First Person / A life of sewing

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Mom's sewing room was about 8-foot-square and just off our dining room. Its two windows provided her with good light and her sewing machine, stool and a cedar chest full of fabric pieces were its only furniture. Her burning cigarette in an avocado green ashtray was always nearby as she sewed.

The room was too small for a bedroom, too big for a closet. But with the door closed, it was a place of no bickering children, no meals on the stove, no baskets of laundry. It was her room of peace, where she found her bliss.

My mother Peggy grew up in a coal-town row house in Cambria County. She and her sisters learned to sew out of necessity. Sewing meant they could make the clothes they needed and mend or alter those they already had.

Fabric came from the company store, the "5 & 10" or from flour sacks. Good fabric would last and live many lives. Perhaps first as a dress; which might later be cut down for a skirt. When the skirt wore out, it could become an apron, cut to pieces for rags or woven into a rag rug for the kitchen floor.

Dad grew up on a small central Pennsylvania farm. He left the farm to live with his brother first in Cleveland and then New York City. Dad courted Mom during visits back home and they married within a year. He carried her off to New York in 1939, where she was introduced to taxis, automats and Chinese laundries.

They took nightly walks to Grant's tomb in Riverside Park or went out with friends to exotic-sounding places like the Carlyle Club and Cafe Zanzibar. Grainy black-and-white photos show Peggy as a tall, lovely woman in hat and gloves. She stands in a one-leg-forward model's pose showing no hint of coal-patch girl.

Dad bought Peggy a used sewing machine in New York. Before my two sisters were born, she made pillows, curtains and re-upholstered second-hand furniture for their tiny apartment. She made herself dresses and coats and even redesigned a few hats. No project was too difficult; she was Project Runway before its time.

After my sisters came along, my parents moved the family back to Cambria County and I was born a few years later. For three decades, Peggy kept her girls dressed in "custom couture," ranging from poodle skirts to bell bottoms. She loved sewing our school clothes, Easter outfits, prom dresses and, eventually, our wedding gowns.

When I was in high school in the early '70s, Mom got a part-time job. I began to get more clothes from the store than the sewing room. My clothing concerns were only that I look exactly like my friends or the girls in my Tiger Beat magazine. I was a snarky teenager, so shopping with Mom often turned into a tear-filled (for me), dickering drama:

Me: "This pink caftan is so cool, I really want this!"

Mom: "Oh honey, that will be out of style before we get home and that fabric is so chintzy."

Me: "What about this plaid miniskirt? Can I get that?"

Mom: "Terrible! Look at the seams! The plaid doesn't line up at the seams!"

Me: "OK, I really love this peasant dress! How about it?"

Mom: "Isn't that kind of goofy looking? You know, that would be really simple to make."

If the only way to get the dress was to have her make it, I would acquiesce. On the upside, I got to select the fabric, which made my dress one-of-a-kind. For my Dad, this was the downside, because he would have to drive us 45 minutes away to the Roaring River Mills fabric outlet in Altoona -- a needlework Nirvana.

The outlet was a nondescript yellow-brick building that held half an acre of fabric bolts and thousands of notions (buttons, thread, etc.). The first thing you did there was jostle with at least five other women to get a look at the pattern books. Then you spent half an hour pulling patterns from drawers, comparing their designs, complexity and fabric yardage requirements. Then the best part: Hitting the aisles to hunt down fabric and matching thread, zippers and buttons.

You had to get everything in one trip because you'd never convince Dad (who I'm sure was just bored silly) to drive you back again for something you forgot.

Back home, Peggy would then head to her sewing room; its carpet would become speckled with thread bits, fabric scraps and tissue-pattern confetti. Occasionally, she'd open the door and call you to come in for a fitting and a glimpse of her work. Otherwise, the sewing room door remained closed, her cigarette burned away in its ashtray, and she sewed her love for you into every stitch of your goofy peasant dress.


Leanne Longwill is an assistant to a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Churchill.


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