It’s a scrap. Just a scrap.
Buried at the bottom of my tub of fabric scraps, accumulated over decades of sewing and quilting.
But this scrap – oh, it’s different. So very different.
I plucked it from the pile where it had slept peacefully for decades, a smile playing at the edge of my lips. I recognized it like an old friend I hadn’t seen in an eternity. I ran my fingers across it, gently caressed its crinkled softness, and immediately had to sit down.
As the tears welled up in my eyes, the light in the room faded away as I was transported back in time…and back…and back.
It was cold outside. My child had celebrated with a birthday cake sporting two candles a few days earlier.
My husband and I both worked every minute of overtime we could possibly manage and picked up side jobs too. He was handy, and we made stereo entertainment cabinets for people that looked like bars. He did the construction and installed the burnt brick facade, and I did the finish work, including collage decoupage countertops. I wish I had a picture. They were beautiful. But pictures were a luxury back then.
Still, with a small child, two car payments, rent, utilities, daycare, and yes, college – we barely had time to breathe – and we had exactly no spare money. We knew exactly how many miles we drove each week, so we could budget for gasoline. Eating out was a dream that never happened. We accounted for every penny.
We were deliciously happy, though, and didn’t really notice the hardships. If anything, we thought we were incredibly fortunate to have successfully fit all those pieces together. College was our dream, and we were committed to achieving it. We both knew it was our only way “out.” We really didn’t want to live the rest of our lives not being able to afford a pizza and digging through the couch for change.
I was barely 20, not even old enough to vote. Far too young, especially by today’s standards, to carry that level of responsibility. My husband, slightly older, had already served in Vietnam, and returned, a beautiful but damaged soul.
We wouldn’t discover just how damaged until a few years later.
Our splurge for the year had been a sewing machine, purchased on sale in the late summer.
The Sewing Machine
We didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but we got tangled up in a classic “bait and switch” scenario. Advertising something very reasonably priced, except when you get to the store, they don’t have any left. However, they do have something just slightly more expensive that’s much better, and, oh, by the way, they’ll finance it too. There’s no reason NOT to purchase now, right?
I had been sewing for years when I lived at home, before I married. Sewing your own was much less costly than purchasing ready-made clothes, and I really, REALLY wanted a sewing machine. However, we knew what our budget would allow, and that more-expensive-but-better sewing machine simply was not in the budget.
As sad as I was to do it, we were literally walking out of the store. We agreed that the payments just didn’t fit our circumstances. However, they tried one more time, and their final offer included material. Fabric! Free! They had me. Then, as now, I loved fabric, and we really did need some new clothes. We’d use our clothing budget.
I picked out the softest, most wonderful purple velvety fabric along with a luscious coordinating polyester – enough to make all three of us a beautiful outfit. Well, almost enough. I already had a yellow blouse to wear. There just wasn’t enough of that fabric. How I wish I had a scrap of ANY of that!
I bought a pattern for my husband’s pants because a tailored zipper was complex, but I drafted patterns for the other pieces based on measurements from existing clothes.
Except for that skirt. That was my original design, and I was SOOO proud of it. I kept that skirt for years, long after it no longer fit.
These were our “good clothes” for a long time – at least for me and my husband. Of course, the baby outgrew that outfit shortly.
That meant, in addition to everything else, we had to make payments on that sewing machine, too. Regardless, I spent several weeks blissfully sewing, happy as a clam.
As the leaves began to transform themselves into a vibrant crayon box, we began thinking about the holidays.
The Holiday Season
In the north country, it begins to get nippy in October. Nights become crisp, Mums bloom, apples ripen, and crops are harvested. Families visit orchards on the weekends, buying pumpkins, Indian Corn, and squash, and Mother Nature begins to put herself to bed for the winter.
By Thanksgiving, it’s downright cold and usually has snowed at least once, even if it’s just a dusting. If you hadn’t begun thinking about Christmas gifts for the family by Halloween, it would probably be too late by Thanksgiving. Lots of gifts were handmade. Virtually nothing was last-minute or spur-of-the-moment.
We had to plan and save or figure out something wonderful to do for gifts. Anything extra required careful planning. Some employers gave Christmas bonuses and needed their employees to work extra hours during the holiday season. The best did both of those things, plus gifted a frozen turkey.
