The Story of Sandra

When I was finished writing the book and sitting down to add the little extras, I thought long and hard to search my gut and create a dedication that was fitting of the word: a brief note that gave credit to the individual(s) most responsible for the book coming into the world, and who I wanted most to see the book as a gift to them–not just a copy, but the content.  I wanted to dedicate the book as a way of thanking someone for giving me the inspiration and the support and the incentive to go through the long nights and the deadlines and the ripping out seams and the totally trashing entire patterns and starting again from scratch.

My husband was the obvious choice.  He put up with night after night of me coming to bed long after he had dozed off.  He made sympathetic faces when I complained about the tension settings on my machine or hunted for the perfect needle or asked his opinion on fabric combinations for the thousandth time–very convincing sympathetic faces, so well-done that I nearly believed he knew what I was talking about, which made me love him even more deeply.

There was one other name, though, that I couldn’t shake, someone who I truly felt deserved some of the credit for putting me in a place where I was able to even be offered the opportunity to write a book (one of my childhood dreams): Sandra.

What, you heard it, too?  Angels, singing?  Harp music?  Yeah, I know.  Happens every time I say her name.  Sandra (harp music, angels sing).

I never actually met Sandra (Sandraaaaa).  I only know her through my sewing.  When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband and I were driving around together, as we liked to do before we were outnumbered by our children.  We would look at neighborhoods and houses and the sky and talk about random things, which would lead to talking about serious things, which would lead to making jokes, which would invariably make me feel closer to my husband than almost anything else I can imagine.  On this particular drive, I announced out of pretty much nowhere: “Um, honey, the thing is: I’m not going back to work.”

Pause.

My husband, bless him, was very supportive and understanding and accepting–this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, and we’d discussed it previously, so he kinda knew it was coming.  But this was the Decision, and I think he took it exceedingly well, considering.  He did say, though, “Ahem.  OK, well, y’know if you ever thought about, y’know, like, starting a business, or whatever, now would be a good time since there’s no, y’know, opportunity cost. Or whatever.”  He’s usually much more articulate than that, so I could tell that he was feeling some anxiety about the idea of a new baby and only one paycheck coming in each month.

My reply:  “Honey, if I were to work for myself, the only thing I can really be trusted to do, unsupervised, for eight hours a day, is sew.  Anything else and I’m likely to end up watching Oprah or something.”  My mother designed children’s clothing for fifteen years, so it was easy for me to picture myself sewing away in our basement and starting up a little cottage industry.  In order to do that, though, I knew I’d need new equipment.

My 1969 Singer sewing machine, which weighs about a gazillion pounds, makes two stitches: straight and zigzag.  No buttonhole function, no specialty stitches.  It is still the most reliable and consistent machine I’ve ever owned, but when left to my own devices, my buttonholes are decidedly mediocre.  Add to that the expectation of the shopping public that seams be serged on the inside, and I knew I needed both a new sewing machine and a serger.  I had a life insurance policy my mother had purchased when I was little, and which she’d given me to cash in as seed money for the business–not a ton of money, but enough to invest in good equipment.  So I did my research, found the machine I most wanted in all the world, and did what any frugal-minded girl on a budget does: I went to eBay.

I searched and compared and watched and finally found just what I wanted: a Viking sewing machine with embroidery attachment plus a Huskylock serger, all in one listing.  It was being sold by a man in South Carolina on behalf of his mother, and it was just what I was looking for.  I started to play the eBay game of bid-a-little, wait-a-little, but it was late at night and I knew I only had so much cash, so I set my top bid and went on to bed.  When I woke up in the morning, I was the winner, with only one other bidder.  Fools didn’t know what they missed out on, cause I picked a cherry of an auction.

Or so I thought, until I saw the shipping costs.  $188 to ship from the next state??  What?!?!  This was back when gas was cheap, so I did a little math: to drive over and pick it up would cost me roughly $14.50.  Ahem.

I contacted the seller, asked him if he’d be willing to let me drive over and collect my purchase, and he jumped at the chance–turns out he wasn’t all that enthusiastic about packing up electronic equipment and shipping it on to me, anyway.  He told me he’d “throw in some other stuff” as a thank-you.  I don’t think I’d hung up the phone before I’d thrown the kids in the car and burned rubber out of the driveway to go find out what “other stuff” might be coming my way.

