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5 Sewing Lessons from Grammie

My grandmother’s antique sewing machine sat beneath a framed print of the Lord’s Prayer in her bedroom for years. Though I rarely saw her use it, I discovered her love of sewing when a pile of handmade linens appeared at my bridal shower, along with a brown octagonal tin box full of sewing notions. This original seed of my tin collection would forever remind me of sewing lessons from Grammie.

The tin has a dark faux-woodgrain background with three mallard ducks embossed and painted in green and gold on its hinged lid. On the bottom it reads, “Container Made in England.” (England? She’d probably never traveled out of New England.) The number “65” is also penciled there twice—did she pay 65 cents for the box? While I’m no authority, I’d guess the tin’s almost my age, because she too used it as a sort of sewing box in her own home. For the next 20 years or so, I certainly wouldn’t have desecrated its destiny by storing something different in it!

Never underestimate the power of a small present. Even before I began to collect tins, this one held a special legacy of sewing lessons bestowed in loving patience:

1. Measure Twice, Cut Once

That was the farmer’s wife talking—the brave woman who took her first job and married during the Great Depression.

My grammie stood barely 5 feet tall even in heels (if she’d worn them), and her feet were so small that her daughter (my mother) once asked her how they could carry her around. But they did…from the kitchen to the garden to the milk house. A dairy farmer’s wife had a lot of work to do, especially during the summer.  

But… “Don’t be in such a hurry, Dumpling,” she often said. (Did I just admit her nickname for me was akin to a plump lump of dough?) “If you take your time to do it right the first time, you won’t have to do it over.”

Unfortunately, like many of us, I was in a hustle to move on the next activity. I had yet to learn the benefit of careful planning and investing effort now to save time ahead. “A stitch in time saves nine,” as grandmothers around the world will tell you.

2. Finish Your Projects

That scrap of advice naturally leads into another: “Don’t start another potholder until you finish the first.” That was the schoolteacher speaking. Grammie started out at a one-room school, where no doubt she served as janitor as well. Later, after her family grew up, she moved on down the country road to third grade in a—still—rural school. My cousin and I sometimes helped her correct assignments when we weren’t playing house.

Grammie didn’t seem to mind our messes in most areas, such as the attic strewn with dress-up clothes, but sweeping paper clippings was a must. And during the summer of the woven potholders, my sister and I definitely had to do the basting before rushing our project off the red plastic loom and begging Grammie’s nimble aid to bind the edges.

3. Sewing Mends the Soul

In those days, my plain tastes were fed with milk and bread, but my grandmother’s with needle and thread. Sometimes at the end of a hard day, putting her tiny, tired feet up, embroidery or darning in her hands, rested and restored her.

The bottom line is, whatever life’s problems, sewing—or anything quiet and creative—helps to rejuvenate the mind and cheer the heart. Make moments to do what relaxes you and brings you joy.

Humble as the old farmhouse was, the simple art that surrounded Grammie beautified my world. The jar of gleaming spoons on the kitchen table, a custom brought from Downeast Maine. The “sitting room” bathed in sunset light. The dime-store sewing tin, the vivid Fiesta dishes and the salt-and-pepper shakers in the glass-front cabinet, the gold-lamé hassock next to the decoupaged wastebasket—all meant I never missed trips to a museum.

“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” –Albert Einstein

4. Learn to Read the Instructions

Whether she gave us paint-by-number kits, paper dolls, or sewing cards, Grammie taught it was best to understand the project before speeding ahead. She shared God’s instructions to us from the Bible, too.

Her gift of time was passed on, reading in a big comfy rocking chair in the kitchen. I particularly recall one summer afternoon hanging breathlessly on The Wizard of Oz when we should have been shelling peas. Grammie also introduced me to Heidi and Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables, the entire series lined up on a shelf below the party-line phone. They were likely first editions, come to think of it.

Many years later, when Diana the reader became Diana the writer, I based my first character Melissa’s Grandma Rose loosely on a combination of my own grandmothers (in Destiny at Dolphin Bay). Sure, buttons and bottles turned into teacups for the story, but a golden thread ties them together. And after my grammie went home to heaven and I had a chance to examine her personal Bible, I quoted some of the flyleaf notes written there in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light.

5. Happiness is Homemade

Though my career in sales of potted dandelions, hooked potholders, and rick-racked aprons was cut short by high school, I never lost the thrill of “To Grandmother’s House We Go.” There, whether for Christmas turkey or Fourth of July hamburgers, we cousins could count on homemade fudge and walnut cake.

And in those days, we counted ourselves blessed if it was Thanksgiving or not. The extended family drove home for the holidays and ate together at a groaning table. Then the adults chatted, and we kids vanished to imagine fantastic sagas in the attic upstairs—weddings, orphanages, Wild West shoot-outs—wandering between the pristine white bedroom suite (straight out of Green Gables) and the warren of craft supplies in the next room.

Today that legacy of memories remains one of my life’s greatest blessings. Back then we didn’t realize our handmade happiness was such a rare treasure. No one impressed on us that cross-stitched pillowcases and pins-and-needles would come to mean more than a stock portfolio.

But Grammie’s sewing lessons taught me that one day those little things—the painstaking stitches, the care and the prayers—would be the big things. Don’t overlook the roses on your race through the rhubarb, Dumpling.

So what will my daughters inherit from this tin? Sewing lessons from Great-Grammie. Wise counsel from a century ago.

And a legacy of love. Believe it or not, I also found scribbled lines in Grammie’s Bible about my (and my siblings’) bout of measles in the ’60’s. Wow. Whatever memories my grandchildren have of me 30 years after I’m gone, if they remember half what I do, it’ll give them a legacy worth inheriting and cherishing.

Whether it cost $65,000 or 65 cents.


  1. I absolutely loved this post!!! Your grammie sounds awesome and rather like my Aunt Irene, my maternal grandpa’s sister. They lived on a little farm in California. I love your tins and am so looking forward to reading about them. Of course….you will never have enough years to write about all of them….but those you share will be a joy to read.

    1. You’re right, I probably won’t have enough time to write about them all. Hopefully just enough so the girls don’t pass them out as funeral favors! 🙂

    1. I know, I understand… Isn’t it nice to be able to remember and cry together? I’ve never gotten over failing to thank her in time for her last care package to Chile. It does make me think about “redeeming the time,” though…

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