Mother’s Day Tribute: A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 1.

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.

pillow-frontIt’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. 

pillow-closeupI 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.

pillow-edge-3Sewing 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.

pillow-backWhen 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.

pillow-edge-1What 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…

pillow-cornerSo 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.

pillow-edge-2.jpgI 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.



Sewing History, Part IV: The first time I ever got laughed at by adults…

After my mom had found out that I had been secretly sewing Barbie clothes with her old green Bernina (without having ever been taught how to use it) she actually sat down with me and showed me how to sew backwards and make a zig-zag stitch. I think she might have even explained what all the specialty machine feet did and that they were not, as I had suspected, miniature mouse traps.

Knowing that I had her support and I didn’t have to hide my new hobby from her (or anyone else) was quite liberating…

One weekend two of my mom’s sisters (both of whom were avid seamstresses like her) were visiting and the three of them were in the TV room, most likely watching some BBC costume drama, and — surprise! surprise! — I was off down the hall sewing. I had run out of bobbin thread and started winding a new one, which I had always done by hand. As I wound the bobbin — something I’d done seemingly a million times – I had this flash of inspiration: that I would invent a machine that could wind bobbins! Immediately, knowing that there were three very seasoned seamstresses just a few steps away who would certainly be dying to hear this amazing news, I ran down the hall to the TV room — bobbin in hand — interrupted their movie, and boldly announced that “one day I’m going to invent a machine that will wind bobbins automatically!”

They all looked at me and then each other and burst out in laughter. I couldn’t figure out why my genius idea had been met with such ridicule — why weren’t they showering me with praise for the obvious technological advancement I was going to contribute to the world?!

“You’ve been winding all those bobbins by hand?!” said one of my aunts.

“Your sewing machine already does that!” said the other.

I think my face probably went purple and I started to cry. I asked my mom why she didn’t show me this feature when she taught me how to use the backstitch function and everything else; in between her laughter she said that it had never occurred to her that I didn’t know how to use the bobbin winder because I had been doing so much sewing that I must have already figured it out.

They tried their best to restore my bruised confidence and took me back to the sewing room to show me how to wind a bobbin with the machine. I sat there, just thinking over and over again: I wish I had learned this such a long time ago… it would have saved me so much time. And embarrassment!

Sewing History, Part III: The First Time I Ever Got Busted…

Me, looking very intense – and matchy-matchy, at age seven. It could be a mug-shot, right?

As with any criminal, addict, or person engaging in some kind of unscrupulous behavior, I got sloppier and sloppier about covering my tracks. (My tracks, of course, being that I was seven years old and using my mom’s sewing machine to make Barbie clothes without her knowing.) The more “high-risk” sewing I participated in, and the more excited I got that my little Barbie clothes were turning out to actually look like real Barbie clothes, the lazier I got about keeping the whole thing a secret. At some point, every addict wants to get caught; the possibility of being found out, of tempting fate and authority, only adds to the rush…

So I took my little Barbie clothes and my Barbies out of the sewing room — which was out of the way at the end of the downstairs hall where my mom never went — and started playing with them… In my bedroom, in the family room, on the staircase; all places where my mom, were she to pay me more than a passing glance as she went about her day, would find me out and get me in big trouble!

Or so I thought.

Eventually she did pass by me and did a double take, “Where did your Barbie get those clothes?!” At this point my mom probably was thinking that I was a criminal, that I must have stolen them from somewhere because she knew she didn’t buy them and how else would I have acquired them? — but I was too excited to worry about what she might really be thinking. The moment I’d been anxiously anticipating had finally arrived!

“I made them myself.”

“No you didn’t. You didn’t make those.”

“Yes I did. Don’t you recognize my old pink corduroy pants?”

Flummoxed, she took a closer look and the expression on her face went from confusion and shock to amusement and even pride as she recognized my old pants, repurposed and scaled down to fit a Barbie.

“And see this one, Mom, this is your old shirt!” I said as I pointed to my favorite outfit on my favorite Barbie, which had this very Yves Saint Laurent Safari Collection thing going on. It consisted of a pair of khaki colored trousers, an off-white t-shirt, and this little shawl that I had made from a scrap of open weave grass-cloth that came from I don’t know where, but it sure added a nice textural accent to the ensemble.

“But you don’t know how to sew…” she started to say.

“I taught myself!” I replied, before she could even finish, “I couldn’t wait until you thought I was old enough for you to teach me, so I went and figured it out all by myself.” I was brimming with pride, and by the time she had processed what I had just said, she was too.

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.