Between Your Kids and Yves Saint Laurent, How Many Degrees of Separation?

sewingGrade 1, my first field trip ever was scheduled for a downtown Levi’s jeans factory. My teacher at the time was one of those fussy, humorless women on the cusp of retirement. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgment. Perhaps the teachers who followed her were all flibbertigibbets in comparison, and the price of their leniency would ultimately be paid by a reckless student. Maybe she’d had a prior bad experience that pushed her to take safety responsibilities seriously. Maybe she was perfectly normal and I was a hypersensitive child.

Whatever the case, she was so convinced that our trip could be hazardous, she drilled us on protocol for weeks in advance.

We’d stand amid giant industrial machines that could sever limbs as well as cut fabric, she said. Step the wrong way and we’d risk being caught up in a chain and strangled. And the sewing machines were incredibly dangerous. Best follow our tour guide’s instructions to a T, lest we distract a worker and cause her to sew her hand through.

After that warning, I had many nightmares filled with images of giant, scarlet-tinged needles and thread sewn into flesh.

Ironic that I went on to become a doctor, no? 

Batman needle-o'-death

Surely you remember the giant needle o’ death in episode 67 of Batman, The Sandman Cometh? I was extremely concerned about what would happen when the button-sewer moved up.

As you might imagine, I was a tremulous mess when I stepped off the bus on the day of the excursion and stared at the squat, brick factory. It looked like a prison.

Inside, I was struck by the hum of activity and the MOUNDS of garments, but after all that wind-up and apprehension, not so much by the machines. My father’s table saw, which he navigated on a regular basis, possessed more noise and fury. (He had all his fingers, too.) And my mother had a Singer. While the seamstresses’ machines were bigger and fancier, they were recognizable as the same species.

Why all the musings and reminiscences about this field trip?

I’ve been decluttering, Zesties, and this week I peeked into a cupboard that has been sealed/tolerated/ignored lo these last…15 years. Inside? Fabric, zippers, thread, patterns. All ghosts of Christmases and birthdays past. All old friends I have let go.

Normally I don’t struggle with decisions about organization, but I’ve been stalled out on that cupboard for weeks now, unable to decide on a course of action. The choices before me feel primal and archetypal, like I’ve hit a dividing line that will determine the path of generations.

One aspect is to do with family traditions.

My grandmother sewed. She had a dress form in her basement when she moved from her condo to a senior’s center.

My mom made us dresses, bareback shirts for the girls, the most beautiful, ethereal drapes for the living room when we moved into a new home.

In turn, I voluntarily signed up for more Home Ec than required in highschool. I made doll clothes for my sister, sewed my first real boyfriend a corduroy shirt for Christmas with a fake label inside. (I wonder two things about that gift: Did he ever wear it past that first day? I’d guess not. 2. Did the collar choke him as much as our relationship? Ditto.)

I’d sewn the dusty rose summer dress my sister wore when she stood up as my maid of honor.

But at some point, after making a French blind for our living room and crafting a duvet cover for Frank–it’s a soft flannel which displays the Milky Way–I stopped. In the greater community, sewing had become a hobby, rather than a necessity. As it migrated from general department stores into pricey specialty shops, it could no longer be justified on an economic basis. Plus, though I might have kept it going purely as a form of entertainment, I just didn’t have the time.

Now I have two children who aren’t in the least crafty. Other than in their infancy, they haven’t seen me tackle anything more complicated than mending. They have ZERO understanding about how to cut cloth from a pattern, sew a dart, finish a seam. They have less interest in learning. Their generation, it seems, would rather take their clothing to a tailor for repair.

This isn’t because they are lazy, BTW. Their interests and competencies lie elsewhere, like tackling routine car maintenance, which has never appealed to me.

So question #1 for me as I mull my options: Do I even have a choice about whether to let a family legacy die? Maybe that horse is dead forever or will emerge, Lazarus-like, in their later years.

The BIGGER question, though–the one which has me reflective and moody:

If I prune these supplies down to the minimal level, what does this say about experiential learning? About my kids’ understanding of the greater world?

As a generality, we Westerners are detached from the natural world. This is heartbreakingly obvious when it comes to food. I’ve met 10-year-old children who do not know carrots grow in a garden and have lush, fern-like tops. I’ve seen the wonder break over their faces when I’ve uprooted juicy carrots, washed them in the garden hose, and they took their first bites of angular, deep-orange, sweet flesh.

