I am a lifelong New Yorker. For the most part, New Yorkers don’t cook. I am not one of those New Yorkers. Throughout my childhood, my four Italian-born grandparents demonstrated before me an eﬀortless mastery in the kitchen, resourcefully preparing southern Italian dishes that were healthy, inexpensive, easy to make, and irresistibly delicious. It’s amusing for me to go on social media or check my email these days in our now, and perhaps forever, COVID-19 dominated world to find chefs, restaurants, and food markets doing tutorials on how to make a simple dish of pasta. This makes me smile: we should all be humbled by the fundamental importance of food on the table. There’s no greater way to be reminded of this than by making your meals yourself.
Similarly, there’s been a revival of interest in and appreciation for sewing. Apparel industry manufacturers are being lauded for shifting their production priorities to making masks and medical gowns to protect our front-line workers. Youtube videos on how to make masks at home abound. Professional designers, teachers, tailors, current and former students, and often foreign-born grandmothers are getting out their home sewing machines, too.
I am one of those former students. When I was 15, I decided I wanted to be a menswear designer and commuted on a bus and two subways from Queens to attend the High School of Fashion Industries in Chelsea, steps from the NYC garment center. It was wonderful to spend the first three hours of my school day working with my hands. For myself and my fellow teenage classmates, there was nothing more ‘cool’ than being able to make your own clothes as a singular statement of style. I was hardly the best in my class, but it didn’t bother me.
Instead, it forced me to accept the little flaws and relative imperfections in my work as uniquely mine and taught me to be proud of my eﬀorts. My garment was one of one, made by me.
In the end, I wound up choosing a related field in the industry, pursuing an education at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying advertising, marketing, and communications. In the early years of my career, I made my mark as a publicist and marketing manager for an Italian and then French menswear conglomerate. Having a menswear design background made me stand out in my field and gave me the assets and credentials to excel. I put my sewing machine away. Eventually, I gave it away.
Flash forward 25 years. I’m a partner in a design agency that serves fashion, beauty, fitness, and entertainment clients. I decide to pursue a freelance journalism opportunity with MR and pitch the High School of Fashion Industries’ 80th anniversary as my first piece. I return to the school for a memorable afternoon of interviews and tours. I reconnect with the design faculty. Then the coronavirus pandemic strikes. My piece is put on hold.
Then on March 21, the oﬃcial date of the shelter-in-place mandate, I receive an email from Rosa Chavez at the High School of Fashion Industries who had coordinated the interviews and tour. She was joining in the fight against COVID-19 and launching a non-profit cottage industry initiative named NYC SEWS, making masks for front-line workers. She gently asked if I would contribute some grassroots PR and marketing counsel. I joined right in.
In the weeks of planning and production ahead, I mention to Lisa Rosa, a bespoke clothier and NYC SEWS partner, that my 16-year-old daughter Valentina likes to sew. I asked if I could buy a few yards of fabric for her to experiment with. She had taken sewing classes in the early tween years and made many of her own clothes just like Mamma. The sewing machine that Santa Claus brought when she was 11 was getting a little dusty and I thought she might want to use some of her quarantined hours sewing a practice mask or two. Next thing I know, both of our names are on the list of tailors. Full supplies dropped oﬀ at my front door, I had a moment of panic. I sent out a “full disclosure” text with some self-deprecating humor about how our contribution might not be up to the standard as we are not professionals. That oﬀ my mind, I took a breath and got to work.
I took out my sewing box that still had some high school supplies. I reviewed a number of mask patterns and experimented with a sample of each. I’ve never sewn anything that has to fit across a person’s face. No two in the world are exactly alike. How will a one-size-fits-all possibly work?
My daughter (now my assembly line teammate) sits across from me for a memorable stretch of the late afternoon, once her zoom classes have ended for the day, and my attempts to keep the design agency thriving from my dining room are oﬃcially exhausted. Entirely unplanned, sewing together slowly became part of our daily routine. Valentina would reach her phone, cue up some hip hop music, sing softly and sew with me. Throughout the daunting days of the unknown, these have been beautiful bright spots of creativity and purposeful work. It made us forget about our anxieties, consuming our full attention, and allowing us to relax.
While our collective work might not be the new professional paradigm, the shining final by-product of our eﬀorts for a societal good was a reinforced emotional bond of a mother and daughter through a collaborative project. Just like I experienced with my Italian grandparents in their kitchens.