As I reach for coats on these chilly days, I’m thinking about my mom and the coat she made me when I was in high school. It was a coat I resisted…until I didn’t.
She labored over that coat for months, my mother did. It must have been the ’50s when she wore the original one: black and white, long and boxy.
I saw photographs of her in it. She was standing sideways to the camera in front of Spring Creek Lutheran Church with Lois Peterson after a Ladies Aid meeting. Her face was smooth. Her chin was pointed like her tortoise framed eye glasses. Her strawberry blond hair was curled to look soft.
Nothing softened that long, heavy, winter coat with large patch pockets. The weave was dense and black, with white coming through along faint lines that ran up and down and across; not quite a plaid, yet more industrious than a tweed. One big heavy coat.
I was a teenager when my mother resurrected it from the cedar closet. She laid it across our Early American dining room table one Saturday, took out her frayed yellow tape measure and stretched it across the coat at every angle.
With conviction she looked up from her glasses and said, “I think I can make this coat over to fit you, Brenda.”
I didn’t want anything to do with it.
First she shopped for the pattern. Next she ripped all the seams open on her old coat.
She got out the green ironing board and her pressing cloth–a thin cotton dish towel with permanent stains in the shape of the iron.
She laid the cloth, soaking wet, over the pieces of coat. When the iron hit the cloth it sizzled. The air filled with steam and the dank smell of wet wool being tamed.
She was a perfectionist. The seams in this almost-but-not-quite-plaid fabric would have to match up.
This required some serious geometry. She measured carefully. “It’s close, but I think it’ll just make it,” she said.
She was giddy.
“Great,” I groaned, more interested in the vanilla ice cream I was squeezing between layers of graham crackers.
She worked away pinning the tissue pattern pieces into the fabric and cutting out the back pieces, front pieces, sleeves, and collar.
She brought me into the decision making process when it came to the lining. She’d narrowed it down to two choices that looked nearly the same: black pile, or black pile, both Orlon and fleecy feeling.
I couldn’t tell the difference and I didn’t care.
This pile stuff was pretty special to my mother. “Pile,” she’d coo, like it was mink or something.
I chose the black pile.
She transferred those same pattern pieces to the lining fabric and started cutting her way across the black turf.
From the top of the stairs I heard whirring stops and starts coming from the sewing machine as she started sewing the pieces together.
Whirr, whirr. Pause. Whirr, whirr, whirr.
I could tell when she was coming to an intersection of seams. I’d be listening, even though I didn’t want to. The motor strained, whined, and then zip, it was set free.
She’d made it over a tough part and was sailing along a side seam.
She was so proud the day she brought it up from the basement, finished. She was beaming, triumphant.
She held it out and I slipped it on. The sleeves were a little snug. I muttered thank you, went to my room, stood in front of the mirror and all I saw was Homemade Coat, Homemade Coat.
Everyone at school would know it was a Homemade Coat.
She never said anything when the weather got cold enough for coats and I wore my old brown corduroy coat from last year.
For Christmas Mom bought me soft yellow angora gloves and a long matching oblong scarf that wrapped perfectly around the stand up collar of the black and white coat. The soft yellow was a nice contrast to the hard fabric and straight lines. It was a a sunny color, a hopeful color. When I did wear that black and white coat, which was only over dresses to church on Sunday, the yellow long scarf and matching gloves were redemption.
My mother and I never talked much about that coat or anything else that winter.
I graduated from high school in the spring, headed for California and agreed to be back for winter semester at North Dakota State University.
I was gone five months. I marched in anti-war rallies, dated guys with ponytails, swam nude in heated swimming pools, argued the meaning of life around campfires with the Pacific Ocean roaring in my ears.
In November I came back to attend NDSU like I’d promised.
Things had changed. My friends were more interested in football games than Viet Nam. My dorm roommate skipped classes to smoke weed with new friends. The winds across the plains were much colder than I’d remembered.
I went home to pick up some warmer clothes. I opened the front closet to get a coat.
There was that black and white coat, center front, stoic.
I saw it for the first time. It was unusual. It would never show up on a clothes rack in a department store.
The thick, grandfather-like fabric was kind of…odd.
I touched the yellow scarf hanging faithfully over the neck of the hanger and reached inside the pockets where I found the matching gloves.
I slipped my arms through the snug sleeves.
