We’re continuing our series, Sewn Stories, which is all about the garments or textiles that have meant the most in your life, either sewn by you or by someone else. Please join me in welcoming Denyse Schmidt today. Many of you will know Denyse for her art quilts, her popular fabric collections, and her quilting patterns (which are available in the Oliver + S shop) and books. A former graphic designer and graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Denyse began creating quilts in 1996. Intrigued by the rich historical nature of quilts and inspired by beauty born of necessity, Denyse adds her distinctive aesthetic sensibility–clean, spare lines, rich color and bold graphics–to this rich art form, and has won acclaim from the worlds of art, design and craft. Denyse’s studio is located in a historic textile building in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Now I’ll hand it over to her.
Sewing, for me, will always be a connection to my mother. It was a way for us to share our experience of being in the world. My mother taught me to sew when I was about seven or eight. I grew up in Central Massachusetts, home to many textile mills, a few of which had retail outlets on the premises. One of my fondest memories is shopping for fabric with my Mom in these old stores–the dusty wooden floors were creaky and worn, rolls of woolens and silks stacked on and under tables in room after room, a narrow circuitous path leading up steps, around a corner and down until you lost all sense of direction. It felt adventurous, a hunt for textile treasure to be transformed into a new outfit or coat for school or a special occasion.
Though she had a full-time job (as an administrator and teacher at a school for troubled adolescents), my mother somehow made time to sew clothing for herself and my siblings when we were small. Here we are at one of her master’s degree graduations (yes, one of). I loved those beautiful bottle-blue tops she made my older sister and me, using a sandwich of shiny taffeta and cotton lace. They were so special and I adored being my big sister’s twin.
My mother learned to sew from her grandmother Josephine, who had a treadle machine, and her Aunt Blanche. Her mother Mae, who supported the family during the depression by selling things door to door, later earned a nursing degree and worked as a registered nurse though she had never attended school as an orphaned child. Mae didn’t sew and wasn’t domestically inclined, but she did have an incredible, rambling hillside urban garden she fed with healthy, homemade compost, while my mother had a black thumb. It’s interesting how these interests and skills move around in families!
Josephine made my mother and her two brothers all kinds of clothes, including underwear, as this was the depression and their family was poor. As a girl I remember hearing that and thinking how uncomfortable it sounded, but my perception has evolved somewhat due to today’s growing trend of self-sewn intimate garments. Why not make it all if you have time?
My Mom sewed a lot when she was a teenager. Before heading off for a year on scholarship at Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee MA, her grandmother and aunt helped her purchase enough fabric to make a wardrobe that consisted of two skirts, two shirts, and a jacket. I remember my mom mentioning that the other girls came from more well-to-do families, and that this wardrobe of belonging and “fitting in” made the transition bearable.
I have such a fondness for these old black and white photos of my folks, in the early years of their marriage and before. The faded photos provide an overlay of soft-focus nostalgia, a sense that everything in this sepia-toned world was somehow so much simpler, clearer, and definitely moving at a slower pace. How else could she have possibly accomplished so much day to day?
I am grateful she had a chance to share in the successes and evolution of my business. I know she was very proud of what I accomplished, and that she took pleasure in the fact that I earned a living from sewing. (Of course, this path would not have been an option had my parents not been able to support me through college and beyond!) I recently unearthed this Polaroid of my parents in front of the very first blocks I made when I had committed to exhibiting my quilts at a home-furnishings show. These blocks would become one of three quilt samples I made to launch what must have sounded like a nutty idea. But here they are, smiling and looking so happy, when I was a mere few months away from possible disaster! It was an exhilarating and terrifying time for me.
When I teach workshops today, I tell students how I spent a fortune on Polaroid photos of work in progress in those early days. I’m sure I sound like a luddite, struggling to believe how far technology has come in my own lifetime–even in just the decades of my career–and how lucky they are so make use of that “digital miracle in your pocket”!
The path to quilting was not straight. I had a series of sewing jobs that served as a transition from a degree in theatre and a half-hearted pursuit of acting jobs while living in New York, to going back to school and shifting career gears. One of those sewing jobs was with a small atelier near my hometown. James Hogan made clothing for the society ladies, and I loved working with him and his small team. I got much better at garment sewing, and before I left to attend art school, James generously let me use his patterns to make my mother a couple of outfits. One was a Chanel-style, wool boucle suit. The other was this orange silk dress, which she wore all the time. Here she is with two of her nephews. It was the early-mid 1980’s, the era of giant shoulder pads!
I have much to be grateful to my mother for, but the love and skill of sewing has brought me comfort, wonderful memories, and ultimately–a career.
We hope you’re enjoying the contributions to this series. If you would like to contribute your own Sewn Story, here’s how to do it. We also encourage you to share your stories on Instagram with #sewnstories.