I arrived in South Carolina in my station wagon and met the seller at his storage unit.  His mother, Sandra (Sandraaaaa), was either no longer with us or was in assisted living–I didn’t think it was polite to ask which.  He had moved all her belongings up from where she used to live in Central Florida and put them in storage, and was gradually going through them.  So he had not only the machines and their attachments, but a couple dozen embroidery programs, a dozen cardboard boxes filled–FILLED–with notions and books and patterns and thread and trims and whatnot, and a folding cutting table on casters that we strapped to the roof of my car with twine before I peeled out of the parking lot, hoping to high-tail it home before he changed his mind.  I’d struck the mother lode.

I got home and began gleefully going through my prizes.  It was like Christmas morning for a sewing nerd.  I got out the machines, plugged them in and verified they both worked (score!), and began to dig through the boxes.  I noticed something wrong pretty quickly, though.  Not only did I only have one foot pedal and two machines–and both of them certainly came with their own foot pedal–but I had 400 (seriously, FOUR HUNDRED) spools of thread in clear acrylic boxes organized by color family, and only one bobbin.  Since the one bobbin I did have had the color number written on the side in Sharpie, I was fairly sure that there were more–and I knew there was another foot pedal.  So I got back in touch with the seller.

“No problem!” he assured me.  “Must be another box in there that I missed.  Gimme a few days, I’ll find it and be in touch.”

I chewed my nails for over a week.

“Good news!  I found a couple more boxes. If you want to drive over and pick ‘em up, I got this electronic lift sewing table that I’ll throw in for $100.”

[Tires squeal as I race out of driveway, telephone dangling from that curly cord out my driver's side window.]

I get back home, with my wagon loaded down with more boxes–nearly another dozen, this time.  We were forced to disassemble the sewing table to fit it in the car (it was ONE centimeter too large to fit, I kid you not), so I dragged it out and put it all back together.  I opened the small storage drawers, and lo and behold there are the foot pedal AND the bobbins.  So WHAT was in all these boxes?

Sandra was.  [Sandraaaaa!]  Those boxes contained bits of her life and her passion and her personality, and I got to know her by going through them and “reading” the pieces, like an archaeologist.  I learned three things about her by doing that:

  1. Sandra did not have a day job.  No one who has this much sewing paraphernalia, and this many finished sewing projects (as evidenced by the patterns she’d made for herself, then tucked into 5×7 envelopes and labelled with the pattern type plus a swatch of the fabric she used to stitch it up) has time to work a full-time job.  She was clearly passionate–her son had told me she “really loved it,” and the evidence sure supported that.
  2. Sandra’s husband realllly loved her.  No one who doesn’t work outside the home has this much stuff unless they have a patron who adores them.  That electronic lift sewing table?  Original price tag was still on it.  When Sandra got it, she paid $1098.00.  Whoo-boy. She had every sewing tool under the sun–some of which I’d never seen before–and was a Swatch of the Month Lifetime Member.  Her husband clearly thought she was the bee’s knees.
  3. Sandra LOVED to sew.  Made her own patterns and stored them lovingly? Check.  Used commercial patterns and folded them neatly to store in manila envelopes with the original art taped to the front, complete with swatch?  Check.  Dipped her toes in every sewing technique currently known to man, from clothing to quilting to smocking to hand embroidery to machine embroidery to silk ribbon embroidery to cross stitch to applique?  Check.  Read voraciously about fabric properties and sewing techniques?  Check.  She was a powerhouse.

Now, Sandra’s taste level and mine are not the same.  She was an older woman from Central Florida with a rounded waistline–I know this because she had her own size labels printed up to sew inside her clothing, along with her name.  She was inordinately fond of puce and country blue.  She made sweatshirts with 3D flower vases of silk ribbons (anyone else remember those gems of the early 90s?).  She did a lot of embroidery that featured little girls in bonnets pushing wheelbarrows.  She used a lot of polyester and fleece.  So, she and I didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye when it came to design aesthetics.

But she inspired me then, and she inspires me now.  To be so passionate, to be so bold, to care so much really takes sewing out of the realm of the utilitarian and into the realm of the artistic.  She was crafty–no fewer than three hot glue guns in various sizes–but she was also an artist and a giver (she made frequent presents for the children in her life, who I certainly hope were grateful for her efforts).  Sandra and I talked a lot in those early days, along the lines of, “Now, Sandra.  What is THIS gadget?” or, “Um, Sandra, I don’t really know what to do here–what would YOU do?”  She never judged me, she never laughed at me, and she almost always had some book or resource or gadget or supply buried in those boxes to help me move my sewing from where it was to the next level.  She was terrifically instrumental in making me the stitcher I am today, and in opening my eyes to all the many, many ways needle and thread can be used to create beauty.

Thanks, Sandra, wherever you are.  This book’s for you.


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