Cotton

By Maggy Sears

The softness of cotton, the fine and coarse weaves. The washing and ironing of cotton, the starching, the stroking with hand and iron, warmed by the heat.

Doll clothes for my Madame Alexander doll, itsy bitsy stitches on tiny cotton outfits , taking them off and putting them on over and over again. At 14, wearing a dark green, handblocked Indian print, wrap-around skirt, adorning my neck with a large, intricate Celtic cross, wandering through the spring woods in my imagined Hobbit world, sunlight flitering through the early green; finding and greeting the return of my woodland flowerfriends: violets, bloodroot, trillium, trout lilly.

Quebec nuns in elaborate dress – black, white or gray cotton, each unique according to the order, long crosses swinging down the front – crisp white head dresses shaped like bird wings, cardboard stiff wimples framing faces, starched bibs, flowing habits whipping around bodies, sisters struggling across the blustery square. From Hobbits to nuns – shifting fantasies.

Before the steam iron, learning from my grandmother, Bama, how to dampen the clothes. Take one shirt, dip hands in water and flick droplets on shirt, roll shirt up, patting the fabric with damp hands and soft thumps. Take another shirt, begin to roll it- up and over the first one – holding bundle to chest, folding each side in as you go, sprinkling, patting, rolling. When the bundle is large and damp, leave it for a while, then iron. Placing cotton clothes on the ironing board, seeing threads flatten under the burning iron, shifting the ironed part over the side, arranging the unironed part onto the board, flattening the wrinkles with gentle strokes soothing my hands, then fading warmth from the iron.

Being taught by a brilliant adored high school teacher how to iron shirts step by careful step – first the collar, then the yolk, sleeves, cuffs, back, then each side of the front – a technique she learned as an undergraduate at Smith College, a required course in home economics. In her freshman English class, cracking open my already ravenous reading habit when she revealed first the meaning of the curious word ‘symbol’, and next the alarming meaning of the symbolic blooming red rose bush in front of the jail housing the woman with a scarlet letter emblazoned on her breast.

Summers ironing my brothers Oxford button down shirts, my chore. Why?? Perhaps because he had his first real job driving a milk delivery truck taking him away from me, leaving me with only the comfort of his shirts, envious of his independence, wanting him home, my big brother, the pole around which I wacked my tetherball.

My beautiful Communist mother known as the Madonna of the Ozarks during her days of union organizing, teaching me how to turn a man’s shirt into a Russian style worker’s shirt, fueling my romance with Doestoyefsky and the Russian revolution. First take off the collar, turn shirt around, button it up the back, crisp it with the iron. In my 30s, shifting to white cotton shirts with vintage lace or bright red and blue Mexican ones softly encrusted with embroidered flowers.

Fresh diapers coming out of the dryer, burying my face in the sweet warmth, folding them into lovely piles, putting them away. From my backyard looking way down the row of small unfenced yards, seeing each family’s wash on lines carefully clipped with clothespins, warming in the sun, hanging and gently flapping, revealing perhaps mysterious stories of neighbors I’d never met.

Struggling to iron large tablecloths on too narrow ironing boards, cloths used at holidays, parties, and gatherings of friends. Tangled attempts, accidently dumping the ironed or unironed sections on the floor, trying not to have a big crease right down the middle. Lace table cloths, antique white ones and two rarely used ones – one lavender, the other robin’s egg blue, laid perhaps at formal dinners at the Episcopal Dean’s house, the childhood home of my mother-in-law.

In India, reveling in Indian prints, endless amounts of yardage measured in confusing centimeters, neatly stacked, one by one on the floor and shelves in the chaotic market – handblocked, woven, trimmed, shot through with stitches, bangly glittering mirrors attached with thread. Asking the shop keepers to retrieve this print – then that one – from the middle of the tall, cloth stacks so I can mix and match fabic for the kurtas and nightgowns I will have made by the tailor.

Pinning dupattas, saris, kurtas and sheer Indian towels on the clothelines strung across the enclosed balcony, fabrics sometimes twacking then tangling, blown about by Bay of Bengal winds, or sometimes hanging damply weighted down by the monsoon rains. Once a group of finely woven cottons hanging on the line, reds, whites and pinks, sunshot layered transparencies creating a shimmer of pinks – delicate shell pink, the inside of a rose, touched with yellow.

In summer, my maid Muni carrying the wet cottons to the roof where she hung them on a line I never saw, the clothes drying in 10 minutes. Me pretending to myself that they were purified by the burning sun instead of saturated with Calcutta polluted air. The dhobi coming each day in the morning to collect the dry cottons and returning them in the evening ironed flat as can be, folded and stacked. How can it be that an entire wardrode of Indian clothing can be transformed into a perfectly square, foot tall column of wonderous colors?

Cotton sheets, crisp or smooth, silky ones, clean freshness. At 65, deciding I had to master folding a full size elastic fitted sheet before I died, never having competently done so ever since they were invented in the 50s. Looking up online how to do it, following Martha Stewart’s directions, finding it impossible. Watching a neighbor successfully do this in the laundry room, asking her to teach me. Finally learning how, then quickly unlearning how, deeming it again impossible. Running into my neighbor again, asking for more help. The key is patience, she finally and quietly states as she delicately folds her bottom sheet. Ah, of course, the key is patience.

A few weeks ago, ironing my Indian kurtas, all 25 of them, many made from Gandhi’s special khadi, a handloomed and handspun cotton which he had hoped would help transform pre-independence India, rejecting the high priced cottons of the British Raj and taking villagers back to their roots, each family spinning and weaving its own cloth. Some of my kurtas are made – tongue in rebellious cheek- with lungi cloth, a plaid length of cotton worn only by working men who wear them around the waist, long or short, folded, tucked, or tied.

Me, ironing the kurtas, hanging them on hangers, placing them one after another after another in the closet, shutting the closet door, leaving them hanging dimly, not in cheerful stacks in the brilliant sunlight of a Calcutta cupboard. Taking a photo of this somewhat forlorn array, I email it to Indian friends, triumphantly demontrating how “we do it ourselves” in America. Responding via text message using the traditional abbreviated spelling of texting, Rita writes in caps WISH UR 25 KURTAS COULD FLY 2 IND IRONED FLY BACK 2 NY.

And finally, today, unpacking my Amazon delivery of watercolor paper, I notice the brand name Artistico written in a flowing calligraphy and under that in large block letters 100% cotton.

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One thought on “Cotton

  1. Peggy Strait says:

    Your beautiful piece, “Cotton”, brought back so many vivid memories of the days when I sewed cotton, ironed cotton (there was that distinctive smell with the steam iron), bought clothes for the kids in cotton, and wore summer dresses of cotton. Thank you, Maggy!

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