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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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Monday, September 7, 2015

On girls

Several thoughts.

First thanks for your comments, they have me thinking.

Before I get into that I want to share a something a colleague said to me recently.

He told me that, surprisingly, his early teen daughter had really got into sewing her own clothes and was more or less obsessed with it. He told me this because I was the only person I think he had ever met in his life who sewed.

He told me about his daughter's sewing with a tinge of embarrassment. He and his wife are intellectual and very professionally engaged. It was as if her interest in sewing was a detour down.

So I went on long and loud on how sewing is, on the contrary, a highly empowering activity for a young girl.

Let's face it the teenage years are usually not the best for most girls, even worse now I imagine with social media comparisons. Most of us feel better, and feel better about ourselves and look better as we get older.

I was a teenager in a time when you were supposed to be small, blond, and perky. That was it. If you weren't you were falling short of everyone's expectations and you sure knew it.

I was 5'9" in grade seven. My skin broke out. A teacher once handed back my class picture and laughed. My mother discussed my hair and my skin about eight hundred times a day with members of the general public, trying to figure out why I didn't look like my next youngest sister, who had gorgeous hair, skin, and yes played sports well too. My dad bought me golf clubs and hoped maybe I would take up a quirky sport at least (he was about 30 years too early on that one), he liked the young crowd that hung around the golf club, who of course were the same kids who looked right through me at school.

It was not my prime time I can tell you.

I know, as I am sure most of you do too, how acutely a young girl feels judged by her appearance at that age and how much her sense of self is defined by how she feels other people are seeing her.

Of course the gawky part of being a teenager is largely because of things you can't control, but you are not that fair to yourself at this age to understand this.

However I could sew, or at least was learning to. I could decide what I wanted to look like, what I looked good in, what I felt good in, what I aspired to be, and I had the power to make that happen myself. Somewhere I knew that I was a person who was going to do just fine and have an interesting life, even if no one else seemed to believe that, and I sewed for, and dressed that person.

Sewing taught me the most valuable of life lessons - if you want something to happen, make it yourself.

So even if I was tall and gawky and never going to be small and blond and perky I had something to show the world that could be admired, that could make me proud of how I looked. 

When folks came to the house I would be trooped out and displayed "Barbara made this herself." Grown women would tell me, sometimes even accurately, that they could never make anything like that. In Grade Ten and teacher said to me "are those really bound buttonholes?"

Well yes they are.

Sewing took what could have been a painful time in my life and turned it into one of my life's most creative periods.

It taught me to create my own substance when that isn't exactly being delivered to the door with a bow.

Again and again through my life I have been able to turn to sewing for the strength I have sometimes needed to recreate myself.

Anyone can learn to golf later.

And I did.


Carolyn (Diary of a Sewing Fanatic) said...

This is so true! I was that gawky extra skinny teenager with too big glasses on whose face was always in a book but I could sew. Meaning that I could make anything I wanted to wear and did! We should encourage more young women to sew so that they can express themselves and learn what's special about them too!

mrsmole said...

I'm with Carolyn...books and the sewing machine was my friend. Sports to me was a silly waste of time and as for golf...that is for old women who have given up doing everything else. Your blog makes me laugh and have deep thoughts all at the same time. Sewing gives us an identity that no one can take away. It is your personal vehicle to the unknown and the creative and delicious. It brings you weird clients and frantic brides and in the end if you desire...good money in my case. Who wants to be a short blond anyway?

Anonymous said...

I had never thought of my sewing at an early age as something that gave me more confidence but now that you bring it up, I realize it did. I did it because I am short and could not afford or fit off the rack clothing. But it allowed me to be creative and wear clothes that were flattering. People tell me I dress well but I think it is mostly because my clothing fits...which is something sewing taught me.

sewingkm said...

Love these last 2 posts Barbara. I was not a confident teen (rather shy and never part of the "in crowd") but I loved to sew and became quite accomplished in the craft. I sewed for myself, my mom, and my mother's friends who made me feel good about myself. As mentioned previously I teach teenagers to sew hoping to give them some selfworth and keep the craft alive. I now realize the great gift I have been given. Karen

badmomgoodmom said...

