Along with many others, I have pulled out my sewing machine, gathered my stashed sewing supplies, and found multiple videos and directions for making cloth face masks for ourselves and others who are in need of them during this health crisis we find ourselves in. I am not a sewing expert, nor an exacting sort of seamstress. Sadly, my sewing meets the standard of “getting the job done,” but then again, cloth face masks in the middle of a pandemic are not exactly fashion statements.
What I found surprising and comforting was the number of times my mom came to mind as I stitched various styles of mask, searching for a pattern (I really like this one) that would offer ease of use, and match with the supplies I had on hand. No need to go to the store when I had so much to choose from right here, it was simply figuring out what worked best.
As I ran pieces of fabric through my sewing machine, stitching pieces together into useful masks, I could almost hear Mom’s voice from the past. It was as if she stood right over my shoulder as I tackled one mask, then another, with her guidance.
For the most part, Mom had her hands full coping with raising five children. But she enjoyed sewing, and dedicated time throughout much of her life to sewing for herself and others. Even though Mom has been gone twenty years now, she made enough cloth napkins to last far beyond her lifetime, for all my siblings, and many others as well.
I wondered, as I stiched these face masks, about who taught my mother to sew. Could it have been her own mother, our Po’lady, who was not known for her domestic skills? Mom talked about Po’lady sewing for the Red Cross during the WWI, perhaps during WWII as well. Maybe her mother did take the time to teach my mom this skill.
Mom made Halloween costumes for us, and short sets we wore all summer.
She sewed doll clothes too, and she really enjoyed this type of sewing. This always puzzled me on several levels. First, doll clothes are even more difficult to sew than clothes for children or adults.
Such tiny seams, miniscule sleeves, everything in miniature. I, myself cared nothing for dolls. It was a mystery to me what pleasure Mom derived from this challenge.
But I saw the pleasure Mom’s doll clothes brought to my own daughter, who did enjoy dolls, and greatly appreciated the clothes her Grannie brought, or mailed to her to dress up her dolls as she was growing up.
As I continued to stitch these face masks, hints Mom had passed on to me kept coming to mind. Little things, like how to start a seam to avoid tangling the thread underneath in the bobbin. How to add more thread to a bobbin. How to turn a corner to keep the fabric in place. How to end a seam with a little backstitching to hold the seam firmly in place.
With each movement of my hands, working in time with the fabric and sewing machine, Mom stood quietly beside me, bringing these simple, but not always obvious practices to mind. I wonder now, did she teach my other siblings to sew? I’ll have to ask.
Mom taught my daughter how to sew, or at least spent time with them helping them use the sewing machine for some sort of project. And I taught my son how to sew when he expressed the wish to create a cape for himself.
As Caleb set to work to get the fabric cut and pieced together, I strove to assist him. At one point, he noted that if he’d had any idea how easy it was to stitch one piece of fabric with another, he would have done a lot more of it! Another time while he worked on the same cape, I made a suggestion, to which he paused, grinned, and asked, “Who’s driving this pedal anyway?” I backed off and let him proceed.
And so we learn, or we don’t. Passing on lessons, which may or may not be taken in, may be appreciated, may be valued, if only later in life. We may never even know the value of what we share. But the lessons continue. Please be safe, stay healthy if you can, and be gentle with yourself and those around you.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20 years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.