Sewing My Family History Together

Lori Straus's grandmother sewing in her kitchen.

My grandmother sewing in her kitchen.

Sewing in my family symbolized money smarts, self-sufficiency, and starting a new life in a new world. It connected both sides of my family, and it connected me to my mom and grandmothers, even though I never learned how to use a machine.

Recently, though, the callings of small craft projects (many Thomas-related, for better or for worse), hemming kids’ pants into shorts, and my ancestors whispering in my ear were threatening to strangle me if I didn’t heed them soon.

So about two months ago, I decided it was time I learned how to sew. 

Lori Straus.Singer Athena 2000Trying to demonstrate my money smarts, I called up family to ask for old sewing machines. Turns out my mom’s was still around: a Singer Athena 2000. It was the first electronic sewing machine EVER and my mom got it as a gift in the mid-70s.

A technician at a local sewing machine shop inspected it and quoted me $200 in repairs before I could use it. I did debate it: it was a solid machine, and $200 for a potential new hobby wasn’t bad. However, the main damage was on the timing belt, and I believe that started to wear down 20-30 years ago. It didn’t make sense to replace something that had already started to degrade so long ago.

Lori Straus's new sewing machine: a Singer Curvy

My new machine: a Singer Curvy

So I got a new one. The cost was much higher, about $450, but it came with a five-year warranty on the electronic parts and one-on-one instruction on how to use it. (This store actually hires people who intimately know the stock they’re selling.) Seemed like a good price.

So hopefully I lived up to my family’s tradition of money smarts.

Lori Straus's first sewing project: bean bags

My first sewing project: bean bags

The day I brought my new sewing machine home, I repaired a 2-year-old rip in one of my kids’ PJ shirts in about one minute. Within one week, I completed my first project: incredibly basic bean bags for the kids. While I can’t say the kids now play only with the bean bags and ignore their noisy toys, my oldest has requested more. Wait until I use Thomas fabric…

So I think I’m living up to my family’s tradition of being self-sufficient. It’s hard to say at this point, though, given that I’ve only had the machine for two weeks.

Starting a new life in a new world, though…that one’s difficult. I didn’t leave post-war Europe in the midst of political upheaval with young kids in tow. I wonder if sewing gave my grandmothers a sense of confidence: it was one thing they could do in Europe and here, one thing where language and culture didn’t matter. In a sense, sewing was their art form: each grandmother had her style and her preference. (One tailored to earn money, one sewed traditional German clothes for family, and both helped my mom with our dance costumes. I’m actually quite amazed that a woman born in the late 20s knew how to sew Lycra.)

Learning how to sew will help connect me to my families’ stories using the art form they knew. I may have to do it the modern way – college courses – but at least I’ll be learning.

Now, if I can just find that Thomas fabric…


9 thoughts on “Sewing My Family History Together”

  1. Good luck on your journey. Yes our mothers & grandmothers all knew how to sew. I was 12 when my mother died and one of the only things left to me was a used treadle Singer machine. As an orphan I was shy & out of place. I had learned needle work, but not sewing. So I attempted to make PJ’s without a pattern. They actually turned fairly well. This prompted the family I was living with to purchase me some patterns and material. I taught myself how to read patterns and make adjustments for my build. By the time I was 16, I made most of my clothes with great success. We had two girls and made all their outfits. I had many compliments, on how well our children were dressed. I’m now in my 70’s and still sew occasionally.

    1. Wow…thank you, Katharine. Both for the good luck and for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear you lost your mother at such an early age, but she clearly still had a very strong influence on your life and her grandchildren’s lives.

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  5. That Athena is a far better machine than you give her credit for. It’s worth the reapir but 200 sounds high for a belt replacement. Its better than the newer machine in terms if quality of stitches and also strength of stitching and durability. Would you chuck your car if it needed a new timing belt? Maybe. But I think if you fixed it you might learn to prefer it in some ways.

    1. The Athena certainly lasted for a long time, but there was more than the timing belt that was wrong with it, hence the $200 Cdn to repair it. It had also sat in the open, uncovered, for about 10 years, so a lot of dust had gotten in to its mechanisms and circuitry. Re: cars, given that cars cost upwards of $20k, that’s a different story to me. I stuck with Singer, so only time will tell if the newer machine holds up the way the old one did.

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