My mother was making me a dress. All through the month of November I would come home from school and find her in the kitchen, surrounded by cut-up velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern. She worked at an old treadle machine pushed up against the window to get the light, and also to let her look out, past the stubble fields and bare vegetable garden, to see who went by on the road. There was seldom anybody to see.
The red velvet material was hard to work with, it pulled and the style my mother had chosen was not easy either. She was not really a good sewer. She liked to make things; that is different. Whenever she could she tried to skip basting and pressing and she took no pride in the finer points of tailoring, the finishing of buttonholes and the overcasting of seams as, for instance, my aunt and grandmother did. Unlike them she started off with an inspiration, a brave and dazzling idea; from that moment on, her pleasure ran downhill.
from Red Dress–1946 by Alice Munro
Red Dress–1946 comes from Alice Munro‘s first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades published in 1968. By chance, I was already reading this before the announcement last week that Munro had won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature; I had no idea that she was even tipped, but she’s a delightful choice.
Munro was an author my mother enjoyed; they were contemporaries, growing up in very similar North American cultural spaces, and some of the stories in this collection centre on girls in small towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading Munro seems to bring my mother (rather long gone now) back into reassuring proximity.
This story is one of my favourites, not just because it features sewing (informed by some understanding of the process) but for the way it reveals character so economically through it. It also nails how mortification and extreme fear of social embarrassment are the air an adolescent breathes. If you want to read some Munro – and like sewing – I’d recommend that you head straight for this delicious little volume.
The 1940s jumper pattern from which the image comes is available to buy over to BessyAndMaive‘s Etsy shop.