Why I Sew, Why I Don't, And A Thing To Make That Isn't A Simple Skirt

I love sewing, except when I really hate it.

Oct 16, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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I sewed this giant squid. You can, too.

I was 6 years old when my great grandmother handed me a scrap of brown-and-white gingham fabric and a card of snap closures that had probably been in her sewing basket since the 1960s. The cardstock was soft, and it tore with a fuzzy edge when I fumbled with removing one of the snaps.

The needle was sharp. It probably never occurred to my great grandmother that a 6-year-old and a sewing needle could be a volatile combination. But it worked out OK -- I carefully sewed a snap onto the fabric and learned how to wrap thread around my finger and then roll it with my thumb so it could be pulled into a knot. That's a trick I still use to today. (Please note: this results in a hella messy knot sometimes.)

Sewing is one of those skills that connects me to the past; every time I pick up a needle and thread, I think about Granny DePratter and the Barbie clothes I learned to make, simple skirts and dresses that she would set the sleeves into until I was old enough to fight with it myself. If you've never eased a smooth sleeve cap into a Barbie-sized armhole, let me tell you, you haven't lived.

(Thinking back, I also learned to French braid on a Barbie. Apparently I learned how to do everything in miniature first. So much about my skill set makes so much more sense now.)

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Take your squid out to breakfast.

As Granny DePratter got older, she stopped sewing. I have very clear memories of sitting under a giant quilt frame, watching the hands of all the old women around me work tiny stitches -- all of that stopped, too. Maybe her vision wasn't so good or maybe the women with whom she quilted all died; she's gone now and I can't ask her. I do know that, for her, sewing was a utilitarian thing, a way to mend dresses and take in waistbands.

And somewhere along the line, I picked that up -- I generally sew because I need or want the finished piece; it's only quite recently that I've concentrated on the experience of sewing itself and decided that I do really rather enjoy the satisfaction of a properly set zipper. But mostly I sew what I know I cannot buy -- either because it does not exist in any form or because it does not exist in my size. If I half-ass it, no one will know but me.

When you're my size, and you're interested in clothes, a lot of people propose sewing like it's some kind of magical solution. On the one hand, sure. Ready-to-wear is, I think, part of why so many people struggle with body image. When you buy clothes off a rack, you are buying clothes that are designed for someone else -- and I mean that quite literally. You're buying clothes meant to fit the "average" person, no matter how ridiculous the concept of an average body might seem. Those clothes are designed and fitted to a particular person -- a fit model who has the desired measurements for a desired size upon which the rest of the size run will be based.

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Play cards with your squid.

When you take that into account, it's pretty amazing when ready-to-wear fits at all. Of course clothing made to your own measurements is going to be superior. It's just far from the accessible skill that people who don't want to face issues of clothing access make it out to be.

Sewing is not a particularly cheap activity, especially if you are starting from scratch. Sure, you can sew by hand -- but you'd better have a whole lot of free time to devote to it if you're going to be sewing anything larger than a shirt for your cat.

"Why don't you learn to sew?" people ask, like it's not a significant investment of time and emotional energy.

"Why don't you learn to sew?" people ask, like good quality fabrics are growing on trees or at least on sale tables for a dollar a yard.

This is not me discouraging people from learning to sew. On the contrary, I think it's a fantastic skill to have, and I wish more people were casually into it these days -- less intimidated by it as a thing they could do. Though I also -- seemingly paradoxically -- wish people respected homemade garments (or at least understood why bespoke clothing tends to be more expensive). I just want people to come to sewing based on the merits of sewing, for whatever purpose, rather than through desperation because they have no other options. I want people to come to sewing with realistic expectations so they aren't left sitting there pissed off and disappointed.

Because sewing, while a generally worthwhile pursuit, can be a pain in the ass. 

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Don't let your squid drive.

With that in mind, I'm not going to walk you through making a simple skirt, which is the first project almost any "how to sew" article seems to have. There's nothing WRONG with simple skirts (check this one-hour skirt from Brett Bara if you're looking for that) -- and they're a good first project for the skirt-wearing among us. But not everyone is motivated by simple projects -- and for those who look for inspiration in more advanced projects, I'm going to suggest two links. 

The first is Kelly Hogaboom's sewing journal. She makes a lot of clothes for kids and I don't have any kids. But her finishing work is a constant reminder to me that there are reasons not to half-ass something, even if I'm the only person who'll ever see it. In addition, she makes a lot of really whimsical things that are also everyday practical. Like this dress she made based on an axolotl. Y'all, I want a dress based on an axolotl so much now. And I don't even wear hoods! (Kelly also takes commissions so I could potentially order one. Don't act surprised if I show up in a dress like this one day.)

The second is this tutorial for how to make an 8-foot squid pillow

Which, obviously, I recently followed to great success. I mean, where else would I get a plush giant squid?

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Do put your squid on your head. Just be careful of low-hanging power lines.

The material cost of this project is about $50. You can absolutely hand sew this (and there's one part where you'll need to hand sew anyway) but a machine will make it go faster. The tutorial lists 1 yard of patterned fabric -- based on my experience, I'm going to say you want a yard and a half, especially if you're using quilting cotton, which tends to be fairly short on the bolt.

This is a good example of how sewing can be more expensive than you expect. The felt and the cotton add up. And, yeah, you can use coupons if you have them -- but I used my coupon on the 5 pounds of stuffing that this enormous stuffed animal requires. Before you ask, you really do need all that stuffing. I've got a tiny little bag of it left over and if I'd stuffed my tentacles more firmly, I wouldn't even have that.

Sewing can also be really time consuming. I started this project, with Ed's help, on Saturday afternoon. We worked for three or four hours, turning and stuffing tentacles. It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that the whole thing came together and I got to handsew the eye parts on.

I don't like to rate projects based on difficulty. People (and by "people" I mean "me") sometimes jump straight into the deep end -- I'm into that because I know I'm only motivated if I'm interested in a project. So I will just point out that you need to leave a really generous seam allowance on the parts that you are stuffing. You don't want to wind up trying to stitch between a puffy part and a too-small seam allowance.

Sewing might not be a general solution for the problem of plus-size clothing access, but it's a mega useful skill. You can mend old garments and make news one, but you can also make toys and blankets and curtains and bags and all sorts of things. You, too, can make a giant squid. And if that's not an argument for sewing, I don't know what is.