When I was growing up, my mother sewed everything my sister and I wore. Dresses. Skirts. Blouses. Bathing suits. Coats. Everything but our underwear.
And by early August, my mother was already planning what we would wear on the first day of school. It was time to make our pilgrimage to the sewing floor of Macy’s department store.
My little sister, older brother and I were like three little ducklings following my mother into the city (we called it the “city” and not “Manhattan” because we thought they were two different places). Since it was a day of walking the fabric floor, my mother wore sensible shoes: woven leather low heels that reminded me of two little baskets on her feet.
We began the journey from our home on Curtiss Place, in Maplewood, New Jersey, and took the Erie-Lackawanna railroad. The train had honey-colored straw seats that could flip around depending on whether you were going to or coming from the city. As the conductor walked up the aisle, he pushed the seats, making sure they were facing the right direction for the next load of commuters.
There was no direct train at the time. Once we reached Hoboken, we had to catch the PATH to 34th Street. The sprint between the two trains was a panic until my legs were long enough to keep up with my mother.
The underground PATH in August was hot and steamy. It took us right to 34th Street, where Macy’s was at the top of the stairs. Before heading up though, we would grab lunch at Nedick’s, which was on the corner of 34th and Broadway. There we’d order hot dogs and orange soda. They also had a nut bread-and-cream cheese sandwich, which I was always tempted to try but thought it would make ordering more complicated. It was a fast-food luncheonette, after all. I stuck with my mother’s order: “Four hot dogs and four orange sodas, please.”
We finished lunch quickly. We had a big day in front of us.
Macy’s had grand revolving doors. Mom always went in first, and I remember the welcome blast of cold air as I emerged into the lobby. The scent of Chanel 5 infused the air. We had arrived.
The four of us took flight after flight of wood-slatted escalator steps to the seventh floor, which was filled with bolts of fabric in all shades of solids and different patterns of stripes and plaids. I knew Mom was in “work mode” when she went for the corduroys and wools. She was looking ahead to colder weather, but the thought of wearing fabrics like those on such a searing day was beyond my imagination.
My sister and I helped our mother peruse the pattern books, which were huge and filled with sweeping renderings of “The Look” for that fall. This was the era of Twiggy, and I hoped there was a pattern for a dress that would make me look exactly like her.
“How’s this?” Mom would ask us. “Can’t you see it in a nice plaid?” I squinted to try and picture it, but I trusted my mom. She had a great eye for putting “The Look” together.
My mom then requested the patterns – those tissue-paper-y sheaths that would be the start of our new wardrobes. With the packets in hand, we headed over to fabric. I was really excited. I could have a say on what I would wear the first day of school. Or even what I would wear for Photo Day. In fifth grade, it was a blue corduroy dress that was short enough to have coordinating blue corduroy shorts (that showed). Looking back, I will admit I was quite the standout in the front row of Miss Smith’s class picture.
“This would look good in a bold print,” my mother said, as she held up the pattern for a Go-Go shift. I could see it clearly: this dress and windowpane stockings.
Or, “Do you think this jumper would be better in a solid or print?” Often she would combine the two: printed jumper with solid pockets. The one I remember most was a black, red, white and yellow print with yellow corduroy pockets. Once you had the pattern, you could make zillions of the same dress. So my mother always made this dress with solid pockets that picked up a prominent color from the jumper fabric.
Throughout the day my sister and I had one charge: who could make the biggest thread ball. As we walked the floor and passed the bolts, we grabbed hanging threads and wrapped them around our ever-growing, multicolored balls.
The outing took hours: after picking patterns and fabrics, there were still zippers, buttons and threads to be found. When my siblings and I got bored, we played “Train” under the big tables carrying the pattern books. My brother was the conductor, my sister and I were the passengers. I was glad to be a part of the game; I wore glasses and was usually not invited to play with them. “Too fragile,” people thought. “Too weird,” was my brother’s reaction. He called me a “Four-Eyed Freak.” So playing “Train,” I was right in step for being groovy.
When we returned home to Maplewood, my sister and I compared our thread balls. Soon, Mom was in her yellow sewing room in the attic. We would hear the rumble of the machine start and then stop. She would adjust the needle, or straighten a piece of cloth, and then start again.
My mother is now 87-years old. During one of our daily phone calls, I asked her about being a sewing savant and her technique for finishing a seam.
“You have to direct the fabric,” she said. “You push it either straight or curved. Then you go back and forth, back and forth, for a quarter of an inch, to make sure the stitches don’t unravel.”
“It was hot as hell up in that attic,” she continued. “I would have wool on my lap on the third floor, in an un-air-conditioned room, in August. Oh gawddd, it was horrible.”
“I wanted to set an example and let my children know that you didn’t have to go to the store for everything. Often you could make it yourself.”
My brother, I must add, was just along for the ride. The day didn’t hold much for him. The only thing my mother could sew for her son was pajamas. As the ringmaster on clothes, though, she insisted he always wear store-bought corduroys, a button-down shirt and a V-neck sweater. He absolutely hated his look.
My brother told me recently that he remembers hardly anything about our annual summer pattern- and fabric-finding mission to Macy’s.
Then he said, “In retrospect, Mom did an incredible job. Who sews anymore? Some of the outfits were really adorable. Like remember the shot of you two on the steps at Curtiss Place?”
I do remember that outfit. The dress was red, and over it was a coat with a big white collar and a red grosgrain ribbon tied into a bow. This was paired with black patent Maryjanes, gloves and a round black patent purse (with nothing but a plastic comb and Lifesavers inside), and topped with wide-brimmed red bowler. My sister had the exact same outfit. We were twins!
The chapter of proudly wearing my mother’s hand-sewn clothes came to an end when girls started to wear pants to school. We begged, telling Mom it wasn’t cool anymore to wear clothes made by hand.
She eventually gave in. My sister and I were allowed to wear pants twice a week. This time, store-bought pants. From where? Macy’s.