Grit Blogs > Domestic Episodes of a Rodeo Princess

Threads of Memory

Old SingerI have forgotten birthdays, anniversaries, and tax bills. I have forgotten my phone, shoes, and hair appointments. I’ve forgotten to unplug the iron and I’ve forgotten where I’ve parked. I’ve completely forgotten people’s names, where I met them and why I’ve disliked them. Don’t even get me started on hours spent hunting car keys, lost earrings or important papers. I’ve picked up an exquisite Limoges milk pitcher from the sideboard in my own dining room and wondered where it came from. Thank goodness my old horse Bonnie had a real barn lust or there would have been many afternoons out trail riding that might have ended in hysterical phone calls because I forgot how the trail went. I accumulated almost fifteen pounds of brown sugar over time, because I could never remember – while at the grocery store – whether I had it in the pantry. I’ve walked into rooms, forgetting why I went in. I’ve forgotten to close gates in the pasture and doors on the barn, leading to many many domestic episodes. I’ve forgotten how to spell “predicament” and how much 35 minus 17 is.

In fact, while I was writing this, several times I have forgotten what I was doing and wandered off to do something else.

My point is … Dear Daughter-In-Law (DIL) Ripper brought an ancient Singer Sewing Machine in from the barn (don’t remember where we got it, how long it’s been there or why I brought it home in the first place) and said, plaintively and with much rolling of her doe like eyes, “I wish I knew how to use this.”

Old Singer

I have not touched a sewing machine in many, many years. My mother was and is a Seamstress Supreme, and sewing was an activity, much like reading or playing an instrument, that was a huge part of my childhood. She made all of our clothes, and going to the Fabric District in Philadelphia to pick out fabric for dancing school costumes or prom dresses was a very special occasion to be shared just between us. We would stand together in front of the pattern books, turning the large pages, and she would say – I can take that sleeve, and put it on that top, and we can match it with that skirt and make it out of this fabric – and outfits and evenings and girlish dreams would form, and out of the scraps, my Barbie and Chatty Cathy would have the best, most fashionable doll clothes In our neighborhood – sorry Gail, but I still think so!

She had a Necchi Sewing Machine that did zig zag stitches and scalloped and serged and ruffled. The arrival of this machine when I was little meant that my sisters and I got her old machine just for us to use. It went into the basement on its own table, next to the “toy” iron, which heated up enough to really iron clothes, and the “toy” oven, which got hot enough to bake cookies. We had real scissors, boxes of straight pins and needles, and all these appliances used electricity.

All the little girls in the neighborhood had similar little kitchens and laundries in their basements, which we played in when we weren’t sledding down hills without helmets and riding our bikes in traffic. Or walking over a mile to the candy store with our quarter allowance. It was a different world. It’s not that we didn’t burn ourselves or cut ourselves or sew our fingers into the hems of little doll pants – it’s just that unless you were REALLY hurt – requiring treatment by a doctor – it was just child’s play.

But, where was I? Oh, yes. Ripper, with a dusty, chicken poo encrusted ancient Singer Sewing Machine.

I’m staring at the machine which she is wiping down with a cloth. It’s so pretty – shiny black, with gold scroll work. She’s holding an equally old spool of thread. Apparently, in the same pile of junk in the barn that held the machine, there was a sewing box full of balls of lace, little papers of needles and pins, LA MODE buttons, and that is also now on my kitchen table.

“I could make stuff with this.” Ripper is now unrolling lace across the table. “Why would someone have so much lace?” (I’m assuming she means the original owners of the box and the machine, not us – because I still can’t actually remember bringing this stuff home.)

I say, “Well, women used to sew the lace on the hems of their skirts, to make it pretty, or longer, if there wasn’t enough fabric.”

“I could make something on this machine, if I knew how to put this thread on it.” She’s trying the spool out on various places.

I know how to thread it.

Of all the things I have forgotten in my life – important things, unimportant things, objects and thoughts and occasions and feelings – I remember how to thread this machine.

I remember my sister sitting next to me and saying, “I’ll show you – just ONCE, though.” I remember where to put the thread spool, I remember the way you hook it through the arm (I remember it’s called “the arm”), I remember looping it around the tension knob. I remember that you have to be careful not to screw with THIS too much. I hand her the thread and tell her to thread the needle – because my eyes just cannot do that.

Once the needle is threaded, there is the matter of the bobbin. I show DIL how to use the wheel to move the needle down down into the sole to loop around the bobbin thread and pull it up. I remember all of this. I remember that the bobbin is a pain in the ass.

