Friday, 7 April 2006

a sewing journey

It always amazes me when people freak out about the sewing I do, and express their utter conviction they could never come even close to matching my skills. I always rush in to say how easy it is, how anyone could do it, how I am not that great a sewer. I actually offer to teach them in my fervor to prove them wrong.

I started sewing when I was young, and before that I watched my mother, and her mother, work their machines and needles and threads to create the clothes we wore, the quilts on our beds, the stitches on our cushion covers and the embroidery hanging on our walls. I used to go with my mum to choose the fabric for my next summer dress, used to sort through the button tin for the ones that matched, used to wait in excited anticipation till it was finished.

A lot of what went on then was about economy - it was still cheaper to sew than buy - and watching the dollars was an important part of our lives. I admit that I came to covet store bought goods because like most kids I wanted what everyone else had, the status symbols of being up with the latest trends and brands.

But my mum was very smart woman, and when I was barely a teenager she put me and my sister on an allowance system. We got a monthly payment and were then responsible for all our purchasing choices - clothes, shoes, entertainment, toys, the whole kit and caboodle. I don't remember bumpy patches, though I'm sure they were there, when I couldn't make ends meet or some really basic need was overlooked in favour of a passing whim.

But it cemented two things that have been invaluable through my life - saving and learning to sew. I wasn't a sophisticated sewer by any means, but I could make a T-shirt, a skirt, a range of basics to act as a backdrop for the few treasured brand items I bought. Because I didn't know how to use patterns and was guided largely by instinct, I had a lot of disasters. There were periods I sewed nothing in a slump of despair. But every now and then I'd find myself in a fix and pulled out the machine to get me through. A party on a Saturday night often started a sewing frenzy on Saturday afternoon. A new waitressing job prompted a new black skirt and white top. Sewing successes bolstered my confidence and I'd be off on a string of productivity before the next disaster, the next slump and so on.

Through all those years I learned a lot through trial and error. I might have learned things far more efficiently through a structured class, but back then I just didn't learn that way. Trial and error can only go so far and there were many things still beyond me - anything tailored was a pipe dream, trousers fundamentally flawed, a lined jacket completely out of the question. I started earning more money and got fussier and could afford to buy my clothes.

But then I started needing serious working clothes. Suits, shirts, nice overcoats. The ones I liked, when I could find ones I liked, cost a fortune. I was completely uninterested in the cheap suits that showed their age after a season, it seemed like a false economy to fork out $200 for a cheap suit, but at $1000 I just couldn't afford the tailored pure wool flannel that would last for 10 years.

So I went to night school for a short stint and studied pattern drafting. What a revelation! Over three or so months I learned how to turn the 3-D into the 2-D on the page, and how to use my fairly simple sewing skills to turn those patterns into clothes. I now understood how to make space for my lumps and bumps, how to change the look of something at the cutting stage, not fixing after the sewing stage. I started pumping out fantastic suits and tailored pants, I even designed patterns for David and other friends from their measurements like a real tailor. I would absolutely thoroughly recommend to anyone to learn this skill (there's books on it if you can't get to a class).

When Amy was born I (a) didn't need suits and nice clothes and (b) no longer had whole weekends to devote to large scale sewing projects. I all but stopped and the sewing machine was idle. I tried a few baby clothes, but with pretty limited success from a lifestyle as well as product point of view. I picked up handiwork - dollies and toys I could stitch in short bursts without getting out a whole stack of stuff and needing to pack it all away.

I'm getting back to the machine these days now that Amy is a bit older. I find making her clothes easier, and I'm getting into different styles of softies as well as bags and quilts. Increasingly I see the machine sewing as one of a repertoire of textile skills and I try to think beyond my previous utilitarianism and economising.

I now think homemade is most definitely better and I have a new respect for the work my mother and grandmother did. I get tremendous satisfaction from being able to do these things and it makes me sad how in just a few generations these once commonplace skills have slipped right out of the mainstream. That's why when people say how amazing it is that I can sew I say not at all - why don't you sew too? Trust me, the will to sew is all it takes to get you started on the journey.


Amy said...

The first and last paragraphs: you took the words right out of my mouth. I only learned last year. Hmm, you are good. Now I am a bit intimidated to make something for you. Yeesh.

krista said...

Thank you for sharing this story, I really enjoyed reading about your journey. It's really incredible. Sorry to bombard you with the comments, I haven't been on for a few days and it was such a treat to see all you've been doing/blogging about.
I too have picked up sewing and put it down again over the years, I am really happy to have found it again and in combination with blogging, it's such an amazing experience.
My journey falls far short of yours though!

littlesnoring said...

Thanks for your story, I too remember flicking through pattern books and choosing fabric (*taffeta*) so my mum could make my formal dresses at high school.
Both my Grandma and Mother were great sewers and would never consider paying someone to make curtains!

The funny thing for me is that although I sewed a bit when I was a girl, having two great sewers around meant I didn't even try the hard stuff - just asked them to make it for me. Too bad, I might have learnt something.

But now I have come full circle and am really enjoying the process of creation.

Ps. I have just found your blog and am enjoying reading it!

Donna said...

My grandmother sewed my mom's clothing, my mother sewed my clothing and both taught me. I do enjoy sewing clothing for my daughters and a lot of it is for economy's sake, although I also enjoy the creative aspect as well.

When I was in high school, I only sewed a few things that I wore. But online at different websites and through blogs and livejournal, I do encounter young girls who take pride in sewing unique things to wear and it really impresses me that they are accomplishing this. I do think it's a skill that more and more young people are acquiring and will perhaps become commonplace once again.