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.
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.
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.”
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?
I taught tenth grade for a long time. Part of the curriculum for that level in the state of Georgia is to cover the Holocaust, a tough topic no matter where you live. Here in the South, discussion of any type of racial or cultural discrimination inevitably leads to discussion of the legacy human slavery has left in our backyards. As Oprah pointed out in an interview with Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and author of Night, we don’t compare our pain, and the heartbreak of the concentration camps can’t be held against the heartbreak of African slavery in the 19th century, but they both beg the question, according to Wiesel, “What is there in evil that becomes so seductive to some people?”
Heavy stuff for a sewing blog, I know, but I promise that I’ll bring it all back around.
When I was teaching this topic, I used materials provided for free by the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to combat hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation. They not only include primary documents related to the Holocaust and to the Civil Rights movement in the American South, but also the Japanese internment camps in the United States during the second World War.
I wore my Driftless Cardigan–photograph below from Instagram, and yet another garment I have yet to blog about because I’m too busy wearing it–this morning, and a friend asked if I had made it. And what I told her is this weird revelation that I’ve been having over and over, and that feels so obvious that I keep doing a double-take, because how have I failed to see the truth of this so many times? It is this: I wear the clothes most that I like most.
I did a personality profile recently. Not like an online quiz kind of thing, but like a detailed personality assessment with a 39-page analysis and a person-to-person de-brief with the consultant.
It was so, so fun.
I mean that completely un-ironically. I LOVE test-taking. LOVE IT. Always have. I would get all a-twitter on days when we had standardized testing, I thought it was like a treat, like Christmas coming early and ALL FOR ME. I thought the PSAT was a PARTY. (Side note: I am not normal. I embrace and delight in this. My personality profile told me so.)
One of the most revolutionary “Hollywood secrets of the stars” I’ve ever read (well, maybe the ONLY one) was the interview where Jennifer Aniston was asked where she gets such flattering tee shirts. Instead of directing people to a $300 tee (like Gwyneth, bless her heart), probably made by an 8yo in China who wasn’t getting an education, Aniston admitted, “The trick to t-shirts is I that I usually tailor them. Which is silly, but it works.”
Stephanie Kwolek isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think “famous seamstress.” But her scientific contributions have made more impact on our world that you might think–and it all started with a sewing machine.
I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. The earliest school memories I have celebrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March from Selma, and the Civil Rights movement in a very personal and immediate way. We drove past the sites of these historic events on a daily basis, and it was an ever-present part of my childhood–both the vestiges of racial tension and the legacy of the changes in our social fabric wrought by Civil Rights leaders short decades before I was born.
When you think of the word “seamstress,” what image springs to mind?
When you think of the phrase “famous seamstress,” whose image pops into your head?
Would you be surprised to learn that there are far more famous seamstresses than you may realize? And that a lot of them are not only household names, but have changed the world for the better throughout history?
About a year ago, just for kicks, I did a search to see how many famous seamstresses I could discover, and it was delightfully productive. I love the word seamstress, and I love the legacy that these women have left behind with their needles. They’ve influenced civil rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights. They’ve impacted religious freedoms, fashion trends and workplace laws. They’ve labored for soldiers overseas, for students in classrooms around the world, and as artists making statements about their time.
I want to share these women with you. I want to research and treasure their stories, and be inspired by their vision, their influence, their achievements and their passion. Starting tomorrow, semi-weekly posts here on the blog will point you toward women who have made a difference with their needle. I hope you’ll follow along–and share in the comments names you’d like to see featured so I’m sure not to miss anyone!
I was watching an old Hepburn & Tracy movie over the holidays, Desk Set, all about replacing a crack reference librarian with a computer, back in the 50s. And it occurred to me: she was right to worry for her job. Because the computer couldn’t do her job, but the internet certainly does. Need to know all Santa’s reindeer? Google! Need to learn the tune to a song? YouTube! Need to reserve a book at the library? There’s an app for that!
There is some debate still about whether there is a distinctive division between our right brain and our left. But most experts agree that each half of your brain bears the larger portion for certain mental tasks. And sewing? Sewing allows you to tackle both. It’s basically the perfect activity for long-term brain health.
Most of us rely on our left brain for the bulk of our daily tasks. The language processing centers of the left brain allow us to interpret what we hear and organize our thoughts when we speak. The left brain is also in charge of analysis, mathematical computation, and recalling memorized facts. Our modern tech-driven society strongly rewards the skills performed by the left brain, and our educational system is largely based around emphasizing and amplifying those skills.
I sew, a lot. Way more than normal people–and by normal, I guess I mean the average person, who probably doesn’t even know how to sew, making that an unfair and inaccurate comparison. So maybe I just sew way more than most people who sew–which would be a massive amount, because sewing seems to attract the obsessives, the folks who really like to DIVE IN, the ones who don’t just try something, they DO it, in the purest Yoda sense. They don’t think, “I might try sewing,” they go to the store and they buy ALL THE TOYS and ALL THE FABRIC and they get home and THEN they figure it out. Or maybe sewing makes us all obsessive, we didn’t start that way, we became that way because the POTENTIAL is so enormous that it’s difficult to look away from the bright light of possibility that comes once you learn how to thread that needle and make it go in a straight line.
I love the planning part of sewing. Love, love, love it. Choosing the pattern, seeking out the perfect fabric–or finding a fabric, and tracking down the perfect pattern–is the STUFF. I always have eyes bigger than my stomach, and tend to make piles and PILES of folded, prewashed fabrics stacked with the pattern I’d like to pair them with.
The problem is in the execution. The planning is fun because it doesn’t require any ACTION. But as Henry Ford famously said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are GOING to do.” At some point, all those projects have got to get sewn up.
Sewing people are the best people. I had this thought the other day, not for the first time, but clearly, like a lance through my skull, reminding me that sewing people are the BEST people. Because they are MY people, in so many ways, in ways that are multilayered and complex and interesting and reflective of analytical brains and widely varied interests.
QuiltCon, QuiltCon, QuiltCon! WHEN will everyone STOP talking about QuiltCon?!?
Not today, I’m afraid.
I was there in Austin when 10,000 modern quilters gathered from all over the world–as far away as India, over 9500 miles–to learn and be inspired and meet up and hug a LOT. It was, honestly, everything everyone has said it was and maybe even a little bit more. Imagine: every time you turn a corner, you see another dear, dear friend whom you don’t see often enough, and you race toward each other for giant hugs and super fast chatter. That’s what this was like. Like a junior high dance, except everyone was really nice and in an incredibly good mood. I’m totally in withdrawal.
Make-and-takes at the Cotton + Steel booth! Image via the MQG blog.
I volunteered while I was there, and it was such a great way to visit with friends and make new ones, to see the show and to feel like I was contributing to something that makes an enormous impact in a lot of people’s lives. I helped set up booths and hang quilts on the show floor before quilters began arriving, I welcomed folks in as they entered the ballroom for the QuiltCon Awards Ceremony, and I even spent a day with Anna Maria Horner in her Mod Corsage workshop (along with Denyse Schmidt, pretty much guaranteeing that the entire day was both magical and hilarious, because those ladies are hysterically funny).
I even took one whole day to enjoy a workshop for myself–I know, you can really pack some stuff into four days, right? I was actually scheduled to do another half-day workshop during the weekend, but as I was packing my bags to leave on the plane, realized that it was just too much. I dropped the half-day workshop so that someone else could pick it up from the wait list, and stuck with just the one full-day class: the Emphasis quilt with Carolyn Friedlander.