You read a book, and sew something inspired by it. Fun. Yes?
Also the book she chose was The New Moon’s Armsby Nalo Hopkinson, a Canadian author I’ve been meaning to read for ages. This novel is somewhere between Magic Realism and Urban Fantasy, set in a Caribbean Island, and with a very complicated protagonist at its centre.
Calamity–the book’s heroine–was fascinating. She has a mix of self-loathing and narcissism that was perfectly engrossing (who names themselves “Calamity”?) and combined a determination to do the right thing (so long as it didn’t inconvenience her too much) with an utter inability, at times, to figure out what the right thing was. And a spectacular gift in getting it wrong, and wounding the people who love her most.
It was hard to think of clothes inspired by the novel, as clothing didn’t feature in it largely, except for Calamity’s endless harping on Ife for not dressing sexily enough and her appreciation for what a certain handsome male character wore. I am not sewing myself a scuba suit, So.
I went back to the First Date scene, where Calamity was trying to decide what to wear out to dinner. She tried on a dress, a skirt, and finally settled on jeans with a green blouse. Which she originally wore tucked in, but then the partner of her best friend from childhood, who she’d attacked rather viciously in a homophobic rant the day before, told her it looked better untucked.
I do have a long-sleeved green button-up blouse, but it’s August in the GTHA. Way too hot for sleeves. So here we have a blousy green t-shirt with my Calamity Jeans.
I realize it didn’t have to be such a literal interpretation, but I couldn’t think of anything else that would fill a legitimate hole in my wardrobe and also fit in the book. I do have other jeans of course–with low waists–but I wanted one pair of high-waisted snug jeans nice enough to wear to work.
These are the Jalie stretch jeans, based on the regular rise, but raised a further 1-2″ all around. I did add about 1 1/2″ to the crotch extension, which I think may not have been quite enough, and I wish I’d also added about 1″ to the back hip width, where it is a bit snug. Of course it’s stretch denim, so it’ll relax with wear, but I really feel it when I put them on.
And I don’t think jeans that are a smidge on the too-tight side are inappropriate for Calamity, either.
The denim is a heavy-weight 98% cotton 2% spandex blend from European Textiles on Ottawa St N, I believe. It’s been in the stash for a long time, so I’m not 100% sure on its provenance. It has enough stretch to give a bit without so much that it feels like jeggings, and despite the photos is a very dark indigo, not black. I did the topstitching with regular thread as I wanted a good colour match and none of the top-stitching threads were dark enough. The topstitching on the waistband and to attach the back pockets was done with the coverstitch machine on the chainstitch setting, to keep lots of stretch in the fabric.
For the pocket linings and fly facings, I used this Tula Pink bumblebee print. Not because bees are a feature of the book (I don’t think they come up even once), but because they seemed to me vaguely Bumble-ish, and Calamity’s search for love is very much a theme. So it’s tangential, but I think it works, and it’s also pretty and comfortable. And just to complete the theme, I embroidered a bee on the right back pocket with some metallic embroidery cords.
And just above the bee–though you can’t read it–I stitched Voglio Il Core.
I don’t think Calamity speaks Italian, but I got the phrase from a book on historical English clothing, where apparently a nobleman in the 1500s had the phrase embroidered all over a pair of his underwear. It means “I want the heart” or “I want the core,” and stitched on a pair of intimates it has a certain connotation, doesn’t it?
… I guess one of my main goals was to depict a mature woman being gloriously disgraceful, instead of trying to fade away into invisibility, which is what much of the world still seems to expect of older women.
Calamity certainly didn’t fade away into invisibility, and I loved the line “gloriously disgraceful.” What a commentary it is on society that women are supposed to fade away, become invisible, age ‘gracefully’–which often seems to mean to stop wanting things. Stop wanting attention, stop wanting romance, stop wanting visibility or success. And Calamity has certainly never stopped wanting, especially love. From her daughter and grandson, from her mother and father, from Michael (who loves her, but not romantically), from the little boy she finds on the beach, and from men generally. It’s unclear how much she actually likes the two love interests in the novel, at least at the beginning, or if she is responding to their apparent interest in her. And she wants them to, just as she wants the little boy to think of her as his mother, to love her best, to want to stay.
One of the interesting parts of her very complicated personality is how very much she wants to be loved but how very hard it is for her to be loving, though she can and does turn on the charm when she is interested in someone.
Anyway. So no, I don’t think she understands Italian, and if she did I don’t think she’d write “I want the heart” across her butt, but I do think it fits in with her character, so there it is.
For embroidery nerds: the back side of the pocket is reinforced with fusible stabilizer; the pattern was traced onto freezer paper and then ironed to the denim. I embroidered the bee and the words first, and then cut out the pocket and finished it. The inside is lined with the same bee fabric to protect the ends of the embroidery threads.
You’re probably going to get sick of these jeans, by the way. I took pictures for at least five shirt projects at the same time as I took these ones, so they’ll be showing up again … and again.
I love Jalie. Their sizing is a thing of beauty. I went by body measurements, Dear Readers, and picked that size, and except for changing the height of the waist, I made no other changes. So this is a size T at the waist, U at the hips, and in retrospect I could have gone to a V at the hips and given myself a bit of room (given that the pattern recommends a denim with 4% spandex and these only have 2%). But! No weird ease issues. I’ve now had the pleasure of sewing up a few of their patterns and so far, going by body measurements is a completely reliable way to choose a size.
Santa Sewing being the presents you sew up to give people over the holidays, or to make for special holiday occasions. And there was a pile in December, mostly for Frances, who is not super keen on modelling so this will mostly be pictures of garments on hangers.
The excitement of figuring out how to fit Frances for pants went to my head, Dear Readers: After the jeans, I made her three pairs of leggings: one black bamboo jersey (so soft!), one taupe cotton jersey with fun animal heads for pj pants, and one a really plush grey stretch velour (even softer!). The velour pair is one half of any needed fancy-pants holiday get-ups, as Frances is a girl who generally dons a skirt or dress only under intense social pressure.
To go with it, I made her up a drapey long-sleeved top I’d previously made her in bamboo jersey, this time in a sparkly gold foiled spandex. No chance at a photo of this one yet, but soon!
A red sweater–some kind of textured poly knit, bought in the summer for dirt cheap, and finally sewed up. Frances loves this one and has been wearing it constantly since finished. This is a raglan sleeved Ottobre pattern (I can look up the issue for anyone who’s interested).
A large-loop cotton terry sweatshirt in the same pattern, slightly long to be worn with leggings. This fabric came from Needlework and was a bit on the pricey side but so worth it. It is super soft and comfortable and very, very warm. Unfortunately even with differential feed turned up to max and the longest stitch length on my machine, and even after throwing it in the washer/dryer, the hem bands werestill super wavy. !!! Lots of hot steam and pressing has mostly repaired it, thank goodness.
