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The Grandmother Inheritance -- Why I Sew

Updated on August 12, 2014

A Sewing Legacy

I sew because of a woman I never met. Sarah died in rural Missouri in 1919, thirty years before I was born. Sarah had always helped her husband support their family of four children by taking in sewing, mending and ironing jobs. Three years before her death from tuberculosis, Sarah's husband deserted the family.

A resilient woman, with few options, she returned to work full time, teaching school by day. However, at night after the children were asleep, she continued to sew in order provide a decent life for her children. She taught her oldest daughter, Daisy, at an early age to sew, quilt, and mend. Sarah left a sewing legacy for her soon-to-be-orphaned children with these lessons.

Before Sarah died, she made eleven year old Daisy, promise to take care of her younger brothers. She also made her swear to ensure that they got good educations. Sarah's death marked a separation of her children, as no relative wanted more than one extra mouth to feed.

Sarah's Legacy

Sarah Alice Owens (Sadie)
Sarah Alice Owens (Sadie) | Source

Sarah's Orphans

Daisy and Her Two Younger Brothers, Phil and Infant Norman
Daisy and Her Two Younger Brothers, Phil and Infant Norman | Source

Unwanted and Unloved Children

An unkindly aunt took Daisy in, not out of love, but because she saw Daisy capable of providing extra income for her own household. With the money that Daisy earned in sewing jobs after school, the aunt bought new clothes, shoes, a fox stole and a phonograph.

Daisy loved school and was an excellent student. She wanted to follow her mother's example and become a teacher. At the age of fourteen, her aunt announced that she would no longer be returning to school after summer, because the aunt had secured a job for Daisy at a nearby garment factory.

At the same time, Daisy's five year old and seven year old brothers were only partially being schooled. The relatives who took them in needed their help on the extended family farms. Back then, child labor laws weren't the norm and literacy wasn't always a priority. These situations, were in direct violation of the promises Daisy had made to her dying mother.

Child Labor in America Was a Reality in Daisy's Childhood

Child labor in sewing factory
Child labor in sewing factory | Source

The Runaway!

Daisy At Fifteen and Completely On Her Own
Daisy At Fifteen and Completely On Her Own | Source

Her Mother Taught Her Well

Clever and resourceful, Daisy sprang into action - she secretly got additional sewing jobs and saved up a modest amount of money. The plan was, that she was going to run away to California, make a lot of money and send for her brothers. They were all going to get an education, once they were reunited.

On a long and twisted road, the runaway only made it as far as Phoenix, Arizona. There, the fifteen year old pretended to be eighteen. She lived in a rooming house, working as a carhop full time, seamstress part time, and studying for the day she could return to school.

By the time she was eighteen, she had saved up enough money to send for her brothers and immediately re-enrolled them in school, thus fulfilling her promise to her mother. It was the extra money she made as an accomplished seamstress that enabled her to do so.

Daisy On Beach Boardwalk
Daisy On Beach Boardwalk | Source

More Than An Income

Sarah's sewing legacy to Daisy wasn't just to supply her with a means of earning income. The legacy encompassed so much more. She gave Daisy a love of fabrics, design, creativity and professionalism, which served her daughter well all her life.

Daisy would become an accomplished clothing and costume designer in Hollywood, California. Later, Daisy took on a more important role, as the full time surrogate mother to her three grandchildren.

Yet, she continued at all times, to work from home as a seamstress and in her later years - well into her nineties, she was a well-known master quilter. She didn't neglect her education either, she earned several degrees.

Because of Sarah

I sew because of Sarah, as Daisy was my grandmother. Like many who sew, the common thread among us, is having mothers or grandmothers, who taught us this important life skill.

Sewing isn't just about perfectly even stitches. It's about understanding complex steps. It's about having enough patience to see a job through. It's about expressing yourself creatively. It's about feeling good about a job well done.

For the record, Daisy kept her promises to her mother. This summer, I will keep my promise to Daisy. The thread of sewing will continue, when I teach the oldest of my own granddaughters, the joy to be found in the gift of knowing how to sew.

I Learned By Example

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting underneath Grama Daisy's industrial sewing machine, both in her room and in a local garment factory. Even today, when I see corduroy, I can smell the scent of eight foot high piles of corduroy jeans, all in various stages of completion and I smile.

