The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

My Grandmother Would Sew

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1992

Issue: March, 1992

I never see an old treadle sewing machine without thinking of my grandmother. I visited my grandparents' farm often in the summertime, and my grandmother sewed practically every day. Sometimes someone would drive her friend Miss Mammie over to see her and they would sit, talk and do hand sewing together.

My grandmother could turn a piece of cloth, whether store-bought or feed sack, into something professionally tailored. She never skipped those boring in-between steps such as basting either. Likely as not, the dresses she made would also be trimmed in her hand made tatting, although when I was a little girl, I favored bright colored rickrack. (How long has it been since you saw a garment with rickrack on it?) When my grandmother sewed on rickrack, she didn't just sew it on with a straight line - she actually sewed up one zig and down the next zag, so that it didn't curl the first time it was washed.

I loved to play around my grandmother's treadle sewing machine. It was great fun pushing the foot treadle up and down, making it go faster and faster. Of course, as anyone who has ever played on a treadle sewing machine knows, it always ended with pinched fingers or toes or both. You were pitting your cunning and agility against the machine, and it always won. And you couldn't receive sympathy for it. You had already been warned many times over about what would happen.

I remember one summer in particular. My grandmother had a wallpaper sample book waiting for me. It was a great treasure. I enjoyed just turning the pages of that big thick book and seeing the many different designs and colors, some with their own matching narrow edge trim. That summer, as my grandmother sewed, she gave me an old Sears catalog to cut paper dolls out of. Then, with my paper doll family depending on me, she showed me how to lay the paper dolls on a page of the wallpaper sample and cut out clothes. It was the next best thing to sewing! I even pretended to baste the clothes I was cutting. I wasn't going to cut any corners either. I was even allowed to use the little glass bottle of glue with the red rubber cap with a slit in it to "sew" matching trim on my paper doll dresses. I knew there couldn't have been a better dressed family of paper dolls anywhere. It kept me busy for hours.

Every day, as my grandmother sat in the living room sewing in the morning hours before it got so hot, I would be on the cement-floored, screened-in porch that ran the length of the kitchen and living room. I would have my wallpaper book, scissors, glue and what was left of the Sears catalog and I would "work" just as seriously as she did until noon, when my grandfather came in from the fields. Looking back, I realize it kept me out of her hair all morning, but I can't think of a way to spend a more enjoyable time for a little girl.

Eventually, my grandmother gave me a cardboard box and showed me how to transform it into a doll house for the paper doll family. I thumbed through other sections of the Sears catalog and found furniture and appliances. These were cut out and pasted onto the "walls" of the box. Scraps of real material were used for curtains for the windows cut out of the box.

It's strange which things stick in your mind - which ones become the most vivid memories, which fade from view. My best memories were simple ones in a slower paced time. The wallpaper book and catalog cost practically nothing, except some imagination, and yet it kept me happily occupied for a long, long time. It imbedded itself within my memories, along with the sight, smell, sound, feel and taste of those childhood days, waiting to be pleasantly recalled at my leisure a half century later.