For years, “Learn to use a sewing machine” made it on every new year’s resolution and goal list for almost a decade. I had all the support in the world on this, too: a new sewing machine from Adrian, sewing classes at a craft store as a birthday gift from my sister, lessons from my mom, who used to sew our outfits in the 70’s…and nothing.
Sewing machines are still machines, after all. I’m not the greatest with machinery. Especially the kind with whirring gears and pedals and needles rushing up and down at high speeds. It seems to take forever while also going too fast. I gave up and gave my kid my machine so they could make their cosplay outfits.
The truth is, I like to sew by hand. I know this is supposedly a waste of my human time. That if I want to, say, sew my own clothing—a big motivation for learning how to sew, given my frustration with what the fashion industry cannot apparently make to fit me—then sewing by hand will not cut it unless we enter some apocalypse time where everyone is going around in stitched-together rags.
In the last few years, my main craft has switched from crochet to embroidery. I love crochet, but my wrists were wearing out and I’d gotten tired of making hats and I just don’t have the patience required for piecing together a sweater. Plus, crochet patterns for sweaters don’t tend to be anything I would want to wear. For lots of reasons, then, I ditched the hook and picked up the needle.
I rely on crafting for two important reasons. One, it lets me feel okay about sitting still and watching TV, because my hands are still busy. And two, it’s helpful in social situations, where I have to meet new people or listen to something (a reading, a presentation, a choir concert), because if I feel bored or anxious, then I have another thing to focus on which doesn’t require tons of eye contact. Often “what are you making?” is a nice question that cracks the tension for me.
My embroidery started with project kits that I got in the mail with a monthly stitch club subscription. (This is the club and I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn.) This monthly project was the gateway drug; its arrival was a banner day for me. Soon, I started collecting pattern books and transfer pattern packs. I scoured my local thrift stores for embroidery thread and wood hoops. I made two sets of Santa’s reindeer for my mom and sister. I started gifting the framed hoops like crazy. I found Etsy designers that appealed to my aesthetic (love this one in particular.)
What always happens to me with crafts is that I get overly preoccupied about the utility of what I’m making. This is why I don’t do jigsaw puzzles—where’s the end product? —or embroider kitchen towels—how could you make such painstaking beauty and then subject it to such abuse? —or collect kitchen wares and pottery that can’t also be deployed as a flower vase or ashtray or serving platter. I’ve been unduly shamed by the famed William Morris’ exhortation: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
What happened after I hit the limit of gifting embroidery projects was facilitated by my husband, who was traveling for work and sending links of a kind of sewing he thought I’d find interesting.
Visible mending some called it; sashiko and boro were other terms commonly invoked. Sashiko is a type of Japanese embroidery, with its own traditions and patterns. Boro is the effect you get over time when you mend the same item over and over (sometimes using sashiko patterns). I don't know everything about this tradition or word and there are probably a lot of claims made about it by non-Japanese people in a crashingly obvious American bid to make money, I'm sure. Here's a place you can start if you're curious.
But it seems clear that what drove "boro" as a clothing tradition was a basic lack of resources. If there is just one jacket or fishing net or blanket, and no replacement supplies or money for new, you must repair the damaged item so you can use it again. Mend it and patch it because there is no other choice. Poverty, then, creates an heirloom entirely unique to a family.
This type of needlework has become very popular in crafting and sewing circles. It represents a type of aesthetic approach to clothing and goods, one where we care long-term for the clothes on our bodies, and the quilts on our beds, and the linens in our kitchens. We repair what we love, noting the damage with our stitches.
This whole concept led me in a new direction. Not just with going around patching up things—a pair of favorite jeans with a worn-out inner thigh for one friend, the busted-out crotch of Adrian’s corduroys—but it also made me think about what kinds of things I should bother buying or owning. What was really worth being mended.
I began with all the quilts and blankets in our home, checking for wear and rips and holes. I made patches. I reinforced edges. I added silly decorative stitches. This chore expanded to go year-round and requires a constant yet delightful vigilance. I collect fabric in prints and colors that please me, so I can have lots of good patch material to choose from.
Then things escalated, and I was searching for old worn vintage quilts for sale online and in thrift stores. Quilts that had been made with love and much planning and care yet had been tossed out or donated by someone who had no idea that they could be fixed. Or maybe thought, incorrectly, that the fix necessary required a precise, perfect hand.
Nights watching movies with my family, I’m stitching, the quilt needing upkeep over my lap, keeping me warm. Even after much attention, the quilts I repair never look the same as they were before. It’s not a restoration but a kind of reimagination. I reinforce stitches. I add patches. I stitch coiling spirals to bolster up damaged spots. This isn’t anything I could do with a machine, and it takes a long time, and it’s never supposed to be finished. These old quilts become something new, always changing over time, just like our bodies, just like everything else that’s made, and broken, and re-made again.
like what I make?