Sewing

By Ramona Walhof

Ramona Walhof grew up in a small farming community in rural Iowa. She and her brother and sister were born blind. Yearning for something to do during one long, dull summer, Ramona asked her mother (who was an accomplished seamstress) to teach her to sew. The story that follows is her account of a lifetime of satisfaction and practical good—from hobby, to employment, to family budget-stretcher—gained from this rapidly disappearing art.

Along the way, Ramona (who was widowed in her early 20's) also raised two children, owned and managed a commercial bakery, taught school, and directed employment programs for the blind. Today she operates a very successful public relations business and is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho. She also serves as a national officer in the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what she has to say:

When I learned to sew, I never thought much about blindness. I didn't avoid thinking about blindness. It was a part of me. But when I needed a method to do something that others did visually, I just did what seemed most likely to work. Nobody suggested that blindness should prevent sewing until I knew better.

As I grew older, I came across blind girls and women who had been actively discouraged from doing things I learned as a child. Sewing for me has provided employment, relaxation, challenge, and accomplishment. It has helped me to learn about fabrics, styles, and colors. There are things I never attempted (some because of blindness) but most because of lack of time. Perhaps one day I may still take up some new kinds of sewing such as quilting. I know it would be delightful to do if I ever get to it.

When I was a young child, summers were boring. My brother, sister, and I attended the School for the Blind during the school year. We were very glad to go home at the end of May each spring, but we didn't have a lot of friends in our home town, and we got tired of not having enough to do. We took swimming lessons, participated in local church activities, helped with cleaning and cooking (washing dishes was the worst), visited with grandparents and cousins. We hauled as many Braille books home from school as we could fit in the car with all our clothes and other possessions. My brother managed to talk our Dad into some ham radio equipment and entertained himself with that. My sister and I generally rationed our books some and got Braille magazines, but there never was really enough to do.

One summer, (the one after my fifth grade year), I decided to try to solve the problem. I announced to my mother with the diplomacy customary for me at the time, "This summer you are going to teach me to sew." My mother had been making clothes for us as long as I could remember. We got some school clothes from stores and from catalogs, but the ones she made were always nice, and we could help decide what they would look like. Several people in our family sew, and my mother had a buttonholer on her machine, so people would bring their garments to our house to do the buttonholes. So it seemed natural for me to want to sew.

My mother didn't resist at all. She responded with a question, "What do you want to make?" I never asked her what she thought about it, but I really don't think she was shocked. Perhaps a little uncertain about some of the techniques. Actually, techniques were not a problem. I told her I wanted to make gym clothes. I figured a few mistakes could be tolerated in gym clothes. I think that neither my mother nor I knew that blindness was much of a factor, so it wasn't.

We decided that the gym shirt should have a plain round neckline with cap sleeves. This was my idea so that I would not have to gather the sleeves and set them in. My mother cut a pattern out of newspaper, designing it from something else she had. I pinned the pattern on the material and cut it out. Then my mother realized that she had forgotten the cap sleeves, so they had to be set in after all. This made the project more complicated for a beginner, but the gym shirt looked great to me. I learned to guide the material through the sewing machine using a quilting guide my mother had. I learned to pin seams and hems closely and remove the pins just before they came to the presser foot. I learned to move the gathers on the gathering thread and put them where they should be when I pinned the gathered piece to the one it needed to be sewed to. Really, it wasn't as hard as I had feared. I wore that gym shirt all through sixth grade. I don't think we ever got to the shorts.

Marking darts could be done with pins or basting threads. There were so many different kinds of darts that it took me some practice to get them all figured out. Gradually, I got so I could judge the size of darts pretty accurately without having to use the marks from the pattern itself.

When we came home for Christmas that year, I made a yellow skirt. It turned out all right, too. This time I used the tissue paper pattern. My cutting technique seemed obvious to me, and my mother never commented on it. Only later did we learn that blind people weren't supposed to be able to cut around tissue paper patterns.

I held the scissors with my right hand the way most people do. I looped my left hand over the top of the scissors with the thumb and fingers opposite each other right at the part of the scissors that did the cutting. If the edge of the pattern was at the top of the bottom scissors blade, I could feel tissue paper on one side and fabric on the other. If the scissors were not right at the edge of the pattern, I would have paper or fabric on both sides of the bottom blade. The more practice I got, the better I got, but even as a beginner, I could cut reasonably well along the edge of the pattern.

