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Start with the Presser Foot Down

How it possible to grow up in 3 different houses, each next door to the other? I cannot know if this is unusual. All I know is, everything I am, because of who she was—began at Ave/San Bernardino.

A Mittyesque daydream pops out of nowhere. I am the star of a children’s dance troupe robed in lilac Double Georgette. In unison we float like clouds from stage left in our accentuated princess-style waistlines. Edith, our brilliant costume designer, watches like a hawk. Actually…she isn’t watching us, she is worried the arm seams might tear. Ta-pockita!

Map out a grid of dots on the fabric.

My mother could make lattice smocking from just looking at a photo. She would draw out a brilliantly measured pattern, cut, and then iron the fabric folds in place. Next, the piece would be carefully and loosely gathered on the machine. After a having a look, a second go-round with tighter stitching would be permanently sewn in. She made it all look so effortless, her sewing. Most of my creations were easy patterns that I always sought out and never graduated beyond, but my mother’s skills always improved; she seemed to have begun her sewing life at difficult. I never met another individual in my life so capable of achievement in being self-taught.

My dad described her as stubborn, but I always knew in my heart that was too simplistic. She was driven to creativity—not resting until she mastered things like a chair cover decorated with piping and dust ruffles. She had a work ethic that was relentless, a desire to form life from her hands, despite painful surgery in her right hand from an old ringer washing machine. Nothing slowed my mother down. Late into the night, I would wake to the light outside my door. There was no tv, no radio, only the soft sounds of seams being ripped out. In the morning before school, in her room, on the floor by her 2 sewing machines, were tiny bits of fabric dust and threads, where she had tried, failed, and then figured something out. On the mannequin form—a stunning dress would hang in victory!

I wished I could have told her, how wonderfully proud that made me feel, how her hard, silent work, and spot-on chalk lines, resulted in perfectly undetectable hems—that she did a great job—that her father who judged and hurt her spirit would be proud, that her perfectionist mind-set did not go to waste. It wasn’t possible to tell her then since I was only a kid. She can’t hear me typing, but I am telling her now.

I was a shy little girl raised in fabric stores—who didn’t talk much—but knew by touch, the difference between velvet and velveteen. I could describe three types of lining by age eight and knew how darts enhanced the fit of a blouse.

If your fabric has nap, the pattern requires you to buy a little more fabric.

My mother’s name was Edith. In the 60’s, we lived alone for 10 years in small apartments on Magnolia Avenue. On one particular corner lot, we lived in three different dwellings, moving every few years as they vacated, like graduating to a new class, from tiny to small to the last and largest, a 1920’s bungalow duplex that had a front and a back porch. The landlord/owner of all 3 units had become friends with my mother. You know Edith, he announced one day, Mrs. Malone moves out of the 2-bedroom next month, I think you would love those built in drawers! My mother had always made all our clothes, but once moved into the larger space, she also took in work for other women. I walked to school and took piano lessons and made pencil sketches near our black and white tv. It was my last apartment with her, as she would die of cancer right before my high school graduation—a place of both extreme creativity and immense pain that would shape my life (and my tiny dress-form) forever.

Fold fabric evenly.

My mother’s orderliness resulted in a pristine home, as well as perfectly placed and spaced button holes. If you veer from the guidelines, you could end up with button C being lined up with buttonhole B. I always believed those instructions kept her mind in order, it’s rules, a comfort that only an OCD brain can understand. Edith never took short cuts. She would stay up till 3 a.m. and prove that persistence in doing it right paid off. In her world, her solitude with me fast asleep, every perfectly placed hook and eye, was a survival guide to loneliness.

There were early mornings before school, I would tiptoe in my mother’s room (in case she was asleep) to see a completed dress ready for me to wear to school that day! That was so much better (she told me) than buying one off the rack. Nonetheless, as I held it up under my chin in the mirror, I believed her and was excited, even more so, if I had been allowed to select the fabric. My heart soared when trying them on the first time.

My dear Edith—always busy, never still if an unfinished project lay about. I stared at her endlessly, mesmerized by her cutting technique with pins in her mouth. And who, after being told she had roughly 3 years to live, accelerated her skills by a surprisingly purchased knitting machine. She enrolled in some classes and did very well, making sample swatches—taping them to scrapbooks for referral.

She never stopped, or gave up, or showed discouragement in front of me.

My mother was as remarkable as a delicate chain stitch. She memorized pattern guides and symbols, contemplating and studying them like scripture, while I would forget and had to reread the hated things until I could grasp them—the convoluted diagrams made my head spin. Edith was patient and made me feel as though the process would get easier.

Edith knew everything.

Always know your Selvages.

