Day 1 at my sewing class: Linda, who is sitting at her machine in the corner, says this:
"Oh…and I found the most fabulous zipper on eBay! I'm trying to decide what to make with it!"
I listen from my own machine, the one where the chair in front of it sinks down six inches when you sit on it. My friend Suzanne is at the machine beside me. I turn my head and catch her eye and raise my eyebrows! Seriously… who bases their outfits on zippers?
Well, lesson one was that there are all sorts of zippers out there. And some of them need more attention than others.
If you know me, you know that sewing machines generally stay away from me. When my daughter, Sarah, was in her first tap dancing recital, the purple Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear costume she wore was glued together with a hot glue gun. It was my only choice at the time, to use the glue gun. I couldn't afford a seamstress, and I didn't have a sewing machine, even if I could sew. No one could tell it had been glued, except for maybe Sarah, who's wiggly six-year-old body may or may not have been responding to stiff seams in her costume.
In 8th grade Home Ec class we were taught how to make a skirt. (Note that I did not say we learned how to make skirts, they just tried to teach us. Some of us learned. And then there was the rest of us.) My perfectionist mother made me unpick the uneven seams of my skirt so many times that the fabric dissolved. By the time I got it right the skirt was too small and the hook and eye on the waistband popped when I took a deep diaphragmatic breath in choir the period before Home Ec. I got a D on the skirt. My mom suggested I play guitar and buy my clothes. In this regard I have been an obedient child all these years.
Last fall Suzanne, whom I know by heart, told me she was taking a sewing class from the woman who first taught her to sew when she was a child. That was something like 40 years ago. When Suzanne invited me to come see if I wanted to take the class with her, I said yes, not so much because I wanted to sew as I wanted to be with Suz. Plus, I admit, I was really quite curious about an 87 year old sewing teacher. So that Wednesday morning I joined her in Margaret Farmer's sewing class. There were about six of us there. Everyone in attendance, by the way, already knew how to sew, so the word "class" may have been stretching it. We all call our teacher Margaret, except for Suzanne, who can't bring herself to call her anything but Mrs. Farmer.
For me it was love at first sight. Not with the machine. With Margaret. Her demeanor was so compelling, her conversation so riveting, her wisdom perfectly blended with a fabulous sense of humor…I was hooked immediately. Margaret is chock full of history. Compellingly charming history. When she was eighteen years old she left her humble western home, where she and her sisters had been raised by their widowed mother, to study the art of fashion design in New York City. She is dripping with charming tales - of being on the streets of Times Square when World War II ended, of costuming for her first film, of being the first human being to sing the newly composed BYU Cougar fight song while the composer accompanied her on piano at a Manhattan dinner party. She tells of taking the subway to the lower east side every day before class, she and her fellow design students, so they could purchase fabric for the day's projects. They first stitched every design in muslin, then used the real stuff after the quirks had been ironed out. I love to think of her, young and vibrant and thirsty for adventure, there in that sea of a city. It's like the wild west could not hold her. Eventually she returned to Utah, married, raised a bunch of kids, and opened MARGARET'S SCHOOL OF CUSTOM DRESS MAKING.
Margaret wakes early every day, does her contemplation, yoga and other exercises, recites whatever it is she has decided to memorize that week, makes herself an organic breakfast, does a little studying…all before her 8 am sewing classes start. She teaches from 8-1, takes a short lunch break, then teaches from 2-4, takes a dinner break, then teaches an evening class. She does this, I believe, four days a week. The fifth day she attends the temple. (I kinda wonder what kind of schedule she kept when she was a spry 80 year old.)
Our sewing class is not the typical Home Economics kind of class. There is no lesson. We just all kind of work on our own projects and Margaret mentors us. It's not really fair, cuz poor Margaret was starting from scratch with me. First class she taught me how to thread the machine, how to wind a bobbin, how to sew a straight stitch, how to run the surger…basic stuff the average domestic goddess does without thinking. My first project was to add pockets to some of my trousers. That went pretty well. I only had to ask Anna, Margaret's granddaughter-in-law, how to thread my machine twice. Anna is patient and so pleasant with me, this old lump of a woman who can't ever remember if you insert the bobbin so the thread is going clockwise or counterclockwise. After my success in sewing pockets to my trousers, I created a costume for Bella for Halloween. After that, my confidence having been fed by success, I leaped into the massive undertaking of making Christmas nightgowns for my grand daughters. Both Anna and Sophie had been in the Nutcracker ballet, so I determined to make Clara gowns, ones that would float in the winter air when they twirled around. I purchased 500 thread count cotton sheets with tiny pale blue polka dots for the fabric, wanting quality I couldn't find at the local fabric store. Margaret custom made three patterns for me, sizes 4, 6 and 10. It was quite the undertaking for one as domestically challenged as I. But by golly, Margaret led my fingers each step of the way and on Christmas Eve my little treasures had their own Clara gowns. Ruby's sleeves were about two sixes too long, so there was a little unpicking and clipping and restitching done after Christmas, but it all ended well. My little Bella wears hers nightly. She transforms when she wears it, pointing her toes when she walks, thrusting her left shoulder back, her left foot raised to the ball as she pivots, the ruffle at the bottom of her dress pooling out as she swirls. It makes my heart happy.
Margaret's sewing room is magical. There are decades of treasures down there, in that space under her garage. Six workhorse Bernina sewing machines, one fancy computerized machine that would probably cook dinner for you if you knew which buttons to push, three surging machines, two cutting tables, a dress form, a heavy duty steam iron, and about three fabric stores worth of inventory. Last week I needed some elastic for Anna's baptism dress. Margaret stood on a chair and dug deep into the bolts of elastic on the western wall shelves. I measured off about 5 yards so I could take some home to fix the necklines on a few shirts. At the end of class, when I was paying for the class (which, I might add, are priced at 1963 rates) I asked what I owed her for the elastic. She looked at the cardboard on the top of the elastic, where she had written in pencil probably three decades ago. "That's 10 cents a yard." The buttons I stitched to my little Clara gowns were sweet little cut glass vintage buttons from one of the many jars lining her windowsills.
I love Margaret's place! Serious love! Everything there speaks Margaret. And the door is always swinging open. Camille comes in with a gorgeous blouse she has found at DI and is going to re-purpose with some lace she has had for a while. Jessie, wearing the funky and stunningly artistic vest she made by hammering felt or something like that, tidies up while we gab. Suzanne is trying not to curse while she stuffs 20 yards of fabric through the machine by the eastern wall, wondering aloud why she ever decided to make her own shams and dust ruffle for her guest bedroom. Anna lifts the bodice to her little daughter's Easter dress and we all Ooo and Ahhh, remembering the days when we had little daughters, remembering our own Easter Dresses made at the hands of our mothers.
Last week Linda put finishing touches on the bright spring rain jacket into which she stitched that fancy rhinestone studded zipper she bought on eBay. It suits Linda perfectly, it's happy and petite and has just the right amount of pizazz. I watched Margaret work her fingers around the collar as Linda modeled it. I watched her slender 87 year old fingers gracefully turn the fabric, her voice speaking in low tones as she advised and complimented. I felt that warm sense of belonging, that comfortably safe feeling you get when you know you are part of a team, that your objectives all match, that what will benefit one is going to benefit all.
I wonder, if I ever make it to 87 years old, if I will have a door that swings open as beautifully as Margaret's does. If I do, it will not be by accident. Margaret is Margaret on purpose.
There's a lot more than sewing to be learned at Margaret's School of Custom