When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Sewing

Major Barbara: San Jose State

Costume Design by Deborah Slate
I spent 40 hours sewing this costume

Wedding and birthday anniversaries are fun.  When it’s the anniversary of a death, clouds descend. My mom passed three days after Christmas in 2008, so in addition to my usual seasonal blahs, feelings of loss prevail.

This year, I spent the day sewing, something my mom taught me as a girl.  I remember the moment clearly, though I was only six.  It started at school.

During arts and crafts time, they gave us sewing cards, cardboard pictures punched with holes and a shoe lace. We were to thread the lace in and out of the holes to frame the picture. Though mesmerized, I was also annoyed that I had to take it apart when done.  I went home and asked my mom if I could sew.

She found the largest needle she had and an old sock.  I sat by her knee on the floor, cutting the sock into shapes and then sewing them together.  I completely lost myself in the activity.

I made a lot of my clothes in high school, and sewed for friends as well.  I attended community college where I got an associate degree in fashion merchandising, taking classes in fine sewing and design. From there I transferred to San Jose State where I studied costume design, graduating with a BS in theater.  I worked as a ‘stitcher’ at San Jose Repertory Theater, my first professional experience.  I also spent three summers doing summer stock in Santa Rosa, working as an assistant cutter and later cutter for summer shows.

summer stock theater

Summer Stock Theater

Making a living in the arts is hard work.  I admire my friends that stuck with it, many of them working in academia to make ends meet.  I drifted into different things, when the challenge of always looking for that next job, contract or summer gig started to wear on me.  I miss it.  You meet incredibly talented and creative people in theater, and you meet prima donnas and sociopaths as well.  Everyone’s welcome. No judgment.

These days I sew for myself once a year at Halloween.  It’s a wonderfully creative outlet.  Whenever I haul out my machine, I wonder why I don’t find the time to do it more often.

During my day of sewing, I repaired a dress for my sister. Sharon is also a good seamstress, but her MS makes sewing a challenge these days. I did a bit of mending for my son, then learned how to use the overlock stitch on my machine.  Oh happy day!

mending seams

Mended seams

Two summers ago I made a slip cover for my garden swing.  I piped most of the edges, but the two side panels were simply pinked (with my mom’s pinking shears).  The loose weave of the fabric didn’t hold up in the wash, unfortunately, so the pinked edges frayed.  I trimmed the edges even, then went to town with the over lock stitch.  Be still my heart: it worked!  I laundered the cover and put it away for the season.  For some reason that really made me happy.

overlocked seams

Over-locked seams

garden swing cover

Garden swing cover

Last on the list for my sewing day: a pillow.  My friend Melanie had a beloved canvas bag from her summer camp days.  Her well-loved bag sported torn seams and a few holes, but it had great sentimental value.  I offered to turn it into a pillow.

I found the perfect trim at my local craft store to add a bit of texture.  Within no time the bag transformed.

duffel bag pillow

Camp Seafarer pillow

The day was cathartic.  I sewed for myself, my family and my friends and I sewed for the memory of mom.  I used her pinking shears that day too, and believe it or not, a spool of black thread that once lived in her sewing box.

As I put all this into words, I wonder if I’ve hit upon an annual tradition.

What helps you get through a ‘loaded’ anniversary?

26 thoughts on “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Sewing

  1. When times are hard we tend to turn to our homes and the crafts that make the home sweeter…when we are sad and introspective the attention it takes to run up a seam, knit a scarf, cross-stitch a flower, or make an apple pie, busy our hands while we remember the loved one, forgive the offending relative, or let the tears fall. It is soothing work that is grounded in traditions that go back dozens of generations. Suddenly we don’t feel quite so bereft and more comforted and secure. I hope you found this comfort as you sewed for your mom, Alys.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am thoughtful at the end of this post – looking out at the first sunny blue sky since Christmas…. It seems to me that a more lovely way of being with the anniversary would be hard to find. I am quite sure your mother would have been smiling gently upon you throughout. How wonderful to have such a bond, to have such memories and such love.

