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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Party Perfection?

            I love parties.  I love going to them, hosting them, and planning them.  There's nothing more fun than getting a group of friends together and enjoying each other's company.  Over the years I have hosted everything from anniversary and birthday parties to formal teas and craft nights.  And if I've learned one thing it is this.  There will be a disaster.  No matter how hard you plan, no matter how early you start, something will go wrong. 


 The dog will puke on the carpet, your child will break his arm, and your husband will eat half of the appetizers and say he was "just having a snack." Disasters are a part of every party The truth is that behind every "perfect" party is a hostess who knows how to laugh at herself, and have fun in spite of the flooded toilet and the burnt lasagna.


My list of party catastrophes is so long I can't remember them all.  Some of them I was able to hide from my guests.  Like the time my cocker spaniel at a dozen cooked bratwurst.  I was being the perfect hostess and cooking everything ahead of time for a family function.  Two dozen grilled bratwurst sat on the kitchen counter when I heard screams from the front yard. By the time I untangled the bike wreck, and bandaged two sets of knees, all that was left of my bratwurst was an empty pan and one very sick little dog.  All it took to fix that little disaster was an expensive trip to the vet and two dozen more bratwurst.  The party was great.

            But sometimes the calamity just can't be hidden.  Like if your teenage son burns pizza right before you have guests.  There's nothing more fun than welcoming people to a smoke filled house with fire alarms shrieking overhead.
The only thing you can do is slap a smile on your face, pass out chips and dip, and talk about how you love the fragrance of a campfire.  You can offer to spray your guests with air freshener but they usually refuse.

            The worst is when the disaster occurs right in the middle of the party.  Like the time I made great grandma's famous brisket.  I was so proud of myself.  I pulled that succulent plate of meat out of the oven and proceeded to trip over one of the kids' toys.  The meat went flying, I went sprawling, and my party ended up in the emergency room.  Well, okay, I ended up in the emergency room.  No burns, just a sprained ankle.  By the time my crutches and I hobbled home, the party was winding down and the guests had cleaned my kitchen.

            The true secret to surviving a party fiasco is the friends you choose.  Fortunately mine are forgiving and have a sense of humor.  I can't imagine being a social maven and worrying about serving the right kind of drinks or having the perfect decorations.  I try to get my house clean.  Sometimes I make it and sometimes only the bathrooms are pretty.  My party decorations are guests' coats piled on the couch and the smiles of my friends.  The best food?  It is usually donated by one of the amazing cooks I know.  I can BBQ and I serve a mean cheeseburger, but urbane cuisine  will not be on my menu.

            My parties aren't fancy or famous, but I still love them.  I enjoy the chatter of friends and family and the laughter that echoes in my memories.  The disasters become a part of party legend and lore.  And me?  I say let's party more!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

All Sewed Up

Sewing, as both an art form and an essential life skill, dates back thousands of years. Early sewing needles were made of animal bone. Thread was made of animal sinew.

For centuries, hand-sewing was the means of holding pieces of animal skin, fur, and later fabric together to form clothing. And then things changed.

In 1790, Englishman Thomas Saint obtained the first patent for a design for a machine for sewing. His idea was modified by others from France, Austria and Germany in the early 1800s. Then in 1818, John Knowles and John Adams Doge invented the first American sewing machine. Unfortunately, it stopped working before much fabric could be stitched.

In 1830, a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier developed a machine to produce chain stitching. Unfortunately, his invention angered his fellow tailors. They were afraid this new machine would put them out of jobs, so they burned his factory.

American Walter Hunt built a sewing machine in 1834, but he, too, feared it would cause unemployment. He abandoned the idea.

In 1846, the first American patent for a sewing machine was issued to Elias Howe. His machine combined thread from two sources and secured it through loops.

By this time, other inventors were introducing similar machines to the market. Isaac M. Singer was one of the inventors. He developed a dual thread-source machine that operated with an up-and-down mechanism and was powered by the pumping of a foot treadle similar to that of a spinning wheel. Earlier sewing machines used hand cranks.

