Finding the Maternal Trinity in my sewing machine

My mother is responsible for this. It’s all her fault. Mind you, I’m not blaming her; I’m giving credit where it is due. In 2005, my mother’s high school graduation present to me was a sewing machine.

I remember being confused, a little upset, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by it. Not the machine, of course, it didn’t do anything to cause me anxiety, but rather the thoughts that intruded my mind when I considered the unspoken suggestion behind the gift – that I would use it.

You see, I was about to go to college and I saw no immediate use for a sewing machine. I wondered what it would do, sitting in its box, taking up precious space in my small dorm room shared with my soccer teammate, Anna. I was upset by the idea that I would ever use the thing – it was not a tool I’d ever thought about having. Also, at my age and during the transition from living at home to being out in the big world on my own I was trying to figure out my place in my new life. Who was I, anyway? A jock? An intellectual? A homemaker? What would my peers think, seeing or hearing the humming of a sewing machine? I had an identity and reputation to create, would this powerful thing get in the way of that? Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy creating matching dresses with my mother when I was a small child (sorry we couldn’t find a picture). I’ve always had a knack for creating things but I preferred hand-sewing. Now I look back and realize I was simply scared of using a machine even though I had occasionally, curiously, privately experimented with my mother’s machine.

One of my more outrageous outfits
One of my more outrageous outfits

As a child I played dress-up with her old clothes and my siblings and other relatives’ hand me downs. Some of these clothes are in my closet today as part of my regular wardrobe. I was destined to become a model even as I fought against it as it was happening.

When I was very young, people at church would say, almost weekly, “Charis, you’re so _______(insert pretty/skinny/tall/exotic), you should be a model!” My response was always something like, “No way, I like to eat!” Here’s where I admit that my confidence was constantly boosted by these compliments, though my mental state kept me from showing it. I had to be taught how to simply say, “Thank you,” and I became quite the picture of humility with practice. I hated it when people gave compliments because I didn’t want the limelight except for when I chose it.

The first big thing I made with my Singer was a t-shirt quilt for my dorm room bed. I made it the summer after my first year at Meredith College. I wanted to use the fancy machine for something since I knew my mother had put so much thought and money into giving it and I felt she should see it in use. A quilt seemed practical and like a good challenge, not complicated like making pants. Plus, now here’s the push – my grandmother was dying. She was dying and I was grieving and, well, making a quilt seemed like something I could do to feel closer to her younger, healthier days. You see, my grandmother (Heymama) was an amazing quilter.

Wearing a dress made by Mama
Wearing a dress made by Mama

You remember how I told you my mother is responsible for all this? Her responsibility matches the seemingly genetic craftiness my grandmother passed down to me through my mother (my mother made super cute dresses for me when I was a toddler and she also took my baby portraits herself, rather than hire a professional).

Toddler Charis modeling clothes made by Mama
Toddler Charis modeling clothes made by Mama

Heymama has even become my muse without me realizing it, that is until I look at the things I create and I see her in them – and I mean that literally. I see her era’s influence, but I also see what she wore as a grandmother in the late 90s and early 2000s. Even though I don’t remember ever seeing her in action with her sewing machine I feel her spirit and love every time I sit in front of my mine.

My grandmother, Miriam Parham, in her youth
My grandmother, Miriam Parham, in her youth

Similarly, I’m reminded and incredibly thankful for the forethought of my mother for giving me this amazing device that feeds my creativity and my closet. My maternal lineage has brought me here to make damn cute grandma clothes!

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Mother Caroline (L), Holy Spirit Miriam (Top R), & and [grand]Daughter Charis (Bottom R) at the same age
I’m part of an amazing Trinity – the mother, daughter, and the holy spirit grandmother (resting peacefully in heaven), because my mother and my grandmother are both definitely present in my creations.

Fast forward to this past week where I was a designer in the Soul Incredible Unity Fashion Festive show on Sunday, August 30th at the Sacramento Grand Ballroom. I am still getting over how awesome it was to see models wearing clothing I designed and sewed. I felt like I was floating on the runway. It took a lot of work to get there.

The last several weeks have been a flurry of activity in my living room. You know the Cinderella song with the mice and birds making her gown for the ball? Yeah, that’s not what fashion design really looks like. Imagine scraps of different fabrics on all the furniture, pieces of thread littering the floor, seams being ripped out in frustration, containers of pins and needles overturning and flinging their contents across the floor (I have cats, ouch!). Think sore eyes and neck and fingers and wrists and hamstrings and back… then there’s the rest of life, like working and eating and cleaning and sleeping.  And did I mention I have cats? Plus, I was also asked to help with a last minute time-sensitive project for someone going to Burning Man, so that was REALLY exciting but one more thing on my plate. I put in a lot of hours, brainpower and love, but my part in this show would not have been possible without the selfless help of my closest friends and a couple designers who cared for and assisted me during a really scary reaction to a new medication two weeks before the show (you know who you are).

I promise you, this experience was actually a lot of fun. Every new piece I created was more complex than the last, and I even got everything to the show and back home by bicycle, so that’s cool.

Pictures! Pictures will hold your attention! That’s why you’ve read this far anyway. So, finally, here are images from the show itself.

