As February 14th approaches, I see the large displays in the big-box stores that began to take shape right after Christmas. No longer just a couple of shelves with packaged Valentines, the offering now includes every imaginable combination of cartoon character and candy, stuffed animals, silk flowers, toys no one will ever play with, Valentines with “extras” like pencils or stickers and things I’ve probably managed to avoid so far.
What happened to shoe boxes lovingly covered with construction paper and aluminum foil, intended to receive Valentines from classmates – not necessarily sent with love, or even like, if it was a member of the opposite gender?
If, like me, one had a “crafty” Mom, an extra-special Valentine box was prepared, with Mom’s unsolicited help.
“Here Patti, let me sew a quilted cover for yours. The red hearts are perfect for Valentine’s Day! No one else will have one.” I’m exaggerating a little, but it was almost that bad.
By the mid-1970s, sewing was a hobby that few Moms enjoyed anymore. Mine also did it out of necessity, but she had learned to sew very young and still chose it above the many other crafts that paraded through our lives and across our dining room table.
Just a few centuries ago, women were permitted few means of self-expression. Things like art and writing weren’t meant for ladies. Even female roles in the theater were played by men at one time. But by stitching two textiles together, women have expressed themselves through choices in color and design for thousands of years.
My mother recently inherited a 1918 Singer treadle machine, which originally belonged to her maternal grandmother. A treadle machine is operated solely with foot power. Sounds primitive, no? Sewing as an art form dates back 20,000 years and the iron needle was invented in the 14th century; so the treadle machine is still fairly new, in the grand scheme of clothing production.
Quite a journey
The old treadle machine has made quite a journey and served many members of our family along the way. I thought about where my great-grandparents were in their lives when they bought this sewing machine. I only knew them at the end of their lives, but when this most important purchase was made, they were still young parents, caught up in the business of raising a family in pre-Depression America.
T.W. and Enola Hall would have been about 34 and 31 years old in 1919, living in Sharon Grove, Ky. with their three girls, the youngest of whom was my own grandmother Mary Glenn, who was about three at the time. Boys would arrive in 1920 and 1922. T.W., who was known to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Pappy, had opened his first store by 1919, and would become a prosperous businessman in the coming decades.
With three growing girls, Grandmother undoubtedly let Pappy know a sewing machine was a necessity. “Theron,” she might have said, calling him by his given name. “I have three girls to keep up with; I simply must have a sewing machine.”
And that would have been the end of it. A sewing machine would take up residence at the farm in Sharon Grove, though a big purchase might have been a luxury for the small family that was starting a new business. It’s safe to assume the machine arrived in a wagon, on a road that was either dusty or muddy, depending on the time of year and the weather.
As the years passed, Grandmother Hall sewed miles of stitches, and hemlines gradually rose, but the treadle machine remained faithful.
By the time my own grandmother, Mary Glenn, married Doc Camp in 1936, the treadle machine had moved along with Grandmother and Pappy to the big white A-frame house on Clarksville Street in Elkton. Pappy had opened a larger store, also in Elkton, with plans for his sons to follow him into the family business.
About 1943, my grandparents settled on Clarksville Street, too, with my Mom and her older brother, Bobby Hall. Grandmother Hall decided the old treadle machine no longer served her needs, and she let Pappy know that an electric sewing machine would be required.
Machine passed along
The purchase was made, and she passed her old sewing machine on to her youngest daughter. So the old treadle machine traveled down Clarksville Street to my grandparents’ house. This time, it would have made the trip in a pickup truck with “T.W. Hall and Sons” on the side.
Ninny, as her grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and siblings knew my grandmother, made all of her own clothes. She made her children’s clothes, and when her sister Polly’s rheumatoid arthritis became completely debilitating, she sewed clothes for Polly’s daughter. Fabrics and styles changed, but the treadle machine handled them all without pause.
Ninny taught my Mom to sew, as well as several nieces. When Mom made a formal that featured ruffles made from 500 yards of two-inch strips of nylon net, Ninny helped power the treadle machine the five football field lengths it took to complete the job.
As long as there was a foot to power it and hands to guide the fabric, the treadle machine never skipped a stitch. And my mother and grandmother didn’t just sew, they created masterpieces that were the envy of the entire town. Tucks, ruffles, pleats – tiny fine details were the signature of their handiwork.
In the late ‘50s, Mom wanted to buy an electric machine, and Ninny allowed her to use the aging treadle machine for its trade-in value. Mom still lived at home, so Ninny looked forward to using the electric machine, too.
The new electric Singer was mint green, built into a cabinet with drawers on the right. It would fold down so the cabinet could be closed up to hide the sewing machine. It did every kind of fancy stitch one could imagine – what a revolution. Ninny and Mom didn’t miss the treadle machine for a second.
Old treadle back home
Meanwhile, Ninny’s sister-in-law, Jeanette, had gone to the store and inquired about the old treadle machine. She didn’t do much sewing, but could use something simple to do mending. She bought it for five dollars. She and her husband Wade had bought the big A-frame house from Grandmother and Pappy some years earlier when Pappy decided a move back to the country was in order. So the treadle machine found its way back to the old house on Clarksville Street.
Just a year or two later, my Mom left home for a job in Louisville. She left that green Singer behind for Ninny to use and bought herself a Singer Featherweight portable, which she still has – it’s actually a collector’s item. It’s a little black machine that I thought was a toy when I was a little girl.
A year ago, Jeanette passed away; the last of Ninny’s generation. Mom asked her daughters what they planned to do with the treadle machine. None of them sew, and they said she could have it. A few months ago, it arrived at my Mom’s, this time in the back of a Ford Explorer, far from either house on Clarksville Street, but somehow, it’s still in the right place.
Every part is intact. All of the accessories are still with it, as is the owner’s manual.
Since she first learned to sew on the 1918 Singer treadle machine, my Mom has owned three other Singers, a serger, and a fancy computerized Husqvarna. But the arrival of the treadle machine tops any of those – it is now her prized possession. She has spent hours cleaning it.
People used to ask me if I could sew like my mother. I cannot. I have tried, I just can’t do it. I can’t even cut anything out. I don’t understand how a sewing machine works, I can’t thread one correctly, and my Mom and I have had fights that blew the roof off the place when she was making my clothes because I wanted something “that couldn’t be done.”
Not always a good thing
Having a mother who sewed wasn’t always a good thing. Sometimes I was dressed like a miniature grown up. Just because they made blazer patterns in size 6 didn’t mean I needed to wear one to school in the second grade (it was red and white checked with gold buttons and I wore it with a navy skirt. I looked like I was dressed for a job interview!)
But all these years later, I know the hours she spent at that dining room table, sewing late into the night, were so very important. She escaped from her long workdays, she enjoyed her favorite hobby, and she managed to stay connected to her mother and Grandmother Hall, and that old treadle machine. And though I refused to learn to sew, she connected me to the treadle machine, too, by making my clothes on another Singer.
Looking back, it seems odd to think that each of these women thought they were simply making clothes. The idea that she was expressing herself through sewing, or creating a piece of art would embarrass my grandmother. And what was once the only art form available to women is almost a lost art.
I only have one thing made for me by Ninny. It was a gift for Valentine’s Day that arrived Parcel Post when I was about 9 years old. It’s a red, heart-shaped pillow with white lace trim. On it, she embroidered “Be My Valentine.”
That must be the thing about sewing. To be really good at it, your heart has to be in it.
Patti George lives and works in Frankfort. She still hasn’t learned to sew.