    Too often I hear people dismiss anniversaries and the wash of missing and loss that accompanies those times. Much wiser to accept it and be in it and honour it. It is part of the rhythm of life is it not? Eventually we may move from feeling just the loss to celebrating with joy the person who was so dear and wonderful in our life – I am sure that helps them too.

    I love what Mary Elizabeth said, she is very wise!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh Alys, I know just what you mean as do so many. I lost mom on July 5. We wheeled her to her last potluck, neighborhood picnic so she could visit with all the neighbors. She had given instructions on how to make the potato salad EXACTLY. I always celebrate the 4th a little more thoughtfully now. Your sewing is incredible. I had to teach myself and I would never pass muster but I get by as long as no one looks too close. 🙂 I had one class in Jr. high but no machine or instruction for use at home. Mother never allowed anyone near hers. She was an excellent seamstress. Maybe one day but I won’t hold my breath. Getting the job done will do for me.


    • Oh Marlene, losing your mom so close to a holiday too. I suppose there is no good time to lose the people we care for. It just seems that the holidays are loaded up enough with expectation and tension, without having to add in the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

      Thanks for your care and understanding. What a great story about the potato salad.

      As for sewing, I’m sorry your mom didn’t pass that on to you. A co-worker of my mother’s gave me an old, old singer that she no longer wanted. It had one stitch, one direction, but I used it for everything. When I was 17 she bought me a Sear’s Kenmore, and I used it for over 35 years. My husband bought me a used Bernina a few years ago for Christmas. It took some getting used to the bells and whistles, but it is a solid machine and reliable.

      When I worked in theater departments as a stitcher, we sewed on heavy duty, industrial machines that could make it through multiple layers of canvas, leather, and the like. They were also very fast so you really had to keep your wits about you.

      You have many creative talents, Marlene. You do far more that getting the job done, so please don’t sell yourself short.

      Thanks for being here!


  4. This must have been hard to write, you’re so brave. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. I wish I had some magic trick to recommend so you’ll never feel blue at Christmas again. I don’t even know how I manage really. Sometimes, it’s not too good but normally, I’ll take flowers for dad and actually Wayne lives across the street. So I can wonder over there and stand in dad’s same garage. Same tools, Same cabinets, same smells…comforting. I completely understand how it’s really special to have your moms shears and thread too. I’m glad you found it cathartic to use these things in your projects hon. An annual sewing project at this time of year is a great idea.

    I think I started sewing in Jr High. I remember sewing a pheasant dress in grade 8 for the fashion show we did every year. Funny thing is, it would have been back in style this year, Ha.
    I’m really impressed by the piping on your swing cushion. I’ve never tried to make any, it seems so intimidating. But it sure finished things smartly. I’d love to get a lesson next time I’m visiting.

    You look so stylish and pretty in your photo. I love your hair. Does it seem long ago to you? When I try to remember 1982, nothing special comes to mind, so it must have been easy and breezy. Who knew you would find a passio at age 6 that would serve you so well your entire life. That’s remarkable, gentle hugs Alys. Sending happy thoughts xoK


    • Oh that must be both hard and wonderful at the same time, having places to go to be with the memories. Isn’t it something how a smell can take you back?

      Mom was cremated, ashes scattered off the coast of San Francisco. Her last home was a hospice and before that, assisted living so really no home to go too.

      We did a sewing fashion show in high school. It was great fun. I have a picture some where of what we affectionately referred to as the Handywipe dress. It was yellow with tiny stripes like the Handywipes of the day. Funny!

      I’m happy to show you how to insert piping and also how to make continuous bias. I always have to look it up when it has been awhile (and since I never did have a head for math). It’s fun!

      Yes…a life time ago.

      Thanks for your gentle hugs, for your love and encouragement. Thanks for being in my life.


  5. I too, love that photo of you! And your projects turned out really well!
    I also love this post and have shared it with a friend. The way you have honored and surrounded yourself with memories of you mother, especially when feeling blue, is lovely and frankly incredible. How you are able to channel your loss and melancholy into productivity is inspring. Alys.