Likewise, for many, cooking has become a spectator sport. I can’t tell you how many people I know who never cook from scratch–and I mean NEVER–even while they watch the Food Network and speak confidently about the peccadilloes of the latest celebrity chef.

Personally, I see this detachment as one reason our environment is suffering and our health is about to create a collective, disastrous economic and personal burden.

(Sorry that zany-Jan isn’t on deck today, but this is how I see it.)

Remember the basic necessities? Food, clothing, and shelter? We’re detached from food. If I let this go–if I let this sewing go–am I tacitly accepting and condoning detachment in another significant area? If/when another garment factory collapses, will my kids, who have never had the crap scared out of them by a nervous teacher, nor walked through a sweat shop, nor guided fabric through the path of a needle, have any visceral understanding of that world?

These are the things I wonder, as I run my hands over the upholstery fabric I’ve decided to donate. Because when it comes down to it, I’ve decided it’s more important to give them skills in the kitchen.

Now how about you? Do you sew? If you have children, do they? Do you cook? If you agree with the idea of detachment, where do you see the biggest knowledge gap developing in our society? 

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26 thoughts on “Between Your Kids and Yves Saint Laurent, How Many Degrees of Separation?

  1. I think you’ve got to pick your battles. My mom did. My mom is 84 and still sews, and try as she may have, she never got any of her four children at all interested in it. But by being one of the first moms from among my junior high friends in the early seventies to go to work, she forced my father and the rest of us to learn our way around the kitchen. My dad, bless him, never met a roast he couldn’t dry out to near inedibility. But he knew how to make gravy (it became a necessity).

    Also my parents, bless them, always had extensive gardens. I not only knew where tomatoes and other veggies came from, but I preferred the garden-fresh variety. I saw that the work was worth the while. And I am a more-than-competent chief (if I do say so) because of their efforts. I don’t sew, but I’m happy they taught me the value of avoiding opening a can or buying frozen whenever possible.

    I share your concerns. But hope always springs from unlikely places. Best we do our part, then stay watchful fro the unlikely saving graces. Thought-provoking stuff, Boss!

    1. I thought of you, V, as I wrote this post, because I know you’ve got a broad range of practical skills. You might not have been interested in sewing, but that general, hands-on mindset runs deep in you. Would be interesting to know how much of that is nature versus nurture, wouldn’t it? (I’m feeling the need to do more nurturing of this in my kids.)

      As to hope, oh yes. If I counted the things I’ve fretted at over the years, and how they’ve come to naught, I’m certain this will be another. If anything, with the advent of Youtube and the Internet, these life skills are more available to all than at any time in history. Thanks for stopping by, V.

  2. I like the pithy Jan just as much as the zesty Jan. It’s a thought-provoking post, but I would have come to the same conclusion you did at the end – teach them cooking. Everyone loves or needs to eat, and developing cooking skills doesn’t go out of style. Fortunately, we’re not yet eating food from a Star Trek machine, although with the cloned stem cell hamburger, it’s scarily close.

    I sewed and knitted as a teen (because my mum did and still does), but feel no need to keep it up nor regret letting it go. We discard many things through life and keep those that still serve. I grow veggies and herbs and cook from scratch, because I like it. I write, but can’t find the time to draw or paint. Priorities in a frenetic world.

    1. “Priorities in a frenetic world.”

      Indeed. Interestingly, when I make time for these pursuits, I find it slows the clock.

      I’ve crocheted over the years, used it to fill the TV commercials. Nowadays, IF I watch TV, it’s via DVD. Interesting! I hadn’t considered that pairing before. Perhaps I’m not alone.

      Your veggies and herbs sound wonderful. I can garden, but I’ve turned that over to the ToolMaster in the last few years.

