Sewing with less stress Front

Sewing with less stress Front
My newest sewing book

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Sewing with less stress back cover
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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



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Saturday, March 13, 2010

On muscle memory and dealing with my ambitions

I was reading some random article that was really about something else this week about muscle memory. The quick and too-simple explanation of this from what I understood, was that once you do something enough your brain builds little default messages to your muscles so you can do things without having to think about them when you do them. This is why our mouths know how to move to say words without having to think about it every time we speak (and this explains why when you try to pronounce a word in a foreign language it feels like you can't force your own mouth to do it even thought a two year old in that country can do it so well. It also explains why we have accents in other languages - our old English speaking muscle memories get in the way and don't give up). Which explains why sometimes it may seem as if it is too hard to learn new things, too much training gets in the way and all that new muscle teaching hurts. That's the down side and why older people can both be so set in their ways and also, as the flip side, can have a facility with something they have done all their lives that it just takes your breath away. Think of a group of over 75 church ladies working the kitchen, or watching a grandmother crochet. Or me threading a sewing machine.

Now the part that really interests me about this though was the possibility that it is possible at any stage to build new little neuron pathways in your brain to build new muscle memory. Improvements are good and the new piece for me was that if I struggle to learn something new, it's just because I have so many super duper muscle memories already built in that the new stuff is going to take time to push that all over and fit in some new pathways.

Don't you love what I can do with science?

All of this made me decide to stick with new skill learning and not to get frustrated if it was a lot of work.

Which brings me of course to my sock knitting. I have just decided I am going to learn to knit socks. As has been previously identified I am very interested in doing things for my family and the way I see it everyone has feet and socks aren't a sometimes thing, they are an everyday thing, and a person who would be knitting good socks would be doing something useful. (If anyone else out there grew up on the Canadian prairies you will understand without my explaining why usefulness is in there deeper than even muscle memory - it's almost prenatal where I come from).

The only problem with this of course is that I don't knit, not really.

So here illustrated are my first almost finished DH socks. Parts of these socks have been ripped out and reknitted so often that the stitches in place are almost fluffy with fraying, the cuff of one is also sort of coffee coloured because I was so involved in trying to reknit the heel on one (I can't remember if DH has pointy heels, I hope so) that I threw the other one onto the bedside table where it landed, cuff first, in a cold cup of coffee.

The only thing that is keeping me going (apart from the fact that the process is kind of interesting) is my memory, mental not muscle, of how it was when I learned to sew about 45 years ago. I remember an awful lot of failures and weird outfits (I could write a how-not-to dress book) for decades really but somehow I kept at it (I think because I really love fabric) and eventually things started to turn out. Often.

My assumption is that my next pair of socks will be better. Or maybe that will be a the pair after this one. I only seem to be able to absorb one improvement at a time.

What I have learned this far is that having the right number of stitches on the needles and keeping the exact specific number of stitches on the needles that they tell you too really matters.

A lot.

Unlike sewing where you can always make up fixes or at least hope it will look better when it's ironed, knitting is pretty precise.

Now I wonder if my brain can grow those channels.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


I just re-read what I wrote this morning and wondered if I should take it down. That silverware story when I see it in print really embarrasses me. But maybe I should leave it as it is to remind myself what a dingbat I can be.

Who knew that when your kids grew up you had to do it too?

About time, I think, about time.

On A line skirts and silverware

I had a great time in the States and am back at home now alone in the house with the two dogs doing the last six weeks of term. (Youngest son is surfing for six weeks in Indonesia, yes I know the tsunamis, if you have a prayer list put Ben on it, I already have my mom and dear mother-in-law on the case, what can you do? Kids drive you crazy).

I loved Tennessee and once I was down there and met the folks DH is working with and understood that the work was very interesting and that they needed him I felt better about him being there. He really enjoys his career and this is the most interesting thing he has ever done. I also think Southerners are terrific and very much in some ways like people here on the East coast of Canada, very polite and pretty laid back.

I also had a great time in Washington with my middle son who now lives and works there. He too is doing great and I can really see he is in his element. The fact is his element isn't here anymore, nothing personal Mom, and in fact if he could live in New York he would. He told me that if he can he would just like to stay in the States because that's where he's happy. He has outgrown this place.

All perfectly reasonable if you are a 26 year old guy but not the kind of statement that brings out my best behaviour. I have, in middle age, developed a wonderful ability to start crying at any time, and the rule of sons is You Never Cry. However I did and of course wish I hadn't. I just kept having these old images of him.