It would be cool to wear it on campus. It was perfect–this plaid coat with the black pile lining, handmade to perfection by my mother.
Inez TriggNovember 22, 2016 at 3:46 am
Hi Brenda. I am new to your site and have been bingeing on all your posts. I enjoy them very much! I have learned so much from them! Your personal stories are captivating; you perfectly encapsulate all the memories and feelings that become attached to clothing. My mother was a seamstress and she made most of my clothes when I was growing up and now that she’s gone, I find myself remembering certain outfits and special times. Even though I don’t have any of the clothes, some of them are captured in old pictures and I think It will be fun to go look for them! Thank you! Looking forward to your next post!
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:54 am
Thank you so much, Inez. And welcome to the blog! So glad you found it. I’m so glad you have all those memories. Isn’t it fun?
Rebekah JauntyNovember 22, 2016 at 4:53 am
This is so sweet and thoughtful, and the old photos are a treat. I’m glad you came around to the coat eventually!
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:48 am
I know and when I did it was only the PERFECT coat to be wearing. I hope my mom realized the masterpiece was appreciated. I can’t tell her now, she’s passed, but I hope she read this blog post from heaven and has a big smile on her face right now. A girl can dream!
LynnNovember 22, 2016 at 5:19 am
What a great story. Loved that you finally wore the coat- with pride and that your Mom gets to read about the pride be appreciation.
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:55 am
My mother will have to read it from heaven. But I hope when she looked up from her Ladies Home Journal magazine and saw the smile on my face when I put on the black and white coat and wore it back to campus. Thanks so much for your comment!
RebeccaNovember 22, 2016 at 5:49 am
What a lovely story Brenda. Clothes and their memories are so caught up in our psyche and it’s important to bring that to the forefront.
Now that it’s almost Christmas, I’ve been remembering my grey and red plaid dress from my childhood and desperately trying to find something similar for my daughter and myself.
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 12:54 pm
How very lovely! I sure hope you find them. Mothers and daughters…sigh. Love that combo! I too am amazed at how our stories are so folded in to memories of clothes. Forever fascinating!
jodie filogomoNovember 22, 2016 at 6:46 am
My mother is a seamstress too Brenda, so I can totally relate to this story.
At those high school ages, we want what everyone else is wearing, and that certainly isn’t hand made items!
But at least now we appreciate the originality of the home made goods and the time and effort that is put into them!!
My mom has made me quite a few coats. One of them is a pink rain coat that I never liked—so she took it back and wears it herself!!
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 12:51 pm
You’re so true about those high school years. Oh, I shutter at how not appreciative I was at first about that coat she labored over! I love that your mom is wearing your (her) pink raincoat!! Makes me smile!
Lisa WhiteNovember 22, 2016 at 6:50 am
I love this touching and heartwarming story! It is the perfect Thanksgiving message….love, appreciation, long-views back over the span of our lives to see how we have been blessed by so many. The coat was a special gift from your mother to you. Those we love and remember in warm ways are still with us. Our memories and stories keep their memories warm and close to us. Love this memory of your mother. Thank you for sharing. The coat is beautiful and with the turquoise…perfection!
Ann SimonNovember 22, 2016 at 7:24 am
Nice story. Thanks for sharing it
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:43 am
Katherine CramerNovember 22, 2016 at 8:44 am
Generations of women that love clothes show up in many of our families. My Grandmother learned to sew by necessity. She had to raise her daughter by herself when she divorced. In the South, that was bold of her– yet her only choice. His drinking crossed a line and even when the Priest asked if she might reconsider…she knew that she and her daughter (my mother) were better off alone. Knocking-off the fashions seen in the department store windows became my Grandmother’s motivation to keep her independence. Her plan worked. My mother was pretty and became the muse for my Grandmother’s imagination. So many gorgeous suits, dresses and coats. I can only imagine what she made for her clients. I had my share of original creations from a baby-size tutu lined with flannel to matching dresses with my dolls. I don’t really sew. I do feel that thrill of noting a well-made lapel or handmade button holes. A Thanksgiving week toast to all those fashion lovers who influence us.
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:46 am
This is so very interesting! What amazing fashion lineage you have! Thanks for sharing this about the women in your family! And I join you in toasting all the fashion lovers and muses who inspire us. Blessings, Katherine.
