Every time I breeze past a fabric shop at the mall or eyeball one of those gingham-garbed girls sauntering in front of the Mormon Church in their longish fairy-tale blue dresses, I think about seventh grade sewing class. Back when mechanical ineptitude first marked me as a domestic lightweight.
There I sat dressed in our school colors and in the throes of extreme puberty, as evidenced by my overall crankiness. A Singer sewing machine looked back at me uncaringly, daring me to coax it into compliance. Terrified by its umpteen moving parts, I had all I could do not to throw up.
My peers—the dozen or so adolescent girls seated near me– expertly whirred their machines to the beat of idle gossip. The message was clear: Sewing was as easy as squeezing your pimples. One teenybopper had advanced so far as to slice through paisley fabric with shears. Another was modifying a pattern, no less, to fit her buxom frame. I regarded these nymphets as gods gifted with skills my chromosomes had foolishly spurned in favor of crooked teeth and oily hair.
As proficient as I was in other areas, I truly sucked in sewing. While other kids hurled their homemade bean bags at innocent squirrels, I swept up my “spilled beans” and cursed my sloppy stitching. It got worse when I went electric. To say I had difficulty using the machine would be giving me too much credit. Once I was rushed down to the school nurse after being stabbed repeatedly by a runaway Singer.
So it was with great humility I appealed to the mindless little twats sharing my work table. I first attempted to gain their help by letting go with a few hefty groans. When that didn’t work, I went for broke and squeezed out several tears.
No one answered my silent call. Not student, not teacher. Madame –a true maven of tatting and advanced pleating–sat at her desk stroking her bee hive and putting on eyeliner. As the hour advanced, she toured the room in her no-iron polyester pants suit, passing judgment on hems, button holes and zippers. Not only could she detect a poor interfacing job at 40 paces, but she knew what to do with a thimble (as opposed to what I would have had her do).
While she spot-checked, I self-pitied. I knew what everyone was thinking: Why is this young whippersnapper with the hairy eyebrows and lousy posture ignoring her Singer and staring off into The Great Beyond? And no, I was not high on drugs. Truth be known and thanks to my unfortunate pedigree, I was still struggling with “routine” sewing tasks such as threading the bobbin. While my cohorts chalked and scissored their agile fingers away, pinning patterns to fabric while reporting lustful details of testosterone-fueled horseplay during fire drills and lunch hours, I mourned my domestic dumbness.
I don’t get it, I’d muse. What does making some tacky wrap-around skirt have to do with important stuff like finding the cure for cancer or proposing a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor? Do sewing smarts really predispose you to career success? Madame made it seem that way. She preached the gospel of practical femininity—how every school-age female needed to contribute to the national inventory of pillowcases and kitchen curtains so as to brighten up a world ravaged by wars, pestilence and famine. She expounded on “The Tao of Tailoring.” That sewing was the one skill that distinguished us from the apes and protected us from the evil influences of “miracle” bras and spandex. And if that wasn’t enough, she reminded us the school board had made sewing—and swimming– requirements for high school graduation.
Luckily I was 50 percent there already. With amazing foresight, my parents had sent me both to day camp and Hebrew school. I mastered the breast stroke during Yon Kippur. But those same parents never even organized a quilting bee although they knew my maternal grandfather could do one hell of a cat’s cradle. To make matters worse, my parents had taken out credit cards at Saks and Neiman Marcus and donated all the handmade Christmas gifts friends had given them to Goodwill .
Given the aforesaid, it was a miracle I learned to thread a needle. But thread away I did. It was the double-knot part that always tricked me up. As a result, I carefully avoided going out for certain Brownie and Girl Scout badges and stayed away from crafts classes and Renaissance fairs.
In certain ways I was little more than a boy in a girl’s body. Not that I peed standing up or anything or considered binding my boobs with duct tape, but I thoroughly endorsed the male stereotype of “household slacker.” I aimed to be the kind of kid who wouldn’t lift a finger around the house to help with anything–the cleaning, cooking, laundry, you name it. I was too busy shopping for rock posters and hanging out in the library’s automotive section. Fonzie on “Happy Days” was my role model. I liked nothing better than getting together with my degenerate friends, eating cold pizza and frittering away the time mocking anyone with frizzy hair and saddle shoes. And in those days, that was a lot.
Although my parents’ disinclination to spin out beaded wedding gowns, Batman costumes and baby comforters stigmatized me, I held my head high. Instead of learning to talk with a mouthful of pins, I took guitar lessons and learned to speak pig latin. While my elementary school pals sewed darts and inserted Peter Pan collars, I rhapsodized about the Harlem Globetrotters and sat through a DIY car repair workshop. Still, I knew absolutely nothing about initialing handkerchiefs for Father’s Day gifts or turning out mother-and-daughter muu-muus. Both nature and nurture had failed me.
When Madame finally noticed I had thrown the Singer out the window and packed up all my thread, she had no choice but to flunk me. I understood that. After all, she had tenure and I was but a brilliant student way ahead of her time.
I never googled her obituary, but undoubtedly she is now dead and buried, hopefully in something comfortable yet becoming that, of course, she made from scratch. But if by any chance Madame or any of her sewing descendants should read this, please know that this is not the ‘60s anymore; it’s the 21st century and we no longer rip off our bras to protest gender inequities. We reframe or practice revisionist history. It’s much more politically correct. So, for example, when I’m exchanging pleasantries at a Vanity Fair cocktail party or John Travolta movie marathon, I never actually admit to flunking sewing. The way I like to tell it is, Gloria Steinem “spoke” to me (in her godlike voice) and I obeyed the call.