Sometimes, the simplest things can create the biggest change. On today’s episode of Home. Made., hear the stories of two seamstresses who changed their lives and the lives of those around them by sewing.
Stitching Her Life Back Together
Rona Herman had been plagued by debilitating anxiety since she was a teenager in the 1990s. She was always terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing. Rona was completely weighed down by fear and self-doubt – and nothing seemed to help her, though she tried everything from medication to pep talks.
Things got even worse when her anxiety started to affect her marriage. One night, Rona was at a motorcycle club that her husband was a member of. He had brought her along for an event, where Rona quickly learned she and some of the other women were set to come up to the front of the room to receive motorcycle patches. Rona freaked out. So did her husband. He’d told her:
“I don't know how to deal with this. I don't know what's going on. I don't know how to help you. I don't know if I can do this anymore.”
“That was the moment where I decided, OK, we really need to figure out what's going on because if I want to continue being married to this man that I love, then something needs to change and we need to figure this out,” Rona says.
Rona Herman posing at a quilting event.
Just when it seemed like there was no solution for her, Rona’s sister sent her an old sewing machine and suggested she start quilting.
She did – and it changed everything.
Sharing Her Gift
Jean Wilson learned to sew when she was just a little girl. Her mother taught her when she was only 9 years old – and she had a talent for it right away. She remembers wearing an A-line skirt she’d made herself to class as a child. None of her classmates had believed she made it.
“I was so proud of the fact that I made this skirt, when I came home from school the first day, the first time I wore it, I was literally crying because I told my mother no one believed I made the skirt,” Jean says. “So, what she did, she was able to write a little note. She said, please let the students know that my daughter did make that. I did not touch it. She did it all by herself.”
Jean would go on to sew a lot more than a few A-line skirts. She pursued her gift and at 19 years old found herself managing a team of seamstresses sewing for a very important project: the Apollo 11 space mission. They were making spacesuits.
Jean with an astronaut at ILC Dover, the supplier of NASA’s space suits since the dawn of the Apollo program.
The job was high stakes. But Jean and her team succeeded, and she watched Neil Armstrong wear her suit to walk on the moon on live television.
After the space mission, Jean expected to go on to even bigger things. But her career didn’t go exactly as planned. One thing led to another, and eventually she found herself working as a bus driver.
The job was supposed to be simple – but to Jean’s surprise, it led to her finding a new big mission, this time down on Earth.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: The worst night of Rona Herman’s life happened outside a biker club in North Carolina. Her husband belonged to the club, and that night he’d brought her with him. Rona found out that later in the evening, she and some of the other women were gonna receive motorcycle patches, up at the front of the room. Rona panicked and ran out the back door. Her husband came running after her but she begged him to stay away. Until he started freaking out too– saying:
RONA HERMAN: I don't know how to deal with this. I don't know what's going on. I don't know how to help you ... I don't know if I can do this anymore. that was the moment where I decided, okay, we really need to figure out what's going on because if I want to continue being married to this man that I love, then something needs to change and we need to figure this out.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona desperately needed to figure out what was going on with her in order to save her marriage. She felt like she’d tried everything, and nothing was working. But then her sister sent her an old sewing machine. And told her to start stitching her life back together.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made. An original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo.
STEPHANIE FOO: We sometimes think of crafting as a solitary pursuit, often done alone at home, and maybe even boring to the casual observer. But, in these stories we focus on one hobby that has played a critical part in two people's lives - sewing. In one, sewing builds pride, confidence and community – in another, it puts a young woman at the center of one of the most important events in U.S. history.
STEPHANIE FOO: The anxiety started when Rona Herman was a teenager, in the late ’90s. She remembers one time when she was in high school, some of the cool kids invited her to a party.
RONA HERMAN: I really longed to be part of that group. But then when the day came, I came up with an excuse not to go because I so was afraid of trying to fit in and then them rejecting me, that I just decided not to try it all.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona felt safe when she was alone. Alone, she didn’t have a voice of self-doubt nagging at her. And, she didn’t have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing.
RONA HERMAN: if I was around other people, even my family at that time …
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow, even your own family.
RONA HERMAN: Oh yeah. Yeah. I didn't know how to interact with these people, even though they're my relatives … On an emotional level, psychological level I wanted to be invisible, and I wasn't.
STEPHANIE FOO: Even when she was home Rona didn’t feel alone enough. She still had to deal with the same social anxiety.