Finally finished this very colourful cardigan. I think it’s acrylic but I’m not 100% sure (ends table). You could have knocked me over with a feather when she chose this fabric and the red sweater one above, after so many years of wearing nothing but blue, grey and off-white. Also an Ottobre pattern.
Pajamas. It’s impossible to find pajamas that fit her well in stores, and we have a tradition of new pajamas plus reading materials for a Christmas Eve present, so: flannel pajama bottoms, yarn-dyed plaid, with an ivory cotton jersey pajama shirt. Coordinated, and extremely comfortable and warm. Somewhat Christmas-y but still wearable all winter.
And then another pajama top out of the same animal-print cotton jersey to match the leggings/pj pants.
I don’t know–do you think that’s enough for one person?
She’s just about all done growing so I can finally sew her things without fear of them becoming too small, hence the deluge.
A couple of drawstring bags for wrapping gifts. French seams to ensure that the bags last forever. I mean–come on–animals dressed up for an ugly sweater party. How could I resist?
A couple of cross-stitched gift tags to accompany them. Yes, I know, work–but the tags and bags can be reused endlessly and with essentially no effort.
A new tree ornament.
I made a card for a dear friend, Jenn, who is (if you can believe it) largely committed to a social-media-free existence, so I can’t link to her. But she does read here, so Merry Christmas, Jenn!
And this–which I’m still not exactly sure how I want to finish. It’s supposed to be for a gift tag but the aida count I used made it a bit too big for that.
But come on. Who doesn’t love an owl in mittens and a Rudolph costume?
(The cross stitch patterns all came from The Cross Stitcher magazine; mostly back issues, except for the card which I believe was in the December 17 issue. But it might have been January 18.)
A thematically-appropriate pencil/pen/brush/crayon/whatever holder and zippered pouch for my Aunt Heather. If you click through to her author site you’ll understand immediately. Poor woman’s going to be swimming in seahorses (no pun intended) someday.
And hey, a few things for me, too:
This lovely pale pink foiled spandex, turned into another gathered-neckline Renfrew. Can be paired with skirts or jeans, so good both for dancing and holiday festivities. This and the gold I used for Frances were both bought at Fabricland on sale for $8.something/metre, and this was the 0.7m at the end of the bolt, so it was a $5 or $6 shirt. The foiling basically is plastic so sewing, and particularly hemming, were challenging. I had to redo one portion of the bottom hem four times. But it finally turned out and I like it, though I’m petrified to press the seams and melt the foil.
And a velour long-sleeved shirt, the softest ever raspberry polyester (not a phrase I imagined myself ever using) turned into a dress, a finally completed hot pink foiled panne velvet dress and dusty pink lurex stretch velvet dress–which will have their own posts at some point.
This is a metric tonne of pink. Maybe I should branch out.
It was a lot of sewing. And while I’ve enjoyed taking a bit of a break over the holidays so far and catching up on some reading, I can’t wait to get back to it.
(I’ll be posting a project shortly with an embroidered collar, and rather than clutter that post with a lot of background information on embroidered collars, here is an info-dump to be read in conjunction.)
A nicely-embroidered collar can be a fun and fairly easy way to work some embroidery into a clothing project, taking a basic neutral garment and turning it into something a little special.
A badly-embroidered collar can be a fun and fairly easy way to turn a basic neutral garment into something that looks so unbearably amateur in six months you’re not sure you can wear it.
Collars have a big advantage for beginning embroiderers: They’re small, so it doesn’t have to take long to stitch up even if you’re new.
Collars also have a substantial disadvantage for beginning embroiderers: They’re highly visible and right near your face, so you will be carrying any mistakes around in a prominent location.
What’s a newbie to do?
You can make a regular collar and be extremely careful. Or you can make a detachable collar.
Of course, a detachable collar presumes you have a collarless shirt, dress or sweater (or several) to attach it to. I’ll assume you can manage that part, being enterprising sewers who know how to make collarless garments on which a collar would not later look completely foreign. I’ll also assume that you’re basically familiar with collar construction, and then gently nudge you towards David Coffin’s instructions on making plain detachable collars. And then we’ll get into the business of embroidering them (which of course also works on regular collars).
Here is an incredibly fancy detachable collar:
It’s hard to picture it being worn, ever, with anything but a cocktail dress. I can’t zoom in enough to be sure, but my guess is a stiff black silk, stabilized, backed with a lighter black fabric on the reverse. The silk would have been embellished before attaching to the reverse, and given the bulk of the embellishments that may have had to be done by hand. It would be heavy, for one thing, and stiff, for another, but it is beautifully done. It looks like clear crystals outlined in goldwork.
Here is a much less fancy embroidered collar:
This one’s not detachable, but you can see your range of options pretty clearly. Assuming you can transfer the script neatly to the collar piece this would likely take about an hour. It’s just a backstitch in plain black cotton floss.
Mark the area to be embroidered
The easiest way to do this is if you haven’t yet cut out the collar piece. Trace the cutting line and the seam line onto the right side of the fabric where you can clearly see them. Interface the whole thing as you normally would. If the interfacing is non-woven or a stiffish woven, you’re probably fine; if you’re using a loosely woven interfacing on the collar, stabilize the area to be embroidered separately.
If you have already cut out and interfaced the collar piece, trace the seam lines on to the right side. You can baste the whole thing to a stabilizer and hoop that, and just cut the excess stabilizer away when you’re done embroidering.
If you really, really don’t want to have to do this and really, really have a problem with hoops, you have a few options: either embroider using a pattern or style that minimizes any travelling threads on the reverse (this is what will cause pulling and warping) or resign yourself to being very patient as you go. Stop periodically and give the collar piece a good stiff tug to ensure that the embroidering threads are loose enough not to pull or warp the collar. Still stabilize, but just the area to be embroidered.
2. Pick your pattern or motif.
Colour contrast, size of pattern, heaviness of stitches, heaviness of threads, and any light-reflecting embellishments will have the biggest impact on how much attention the collar draws. If you pick something heavy, either because the stitching is very dense or the materials have weight (beads etc.), this may affect your choice of stabilizer, so be prepared to use something stronger if you choose an embellishment style that is very heavy or dense.
3. Ensure it fits nicely within the collar.
You won’t just be sewing the collar piece to the under-collar; you’ll also be topstitching or edgestitching. It’s best if you can leave at least 3/8″ of empty space between your motif and the seamline. If not, you’ll be topstitching on top of the embroidery. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it does affect the look of the collar and it’s best to choose your preference in advance of stitching.
4. An iron-on transfer or tracing/freezer paper is your best bet.
If you have an iron-on motif already, figure out how you want to position it on your collar, then trace the collar cutting lines or seam lines around it before you cut the motif out.
