Monday, September 11, 2017

Why I Sew (and why I don't)

I wish that I could show you the actual video above, because it explains so much about my obsession with sewing. However I don't have access to it right now, so I'm going to explain to the best of my memory. Up there is a screenshot of me shortly before my third birthday. I am taping thread onto fabric. "What are you doing?" my mom asks. "I'm sewing," I say. "Like Wendy in Peter Pan."

The weird thing, is that I have a very strong memory of this, but it isn't in the family room, it's up in my bedroom. So the taping thread on things--that was happening a lot. I saw Wendy Darling sewing in "Peter Pan" and I desperately wanted to do whatever it was she did. 

That compulsion has never left me.

myself and my sister wearing very early creations

 I was about five or six when I was first allowed an actual needle and thread, and a year later I had convinced my mother and grandmother to give me a few lessons on the sewing machine. I utterly refused to have anything to do with patterns ("No one is going to tell ME what to do!") and progressed with learning the hard way.

I was extraordinarily blessed to have a little sister who adored me and was thrilled to get costumes for Christmas and birthday and fun. We'd go to the fabric store and pick out materials together, which mom would pay for and I would sew up. She was also the cutest modal. Sewing for kids is a fantastic way to get started, because you can learn how the different parts of the garment go together and try out different techniques without having to worry about perfect fit and the curves and slopes that are necessary to compute for in adult clothing, particularly adult period clothing (as I was to learn later).

 Although I learned to sew on my mother's old Singer, I also was given an (even older) machine from my grandmother. Between these machines I churned out a variety of costume pieces and doll clothes over the years. However, things really took of when I received a Husqvarna machine for my 12th birthday. Compared to the clunky Singers that were always breaking down, my Husqvarna ran like a dream. It's been sixteen years and that machine has only gone in for a tune-up once--and still sews beautifully.

Shortly thereafter, I was finally convinced to try sewing with a pattern. This resulted in the purple dress shown above (but photographed much later), followed immediately by the pink gown. Although I still preferred to create my own patterns, learning how to use official patterns taught me a lot about sewing.

Then I got my dress form. I'll admit, when I first got the form, I struggled to understand how to best use it with my sewing methods. Yet, after a few trial and errors (including an adventure with a 'create your own pattern' software that was crazy frustrating) I figured out the technique that I loved--draping.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the technical language, draping is a technique wherein the fabric is draped, pinned, and cut directly on the dress form. Often a muslin (cheap) fabric is used for this step, and then the muslin is laid over the project fabric to act as a pattern. I intuitively picked up on this skill by trial and error, and it wasn't until later that I learned this is indeed an official manner of creating patterns. It is very creative and intuitive and works well for custom-made garments, or mocking up a design that will later be drafted and graded onto a commercial flat pattern.

The two dresses above are some of the first projects I made as I discovered the draping process. I believe the gold and black bodice was altered from an actual pattern, but I cannot remember for sure. I do know that was a major lightbulb moment for me!

I did also sew some pieces for myself, although these were rarer. I have extreme sensory issues, a phobia of buttons (I'm not kidding you, but I admit it is very weird!), and a, shall we say, Victorian figure that is difficult to fit properly. While these issues mean that making my own clothes ought to be a good solution, they also meant I needed to develop finer skills--and wait for a few more years to pass and sunddresses to come back in style.

 I mean, to be honest, I never cared about style as a teen (as you may have picked up from above!). I was (and still am) obsessed with skirts and found that I was able to happily sew my own even when no one wore them or sold them.

But costuming remained my true love. I sewed for theater and the student films we made, and I kept on churning out costume and costume of my own.

After dropping out of college for numerous reasons, I seriously considered working for one of the local theater or opera companies. However, my health was already becoming a major issue and I knew that a 40-hour work week with a long commute and inflexible schedule was not going to be a good situation for me.

At this point in time, a few things happened that dramatically changed the course of my life. I spent three months working as a live-in nanny in the mountains of Virginia. It was an amazing adventure--but one during which I did not have my trusty sewing machine. On the trip home, I stopped by to visit my cousins and we spent a few days sewing costumes for me. It was like getting a shot of adrenaline.

"I have to be sewing," I thought. "I can't ever go this long without sewing again."

I decided to give college another chance, going to NDSU for Fashion Design. However, my health, once again, failed me.