  3. I am the child of a woman who sewed very well, clothes and everything (couch cushion covers with piping and zippers, lamp covers, pillows, curtains, etc.). She taught me to sew, and I made things about 80% of the way and she’d finish them. I kept sewing as a 20something out of poverty: I wanted cooler pillows and curtains than I could afford, and lived in a neighborhood in Queens that had great cheap fabric stores. I still sew things, but in a straight line only, and less than I used to, because the fabric is no longer cheap and fun to experiment with. I also still sew costumes for church plays, and the occasional Hallowe’en costume (Jedi robe, Ranger’s Apprentice cloak, Gryffindor cloak that was lined in red, even!). But it’s more like a stunt than something I do regularly. I’ve tried to teach my daughter (12) but she’s only vaguely interested. Maybe now that we’re watching Project Runway together, that’ll change…

    Even so, I recently went through my fabric stash and gave away a bunch of stuff, including old patterns. It was giving up an old dream, and old way of thinking about my life. Sad, but freeing, too.

    1. Natalie, I’ll concentrate on the freeing part of your message as I–gulp–admit I’ll never reupholster the couch myself.

      Did you find sewing for kids kept it playful? That was my experience. I won’t claim that I was any good at it, but I enjoyed making costumes and even a snazzy baby onesie with a beret. 🙂

  4. You are speaking straight to my soul on this one. I didn’t have the patience to sew outfits, except halloween costumes for two children each year–the kind I would have wanted to wear. 🙂 I did sew all our curtains, duvets, etc., not just b/c of the economical advantage, but also b/c I could have have a beautiful triple gathered fullness vs the store-bought standard of 1.5.

    My children don’t sew, either. Nor do they have an interest in the other artistic ventures I’ve failed to seduce them with. Like your children, they have found other outlets that are as equally, and personally satisfying for them. We each contribute to the world in our own way.

    It’s a bit my fault. We led busy lives during their youth. I was a “latch-key” kid, there was more downtime to develop solitary interests. My kids grew up with a “team” mentality for almost everything they did (school, sports, etc); It’s a huge part of how we parent now.

    But there is a time and place for these ‘skills’; and they are more than hobbies. Like you said, they are a legacy. My daughter learned to string pearls when she discovered she could have the necklace she lusted after for a tenth of the cost. It’s a small, frivolous thing, but afterward she developed self-satisfaction for doing it herself. I think that’s the key–the necessity (or the motivating desire for something you can’t get any other way) and the satisfaction that comes afterward.

    Here’s the awesome thing you did: you opened the door to the possibilities. So many friends of mine, who didn’t have parents who did these things, don’t have a clue where to begin and are afraid to try. Your children watched you sew, garden, cook from scratch, create, etc. Your successes will give them confidence to experiment. It will be on their terms, based on what they want, but they won’t be afraid to try.

    And that’s your best legacy. 🙂

    Btw: poor little you! LOL. That teacher was mean. 😛

    1. Great comment, D, and what you’ve said makes perfect sense.

      In my part of the world, there has been a global shift from individual, self-driven entertainment to group play. That’s been another concern of mine, and I can see that it’s linked to this one. But you’re right; it’s most important that they know of possibilities, then take that mindset to their own pursuits. I think you’ve relieved me of my subliminal guilt on this issue.

      Ah, yes. Mrs. Eagle, poor soul. I hope she was happier at home than she appeared at work. 🙂

  5. I so hear you on this one, Jan. I spent a summer learning to sew from my grandmother and LOATHED it – the only thing I remember is how to sew on a button. At the same time, it is a valuable skill, and one I think my kids are missing out on. But I’d go for cooking — I’m trying to teach mine young, so it is something they grow up being able to do and not even think about.

    1. Given that you’re a foodie, it’s a natural choice, Liz, and one they’ll use every day, with luck. Sewing is nice to have, but if you can mend stuff in a pinch, and if you loathe it otherwise, there are better uses of your time, IMHO.

  6. I’ve had many of the same thoughts, Jan — and they’re usually followed by a desire to run off to the middle of nowhere and grow my own vegetables and sew my own clothes and never bathe. Or something.

    We don’t have a veggie garden where we live purely because we’re renting and don’t have room for one. But our goal is to move to a property where we can grow us much food as we can. We’re lucky to be able to send our children to a school that teaches food preparation as part of the curriculum, and that has a kitchen garden that all children help with.

    I cook almost everything from scratch — just like my mother did — and my children watch and help and love it. We buy fresh produce from the greengrocer, and try to stick (as much as possible) to seasonal produce. (For economic reasons if nothing else!) I’ve just started baking our own bread, which my boys love to help with almost as much as they love to eat it. I don’t buy pre-packaged snacks or treats or cookies of any kind, choosing to make them myself. And I love that when my son has treats at a friend’s house, his response is, “That was almost as good as YOUR cookies, Mummy!”

