Do you know what this tool is called? This is not one of those questions that I ask and you answer and get a prize. I actually don’t know what’ it’s called. But I own two of them and I’ve known how to use one since I was about 10 years old. My mother and sister call it a “tas-tas-er” and the act of doing it “tas-tas-ing” — none of us know the English word, do you?
My mother owned a dress and alteration shop when I was a kid, and so did her mother before her. She is incredibly talented and passed the talent on to my deep fried Oreo sister, Madsoli — who is also a dressmaker. Me? I can make pillowcases. I can sew monster dolls. I can even attach a button or two. I actually struggle to hem a straight line. My sewing skills are almost as bad as my Tagalog and my swimming. (Hint: People have actually laughed at me when trying to communicate in my mother’s language and I would die if thrown in a pool.)
Last week I was put to the ultimate test — when I had to alter (last minute) a homecoming dress for my fifteen year old niece. There wasn’t time to send it to my sister in California, so I would have to fix the dress myself. Not just hem, but take apart and redesign. No ruffles here. Capped sleeves there. Adjust the ruffles here. Make the back look different. Etc. “Grandma can do it, Auntie Madsoli can do it, you can do it too.” She didn’t actually say that — but I could hear it in her voice as she was commanding me to mold the dress to her specifications. I didn’t let on that I had never actually altered a formal dress before. Sidenote: We are a family of mostly sisters — we almost never purchase formal dresses from a store or off a rack. Seems like it would have been easier to buy a new dress rather than subject myself to this project, but this is the way she wanted to do it, so of course I gave in. I cursed under my breath as she had me pin and re-pin the parts of the dress she wanted to be different. Faked through like I knew what I was doing.
When my sister and I were younger we used to sit in my mother’s shop and she would give us piles of clothing, mostly military uniforms, that needed to be picked apart before being repaired. My sister is five years younger than me — so imagine a five year old doing this. In retrospect, I’m sure our mother violated some sort of child labor laws.
The process of “tas-tas-ing” involves finding the right seams and gently pulling the pieces that are attached until the stitches are exposed. You have to pull with just enough strength to make the change, but not enough to damage the material. I would spend hours picking at the seams, carefully plucking tiny threads so as not to leave marks. It was tedious work for tiny hands.
Last week — when I finally found a moment to work on my niece’s dress — I was at the DMV, waiting for my husband to take a driver’s test. Tapping my feet and watching the clock because I didn’t want to be late picking up my youngest from preschool. Tired from a morning full of errands and to-do’s. Checking and answering emails on my phone. I pulled the red dress from my purse and sat with it in my lap. The rich color was ridiculously out of place in the gray and almost sterile but not really waiting area. A few people watched me curiously. Distracted from their driver’s ed study books. Surely there was a better place for this task? If they had asked me instead of staring, I would tell them I was a busy mother of five and I had an out of town soccer tournament and homecoming to get ready for, and assure them that there definitely was not a better place for this. I pulled the “tas-tas-er” aka pick-seam-apart tool from my purse and fell into a trance as I quietly worked on the parts that needed changing.
And then — I was overwhelmed with comfort and calm. It wasn’t just the memory of doing this task as a kid — it was actually the quiet repetition, the concentrating on not pulling too hard but hard enough, the satisfaction of a stitch slicing perfectly apart, and then picking the thread out — as if it had never been there. Pick, pick, pick — almost like rosary beads, I went through each stitch and felt calmer after each one.
This the management of my life — the picking apart of things. Life has not been perfect or fair. But this random skill that I learned as a child somehow makes so much sense as an adult. Identifying the things that you can actually change and then pulling until it gives, stopping when the seam resists. Knowing by instinct the when too much resistance means that something is going to tear and you will never be able to fix it. Knowing with confidence that you can pull just a little bit harder and then you will be past that stitch and on to the next one. Going at your own pace — regardless of what is going on around you. Finding comfort in the process.
I doubt my mother realized that that’s what she was teaching my sister and I when she gave us this chore. But I’m so thankful that she did. Once the red mess was pulled apart– it was easier to visualize how and where it needed to come together in the right places. I finished the dress that same night. Straight seams and everything. Totally proud of myself.
Listen to your mother. Even if it feels like she is running a sweatshop, there is probably a lesson in there somewhere.
Ignore people at the DMV. They are nervous because no one has any idea how many feet they are really supposed to be parked away from a curb.
And finally — sometimes you have to take your dreams apart at the seams, carefully and happily, all the while envisioning the beautiful thing you are going to create when you are finished.