Archives For Sewing

I mentioned in my last post that we inherited precious patchwork quilts from our grandmothers. However, when we got married, my husband’s Grandma Fleagle made us two brand new quilts as wedding gifts. One was this rose pink and spring green bedspread pictured below, the other a classic Sunbonnet Sue pattern, predominantly turquoises and warm pinks.


On the bed in our first apartment in Seattle

I was so honored to receive these quilts: they represented countless hours spent appliqueing and hand-piecing the tops, then quilting the layers, each tiny hand stitch a testament to her skill, creativity, and love for her family. We were by no means the sole beneficiaries of her craft – the woman could definitely church out the quilts! She lived in western Kansas and wasn’t able to travel to the wedding in Alton, Illinois, so she had my mother-in-law deliver them on her behalf.


Grandma Fleagle  with my husband at his college graduation

Little did we know that Grandma Fleagle wouldn’t be with us only nine months later. We were in the process of moving from Seattle back to the Midwest when we got the news she had died, so we made some route adjustments so we could arrive in Friend, Kansas in time for the funeral.

Relatives gathered in the big old frame farmhouse, and the upstairs bedrooms filled up with folks staying overnight. The next day, the daughters were going through the mounds of sewing goods and quilting notions, wondering what to do with it all. My mother-in-law suggested that since they and their daughters all had sewing machines, and since I did a lot of sewing, I should receive the Singer. It was agreed, but then they took it a step further and actually boxed up everything else to ship to me, too! The only trouble was that there was no address to which it could be sent – we were still in the process of relocating!


It was a couple of weeks after we landed in Des Moines, when several boxes were delivered to the tiny house we rented. I believe the contents of those boxes could have stocked half a small shop! There were multiple scissors and pins and needles and many thimbles. There were bobbins and tape measures and snaps and buttons. There was lace and rick-rack and seam binding and zippers. And mountains of spools of thread. Cigar boxes and fruitcake tins, filled with notions of all kinds, not to mention yard goods. There were even things I had to ask others to identify! (Tatting shuttles were new to me.) I guess a person wouldn’t want to get snowed in way out there on the high plains without adequate provisions.

Those supplies kept me stocked for a long, long time, and I appreciated being able to “shop” in my own sewing room. I was also hugely grateful to receive the sewing machine – I put that puppy to work for years and years to come. But as valuable as these things were to a cash-strapped newlywed, the absolute best find, hands down, tucked away among some hand-crocheted lace, was a tiny little volume entitled: Daily Texts with Verses of Hymns: Adapted for General Use and Suited for Every Year.

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Apparently Grandma Fleagle had a routine: a daily text at the ready, for meditating upon while stitching quietly. Written with a nib and ink on the inside back cover of the wee book is a gracefully penned inscription: “Presented to Ralph Fleagle by his great Aunt Anne Knox, March 24th, 1886”. *

It is the oldest thing in our house. And a treasure.


  • [Ralph is my husband’s great uncle, brother to Jake Fleagle of the Fleagle Gang, who is listed directly above Pretty Boy Floyd in the Wikipedia article on Depression Era Gangsters. More on these nefarious characters to come. Warning: not for the faint of heart. Perhaps Ralph should have spent more time meditating on the tiny book.]

The one-day wonder

February 25, 2014 — 1 Comment

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.

“Thank you.”

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.

lkd at sewing machine b&w

At the Singer, a couple of years after my one-day job (perhaps the only picture ever taken of me while sewing, which I did a lot)

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.

Bat Girl

[ * Research on this subject at: These guys have great ideas and resources for supporting kids and the communities they live in.]

I was pretty little when I went to my first funeral. My mom worked full time when I was in half-day kindergarten, so a babysitter stayed with me when I wasn’t in school. One morning she got me ready to attend a funeral with her. I have no idea how we got there (probably walked), or the location of the church, but I do remember the occasion itself.

I must have asked her to explain to me what a funeral was when she told me where we were going; I remember being very confused by this notion that one day a person could be here, and then the next, they could be gone. I kept trying to wrap my little mind around it, but the concept just didn’t fit this five-year-old’s construct. It puzzled me throughout the rest of the day (and then some).

I also remember thinking, after we got to the church, that the hushed tones all the big people were using seemed rather peculiar. I don’t recall that anybody at the church addressed me personally, so I was off the hook: didn’t have to worry about finding the appropriate quiet-as-a-church-mouse voice. I didn’t mind being ignored either, since I didn’t know a soul — and that included the woman in the “pine box” up front. Furthermore, from my point of view, the ceremony was much too long. Just a whole lot of talking about things that didn’t make any sense at all.

But the occasion wasn’t a complete bust, no. It had serendipitously provided yet another opportunity to get dressed up and go out. To say that I enjoyed the fancy dresses my mom would sew for me, or occasionally purchase, would be an understatement. I could count on getting something new and special about twice a year – in time for holidays. Why is it that I can’t remember my doctor appointments or the name of the author of that book I just read, but I can vividly remember the details of many of those dresses from more than fifty years ago? Perhaps it had something to do with my mom making it all seem so wonderful by putting thought not just into the dresses themselves, but also into the accessories: this little purse, those fancy anklets, a pair of little white gloves, a pendant, a sash. Always color coordinated, always an ensemble.

I remember one evening, standing in the hallway outside my kindergarten classroom with my classmates and our teacher, waiting for the signal to file into the auditorium to perform our holiday selections. I was wearing a dusty cornflower blue faux shantung number with a full round collar, short puffed sleeves and a dirndl skirt. It had a one-inch navy velvet ribbon sash around the waist and a vertical row of navy buttons down the middle front of the collar. Not only had my mom curled and styled my hair, but she had also manicured my nails with a coat of clear polish. Oh yes, I was really stepping out on the town that evening. (Suppose my mom just might have enjoyed having a little girl whose strings resonated to her tunes?…)

It wouldn’t be too many more years before I would be making my own dresses, since Mom took the time to teach me how to sew. From about age eleven, I made many of my own garments, and from there I just kept right on going. I would have to say the high point was making the dress I got married in, as well those my attendants wore.

These days, I don’t sew nearly as much. It seems like ready-to-wear garments are priced close enough to the cost of yard goods + notions to make the time spent sewing clothes not an especially compelling equation, especially if one watches sales on ready-to-wear. In addition, the quality and selection of yard goods has diminished, in my opinion, as the percentage of people who sew their own garments has declined. Alas.

But I did take time out to make a special outfit a few years ago. My dad’s health had been failing for a while. One day a little voice in my head said I wouldn’t have much more time to enjoy his presence in this life; I needed to savor every moment. Another thought followed: I needed suitable garments to wear to the ceremony that would commemorate his having been here one day, and gone the next. So I set about ensuring I would have such garments.

The process was unhurried, allowing me to take care in selecting the fabric, in designing the lines of the suit, and in meticulously assembling the three pieces. Not since the wedding attire I had sewn thirty-five years years earlier had any sewing project come close to commanding so much attention. It was as if I had a dressmaking class project that I had to get an “A+” on. As the construction phase neared completion, in the spirit of my mom’s earlier focus on just-right accessories, I searched for beads to accent the neckline, earrings to match the beads, and shoes that finished off the look. I totally lifted a page out of her playbook.

This time around, the concept of someone being there one day and not there the next would no longer be a puzzlement; it would just bring an ache. This time, the people surrounding me wouldn’t be strangers; they would be loved ones to share the ache. And this time, the person in the box up front would be no stranger; he would be someone I knew so, so well. And this time, dressing up in the ensemble  made especially for the occasion  would actually bring comfort and help me commemorate my dad and celebrate just how special he was to me.