Nearly thirty years ago my mother's house burned to the ground. A handful of photos, tucked inside a tin container, survived. One of those photos sits on my desk, its edges blackened, its color faded. In the photo my brother, home from Vietnam and sporting a new beard, stands at my mother's ironing board, pressing a shirt. Yah, apron or no apron, he's macho, but he knows how to do a mean press. (Click on the photo for a closer look) Behind him against the wall stands her sewing machine, a handsome Singer treadle Model 66-1 in its tiger-oak "drawing room cabinet". Fanciful decals adorn its black paint. That photo is all that remains of that machine. (The rest of these photos are of Elizabeth Redeye, the real subject of this post.)
I learned to sew on that machine, beginning with doll dresses and progressing to dresses for myself. Once while treadling at a furious speed I sewed through the tip of my thumb, breaking the needle. The lesson was well-learned and thereafter I kept my fingers a safe distance from the pressure foot.
The left side of the cabinet held five drawers hidden behind a vertical door. I often rummaged through those drawers, fingering half-used spools of thread or admiring the metal attachments.
My mother showed me how to lay fabric out on the dining room table and to hold the pattern in place with heavy coffee mugs. Later, in Home Economics class, I learned how to straighten the grain of fabric, press properly, and make a variety of seams. Even after I moved away from home I sewed most of my clothing. First on a black Singer sewing machine purchased at a thrift shop. Then on a vintage Kenmore purchased at a neighbor's auction.
Then I began making quilts. And I began finding vintage Singer machines at yard sales. Several of them! I had become a "collector". And I learned how to take them apart, clean and oil, and adjust a fine stitch.
About 1999 I met a fellow quilter in Ohio via the internet. We emailed daily, chattering about our quilts and various other things in our daily lives. I admired her bold use of bright batiks and she exclaimed over the precision of my piecing. We each love our vintage Singer machines. She named her 1948 Singer 201 "Cecil Faye" in honor of two grandmothers. I named mine "Leona" after its previous owner, an elderly neighbor.
And then my Ohio email buddy sent a photo of a Singer treadle she had purchased in years past. I oohed and aahed and admired, for it was almost a duplicate of the one upon which I learned to sew. She had named the machine "Elizabeth Redeye" (Elizabeth for the eight Elizabeths in her family tree and Redeye for its red decals). And then that woman (who loves stirring up trouble) made an offer which I was certain I would never be able to accept. She said that if I ever showed up on her doorstep in Ohio the machine was mine. At that time I lived in California. As much as I coveted (yes, that's the word!) that machine, the 2600 miles that separated us just seemed too much.
Then, on that fateful Tuesday in September 2001, I was visiting my daughter in Minnesota when the Towers fell. She and I spent the next several days glued to the news. Although the airlines were shut down for days I managed to board my scheduled flight on Saturday and flew home to California. The fellow seated on my right, a New Zealander, had been near the World Trade Centers. He had been evacuated from his hotel and had lost everything...luggage, clothing, computer, passport. He had to acquire a temporary passport at the NZ consulate in order to return home. He was shaken. Who wouldn't be? Our world had changed. We all changed. Over the next two years I experienced an unsettling, a feeling of having lost control over the events of my life. I went about my days with a small nag of trepidation affecting all that I did.
In the midst of all this ensuing uncertainty a thought came to me. I would drive to Ohio. I could take control of this much of my life. I would go off on a 2600 mile adventure and do it by myself. My hubby gave me his blessing to drive his shiny silver pickup to my friend's house and home again. (Trusting soul, he!)
When I showed up on her doorstep my friend had a welcome sign on the front lawn. We laughed as we met each other face-to-face for the first time. We had a long list of things to do during the three-day visit. We made a trip to a nearby quilt shop in a barn, a huge place with tall rows of bolts of fabric, a paradise for quilters. She cooked her favorite chili. We played on her quilting machine. We had tea with a group of other Ohio quilters that we had met online. We laughed and giggled and played with fabric.
In our emails my friend's words had been witty and full of anecdotes of family and home. I had imagined her voice as a slow drawl and instead her words were quick and as wise and funny face-to-face as she had been in her emails. I met her family. I met her cat. We toured her flower garden. She showed me the finely crafted cabinet her wood-working hubby had made for Cecil Faye, her Singer 201. Oh, my, that man knows how to work wood. Drawers galore. Wide sewing surface. Cecil Faye is much loved.
And my friend presented me with Elizabeth Redeye. The machine was simply gorgeous and only my best manners kept me from jumping up and down with excitement. She, her husband, and I managed to load Elizabeth into the back of my husband's pickup, making certain she was stable and secure, protected from the elements under the topper for her long journey.
My 2600-mile trip home was an adventure in "I can do it". A silver-haired grandma, driving a shiny pickup toting a vintage Singer treadle, radio blaring loud, pumping my own gas, reading maps, guzzling coffee and diet Pepsi, braving heavy traffic in large cities, proving nothing to anyone except to myself.
As I pressed westward I imagined the women who traveled at yesteryear's pace in wagons drawn by horses or oxen, their scant sewing supplies tucked in a trunk or perhaps ready at hand to sew a few stitches at a moment's notice, stitches that might provide practical things as well as things of beauty. I thought of trail dust and of precious belongings left behind or cast aside as wagons needed their loads lightened. I felt a kinship with these women, knowing that life today brings its own hardship and travail.
Elizabeth Redeye now sits in my living room. She is a reminder of the generosity of a friend, of my sewing past, and of lives long past of grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It is good to sit down with Elizabeth, to quiet the noise of daily life to a soft hum, no louder than the noise of a treadle sewing machine. This week Elizabeth will be sewing together more squares of fabric for Project Linus. Her previous owner, in Ohio, is a PL coordinator and the product of Elizabeth's efforts will be mailed to Ohio.
(The age of vintage Singer sewing machines can be determined by the Serial number. This particular Model No. 66-1 was manufactured somewhere around 1910 or soon thereafter. The original instruction manual is "Form 7876 Reissue March 9, 1911". The oak parlor cabinet, or drawing room cabinet, as it was called is a Model 21.
This particular cabinet has a spring-loaded lift mechanism. Touch a small button on the front of the cabinet and the machine lifts to its sewing position. Pretty nifty. Tucked away in the drawers are a complete set of attachments for fancy sewing...a subject for another time.)