Very Secret Mysteries, no. 2: Sewing

Sewing equipment

It’s Wednesday! Here is the second in my series of personal introductions to the crafts I do. The first one is about knitting. If you do any of these crafts, I’d love to hear about how you got started, too.

Sewing: joining together planes of woven string (fabric) by stitching through them with fine string (thread). That’s all. The fascination, of course, lies in turning the essentially two-dimensional fabric into a three-dimensional object – and all the marvellous refinements you can make to that, in terms of shape, colour, style, embellishment, and so on. (It doesn’t even have to be fabric that you stitch – we started out with animal hides, for instance.)

Look, I know this is a bit gawky and unsophisticated, but I am hopelessly in love with sewing. Shining eyes and girlishly clasped hands and involuntary little gasps of pleasure – the whole shebang. My pulse quickens when I so much as think about it.

I’ve sewn curtains and cushion covers and draught excluders. I’ve made evening dresses and waistcoats and Hallowe’en costumes. I’ve smocked and piped and quilted, darted and boned and buttonholed and bias-bound. I’ve done French seams and rolled hems, welt pockets and covered buttons. I’ve made the flag of an imaginary country as a birthday present for its creator, and I once stayed up all night making a tuxedo (with evening tails, I need hardly add) for a small stuffed-toy frog named Rhadamanthus, so that he could decently accompany his owner to the Trinity Ball.

My introduction to sewing came when I was around five years old. Two of my best friends (sisters) were in the habit of arriving at my house to play and announcing before they got in the door what they’d been doing recently. One day – I remember this so clearly – they advanced up the front steps announcing, “We can sew!”

Anything they could do, I wanted to try. So my mother found us some material – brown with a slight sheen – and needles and thread, and we went upstairs to my room. My friends showed me how to thread the needle and knot the ends of the thread together, and how to do “in-and-out stitch” (aka running stitch). Later the same day, I “invented” backstitch – I even called it that.

I was hooked. Soon I was making clothes for my stuffed animals. I remember making a skirt for Mrs McKenzie, my kangaroo, cutting out pieces and sewing them to each other as I went. I sewed on a button, making a straight cut in the fabric for a buttonhole.

It wasn’t long before I discovered refinements like hemming and seam allowances. I studied my own clothes and other people’s. I got bags of scraps from my great-aunt, a demon dressmaker, and made soft furnishings for my dolls’ house and clothes for my Sindy. When Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981, I made Sindy a blue skirt with a five-foot train (this on an eleven-inch doll, you understand), with a lace frill at the end and multi-coloured embroidery all the way down. It was a tour de force – and quite astonishingly ugly.

I graduated to larger-scale sewing when I was maybe nine. My mother and I went to Cassidy’s and bought a skirt pattern and some cotton in a cheerful patchwork print. The skirt had deep pockets and a semi-elasticated waistband. We used the family sewing machine, which I then commandeered until I inherited another one.

I made cushion covers. I made clothes. I made bags. I read everything I could get my hands on (which, without any sort of budget and before the Internet, was a pretty eclectic mix of stuff). I haunted haberdasheries, wistfully. I became mender-and-alterer-in-chief to my family. My first commission – when I was around eleven – was a baby quilt for a friend of my mother’s, made of pre-cut square patches from Laura Ashley. As a teenager I made eccentric patchwork waistcoats and cloth caps. I made my Debs dress – princess-line boned bodice, puffed sleeves and a full, ballet-length skirt – in deep blue silk all the way from Beijing.

I did all of this in isolation. I knew nobody else of my own age who was into sewing (or any needlecrafts, really). My great-aunt was mistress of these arts, and I knew that another great-aunt, whose multiple sclerosis was by then advanced, had been even better in her day. My aesthetic was formed independently of my generation. I read 1940s booklets with titles like “Make Do and Mend”. My aunt gave me a history of fashion when I was ten or so, which I read cover to cover. Sindy’s wardrobe blossomed.

I still feel just a little bit private about sewing. There are few things I enjoy more (I’m really looking forward to my younger son being old enough that I don’t have to worry so much about dropping pins), but I do oddly little of it these days. I haven’t hooked up to the Web scene at all (hence the dearth of useful links in this post – sorry about that). I’ve never bought fabric or notions online, or even patterns. Sewing, for me, seems to be rooted in a golden 1980s childhood idyll. I’d quite like to pull it into the here and now, but I need to be gentle with it. It’s very close to me.

If you’re interested in some more practical tips to get started, Alicia Paulson over at Posie Gets Cozy has two recent posts about sewing, which I urge you to read. She covers the basic what-to-do parts very succinctly in Tiny Yellow Dress, and a Few More Thoughts, which is a sequel to I Sew, where she talks about how she got into it.

Meanwhile, as recent posts here attest, I’m mostly knitting at the moment. But I do have one or two sewing projects in mind. You’ll be the first to know.

12 thoughts on “Very Secret Mysteries, no. 2: Sewing

  1. My mother had a strict thing about pins in the home – shoes, always, everywhere. That was it. None of us was ever terribly injured, and it wasn’t because of her exceptionally tidy habits.

    Oh – and pins with huuuuge heads, once they stopped being very expensive.