Patterns come in an envelope in big sheets, and my mother would cut the pieces apart and trim on the cutting lines. She never really read the instructions to me. Rather, she taught me basic concepts about how to set in sleeves, turn down a skirt band over the seam, set in a zipper, assemble and attach a collar, etc. She also taught me to identify pieces of garments by their shapes. Sleeves would tend to be round at one end and square at the other. Blouses and dress tops had big arcs cut out where the sleeves would be attached. The curves at the front and back of slacks and shorts were shaped differently from sleeve curves. The curve at the back was bigger than the curve at the front for slacks patterns, but the curve in the front of the top where sleeves are in-set is bigger than the one at the back.

Much later I learned that the instructions printed with the patterns could often be helpful when taking on a new style of garment. I am sure my mother read the instructions, because she often used them when we were laying out fabric before we cut it out. But we often found better ways to make efficient use of the material than the patterns showed. I don't remember what I made during the summer after my sixth grade year, but I am sure there was something.

In any case when I enrolled in home economics in seventh grade, I already knew some of the basics about sewing. Our teacher was new that year and had no background working with blind girls. Our first project was to make an apron. There was no cutting. Everything was on a straight line and could be torn with the grain of the fabric. The aprons had a blue border at the bottom with a flowered print above. The bands and sashes were straight pieces. The sashes had to be hemmed, and aprons had to be gathered and attached to the bands.

There were eight girls in my class, and most of us could sew a hem fairly straight by the time the aprons were done. The teacher really didn't want us to run a machine without having her present to watch. I disregarded this instruction without too much teacher protest.

I learned about the seam guide in that class. You can buy a little metal hump that screws into the top of the machine cabinet which is better than my mother's quilting guide. For the rest of the first semester our home economics class cooked. Second semester was the real sewing class. My friend and I decided to make tangerine skirts, but they were different patterns.

The teacher's first notion was that she would cut out all the patterns. Unfortunately for her, I was there to object. So I cut out my own pattern. I also offered to help other kids learn to do it. Some of the girls really didn't have much trouble. Some tended to place the fingers of their guiding hand at the end of the scissors instead of where the cutting occurred. They were constantly being warned to be careful not to cut themselves. Since I thought everybody knew better than to close the scissors with fingers between the blades, these warnings seemed unnecessary. Certainly, some of the students were more fearful of scissors than they needed to be. We also learned how to assemble all our different patterns.

When I cut out my blouse, I made an error. I should have laid the back on the fold, but I cut it on the edge of the fabric, thus requiring a seam where there should have been none. If I had not been so determined to do it myself, the teacher doubtless would have found this error before it was done. Some students were much too cooperative in my judgment and did not do as much of the work themselves as they could and should have.

We could all thread a regular needle using a needle threader with a fine wire loop. When the wire loop is in the eye of the needle, the thread is brought through the loop. When the needle threader is removed from the needle the thread passes through the eye. Large eye needles made this easy. Our teacher encouraged basting, but most of us didn't like to do it. We all learned to baste, though, because we were required to baste zippers. We also learned to hem garments with an overcast stitch. It was desirable not to see the thread on the outside of the hem. With practice, some of us got pretty good at this.

Threading the machines presented another challenge. When threading the machine, one needed to pass the thread through several metal or plastic loops. No one had trouble learning where to put the thread, but we would not notice loops of thread that got caught in other places while we were doing the threading.

It took me a while, but I finally realized that if I kept the thread taut from spool to needle while doing the threading, I could tell if there were errors or loops where they should not be. We always blamed the tension if something went wrong, and I feel sure that we did inadvertently turn the dial at the tension sometimes.

With experience, I learned to tell from the stitching itself when the top and bobbin tensions were balanced. My mother was casual about making constructive suggestions about things like this and more helpful than anyone else before or since. She would tell me what she looked for, and I could try to learn the same information by touch. More often than not it worked. Everyone (including me) tended to rely on somebody's eyesight for certain judgments at first. If a sighted person wasn't conveniently available to help when wanted, this became a nuisance and provided motivation for all of us to develop techniques that a blind person could use independently.

It is surprising for me now to think about how difficult it sometimes seemed to feel proper stitching. If we had expected to be able to do it from the beginning, we all would have found it easier. As it was, this took some time and experience.

I continued to make clothes during vacations and in home economics. I enjoyed the making and the wearing of the clothes. I also enjoyed making things for others, but seldom had enough confidence to do it. I made a shirt for my dad and a baby dress for a cousin, and I think they were OK.

