Sewing sustained my foremothers. When my great-grandfather died suddenly in his fifties, my great-grandmother Ora started working at Montaldo’s, an upscale boutique. A widow with eleven children, including a nursing baby, Ora did finishing work and alterations to provide for her big brood, who all eventually attended college. Ora, who never learned to drive, rode a bicycle to work. With needle and thread, Ora altered what could have been a life of poverty into one of self-sufficiency.
Ora worked exactingly with what she knew, sharp pushpins and smooth fabrics. My grandmother, Nannie, developed the same sewing acumen and familial obligation. Nannie crafted clothes and toys—I imagine she sewed flowered nightgowns and thin-grinned ragdolls—for her younger siblings. Without their big sister, Ora’s children would not have had gifts for their birthdays or Christmas. When she had a family of her own, Nannie dedicated her time to making clothes for her kin, including her husband’s child from a previous marriage; she met little Mildred occasionally for fittings.
Cotton was my grandmother’s currency of care, and she used it to dress, tend to, and beautify her relatives—even the outcast daughter her husband had abandoned after coming back from the war. Nannie shortened Mildred’s dresses elementary school parking lot, but they never saw each other anywhere else.
My mother’s first job was picking cotton near Raleigh, North Carolina. She was eleven years old and wanted her own spending money because she hated taking warm milk—straight out of the cow—to school in a smelly Thermos. For her parents, buying milk was simply a waste of good money. Mom aspired to a life of cold milk, store-bought clothes, and independence from domestic responsibilities.
Picking cotton was hard work for a young girl. After spending the day picking, her bag was not very heavy, and the payment was by weight. My mother quickly left cotton for tobacco, which paid by the day instead. Despite working the same tobacco all morning, she, a white girl, ate her lunch inside the owner’s house while the black workers ate outdoors. They did the same work in the fields, but they were segregated at supper time. My mother was leeward to the inequalities that blew through Southern life like linens in the breeze.
Deep in the recesses of my mother’s large house sit a few long, coffin-like boxes of dresses Nannie made for her out of tulle, taffeta, lace, polyester. These were formal dresses, replete with darts, ruffles and underskirts. I began to appreciate all of those fabrics at the same time as I was reading Anne of Green Gables in grade school. The fabrics’ names were so exotic; so many textures and possibilities. I admired their muted pastel colors: seafoam, dusky rose, and baby blue. The dresses in the closet were definitely special attire, too big and too fancy for me to ever wear.
Just as Anne longed to replace her wincey dress with ornate, puffed sleeves, I tried to escape the ethos of my contemporaries. I led a gingham-clad fantasy life, fully rejecting the acid-washed, Hypercolor 80’s. At night, Nannie rolled my ten-year old hair in cotton-filled wire curlers wrapped in nylon, fixed with Dippity Do, so that I could have the soft curls of the girls she might have grown up with. My baroque waves clashed with the crinkled, crimped styles of my age mates. I was still too young to wear her dresses, so I imagined with them instead. I marveled at those fluffy, dense confections. I used to raise up those powder pink and blue sheaths with their thick crinolines, lift up the hem and watch them fall into place, insistent like a sleeping limb. Those candy-colored prom dresses were so strong, so resilient, so feminine—they were my grandmother’s work.
In high school, I started wearing Nannie’s old everyday dresses. She had exquisite taste in clothes, and the patterns she had chosen for herself were both flattering and strangely timeless. She was thin and short like me, so a few darts erased the difference, and decades, between our figures. I loved the mustard and brown geometric print dress, sleeveless and sassy, the light-blue frock with lace trim, and the creamy one with taupe brocade. Her color choices were rich, confident, and enduring. Never outlandish, Nannie’s dresses communicated understated beauty.
Although I kept some of Nannie’s dresses, there was one I never saw: a mythical black one she had made for herself in the 1930s. Was it for a funeral? A party? Unlike the lightly-hued shifts she wore every day, this one was striking, dusky and sophisticated. I imagine that her husband, my grandfather, raged that the dress looked too good on her, probably in an attack to deflect from his latest affair or business misdealings. He refused to let her wear it. They fought. Whatever words were exchanged between them, the black fabric turned to ash.
My mother remembers all four of the children waking up in the middle of the night to see the dress burn, an effigy of—I can’t claim to know what. The scared children probably watched in grateful silence that it was the dress burning—and not their mother. I wish I could have seen her in that dress; she was probably prettier and a little prouder than usual, her handsome face and stunning curves briefly on display. Extravagance was not among her values. She complained bitterly about an aunt who requested her casket be covered in calla lilies, “How wasteful—and expensive!” Humility was Nannie’s everyday wear, shame and self-deprecation her accessories.
