I just finished shortening, and hemming, seven dresses and two skirts. Some of these items I\’d been wearing for years, while others were recent acquisitions from the fabled church rummage sale in a nearby village. They all were way too long for me–clearly meant for giantesses–with the hems hovering in the vicinity of my ankles.
The cutting and sewing brought back memories of the elaborate hemming rituals of my childhood, conducted by my mother with the assistance of one of her sisters or the maid. In those days, the women of my family left serious dressmaking to professional seamstresses, limiting their own participation in the process to choosing the fabric and the pattern, and critiquing the result. But they all mended assiduously: they darned socks with the aid of a wooden egg; they turned my father\’s shirt collars when they got frayed; and when sheets started showing wear in the center, they cut them down the middle and sewed the edges together. And, because I was a growing child, they were forever letting out my seams and letting down my hems.
Letting down a hem involved my putting on the garment in question–the old hem having been previously ripped out and the fabric ironed flat–and standing in the middle of the room while my mother or her assistant orbited around me on her knees with a mouthful of pins, muttering \”Stand up straight! Turn to the right–no, this way. Not that far. Go back! Stand still for a minute, child.\”
When the hemmer determined that all the points in the circumference of the skirt were equidistant from the floor, she removed the dress and dismissed me. She then carefully turned under the raw edge of the hem and basted it in place. She removed the pins. She threaded a fine needle with thread the exact shade of the dress and, without using a knot to anchor the thread (knots are sloppy!), started sewing the hem, making sure to pick up just a single thread on the right side of the fabric with each stitch. We owned a treadle sewing machine, but nobody would have dreamed of using that coarse instrument to make a hem. Just as the Parisian haute couture workshops do to this day, hems at our house were always made by hand.
When the hem was finished, she snipped off the thread with scissors (never with the teeth, because doing that would wear grooves in the enamel) and ironed the finished product by placing a wet cloth between the dress and the iron. This gave off a toasty smell as delicious as the smell of fresh croissants. She pulled the dress off the ironing board, placed it on a hanger, and stored it in my armoire (there was not a single closet in our Art Nouveau apartment).
That was long ago and far away. In the following decades, life and the course of history changed radically, to say the least. Here is how I–who learned to hem in that apartment in Barcelona, with the balcony doors open to the sun and the sound of streetcars clanging by–hemmed my seven dresses and two skirts.
First, having no assistants, I put on each garment, stood in front of the mirror, and stuck a single pin in the approximate region where I thought the edge of the skirt should be. Then I set up the ironing board and got out a ruler. I measured the distance between the old edge and the proposed edge all around the skirt, sticking pins where the ruler more or less indicated. With a sharp pair of scissors I then cut the fabric from pin to pin, doing my best to keep a straight line.
I removed the pins, folded the raw edge over about a quarter of an inch, and set the fold with a hot iron. Then I folded the edge again, and ironed that, thus avoiding all that boring basting. I threaded my sewing machine with a thread the approximate shade of the garment (it\’s a 45 minute drive from my house to a store that sells any shade of thread other than black or white), and sewed the hem with–and my aunts would be dismayed to know this–a straight stitch.
I realize that all the points on the circumference of those hems I just finished are not equidistant from the ground. And you can definitely see the stitching on the right side of the fabric, in an imperfectly matched thread shade at that. But I\’m content that the job is done and I won\’t have to go around looking like an elderly child playing dress-up anymore.