Slow Sewing

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2010 Edition of Mia Magazine.  
Two of my favorite things in life are food and making things. I love to talk, read, learn about food, and talk read and learn about any sort of craft or handiwork. Growing up in McAlester, Oklahoma, I was always fidgeting with my hands, making dolls, playhouses, and taking classes in painting, sewing and embroidery. I’ve made a career out of making things.
It was because of these two interests that I found myself recently writing a book about sewing, and coincidentally reading the book Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern, which is  all about how she discovered a whole new way of eating and a bounty of incredible food when she was diagnosed with celiac disease. In Gluten Free Girl, Ahern discovers that by needing to learn new ways to prepare food for herself, it opened her up to a foodie paradise that was all around her, all she had to do was look for it.
Reading this book while I was writing about sewing was a revelation to me. I’ve read books and articles for years on slow food, slowing down, simplifying your life, etc. but when it came to sewing and teaching sewing it seemed like the world was too busy to bother. There are tons of books about how to sew faster (or better yet no sewing at all). Sewing? Who needs it! And if you must sew then by all means do it as quick as possible and be done with it so you can move on to something that is actually enjoyable and much more worthy of your valuable time. It made me think of when I had just moved to Madison, WI (where I now live) from Los Angeles. I had spent the last nine years building a career on making clothes for people that were one of a kind, often time consuming artifacts. I relished that job because I really, really enjoy the process of sewing. I mined the tailors and seamstresses that I worked with for all the old-world sewing techniques I could get out of them.
So when I moved to Madison, I had gotten a job designing costumes for a play at Madison Repertory Theatre. I walked into the costume shop one day and one of the young women who was working there as a stitcher was sitting at the cutting table knitting. She was taking a break from sewing and had pulled out a personal project. I looked more closely at what she was doing. She was working several little wooden knitting needles on this very fine yarn.
“What are you making?” I said.
“Gloves,” she said.
I loved her immediately. I had found my tribe.
Now I had made gloves before and knew how meticulous the process was. There was something about finding someone else who would take a break from sewing 1940’s costumes to knit GLOVES. That said this person loved what she was doing as much as I did. I had found a kindred spirit.
I remember when I’d just moved to Los Angeles and I was working as a stitcher on my first movie. There were several of us costumers waiting for our next project and one of the assistants brought us a towel to have some Velcro sewn on. It was to make a wrap for an actor. I took the towel and proceeded to change the color of the thread on my machine to match the towel. A friend I was working with said “Oh, don’t change the thread; no one is ever going to see that.”
I flushed with embarrassment and said “Oh, well I’m just doing it for me; I just want it to look nice.”  The friend took a beat and said “You’ll get over that.”
We laughed.
 I really liked sewing all those clothes. I’m told I was known for taking extra effort to make things look great. Some jobs I didn’t get because of it. But a lot of jobs I got or kept because of it. My friend who said I’d get over it is still my friend. She went back to school a couple of years after we worked together and has become a very successful writer and editor. She found her tribe. It’s funny, I write a little now, but mostly I sew, and from what I hear she sews a little but mostly has written, and we are both raising daughters who will one day write and sew as well.
When I was in middle school, & high school it wasn’t exactly cool to sew. My best friend Debbie Green & I had a saying “She cooks, she cleans, she makes all her own clothes, and all the GIRLS like her…”
I’m not sure where we got this idea that sewing was dowdy or dorky, but it made me not too interested in sewing around that time. I had learned to sew at an early age and had made a blouse in the 5th grade at the McAlester Girls Club, and had made an A+ on the required pillow in 6th grade Home-Ec, but I shunned Home-Ec for Shop class and Art in the 8th grade.
Even after I’d established myself as a patternmaker/fitter and was working on the sitcom Will & Grace, I bristled at the term “Seamstress”. When the show won the Emmy for Best comedy, the whole crew got certificates for their contribution to the win. I never displayed mine because when I opened it, my name was there and underneath it was the title “Seamstress”. (There wasn’t and still isn’t a job title of Seamstress in the Costumer’s Union.)  
There must have been something culturally that gave me the attitude that sewing wasn’t a valuable skill. Mary Tyler Moore was a single girl in the big city and she didn’t waste her fabulous time sewing or doing crafts. Somehow when I was growing up, between Marlo Thomas and Bea Arthur and Christy McNichol, I got the idea that sewing was not cool.
What is it about that word that makes so many of us bristle? I have seen so many derivations of the word seamstress lately. Seamster, Stitcher, Sewist, Tailor, Maker. When I saw the movie Titanic I remember the character that is Kate Winslett’s mother begs her to go through with marrying this guy because if she doesn’t then what would become of her?
“Would you have me work as a seamstress?”
Yikes. That would be a fate worse than death. By all means, don’t ever work as a…
(cue the organ music)…SEAMSTRESS.
This is why I’m such a huge fan of the documentary filmmaker Faythe Levine and her film Handmade Nation. Her film shows a group of people who are embracing their love for making things and celebrating the act of careful craftsmanship. Fine Craft as anti-mass manufactured junk. Hallelujah! I saw the film with a friend who may have thought me a little wacko because I cheered audibly through many of the interviews. Again: my tribe.
The reason I’m thinking so much about this is that as I’m writing this book about sewing and particularly, how to sew things, I catch myself thinking “No one is going to want to baste in a zipper here. Maybe I should just tell them to use a glue stick or tape.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve basted many a zipper using glue stick or tape. I use press on interfacing in making beautiful tailored menswear jackets. But you know what?  I love using thread and basting, or pad stitching hair canvas into a tailored jacket. There is something magical about knowing you’re doing something like it’s been done for hundreds of years, like you’re part of a thread running through some sort of garment making history.
I enjoy that. It makes me happy.
It’s about the difference between mass produced Go-Gurt and artisanal local yogurt. It’s why I’m writing this article in its original form by hand, in my friend Mary’s coffee shop, eating that yogurt with blackberries, drinking my locally roasted coffee out of a mug that somebody made who lives nearby too. It’s just better, more enjoyable, more sustainable.
So I say a big heck yes to making things and to taking the time to do it.
I think I’m going to get that Emmy certificate framed.


