In the Orthodox Church, the first week of Great Lent is called “Clean Week,” and some people take this to heart, literally cleaning things in their homes the first week of the fast. A friend mends pillows, fixes hems, and makes those small repairs on things that upset her the rest of the year. People dust picture frames and wash walls, cull their clothes for charity donations and finally clean out the kitchen junk drawer. In anticipation, I have been gathering some things that need attention — my favorite dress, which has a tear, a flowered blouse that’s missing a button, and some other similar things. When I dug through my sewing box, in preparation, I remembered how I got it.
When we lived in Connecticut, I didn’t know the neighbors as well as I wish I did. One neighbor had sold her house and was moving to assisted living. She had a yard sale that was as good as an estate sale. A yard sale has things that people have decided they do not need any more. An estate sale has the things that people used every day, but which their loved ones don’t want or need. At a yard sale you can find interesting things. At an estate sale you can find essential things — seasoned baking sheets and well-worn cookbooks, real cotton bed linens and woolen blankets, toys that aren’t made any more and sturdy hand tools. My neighbor had all of these for sale, plus her sewing box.
It was a clear plastic box with several layers and she had it loaded with thread, elastic, extra buttons, pieces of trim, and some lace. When I went to pay for it, her hands lingered on it, and I realized that this was the essence of who she had been to her family. She had gone to this box to put patches on Boy Scout uniforms and to take in prom dresses, to move buttons and to fix hems. When she got rid of this, who would she be?
I, too, hesitated. “Perhaps you shouldn’t sell it,” I said. “You may need it, or your family might need something in it.”
“No,” she said, and looked directly into my eyes. “Take it. You need it. I see how many kids you have, all of them running and falling and growing. You need it. And that part of my life is over.”
Sewing boxes are repositories of secrets.
Your sewing box is where you keep things that you don’t want the children to mess with, things that you don’t want your husband to find. It holds extra snap closures and bra strap buckles, thread to match the outfits you tear most often. My whole soprano section, two elderly sisters, died one year, and each of their sons gave me his mother’s sewing box. In each box I found the Christmas ornaments I had given the choir members over the years.
Sewing in Literature
In Susan Glaspell’s story “A Jury of Her Peers,” a group of neighbors gather clothing for a woman, Minnie, who had been arrested after her husband’s death. The men are trying to determine if she killed her husband or if someone else had. The story is well worth reading as the women discover things about Minnie’s married life and reach conclusions. One of the more important developments is when they dig into her sewing box to see what she planned to do to finish a quilt in progress.
In “The First Circle,” Solzhenitsyn tells of the prison life of Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician who is not in one of the labor camps — the lower depths of hell — but “only” in a research prison, the first circle of hell, where he is assigned to determine which of three men made a damning phone call which was treasonous, and which had been secretly recorded. He decides to say he cannot say which man it was, to spare one from arrest, but to his horror, all three men are arrested, instead.
Having shown us daily life in the prison, Solzhenitsyn uses the arrest of one innocent man to show what arrest is like in general — the confusion, the removal from friends and family, the need to begin life afresh in these strange and unpleasant conditions. The newly arrested man loses buttons when he is detained, and when he complains, the prison guard hands the man a needle and thread so that he can sew the buttons back on. This, the man has never done. And so Solzhenitsyn describes how the man learns how to do this, figures it out, invents sewing, as he will re-invent and freshly discover so many other parts of daily life.
Sewing is also essential to some works of non-fiction. “The Dressmakers of Auschwitz” tells of a group of prisoners who were chosen to create high fashion garments for prominent Nazi women. A children’s book, “Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist a book by Barbara Herkert and Vanessa Brantley-Newton,” tells of how a former slave used her talent with needlework to support her family after the Civil War. And Sewn Stories is a blog dedicated to stories about garments that writer sewed or had sewn for them.
Different cultures sew differently. In WWII, the United States bought clothes from refugees to help the spies who were sent abroad to work undercover. Women working for the spy agencies learned that American sew their four-hole buttons in an X, while in Europe buttons were sewn on in two straight parallel lines.
Writing Prompt: Work sewing into your writing. You could write about the first time you sewed something, or the first garment anyone ever sewed for you. Characters who need to talk in a work of fiction can go shopping together to buy sewing supplies, and their preferences — fabrics, colors, quality of threads — can further underscore their differences.
If you don’t sew, never sewed, never want to sew, and don’t know a thing about sewing, that’s okay. (It’s also essay worthy — why? Who sews for you? Do they recognize the things they made when you wear them?) There is a first and a last time to use everything. Think (and write) about the thing that you would part with last — handing over your work badge after clocking out for the last time, giving your adult children your favorite skillet, or maybe handing your car key to a stranger. There are things that we don’t know we are using for the last time — the last hospice visitor’s pass, the last sanitary napkin, the last time you eat off the family china. Things can stand for who we are, what we do, what we did. They are the milestones we don’t notice until they are behind us. Look around. Think about the things that are essential to your daily life, and that some day will not be needed.