Maestra Sarta (Master Seamstress)

The maestra sarta

Josephine’s mother, maestra sarta

Josephine’s mother was a maestra sarta, a master seamstress, which was and still is a highly respected and honorable profession in Italy, where she was born. This is the story of Josephine’s mother and the gift she gave two generations of women …

My mom was born in a small town in Italy in 1931. She loved school and hoped to continue her education, but when she finished the 8th grade her family needed her at home to help out. It was the early 1940s, the country was at war, supplies were scarce, and my mother was the oldest of five children. Her mom was not well. She was needed: she sewed shirts, using parts of older shirts to fix newer ones, washed clothes by hand, and ironed for hours so that her younger siblings and extended family had the proper clothing to continue attending school or work. Her family was refined and tried to maintain a normal life despite food shortages and the other casualties of war. My mom remembers that her uncle, a shoemaker, made her high-heeled shoes out of a leather bag and wood. Growing up, I was often told about those shoes; my mom received many compliments when she wore the shoes with a dress she had made.

As the war ended and her younger siblings continued their schooling, my mom had to figure out what to do. She felt that she was too old to start high school and she was still helping out at home. Her dad offered to pay for her to apprentice with a master tailor. She would learn how to design clothing and cut a pattern and sew. This was a very respected profession in those days since many people had their clothes made for them. There weren’t any malls in Italy where people could shop for mass-produced clothing. Since most women of her generation lived with their parents or their husbands and never worked, my grandfather was rather progressive. My mom continued her training in fits and starts, as she also helped at home. She made clothing for her extended family and friends but never worked for a company or opened her own business. In spite of the hardships she faced she remained faithful to her passion: she loved the latest fashions, followed fashion in magazines and imitated the styles of the time, adapting to her conservative culture when needed.

In her late twenties, when she was already considered an “old maid” my dad unexpectedly proposed. He had had a crush on her since they met in elementary school and she had returned the feelings for her good friend’s older brother. She said yes at once and after marrying in Italy, made plans to move to The Lower East Side of Manhattan, where my dad was living at the time. I have a picture of her in her suit, which she wore as she disembarked the ship to join my dad. Some people from their town who had immigrated years earlier joined my dad to greet her. When I was a teen, these friends told me about that day when my dad first saw my mom in her suit; how his mouth had hung open because he was expecting a small town girl, not the sophisticated-looking woman who met him.

When my mom realized how much my dad was struggling as an immigrant, she surprised him by finding a job in a clothing factory near their apartment. In those days there were many factories in New York City; they have since moved overseas. My mom loved having a job and she loved The Lower East Side. There were lots of shops selling material and notions and she sewed curtains to decorate her home and clothing for herself and her newborn (me!). Soon after I was born she stopped working and our family moved to Brooklyn.

When I was younger my mom made some of our clothes or tailored store-bought clothes for a better fit. She believed that when she tailored our clothes, even if they were less expensive, she could make everything look better. She switched out buttons, removed or added embellishments, adjusted the lengths of sleeves or shirt and jacket hems, all to make our clothing look more fashionable. Money was tight, so my mom shopped for fabrics and notions on sale, saving her stash for when she might need it. When I needed something special for a party or a dance my mom and I would look at magazines or at clothes displayed in store windows. My mom would cut a pattern out of paper bags and then make me something fabulous to wear. I remember classmates complimenting me on a pair of goucho pants, which were all the rage for a season when I was in high school.

During this time, my mom was working in a factory in our neighborhood. For many, many years, she made coats. This time, my mom was not as excited to be working as she had been when she was first married. Coats were made mostly during the warmer spring and summer seasons. Working with wool in a building lacking air conditioning was arduous. Margins were low because much of the manufacturing was done overseas. To make coats as quickly as possible, every worker focused on one part of the coat. It was now the  1970s and 1980s. But my mom kept her dreams alive through her projects for her family and by becoming the sample maker at her factory. When her company wanted to bid for a job for Larry Levine or Calvin Klein, my mom would make a single, perfect coat that the factory owner would use to highlight the superb sewing skills of her employees. Also, if any of the workers needed training or were falling behind my mom would step in to help. She was very proud that she was a trained and skilled seamstress and tailor. During those years my mom was often able to buy the sample coat from her employer. As a result, I had the most wonderful coats growing up, tailored exactly for me. It will be hard for most people to fathom how awkward I felt when, in my mid-twenties, I bought my first department-store coat. The store was Bloomingdale’s so the coat must have been high quality. Still, I brought it to my mom to “fix” for me.

When my daughter Emily was born my mom made her a crotchet blanket, custom sheets and an embroidered pillow case. All of Emily’s clothing was similarly altered as my coats had been. Over the years, my mom has taught my daughter and me about fit and fashion.  She taught us to wear clothing that fits our frame, to not mix blacks, to make sure that jacket lengths are just as appropriate as sleeves and pant legs. She is the one who taught me about Prince of Wales Plaid (yes, in the 1980s she made me a pair of pants in this fabric) and if I am ever in need of something dressy but can’t afford much, choose chiffon over fake silk because it looks better. She taught me how important foundation garments are and how I must never forget to check the view of my outfit from the back. She also stressed the importance of making sure I know which colors look best on me. Now, the first thing my daughter and I do when reviewing a potential purchase is to decide whether custom tailoring could make it look even better. Though my mom was never able to open her little notions and tailoring shop (she fantasized and talked about owning a store front), she indulged her passion for tailoring and fashion whenever possible and in doing so, has left lasting memories for at least two generations.” ~ Josephine

Josephine with her mother, the maestra sarta

A young Josephine with her mother

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