Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Yardage Department

A matronly woman in sensible shoes untangles the cloth tape from the scissors dangling around her neck and measures me from shoulder to knee. “A yard and a half should do as long as you make the dress with short sleeves,” she pronounces with the authority gained from years of experience. My mother, an expert seamstress herself, quickly verifies the yardage and calculates the total price before she gives her consent to cut the precious fabrics. “A dress fit for a princess,” someone says in passing. I’m standing with my nose just barely clearing the edge of the widest and longest table I have ever seen, while watching the no nonsense clerk carefully cut the rustling turquoise taffeta and gauzy matching tulle.

It is the winter of 1954 and my mother, older sister and I have made our first pilgrimage of the year to the yardage department on the 6th floor of the Meier & Frank Department Store in downtown Portland. In May or June, we will return for a few bright cottons to be made into summer tops, shorts, and pedal pushers. School shopping is next at the end of summer followed by a pattern and fabric search in November for matching Christmas dresses. We always shop at the century old store because as my grandmother has often declared with a chuckle, “If you can’t find it at Meier & Frank, you don’t need it.”

We started the day searching for the perfect Easter dress in the pattern department located next to the elevators. The chairs in front of the long slanted tables, piled high with enormous McCall’s, Simplicity, and Vogue pattern books, were overflowing with mothers and daughters on the same mission. A woman behind a long counter found our dress pattern in file drawers packed with the latest styles.

I stay close to my mother so I won’t get lost as we move from the pattern department into the crowded rows of wooden tables covered with a profusion of color, texture and every type of fabric imaginable.  The colorful feast seems to go on for miles or a least the full length of the building between SW Morrison and Alder Streets. Customers and neatly dressed sales ladies shuffle from table to table on the well-worn wooden floor. With such an abundance of choices it is hard to decide and harder yet for two girls and a mother to agree.

Finally, after my mother exercises her veto power and the fabric is cut and paid for, we walk around the escalators in the center of the floor, past the bank of ornate elevators to my favorite area - Notions. Cards filled with buttons from tiny to huge, modest to ornate; zippers of every color and length; a rainbow of cotton and silk thread wound on wooden spoons; bolts of linings and interfacings; packets of ric rac and seam binding; and coils of ribbons and trims – the abundance of choices spill out of drawers, load up the tables, hang thick on display racks, and cover every inch of wall space.

While my mother fills her list, I find myself entranced by the elegant laces, trims, and beaded decorations carefully displayed in a handsome glass topped wooden case. I am soon lost in my imagination wearing a silk-satin wedding dress complete with flowing veil and shimmering tiara. Just as I start down the flower-strewn aisle, Mother gently awakens me from my daydream to tell me it is time to go home.

Note: The matching Easter dresses beautifully made from the taffeta and tulle we bought that day were not a big hit with my sister or me. There was an unforeseen problem reminiscent of the princess and the pea - tulle turned inside for seams is itchy.

1 comment:

  1. Oh ML what a beautiful story and picture! Love it! I remember too the McCalls, Butterick and Simplicity patterns, selecting a style, then picking the fabric and the notions. Coming at the tale end of four sister meant that I didn't often get to choose new styles - there was already a whole cupboard full of patterns to select from at home. I also got hand-me-downs a LOT which I then started altering and embellishing (with grandmother aiding and abetting) to personalize them. There were times when all the sisters were dressed in frocks of the same print but in a different colourway. We wore a lot of pure cottons - the heat of Africa and the local fabric mills made them sensible, but ouch I can imagine tulle seams being scratchy indeed!