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Connections

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A Stitch
in Time
The grandmother she hardly knew had created miracles with fabric; her mother found sewing a bore. Curious about where she fit, MERIBAH KNIGHT picks up the thread.

that myJewish grandmother sewed and embroidered a Christmas stocking for me. Instead I marveled at the perfect placement and lettering of my oddball name: Meribah. I ran my fingers over the stocking's fleecy-soft details, admiring the painstakingly perfect tree decorated with multicolored glass balls, lit candles, and yellow thread tinsel, meticulously embroidered by my grandmother Hortence's hand. When I was 7, about a year after my grandmother's passing, I discovered her sewing kit, tucked in a dark corner of our guest bedroom. Inside the wicker basket, spools of thread were stacked in rainbow order one atop the other, and needles lined the thick green felt, from small to big to small, like the pipes of a church organ. Bobbins, scissors, thimbles, and measuring tape each lived in their own pocket. Without a clue or a purpose, I began experimenting. I threaded needles, rearranged the spools, sorted buttons by color and size, then sewed them in the air. This entertained me for hours. Yet the kit remained a mystery. In >
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BURCU ASVAR
2009 DECEMBER 2I3

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our house the lifting of hems and reattaching of buttons were left to tailors. To my mother, sewing was a bore, an activity that was beneath her. Instead, she spent her days crafting plotlines for her novels. My grandmother, however, had put her whole heart into making not just my stocking but the quilt I had for the cold winter months and the patchwork placemats I ate my morning oatmeal on. I wanted to know what had inspired her to make these things, and if there were lessons in it forme.
TWENTY WAS YEARS LATER, I

the week's hostess would provide hot coffee, soft couches, and decadent dessert. One member, Elaine Thomas, had a penchant for sweets that resembled her own sense of style-pink and puffy. My grandmother was more reserved, Isabelle said. She preferred to make a cinnamon crumb cake. Once the desserts had been

still searching for answers. I had learned the basics of sewing and had grown to love it, but something was missing. If my grandmother had been around, I could have asked her what sewing meant to her, why she had taken the time and the care. Luckily, Isabelle Troyer, the lOI-year-old last remaining member of my grandmother's sewing group, was willing to help. She said I could visit anytime. So I drove, from Chicago to Indianapolis, in search of her stories. It was the end of April, and spring had arrived in Indiana. Blossoms exploded from dogwood trees, and the scent of lilacs drifted through the neighborhood. A faded picket fence encircled Isabelle's house. Hunched over a walker, Isabelle greeted me at the back door. A silver barrette gathered her hair in a neat swirl atop her head-a style she has worn for more than 70 years. We sat at her kitchen table, where everything she needed for our conversation was within arm's length: books, family photos, a large magnifying glass, a scrapbook of obituaries, and a black rotary telephone. The smell of freshly made toast and Isabelle's favorite instant coffee hung in the air. They'd called themselves the Tuesdays, she said, because every week at 2 o'clock on their namesake day, they met carrying wicker baskets full of buttons, needles, and darning thread. Isabelle told me that
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The group had grown to a dozen housewives. For a few hours every week, the ladies ruled their own kingdom.
arranged and the coffee brewed, the baskets would come out and the mending would begin. The Tuesdays had formed officially in 1941, when the United States entered World War II and the women's spouses departed. Dottie's husband, Bob, was shipped off to serve in the army's intelli-

gence agency. Elaine's husband, Lowell, a doctor, was sent away as a medic. The women needed each other, Isabelle said. By the time my mother was born, in 1944, the group had grown to a dozen Indianapolis housewives. Their weekly commitment continued when the men came home and the children went off to school. For a few hours every week, the ladies ruled their own kingdom. As they gathered to mend torn shirts and reattach buttons, they'd yak about politics and literature and neighborhood gossip. None of them worked, but all held college degrees, unusual for women of that era. They were members of the League of Women Voters and the Shakespeare society. "We were like a family in a way," Isabelle said. In time, the camaraderie grew into something more like life support. Without the Tuesdays, Isabelle might not have survived the unexpected death of her I9-month-old son, or the car accident that left her other son a paraplegic at the age of 16. Helen would have had to suffer alone when her son was stabbed to death inside his home. After she discovered his body at the foot of his staircase, the women took care of her, and listened when she told them the reason for his murder: a hate crime against his homosexuality. Six hours later, Isabelle's stories were still coming. Listening to her, I realized that although my grandmother had died before I was old enough to hold a needle, the visit had given me the answer I was looking for. Buttons and darning were the least of it. Sewing animated the spirit of the group. It had brought the Tuesdays to life.