I was one of the Title IX girls and practiced sports 20-30 hr/wk. I also made my clothes because it was hard to buy RTW for both fit and $ reasons.

Sewing and sports made me feel good about my non-standard body because my body could do things that most others can't. I didn't feel self-conscious about my body because my clothes fit my body and budget and were comfortable.

The cool girls thought it was cool that I sewed my clothes.

Kendra said...

Sewing is not just for creative expression; it's a great opportunity for problem solving! As most would agree, very few projects go perfectly smoothly. It takes critical thinking skills to determine a problem, decide on a possible solution and execute it. It doesn't always work out, but even then sewing is a way to fail productively! Because sewists also learn best by learning from their mistakes.

Bunny said...

I hope that couple understood what you were trying to tell them. I was a teen who found peace in sewing. It kept me in my bedroom focused on task, all in the midst of six closely born brothers who at any given time could be found wrestling, screaming, fighting and all the other crazy sib stuff boisterous young boys do. It was a haven in my teen years and I love how it gave me the clothes I wanted. Great post, Barb.

Unknown said...

Oh I LOVE this post!! I, too, am 5'9" and was at an early age. Size 9 feet in the 5th grade? Check. Towering above the boys? Check. Bad skin and no self-confidence? Check. Clothes didn't fit right? Check. And, I wanted to be able to sew, but my mother was taught to practically worship patterns - as in, whatever was printed was how it had to be, and alter a pattern? Never. Ever. So, I never was able to make clothes that fit me and ended up dropping sewing. She, of course, at 5' 6" and sporting a figure that was practically a copy of the pattern measurements for a perfect size 12, never had a need for any substantial changes.

By the way - bound buttonholes in the 10th grade? I bow to you. :)

I'm hoping my daughter will someday decide to learn to sew. She is very tall ( 5'11") but she has almost no patience with anything and sewing it just to frustrating for her. Maybe with a little more maturity she will change

theresa said...

I sewed because I had to. We couldn't afford store bought. But sewing became an outlet. I'm not very feminine in appearance and liked odd things like sci fi, country music (in the wild 60's early 70s rock and roll), wood working and reading. Sewing was considered girly and suddenly I fit. I'm still not ultra feminine, still like wood working and building things, and have discovered a sewing machine is just another power tool - for fabric.

Lyndle said...

Lovely. I didn't sew much as a teen (we had school uniforms so didn't need many clothes) but as an adult, I was kind of gutted when I realised being short meant clothes would always look dorky on me even when I was slim. (I only realised this when I lived in London and could buy 'petite' clothes with arms that didn't hang off my fingertips and a waistline that wasn't at my hips. Up to then, I thought I was just the wrong shape). So when I started to be skilled enough to sew things that fitted, it was the most tremendous liberation from the demoralising round of shopping and just buying something, anything, that I could get over my hips and didn't look totally ridiculous.
Every teenage girl deserves the liberation of a creative endeavour that fits her body, as it is, and makes her look good.

Anonymous said...

Understanding that making the focus about 'what a body can do' rather than 'what a body looks like' is such a helpful approach. It's a great outlook that can lead to knowing how to be comfortable living in our own skin rather than constantly yearning to be something or someone else.

How wonderful for anyone to discover and absorb this approach as an adolescent. It came to me much later but it's great that it can happen at any age.
Thanks for sharing

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I sewed as a teen too. We didn't have much of a budget for clothes so I learned how to sew my own clothes, using remnants from our local fabric store. It's amazing how even very basic skills can create gorgeous garments. I made shorts and simple jackets, and then all of my formal dresses. Soon, people who'd never spoken to me before were asking if I made what I was wearing. Sewing become a way for a shy kid to create an identity. My friends asked me to teach them to sew. With their help, I made the costumes for our senior play.

I'm now teaching my friend's teenage daughter to sew. She's amazed by what she can create with her own two hands. I think it's a skill every girl should have.

Digs said...

