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Stitches in Time
by Lori B.

 

1955

 

Mommy is sitting at her sewing machine. I’m standing next to her. I watch as she pins white lace to the collar of my yellow birthday dress. My birthday is tomorrow. I’ll be six years old.

 

The sewing machine was Great-grandma Sweetie’s, but now it belongs to Mommy. Great-grandma Sweetie is old, and so is the sewing machine. It has swirly gold designs and fancy letters that Mommy says spell SINGER. The rest of the machine is black, and I think it is heavy because Daddy had to carry it into the house.

 

It sits in a table made of wood. Under the table is a pedal that Mommy pushes with her foot to make the sewing machine go. She says there used to be a treadle there, instead of a pedal. I tell her that treadle and pedal rhyme. She smiles and asks me how I come up with these things. 

 

Mommy puts a spool of white thread on a little stick and pulls the thread this way and that. She calls it threading the machine. Then she pokes the thread through a little hole in the needle.

 

She puts the collar under the needle. When she turns the big wheel on the side of the machine, the needle pokes into the yellow cloth. Then she pushes a little silver thing down and something else silver that looks like a foot squishes against the cloth.

 

“What’s that?” I ask.

 

“It’s the presser foot,” she tells me. “Now, here we go.” She presses on the pedal with her foot, and the machine startles me with its loud clacking noise. The needle goes up and down very fast.

 

When the clacking stops, Mommy lifts the presser foot up and turns the cloth around while the needle is still poking through it. Then she pushes the foot down again and I hear five more loud clacks. She lifts the foot up, turns the wheel, pulls the cloth away from the needle, and cuts the threads with her scissors.

 

“Done!” she says. “Now it’s your turn.”

 

I don’t want to sew. I want to try on my birthday dress, right now. But Mommy says I have to learn to sew a seam. She gets up and I sit in her place.

 

She hands me two squares of pretty yellow cloth, leftover scraps from my birthday dress. She’s fastened them together with pins.

 

“Slide them under the needle,” Mommy says. When I do, one of the pins pokes my finger. I decide that I will never sew when I grow up.

 

“Turn the wheel toward you,” she says. I turn the wheel, and the needle goes through the cloth. I’m glad my finger wasn’t under there.

 

“Now lower the presser foot,” she tells me. I try, but nothing happens. I push harder, and the foot snaps down hard onto the yellow cloth. I think I broke Mommy’s sewing machine.

 

“Good,” she says, to my surprise. “Can you reach the pedal?” I try, but my legs are too short. I’m glad, because I don’t want to push the pedal.

 

“Wait here,” Mommy says. She goes into the kitchen and comes back with the metal box that the milkman puts our milk in. She sets it on the floor and puts the pedal on top of it.

 

“Try it now,” she says. “Gently.”

 

I press the pedal a little too hard, and the machine starts clacking fast. I pull my foot up and look at my cloth. I have made a straight row of white stitches on the pretty yellow cloth.

 

“Can I do it again?” I ask. 

 

I make many more rows of stitches until Mommy tells me I need to stop before she runs out of thread.

 

1970

 

I’m working this summer as a sales associate at the Singer Company fabric store. Mainly, I measure and cut fabric. My friend Abra works there, too. She thinks I should take advantage of the employee discount to buy some fabric for a quilt. She’s already made three of them. 

 

Being a poor college student, I don’t own a sewing machine at the moment. My mom’s Singer is still at her house, though. I figure I’ll try using it to make my quilt.

 

After our shift, Abra helps me pick out a pattern and fabric. I buy twelve yards of muslin and twelve yards of printed cotton calico in light blue, dark blue, brown, and cream. 

 

On our day off, Abra and I cut out most of the quilt pieces. She pins handwritten labels to each set of shapes, indicating their measurements. I’ll cut out the rest and start sewing everything together soon. I put all of the fabric in a large plastic bag, and then into a box. I close the lid and put it in my closet.

 

One week later, while on my break at work, I impulsively spend my next three paychecks on a used Necchi Supernova Automatica sewing machine. It has something called cams which enable it to make several fancy stitches. I bring it home and use it to sew patches on my jeans and embroidery on my peasant blouses. I forget about my quilt.

