I’ve taken to sewing. That’s right, the crime writer, activist and ‘action woman’, as some people have known me, now also sews. This is part of a solid promise made to myself earlier this year, and so far, it has been more rewarding than I could have imagined.
Why did I make a promise to myself to (finally) learn the practical skill of sewing? The reason is simple. I wanted to be more self-sufficient. Scratch that, I needed to be.
Over the years it became clear to me that it was well and truly time to learn how to mend my own clothing, fix a busted seam before it rendered a garment unwearable, and sew buttons on in a way that didn’t immediately make them fall off again. I also wanted to be able to make clothing and cosplay outfits from scratch and from recycled materials, but I had no skills whatsoever in either respect (even the sewing on of buttons was a mystery to me), having never been taught any sewing or mending skills, and having never put time into learning.
My inability to mend my own things had become distinctly unhelpful to me, particularly considering my love of vintage and the tendency for even the best made vintage clothing to come apart at the seams, thanks to ageing, 60-year-old thread. It also occurred to me that I’d downplayed the importance of these skills in my younger years in part because sewing, mending and dressmaking have been considered ‘feminised skills’. In the 90s, you see, the image of a strong, empowered woman was Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, all muscles and machine guns. So while I rode my motorcycles and did action stunts for my crime research, associating myself with traditionally ‘masculine’ endeavours, I avoided things like learning to sew. My younger self would almost have been embarrassed to be seen with a sewing needle, and that’s a shame. The fact is, it’s okay to like both traditionally ‘masculine’ and traditionally ‘feminine’ pastimes. Indeed, to be fully functional humans, most of us need to learn a broad range of skills, many of which will have once been considered the exclusive domain of one gender or another (take nurturing and feeding ourselves and others, or leadership, money-earning and basic building, as just a few examples). It is ironic, in a way, that a feminist woman would avoid things precisely because they are considered feminine, and in doing so, become less self-sufficient. In time this imbalance became impractical, and though I took a while to recognise it, recognise it I did.
‘When I went away to college, she (my mother) gave me a sewing machine, a typewriter and a suitcase.’
– Alice Walker.
It was time to balance up my skill set.
In addition to the practical and economical skills of mending, (many WWII-era ‘make do and mend’ skills are now becoming lost, which is doing nothing for the environment or our bank books) there are other reasons why sewing makes good sense in my case, even though I am a busy person. The fact that I am six feet tall and have a 14″ hip to waist ratio, neither of which are considered standard and are therefore not accommodated for in off-the-rack clothing, means that most ready made garments do not quite fit me, with the exception of a couple of brands that happen to cut in my general shape. If the hips are big enough, the waist is off. If the waist fits, it is too tight elsewhere. This, and other multiple variations of fit issues are familiar to many people. Hemlines are pretty much impossible to find at the intended length when you are very tall, as I am, or very short. This being the case, I have farmed out alterations hundreds of times over the decades – to fix sleeve lengths and hems or change the position of buttons, and more – and like many of us, I also had plenty of ‘almost’ pieces of clothing in my wardrobe that seemed okay in the dressing room, but would collect dust for years, never quite fitting, only to eventually be given away. Further, while quality and standards vary enormously between brands, many commercially made clothes are simply not built to last the way they once were. When you make your own things you can make them more sustainably, and make them to last. Plus, you can do it on a budget.
I am a newbie with much left to learn, but in the past few months I have discovered a great deal about what goes into making the kinds of material objects I for decades took too much for granted. Fabric quality. Stitching techniques. The construction of garments and the hours of work that goes into even the simplest item. I look at things differently, more carefully considering the making of an item and what its life might be, how it might be repaired, and whether I’d happily wear it in 5 years or 50. In the past two months I have also successfully altered 4 of my skirts, saving those ‘almost’ pieces of clothing from being wasted. (Some of the detail in those earlier alterations is a little sloppy, but if someone is staring at a button hole edge at the back of my skirt, frankly they are looking far too closely.) I’ve saved an ageing teddy bear with a few choice stitches, much to the delight of my daughter, and also completed a few simple, and some less-simple sewing projects, including a ruffled Victorian skirt, fox backpack for my daughter, a basic cushion, a circle skirt with butted zip, a jacket for my girl using her favourite recycled buttons, and now my first pencil skirt, complete with red kick pleat, lap zip and decorative button detail. This last one feels like my first blog worthy creation.
This pencil skirt is graded from the original pencil skirt pattern to account for my smaller waist and wider hip, hence the 8 darts I’ve put in, 4 in front and 4 in back. As recommended, I went with the pattern size for my largest measurement – my hips. She’s fresh out of the craft room. Here are some images:
Once I made a real commitment to learning to sew, I enlisted the help of Lorna of The Tailor’s Apprentice to help with some lessons, and I started a sewing bee with my friends (shown below). I also needed a proper sewing machine. Less than 24hrs after I ordered my first sewing machine (a Bernina 350 PE), the old, very inexpensive Brother my husband bought years ago broke. Completely. It just gave up in a hot tangled mess while I tried to sew a strap on my girl’s backpack. Even I’m surprised it died that quickly when put to regular use. Now that I have a suitable sewing machine, with internal metal parts and a manual, I will continue to build my skills.
My next projects include a bolero from a vintage pattern, and my first attempt at a classic Victorian corset. You can see the beginnings of the toile (using recycled scrap material) for that one below.
Thanks to those of you who have been so encouraging, including my friends and my readers. Here are some shots of my sewing progress over the past two months, from my Instagram:
Yesterday I hosted another of our delightful monthly sewing bees, and did some hand-sewing on the bias binding finishes inside my DIY corset. Meanwhile my girl hung out in homemade steampunk wings (as you do) and a necklace made with her dad that afternoon. I find crafting and mending my own things very rewarding. It's something I couldn't have done just months ago. #craft #sewing #sewingbee #makedoandmend #family (For a crime writer, agitator and action woman, it seems I can still approximate the look of domestic bliss from time to time. No one is one-sided. Still couldn't cook to save my life, but hey, no one can do it all…) – Photograph by Berndt Sellheim.
I'm back from my Australian tour for Speaking Out, and my girl has been waiting for me to finish making her fox backpack, so this evening I finally completed it. Success! She really fell in love with that little spectacled face. The straps are adjustable so she can grow into it, too. #sewing #learning #newbie #fox #backpack #DIY #craft #kids #madewithlove
We had our lovely monthly sewing bee yesterday. So much fun. (Check out the concentration, too.) I started sewing for the first time earlier this year, after promising myself to learn this practical skill. After a circle skirt and Victorian skirt, I will finish my first pencil skirt this week, complete with kick pleat. Thanks for your guidance, @bluebellevintageclothing x Photographed with my friends Erica and Suzie. Pic by Loretta. #sewingbee #sew #dressmaking #learning
Working on my second ever sewing project – a simple circle skirt in a retro novelty fabric. Today we measured, adjusted the pattern for the print direction and my measurements, cut the fabric, and began sewing. Here it is before the waistband, hem and side seams are finished. 2hrs work so far. #diy #circleskirt #sewing #retro #vintage
A big thank you to Loretta of Bluebelle Vintage Clothing for the pencil skirt pattern and the expertise. And thank you, as always, to my husband Berndt for the photographs (and the coffees to keep me going through my time at the sewing machine.)
UPDATE: My first corset worked out beautifully. Thank you to Lowana from Vanyanis for your excellent tutelage. I will be blogging on that experience soon.
- Photographs by Berndt Sellheim.
- Words (and sewing projects) by Tara Moss, AKA Victory Lamour.