Sewing and Life Lessons from Mom
Almost every day, I find myself with some kind of needlework in my hands – and I smile when I think about how it all started with my mom teaching me how to sew on her jadeite green Singer sewing machine. It’s almost like that sewing machine symbolizes my first experiences making something practical but with my own touch of creativity. While I learned to sew something simple like a pair of shorts with an elastic waistband and then graduated to more complicated patterns for dresses and blouses, I could also explore the choices of different fabrics.
My love of working with color, design and fabrics was definitely influenced by my mom, Royalin Carlson, and it’s something we both still enjoy today, especially when we can sew together. Like me, she also learned as a girl how to sew from her mother, as have so many others.
When she was a newlywed and pregnant with me, Mom tells of a time when she and my dad, Harold, were shopping for maternity clothes. He wasn’t thrilled with how they looked on her or the expensive prices. When Mom replied that she could make her own maternity clothes if she had a sewing machine, he tucked that thought in the back of his mind. Then on their first Christmas as a married couple, he surprised her with that Singer sewing machine. It wasn’t the fanciest model, and it only sewed a straight stitch forward and in reverse – no zig zag, blind hem or decorative stitches – but it sewed beautifully. It became a workhorse over the years to make clothing for herself and family members, large and small quilts, and even more unusual items like a canvas tipi.
After many decades as a sewer and then a quilter, I’ve realized how much I owe my mom – first for having the patience to teach pre-teen me how to sew and then for helping me realize how my sewing experiences have provided important life lessons.
Lesson 1: The Joy of Creating
Besides drawing pictures with crayons as a kid, one of my earliest memories of the creative process was when I went to the sewing section in stores with Mom. I loved flipping through the big books of patterns – Simplicity, McCalls, and Butterick – and imagining the pretty clothes I could ask Mom to sew for me. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to get every pattern and sometimes we were there for other reasons. But it was the best day when we were there to buy a pattern for a new dress for me and then to look through the selection of fabrics for just the right color or print.
One of my favorite dresses that I remember Mom sewing for me was a Christmas dress with a white bodice and long sleeves, square neckline, and plaid taffeta waistband and maxi-length skirt. I would love to find a photo of myself in that dress!
On those excursions to the sewing section, I was learning how to imagine what a piece of clothing might look like from just a picture on a pattern envelope and fabrics wound on large bolts. Mom would guide me to consider the scale of the print, how a color might look with my skin tone, or whether the type of fabric was suitable for the garment. Then the final product – a new dress, skirt, or whatever – was so special. It seemed almost magical that my mom could cut out pieces of fabric, follow the pattern instructions, and create such a beautifully constructed garment. Then I found that same magic when I started to sew clothes for myself, and it certainly remains with me today as I make quilts to keep or give as special gifts.
That same sense of joy in creating something through sewing also spills over to other aspects of my life.
In my career as an instructional designer, it was gratifying to observe colleagues taking a course I helped to design and develop. I especially enjoyed creating scenario role plays that allowed the participants to practice how to handle realistic work situations.
When my son was a senior in high school, the Covid pandemic hit and he and his fellow senior band members couldn't perform their final concert. Another band mom and I decided to create memory shadow boxes with the help of some other band moms. What a proud feeling we had seeing those 31 shadow boxes completed and ready for the band director to deliver personally to his senior students.
Even working on this blog with my friend Heather has been a creative outlet and challenge that I’m enjoying.
Lesson 2: The Upside of Making Mistakes
As is common when building new skills, I made loads of mistakes as I learned how to sew – crooked seams, sleeves sewn in backwards, uneven hems. But Mom came to the rescue by teaching me about “unsewing” with a seam ripper, a small, hand-held tool with a sharp point and cutting blade that can slice through stitches.
It also took me a while to get the hang of selecting the right fabric for a piece of clothing. Mom showed me the fabric recommendations on the back of a clothing pattern that helped point me in the right direction, and she also explained when the pattern of the fabric might not work well based on how it would look once the garment was constructed – especially with stripes and plaids. After making some mistakes with fabrics, I grew more confident about which ones were suitable for a specific piece of clothing. Later, when I began making quilts, I was already confident about fabric selection. Even so, it’s still nice to shop for quilt fabrics with Mom because she is always willing to give her opinion about my potential selection.
Mom let me know that mistakes in sewing aren’t the end of the world, that they can usually be removed and resewn a bit more carefully, and that no one will ever know how many times you had to rip out a line of stitching.
Those same assurances hold true for most mistakes in life. In many cases, you can find a way to correct the mistake, apologize for an unintended wrong, or learn how to avoid making that mistake again. I have taken all those actions to make amends, which can be rather painful at the time but such a relief afterwards.