If you are tracing your own motif, same: trace the cutting lines or seam lines as well. This will let you get a perfect mirror image when reversing the pattern on the other side of the collar.
If you’re doing a cross-stitch or other canvas embroidery style, you can use waste canvas instead and count your stitches. This is a bit more work as you’ll have to baste the waste canvas to the collar piece and remove it afterwards. A higher number on the waste canvas equals smaller stitches; keep in mind this means more stitches, and more time stitching. A lower number means an easier, faster project, but maybe not quite as elegant or neat.
5. Hoop and stitch
Or use a scroll frame etc. Scroll frames have the advantage of holding the entire project flat and taut, and the disadvantage of extra steps if you want to use them for a small piece. In this case I basted the collar piece to a scrap piece of muslin and cut away the embroidery area in the back. But once the set up was done the stitching was a lot easier and there were no hoop marks on the finished piece.
6. When you’re done, and you’ve pressed the collar piece nice and flat, and it’s ready to be attached to the under-collar, I recommend using a regular zipper or piping foot to sew them together. Then you can stitch as close to the embroidered area as you need to.
Don’t press your stitches. If you need to press the embroidered area, treat it like velvet and use a needleboard or a towel so you don’t flatten your work.
Embroidered collars can be delicate.
(satin stitches, mostly)
They can be pretty.
(From here. satin stitches and french knots–and by now you are probably seeing that this was done a) on a purchased shirt, after collar construction, b) by a beginner (look how much neater the left hand side is than the right) and c) without stabilizing or a hoop, causing those bits of pulling and warping.)
They can be shaped
(machine embroidered; shaping of the collar also done by machine satin stitch. You can shape a collar with the same set of techniques you’d use for a scalloped hem, but I won’t get into that here)
They can be a bit cheeky and odd
(all satin stitch–check out how neat the borders are and how flat and shiny her floss is) (also: deliberately assymetric is a nice choice if you’re not sure how accurate your mirroring is going to be)
(satin stitches, back stitches, french knots, and some straight stitches it looks like)
(satin stitches, back stitches, french knots, maybe some buttonhole stitches; it’s cute and graphically it’s a lot of fun, but as embroidery it is not stellar. Still, it’s totally wearable.)
They can be ornate and dimensional
(I love this one. The work is gorgeous, the colours are fantastic, the collar is nicely put together–wow. She’s got fern stitches, fly stitches, a ton of woven picots, and pistil stitches. The fabric is a bit wobbly, which I think is a result of embroidering at least part of it after the collar was assembled, and the weight of the thread on a fabric that looks fairly light. From Senorita Lylo.)
(Another one by the same person, this time on a printed fabric. Just to give you a sense of how you can work with embroidery on a printed fabric.)
They can be incredibly fancy, like the D&G one.
A warning on the fancy stuff: The plus of using colourful and casual threads like cotton floss or crewel wool, as a beginner, is that mistakes (so long as they aren’t too numerous) look intentionally-wonky and charming rather than slipshod. The same does not apply for thread painting, goldwork, stumpwork, beading, or other fancier embroidery techniques. Then mistakes, even in selection of materials, just look sloppy and translate pretty directly to becky-home-ecky. The fancier the materials you’re working with, the less room for error you have.
Me: Do you suppose it’s enough to make a shirtdress?
Elizabeth: Hmm. Maybe … I don’t know.
Something about the idea of a super colourful not particularly serious fabric made into something semi-serious like a shirtdress made me happy, and I wasn’t about to let a little thing like a potential lack of yardage stop me. Nor would I be deterred by a lack of shirtdress patterns, due to a longstanding disinterest in shirtdresses. (All those buttonholes! So much work!)
So with my potentially inadequate fabric supply in hand, I set off to find a shirtdress pattern I didn’t hate and that could be sewn up with less than 2m of fabric.
I scoured my Burda back issues and the Big 4 online sites. I couldn’t find one. So naturally, I bought three.
I know. But the top of one had cup sizing and the bottom of the other had a narrow skirt with pleats that didn’t use much fabric and the other one was neither, but was actually very pretty and I thought I might make it up another time.
M7351 is the bodice (view A without the pockets) and B6333 is the skirt (view C). By using a contrast fabric for the second button band, the under collar and the interior collar stand, I was able to just eke everything out. (Which also cut down on the thickness a bit and added a splash of really bright yellow.) I cut the interior pockets out of leftover cotton voile and use scraps of the Nani Iro for facing (not in the pattern, but easy enough to hack).
It looks like I may be the only person on the internet to have sewn up the narrow pleated skirt on B6333, so in the interests of furthering sewing knowledge: it works, and it’s a great way to save on yardage if you’re trying to squeak out a shirtdress in not a lot of fabric. The front is perfect, but I find the back a bit small at the hips, so it pulls a bit towards the back as you can see in the side shots.
Sizing was the usual Big 4 adventure: 10D for the M7351 and 12 for the skirt, and even though it’s the same company producing them for the same sizes with the same measurements, only by choosing different sizes was I able to match the waist. Keep in mind that a size 10 is supposed to be for a 25″ waist, which means approximately 5″ of ease; and that according to the charts I should have been a size 16/18 in both. If I were to make this again I would keep the waist the same but add maybe 1/2″ to each side at the hips on the back piece.
BMV likes to argue that you can use their ease charts along with the measurement charts to pick a size. Nope. Neither shirtdress has an ease rating; they just says “dresses.” The amount of ease at the waist on the McCall bodice would put it into the “loose” category. To be fair, both included the finished bust and hip measurements on the website, which normally isn’t available; but once again you have to buy the pattern to find out the finished measurement of the waist. This means for some reason a 5″ ease was considered appropriate for the waist on one shirtdress and 3″ ease was chosen for the other one, with no particular rationale given.
Putting it together was fairly simple. I didn’t even look at the instructions; if you’ve made a few button-up shirts and a few pleated skirts with side-seam pockets, there’s nothing new or surprising here. The seams are mostly serged; there’s some topstitching where you might expect to find topstitching; the hem was serged and then turned up once, to reduce bulk. I actually didn’t look at the instructions so I can’t say whether they’re any good or not. But the pattern(s) worked.
Just because it was May at this point was no reason not to delay completion of the dress further while I futzed around with embellishing it.
In my opinion matching up a bright large-scale watercolour print with a shirtdress is enough subversion for something to wear to work, so I decided to complement the pattern by adding some stitches in the exact same colour to some areas of the dress.
Blue: french knots, either singly or in clusters
Peach & light pink: satin stitches
Yellow: bullion knots
I wanted to do something with the neon pink, but no one makes a neon pink embroidery floss. Neon yellow, neon green, even neon blue for crying out loud. But no neon pink.
