Like so many children who grew up in the 1950s, I wore, for the most part, clothes made by my mother. For the first ten years of my life, my family lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Although decades have passed since last I lived there, it is those early homemade clothes that infuse my memory of those years and that place. I had an early interest in fabric and sewing and loved to help pick out selections from which my mother would make dresses and play clothes for my older sister and me.
We lived on a very steep road, dotted with houses on either side of it. Two houses away from ours lived an older couple, whose names I cannot remember. The wife worked in the fabric department at Ivey’s, a large store in the city of Asheville. She knew that my mother sewed, and one day she told my mother that the sewing department was getting ready to dispose of some of its older fabrics, which would be free for the taking by employees. She wanted my mother to have a couple of these pieces, completely free of cost. My mother was quite excited, and she told my sister and me that perhaps it would be something she could use to make us new dresses.
We anxiously waited for the day when we could go to our neighbor’s house and pick up our promising parcel. Then – finally – Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away called to say she had the fabric for us. I remember well my feelings of anticipation and excitement as the three of us practically skipped down our road to her house.
Her living room was dark, despite the large picture window framing one side of it. None of the furniture looked like it would be comfortable to sit on. I was struck by the appearance of one rocking chair, the wooden arms of which were in the shape of swans’ heads. Everywhere were china figurines and plastic flowers in vases. The room smelled like last night’s supper. On the sofa, which she called a davenport, was a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
Our neighbor ceremoniously announced that this was the fabric, and she motioned to my mother to open the package. It contained two pieces of cloth. One was a non-descript dark tan, heavy and dull, certainly nothing that could be used for dresses. The other piece was a very large floral print in pink, drab olive green, and smudgy brown – yards and yards of it. It was hideous. My mother very graciously thanked her and told her what lovely pieces they were, and off we went with our weighty cargo.
When, on our trudge back home up our mountain road, I asked my mother if she liked the fabric, she only said that it was very kind of Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away to give us these pieces. I wanted to say that I really didn’t like either piece very much, but I kept quiet. I could see my mother was disappointed, and it made me feel so badly. What good was something that was free, if you did not like it, I wondered? I also wondered what my mother would do with it.
It did not take long to get the answer to that question. My mother had grown up during the Great Depression, when no one wasted anything, ever. Nor would this dubious gift go to waste. Out of the heavy tan fabric, she made shorts for us. I so disliked wearing them as they were scratchy and stiff. I must have thankfully grown out of them quickly, as I don’t recall wearing them very often.
I was more worried about my mother’s plans for the pink floral fabric. Looking back now, I think it must have been very poor quality cotton or heavy rayon. My mother made a play dress out of it for me, with matching bloomers. It, too, was scratchy, and although I would not have known the concept of drape at my young age, I noticed that it did not move with me, but rather hung as a tent from my shoulders. I remember unhappily wearing this outfit, but at age four or five, I did not have much say in the matter. It was so unlike the other cute play clothes and pretty dresses made by my mother; I suspect she thought so, too.
Occasionally I think back on those days so long ago, and I recognize how much they shaped me as a dressmaker. My love for, and my insistence upon using beautiful, fine quality fabrics – once I began sewing for myself – certainly were born during those years. I learned the value in seeking out fabrics worthy of my time and effort, those which would give me enjoyment in their wearing, and which would impart a sense of refinement and style in their tactile and visual qualities.
Sometimes the best lessons, and the ones remembered so well, are those illustrating the worst example of something. I did not know it at the time, but that brown paper package, with its ugly fabric inside, gave me an unexpected and invaluable life-long lesson in the connoisseurship of beautiful fabric.