Late one night, a few months ago, I was sewing, as I often do. Suddenly, I needed a zipper and didn’t have the right size in my stash. As a last ditch effort, I decided to look in the saran-wrapped box of notions that my grandma had left me when she died, but I had never opened. It was then that my sewing stopped for the evening, because what I found wasn’t a zipper, but a time capsule.
My grandma had died in 2010 after living a long and full life. She lost her first husband in WWII and married my grandfather, also a vet, a few years after the War ended. She had five children of her own (including my dad), then decided she wasn’t quite done raising kids, so she adopted one more baby. She was always proud to tell everyone how many grandchildren she had (I lost track around 30). A year or so before her death, she told me the birth story of one of my uncles, where she walked to the grocery store and back in full labor. She was a tough lady, a strong woman. She wasn’t the most cuddly, sweet, always-have-candy type grandma – she was the grandma you learned botanical plant names from, you had memories of feeding the geese with, who told you stories of world travel.
I think women of her era were more self-sufficient. They came of age during the Great Depression, they raised kids while so many of their husbands were at war. They had to know how to cook, sew, knit, crochet, mend, needlepoint, embroider, can and preserve, garden, make more out of less. Skills that a few of us possess today and that many of us are trying to reclaim, they all knew.
My grandma could do it all. In her younger days, I’m told she was a prolific seamstress. In her 70s she took oil painting classes, and in her 80s she passed the time by knitting. She knitted a blanket for every great-grandchild at birth, and Em was one of the last to receive one. It’s a treasure and Em knows how special it is – she now refers to it as “great grandma’s blanket.”
I had to sneak this photo in – she happened to be in the hospital with heart trouble the day Em was born. I never met my great grandparents, so I thought it was so cool that Em got to meet hers.
So anyway, when I was looking for that zipper, I opened the three boxes she had left me – her one grandchild who sews – and was stopped in my tracks. I found her coursework from when she took sewing as a teenager. Tucked inside her “Dressmaking Made Easy” book were graded work samples, smocking, buttonholes, stitch finishes…all sewn by hand. I try to sew in a way that’s technically correct, but I’m self-taught. My sewing now is nowhere near the skill level of my grandma at ages 16 and 17.
As I think about it now, I’m guessing she’d likely been sewing since she was a child. Those classes took her to the next level and earned her a degree.
Tucked in with her coursework, there was a photo of her mother, religious cards, and photos of her, as well as the (handmade) pincushions she used, with pins still in them. Her graduation announcement and certificate were there too.
I’m not sure what lesson I learned that night. I mostly felt in awe of her skill and beauty as a 17-year-old. It made me more sure that sewing is in my blood on both sides of the family, as my mom is also a technically skilled and talented sewist. It made me want to learn more, to build my skills and pass them on to my kids, to continue the legacy of sewing in my family. It made me feel proud that my grandma thought I was deserving of her sewing supplies enough to will them to me. I feel a real responsibility to carry on the tradition. Won’t you come visit me over at skirt as top sometime to see what I’m up to? Thanks so much for having me, Abby! This was such a joy.
Thanks again, Kristin! I love the photos of her meticulous work and the other goodies nestled in with her coursework. What a great lady she sounds like!