Other dresses were lost, too. My grandmother tried to teach my mother to sew when she was a teenager, but she was not as skilled, or as detailed, as Nannie. An impatient perfectionist, Nannie removed every stitch of my mother’s sewing project, the seam ripper tearing apart my mother’s efforts and the sewing machine steadily setting making it right. Nannie redid every last seam, and my mother never sewed again. That tense exchange ended my mother’s sewing habit. I keep Nannie’s dresses, hoping that my daughter will stay short and thin enough to wear them herself one day.
I don’t know how Nannie managed to accomplish anything in light of her extreme perfectionism. The clothes she made were a testament to her need to be right, the stitches held together with sheer tenacity. Although she never sewed professionally, each piece was boutique quality.
Nannie’s resourcefulness played out in her relentless desire to save everything. It felt different from hoarding to me because she actually used much of what she kept. When my grandfather was still alive, she would carefully remove the cash he brought home from work in his short pockets so that the money would be spent on food for the family, instead of alcohol. Like the clothes she hemmed, Nannie ironed out the wrinkles in their dynamic, trimmed up their finances, and crafted a careful life for her children out of the materials available to her.
As I was growing up, Nannie used to hem our clothes. I did not realize what a luxury it was to have custom-hemmed clothes until after she died, and I learned that I was too tall for petites and too short for regulars. My grandmother’s labor had cut through the problem of my height. I tend to wear more skirts these days because their lengths don’t matter and I can buy them off the shelf.
My mother exchanged her matrilineal legacy of pushpins, bolts of fabrics, and Singer sewing machines for a new, independent look consisting of ultrasuede pantsuits, single parenthood, and self-employment. She provided for us through the money she earned, not food clothes she made or the food she cooked. Her wage-earning-power nullified the need to learn to sew—clothes were available in stores and prepared meals could be bought. It is difficult to compare the convenience of an off-the-shelf item with the comfort of a made-to-fit frock.
Cotton commemorates the second wedding anniversary. I never knew of such things until my husband Mark started searching for a gift made of aluminum for his brother and sister-in-law’s tenth anniversary. 2016 was our cotton anniversary, and my husband’s gift to me arrived from Amazon a few days late.
He had bought me an undyed bathrobe of Turkish cotton. The first package swallowed me up (perhaps if Nannie were still alive it would have been alterable), so he ordered the smaller size. The replacement robe happened to arrive while my mother was visiting with us. I eagerly opened the package and put on the robe.
“But what happened to your other one?” she asked.
The ‘other one’ was a robe she had given to me in 1995. The old robe, in the same cream color, had traveled with me to college, to graduate school, and back home to North Carolina. One of its threadbare sleeves is pulling away from the body; it is dry rotting. Channels of terrycloth do not run in thick, shaggy lines; they are pockmarked eddies now. When my mother had seen me in the old robe, she suggested I just stitch the sleeve back on, ignoring the robe’s balding frailty. Like a mangy dog, my old robe had seen more glorious days.
The cotton anniversary robe, and its sad twin, the mangy worn robe, seemed to demonstrate how store-bought goods do not outlast handmade treasures. Perhaps my mother thought that the robe she had given me would weather time as well as my grandmother’s handmade dresses had for her, but it was a bathrobe, not a prom dress. The two items have very different material lives, in terms of practicality, storage, and use. Although her conservatively-cut dresses compared nicely with the robe’s modesty, the robe was a daily-use staple.
Money is comprised of cotton and paper, and scholars, economists, and politicians dedicate a lot of time and energy to trace out its movement, its import, and its value in our society. Cotton items are the stuff of scrapbooking, archives and museums, moth-balled cedar chests, and memories. Especially in the South, cotton does more work than money because it materializes a history of labor and inequality, the labor of slavery and the labor of pre-industrial women. Money, however carefully earned and spent, is not as timeless and durable as my grandmother’s dresses. Her dresses enveloped a lifestyle of craft and skill and taste.
I don’t know if Nannie’s alterations, her darts and taken-in waistlines, still fit my middle-aging form. But Nannie altered more than my clothes. The story of her violent marriage empowered me to choose a partner who would never destroy my labor, feel threatened by my appearance, or cheat. Maybe all those generations of women’s work, inside and outside the home, like layers of fluffy tulle, have built up the possibility for a more balanced family life. My husband supports my ideas, and he is quite skilled in the domestic arts of the glue gun, the stand mixer, and the reciprocating saw. At the sewing machine, Mark patiently helps my daughter sew glittering blue Christmas stockings while I stitch together our stories.
Ayla Samli studied British and American literature as an undergraduate but later turned her sights toward living people. Earning a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and an MFA in Creative Writing, she teaches and writes in North Carolina.