About a year ago, I was having a conversation on the phone with a friend of mine, and noticing that I wasn’t feeling as anxious as I usually did. For months up until that day, I had been battling a low-lying but constant nagging sense of worry, of something left undone, unattended-to, like a pot of water had been abandoned while boiling on the stove, like I’d left the house while the hose was running in the backyard. It had gotten to where I didn’t even really notice it anymore, but it was a small stone lodged above my heart, and when my mouth would open, the poison in the stone would be the first thing to pour out. My heart would beat faster, but without purpose, and my mind would whir and skip and jump without progress, and my lips would flap and the pitch of my voice would rise and rise and rise, all with no destination.
When she and I would speak, which was a couple of times a week, she was just checking in, being a good friend. And what would come out of my mouth was wave after wave of anxiety and frustration and fear. Just fear. About my business and my life and my worries and…I mean, seriously, I would worry about worrying, it was so bad. I hated it, hated the sound of it in my voice, hated the sticky feeling it left behind me once the conversation was over, hated the way I felt so lost and undirected for the rest of the day, as if the anxiety had stolen that moment of friendly concern, that moment of human connection, and then wanted to take the rest of my day and my evening from me, too.
Until I heard myself one afternoon, saying something different. It was spring, and the sunlight was filtering through the window in my studio, making a skewed-square block on the floor at my feet. I opened the door and let the air brush past me, carrying the sound of a red metal wagon scraping across the lawn as the children harvested rocks. And the words out of my mouth surprised even me: “You know, I’m feeling really good. I think it’s because I found some time to sit down and sew today.”
And it was that moment when you turn the kaleidoscope just the right way, and the tiles all fall into alignment, and what was a mess of chaos and translucent confusion becomes clarity and geometric logic. I knew that I had hit upon a clue–not the answer, but a clue–as to what had been missing, what had been allowing this cistern of worry to fill to overflowing inside me: I had forgotten to sew.
When I am at a sewing machine, at MY sewing machine, I focus in a way that few other things in this world can call me to do. My vision is limited, in the best way, to only that which is directly in front of me. I am not worried about what I will make for dinner, or when I will get the oil changed, or even how I will pay the bills and cover the rent and appease the IRS. I am not worried. The task in front of me is enough. I have spent untold hours of my life wanting to be enough, and in this one place, I always, always am. Enough for the task, enough for the machine, enough for the fabric–not because they ask so little, but because they meet me halfway.
Sewing can be about control, and I am not above admitting that for me this is true. We live in a chaotic, broken world that brings me to tears and breaks my heart on a regular basis. Taking an idea, birthing it and shaping it and seeing it clearly in my imagination, and then tackling the raw materials and making it tangible and beautiful, and even scientifically reproducible–it gives me a space where I can be in charge for a moment, where I am reminded that as ugly as the world can be, it is also a thousand times more beautiful, and as hateful and broken as some of us are, we are also priceless miracles. I am in charge at the machine, I can conquer, I can make order out of chaos, and when that is done, when the project is complete and before me, I can face the rest of the world with a steadier breath.
I learned to sew from my mother, in the way that many of us learned from our mother: by watching, and in bits and pieces between the frustration that comes from learning to sew with someone who knows you left and right. I’d been watching so closely, even when I didn’t know I was watching, that I was pretty sure I already knew what I was doing. So the lessons didn’t go that well–at least, not in the way either of us expected. I took a sewing class in college, as part of my undergraduate degree, and it was better, but I still wasn’t sewing much. My step-mother gave me her old Singer sewing machine, and I made an enormous pair of pants out of cheap, flimsy fabric. They fit so poorly that for years after, I bought fabric and patterns and matched and re-matched them but never sewed anything for fear that it wouldn’t turn out.
I finally got to really sewing in graduate school. I’d made things for my home and clothing for my daughter, flower girl dresses for a friend’s wedding, some simple skirts for myself, but these were all small projects spaced months apart. In between them, the machine would sit dormant. In graduate school, that all changed. Maybe it was a control thing again, because I didn’t want to face the mountains of research necessary to write my thesis. But partly I believe it was because my life was full of so many names and dates and documents and pages and files that I ached for another way to view the world, another lens to focus the light. Sewing really gave me that: I made friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise, I learned things about myself I would have ignored or denied, and I got balance.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of sewing. It appeals to the frugal home-maker in me: making it for less, building a lovely place to return to at the end of the day, providing for my husband and children, stitching a legacy for those who come after me. My family sews, they always have. It really never occurred to me NOT to sew, because that’s just what the ladies I’d grown up around always did. My grandmother still does cross-stitch and embroidery, at the ripe age of 87. My mother owned her own design and manufacturing company for fifteen years, sewing out of our basement. I have very few photos from when I was young that don’t involve at least one person wearing a handmade garment. We were craftsy before craftsy was cool. So there is no doubt that there is an element of connectedness that I get out of sewing, an element of domestic satisfaction, an aesthetic pleasure that comes from making just what I’d pictured in my head, a sense of satisfaction and contentedness and rightness that goes beyond a need to control.
I think there is something in all of us that wants to MAKE. Like there is something in all of us that just knows there is good and evil in the world, that there is right and wrong, that love is better than hate. There is a part of us, across cultures and climates and economic boundaries, that wants to leave a mark–one that we have made, unique to us, a creative seed that we have planted. And somewhere in that seed are all those other things: the connection to our families and our past; the satisfaction that comes from simple beauty; the contentment that comes from a well-run home; the relief that comes when we find a moment where we don’t fight to be in control of everything, but can manage just this one small thing.
That is why I sew: because my head is filled with ideas, and each of them meets a need in me that I didn’t know was there. I don’t want to wake up twenty years from now and look back on conversations that were filled with my own anxious voice, sounding unfamiliar to me. I think as I get older–even though I shudder when that particular old-lady phrase crosses my lips–I am less worried about what’s in it for me and more hoping that I’m putting enough in it. And when I sew, I can see the progress, right there in my hands. I can hear the alleviation of my anxiety, I can see the smiles that my labor produces. And every day is a new start, a new chance to get it right. That is why I sew.