Home Economics, called “Home Ec.” among students, was for me “Home Ick!” At least my moniker wasn’t redundant. “Economics” comes from Latin and Greek words that both mean “household management.” Evidently something happened along the way to make “economics” the mathematical discipline of rational decision makers that it is today, unfortunately. We have been paying for that in big ways. The housing crisis, just one example of extreme irrationality, indicating that household management has been exchanged for misplaced “rigor” to the detriment of the global economy. Anyway, I found myself in Home Ick feeling like an alien from another planet. My family had just moved across town in the middle of the school year, and to me it felt as though I had changed universes, arriving just in time for the sewing unit. It was a stunning lesson in humility.
My oldest sister was a seamstress. But she not only sewed, she also designed what she sewed — suits. Yes, suits! I could not make this up. Cloistered in her own room while my other sister and I shared one, in her artistic enclave, she created magic of all sorts including a three piece silk suit. It was exquisite. Like my grandma who knit her own stunning suits, Christine had talent for design and could execute. I was good at riding a bike.
I had never sewed anything. Oh, maybe I had sewn buttons on fabric squares in Girl Scouts when weren’t doing something cool like making fires. But I wondered why anyone would waste time sewing when there were trees to climb, Still, I was a good student, so I was expected to perform in what was considered an “academic” class in the mid ‘60s in Salt Lake City. But of course, it was only for girls. The boys were probably playing basketball. I was taller than almost all of them, why wasn’t I playing basketball?
I wasn’t. I was trying to learn to sew. Sewing is a process, a careful tedious process. First you have to decide what you are going to sew. Well, the teacher decided for me – a skirt with an elastic waistband. It was the easiest project on the list. I would have preferred tennis shorts, but that wasn’t an option. Then you have to pick the material. My mom did that. But then I had to take over – laying out the material carefully, completely flat, folded neatly exactly in the middle, right sides together; pinning the ever-fussy, thin tissue paper pattern to the material, again lined up perfectly straight, the pattern pieces perfectly flat, which was impossible because they had been folded a thousand times to fit into a very small envelope; cutting out the pieces exactly on the lines. There was no room for error in these processes. You needed machine-like precision. Unfortunately, these first few steps were the easy parts.
Then the real challenges started. Reading the directions and matching the words to the pictures. I was never good at spatial recognition, interpreting three dimensions drawn as two, so the pictures only served to confuse me. In those days the instructions were written by English speakers, but it seemed as though they were written, as so many do-it-yourself instructions are today, by someone who had never spoken a word of the only language I knew. Finally, I did figure out which of the first two pieces went together and in what way. The next step was to pin the edges together to keep the two pieces from finding their own way when you started sewing them together. They were supposed to stay together – forever. No drifting. Well, of course, already at the end of my tolerance for tedious work, I figured I could just get to the sewing. Oops. The pieces went their own ways. It was as if one were a Tea Party piece and the other a Minnesota Democrat piece. They did not want any of this permanent togetherness. That’s where the seam ripper came in handy. Thankfully it was on the mandatory supply list. By now, I was ready to rip. I ripped! Oh, and of course the fabric as well as the thread holding the pieces together in the off-kilter way, also ripped. Now my skirt would have little random holes along the first errantly-stitched seam, unless… The next bad decision was to downsize that one seam by about two inches. Oops again. Now the symmetry of the skirt was shot to hell. Oh, we didn’t say, “hell” in Salt Lake City schools, so it was shot all to heck. A sentiment that doesn’t convey the depth of emotion suffered by a super physical eighth grader trapped in a room on a beautiful spring day trying to rip seams – an even more demanding task than sewing them.
There are more details, but the bottom line is that I ended up with something resembling a skirt. It was a “C-“skirt, the grade reserved for the pathetic who at least try. And when I wore it (you have to be asking yourself why I ever did), I got that nice question, “So, did you make that?” That was my main problem with sewing. Even the almost-blind could tell from miles away which of the clothes hanging on my giraffe-like frame were the products of my own special talents.
After eighth grade I was pretty sure I was through with “Home Ick.” But then we moved again, just as I was starting high school, into a district that required a full year of Ick to graduate. Of course this was, as before, a gender-based requirement. I couldn’t believe my luck! The prescribed time for taking your Home Ick was in your sophomore year. But I held onto the hope and belief that if I waited it out, the requirement would change. Surely before I hit my senior year, Home Ick would have gone the way of the dinosaur, or at least the requirement would be reduced to one semester, or boys would have to learn a little cooking and sewing too, opening up a whole new culture in the classroom. None of those things happened. I ended up in Home Ick, the only senior among sophomores.
This class started with cooking. Again, it was all so tedious. I had watched my mom cook at home. A little of this, a little of that. Some stirring here, some flour on the floor, everything in the pot with the melted chocolate. The brownies were fabulous – chewy and gooey. Into the oven in fewer than 10 minutes. That’s not what happens in Home Ick. In Home Ick, everything is measured as though you are making a medicine to save a life that you will surely lose if one grain of sugar less than a cup ends up in the bowl – the bowl with the dry ingredients. The wet ingredients have to go in another bowl. And of course it takes a separate pot to melt the chocolate. Three pans to wash for brownies that when they came out of the oven had the ooey gooey cooked right out of them. So pointless!
After cooking it was more sewing. This time I made not only a skirt but a jacket, an Easter suit. And I wore it on Easter, but it never saw the light of day after that. Interestingly, just last week I was at the Colorado History Museum looking through a display commemorating 1968, and I swear I saw the same bright yellow, orange, and lime green daisy-patterned suit in a plastic case. It wasn’t mine, obviously. The seams were straight, the pockets carefully aligned, the button holes exactly symmetrical. Besides, I made mine in 1971.
For me, Home Ick was about the same in 1971 as it had been in 1967. My report card was ruined by the “C,” and I didn’t get all that much better at any of the skills requisite to mastering it. I moved on to being a ski bum where meals were part of the compensation and no one was expected to sew their own ski clothes. Eventually though, I did learn to sew. In fact this story is the result of thinking about starting a sewing project, something I haven’t done since I sewed cushion covers and curtains for our little vintage Scotty Sero trailer almost seven years ago. That sewing project worked. The products look almost professional. Oddly enough, though, today I’m thinking about a skirt.
I also learned to cook – on the job at the Ruslter Lodge in Alta. That comes in handy every day. I love to cook. But it’s cooking without measuring most of the time. It’s more like my mother’s brownies. I little of this, a little of that, and some collateral damage to the floor, but fewer pots to wash. In the end I suppose I have to admit that Home Ick was probably a good thing for me, at least for the sewing. I just can’t see myself trying it on my own. But writing this story has reminded me of the precision sewing requires to end up with a product that’s not distinctly “homemade.” Homemade works for cooking, but not for sewing. Maybe I’ll make some brownies instead.