Aug 26, 2011


Once upon a time, I bought a pair of white snail-shaped chairs from Good Will. Actually, what happened was, my mother saw them at Good Will and told me if I didn’t buy them, then she would. (This was supposed to be a threat. I don’t really know what was supposed to be so threatening about her owning the chairs, but I always listen to her when she says things in that tone. It’s for the best.) She then chased a little girl away from them. My mother is serious about cute chairs.

Snail-shell chair

I love these chairs. I like to sit in them and read Photoplay to see what hijinks Doris and Rock are up to.

However, since they are white and my walls are white, my poor pretty chairs sort of disappeared into the background. So I called my mother (the one who’s serious about cute chairs), and I told her I wanted little round red fat pillows. The pillows needed to have all those attributes, and I wouldn’t accept any substitutes.

Mom and I took a few trips to the fabric store to look at patterns, but the pillows the pattern books suggested had either ultra-clean lines, or Kountry Kitchen ruffles. There was nothing that would fit my snail-shell chairs.

I went home, sat in my chairs, and muttered about little round red fat pillows.

Then one morning,  I opened my email to find this picture:

Easter, circa somtime in the 60s.


That’s mom wearing the crown. And that’s  Uncle Scott hitting her in the head with a bat. Not a whole lot has changed. More important than either of those things, though, are the pillows on the couch behind them.

Mom found little round fat (pink) pillows. They just happened to be from her childhood. She also found the pattern: vintage McCall’s 2467.

We bought the pattern from an eBay seller,and off we went to the fabric store again. We found a gorgeous shiny red fabric with tiny flecks of gold, a couple of pillow forms, and went home to start putting the pillows together. We cleared everyone out of the kitchen, got Mom’s sewing machine out, and were ready to get to work.

It turns out that we weren’t going to need the sewing machine. These pillows are all smocking, and this particular kind of smocking is done by hand.

Smocking, for those not in the sewing-lingo know, is what it’s called when you gather fabric, and then hold those gathers with stitches. For the last 50 years or so, smocking has been done by machine. Why? Because hand-smocking is difficult and time-consuming. I know this now. Hind-sight is 20/20, etc.


The second set of instructions went along with a complicated 9-step diagram. It was made up of arrows and dots and so many numbers. Remember those Disney cartoons where Goofy would try to learn to dance or play golf, but instead would get so tangled up in the arrows of the play book that his feet would be where his ears go and he’d fly off a cliff and land somewhere mid-yodel? These instructions were sort of like that. And mom and I were about to hit “yodel”. Maybe to someone who already speaks smocking, the diagram would make some sort of sense. But who speaks smocking these days?

But wait. There was a note. Hope. There, at the bottom of the diagram: “For further instructions, visit your local fabric counter and ask for McCall’s Easy Sewing Booklet”.


So mother and I put on our second best hats and walked down to Woolworth’s for an eggcream and nice chat with our Regina, our fabric girl.

Except it’s not 1961. And we don’t have a fabric counter. We don’t even have second-best hats. And although I have a full back-story for Regina, she’s completely imaginary. It’s all very depressing.

After a few more tries to sort the smocking out, we gave up and put the whole thing away. It’s possible to find the Easy Sewing Booklets, but since McCall’s released a new edition every year, it’s almost impossible to find just the right one.

I went home and sat in my chairs and muttered about little round red fat pillows. I carried a fabric sample around in my wallet, and would take it out and pet it every once in a while.

After a few months of muttering and fabric-petting, I got angry. I wasn’t going to let this pattern beat us. I sat down with some spare fabric and went through the diagram step by step. After a while, I had something that looked like this:



It wasn’t perfect, but mom and I were able to get the general idea. We had a start. We practiced on the muslin for a while, and then when we were really brave, we started on the actual fabric.