That particular year, there was simply no money to do much of anything. It seemed that in addition to everything else, someone’s car was always breaking and needing some kind of repair. It would be another decade before I purchased an actual never-used brand spanking new car, and even then, it was the cheapest one possible.
Yet, Christmas cometh…
Fortunately, we did get to work extra hours and received a turkey, which helped immensely. The overtime would be used for gifts, sewing machine payments, and gas to get to the Christmas festivities. The turkey would provide us many meals, including soup for lunches for some time. We had a freezer and made good use of it.
On my side of the family, we had Mom and Dad. Dad was actually my much-beloved stepfather, who I couldn’t have loved more had he been my biological father. Truth be told, maybe I loved him extra for picking me and loving me so much.
To be very clear, Mom and Dad ALWAYS said they didn’t want or need anything, and as an adult, now, I fully understand that. They truly meant it. But as a young mother, proud of my independence, I WANTED to do something for Mom and Dad. I loved them. It wasn’t an obligation.
We didn’t exchange gifts with my adult siblings. Maybe we’d bring a tin of home-baked cookies, fresh bread, or an applesauce cake rollup, but nothing was expected except showing up for the Christmas festivities and having a good time together.
On my husband’s side of the family, there were more people. His mother was raising his three younger siblings, at home, and while she said the same thing – that she didn’t need anything – we really had to do something for the children. Furthermore, she was not well and really did need things.
My husband’s father had been killed when he was young, and his stepfather came and went. I don’t remember if he was present or absent that year. We often didn’t know in advance.
We didn’t exchange gifts with his adult brother either, and his other brother had died just a couple of years earlier in a tragic accident. Christmas was always difficult for his family, and we did our best to be sure everyone was cared for in one way or another.
Then, of course, we had our own son. And what was I going to do for my husband?
That was nine people I needed to figure out a gift for.
By now, you’ve probably guessed, the answer had something to do with that sewing machine.
Off to the Mall
I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I did know that I could make something much less expensively than we could purchase anything similar. But what could I possibly make for my husband’s young siblings?
I needed inspiration, so off we went to the mall. We needed to visit Santa anyway.
Each of the two malls had a fabric store. Then, there was the discount store located elsewhere, House of Fabrics – that’s the store I preferred. They often had the best deals – but we needed to look everywhere first – just in case.
For years, I had been purchasing remnant fabrics to make clothes for me and Mother. We worked with whatever remnant fabrics we could find, and often the resulting clothes turned out quite nicely. Here’s Mom in 1970 wearing a dress I made for her out of a remnant.
A remnant is the remaining fabric when most of that fabric is sold off the bolt. Most of the time, that meant less than a yard remained, but sometimes there was more, especially if they wanted to get rid of it for some reason. The good news was that remnants were and often still are significantly less than the original fabric, per yard.
If fabric at that time cost, say, $2.00 per yard, a remnant might cost a dollar per yard, or even less – especially when the store wanted to clear out the remnants. Sometimes the entire box of remnants was marked down another 50% or 75%, and trust me, when that happened, we dug through that box like hound dogs digging for a bone.
Sometimes, stores purchased large quantities of discounted fabric. Probably overstocks and mill-run ends with the explicit intention of running an ad and selling them cheaply.
While I don’t think this ad included the fabrics I bought, I very, very clearly remember that the fabric was 88 cents per yard, and because I was purchasing several yards and it was on sale, I could buy the fabric for 77 cents per yard. That was a great value!
But what could I make for everyone with this unusual knit fabric?
The colors were actually quite attractive – red, green, hot pink, blue, black, yellow and pumpkin. Sometimes, close-out or overstock fabric was strange, including weird colors, which is often why it was marked down – but this wasn’t.
I walked around the store, looking for ideas, when I spotted the pattern.
Bathrobes! Something like this pattern – several sizes in one envelope, so you only had to purchase one pattern.
And the best thing was that I could modify the pattern for males or females, and any size. It didn’t include a child’s size, but I could do that myself.
Bathrobes would be personal, fun, and bright – and we could hide something fun in the pockets. Yes – bathrobes were the answer!!!