We start sewing all the junk mail. About every three inches, the bobbin thread breaks. Apparently the long deceased owner of this bobbin kept adding different colored thread to the already filled bobbin and it is a mess. Ripper gets tired of sewing the junk mail and rushes off to the fabric store to buy fabric to “make something.” I insist she take a picture of the machine with her camera, so she can show the people at the fabric store what she is using. I don’t really know why I think this is a good idea, but there is just something about US buying fabric that seems to require some kind of validation.

In about an hour, she’s back with batting and fabric and a BIG IDEA. She’s going to make pillows.

Ripper Sews

Now, in addition to making all my clothes and my doll clothes, my mother made slip covers and curtains and I remember that it was a major activity that involved piping and fabric on rolls, moving furniture to get areas big enough to cut the fabric, rows and rows of straight pins, and zippers longer and more problematic than the Mexican American border. The whole family talked of nothing else for weeks, and even my father the engineer used to get in on the cutting and pattern making.

DIL is unfettered by any need other than to get that Singer chewing up yards of fabric, so she cuts two squares, sews them together and stuffs them. Every once in a while the bobbin thread breaks, or the machine comes unthreaded, or I offer technical advice like – “Reverse at the end of each row, to secure your stitches.” Voila, pillows! Less than three hours after she dug that little machine out of a pile of hay in the barn she has a stack of pillows and a whole bunch of creative pride.

Then she says it: “You are like a real mom. You taught me to sew.”

With affection.

Along with threading a machine, I will never ever forget how I felt when she said that.

I make her promise that at my funeral she will tell my sisters and my mother (assuming I go first), and anyone else that will listen, that I taught her to sew. On a machine. That I remembered how to thread.

rodeo princess
9/4/2009 2:38:46 PM

Thanks to everyone who commented! Sewing machines sure bring back a lot of memories! This is how you get the bobbin back in: Slide the silver plate (called the shoe) that is directly under the sewing needle out and you will see a bobbin sized hole. Pop the bobbin into that hole - leaving a little thread (about six inches) hanging out the top. Slide the silver plate back into place, and holding the end of the thread through the needle, lower the needle into the hole and back out again -it should loop around the loose end of the thread from the bobbin. Pull the thread you are holding and it should pull the thread up and out of the hole under the needle. Voila!

9/4/2009 1:30:14 PM

I have an old singer that belonged to my mother which came from her brother-in-law's mother who lived to be 103. It still has the beautiful machine table that is bird's eye maple. I priced bird's eye veneer to replace a damaged top.I was absolutley shocked until I learned that bird's eye used to be a "throw away" lumber and is now prized. I also have 2 singer electric portables (one's case is in bad shape-the other is perfect. They all work and I learned to sew on the older portable. My Daddy made a case for it with a stool and a drop leaf on the back. I also have 3 other machines, a portable and 2 desk type Kenmores. I was amazed how quickly my 10 year old granddaughter learned to sew although she has such an aptitude for figuring out how things work, I guess I should not be. We put it in her room at my house in an old sewing machine cabinet I found at a junk store. Since I have so many I am taking it to her Christmas with a sewing kit and lots of extras. I have no doubt it will be put to good use. She likes to "Do things constructive" when she gets bored and is not a big TV or computer buff. I was making my own skirts by the time I was 14 and rebuilding the hand-me-downs I got from 4 older sisters who all sewed. My mother was an unbelievable seamstress even designing her and our clothes. My aunt used to buy nice material and gave the scraps (she always bought too much for one outfit) and a lot of her own store bought clothes style) for making dresses for her daughter because she was she was so tall and big for a girl. Mother could do amazing things with that material and scraps from other clothes for trim. I still have 4 outfits that she made me back in the 70's with bell bottom pants of stretchy polyester--They need to be in a museum. One looks like a jump suit, but is two pieces that fit together perfectly. Another has desert scenes that are all co-ordinated. I always loved the little tops and play suits

mary cooper
9/4/2009 9:29:54 AM

love the article and have a cabinent Singer in good shape and want to use---but how do you get the bobbin back in ?

9/4/2009 8:19:20 AM

I have a sewing machine that is very similar to this one. It is a portable model, complete with the carrying case. I had it serviced about 10 years ago with a new belt and some oil - they wanted to buy it from me for $ should take care of this one! I didn't sell mine because it belonged to my grandmother, and there are too many important memories within it! Plus, it works great! So congratulations on putting yours back into good use.

9/4/2009 8:18:38 AM

I have a sewing machine that is very similar to this one. It is a portable model, complete with the carrying case. I had it serviced about 10 years ago with a new belt and some oil - they wanted to buy it from me for $ should take care of this one! I didn't sell mine because it belonged to my grandmother, and there are too many important memories within it! Plus, it works great! So congratulations on putting yours back into good use.

