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Learning to sew, learning to see

When people ask me how I’m keeping myself grounded during lockdown, I reply, “I’m learning to sew!” When people ask me if I sew, I say “I’m a beginner!” I don’t really feel like I’m a sewist yet, because that implies that I have some idea of what I’m doing, but calling myself a beginner feels exciting without pressure – it’s a kind of liminal space where I can thrash around in the pool of fabric without worrying too much about how professional (or not) the results look. I started to sew because I wanted to wear bright colours and bold prints and natural fibres and although the plus-size ready-to-wear market has gotten better, it’s still a slog to find something that ticks all those boxes. I never would have stuck with sewing, though, if I hadn’t found the process so much fun, in the most challenging, infuriating, exhilarating ways.

Like a lot of beginners, I started with not-garments – with endless headbands and tote bags and pencil cases and cushion covers and those drawstring sacks you put a bottle of wine in to pretend it’s fancy. Initially I wanted to jump right into making something I could wear, but I’m really grateful now that a wise teacher insisted I take the time to practice technical skills in a low-stakes way. Construction is an endless fascinating puzzle for me. I’ve never been very good at spatial thinking – I don’t do well at those brain teasers where you have to figure out what a flat diagram would look like in 3D – so I spend ages pouring over instruction booklets, trying to wrap my head around how a flat piece of fabric turns into a garment. Even getting to know my machine (a vintage avocado green late 70’s Kenmore Sears I have cheekily named Ivy) has been a journey. It took me weeks to discover the backstitch feature, and just how tension works is mystery I hope to be initiated into one day. Moving from accessories to garments was thrilling. But it was also challenging, for reasons I didn’t predict. I found that I was really unfamiliar with my own body. I didn’t know how I’m shaped. 

 I am fat, and I have been for a while. I know my measurements, the sizes I usually take in ready to wear, and I can hold up a garment and do the mental calculations that lead to “yep, I can fit into that” or “nope, put it back.”  But sewing has forced me to get intimate with how I am fat, which is something I always shied away from. I have a body, I know, and it’s big, I know. Until I started to sew, that was all I wanted to know. Now, when I sew a top I have to look and for once really see how my body pillows out under my arms, the breadth of my shoulders, the dimensions of my biceps. Sewing trousers means understanding my round belly, where it folds and hangs, the curves and planes of my bum, the proportions of hips to waist and where the heck my waist is anyway. I’ve had to understand my ribcage and my breasts and how the shape of my front is different from my back, the length of my thighs to my knees and my elbows to my wrists. I never really looked at myself like this before, not with a critical or sensual eye, but simply seeing my body as a collection of shapes. I’m learning how I fill out, how I take up space, how those measurements translate into my living flesh. How did I go so long without seeing myself?

 I’m in the process of understanding, more and more, how clothes work. I feel like my relationship with clothes prior to learning to sew was a binary – it either fit or it didn’t – and now my vocabulary has exploded with words like “ease” and “rise” and “inseam” and “dart” and so many other things that make garments fit they way they do, all these techniques that were invisible to me before. Being a learner is challenging. I wouldn’t be able to spare the tremendous time commitment I need to learn multiple new skills, only to produce a wonky-seamed dolman, if I weren’t in lockdown. It can be disheartening to spend hours working away on something and then have it be unwearable. But learning is a gift too. The rush of exhilaration I get from creating something, from problem solving (SO MUCH problem solving, SO MUCH unpicking), the pleasures of curiosity and discovery – it’s the best gift I could give myself. Bring on the FBAs and set-in sleeves. I’m ready. 

5 replies on “Learning to sew, learning to see”

I enjoyed reading your post. I took up sewing again after a break of 20 years while I was living abroad. I started with pyjamas, because only my husband & I would see the mistakes. I am getting braver, though still learning about fit & adjustments. I am loving the internet for instructions, inspiration and interaction – I didn’t have that back when my mother taught me the basics. Thank you for sharing your story!

“How did I go so long without seeing myself?” YES I have asked myself that question too.
Great article.

I am 100% there with you about sewing challenging my not-much spatial skills. And in the last 15 years of really devoted sewing, I can say I’m getting better at it. It does require lots of thinking which happens outside the sewing room pretty often, as I am falling asleep or taking a shower.

I’m not crying, you’re crying!
Okay, I am the one brought nearly to tears reading this. Happy and sad tears because I feel this so much. Happy to be learning my own body in this way, and sad that I was so unkind to myself for so long. This was a beautiful read. Thank you.

Thank you for sharing your truth/experience. Sewing is a learning experience for me always and that’s one of the things that makes me like it.

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