STEPHANIE FOO: Was there a moment that you remember that you really wanted to be seen?
RONA HERMAN: I'm not sure that I necessarily wanted to be seen. [00:12:00] It was more about I wanted to belong.
STEPHANIE FOO: Universal human need.
RONA HERMAN: Yeah, exactly.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona’s anxiety got worse after she married. It became more physical. She started having panic attacks. Sometimes in public, where she would fall to the ground and curl up in a ball at her husband’s feet.
RONA HERMAN: And because he's a combat veteran, his whole outlook on things is when there's a problem, find the source, fix it, move on. And he couldn't do that with me. And so it made him angry. But unfortunately, the anger, I took that as he was angry at me and that just made the whole situation 10 times worse.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona tried meds. Toughing it out. Pep talks. Nothing worked. It affected her marriage. Her husband's really social, outgoing. Makes friends easily. He joined the motorcycle club and dragged her along to events, hoping she would make friends, too. She didn’t. So, life got really small. She spent more and more time at home. But her husband was there. So was her son. What she really needed was to be alone. And finally, it all came to a head with the panic attack at the motorcycle club where she was to receive a patch.
STEPHANIE FOO: Shortly after, Rona's sister sent her the sewing machine.
RONA HERMAN: I didn't have a life as she put it. I needed a hobby, so she informed me that I was going to learn how to sew, and I was going to inherit her old sewing machine.
STEPHANIE FOO: Specifically, her sister said, “you're going to sew quilts.” Rona had never sewn before but, OK. The first thing she figured out is, quilting’s really hard. You have to sew three pieces of fabric together to make a kind of fabric sandwich. And then adorn the top piece with colorful designs. Rona made her first quilt and gave it to her mother. She says it was a bed-sized disaster. The fabric had a bowling alley theme. The quilt was unevenly stitched, and it came apart easily. But there was something about quilting Rona liked.
RONA HERMAN: I very much have a mathematic brain. I see numbers. I see geometrical shapes. I've always had this natural ability to match colors and contrast, things like that. It triggered both of those points in my brain where it was in a challenging and creative way that I could actually make something.
STEPHANIE FOO: Physically, what were you enjoying about sewing?
RONA HERMAN: When I was sitting at that sewing machine and I was focusing on cutting the fabric and designing these things, I could turn off the anxiety. I could turn off the fear of everything because I had something to focus on.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona’s work is really unconventional. This isn’t your grandma’s quilt. Like, at one point during the interview she turned around and showed off the quilt behind her.
RONA HERMAN: You get the really loud, obnoxious in your face fabrics. And then it kind of leads into very subtle pastel, kind of think Easter type fabrics, and it goes right back into those loud obnoxious fabrics.
STEPHANIE FOO: The quilt is like a neon Escher drawing. Flowers, zig zag stripes, abstract patterns.
STEPHANIE FOO: It's actually very trippy, like almost psychedelic.
RONA HERMAN: Yeah. That's a good way to describe it. If you were to look inside my brain, that's what you would see in color.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona got better and better at quilting. Good enough to donate one to the motorcycle club for one of their charity raffles. Soon, she started getting a bunch of similar requests from other groups. But quilting isn’t cheap. All of that fabric, especially the colorful stuff is expensive. She needed a job. On one of her visits to Joann Fabrics, Rona saw they were hiring, so, despite the anxiety she applied. And she got the job.
RONA HERMAN: Part of the job requirement is you have to ask customers, “What kind of project are you working on? How can I help you?"
STEPHANIE FOO: A simple interaction really, but not for Rona.
RONA HERMAN: It was almost like my brain became an Etch A Sketch and somebody just shook it and there was literally nothing. For instance, I went up to this woman who was just looking at some quilting fabric and she looked at me, and she just looked back at the fabric, and then she looked at me again and then she asked me, "Can I help you?" That was thoroughly embarrassing.
STEPHANIE FOO: Rona’s colleagues taught her to write scripts. Things to say ahead of time, when approaching customers. She used one for the first time on a woman shopping with her daughter.
RONA HERMAN: I said, "Oh my gosh, what project are you working on today?" The little girl, probably about 12, she turns to me just bright eyed and so excited and she said, "I'm making aprons." I said, "That's fantastic. I've never made an apron. Tell me about it." And, then when our interaction was done, I remember taking that home with me and thinking, I can talk about quilting.
