Last Christmas was the best Christmas ever; not only because I got to decorate like a fiend, but because while I was home I finally found—after a fruitless eighteen year search!—a bunch of things I had sewn when I was a child and teenager that I’d long worried had been accidentally thrown away. I burst into happy tears when I pulled this from a box and held it for the first time in probably more than 20 years.
It’s a pillow I made as a Mother’s Day gift for my mom when I very first started sewing. It was the first non-Barbie-clothes thing I ever made, and it is The Most Important Thing I Have Ever Sewn because it taught me the importance of craftsmanship and construction in relation to design.
I had secretly taught myself how to sew when I was 6 or 7 years old and once my mom realized I had been sewing on my own, and I had her real permission to use the sewing machine, I decided I would make her something special for Mother’s Day.
I put a lot of thought into the design, but even more heart; both literally and figuratively, as you can see! Limited by what fabric was available in the scrap drawer, I chose white felt, which was leftover from when my mom made me lamb’s ears to wear as a three year old when I was one of the stable animals in the Christmas party nativity scene; pink corduroy, from a pair of old pants I had grown out of; and denim that had most likely been my dad’s yard-work pants, or at least used to patch my dad’s yard-work pants, I’m not sure.
To stuff the pillow I used a bag of cotton balls that I had pilfered from the cabinet under my mom’s bathroom sink, because what else would you stuff a pillow with when you’re a little kid? The bag was half empty, though, so my pillow ended up being a little bit flat.
Sewing multiple layers of denim is a pretty ambitious task for anyone, let alone an 8 year old novice, but I wasn’t going to let my inexperience get in the way of making a sumptuously ruffled edge for my pillow. You can tell that I constructed the top and bottom ruffle first because, a) they’re sewn inside the seam, and b) there is actually some semblance of a ruffle; by the time I got to the vertical sides of the pillow I had run out of fabric and there was just barely enough to cover the last side, with not a single pleat and no folded edges to hide the frayed raw edges of the denim.
When I had it all finished I was so proud of this beautiful thing I had made to show my mom how much I loved her and I just knew she would love it too! She would think it was the best gift ever and be so proud of it and show it off to all of her friends.
I decided that the best way to give it to her would be to place it on her bed (where I was sure she would display it for the rest of her life!) so that when she walked into her bedroom she would see it and know that it was obviously a gift I had made for her. I waited anxiously all Mother’s Day for her eruption of surprise and gratitude, but it never came.
What did come, however, was the pillow— right back into my bedroom! My mom put it in there, assuming I had accidentally left it in her room, as if it was one of my toys I’d forgotten to clean up. I was devastated, and brought it back to her, telling her that this was my Mother’s Day gift and that I had made it for her to put on her bed.
I don’t think she really knew what to do at that point, and we are an honest bunch of people, my family, so she told me the cold hard truth:
“But Colette, it doesn’t match my bedroom.”
(SIDENOTE: In the mid 80’s my mom redecorated the main floor of our house with peach carpet, and peach everything everywhere, so of course this pink and blue pillow did not match, but Mom, that wasn’t the point!)
She also delicately tried to explain to me that my sewing and craftsmanship might not yet be good enough for permanent display. She had every right to make that call; the tailored wool jacket that she made in her university sewing class in 1965 was the most perfectly crafted thing the professor had seen in all her years of teaching (another blog post for another time), and Jane’s Peach Palace, as my parents’ house eventually came to be called by my older siblings, had certain aesthetic standards to uphold!
Now, if you’re worried that my mom is some sort of cold, unfeeling aesthete because my pink and blue pillow wasn’t good enough for her, to her credit, she kept a bouquet of tissue paper flowers (with bright green pipe cleaner stems!) I made for her, probably when I was even younger, in a vase on her bathroom vanity for years. Of course, the tissue paper was peach, though…
So the Freudian subtext of this story is that I’ve spent the rest of my life sewing maniacally to prove to my mother that I can make something worthy of her praise and adoration, but the more accurate take-away from this experience is that I learned at an early age that it’s not enough to have a great idea, or to be well intentioned in your creative endeavors—you also have to be able to execute your idea at the requisite level.
That is the bedrock principle of my design philosophy, creative process and aesthetic, and as devastating an experience as this was as a little girl—adding insult to injury, a few days later I heard my mom yelling out from her bedroom, “Where’d all my cotton balls go? Who took my cotton balls?” To which I, deflated, had to confess—it served a much greater purpose than if she had showered me with compliments and kept the pillow on her bed like I had hoped.
I love my mom and everything she’s done for me in my life. She’s my biggest fan and greatest champion, and I owe so much to the many wonderful things she’s taught me, the sacrifices she’s made for me and my four older siblings, and the constant love and support she provides for our family.
It’s impossible for me to look at this pillow all these years later and not smile at the earnestness with which I created it; every stitch reads like a journal entry to me of my best effort at the time. I love it and wouldn’t change any of its frayed, un-mitered corners for anything.