The high end sewing machines are all computerized, of course, and can cost thousands.
Needlework. I have long thought that it has been vital to feminine wellbeing. However, as in everything else, the American custom of domestic sewing is being radically altered by an interdependent world. My sisters and I saw this firsthand over the weekend.
I knew I wanted to write on this subject, so I induced them to join me at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts in Santa Fe. As we walked in, I asked them to imagine that we were going to sew a dress or something, and I issued a challenge: “See if you can find anything in here that was made in the United States.”
We are all in our 60s now and no longer sew continuously, but in our teens and on into our 30s and beyond we did. My younger sister Kate up from Estancia and my older sister Ann visiting from San Francisco were both more skillful than I because they took home economics. It was our mother, however, who basically taught us to sew.
Our mother was a child of the Depression, which may have had to do with her own skill, but she made most of our clothes growing up and even Ann’s long satin wedding dress and our two velvet bridesmaid’s dresses. She was very good. In fact, we all were. Kate even made slipcovers in high school for an overstuffed chair and its footstool.
So the fabric store is a familiar environment, and if you ever visit one, you will probably instantly note a very pleasant energy. Competent-looking women, creative instincts up, search intently for the perfect pattern and fabric, matching thread, zippers, hem tape, buttons and on and on. Ahead lie hours of industry culminating in the pride of achievement. A fabric store is just a happy place.
But boy have things changed! As my sisters roamed around examining tags, they soon saw how the old-fashioned fabric store has morphed into a center of international products. Of course we didn’t do a complete inventory, but everything we saw, except a brand of metal zipper and packages of Velcro, came from somewhere else in the world. I take that back. The patterns—Simplicity, McCalls, Vogue, for example—were printed in the United States; and I did find one bolt of imported fabric that had been printed here. Even the cotton for quilts comes from China.
When we sewed years ago, we derived a lot of pleasure from the fact that you could create really nice clothes very inexpensively, relatively speaking. Vogue designs looked especially high-end. Now, however, the cost of a designer pattern has gone up to almost $40, and by the time you buy the fabric and all the accessories, TJ Max or a department store sale compares very favorably.
Later in our sisters’ reunion weekend, we pored over my old photograph albums and picked up on some of the beautiful, classic clothes we had made so long ago. There was a different look afoot back then, a much dressier look that spoke of pride and ambition.
Quality was important, and things lasted. When we were growing up, dresses and skirts were passed down among us, and I remember eagerly waiting for Ann to outgrow one thing or another. People did that.
Now that we have become so internationally interdependent, however, it seems that staying in fashion presumes rapid turnover of inexpensive, mostly synthetic, foreign-made, casual clothes. The hyper-consumerism that supports all this has altered our system of values. Now we prefer an abundance of cheap things that don’t last to fine apparel we could wear proudly for years.
I’m not suggesting that this should change in some way. How could it? I think this question is writ large, as they say, all over America. I mean, how do we get back to making things here? Again, the subject of dependency is afoot. We need to be very nice to all the countries we rely on for manufacture and assembly in order to stay clothed.
Heavy thoughts for a visit to a fabric store. They inspired me to check on buying a sewing machine. I was told that the classic Singer, now manufactured in China and Viet Nam, lacks the quality of old. Bernina, Brother, Janome, Pfaff–none are manufactured in the United States. The high end machines are all computerized, of course, and can cost thousands. You can do very fancy stitches, and you don’t have to thread the needle. Very exciting.