Before our journey to Magnolia Avenue, when I was in first grade, I was old enough to cut out the tissue pieces. Paper doll cutting had prepared my tiny nimble fingers for such duty to help my mother. I can still hear the rustling of the ultrathin paper, that could tear by simply breathing. By second grade, I was allowed to carefully iron (warm setting only) the wrinkles from the tissue. I was told where to stack the paper pieces after ironing. In third grade after the divorce was when we moved to Magnolia, and by fourth grade I helped pin pattern tissue to fabric, even though the temptation of pushing every pin (dozens of them) into the pin cushion ALL the way in was overwhelming at times. I tried to be careful. Edith did not tolerate too much playing around in the sewing room, which was good because I was now handling sharp scissors and helped cut small shapes.

Don’t get me started on the crazy scissor collection. To this day, I still have my mother’s pinking shears. There was nothing pink about them, and it was critical they be tack sharp—those weird jagged teeth—critical, I tell you!

By sixth grade, my mother began teaching me how to sew on the old Singer. The Pfaff, the newest of her machines, and the serger (the second oldest) were off limits, and as it played out, I never did sew on the last two. After my mother’s funeral, my aunt asked me to give her the Pfaff, and the serger was sold.

Some fabrics are unsuitable for obvious diagonals.

We had lots of visits to fabric stores. The first stop was always the giant pattern books full of colored drawings of women and children in thousands of styles. I was tiny, so my legs dangled in the large plastic chairs where the giant books laid open. You had to find an empty seat or wait for other women to get up. I tried to choose seats near Simplicity, a favorite pattern company. Another pick was Butterick (the pancakes and syrup one) and the girls in the drawings looked happy. We made flipping paper noises as we searched, but if you were too loud with the books, the other women might give you a stare.

I loved searching those pictures—mostly pale faced females posed 3 different ways, front, back—three-quarter view. Mannequins in print, making their sales pitch in watercolor gingham. We mostly avoided Vogue, regardless of how gorgeous. Vogue patterns were complex. Vogue patterns were rated ridiculous. Once my mother made up her mind, she wrote down the catalogue number from the book page and carried it to a huge filing cabinet of small packages stuffed in divided drawers. It was there I would close my eyes as my mother shuffled through. I mumbled while searching. Please, pleeease, let there be a child’s 6. Voila!

Next, we strolled among rows of fabric—fingertip heaven. All those bolts of cloth, my arm out stretched, like Tom Sawyer with a stick on a fence—my method—my hand, sampling the feel of a thousand threads, rough, soft, silky, stiff. As I walked between fabric bolts, touch, touch…touch. I made this playtime, but my mother used it to teach me their names. I would learn

to feel differences between taffeta and tulle, linen and silk, voile and nylon lining. It was pointed out and made abundantly clear how the choice of the wrong lining would ruin the entire drape.

Mother, agitated, This thread color won’t work at all. I need periwinkle. I sauntered down an aisle like a detective. Corduroy… I whispered to myself, cataloging it in my head. Wait. Mom! Come look at this one, pointing to a marvelous print.

Together we would wander up and down racks of tiny silver bits in packages, hooks, eyes, needles, snaps and pins; peg boards full of zippers and buttons in order by size and color, rainbows of threads. You might find five different shades of teal, and then the same color in various strengths or different textiles.

Edith always knew what was needed. For someone who barely finished high school, she had her own kind of sewing PHD. And she could envision the result, but it would take time; it would take many walks down aisles of solids and sheens.

Like magic, it would be time for the big table. While Edith waited for the cutter, creating separates in her head, I engaged in sensory play, smelling mixed perfume—seeing particles of cloth in the air, listening to the comforting, thump, thump, thump as the bolts were turned and measured.

I knew the rules: You must stand around a giant table and wait for the cutting lady who stands in the middle. When your turn comes, you may place all your bolts down and wait for the lady to ask questions. How many yards of the plaid? The sales lady pulled out a length for measuring. I knew my mother was pleased and would smile or nod in agreement, Better give me 2 ½ more yards of that one. Soon it would be time to go…thump.

I remember Edith fondly in taxicabs. She would fuss with her packages, inspecting the contents for reassurance and then rubbing her hands over fabrics while I popped Bazooka gum. I would stare up at her face, studying her mouth—the lines near her eyes, desiring to connect to her gaze. If I was cooperative and not too fidgety, I was sometimes rewarded by a comic book from SAGES (where she worked as a waitress) on that peaceful ride home. I wanted to please her so badly, so gum snap was kept to a minimum. When my mother was happy, it was enjoyable to be in her world. With each expedition, I realized over time, she was sharing her secret garden with me.

I bonded deeply with my mother in 100% cotton twill.

Check your bobbin.