Samina said…
Great post, Steffani! I, too love to sew nice and slow.
Anonymous said…
Dear Steffani,
I have been bitten recently by the "making" bug and I am soooo excited about being able to make things, it's such a wonderful feeling... I learned to sew when I was 16 from my grandmother and since then, I have pretty much done nothing. It wasn't until recently when I saw something that I wanted, but couldn't find where to buy it, that I realized my love for sewing. And the amazing feeling is that my grandmother passed away last year, but it feels like she is right next to me, correcting my stitching and telling me how I should do things. What a blessing! And the greatest part is that my 6 year old daughter is getting excited about sewing too, making her own dolls, pillows... I just got your book and am so looking forward to copying my favorite dresses. I do have to say, though, that my grandmother did teach me the rub on method way back, but I never really gave it much thought. Thankfully you have written this book and I can feel a little closer to her again. Thanks for writing it!
Claudia from Brazil
Raed said…
I taught myself to sew from the age of 5 on a hand cranked sewing machine. I'm still not a fantastic sewer but I'm OK. Recently I bought myself a new machine and my 6 year old son now has my old machine. "That is MY machine now? Right?" He loves to sew. He will sew anything. I was really sick one day and awoke to him sewing paint chips together to form a giant paint chip quilt. He begs to sew. "Please can you set up the machine?".

I lie here and type this under a beautiful quit my (as then yet to be) husband made me for my birthday one year. Now he is hunting for a used parachute to make me a parachute skirt. He is also a potter and photographer.

You could say I have definitely found my tribe and am proud to be a creative maker. Having both parents sew can only be good for both of our sons.

My husband is a computer programer and I am a scientist. Even our "day jobs" are creative.

I found you looking for a new way to rip patterns from old favorites. I have "my way" but was hoping for something a little easier and productive.

Thanks for the inspiration!
steff said…
What lovely comments, I love hearing how sewing and handmade things make us feel, how they connect us to others. So glad to know that I'm able to pass on something useful to others as well.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this. I really enjoy sewing as a creative outlet, but honestly sometimes the thought of winding up another machine to get something done dissuades me. I've been re-energized by hand sewing. It is a pleasure and a joy to get to the parts that I can just sew by hand. I plan for them even if they are not required (handpicked zippers, hems, bias bindings...) It takes longer, but looks better and the process is far more enjoyable. Recently my little niece wanted to learn how to sew. I plan to get her a sewing machine for her birthday next year, but for now we are making doll clothes by hand. Not only is it fun, but it feels much more intimate.

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