Recursive Sewing

I have a clear memory of a single conversation that changed the way I see the world.  The initial memory is of feeling frustrated and defensive.  Then the scene skips to a moment when my husband, before he was my husband, says something that grabs my ears and won’t let go, something that makes my brain skitter just a bit, causes me to hold my breath and experience a sensation that I can only describe as twisting a kaleidoscope and suddenly seeing that what was chaos and jumbled color as geometric shape and order.  Pieces falling into place and making things clear.  A sensation of peace and conviction and the absurd obviousness of a solution I’d struggled to find landing squarely in my lap.

That revelation was an important moment for me, both because of the content of that particular conversation specifically, but also because the insight I had that day is an experience that every human shares: sometimes, it takes seeing things from a new angle, which can take only a breath or a syllable, to change how we view the entire world.

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There is an on-going conversation about how social media reflects the highlight reels of our lives.  And it is easy to experience envy or even shame–that sense of worthlessness when compared to others–because what we are sewing isn’t as excellent as what is being showcased on someone else’s grid.  The woman in Austin you look up to busts out the perfect summer top in under an hour.  The dressmaker in Los Angeles parades past in flawlessly fitted handmade jeans.  We beat ourselves up because we don’t think we measure up.

Creativity, though, isn’t about making something once and moving on.  It frequently requires re-making, visiting the same idea again and again to edit, to refine, to eliminate elements until only the core is retained.  A garment isn’t complete because you finished sewing it; a garment is complete when wearing it sparks a sense of elation, when it provides you with congruity because it allows your insides to match your outsides.  That doesn’t happen quick-and-dirty.  That happens when an iterative cycle of making-and-making-again takes place, establishing a foundation then riffing on the melody to build to a crescendo.  When we twist the kaleidoscope and see the act of making things in a new way: FAILURE IS GOOD, because it creates the solid ground on which we plant fresh seeds.

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In mathematics or programming, this is called a RECURSIVE exercise.  It’s a shape that forms as an equation is carried out over multiple repeats, an increasing mirroring of a predictable pattern, headed away from the center or toward the baseline.  It can be a spiral or a fractal or the branches of a tree, a root system or the symmetry of a musical composition.  Each new repeat leads in a more focused direction, carrying the pattern forward, more refined with each reprise.  These initial attempts, though smaller, are essential to build the geometric form on which the larger, more obvious repetition is constructed.  The least visible portion of the pattern becomes the foundation.

It takes effort to remember that those fabulous, showcased garments weren’t first tries–in fact, one of my favorite phenomena in sewing is the “tried and true” or “TNT’ pattern: a pattern made by one maker over and over again until it requires no refining or finesse to create another spectacular finish in a fraction of the time. I love that those makers have INVESTED IN FAILURES in order to build for themselves a personalized, curated collection of designs that they know will fit them and please them every time, by making garments that DID NOT FIT, where refining was necessary and required analysis and objectivity and self-compassion and grit.

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We, from the outside, see how quickly they made that pair of jeans or that spectacular dress.  What we don’t see are the versions in the garbage can because the darts were too low, or that were Frankensteined because they were too big in the bust but too small in the hips, and they gaped around the waist.  We don’t see the expensive fabric they destroyed because they didn’t make a test version first.  We ONLY SEE the finished product, the larger impact of the design once complete.

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Around and around is a good thing, despite the fact that it looks like we aren’t making progress.  I have repeatedly told students that the first time they try ANYTHING it will feel excruciating.  My ice skating lessons were a dismal failure, almost entirely because they made my inner thighs ache, so I quit rather than experience that discomfort.  My gymnastics classes did NOT result in my immediate transformation into Mary Lou Retton, due largely to my desperate fear of going upside down.  I wanted the immediacy of results that can only, ever be achieved with effort OVER TIME, by pushing through discomfort and into new territory, by risking failure as we reach toward satisfaction.

Doctors tell their patients: bad things happen fast, good things take time.  A train wreck is a matter of minutes, and the recovery is a matter of months & years.  I’d rather take the slow, with the promise it holds, than the fast, with the destruction it carries.  Wouldn’t you?  Which is more excruciating: the waiting? or the recovery?

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The world around us is filled, almost beyond measure, with examples of recursive geometry.  Nature appreciates that in order to achieve a lasting shape, a lasting result, a stable structure, we must build upon ourselves again and again.  Oliver Wendell Holmes got it–he knew that “as the spiral grew, he left the past year’s dwelling for the new.”  We can’t grow unless we leave behind what was before, but we can’t leave it behind UNTIL WE LIVE THROUGH IT.