    On the other hand, I don’t sew. My mother did. She made us all sorts of cringe-worthy outfits in the 80s, made all our curtains, and even worked from home as a seamstress for a while. But even when I was incredibly interested in learning (when I was a teenager), I couldn’t master it. Despite practicing and trying and unpicking countless seams, my creations all looked like something out of a horror show. I confident I could make curtains if I wanted to, but that’s about the limit of my sewing potential. I do love knitting, though, and knit all manor of things for the children — and my 6yo has started knitting now as well, and loves it.

    I feel your pain, and sometimes I wonder what would happen to the world if one of the many Dystopian futures I’ve read about came to pass — so few people in the modern world have the skills to look after themselves without the aid of a supermarket and a frozen food section. And I agree, I think a lot of the issues facing the world and the environment today have to do with our separation from the rhythms of nature. And although I can’t change the world, I can do my bit to teach my children the survival skills they’ll need in case of the Zombie Apocalypse.

    1. At one point, I made all our baking and for years used the bread machine. It was good soul food to be so hands-on, earthy after working in medicine. Your kids will at least know what’s possible, even if they choose not to don an apron for a while.

      As for the dystopian future, yes, I have similar concerns. Sadly, we’d be in bad shape. There’s no local water supply from which to draw, no natural source of fuel or heat. If the electricity went out for a long time, unless it happened in the summer, we’d frankly be screwed. 🙂 So I try not to fret about these things, as there are few options unless we move to the land. (In which case, I figure we’d have 100,000 new “relatives” show up to mooch when times got tough.)

      Boy, I can be depressing. 🙂

      Better, perhaps, to focus on the small things within my control. Teach them to walk instead of drive, when possible. What real food looks like. What canning looks like, and where the books are for the day they decide to take it up. All the stuff my parents could do with their eyes shut, and which isn’t natural to me. (I can do it, but it’s not second nature.) Maybe my parents fretted, too, and this is a generational thing.

      1. I’m hoping my parents struggled with parenting as much as I do. That’s how I console myself when I feel like I’ve just screwed something up, anyway. Surely it can’t have been as second-nature as my mother made it look! 🙂

        1. I’m sure it’s like writing. Practice helps but it will always be work. Also, children are different. Some parents get kids with temperaments which make them “easier.”

          You’re obviously an invested mom, which makes your kids fortunate even if you don’t get it all right. 🙂

  7. I am hoping to have the time to sew again when I retire. Beautifully made ready-to-wear clothes rarely available in my size or budget so I am glad I know how to design and make exactly what I want and have a fabric stash waiting. If not someone is going to score at the estate sale.
    I’m also glad I can cook because many of my favorite restaurants have gone out of business. But I have collected the recipes of my favorite dishes through bribery, experimentation, but most often the generosity of the chef. It never hurts to ask.

    1. You know how to design clothes, Genny? Wow. That’s a whole level of skill I never acquired. Kudos.

      I’ve tried to get recipes from restaurant chefs, too, with modest success. You must have a way with food people. 🙂

  8. What do people do these days to express their creativity? Type a 140 characters? Watch kittens play? I cook from scratch every day and sew, knit, crochet, or paint when the mood/necessity hits me. I can’t imagine how narrow life would be without the ability to create. I starting teaching my son how to cook, clean, and budget when he was very young. Now, he’s about to move into his own home and I’m feeling good about the head start I gave him.

    1. Yes, so much of our world is online these days, both in the work and entertainment spheres. But you have a diverse set of interests and skills! (I can’t knit, but I used to embroider, play the piano, and crochet for enjoyment.)

      Does your son have a broad range? Sounds like you’ve certainly set him up for success.

      Thanks for stopping by, Joan.

  9. He’s got the average range, work. go out with friends, spend time with his girlfriend. But, that will change in October once he takes possession of his house. Then he’ll have so many things to do, he’ll long for his days of living at home. At least, he’ll put my training to good use. 🙂

  10. My mom used to sew a lot when I was young. As more kids came along, she sewed less and less. When I took home ec in high school, I did manage to complete the required sewing project, but it was not easy. I had to do it on my mom’s ancient machine, which nearly defeated me! I made outfits for my sisters after I completed home ec, but that’s the extent of my sewing. Mending is a different story!