I needed between 3 and 6 yards for each bathrobe, depending on the size, which meant that I needed about 35 yards of fabric, more or less. That’s a HUGE amount of fabric, almost as long as a small house if you rolled it all out at once.
And I needed enough of any one color to make a bathrobe. Plus, a little extra just in case I made a mistake.
The really GREAT news was that I could purchase 35 yards of fabric for about $27, plus the pattern and some matching thread.
What a relief! I was going to get out the door for under $50!
And – I’d make matching bathrobes for my husband and toddler. They would both love that!
The bad news – it was already Thanksgiving-ish – so I had to make roughly three bathrobes a week, PLUS work and do everything else I had to do.
We had recently moved into an apartment with two bedrooms and a basement. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.
We set my sewing machine up on an old table the previous tenants had left in the basement because it was too heavy to heft up those stairs. By basement, I’m not referring to a nicely finished walkout. Nosiree! Our basement was a cold, damp concrete block basement with a concrete floor and a small “garden window” for light, in addition to one lightbulb. I didn’t care, though, because it was SO MUCH better than anything I had before. It was roomy and quiet with a table. I could certainly make this work.
That was also the year I found plain, undecorated Christmas ornaments stacked beside the neighbor’s trash. They were in the original boxes – never used. I salvaged those and decorated them with glitter. Not only was everyone going to get a bathrobe, they were going to receive a customized ornament, too.
There was no stopping me now. I had a plan!
Never mind that everyone’s bathrobe managed to include some amount of bonus embedded glitter.
Each fabric had to be cut into specific lengths as designated in the pattern, then the pattern pieces were pinned to the fabric according to the layout. The largest bathrobes had to be made first because the pattern was cut down to a smaller size for each succeeding one.
After being pinned in place, the fabric pieces were then cut out around the pattern pieces with a pair of scissors. Seam allowances and certain locations were marked for matching to their companion pieces.
The pieces were then ready for the beginning of construction.
The bathrobe pieces were matched together, then pinned together and sewn. I always sewed double or French seams for clothing that was going to get heavy wear – and I expected these would. These bathrobes weren’t lined, but the edges needed to be finished. I made cuffs for the sleeves and a facing for the front, neck edges, collars, and bottom hem. This was one of those projects that got more complex as it progressed – in part because there was no pattern or instructions for that facing, collar, or edging.
This is why I always, always purchase extra fabric.
I finished the first bathrobe, but it took about a week, and I was in trouble. Of course, I could only work in the evenings and at night, after we ate supper, as it was called then, and after the very active toddler was in bed and safely asleep. I was now down to between two and three weeks with eight bathrobes to make, two of which had to remain secret until Christmas morning. Plus, we were both working more overtime than ever.
How was I possibly going to finish before Christmas?
Bless My Husband
Like the trooper he was, my husband decided to help – and unlike the two-year-old who also wanted to help – my husband really was a help.
His factory job began in the wee hours of the morning. If I recall, he had to be at work by 5:00 or 5:30, and his job was physically exhausting. Plus, we both had second jobs. So, by the time I was sitting down to sew – he really needed to be in bed.
However, he decided he could pin and cut fabric for me with some direction/instruction – and that’s exactly what he did. He worked on one side of the table, and I worked on the other.
I remember looking across the table at him working diligently. The scrunched-up face he made when he was concentrating – and the cat face he tried to make when he made a mistake and felt like he needed to ask for forgiveness.
That was so doggone cute – there was no way to ever be mad at him. I suspect he knew that. We both laughed out loud – sometimes until we cried. Plus, he tried so hard, and I was incredibly grateful for my partner – even a partner in sewing. Something he probably didn’t want to do – but he never complained or said a word.
So, in the evenings, after we ate and I packed his lunch box for the following day, I would modify the patterns to the next smaller size, if needed, lay the fabric out, and tell him where to pin the pieces. I’d sit down across from him and sew on the bathrobe already under construction.
I could hear the tissue paper patterns crinkling as he unfolded and smoothed them. Sometimes, those pins bit us, too.
When he finished pinning, he’d ask if that looked right, and when it did, he cut the pieces out with dressmaker shears and carefully labeled them for me.