It’s subtle but it works, IMO. You can’t see stitching in the dress photos, but you can see areas where the print “pops” or stands out a bit more. Those are the stitched areas.
General non-adventure sewingishness
I chose teal buttons from my stash that matched the flowers I embellished with the french knots. On the fabric it’s a bit of a pop; on the yellow button band it’s pretty eye-searing. Not that that’s a bad thing. And I like the bits of yellow that peak out and the bright buttons. There has to be a bit of clashing, right?
Anyway: it’s a shirtdress, it’s done, I made it work with less than 2m of fabric, and I took a type of garment I’d been avoiding forever because it seemed like so much work and made it 10x harder than it needed to be, but I like it.
It’s a slightly stiff (poplin?) lightweight cotton with a watercolour print of trees, leaves, flowers and birds. I lined it with white cotton voile to keep it very light and wearable for super-hot days in the summer (so here’s hoping we have at least one or two this year). And it is a V1353 again, which makes #3. I made a few minor fitting fidgets but otherwise it is the same as the rainbow linen one.
One of the fitting fidgets was less successful; the bust darts on the rainbow linen one are quite low, so I raised them about an inch on the pattern paper. When the dress was ready for trying on I realized this was because the rainbow linen one had loosened up over the year and now sits about an inch lower than it did, so now the bird-print version darts are too high. Oops. At this point it’ll either stay high, or loosen up and sink as the rainbow one did, and only time will tell.
This one was fussy-cut as I didn’t want to decapitate any birds in a pleat or a seamline. That would be grisly. So I laid the pattern pieces out on the fabric on a single layer so I could be sure that the birds remained whole. I also tried to maintain some print continuity between the skirt and bodice but the pleats made that really hard. It’s kind of there. I do like how one branch crawls up a shoulder (that part I do remember doing on purpose). You can’t clearly see any of the birds on a skirt in any of these pictures so please just take my word for it that no bird parts were severed in the making of this dress.
Does anything make this different from the rainbow linen dress or am I just bragging about the fabric find? (Cheap too! 40% off so like $8/m or so.)
Just the hem stitching.
The instructions tell you to do a saddle stitch by hand to hold the wide hem band in place. I’ve yet to do so. (A saddle stitch is a kind of double running stitch that looks like a back stitch when done. Why you wouldn’t just do a back stitch, I’m not sure. I mean, in leather or anything with two visible faces, sure; but for something like this there’s really no advantage.) This time I did a 1/4″ running stitch instead, with an even width marked off by a quilting ruler and a chalk wheel, in white perle cotton. It’s a bit chunky but still shiny, and very subtle on the dress background. So subtle, in fact, that you can’t even see it in the pictures.
You can see a smidge of puckering in spots along that line because the hem band and the skirt were not precisely the same size, and that was with a good amount of pulling and yanking on the skirt to stay even. Overall I’m happy with it though.
According to the measurement chart I should be a size 16/18 (you’re all going to get sick of me saying that).
This dress is cut as a size 12/14 and then tweaked for individual fit issues:
1. Removed 1″ from each centre back seam, tapering to 1/4″ at the waist, to stop the zipper from gaping.
2. Took in side seams at the waist over 1″.
3. Took out length in the front armscye around the princess dart to reduce gaping.
4. Lengthened the bodice front about 1/2″ to eliminate waist tilt.
Back in 2015 I visited the ROM for the Viva Mexico exhibit on Mexican textiles, clothing and embroidery. I took a ton of pictures, hoping that I would have a good use for them one day–and that day is today!
Most of the pictures are my own; I’ve taken a few from elsewhere where necessary and will credit when that’s the case.
Everything at this exhibit was created by regular people in out-of-the-way places. Everything was made by hand; some garments were traditional and some more modern. But all were beautifully embroidered and embellished. Professional embroiderers were commissioned for many (maybe all) of them, but in this case “professional embroiderers” means “local nameless expert,” not “D&G” or “Alexander McQueen”–but they’re all producing work at that level.
Satin stitch, with beautiful sharp borders and gorgeous shading. The shading, however, isn’t particularly blended; there are borders between shades.
And then they wore it. Imagine spilling dinner on it.
This one has more long-and-short stitch, used to effect a more gradual transition between colours. But look at those borders. And see too how, even though the fabric is very sheer, you can’t see any threads or knots from behind.
The whitework is stunning too. Those flowers are perfectly regular.
A detail from the neckline. Some of the tendrils look to have been done with a stem or back stitch.
The leaves have a naturalistic border, while the flowers have dark outlines, further highlighted by bright light colours immediately adjacent. It makes them slightly more graphic, but still the overall effect is of “beautiful shiny bright flowers” not “hand-stitched.”
The knots are most likely buried within the stitching on the reverse to ensure nothing shows on the right side.
On the garment as a whole:
The hem is plain. All of the attention is drawn to the top half.
The embroidered motif in the centre is quite stiff, and that pushes the lightweight fabric out to either side.
There is a nearly-but-not-quite-symmetric pansy motif (in particular, colours change between sides while shapes remain the same). There’s a lot of little birds, and a few non-pansy flowers.
Look how flat and smooth it all is. From this distance, the main stitch is a satin or long-and-short stitch.
A little closer.
At the top of the smocked/gathered panel in the middle, human figures are stitched in a band. They’re all wearing slightly different outfits.
And a close-up:
The shading between colours on petals and leaves is flawless. You have stem stitches and french knots for stamens and buds.
Someone made this by hand. Isn’t it incredible?And then they wore it.
The garment’s outer edge looks, to my eye, to be a crocheted border embroidered with a buttonhole stitch in bright blue. It gives that frilly, scalloped look you see in the first two photos.
This one is cross stitched. I bet you could wear your eyes out looking for a single stitch that is less than perfectly square.
It’s less naturalistic and more geometric, because that’s what cross stitch does best; but the overall colour scheme is much the same and you still have repeating motifs of flowers, leaves and birds.
Another garment with perfectly even cross stitches, again with flowers and leaves. This one is more naturalistic than the first one. The ribbons around the neckline are pleated and the three embroidered sections appear to me to be joined by the pink ribbon. It’s not quite symmetric; the motifs on the left and right haven’t been mirrored, for one thing; and for another, the colour of some elements is changed.
My guess is that this was done without the aid of waste canvas.
More pleating and smocking between embellished panels, but this one has been beaded. The beads are applied in a line, creating an illustrated effect.
Again you’ve got flowers, leaves and birds.
In the middle the words “libertad” has been embroidered into the sun, so I guess this is an early example of political clothing.
The centre panel has been completed with more of a bead-weaving style, where the shapes are filled in.
It’s hard to make beads behave as regularly and predictably as thread, as you can see here; but also when you zoom in, you can see that some of the wonkiness in the line is because the beading is used to embellish smocked sections.