During college I did not have access to a sewing machine and did very little sewing. Shortly after I was married, though, a sewing machine seemed important to have. We bought a cheap one, a portable one that weighed a ton. It was very heavy to lift on and off the dining room table, so it stayed at one end while we ate at the other during many weeks. I usually put it away on weekends.

I took a set of big bath towels that had been wedding presents but were not being used and made my husband a bathrobe. He was pleased and wore it a lot which pleased me. We still have a picture of him sleeping in a recliner in that bathrobe with our first baby on his shoulder also asleep. When I got pregnant, I knew I could save money by making maternity clothes. I did make some, and my mother made me some, too. We didn't spend much. Then, of course, it is even more fun to sew for your children.

Knits were the big thing in the early 70's so I took a short course at the YMCA in stretch and sew. We didn't sew during class. We took our assignments home, so the teacher had no occasion to worry about blindness. If she didn't explain something, I asked, but this was easy for all. I made pants and a shirt for my daughter who was a toddler and a matching set for my son who was a tiny baby. I also made a shirt for myself. I offered to make my husband a shirt, but it never got done. It was already cheaper to buy t-shirts than to make them.

After my husband died and I returned to work at the Commission for the Blind in Iowa, I was immediately assigned to teach sewing along with Braille. My students all wanted to sew with knits, so the stretch and sew class was far more valuable than I had ever dreamed. Some of my students were beginners, and some had far more sewing experience than I. This concerned me at first, but I found that we could learn from each other in wonderful ways.

Several of my students went home and took up sewing a lot. Others did less but enjoyed it. One young woman had been a professional seamstress in an alterations department for a big store. She chose to make a jacket that had three parallel rows of top stitching for trim that were supposed to be done in three different colors. I cautioned her about this, but that is the kind of thing she liked. I thought that her control as a newly blinded seamstress might not be as good as desirable for something that showy, but it really turned out fine. I cannot say how many students I taught sewing or how many outfits I made for myself and my children during the next several years, but I gained a lot of experience.

It was during that time that people began using machines with cams and other kinds of fancy stitches. These made sewing even more fun! Making decorative items or decorations on clothes was something we had to do. We just couldn't ignore these interesting new sewing machine features.

When my daughter was in second grade, she joined Bluebirds. They were supposed to make red felt vests, and none of the mothers wanted to take on this project. I thought felt vests were not sensible for second graders. One slip of the scissors would be ugly, and felt was expensive. I offered to have the group make skirts at my house. Other mothers thought I was crazy, but agreed. It was simple—use navy blue rectangular pieces of polyester knit fabric. Turn down the top enough to pull three-quarter inch elastic through. Turn up the bottom two inches and sew red rickrack around at the top of the hem. There was only one seam required and no hand sewing. The girls could use the sewing machines if their mothers would let them. The skirts were cute as they could be, and the girls were proud as peacocks.

By the time my daughter was in sixth grade, it was clear to me that she wanted more clothes than I was willing to buy. I told her she could probably have more clothes throughout junior high and high school if she would learn to sew. She was more than eager. She chose to make a three-tiered white skirt with purple trim. The gathers on three tiers wore her out, so I helped, but she did the rest. She wore it for her sixth grade graduation and looked great. When she was called to the front for the top award from the school, I had tears and wished one more time that my husband could have been there to share it with us.

Anyway, Laura was a confirmed sewer, although she still had a lot to learn. We began to learn about new kinds of patterns together. While she was in high school, she made casual clothes, but I did the more formal ones. When kids need something for school, you don't always get much notice. When Laura joined the orchestra, she needed a black formal. Her friend's mother knew the right pattern, and I made it. For her first formal dance, I made her a mint green long satin dress with puffed sleeves and an inverted "v" below the bust. She had a good bustline, and the dress looked good on her. She took it to college with her, when the time came.

Now, Laura does more sewing than I do. She got practice during college and made a friend's wedding dress. Today, for me sewing is a hobby, but it is there when needed or wanted.

I love to share this experience with others. It is a way of being creative and busy. One summer I went looking for clothes and just couldn't find much. Before long I switched to shopping in fabric stores and had the clothes I liked. Making a work dress can be done in about the time needed for two shopping trips, and if shopping isn't going well, sewing is more satisfying. I also can make clothes fit the way I want them to. If I ever have grandchildren, there will probably be things to do for them. Time will tell.

If I ever have an opportunity to teach sewing again, I will be much more confident about what projects my students should attempt. One more thing. For a blind person who likes to read recorded books and magazines, sewing is one of those things you can do while reading.