For the next several hours, our conversation went like this: “Pick up one, loop around two, go back to one, grab three, pick up four, four becomes one, loop around two…” We were unable to say anything else. Any family member with helpful suggestions like “maybe you should stop counting and eat dinner” was promptly banished. After a few hours, we both had something that looked like this:


Still, that doesn’t look like much. However, when you turn it over, it looks like this:


That, my friends, is a semi-successful row of hand-smocking. You can also see how sheeny and pretty my fabric is. Raise your hand if it’s the prettiest fabric you’ve ever seen. I should see a lot of hands, people.

Now, each pillow needed three rows of this smocking. So some several thousand years later, we each had something that looked like this:


But add one more row to that.

There are a couple of steps after this. There’s some more gathering, and then the attaching of the buttons. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Mom assembled the pillows while I finished up my smocking, so I don’t actually have any photos. (I may have figured it out first, but I’m a much slower smocker.)

Ta da! The finished product. Now tell me, have you ever seen anything so little and round and red and fat?

Look how little and round and red and fat it is!

And look how nicely they cause my chairs to not disappear? (At least a little. They disappear less in real life. I blame the bright-whiteness of these photos and my inability to edit them.)

Look! A little bit less fading into the wall!

And here are the two together. Look at how beautiful the edges are! I can say that without it being bragging, because I’m pretty sure that’s the one my mom made.

Best friends

I love them. Now I can sit in my chairs and mutter about little round red fat pillows while actually holding my little round red fat pillows. I promise I do other things sometimes.


[Note: I have every intention of writing about and posting pictures of the the cabinet I wrote about last week, but my therapist says that it would be best if I wait until the hurtful words stop coming out.]



  • I love every part of this story. Especially the muttering. I am a Class A mutterer (studying for my Class C license).

    And really, I’m so envious of your pillows and your pillow-smocking skills. I don’t even know what to say. Except I WANT THEM.

  • You are hilarious and I’m proud of you. For pillow creations and the retelling of this goregeous tale.

  • you can hit me for saying this, but you should have just asked for permission to pain the wall 🙂

  • but the pillows are neat

    • I’m testing threaded comment replies on you. Want to let me know if you get an email or something?

  • You are such a talented young lady. I am sitting here reading this…and telling Jenny (my daughter) when I am done reading this you have to read this. It is so wonderful. I’m not certain who I am more impressed with. You or your mother. You see, I knew your mother when she was as simple minded in life as I was (still am). Her main ambition back then was her love for animals. I know she still does. But you see, this creativeness that she has is a whole new concept to me. There were years between then and now that we lost contact. I always knew she could do great things if she put her mind to it. But, as a then and now friend, it is so amazing to see what great things she has succeeded at! I told her that someday I would love to come and see her garden, and her handiworks and hope that I can do that soon. I am greatful for the friendship we had, and even more greatful for the friendship we are able to have again. Our friendship is a friendship that has only strengthened because of life situations. So, it’s really no wonder how wonderful you and your sisters have grown into such beautiful, talented, young ladies!

  • You two had more patience in one project than I have or will have for the rest of my life! I’m impressed and jealous. And look at what you have inspired in Laura. I thought she was going to write a poem or something about you two.

  • You may not like this suggestion, but I think you could make and sell those pillows. I know smocking is tedious, which is why only machines or slaves in East Asia do it, but once you had some practice, you really could sell those. They are so cute!

  • I am a smocker – many, many dresses for my women when they were my girls – and I’m super impressed. Great job!

  • And – P.S. – If you didn’t buy those chairs, I would have (was my tone as good as your Mom’s?)

  • I LOVED this blog! Everything about it! FIRST – I want those chairs – absolutely love them. I might sneak into your place and steal them :-). SECOND – I love the pillows and am incredibly impressed at your sewing talent. They are absolutely the perfect pillows for those chairs.

  • Another beaut blog offering…you’re somethin’ else, girlie! 🙂

  • […] crafty this year. I’m not sure what hit me. All of a sudden I was buying embroider floss and making pillows and just generally doing all the its I could find. However, my apartment has become particularly […]

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