9/4/2009 7:46:50 AM

Hi Shirley, Lovely article. Tell your DIL that my mum still has here Singer and it's older than I am (half a century). She still uses it at least once a week. btw, tell her to buy a magnet so she can pick up the pins she drops really easily. It's a trick my dad taught my mum after he had got tired of them sticking in his feet!!

9/4/2009 7:46:30 AM

Hi Shirley, Lovely article. Tell your DIL that my mum still has here Singer and it's older than I am (half a century). She still uses it at least once a week. btw, tell her to buy a magnet so she can pick up the pins she drops really easily. It's a trick my dad taught my mum after he had got tired of them sticking in his feet!!

8/30/2009 9:33:09 AM

You remind me of my mother-- she taught all four of us girls how to sew. It certainly has come in handy over the years when my girls were growing up. Those look like some beautiful pillows too. vickie

dogcrate king
8/24/2009 3:14:37 PM

You certainly do write well! What a pleasure to read.

dogcrate king
8/24/2009 2:21:32 PM

You certainly do write well! What a pleasure to read.

rodeo princess
8/22/2009 8:39:00 AM

GlendaleAZ: thanks for sharing that! I could just picture it. I think what you do (and I am no seamstress, believe me) but I think you open that leg up and scrunch the extra fabric on the other side of the foot, so that the needle is in like a hollow, if you follow me. And why would you, because I confused myself trying to describe it. But,easiest explanation, you just finagle the material around so you are only sewing one thickness. I love these ancient electricals: I also have an eighty year old Sunkist juicer - you could slap it on the back of a row boat and fish all day! It juices at 45 horsepower!

8/21/2009 4:54:15 PM

Shirley, Thank you for your story. I grew up with a very similar black and gold shiny Singer that mom always had on stand-by just in case. I inherited it after she passed away as my sister already has some fancy surger thingy and didn't have any use for it other than maybe its antique value. I remember one night my son came to me and said Dad... Can we sew this? and handed me football pants with the pad pockets at the thighs and knees all falling off. Well I got out that Singer and it's familiar sounds and smells... and after what seemed like 4 feet of talgled thread stuck within the sole plate and bobbin etc I got it to actually work! On an emvelope... lol. Really once I got it all up and running and figured out how to thread the bobbin and then get the needle to pick up the thread from underneath (which there has to be an easier way than what I did) I realized that there was no way to fit the leg of the pants over the machine to sew the pockets back on. I was convinced I remember my mother sewing patches on my sleeves for cub scouts but maybe she did that stuff by hand because I don't ever remember a sleeve being sewed shut which is essentially what we would have done had we used the machine. It was a good time for my son and I laughing that we had mothers and grandmothers who were expert at making that old Singer Sing... In our mechanical wisdom we determined that Gorilla Glue would do the trick and glued the edges of the pad pockets down which of course was only one step better than duct tape! Thank you again for such a memory invoking story. I appreciate your willingness to even plug that puppy in! It is quite the machine and I'm sure if it could it would tell stories of its own. If I ever have straight lines or pillows or hems that need sewing I may be brave enough to use it because the story it would make is certainly worth being a part of. Thank you.

cindy murphy
8/20/2009 7:02:27 PM

Hi, Shirley, and welcome to the Grit blog family. Loved your article. I can soooo relate to the long list of forgottens; it's like Mom has always said - I'd forget my head if it wasn't attached. She's also always told me I'd be late to my own funeral, (which I don't consider to necessarily be a bad thing), but that's neither here, nor there, and what was I talking about again? Oh, yes....Mom had a Singer sewing machine very similar to your shiny-black one. Mom's was pretty metallic light blue, and was probably a slightly newer model than yours - the base wasn't wood, but metallic blue metal too. It had that same voluptuous womanly curve to it though, and the bobbin was still a pain in the @ss to thread. Sewing machines came and went, but she always went back to that blue Singer. I got her cast-offs. I never learned to sew much more than a straight line, though - and even that is an effort in futility most times. Come to think of it, Mom didn't sew either - not clothes, or pillows, or slip-covers, or tableclothes anyway. I know she did a lot of hemming, because I was short, (funny - I'm still short, and never felt the urge to hem). I remember standing on one side of the kitchen table, with the Singer on the other side, while she stuck pins in my skirts or pants, and I worried she'd either miss the fabric and stab me, or swallow one of the pins she had sticking out of her mouth as she told me to 'turn this way'. Oh, and darts! Mom would sew darts in the waist of my Levis so I didn't have that hated gap in the back long before Levis made jeans to specifically fit a teenaged girl's build. I had the best, (and probably the only), darted Levis in high-school! Thanks for bringing my own "threads of memory" back to the surface. Cindy ~ A Lakeside View