Whenever I look at a bathing suit advertisement, I remember the many swimsuits she designed for Bobbie Brooks and other manufacturers. One of my proudest life moments was at the age of eleven, on the first day of school -- when I wore my first skirt that I had made completely by myself.

It was a red cotton background, pleated shirt, with flags from around the world print, it swirled as I proudly walked out onto the playground. Imagine my horror, when none of the others girls in my class, believed I made the skirt, for they all knew my grandmother was a seamstress. I laugh now, but I was crushed.


Fond Memories of an Old Singer

Singer Sewing Machine
Singer Sewing Machine | Source

The Sewing Movie

Hubnote: Child Labor in America Today

We'd all like to think that child labor in America, is a thing of the past, it still exists today in hidden pockets of our country.

Far worse, is that we allow and promote child labor, with our many companies that are outsourced to foreign work sites throughout Asia, Mexico, and South America.

The Obvious Advantages in Knowing How to Sew

Aside from being a worthwhile hobby, sewing can be a means to expressing creativity you never knew you had. The joy of having clothing that is different from what's found on the clothing department store racks -- making use of the styles, colors and fabrics unique to you, and the image you want to convey to the world, make all the effort required in sewing worthwhile.

I realize that not everyone is lucky enough to have had a grandmother or mother who sewed. Furthermore, public schools seldom offer the kind of intense learning to sew experiences we once taught in our American school system prior to the 1970s.

The good news is that those of you who are scared off by the complexity of reading patterns and instructions, can successfully learn to sew. Start out with simple and easy patterns. In choosing patterns, there are a number of companies making patterns that will say right on the sleeve "Easy." They are not only instructional but pictorial, easy enough for anyone to turn out a successful project.

Also, consult your local fabric store's employees. Many of these stores offer free classes to those purchasing sewing machines through their store. Others offer low fee courses in learning to sew.

Why Do Child Labor Violations Still Exist?

In one word -- poverty -- is why child labor violations continue to exist in today's world.

Other reasons are:

  • Family and cultural expectations
  • Family and cultural traditions
  • Abuse of children
  • Lack of quality schools
  • Lack of day care
  • Lack of health care
  • Irresponsible employers
  • Lack of employment for women who are the sole supports of their households

In the era that Daisy grew up in, child labor was common place. Today, we shouldn't forget that child labor still exists, even here in America. Almost two hundred and fifty million children between the ages of five and seventeen are working.

Of that figure, one hundred and seventy-five million of them, are employed in jobs that are dangerous physically. Another eight and one half million, are in some sort of forced or bonded labor (including use of children in war and conflicts, selling children into slavery, and sexual exploitation).

So where are these children? Here are the facts:

  • 61% in Asia
  • 32% in Africa
  • 7% in Latin America
  • 1% in America, Canada, Europe and other more enlightened nations

Now, maybe you are thinking, 1% doesn't sound a lot?

Consider this:

That's almost three hundred thousand children illegally employed -- just in the United States (most of them agriculture).

How many more children will have to work at an early age and give up their childhood, health, and education?

What Jobs Should Your Teens Not Be Doing

  • I believe part time jobs for our older teens, should almost be mandatory, as it is a very good lesson in getting ready for adulthood. As a mother who raised five children to adulthood and a grandmother, I know from experience that summer jobs are vital for our teens, for a number of reasons:
  • It's a good builder of self-esteem
  • It teaches responsibility
  • It is a good "test" drive for the realities of adulthood

However, I'd like to share a couple of insightful opinions:

  • Call me old-fashioned -- I believe teens should not work during the school year, because their real "job" is to prepare academically for their future. Too many employers of teens abuse the number of hours teens work and create deplorable work conditions. No high school student should be trying to do their best in school when they are over-worked, tired, and tied down to an impossible schedule. This even applies to those who still manage to get good grades and work at the same time.
  • The money that your teen earns should not be money to "burn." They should pay for their own gas to get to and from work. They should contribute towards their car insurance. They should have to save an agreed upon amount, either for college or some other reasonable goal.

Additionally, from experience I'd like to share that there is no greater lesson than helping secure a manual labor type job for your young male adolescent, who isn't keen on school work. There is nothing more eye-opening at that age, than to teach them it is smarter to work with your brain than to shovel until you are exhausted everyday.

Also, parents need to remember that two hundred and thirty thousand teens are injured each year, in full time and part time legal jobs. Seventy-three teens of legal working age, are also killed on the job each year performing labor that is dangerous.

