Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teach By Encouragement

It occurred to me that my mother never criticized my sewing.
You may mutter, “So what? Why would she?” Anyone who knows me well, knows that I had a stressful relationship with my mother. This was doubtless due to my own defensiveness and to her outspoken nature. She found fault with nearly everything I did. She criticized my appearance often greeting me with “Why don’t you put some make up on?” after her “hello” kiss and hug. Often she found my cooking dry and claimed she couldn’t swallow it! She criticized my mothering, my housework, my children’s thinness, my choices in clothing, furniture, cars, husband, etc. She even criticized my gardening. One time in around 1986, we were shopping at Homestead Gardens and I met her at the cash register with my $2.49 plant. “Why are you buying that half dead plant?” she demanded. I shrugged, too embarrassed to remind her that I couldn’t afford anything more at Homestead. When I see that plant --now huge and spreading-- bloom each Spring, I think of my mother.

One thing to my mother’s credit was that she was good at many things. She was a wonderful cook; her house was always clean. She was a master gardener in knowledge and practice. Beetles and slugs were stamped out, dead-heads removed continually, seeds gathered for next year. She kept up with things, showing her disciplined nature. She read voraciously and was always hungry for more knowledge. She was an accomplished artist and I still remember the wonder I felt the first time I saw her quickly sketch something. She was drawing chrysanthemums for a church fair poster and did so with the kind of artistic flair that made them seem bending toward me, their petals moist with dew. She ate like a horse and was always thin, dressed well, could manage and invest money, could refinish furniture, paint a room without using that blue tape and without spilling a drop. Naturally I didn’t mention it when I knocked over an entire can of paint one summer day while painting Val’s bedroom. Just thought I’d skip that story. Her standards were high and she reached them. Looking back, I suppose she wanted the best for me and wasn’t the type to keep her thoughts to herself or write them in a blog after she passed on as I might be inclined to do. Hence the tension between us.

But she was never critical of my sewing. This is a remarkable fact considering that by trade, my mother was a fashion designer. Valerie has recently turned some of her sketches and paintings of fashions she designed into the most charming stationary;
you can find these at Valerie's Etsy Shop http://www.etsy.com/shop/bedbyday.
As well as designing fashion, my mother was a brilliantly skilled seamstress as can be seen first by the picture of this sample zipper she sewed.I still have a notebook of her sewing skill samples from when she attended Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The difficulty and precision of this seam is astounding!
Not only could she sew children’s clothes that inspired sighs of awe, but the things she made for my father were tailored more sharply and carefully than any suit or shirt available at the mall. Her stitches were tiny, her seams straight, her work utterly beautiful and admirable. This is a sample of a tailored pocket Mom made with stitches so tiny a fairy could have made them, edges crisp as a knife. Beautiful!
My mother taught me to sew and yet I remember no criticism, no painful moments. She was a patient sewing teacher, explaining not only the right way to accomplish a difficult skill, but the reason behind it. Her instructions were full of helpful tips, such as the way to pin to keep the fabric from buckling, how to hold the scissors, why the fabric wouldn’t lie flat on the table. When my home economics class at school was required to make a garment, I chose a dress with set in sleeves, cuffs with button holes, a tailored collar and more. We were supposed to finish it at school, but in middle school I had an unfortunate tendency to talk and goof off in class. So, I didn’t finish and there was a school-wide fashion show in which we were to model our sewn clothes. My teacher commented to my mother at an evening school event, “Loris bit off more than she can chew with this project.” While this was true, this wasn’t the actual reason I wasn’t done. My mother rose to my defense and told the teacher I was a “marvelous seamstress” (her actual words) and then commanded, whispering fiercely in my ear, that I bring the cursed (not her actual word) thing home with me. Which I did. I sneaked it into my book bag.
We finished it at home. She did most of the work as it was really way over my head. While I watched, she sewed the bound button holes with such precision that I am still not over their beauty. I learned a great deal through her help, though. And suddenly it occurs to me that these were moments when I first saw how to teach. I learned that teaching must be done through encouragement, that the teacher must always believe the best of her student and then she must set the target and help her student reach it. It’s funny to me, because I applied these principles always to the teaching of literary analysis and of writing, but not until just now did I realize that I learned them from my mother.
Pin tucks...
Seeing that she passed on her best skills to me in such a life-giving way, I wonder if her criticism was not what it seemed at the time. I wonder if her question at Homestead Gardens was her clumsy, human way of worrying aloud about the budget of a young couple with one income and four perpetually skinny children. Like all of us, she had a lot of fears and I think now that she probably didn’t know how to deal with them, so they came bursting out of her as criticism – or what felt like criticism to me.

Sewing has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I love touching the fabric and being able, by touch, to tell its composition. I love the scent of the sizing in the fabric store, the homey scent of wool, the brisk scent of silk. I love the shades of color, love the task of matching fabrics, choosing buttons, envisioning something useful hand sewn. When I go to G-Street Fabrics in Rockville and see the quality merchandise, the fabrics from all over the world, I remember my mother’s mouth-watering descriptions of the fabric stores in the garment district of New York City of old. “…you could get Thai silk there… and Swiss laces with their exquisite white embroidery, bolts of them, lined up on the shelf, piles of French laces for dirt cheap…”

This summer at the Sewing Camp that Andrea, her sister Jen, Valerie and I taught, I loved passing to a new generation my mother's skill and wisdom. The girls at Sewing Camp designed and sewed their own wonderful Christmas stockings.

My mom would have been pleased with Sewing Camp. As I did, she would have loved the beautiful things that the girls made and the way the teachers helped them. Sewing builds a creative and inspiring community as everyone loves to see what each other has made, learn techniques and share patterns; it’s a worthy skill, an enjoyable art form, one that should be taught with joy and encouragement. All this I learned from my mother. All this joy, I owe to her. Thanks, Mom. My parents before the graduation dance for F.I.T. My mother designed and sewed her hankerchief hemmed dress.


  1. Thanks for sharing this with me, what a beautiful post and a beautiful legacy she has left for you. You were one of the most encouraging and supportive teachers I ever had.

    I think the reason I am not good at sewing is because I do not value perfection... things like straight lines are not easy for me and I lack the discipline to go over and do it right. But, I am considering attempting some new curtains for my bathroom... we'll see. I'll let you know if I tackle it or not.

  2. Mom, this is wonderful! I am so glad that you have this one very treasured legacy from your mother and that you are sharing this with the next generation.

    I do agree that there is something very inspiring about a fabric store. The fabric just calls out to be created into something. Even a non creative, unskilled sewer like myself gets ideas being around bolts of fabric!

  3. I love this, Loris!! What a great read and what a great mother! I love to sew and I wish I had technique down to a better science.

  4. Beautifully written. I love you.

  5. As someone who also has an outspoken and somewhat critical mother, your post has definitely given me some things to think about.