I’ve been working on a longterm project that requires a sewing machine. I was using a borrowed machine, but the lender needed it back to make a Halloween costume, so I’ve been looking for other ways to get this project moving. I could sew by hand, borrow another one, rent space at one of several local craft cooperatives (oh WOW do I love Portland!), or wait until I could afford to buy a new one. My options were bleak, so I turned to my beloved Craigslist.

The other day, I purchased a used sewing machine. The seller had inherited it from her beloved grandmother, but didn’t know how to sew.  The machine had moved with the seller several times, and now, as she prepared to move again, she decided it was time to sell.

The 70s-era machine works very well; it has more settings than I will ever need, and the ability to sew decorative stitches and embroidery I’m unlikely to use. I chose this machine over another one in part because of the accessories this seller advertised in her post; her grandmother’s notions and sewing equipment would be included in the price.

I had expected a little box of thread and bobbins, but instead, the seller presented me with a trunk full of lovingly organized sewing gadgets. Like many people obsess over kitchen gadgets, the uni-taskers I typically eschew, this granny had accummulated sewing toys. Five rolls of tissue tape for sewing delicate fabrics. Fifty invisible-zipper presser feet, for installing the fifty invisible zippers, also included. Fine gauge elastic and elastic thread. So many varieties of fusible interfacing I don’t know what they’re all for. Pocket turners. Pattern marking equipment. Slide-rule gauges for determining buttonholes and seams. A metal template for installing a double-welt pocket. And everything still had the instructions, neatly folded and marked.

Learn to Sew

There’s a lovely brochure included titled “Learn to Sew,” from 1946. It answers some of my more vexing questions in very plain language, better than other sewing manuals I’ve seen. It also describes some techniques that modern people never have to consider, because technology has taken us so far. For instance, before you sew any material, you should wash it first, but in this booklet, written before washing machines and dryers were in every home, the instructions state “run material through a wringer.” Man, am I glad I don’t have to do that.

My favorite items in the bunch, however, are the instruction booklets with notes in the margins, and the slips of paper with handwriting common in women from a different era, writing detailing techniques and tips for streamlining frequent tasks. There’s so much ephemera, so personal in nature, I contacted the seller to ask for her grandmother’s name, so I could attach an identity to the personality evident among the belongings.

Her name was Genevieve, and she was known as Jenny.

I think all of us wish we had a guide, someone to help us understand the world, a mentor who can calm us down when we’re freaking out because life doesn’t make much sense. I lost that when my mom died. I’ve been looking for it ever since. My mom was good at that, at helping me identify the source of confusion, showing me a path over or around a problem, or just listening when I complained about how much adulthood sucked. Life and illness interfered with our ability to sustain that relationship, so I only had her influence for a couple of years before she died. I’ve felt her absence keenly.

But seeing Genevieve’s writing, the notes that explain sewing jargon, the receipt indicating the date her beloved machine was delivered (my birthday, 1974), the highlighted and circled definitions that helped her manage the complex tool she was using — it comforts me. It’s a guide, a light for a dark path, encouragement in knowing that once upon a time, things didn’t make sense to her either, but *she* figured it out, and now she would help me.

Yes, this is just sewing equipment. It’s not life lessons. But in this little corner of my world, where mentors and mothers are nowhere to be seen, hearing that voice in my ear saying “it’s okay, dear, you’ll figure this out” is bracing, fortifying. Like so many before me, I will get past this little hesitation, this moment of not knowing, this time in my life when pieces don’t automatically fit together. Like them, with time and patience, I’ll get there.

And I think I’ll call my sewing machine “Genevieve.”





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