|Sarah Cannibal hunting jacket label for Hippik|
Ok--maybe cats. I was raised by cats.
I was a difficult, fat, scabby, feral child. The youngest kid of those old-school big Catholic families--the one who crawls around under the piano, eating everyone's homework, teething on old cigarette lighters and rubber grapes. I was an early talker--mostly obscene--because by the time the fifth, sixth or tenth kid comes along, everyone is tired of watching their mouths. Mostly I was in the barn, searching for the new litters of kittens. We had a rotating herd of barn cats. And there were always new kittens.
But cats really aren't good as surrogate parents. If you have retractable claws, they might teach you how to kill mice, but other than that, they don't have a lot of useful life skills to pass on to young girls.
My mother did not teach me to sew.
In fact, she thought I was a bit tetched in the head for wanting to even bother with it--"spend all that money and time and it comes out looking like something you could have bought at Sears," she'd mutter, lighting a cigarette on the toaster.
Which was true. In the first place, by the 1980's, unless you lived in a large city, or had some sort of straw-into-gold-lamee sorcery, it was fairly impossible to find high quality fabric. My older sisters, who had taken actual sewing lessons, had left many many piles of unused fabric from doomed and abandoned projects from the 1960's and '70's. But all that cheap poly blend satin or sleazy acrylic tweed pretty much doomed your project before you even found your scissors. And you could never find those. Also: our sewing machine--an old Necchi--never worked properly. Or maybe it was because I had no idea how it worked. (Or--as likely--I may have busted it.)
Still--I read all those cozy little stories in sewing magazines about women learning to sew from their mother or their grandmother with a mix of wistfulness and cynical befuddlement unsuited to my age. I had been told that my mother and grandmother could sew. And even I vaguely remember going to my mother's "sewing club" as a toddler. It seemed a bit light on needles and thread and a bit heavier on the cigarettes and coffee. (But that could just be the haze of memory and Pall Malls.)
If my grandmother had taught me anything, it probably would have been how to play craps and blackjack. Or how to bet a trifecta or make a grasshopper.
I learned thrift shopping from my mother. Rather--I sorta picked up the skill after years of being dragged to thrift stores by my mother. It was, as it turned out, preferable to paw around for one's own clothing from a bin of castoffs than to have to suffer the humiliation of girls' "husky" sizes. Fuck Sears.
Unsurprisingly, none of those cozy sewing magazines have been interested in my essays about my memories of learning to sew, which was an unladylike, solitary combination of slash-and-burn sartorial espionage, dumpster diving and stain removal techniques that resembled witchcraft by the ubiquitous experimental potions and unintelligible swearing.
And because I was, as mentioned, "husky", I had to learn how to make all those baroque, wasp-waisted 1950's dresses and the fantastically sexy pencil skirts from the 1960's fit my thick waist and flat ass. I learned how to move buttons, let out seams and add gussets, replace busted zippers. And, because it was the 1980's, I figured out how to make all those groovy bell-bottom jeans from the 1970's into peg leg pants and capris. I was a boss with safety pins.
For school plays, if I couldn't costume the players in authentic vintage pieces from my own growing collection, or connive a friend's mother or grandmother into sewing something, I could find some reasonable facsimile at the Salvation Army, hack apart the collar, staple up the hem, soak it in RIT dye, aaaaaand ta da!
But, like every youngest kid who grows up with a plethora of hand-me-downs and garage sale garb, had to go through the phase of wanting something new for the simple sake of wanting something that no one else's ass had been in--eventually I had a closet of faded Gap crap and schlocky rayon dresses from The Limited and American Eagle. I learned to make things with that cheap acrylic tweed and sleazy poly velvets and horrid calico cotton blends and damned if they really did look about as good as stuff from Sears.
But eventually, I dusted off the thrift chops and, as a costume designer for shoestring budget theater companies, I earned my advanced degree in thrifting with a minor in alterations made with curb finds (As it turns out, old PVC tubing makes excellent caging for hoop skirts and bubble wrap does nicely for bustles as long as no one pinches your ass).
And so, surrounded again by all the carefully curated thrift store stuff, the eBay business and the inevitable wistfulness for rich fabrics, professional tailoring and designer finishes. If only, one thinks, this beautiful tweed jacket were a wee bit wider in the shoulders so you could hunt in it, a bit smaller in the waist, a bit more shaped in the back, had a leather lining that you could wipe off...
So why start from zero when you can take a bit of this from a moth-eaten vintage Brooks Brothers' blazer, the finest leather lambskin from a dated 1980's leather skirt, carved ivory buttons from a shattered silk Victorian-era dress and somehow--after much swearing and ripping of stitches--put them all together?