Adding to a grand tradition

One of the curious things about getting older is discovering how few things you can do that don’t remind you of something or someone. But it’s also interesting to discover how you can change, after years of habit.

During the pandemic shutdown, I rediscovered sewing. It was something my mother loved to do.  She was beyond good at it. She tried to teach me, and I was adequate, but I sewed in the slapdash fashion I do most things. I can’t say I was proud of what I made, yet sometimes I see something I made when my kids were small and am surprised I did as well as I did.

I’ve made dresses and rompers for my granddaughters in the past few months, and more than a few face masks. Each time, I picked up things that my mother used to make me: dresses, jackets, blouses, and thought of her. And I missed her. When I saved her sewing supplies I thought I was being ridiculous. I know now I was smarter than I knew.


But my expectations for what I could make were realistic. My mom was a wizard. I am Mickey trying to clean out the sorcerer’s workshop using professional tools.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t try. This summer I promised my daughter a dress.

It’s not a difficult pattern, nor a fancy dress. But I’m working on it with a new standard. During the shutdown, I discovered Bernadette Banner, a young New York City woman about whom I’ve written before. I’ve watched other historical costume experts on YouTube, but Banner in particular is a fastidious stickler for Victorian-era hand sewing and finished seams. I watched, and apparently I learned something.

First, I took my time with creating this dress. I waited until I understood what the pattern instructions were telling me. And then I improvised. I wasn’t content with just following the pattern anymore. Inspired by that young woman in Manhattan, I wanted this dress to be better than ordinary.

I added vintage Mexican embroidery from a shirt that was headed to a donation box. Then I changed the pattern. A woman, Banner has said, needs pockets in her skirts and dresses. I agree. And this pattern had none. So I added them.

I am quite proud of how they turned out.

The dress is put together now. But it is not done. Where I once would have ironed the rough seams open and declared it “finished,” as the pattern tells me I may, I am now carefully trimming seams, and preparing to finish them by hand. It’s called a “flat-felled” seam and it is neat, tidy, and will not unravel when the dress is washed.

My mother, who was so comfortable with a sewing machine that she made me a lined wool jacket that was better than anything I could find in a store, felt inadequate when compared with her own mother’s sewing. My grandmother was a seamstress by necessity: she married a poor farmer. She went from a life of comfort to a life of struggle with many children and no money. The quilts she made from worn out shirts are works of art. Her stitches are tiny, her eye for color meticulous.

I am not the sewist my grandmother was. I cannot sew as well as my mother did. But I can sew. And by trying hard to make something with pride for my daughter, I feel as though all those women before me are standing at my back, maybe wincing a bit, but smiling.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.