When I signed up for Sewing 101 at the New York Sewing Center, my goals were practical and immediate. I had been working with plaster for four years, making sculptures that involved digging and scraping and carrying heavy blocks. I wanted to use lighter materials and make objects that had fluidity and movement. I decided to learn how to work with fabric.
But what was intended as a quick study for a few skills has instead seeped into daily thoughts and activities, sneaking up on me when I don’t expect it. I find myself initiating conversations with strangers, asking, for example, “Did you sew the lacy cuffs on your jacket sleeves?” This leads to longer discussions that are thoughtful, whimsical and sometimes emotional. Sewing, a subject that had previously occupied no space in my consciousness, is giving me insights about the way we live.
SEWING IS ANALOG
On the first day of class, I learned the basics of using a sewing machine. I hadn’t touched one since I was a teenager, and I was surprised to see how little has changed. Threading the bobbin, running the thread through the needle, lowering the presser foot—it was just like my mom’s old Singer.
Later that day, back in my usual world of technology, I noticed that my computer was acting funny. While I was typing, random words would suddenly select and highlight themselves. Worse, I was halfway through composing an email, and it sent itself. I brought my laptop to the Apple store. The diagnosis: a faulty track pad. The salesperson ordered a new one, and three anxious days later, I retrieved my computer. Now I have a track pad that adheres to my demands instead of its own.
Normally, I would consider this a relief and a victory: problem solved. Instead, I’m annoyed. With the sewing machine, if something goes wrong, I understand why. When the thread gets tangled or material bunches up, the reasons are clear. The mechanics are blissfully obvious and analog. Yes, I’m comparing Apples to oranges, so to speak. But my track pad incident reminds me that the ways my most essential tools work (and break) are beyond my comprehension.
SEWING IS CONTROL
When my brother was in the hospital for long periods of cancer treatment, he was almost always cold. He had a down parka, but it was awkward and inconvenient when the port in his chest needed to be accessed. I looked online for clothing that would accommodate, but there was nothing that addressed all the aspects. So I bought a sweatshirt that was soft and warm, in his favorite color, and I devised a design. I cut the material to create new openings, and hand stitched a row of snaps. The final result was OK, but still impractical. He wore it only once.
Now, two and a half years later, instead of recalling a failed attempt, I remember the positive act of sewing itself. The calm monotony of stitching kept my hands busy during my visits. And I liked making the pieces of a 3-D puzzle come together.
Perhaps most important, sewing a sweatshirt was a task I could control. I could not cure my brother; I could not make the research go faster; I could not buy him more time. I could not control his disease, but I could control fabric and thread.
SEWING IS SUSTAINABILITY
When I tell people I’m taking a sewing class, many respond with nostalgia. “I have six siblings, and my mom sewed a lot.” “I remember my mother repairing hand-me-downs or making Halloween costumes.” Then the discussion turns to our society’s proclivity for consumption rather than conservation. “Clothes are cheap, and so is the fabric. When your shirt rips, you throw it away and buy a new one.”
One of my favorite artists is Andrea Zittel. I first heard about her in 1991, when she began designing and sewing a single outfit for each season. These “Personal Uniforms” were a response to her frustration with our society’s mandate that we wear a different outfit every day—evidence of our consumerist culture. I mentioned Zittel to a friend, and she suggested that instead of a single uniform, we consider a template: take a few basic, well-constructed garments, and sew utilitarian but playful variations, like a pocket for a phone, or loops for keys and glasses.
My sewing class meets in the Garment District, where storefronts display a glittery cacophony of materials and notions. I spent an hour in one store, where I must have touched (or, more accurately, fondled) two dozen different fabrics. My palette is typically black and white, but I plan to go back to the store and push my boundaries. I have an idea for a sculpture, and hopefully its story will come under the heading Sewing is creativity. ca
© 2020 W. Richmond