23. Shirts from Shower Curtains

Guest Contributor: Barbara Rose

I met Barbara Rose when she started teaching permaculture classes here in Tucson, and a friend signed up. My friend loved it, so the following year I made sure to get in. I didn’t know it then, but Barbara was more than our teacher—she essentially helped bring permaculture forward into Tucson’s consciousness, after reading about the concept while researching sustainability topics. So I think of her as a permaculture pathfinder. But I also know her as a jewelry creator, recipe developer, native arts supporter, pen-and-ink illustrator, grassroots political activist, writer, and community visionary. And I’m sure I’ve failed to mention a half dozen of her identities. Here, you’ll get to know her as a builder, seamstress, and 1950s granddaughter.

                                                                                                                        —Kay

When I was young and lived with my nuclear family in the 50s and 60s, my adored paternal grandmother Evie (Evelyn, in Yiddish, Chavala) and I spent many hours together. Exactly 50 years my senior, Nanny Evie had lost her husband when I was less than a year old, and it was another 25 years until she found a suitable soulmate. Perhaps this was one reason we got to spend so much time together—she had more time on her hands, and I was a bit of a handful for my parents when my younger brother came along. When I was with Evie, I felt fully loved and supported as the nascent non-conformist I was to become.

Mostly we’d stay at her home, an old 1920s brick two-story that smelled of chicken soup, garlic and pickled tomatoes. In the backyard were several citrus trees and an avocado, tall and full of football-sized seasonal fruit (only slightly exaggerating here). A falling fruit could really mess you up if you were unlucky enough to be in its trajectory.

Cut in half, filled with grapefruit and sprinkled with salt, they were a backyard feast. More than sixty years later I can see the tree and savor the taste and texture of a Florida “alligator pear.” Evie had a jungle of rooted seedlings in her kitchen window, three toothpicks holding the big seeds halfway above the water. She read spicy novels and smoked cigarettes (until uncle Buzzie read her the riot act about cancer, then she stopped—not reading, smoking).

Once in a while we’d go downtown to Evie’s favorite thrift shop. I have a faint visual memory of a dark room with racks of clothes, but the smell of the shop was memorable: musty. Most old  things in 1950s southwest Florida smelled musty or mildewy—clothes and books especially. When my dad, Lowell, learned where we’d been, he was horrified, and made his mom promise to stop shopping for second-hand. I don’t know if Evie complied, but that was the end of our shared thrifting adventures. By the late ’60s, far from parental influence, I reconnected with the thrill of finding no two items ever alike—and the joy and treasure of times with my grandmother.

Preparing cob (clay soil, sand, and straw) for small outbuildings at a desert foods farm north of Tucson

In addition to being someone who like fabrics and wears clothes—a sewer and dresser—I’m a builder, with a 35-year-old “resource area” at the farm for used and reused materials: wood, metal, glass etc., that are continually handy and helpful for the next project. As my dear friend Kay has so delightfully noted, mud, straw, old cooler pads, a few recycled structural elements, some glass panes or bottles—and a vision—can produce useful, beautiful, and even mind-blowing results.

Interior of cob-kitchen addition.

There’s a deep connection for me between stitching things together—sewing old cloth into new clothes, mending and re-mending, a penchant for hoarding beautiful fabrics from thrift shops and even dumpsters—and turning subsoils excavated from rainwater-harvesting basins, and other discarded materials, into unique, usable, beautiful buildings.

I’ve always loved to sew, and also grew up with stories of my other grandmother, Frances, a late-1800s Russian immigrant, who’d made her living sewing clothes and hats in Brooklyn, NY.

I inherited her bolts of blue and green wool twill after she died, when I was 13.

I found a Wheeler and Wilson treadle machine when I lived in New Hampshire in the ’70s, and now have a 1960s avocado green Elna, which I hardly use because I prefer to sew by hand.

Stitching things together and mending are a bit like telling a shaggy story, don’t you think?

Just before the pandemic I found a beautiful blue-and-white striped heavy cotton shower curtain. The bottom part had become fragile and discolored, probably from the buildup of alkaline water that evaporated, which is the same thing that damages the skirts of earthen buildings here in the desert, which is called deflocculation.

Removing the damaged part left enough gorgeous fabric to make a new shirt with a pattern taken from a vintage Tarahumara blouse my daughter Maya gifted me for my 70th birthday. I sewed it all by hand, a glorious diversion during the insanity of the early Covid months—no work, nowhere to go, just stay home, sew, garden, etc. If you look closely at the hem you will see the buttonhole places where it was meant to hang as a shower curtain. I wear it all the time.

Many years ago, I found a beautiful handmade tunic at African Village, a Gem Show sideshow just off the interstate downtown. I have mended and re-mended the elbows and shoulders of that shirt many times, lengthened the sleeves and shored up the hem. Handwoven of gorgeous four-inch-wide bands of multicolored striped cloth by village artisans, some of the fabrics were more durable than others, providing ample opportunities for creative patching and stitchery.

The inside of the tunic is now even more interesting, and it tells the hidden story of how many times one area has been reworked.

In a place where ancient volcanic clay soils and cast-off cloth of diverse colors and textures meet up, old stuff does not suck. It spurs innovation and sparks joy, and I get to play with the possibilities.

3 thoughts on “23. Shirts from Shower Curtains

  1. Great, and good to see Barbara Rose mentioned as a mentor to many. Clothes: I grew up very poor and so boxes of wadded-up items from the church were a treasure for me. Ripping up curtains, designing clothes, sewing by needle and thread became a fabulous, and long-lasting, habit. Sure works for me.

    Like

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