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  • elizabethpeterson922

Opening the seams

Updated: Jan 1

A really nice and sympathetic young man is a student in one of my classes right now. He and I come from comparable religious backgrounds. One day during a discussion in class, he said to me, "I am so sorry for everything you have lost." This was unexpected, and it left me temporarily silent. I had to collect my thoughts before I could move on with whatever we were discussing. His statement has stayed with me.

I think it's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me, and it was uttered with such compassion: "I am so sorry for everything you have lost." My initial reaction was to think, "Have I lost anything?" But of course he is right. And the only way he could know to say that is because of his own loss. At this stage in my life, the loss I have experienced has been tempered by everything else that has risen up to replace it. It took a long time to get to this point, and he, in contrast, is only starting his own process.

I left the religion that I grew up with. It constituted the whole fabric of my upbringing, my understanding, and the socialization of my early world. I also left my home state, and then later my home country. There has been a lot gained in the process, and I think this is what most people tend to focus on. But there has also been a lot of loss. It is important to acknowledge this. While these choices have always been my own, it would be untrue to say that they have not come without consequences and loss.

Picking up the stitches

When I was a very young girl, I used to go with my mother to the church on Wednesday afternoons for quilting with the Relief Society sisters. (I grew up Mormon. If you want to know what the Relief Society is, you can look here.) "Sisters," in this context, simply means the other woman who went to the same church. We would call them "Sister Warnock" or "Sister Cox," and so on, especially when we were at church.

I was born when my mother was already in her mid-forties, so she and her Relief Society friends were all at least in their fifties during my later childhood. They were in their change of life stage. I remember sitting with them around the quilting frame listening with fascination as they told stories about their bodies and what was happening to them: stories about bleeding and headaches and moodiness. The women would take turns mopping at their brow with some crumpled old Kleenex tissue they retrieved from a pocket or a purse as they dripped sweat onto the quilt. Hot flashes. The other women kindly pretended not to notice, or at least not to care. They all understood what was was happening, and they knew it would be their turn soon enough. This was a safe and shared space.

I also remember a very particular smell. Part sweat, part soap, and a large measure of ... woman smell.

I remember patiently threading their needles for them when their thread ran out, because they could no longer see close up. My eyes were still young and clear, and I had a steady hand. So I sat there waiting for them to motion me over, and I threaded needle after needle throughout the afternoon. Sometimes one of the women would ask me to help them pick up a lost stitch if she happened to drop a needle or her thread pulled loose. I would go to that part of her section of the quilt, pull up the remaining thread between my thumb and index finger, and either tie it or rethread the needle so she could keep going without losing her place.

These are good and satisfying memories. When I think back on this time, I am struck by the ease and comfort with which these women came together, carried out their tasks, supported each other in a quiet, unassuming way, and made the most of their situation. I didn't feel like an outsider, I was one of them, even though I was so young. If I still lived there, I would still be one of them. But of course I don't live there, and I am not one of them.

I am left with these soft and also practical memories: I learned all these things as a child, including how to thread a needle and sew, as part of my childhood as a Mormon girl in Utah.

Picking up the threads

Middle age is a funny thing. My eye sight is going, and I can't see up close anymore. I have to wear magnifying eyeglasses to read and when I use my computer. For years, I was not willing to do handicrafts or sewing or anything that reminded me of my Mormon upbringing. I suppose it was still too close. Now when it's far away, I am willing and able to pick up the threads again.

It is surprising to notice that, with the help of magnifying eyeglasses, I remember how to do all these things I haven't done since I was a small child. I threaded my new sewing machine correctly the very first time I tried, mostly from motor memory. I had not threaded a sewing machine in some 35 years. Seriously. And I got it right, the first time!

I cut a pattern for pajama pants based on my favorite store-bought pair (which are now nearly worn out). I managed to lay the pattern out properly, the correct way on the fabric, then to pin them, and to cut them out according to what I remember learning from my mother and the Relief Society sisters. I figured out how to put them together the right way, I sewed them up, put in a waist band and -- ta da! I have new pajama pants.

The gathering stitch

My mother was an extremely talented seamstress. From an early age, she designed and was able to sew elaborate, sophisticated outfits. It was in large part because her own family, growing up, was poor, and so was ours. But it was also because she had an incredible talent, a rare gift for conceptualizing what a finished outfit would look like, and then being able to create and put the right pieces together to fulfill what she imagined. She designed and sewed wedding dresses for two of her sisters, and she sewed suits and dresses for all of her children, too. One of my favorite dresses when I was a child, one that I wore until I burst out of its seams, was a beautiful lilac and white floral print with long, puffy sleeves. It had a lace inset in the bodice, and small purple buttons down the front. The dress had small ruffles around the neck, the sleeves, and a larger one around the hemline. It must have taken my mother hours to create something so sturdy and yet so delicate. I cherished that dress.

There was one characteristic, a kind of signature, that my mother left on all of the items she sewed. For all of her skill and care when sewing, there was always one small detail, you might say a mistake, that remained on most of the things she made. Going back in my memory, I remember something called a gathering stitch. A gathering stitch is a necessary part of making a ruffle or any kind of seam that will later be bunched up. To make a gathering stitch, you sew a rather loosely-spaced stitch with unbound ends, with the sewing threads sticking out on both sides of the fabric. After the gathering stitch is in place, you use two hands to hold the threads taut on either side of the fabric, while at the same time bunching up the fabric toward its own middle. This action creates little folds or valleys in the fabric, which can be used, for example, for the waist of a dress, a puffed sleeve, or for a ruffle. After the fabric has been gathered together to the desired size, you can secure it by sewing a new set of stitches along the original seam, or for example by attaching it as a ruffle to the hem of a dress.

A careful and fastidious seamstress will always remove the loose gathering stitch after the item of clothing is finished. That is because once everything is sewn into place and secured, the gathering stitch is no longer necessary; it's a job done. A gathering stitch is a necessary part of the process, but later, after the item is finished, it serves no further purpose. It's simply extra thread; loose ends.

My mother's signature, then, on most everything she sewed, was that she left the gathering stitching in place. I don't know if this was because she couldn't be bothered to remove those extra stitches, although this seems an unlikely answer given the care and attention she gave to the rest of the garment and the process of creating it. Maybe it's more that she didn't mind the visible reminder of there having been an extra step along the way -- a step that, judging from the final product, could be considered superfluous, but it was actually a critical part of the procedure. The final outcome would not be what it was, would not have succeeded, without that crucial bit of stitching along the way: the gathering stitch.

Do you see what I mean? The nice young man in my class was sorry for everything I have lost, and he was correct in his assertion. But I still have my gathering stitch, and I am guessing it's still visible.

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