Distilled Sewing Wisdom™

Sewing Lessons

Although illustration is my first love, I’m also a big sewing geek and for the last six years I’ve sewn most of my own clothes. Along the way, I’ve learned a few pieces of Sewing Wisdom™. Read on for my favourites, including: what’s really wrong when clothes don’t fit, the freedom of having absolute responsibility, and why you should call your mom.

1. It’s safe to fail

There’s an oft-quoted line from Samuel Beckett that admonishes us to “Fail again. Fail better,” and I can’t think of a better place to apply this advice than a creative practice like sewing. Most of us come to sewing as adults or semi-adults, and by that time in our lives maybe we’ve built up a certain arrogance around being good at things, or at least looking like we are. By the time I got seriously into it, for example, I’d built a good chunk of my identity on not failing.

But you know what? Everyone’s first project is a hot mess in some way or other. Every. Single. One. You will have wonky seams maybe, or uneven tension, or puckered stitches, and hey, how did that bit end up so weird? My starter dress was a polka-dot fiasco with lopsided breasts, so stiff it could stand on its own. I think I wore it once. This is normal, and it is perfect. From my mistakes in this hot mess I learned enough to make second attempt, and in making that hot mess I learned enough to tackle a third, and so on. Keep jumping a little out of your safe zone, making new mistakes and learning from your old ones, and soon enough you’ll impress yourself with what you can do. All because you failed and kept going.

Right along with failing, I’ll break it to you: you have to ask for help. There are times when you can rip out and re-sew a dozen times, scour the internet for answers, and fiddle with the feed dogs ’til you’re cross-eyed, and you still won’t find that one little trick that makes everything fall into place. Sometimes you need someone who’s been there, done that and sewn the T-shirt to listen carefully and tell you what worked for her. For me, that person’s called “Mum”.

2. Responsibility is freedom.

I love this one. It’s incredibly simple: what you end up with is a perfect consequence of your own actions. We hear this message a lot in life, and conceptually I think most of us accept it. But put it right into your hands, see the real-time results of your every move, and that brings it home. So you cut where you should have folded. Is the universe against you? Is your boss an imbecile? Is society incorrigibly corrupt? Well, perhaps. But you made that mistake on your own, bro, and now it’s all yours to fix or accept.

And yes, you do have the option to accept it. That’s the flip side of responsibility: nobody’s going to reward you if you get it right or punish you if you get it wrong. In fact, whether you got it right or wrong is mostly up to you and your own standards. If you met your standards, great. Your reward is that you made a thing that you like. If you didn’t meet them, cool. What are your going to do about it?

Sure, there are some things that aren’t strictly your fault. Some patterns could be better drafted and some instructions could be clearer. Some projects may be too far out of your range. You have options. You can try a different pattern. You can look for answers online. You can beef up your skills. Or you can throw the whole thing away and abandon the project, which is also fine. Whatever you do, it’s your call and your responsibility.

3. Cool your jets.

I remember the moment I learned this one and became aware of how my emotions affect my whole body. I was standing at the sewing machine, fuming. My rage had nothing to do with sewing — I was stuck in a funk, replaying a pretty toxic argument with a coworker over, and over, and over. My head was a mess. My work was a mess. My corners were off, my tension was unbalanced; I could hardly even sew a straight line. What was wrong with me?

Then it hit me: ”I’m trying to sew angry. Is this the problem? Can it really have this much effect?” In that moment I didn’t know the answer but I knew, in the mood I was in, I couldn’t face the prospect of ripping out my work and starting again. So I walked away. I came back later that day in a better mood, and everything was fine. Since then, I try to remember this: don’t sew (or do any creative work) angry. Don’t sew tired. Don’t sew stressed. Put it down, walk away, and do whatever you need to do to deal with what’s bugging you. Everything will be easier when you come back.­­

4. Your body is the right shape.

Let me repeat that: your body is the right shape. We’ve been intensely conditioned by advertising, unpredictable sizing and rack on rack of mass-produced clothing to believe that our hips/boobs/shoulders/bellies/legs are too big/small/long/thick/short because they don’t fit the clothes we pull from the racks. Guess what? Our bodies will never fit the clothes we pull from the racks because the clothes on the racks were not made to fit our bodies. They weren’t made for yours, and they weren’t made for mine. They were made to fit an “average” body that was determined by the National Bureau of Standards (Now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) in 1958, then adapted over the last sixty years to suit vanity sizing and brand preferences. I understand why manufacturers need to work to a standard for mass production; I do. Still, the conclusion that my body is the wrong shape because it doesn’t fit a statistical average is simply ridiculous.

What size do I wear? Me-sized. I have a half dozen alterations I make to every sewing pattern when I trace it out for the first time. I adjust for my wide shoulders, sway back, long waist, my height, and my hips. Every one of these traits has been a deal-breaker for ready-made clothes, and every single one is easy to accommodate when I’m sewing from scratch, because a pattern is just a starting point. The right answer whatever fits my body. Always.

Now, I’m not advocating that you all abandon shopping the racks and start sewing your own wardrobes (although, if you want to try that, let me know. I have some fantastic sewing blogs for you to read). But if you take one single thing from this, it’s that when clothes don’t fit your body, it’s the clothes that are wrong. Your body is the right shape. Always.

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Editorial illustrator with a literary bent. madebymarion.ca

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Marion Pynn

Marion Pynn

Editorial illustrator with a literary bent. madebymarion.ca

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