Sewing Is Bringing Me And My Mom Together -- And Improving My Wardrobe

We worked on it back and forth until, somehow, it was 3 a.m. and I had a completely ridiculous garment that I could call a dress.
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Anastasia Chipelski
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We worked on it back and forth until, somehow, it was 3 a.m. and I had a completely ridiculous garment that I could call a dress.

My mother, the master seamstress, at work.

My mother, the master seamstress, at work.

Whether by nature or nurture, I inherited my mom’s stubbornness. When our wild wills are aimed in the same direction, we can work together. We run hard and fast like feral cats -- we cover a lot of ground, but not without a few swipes and hisses along the way. 

Our creative interests overlap more than our schedules do, so when we get together to work on something, we go hard. After holding a few 12-hour marathon sewing parties, we have created some amazing new wardrobe staples -- perfectly fitted and stylish outfits that pass for store-bought.

It started with a local boutique’s up-cycling workshop that I dragged her to. I brought an old men’s plaid shirt, and by the end of the day it had been reshaped into a fitted dress. We both enjoyed the workshop, but she didn’t see the point in paying to do something that she could easily do at home -- she already had the tools and the skills, even if they were rusty.

It’s not unusual for my mom and me to approach the same task with totally different visions. But through collaborating on a few sewing projects, we’ve begun to craft a new dynamic. And so I soon realized that I've stumbled onto something more than working on a shared hobby with my mom.

She’s always been creative, and somewhat scrappy (in polite terms, this gets called “resourceful”). As a single mom on welfare, she raised me and my brother for many years before starting a home business called “Sew What -- Costumes and Stuff”. The “stuff” included little bean bags for juggling (or whipping at your little brother's head), tote bags, and pot holders. These filled out the table at craft sales, but her main staples were the costumes she sold to daycares and schools.

The whirring of her industrial-strength sewing machine was a constant in our apartment. My brother and I were mascots and models, romping around as bears, frogs, dinosaurs, and wizards. The pun was soon retired, and the business renamed as “Little Wizard.” I could snip some threads, or gently roll the wizard hat’s chin strap over a knitting needle to turn it inside out, but was too young to help with any substantial sewing. (I was much better suited to working sales -- I once sold half the table while mom was bartering tote bags for bread at a farmer’s market.)

Everyone dressed like a frog when they were a kid, right?

Everyone dressed like a frog when they were a kid, right?

Some of these costumes are still being used in local festivals. It's surreal to watch four-year-old bears and chickens tearing around in the same outfits I wore 25 years ago, and to see my mom's designs and handiwork standing the test of time.

Eventually, she gave up the business for more consistent work as a courier. She’d still fix things up now and then, but as her work outside the home increased, she sewed less and less. Then we moved into our first house, and quickly discovered that the whole bathroom needed to be torn out and rebuilt. The focus of my mom's creativity and industriousness shifted to renovations: if something needed to be done, she learned how to do it.

Four years ago, I bought my own house, which was in a similar state of disrepair. She did more than pitch in -- she took the lead and guided me through tearing out moldy carpets and refinishing all the hardwood floors. We dismantled and rebuilt shelves and cabinets, and stripped off four layers of painted-over wallpaper in one room. She single-handedly dismantled my old stoop and built a new one while I was out of town visiting my dad. 

But her drive to make the house better was always stronger than mine. My priority was moving out of my seemingly dead-end career, so I took night courses and second jobs, and rarely worked less than 50 hours a week. I barely had time to keep my house clean, never mind improve it.

Mom would offer help by trying to smooth out some of the rough edges of my domestic life. She tried to impart her knowledge, the tips and tricks of surviving in a crappy old house with no spare change. But when so many conversations started with "we should" or "you need to" or "is your" all I could see was a to-do-list reaching far beyond what I could ever hope to achieve.

Home maintenance and repair was quickly losing its position as the common ground between us.

While I worked on rebuilding my life, my mom pulled out her sewing machine again. She was determined to stop shopping (even if it was mostly at second-hand stores) and repurpose what she already owned. She proposed that we get together to fix some clothes, which was much more manageable than fixing a house, so I agreed.

I also showed up with 5 meters of cotton, some ribbons, and a sketch for a long peasant-style dress.

I tried to explain it to her, and she saw the shape of my vision, but knew that I was putting the pieces together in the wrong order. I was cutting corners because I didn't realize the care it took to make something and do it well -- simple things like pressing your fabric before seaming it. We worked on it back and forth until, somehow, it was 3 a.m. and I had a completely ridiculous garment that I could call a dress. I was hooked.

In preparation for our most recent soiree, we spent an afternoon at the local thrift store, searching more for fabric than fit. We tested each other’s ability to guess the fiber of an item by touch only, a skill I had never properly credited her for passing along.

I was on a roll with an oversized T-shirt-turned-dress, a shortened skirt, and an off-the-shoulder crop top that was now perfectly customized to my dimensions. It was getting to be about 8 p.m, and, satisfied, I started to pack up my odds and ends.

“I really wanted to see what you had in mind for that blue shirt,” she said, somewhat mournfully. I was hoping to make a version of the last fitted dress I made at the up-cycling workshop, so I thought maybe we could whip it together in no time. I laid the faded denim shirt out and started cutting.

In my haste, I took way too much off the sides and could barely get the thing on without being stabbed by pins. Mom kept pulling and bunching the fabric and asking, “How exactly is this supposed to go together?” Almost at the same time, we spied some leftover black lace and made a Plan B: side panels. 

“And a little tie at the back,” I decided.

“Made out of the leftover sleeves? And maybe pockets, but different ones this time?” She ran through the list of options, all the kinds of pockets she had made in her lifetime.

Pockets were a perfect excuse for more embellishment, I reasoned, and I had some spare lace left. “And around the arms, how are you going to finish it?” she asked.

“Frayed?” I offered sheepishly. She went back to the scrap pile, and the sleeves that kept on giving turned into basting.

We were equally surprised by how well it turned out.

We were equally surprised by how well it turned out.

We didn’t have much energy left to bask in the glow of our achievement when the final 2 a.m. fitting rolled around, but the next time she called me, the first thing she asked about was the dress. 

We went back and forth over it, but in a different kind of stubborn one-upwomanship.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I told her. 

I credited all of her technical knowledge, her taking the time to do it right, the structure and foundation necessary for the artistic vision. She blew this off, and came back with an appreciation for my ability to consider design and fit, to envision a pattern that had curves and shape -- evidence of what I’d learned from years of knitting.

I still say it was mostly her; she hands all the kudos back to me in an endless game of hot potato.

I suppose we haven’t found perfect synchronicity, but bickering in the spirit of mutual appreciation means that we’re moving in a similar direction, or at least looking over at each other as we bolt onwards -- and regardless of what kinds of projects we take on next, I know that I’ll be well-dressed.