One of my first memories of cloth was a wool needle case, which I made in 4-H at around age seven. It was made of wool scraps, and I had carefully blanket stitched with embroidery floss around the edges of each page. The pages were different textures in shades of brown and gray. I am sure that they were not from men’s suits as few if any of the men in my life wore or even owned a suit. My mother was the 4-H leader, which was why I got to join at an earlier age than most, and she was proud of the job I had done. I was also proud of myself.
Cloth was an integral part of my life. I recall my grandmother sitting and crocheting with white and off-white cotton crochet yarn. My mother sewed for me and my 3 sisters as well as cousins whose mother didn’t know how to sew. In addition, I was an accomplished seamstress at an early age participating in 4-H, Home Ec classes, Sew It with Wool contests etc. Being able to sew so well was part of my identity at that time. In high school I also learned to knit.
My Auntie Vi sewed for a living augmenting a meager living from a small farm close to the Snake River in Eastern Oregon. Entering her front door was like paradise to me as her living room was a plethora of fabric and activity. The dining table would be filled with something she was cutting out. There would be wedding, bridal and prom dresses (so much fun to touch and imagine wearing) in various stages of completion. Wool from the Pendleton Woolen Mill in Waschugal, WA would be piled waiting to be made into pleated reversible skirts or suits for the “rich” men in town. The sewing machine would be buzzing. There were lots of scraps, and beautiful fabrics to touch and stroke. She and her sister, my mother, would discuss the various projects underway, and I would listen and also participate.
Her daughters and I used to play hide-and-seek, and one of our favorite places to hide was to bury ourselves in the bottom of boxes of fabric in one of the closets. Another activity was to play paper dolls. We made our own from old pattern books where we had so many more options than any store-bought paper doll set would have provided.
Specific clothing or items of cloth which I recall and were either made by me or my aunt or mother include:
A blue print dress with a white pique’ collar—probably around 1st grade
A lavender boat-neck dress made for me for Easter that had a scalloped hem line
A red velvet v-neck dress with a full skirt
A silver lame’ prom dress—tough fabric to sew on
The silk organza gown which I wore in the Miss LaGrande and Miss Oregon pageants
A silk satin, strapless gown which I wore in the same pageants
A blue wool, crepe dress with fur trim which took me to State competition
A wool rust colored coat and crepe sheath which took me to state Sew It with Wool
A white and pink striped cotton shirt waist dress—probably my best workmanship ever—
made in the 10th grade
Learning to sew with knits and polyesters in the early 70’s
A red wool dress that I made for my sister Harriett
Cutting up a dress of mine so I could make a dress for my 2 year old sister. There was no $ for fabric, but I was so proud of the result
Dressing up in old clothes that were thrown in piles in the attic. I especially liked the brown, silk sheath in which Mom was married
A teal, silk organza party dress that Mom made for herself. I remember her twirling around the living room in it, and I thought she was so pretty.
A green wool sweater with lots of cable and intricate stitches (loved the challenge) that I knit in high school
Wool argyle socks that I knit for my boyfriend.
Matching wool sweaters that I knit for my boyfriend and me. They were so thick and almost
too hot to wear.
Ties I made for my husband because we could not afford to buy ties.
Draperies, curtains, throw pillows, bed coverings—all of which looked better and cost less
than what I could have afforded to buy at that time
You see, the list goes on and on. The biggest “ah ha” that comes to me as I write and recall is how much of my identity was tied up in the fact that I could make useful and beautiful things from cloth. The need and desire to also challenge myself by adding or learning a new skill was also almost always present.
This has been the case since I went back to creating with cloth after a hiatus of 25 years. During those career days I would mend or sew an item for a kid’s play, but that was about all. Then I took a beginning quilting class—the one where you make six traditional blocks and put them together into a baby quilt sampler. It was like going home!
I started sewing again and made traditional quilts for about 5 years. Soon I was making art wear and art quilts. I joined a fiber art study group and started taking any and all classes that I could find. I even called one of my largest clients and told them that I was going to become an artist so I would not be doing any more work for them.
So my “description of a specific piece of cloth or clothing” has morphed into my story with cloth. Little did I know that is where it would go, but here it is.