Sewing is about sewing, y’all, but it’s also about who we are and who we want to be, and seeing the literal and figurative patterns that will get us closer to our desires.

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There is an element of fear in all endeavors.  And I am guilty, maybe more so than the next person, of avoiding trying things without the certainty that I will be successful.  I mean, THAT’S JUST LOGIC.  Why would I try it if I KNEW I was going to fail??  But I am seeing now, with more failures behind me, that we will always fail, and that our successes are never guaranteed.  We will never see the next horizon without leaving the last one behind, and if you think that’s a stretch for a sewing blog and that philosophy has no place here, you have never stayed up well past midnight ripping out stitches on the same mistake for the fourth time and discovered that you are caught in a mental loop of self-doubt that threatens to swallow you so completely that you couldn’t have staggered to your bed if there was a road map.

Keep sewing–it’ll happen to you, too.  But you have to keep sewing to break through that wall.

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Make it wrong, you guys.  MAKE CRAPPY CLOTHES.  Only by doing that will you learn where to take in the side seams and where to lower the darts, where to raise the hem and where to change the button placement.  Only by doing that will you learn what YOU like, what suits you, what makes your heart beat in jubilee.  Only by doing that will you understand why some projects fail, or don’t measure up to the idea(l) in your head.  You will learn how to see your insides match up with your outsides by trying and trying again to sew them into alignment.  AFTER that, with all those miles behind you on the same pattern in different fabrics, THEN you’ll get that Insta-worthy garment–and so much knowledge, confidence, satisfaction, and wisdom.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes again: “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul…Till thou at length art free.”

Those “great” seamstresses?  They aren’t better than you.  They’ve just been doing it longer.  Talent doesn’t count for jack out there, Jack.  It’s tenacity, perseverance, stick-with-it-ness that wins the prize.  BE GUTSY.  Going around in circles isn’t a waste of time: it’s an exploration of the route that shows the best road to take to get to your destination.  Don’t discount the tremendous value of learning the same lesson two or three or four (dozen) times.  That last one will be the time that shifts the kaleidoscope and offers you an entirely new vision of the world and your place in it, as a maker.

Sewing and Self-Compassion

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Years ago, I was teaching a sewing class to brand-new seamstresses.  It was an introductory class, and there were six women there.  I gave my usual second-day-of-class pep talk, and then outlined instructions for the next project we would tackle together before sending them off to the cutting tables with their fabric to work independently while I circulated and offered individual help.  It was a relaxed evening, and everyone was in good spirits and excited to try something new.

When all the other students got up and left the table, one woman remained.  She sat with her hands in her lap, under the table, her head bowed low to look at them.  She was very, very still.  Now, I’m not terribly gifted at reading other people’s body language, but even I couldn’t miss that this was a woman exhibiting signs of distress.

I sat next to her and in my best cheerful, please-let-this-be-nothing-because-I-lack-skills-here tone, said, “What’s up?”

And she says, her voice extremely quiet and filled with tears, “It’s just that I’ve been trying for three years to have a baby and I can’t get pregnant, and I just can’t have this be one more thing I’m a failure at.”

Whew.

Y’all.

That is heavy stuff.  She was hurting, and her pain was very real and very deep.  It wasn’t about sewing, but it was also about sewing. You know?

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Quilt and Solve Crime in 2019!

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Four years ago, I had a wild idea.  I didn’t really think anyone would go along with it, if I’m being honest: who on earth would think a MURDER mystery quilt was a fun idea?

Not just me, it turns out.

Mystery quilts have been around forever, of course.  The idea that you’re building a quilt block by block, but without knowing for sure what the end result will be, is exciting and challenging in equal measure.  It asks us to trust the designer, trust the process, and maybe surrender a little of the perfectionism and second-guessing that plague anyone who works to create something new and beautiful.

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For a long time, I would ask, sort of as a gag, “Why make a mystery quilt when you can make a MURDER mystery quilt??”  In my head, in ways I didn’t really confess to others (because I haven’t always gotten good results out of wearing my heart on my sleeve, and this seemed like one of those times when sewing was about MORE than sewing), I liked the idea that not only would we then be surrendering the gremlins in our heads that poke insecurity and uncertainty into our creative endeavors, but that also the pieces could go together to answer questions.  It’s all for fun, it’s all pretend, but y’all: there are days when I will hitch my wagon to ANY illusion of certainty and control in this unsteady world.  Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

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Personalizing with Patches

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I have self-diagnosed as having a massive patch problem.  I am a patch addict.

