Life or Something Like It: Fabric scraps weave family history

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By Suzanne Darland

As far back as I can remember, my mom has sewn.

She made dresses for my sisters and me, always in the latest styles and colors. Mom might use a paper pattern for a baseline, but she added her own unique touches. When I was a girl, some mornings I would wake to find a new Barbie doll dress on my night stand. When my boys were young, she made surf shorts for them in wild prints.

She made curtains for every window in the house from kitchen to living room. I still have never hung a store-made panel; Mom always has made them. She made traditional pillows for couches and to pile on a bed, as well as some unusual ones such as a set of black rectangular ones shaped like oversized dominoes with white dots I still wish I had.      

And she’s made more duvet covers than I can count, including ones for dorm rooms when my boys went off to college.

And she didn’t just sew for her family. She and a friend started a business in South Florida in the ’70s where they made and sold long wraparound skirts appliqued with flowers or tropical scenes. In Elizabethtown in the early ’90s, she sold children’s clothes at several local shops.

About 10 years ago, Mom took a few painting classes on a whim. Now it’s her hobby of choice. She prefers acrylics, and she pours her creativity into canvases instead of fabrics. She keeps a sketchbook of ideas at the ready for when inspiration hits.

Our home as well as my siblings’ and her grandkids’ apartments all display Mom’s paintings, from beach landscapes to portraits of birds or favorite pets.

Still, she’d get the sewing machine out from time to time to make me a skirt or two, stitch up a patchwork fabric bag as a gift or make some curtains. A couple years ago she made two appliqued wall hangings and showed them in a local quilt show.

That Christmas, she made me a wall hanging for our bedroom, a crazy quilt of special memories: gauzy scraps from a cotton nightgown, pink gingham seersucker from a dress she made when I was in high school, black and white chintz from a jacket I wore in college.

Since she moved to Elizabethtown, she’s kept her fabric scraps, from 4-by-4 inch squares to several-yard lengths, categorized by color in carefully labeled large cardboard boxes stored in our basement.

From time to time she would pull out the boxes to comb through them, looking for scraps for this or that project. If I was with her, we took a trip down Memory Lane. There’d be leftover fabric from my bridesmaids’ dresses or the comforter she made when our oldest went off to college. We’d reminisce about the fabrics’ ties to events in the recent and distant past.

Some years ago, there was an ad campaign for a cotton growers’ association that was tagged “Cotton: The fabric of our lives.” And those pieces of fabric Mom kept were touchable, tangible reminders of our childhood, clothes we wore on special occasions or places we’d lived.

But a couple of weekends ago, in a clearing out mood, she decided there was little reason to keep the boxes around. She
doesn’t sew much anymore, and the scraps are just taking up space. I poked my head into her apartment from time to time as she sorted through each color, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. As she finished looking through some boxes, I brought up more from the basement.

Two toddler dresses she’d cut out and never sewn together went into a bag for a young couple in our church who are expecting their first child next month. As did a length of India-inspired fabric Jordan might like to sew into a chic dress.

The pockets and other sections of discarded jeans she once made into girls’ purses went into another bag for a friend who’s working on a jeans quilt.

My daughter-in-law Ashley got some tropical-colored yardage she can use to re-upholster the dining room chairs or to make pillows. She thought Ashley also might like the blue ruched fabric left from a comforter cover.

Not all the fabrics were given away or thrown away; some went back into the boxes. She might just need them for a project, she reasoned.

But the leftover Peter Rabbit fabric from curtains in the nursery when my oldest two were born? I took that before it went to another home. When the time comes, I’d like to make a pillow or baby dress that will connect the fabric to a future grandchild’s daddy.

Suzanne Darland teaches journalism classes and is director of the faculty advising center at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.