Two hundred years ago, any woman alive would been able to produce a hand-stitched garment that fit anyone in her family. It might have included smocking, monograms, top- and edge-stitching, and other decorative and fitting details as a matter of course. While a woman who could sew exceptionally well might have been admired within her local community, every woman was expected to have enough facility with a thread and needle to be able to produce wearable garments. Not to mention linens, bedspreads, etc.
The reference escapes me at the moment, but until relatively recently in historical terms, it was considered a good investment for a middle-class family to spend a small fortune on a complete set of silk embroidery flosses for their daughters, to learn how to embroider well with quality products.*
Nowadays, if you sew yourself a skirt composed of two gathered rectangles and a waistband and the hem turns out even, you are considered talented.
People tell me this fairly often: “You’re so talented, Andrea!” And I think it’s kind of funny. I’m not. I’m moderately good because I’ve invested a lot of time in a learnable skill. Anything that every woman alive did as a matter of course just 200 years ago has not suddenly become a mysterious and rare Gift visited on a chosen few, particularly not with the advent of sewing machines with specialized feet, zippers, automatic buttonholes, printed patterns, sergers and the like.
Sewing is like cooking. At first, you burn the pasta. Eventually, if you put in the time and attention, you learn to make a bolognese from scratch, when to use the buffalo mozzarella and when to use the pizza mozzarella, why it’s better to use full-fat milk in the bechemel sauce but that 1% will do in a pinch, and that, my god, margarine is not a food. (Sorry for the snobbish moment there.) Maybe because most of us do still spend some time feeding ourselves, we recognize cooking for what it is: a skill.
We no longer clothe ourselves, so we no longer think of sewing as a skill. But even your factory-made clothing was almost certainly assembled by women sitting at sewing machines. Are they gifted? Probably not. Most likely they were poor and desperate and this was the best job on offer, and now having sewn those seams approximately 3,000 times, they’re pretty good at it.
The other thing is that I recognize that I’m actually not that good.
I’m ok at it. You know, I can wear something I’ve made out of the house and not be totally embarrassed. I can make things that fit me better than what I can find in a store. I can make things for Frances that fit her pretty well, and that are comfortable and she will wear. Hurray! Yes?
There’s a lot I can’t do, though.
My handmade buttonholes are a joke (thank god for the automatic buttonholes on the machine). My blind hems are not as blind as they should be. I still have no real clue how to fit raglan sleeves properly. Sometimes my darts are uneven, and I still struggle with adjusting patterns to fit my high waist. Belt loops are a work in progress.
But that’s all ok, because one of the things I love about sewing is how much there still is for me to learn. It’s fantastic! I could sew for the rest of my life and still have new skills and techniques to master.
This year, I have finally mastered how to make Frances a shirt and dress bodice that fits. Thanks to her health issues, this is not a simple task, but I did it. Go me! When I made her Princess Frances dress a few years back for a cousin’s wedding, I learned how to orient pattern pieces on ombre fabric to ensure a consistent gradation to the entire garment. But the back placket was poor, the sashes weren’t flat, the front bodice was tight, and the tulle was uneven under the skirt hem. I knew this, even though everyone raved about the dress. (It’s a nice dress, but it’s not perfect.) Her grad dress won’t have the ombre trickery, but I can already tell that the dress as a whole will be a better garment: the sleeves are even, the neckline lies flat and is symmetrical, and the waistband lies straight and goes directly across her stomach. And it will fit her. (And it is also the softest rayon ever woven–I keep petting it.)
I enjoy participating (peripherally) in the sewing community because it is fun. People make stuff, sometimes it’s crap, they post pictures of what they made, get some congratulations. My take is that no one really cares if you’re making stuff well, so long as you are making stuff. Glorious mistakes, and all.**
Thank goodness, because if there were a quality barrier to entry, I’m not sure I’d qualify.
But as much as I enjoy this “let’s all make crap together” spirit, I admit to giving the side-eye to the “and since I make marginally better crap than you do, let me tell you how it’s done” corollary. A well-timed “this is how I did it” is always nice, even when how you did it isn’t all that great. A tutorial on How To Do It when you’re not doing it right rubs me the wrong way, particularly when there’s a monetary charge for the tutorial or an associated pattern attached.
Particularly when you are publicly advertising yourself as an expert.
People are entitled to make and sell tutorials and patterns all day and night, if that’s what they want to do, and other people are entitled to buy and use them, regardless of whether or not it’s any good. And then the people who don’t like them are also entitled to say that they don’t like them. This is how it goes.
Like movies. People can make good movies, and bad movies. People can get paid for the movies they make, regardless, and other people can pay to see them. And then they can talk about which movies they love and which movies they hate. Publicly, even. If you’re going to make movies, you’re going to get panned.
The minute money is introduced, the relationship changes from social to commercial. Yes, sometimes people have social and commercial relationships simultaneously, but no commercial entity has social relationships with all of its customers. It’s the difference between your grandmother teaching you how to make pancakes (criticism=tacky), and buying a cookbook with a crappy pancake recipe that doesn’t rise properly (tell the world about it via Amazon).
(This extended diatribe brought to you via a controversy in the sewosphere whereby an accomplished seamstress took issue with a number of self-identified sewing experts online and the advice that they offer, and some of the said self-identified sewing experts themselves took issue with being taken issue with, and kaboom.)
To sum up:
- I like to sew
- Sometimes I don’t sew so well
- I still talk about it publicly
- But this is ok, because I’m neither calling myself an expert nor charging for it
- I love sewing blogs, even the ones where people don’t sew so well, because it’s great to see people challenge themselves and learn
- And let’s face it, many of us don’t have a local in-the-flesh sewing community to sew with
- Hurray internet!
- But if you’re going to ask me for my money in exchange for your expertise, whether it’s pattern-making or technique-related, you’d better be sure that you have some to sell
- And if you don’t, I consider myself and other people perfectly within their right to say so
In related news, the bodice and sleeves of Frances’s grad dress are all done. I need to do the skirt and zipper, and then embellish. I can’t wait!
* Not advocating a return to the days where all women were required to sew, but the historical context does make it pretty apparent how far this particular skill set has declined in the developed world. Also, given the human rights abuses and rampant consumerism associated with today’s industrialized fashion landscape, we might all be better off if all of us–men and women both–took more personal responsibility for and active participation in the production of our own clothing. /soapbox
** Personally, I want to keep making new mistakes. Making mistakes is fine, it’s how we learn and progress; but getting stuck in the same mistakes means you’re not learning. Not making mistakes means you’re not taking risks or doing anything new. Mistakes are great! But I wouldn’t want anyone emulating my mistakes.
Am I going to regret having posted this? Oh, hell…