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Every Creative Needs a Room of Their Own

With curation, my sewing room offers much more than a workspace

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Photo by author

“I found Peaches!”

I look up from sorting papers at my stepdad George’s kitchen table. He died a few days earlier, at home, at age ninety. Now seven of us are sorting, dividing, and donating his belongings. Jean is working on the shelf under the sideboard. I expect she’s found a cache of home-canned peaches in glass Ball jars. The peach harvest here in the mountains is always a big deal.


She points to a box of a certain size. Turns out she’s found the cremated ashes of George’s insanely speedy Miniature Pinscher, Peaches — with a capital “P.” We decide we’ll take them with us to Ohio with George’s ashes and bury them together beside his first wife, Jean’s sister Janet. We figure it’s what George would want. Why else would he label the cremains and leave them?

Since my mother’s death five years ago, I’ve continued to enjoy being at the house where she and George lived for over two decades. George didn’t rearrange it after Mom died, only adding what he needed or replacing what might have broken. The same refrigerator magnet of a fat baby in a devil’s costume is stuck on the frig. The curtains Mom sewed hang in the bathroom. Time in the home underlines the continuity of life more than it screams of loss.

Author's grandfather. Family photo.

Mementos from my mother’s family abound. Since my brothers live out of state, it falls to me to identify photos, jewelry, glassware, and the makers of crocheted dolls. My three brothers have only a few items they want, so I am the repository of the family remembrances. I’ll send much of them on eventually to my cousins, the ones who are interested in family history or old-timey things. There is a stack of albums with baby pictures I’ve never seen. I predict a lot of scanning in my future and maybe a new shared Drop Box account.

A few items come to live in our guest room. The room exudes a European feel, a theme. A garden gnome — or more accurately, a nain de jardin — watches from a shelf. The request I made to my son the summer he studied at the Sorbonne was to bring back a gnome. He toted the little guy all over Paris and I love them both.

I hang the oil painting of Notre Dame on the wall, mystified as to how my parents got it and why they relegated it to their basement den.

Uncle Claudie. Photo by George Helentjaris.

My parents’ cuckoo clock, voiceless and waiting for my husband to add its pinecone weights, hangs on the wall. It is so much more than wall décor. My great-grandfather was born in the hills of Bavaria, near the Black Forest and was a carpenter. I look at the clock and remember watching my grandfather’s magic as he worked in the garage in Dayton. With a hand plane, he shaved long curls off the block of wood. He was making a cage for my grandmother’s canary. He adored her. My mother knew her way around a piece of wood, too. She encouraged me to decoupage and wood burn.

Some of the things coming from my parents’ home are rejoining old friends, having been part of my great-grandmother’s household and later, my grandmother’s. The hand-me-down furniture is humble. My great-grandmother’s birch dresser has been there for years. My mother ruined any retail value in the 1960s when she stripped off the original finish and restained it. In pride of place is the bed my great-uncle Claudie died in. It, too, has issues. One carved piece is missing a chunk of wood and the bed wobbles a bit. My grandmother’s wax flower beribboned headdress from her 1920s wedding hangs temporarily on the mirror of her mother’s dresser. I need to find an acid-free box.

Photo by author.

Fittingly, the sunny south-facing guest room is where I sew. Our family-owned silk mills in and around Zurich and the St. Bernard pass in the Alps. Textiles were important. Each generation has taught the next to sew, embroider, and appreciate fabric.

The now defunct sewing machine I learned on is at my elbow. And the collection goes on. The room captures and swirls with memories and legacy and carries me back to my earliest days. I fall into it as if into an embrace. I hear my mother, only a few years ago, chastising me to use the proper tool in the proper way as we put buttonholes in a child’s blouse. “This is how you’re supposed to use it, Diane.”

Much of my sewing room has what you would expect: a small table with my favorite workhorse machine, packets of needles, Lucite measuring thing-a-ma-bobs, a container with a seam ripper, thimble, and scissor-sharpening tool. The closet holds boxes of patterns, bags of stuffing, plastic tubs with half-done projects, felt, muslin, burlap, and plain cottons.

Ther key to my fabric stash. Photo by author.

In a full disclosure, I have a Shaker jelly cupboard in the hall with my knitting and embroidery materials. And, OK, I have an overflow in my bedroom. It’s an antique chest of drawers restored by the talented Nick Greer. He probably thought I’d use it for storing something grand. Instead, it’s stuffed to the gills with a variety of linens, African cotton, used denim ready to be repurposed, scraps of organic cotton, and scraps of Liberty of London Tana lawn. Everyone has their weaknesses, I always say.

Working amidst the relics of my family and doing what they have done for generations and what they have taught me to do brings a special peace and serenity. The 1940s Singer machine beside me reminds me of my first foray into machine sewing. At age ten, I used it to make my 4-H project for my club, the Nimble Thimbles. My mother coached me to follow the lines of the apricot gingham checks as I made the half-apron. Her scissors which she used to sew Teddy bears for her charity work are on the table. Any sewist will understand why she labeled them in red Magic Marker with “Ruth R.”

Photo by author.

I know we’re very fortunate to have an extra room and I don’t take my privilege lightly.

Virginia Woolf declared a woman needed “money and a room of her own” to write fiction. Putting together a room of your own, whether for sewing or painting or other creative actions can set the stage for hours of enjoyment, replenishment, and productivity. I wish everyone had a room of their own.

Illustration comliments of The Graphics Fairy.


About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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