My newest sewing machine, a gift from my mother, is proof of her enduring optimism. It is a replacement for the one she gave me twenty years ago that I somehow got stuck in reverse on one of the only projects I used it for — a few seams on hand towels. And I actually didn’t even realize it was going in reverse right away. I just knew something seemed off. When I told my mom about it, she said something ominous.
“I’m going to make sure you have a working sewing machine if it’s the last thing I do.”
And then she followed through. She blamed my lack of any completed sewing projects in nearly three decades on the deficient machine. I only made one weak attempt to correct her.
“I don’t know mom, it might have been me.”
I don’t like disappointing people. The maternal side of my family prizes practicality above all else. One can not have a non-working sewing machine.
I was always feeling guilty about the old sewing machine and, now, even more guilty about the new one. Like I was letting my mom down and maybe even the entire history of my family.
This guilt, however, never seemed to jolt me into action.
Instead, it only reminded me of what I was not doing, say, when I sat down to watch Netflix and remembered how my friend, Karen, sews while she watches TV.
I tried to take action a few months ago. Maybe I was spurred on by a NPR article about the importance of having creative hobbies for mental health. One of its recommendations was to designate a space in your home for these pursuits. I did this. I turned one of my grown kids’ bedrooms into a “sewing” room. I took the new sewing machine out of its box and set it on the IKEA desk that had shepherded my son through high school and college. I collected my miscellaneous sewing materials — a button jar, red pin cushion that evoked a strawberry with its green center, my grandma’s antique thimbles and measuring tapes. I added my knitting and painting supplies as well, deciding to make it a full-out hobby room. And when I finished, I sat there on the single bed and looked at all the potential just waiting to happen.
Unfortunately, in the days that followed, the only result of the room reinvigoration project was that I felt guilty way more often. That’s because my son’s room is on the way to my room. I was passing by the shiny new sewing machine all the time now. I finally just shut the door. I got pissed off at NPR, how they thought creating space would be a “healthy reminder.” It was not.
A lot of my resistance was related to the the bobbin. There was just never the right time to finally figure that thing out; the tiny spool of thread in its own secret compartment that seems to both magically connect to the upper thread and less magically randomly get tangled. The bobbin is a reminder of just how much I don’t understand about this world.
The bottom line is the bobbin disturbs me.
I first met the bobbin via a thousand-year-old home economics teacher in the basement of the middle school.She taught us how to make simple prairie skirts. I can’t remember what the boys made.
There were so many hurdles in sewing class before you even got to the machine. Hurdles like geometry and precise measurements. The hurdle of imagining things completed even though when working with them they always have to be inside out. My brain fought against this with a vengeance.
“Match right sides together,” the ancient teacher repeated often. Oh, I hated it.
And then this pandemic.
And that Deaconess Hospital video on mask making circulating online. Have you seen it? I’d never heard the word “deaconess” before this but now was typing it my search bar to rewatch the video with the calm woman; a woman who was probably having a quiet life before this all happened. And now she’s famous.
Back in March my adrenalin was high. I was feeling an urge to do something. And, unfortunately, I did not have the idea of stocking up on toilet paper. Instead, I started digging out fabric I’d gotten from my mom when I told her once that maybe I was interested in exploring quilt making. Sometimes I give off mixed messages and that could be another reason why she has stayed optimistic about my sewing potential. None of this has been her fault.
I carried the sewing machine down to the dining room and announced to my family we would be making cloth masks. I was full of ambition, now, knowing that there was something specifically helpful that I could do.
Things happened fast. In my enthusiasm, I snapped a picture of my son cutting out nine by six rectangles; the sewing machine was in the back drop. I posted it on a group chat message making it look like we were really underway. I’ve always wanted to be important. I took out the sewing machine manual, put the dining room lights on the brightest setting and got focused on threading the machine.
When it came time for the bobbin threading, I felt a low rise of panic mixed with regret about the whole endeavor. The panic accelerated when the machine, in fact, did not perform. My family had since left to watch a movie. I decided to take a little break because I’m fresher in the morning. Although I was growing doubtful that the morning would make any difference at all.
How wrong I was.
I awoke to a startling email. A friend, Janet, in NYC, was in urgent need of cloth masks. She’d seen my photo.
Could I send her twenty?
I hadn’t yet even gotten the machine working. A disaster was unfolding, I’d be revealed as a fraud. No way I could let this happen, let the truth get out to someone other than my mother (who probably deep down knows I don’t take after her side of the family and loves me anyway ) that my photo might have been a bit premature, a bit of false advertising. I picked up the sewing machine and moved it to my favorite corner of the house. I was roped in as never before.
And that’s where I spent the better part of the week, really learning to sew. Really learning about the bobbin, about right sides together. And why? because someone was actually depending on me. They were holding me accountable.
There was no way to say no.
The more masks I sewed, the more I was reminded of what had led to success in some other creative undertakings. Each time it was about no way out. Of accountability, of someone depending on something I promised. Like when I had to learn a song on the piano to accompany the chorus in high school. Or when I became a proficient knitter after signing a lease for a knitting shop. The time I nearly gave up the guitar — but then promised my pre-school class I’d play them a song by the end of the year.
The real “trick” of the matter is unearthing who might need what it is you offer.
Sometimes that takes a little creativity itself.
This one time, however, it didn’t. Janet, unbeknownst to her, pushed me in the deep end. And for that I am grateful. Would I have mustered on without her request, without her need? I wish the answer was a definitive yes, but I’m not so sure.
That bobbin really had me scared.