Lisa WhiteNovember 22, 2016 at 8:59 am
Thank you for sharing this touching and heartwarming story! Nourishing the memories of loved ones keeps them alive and amplifies their presence. Sometimes, doorways open to them through the love-made stitches they left in our lives…like your beautiful coat. Happy Thanksgiving, Brenda!
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:42 am
Thanks so much, Lisa. I love your words and they’re so true! Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!
JoDiNovember 22, 2016 at 9:10 am
Now I am DYING to see a picture of this coat! It sounds amazing!
BrendaNovember 22, 2016 at 10:42 am
Me too! I haven’t come across it in any of the closets at my parent’s home. I’ve wondered about it forever and now that Mother has passed, I won’t be able to ask her. We have lots of photos to go through and I’m hoping I’ll find a picture!
LauriceNovember 22, 2016 at 12:50 pm
Awwww. Lovely story, Brenda. Weren’t we lucky to have Mums who sewed? Mine made all my clothes until I was old enough to take over, and I made my children’s clothes until China took over. I still create hand-made gifts – I knitted a plate of sushi for my grand-daughter last Christmas – but the days of making clothes by necessity seem to be over. It’s a big loss to the modern world, I feel, precisely because of the kind of story you just told.
Penelope Chandra- ShekarNovember 22, 2016 at 5:30 pm
A lovely story. It reminds me of Dolly Parton’s song” The Coat of Many Colors” which I think is going to be a TV movie this holiday season.
BrendaNovember 27, 2016 at 1:16 pm
Wow, I really look forward to seeing that. I love that song and have heard her talk about it in interviews. Thanks for sharing, Penelope!
DeanneNovember 23, 2016 at 5:00 am
What a fun read! Laughed out loud several times, needed that this morning. Thank you for your stories and the encouragement to be our best selves, enjoy your blog fro snowy MN. Winter is finally here.
BrendaNovember 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm
Yes, I was talking to Dad in Minnesota where he lives and he was telling me about the snow! I’m planning to visit at the end of December. I always like walking across the lake in winter. I’m glad that message is coming through loud and clear: enjoy your best self, be your best self. If not now, when? Thanks, Deanne, for sharing!
LizNovember 26, 2016 at 10:29 am
Your touching story made me wish for a chance to talk with my own mother, who sewed most of our clothes, too. Your coat reminded me of my own struggles in the 1960s with my overwhelming desire to own Villager clothing.
For the benefit of those who don’t know the name, it was a particularly preppy, expensive, and looking back on it, snoringly boring line of pastel colored solid and floral dresses, skirts, sweaters, headbands, and even matching knee socks.
All the coolest and most popular girls wore the Villager. And, you guessed it, I desperately wanted to be one of them. Smart I was, but not cool or popular, and most importantly, the family budget couldn’t cover the price of the ready-made clothes.
My mother unselfishly spent hours searching for patterns and discount fabrics to copy the skirts and dresses, even going so far as to create pin-tucks down the front of a floral print copy-cat cotton shirtdress. But her creations didn’t have that coveted label, so of course they didn’t seem the same. Her efforts were too much under-appreciated. More fool me.
She’s been gone for a long time now, so I will never have a chance to thank her for giving up so much time to lovingly sew those things that she hoped would fill my longings. So I sent her a little thought thank-you today in hopes she’d get it.
Thank you, Brenda, for your post and the reminder to be grateful for the love that our mothers showed us by taking care of us this way.
BrendaNovember 27, 2016 at 1:02 pm
Liz, your comment has turned on the tears faucet for me. Many, many thoughts and feelings flood in. #1: Our blessed mothers who tried to give us what we needed or wanted. Mother would take me when I was a teen to shop on December 26th when the dresses in the nice shops were 50% off. I can still describe those dresses. They were much loved. #2 Your thought thank you note to your mother is so powerful. I too will send one of those today. Mother sewed my clothes in grade school, my dresses which was actually all we were allowed to wear back then. I loved those dresses so very much because the fabrics Mother used were so very unusual. I felt exotic, cosmopolitan even though I was living on a farm near the smallest of towns-75 people-in North Dakota. We often talked about those dresses so I know she knew how much I loved those. But I don’t remember talking to her about the black and white coat. #3 Getting through high school is tough. I have often thought about school uniforms and how they at least take some of the stigma out of those subdivisions we make: having or not having. But plenty of people talk about the downfalls of wearing them. I was a single mom living in a very affluent community while raising my kids. I wanted to give them the best I could and in the end, I hope I did and I hope it isn’t measured by the clothes they wore but rather the love they received. Oh boy. Life is life, isn’t it?