Then, he’d go to bed for the night, and I’d sew for a few more hours. Often, I’d lay the bathrobe I was sewing aside and work on his and our son’s bathrobes after he went to bed. I had to keep those hidden.
In the mornings, after he had already left for work, I got myself and the toddler ready for the day, prepared breakfast and my lunch, drank a prodigious amount of coffee because I had stayed up way too late, did the daycare drop-off, and was at work by 7 or 8, depending on the schedule. By then, the sun was coming up, but our day had begun hours earlier.
We finished in the nick of time and were so excited to wrap those gifts for Christmas that year. We had carefully chosen the fabric color for each person and included something small in the pocket of each bathrobe. Of course, everyone received their own ornament, too.
I still have the one I made for my husband with our wedding date on it. It’s put far away.
On Christmas morning, I gave my boys their blue bathrobes, and I almost couldn’t get them out of them in time to go to Christmas at his mother’s.
My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve at my mother’s house. I suspect that was a throwback to old German family traditions, but it also worked out quite well because my brother and his family, and my aunts on Dad’s side could all come on Christmas Eve.
I had selected pink for my mother’s bathrobe and pumpkin for Dad’s.
Yes, pumpkin. I knew when I first saw that fabric that whatever I made, the pumpkin fabric would be for him.
Dad was the pumpkin man.
I won’t say he was known far and wide as the pumpkin man, but certainly up and down our road and in our family.
One of the first things Dad did, as a courtship offering to Mom, was to bring pumpkin blossoms as a gift. To cook, that is, not as a bouquet.
Mom had absolutely no idea what to do with them or how to cook them. Later, of course, this was a huge joke within the family. He was offering her a delicious delicacy, available for only a couple weeks each year, and we were certainly not properly appreciative. Hint: Dredge them in an egg wash, roll them in flower, and fry them crispy in hot oil in a cast-iron skillet. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
Dad planted pumpkins in mounds in the garden in the spring; they flowered in the summer, and any flowers left on the vines would mature into pumpkins by fall. You removed extra blossoms, fried them up, and ate them.
And boy, come fall, did we have pumpkins in all shapes and sizes.
The neighbor kids came and got pumpkins. Eventually, grandkids did too. We made pumpkin everything, canned it, eventually froze it, and gave pumpkins away to anyone who would take them. Of course, Dad was the neighborhood supplier of jack-o-lanterns.
Everyone is remembered for something, a legacy, and I’m sure Dad was remembered for many years for his pumpkins.
So, Dad would get a pumpkin-colored bathrobe.
Even if Dad hadn’t liked his pumpkin bathrobe, he would never have told me or let on in any way.
As the years wore on, I never saw him wear any other bathrobe, ever again. So, I knew he truly loved it. Now, I appreciate that it was because we made it for him – but I didn’t realize that at the time.
Parts of it were eventually worn threadbare, but Dad insisted it was “just fine.” I offered to make him a new one. “Nope,” he said – he liked that one.
Two More Decades
By the time Dad no longer needed his bathrobe, Labor Day weekend in 1994, two decades later, there were places worn so thin you could see through them, the pockets were sagging from years of use, I had repaired it multiple times, and there were cigarette ash burns where the ashes had fallen off his cigarettes as he sat in his bathrobe every single evening in his chair.
I can close my eyes and still see him sitting there.
Such beautiful, warm, fond memories. And such exquisite pain.
I’m so incredibly glad that I made those bathrobes. Mom wore hers for years, too.
Not only is the memory of Dad in his bathrobe, and how much he loved it, near and dear to my heart – so are the memories that my husband and I weren’t aware we were making as we constructed them.
I would lose my husband to the demons of his military service in Vietnam not long after. Years before I lost my Dad in 1994. I would lose that child, too.
All those people are gone.
So, seeing that scrap, the last physical remnant of that Christmas, knocked the wind right out of me and made my knees weak.
So many visceral memories just came flooding back, like the dam gate had been opened. I had no idea the scrap was in that tub, of course.
And yes, I had to take some time this week to grieve the people who have since passed on – and the life, or lives, I thought I was going to live – but was robbed of that opportunity.
