In our house, someone was always sewing. My mom sewed everything. Her machine was seriously old, and had no working feed dogs (the little treads that pull the fabric through the machine as the stitches are made). It wasn't until I went to college and got my own machine that I learned that feed dogs are not just a luxury — you aren't supposed to have to pull your own fabric "evenly" through your machine. But I didn't know that back then. That's what we had. And my mom is a trooper. She still wears hard contact lenses, and thinks they're fine. The machine was in my parents' room. My mom had a sewing machine and an ironing board, my dad had a tank of piranhas. I think this says a whole lot about them. But there was no room for any of it to go anywhere else.
I was a very crafty kid, and we had a very tiny, very crafty, very drafty old house in a very old, very beautiful suburb of Chicago called River Forest. Our neighborhood was preppy and traditional, but my parents were not. My father was a working musician, and his band regularly practiced in the basement. He loved Grace Slick and the Eagles, and worked as a commercial artist during the day. My mom stayed home with us, and she was always doing something crafty — sewing, but also embroidery, crewelwork, needlepoint, cake decorating, macrame, bread-dough-crafts, beading, whatever she wanted. For most of my childhood, we were allowed to have refined sugar only on Sundays — the rest of the week they ground wheat at the dining room table to bake bread, grew vegetables, and made us drink a tablespoon of cod-liver oil mixed into a glass of apple cider every morning (seriously nasty). I can hardly remember a vacation we took in twenty years where we didn't camp. I learned to hike and shoot a gun. We watched a lot of TV in our family. It was never, ever quiet in our house. Ever. Sewing was just one of these things that our family did. It was no big deal. It was more about having things than it was about sewing. I wanted the clothes. My mom, my sisters, me — we all loved clothes. We loved picking out clothes and thinking about clothes. Mom made us new outfits for almost every holiday. Here's Christmas, probably . . . 1977?
Cute. I was all about the long dress. That one was made of a gauzy fabric, with a hand-embroidered heart. I remember many, many times wanting something at the department store — most memorably a dark-green velvet vest and long skirt trimmed with calico from Weiboldt's — and my mom would study it, and then we would go to the fabric store and get the stuff to make it, and she would sew a version that was just as good, but also a fraction of the price. We did that dozens and dozens of times. We had a lot of clothes. I thought they were all awesome. I know there are more pictures somewhere, but my mom probably has them. Here's the riding jacket I needed for my first horse show. It had a velveteen collar and I was really proud of it:
Awesome. My first ribbon, fifth place: The best day of my life! (I totally remember thinking that when this picture was taken. "This is the best day of my whole entire life!") I hadn't known I'd had the capacity for such joy.
I went off to college and I had a very simple sewing machine of my own there — my parents must have given it to me for high-school graduation. My roommates were much more like me than my high-school friends had been, and we all lived in a little cottage where we made stuff all the time — ceramics, dinner parties, quilts, dresses. My life there was more peaceful than it had ever been. I loved school. In the summertime, when I was home from school, it was back to crazytown. My sisters and I shared a weird U-shaped room on the second floor. I don't think our parents came in our room for ten years. It was a MESS. But it was all ours. We had no closets. We had a huge second-floor deck that looked over the back yard. We'd sit up there with our friends and "lay out" (meaning "tan," and I have to put that in quotes because I doubt anyone does it on purpose anymore. But we Ieronemos were championship tanners.) I had a queen-sized futon, and I'd do everthing on it, including eat dinner, entertain friends, and sew. I'd set my sewing machine on the floor in front of it and sew while sitting on the futon and eating Domino's cheese pizza and watching Beverly Hills, 90210. The sewing machine would actually be below me by a few inches and the foot pedal would be about three feet away, also on the floor, and I'd stretch my leg out to reach it. Makes my back hurt just thinking about it. And it was DAMN HOT in there. Chicago summer — no air conditioning. It was a point of pride with my father — he wouldn't get air conditioning. Twenty-eight years in the same house, and fans. Have you ever lived in Chicago in August? The humidity makes your head want to explode. You go to bed sweating and you wake up sweating. Instead of central air, he eventually installed a gigantic attic fan; you'd flick a switch and these big shutters in the ceiling would open and this enormous airplane-hanger fan would turn on and (supposedly — we never believed it) suck all the hot air out of the house. But really it would just be deafeningly loud, just as hot, and now our stupid sewing-pattern papers were blowing all over the place. God did I ever hate that fan. I sort of miss those days, though. It was like that for years and years and years. It seemed like it would always be like that, there. It's how I always think of home, that girl-warren of halter tops, horse books, cordless phones, sandals, Grateful Dead bootlegs, video games (my sister Susie was a genius gamer), make-up, friendly-jungle sheets and rose-covered duvets all over the place, piles of fabric and pattern pieces (my sisters sewed, too), pins in the carpet, people walking across your bed to get to theirs. It was chaos. I've written about the room before (and there's a bad partial picture of it) here.
