The crooked stitches ride across the fabric, their wavering lines like rivers on a map. My hands hold the material steady, but I still can’t seem to master straight lines just yet. Practice, I tell myself. Practice and patience, which is funny when I think about it. I have little patience to regularly do the first and so little practice with the second. So I can’t figure out why I want this so badly. And then I remember: I’m sewing for Hennie.
On my late grandmother’s birth certificate, her name was written as Hennie, although all her life, people called her Henrietta. In the small South Carolina county where she was born in 1925, the person recording the information didn’t know how to spell Henrietta, so Hennie it was. She was a brown-skinned woman of the sort of rich color that inspires chocolate metaphors. While I found plenty of love in those deeply shaded arms over the years, she — especially as a youngster — suffered for her complexion. There was one thing she always wanted to learn, but it was her own skin, a beautiful shade some viewed as less than, that stood in the way of it.
As was her way, she didn’t tell me this story. I heard it from one of her daughters. My aunts navigated their teen years in the late 1960s and ‘70s when domestic arts were in decline. Caught up in second-wave feminism, they didn’t want to sew, despite my grandmother’s hopes.
My hand-sewing is even worse than machine sewing, but I’m still grateful for seventh-grade home economics, where my sloppily constructed pin cushion was the product of weeks of diligent hand stitching. Cotton would have been a much better fabric selection, but have you ever tried to convince a 12-year-old to choose practicality over flash? Nothing less than garish, sky blue satin would do, with edges that frayed oh so easily and didn’t neatly tuck at the command of a needle. And yet, I was proud of that lumpy little cushion, with the run in the cheap fabric like a stocking that’s been snagged by a rough fingernail. My love of handcrafts was born there, I think, although it would take decades before I truly chased it.
My grandmother knew how to do some very basic sewing, like replacing a missing button, but more advanced sewing escaped her. Her mother died when she was very young, so she didn’t learn the usual lessons at home, like how to cook and clean. But at school, they taught the girls to sew.
The lighter-skinned girls sat down at the machines and learned to sew while the darker-skinned students — my grandmother among them — could only stand by and watch, like wallflowers yearning for a dance.
I imagine the excitement buzzing through her young body when the time came for sewing lessons. What did she most want to make — a dress for herself? An apron? Something practical, unlike her granddaughter?
The time for lessons came, but since she attended school in the segregated South, supply didn’t meet demand. There weren’t enough sewing machines to go around for everyone. The teacher, who was on the lighter end of the color spectrum, favored students who shared her complexion. The lighter-skinned girls sat down at the machines and learned to sew while the darker-skinned students — my grandmother among them — could only stand by and watch, like wallflowers yearning for a dance.
My first sewing machine was a gift, an inexpensive beginner model, and those initial stitches were uneven and ugly — but they were mine. And they connected me to my grandmother. As I gently held the fabric in an attempt to direct it on a straight path across the needle plate, I imagined I was doing it for her, this thing she’d always wanted to do.
I’ve improved since those first crooked stitches. Any time I sit down at my machine and watch the needle piercing and connecting fabric, and listen to that strangely comforting sound of the quiet little motor, I think of my grandmother, of how a physical characteristic she had no control over kept her from learning a skill she so desperately wanted.
After she grew up, why didn’t she pursue it? Probably for the same reason many of us don’t pursue a skill or craft. She married young and had five children, plus a full-time job in a school cafeteria. Like many women, she devoted herself to her family so much that doing something just for herself was probably thought of as selfish, trivial. I imagine she resigned herself to the fact that she’d only know how to sew on buttons. I never got to ask if she was satisfied with that.
My grandmother had a sewing kit, a cloth-covered box with treasures of miscellany inside. Buttons of all colors rested there in a mixed riot along with a handful of sharp needles. Spools of thread hid in its dark depths, just waiting for her to reach for their often tangled strings.
When she needed to sew on a button, I’d bring the kit, rifling through it as she worked, marveling over the truly unusual ones, like the buttons shot through with pearlized patterns that I imagined must have slipped out of an oyster’s tight lips. She’s the one who taught me how to lick frayed thread ends into a point, how to squint just right to guide that tip through the needle, and how to fix a double knot so the button stayed put.
As my skills and interest in sewing deepened, I decided to make a quilt. First came two crib-size projects, one for practice and one to give away. I learned a lot but not through hands-on teaching. I read books and watched countless YouTube videos, and by the time I made that second small quilt, my stitches were a little straighter. After that, my ambitions grew, along with the desire to tackle a larger project: a quilt for a queen-size bed.
She devoted herself to her family so much that doing something just for herself was probably thought of as selfish, trivial. I imagine she resigned herself to the fact that she’d only know how to sew on buttons.
From the time I cut the first square, it took me almost a year to finish. Even with a rotary cutter to speed up the process, my hands and arms often tired of slicing through layers of fabric hour after hour.
More than once, I questioned why I was doing this.
And I reminded myself who I was really sewing for.
At last, I pieced together all those squares and half-square triangles, shades of pink and cream and peach and soft gray, to create something unique.
In 2012, at 86 years old, my grandmother died in her sleep before I finished that quilt. I never got to share that with her. I know that had I completed it before she passed away and given it to her, it never would’ve decorated a bed. She never would’ve used it to stay warm at night, pulling it just a little higher to cover up a shoulder. My grandmother was the type to get a cherished gift, especially if it was handmade, and set it aside like fine china. It was to be looked at, admired, too precious to use.
So she probably would have taken that quilt, folded it up as perfectly as she could, and stored it away in her cedar chest. Every now and then, she would’ve pulled it out, especially if she had company. And she would have said, “Hold on, I have something to show you,” before leading her visitor into the spare bedroom in the back, the one dwarfed by the four-poster queen-size bed. And she would have lifted the bronze latch on the chest before raising the quilt out of it. She would have placed it on the bed and gently unfolded it — not quickly, she never would have simply shaken its folds free, letting the dense fabric snap in the air. No, she would have undone each fold one by one, slowly, and with reverence. And once it was laid flat, she would have smoothed out the wrinkles, beamed at her visitor, and said in a hushed whisper brimming with pride, “My grandbaby made that.”