I had just completed my freshman year at Cornell University, where I was majoring in Functional Apparel Design. The program focused on designing clothes for people with specific needs. My degree would be nothing like those awarded to fashion design students at F.I.T. No, nothing frivolous for me. But what I didn’t realize when I began this course of study was that the women in my classes had been sewing – and capable of making their own clothes – since before they could walk.
My own limited experience in sewing began when I was ten, when my Nana taught me how to sew tubular shifts for my Barbie dolls on her Singer sewing machine. Nana used it to perform her “miracles,” as she referred to them, on clothing the neighborhood women brought to her for alterations.
“You see this?” I remember her saying one time as she held up a fully lined, size 10 wool dress. “Mrs. Goodman thinks she’s still a size 10. So what does she do? She buys the dress that’s too small for her and comes to me and says it’s a little snug. Snug? How about small? So you see what I did?” She turned the dress inside out to illustrate her point. “I performed a miracle. I let out all the seams and restitched them to give her extra room. You wouldn’t know it in a million years.”
I looked up at her face while she admired her own handiwork and thought, when it came to miracle workers, Anne Sullivan had nothing on Nana.
While I may have inherited an interest in sewing from Nana, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I possessed none of her patience. I was prone to taking shortcuts and sewing freeform rather than following the step by step instructions listed on the store-bought pattern. My few feeble attempts always resulted in lopsided garments that would have been rejected by the Salvation Army. By the time I reached college, it had been years since I’d used the sewing machine for anything other than patching my jeans. The last time I’d used a needle and thread had been in high school, when I embroidered a Hot Tuna logo on the denim jacket of a cute guy I thought would be my boyfriend. But that didn’t pan out and neither did my sewing skills. Clearly I needed some emergency remedial instruction since I could no longer put off the basic classes like Pattern Making and Draping 101 that were required for my major.
So the summer after my freshman year, home for the break, I enrolled in a sewing class. It was held in the Singer sewing store, in the King’s Plaza Mall, a ride over the Marine Park Bridge that linked my hometown of Belle Harbor with the rest of the world. It was 1977 and I was eighteen, much older than the eleven-to-thirteen-year olds whose mothers had signed them up for what was undoubtedly considered a fundamental prerequisite to womanhood. I was old enough to feel incredibly out of place, but also to recognize that this was inescapable. I had to learn how to sew. My degree depended on it.
I chose a smart little zip-front hooded jumpsuit pattern (remember, it was 1977) with a drawstring tie waist. There weren’t many pieces to the pattern and no tricky two-piece collars. If I had learned anything from my first year in college, it was to stay away from designing anything that called for constructing a collar.
The fabric I selected was a chocolate-brown stretch terry. I was starting to get psyched. I tried not to think of the “fashion show” scheduled at the end of the six-week session, where the class members would model their creations. Unlike some other eighteen-year-olds, I had no dreams of becoming a model. The thought of the show was horrifying but I figured I’d cross that runway when I came to it.
Thursday evenings I showed up at the mall carrying my sewing kit: tracing paper, tracing wheel, pins, needles, tape measure, chalk, and matching chocolate-brown thread. I spent two excruciating hours tracing the pattern, cutting the fabric and making idle chit chat with some of the other students. “Hey Debbie, when did you say you were getting those braces off?” “Yes, Lisa, I think in another year or two you will definitely be able to score a babysitting job, no problem.”
I’d complete the evening’s project, then say goodnight to my pals and go out to the mall, where my twenty-four-year-old boyfriend, Rob, would be waiting. I’d met him a week after arriving home for the summer and become captivated by his rebellious nature. He was everything I wasn’t, and that was part of the allure. While my classmates met their moms or dads for rides home, I always headed to the parking garage with Rob, his beat up Mustang in the No Standing zone. I threw my sewing kit in the back seat, lit up a joint, and we raced off with the windows down as Bruce Springsteen blared from the tape deck, “Baby, we born to run.”
As we neared the last few classes and our outfits began to take form, I learned another important lesson. Never design anything with a zipper stitching. It requires skill. With a seventeen-inch zipper running the length of the front of my jumpsuit, I had a problem on my hands. After three attempts, followed by three ripping sessions, the front of my terry outfit was starting to scream “amateur.” All the other Susie Homemakers were busy sewing cheerfully. No cursing under their breath, no machine needle nearly going through a finger, no huffing and puffing with exasperation for this crowd. I was alone with my misery and as my frustration built, I began to get some nervous looks from Buffy and Susie. The instructor must have sensed the impending explosion of nerves because she cautiously approached me to survey the danger.
“Having a bit of a problem, are we?” she asked smiling.
“Yes, as a matter of fact we are,” I told her. “This is a fucking nightmare.”
I heard a gasp from someone close by and lowered my voice. “Sorry,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just have to forgo the zipper and change it to a plunging neckline that stops below the belly button.” She looked in my eyes to see if I was kidding. I stared back at her. I wasn’t smiling.
“Here, scoot over and I’ll see if I can give you hand,” she said. In less than ten minutes she had the zipper inserted flawlessly. I was impressed. This was more like it. I thanked her and muttered something about learning a valuable lesson.
The remaining weeks passed uneventfully as we completed hems and applied finishing touches to our creations. I had plenty of time to concentrate on my jumpsuit as the other girls steered clear of me, huddling together giggling and tittering, having lots of fun, sewing away as if they were actually enjoying themselves.
Finally, the dreaded day arrived. I made Rob swear that he would not go to the fashion show. A space was cleared in the middle of the store where they set up a makeshift runway, with folding chairs on either side to accommodate the parents. I was in a back room changing into my jumpsuit, feeling anxious that the stretch terry was clinging to my thighs, emphasizing the extra weight I had put on during my freshman year at college. I had no regrets about neglecting to tell my parents about the show, not that they were apt to attend. Their parental duty to show up for such functions had long since expired. The next and last requirement for them would be my college graduation and after that we were all home free. But for now I’d just walk quickly down the damn runway, then lose myself in the crowd, change into my street clothes, grab my certificate for completing the course, and get the hell out of there.
One by one the girls sashayed down the runway, mugging for their family members who sat clapping politely. Then the instructor announced my name. “. . . and here’s Fran modeling a stretch terry hooded jumpsuit!”
I began to walk down the runway, my face hot with embarrassment. Then I saw Rob in the back of the store, standing behind the parents. He was clapping loudly. He called out, “Let’s see the hood!” Taking his cue, the instructor said, “Fran, show us how the hood looks.” I took the hood and draped it over my head while I glared in Rob’s direction. He was still clapping, appearing genuinely proud of my accomplishment, not caring that the parents were swiveling in their seats to see who the tall guy was with the long curly hair making a scene in the back.
That was the last time I wore that jumpsuit. I keep it in the back of my closet with the clothes I think I’ll wear but never do. I had it with me through my three remaining years at Cornell. A trendy clothing store called Wet Seal has replaced the Singer Sewing Store. The jumpsuit inspired me to continue sewing and perform at least enough miracles to allow me to graduate. And that seemed a miracle in itself.