Friday, February 19, 2010

why sew?

When someone finds out that I made something (I very rarely announce it, but am often asked), I typically get one of two reactions. Either the person reacts with awe and respect, saying "wow, that's great...I could never do that!" Or they react with a sort of thinly veiled contempt, sneering "uh, don't they sell _______ in stores?"

Both of those make me feel sort of embarrassed and sad. The second because it's kind of nasty, implying that by sewing or knitting something I am wasting my time. The first because anyone could knit and sew, if they really wanted/had to. I certainly was not born knowing how to knit or sew - I was shown the basics by my mom and then worked and worked at getting better. I failed miserably many times, and tossed out a few "wadders" along the way. If you give yourself permission to fail, heck, you can learn anything.

So why do I sew (and knit, and crochet, and quilt)? And why do some women find it abhorrent? It's an interesting question.

I guess I do it because I get immense satisfaction from making something with my own two hands. It's a sense of accomplishment. And there is a certain gratification a homemaker and mother feels when something she has done actually stays done. Great blog post about that here. So much of housework is dirty and is nice to make something pretty that stays pretty!

I also do it to save a bit of money when I can. Much like knitting, sewing can be done inexpensively if one is not tied to fancy name brands, gadgets, and equipment. A good machine, decent shears, good quality needles and threads, and fabric bought on sale (and don't discount the bargain table at places like WalMart - you can often find mill-ends and overstock fabrics that are of good quality for $1.50/yd), and you're on your way. Easy patterns go on sale for 99 cents all the time, and can be reused. I like to find 3 or 4 good patterns that Daughter and I both like and make them over and over with different buttons and trims for fun.

And I guess a big reason I do it is to keep handmade alive and well. My dad and I were chatting a few weeks ago about gardening...he often tells about the amazing gardens family members would grow when he was a child. They were Italian immigrants, and they knew how to provide for themselves. I want to grow a garden this summer and I have very little idea how to begin. Dad will help me as much as he can (he has successfully grown basic garden items like tomatoes, zukes, and herbs for years), but there is no one else for me to turn to for guidance. And I think that is sad.

Likewise, with sewing, I know my Nana (Dad's mom) could alter clothing, but I'm not sure how much of a seamstress she was. My other grandma could make almost anything - holy cow she was an amazing crafter - and I know she sewed because when she married my grandpa he bought her a Singer Featherweight with all the attachments (yes, we still have it). My mom learned to sew on that machine and tells about making simple shorts and tops when she was a teenager, because back then it was so much cheaper to sew than to buy ready-made. My great-aunt knit herself entire fine-gauge suits, consisting of jacket and skirt, on US size 1 and 2 needles. As a child, I would sometimes wear the pair of gray, yellow and white wool argyle socks she knit for my Dad. But that's about it on the sewing/knitting front. Other family members surely learned to do these things at some point, but no one does it anymore except me and my mom.

I have grown pretty tired of picking through endless racks of the same clothing in the stores. How many times have I been out with my kids and run into someone with the exact same outfit on their child? More than I like to think about! And when I look at the labels in those Target pants and Old Navy shirts they all say "Made In (poor foreign nation)." It used to be that imports were something special. Now we import quite literally everything. And I don't know exactly how to word it, but that makes me uncomfortable.

It used to be that people had just a few outfits, and one or two dressy items, which were of excellent quality and kept nice so they would last. I have tended toward purchasing cheaper clothing because I thought it more important that our drawers be filled for some reason. So off to Target we would go, buying 5 pairs of pants, 6 t-shirts, a package of socks, and maybe a dress or two. Then Christmas and birthdays come along, and before long the kids' drawers and shelves are overflowing with outfits that will be worn just a few times before being outgrown.

Now, I will never claim to be any kind of ace seamstress, but if I put my money towards good materials, and invest a little (ok, a lot) of my time, I can create a small but sturdy wardrobe for my children, supplemented with some higher quality store-bought things. And if we're talking about summer clothes, I can do this for myself as well (I have not conquered tailored pants or shirts for cold weather, and I live in jeans anyway). I can make nightclothes for all who need them, and knit warm socks and sweaters (necessary when it is chilly for about 8 months of the year).

By doing this I can feel just a bit less dependent on big companies and foreign nations for the things I need. I don't like the fact that, as a nation, we have given up control of our needs to anyone who will provide them. No one knows how to do for themselves anymore.

And the best part of making some of our things is that Daughter gets a real kick out of it. She goes through my patterns with me, chooses fabrics she likes, and picks out rick-rack and buttons to embellish her clothes. What a thrill, to be able to provide her what she wants while she is still young and doesn't feel the need to be exactly like her peers!

So that was sort of rambly, but it is hard for me to put into words why I do what I do.

Why do you sew or knit or crochet or quilt or can or preserve or keep chickens in your backyard? What does it mean to you?


April said...

Kate, I would really love to just sit on a comfy couch with my knees up, good cuppacoffee in hand, and just chat about life. Such a fun post I could totally see having in conversation. And, yes, Karen is on the same comfy couch with us - in her olive green sweater.

HangerMom said...

That was a really interesting post!

I picked up crocheting because in college I could NOT sit still and watch tv or a movie without fidgeting and getting nervous. Crocheting filled my hands with productive work that allowed my mind to relax.

Sewing I learned in jr high home ec, but rediscovered after having children because I had a bridesmaid dress that I'd worn while pregnant, and I wanted to turn the fabric into a dress for my daughter after she was born. After that, I was hooked on seeing my kids dressed in things I'd created. I only wish I could get more sewing done. I love making things for my children, and the couple things I've made for myself are the most frequently worn items in my closet!

Your comments about not relying heavily on other people/countries struck a note with me as well, but it would take too long to spout all my ponderings on that here.

Shari said...

Knitting started as being a stress reliever for me but now I take pride in my work and not being dependent on others to provide me with what I need. We keep a small garden in the summer and I know how to use a sewing machine. However I havent sewn in years but I would love to start again. I keep procrastinating cause I know my sewing machine needs to be serviced.
I love these posts!

Jenn said...

I am so jealous of your skills! (And I know you don't want to hear that!) I need to spend more time on my machine and try, try again to sew more clothing. I agree - it is so important for handmade to continue - I hope dearly that I can pass these things onto my children. And teach them that not everything has to come from Target.