Anyway the thing that bothers me most is that this kid doesn't really need me right now. That is hard for me. I am a doer, I sew, sometimes I would rather be in the kitchen at a party doing the dishes and talking to one person that out in the front room making small talk. I would rather walk your dog than sit and have tea. 

The fact is what does a 26 year old guy need a 56 year old mother for? Right now not much. I sat in my hotel room and figured this out. It is that right now he is working out a good life for himself and there really isn't a role in it for me. Probably shouldn't be either.

He and I are and have always been very close and this is something I have to work through. You see I help my daughter a lot, I babysit, I do her errands when she is home sick, and I do things for my surfer son too. While he is away I am taking care of his dog and I have a list, for example a summer course I have to enrol in for him. I don't want to be in the middle of their lives, and I am not, but I am needed and have a role. 

Which leads me to the silverware.

My son has been eating off some cheap plastic cutlery but found the previous tenant had left a large wooden box of old silver. While I was there he asked me how to clean it and I told him he had to get some Silvo and that I wanted to clean his silver for him. He of course told me I was crazy and I didn't come all the way to Washington DC to do his housework (man I would have paid him a $100 for the chance to get down on my knees and do his floors, you wouldn't believe the dust I saw on those baseboards too).

I will now turn this over to his conversation with his sister, as reported by my daughter who found the whole thing hysterical:

D: How was your visit with Mom?
S: Great but she had a complete nervous break down in Bath and Beyond.

D: How so?
S: She was clutching two bottles of Silvo and she grabbed my arm and wouldn't let go and her eyes filled up with tears and she said through clenched teeth "You-have-to-let-me-clean-your-silver." Completely lost it in the store.  Even wanted to take it all back to the hotel with her and clean it at night. Like she wouldn't look like a crazy woman going up the elevator in downtown DC with a box full of silver and two bottles Silvo.

S: I don't get it. She is such an intelligent woman, so smart and funny and then she goes just nuts. This isn't who she is.

Well I am sharing this story so the next time you go berserko  with one of your children you have a very high standard to judge your own behaviour against. I think I have set the bar pretty high here for a performance by a poorly adjusted needy mother.

Obviously I have a little work to do here. Somewhere along the line I had the idea that I was going to get smarter as I got older. Unfortunately it appears that in middle age you have to learn it all over again and in fact the challenges and learning aren't going to stop. 


But obviously I am going to get this together. No point in taking a great relationship and eroding it because you can't adapt. Not going to do that.

I have been thinking about a family member who has always referred to my children as coming from a "broken home" even though that was a long time ago, even though I have very happily remarried. (Thank you mom for always saying, "no that's a healed home.") This same person has also said on several occasions that she wondered if this son moved away because of the disruption of the divorce, as in if their dad hadn't left he wouldn't have either. It has been really hard on me wondering if I blew it.

But you know it's not about me at all, it's about him and really he just is happy with the life he is making for himself.

All mothers should be this lucky.

Which brings me seamlessly to the issue of an A line skirt.

When I got home I got a bit of a flu and rather than doing more work, work that had piled up while I was away, I decided I needed some restorative sewing, but nothing too demanding.

I had read somewhere in one of the library borrowed style books that every woman should own an A line skirt. Well I haven't owned or worn one since high school. I have been making just about every other style of skirt since and mostly wear lined straight skirts with a back vents to work. I actually hate sewing those skirts. I hate sewing back vents, I find them fussy, and these skirts are something I make because I need one, not something I want to sew.

I also realized that as of the end of this month I am taking three months off and won't be needing any new work clothes until the middle of the summer.

So I dragged out my old Ottobre's and found a pattern for a basic slightly A line skirt that had received great reviews on Pattern Review and found some old corduroy that I had bought for I don't know what a while ago ( a bag?) I also have not sewn corduroy since high school.

I cut it out and did the zipper, seams, darts and lining last night and hope to finish this today with an invented elastic faced top. The pattern calls for Petersham which I have used before and didn't like - a bit like wearing a tape measure around your waist all day IMO.

I have nothing that will go with this skirt, being trapped in black and grey for years, but will see how it goes.

Oh, and I forgot. My son did say that he would be interested in me making some shirts. I have a few nice pieces from Michael's in Baltimore and amazoned David Coffin's shirtmaking book yesterday. Must start some shirt research of my own too.

It's a start on the road to recovering some of my common sense, I hope. But I sure want to make those shirts pretty great.