STEPHANIE FOO: Soon after, a co-worker invited her to join a quilting guild, basically a sewing club. Rona felt anxious the first time she went, but this time it was more of an excited anxiousness.
RONA HERMAN: Sitting down in this room was nerve wracking, but my coworker, she helped introduce me to people and that got the conversation going. And by the end of the night, I mean, I felt like I belonged somewhere finally in my life.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow.
STEPHANIE FOO: During one meeting, a visiting master quilter invited everyone to a quilting trip to Ireland. Rona mentioned it to her husband more as a joke, but he jumped on it. Asked her: “So when do you leave?” So, Rona went with 12 other quilters. When she got there, she thought maybe she’d made a huge mistake. She was so scared to approach the master quilter; she almost flew home. But then she turned around and introduced herself, and that was the last moment of fear for her whole trip.
RONA HERMAN: All of a sudden this person that had always been there and was longing to have a community and a place to belong, all of a sudden she came flying out. I was flirting with bartenders. I mean, it was just crazy. I was talking to people. I was dancing with this five-year-old to a street band. I mean it was just, it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. Even my husband, I would call him every night from the hotels and tell him what was happening and send him pictures.
STEPHANIE FOO: And was he like, hell yeah, flirt with them?
RONA HERMAN: Yeah, he was. Who are you? He literally was so confused. And yeah. So, the trip literally changed everything.
STEPHANIE FOO: But then the trip came to an end.
RONA HERMAN: When I got home, I really got angry for a bit. And I think that was because I was so afraid of losing what I had just discovered. And that was part of the final turning point for me. I finally see where I want to be, and I finally have felt that connection that I've wanted, and I don't want to let it go.
STEPHANIE FOO: At first, Rona kept being the person she discovered in Ireland. She returned to work at Joann, even taught some quilting classes there. But then friends encouraged her to leave and start her own classes. She did, and it was super-satisfying. But, over time, the classes dwindled to just a few of her friends, no new students. That meant she was no longer feeling the energy she got from connecting to new people with the same quilting passion.
RONA HERMAN: The voice started coming back and the depression started coming back, my eating got out of control, and I could see the signs. It was either okay, we can either stop now and just give up completely. Or like my husband said, "You can swallow your stomach and just go up and find a new way."
STEPHANIE FOO: The new way was a blog. When the pandemic hit, most people felt incredibly isolated, stuck at home. The reverse happened to Rona. She started a site called Rona The Ribbiter where she posted her quilts and even started a YouTube channel, and the quilters came calling. Hundreds of followers, suggesting topics for the blog and asking for technical advice and recommendations for where to buy good fabrics. She was able to publish books of patterns and a book called “Tips for the Traveling Quilter.”
STEPHANIE FOO: And so you kind of feel then now, like as if finally you deserve that love and that friendship?
RONA HERMAN: Yeah, found that I belong and that I do deserve to be here, I do deserve to be a part of this community and I do deserve to be welcomed and inside the bubble. I'm no longer outside the bubble.
STEPHANIE FOO: That includes with her family. Thanks to sewing, life at home with her husband and son became more manageable.
RONA HERMAN: They definitely noticed I wasn't so scared as much all the time, at least around them and at home. I was definitely more open to trying new things where sewing was related and then that kind of led to trying new things in the kitchen like trying new recipes. To try something new and get out of the rut, so to speak.
STEPHANIE FOO: And when she goes to her mother’s house for a visit, Rona is reminded of her first quilt, with the bowling balls and pins on it, badly stitched and falling apart.
RONA HERMAN: The quilt still sits in her living room on her chair that she sits in at night to watch television. And she won't let me fix it because it's important to remember where you started to really appreciate where you are now.
STEPHANIE FOO: You can see how much you've grown.
RONA HERMAN: Yes, exactly.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the next story, a Delaware seamstress rediscovers her sense of purpose, years after participating in a defining moment in American history.
STEPHANIE FOO: Growing up, Jean's parents insisted she and her twelve siblings were to dress nice. They wore beautiful clothes made by their mother. Jean’s parents told her it projected respect and pride. Jean’s family wasn’t rich. But Jean’s mother taught her that by sewing, she could look like she was. She took old feed bags, washed and bleached them, or dyed them with tea bags, and turned them into beautifully tailored items of clothing. Spinning chaff into gold.
