Why I Need To Start Sewing Again
I was probably five or six years old. The top felt like paper, a rigid cotton that was a primary yellow covered in a pattern of bright red stemmed cherries. I remember wondering why the raw edges inside looked like shark’s teeth and then I thought about the heavy metal scissors with the zigzag edges that my mom kept near her sewing machine. It was hard to get into, the fabric had no give and my forearms hurt when I tried to slide my arms through the holes. At least she left enough room for me to easily pop my head through. Wearing this shirt felt different. I was attentive to these details — the absence of a label, a lack of natural curvature, a slightly uneven hem — all telltale marks of a home-sewn garment.
The mechanical drone of my mother’s Singer could be heard regularly, especially late at night. With my bedroom door cracked open, her form visible, she sat at her workstation a few feet away in the hallway putting together a quick outfit for a night out or making drastic alterations that suited her slightly provocative tastes. There were the occasional dresses she’d churn out for my sister and I for special photos or holidays, like the matching satin peach dresses with the drop-waist or the lavender sheath dresses with lace trim. With the exception of a matching short set here and there, she usually spent hours making things for herself, outfits inspired by the voluminous and colorful trends of the late 80’s and early 90's.
When I was older, she’d drag my sister and I to JoAnn’s Fabrics on any given Sunday where I’d spend hours looking through pattern magazines while my mom made her rounds trying to find the perfect fabric for the cheapest price. The stretchy, clingy ones were her favorite. She was drawn to the bright, warm weather colors that would eventually accumulate into tall piles at the top of her closet, a melange of floral and animal prints, jewel tones and soft pastels, shiny metallic and delicate black lace. Puffy envelopes labeled Vogue and Butterick and McCalls with elegant renderings where previously cut patterns had been stuffed back inside would find their way to random surfaces throughout our home.
When I was sixteen, jeweled bandannas and retro triangle-shaped headscarves were everywhere. For whatever reason, I was inspired to make my own realizing I had access to stores of fabric and a machine I could use whenever I wanted. She tried to remain cool, but I could tell my mom was overjoyed at my sudden interest in something she tried to unsuccessfully teach me for years. For a long time, I didn’t see the point in sewing. It seemed tedious and unnecessarily painstaking and I couldn’t be bothered since we could just buy clothes. I was always impressed by my mom’s finished projects, but wanted nothing to do with the process.
She took me to JoAnne’s and let me pick out my own fabric and trim. I chose a denim-like spandex and cotton mix and red trim for the ties. I made a triangle-shaped headscarf mostly on my own after my mom coached me on the basics of using a sewing machine. I was proud that I had made something and that it was cute enough to actually wear. I made a couple more for my own use, delighted in my newfound skill. At one point, my mom made the suggestion that I make some pieces to sell which, at first, seemed like a good idea. But I was eventually turned off by the prospect of turning a craft into a business. After that, I didn’t go near the sewing machine again.
In my late twenties, I moved to New York City to pursue a career in fashion hoping to one day become a fashion editor at one of my favorite magazines. My mom would encourage me to pursue fashion design, but my heart was always in words — I wanted to write about fashion, to wax poetic about the latest collections from both world-renowned and independent designers. I had no interest in sitting behind a sewing machine for hours, especially since I wasn’t that good at it, nor had much patience for it. For my first two years in New York, I wrote and edited for fashion blogs, worked as a stylist assistant then as a fashion assistant for a well-known design publication. I would eventually lose interest in the pursuit of a career altogether shortly after getting married and becoming pregnant with my first child.
I had since converted to Islam and was finding it difficult to get dressed. I got rid of most of my clothes, which didn’t conform to modest guidelines. It was hard finding pieces that weren’t revealing in places like Forever 21 and H&M, where I did most of my shopping at the time. There was always some detail that made an otherwise acceptable maxi dress, or long sleeved top impossible to wear without some type of modification. It suddenly occurred to me to just make my own. When I told my mom this, she promptly sent me a used Singer sewing machine. Ten years after my kerchief project, I hopped back on the handmade bandwagon, bought a sewing instructional, watched a bunch of tutorials and proceeded to supply my wardrobe with abayas (long loose-fitting dresses), maxi skirts, and wide-legged pants.
My zeal was short-lived. Turns out I had found an easier way to dress modestly while catering to my inner fashionista. Vintage shops and thrift stores were like an addictive drug that allowed me to participate in trends from other eras with the added bonus of a less sexualized aesthetic. People covered up more back in the days which at the moment was working in my favor. It was cheap, required zero labor, and allowed me to explore arsty enclaves like the lower East Side, East Village, Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg, which were home to all of my favorite spots. I also was a mother now and time was a precious commodity used mostly for sleep, reading and watching YouTube videos without interruption. I would make a few outfits for my daughters but ultimately, especially after I had two more children, the Singer would be put to rest, only to be brought out on the rare occasions my mother-in-law needed to make a quick alteration to one of her church dresses.
Adopting a more minimalist mindset over the past few years has resulted in my search not only for the perfect wardrobe, but what my true style actually is. This may come off as a frivolous if not self-absorbed pursuit, but as someone who grew up reading fashion magazines for fun, I’ve always viewed clothes and the approach one takes to getting dressed as a form of art. I tried to be utilitarian once. After having my second child, I made up my mind to adopt a uniform to save time and mental energy for more important tasks, i.e. being at home all day with and infant and toddler. I bought four of the same black abayas and wore them in rotation nearly everyday, until I realized I’m not a robot.
I started to gravitate towards a more classic aesthetic consisting of neutral basics and timeless silhouettes. It made sense to fill my closet with slightly over-sized button-ups and shirt dresses and column maxi skirts that looked practical and polished. I basically wanted to dress like a woman of a certain age, who had an artistic vocation and bought all of her clothes from Eskandar and Eileen Fisher. The problem with dressing like this though, is that it’s expensive. My personal style has evolved to mirror an aesthetic steeped in high-quality, natural fibers and perennial shapes, things like linen wide-legged trousers, loose-fitting pinafores and long line tunics. The brands that embody this minimalist/artsy/can’t-be-bothered-to-follow trends vibe are for the most part, fiscally out of reach. I’ve been able to secure a few pieces here and there, but ultimately, I know I’m not the type to be able to walk into Marimekko and drop a couple hundred on a shirt dress.
I recently had a small epiphany while window shopping on my favorite website, Toast, a UK-based brand that makes nothing but beautiful, expensive things. As I wishfully filled my cart, seemingly out of nowhere I remembered, or perhaps was reminded, that I could make these clothes. Oh, yeah…duh! Why didn’t I think of this sooner? I could have saved so much money, so much energy so munch mental anguish over not being able to afford the clothes that I love. I promptly started to google patterns and came across a book called The Nani Iro Sewing Studio. I fell in love and ordered it right away. Every single pattern was exactly what I wanted in my wardrobe. Twenty pieces that are simple and basic and that could be effortlessly paired with one another. After getting it in the mail the other day, all I could do was daydream about fabrics: gauzy cottons and wrinkled linen and subtle prints and textures.
I hope this is the cure to my shopping addiction. I hope that in getting back into sewing once and for all, I can quell the urge to spend $200 on a pair of pants when I could make them for less than $30. Sure, there’s labor involved, but maybe that type of investment lends itself to appreciation and contentment with something that one’s own hands took the time to create. I look forward to slowly building a wardrobe this time around, with pieces that I truly love and are reflective of me. Being able to choose my fabric and control the proportions is what makes this process an exciting one. Now I don’t have to spend hours on Totokaelo trying to find an Eid dress. I can make my own.