Threading the Needle

sewing_machine

The hand remembers when the mind falters. There is memory in movement, a silent somatic wisdom of the body. The hand remembers, the clever thumb and forefinger working in concert to rediscover skill lost to thought, remember how to wind the thread from spool to spindle, how to wind the bobbin and how to seat it.

Clear the writing table of paper, books, and pens, the bits of candle and boxes of watercolor pencils; the kitchen’s trestle table is cluttered with the season’s last tomatoes spread to ripen, the final few summer squash, and turkey quills–there is no room for mending upstairs.

Do others still mend the straining seam or torn placket? Or do they simply fold the flawed clothing and stack it in a paper bag to donate or discard in the trash? Once it was expensive to purchase clothing, when Levi’s jeans were still sewn in San Francisco and the going wage was $2.30 per hour for scooping ice cream at the 31 flavors. There was no internet or Amazon, of course, offering instant comparison pricing and stinging reviews. There were department stores downtown, and more being built at the malls, or the Sears catalog to buy clothing. There were fabric stores as large as a warehouse with rainbow shelves of thread and offering charming selections of notions displayed on sprawling racks.

It was my grandmother’s sewing machine, a portable Singer stowed in a thick black case. Its features include the ability to sew both forward and backward. When Grandma died, my eldest cousin Kathy claimed the sewing machine, despite owning a deluxe zig-zag cabinet model Singer of her own.  But Mom said “No,” and had the machine fitted with a new motor. She gave it to me. I’ve carried it across the country and back, through many household moves, and now she rests in a black lacquered cupboard of her own.

pucker_patches

To my mother’s eternal frustration and consternation, I refused to thumb through the pattern catalogs in the fabric store and select a Butterick pattern for a sewing project. I had designs of my own. 

I found a lovely book about patternless sewing in the school library. I stole it. (Delighted to report that this same book is still apparently in print: Son of Hassle-Free Sewing: Further Adventures in Homemade Clothes by the authors of The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book, available on Amazon, of course.) I laid out printed cotton tapestries imported from India and fashioned long dashing coat-dresses  with high smocked sleeves and fastened with a matching cummerbund. I bought remnants fabric ends and devised patchwork tiered skirts and vests of puckered patches. 

As time went on, I returned the stolen book to the library. I sewed less often, finding it harder to thread the tiny eye of the needle when I did. My last project was a quilted cushion for the firewood box and the results were disappointing somehow. I took up knitting, which is really just tying many interconnecting knots and threading nothing.

When I finally took out my sewing machine to dispatch with mending, I wondered if the little light bulb above the presser foot would still burn, if I would still be able to thread the needle. The hand remembers; the light still burned.

I discovered the silk my grandmother brought me from Hong Kong long ago, still folded next to the machine, all whole liquid blue and silver, never cut.

silk

Author: Kim K. McCrea

Kim K. McCrea earned her BA in English before embarking on a career in technology and public service. Kim won Oregon Writers Colony 2018 essay award, Treefort’s 2017 Wild West Writing Prize, and was named runner-up in Cutbank 2018 Big Sky/Small Prose contest. Her creative nonfiction is featured in Cutbank, Tishman Review, Cagibi, and elsewhere; she is the author of the novel Pandora's Last Gift. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Kim lives in Oregon, where she studies the moon and stars and wanders with her Labrador in the rain.

8 thoughts on “Threading the Needle”

  1. Love the notion of that fabric hand-delivered and left for all that time untouched. Those things carry magic charges, they do! And I marvel over how those little bulbs can keep their charge for so long, too. Liked that throwback to the days of real commerce, as you laid it out. Before the E

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The silk is lovely. I hope you find something to make with it.

    I remember when the best department stores downtown all had fabric departments (and books too). Everyone was expected to know the basics of sewing, every girl and woman. I earned $1.25 at my first high school job and a few years later, after graduating from college, I was among the second lowest paid teachers in my state. I began buying quarter yards of Liberty cotton. I eventually used some of it to make my mother a small quilt, but I still have scraps and slices of those beautiful cotton lawn prints.

    The last garment I sewed was when my second son was born. He was just five pounds and I made him tiny onesies of cotton jersey. When I took up quilting again, yes, the hands remember. Even with the weaving, after decades, it came back.

    Now I must go repair a failing seam in my husband’s sweater. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful Kim! What are you going to do with the fabric? It is gorgeous and I can see you wearing all those wonderful clothes you designed and made!!

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  4. Can’t begin to tell you how many beautiful memories this suddenly splashed onto my inner-most-mind. I recognize that machine. I sewed my first seams on it. It had a wooden cabinet that sat on curly-cue wrought-iron legs. Some of the gentlest and happiest hours of my childhood were spent near it, as my Granny sewed. When I was a teenager, my lanky body was un-fitable by anything from J.C. Penny or Sears, so my mother set to seriously teaching me the skill that would make a life of style and elegant fit possible. I wrote about the Singer in my memoir. If it’s okay, I’ll put a bit here…

    “I played in Granny’s room with my dolls and my books. I threaded the needle of her old Singer sewing machine and I changed the bobbins for her, while she made quilts or sewed doll clothes for me. The sewing machine was run by a foot-treadle, a flat ironwork plate at the bottom of it near the floor. When she rocked the platform back and forth with her feet, the machine went humming along and the needle went up and down, stitching seams and making pleasant little whirring and clicking sounds.
    I turned the radio on and sang the old-fashioned love-songs on the FM station, about lost loves and broken hearts. I knew all the words. I sang to myself and played with my dolls, and sometimes Granny gave me scraps of bright colors and I would fashion some sort of garments for my dolls, anchoring them with my own needle and thread and a tiny silver thimble, all of which she kept in a small drawer of the sewing machine’s wooden cabinet just for me. I still have the little silver thimble.

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    1. Thank you for sharing such a delightful passage from your memoir! There is a certain serenity in a sewing machine, for all it’s clatter, there is a rhythm and beauty. I’m so glad you took the time to share your own memories.

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