Sewing History, Part II: My First Act of Rebellion…

Me and my oldest sister playing dress-up wedding at Grandma and Grandpa Komm’s house, right around the same time this story happened.

While my first encounter with a sewing machine was a traumatic disaster, the second one was totally the opposite — it was one of those special experiences where the heavens open and rays of light shine down and angels sing. Well, metaphorically at least.

My oldest sister — not the one who sewed through my finger — had been sick for a week or two and had missed enough of her eighth grade Home Ec classes that she had to catch up on her pillow sewing project at home. My mom was showing her how to use the old green Bernina downstairs, and I was wandering around looking for her. As soon as I found them — sitting at the sewing machine with the fabric, scissors and notions all set out — I thought to myself, “I have to do that.”

I stood nearby and watched, completely mesmerized. When they were done, I asked my mom when she was going to teach me how to use the sewing machine. Her reply (obviously referencing my first encounter with it) was, “Oh, Murf,*  you’re too young! You’ll sew through your finger!” To which I silently replied, watch me. It was game-on as far as I was concerned. A seven-year-old never had a clearer or more compelling mission — and this one needed to be covert. I would figure out how to sew without her help and prove her wrong!

The OGB was set up in what had been my older brother’s bedroom before he went away to college. Because it was downstairs and at the end of the hallway, it was the perfect place to sneak into and never get caught. I spent all my free time in there, figuring out, by trial and error, what this knob did and that. Once I had taught myself enough to sew a straight line, I thought I had it all figured out. When a bobbin ran out of thread, I would wind a new one. By hand.

I used scraps from my mom’s old sewing projects as well as my old, too-small clothes as fabric. My Barbie doll doubled as both muse and mannequin; I studied her clothes to find out how they were constructed and what shapes I would need to cut out of my old jeans to make her some new ones. I even found some teeny snaps and scraps of Velcro in my mom’s wicker sewing basket so I could finish the pants just like Mattel did.

*When I was born, my brother (whose room eventually became the sewing room) started calling me Smurfette. The moniker stuck, as did its derivatives: Murfette, Smurfy, Smurf, Murfy and Murf (which is what my mom still calls me).

Sewing History, Part I: My First Traumatic Experience…

I can remember being just tall enough to be eye-to-eye with the needle, so I would have been three or four years old — and my sister six or seven. For some utterly bizarre reason, she was trying to sew a Zip-loc bag shut. (Yeah, I don’t know why either!) Obviously, she had no idea what she was doing.

Somehow I happened upon this scene and was immediately drawn to the action — or lack of action. She was awkwardly perched on the very edge of her chair. She had one leg completely extended so that she could just barely reach the pedal by flexing her foot and straining her toes. The needle was moving up and down. But since the presser foot was up, the Zip-loc bag wasn’t going anywhere. I decided that she needed my help…

Instinctively, I knew that the bag needed to be traveling under the needle, so I put out my hand to steer it for her. Suddenly we were sewing a straight line, and I felt like a hero! Then she upped the pressure on the foot pedal. The increase in speed caught both of us off guard, and my finger joined the Zip-loc bag on its trip under the needle. My sister had just sewed right over MY FINGER!! She freaked out and ran away; I just stood there alone, paralyzed with shock.

As if I hadn’t been traumatized enough, a few moments later the light bulb in the floor lamp next to the sewing machine exploded with a huge crackling and zapping noise, covering me and everything around me with glass shards and plunging the room into darkness. And I happened  to be one of those kids who was pathologically scared of the dark…

So the fact that I am here in New York, making a career out of my love of sewing is something of a miracle, and certainly no thanks to my sister!

A picture of me and my two sisters from roughly the same time this story happened. The sister on the left, playing a cardboard violin she made, is the one this story is about. Im on the right, holding Glenda, one of my Cabbage Patch Kids.

Mom’s Old Green Bernina

I used to always look at this picture and wonder what gifts came in those really big boxes. When I finally asked my mom a few years ago she said, "Those big boxes? Those were all fake gifts, just for looks, to show people where to put the real ones." I still like to imagine that the biggest box has the Bernina sewing machine in it!

My mom has this puke-green Bernina that she got as a wedding present from my dad’s parents in 1967. It was, according to my mom, “the top-of-the-line sewing machine back then!” She was right; it really was. It was a Bernina 730 Record! It had this collapsible, fold out stand with shiny tubular metal legs and two particle-board-covered-with-brown-wood-grain-laminate countertops. One countertop was on the bottom that the machine sat on, and the other was a bit higher and had a bunch of hinges at the back and underneath it. These hinges enabled it to fold down flat around the free arm of the sewing machine and make a nice, large sewing surface. To the right of the machine and tethered to it somehow, there was this thing — in the same lovely shade of oxidized avocado flesh as all the knobs and levers — that had pegs to store spools of thread and bobbins on the top. On the bottom there were three plastic trays which swung out on a hinge to reveal a myriad of what looked like (at best) surgical tools and (at worst) hunting traps for small animals. These were the specialty presser feet: a roll-hemmer, a button-holer, and an edge-stitcher, etc. Though they scared me when I was very young and didn’t know what they were, they became some of my best friends as I grew up.

Whenever I go home to visit my parents, I always take a trip into the laundry room, where the Old Green Bernina has a permanent perch atop a custom-built counter. (After renovating 15 years ago they threw out that awesome retro wood-grain stand, dang-it!) I open the little drawers to see if all the little specialty feet are still there. I check to see which hideous colors of thread are still wound around the bobbins and what old spools of thread — you know, the ones that are actually made of wood — are still in the sewing box. And I look for any scraps of fabric that I would remember from my childhood in the drawers under the counter.

Without that Old Green Bernina my life would have probably taken a whole different course… I’m very grateful for it.