Back around 1965 a fashion craze swept through high school. Cranberry, button-down shirts emerged as “the” shirt to have, and like other young bucks I had to have one. Nothing’s worse than being a teenager out of step with fashion. When it became apparent my folks weren’t getting me a store-bought shirt, Grandmom Poland said she would make me one, and she did. Made it on her Singer sewing machine. The collar was a bit out of line and the buttonholes a tad large but I loved that shirt and plumb wore it out.

Remember sewing? It used to part of family life, and there was a time when women bought bolts of cloth and made clothes for the family. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I watched Mom and Grandmom Poland pump the treadle and make that Singer sing. The song would start slowly but pressure on the treadle would rev it up, and that machine would hum right along. I recall sewing’s rhythmic tune, seeing parchment-like paper etched with faint blue patterns, and hearing words like rickrack, facing, and gathering. I recall, too, the complex act of threading the machine and seeing all manner of machine accessories. A wooden spool of thread sat on the spool pin and adjusting the thread tension proved critical. Sewing seemed mechanical and magical but more than anything it seemed to be a labor of love.

I hope I told Grandmom how much I appreciated the shirt she made me because it must have taken days to make. And that brings me to a question. Do young women sew today? Do they pin patterns to cloth and cut fabric with the utmost care? Do they lovingly put an old Singer sewing machine to work and hear it sing its song?

My guess is they don’t. It takes too much time, and so old Singers sit idle. They collect dust like the ones here that I photographed in Carlton, Georgia. And besides, just why should a young woman sew today? Plenty of stores sell clothes in a dizzying array of styles and sizes. There was a time, though, when you had to make them yourself, and there used to be a high school course called Home Economics where girls learned sewing and other practical skills, but those days are out of fashion now. Change marches on, but even I learned to appreciate sewing’s practical side. Granddad Poland wore overalls. He was short and Grandmom would shorten new overalls’ legs and hem them to fit. She’d sew one end of a discarded leg piece together, sew on a strap, and just like that I had a granite pebble bag for my slingshot. From that bag grew my love for camera bags, Pony Express-type bags, and leather luggage.

No, I doubt young women sew today, and I’ll admit that today’s husbands and beaus should be thankful that their ladies don’t sew. Few things are more painful than being dragged through cloth world. ’A trip to cloth world ’twas a fate worse than death. Still, when I was a boy, few things made me happier than that cranberry, button-down collared shirt I wore in high school. Grandmom sewed it, and it marked the beginning of my love affair with fashion, Brooks Brothers, seersucker suits, bow ties, and more.

Today, whenever I see an old Singer sewing machine, which is rare, I think of Mom and Grandmom sewing clothes for us. They weren’t store bought but they were made with love and they fit just fine. Now, except in the rarest of cases, homemade clothes are passé, and we’re that much more dependent on some seamstress we’ll never meet. Someone, no doubt, far, far away in another country. Someone else’s grandmother or more likely young daughter. Like a seam-ripper, change gutted us of yet another custom, and old Singer sewing machines sing no more.


Image credit: Photo of the Singer sewing machine taken by © Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].