T

HE PHOTO

IS FROM JUNE 6,

1958, the day of my mother's graduation from eighth grade. She stares impatiently into the camera, her black hair and pale face punctuated by cherry red lips. My [c 0 N TIN U E DON AGE 2 I 6}
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grandmother's hands are up my mother's skirt making lastminute adjustments to a dress she'd sewn for the occasion. My mother had high hopes that this dress would be the evening's sensation. She loved the way its skirt puffed up like freshly beaten egg whites. She had read Gone with the Wind three times that year, and this was her bid to be the Jewish Scarlett O'Hara. There was no pattern for the dress, just my mother's direction: princess style, please, with poufy sleeves. It was made out of white watered silk, a fabric chosen for its delicate, tissue-like weightlessness. For my mother, coming of age in Indianapolis felt like asphyxiation by normalcy. Fidel Castro, the jz-year-old revolutionary, had come down from the hills to overthrow U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro's good looks and charisma sent my mother, an incurable romantic, into a whirlwind romance with revolution. Kenya's Mau Mau uprisings were in full swing; Elvis had heeded Uncle Sam's call, and a new product-pantyhose-was about to infiltrate the top drawers of women everywhere. In her world there was little time for sewing and even less desire. She fantasized about make-out sessionswith Che Guevara in South American jungles; she became infatuated with Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man. Nick, a retired private detective, and Nora, a wealthy society woman, spent their life eating cold duck, solving crimes, and downing cocktails. "That is what I expected to be doing," my mother told me. "They never had any children, they never cooked a meal, and they drank a lot of martinis. They had this adventurous life with incredible sophistication. Sewing to me did not mean sophistication." So instead of settling into a weekly coffee klatch when she became a young married woman, my mother found herself gripping the railings of a jo-foot sailboat in the first of two transatlantic crossings. There she was, far away from her landlocked reveries, smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no
2I6 DECEMBER 2009

The Tuesdays in the late '50s (above): Hortence (top
row, second from left) and Isabelle

Troyer (bottom
row, third from left). Right: The

author and the mobile she made for her niece.

Buttons and darning were the least of it. Sewing animated the spirit of the group. It brought the Tuesdays to life.
one but my father. She, Nora, amid thumping waves and whipping winds, had finally found her Nick. Thoughts of crocheted toilet-tissue covers remained back on shore.

T

EN YEARS

AFTER

I FIRST

stumbled upon the sewing kit and somewhere between beepers and Nike Air Maxes, tradition had fallen out of favor, needlepoint was not cool, and home economics was the least popular class in my high school. But at IS, I had taken my trial-and-error period as a seamstress about as far as it could go, so I signed up. "That course still exists?" my

mother said when I told her about it. 'What about photography?" "Yes it does," I replied, ignoring the photography comment. 'And I am planning on taking it." The classroom was a concrete, windowless box tucked away in the armpit of my high school, right above the daycare center for teen mothers. While other girls tore up the soccer fields or ran time trials at local track meets, myafternoons were spent hunched over cutting tables and vibrating sewing machines as aromas of baking cakes and simmering tomato sauce drifted over from the cooking class next door. From this course came pajama bottoms, a two-piece pantsuit made from champagne-colored raw silk, a pink flamingo Hawaiian shirt for my mother, and an appetite to stitch anything I could get my hands on. For a teen with a meager $n a week allowance, doing it myselfwas a kind of defiance. I didn't have to rely on the mall. When I made a pair of silk pants or reworked a jewel-encrusted '60S top for a school dance, it was as though I had supernatural powers. "You made that?" people would ask. "I can't believe it." They acted as if the clothing they wore every day magically appeared, via stork or steamship, into the store and onto the rack. "I just cut it and sewed it," I would say."No big deal." It actually felt like a very big deal. I could make anything I wanted to wearall I needed was a ride to Jo-Ann fabrics and enough money to buy a few yards of material. My mother had spent her youth trying to escape a mundane Midwestern life of crocheting and cream of mushroom casseroles; I never had that sense of stultifying convention. I was brought up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the liberal fulcrum of the East. Our block parties consisted of [CONTINUED ON PAGE 218J

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U E D FRO At P AGE 21 6] dishes like gazpacho and couscous salad. But I still needed to defy something. Some people listened to punk rock. Some people sailed across oceans. I sewed.

