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The Family Seamstress

Johnny Robinson with some of his early sewing work.

by John Robinson

I grew up in Roanoke in the 1960’s, in what was normal at the time; that is with a dad who worked at a job in town, and a mom who ran the household. In those days – just in case you didn’t know- one of the many things in the realm of the mom’s domesticity was sewing. Lots of sewing. My mother-in-law, for instance, made clothes for my wife and her four siblings all the time when they were growing up. Now, I know people still sew today; it’s not exactly a lost art. However, the tendency now seems to be replacement rather than mending or altering, to say nothing of actually creating from scratch. But yeah, moms sewed a lot back then, dads not so much.

Therefore, it was kind of weird that my dad was the seamstress –the sewing machine guru- in our family. I guess my dad was just naturally drawn to it, what with the creativity of it and the mechanics of the sewing machine itself. Besides, mom had her hands plenty full with other things. At least once a week, my dad could be found in the basement hunched over the old Singer, patching a hole in a pair of pants, replacing a missing button on a shirt, or letting out cuffs on a pair of growing-boy trousers.

However, my dad’s real love, when it came to sewing, was not mending and altering clothes but creating other things. Exciting things like tents, duffle bags, custom-designed canvas covers for just about anything, and even colorful sails for home-made boats. There was always some cool sewing project in the works.

I used to stand on my tip toes and watch as my dad fed the cloth into the sewing machine, the “walking foot” grabbing as it went. As I watched, I felt mesmerized by not only the visual feast of thread flying through its intricate path and the flywheel turning and the needle in a blur, but the whir of the gears and the “kathunka” of the needle and bobbin. Such sounds to me were, and still are, a most pleasing cacophony. “The sewing machine is one of man’s greatest inventions,” I can remember my dad exclaiming above the tick-tick-kathunka.

So of course, I caught the bug, and I gradually learned the basics of sewing, and of the use of the sewing machine. I became acquainted with topics such as threading the needle after properly feeding the thread along its circuitous path from the spool. As necessity dictated, I learned about shuttle hooks and bobbin cases, and how to load and change the latter. I learned to adjust the thread tension, and lubricate the machine. My seamstress career was launched. I made canvas bags and I sewed patches onto jackets and scout uniforms. I sewed Christmas presents, like a ski bag for my sister, and when I built a home-made kayak I sewed a spray-skirt to fit onto the cockpit.

Years spun by and I spent little time with the sewing machine. But one day I found myself married, and raising a growing family. Along with those happy days of children under foot came the sadness of the death of my paternal grandmother, ever a powerful inspiration to me. I inherited her veteran Kenmore sewing machine and took my place –what do you know- as the family seamstress.

With a little refreshing on operating the machine, especially the ever-temperamental thread tensioning, I was up to speed, doing all those sewing things that my dad did decades before: mending clothes, attaching cub scout, and later, boy scout- patches on uniforms, and making covers and bags. It ‘s never been a chore, but rather a satisfying, aesthetic pursuit: feeding fabric from fingers to machine as it pleasantly whirs, snipping the thread from the finished product, holding it up under good light for inspection, then folding it neatly and gently.

On one of our walls hangs a large quilt, sewn by my grandmother over fifty years ago. The design is of sunflowers, their slender and swaying stalks on the perimeter of the quilt, the grand blossoms full and reaching to the center. The colors of the fabric pieces are rich shades of green, brown, and of course yellow. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the effect of it all as stunning. “Boss” as we called our grandmother, used both a machine and needle-in-hand to assemble the quilt. It was a labor of much time, but – more importantly- of much love. I’m sure that Boss had a feeling that her creation would transcend her relatively brief mortal existence, would reach beyond her years to convey the love, grace, and inspiration she knew so well in life. I feel it whenever my eyes are drawn to that old quilt.

Amazing. All that love through sewing.

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