All the leftover scraps of my life are coming together. For three weeks now I’ve been sewing cloth facemasks, whittling down my stash of fabric. After years of stitching everything from clothing, to quilts, wall hangings, backgammon sets, boxes and picnic baskets with tablecloths and napkins, artwork and practical work most often both, here I am making masks to fight COVID-19.
My life as a stitcher began when I was 13. I saw a Kenmore sewing machine in a Sears Roebuck catalog for $68. Always a hoarder, I had enough savings from years of Chanukah gifts to make the first big purchase of my life. Later, in the pages of the Boston Globe I spied a table with a rectangular well in the top for a sewing machine, with folding legs for $10 in Jordan Marsh. Since my dad worked in Boston, I gave him $10 to get it for me. He was not happy trying to lug the table home on the one and only local bus that came to Canton. I still use the table today nearly 60 years later. My machine was delivered to the door. It was purple and white, did zig-zag stitches so I could make buttonholes. Tra-la, I could now make my own clothes.
Now my dad wasn’t really poor, we only lived as though we were penniless. His workmates had nice houses, sent their kids to college, had decent cars. My sibs and I never did discover why we lived in poverty. My dad worked as a cutter for Century Sportswear, as did my granddad. Century made top-of-the-line skirts and suits sold in Bonwit Tellers and other classy stores for around $27. That was when minimum wage was 75 cents. When I began high school, dad got me a charcoal gray wool box-pleated skirt from the damaged rack at the factory for $2. One skirt to begin high school with. Where was mom, you may well ask? Certainly not getting me clothes, though she loved walking the not quite mile to the local stores and looking about. That same year my dad informed her that I needed a bra. She bought me one, size 32 C, which I made tucks in with tiny safety pins that left rust stains when washed. Later I learned how to size myself and purchase my own. But I digress.
With my new machine I could actually own a wardrobe. For my first project, I asked my dad to bring home a few yards of wool tartan to make a princess style jumper and matching jacket. My dad was an expert on matching plaid. He taught me how to cut the fabric so that all the seams matched, and the jacket not only matched across the sleeves and body but also down to the jumper. There were often pieces of fabric left on the huge bolts the cutters used that weren’t big enough to lay another layer so they would whisk it away home. Dad may have been a miser, but he did teach me good skills I was able to use for the rest of my life. I took sewing classes in middle-school but never learned how to match plaid until my dad taught me. He also got me lining fabric for the jacket since many of Century’s wool skirts had lining, as did the jackets.
I enjoy the tactile quality of fabric. Back when I was a teen, I would drape myself in the fabric and spin about my room before getting down to the job of laying out a pattern and cutting the cloth. Today working with cotton scraps left from a failed enterprise of lined tote bags with piecework designs as well as various quilts, I peruse a diverse array of colors and patterns. Some pieces are only big enough for one mask, some enough for 30. During this time of shut down-shut in, having a chore that allows me to do something of value has been a life saver. It’s unlikely that all the bins of scraps will find another use; I savor using them up for a practical use.
Through this project I have discovered another community, one hidden in the virtual life of computers — the Worcester Mutual Aid Society, Facemask Makers. Elsewhere in the city around a hundred stitchers are inside rooms, snipping fabric, running machines. We take our labeled bags of masks to drop-off locations which consist of a bin on someone’s porch. I can’t put the few names I see on the facemask makers postings together with faces, an invisible army madly stitching away. To date, more than 7,000 masks have been donated to local hospitals, first responders, hospice centers, nursing homes, retirement communities. The orders keep flowing as a stream turned to river into white water roar. Someone donated three boxes of thread, another quarter-inch elastic. Groups cut and assemble kits for those who don’t have enough materials.
A great coming together, mostly nameless, faceless, an army that stepped in where our government failed.
Eve Rifkah is a poet, writer and educator living in Worcester.