Monday, August 30, 2010

Reviving a Lost Art

School starts back early here in Georgia. My two year-old daughter started her Pre-K class this past month. To commemorate, I stopped into the JoAnn’s Supercenter near my mother’s house and picked up several new patterns and yards of fabrics for school clothes for my children. As I pored over the jerseys and the corduroys and the filing cabinets loaded with paper envelopes that crackle when you flip through them, I was transported back to my childhood spent with my great aunt Gladys who taught me to sew.

Gladys came from a whole different era. Born a few years before the Great Depression, Gladys was raised in an environment of thrift and self-reliance. She prided herself on her collection of buttons, patterns, fabrics, and notions – and she took great joy in her skill with a needle and thread. I remember flipping through old family photos with her proudly pointing out having made this suit herself, or that dress just for the occasion. Gladys was not above carefully removing a label from a store bought designer dress and stitching it into one of her own creations. Truthfully, it was often difficult to tell which was hers and which had been commercially made. She even tailored her store-bought clothes to fit her exactly.

When I was a child, she dragged me along into the poorly air-conditioned fabric stores with shelves piled high with bolts of gaily patterned fabrics. To this day, my heart skips a beat and my pulse quickens whenever I set foot into a fabric store, and not even a brief stint as an employee of the well-known chain, JoAnn’s Fabrics could dim my excitement. No matter how bright and modern or how well air-conditioned, for just a moment when I step through the door, in my mind’s eye, I still see the bare concrete floor, racks of notions, and shabby shelves that all but groaned under the heavy weight of all the bolts of fabric that made up the Fabric King of my childhood.

It had been years since I’d sewn clothes. I’d noticed with growing distress that commercial patterns and garment fabrics are growing increasingly more difficult to find, especially here in rural southwest Georgia. We have several fabric stores specializing in home decorator fabrics and just as many specializing in quilting fabrics. But garments… well, they’re getting scarce.

While dropping my daughter off at her class, one of the other mothers noted her slim build and asked if I had trouble finding clothes to fit her. I looked at her in surprise and said, “No, because I sew.”

That got me thinking about the decline in garment sewing materials in the area. I started asking questions and learned that while most women my age and older knew their way around a sewing machine and pattern, younger women often did not. In one of our daily online chats, my best friend, Tanya Goffman, a sewing instructor (among other things) in California, suggested that I offer sewing lessons from my home. I hadn’t given sewing lessons in more than ten years. I tried to dismiss the idea, but it wouldn’t go away. That day after school, my children fell asleep in the car, so on a whim to lengthen their naps, I drove the extra fifteen miles to the nearest quilt shop in a neighboring town to pick up some interfacing for one of the jumper patterns I’d selected to work on for my daughter’s school clothes.

Boston Bobbin had just moved from their home in downtown Boston to downtown Quitman and I hadn’t been in the store in a long time, so I browsed among the bolts of fabrics. The owner’s husband, Jack McCullers struck up a conversation with me. We chatted for a while and the subject turned to sewing lessons offered in the store. I mentioned my discovery that sewing garments was fast becoming a lost art, and Jack confided that they were hoping to add some general sewing classes to their schedule, but couldn’t find a teacher. With Tanya’s suggestion ringing in my ears, before I realized it, I offered my services.

My daughter Beth modeling
The Pillowcase Dress
from one of my classes
I went home, dug out my old syllabus and class descriptions and reworked them a bit. Then I got busy making samples of the class projects to show, and returned to the store to talk with Jack’s wife, Cecilia. She took one look at my portfolio and booked me on the spot. I left the store with at least four classes on the schedule for October and November.

Now, I look around at my old Singers and my stacks of fabrics and I can’t help but feel that old familiar excitement. I can’t wait for the opportunity to pass on the passion for sewing that was my great-aunt Gladys’s gift to me, so many years ago.