Yet I'd started this blog to record my fashion design journey and I decided not to stop. A bad breakup threw me into a creative frenzy and for the next year I sewed and sewed and blogged about it--and I also blogged about costumes themselves, something I likely never would have thought of if it hadn't been for that fashion design semester. And then, between the posts about sewing and the posts about costumes, I got a commission.

And another.

And suddenly too many to manage.

I loved loved loved what I was doing--but, as before, my health couldn't stand it. Not only was I in constant stress about deadlines, but I also wasn't able to work on any personal sewing. It was draining everything out of me. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and at that point my body hurt so much that I couldn't sew at all for three months, and then only a little bit.

First completed project for myself after Fibro diagnosis
Over the past year, I've been building up my sewing muscles again. I've finished a few of the commissions that were put on hold and have taken on small projects for gifts and my own personal gratification. Most of them have taken a very long time, but they bring me such joy to complete.

The truths I've learned about myself are these: Sewing is vital for my mental health. Keeping sewing something I do for fun and not money is vital for my overall health.

Because I'm an entrepreneur, I still hope to find a way to monetize the time I put into sewing. I've got a book in the works, and of course I continue my little embroidery business which is structured specifically around my limitations. But those are not the main priority. The main priority is gaining and keeping my health--and my sanity. And I've learned that my sewing talent is a double-edged sword to be handled with care.

I love sewing. And I'll keep sewing. And I'll keep writing about it as long as it isn't stressful. Thanks for sticking around for the ride!


  1. Dear Lizzie,
    I know what it is like to live in constant pain. You go from bout to bout waiting for a good. In the past I have felt bad for encouraging you to slow it way down. I have never said much about your hand towels as the most you need to do is make sure the machine does not snag. I’m sure it’s not of filler for the part of you born to sew. You may never sew as you once did. Things like that tend to get worse and your climate is no help. Not only can you do stuff for yourself and hubby, but you have family and friends that will lend to you doing some here and there. I think the dog and home are helping fill the gaps. It’s not sewing, but it is fulfilling. So it takes you months to finish something. This is life not project runway.
    Take care, sweet lady.

  2. I found your trip down memory lane enjoyable. My grandmother was a farm wife, and while she did make dresses, her passion seemed to be embroidery.

    I remember visiting her on the farm and sitting in her living room. She wanted me to read and be quiet, and I remember her old clock. tick, tock, tick, tock, bong! She would stop at the bong, and move to her chores.

    I asked her when she got the clock, as she was about 65 then, and she said grandfather bought it for her for on her 20th birthday.

    I told her I loved that clock, and she said I would have to fight my Aunt Jenny for it, as Jenny was the child whose chore it was to wind it and set the time. She knew not to over-wind.

    Anyway, I have always had an interest in sewing, even though it's not considered a proper male trait. My mother had no interest in sewing, and would make rags out of anything defective. I was the one who came to her rescue and repaired our kids clothes. But I'm not a designer, it's purely functional sewing, ha. Military stripes and name tags for $1, ha.

    Not to dwell, but I lost my health way back during the Gulf war. They said it was a syndrome, but the affects are pretty much the same as fibromyalgia. I struggled another 20 years as a computer programmer, which was low stress.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Etienne. I always think it is super cool when guys take up sewing. I've taught my husband enough that he's made a few costume pieces and is currently tracing and cutting all the pieces for my latest quilt project.

      Limiting stress really is key for so many chronic illnesses (and illnesses in general). I hope you have been able to manage things in your life to achieve a better quality of living now.

  3. Hi! I am a lifelong seamstress also! With fibro ... And ME/chronic fatigue.
    I started at 8 years old (now in mid 60's) sewed for myself and family, in the 70's (college age) embroidered a lot of denim and a lot of craft fairs, did alterations for several years until I opened my own tailor shop (worked with women from all nationalities at the shop) went back to school for pattern making, worked with historical costume, then in my mid 40's came down with a bad cold and never recovered. Diagnosed about 5 years later. It was awful because I didn't understand where my passion had got to! Took jobs to get by but never happy with them.

    Finally am retired and getting excited to sew again, or something like it. I don't know why it affects us the way it does but it seemed to alter my brain and sewing no longer made sense!

    I hope you are able to keep up your spirits and health and create just to make yourself happy. Be blessed!



Welcome to the discussion! Please note that due to chronic illness, I am no longer taking commissions of any kind.

Thank you for being polite and profanity free :)