I’m in Stitches

The machine was old when I bought it, and I’ve had it for more years than I want to remember. It came to me in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I was living at the time—a California girl who followed her boyfriend home. Duh.

That is another story, one of those memoirs stitched together by trauma and guilt and big time fights—physical ones. Oh, no. I’m not going to write it. Not today anyway.

But the Pfaff is out of its box and sitting on a portable table in the “library” of the house in which we are consigned to spend our golden years—and our cash. As I said, the sewing machine is old. I think I paid $300.00 for it. Every big item I bought in the 1970’s cost $300.00. A 0018 Martin guitar that I gave to the ex because I owed him money. (I told you I don’t want to tell that story). A Nikormat SLR camera that began to fail on my first ever trip to Great Britain and Italy. And the Pfaff. Still working.

This sewing thing is in my blood. Grandma was a seamstress. Now there’s an interesting word. The Internet tells me the word is derived from Middle English seamestres.

Dressmaker. Tailor. She worked in Milwaukee and Oakland, California department stores. She made, and tailored, clothes for her three granddaughters, and our dolls. She was the only one who made pants that fit my prominent behind. To this day store-bought slacks, uh, ride down my back a bit when I bend over.

My new school clothes were the only things I liked about school.

So, we all learned to sew. I think interest in our sewing our own clothes came not from us, but from my grandmother, who believed deeply in independence.

I sewed my own clothes from junior high into my 30’s. I was never really very good at it, keeping to basic styles and avoiding shirts requiring button holes. Or sleeves. And never collars. These complex procedures had been performed by Grandma, and I knew how, but I found them frustratingly complex.

I excelled at skirts, pillows, nightgowns and curtains. Slacks were hard. I made some pretty chill table cloths, too. One year I sewed bags for all of my family and friends’ Christmas gifts.

The last things I made were dog beds. Our dogs generally viewed their beds as toys and reduced them to fluffy piles with astonishing precision. My bright idea was to buy yards of canvas and bags of shredded foam. I made three large dog beds. They lasted for about a week.

The Pfaff has patiently been waiting in our basement. I had even forgotten where I stashed it, and in looking through stuff to take, give away, or trash, I found it. It came to our new home with us and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It probably needs a tune-up, tender care and oil. I don’t remember how to thread it but I still have the manual. It has an abundance of accessories for fancy stitches, including a button-holer that even I can use.

While searching for vacuum cleaner bags for one of our vacuums—we didn’t know that bagless vacuums have supplanted the baggy ones, because the Miele we bought uses one, and its only two years old. We didn’t find the bags but the last shop we tried sold sewing machines and sergers as well as vacuums. The shop lady who felt very bad about not having our bags over heard me say I wanted to check out the Pfaff stuff.

“Oh, you have a Pfaff?”

It was not easy to explain how old it was, because I don’t really know. She showed me a booklet and it wasn’t represented there. It was she who told me it would probably like an oil and lube. A day at the sewing machine spa.

Modern machines are computers that sew. They resemble the sewing machine shape but that is all there is to the relationship between mine and these stitching bots.

Sewing, for me, has been a painful passion. I cut corners—literally. I don’t measure myself or adjust my patterns. I’m a pretty lame sewer. Sewing takes time. Of that, I have more than ever, now.

So, the Pfaff has come out of her suitcase. First project: curtains out of an old table cloth. A tablecloth out of a store—not one I made. But I might make one. Some day.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


I’m in Stitches — 12 Comments

  1. I have a new(ish) sewing machine because my older daughter got the old one. On the other hand, I specifically sought out the least computerized machine I could find, and I am happy with it. But I am also a pretty lame sewer. The exterior of the things I sew generally look okay, but you do not want to inspect the interiors, which display the full extent of my slipshoddery.

  2. I learned to sew on a Pfaff much like yours in 1960ish. I too made most of my own clothes and even got into tailoring, worked in a fabric store and did some seamstress work for real money. But alas alack, arthritic fingers must reserve their strength for typing. Time and concentration and space for the clutter required by sewing have evaporated. Good luck on your projects. Sewing can be incredibly satisfying. Or not.

  3. I designed and made most of my clothes all through the seventies, but I sewed them by hand. The only time I ever used a machine was while I was a student in Austria. I wanted a ball gown for a fancy ball, and some friends sent me a bolt o silk. My landlady had a treadle machine from the late 1800s, which was about my tech level. So I designed the gown to use all the silk, and made it on the machine. What a blessing for those long seams!

  4. I learned to sew on my mother’s Singer, a black one with a gold curlicue painted on. It could do buttonholes but not zigzag. Singer machines are now not worth much, so I got a Bernina some years ago. It has no computer capability, but I have never needed that.
    I wish, before she died, that I had thought to ask my mother how she learned to be a seamstress. She could sew pretty darn well. I deduce (since my aunts don’t sew) that she picked it up either in college or back in China.

    • Brenda, I think I learned how to sew on the same Singer machine, if it was electric. We were lucky enough to have a basic cabinet to hold it, and mount the foot control for the knee. I was never accomplished but I learned basic, sewing on polyesters, how to make swimsuits (because none of the popular ones fit my fifties body) and ended up with a Bernina 830 (the one people fight over, not the new one.) One of my sisters has the old Singer, and my niece the newer one from later years.

      Heavy with fused surface, that Bernina. And when I get it out of storage, it will get another visit to the spa, and I will probably make lap quilts on it. Because traditional quilts don’t steal from writing chops, and other things I liked to do might.

      Here’s hoping your curtains turn out great, Jill!

  5. Sewing machines seem to attract memories. I can barely sew – maybe cuff pants, or handle simple curtains, but I have memories of my mother trying to teach me on her old machine – a tabletop Singer. I ended up buying a machine myself for the aforementioned shortening slacks, and the way memories came back of threading hers – which was identical to my new machine.

    Now I’ve just got to figure out why all my threads are coming up dirt and grease-stained these days.

    • Take out the bobbin, and use a flashlight and peer into the bobbin socket. Is there dirty lint in there? Use a seam ripper or a pin and drag it all out. It should be possible to lift the face plate (the piece of metal the cloth actually lies on as it runs under the needle). Any bits of lint and fuzz iin there?

  6. Because I can’t buy off the rack, I’ve been devoted to My Pfaff for YEARS 🙂 What I love the most are my Singer Sewing books. The one on tailoring is almost worn out but it is my proverbial bible. And, yes, I have a serger…