Steam Spencer


My mother sewed. When I was a kid she made clothes for herself and for us. Just off the top of my head the things that she made for me included flannel nightgowns trimmed with rickrack and fancy stitching, matching pinafore dresses for me and my sister, velour pullovers for all four of us kids, a Sunday dress in blue chintz tea rose print, and my confirmation dress (a lace and white satin confection that was the height of 1986 fashion).

She taught me how to sew, patiently making doll clothes with me. I remember freaking out trying to gather the waistband on the doll’s dress, made from the blue flannel scraps of one of my nighties. She explained about basting, and why its a good idea, even though I hated it. She taught me to use her ancient steel Singer sewing machine (which I imprinted on, so I got one of roughly the same vintage off of craigslist). I used to spend hours looking through her 50s and 60s patterns, kept in the sewing table along with carefully saved scraps of lace and ribbon, wound around cards.

As an adult, I have the patience to sew quilts and baby bibs, and that’s about it. I’ve made myself a couple of shapeless dresses, albeit not recently. And I made some giant stuffed animals for my kids. I still avoid basting and I have been known to freak out over gathered seams. One of my sisters on the other hand, can sew like a pro and does it for fun. She made my wedding dress, copying a designer gown after one trip to the shop with me, when she flipped up the hem and peered at the lining. Here is an example of her sewing, as well as her discussion of some of our shared cultural heritage of sewing.

1980? She sewed the cape but the rest is from her wardrobe

1980? She sewed the cape but the rest is from her wardrobe

The other thing my mom could do was pull together a Halloween costume like a badass. She made them, but she could also improvise with her own clothes: Renaissance or Medieval ladies and gypsy fortune tellers emerged from sundresses and skirts. She could even do the elaborate headdresses, using scraps of velvet, ribbon and costume jewelry.

Now I live in a hipster upcycling paradise, where there are dozens of craft fairs and boutiques featuring jewelry made from found objects or fragments of older jewelry, and bohemian skirts and tunics made from old t-shirts. Every time I see these things I hear my mother’s voice saying in mild disapproval “I could make that.” I’m confident she could. Certainly my sister could. I see things I think even I could make. Finally the “I could make that” instinct reached critical mass. I saw one too many awkwardly shaped mitts made from old hats, and strange yoga/circus pantalettes with jersey ruffles at the knee.




I went to (you guessed it, goodwill) and got an assortment of clothes, dumped them in a Rit Dye dark plum bath to make them less obtrusively colored and laid them out on my bed to see how they could fit together. The key benefit to starting with garments instead of cloth, in my view, is I can skip the boring steps that make me bug out, like hemming. Or fitting sleeves for the love of gawd. I think I have fitted a sleeve once in my life and I wasn’t happy about it.


For my first attempt I took a strangely abbreviated jacket from a boutique line of casual wear called Prairie Underground and combined it with a ribbed heavy duty men’s T-Shirt which I think is one of Target’s house brands “George”. I sewed the bottom half of the shirt to the jacket and used one of the sleeves as an embellishment to the back.




The rustic raw edge seams of the jacket help the whole look. At first I thought what I had ended up with was a 19th century style of jacket called a “spencer”, but it turns out what I started with was more a spencer and adding the skirt made it more of “pelisse.”

In any event, it is quite cozy because the material is soft and the sleeves are long and cover the backs of my hands. Today I wore it with a lace shawl (what would have been called a “fichu” in the 18th and 19th century). The benefits of layering in the days before central heat cannot be overestimated.




This entry was posted in creativity, culture, family, Mom, sewing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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