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WHEN

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TO MANHATTAN

TO

attend college, my Singer-a gift for my r6th birthday-came with me. I was in love with New York, but the notion of spreading out four yards of fabric meant removing all the furniture in the apartment, so the sewing machine migrated to the top of my refrigerator. Years passed without a stitch. If it hadn't been for the depression that overtook me sixyears later, I might never have made my way back to sewing. I had struggled with depression in the past, but the sadness took hold of me with a fierceness I'd never before encountered. Days, weeks, months - I'm not sure, they all ran together-were spent on my couch, cocooned in a thick heavy cotton comforter. I was living in Brooklyn and working as a freelance fashion editor. I hated everything about my job. Then one day, as if it were a pang of hunger, I got the urge to sew.I unwrapped

myself from my comforter, retrieved the box from atop the fridge, and took out my sewing machine. I was worried. Did I even remember how to thread the thing? The first garment I sewed was a gray wool pleated jumper. I remember pressing the pleats so carefully they took on an accordion-like quality. The second item was a plaid wool shift dress. I had no pattern for either, but that didn't matter. Instead I got a roll of butcher paper and created my own designs with a measuring tape, a plastic ruler, and a pair of scissors. I may not have been able to figure out how to get from point A to point B in my professional and personal life, but I knew if! could take three yards of fabric, cut it, pin it, and sew it into a dress, then that day would be better than the one before.

L

IKE EVERYONE

ELSE'S,

MY

life is often dominated by the computer. Wake up, check email, click to a new window, read The New York Times, click to a new window, check the weather, click to a new window, check Facebook,

click to a new window, Twitter. At a certain point my eyes glaze over, and this is when I pull out my needlepoint or a few yards of fabric. This is when my hands must touch something besides a mouse. My grandmother would have said the Tuesdays got her out of the house and connected with the world. I say sewing keeps me in the house and unplugged from the world. It immerses me in the pleasure of actually making something, and reminds me that not everything is made up of pixels. With the passing of my depression, sewing took on an almost sacred role in my life. It quieted my mind and engaged my hands. And it introduced me to a like-minded community. I first heard about the Renegade Craft Fair the year it was in Brooklyn. I went to it wearing my favorite plaid shirt with a vintage denim skirt I had shortened and cinched at the waist. On the inside of my right wrist was a freshly inked tattoo of my middle name, Grace. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the day's outing, but from what I'd been told I was sure to find other tattooed ladies who were heavily into crafts.

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A tradition of bein_gnon-traditiona/.

After sewing alone for so long, the thought of finding a few crafting comrades sounded like a welcome idea. I had heard of a "DIY generation" on the rise. I assumed that included me, but I had always felt so isolated that an entire generation of similarly inclined women seemed unimaginable. But as I zigzagged through the tents at the fair I began to see flyers-like the Sublime Stitching company's "This ain't your gramma's embroidery!" - and it felt familiar. I realized that what I was doing-and had been doing since I was I5 years old-fit into something much bigger. I had suddenly become we. Many of us had mothers or grandmothers who crafted. That is howwe began, but now we wanted to define the tradition on our own terms.
WHEN MY NIECE, LUELLA GRACE,

for me, and thought it would be cool to stitch a similar version for Lulu. I called my mother to tell her the idea, but she was one step ahead of me. "I already got Lulu a stocking," she said, brimming with excitement. "I bought it from L.L. Bean and they were able to embroider her

Sewing immerses me in the pleasure of making something, and reminds me that not everything is made up of pixels.
name on it and everything." I was crushed, though I didn't show it. I would have to find something else to make little Lulu for her first Jewish Christmas. So I decided on a mobile. Using my father's band saw, I cut and sanded two arcing pieces of wood

was born, my first thought was: Is she healthy? My second thought was: What can I make for her? First came a pair of embroidered onesies. Then, as Christmas rolled around, I knew exactly what I wanted to make next. I was 26, still using the stocking my grandmother had made

and coated them in thick white paint. From there I sewed and stuffed five birds, all in different sizes and fabrics, and used clear monofilament thread to hang them from the wood frame so they looked as though they were flying. At least there would be something handmade for Lulu's first holiday. When we all came down the stairs Christmas morning, the mobile-next to Lulu-was the showstopper. My brother and his wife loved it. "It will go perfectly in the nursery," my brother said. And little Lulu gazed at it, mesmerized by the floating birds. Even Hanzo, the dog, sat under it for a good hour. Next year I will make my niece a stocking. It will be fleecy-soft, have Lulu stitched across the top, and (I hope) be as exquisite as the one my grandmother made for me - the workmanship perfected through decades with the Tuesdays. It will hang right next to ours, and maybe one day it will inspire Lulu to ask her Aunt Meribah just how she made it. And I will show her. rt] Meribah Knight is a writer in Chicago.

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2009

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A tradition of hein!J non-Lradidanat