There was such a sweet coming and going of women on Magnolia Avenue. With door wide open, they greeted my mother in low decibel chattering, and once inside, our couch became a stream of purses and sweaters. They were mostly but not always waitresses my mother worked with. I loved watching them stroll around, the lovely sound of soft laughter as they undressed to their slips. Ladies in full slips, with matching lace borders above the bra line and hems, sheer nylon in white—draping at the knee; someone would slip off a shoe, another would stand arms outstretched to be measured. Ladies in white slips—the uniform of perfect femininity. Sometimes, one of them would smile or wink at me. The room would fill with scents of powdery Avon perfume—the most wonderful memory of womanhood I have ever known; it comforted me endlessly.

After the fitting sessions, I remember the ladies leaving my mother with stacks of folded fabric and various sundries. The process would usually involve a final fitting before the garments were completed. It pains me I was never able to have photographs of so many beautiful creations. Some of them would involve a formal cocktail dress with a matching coat, the coat having a satin lining in a vibrant color. There was something thrilling to see a coat opened to reveal this lining and the visual excitement, as it is slipped off, and finally, the complimentary dress underneath. My mother created fashion experiences.

Keep your threads pulled back.

After she died, my mother’s love of making clothes became inextricably woven into the

way I viewed life, even though I never took to it as she had, I became hyperaware of

clothing details. After moving into a school dorm, shocked, I confronted my roommate. How on earth do you not own an iron? Aren’t you going to maintain the folds in that wool-blend pleated skirt?

A few years later as a maid of honor being fitted for a strapless dress, I warned the seamstress that her selection of chiffon and slippery lining would cause the bustline to sag. Eye roll. And so, it goes—in some distant place, I think my mother was laughing, as the entire female wedding party, arrayed in pink florals, when nobody was looking, spent the entire day tugging their bodices. That was the most exhausting experience of wearing one single dress, ever, even for a small chested girl. Dear pink dress: Say hello to Goodwill.

Seams do not hold well unless you check the tension.

As time went by, my own clothes making achievements failed to assimilate. I never mastered sewing like Edith, although, when my daughter was little, I enjoyed a few crafty-sewy projects. I managed to make a stuffed Easter rabbit doll, including its dress (on the old Singer, naturally) with lace and flowing satin ribbons. I taught myself embroidery in order to embellish the rabbit’s face using French knots. Although the dress turned out adequate, the rabbit resembled an alien. I discovered the doll a few years ago on the back of an old bunk bed. It stared at me with a creepy expression, and although it seemed questionable to give something scary to charity, I relented, sans the cute dress.

Don’t force the fabricfeed the fabric.

As my mother got sicker, but just in the last few months, the sewing was put away as she became too weak. I was surprised, after she passed away, when cleaning out drawers, the sheer volume of fabric and various remnants, notions, thread, zippers, and lace that had been packed away. She had her own small fabric store stash and would have found use for all of it, had there been time.

I still keep tucked away, a vision of Edith in that dark house late at night, a sliver of light emitting from her door; the sound of a machine starting—stopping—resting—starting again, each starting, a sleeve, a cuff—a labor of love. That unforgettable space, a boudoir of occasional clarity, and other times, a respite for pain. Embodying her fairy-godmother spirit, she made something out of nothing—shapeless threads became a ball gown. That sewing room, simple and unassuming, was her heaven on this earth.

Stitch 5/8” (1.5cm) seams unless otherwise stated.

I still have my mother’s small handheld seam ruler, a lovely dark navy blue with white numbering that is easily seen in dim light, and like the sewing room—the memories of it and her seem farther away than ever before. What I wouldn’t give to walk there one more time and see remnants on the floor—inhale her fragrance while she turns to me, grinning—the light in her eyes— a catchlight from her floor lamp. To see her lay down the pattern guide, reading glasses on nose tip, her gaze, inviting a squeeze. While I exhale from her comforting body heat—the steadfast adherence to self-discipline, never wavering spirit—the immensity of everything she embodied— all in the tiny space of our duplex, envelopes my soul.

One of my last memories on Magnolia avenue, was in the back room, as I, a seventeen-year-old about to graduate high school, opened a large bureau drawer to discover the most splendid coral knitted dress and matching sweater with fluted sleeves. My mother made and admired it but then tucked it away out of view. Perhaps she was saving if for me, or for a spectacular event; I never knew. But as it turned out, I chose the coral to be her very last fitting—and it was perfect.

Do not sew over pins. Edith taught me how to sew over pins! 

My old singer (her old singer) is now a table for my Keurig. Underneath the coffee pods, creamers and sugar bowls, sits a now silent lockstitch machine, made of solid steel, the one I was carefully instructed to oil at regular intervals. There in that dark place, resides a million more memories of Edith.


Marsha Leigh has been published by the Palo Alto Review as well as articles for American Airlines. Since retiring from the airline, she pursues writing, photography and digital painting and is a featured artist with Corel Painter software. She lives in Southern California with her husband and ragdoll cat.

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