Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Once upon a time I was a seamstress February 1, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:13 AM
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spools of thread

Spools of thread in the sewing box I haven't opened in years.

I ALWAYS THOUGHT I’d sew clothes for my family. That was before children, in the days when I was young and had no realistic concept of the time demands of parenting.

I grew up sewing—clothes for myself, dresses for my Grandma who quilted like a mad woman but couldn’t follow a pattern. She quilted while I stitched shapeless dresses for her from polyester and cotton.

Nearly all of the clothing I wore as a teen in the 1970s, I made. Hot pants. Smocks. Dresses. Elephant leg pants, which never fit right around the waist because I was way too skinny. Pajamas. Even underwear, a rather challenging task presented by a home economics teacher who thought we should sew underwear from some slinky, slippery impractical fabric. The project was a failure.

But I digress. I loved to sew—to choose crisp, cotton fabric, and, yes, sometimes even stretchy polyester, from bolts packed onto shelves in the fabric store or in the basement of J.C. Penney in Redwood Falls or in the grocery store/general store in Lucan. The prints were psychedelic pieces of art—bold and crazy and colorful.

I can't state with certainty that this is cotton fabric from the 1970s. I picked it up several years ago at a thrift store because it reminds me of psychedelic 70s prints.

I loved paging through thick catalogs of patterns, choosing just the right trendy design to match manufactured clothes.

While I didn’t particularly enjoy the pinning of tissue paper patterns to fabric or the measuring and cutting process, I loved sliding the fabric across the sewing machine, stitching straight, even lines or easy curves until I’d created something I could wear.

There's a certain satisfaction in guiding fabric under a pressure foot, the needle pumping through fabric.

The ability to sew truly rated as a necessity more than an indulgence in a creative outlet. Our poor farm family couldn’t afford closets full of store-bought clothes. If I wanted clothing, I would need to sew them.

So, with that background, I expected to continue sewing as an adult. When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a Sears Kenmore sewing machine as my graduation gift. My oldest brother got a car. Yeah, well…

My 1974 sewing machine, a graduation gift from my parents.

Fast forward through college—definitely no time for sewing then, except during breaks back home on the farm. Launched into the working world 3 ½ years later as a newspaper reporter, I had precious little time for sewing.

And so the years passed, until I became a mother in 1986 with grandiose plans of stitching cute little dresses for my first-born daughter. That never happened and I had even less time when my second daughter arrived 21 months later. On a tight time and money budget, I mostly relied on rummage sale clothes to dress my daughters and later, my son.

It’s been years now since I used my sewing machine. Somewhere in the busyness of raising three children and in the economic reality that I could purchase store-bought or recycled for less than the cost of fabric and a pattern, I lost interest in sewing.

I haven’t lost, though, the thrill of walking into the fabric section of a store, perusing the bolts of cloth and running my hands across the woven threads.

And it seems to me that the prints today are bold and crazy and colorful, quite like the psychedelic prints of the 70s.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Did you, like me, sew at one time? Or are you a creative seamstress,  stitching away today?

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


10 Responses to “Once upon a time I was a seamstress”

  1. ceciliag Says:

    I think you and i had the same sewing teacher, we had to make knickers! Cotton ones though i was taught by nuns after all and they were really bloomers I guess! dreadful. i made a nice nightie once though. now I sew straight farm skirts (I hate shorts) , with a pocket for my every present scissors (old nursing habits die hard) .. and that is all. Though i always make them out of old curtain fabric, it is wilder and stronger! c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Perhaps our teachers attended the same college.

      That’s the spirit, to sew your farm skirts from wild and strong recycled curtain fabric. That sounds like you, and I mean that in a good way.

  2. Rhonda Says:

    I sew alot. I used to sew for my kids. We have 6. I still sew for some of them as adults and now for grandchildren. Baptism dresses, bridesmaid dresses,wedding dresses, Christmas stockings and ornaments, aprons, flower girl dresses, dresses for our pastor’s daughter, Easter dresses, prom dresses, teddy bears from old fur coats, purses. I also alter all of the above for other people. I love to sew and create. Let me know if you need anything.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Rhonda, I just checked out your blog and saw some of your fine, fine creations. Do you sell any of your hand-crafted items online or in any retail locations? I’m impressed by your long list of items you have sewn/sew.

      • Rhonda Says:

        I usually just sell things to people that they ask me to sew. My daughters usually see what I’ve made and I tend to give things to them. I would love to have enough things made to sell several. I do keep quite busy. I do a lot of altering especially prom and wedding dresses.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Thanks, Rhonda. I’ll pass any inquiries along to you.

  3. Great post! I am a horrible seamstress. No patience. I have sewn three things in my life: one, a skirt in 8th grade Home Ec. Class that she made me tear out the zipper because I’d done it backwards – like for a boy. So much for instilling a love for sewing in a kid. Then, I made one dress for Katie when she was 3 – which Lucy has also worn. It worked out okay. Then I made a twin-bed sized quilt which I actually really enjoyed. I can handle straight seams! My sisters and I were supposed to make a quilt for my mom for Christmas – I sent back my squares and said I coudln’t do it!! So I sewed the edges together so I couldl at least have a small part in it! My sisters and mom and terrific seamstresses…somehow the gene skipped over me!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I really, truly used to LOVE to sew. But I doubt I could put in a zipper or make a button hole any more. Those were always somewhat of a challenge.

  4. Lanae Says:

    All I got for graduation was a set of suitcases. I think I was gipped, Doug a car and you a sewing machine. Oh…. they wanted me gone…no wonder I got suitcases.
    I remember going into the fabric stores and waiting for 1-2 hours while you picked everything out. The dye in the fabric gave me headaches. Mrs Olson always got mad at me for being the last person to start a sewing project. What she didn’t realize is that I couldn’t figure out how to lay a pattern “biased and Unbiased” WHAT?? Think she passed me to get me out of the class. Even today the curtains I sew are always crooked.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      So you got suitcases as a graduation gift. I always wondered what my younger siblings received.

      I didn’t particularly like sewing in home ec either. Not enough time. Barely got the needle threaded and it was time to give up the machine to a classmate or the bell rang. I much preferred sewing at my own pace at home.

      You may not be able to sew well, dear sister. But you are incredibly talented in design.

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