 

1972

 

I’m getting married. I make my own wedding dress. 

 

1975

 

I’m pregnant. I sew two pairs of curtains, six bibs, one apron, and three maternity dresses.

 

1979

 

I’m pregnant again. I make baby clothes.

 

1984

 

I stay up late one night making two Halloween costumes.

 

1985

 

I make a red and green skirt to put around the base of the Christmas tree. I put away my Necchi sewing machine after that. I need to make room on my desk for a computer.

 

2000

 

I haven’t sewn a thing in the last 15 years.

 

2003

 

I’m divorced and moving to another state. Before I go, I sell most of my furniture, and my sewing machine, but for some reason I hold onto the box of now 33-year-old quilt fabric. You never know when you’re going to need some old material for craft projects.

 

2018

 

I’m remarried and moving once again. I pull the box of fabric from my closet and take off the lid. I open the bag. The fabric looks as good as the day I bought it. I decide I’ll give it to a quilter friend at work, but then I notice Abra’s handwriting on one of the labels.

 

Abra and I have stayed in touch over the years, so I send her an email.

 

“Do you remember the quilt project?” I ask.

 

She writes back right away. “I haven’t sewn in years,” she tells me, “but I just signed up for a quilting class last week.”

 

It seems like a sign. I decide to finally finish my quilt. I go shopping for a sewing machine and come home with a brand new Brother CS6000i.

 

After cutting out the remaining pieces that I’ll need, I find that I have several extra yards of calico. I return this leftover fabric to the plastic bag that’s been its home for the past 48 years, and I place it on the top shelf of my closet.

 

I start sewing. I make the entire front of the quilt.

 

2019

 

I add a filler and a back to my quilt and I baste it together by hand. It’s ready for the final step, the quilting. That’s the part that I have no idea how to do. I realize that my Brother CS6000i is not made for quilting. I can either buy a quilting machine, or I can pay someone else to do it. I decide on the latter. I ask around and find a local seamstress who will quilt it for about $200. I will call her soon.

 

2020

 

I’m watching the news, and I can’t believe what I’m hearing: “global pandemic … social distancing … wash your hands … stand six feet apart … wear a mask.”

 

I call my mother. “Do you have a mask?” I ask her. She’s 89 years old now.

 

“Oh yes,” she says, “your sister made two for me yesterday.”

 

“Well,” I say, “let me know if you need any more. I have lots of fabric, and plenty of time.”

 

I ask my sister for a mask pattern and she sends me the instructions. I take out my calico, which is tightly-woven, washed, and preshrunk, and I make 20 masks. I have enough for myself, my mother, and a few friends. I wonder what I’ll do with all the rest. 

 

I go online and find a local group named the Stitch In Time Sewing Society. They collect handmade masks and distribute them wherever there’s a need. They also provide kits for making more masks. I am now a SITSS volunteer.

 

Great-grandma Sweetie probably realized the legacy she was passing down to us when she gave my mother the Singer sewing machine. I’m sure she knew how to sew, because as a child I used to fall asleep under a quilt she’d made. It was dark blue printed calico on one side, and light grey on the other, held together with fuzzy little tufts of cotton thread. Now that I think of it, that blue calico was just like the one I used to make my quilt. I wonder if Sweetie was looking down on me that day in 1970, helping me select fabrics at the Singer fabric store.

 

I’m grateful to my mother for teaching me to sew. It’s a tradition that’s given me a creative outlet and much enjoyment over the years. What’s more, it’s a tradition that can bring people together, be it through sewing circles, community quilts, or even potentially life-saving activities like making masks.

 

I have an idea about how I can help keep the tradition going. My friend Cathy volunteers at an after-school program where she teaches sewing to middle school boys and girls. I’d like to do that, too, as soon as the pandemic is over. For many children, learning to sew might just be the “stitch in time” that will lead to unexpected positive results.

 

I will also take my unfinished quilt to that seamstress and get it quilted, once and for all.

 

But first, I’ll be taking a long-awaited trip to see my mother, and when I see her, I’ll give her the dust cover I’m making for her new computer. I had to order the fabric online. It’s yellow, like my birthday dress. I just have to add the finishing touch: some white lace trim. 

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