JEAN WILSON: Well, my mother was always sewing. So, from the time I was a baby crawling on the floor and whatever else … I would be under the table and taking her foot and putting it back on the pedal and she would take it off … And then when I was 9 years old, that's when she allowed me to be able to sit at the sewing machine and start sewing.
STEPHANIE FOO: These are Jean’s fondest memories of home. Sitting next to her mom, learning to sew. And from the beginning, she had a talent for it. That was yet another source of pride – wearing her own clothes to school. Like the time she made an A-line skirt.
JEAN WILSON: I was so proud of the fact that I made this skirt. When I came home from school the first day, the first time I wore it, I was literally crying because I told my mother no one believed I made the skirt. So, what she did, she was able to write a little note. She said, please let the students know that my daughter did make that. I did not touch it. She did it all by herself.
STEPHANIE FOO: Jean stood out from her classmates with her stylish clothes and for having made them herself. But just a few years later, Jean started work on a piece of clothing that only a handful of people would ever get to wear.
STEPHANIE FOO: After high school, Jean saw that the local division of Playtex was recruiting in Delaware for good seamstresses to work on a project of national importance - spacesuits. To be worn by the astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission. This was unlike any sewing Jean had ever done. The training took 3 months.
JEAN WILSON: We had to learn and prove that we were good in our math and our fractions and things like that. And it was a lot of other information, how things were put together, almost like a layout or a blueprint or building a building.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was clear from the beginning that Jean was very good at this job, so she was promoted to floor manager. She was just 19 years old. The other women weren’t thrilled. Some didn’t like being told what to do by a 19-year-old. Others didn’t like being told what to do by a black woman.
JEAN WILSON: I had the authority to fire people. If you didn't want to listen to me and do what I asked you to do, I could let you know the same door to hit you in your back, when you came in this morning, can hit you in your back when I asked you to leave. So, I had to prove to a lot of these women at the age of 19, and I was their supervisor. I had to prove to them that I could do what I was asking them to do.
STEPHANIE FOO: Handling unpleasant co-workers was hard. The work was even harder. Each suit took many weeks to complete. And most importantly, there were no mistakes allowed. Every stitch had to be perfectly spaced. One time, examiners thought a pin had been left in the suit, so they ripped it apart. A month of work lost. Turned out it was just a rough piece of fabric.
STEPHANIE FOO: What would've happened if there was a pin in it?
JEAN WILSON: It could have been a possibility of losing oxygen. It could have caused some damage to the suit or came apart. It could have caused damage to the astronaut and if he was up in space, it could have possibly cost him his life.
STEPHANIE FOO: Wow.
STEPHANIE FOO: The outfits were a lot different but the precision needed was familiar to Jean. It was something her mother taught her at home. At the time, Jean’s mother was dying. On visits to the hospital, she told Jean how proud she was of her.
JEAN WILSON: She knew that because of what she taught me, that helped me to be where I was at. And I think that made her feel good too. She kept saying, she said, "One day you're going to receive something that's going to be a big reward for you,” and she was always telling me that.
STEPHANIE FOO: Jean’s mother passed away two months before the Apollo 11 mission.
STEPHANIE FOO: The first time Jean ever flew in a plane, it was to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. An all-expenses trip to see the Apollo 11 launch. She stood on the roof and looked up.
JEAN WILSON: I can close my eyes to this day. I still remember the noise, the sound.
STEPHANIE FOO: By the time she returned home, Neil Armstrong was about to take his first steps on the moon. Playtex set up a TV in the cafeteria.
JEAN WILSON: I don't think anybody worked that day. And I said, that's the suit. I made it see, look at it. I made that suit. He's got the suit on. So I was quite excited about that to see something I made.
STEPHANIE FOO: Yeah … it's already amazing when you know, you're, I don't know, Versace and you know, that. Movie star is going to wear your dress at the Oscars, but that, that's something else entirely.
JEAN WILSON: I was hoping that one day I could go on and be able to do bigger and better things as time went by, and of course to stay into the program and to continue on, have a decent job with benefits and an income that I could survive for the rest of my life.
STEPHANIE FOO: But that isn’t what happened. In the months following the Apollo 11 mission, Playtex laid off seamstresses. Demand for space suits was down. Jean worked at another company, then took time off to raise her daughter. Not too long after that, she started her own business working as a dressmaker, sewing outfits from scratch like her mom had done. The timing wasn’t great. In the 70s and 80s, cut and sew jobs moved overseas. Clothing prices dropped. And it meant less business for people like Jean.
