A Seamstress and a Green Dress

By Ivanova Anjani from Unwritten Stories, 2019.

It was the early 70’s in Indonesia. In a military man’s humble home in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, a little girl had just made a wallet out of fabric scraps from her mother’s sewing projects. A large grin formed as she held her first ever labour of love, which she constructed by carefully following the instructions found in Femina (a popular girls’ magazine at the time). The modest wallet was a craft project for her elementary school art class. Surely none of my friends in class thought of something like this, she thought proudly to herself. 

Sewing had always been impressive in her inquisitive young eyes. She’s seen handmade clothes modeled in the magazines, on the telly, and even worn by her mother. One day she would like to make a dress for herself, but right now she’ll gladly accept the wallet, which was empty apart from the gratitude that she’s filled it with. 

It wasn’t until years later that the girl, now a young lady in college, was able to make her dress. She has graduated from the scrap wallet and tablecloths she used to make with her mother’s sewing machine, to pretty frocks and button-up shirts. It took her some time to get to where she was now. Forced into a gap year because she was not immediately accepted into the government universities she applied for, she sat wondering what to do before the next application period arrives. After finishing a short course on computer science, she wished to go to sewing school rather than university. 

“No,” her dad sternly said to her, effectively shutting down her idea. “What use is a seamstress?” 

Sometime later, the young, educated lady, who is now well into motherhood, was also interested in clothing someone else: her children. At this point, she had moved to the tiny town of Kisaran in North Sumatra after her husband had earned a promotion from his job in Jakarta. She looked forward to the days where she can go to Tanjung Balai to buy fabrics of all kinds by the kilo. From those she fashioned the clothes my sister and I wore when we were toddlers. 

The girl with the scrap wallet, Singer sewing machine, and two daughters clothed in handmade tunics is my mother. 

Growing up, I remember one of the most impressive things my mom did that even my six-year-old brain could acknowledge was how she made costumes for our kindy recital. With the help of her friend, she put together half-a-dozen dresses made of sheer green chiffon and ribbons for my sister’s dance routine. She was so thorough, she even made the headbands and lace corsages, and went out of her way to find matching socks for everyone. The design is reminiscent of the Princess dresses from the Disney movies my sister and I were fond of, with the puffy sleeves and two-tier skirt. 

Ever since then, my mum has finished many other projects, from cross-stitched flowers to colourful hijabs. However, I’ve hardly ever heard my mom say that she’s a skilled seamstress to anyone. Only a handful of people, mostly family, probably know how competent she is at it. I was lucky enough to have been taught how to do needlework by her, and from there I learned how to make embroidery myself. 

Although sometimes my mum and I clash, our common interest in crafting and sewing fills those gaps that can’t be filled by words. That gap between us has become wider and more literal in recent years now that I’ve moved away from my home in Indonesia to Christchurch, New Zealand. But I’m still really close with my mum and we talk about our projects from time to time. I also realize, from seeing her years of experience and just from being her daughter, how patient and humble my mum is. No matter how much of my mum’s skills I inherit, I can never match how careful she is with her projects, and how she easily forgives herself for making mistakes before trying again. That’s why I look up to her so much, and why I hope I can pass on the same skills and message to my kids in the future. 

My sister’s Green Dress still resides in my sister’s wardrobe in my teenhood home in Tangerang City, where I hope it will stay for more years to come.

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