I come from a long line of women devoted to fabric and needlecraft. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom sitting at a small metal black Singer sewing machine, her foot on the floor pedal and her hands pushing fabric along under the needle. My grandmother seemed to have an embroidery hoop attached to her lap and no daughter or granddaughter married without a hope chest of beautifully embroidered cup towels, table cloths, napkins and pillow cases.
My aunt, her sister, did the same and they both created most of their own daughters’ wardrobes. Both sisters loved fabric and since my mom didn’t drive, they were thrilled when I got a hardship driver’s license at 14 and could deliver them to the grand opening of the Gem fabric store in north Austin, the first store in Austin to specialize in fabric and notions for sewing and needlework. Previously fabric was only available at department stores downtown. They loved walking among the rows of bolts of fabric standing on end, checking the prices and running attractive fabric through their fingers, testing its weight and feel.
In the days during and following World War II, everyone sewed their own garments. By the time I got to junior high, it was certain that I should sew. I sat at pattern counters for hours with my mom trying to decide on the perfect dress or blouse pattern. I grew three inches between 6th and 7th grades which sent my mom into a sewing frenzy.
In 8th grade I was 5’9” and signed up for home economics with Mrs. Desta Jefferies, a tiny vivacious woman with sparkly brown eyes. I grew to adore her. My first garment was a cotton dress of two shades of turquoise, pale for the sleeveless cowl-collared top and darker for the circular skirt with an orange cummerbund. I really loved the way it turned out and my mom was proud of me. She even took off work to come to the school for the style show. I had my first pair of heeled white shoes to wear with it and my mom loaned me her garter belt to hold up the thigh-high stockings…this was long before panty hose.
The big day finally arrived. I was number 12 to cross the stage in front of an auditorium full of parents and students. As I began my grand entrance, I could feel the garter belt begin sliding toward my shoes. The only way I could keep it and my stockings up was to spread my legs wider apart as I sashayed across the stage. My steps got wider and wider as I hurried toward the other side of the stage. I couldn’t wait to get to the restroom to take the darn thing off. Such was my introduction to hose. Is it any wonder that I hate panty hose?
I did learn to sew. When I graduated from SMU, a wonderful Singer machine with a zig-zag stitch was a graduation present from my in-laws, and it cranked out garments for me and for my children for years. I loved appliquéing animals and trains on little jump suits and dresses. When the children were older, I made costumes for the plays that they were in. The pink and gray mouse costume hung around the house for years along with a pair of gold lame harem pants for an Aladdin performance. As the children got into their teen years, they refused the idea of “homemade” and went for name brands like their peers. So the machine grew quiet with just some occasional mending and repairs to zippers.
But when the first grandbaby was coming along and I was working full time, I traded the old machine in for a new fancy Bernina that would do all kinds of fun stitches. I cranked out blankets, crib sheets, burp pads, and curtains and had so much fun doing it. I even began to sew a few things for me and some curtains for our new home, but that was about it for a long stretch.
Then I discovered fabric as a new art form. I have used it collaged into paintings on canvas; I have quilted drawings; I have printed photos on fabric; I have painted and dyed fabric; I have glued paper to fabric; I have made a large quilt in an abstract pattern; I have made fabric books; I have stitched on paper. The love of all things fiber has turned into a passion and once again I’m sewing and stitching with abandon. I even finally finished embroidering the baby quilt I started 10 years ago for my last grandchild now as a gift to my first great grandbaby. I still have the Bernina and have been told to hang on to it by the dealer as it is one of the last full metal models. As long as I keep it clean and oiled, it should last me the rest of my life with many more creations to come.
Native Texan, visual artist and poet, Kay L. Cox is a retired art and family therapist. Her poems have been published in Sol Magazine, That Thing We Do, Map of Austin and the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 Texas Poetry Calendar. She was the winner of the 2008 Robert Clark Appreciation Award and a member of the Poetry Society of Texas, Gulf Coast Poets, the Austin Poetry Society, Spectrum Writers Guild and the Galveston Art League.