The tak-tak-tak-tak rhythmic sewing machine pedal sounds, the hum and whirr of the pedal and motor in the second bedroom of my parents’ Andheri apartment is a familiar ‘come-home’ sound. The room is in the far end of the flat, west-facing, light and airy. Cross-ventilated with two windows, and in my parents’ classic generous style, it is my grandparent’s bedroom. The room is fitted with two Godrej cupboards, a ‘mandir’, a queen-sized bed by the wall, and two sewing machines.
Ma’s sewing machine was newer and had an electric motor, Aie’s is a classic Singer, operated by working both feet on the metal grille in an up and down motion. The room is where sewing projects were undertaken andexecuted. My mother and my grandmother have distinct work styles. Ma sews on second Saturdays and Sundays, while Aie sews through the week in the afternoons. Ma’s projects are utilitarian – saree blouses, with neck, back, arms, bust style variations, tops, kurtas, and dresses. Innovative, swift and nimble, Ma takes pride in sewing one outfit or saree blouse on the weekend – right from the cutting and machining to the hemming and finishing. Her projects are planned ahead, tightly executed, and precise. Making no difference between work and leisure, to her a hobby or passion, is play, however hard work it might seem to others. To her it is leisure. ‘Bored’ and ‘tired’ are taboo words that will earn a severe tongue-lashing if uttered.
Trials and fittings are taken seriously. ‘Stand tall, don’t slouch, hold up your head. Let me look at you first before you strain before the mirror’ and such sharp, short crisp commands are belted out. Much meticulous checking and re-checkingto see if the fit is perfect. No flaw is permissible. A slight inconsistency between the two armholes, the hem of the dress, slightly misaligned, a collar that doesn’t quite sit alright, and in fraction of the second, it is taken apart, the fabric flattened and ironed, ready for repair.
Our needlework box has a coveted English ‘ripper’ with its little red plastic ball head at the end. It makes short work of ripping, and keeps the sharp point from pricking. Without any fuss, the garment is going to be pieced together again. While getting it right at first is important, she is ruthless till it becomes perfect.
Aie’s work style is more relaxed, much like her. Her presence brings instant ease with face invariably set in a quiet smile. Ma is more solemn, with a slight frown on brow, that comes with so much focus. Aie likes making baby dresses. Little lace, trim, ribbons, tiny buttons,delicate lazy daisy flowers, buttonhole middles and satin stitch leaves. Leftover fabric collected, cut into interesting patterns, set to a plan, sometimes random, some stories about the fabric, of the dress that it belonged to. Patchwork quilts big and small, evenly tacked all over the machined pieced, making the patch.
Whether swift or leisurely, Aie and Ma begin by visualising the end garment, plan for the material, source the right shade and color match with thread, use the best quality ‘two by two’ material, Coates thread, quality needles, buttons, rippers sent by Sunat akka, a cousin in Manchester, UK. ‘Wash your hands before you begin sewing. You don’t want to make the piece shabby. Patience, perseverance, neatness and perfection, are catchwords. ‘Turn the garment wrong side out, check to see if the hemming is neat, and ‘matters is how well you’ve worked on what doesn’t show’. These are our needlework lessons for life and work. 21 years gone and the needlework lessons remain.