What you think you know…

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The 4-H fashion project my mother helped me sew. It made it to my senior picture wardrobe.

My mom (NOT pictured here) was a seamstress. Maybe that’s too fancy a word: simply, she sewed. She made curtains and culottes, quilts and embroidery and all my costumes. She made suits and ready-to-wear fashion for herself and did prom dresses and wedding gowns for me and my cousins. She did not always know how to do this.

Like me, my mom was tall, so it makes knowing how to hem and sew a necessity and she and my 4-H books did teach me. But I learned later in life that my mom’s passion for handcrafts and textile art and frankly, being economical in our household by doing things ourselves, came from a different space of motivation. My mom married young and immediately had my brother. She set out to make herself the best wife and mother any magazine or book claimed you could be. She learned to cook–by teaching herself. She learned to sew–by teaching herself. She learned to be the epitome of perfect manners, thank you notes, hostess gifts and grace. I hope I demonstrate to others that she has passed that on to me.

Though I believe she was the best one out there, my mom is not the only woman who did this. Economy certainly drives invention, but the older I get, the more I realize that women, like many other groups who are underprivileged or underappreciated, have to carve out a space for themselves. Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own isn’t an ancient trope but a real means of living a functional and fulfilling life.

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My mom watched Sewing with Nancy religiously. I remember sitting with her on Saturdays when she’d run in and click off my show to watch hers. It was the only “me” time she secured for herself and she was vigilant about kicking the rest of us off the TV so she and Nancy could talk business.

That was back in small town Illinois and now that I live in Milwaukee, this weekend, I caught the 30th anniversary special of Sewing with Nancy. Nancy, who lives in Beaver Dam, WI, a place I now know.

I was oddly moved watching Nancy celebrate her public television growth and bloopers. I watched as the camera panned a room full of women who could have been my mother. I knew many of them made the jackets they were wearing for their big day as an audience member on Nancy’s celebratory set. I know my mom would have, too.

As I listened to Nancy’s story of teaching sewing as an art and a utility and her struggles managing a new family and small spaces and television contracts, I realized Nancy is a heroine to many women. She made a career out of her skill and carved a space that is often relegated to women. Sure, men sew. Sure, men are nurses. Sure, women are engineers. Gendered labels are just a part of our culture and we’re often swimming upstream in any profession to carve a non-stereotyped space for ourselves there.

But the specific craft of sewing, producing a good that is useful and beautiful and teaching and honing that skill is a space women were sent to because of their gender and last Saturday, I watched as they thrived in that room of their own.

My mom embraced her gender role and exceled at tasks that “moms” and “wives” were supposed to do. Yet, I didn’t understand how valuable that commitment was because I’ve spent my life fighting stereotypes and insisting I could do anything a man could do, better. What watching Nancy and her entourage reminded me was that it doesn’t matter who tells you to do it or who is expected to do it. The answer is, to work, find fulfillment and do it well. Stereotypes about gender are problematic, but not having something of your own is a worse predicament.

My mom had the perfection she cultivated as the most knowing mom on the block and the wife who always got asked to do the cooking because hers was the best. This is no small feat.

Women may be challenged by culture to be any of a bevy of gender-profiled things. That’s a problem.

What’s worse, is when you’re challenged to be something and you can’t achieve in that space.

I cried laughing with Nancy and wishing my mom was there, too. I watched the whole PBS episode, complete with less-than-perfect lighting and stumbling scripts. I felt like watching it and appreciating Nancy’s 30 years was a way to appreciate my mom, her struggle and all the women in that audience who found a way to make skills supercede gender and to make artistry and utility a desireable combination they had perfected.

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maryt1 View All →

Feminist, activist, outdoor advocate, animal lover, chocolate shake lover, reader, watcher, talker, actor, speaker, worker, writer, urban adventurer, hustler, involved, passionate, excited, ready.

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