Singer and others were subsequently sued by Elias Howe for patent infringement and lost, but Singer continued to experiment with sewing machine development. In 1858, Singer abandoned the idea of producing industrial sewing machines (the industry didn’t seem to want them) and focused on producing a consumer sewing machine that could be used in the home. He received 20 additional patents, spent big bucks on advertising, and created a system that combined sales and service. Soon Singer was mass producing the machines and achieving commercial success.

Singer, who trained as a machinist and cabinet-maker, put expensive price tags on his home sewing machines. He charged $75-$120 at a time when the average annual household income in America was about $500.00. He then introduced a new concept – installment-plan payments – and the sales of his sewing machines skyrocketed. He set up a corporate office and a manufacturing facility in New York City. Sales of his sewing machines in Europe made Singer Manufacturing Company an international entity, and the company continued to grow.

By 1860, his company was the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing machines. He retired to Europe three years later – the same year his company sold more than 20,000 home sewing machines. Singer’s home sewing innovations saved time and changed the way average Americans sewed for their families. They were the first of many time-saving devices (like washing machines and vacuum cleaners) that changed the way Americans did household tasks.

Time passed, and the price of home sewing machines dropped, but sewing machines were still viewed by many as a luxury item. Wage-earners were hesitant to invest such a large sum of money into sewing machines, but Singer was a marketing genius. In addition to offering installment payments, he had retailers do lots of hands-on demonstrations, plus he offered lessons with each machine sold.

More than 170,000 machines were sold in 1870 – the year Singer’s red “S” trademark was introduced. In 1880, more than 500,000 machines were sold. Additional factories were opened throughout Europe and Canada, and new machine models were introduced. The company has now been in business for 160 years and has remained an innovator throughout its history -- even with the rise of competing companies and products.

I thought about all of this recently as Christmas approached. In 1966, all I wanted for Christmas was a sewing machine. I’d watched Mom and Grandma make beautiful creations with their respective Singer sewing machines. My eight-year-old self wanted to be creative, too, and make clothes for my Barbie and Chatty Cathy dolls.

I could hardly believe my eyes Christmas morning when I spotted a large yellow box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. I opened it carefully to find a small portable Singer sewing machine – a lot like Mom’s and just right for small hands. My interest in sewing began that day and continues today.

Through the years I took sewing lessons, became a regular at local fabric shops, and made everything from color guard clothing, purses and Cub Scout vests to bridesmaid dresses and Christmas ornaments. There’s just something extremely satisfying about creating with a needle and thread.

As a young adult, I “inherited” a circa 1890 Singer sewing machine in a beautiful wooden cabinet – complete with a set of tiny tools and attachments in a small wooden box. Very ornate. Things just aren’t made that way today!

I introduced my kids to the sewing machine at early ages, always encouraging a healthy respect for the moving sharp needle. Somehow, no one ever stitched a finger.

A relative gave my daughter a child-size Singer sewing machine in the mid-1990s. The Singer Company had made many changes and addressed safety issues since the production of my first machine. She enjoyed creating things for her dolls and stuffed animals. It didn’t matter if the seams were crooked or the tension adjusted too tight. She was creating and her efforts were beautiful.

She took several clothing construction classes in high school with wonderful teachers who encouraged her creativity. She said she found sewing to be a relaxing activity. She learned the basics on Bernina sewing machines made in Switzerland.

Now a fashion merchandising major, she continues to enjoy sewing one-of-a-kind clothing items. And for her birthday this year, she received a Bernina 215 sewing computer – complete with an LCD display screen and numerous stitch selection buttons and choices. She can manipulate the “computer” and get it to do tasks I didn’t know home machines could do. And yet the concept of interlocking thread from two sources and the use of a sharp needle remains – just like in Isaac Singer’s day.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I will this year. While I'm not ready to give up my basic 1950s Singer sewing machine, I do want to learn to use at least some of that Bernina computer’s settings and functions. I may not be able to use it with my daughter’s ease and confidence, but I’m going to try. Wonder what Mr. Singer would think?