I’m on a campaign to empty as many boxes as I can in my atelier. If you’re not familiar with the word “atelier,” it’s a fancy-schmancy word for workshop or studio. I consider it a better word than “those plastic boxes full of stuff I collected for years, and heaven knows what I was thinking at the time.”
Almost a decade ago, my aunt died. My brothers, who had been given the task of organizing the estate sale, phoned. “We think we found a few sewing things in Auntie’s house. Do you want them?”
I asked, “Did you find a round, green, plastic box full of thread and buttons?”
I’d never known a time when that box hadn’t sat on my aunt’s closed sewing machine, ready to mend a rip or sew on a button. Every time I saw her sew, that box was there at her elbow. “I want that box! If there’s anything else that looks usable, send it along.”
Since ill health prevented my aunt from sewing for many years, I wasn’t expecting much: cloth scraps, a few buttons, thread so brittle it would snap when I tried to sew with it.
A few weeks later, UPS arrived. The man in brown shorts left six boxes in my living room. Big boxes, the size air conditioners come in. Bulging boxes, their sides so distended that if I found a similar shape in, say, a can of green beans, I would immediately phone the health department. When I slit the packing tape, flaps flew open and “a few sewing things” cascaded over my living room floor.
Yards of fabric; hundreds of buttons; two unfinished quilt tops; packets of embroidery patterns—the seven-kittens-for-seven-days variety that cost 39¢ at Woolworth's—100% cotton rick-rack; German embroidery scissors, still in a velvet-flocked box; zip-lock bag after zip-lock bag of thread, the ends snarled into webs that would make spiders envious. And finally, in the middle of one box, swathed like a mummy in six yards of fabric, the treasured green plastic box.
It’s taken me a decade to go through it. The German scissors aren’t in pristine condition any more, but to compensate, they’ve snipped miles of embroidery thread. The fabric and sewing thread are mostly gone, a little bit of my aunt gracing project after project, the way that lace-makers wove strands of their own hair into lace destined to be used for wedding or christening gowns. I managed to finish the big quilt and give it to my mother before she died.
I kept the little quilt. It’s a mish-mash of cheap, bright fabrics. I suspect Auntie started it because she could see the bright colors and, even though she could no longer safely use a sewing machine, she could hand-piece by feel.
As a gift to my nieces and nephews, and now to my four great-nieces, I plan to use up as much of my stash as I can before I go. They can have the tools, which will still be in good shape, but the cloth, thread, cotton batting, buttons, zippers, embellishments, paper-crafting supplies, glues, paints, inks, color pencils, crayons, and stickers are, bit by bit, being used in the most fun projects I can think of. A lot of those projects end up at mystery conventions as tea cozies or book bags or decorated pencil tins, donated to auctions.
It’s not just cloth and paper I’m using up. I’m recycling old writing as well. A corner of my atelier is full of file boxes with partial novels; short stories; a stab or two at play-writing; one particular file of, um, well, that is to say—okay, it’s erotica, and I was young and naive when I wrote it. Enough said.
It’s a gift to be able to look at this old writing, and not cringe. To have the courage to revisit plots which, like those zip-lock bags of thread, contain tangles a spider would envy. To mine pages of “He said, . . . “She said,” or “He dropped his eyes to the floor.” for nuggets of dialog and description worth salvaging and reusing. To rediscover characters who, with a little rehabilitation and modernizing, fit nice-as-pie into the current work in progress.
One of the writing mantras we hear all the time is “Never throw anything away.” I think we need a second writer’s mantra. “Use the things found round your house.” Who would have through that recycling could be so much fun?
Writing quote for the week:
Adventure, ascension, decision, discovery, escape, forbidden love, love, maturation, metamorphosis, pursuit, quest, rescue, revenge, riddle, rivalry, sacrifice, temptation, transformation, underdog, and wretched excess.~ Ronald Tobias, Twenty Basic Plots