I’ve been sewing & quilting off and on for over 40 years. Every time I think about how long I’ve been at this, I’m amazed. First, it startles me to realize that I’m 51 – soon to be 52; second, I can’t believe it’s been 40 years. I learned to sew first from my mother; she used to make dresses for me, and I loved them. I can recall helping her to make a pink polyester linen-look suit to wear when I visit Washington, DC as a school safety patrol person. I was 12 years old and so proud to be wearing something I “made” with my mom. Earlier that year, I’d taught myself to applique for a school project. I was hooked.
In high school, sewing meant being able to wear fashions that I otherwise couldn’t because my body was not what fashion stores expected it to be. By the time I was a junior, I’d sit splayed on the living room carpet, cutting out self-drafted dresses in the afternoon that I’d wear the next week to school. My best friend was always so impressed that I could just cut a dress out without a pattern, and make something that fits. In truth, I had to self-draft, because the big four pattern companies didn’t make things that would fit me (and of course, in an astounding blow to the self-esteem of teens everywhere, the sizing on patterns was – and remains – very small compared to ready-to-wear sizing). So my size 14 body wouldn’t fit in the size 18 pattern – too fat for everything.
In college, I was fatter and then suddenly pregnant. Sewing meant I could take my mind off the future I knew was ruined by an unexpected entry to motherhood. It was a place & way that I could feel in control. It meant maternity clothing that fits (because Motherhood didn’t sell maternity wear for fat moms-to-be), a quilt for my sister’s bed, baby clothing that showed I could be a mom.
As a young family, sewing meant being able to afford to clothe our children. In the 1990s, it was cheaper to make clothing than to buy it. Fabric King was definitely king for me. For $1 a yard, I could search the odd cuts of fabric and find organic cottons, silks, jersey knits, and double knits. Everything you could want – even if the color or patterns wasn’t always on point for the desired use. My daughters wore dresses with Disney characters on them, decorated with deadstock lingerie trim; sheets made into skirts; double knit leggings because I could get three pairs from 1.5 yards – beat that, Wal-mart. I sewed for myself as well – but it was all strictly utilitarian. It was exhausting having to self-draft, or significantly alter patterns, anytime I wanted a new frock. For a decade, my sewing was practical. It stretched our budget to allow us luxuries like fresh meat, and fruit & vegetables. Sewing was life.
As I hit my forties, my sewing became art. I moved to primarily making quilts, not clothing. My daughters were no longer as enchanted as they’d once been with the things I sewed (though my knitting enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity around this time). My father was diagnosed with the cancer that would take him from us. My quilting group and I made three quilts out of his lifelong collection of neckties – one for my dad, and one each for my siblings. I couldn’t bring myself to make one for me because that would be like admitting he might die; as long as I didn’t, he couldn’t, right? When I went to stay with dad at Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, I made a quilt for my husband who was back at home raising our daughters for three months without me. Sewing during this time meant comfort & care.
Now that I’m in my fifties, sewing means self-love. My sewing daughter wanted to attend a Frocktails event – sewists & cocktails, what a good idea! – but was nervous to go alone. The invite said you should wear something you made – so I went out, bought fabric & a Vogue pattern for the first time in more than a decade, and made a thing. It had many flaws, and the pattern was bought because I thought it had a chance of fitting my hips – more than because I loved it. And it worked – I felt great, I looked great, and I was in love with sewing again. That night I won the opportunity to select a free pattern; even as they called my winning number, and I got up to go select my pattern, I knew when I got there I’d be picking from patterns for bodies that weren’t like mine. Imagine my surprise when one pattern on the table was by this company I’d never heard of: Cashmerette. This was a pattern that came in my size – probably. It definitely came in a size that was close to my size. I was elated. I literally made the dress the next day – and it was definitely love. I’ve since found myself deeply in love with the miraculous indie pattern companies who focus on size inclusivity. Muna & Broad, Rebecca-Page, Cashmerette, Friday Pattern Company. I sew at least three things every weekend – and I’ve started to sew for my children, husband, and grandchildren again.
Sewing has meant many things to me over the years. Right now it means self-love, freedom-to-choose, artistic expression, and body positivity. Sewing has set me free.
Jenny Hassler is a wife, mother, grandmother, sewist, CPA, who lives and works in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the USA. You can find more photos of her life & sewing @johassler on Instagram. She posts regularly about her makes in the Curvy Sewing Collective Facebook group. Yes, she made her wedding dress out of silver & black brocade from a self-drafted pattern which was finished up mere hours before the ceremony.