Recently, while sorting through old photos, I came across one of me at sixteen with a woman named Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen’s husband worked with my father at Interpace Corporation, a pre-stressed concrete pipe company.
At the time, we were living in Monrovia, Liberia, and I was enrolled in high school correspondence courses. With a lot of leisure time to fill, Mary Ellen, an accomplished seamstress, asked if I would be interested in learning how to sew.
The prospect peaked my interest as I had long been an avid embroiderer. My love for embroidery wasn’t born out of interest, but necessity. In fifth grade, I attended St. Joseph’s Convent for schooling. The nun who taught our class was Mother Sebastian. We called her “The Enforcer.” She was a short, stocky woman with milky white skin that blended into the white of her habit. She had piercing blue eyes and red tufts of hair that poked from her veil just above each ear, set askew by her horn-rimmed glasses.
One afternoon, in detention for talking too much, Mother Sebastian informed us, me and three other students, that we would not be idle during our punishment, but instead would learn to embroider, a favorite past time of hers. Two days later, I joined her embroidery class. Why not start now, because come sixth grade, the class was mandatory, and you guessed it—Mother Sebastian taught the class.
In book five of the Darcy McClain and Bullet Thriller Series, Mother Sebastian will play a pivotal role in protecting Darcy and Bullet from their enemies.
But I digress. Back to Mary Ellen. I soon learned that Mary Ellen was perfection personified, and everything she set out to do, and with whom, was held to her high standards. I was young, moldable, and eager to please.
After mastering the workings of a Singer sewing machine and learning about sewing tools, we progressed to seaming, zigzag stitch, and so forth, sewing together a multitude of small patches for practice. Then, we shopped for patterns and materials spending hours browsing fabric stores.
We settled on a simple A-line dress design as my first big sewing project—collarless neckline and sleeveless. Next, the fabric. I gravitated toward the color red, my favorite. Mary Ellen suggested blue or turquoise. Without questioning her, I took her suggestion.
Wise move. Turquoise is soothing to the eye, and red too harsh when I found myself spending hour after hour with a seam ripper tearing out crooked seams and redoing them to run straight. I’m reminded of that piano scene in the movie Sneakers: “Practice. Practice, practice.” The end result—a beautiful garment that I wore for years and never grew tired of wearing.
I thoroughly enjoyed my sewing sessions with Mary Ellen, and she re-enforced something my father always said: “If you going to do something, give it your best.” With Mary Ellen’s guidance, I mastered the art of making my own suits, but after returning to the US, I discovered something quite amazing—malls with department stores.
The last items I sewed were a bedspread and matching pillows because I couldn’t find the abstract design I sought.
What does sewing have to do with writing? Metaphorically, perfecting your skills as a seamstress is akin to perfecting your craft as a writer. Ripping out crooked seams is like editing out typos, correcting sentence structure, tweaking dialogue; all working toward a quality-made garment or a quality book.
Read more: Trinidad, Part 2: Mother Sebastian