    I’d like to sew, but feel inadequate beside my mother’s alarming expertise, and probably, once I see something you’ve done, yours. I’d love to find you something of hers (she used to make her own patterns) so you could see what my basic “oh this is what everyone ought to be able to do” standard is. Perhaps you could talk me out of my insanity.

    Because sewing means *garments which fit* and *things one actually likes for real and not for oh-it’ll do*. Magic.

  2. @Ailbhe: Huge-headed pins are definitely the way to go, I think. I need new pins anyway (must ask my hozzband for some pin-money, ahahaha).

    Your mother’s expertise alarms even me! Experience pays off, and she has bags more than I have. I’ve seen her window-seat furnishings, and I’d love to see clothes she’s made. I get a ridiculous thrill from well-made things.

    If you want to sew, I’d say sewing for children is a great starting-point – they don’t need things to be as fitted as adults like. But maybe start with some things that don’t need to be quite as articulated as real-people clothes? My Sindy couture was a pretty excellent foundation, in retrospect.

    @Glitzfrau: “Vintage” is the word, isn’t it? But in my mind, that’s just “some of the stuff that’s in my workboxes” – I still have so many things that I inherited from the great-aunts and my grandmother. (Yes, I chose consciously, but still.)

  3. Now that I have a whole ROOM all to my self for my sewing, I keep telling myself I want to get out some of the things my parents rescued from my grandmother’s house, and somehow display them for inspiration. Thank you for a little more encouragement!
    Maybe someday I’ll write about the party dress I made myself out of Winceyette when I was 12 or so…

  4. I have the same pair of small cissors!
    Started learning to sew only last year, and oh do I wish I had been interested in it as a child. My grand-mother would have been a perfect teacher.
    I’m not sure why I suddenly decided I had to learn how to make clothes.
    So far I’ve only made 2 or 3 baby things, and tag toys like this one

    Mainly, I’ve been tearing my hair out with : understanding patterns, and how pieces fit together, and which side the bias has to be sewn on, and how my god one shoulder is just wider that the other one, and this is not quite straight, and oh how do you place the thread in this machine again and…

    Last blunder : I did a pair of trousers for a little girl, with some African fabric then a matching top. Took me hours and hours to complete it (pattern a bit too complex for me I guess). I did the last finishing stitch, turned it around and : the masks on the front part were upside down! Never noticed it.

  5. Loved this post Léan. I learnt basic hand-stitching and embroidery (from my grandmother again) when I was 5 or 6. The first thing I made was a green felt heart-shaped pin cushion, festooned in a stitch whose English name I don’t know (it’s one which can be used to stop fabric from unraveling).
    She had a beautiful pedal Singer machine. I wish I had inherited that! I learnt to use a sewing machine at school but haven’t since, and I’ve been toying with the idea of buying one for a while. I do have this dream of designing and sewing my own clothes, you see.

  6. @Alison: A ROOM. I am ridiculously jealous 🙂 And I want to hear about that party dress!

    @Delphine: That’s such a cute little toy! I have a lovely memory of your grandmother letting me raid her fabric drawer so that I could make a doll and some clothes. I think I was homesick – sewing made everything feel more familiar 🙂

    @Longtime: I wonder what that stitch is. Blanket stitch, maybe? I use an old Singer machine, but with a motor rather than the old-style iron foot pedal. And I haven’t sewn any clothes for years – I really want to get back to it.

  7. Sewing fills me with a degree of fear and loathing. Perhaps reading your posts will get me over it!

    I think it stems from being bad at it at school, including having the teacher tear a toy I’d made to show that it wasn’t properly sewn. I did do a patchwork class at Art in Action, cos it was only a fiver and nothing else I wanted to do was available at that time. And it was soooo different! I was the slowest, but I got nothing but encouragement. Haven’t done any since – they let me take away my unfinished project (a coaster), of course, but also let me take a few other kits so I can make matching ones.

  8. Léan – my mother’s expertise is the stuff of legend. She used to make her little sisters’ clothes from when she was in her early teens and her mother used to complain that her seams were so tidy she couldn’t tell which way out the clothes should be.

    I might make something for the children. Of course, the BEST thing to make would be Rob’s shirts, because he actually needs some, but stuff for the children would be a lot easier than a man’s collared shirt.

  9. yes, Léan, it was the blanket stitch! Thanks for finding that for me! I guess that when you actually start sewing again, all that pent-up creative energy will help you do some of your most awesome work yet. (Plus you have a couple of live dolls to dress now ¡) )

  10. @Mollydot: Oh, no! I’m so sorry about the fear and loathing – that’s terrible! How disrespectful of that teacher. I seethe. Patchwork is great, though it’s not the easiest sewing because straight stitching and even seam allowances are so important (they’re less so in, e.g., loose-fitting clothes). Good luck with the coasters.

    @Ailbhe: The tidy seams story made me smile. Also, GAWD forbid you should make anything but the BEST thing to make – learning curves are for other people, right? 🙂

    @Longtime: Glad I could help 🙂 And yes, I really hope you’re right about the pent-up creative energy. There’s enough of it in there to fuel a small Renaissance!

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