Joan TamburiniNovember 26, 2016 at 1:06 pm
This is a beautiful reflection that opens an appointment interesting page in your personal history as well as our country. Your Mom sounds lovely.
BrendaNovember 27, 2016 at 1:07 pm
Yes, I imagine we’re all walking around being influenced in current time by our personal histories. Good point!
JudyNovember 27, 2016 at 4:20 am
Liz, I was one who sometimes did dress in Villager clothing. I was neither cool nor popular but it did hide the stress and shame I was dealing with at home. It was the one thing that made me feel “normal”.
Brenda, love your blog and all you’ve taught me. I look forward to all your posts.
BrendaNovember 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm
Thank you so much, Judy. You bring up such a great point about how clothes protect us in ways that go well beyond staying warm or feeling cooler. I am glad that you had clothes that helped you feel normal. This is not based on a childhood memory but I remember when I went through cancer treatments many years ago now. I just wanted to be and feel “normal” and clothes helped me do that more than anything. You help me appreciate the tonic that clothes can be. It’s a subject that I hold dear! Thanks for sharing, Liz.
LizNovember 27, 2016 at 1:49 pm
Judy. I am so sorry for passing a judgment on the clothing without thinking it might hurt someone. My profound apologies.
You know, one of the prettiest and most popular of the girls who wore Villager was befriended by my mother years after I had moved away from my hometown. The girl was still more-or-less living at home.
My mother ran into her in town and expressed her condolences on the death of one of the girl’s parents. Apparently the floodgates opened, and it turned out the girl had had a very difficult home life, beset by such expectations of beauty and success she felt she could never please that particular parent.
So again, my apologies for being judgmental and for hurting you.
JudyNovember 28, 2016 at 5:36 am
Thank you Brenda and Liz for your thoughts and concern. No apologies needed, I just wanted to bring another viewpoint to the discussion. And clothes can hide a multitude of sins (in so many ways!) right? 🙂 My mother was actually the buyer for a small boutique within a fur store and while I love clothes, I don’t have that gift that Brenda and so many people have. That’s why I enjoy Brenda’s blog and books, they’ve helped me so much.
Blessings to you both for a wonderful, peace-filled and meaningful holiday season.
BrendaNovember 29, 2016 at 6:45 pm
And blessings to you, Judy. Thanks for sharing. We all benefit. And I’m happy to offer ideas about how to wear and enjoy clothes. Thanks for being here and being part of the conversation!
BrendaNovember 29, 2016 at 6:43 pm
I think everyone who comes to this website feels the support we have for each other. Thanks for adding more to your comment. I always ask new clients to tell me what fashion was like for them when they were growing up. I’ve heard many stories. It helps me so much to learn some about the past because it always informs the present. Freedom enters the picture and women feel like there’s now no time to waste, to be the person they’re ready to be. It’s thrilling!
Amy BrookmanNovember 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm
I hope you will consider publishing this story again elsewhere! You have certainly made a beautiful portrait of the coat in our imaginations, whether you are ever able to find a photo of the coat or not.
BrendaNovember 29, 2016 at 6:46 pm
I’m so glad you “saw” it, Amy!
CarolynJanuary 29, 2018 at 10:07 am
I’m enjoying your stories. I, too, am reading through your blogs at will.
I remember a coat my mom made me when I was about 8 or 9. A brief plaid wool with acsilky brown lining. She was a “perfectiontionist” seamstress. She made most of my clothes and taught me to sew. Anyway, I wore that coat a lot! I remember wearing it one day up to my grandfather’s little store. It was cold and he had his wood stove going full blast. I stood in front of that stove with my hands behind me to get warm. Just watching all the people come and go. After awhile we all smelled something. Then all of a sudden my mom jerked me away from the stove and whirled me around. The bottom of my coat was charred and smoking! Well, for sure I started crying. I don’t know what happened after that; whether Mother fixed it or I ever wore it again. I remember many outfits she made me and many we made together.
Thanks for the memories, Brenda!
BrendaFebruary 2, 2018 at 7:47 pm
Wow, Carolyn! Thanks for sharing one of your memories with me! You were a much more patient daughter. I look back and appreciate all she made for me but I’m sure I didn’t let her know enough!