Friday, June 8, 2007
touching story in the LA times
Dreaming in thread and fabric
Two friends always dreamed of the perfect room tailor-made for their sewing sessions.
By Kitty Felde
June 7, 2007
Weaving a friendship
Many people dream of a gourmet kitchen, a spa bathroom, a master suite to rival the fanciest hotel. For Mary and me, our dream space was a sewing room — dedicated to our obsession for silk charmeuse, measuring tapes and 5/8 -inch seam allowances.
There would be space for a 6-foot fabric-cutting table, two sewing machines, a file cabinet to hold hundreds of patterns and dozens of shelves for the glass jars we filled with buttons and thread and every notion under the sun. It would be a cozy room with a comfy armchair that invited us to sit down and hem a skirt. Most important, the room would be flooded with natural light, perhaps a sun porch or a cupola with windows on every wall, on the top floor of a quaint Victorian. It was a dream we talked about over and over again.
Mary O'Donnell was my sewing buddy. We met on a Catholic church retreat in the mountains above Los Angeles and hit it off the moment we discovered a shared passion for sewing. Both of us had come that weekend to meet single men. We were a couple of thirtysomething girls on the loose, determined to find the man of our dreams that very weekend. Instead, we found a friendship for life.
Mary was an unlikely sewer. In her late teens, she'd developed rheumatoid arthritis and suffered through several operations that left her hands partially frozen and often in pain. So in typical Mary fashion, what did she choose as a hobby? Something that demanded excellent hand skills and precision dexterity. Mary gloried in showing off her finished projects. She even declared her passion in cyberspace: Her e-mail address started with "Marysew@."
We started spending all of our Friday nights together. They soon became sacred. Forget dates with mere boys. As soon as our workweek was over, Mary and I would gather up our pattern pieces, scissors, basting thread and acres of fabric. I'd head over to her one-bedroom bachelorette estate, or she'd come over to mine.
We'd turn the dining room table into a cutting board, set up a sewing machine on the sofa table and drape pattern pieces over every available surface. We'd watch British costume dramas. We'd sip tea. We'd solve the problems in Step 23 of a particular pattern. We'd sketch our dream wardrobes. We'd ponder our futures. And we'd imagine the perfect sewing room — an altar dedicated to the gods of fabric.
Time and again, we swore never to buy another yard of silk charmeuse or pinstriped wool until we'd tackled the stacks in our closets. But then Mary would discover a fabulous fabric store online. Or I'd be traveling and stumble across a shop in Asheville, N.C., that specialized in vintage remnants from the 1960s. We'd both surrender to our addiction and buy just a few more yards of something irresistible.
Though Mary would never admit it, we both knew she was the better seamstress and tailor. Mary would always baste before using her machine. I was a graduate of the just-pin-it-and-go school. Mary could wear her jackets and sundresses inside out and be proud. I was embarrassed to let anyone see the inside of mine. Mary's work was couture. Mine was "good enough."
On another one of those church retreats, I did finally meet the man of my dreams. There was only one condition: He had to find something else to do on Friday nights. Tad understood — and encouraged — my sewing date.
So Mary and I kept meeting, our attention focused on the dress — the one I would wear marching down the aisle on my wedding day. For six months, Mary and I worked together on that one. It was a little bit of "Anne of Green Gables" with enormous puffed sleeves and a lot of Princess Diana with royal ruffles and bows. The skirt was off-white taffeta, trimmed at the bottom with acres of flounces. The bodice was covered with heavy embroidered lace. Mary fitted and refitted it until it became a second skin. We sewed our dreams into that dress. On the morning of the wedding, Mary was there with needle and thread to sew my veil to the garland of flowers at the back of my head.
Those Friday nights with Mary continued long after I became an old married lady. Tad actually looked forward to getting kicked out of the house when Mary and I would meet at my place. We tackled Halloween costumes for my niece, wool jackets for Mary's winter trip to New York and golden gowns to wear to my various journalism awards ceremonies. (If I wasn't going to win anything, I'd better have the best dress in the room.)
Then Mary found the man of her dreams — John, a delightful Australian gentleman she met on the Internet. After a lengthy long-distance courtship, they married. It surprised me that Mary had no desire to sew her own wedding gown. But she made certain the dress she wore was perfect. She was a gorgeous bride.
John, it turned out, was a much handier chap than my own bookish husband. He gladly aided and abetted our obsession, building a special cutting table, hanging a string of spotlights over our workspace and outfitting an entire storage cabinet for Mary's mountain of notions. He never complained when their small apartment was buried in fabric scraps. His only flaw was that he loved her so much he didn't like to leave on Friday nights.
So, on the nights we'd meet at their place, we'd work around him. We'd dispatch him to the kitchen to make us a proper cup of tea. We'd send him down to the laundry room to bring back the preshrunk cotton prints.
But it wasn't quite the same. Three really was a crowd. We started skipping a week here and there. Gradually, over time, our regular Friday night sewing dates became a once-in-a-while event. Perhaps it was preparation for what was to come.
IN February 2006, just a month before her 50th birthday, Mary was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She fought bravely, enduring operations and chemotherapy. She had zero interest in dying young.
That summer, I traveled with a delegation from our church to visit our sister parish in Kenya. Naturally, I dropped by their sewing class. This group had been meeting at the local church for more than a decade, training mostly young women in a skill that would support them and their families.
I briefly mentioned Mary, told them about her illness and asked the class to keep her in their prayers. What happened next moved me to tears. Everyone stopped working immediately. They gathered around their treadle sewing machines, holding hands, inviting me into the circle. One young woman started singing a cappella, and before long, everyone else joined in. It was a powerful prayer for one of our own: a sewing sister.
After I returned from Africa, Mary and I made plans to attend the annual Southern California sewing expo together in October, determined to brush up on our knit technique. But a week before the event, she handed me her tickets. She just didn't have the stamina.
Two weeks later, she was gone.
John asked me to come over and help him go through Mary's massive fabric stash. Mary bought nothing but the best: the yummiest silk tweed embroidered with shells and beads and sequins, fanciful cotton sateen covered with airplanes or palm trees or Australian cities. There were boxes and boxes of unopened patterns she'd never gotten around to using.
I packed it all up in my car, took it home and tried to figure out where to store it. Neither of us ever found that dream sewing room, but I had to put Mary's sewing legacy somewhere — under the bed, on the top shelf of the linen closet, somewhere out of sight. It was too painful.
In the months that followed, I discovered that I had all too many sewing questions — and no Mary to answer them. How should I stabilize the facing on that jacket? How short should I make this skirt hem? Are these buttons too busy for this print? The silence was deafening.
Then one day, I opened that linen closet, and I looked again at Mary's stash. I fingered that silk tweed Mary bought in Melbourne, Australia. I remembered the fabulous jacket she dreamed of making with it. Slowly, it came to me. I knew exactly which pattern Mary would have chosen. And which version.
I started hand-basting before moving to the machine. Every seam was finished on the inside. I could hear Mary whispering to me about technique and style and patience. I wasn't alone anymore. Mary was determined to make me a better seamstress.
My living room soon became my favorite place in the house. It may not have been the sewing room of our dreams, but it was our sewing room — Mary's and mine. Every crowded inch carried the memories of our Friday night sewing fests.
I will miss Mary, but she's not far away when I'm sitting at my makeshift sewing table, trying to understand the directions, struggling with a tangled bobbin or just dreaming of a new project for that buttery pink wool crepe that's been calling to me. I keep Mary O'Donnell alive every time I start a new project. It's a good thing I have enough fabric to last a lifetime.