The top jobs that your teens should not be working at are:

  • Traveling Youth Crews (many abuses of teens occur in this industry)
  • Construction work at heights (i.e. roofing industry)
  • Forklift operation
  • Tractor operation (unless properly trained and supervised)
  • Landscape helper
  • Lawn service

Sounds harsh? The facts are -- teens often lack the experience, or the knowledge in how to work safely. At that "invincible" age, even when they are aware of the dangers, they often ignore safety precautions.

Is Sewing a Lost Art?

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Great story. My mother tried to sew when we were kids but she never quite got it. I took sewing in junior high. Glad I did. It's come in handy over the years. My paternal grandma was excellent seamstress. I like think she is there with me.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Tom Rubenoff! Child labor is still the same old sin it always was, even here in America unfortunately.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      This brought back memories of my childhood and my mom's Singer sewing machine.

      Your article helps put a personal face on childhood labor, when so many would rather turn a blind eye. Thank you for writing it.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Kris Heeter! Teaching young children to sew is music to my ears. Used to be that it was mandatory and taught in home economics, no longer the case anymore.

      Thanks Millionaire Tips! I appreciate the compliment.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      9 years ago from USA

      Jerilee, I'm back to let you know that I included this hub in my list of favorite hubs this week.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 

      9 years ago from Indiana

      Wonderful hub! I began hand quilting because of my grandmother. I never had the chance to learn from her and I really didn't appreciate her work until after she passed away. Now, when I do hand piece or quilt, I think fondly of her and wish I had had the chance to quilt with her.

      Sewing has been passed down from generation to generation in my family - my sister and I just spent the Christmas break teaching my 6 year old niece how to hand sew for the first time. So we are keeping it a family tradition!

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Millionarie Tips! At almost 63 I'm still sewing.

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      9 years ago from USA

      I love the story and the important information you included here. It is very well written and informative. I love to sew as well, and have picked it up from my mother.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      10 years ago from United States

      Thanks Diane Inside! Sorry I missed your comment when it was originally made.

      Thanks raphaelvintage!

    • raphaelvintage profile image


      10 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      What a moving story! Thanks for sharing Sarah and Daisy's stories - and your own! - Denise

    • Diane Inside profile image

      Diane Inside 

      11 years ago

      Loved the story about you grandma and great grandma, I believe there are hundreds more just like it out there, my grandmother taught me how to sew, my mother knew how to sew but just didn't like it that much so she never took an interest in teaching me. But my grandmother always let me learn from her. As well as encouraging me to take clothing design and home ec classes in school. I love to sew and I make quilts when I can.

      It always amazed me how people say they can't sew, it seems so easy to learn, but then again I can't draw or do some other forms of art so to them It probably seems pretty easy. So I guess sewing is a form of talent, not just a skill. Thanks for the very interesting hub.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      11 years ago from United States

      Thanks creativelycc!

    • creativelycc profile image

      Carrie L Cronkite 

      11 years ago from Maine

      Excellent hub with a great history of sewing!

    • profile image

      Tracy Monroy 

      11 years ago

      This is such a great story. My family also has a history of sewing, so I am familiar with the tradition. I just hope it will always be a popular craft.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      11 years ago from United States

      Thanks RTalloni!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      What a great story you have shared here. You ought to check with Hallmark Movies about a production!

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      11 years ago from United States

      Thanks Zsuzsy Bee! I don't know why I missed your comment when it first appeared, probably because I was a newbie. Sewing is definitely not an easy life and I know that from watching my grandmother and her peers. There were often times when she took us along to pick up work from the garment factory.

      Thanks stephicks68! I appreciate the thumbs up even though I missed it when you made it.

      Thanks Uninvited Writer! My grandmother was quite something.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      11 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Wow, this is a wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing it with us :)

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Marshall 

      13 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Super Hub - really drew me into the story. One of your history! Great footnotes regarding child labor issues, too. Thumbs up! Steph

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 

      13 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Jerilee! Beautifully written memory about your 'Grama Daisy'. I really appreciate all the many hours she must have had to work to get herself and her brothers educated. Sewing can be fun but is not an easy life... I know because I've raised my three children as a single parent on a selfemployed tailors wage. Many 12 hour-7day /week was the norm. My children practically grew up at the tailor shop...

      Thank you for sharing this great hub regards Zsuzsy


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