One of the best gifts my mother ever gave me was a half-yard of seafoam green satin and an equal amount of royal blue velvet as a Christmas gift when I was 12 years old. Such fabric splendor was rare in our household. The green made me imagine that it was the color of mermaid tails and I already knew that royal blue was the color princesses wore.
But we were wool and cotton people. In winter we waded out into deep drifts to shovel out the car or a path to the clothesline. We wore warm wool clothing for the long walk to school and back — twice each day. Wool was our barrier against the Arctic breath of January. It was our secret weapon in the howling wind of a February blizzard. It was the armor that kept us cozy on the long icy slide down Old Hill on a toboggan. Wool, while warm, was never entirely practical. Dry cleaning was often beyond the family budget and if you washed wool garments — always by hand in cool water and never in the washing machine — you risked shrinkage of a magnitude that shriveled the garment in a useless, ugly lump.
In summer, we shed our wool garments like a butterfly sheds its chrysalis, and with glee and gratitude. Everything we wore was made of cotton fabric. It was cool against the skin and easy to wash out the muddy paw prints when the dog jumped on us or the streak of grime we’d picked up climbing the apple tree. In those days, cotton clothing had to be ironed because no one ever wore anything with wrinkles in it. It simply was not done. A child in wrinkled clothing signaled that their mother wasn’t doing her job, calling into question her integrity as Mother — with a capital M. Cotton fabric came in many weights — the heavy khaki of my father’s work clothes, the chino of my brother’s school pants, the light percale of blouses my mother and sister and I wore, and the airy seersucker of our pajamas.
But velvet and satin. No. Never. It wasn’t practical. We had nowhere to wear such lavish textiles. My first, awed question when I beheld the treasured fabric was, “What’s it for?”
“I don’t know,” my mother replied. “I just thought you’d like it.”
Like it? Yes, I liked it. I liked it so much I spent six months simply touching it many times every day. Both fabrics were smooth and silky to the touch, but the satin struck me as slithery, whereas the velvet felt cushiony to my fingers. I liked how if you smoothed the velvet against the pile the color changed to a lighter shade of blue and if you held the satin up to the light it almost shimmered.
I kept the fabric folded in the top drawer of my bureau and I as I moved from home to school and back again I liked knowing it was there, like a treasure in Aladdin’s cave.
By the time summer rolled around, I still had no idea what I would do with the fabric. But my mother didn’t nag me about it. She knew I liked making fancy dresses for my 8-inch “fashion” dolls, those rigid plastic beauties with curvaceous forms and poofy hair that predated Barbie. These creations were barely more than rectangles of fabric I gathered with needle and thread into skirts, with a strip a material sewed to it for a bodice. I had not yet learned to sew with my mother’s treadle sewing machine.
Gradually, it came to me that the reason I had no idea what to make with the fabric was because the thought of taking the scissors to it filled me with pain. I couldn’t do it. If I did, the symmetry of those lovely pieces of fabric would be altered. I couldn’t face the thought of transforming it from folded and flat to darted and gathered. I liked it just the way it was.
A few years later I was invited to a prom. The dress I chose was a tea-length blue taffeta with a V-neck and three-quarter-length sleeves. My mother thought the neckline was too severe and needed something to make it softer. “What about the blue velvet?” she asked. I saw at once that her idea was a good one. From a 2-inch-wide length of the velvet she fashioned a narrow ruffle and together we figured out how to lift the facing of the dress in order to sew in the ruffle.
Many things were achieved with that sewing project: I learned (all over again) that even if you don’t know how to do something, you can figure it out; my mother and I bonded over the sewing project, a state of affairs that would carry forward into the rest of our lives; that velvet “creeps” as you work with it and must be well-basted in order to make it do what you require of it; and that taffeta and velvet look really nice together.
When the ruffle project was finished, I folded what remained of the velvet, put it with the still uncut satin, wrapped the fabric in tissue and tucked it away never dreaming there would come a time in my life when I’d cut into satin and velvet fabrics with nary a qualm.
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