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Miss Helzer

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"All my scattering moments are taken up with my needle."  ---Ellen Birdseye Wheaton, 1851

Today I continue my month-long reflection of the legacy of women who've played a role in my life.

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In seventh grade, I was excited to have home ec class in my schedule.  I already knew how to run a sewing machine (a little), but I was eager to learn how to put together pieces to make a garment.  And I couldn't wait to learn to put in a zipper!

I remember being a bit totally intimidated by Miss Helzer when I first stepped into her classroom.  She was tall and imposing.  Somewhere in her 40s.  Impeccably dressed and made up.  Always.  She sewed her own exquisitely tailored suits.  Everything matched.  She was VERY put together. 

You always knew where you stood with Miss Helzer.  She had a certain . . . look.  With one eyebrow raised and one eye kind of squinted . . . that just said, "You CAN'T be serious."  She could stop you dead with A Glare.  She didn't put up with any shenanigans.  You did things her way. . . or you were on your own.  And. . . she hated things that looked "home spun."

There was a huge sign on her bulletin board; kind of a sampler of sorts.  In big letters, it said:

So shall you sew. . .
So shall you rip!

Miss Helzer?  She was a Pain in the Ass teacher.  A stickler.  She was totally By the Book when it came to following the Rules of Sewing.  As a 13-year-old, this was not welcome.  I just wanted finished products.  What did it matter . . . if the grain was straight; or what my "back waist length" measurement was; or - for God's sake -- whether my pattern pieces were pressed before laying them out on my fabric???  Was it really THAT important if your plaids matched up?  If your tension was properly adjusted on your sewing maching?  If you understitched your facings?

And what WAS that sampler about?  So shall you sew. . . so shall your rip?  What did that even MEAN?

In her class, of course, I towed the line.  I graded my seams.  I placed my pins perpendicular to the cutting edge.  I pressed my seams open using a tailor's ham.  I followed proper protocol when wielding my seam ripper! Begrudginly, I learned the "right" way to sew.   Despite my irritation with Miss Helzer's "pickiness," I wanted to please her; I wanted her to like me; I wanted to avoid her looks of disdain.

But in private, when I sewed for myself at home, I was sloppy.  And lazy.  I took shortcuts.  (And it showed!)

Over the years (and long out of home ec), I started to care much more about my finished products.  I really wanted to avoid that . . . homespun. . . look.  I found myself adopting more and more of Miss Helzer's lessons; her techniques; her "proper" methods of doing things.

And you know what?  My projects started to look a whole lot better!

So, thanks, Miss Helzer!  Every time I put in a proper zipper, I think of you.  Whenever I take the time to prewash my fabric and straighten the grain, I think of you.  Whenever I understitch. . . or hem a pair of pants. . . or put in a buttonhole, I think of you. 

And, by golly, whenever I rip (which is often), I think of you!  So shall you sew, so shall you rip!

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