But you know what – it’s a spiritual sin to grieve happiness.
And we were happy. Exquisitely, soulfully happy.
No one wants to endure the pain of loss and departure, but I wouldn’t give up one day, not one minute of that poverty-stricken time. We all had each other – encompassed in a cocoon of love for that short time. It wouldn’t last long. And it was perfect.
No one, and nothing, could ever take that time away from us.
And in a strange way, I felt that Dad and my husband had come to visit me once again.
So here I am. Decades later, in a far-away place, living a completely different life than I could ever have imagined – with absolutely none of those people.
They are not dead – they have simply transitioned. Their energy and positive life forces are not diminished. Just distant, right? I accepted that and made peace with it long ago. Right?
Then, I dug in that scrap bin, and they came rushing back to life.
What do I do with this?
Ironically, I was making a scrap quilt when I stumbled across this, my oldest scrap.
I’ve moved across the country, not once, not twice, but three times with this scrap unwittingly in tow and from house to house many times.
It was always with me, just as Dad is. I just didn’t realize it.
The scrap quilt I’m making is a star design. I knew, immediately, that Dad’s pumpkin fabric was meant to be included in my pumpkin star.
The individual blocks are made by sewing scrap strips together on a foundation block of fabric.
There was also some pumpkin fabric in the scrap bin as well. For some reason – no idea why – I’ve always been partial to pumpkins. 😊 They have always reminded me of Dad and evoked such fond memories.
So, now his pumpkin bathrobe fabric is permanently neighbors with other pumpkin fabric – as it should be.
My daughter, who my Dad utterly adored, selected sunflowers for her wedding theme long after he had transitioned to the other side. Above, at far right, his bathrobe fabric is paired with sunflower fabric from her wedding quilt.
The largest piece of the bathrobe fabric scrap is here, at lower right. The middle strip is dark, but is not the bathrobe fabric. The star beside the pumpkin fabric signifies Dad watching over us. The light peach fabric with blue flowers, against the pumpkin fabric is from something I made Mom, and is in her memory quilt too.
I’m assembling the individual blocks into groups. Here, I’m experimenting with laying them out together. I like the Halloween jack-o-lantern.
Each one of these scraps in this quilt remains from something else I made. It’s much like watching my life pass before my eyes, one scrap at a time. A trip right down memory lane.
The pieces aren’t sewn together yet, but the star will look something like this.
The finished star will be about 32 by 32 inches and will be joined by eight more stars in different colors – all from scraps.
Just a Scrap
Our lives are made up of scraps, pieces of who we were, combined with new circumstances, new jobs, new homes, and new people to create a new whole. We evolve.
After I finished cutting the pumpkin bathrobe scrap for the star quilt, I now have several smaller scraps instead of one larger one. Isn’t that the way of life, though?
I can’t help but think about DNA and recombination.
The pieces of what and who from the past recombine in us to become something vibrant and new.
It’s how we survive.
So I took Dad’s leftover scraps and put them back in my now much-reduced orange scrap bin with their brethren.
But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t leave them there.
I wanted them and what they symbolize closer to me, so I gathered the small pieces and put them in my little “Far from the eyes, close to the heart” dish I bought overseas as a student in 1970, just a very few years before I made that bathrobe for Dad.
I will use the larger small pieces to make a mini-quilt to sit under this little dish, with pumpkin fabrics of course, and maybe a sunflower too.
Dad’s scraps, always reminding me of the goodness and love radiated by that man, will keep me company in my office now. He’d like that! I’m guessing it will someday sit on my daughter’s shelf or in her office, too.
When I finish my Scrappy Stars quilt, I’ll sleep beneath those pieces of Dad’s bathrobe and at least one piece of Mother’s clothing – their love still enveloping me.
Because, you see, it wasn’t, and isn’t just a scrap. It’s a piece of many people’s lives.
I never realized I would be the benefactor of Dad’s bathrobe made of inexpensive close-out fabric all those years ago. That it would live on for so long. That our creation constructed that cold, broke, winter in the basement would warm and comfort our loved ones, then me, and eventually, my daughter, who wasn’t even born yet then.
When life gives you scraps, build something beautiful. And, of course, give them new life in quilts.
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