If you know me you know I like to parody tradition. In high school I ran for homecoming queen with short, boyish hair, a fancy prom dress, flip flops, and no makeup – I knew I would never win but I wanted to show that anyone could run and I wanted to challenge the unspoken rules of how to be popular (because homecoming courts are a popularity contest): makeup, long hair, high heels, nails done, feminine, etc. I’ve always been someone to challenge the status quo. So I chose this song by Nina Simone for my collection. Just listen to the words.

I’m still digesting the past month. My closest supporters, my best friends, have been filling my brain with “This fashion show you’re doing is a really big deal” talk. I didn’t allow myself to get as excited until I saw eight models wearing things that were planted in my creative brain and born of my arthritic hands. Even then I am not sure I understood the enormity of what I had accomplished. I was extremely hesitant to show my own designs in a fashion show (Sisters Xiang and Mang of Hill Tribe designs asked me to be in this show, I mean, they talked me into it). For as long as it took for me to accept that I should give modeling a try it took multiple friends to talk me into showing my own clothes and accepting the label of designer. Here’s the thing, over the years since I’ve had my Singer I’ve really enjoyed making my own clothes. Occasionally. For me. Clothes for me to wear. I also saw myself strictly as a model. Sure, maybe I was thinking of asking a photographer to do a photo shoot with me wearing my own designs but I never wanted to take that huge yet comically small step into designing clothes for public consumption. The way I think about it is this: I enjoy sewing my own clothes and I want to continue making my own clothes. In the same way that I was terrified of that new sewing machine my mother gave me 10 years ago (yes, it’s still the one I use – the only one) I’m now terrified of the thought of designing clothes for other people to wear. There are three reasons:

  • I have no idea what I’m doing. Yes, I just said that. I don’t use patterns.
    Image by Denice Ristau. This became my dressmaker's mannequin.
    Image by Denice Ristau. This became my dressmaker’s mannequin.

    I am my own mannequin (except I’m learning how to use the duct-tape one my friend Denice helped me make) – I simply don’t know how to translate people’s measurements into an item of clothing that fits them. I understand the concept completely but I’m a self-taught designer. I make things that fit myself so well because I try them on after each seam has been sewn. It doesn’t quite work that way when you have customers trusting you with their inches and dollars. (Although I have come a long way since my duct tape prom dress)

  • The concept of really owning my work and being proud of it is difficult. I do have moments of extreme excitement. I blush looking at myself in the mirror when I successfully make a sexy dress that scared me from the first stitch, but with each success I have a million tiny voices in my head causing me terror with each snip of the scissors, each thread choice, each fabric pairing, each public unveiling (They like it, hey Mikey!). I generally wait to see what others’ reactions are before I allow myself to truly be proud of something I’ve made. Like many artists, and I think mostly of my late friend Rachael when I say this, I’m a perfectionist (she could never quite ‘finish’ a piece of art, and that made her so much more charming and beautiful). I always see a flaw or flaws in my finished pieces. I’m never quite satisfied, I can always do better. And I blame the sewing machine when I’m really tired. I am full of self-doubt and paralyzing fear when I think of making clothes for someone else to have in their closet.
  • I only use fabrics (and accoutrements – buttons, zippers, clasps, threads, etc) that have been handed down to me or that I find in thrift stores. The environmentalist in me considers the purchase of new fabrics to be unnecessary – we use so many resources to create new things today, plus the fashion industry uses a lot of chemicals and dyes and supports unfair labor practices, not to mention the hurried consumption of clothing which has been termed ‘fast fashion‘ (and we’re all a part of it – how many clothes do you have that were made in sweatshops?). I don’t want to be part of that kind of fashion. I find joy in creating out of what has already been sourced and I want to keep it that way. I like the challenge of piecing together designs with what I have in front of me, and the right fabric generally finds a way under the needle (I’m a clothes surgeon!). I find I’m not sure how to approach this if/when people I do not know ask me to make them something. What will they say when I say they have to help me find the right fabric and that it can’t be sourced new? Or should I say, “I’ll pick a fabric for you and you’ll be happy, or else”?

No matter how you look at it, my sewing machine will continue to hum. There’s no telling where this will take me now that I’ve opened the door to a new label.

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5 thoughts on “Finding the Maternal Trinity in my sewing machine”

  1. Inspiring, as always! Thanks for sharing this. I love that you re-use materials in your designs, and your designs are AMAZING! Keep it up, Charis, and don’t feel pressure to do anything different. I think you can sew for others and still keep the integrity of your craft intact.

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    1. Sorry for responding like half a year late, but thank you. I have decided to keep sewing and my other crafts as hobbies, with no pressure to do anything unless I feel motivated!

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  2. Love your story. I used to sew, a lot. I used to be an engineer. I used to play the violin, I used to play in orchestras. I used to sing in choirs. I used to win art contests. I used to do a lot of things. You still do things. I sit on a couch day after day. I lost my teeth. I haven’t figured out how to get them back yet. I used to be fairly healthy. I used to be a pretty good parent. I love your story. You are making progress. I used to want to die. I still hope to make progress. You are a great writer. You are an inspirational person. I love it that you have ideas, and are not conventional. I like ideas and you have a lots of them. I want to support a great little granddaughter whose mother now has to work until late in the evening. This is a hodgepodge of my thoughts after reading your story. God bless and keep it up. Again, you are a writer and a talented person. I pray you can recover all the way.

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    1. GMD, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here. I want to fit in everything I can while I can, even if and when it hurts. Because I just can’t stand the thought of living in a bubble.

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