Flannel folded on top of linen on top of velvet and taffeta and silk and calico. Smell of the dryer and iron, tinge of hot metal. The soft cut of thread on dry fingers. The whir of the machine behind the door.
The sewing room was more like a closet, hemmed in at a back corner of the house. Space as a wide as the window that let in the afternoon sun like a silent hallelujah.
It was my space, but only after my sister had married and gone, leaving behind the wood table with the dust of rotary-cut fabrics stuck in the trim. Sometimes in the quiet of mountain mornings after she left, I could still hear her sewing machine, piecing together blocks of bright colors into log-cabin quilts.
But I imagined many things. Like friends. Like future. Like flight toward some unknown, maybe a city of lights, maybe a concert hall at dusk with a grand piano on stage, a spotlight highlighting only the profile of my face.
With my own machine I occupied the sewing room. I ripped crooked seams, cut into weaves, sliced up yards of fabric. I pinned together panels of satin and chiffon, ran them under the teeth of the machine, metal catching, thread gathered.
A magenta gown with sheer soft-pink sleeves that fell over my fingers, medieval hem that fell to my toes.
A navy plaid flannel dress, laced up the front, tight but not too tight.
An emerald ball gown, edged in black ribbon, with lace under-sleeves and tiny black buttons, yards of glossy fabric posed with the cage of a hoop skirt.
These were dresses I could only wear as someone else, playing dress-up, calling on the ghosts of women of the past. I had more in common with them, the fainting women of the parlor, than I did with the neighbor girl down the street. Maybe this was what I was supposed to be, a woman of silk, with hidden legs and cramping belly.
Maybe it would all make sense if I were born in a different century, if I weren’t the only girl my age sewing dresses out of hunger.
I felt the flush of wanting to be desirable, a lady in the ballroom, waiting to be escorted by a gentleman across the floor.
But there was no one in the sewing room but me.
And on the other side of the door was no ballroom, but a house with a sister missing, a world with few gentle men.
And then my fingers got tired of marching the seams across fabric. And then my body got tired of wearing clothes not meant to be worn.
And I pulled the papers out from their hiding places, from inside drawers and under my bed and behind the door in the sewing room. And I started to write.