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McCallum: The Singer Man

03/07/12 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Commentator Mary McCallum is an educator, librarian and freelance writer. When she recently took a sewing workshop in southern Vermont, it reminded her of the role that sewing took in her father's life. And the example he set in how to learn and how to make do.

(McCallum) Like many people, one of the ways I get through the long Vermont winter is by taking a class in a skill that I either never learned or need to brush up on. Once it was the ukelele. This year it was a workshop with a fiber artist who specializes in remaking old clothes into new chic outfits. We began by creating scarves from scraps. In just two hours the discards culled from a pile of grim looking thrift store bargains were transformed into fashion statements. It was recycling at its best.

While I have a vintage portable sewing machine that my father gave me from his years as a Singer repairman, it rarely leaves its case. Occasionally I sew a straight seam on a curtain or mend a torn garment. Yes, mend - a word that’s nearly vanished from our modern lexicon in this age of wear-it-twice-and-throw-it-away. Mending, and its cousin darning, have gone the way of the cobbler and the cooper. Yet I remember how my grandmother skillfully turned frayed collars on my father’s shirts and extended the life of worn bedsheets by reversing the outer edges into the center and joining them in the middle. It was practically a new sheet, if you didn’t mind sleeping on an uncomfortable center seam.

My father repaired Singer machines for two decades. He’d learned to sew from his mother, who did piecework in Brooklyn’s sweat shops. He shortened his own trousers on her treadle machine as a boy. By the 1950s he was driving a grey truck with the Singer logo around the back roads of rural Long Island. He visited farms to repair sewing machines or to sell a new one to the woman of the house. He demonstrated the wonders of the latest model by sewing his name in patterns on cloth scraps. He liked to tell the ladies, “I’ll keep you in stitches.”

It wasn’t unusual to glimpse my father bent over a sewing machine at work - no stranger than seeing him mix cement or strip paint from an old door. He stitched cotton sundresses for my mother as precisely as he laid brick. In an old photograph of me as a child, I stare at the camera in a red smock he made. It was patterned with blue flowers and trimmed with green piping and round green buttons. It's emblematic of all that he was capable of teaching himself to do.

Today we log onto eHow.com and find How to Darn Store Bought Socks in their online lessons. The same site offers How to Mend a Split Seam and How to Mend a Broken Heart. We learn how to thread a sewing machine and the intricacies of making a patch on Instructables.com. But when I Googled how to turn worn bedsheets, it yielded only instructions for making a bedsheet toga and for building a worm farm.

I confess that, as a Luddite, I am both a mender and a darner. While I aspire to higher creativity, I’m doing my bit in keeping these two lost labors alive. Both learned from my father.
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