Lesson 3: The Perseverance Payoff
Sewing and quilting projects usually take several hours to complete from start to finish – too many to complete in just one day. When you have a busy life of work, school, family or other commitments, it’s common for a project to extend over many weeks or months. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually reach the finish line.
My mom showed me that possibility as she juggled being a wife and a mother to two children, working full time, and handling most of the cooking and cleaning responsibilities at home. To find time for her sewing projects, she often had to work late at night after my brother and I were put to bed. I followed a similar schedule before I retired. (Being a night owl by nature also helped me.) No matter how busy we were, Mom and I could still get projects finished, especially if there was an upcoming special occasion “needing” a new dress or a handmade gift.
Making Halloween costumes for my kids when they were young was one sewing project that I took on each year. I always tried to get a good head start by letting the kids pick out a costume pattern and the fabric a few weeks early. But I could never work quickly enough to avoid major deadline pressure as the holiday approached. (I suspect my tendency to procrastinate also played a role.) I always completed the costumes, even if I had a few very late nights of sewing.
Perseverance also paid off as I worked my way through a difficult sewing project. Sometimes the pattern instructions didn’t quite make sense – even when I was holding the garment pieces in front of me. When I was still living at home with my parents, it was easy to ask Mom to help me figure out the instructions. Other times I had to figure them out on my own, but I knew I would eventually.
After 30+ years of quilting experience, I don’t encounter confusing instructions too often. The bigger challenge can be maintaining the motivation to complete all steps in the construction process – from cutting out the fabric pieces and sewing them into blocks to basting the backing fabric, batting and quilt top together before quilting all three layers together and binding the quilt edge. Depending on the size of the quilt, the number of sewing hours adds up and can spread across quite a long span of time. Quilters can have several UFOs (unfinished objects) waiting for a finish – as I do!
Once again, my mom has been a great role model when it comes to finishing quilt projects. After she retired, her quilt production rate picked up significantly. I hope to follow her lead more closely, so I can whittle down my stack of UFOs – and then start more new projects.
I also apply the perseverance lesson to other aspects of my life, including when I was completing training development projects at work that spanned several months and now as I’m still studying Italian after starting a few years ago.
Lesson 4: The Reward of Sharing a Passion
Although I can’t speak for my mom, I’d like to think she looks back fondly on those sewing lessons with me. There’s no doubt she felt impatient with me at times when I got frustrated with a step that wasn’t working out right. I remember her offering to rip out some seams for me, so I could continue to progress with some other step. I’ve done something similar with my kids, trying to reduce some stress or frustration they were struggling with.
Perhaps my most memorable “accomplishment” is introducing Mom to quilting. In my mid-20s I took a class to learn the basics of quilting, and I couldn’t wait to tell her about what I had learned. Well, it didn’t take long for her to be hooked. Since then, she has made many beautiful quilts and been active in a quilt guild in her town.
Slideshow (click arrows to advance photos). Photo 1: Jodi's mom Royalin works on a Crown of Thorns quilt block at the annual quilt retreat. / Photo 2: Nieces Erin and Adrienne, Royalin, Jodi, and sister-in-law Julie at one of the annual quilt retreats. / Photo 3: Jodi, Royalin, and daughter Rachael at the 2022 quilt retreat. / Photo 4: Some of the pillowcases Jodi sewed for a family challenge project. Pillowcases were donated to a local children's hospital.
Passing on a passion for sewing must be hereditary in our family:
I taught my daughter and son how to sew. Rachael now sews dog bandanas for a small side business and has worked on a couple quilts, and Ryan liked to sew the Boy Scout merit badges he earned on his uniform sash.
I have also shared sewing-related projects with other kids, including teaching first grade boys in Ryan’s Cub Scout den how to sew on buttons and helping sixth grade girls in Rachael’s Girl Scout troop make fleece pillowcases for small pillows that they donated to a children’s cancer unit at the local hospital.
Mom encouraged my sister-in-law Julie, already an accomplished seamstress, to try quilting a few years ago. Now Julie focuses her time on making quilts, many with bright colors and intricately pieced block patterns. And it wasn’t long before Julie introduced her three daughters to quilting.
Fair to say, our passion for quilting has brought our family closer together. We now attend an annual quilt retreat together (last year Rachael even joined us). We also take turns creating a yearly “challenge” project that lets our family group try out new techniques, make quilts for others in our family, and donate pillowcases to the local children’s hospital and small quilts to a children’s charity.
For me, my love of sewing has given me opportunities to use my skills to help others – from teaching some basics to kids to making quilts to raffle off as fundraisers for a high school fine arts fund.
And it all started when I asked my mom to teach me how to sew.
Thanks so much, Mom!