Here's a pathetic admission: My sewing skills begin and end with reattaching buttons.

Here's a pathetic admission: My sewing skills begin and end with reattaching buttons.

I'm not very good at that, either. Every step of the chore is a challenge: finding the right thread in my horrible excuse for a sewing box, extricating the spool from the tangled confusion of spools and thread, fishing out a needle I think I can thread without taking all day (meaning a needle that isn't so tiny its eye can't be seen without ultrasound), tying a knot big enough to fill the hole I punch with the enormous needle I finally choose and remembering where I put the button.

I must pause here to mention that this very sewing box, the box I keep hidden in a cupboard above the washing machine and would no sooner display in front of guests than I'd display the contents of the vacuum cleaner, became for several excruciating moments a focal point at my younger daughter's wedding.

A passing thunderstorm had driven a couple dozen wedding party members and early arrivals indoors about half an hour before the ceremony. We all were milling around making cheerful weather predictions when a groomsman lost a button and the groom's stepmother came looking for my "sewing kit."

My sewing kit! I was in the midst of pouring ice water for half a dozen guests, keeping an eye on the northwest sky and making a sandwich for the starving bride, but even so I froze in horror. Of all the obsessive little jobs I had set myself in the months leading up to the wedding, from painting behind the refrigerator to straightening my dresser drawers, I had not once thought to tidy my so-called sewing box.

Well, of course I had to bring it out. A groomsman can't be expected to hold his cuff together with his fingers all evening. But my mortification was great, and made worse by the fact that the groom's stepmother very nicely told me her sewing box was in the same condition. (Not possible.) Furthermore, she sewed on the button in the time it takes me to pry off the top of the plastic sewing box.

But to return to my story.

My sewing itself, what little of it I do, leaves much to be desired. Buttons that once lined up with graceful precision, like the Rockettes, now line up with one exception, like the Rockettes joined by an imposter; the backside of my worksite is an unpretty landscape of knots, loose ends and random what-have-you. If my work were to be graded I'd be lucky to get away with an Incomplete and a "See me!" written in red and underlined.

It was schoolwork, in fact, that turned me into a non-sewer in the first place.

In seventh-grade home economics, a course girls in my day still had to take - though it was staggering around on its last legs -- every class member was required to make, no kidding, an apron.

I knew I couldn't make an apron. Not for political or feminist reasons; I couldn't make an apron because I didn't have an apron in me. I had my pattern, I had my material. What I didn't have was the chops.

So here's what I did. On Monday I pinned the edges, as if preparing the apron for hemming. On Tuesday, I took the pins out, as if dissatisfied with my work. On Wednesday, I pinned the edges again, on Thursday I took the pins out, and so on until the grading period ended. If the teacher ever noticed, she said nothing. I probably got an F in apron but I don't remember any uproar, so perhaps not.

It was years before I recognized my apron technique in the story of Odysseus' Penelope, who spent her days weaving Laertes' shroud and her nights unraveling her work.

Penelope was motivated by high ideals, of course. She was saving herself for Odysseus; she was protecting her virtue.

And I? I was waiting for new worlds to open for girls.

Fortunately, I didn't have to wait very long.

Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer: E-mail mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.

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