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Tying the threads together

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Van Wyck's Janie Straight finds peace in sewing

By Reece Murphy

American diarist and suffragette Ellen Birdseye Wheaton one wrote, “All my scattering moments are taken up with my needle.”

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Van Wyck seamstress Janie Straight knows that truth first hand.

A self-professed former hippie in 1970s California who has worked as a waitress, journalist, typesetter and sign painter (to name a few), Straight, 56, left the chaotic world of Los Angeles and settled in South Carolina with husband, Dennis, 16 years ago.

Once here, Straight settled into the slower lifestyle with gusto and turned a life-long love of sewing into a successful small business, Straight’s Sewing Service.

Straight’s talent with a needle has gained her acclaim as a premier costume maker. Her work not only shows up at Halloween parties, but in local plays and historical reenactments, including the annual candlelight tour at Andrew Jackson State Park. It is also appears on downtown streets. Striaght is the personal tailor of See Lancaster SC mascot Rosie the Rabbit.

Sitting at her grandmother’s sewing machine in her quiet sewing shop, surrounded by spools of thread, bolts of fabric and the accouterments of her trade, Straight’s job has helped her tie the strands of her eclectic life together and brought her peace in the process. 

The setting  certainly gives her time and oppporunity to comtemplate .

To her, the value of sewing comes through the solitary pursuit of the art, something she approaches with as much care and craft as her other love, painting, which she hopes to pursue more now as she looks toward retirement.

“I was always an introvert who had to be around other people,” Straight says. “To me, the value of sewing is spending time with my best friend, myself.

“I can think, I can contemplate, things I can’t do when I’m around people all the time,” she said. “I’ve grown to appreciate being by myself. I’ve finally become friends with myself.”

Conversation with Straight, with her smiling demeanor, easy-going laughter and laid back attitude, is a pleasure. Insights on a host of subject pops up in unexpected places, anecdotes, and clever turns of phrase.

What follows is a sampling of some of the wisdom she’s gained over the years while working at the sewing table:

– On perfection – “One time I was trying to do a hem on a dress and I couldn’t get it. It was really bothering me. I couldn’t get it right; no matter what I did, it was crooked.

“I took it to this old lady here in the area who sewed and I told her, ‘I can’t get it right, it’s not perfect.’ She said, ‘Honey, you’re never going to get it perfect. It’s impossible to get it perfect. You do the best you can and no one will notice.’

“So I did,” Straight said. “I just relaxed and did it. And you know what? No one ever noticed. I found things are often like that. When you relax, you’re going to do a better job anyway. It may not be perfect, but that’s OK because if it’s not, nobody’s ever going to notice.”

– On fear – “When somebody wants me to do a custom costume, there’s never anything on paper. It always takes a lot of thinking and planning and going over it in your head. Sometimes it’s like doing a painting; you start out with an idea, but you often end up somewhere else.

“I’m almost always scared; scared I’m going to mess it up. But when I finish it, I’m like, ‘I did that? I can’t believe I did that!’ So I found you have to walk through the fear. I used to let fear stop me, fear of all kinds of things. I used to walk away. Now I walk through it.”

– On passing the time – “I listen to a lot of books on CD while I’m sewing. I found that I like having someone to read to me. It’s better than watching a movie” she said. 

“I also found out that I can get through the worst books (laughter). I’ve listened to ‘The Iliad,’ ‘The Odyssey,’ and what’s the name of that one book? Pilgrim’s Progress ... all those books that you never could get through when you were in school. It makes them a lot more enjoyable.

“Oh, and I love to daydream while I’m sewing. About what? You don’t want to know ..."

– On politics – “I’m liberal about what I’m liberal about and conservative about what I’m conservative about,” she said. “I’ve always been a third-party voter; if there’s a Libertarian or a third-party candidate, I’ll usually vote for them. 

“People say, ‘You’re throwing your vote away.’ But I don’t think it’s a waste,” Straight said. “I mean, we started with the Tories and the Whigs and where are they now, right?

“One thing I do believe in strongly is term limits. Nobody (no politician) is so great you can’t live without them and nobody’s so bad you can’t endure them until their term is over. 

“People get so passionate about politics, like it’s the end of the world,” she said. “But you know what? Terms always end sooner or later and the pendulum swings back. That’s just the way it is in American politics.”

– On community and living in the South – “When Dennis and I moved here, we embraced the friendliness. The only thing I can’t stand about living here, and you can print this, is the humidity, she said laughing. 

“When we moved here, neighbors came over with cakes, they were so friendly. We had, like two neighbors in L.A. who we knew, the rest were strangers,” Straight said. 

“I’ve just been impressed with the level of community service since we got here. Here, if anything happened, your neighbors would be there. Everybody pulls together. People have more time to be people here.”

– On getting older – “I graduated in ’73. After that, it wasn’t so much ‘flower time’ as it was ‘party time.’ Back then everything was so urgent... ‘Gotta have an opinion now. Gotta do something now. Gotta act now,’” she said.

“With age, you mellow out. What we wanted to do back then with drugs, mellow out, turns out you don’t have to do with drugs at all... it comes with age. 

“Old age mellows you out unlike anything we did back then,” Straight said.

“But wouldn't it be cool to have the wisdom of your age and have the body of of a 30 year old? Now that would be cool.”

 

 – Reece Murphy is a staff reporter for The Lancaster News