When I took a home-economics class at David Starr Jordan Junior High in Burbank, Calif., I had no idea how my life would change. My potholder and apron were talismans for a life of sewing. My family had experienced a real downturn in income, but I was able to have a relatively varied wardrobe when I made my own skirts and dresses. The last prom dress I made was my own design—a spaghetti-strapped top of brocade with petals over a tulle skirt. What I really loved was that no one else had the same dress. I was becoming a "fabriphiliac," a quality that has added joy to my life when traveling and discovering little niches around the world with like-minded sewers. One treat was spending hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum among the painstakingly created crewels and brocades of women like me.
My folks were always generous, but I was raised with realistic expectations fitting our 1950s label as lower-middle class. One May, my mother and I saw a gorgeous dress at Nahas, "the" department store in town. It was too expensive, so I put away the fantasy of wearing it my first year of college. However, after layaway and sacrifice on her part, my mother gave it to me for my birthday in August. I can't suitably express the joy of receiving something so unexpected and generous. The only splurge my mother engaged in was buying special hats for Easter; they were exquisite and rightfully special to her elegance. I never wanted for anything really extravagant, however, and was totally unaware (minus TV's lavish depictions of material wealth) that I was missing anything. So sewing was a way for me to wait and spend my wages from selling men's underwear and socks in summers and at Christmas at J.C. Penney's for an occasional lamb's-wool or, if I were lucky, a cashmere sweater.
I am thankful this season for the gift of growing up in a family where our values were not primarily material; love, friendship, faith and open doors characterized my parents' way of celebrations and community.
This Thanksgiving, I didn't have dinner with my immediate family, but I was included in one of my larger families, the dinner at the home of my choir director and his lovely wife. I was reminded of my good fortune at living among loving and generous people who welcome (even) me to their homes and tables.
For several years, I bewailed my lack of skills in doing things to help others. Occasionally, I might edit a friend's résumé or help with driving to the hospital or through some other emergency, but I felt I couldn't do the immediate caring things that others did, such as giving a massage or washing hair or just using skills I see as wonderful to have. While I enjoyed making dresses for my two daughters as they grew up and even recently sewed a long silk tunic for myself, I have tucked my wonderful 40-year-old Bernina into the closet to pursue my hand-made applique pieces. These are sewn with love but still are an extension of my own sense of self-respect and artistic ego—combining colors and bits of fabric to create life scenes (an extension of my story-telling inclination).
Luckily, I have discovered that my longtime sewing skills are being put to use to help others.
Three years ago, I made dresses for seven girls whom I met at an orphanage in Tanzania. Last year, I mentioned my need for some new fabrics at The Fabric Granary in Hailey, and soon received a phone call from a woman who wanted to help. Then came donations from others of fabrics and time. A friend who went with me on my second visit to the orphanage collected some unfinished dresses, and, with her mother, finished them. Two other volunteers sewed dresses—a bounty!
Last week, I held a sewing bee at St. Thomas Episcopal Church and was stunned at the response. Seven women participated, cut out patterns and sewed dresses for "my girls." I was reminded of the eternal community of women who gather for the betterment of all. Maybe we can expand this "bee" to making simple garments for other places and homes for girls who might never get a "special dress." Maybe I have found my place in the parade of loving women who work together to help others. I hope so.