    1. Yes, a good sewing machine makes all the difference! My mom sewed enough she invested in a Bernina when I was in junior high. It made buttonholes. I found that astonishing.

      Now mending? My kids are likely to have outgrown a clothing item before I have it repaired. 🙂

      Hope you are well, Becke. I’ve been enjoying the photos of your adorable granddaughter.

  11. Jan, your description of your first grade teacher and what she did to your sense of well-being is hilarious. Your sewing closet reminds me of some of our storage issues in the past. I came up with, and my husband agreed with, what I called the space-use ratio: does the amount of space it takes to store something make still having it worthwhile?

    I no longer sew. The last time I did I made three print skirts using the same pattern the summer I was pregnant with our older daughter, now 34. Our younger daughter, 33, bought herself a sewing machine and uses it when she makes baby quilts for her friends’ babies and then one for her sister’s first baby.

    I do cook from scratch, usually six dinners a week (with a night out in a sit-down restaurant once a week). Our daughters taught themselves to cook by watching me and do it often. On Thanksgiving and Easter we combine our skills to produce a sit-down meal at a table set for fine dining.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, Barbara. I was traveling and limited in my Internet time.

      I love the idea of a space-use ratio! I’m imagining how fun (and bizarre) it would be to determine an actual value above which one would keep the item, below which it would be recycled, donated, or trashed. (I’m sure you haven’t gone to that extreme, but the geek in my sees the potential.)

      Interesting that your daughter would sew without having seen you role model it. Gives me hope!

      As for the dinners, we used to have a similar schedule, with a buffet dinner with extended family once a week. For many reasons it can’t be done any more, but that was a singularly content period in my family’s existence. Rituals have enormous benefit.

  12. I used to do a lot of sewing, starting with a simple apron in home-ec. As I advanced, I made most of my clothes, mostly blouses, dresses, jackets, and skirts; rarely slacks. When my classmates were talking about the latest fashion, I wore a McCall or Simplicity design. I saw nothing wrong with it and most of them never knew they were home-made. I had 3 sons so they never learned to sew. They could probably put on a button, but sewing “was not for guys.” As they grew I sewed less and less. I let my job as a nurse take over my life.
    After 20 years I’m back to sewing again. I got my machine fixed. I looked at patterns because the store advertised them at 99 cents. I was floored to learn that the normal cost was now $12 – 14.00. Fabric prices also soared. My friend and I decided it was almost not worth it to sew. My problem is with the terrible styles and fabrics used to make the large sizes. I like cotton knits–they’re cooler and more comfortable. All I can find is the same junk they sell ready-made in the stores. They may be lightweight, but they are not cool nor comfortable. I bought some fabric to make a top and a pair of shorts. I need a new skirt and hoped to make one since I can’t find anything in the stores like I want. I either have to wear more black which I have enough of already, or a jungle print. Have you ever seen an elephant in a flowered print dress? That’s about how I look. I asked if they ever ordered anything new, and was told they have to sell what’s in demand. If there is nothing else to chose from, who decides demand? The one store here has carried the same thing for large sizes for 3 years running.
    I have not cut anything out yet. I’m a bit intimidated by the pattern. I think I may have to go back to school to understand it.
    Cooking is something I enjoy and would rather eat at home than take my chances on restaurants. Since retiring I’ve been trying new recipes. My cooking skills are limited, but I’ve enjoyed learning to use different ingredients and spices from what I grew up with.

    1. You’re an RN, Connie? Good for you!

      Yes, the prices on sewing products are so expensive that, even with a membership, one would have to sew a lot to justify it financially. Customization is a different argument, however, and it’s disappointing to hear that there’s limited opportunity to craft something unique. I suppose most people want to mimic what’s in the store, so that leaves the creative folk out.

      As for predicting what people want, traditional publishing is said to be conservative with their stories and are hurting for it. Also, do you know how many women I know have feet bigger than size 10? It’s almost impossible to find nice, feminine footwear in size 11 or 12, but of course, the shoe manufacturers don’t know how many people they’ve lost, because people like me end up shopping in the men’s department.

      Re cooking: I’m a passable cook, but a few years back I attended cooking classes and watched the Food Network a fair bit. I learned some basic culinary principles which made me both more confident and competent in the kitchen.

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