In 1962, when I was nine, my family took a vacation in Germany to visit our relatives. My parents hadn’t seen them in more than ten years, not since they emigrated to the United States.
We spent a week with Tante Thilde and Onkel Karl. They owned a tailor shop where they made custom clothing, including coats for Lord and Taylor in New York.
To me the shop was magical. It contained four sewing machines for my aunt and uncle and two young women who were their apprentices. Shelves holding bolts of fabric and bins of notions lined the walls. Mannequins wore completed outfits and works-in-progress. Customers came in for fittings and to pick up their purchases. I remember lots of activity and smiles and jokes and laughter.
My aunt set to work on dresses for my mother and me in the traditional dirndl style. To occupy me, she gave me pattern pieces, the fabric already cut out, for me to make a doll dress. I don’t think I ever completed it, because I was so excited about the other things she gave me—lots of different needles and pins and threads and a tape measure and tailor’s chalk (I still have some!) and—glory of glories—scraps of a hundred different fabrics. I spent hours cutting up that fabric and stitching it back together with stitches so big you could drive a truck through them.
When we returned home, my mother taught me some practical hand sewing: darning, hemming, and a little embroidery. It wasn’t until ninth grade home economics, however, that my sewing really took off.
I took two years of home ec in high school. The program was divided into one semester of cooking and one semester of sewing. I lived for the sewing semester. Mrs. Stratton, the sewing teacher, was meticulous. She made sure we learned the correct way to lay out a pattern, thread a sewing machine, insert a zipper, and make bound buttonholes. Our final project was a suit with a lined jacket. I wore that puppy with pride for years. I am so sorry for today’s students that home economics has disappeared from most high schools. You can thank our society’s emphasis on standardized testing for that. Also, the reluctance to adequately fund public schools.
I made a lot of my own clothes, and a lot of clothes for my children. I also made curtains and drapes. In the 80s I met a woman who taught quilting; she facilitated my next obsession.
But I don’t know if I would ever have had the enthusiasm for creating with fabric if it hadn’t been for my aunt putting fabric in my hands. She opened a world of possibility to me with that one simple act.
Lots of creative people can point back to someone in their childhood (a parent, relative, teacher, or neighbor) who somehow encouraged them to explore and experiment. Your example and a small contribution from your stash—whether fabric, paints, clay, an old instrument, or notebooks—can inspire a child for a lifetime.
Was there someone in your life who put you on a path to creativity? Or did you help start someone out and watch him take off and fly? Please share in the comments below.