I think I was 17 when I made a Pendleton wool suit for 4-H judging. The fabric was expensive and heavy, and it had a checked pattern that required matching – not as tedious as plaid, but still deserving of care. The style of the garment was complicated, too: a lined A-line skirt with side zipper and narrow waistband, and a lined, fitted jacket with princess seaming, a subtle peplum, welt pockets, self-covered buttons, a notched collar, shoulder pads, and – most challenging of all – long sleeves with just the slightest puff at the top.
Much of the difficulty in this garment was measuring my body and adapting the pattern to achieve a perfect fit. With time and experimentation – and a muslin practice suit – I got that right.
The ultimate challenge came at the top of the jacket. The sewing was intense, and so was the tension between Mom and me. That our mother/daughter love survived those hours at the sewing machine is still a wonder to me.
Joining a collar to a curved neckline, and attaching sleeves to the tight curves of a fitted sleeve, requires a technique seamstresses call “ease.” In order to make these incongruent pieces of fabric match up in a way that follows a comfortable curve around the body, you have to almost – but not quite – gather up the fibers of one piece so it will hug to the other. One way to accomplish this is to run a line of long basting stitches along the edge of one piece. This pulls the fabric in, without creating a ruffle or tuck, just enough that you can match and pin it to the other piece. Then you just need to carefully navigate that curved seam, to ensure the pieces stay flat and match up at center and both ends.
Maybe it sounds simple. But to this young seamstress, ease was not easy.
I had already run my basting stitches and pinned the collar to the back of the suit jacket. As I fed these pieces under the presser foot and lowered the needle, Mom reminded me, “You just have to eeeeeeeease it.” As she had for years, she leaned over my right shoulder, held her breath and watched me stitch.
Within the first inch of stitching, I was in trouble. Against the pressure of the foot and speed of the needle, the collar was sliding away from the neckline. “Too fast,” Mom whispered. “Take your time and eeeeeeeease it.”
I regrouped and started again. This time I went slower, but lost track of my curve. Mom took a sharp breath in, prompting me to look at my line. I stopped and ripped a couple inches of straight stitching, then begin again. Mom’s reminder this time was not a whisper. “Just eeeeeeeease it.”
On the third or fourth attempt, I finally made it from one end of the collar to the other. My shoulders relaxed, I let out a breath and pulled the work away from the machine, snipping the tails, long as usual.
I turned sideways in my chair, toward Mom, and together we lifted the jacket-in-progress close to our eyes. Mom pulled the shade of the swing-arm floor lamp closer, pooling the light around the work. She pushed her glasses up her short nose and looked down through the bifocals to magnify the tiny stitches. We both inspected the work.
From the top, it looked good. I turned the work over to see the underside. To my horror, there were two tucks in the fabric – places where the neckline pulled up over itself in order to accommodate the curve of the collar. I sighed. Mom told me to rip and start again. And guess what she said.
“You just have to eeeeeeeease it.”
This went on. And on. Mom’s frustration level mounted, and so did mine. Eventually her whisper had grown close to a shout. If she had been the swearing type, I’m sure she would have yelled, “Would you just f***ing ease the f***ing pieces together so we can start our f***ing dinner?!”
But she was not the swearing type. She had the good sense to walk away and go start dinner on her own, leaving me to work alone. I could still hear her words reverberating: “You just have to eeeeeeeease it.”
I was not good at ease. Why did they call it that anyway? I was overcome with irritation at the sheer inappropriateness of the word. It bothers me to this day.
I have no memory of how long it took me to get that collar on. And I have a total mental block on attaching the sleeves. I’m sure it was stressful and painful and tearful. I did finish the suit, and it earned an A rating at the fair. But never again did I attempt a garment so intricate. You can buy them, you know, for reasonable prices at lovely stores all over the world. And if they don’t fit just so, you can pay a competent seamstress or tailor to make those maddening adjustments.
* * *
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that ease isn’t easy. When I glide my arms into a jacket that fits comfortably, I give a quiet mental nod to the designer and seamstress (or even robotic assembly line) for the effort it took them to give me that ease. I guess I could apply that same logic to the moments of ease in my life. So this afternoon, when I sink into the sofa, nibble cheese and crackers, sip tea and read my favorite blogs, I will say a quiet and respectful prayer for the many hands and minds that manufactured the couch, made the cheese, packaged the crackers, grew the tea, designed the laptop and wrote the words. It’s a long, curvy line of contributors, all stitched together for my ease.