent on expensive fabric until I had proved I had a modicum of skill. First, I trued the fabric by pulling an edge thread. Next I measured my waist, made the allowance for underlap and seam and cut the waistband. The zipper was the next task. At that time, one made a placket in the seam that covered the zipper. Then I began gathering. I had to adjust the gathers to the waistband without snapping the gathering threads. Having enclosed the raw edge of the gathers into the waistband I still had to hem the skirt. I don’t remember how long it took me to put this relatively simple project together, but with each stitch my daydream of an extensive wardrobe became more and more distant. Furthermore, when I had finished, I only had a gathered, cotton skirt. The colors didn’t seem to go with any of the blouses in my closet and I was sure that the gathers made me look like the broad side of a barn.
At that time, Sophia Loren had made popular wearing brilliantly colored silk shirts over white skirts with narrow pleats. At least, where we were it was the thing to have. I learned to work with silk. I got a vibrantly colored piece that I made into a classic pull over blouse. Moma actually bought a white pleated skirt for me. I was finally on the road to the wardrobe I wanted. One small obstacle to total bliss was that these sorts of outfits only look spectacular if one has a deep tan. Even though many of my friends and even my brother could develop lovely tans, it is something I could never accomplish. Such are the injustices in the life of a teen.
After we returned to the States I was sharing Moma’s sewing machine. She was still making her own clothes, my brother’s shirts, many of my better outfits and, now caring for my infant sister. Because of the birth of my sister I probably got more time at the White than I would have otherwise. I was becoming more adept. I would make some of my clothes for school in the summer. Shorts and tops came out of the scraps that were hanging around from other things. I would experiment with techniques and fitting by making something for my sister. After all, her things were smaller and thus quicker. I read pattern books for tips on how to do different things.
Then my grandmother was widowed. She didn’t have sufficient income to maintain a separate household, so my parents brought her to live with us. I was in college by then. In the summertime when I was home she would critique the clothing I made. It was just like taking any other test. She would turn my things inside out and examine how I had put them together. Then she would tell me how to do it better. Like most young people, I would resist many of her “suggestions” as being too old fashioned. The “suggestions” turned out to be the techniques to make clothes more like those turned out for expensive boutiques. Eventually, I recognized their value and began to use them.
The summer Walt and I wed Grandmom walked me through the process of making my wedding gown. Mom and I had gone to a bridal shop and I had tried on many styles. Then we picked a Vogue pattern that had many of the features I had most admired. That’s when Grandmom began to help. We talked about which fabric to choose and why. At the time we were going to a small fabric shop in the neighboring township run by a couple of brothers. These gentlemen had a fabric store in center city Philly, and this was a small, suburban branch of that store. The family had been in the fabric business for several generations. Several times a year they would go on buying trips to New York. We had been customers since moving here when we returned to the states. I could buy fabric and trims to make a summer dress for all of $5 at that time, and I would drop much of my summer earnings at their shop. Grandmom sewed for fun and Mom for necessity, and we all were patrons. The evening Grandmom, Mom and I walked into the store to look for fabric for a wedding the one brother came and gave us his undivided attention. He and Grandmom talked about the quality of lace and its origin. Mom added that we would need to purchase the fabric for the bridesmaids as well. My contribution to the discussion was to hand him a daylily. It was a tangerine color that I thought was perfect. The next week he made a buying trip to New York and brought back the fabrics for my gown and those of the bridesmaids. They were lovely.
Grandmom spread sheets all over her sitting room floor to protect our fabric. Mom and I cut out the gown. I did the machine work and Grandmom the handwork. I wanted a mantilla and Grandmom embroidered the lace all around the edges. My sister, then age 4, was my flower girl. We made her dress to look the same as the bridesmaids. Grandmom helped me to plan and craft the headpieces for the bridesmaids. We made one of the bridesmaids gowns. The other girls, or their mothers, could sew. That summer I learned a lot about my grandmother as well as sewing. One of the casualties of the summer was Mom’s old White which we wore out. Mom got a new machine that has all sorts of built in stitches: zig-zag, stretch, buttonhole. There were also cams that could be put in the top for decorative stitching. It was a marvel.
The wedding, at least in my mind, was lovely. The color I chose for the bridesmaids matched the sunset. We married at sunset because I’m basically a romantic and, having read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wanted a candle-lit wedding.
I still sew. I do construction sewing, that is making clothes as well as several styles of needle craft. It is no longer an economic thing as fabric stores have become fewer and farther between. I find it both cathartic and relaxing and it gives a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to use my hands.
The last word:
She makes most of her dresses and outfits, including most of what she wears dancing. They get lots of favorable comments.
Keep your sense of humor.