Honoring legacies: becoming a maker, learning to sew

threads from the sewing box

In childhood, long before I called myself an artist, I would tell people that I liked to make things. And when I was a little girl, Tante Emmchen was the person who showed me how to make them.

It was the mid-1950s. My mother, whom I adored, was busy with my two younger brothers, taking care of a family when women were held to impossibly high standards of housekeeping and family management. (But of course, there weren’t so many Things and Plastic Toys around then.) She didn’t have time to show me things, and I was the one who taught her how to sew clothing on a machine.

Boxes that once held sewing threads, now storing buttons both dark (“dunkel”) and light (“hell”). Also a message, “Knopfe unsw. von Mutti,” translated as “Buttons etc. from Mother,” my grandmother.


So, Tante Emmchen occupied an important niche in my world. This was not an easy thing, because we were separated by an ocean, slow mail service and non-existent telephone, at least for kids. But in a child’s world, those things don’t matter much.

Tanted Emmchen was especially helpful towards girls. She was, after all, a house-mother and teacher in a girls school. Many years later, she told me that tending to these girls was her favorite part. She came of age during World War II, as a musician playing piano, flute, cello and singing, living in England for several years following the war. She was a caretaker for a woman who had polio. This was important, because her English was impeccable throughout her long life. She always teased us about American English being often wholly improper, and as a child, I had to get used to her expressions of “hoovering” the rug and being “in hospital.” This, too was a factor in our close connection. Language was not the barrier that occurred with other European family members.

One of my earliest memories of Tante Emmchen happened when I was 6. It arrived in the mail, a small drawstring bag, red and white cotton folk motifs, containing a ball of yarn. As you unwound the ball, little packets dropped out. They were tiny seashells wrapped in paper. The point was that you were to start knitting, and as you progressed, you were rewarded with these little presents. My German friend tells me she thinks it’s called a “Wunder Knoedel.” I am still charmed by this concept and share it with young mothers.

Tante Emmchen’s little gifts and instructions were always about making things. She didn’t have much money, so the gift would be in her efforts. One day, I received a full set of doll clothes for a 2” doll, knitted on something toothpick-sized. The package had to be small. Another time, she made me a smocked dress for my regular Kathe Kruse doll, Christina, the one with painted hair and stiff body. The dress had a matching coat out of red chamois cloth, also embellished. She sent me books of sewing instructions. But always, she’d write me letters, with extraordinary stamps, the most exotic she could find. And I would write back, first in childlike handwriting, and later in the flourishes of teenage and grown-up years.

“Sphinx” assorted Steel needles

Tante Emmchen passed away this year at the age of 92. I returned to Germany for the funeral and visited her apartment to help with sorting. In all the family memorabilia, something important was overlooked, –her sewing box. Although I retained photo albums, a hooked rug from my grandmother and a handwoven table runner from Norway, I truly enjoyed excavating the sewing basket. It was a snapshot of the everyday. A box of light buttons and one of dark, including ones saved from her mother. Cards of thread. Scissors and needlecases. And much more, left for my other cousin.

I added these to the round sewing box that sat in my mother’s desk, a repository for buttons and small bits of household hardware. Buttons from a child’s coat, from a duvet cover, a chic taupe and white pin-striped dress that my mother wore when she dressed up. Replacement garters.  Bobbins. Norwegian silver sweater buttons. And small curtain hooks.

These are the shared legacies passed down from elder female relatives to younger. What fun! Tante Emmchen, thank you for helping me find my maker side. Mom, thank you for everything!