Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Project (With Literary Annotations)

"Even Belinda is learning to make tiny careful stitches."
"I'm not," said Belinda.*

I. Don't. Sew.

This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.**

I don't sew. Oh, I can mend things and, if pressed hard, I can stitch a little with the aid of a sewing machine and a lot of time. So whatever possessed me to undertake a sewing project, most of which had no patterns, only descriptions and an occasional instruction online? 

The project came about after Mona, my son's mother-in-law, wrote on Facebook that she saw Ramona, our soon-to-be-here granddaughter, as a fancy shawl dancer at future powwows. And after I read those words, I saw Ramona as a fancy shawl dancer.

Fancy shawl dancing, which is performed only by women, is a 20th century addition to the pantheon of tribal dances. It is a featured event at powwows. The dancer's outfit, also called regalia, is very, well, fancy.

Really, really fancy.

You can't be a fancy shawl dancer without the regalia, even if you are a baby. Alise has already made Ramona a pair of moccasins. After the Facebook comment, I found myself thinking about fancy shawl dancing and a fancy shawl dance outfit. What would it take to put together one for Ramona?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. I spent a lot of time on the internet, looking at fancy shawl dance regalia. Finally, with the help of some internet sites, a Simplicity pattern, a large dose of what my father calls "field expediency," and a whole lot of love and determination, I sewed Ramona her first fancy shawl dance regalia.

In looking back, now that I am done with the project, I can only conclude I was delusional at the time I undertook it. An experienced sewer would think twice before jumping in on this, especially since these outfits are often made of satin and brocade and are elaborately appliqued. But there is something to be said for inexperience (and delusions). Fueled by what I can only assume is a grandmother-to-be's fierce desire to make something special for the baby-to-be, my lack of experience carried me into, through, and out of a three week immersion in sewing the outfit.

"That's why," said Azaz, "there was one very important thing about our quest that we couldn't discuss until you returned."
"I remember," said Milo, eagerly. "Tell me now."
"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
"Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
..."but if we'd told you then, you might now have gone—and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."***

Not that there were not pitfalls along the way. When you don't sew and don't know what you are doing, every step is a potential for disaster. My first pass at using bias tape to finish off the leggings resulted in this, looking like an awkward attempt at a potholder:

I almost cried. Then I sat down and ran the bias tape around continuously and came up with this:

Bill gets the tape measure and, kneeling, stretched it across the breakfast nook...He's storing up memories of decisions that seem right and ones that seem lucky, for the same reason footings are laid in order to build on. The tape snaps back into its case. "Now I understand what ten-feet-six by thirteen is,"says Bill. ****

The dress was almost my downfall. Halfway through sewing the pattern (this was the one piece for which I had a pattern, Simplicity 9784), I realized I had committed a major error in interpreting the sewing instructions. Small wonder, given my lack of sewing experience.

I emailed Cindy, who was my constant companion and champion throughout this project: Totally botched the skirt extensions—oh, they look great but they are on the inside and not the outside! I think it was kind of a "suggested" pleat in the back. So what I am going to do is cut them off entirely, because I cannot get them to the outside without destroying the whole skirt, and just set the skirt to the bodice. If it is totally screwed up, I will need more material...and start all over again on the dress. I hope not! 

As it turned out, it wasn't totally screwed up and I didn't start over. I also didn't complete the dress as per the pattern and instructions. In fact, I went so far afield that I folded them away and finished the piece with a fair amount of field expediency, to borrow again from my dad. Field expediency works. While the end result is not Simplicity 9784, it is a dress.

And when paired with the leggings, the vest/cape, and the fancy shawl, it is fancy shawl dancer regalia, just about the right size for a little one.

Ramona can go to powwows in style.

Many cultures, including a number of tribes, believe that the artist or crafter should make a deliberate mistake in a work to show that the world is not perfect and only God, the Creator, is capable of flawless work. I did not have to make any deliberate mistakes because I made so many without deliberation that there is no question of my humanity. Over the three weeks of sewing, I ran the needle into my finger countless times, and, in one brilliant move, ran the eye of the needle into my thumb. (Yes, it did hurt.)

The eye of Laura's needle slipped through a tiny hole in her thimble and ran into her finger. She shut her mouth hard and did not say a word.*****

As noted, fancy shawls are elaborately appliqued and beaded, often with a repeated motif such as a flower or bird. (My appliques are humble and within my limited skills.) As I thought about what motif to pick, I felt almost as though I were picking a spirit for Ramona. I could have picked something traditional and girly: butterflies or hummingbirds. I thought about fireflies and dragonflies. I could have picked something that carried a family connection: books or the Doyle owl. But in the end my heart told me to choose a comet, thinking of the blaze of light etching its way across the firmaments. As Ramona grows, she will have her own vision and find her own spirit, but for now, I am wrapping her in stars.

Back side of vest, with cape. Front of vest is seen in preceding picture.
For the longest time, I kept calling the fancy shawl, which is the piece I made first, by other names. Sometimes I would call it a spirit shawl. Sometimes I would call it a prayer shawl. It seemed to me to be all three. Of all of the pieces I made, this was the one that spoke to me most deeply of past and future.

The day came when I sewed the last stitch, which was on the white star on the cape back. In tying the past to the present and beyond, I sewed the trim on the cape with gold metallic thread I had originally bought years ago to sew trim on a Halloween costume for Ben. I knotted and snipped the thread, and then sat back. After days of working on and thinking through this project, it was done. After days of living with bobbins of threads and snippets of ribbon and satin, it was over. The next morning, the dance regalia headed west to Alise and Ben. 

I am not yet used to not working on the project. There are still stray pieces of thread on the floor of the kitchen (where I did most of the sewing). The extra bedroom, my staging area, is still in a jumble of cloth and spool of thread and pattern pieces. When I drafted this post, the package had not yet arrived, so I felt I was waiting, suspended somewhere between done and there. (And, as I indicated yesterday, I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever be able to publish this post!) 

As I sewed, sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine, I found myself thinking of Ramona and wondering about this unknown yet known and already loved child coming into our lives. I found myself stitching my hopes and dreams and love into the garments. 

So she had made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart.******

I hope she grows up healthy. I hope she is bright and strong and creative. I hope she has her parents' love of books.

And I hope she dances. With her parents, with her family, with her tribe, with the world.

*****Literary Annotations*****

While I sewed, quotes kept coming to mind, causing me to jump up and go track them down. The references are as follows:

*Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Rumer Godden
** A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
***The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Justin
****House, Tracy Kidder
*****The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
******Little Women, Louisa May Alcott


Marcia said...

April, you have instilled your own magic within Ramona's regalia, and she will forever carry you in her heart. Such an act of love on the part of her grandmother!

see you there! said...

Can't wait to see your baby girl in her regalia. I don't sew either and can fully imagine how big a project this was to take on.

And the mail! Your previous post made me shudder - I just no longer trust USPS. We get someone else's mail more times than would seem possible and wonder where our own is.


Anonymous said...

This is such a beautiful post and the regalia just turned out so marvelous. May she come into the world knowing how much she is already loved...and may she treasure this through all of her dancing days.