It’s amazing what you can learn from a person’s estate auction. Often, by the time I leave an auction, I know what the person’s name was, what they liked to read, where they went to church, what they liked to cook, what they did for a living, and what their hobbies were — all from looking through boxes of stuff (and observing what cookbooks have pages turned down). Sometimes, I wish I could have met the person. And once, I actually did.
In 2008, Moomer and I came across an ad for the estate auction of a retired dressmaker. Since we’re both avid sewers, we drove 45 minutes to attend the sale. I’ve been to a lot of auctions, but this one was particularly memorable. The dressmaker (we’ll call her Miss Smith), had an amazing sewing room with a gigantic, custom-built cutting table and a large closet just for supplies. She even had a freestanding covered button machine, which I tried to buy, but it soared out of my college-student budget. I made up for the loss of the button machine by purchasing a large percentage of her other sewing supplies, and a lot of her books and household goods as well. Everything was well organized and well cared-for, and I remarked to Moomer that I wished I could have met her. The auctioneer mentioned that she had planned to attend the sale, but she was ill and couldn’t make it.
When we were going through our purchases afterward, we came across a 1950s magazine clipping and a photograph with construction notes — it was a wedding gown that the dressmaker had made. It was a gorgeous piece. “You know,” said Moomer, “perhaps we should look up her address and mail it to her. I think she might like to have it.” So I looked her up in the phone book and sent it to the nursing home.
A few months later, I was assigned for a class project to interview two people working in my field. I immediately thought of Miss Smith, and decided to call her. I had to explain three times who I was and why I was calling (which is understandable, since it’s not every day that a college student calls a 95-year-old lady for an interview), but she gave some interesting answers to my questions, and she told me to come and see her if I ever happened to be in town. The next weekend I was home, I decided to do just that.
When I arrived, she was sitting in the front room waiting for me. She was thrilled that I had come to visit, and showed me her mother’s sewing machine, one of the few things that she had kept. Her mother had died in the flu epidemic when she was very young.
She also brought out a familiar clipping of a wedding gown, and told me that she wished she had other pictures, but that this was the only picture she had of anything she had made. I admired it, and didn’t mention that I was the one who had sent it.
And here’s what I learned from her:
Miss Smith worked as a dressmaker for over 50 years, and has not had a “bought dress” since 1945. I asked her how she got started, and she said, “Well, I’ve always sewed since I was a little girl, and I just wanted to do it.”
I asked what education and skills she would recommend for someone wanting to be a dressmaker, and she told me that she had just “a high school education and a talent for sewing.”
The most interesting job she’d ever had, she said, was sewing 2000 seed pearls and sequins onto a wedding dress by hand — it took her about a month. And what was her usual procedure in working with a potential client? “We just sat down and talked about it.” I asked what she enjoyed the most about her job, and she said confidently, “I enjoyed all of it.” And she said she didn’t think there was anything she disliked about her job.
I asked if she had any special suggestions for sewing room layout, and she said, “I had a big cutting table, and I just had a special room for it, and my machine, and a rack for garments. That’s about all the tools I had.” (I bought her garment rack, incidentally.) I still wish I had bought that cutting table — she said she had it made specially — but I just had nowhere to put it.
She retired when her eyesight got too bad to work, in about 2000. She moved in 2008 to an assisted living, after having lived for 50 years in the house that she designed. She told me, with some satisfaction, that she paid for the house with her sewing.