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The newest tool of my trade

One of my earliest memories is of my machinist father handing me a folding ruler and teaching me how to measure things, a skill I use daily as a folk embroidery designer. The ruler was painted white and had metal joints every 12 inches that allowed it to fold over on itself--accordion style--until its full six foot length could be tidily held in the hand. I was mesmerized by this ruler--I opened it out, closed it up, over and over again. I went around the house measuring things, feeling rather important since this was what my father seemed to do with a lot of his time. I tilted my head to one side like he did, and put a considering expression on my face.

So began my love affair with tools and their magical ability to come alongside us and help us bring the figments of our imagination to life. I wanted a doll bed and my father took wood and saws and nails and made it come to life. I saw a crocheted doily at my great-grandmothers and learned that you could make it with a simple little hook. When I was eight years old, my dad found a used sewing machine at a garage sale and gave it to me, without much comment and fuss. "Figure it out" was his parenting style and I loved turning the dial on the machine to see which little symbols made which stitches.

Tools have been alongside my life for as long as I can remember and there's virtually not a day when I'm not picking one up to make or fix something. There's my trusty Juki industrial sewing machine, which I bought second-hand in 1995 in the New York garment district on the advice of the master tailor under whom I trained. There's my kit of peculiar pattern drafting tools. And, there are still rulers--grid rulers, L rulers, French curves, and the same Dritz tape measure I have used for over 35 years.

Growing up, there wasn't a thing that my dad couldn't fix or make with the right tool and I became accustomed to giving him a quick sketch of something I wanted made and in a week or two, he'd arrive with the tall stand I needed for my industrial iron or the little oak spool organizer I needed for my spools of topstitching thread. He'd add his own little touches--the spool organizer's top only fit on the pegs if the grain of the wood was at a 90 degree angle--and his readiness to turn any sketch into an actual thing became the backdrop of my life. It didn't really occur to me that having what was effectively my own personal cabinet and machine shop was a life perk until a few months after my dad died and I wanted a small table to set my new printer on. I'll just make a sketch for Dad, I thought, and then I remembered that that wasn't going to be possible anymore.

So, the last few years, I've had to make do when I need some kind of custom tool, and for the most part, I've adapted to a world in which I couldn't just snap my fingers and have a steel this or a birch that appear. But, this last summer as we were working on renovations of our 1923 home, I needed a solution to the baseboard heating covers that had been installed in the late 1960s and which were terribly ugly yet highly efficient. I found a local metal shop and talked to the owner (who, strangely enough shares the same first name as my dad). I used manila tag to mock up a sample of what I wanted and arranged to meet Bill the next day.

Stepping into that machine shop brought back a flood of memories. The smell of metal, of having to be careful where you stepped due to metal shavings (we were never allowed to go barefoot in the house because of the shavings my dad might track home from the Boeing plant where he worked), of the noise and industry of the men intent on their projects. I felt like I had stepped into my dad's garage workshop--albeit a much larger version--and I had come home. I had a machine shop at my disposal again.

So as I was winding floss a few weeks ago on my rickety wooden floss winder that was never intended for daily use, I envisioned a metal version, heavy and solid and much, much faster. I took the wooden floss winder and set it up with a cone of DMC floss on the counter of Bill's shop so I could show him how it worked and what I needed the new version to do. Sure thing, he said, no problem.

And, three weeks later, I had my new floss winder. She's a beauty--super solid (no more wobbling), super fast, and winding floss is now a dream. I love that there are still people out there like Bill who can take someone's idea and turn it into solid reality with steel and ball bearings and a little ingenuity. This tribe of makers is the tribe I was invited into when my dad gave me that folding ruler and the tribe of which I feel honored and grateful to be a member. The makers, the doers, the bringers-to-life.

Anyone's welcome, so go make something.

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