Sewing: The forgotten tradition

By Tom Poland

Back around 1965, a fashion craze swept through high school.

Cranberry, button-down shirts emerged as “the” shirt to have, and like other young bucks I had to have one. Nothing’s worse than being a teenager out of step with fashion.

When it became apparent my folks weren’t getting me a store-bought shirt, Grandmom Poland said she would make me one, and she did. Made it on her Singer sewing machine. The collar was a bit out of line and the buttonholes a tad large but I loved that shirt and plumb wore it out.

Remember sewing? It used to be part of family life, and there was a time when women bought bolts of cloth and made clothes for the family.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I watched Grandmom Poland pump the treadle and make that Singer sing. The song would start slowly but pressure on the treadle would rev it up, and that machine would hum right along. I recall sewing’s rhythmic tune, seeing parchment-like paper etched with faint blue patterns, and hearing words like rickrack, facing and gathering.

I recall, too, the complex act of threading the machine and seeing all manner of machine accessories. A wooden spool of thread sat on a pin and adjusting the thread tension proved critical. Sewing seemed mechanical and magical but more than anything it seemed to be a labor of love.

I hope I told Grandmom how much I appreciated the shirt she made me because it must have taken days to make. And that brings me to a question. Do young women sew today? Do they pin patterns to cloth and cut fabric with the utmost care? Do they lovingly put an old Singer sewing machine to work and hear it sing its song?

My guess is they don’t. It takes too much time, and so old Singers sit idle. And besides, just why should a young woman sew today? Plenty of stores sell clothes in a dizzying array of styles and sizes.

There was a time, though, when you had to make them yourself, and there used to be a high school course called Home Economics where girls learned sewing and other practical skills, but those days are out of fashion now.

Change marches on, but even I learned to appreciate sewing’s practical side. Granddad Poland wore overalls. He was short and Grandmom would shorten new overalls’ legs and hem them to fit. She’d sew the end of a discarded leg piece together, sew on a strap, and just like that I had a granite pebble bag for my slingshot. From that bag grew my love for camera bags, Pony Express-type bags, and leather luggage.

No, I doubt young women sew today, and I’ll admit that today’s husbands and beaus should be thankful they don’t. Few things are more painful for a man than being dragged through cloth world. A trip to cloth world ’twas a fate worse than death.

And when I was a boy, few things made me happier than that cranberry, button-down collared shirt I wore in high school. Grandmom sewed it, and it marked the beginning of my love affair with fashion, Brooks Brothers, seersucker suits, bow ties, jackets, sweaters, and more.

Today, whenever I see an old Singer sewing machine, which is rare, I think of Grandmom sewing clothes for us.

They weren’t store bought but they were made with love and they fit just fine. Now, except in the rarest of cases, homemade clothes are passé, and we’re that much more dependent on some seamstress we’ll never meet.

Someone, no doubt, far away in another country. Like a seam-ripper, change has gutted us of yet another custom, and old Singer sewing machines sing no more.

Author: Rachel Howell

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