“It’s spring,” I said to my children, as I noticed the newly sprouted crocuses around our white mailbox post.
For me, the deep purple and yellow specks peppering the blades of grass meant something entirely different than Little League games and warmer weather. Rather, Mother Nature was reminding me to start my annual spring undertaking – sewing the nametag labels into the clothing Emily and Daniel would be bringing to camp. With two children, this meant that I would spend about 15 hours sewing at least 350 labels. So, why like many of my friends had I not chosen an alternative to this time-consuming method of labeling my children’s personal belongings?
My 10 and 13-year-old children had been going to sleep away camp for the past four and seven summers, respectively. A few months before that first summer, my mother presented me with a baggie filled with three things: a needle, a spool of white thread and a small square of paper. I was confused. It had been almost 25 years since home economics class when I had sewn a lopsided octopus I affectionately named Gus. “What’s all this for?” I asked my mother. “The camp labels,” she replied.
Growing up, my mother put a lot of time and effort into the sewing she did for us. Her mustard colored sewing kit looked more like a cross between a picnic basket and a toolbox. An assortment of rainbow colored spools of thread in different thicknesses and sizes dotted the main compartment of the basket, along with a variety of scissors and mini plastic bags filled with an array of buttons. The entire interior flap was lined in a floral fabric filled with stuffing, creating an oversized cushion to store different sized needles and pins. In addition to shortening pants, hemming skirts and sewing buttons, my mother also created my costumes for school events, like the American Indian dress she made for my 2nd grade bicentennial celebration. The hand-made linen colored tunic-like dress was adorned with fringes and beadwork. On the back, she had sketched a colorful scene with an Indian woman sitting cross-legged next to a fire.
Unlike my mother, I was never much of a sewer or a seamstress. Instead, over the years, I had opted to pay my local tailor or occasionally ask my mother to sew a button that had fallen off a pair of shorts or the sleeve of a jacket. But when she handed me my very own needle and spool of thread the summer Emily was heading to sleep away camp, something had stirred inside of me and I was determined to figure out what it was. So, with a big pile of my daughter’s tee shirts beside me, I began to sew. I threaded the needle, pinched each label in half, and knotted the thread by rubbing my thumb and index finger together. My stitches were far from perfect and the knots often looked messy. The label was usually not folded exactly in half, the “y” in Emily’s name often cut off and instead, included with our last name on the back. I would prick my finger nine out of ten times and with each “ouch” I would look at the remaining piles and resume my labeling. So, why had I chosen to spend so many hours sewing in nametapes with a far from perfect result?
Many of my friends had paid someone to sew their labels. Others had tried laundry markers, which, in my opinion, could either bleed onto the clothing or fade with each wash. A few had opted for iron ons or peel n’stick clothing labels, “easier alternatives” but perhaps not sturdy enough for the camp laundry.
It was during that first year that I figured out why my mother had given me, a novice sewer, my own needle and thread. Between the 18 pairs of underwear, 10 pairs of shorts and the long list of other clothing and accessories, the camp packing list had recommended ordering between 100-200 nametapes, each I would have to sew. It was when I noticed the suggested 24 pairs of socks that I felt like I wanted to quit. Instead, I rolled down the top of each sock and then folded and sewed on the nametapes. Although tedious, with each finished pair, I had a renewed sense of accomplishment and pride. But, more importantly, I realized that the labeling represented much more than just branding my daughter’s name onto every article of clothing so she wouldn’t lose things that summer. It was about sending a piece of me with her, with my maternal imprint on each item she would have with her throughout her seven week journey at sleep away camp.
Now, years later, that same baggie sits in my bedside drawer. The spool of thread is much thinner and the needle is fastened to a now tattered square of paper. My labels are still crooked, my stitches are still sewn in no particular pattern and my knots are still messy. But, at least I know that both of my children have a constant reminder of me throughout the summer. Whether that is more of a comfort for them or for me I am still not sure.