I think this also helps to illustrated different looks created by outlining a shape, filling it in, or outlining and filling it in. Outlined shapes have more weight, particularly if a dark outline is immediately adjacent to a bright or light area.
C) That said, flowers, birds, and repeating motifs are hardly unique to Mexico, and embroidered tunics are not a North American innovation. Just exercise some common sense and don’t be an asshole.
You can’t go wrong with a brightly coloured floral.
Packing the motifs in and covering the textile is very visually effective. It will also take forever.
Keeping motifs in a similar scale works well, even if it’s not quite realistic (such as the small birds in amongst the flowers).
Beads like to be wonky. You can make them less wonky if you are exceptionally careful and outline larger shapes.
Cross stitches, when used to create pictures or motifs, should be as square, even and regular as you are capable of making them.
Satin stitches should be shiny and smooth with even borders. They should follow the shape so that they can reflect the light well.
Embroidery makes fabric stiff, particularly when it’s dense, and the embroidered fabric will hang differently.
If you wanted to recreate something similar as a beginner, I’d choose an opaque, medium-weight, white cotton like muslin or poplin, stabilized with maybe more muslin or poplin behind, with a medium-sized floral motif in either cross-stitch or long-and-short stitch. Cross stitch will be easier to do well with a larger stitch size, in the 11 ct range, using 3 or 4 strands of cotton floss. Long-and-short stitch is normally done with one strand of floss or thread at a time, but you could use two to save a bit of time, particularly for larger motifs. To make a nice clean border, particularly if you’re not sure about being able to make even satin or long-and-short stitches, use a buttonhole or chain stitch around the edge. Buttonhole will blend easier with the long-and-short if that’s the way you go, but inevitably it means the border colour will be blended into the motif.
If you are, as I am, a person with a job and responsibilities and the desire to spend free time doing something other than embroidering one garment and also a desire to finish and wear the garment before it goes out of date, I’d also recommend embroidering a small part of a garment: a collar, cuff, neckband, button band, part of a yoke, waistband, pocket.
The needle painted butterflies for this bookmark project took me an hour or slightly more each, and they are just about one inch square. Just to give you an idea of how much time to allocate to a smallish motif–plan on an hour, especially if you’re just getting started.
But only if it’s on clothes. I think? Are my wall hangings and cushions cool yet? I didn’t think so.
This is a brain dump for those of you who might want to try hand embroidery on your handmade (or storebought, I suppose) clothes: a few tips, some ideas, and resources for inspiration and instructions.
Tl/dr–because oh my god Dear Readers I may have said I have a “few tips” but this is a really long post–if you don’t have time to read the whole thing now, and I don’t blame you, but you are interested in embroidered clothes, scroll all the way down to the bottom, read the last paragraph, and let me know what you think.
I mean, it’s not a requirement, no. But just as you probably would not start sewing your own clothes with a wedding dress or a tailored suit, you are best off to start embroidering a simple project. That doesn’t mean that the embroidery has to be simple necessarily (more on that below) but that the overall project doesn’t require a lot of assembly time. It’s awful to spend 15 hours assembling a dress and 40 hours embellishing it and then have it all go to waste because the embellishment didn’t turn out well enough. So, some ideas of small ways to incorporate embroidered embellishments into wearables that are low-effort and often reversible:
1. Buttons. Self-covered buttons are perfect for embroidery. Keep the thickness of the fabric in mind and for a thin or delicate textile, you will still need to stabilize (see below).
2. Wearable hoops (wood or metal). Turn them into necklaces. I prefer the look of the metal ones but both are super cute.
3. Perforated goods. Perforated iphone cases for embroidery; perforated wooden charms for jewelry; perforated paper or plastic for bookmarks or decorations. And of course with paper or cardstock, you can just perforate it yourself and stitch away.
If a needle can go through it, you can embroider it: even wood or metal if you have a drill with a small bit and a very steady hand. People have embroidered chicken wire and window screening, but unless it’s going to be inside that seems a lot of effort for something that will fall apart quickly.
4. Pouches. Make a small zippered pouch and embroider a piece of it. Small, quick, and if you don’t like it, chances are it’s being carried inside something else anyway.
5. Purses. You can have a lot of fun trying large, colourful, experimental embroidery techniques on a project that doesn’t take long to put together, is super practical, very pretty, and unlike embroidered clothes is rarely ever going to be completely out of style. The embroidered project I get the most use out of is still the shoulder bag I made years and years ago. And it still gets compliments.
6. Small non-wearables: bookmarks. Eyemasks. Pictures for framing. Cushions. Holiday decorations. Pincushions. Needlebooks. Wallets.
1. Stabilize. Stabilize stabilize stabilize. (Stabilizers are interfacings applied to the back of non-embroidery fabrics to make them suitable for embroidery.) Your garment fabrics are not stiff enough or strong enough to support hand stitching. If you stitch directly on the garment fabric without stabilizing, it will warp and ripple. You can use a permanent, tear-away or soluble stabilizer, depending on how the finished garment will hang, but for the love of god: stabilize. (If you look inside storebought embroidered clothes you will often still see the stabilizer in place.)
Also: the design should work in concert with both the weight and the density of the textile being embroidered. Something light or gauzy or with a loose weave should have light, loose stitches. A densely packed or highly detailed pattern will work best on a densely woven fabric with some body: dense linen, muslin, poplin, crepe, and so on. Stabilizers can only do so much and they won’t transform a lightweight material into something suitable for a very heavy stitch. Whitework can be an exception to this, but it’s a lot more delicate than it looks and is hard to execute on a lightweight fabric.
2. Fibres: The most common type of embroidery floss is stranded cotton. Cotton is great; but cotton can shrink. Don’t pull your stitches too tight. Sometimes, the colours bleed. I recommend doing a test swatch with your garment fabric, a stabilizer, and a few stitches of the kind you are planning, thrown in the wash and then dried on hot to see if the floss bleeds or the stitches contract. Also applies to wool and silk fibres (wool won’t come in strandable flosses, but silk does).
There are synthetic fibres that won’t shrink, but they are shinier and/or sparklier than the natural fibres, so it will make for a different look. Most machine embroidery threads, both to buy and on embroidered storebought clothes, will be poly or rayon.
A standard craft store will typically carry only cotton stranded floss, and maybe perle cotton. If you want to branch out, go online or find a specialty embroidery or cross stitch store. There’s one in Port Credit I love for anyone in the GTA. If you google embroidery store, you will probably find businesses that provide machine embroidery services, so try “cross stitch store,” “needlework store,” or “petit point store.”
One last note of warning is that the chemicals used to treat leather and suede will degrade natural fibres, so if you’re going to embroider on hides, use synthetics.