STEPHANIE FOO: Also, her eyesight was getting worse from all the time staring down at stitches. So, Jean closed the shop. Afterward, she also suffered from a divorce. Her life wasn’t turning out how she’d hoped – the Apollo 11 flight seemed like a distant memory.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did people know what you had done?
JEAN WILSON: A few people did. And then at the same time, it was like, I don't believe that anything that she did all of that or whatever.
STEPHANIE FOO: It must have been really upsetting that people didn’t believe you.
JEAN WILSON: Yeah. I don't want people to think I'm running around bragging and boasting on myself and I let it go. And at the same time, doors were not opening the way I wished they had opened for me to be able to go out and really get into sewing and designing and doing whatever.
STEPHANIE FOO: After her divorce, Jean needed money. She found work as a school bus driver. Ever since she was little, she’d been interested in being a schoolteacher, and so working with kids seemed fun. And it was. The cute chatter on the bus reminded her of her own daughter when she was a kid. Life was a lot simpler. Drive from point A to point B. No intricate stitches. No pins left in space suits. No complex patterns. But pretty soon different patterns started to emerge.
STEPHANIE FOO: Even as a bus driver – Jean still had her seamstress’ eye. She couldn’t ignore it. She paid close attention to what every little kid wore as they got on the bus. Some of the kids came from low-income families, and it wasn’t unusual to see them rotating the same outfits. But Jean noticed one girl who wore the same dress every day.
JEAN WILSON: That Thursday she got on the bus, she had the same dress on, but there was a difference in the way she had it on, it was inside out. I had her to sit in the seat behind me on the way to school because I knew something was going on and it just broke my heart. She thought she had done something wrong. And I told her, "You're not in trouble. I promise you. You’re not in trouble." Because what happened, she started crying. I asked the little girl, why was she wearing her dress inside out? She said, because the other side was dirty. That was her reason, so that let me know something was seriously wrong. Anyway, to make a long story short, when I got to school, I had the principal to come out, and I'm so glad it was a female principal too because she was a mother also.
STEPHANIE FOO: The principal gave the girl some fresh clothes, then she and Jean went around to the girl’s home, where they found an alcoholic mother who was unable to care for her children. And they called child services. After the incident, Jean got to thinking about all the kids on her bus and the clothes they were wearing. And so, she said to herself, “I want these kids to dress for success - to take pride in themselves, despite their circumstances. And I can help.”
STEPHANIE FOO: From that point on, this became Jean’s purpose. She collected buttons from all over, and sewed them into shirts, blouses and jackets on the bus. And she regularly went to Goodwill to buy clothing on her own dime for the kids, until she convinced the school to start their own clothing program. One parent told her.
JEAN WILSON: She said, Ms. Wilson, you know, I tell my parents, I told the other neighbors and all that I have, we didn't have to worry about our kids with our bus driver. Cause we had Mary Poppins, they call it, they call me Mary.
STEPHANIE FOO: One of the girls on Jean’s bus came from a Latino family. Jean wanted to learn Spanish, so she asked the girl if her mother would teach her how. So, Jean started going to the house every week. After a month of Spanish lessons, Jean asked the mother if she could teach her some basic sewing with needle and thread.
JEAN WILSON: She had a hidden gift and a talent that she didn't realize she had. It was meant for me and her to meet, is what I feel. Because this lady went on to be able to sew and she started making things for her own family.
STEPHANIE FOO: And why sewing? Why did you want to teach these moms how to sew?
JEAN WILSON: Well, they were from low-income families and to have a skill like that made a big difference in everyday just spending of different things that you had to buy things for or whatever are replacing something, if you can't afford to fix it or for it to look right.
STEPHANIE FOO: Jean went on to teach many mothers and children how to sew. Sitting side by side at the sewing machine just like she had with her mom back home. One little girl made a blanket that she was so proud of, she glowed with pride. Some of the mothers were able to earn extra money sewing. And some of the children went on to become tailors and seamstresses when they grew up.
STEPHANIE FOO: What do you think in the end wound up being more important, your work on sewing the space suits or your work with the underprivileged children?
JEAN WILSON: I think my work with the underprivileged children because I was able to reach out to those children and I touched more people, because you're talking being forgotten and being hidden. These children have, I feel, if some things I did not teach them and show them, they would've been forgotten about.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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