Sew What?

2 comments Posted on February 1, 2014

by Joyce Magnin

When I was thirteen years old I was sitting in a home economics class (do they still have that?) at Beverly Hills Junior High School dreaming of becoming an author. Not, THE Beverly Hills, no, my school was located in a small suburb of Philadelphia. Anyway, the teacher was giving us instructions on how to sew a simple A-Line dress. My palms perspired. My heart pounded and all I wanted to do was go screaming into the hallways because I couldn’t sew to save my life. And I didn’t even want to try. I was such a Tomboy. I wanted to be in Shop class and make a napkin holder or a cutting board shaped like a pig. Not sew a dress.

Back in those days girls didn’t take shop. Nope, girls learned to cook and sew. I wasn’t much better in cooking class. My first (and only) attempt at broiled grapefruit resulted in a fire and the evacuation of the entire school. You’d think the teachers would have caught on but no, they stuck me in Home Ec and sat me in front of a sewing machine. It was a snaggle toothed monster.

“I can’t sew,” I said. “My mother sews. Not me.”

MaybelleStitchesAnd boy could my mother sew. She could make anything from wedding dresses to aprons. It was a skill not inherited by me. But I tried. I pinned my pattern and cut out the pieces and tried my best to follow the instructions. Unfortunately I had a little trouble keeping my seams straight and I kept pricking my finger tips on the pins. Still, I soldiered on to the point of sewing in the zipper. I was so proud of my little yellow dress. If you squinted and titled your head just so, you could see how it was actually a dress. Who cared if one sleeve was longer than the other? And so I sewed in the zipper. I tried hard to keep the stitches straight as I pushed the material through the relentlessly bobbing sewing machine needle.

I finished. Proud as could be, I held up my dress to show my teacher only to hear her say. “But Joyce. You sewed the zipper into the neck hole.”

That was the last time I attempted to sew any article of clothing. And it was also the day I became a pioneer and was sent to shop class where I made a perfectly nice napkin holder with decaled roosters on it.

Needless to say, I am not really a home do-it-yourself type person and I really do admire those folks who can take on a home improvement project and totally accomplish it.

I think there is a genetic component to this sort of thing. My sister is great around the house. She can sew and paint and hammer a nail and fix a leaky pipe and refinish a dining room table with one hand tied behind her back. I once watched her reupholster a wing chair. And I think my sister could make road-kill into a pretty centerpiece if she was asked.

But here’s the thing, sometimes it takes a little perseverance and patience to accomplish a goal like this when it doesn’t come naturally. Many years ago when my daughter Rebekah was just a toddler I got it into my head that she needed a soft toy, not just a plush animal but a toy that did things. So I decided to make a soft, pillowy Noah’s Ark toy for her complete with small pillowy animals that would stick onto the pillow ark with Velcro. Why this idea came to me, I don’t know.

So I sat down with some canvas and some old cloth napkins and a flannel shirt and got to work. I painted the ark on the canvas and cut it out. I backed it with the flannel shirt and even sewed it together on the machine and stuffed it with that cool white stuffing stuff you can get at craft stores.

Next I painted little animals, sheep and cows and a horse and bunny on the canvas using sweet, pastel colors.  I cut them out and backed them with flannel and old napkin cloth. I sewed the seams and stuffed them and then hand stitched them to finish the little guys off.

The last thing I did was attach Velcro to the ark and the animals so Rebekah could have fun sticking them on and off. It was pretty cool. But it wasn’t at first. I had to make several attempts before the animals looked correct and the ark actually resembled an ark. But still I repurposed some old stuff around the house and made my kid a toy with my own two hands and my mother’s old sewing machine.

I did need a friend to load the bobbin—a frightening ordeal—and thread the needle. But in the end, I can say, I did it. True, flashbacks of the zipper disaster haunted me as I worked. I wanted to quit several times but when my cow finally looked like a cow and the sheep was fluffy and fine I felt good.

Rebekah played with Noah and the ark a lot. She loved the sound and feel of the Velcro ripping, I think. And yes, she did throw-up on it and when I tried to wash it, it got ruined in the machine. But still, I did it. And the really neat thing is that Rebekah seems to have inherited this homey gene. I love to see her around her house. She has a great eye for color and decorating. She makes glorious pies and sews things. She can make an old discarded bookshelf look fantastic. She might be laundry impaired, but she can tell you exactly the best place for that lamp you’ve been keeping.

So there you go. Not all of us can walk through the Home Improvement store without breaking into a cold sweat but isn’t it great that our friends and our kids can? I mean someone’s got to do it. But, then again, even I made an ark.

Joyce Magnin is the author of nine novels including the popular Bright’s Pond Series, the Harriet Beamer Books and two middle grade novels, Carrying Mason and Cake. Her most recent novel is Maybelle in Stitches about a woman who can’t sew but makes a quilt anyway. Joyce is a frequent writing conference speaker as well as women’s conferences.  For more information on Joyce, her books and speaking engagements visit her website, She can also be found on Facebook at JoyceMagnin. She is also on Twitter and Pinterest.

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  • 02/14/2014
    Terri Gillespie said:

    Great article. Love the story idea of a non-sewer making a quilt. Can’t wait to read it.

  • 02/15/2014
    Pam Halter said:

    You may not be able to use a sewing machine, but I’ve seen your cross stitch and you’re marvelous! Fun article.


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