Cut from the same cloth

sewing machine and cloths in a kitchen

Illustration by Amelia Bates

By Nancy Jorgensen

Today, the foot pedal on my vintage sewing machine hums mechanically as I guide the needle through a batch of linen tea towels. My fabric, with 4-inch-wide stripes of cream and umber, gleams in the sunlight. It is a heavyweight material, 7.1 ounces per yard, with imperfect slubs that feel bumpy between my fingers. Although it would look at home in a country painting, its value goes beyond its winsome appeal. I know from making previous towels that it holds its shape with washing, but it also softens so it can be folded or squished. It is rustic and reliable, perfect for wet hands or dripping dishes. Someone accustomed to the fluffy synthetic towels from a discount store may not recognize the virtues in this authentic cloth, a true natural fiber.

I will gift these towels, in sets of two, to my daughters. It has been more than 10 years since the three of us cooked together in my narrow galley kitchen. Ten years since we intuited each other’s steps, mine toward the refrigerator, Elizabeth’s to the oven, Gwen’s to the cutting board.

Although tiny, my galley feels spacious now, with no toddler underfoot, no teenager traipsing through, no teacher-in-training or jersey-clad athlete. I never set out to tutor the culinary arts, but one day Gwen said, “Mom, can you teach me how to make bread?” She craved a loaf, hot from the oven with real Wisconsin butter. The next week it was Elizabeth, hungry for a pot of sausages with fiery garden peppers. So together we mixed, kneaded, fried and stirred. And now I long for our female coterie that maneuvered from pantry to sink and crisscrossed from cupboard to counter, while questions and ideas bounced around the kitchen’s corners. But Elizabeth and Gwen now have ovens of their own.

I look back and wonder if I spent enough time on the important things. Not just how to measure a teaspoon of vanilla, or where to proof a yeast dough. Did I emphasize that cooking and baking sustain more than the body? That a kitchen filled with family is about more than filling bellies? That the best things on the table, or in life, are both beautiful and nourishing?

On each tea towel, I sew two side seams, catching a loop of ribbon to serve as a hanger, and then pull weft threads to make fringe at the top and bottom. I toss them in the washer and dryer, then iron to a crisp hand, ready to be wrapped. One set I will deliver to Elizabeth, here in Wisconsin; the other I will take when I travel to see Gwen 1,000 miles southwest. I picture my daughters in their homes, cooking with partners, children and friends. They grill steaks and build rice bowls, toss salads and roll cookies. Teach toddlers to stir. Share recipes with friends. And I realize they did discover the treasures of a kitchen.

After my visits, I will return solo to my home, perhaps a bit lonely, but confident my daughters have what they need: a strong fiber, beauty inside and out, a bit of creative flair.

Nancy Jorgensen is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

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Guest Essay: Cut from the same cloth