3. Weights: Embroidery threads can be super super fine or very heavy. Also, there’s no need to restrict yourself to threads sold in the embroidery aisle. On a heavy fabric, try knitting yarn (I used yarn on that shoulder bag) or crochet thread. Do a woven rose with lace trim, or use a narrow lace in a running stitch or french knot. Thread painting is often done with sewing thread. Ribbons make gorgeous flowers, but you don’t have to use them for that. Use whatever you have that you can hook through a needle and pull through a textile.
4. Embellishments: Beads, sequins, goldwork–all good. Stabilizers will be even more important because embellishments are heavy. They will also alter the weight, and therefore the drape or line, of the finished garment. Just something to keep in mind.
5. Knots: Knots should never be visible from the front side of a garment. This includes a knot that presses or pushes through to form a visible lump on the right side. Make Pretty Knots. Waste knots are a good way to start. If you want to tie regular knots, make them small, as close to the fabric as possible, and positioned well within the design area.
6. HOOPS: Just as important as stabilizers. If you don’t have a good firm tension on the textile surface, it will ripple and warp and you will have puckers and dents in your finished garment. You can use a standard embroidery hoop (the cheapest and easiest to find) or a scroll frame (harder to find but easier to use, and no hoop rings when you’re done).
IF YOU ARE EMBROIDERING PALE FABRIC: Your hands will leave stains on the fabric. Doesn’t matter how often you wash them. Put a strip of a very lightweight fabric or tissue paper between the fabric and the hoop/frame so that only the area to be embroidered is visible. Keep the fabric covered between embroidering sessions.
Your goal with a hoop is to have the entire embroidered area visible as you work. You can move the hoop, of course, but it will warp the fabric and any stitches you’ve already done, so try to avoid that if you can.
If you are embroidering a piece too small to be held properly in a hoop and that is going to be attached to a garment (pocket, yoke, collar, etc.), you have two options:
a) embroider it before you cut out the pattern piece, so that you have a large piece of fabric to securely attach in the hoop/frame
b) cut out the pattern piece, MARK THE SEAMLINES IN ADVANCE, baste it nice and taut to a larger piece of fabric that can fit in the hoop/frame securely. In this case the fabric it has been basted to will be the stabilizer and will remain a part of the fabric, so be careful in case your main fabric is sheer or light and the stabilizing fabric shows through.
7. Stitches: There are thousands of different kinds of embroidery stitches. You are limited only by what you yourself can produce with consistent size and tension on the fabric and project you’re working on. A beautifully consistent running stitch or cross stitch will be a thousand times prettier and more professional than the fanciest needlelace produced with inconsistent spacing and tension.
Stitches will leave permanent marks if removed, particularly on a good dense fabric (or hide), so consider from the outset if you are likely to get tired of the design and want to tear it out. Simpler larger stitches will leave fewer marks and be easier to remove if in the future you want to.
8. Use more than just thread: Multimedia works beautifully with embroidery. Some things to consider include fabric paints, dyes, screen printing, markers, pencil crayons, regular crayons (test first for running but usually it’s fine), and needle felting (yes on clothes–this will work best on wools and other feltable fabrics).
This gorgeous painting/embroidery combo isn’t on a piece of clothing–but it could be. And Missoni in 2011 did some beautiful multimedia embellishments on their collection:
You can copy or trace one from a book or magazine. Sublime Stitching sells some nice pens and markers for making or tracing iron-on transfer patterns.
You can draw your own.
You can use simple designs that don’t need transfers, like a running stitch. In which case marking the stitch length and/or separation distance on a finger is the easiest way to produce consistent results.
You can trace the pattern or design directly to the fabric using a pencil, vanishing pen or a fine-tip sharpie/marker. Whatever you choose should be a fine enough line to be completely covered by your chosen thread.
You can use freezer paper or tracing paper, adhered or basted to the fabric, and sewn directly through.
IDEAS & INSPIRATION
A lot of the couture houses still do hand-embroidery as a staple part of their collections. To my mind Dolce and Gabbana and Chanel do it best, and I have stacks and stacks of pictures of their clothes torn from magazines for inspiration. But Google is your friend, too, if you just want to wander around and fall into a rabbit hole of pretty hand embroidered clothes. What they do–be warned–is not easy or quick. You’re probably talking a minimum of 40 hours just on the embroidery for any one of their garments, which is why they charge $10k for a dress.
D&G is my favourite. It would take me a year just to make one of their dresses–but holy cow. Those flowers are thread-paintings–and enormous, so probably a hundred hours or so each.
Vogue and Elle (and sometimes Bazaar) are the best sources for embroidered clothing pictures. In the meantime, some Ways You Can Use Embroidery on Clothing Textiles:
1. Create a design on a solid fabric. This is the one people tend to think of first. Think placement. If you look at the fancy-pants embroidered clothes, you’ll notice the designs are hardly ever centred, and they usually are on the bodice, near the neckline and/or waist. Embroidery draws attention, so think of embellishment as you would a necklace, belt, etc.
I can’t remember where I pulled the pattern from, but this has french knots, chain stitches, satin stitches, fern stitches and stem stitches, worked in crewel wool, glittery synthetic floss, and perle cotton.
I guess in this case I was thinking less “necklace or belt” and more “look at my butt.” But the embroidery is cute.
2. Complement or extend a design on a printed fabric. Outline a motif; add shading; fill something in; extend a flower with a bud. Put a bead or sequin in a flower centre. Thread paint over an existing printed element using the same colours for added texture.
3. Subvert a printed fabric. Put a spider or a fly near the flowers. Add a conversation bubble to a print with people on it, or change their clothes. Or give them little horns, or wings.
4. Completely overlay a printed fabric. Add words. Make a completely different kind of motif and just treat the existing pattern as a background: tattoo motif on a pretty floral. Pretty floral on an abstract or geometric print. Slogan on something retro or fussy.
5. Use blackwork stitches to provide a textured filling for an existing shape.
6. Use a running stitch for edge or top stitching. (Or another simple repeated stitch.) I did this on a shirt.
7. Whitework to add tone-on-tone texture to a solid or muted print
(Neither whitework nor blackwork need to be done with white or black threads; use a colour that suits the textile and project.)
9. A fancy line-stitch along a seamline, like a fly stitch. Or along a pin-tuck or pleat. One caveat: if you have a lot of pin-tucks or pleats, take extra care to keep your stitches the same so they all start and end the same, and at the same points.
10. Use waste canvas for any canvas stitching. Most common is cross-stitch but there’s lots of other options.
Bags in Bloom: Great, simple purse patterns with nice and fairly easy to execute embroidery patterns for them. I’ve made a few and I still love and use them. If you like the embroidery patterns but would prefer a more complex bag, it’s easy enough to put the embroidery on any bag pattern you like.
Inspirations: Best embroidery magazine anywhere. Not a lot of clothing projects, but most of the ideas are transferable. They do have a lot of small projects like pincushions, pouches, needlebooks, and so on, that are a good way to practice stitching skills and make something practical, and a few times a year will carry a beautiful purse pattern.
