As I sat sewing masks today, my mind traveled decades back to Mrs. Smith, my 4-H sewing leader.
My family was new to the town of Florin, Calif., when I heard about 4-H at school. There were no kids in our trailer park to play with, so this Florin Silver Leaf 4-H Club sounded like a great thing. Kids and stuff to do! Hot dog!
I’ve never lived on a farm and never owned a farm animal, but I took to 4-H like a fish to water. (The town of Florin, alas, has long been absorbed into Sacramento.)
Mrs. Smith taught me everything I know about sewing. She taught me that the warp and woof — OK, I know the technical term is weft, but what 11-year-old wouldn’t rather call it woof? — of a fabric must be square with each other. If it’s not, you must take hold of two opposite corners of the fabric and pull, pull, pull until they are squared up. Then you can pull, pull, pull a single woof thread until it pulls out of the fabric. That’s how you get a straight cutting line.
How do people make masks in 15 or 20 minutes? I barely have the fabric cut in that time. But you cannot argue with quality workmanship. I like to think of Mrs. Smith being proud of me, all these decades later.
I was very excited to learn to sew. Mom had a machine, but from about 1926. It didn’t even sew in reverse. I begged for my own machine.
Keep in mind this was not long after I’d begged for an accordion, which my parents had gotten me. Unfortunately, my only musical skill is keeping the beat. It was obvious I’d never master that accordion. They should have gotten me a tambourine and called it good. After more lessons than I wanted, the accordion was given to a relative. But it sure was pretty red mother-of-pearl.
So, after the accordion fiasco, getting that Montgomery Ward sewing machine was really a stretch, but they gave in. Hot dog!
My machine was what’s called a Japanese head. Japanese factories turned them out by the thousands. They are solid workhorses. Any retailer could choose a color and slap their brand on it.
The first thing I learned to sew was my sailorlike 4-H collar and 4-H cuffs. They are made of green cotton with a four leaf clover embroidered on them, an “H” in the middle of each petal. I pinned them onto my white blouse when I went to meetings.
Next I made an apron, then a gathered skirt, and then I took off from there. My projects, along with those of Mrs. Smith’s other little sewers, went on display in the neighboring town of Elk Grove on 4-H Exhibit Day. Hundreds of kids from a bunch of clubs. What could be more exciting?
I never could have guessed what would happen there. I won ribbons! Even a blue one! The Sacramento County Fair followed, then the California State Fair. More ribbons!
This was redemption. I was a terrible athlete. Always last to be picked at sports. Felt like such a loser during the hated P.E. I’d never won a ribbon at a school field day. That’s part of why I was so shy. Well, 4-H was different. Here I was a star. Here I got ribbons.
Every year I continued my sewing projects, but didn’t stop there. Mrs. Bridges was my cooking leader. I’m sorry, Mrs. Bridges, cooking did not click with me like sewing.
I took electricity for a couple years. Throughout my life I’ve hung light fixtures and changed out switches and outlets. I’ve helped others understand their breaker boxes. I still have my sample boards of the various splices I learned to solder. (Wire nuts were a thing of the future.)
Besides the exhibit days and fairs, we had demonstration days. The farm kids showed off what they knew about their animals; city kids explained how to cook various items. I did a demonstration on how to choose a good pair of sewing scissors. And there were fashion shows. I loved wearing my green gingham checked dress with the hand-smocked bodice.
Every year we had green 4-H notebooks to keep track of all we learned and produced in our various projects. And we could get little plastic trophies. I got trophies three different years. Eventually, in high school, I was club president. Got over much of my shyness.
I think back to all those wonderful volunteers who spent their time helping kids learn life skills and putting on special events. I wish I’d realized at the time how much they did for us; I’d have thanked them a whole lot more. Their only payback was in knowing kids got a better start in life. The least I can do is honor them by getting out that still purring Montgomery Ward machine to make more masks.
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