My grandmother was fixated with sewing pleats and gathers into underwear because she was afraid they'd fall down

Tracey Folly

*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events as told to me by a family member who experienced them firsthand; used with permission.

When my mother and her siblings were growing up, my grandmother was obsessed with the thought that their underwear might fall down in public. The poor woman feared having her children's underpants fall down so much that she did everything she could to tighten their elastic waistbands and thus prevent calamity.

Why she didn't purchase their underwear in a smaller size remains a mystery. Even better, she could have entrusted her children to let her know if the size of their elastic waistbands caused a problem with keeping them up, rather than obsessively tightening them across the board.

Personally, the idea of sewing pleats and gathers into the waistbands of my undergarments never occurred to me. If I had a pair of ill-fitting underpants, I'd simply toss them aside in favor of a new pair.

Unfortunately for my mother and her siblings, my grandmother would have found such an idea wasteful and unacceptable. Her solution was to use her needle and thread to adjust her children's underwear until not even the strongest hurricane-force winds could inadvertently dislodge them.

Most sources suggest shrinking too-big underwear rather than sewing them, such as this advice from How To Discuss: "Separate the cotton laundry you want to shrink from the rest of the laundry. Fill the sink with warm water. Soak the underwear in water and let it soak for 10 minutes. Empty the sink and squeeze out any excess water."

According to my mother, she and her sisters would laugh when they saw their mother sitting in a beam of sunlight coming in through the parlor window with her sewing box on one side and a pile of underwear on the other, but they wouldn't laugh long.

My grandmother sewed pleats, gathers, tucks, and nubs all around her daughters' elastic waistbands. She didn't have a specific system. Anything that made the waistband tighter and the underpants more difficult to put on and off would suffice.

"She pressed small sections of the waistband together and fastened them with as much thread as the nubs would hold," my mother told me.

"Sometimes, she would hang our wet laundry on the clothesline and reel them in just to add a few more hand-sewn nubs. She was the only person I knew who sewed wet underwear," she said.

"I'd have so many of these hard lumps sewn into my waistband that I could barely struggle into them. Comfort was not a goal of hers when she used her needle and thread. The lumps and bumps dug into my waist something ferocious." My mother laughed when she remembered it.

"One time, I tried to explain that she stretched out the elastic to sew it, and so there was no more elasticity in the waistband. I told your grandmother it was hard to put them on and even harder to take them off."

"Good," my grandmother told my mother. "That means they won't fall off when you walk. So I'm accomplishing exactly what I set out to do."

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