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I’ve written about the satchel-style backpacks I made for our children who vigorously pursue the Junior Ranger program at every National Park we visit.  They love these backpacks, and so do I (especially now we’ve upgraded them with an interior zipper to give it more structure and prevent their treasures from falling out).  But they have rapidly run out of space for new patches–we have taken trips to Southern California, Colorado, Kentucky, and Virginia in the past 14 months, and visited a stack of National Park destinations in each, so in addition to seeing the properties nearest to where we live here in Atlanta, we’ve added a couple dozen more park patches, and suddenly find we have no remaining backpack real estate on which to put them!

Compounding the problem is that there are so many great organizations supporting the National Parks since the centenary, and many of them produce patches of their own.  One is Every Kid In A Park, an initiative founded in 2015 under former President Obama to fund a program allowing every family in the US with a fourth grader to receive a free access pass to all the national parks for the year (that program runs through August 2018, and there is some question as to whether it will be renewed, so if you have a fourth grader this coming school year, jump on it while you have the chance! the program also applies to homeschool families with a ten-year-old this school year).

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Emerson Shorts in moss linen

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When our family took a trip to Maui this spring, I started packing pretty late in the game, for me: only a week ahead.  Because, for real, I get SO EXCITED when we travel that I am honestly thinking about packing weeks in advance, and have to hold myself back to only start putting things in the suitcase seven days before the wheels come up on the plane.

And the thought of spending a week on Maui in the last days of winter, with my family??  SIGN ME UP.

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Lost Project: Beatrix Top in Liberty Cotton

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This is the Beatrix Top from Made By Rae, which I made up in Liberty lawn before ever making a muslin, and learned a valuable lesson.

The pattern itself is really excellent—I love the sleeve styling and length, and the buttons up the back (mine are faux, see below).  The pattern also includes adjustments for various cup sizes, which is great if you’re someone who always needs a full bust adjustment every time you sew up a new pattern.  Here’s where I went wrong, though: the bust adjustment used most frequently doesn’t work for me.  So I made up a “muslin” version of this top in the final fabric and didn’t take into account that I wasn’t sure the shaping would work for me.  #sadtrombone

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Lost Project: Liberty Lawn Tuxedo Tank Top

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This particular Lost Project actually got a lot of screen time, just not publicly: I originally drafted this pattern for my League of Dressmakers, and we worked with it in various capacities for a few months in 2016, and then re-visited it in 2017.  I used one of my all-time favorite Liberty of London lawn prints to sew this up, and honestly, if my budget allowed it I would probably have an entire closet filled with nothing but Liberty, linen, rayon and jeans.  I might be 95% serious about that.

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Florence Kimono in rayon–with cherries!

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I have a truly absurd number of garments hiding in my closet.  Things that I’ve made, for myself, over the past few years that have never been shared or blogged about.  Or more accurately, have made it on to my Instagram feed, but have never been written about at length in a format where I can actually archive them and make them searchable, like here.  I’ve been calling them Lost Projects.

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Registration Open: The Murder Mystery Quilt 2018

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It’s back!  The Murder Mystery Quilt is now open for registration for next year.  I am so, so excited–will you come play with us?

For the past two years, I have had the honor and the pleasure of sewing alongside over 1500 quilters who love to read, and who have made new friends while sewing a mystery quilt.  These are smart, funny folks who enjoy a good story and a good puzzle, and who are having a ball putting the two together in a sewing project that lasts all year!  Registration is open NOW for an all-new quilt and an all-new story.  Come play with us next year and sew the quilt to solve the crime!

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The Murder Mystery Quilt is a monthly subscription club that reads along together and stitches up a quilt to find clues and solve the murder mystery contained in the story.  

Members receive a chapter from a mystery story each month, and a pattern for a quilt block.  The quilt block relates directly to the chapter you’ve read, and contains an additional clue (or clues!) to help unravel the plot.  There are 12 blocks, one for each month of the year, and every quilter gets one guess as to who the killer is.  All the correct guesses are put in a bucket, and a winner is drawn for a giant prize basket of quilting goodies and fabric!  There’s also a second prize for those who complete the quilt top, regardless of whether they made a correct guess, so that everyone has a chance to win–even if you feel more like a Watson than a Holmes.  (After all, Holmes was a little bit of an egomaniac who didn’t like to share credit, but it was always Watson who supplied the necessary connections to get to the solution, right?)

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Destash for Charity: Selling What We Can’t Use to Give to Those Who Need

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I’m getting ready to do a huge de-stash.  When we finished our basement this summer and I moved out of my office space and into the new basement studio, I packed up box after box, and even though I was sure that I had eliminated every item I could POSSIBLY bear to live without, when I unpacked the boxes again in the new space–which combined the office with my home sewing space in our dining room–I found, really, appalling levels of fabric that I didn’t have room for and didn’t really need.

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