When my brothers and I were making decisions about what to do with my mother’s few remaining possessions, I “inherited” her sewing basket and its contents. The basket dates back to our years in Africa. I don’t know exactly when my mother acquired it, but it’s been part of my memory for a long time. She probably bought it from a village woman who was selling handmade items at the mission station, or perhaps it was given to her. It’s the kind of basket that could easily sell well these days at Ten Thousand Villages, given its style, design and quality.
So it was with a mixture of nostalgia, sadness and joy that I passed the sewing basket on to my oldest granddaughter this Christmas. Alecia leads the next generation of needle-working women in my family. My grandmother was a seamstress and a knitter – plus she was an expert quilter and made many quilts to give away, including one for each of her fourteen grandchildren. Mine is on the bed Alecia sleeps on when she visits. My mother not only sewed; she also knit, crocheted, and did needlepoint and cross-stitch. She made all her own clothes and most of mine when I was young (including school uniforms for boarding school); she made my wedding dress and often sewed for other people; she made clothes for my dolls and for the dolls of her grandchildren. She knit sweaters for herself, me and her grandchildren, as well as for other people and my dolls. She crocheted doilies and table covers, and even some window treatments for my sister-in-law. She knit and crocheted baby blankets and dozens of lap blankets as her volunteer contribution at Messiah Village when she was no longer physically able to do anything else. One of the last things she made was a baby blanket for Alecia.
My mother taught me to knit and sew when I was young. I can remember knitting doll clothes when I was in boarding school, so I was skilled enough by the time I was Alecia’s age to follow directions and manage on my own. I owned my own Singer sewing machine, a toy that actually worked but was limited in its functions and often behaved in very frustrating ways. (I still have it – pictured at right). When I was doing serious sewing, I used my mother’s hand-cranked grown-up machine (we didn’t have electricity on the mission stations in those days). Using a hand-cranked machine meant learning how to guide the fabric with only my left hand!
Not long after I was married, I bought a new Singer sewing machine. I made a lot of my own clothes and even made a sports jacket and slacks for Dale one time, and after the kids were born, I sewed for them as well. Derek especially remembers the Halloween costumes, some of which he commissioned in his belief that Mom could sew anything he could conceive! I have a clear memory of sitting in church one Sunday morning watching Derek sketch a design for a cover for his boogie board he was sure I could make. I wasn’t so sure, but I tried and succeeded! I stopped sewing when I went back to work outside the home and eventually got rid of the sewing machine because it was just taking up space in the basement. I also knit for awhile early in our marriage, and even took up crocheting, but at some point I put all needle-working aside, partly because I lost interest but also because other pursuits took precedence. Then in 2005, when Dana was pregnant with Justis, she decided she wanted me to teach her to knit. The knitting bug bit me harder than it bit Dana, and even though she hasn’t knit much since Justis was born, I’ve been knitting ever since. I always have at least one project on my knitting needles, and, like all knitters, I have an ever-growing stash of yarn. (See one of my very early blog posts for some “life lessons from knitting.”)
When Alecia was about six and visiting at our house, she watched me knit and said she wanted to learn too. So I began teaching her the basic fundamentals. She is easily distracted and the knitting sessions never lasted long enough for her to finish anything. For awhile every time she visited, I would have to give her a refresher course. Now, when she comes, she can pick up where she left off and doesn’t need me to re-teach her. But she still doesn’t make much progress on her project because she gets distracted or interested in doing something else. She has always liked doing crafts of any kind (rainbow loom, friendship bracelets, origami, drawing and painting, etc.).
Then, during this past year, Alecia took sewing classes at a local community center near her home in Philadelphia and loved the classes. She learned how to use a sewing machine, and decided she really wanted one of her own, so Dale and I gave her a new basic Brother machine for Christmas. Of course, a sewing machine is no good without some accessories – scissors, pins, fabric, etc. That’s where my mother’s sewing basket came in. The basket was still filled with my mother’s old pin box, her pin cushion, thimbles, sewing needles, measuring tape, and scissors. It seemed like this was the right time to pass on this particular heirloom, so now, the sewing baskets and its contents, along with a few items I added, are in Alecia’s possession. I have no idea whether she will in fact continue the family needle-working tradition; if she does, she has some really good role models to follow – and I’m speaking more about my mother and grandmother than I am about myself. They were the experts, not me! They would be proud to know that the skills they learned from their mothers and passed on to their daughters are continuing into the next generation.