But I always loved sewing, and I made myself probably twenty dresses, and my mom made me probably twenty more. I wore a lot of dresses. Mini-dresses, Laura Ashley–type dresses (with Doc Martens, natch), slip dresses, gingham dresses, waif dresses, dresses that made me look like an Italian nun (the gray with the Peter Pan collar), wool dresses that I wore with thigh-high tights, Liberty of London dresses made from fabric bought at the Amish fabric store in Kalona, Iowa (which sadly no longer exists). I had the cutest dresses in the world. I sold almost all of them for $5 each at my garage sale in Missoula in 1997. I know. I can't even talk about it. I seriously don't know what I was thinking, except that I had been carrying around a lot of dresses for a lot of years and I had a closet the size of a school locker. Here's a dress, circa 1988, from when I had, as Blair says, Melancholy Tree Syndrome:
Oh DEAR. It strikes nineteen-year-olds particularly hard. Somehow I recovered. You can see, anyway, that I still have the same taste in fabric twenty years later.
So, okay. After college, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Champaign, Illinois, with my college roommate, Ann, who left for graduate school in Chicago before the lease was up, so I suddenly had two rooms to myself. It was the first time I'd ever lived alone. I moved my bed into her old room (the apartment was on the second floor of an old, white farmhouse and it was adorable — Ann's room was painted a glowy warm pale pink with white trim, and she had pretty wood floors) and kept my sewing stuff in my old bedroom. And suddenly, without even trying, my sewing improved like that. Overnight. For the first time, I was able to leave everything out, even if I wasn't finished. I didn't have to spend a half an hour cleaning up everything just so I could sleep on my workspace. Suddenly, I was making things I'd never been able to make before. It was amazing. I only lived there for a few more months, but I never forgot that phenomenon. Conditions matter.
I moved back to Chicago, kissed Andy Paulson for the first time on August 24, 1992 [cue flashing strobe-lights and fog horn], and then we moved together to Missoula, Montana, where we lived in a studio apartment together and had a Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall. We moved a table in order to pull the bed out. I still sewed on my little Singer, lugging it out, along with the ironing board, and putting it away several times a week. In grad school, I took a flat-pattern drafting class at the university as an elective, and that was awesome. I made my wedding dress, which was almost as big as the apartment. Then we moved to Portland, I got hit by a truck, my parents sold the River Forest house and moved here, and then, a couple years later, Andy and I bought this little house, which had a painter's studio that was built as an addition by the previous owner. That sealed the deal for me:
As I've said, don't hate me because it's beautiful. I really did pay my dues, I swear. (My sewing machine is just outside the picture on the lower right, in front of that white chair.)
I realize, after re-reading this, that sewing, for me, is as much about space as anything else. Weird. I didn't know I was going to write about that.
I finished the tiny yellow dress yesterday, and I'll show you that and tell you some of my thoughts about the specifics of sewing tomorrow. I just thought you should know where I was coming from.