Cynthia R.

Once I started down this path of remembering cloth from an early age, memories seemed to spring up along the way creating lots of new little side paths. I will have to retrace my steps and follow those side roads some day. Today I will stay on this one. It is a thought that comes strongly to mind: my earliest cloth memories have to do with laundry: washing (I handed the hand-wrung clothing to my mother as she fed it into the wringer on the back of our washing machine), hanging clothes out to dry, rescuing them from rain, folding, dampening, ironing.  My mother taught me to iron at a young age. She grew up in a family with 11 children and never knew childhood without work. So she taught me what she knew. Washing dishes, sweeping the floor, meal preparation and setting the table, dusting and ironing were all part of my childhood activities from the age of 5. Ironing had many steps - rituals, as they seem to me now. I filled bottles with water and put the cap with holes in it on the top for her to do the dampening at first. Then she taught me how to dampen the clothing, smoothing each piece out and lightly sprinkling the water on. Then I folded each piece in thirds and rolled it tightly before putting it in a laundry basket. This is what comprised steam ironing! The smells of detergent and the fresh air, if the clothes had been hung outside to dry, wafted up and have lodged deep in my memory bank. These same smells bring me joy now so many years later. If it rained or during the winter months the clothes hung in the dark cellar below the house where we rented the top floor apartment. Retrieving the clothes meant putting on winter boots, coat and gloves navigating the 20 outside steps (I counted them as soon as I had learned how to) that led from our front door to the path around the house. It meant walking that path around to the back of the house, opening the two ground level cellar doors, carefully descending the six crumbling stone steps into the cellar, crossing the earth and stone floor to find the string for the single light bulb located just a few steps beyond where the light from the open door ended. Then there was removing the stiff dry clothing hung with wooden pegs placing them in the basket and carrying it back out of the cellar across the snow packed yard and up the 20 outside steps. I sprinkled each one, folded and rolled, then turned on the iron. Ironing meant unrolling each one and pressing out the wrinkles while I stood on a small square stool to give me more leverage when I pressed down. As a beginner, I started with handkerchiefs. These I unrolled and smoothed out one at a time ironing first one side and then the other being careful to not scorch the relatively finer material. After turning it over I folded it in half, ironed, folded it in half again, ironed, and so forth until there was a neat white warm square still ever so slightly damp and smelling like clean hard won comfort sitting in front of me. The thin fine cotton of most hankies makes this a very satisfying accomplishment. I still remember my pride as I carried a stack of newly ironed handkerchiefs to my parents’ bedroom and placed the tall stack in my father’s drawer, the shorter stack in my mother’s. I think this is why I have a large bag of vintage handkerchiefs in my sewing cupboard today!