Cross Stitcher: British cross-stitch magazine with lots of cute and modern project and pattern ideas. Of course, it’s all cross stitch, but they do it well.
There are no good embroidery magazines in North America. I don’t know why. South Africa, Australia and the UK seem to be where most of the really good publications and artists are based.
So hey. This was an enormous pile of information. I hope it was of some use to those of you who are thinking about adding decorative hand stitching to clothes.
There’s a similar learning curve to embroidery as there is to garment sewing, and you’ll likely find as you go that projects that look amazing to you now look pretty handmade in a year or two. Just like with handmade clothes, that’s not necessarily a problem, and no one who doesn’t sew or embroider is likely to notice.
The big difference is this: embroidery takes a lot more time than sewing.
Like an order of magnitude more time.
It’s a good idea to consider the time investment relative to your skill level when thinking about embroidering a piece of clothing. When you make a dress that took fifteen hours and in two years you realize that the seams are wonky and the hem’s crooked, it kind of sucks, but it only took fifteen hours. When you make a dress that takes fifteen hours to put together and then embroider it with a fancy design that takes forty hours, that’s now a total of 55 hours for a dress, and if you decide in two years that the dress is fine but the embroidery is amateurish–that lost time investment is going to smart more. It’ll be easier to swallow if the embroidery only took three hours because you kept it simple, or if the garment was fairly basic and didn’t take long to assemble.
That said, you should totally do it. Embroidered clothing is still better. Just recognize that you’re at the begging of a learning process similar to but much more complicated than the learning process involved in sewing your own clothes.
If I have the time and attention span, I might write a few posts in the next little while looking at an embroidered garment (couture or historical or whatever) and talking about what kind of embroidery it is, what you can figure out by looking at it, how it was done, and so on. What do you think? Is that something you’d like to read?
They are just the cutest. Aren’t they just the cutest? Look at the cute. Two itty bitty birds being all cuddly on a branch.
You can see why this was the companion piece for the LOVE cross-stitch. Dear Readers, if these two birds don’t love each other, I’ll eat my tea mug.
It’s a Trish Burr pattern from her book, Colour Confidence in Embroidery. Most of the book is an in-depth discussion of how to achieve shading effects in thread-painting, with examples of different kinds and colours of shading used in different ways. I expect it will be an enormously useful reference book basically forever. It also has a smaller section of thread-painting projects in the back, sorted by colour, to demonstrate the shading. This was one of those (it’s also a variation on the project she uses on the front page of her website, if you want to click through and see how a real expert does it).
The top fabric is a scrap of the cotton satin I used for my math skirt last summer; it has a lovely, subtle sheen. The backing fabric, underlined in the standard method, is a stiff white cotton muslin. They were then stretched taut in the kind of plastic hoop frame that has an inner groove to prevent things from slipping. I used a standard pencil to trace the pattern; next time I’ll use a mechanical to get a finer line. Don’t try to erase a mistake. The eraser left a larger mark on my fabric than the misplaced pencil did.
Having finally tried a project from this book, a review:
The picture to trace to the fabric worked, but could have been better labelled. What’s labelled as the “neck” on the diagram, when you actually get into the instructions, is actually the upper part of the chest. A couple of things are a slightly different size or angle from the pattern diagram to her finished example. I’m assuming that’s simply because she took one of her own finished works, made for herself, and reverse-engineered it for publication. You’d expect a few differences to creep in. None of the errors are significant, but do be prepared for an inconsistency here and there.
More concerning, the colours are represented in the book’s photography don’t always match the colours in the embroidery flosses she tells the reader to use. They’re close; it’s not like the picture shows purple and you buy the thread# she says and it turns out to be green. But going by the project photography, I was expecting something with a warmer tint throughout than what I got by following the instructions. Whether or how this will affect the usefulness of the prior section on colour shading (all of which also has photographs and thread#s) I can’t yet say.
I also learned some things that I shouldn’t have needed to learn because I knew them already and chose to disregard them:
Will your clean hands leave oil marks and stains on the white fabric? Yes.
Will you be able to wash those stains out afterwards? No.
Will they respond to bleach? Also no.
When you wash it, will the top fabric and the backing fabric shrink differently, even though they have been pre-washed? Quite possibly.
Will you curse yourself for having ignored the recommendations for avoiding these, after having spent so many hours making it? Absolutely.
Next time, will you promise to cover the project with white tissue paper when you’re not working on it, and when you handle the frame, will you do so with a piece of clean, plain white cotton between your hand and the project? Yes. A million times yes. And then yes some more.
It’s still a nice project, but I’m kicking myself for not having taken these minor extra steps to prevent this from happening. And I’ve learned my lesson. Next time (and there will be a next time; I’m definitely a thread-painting addict now)–fabric protection! Very key!
At any rate, it has been framed and added to the wall and our sofa is cuter than ever.
She loves to read, and if the gifts she’s accumulated in her house over many decades are any guide, she loves little embroidered things.
Either that, or people have been giving them to her for years and she’s been too nice to say she hates them. In which case, I have added to her stockpile of unwanted embroidered things, and I apologize.
Being me, I couldn’t leave the directions alone, and had to “improve” upon them. I did this in two ways: 1) The use of hand-dyed linen instead of the white irish linen recommended, and 2) using a bit of buckram in the middle to stiffen it, instead of cardstock or stiff paper.
The linen was maybe not the best choice. This was a piece from the bug juice test dyeing of a few years back, and it is a lovely shade of pink (Aunt Sue, please don’t think about it being stained with the blood of dead lady cactus beetles). The colour contrasts quite well with the butterfly colours. But the linen is quite fine which, while perfect for less heavy embroidery, turned out to be a challenge for thread painting. There is so much thread and it is so thickly layered, and it’s hard to be precise with needle placement when the fabric warp and weft are placed rather spaciously. I think it turned out ok, but it could have been better, for sure.
The buckram would have been a fantastic idea, if I’d remembered about turn of cloth and not cut out a piece exactly as big as the finished bookmark. Once I’d sewn it together, flipped it around, and then topstitched it flat, it buckled in the middle something fierce. Very disappointing.
I got that far just before Christmas but couldn’t bring myself to mail a wobbly bookmark to my Aunt.
And there it sat for three months.
Just before her birthday I finally straightened my head out, took out the seams, removed the buckram, cut off a quarter inch from the top and one side, put the buckram back in, and sewed it all up again, after pressing as many of the creases out as I could. So much better. Now it’s smooth and much less wonky looking.
I know some people are big fans of wonky but it’s not a look that works well with thread painting.
