That is my fine fine father up there, sewer of more Halloween costumes than I can count, starting with a pioneer girl bonnet. A bonnet! Of course we had no idea in 1986 that I might end up knowing a thing or two about eviscerating chickens, keeping a wood stove going for days, rendering lard, or judging the ripeness of squash. I just loved my palest of pink dotted swiss dress with tiny ivory rickrack at the cuffs and trusted my dad could figure out the rest.
I have watched the man figure out a heck of a lot more in the almost 30 years since that labor of love. He was strumming real chords on my guitar not twenty minutes after picking it up for the very first time.1 He drove us safely from Düsseldorf to a gorgeous apartment building off the rue du Montparnasse in Paris one hot July afternoon in 1996, with only a little navigation help from me and only a little panicked yelling from both of us as we managed those winding one-way cobblestone streets in the days long before GPS. He can drive a tractor, throw a vase, soothe a fussy newborn, build a porch, roast coffee. I am pretty sure he still remembers how to use the dative case in German. Need a washer moved from Philly to the Bronx? A dance floor for your wedding? A cheesecake? No problem. My dad’s talent, cleverness, and generosity are a mighty triumvirate.
Needless to say, when I bought this 1961 Singer Style-0-Matic 328K off Craigslist from a woman named Wanda just a few months after my son was born, I turned to my dad immediately. He helped me wind the bobbin and set the tension and thread the machine, and together we sewed some simple big bottomed baby pants for one very cute cloth-diapered bum. That was also, sigh, the last time I sewed.
I didn’t – and don’t – have what I’d call grand ambitions for myself as a seamstress. But our life is very home centered and from scratch, more so every day. In the last seven or eight years we have replaced so many “boughten” (remember that from the Little House books?) and outsourced items and jobs with things we can grow or make or do on our own. I resisted this for a long time – not because I felt ill-suited to all the trial and error, but because I want to need people. I seriously worried that if we stopped buying vegetables at the store or going out to eat, we’d be standing on a very slippery slope – would we soon enough find ourselves living in a cabin in the woods fifty miles from anyone, well fed and hale but alone? But I’ve relaxed. I’ve learned there are a whole lot of ways to need people. Sometimes you pay them for a product or a service: other people pay us to grow their food, for example, and we pay other people to fix our transmissions, find our firewood, install our electricity. Sometimes you knock on their door and ask for a cup of sugar. Sometimes you put your baby in their arms and kiss them on the cheek and go out for a walk alone. Sometimes they bring you lasagna and wine when you have run yourself ragged with packing. Sometimes they are waiting for you to walk through their front door so they can pour your coffee. Sometimes they write a letter, or laugh at your jokes, or let you cry.
My point is, learning to do some things for ourselves has not made me need people any less. It has only made me appreciate all of us more.
My other point is, I need to know how to sew. And I need some advice.
A thought occurred to me two or three weeks ago, and it is so unlike me that when I said it out loud I think my husband almost wondered where his (nostalgic, dreamy, whimsy-loving) wife had gone and who this strange woman sitting in the kitchen was. The thought was: maybe I should sell this beautiful sewing machine and replace it with a new, or newer, model, one that will fit in a case, one that can be put in the back seat and carted to sewing lessons, one that can be stowed in a closet or on a shelf when I’m not using it.
I grimace thinking about it. My Style-O-Matic makes me smile every time I look at it. It is good to have simple beautiful things around. From the limited research I’ve done, it’s a solid machine, from a good era in Singer’s production history. It was well cared for by Wanda and by her mother before her. I still have our series of emails; she says her mother used it to make all her clothes when she was young, that it is super easy to use, and that it brought both of them many years of fun. I can almost see a seven-year old Wanda at her mom’s side, learning to oil the machine or sew a pillowcase. Can I really let it go?
And yet, our new house is so small. I don’t know where we’d put it. A more compact machine makes more sense in a lot of ways.
I don’t want to do fancy or involved sewing – not really thinking about clothes for myself. I know – even anticipate – my ambitions might change as my skills evolve, but right now, I just want to be able to hem pants (I do not come from tall stock), sew curtains, chop up old wool sweaters I’ve felted and stitch them up into longies, sew basic farmers market aprons, make a duvet cover. Practical things.
I would be ever so grateful if the sewists among you would weigh in here. Keep the machine I have or get a new one? If I get a new one, what should I get?
- It should be noted I bought that guitar in 1999 and still don’t know how to play it. Will happily barter vegetables, cookies, or lard for lessons. [↩]