Monday, February 4, 2013

Grandma's Sewing Machine

 By the time I was old enough to observe a sewing machine in Grandma's apartment, or even know what one was, Grandma had given her Domestic treadle machine to her youngest daughter, my Aunt Clara, the one who sewed.

I do remember the machine at Aunt Clara's house, because she took in some of her own clothes, widening the seams and shortening the hems, to fit me.  I was about 10 at the time.

I remember one summer she sewed one of her bathing suits to fit me.  She was a pretty talented seamstress.

When I was 14 and  taking "sewing" class in Catholic high school, Aunt Clara and Uncle Ray brought the old Domestic to our house in Mt. Auburn and placed it in my room, a narrow, walled-in, unheated back porch that I'd claimed for myself.  I was the oldest, and we only had one bedroom in the house for a family of eight.  A hot water bottle froze solid in that back-porch room in the winter, but it was my own private retreat, for reading, writing, listening to '50s rock 'n roll music on my transistor radio,  and sewing.

When I wasn't sewing, I'd keep the top lid closed, and it became my dressing table, with a round mirror that swiveled on its base from normal to magnifying, a pretty doily, and my makeup and hair brush.

Aunt Clara taught me how to make the treadle work that night when she delivered the machine to me.  We used electric machines in school, but I got the treadle's rhythm going and figured the rest out by next morning, and I began making my own clothes.

I was a small girl, so a half-yard of fabric could make me a pretty skirt, and a whole yard was more than enough for a slim dress.  Eventually I could make a dress in one day to wear to a dance or party that night.  When I switched to public high school, I could make a dress the night before to wear the next day.

I did have one mishap that almost lost me my machine.  I was racing down a long seam one evening faster than I should have been going, when suddenly the needle stopped with a metallic thud sound and a prolonged HUM-M-M.  Dad happened to be in the next room and heard it, came in and stared at the thick needle embedded in my right index finger, a breath away from the nail.

He picked up my finger with the broken needle sticking in it and took me downstairs to the dining room and plunged the finger into a bowl of peroxide.  My mother's face went white and she had to sit down before she fainted.

Dad said, "I told you not to run your finger so close to the needle.  Now look what you've done."
I kept silently repeating in my head, "Don't take my machine away, don't take it away, don't..."

He didn't take it away.  And he couldn't watch me sew anymore.  Neither could Mom.  I never ran the needle into a finger again.  I had a scar to remind me for a long time.

We moved to Klotter Avenue, Over-the-Rhine, in 1961 and the Domestic went into the room I was to share with my three sisters.  I left shortly thereafter to move in with girlfriends.  I did not take my sewing machine with me.  I wasn't sewing anymore.

I came back home for a short time before I got married in 1963, when I moved out permanently.  I forgot about my sewing machine until 1987.  I'd bought an electric machine when my daughters were small so I could make dresses for them.

In 1987, however, when I was living in Tennessee, I visited my parents and Dad made the comment, "I have something of yours in my room."  This was by the time he had a room crammed full of stuff upstairs that nobody was allowed to enter.

I thought for a few minutes, and then I remembered.  Grandma's sewing machine?  He confirmed that he had it.  And I suddenly wanted it.

He said, "I've been keeping it all these years.  It's the only thing of my mother's I have."

My eyes got tears.  Serious eyes looked at me, "Do you promise you'll keep it, take care of it?"

"Yes," I said, "I'll keep it forever."

"You won't spill any more paint on it?"  He grinned.  Referring to the time I painted my back-porch room a light mint green and failed to cover my sewing machine.

I said, "That paint is still on it?"  He replied he kept it just like it was when I left it.

I wondered if the green paint held a memory for him.  You never knew with my father.  He didn't say a lot of things he felt.

People have asked me if I planned to ever refinish the machine, but I haven't and I won't.  Green back-porch bedroom paint will always be a memory.

And it's the only thing I have of my father's mother.


  1. Beautiful story. I am a seamstress myself and always wished I could have inherited a trendle sewing machine from a grandmother. How fortunate you are. Great memories and well written. Jo

  2. What a great story, Bettyann, and beautifully expressed. Isn't it amazing how one item can hold so many memories, and be such a treasured link to the past? I think your Grandma would be very happy to know how much her sewing machine means to you. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks, Jo, for the comment. The old sewing machines now are pretty cheap if you find them at flea markets or yard sales. I don't use mine for sewing anymore, but I don't sew either. Maybe after I get this book finished, I'll get back to it!

  4. Thanks, Shelley, for the kind words. I know my Dad would be pleased to know I still have it and I haven't spilled any more paint on it! And you are right, my Grandma would be so happy that I cherish here old sewing machine.