Aunt Sue is a lovely, warm-hearted, generous, and unbelievably positive woman with a kind word for everyone and a possibly limitless capacity for forgiveness. It was a lot of fun to make her a little something. Here’s hoping the next time I do, I’ll remember to mail it before at least one of its intended celebrations.
I read a number of years ago in Snoop that motivational posters are essentially a form of self-talk, and one of the most reliable external indicators of a neurotic temperament. Science. Gotta love it. Apparently people buy them, not to communicate to other people their commitment to Excellence or Overcoming Fear or Success, but to remind themselves of the kinds of people they want to be.
It made me incredibly insecure about anything that might be considered a motivational poster in any of my spaces. Oh my god. I’m advertising my neuroticism. Laying bare my inadequacies for the viewing pleasure of any passing pizza delivery person.
One exception to this rule has been this poster:
Proudly displayed right above the sofa, for many years now. Except at Christmas when it’s replaced by a seasonal cross-stitch. Anyway:
Backstory is that our former PM, Harper, had a very anti-science and secretive attitude, and this artist, Franke James, was outright censored by the government for her views on climate change. You can read her story elsewhere, but James put together a series of posters and stickers, and a really funny book, about her experiences. And this is one of those posters. (I also have the book. Worth reading.)
True to Snoop form, it is of course a statement to myself of the kind of person I want to be: committed to environmental values, willing to take an unpopular stand to communicate my commitment to environmental values.
But since the election of Justin Trudeau in the fall, it is also out of date.
Cue parade, streamers, marching band. Hurray! So glad it’s out of date!
This meant it needed to be replaced. And the sooner the better. I don’t want to have to look at any Harper Era reminders for any longer than I have to.
It’s been replaced by this:
Soon to be joined by the most adorable little threadpainting. It’s going to be a corner of nauseating sweetness. Frances and I will snuggle up with Simba and talk about our days under a nice little “LOVE” banner (plus the threadpainting), possibly while using the critter cuddle quilt. Maybe I’ll call it the Saccharine Seat.
The backing fabric is a hand-dyed aida bought at Gitta’s Charted Petit Point (favourite embroidery store in the known universe, Dear Readers. Did you know you can buy embroidery fabric off the bolt?). What I love about hand-dyed aida is, well, first off the colours are fabulous, but I also find the slight mottling introduced by the hand-dyeing process tricks the eye into seeing it as a regular fabric, at least from certain distances, rather than a grid.
Never let it be said that I lack self-awareness, Dear Readers. (Though it’s true sometimes.)
I could say I made it just because of how wonderfully the colours work with the grey-blue walls. I love the contrast between warm and cool. Give me a room to decorate, I’ll put a warm or cool colour on the walls, and then the opposite for the furniture and fixings. And the golds in the cross-stitch work so well with the golds in all the other art hung over the couch.
And I could talk about how mentally I have just not been up for sewing. The massive purge has contributed, yes–but even then. Sewing (even pouches and tote bags) requires a kind of focus and concentration I haven’t had much of. Whereas cross stitch is like paint by numbers on fabric. You can set yourself up on the sofa with something on the TV and just plug away, one little x at a time, and as long as you count correctly, you’ll end up with something gorgeous. But that begs a whole other question, doesn’t it?
The TV appears to be important, because otherwise I end up fruitlessly ruminating on unhappy memories.
And you don’t want to hear about it, but fruitlessly ruminating over unhappy memories is, in the main, incompatible with a hobby that requires focus, concentration, some math, and the use of machines with strong engines and sharp edges. An easy, mindless project that can be carried out on the couch while watching sci-fi shows is much more the thing.
According to WordPress I’ve written about 25 versions of the rest of this post. Not that I’m indecisive or anything, but apparently I can’t decide how to end this. Dear Readers, let’s try #26:
Once upon a time, a young girl at daycare stared, puzzled, at a boy who was sobbing brokenheartedly as his mother left. “Why would you cry,” she wondered, “just because your mother is leaving?”
She thought about this hard all day, but her thinking brought her no closer to an answer. She decided to try this for herself, the next time her mother dropped her off there, and she did. Wailed. Her mother left and the daycare workers comforted her. “Nope,” she thought. “I still don’t get it.”
She would never cry for missing her mother. Not once, in her entire life. There was nothing to miss. Her relationship with her mother was like a three-prong electrical cord trying to fit into a two-prong outlet, like the outline of where a person should be. Fear, anger, and sadness were subject to evaluation and her reasons for being scared, sad or angry were never good enough. Eventually nothing would make her cry–not disease, not death–not where anyone could see, but she suspects the jewelry box she hid a scalpel and a bottle of aspirin in is probably still in storage with the rest of her childhood things.
One day she would find herself in a psychologist’s office, after having made so many mistakes that she could no longer chalk them up to circumstance, and realizing that she didn’t know what to do with her life except try to fit three-prong electrical cords into two-prong outlets. That psychologist would have a number of things to say, like, “I don’t know why you still have a relationship with those people,” and “Asking why is pointless. A doormat can ask the feet that walk on it for a million years why they’re walking on it. If it really doesn’t want to be walked on, it needs to roll itself up and go under the chair,” and “You are more disconnected from your emotions than anyone I’ve ever met.”
A lot of it wouldn’t make any sense at the time, but would become clearer as the years passed, until she was able to say to herself, “I don’t know why I have a relationship with these people either.” Until she became the kind of person who regularly wore waterproof mascara and carried kleenex in her purse, who was teased by her daughter for crying at everything. Who learned that crazy doesn’t look like crazy from the inside, that the people closest to a situation often see it least clearly, that children normalize whatever it is they’ve grown up with. That Philip Larkin is at least a little bit wrong, and so are The Clod and The Pebble.
That people who have grown up in houses with empty outlines instead of people develop a sense of humour that is quite distinct and often not appreciated, and she could find her tribe by telling a joke and seeing who laughs.
That people only change when they want to, and they almost never want to. Dragged to the edge of a cliff, held by the collar of their shirt over the edge, while life says “change or die.” They’d rather fall. They do fall, reciting a litany of reasons why falling was inevitable, why falling isn’t actually falling, why they’re falling up instead of down, why actually everyone is falling and those clowns standing there looking so smug are falling too even if they won’t admit it. It was a kind of gift, she knows, to have been dragged to the right cliff at just the right time. It wasn’t a given.
Eventually plenty of tears would be shed over what should have filled that outline–the words, gestures, and expressions that might have existed, but didn’t–a kind of meta-missing. Like missing a friend you’ve never had. A country you’ve never seen. But decades of looking for what wasn’t and couldn’t be there would eventually drive home the point that if it was to be found, it would need to be found elsewhere; and that regardless, it would need to be begged, borrowed, stolen, bought, or created out of popsicle sticks and duct tape, for her daughter.
(That part didn’t turn out to be so hard. Her daughter is pretty lovable.)