They say it’s important for young people to discover activities and interests that truly engage them and encourage them to be their best — so they can “express their personalities and make unique contributions to the world.” My mom hadn’t read the research supporting this assertion* — she seemed to just understand it intuitively. The woman single-handedly introduced me to more stuff that I could get excited about than you could shake a stick at. One of those things — which I’ve mentioned before — was sewing. I learned to love sewing. (An earlier post: All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go).
Her teaching style was sort of hands-off, for the most part, because I have no recollections of her hovering as I worked. Of course, that may have had something to do with her caring, not just for me, but for four other siblings plus a big household. All that notwithstanding, whenever I hit an impasse, she was always available to explain the procedure thoroughly and/or demonstrate it, making sure I really understood the concept. This instruction continued for several years, and I gradually increased the level of difficulty with each project, with her providing my safety net all along the way.
Then one day…
…she apparently thought I’d mastered enough skills to recommend my services to a professional. For real. She did. I was about fourteen when she announced that a local woman who did repairs and alterations for a dry cleaners had agreed to let me work for her.
Say what?!! Me?!! But I’m just a kid!
“What kinds of things will she want me to do?”
“I don’t know… maybe replace zippers, mend ripped seams, sew buttons back on, hem skirts and slacks… things like that.”
“Think I can do it?”
“I wouldn’t have told her you were available if I didn’t think so.”
A couple of days later I walked to the woman’s house after school. Her manner was polite, but not at all warm or friendly, which added to my nervousness. I guess she considered this a business relationship. She escorted me to a sewing station in a small room behind her kitchen. Then she pulled out a large stack of cut pockets that I was to sew together using a French seam. (Folks probably don’t pay a lot of attention to the insides of pockets, but you won’t find any cut edges on either the inside or the outside of the pocket on a quality pair of trousers — hence, the need for a French seam, which encases all seam allowances.) She didn’t seemed all that convinced when I indicated I could do what she was asking.
I must have put together a couple dozen full pockets and another couple dozen half pockets that afternoon — more pockets than I’d ever seen in one place at one time, that’s for sure. They would eventually find their way into men’s trousers as replacement pockets. The extent of damage or wear on the pockets would determine whether a whole pocket or a half pocket was needed.
When I finally finished the last one, I got up to go inform my new boss I was done. We both returned to the sewing station, and she inspected the new pockets.
“This is good work,” she commented.
Then she said that was all she had for me to do that day and she’d call me when she wanted me to come back, so I headed for home. When I got there, I filled Mom in on everything: the task I’d been given and how I’d gotten the pockets all done, that she said I’d done a nice job, etc. And it hadn’t been too difficult, after all. I had demonstrated that I was capable, which left me wondering what the woman might have me do next: shorten a hem? take in a waistline? rip out a zipper?
Several days passed. No call. Then one afternoon, I walked through the back door and Mom said she’d called. Oh, boy! But then I heard the rest of the story: turns out, she didn’t want me back. Said she couldn’t afford to pay me by the hour because I worked too slowly. But to be sure and tell me that the pockets I had sewn were the best she’d ever seen.
Well, color me confused. Being brand new to this employer/employee thing, I imagined that my priority should be to demonstrate I could do quality work. Why didn’t somebody tell me she would also have an interest in efficiency?
So there you have it. A classic “good news-bad news” story: the good news — and I was really proud of this — was that my work had passed muster with a professional alterations seamstress; the bad news — I wouldn’t be making any money beyond the amount she paid me for that one afternoon. In a way, though, I was relieved: she was a little too taciturn for me to relax around. But who knows? She might have warmed up over the long haul, had I proven a suitable understudy.
About ten years later, I did earn money with my sewing — I just put out a shingle and did things on my own terms. I don’t think I ever really bothered to calculate how much I earned per hour, although by then I had gotten much faster than I was as a kid of fourteen. I mostly liked the oohs and aahs that inevitably came when I presented customers with their finished garments: a skirt that was now just the perfect length, jacket sleeves that didn’t cover their knuckles, or a custom fitted dress.
Several years after that, we had begun our family, so the shingle came down. And from that point on, all the sewing I did would be for love, not money. Most recently, my daughter-in-law showed me a picture of her idea for my little grand daughter’s costume, and, once again, I did my thing.
Say hello to Bat Baby.
[ * Research on this subject at: Search-Institute.org/Sparks. These guys have great ideas and resources for supporting kids and the communities they live in.]