Sunday, April 11, 2010

Stitching love, hope and prayer into fabric

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to Spokesman-Review Pinch
April 4, 2010

Years ago, the week before Easter Sunday, I sat beside my sister’s hospital bed watching her fever rise and listening to her struggle to breathe.

She was so sick, fighting for every breath, and I was powerless to help her in any way. The only thing I could do was be there so she could see me when she woke up. So she would know she wasn’t alone. The nights were the worst, punctuated by harsh light, the eerie, alien sounds of IV alarms and the hissing and gurgling of the oxygen.

To keep my anxiety at bay, I brought a project to the hospital with me each day. Something to quiet my mind and keep my hands busy. While my sister slept I sat in a chair beside the bed and smocked cotton Easter dresses for my daughters. Smocking, is an old, old way to decorate a garment. Fabric is pleated and then tiny stitches made with embroidery floss hold the pleating in place. The range of patterns run from simple geometrics to elaborate images.

I never really learned to sew, the finer mathmatic elements of construction eluded me, so I had a friend who always put the garments together for me. But, I could smock. I wasn’t an expert, but I could count the pleats and follow the simpler graphs. I could, building one stitch on top of another, turn an ordinary piece of cotton into a little work of art.

Like any kind of art, each dress was an investment of time and love. Each row of stitches represented an hour or two of sleep that wouldn’t be made up or housework that would still have to be done. But seeing my daughters in the delicate, old-fashioned dresses I’d made was worth it. So much of parenting is intangible. Those dresses danced.

As the days passed, I realized I wouldn’t get the dresses finished in time for Easter, but I still lowered my head over the fabric and concentrated on each stitch. I watched the design emerge from beneath my fingers. And, always, after a while, the ageless rhythm began to work its magic. The tension left my body and I didn’t feel quite as brittle. I did what women have done for centuries. I sewed far into the nights, stitching love, hope and prayer into a simple piece of fabric.

I thought, some, about the lessons the needle was teaching me. That it’s best to own up to your mistakes immediately and correct them as soon as possible. That it’s better to pull out what you’ve done and start over than to try to push on and pretend it never happened. That one stitch too many or too few can throw off everything and make it impossible to enjoy the process. That, first, no matter what else you do, you have to pick up the right thread.

Finally, on the Saturday before Easter, I was done. I folded the fabric and it away.

Early Easter morning my doorbell rang. I opened the door and my friend, a gifted seamstress, handed me a package. She’d taken the fabric and, sewing all night, finished the dresses for me. I didn’t know what to say.

My sister got better. She recovered and went home and you’d never know she’d been so ill.

The dresses were worn Easter morning and then worn and washed and ironed again and again until until the last little girl finally outgrew them and they were packed away.
I’ll bring them out again one day, I hope, perhaps for a granddaughter. And, in that way, bind yet another story to the fabric of my family.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at

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