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.