When I was doing the final year of my MFA I had a one-bedroom apartment off a main street in Minneapolis. The apartment was typical of apartments in Minneapolis: big windows, white walls, wood floors, screens on the windows, great woodwork (all painted over many times). The kitchen was tiny but had room for a table, and it had glass-fronted cabinets I kept my pretty dishes in. I put my single bed in the main room and set up big tables in the bedroom—and shelves, which I filled with fabric. I sewed so much in that apartment. I would listen to the BBC World Service and sew until 3 a.m., usually in a tank top and shorts because the heat ran full-blast all winter and the radiators had been painted over so much that you could no longer turn the valves.
I sewed dresses and shirts and lots of skirts and lots and lots of small things. It was the beginning of the Internet for me—I was forming connections with lots of the writers/sewers/makers/artists who are still my friends now. But it wasn’t wireless and it wasn’t fast, so there was no omnipresent sense of connection. A few times a week I would upload pictures to Flickr or post on my blog about what I was sewing, and my friends were doing the same.
Those late nights sewing were so restful and joyful. I never felt that sewing took anything away from the work I was doing in the printmaking department or the writing program, and it didn’t take away from my teaching, either. What it did was offer me long periods of complex thought about the order of operations (figuring out garment construction) and lots of time where I was alone, with my hands occupied, just thinking about everything. I seriously believe it kept me from feeling some of the anxieties that floated freely around the program about publishing and winning and being productive all the time. When I wasn’t writing, I was making things, and I could see without any external validation that I had made the things and that I liked them.
A few weeks ago I decided to make a skirt. I wanted something with a fitted waist and a longish pleated skirt. I already had the fabric, bought in 2013 in the US. I drafted the pattern and cut out and sewed the waist, then decided I hated it and that it was a failure. I left it a few days—the zipper was not right, I wasn’t sure it would look good after all. But when I came back to it, having thought about it, I had figured out a way to make the zipper work (I devised a fly, essentially). And I sewed on the skirt and it did look good. And I remembered how pleasing it was to figure these things out and to make clothing. It’s the first time since that apartment in 2006 that I’ve had space where the sewing machine can live (and even the ironing board can stay out). What a difference that has made—I can just go and sew, there’s no huge production of getting everything out and then having to put it all away.
Maybe a month ago the lovely Lisa Solomon (one of those friends from the early days of Flickr) sent me a pattern by Sonya Philip for a dress. (The generosity and intuitiveness and care of these women-internet-friends of mine never ceases to amaze me. Also let me note that that pattern is available up to size 3XL—click through to Sonya’s shop to see that version and other patterns.) And last week I cut out a test dress in bright cyan gingham, gotten very cheap at a fabric shop in Ghent. I don’t always find sewing with a pattern easy, and I figured if I were going to mess something up, best mess up at €2.50 a meter.
But I didn’t mess it up. I love it.
I made bias tape out of the remnant of a piece of Liberty lawn I had, and I hemmed the dress (which I lengthened by a couple of inches because I like things a bit longer) by hand. The pattern is great. I’ve already cut out another in a very very light, ochre-colored wool (still thinking about what I’ll use for the bias tape there). The dress is voluminous and hangs well on me. I made the XS thinking it might be too small but that the S might be too large—my measurements were exactly the size marked for the XS—but it fits perfectly. I wore it over a skirt I made in 2006 and still wear—I think it was an Alexander Henry quilting cotton; it’s printed with big flowers in kind of off-colors: brick red, sea green, peach, gray—and with a red cardigan and a bright fuchsia/purple scarf that was once an obi (it was also once very bright white and purple shibori, but someone ahem might have accidentally washed it). I felt joyful and light all day in these clothes, not only because of the colors, although wearing colors here makes me feel better; also because I remembered every time I looked down what a pleasure it was to sew, and all the ways that sewing contributes to my thinking. And every time I wear a dress from this pattern I will also think of my friends and of the community that we made so long ago, which, although in other forms, is still at work today.