Growing up in a poor rural area, one would never dream my experiences exposed me to the arts. Nothing could be further from the truth. I saw art performed and displayed all around me. I experienced my dad show off the art of plowing a field with a horse. I saw him perform his art by visualizing a barn and then, board by board, nail by nail, artistically make it appear before my very eyes. But the art of my mom, who yes, was an artist, matched anything my dad ever did. Besides her cooking artistry, she made masterpiece after masterpiece with the art of sewing.
My mom’s sewing machine sat neatly in the corner of our family room, with a cream-colored crochet knit placemat and a lamp on top. While I saw many black, mostly iron sewing machines with a manual foot pump on the bottom, mom had the Cadillac model. Hers was electric, encased in a pretty mahogany cabinet. A side table folded out on the right, providing a workspace for her to create her art.
Once unfolded and set up, the brand, SINGER, proudly displayed on the front of the machine, signified the owner as a serious sewing artist.
As a kid, I was not particularly fond of mom setting up her sewing area. The intermittent and constant hum of the Singer put a serious cramp on my television viewing, not only because of the noise, but something about that machine interfered with the television signal and turned the picture into ant fuzz. I think mom sometimes waited until my best cartoon was about to hit the peak of its plot and then pressed that foot petal and the hum began and out marched the ant fuzz.
Moms artistic sewing projects began out of necessity; usually in the form of a new church dress for her, sometimes, and perhaps many times, because her friends sported newer and more fashionable ensembles on Sunday. Most of her sewing projects began on Mondays.
The canvas of this artist began by picking out a pattern, a task one would think was the simplest. But no, mom drug me, kicking and screaming to Sterlings Five and Dime, on the square, to do this duty, which to a young one, was the definition of BORING! I had to stay within skirt tugging distance while she flipped through millions and millions of dress patterns, ensuring none were of the same style of any of her church lady friends.
After this laborious selection occurred, a rookie might think it was time to go home. Not me. This was not my first rodeo. Oh no! Now, we got the pleasure of picking out the color and the fabric that, once again, and I am fairly sure, must not be in the same color palette of any church lady friend who has ever graced the front entrance of our sanctuary.
So, we touched, unroll, and put back one million bolts of fabric.
“Mom, can I have a Coke,” I begged, with my best sing song, poor pitiful me attitude, knowing I must be good during the pattern picking outing or I had no chance of getting the fizzy drink. It worked every time.
Completing the fabric choice, we moved on to the thread rack. Every color spectrum of the rainbow and then some, displayed on this rack, made this simple chore a bore. I learned the color wheel long before I took up retail as a profession.
Finally, we headed home to complete our mission.
At home, mom rolled that freshly selected fabric on the floor. She carefully grabbed her favorite thimble, placed it on her finger and pinned the thin paper pattern on the fabric, But not just any way. She turned, rotated, slid and again turned that pattern until it fit so perfect that not more than half an inch of fabric became waste.
Once she cut out the pattern, using either scissors or a scissor like contraption called pinking shears, used to keep the fabric from fraying, she was ready to put it all together. Determined to never ruin her machine, just as any artist cares for their equipment, she meticulously placed a few drops of 3-IN-One machine oil on the motor. Next, she threaded the bobbin, a silver round device used to deliver untangled thread to the machine, and placed the spool of thread on the machines top perch, constantly providing thread to the bobbin. The thread went from the bobbin to the needle, held in place by a forklike contraption, which when provided power, either electric or manually with a foot petal, went up and down, applying the thread to the fabric. I watch this event happen a thousand times. I had no choice. My television show had ant fuzz on it.
For the next several hours, mom and the sewing machine were one. Sewing, stopping, cutting and in her case, a little singing, all happened in perfect harmony. She was in her own artist world, envisioning her grand entrance to church this Sunday.
When it came time to sew the buttons, she pulled out her massive button collection. I do not know where and when she accumulated all those buttons, but she had gallons and gallons of them.
When she tried on that dress, dad had me prepared. He taught me at an early age to ALWAYS say it looked good.
“But Dad, isn’t that lying?” I asked.
“Not if you cross your fingers,” he winked and said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Trust me. Learn this lesson now and use it the rest of your life. You can thank me later.”
“Thank you, Dad!”
Moms artwork always hit its target. She was the star of church for at least one week. Her new artwork would create sewing machine setups to occur the next day throughout the community.
Mom made my sister a star on her wedding day as, yes, she made my sister’s dress. Quadruple the decision making and time to make that dress, but it turned out to be a stunner, complete with an exceptionally long train to top off all the detail and most of all, love, she put into making that piece of art.
Most of the ladies in the community were also sewing artist. One unique activity used to highlight all their sewing talents was to come together for a “quilting.” I remember they did most “quiltings” at our community building. Several men came and put up the frame, which they suspended from the ceiling. Once they completed the frame hanging, the men were no longer welcome as this “quilting” was code for “hen party.” It didn’t matter, as no man in his right mind wanted to be there anyway. They knew this was free time for them to go do whatever they wanted.
The ladies sat in chairs circling that frame. They placed cotton batting inside two sheets. Once completed, each lady began quilting their designated square.
Now I am not one to scatter untruths, but as a kid who played with my friends under that framed quilt, and one who may have heard every word utter, let’s say there may have been more “discussions” than “quilting.” I’m just sayin…
These quilts always turned out beautiful. Many times, the “quilters” embroidered their names onto their designated square. The quilts, given as bridal, baby and or graduation gifts, became prized treasures. In fact, I proudly received one for my high school graduation. I took it to college, where, in the mid-seventies, some of the most athletic butts in Arkansas sat on that quilt, prominently displayed on my dorm bed. I still own that quilt to this very day.
Mom surprised and shocked me once on one of my parents’ rare visits to college. Their visits amazingly seemed to coincide with times when I might be needing a little boost in my morale.
She brought me what was surely her most unique sewing piece of art. I could not believe my eyes. I did not know how to react. It was…..
A leisure suit!
But not your daddy’s leisure suit. No! This was double knit. You know, the fabric that went up in smoke if a cigarette ash landed on it. But it did not stop there. It was blue. Not your normal blue. This was more of a powder blue. Let’s just call it baby blue. The legs, of course, were bell bottom.
For a moment, I forgot my parents were with me. Heavenly lights shone on me as music played in the background of my mind. It was The Bee Gees. Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, stayin alive, stayin alive, played over and over in my mind. In this moment, I visualize walking down Dickson Street sporting big hair, gold chains around my neck, long sideburns and displaying a little more than a slight bounce in my steps, originating in my plastic platform shoes, with just some tude, as ALL the chicks turn and naturally start following me, pied piper style. Even the man, John Travolta, turns around and followed, just to pick up some pointers.
‘Well, what do you think?” that wonderful Picasso woman, called my mom asked, awakening me from my daydream believer self.
“This is just the ticket needed for me to be the biggest chick magnet on campus,” I did NOT say.
“This is nice. Thank you,” I clamingly said, not sure mom knew she was giving me the keys to the hen house.
Perhaps this was payback for all those painstaking hours spent in Sterlings with her, while she took forever to choose all her sewing artwork.
I wore that suit so many times I nearly wore it out. Nobody ever sported any threads close to that piece of southeast Arkansas art. I planned to be buried in it someday. That is, until the day I got married.
That is the day this piece of art was donated to charity. It had served me well and accomplished its mission.
It was time to focus on another art form my parents taught me while growing up.
The art of marriage. That piece of art was their very best work.