During a telephone conversation with Rachel Sigman, of Lincolnton, she surprised me with information about a sewing club I hadn’t known existed: the Camisole Group. It’s one of a number of clubs of the Catawba County Extension and Community Association.
The 10-member Camisole Group meets monthly to sew 22 camisoles for people who’ve undergone breast surgery at Catawba Valley Medical Center and Frye Regional Medical Center. Simply put, people who’ve just had breast surgery have drainage tubes that protrude from their incisions. The soft camisoles have inside pockets into which patients can stow the drainage tubes so they don’t hang down and cause pain or get in the way.
Additionally, the Camisole Group makes what they call Susie bags, the name “Susie” in honor of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer organization. Camisole Group members, using the same material as that from which they produce the camisoles, fashion small lightweight pouches and attach long ribbon straps. When breast surgery patients shower, they hang the pouches around their necks and place their drainage tubes in them. Camisole member Lennie Sever said the group had heard that patients were wearing their camisoles when they showered, so members came up with the Susie bag idea. Now, when a patient receives a camisole, she also gets a Susie bag.
The Camisole Group meets the first Monday of each month at the Catawba County N.C. Cooperative Extension Center in Newton. On Feb. 5, I popped in to watch the women in action.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew from Rachel, who’s been a camisole maker since the project’s inception more than 15 years ago, that the group had sewing machines. I have an aversion to sewing machines. They don’t like me, and I don’t like them. I became particularly unhappy with them when, at the age of 16, I sewed socks after school and on Saturdays in a textile mill. That job lasted all of six weeks. It required that I pay attention and work quickly.
Pushing material at a high rate of speed beneath a needle that’s moving up and down at a furious pace can lead to all sorts of mishaps. I felt sorry for the people who got stuck wearing my socks. The experience not only precipitated a loathing of sewing machines, but it also developed in me a feeling of awe toward people who know how to tame the whirring beasts into purring machines that do what they’re told. I told my machine lots of things, but it never listened.
The Camisole Group members are sewing machine whizzes, and they take their art and their camisole-making mission very seriously.
Seriousness already had saturated the air of the Cooperative Extension Center’s multipurpose room the morning I visited. Everyone was totally focused on the jobs at hand, most of which involved manning sewing machines. I immediately thought about the big room in which I’d butchered socks as a teen. Only these women weren’t sewing for paychecks. They were doing it out of pure compassion for breast surgery patients.
They and their highly talented hands – with fingers that played over fabric with the dexterity and reverence of a concert pianist – pieced and penned, sewed, and serged soft T-shirt-like fabric. I’d never heard of a serger machine. It’s an industrial type of sewing machine-looking thing. It locks threads around a seam to prevent fraying.
A sort of assembly line was in action. Rachel explained that when the group first started, each member tried to complete a camisole from start to finish, “and that didn’t work,” said Rachel. They discovered it was easier and more efficient for each member to focus on one production aspect. “It has been quite a learning experience,” said Rachel, who sews pockets.
Group organizer Lennie Sever provides pre-cut pieces of material, which takes care of step one. Step two, explained Lennie, is pinning and sewing the shoulders. Third is serging the pockets. Then the women put collars around the camisoles’ necks to give them a finished look. Lennie said armholes, sides, and bottom edges are serged last.
“Then (the camisoles) are ready for Velcro closing and pink ribbon at the neck,” Lennie continued.
All the while, someone is sewing the Susie bags, and Katie Fleming, who, along with Rachel, is a charter member of the Camisole Group, works as inspector. She makes sure each camisole was sewn together correctly, snips loose threads, folds the garment, attaches a little note that explains who made the camisole, and bags it.
The goal each meeting is to manufacture 22 complete camisoles and have plenty of prepared sections, so all the members can get to work the moment they arrive at the next month’s sewing session.
Lennie pointed out that with a limited number of volunteers, materials, and machines, the Camisole Group must be a little strict about providing camisoles and Susie bags only to Brenda Putnam, coordinator of the Catawba County Breast Cancer Coalition. She sees that the garments go to breast surgery patients at CVMC and FRMC. The Camisole Group doesn’t sell camisoles or take orders. They have on occasion produced camisoles for people whose special circumstances came to the attention of the group.
The Camisole Group has been recognized repeatedly with state-level awards, media coverage, and donations, including $5,000 in 2011 from Through Healing Eyes, a Hickory-based breast cancer organization.
Rachel said the group could use monetary donations for material, thread, Velcro, and ribbon. Lennie added that while the membership currently is able to fulfill its 22 camisoles per month goal, that could change, so it would be great for people with sewing machine skills to join the Camisole Group.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that I won’t be joining.
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