    • Laurie, you’ve made my day. Thanks for sharing this with your friend. I hope she took something positive from it.

      It took a few years to get here, but now that I’ve landed on this idea, it feels just right in every way. Funny that.

      I appreciate your always thoughtful comments. Thank you.


    • Thank you, Dani, for the trans-Pacific hugs. Sending one right back your way.

      Gosh, I appreciate your kinds words about my sewing and the photo. You are so good to me.

      I need to pop over to see if you’ve blogged another holiday update. I’ve really enjoyed them.


  6. Wonderful post! You are so talented!! I lost my mother in 2009 and though she was 86 and I had her for 55 years, I’ve come to the conclusion you never got over your mother’s death. I miss her terribly, especially her words of wisdom. I love your new tradition – keep it up!


    • Thanks so much, Betsy.

      It sounds like you had a remarkable mother. I’m glad you had her for the time you did, and can relate to the way you miss her. About a year ago I saw a woman on the street that was so much like my mom that for just a moment I imagined it was her. That really hit me.

      I will definitely keep this tradition.


  7. I loved this post. I started (trying) to sew at a fairly young age and took one class in junior high – in high school I, too, made a lot of my own clothes.. I think this is a lovely annual tradition to mark the passing of your mother. I’m so sorry about the blues, Alys. I hope the sadness fades and you derive much comfort from the sewing tradition in the future. Love you.


  8. It’s lovely that you still have your mum’s pinking shears. I’m lucky not to have any sad anniversaries – except for my grandfather, but I don’t hold onto the day, just remember him when there is something I want to tell him!


  9. What a lovely tribute to your mum she has given you a real gift. I too trained in Fashion and textiles as a designer and it was my grandma that passed her gift on to me as she was a tailoress and I began sewing aged 6 with the scraps of fabric she cut off the garments she made.
    What a beautiful picture too – gorgeous hair.


  10. I love all the makes you’ve sewn! I’d LOVE to see the costumes you used to make. And, also, I do hope that you’ve been able to shake the funk that the holidays sometimes bring and, of course, the memory of the passing of your mom. I’m thinking about you and sending virtual hugs.


    • I’m feeling so much better, thank you! I’m happy we’re into a new year.

      Thanks for the nice words about my sewing. I don’t have a lot of photos from the day (we’re so spoiled now with camera phones and digital cameras) but not so much in my younger days. I do have a few and will collect them and share in another post. Thanks for the cyber hug and for your continued support and interest.

      Is your heat back on and staying on?


      • Looking forward to your post! And, I know what you mean about older pics. I was going to do a blogpost on changing styles, styles past, what worked, what didn’t, and what the future holds, etc. But, I could find so few photos!! And, those I found, didn’t necessarily reflect or show my outfit. And, yes, we have heat and it stays on!! Two days ago the power went off and everybody seriously held their breath, daring to not even blink. But, 5 minutes later, it was back on. …..exhale.


  11. I’m so glad you sent me back to this post, Alys! It let me think of my own mom’s sewing–she was an excellent seamstress–and my dear friend who is a costume designer. I’ve never been much with a sewing machine but I know enough to do basic repairs, etc. Do they teach Home Ec anymore? Every person should know how to do very basic sewing on a machine. Just look at what it allowed you to accomplish, in one day! Have you kept up this tradition?


    • I’m so glad you popped over for a read. For a variety of reasons, all mundane, I have not kept up this tradition. Mom’s been gone a decade this year. I *think* about doing it each year, and hope to get back to it again.

      I loved all my Home Ec classes in middle school and high school, and even took a sewing class in college. During my senior year we had a six-week section called “Survival for Singles” where we learned about simple electrical, how to create a budget, how to write a check and balance a checkbook. This was separate from the sewing and cooking classes, which of course were all girls in those days. I used to cast an envious eye towards the boy’s year-end wood-working projects and wish I could do that. I’m 58, not 108. It’s hard to imagine now those antiquated ways of thinking.

      Anyhoo…back to sewing, I agree that the basics are so important. I love to sew by hand (mostly repairs). There is something both relaxing and satisfying about the process.


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