Did you point your colleague at all the sewing blogs and the beautiful and very varied "made by me" garments they showcase? From utilitarian to professional to artistic, with sewing for one's nearest and dearest often part of the mix? And, did you point out to him that, though this isn't obvious from each and every post of every blog, many of us have been sewing since we were very young, and still became well educated professionals. And, conversely, many of us who are already professionals also took up sewing. The very idea that sewing is a symptom of... what, stupidity??? as this fellow's concern seems to imply, is sooo giggle-worthy. He ought to be reassured about his daughter's commitment to her new skill - she's throwing herself into what she wants with a passion. This is a very positive character trait - she'll apply this same passion to other endeavours in future! Right now, maybe she's finding high school - academically &/or socially - just too boring, or at least unrewarding, and (clearly) needs another outlet for her energies?

As an aside, in my home (and both my husband and I are pretty well educated, with PhD's in science and we both held tenured professorships) the word "intellectual" is used as an epithet, as in: "f***ing intellectual" - synonymous with useless, unable to do anything whatsoever. This man's daughter rocks!

Anonymous said...

I sewed because I had to - I had to create. Sewing was a dorky thing to do in the area where I grew up, but I couldn't help myself - I was bitten by the bug. I really didn't get much choice in the fabrics or patterns that were available to me, but I created because it was just part of who I was. It probably helped that I was a shy wall flower that nobody took much notice of, but I spent every moment I could at my sewing machine, challenging myself to learn new techniques and taking pride in creating the clothes I wore. I still sew because it is who I am.

Lois K

Nursebennett said...

I love this post. As a young, abused girl, I had control of nothing in my life, but I could sew. I could create things that were lovely to me, and often those were the only lovely things about my surroundings. A blessed escape. Thank you for writing this.

Anne said...

I was a tall gawky introverted booky (called 'swotty ') teenager, not in the in crowd. 5'10" at 12 and big feet - for a long time, only boys' shoes available as ladies' sizes were stilettos. Clothes didn't fit. Skirts too short for stockings or rather really stockings too short for me so showing below skirt when sitting (pre tights -they revolutionised my life!) I didn't sew, we didn't at school. I did golf, netball, hockey, swim, badminton tennis.. In these, I wore a uniform and fitted in better. I gave them all up when I went away to university. I took up sewing after I retired from my profession. I can still learn how to do that. Oh, and I still golf having taken it up again in my late 40s. Would sewing when I was younger have helped? I'm not sure but my hems would have been lower in skirts and trousers. I wore the mini pre-mini! Teenage fashion didn't exist in those days so that wasn't an issue.

Summer Flies said...

"Sewing taught me the most valuable of life lessons - if you want something to happen, make it yourself." You know I think that statement actually sums me up without me having been able to articulate it or even knowing it. Until very recently I wasn't actually aware of my tenacity and now I know comes from sewing. I never looked at a pattern and thought I couldn't do it, I thought I like it and I'll follow the instructions and I'll make it. I just never gave up. I didn't know that a welt pocket could be tricky, I just followed the steps and it's only with experience that you know if you cut right into the corner it will be ok for example. I wasn't (and still am not) that interested in following fashion or keeping up with trends but I loved making my clothes and now I recognise (due to some other big difficult things I had to do myself) that I won't be beaten and I don't give up.

LinB said...

I started sewing at age eight, because my mother made it look like so much fun. By the time I was forced to enroll in home economics in junior high school (girls MUST take home ec., boys MUST take shop class, no exceptions) I could sew rings around our instructor.

Sewing has always been a great comfort to me, especially in unsettled times. When you cut a piece of fabric, and stitch it to another piece, you've accomplished something concrete, something that does not evaporate into nothingness at the whim of societal upheavals.

Women in my family have long supported themselves financially by "taking in" sewing, for which I am grateful. Had they not kept themselves and their children from starving during and after the War Between the States, and during the Great Depression, I would not exist.

The art of translating a two-dimensional material to fit a three-dimensional body requires high thought processes, including some fairly involved mathematics and a great deal of spatial imaging. Fostering these neural pathways can only be good for a young person. It is certainly good for an older person!

Haberdasher Limited said...

So true!! Thanks for sharing, appreciate the touch of personality you always add

bbarna said...

I started sewing at age 11. It was my creative outlet, a great way to stretch my babysitting money and increase my wardrobe. I was a tall teenager too. My father tried to nix my sewing hobby as it reminded him of poorer times when his mom made clothes for the family. I ignored him and kept going.