Making Honest

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Sewing can be a meditative practice. It’s all about connecting the threads.

A lifelong knitter, felt a restless pull to try something new last spring. I dove headlong into botanical dyeing, using seasonal blooms to add pattern and color to natural fibers. After months of compulsively making dye baths after my family was asleep, line-drying fabric in the sun, then starting all over again with tansy, then black-eyed Susans, then sweet William, I had amassed a fabric stockpile.

When the growing season ended, I started sewing. I set an intention: to sew my first dress. The steps: measuring (my body, the fabric), cutting, marking, press- ing, aligning, pinning, stitching, snipping, and pressing again. One step begets another; there is no way to leap ahead spurred on by an impatient mind. There is value in the wait, in allowing the process to unfurl.

Ready, I lift my right hand and feel for the switch on the side of the sewing machine. A bright spotlight shines down on my sewing needle, the cotton thread the color of curry; the yellow patterned fabric aligned beneath the presser foot. With restraint, I press the pedal. The needle hums and threads through the fabric, the gripper dogs beneath the fabric pulling it like a conveyor belt. To me, this transition from stillness to focused doing feels like any other seated meditation, pranayama, or chanting.

It is just a soft and simple puzzle with contours and dimension. But sewing a dress is another means for our minds to test our mettle, our devotion to practice. When approached with mindfulness, the simplest, most repetitive acts become offerings as well as opportunities for self-reflection.

The Humility of Making Something

Maybe the fabric is not as soft as you would have liked, but it was all you could find. The seams pucker in weird places. You made these choices, and it’s kind of wonderful.

Mass-produced things cannot accommodate imperfection; there can be colossal obsolescence once the object is home (or is passed through a normal wash-and-dry cycle), but it must appear perfect when you buy it. You cannot judge the handmade by the same parameters as the mass-produced. Besides, which would you prefer: more of the same, rendered en masse, and impersonal—or handmade, deliberate, and one of a kind?

Irrefutable Facts

In a book about sewing clothes, in a chapter about taking measurements of one’s own body, the author chided: “Don’t cheat!” She continued with the assumption that we would, in fact, cheat, and instructed readers to enlist the help of a friend to hold the measuring tape to get the most accurate measurements. This finger-wag holds layers of meaning and resonance, especially for many women who are acculturated to avoid talking about size, weight, or body measurements.

Why do we fear knowing how wide our hips are? What are we terrified these measurements will reveal? And what would liberation from this feel like?

Clothes you make yourself need to fit you. Why spend countless hours making something for yourself that panders to vanity sizing? You will not wear clothes that do not fit, and then all will have been wasted. Measure your body, sketch your shape, wrap that tape measure around your glorious hips. Cut that fabric accurately and—maybe—feel better in your clothing than you ever have. Being clear- sighted when you create will help you to be clear-sighted elsewhere in your life.

Mistakes and Amends

Every time I make a mistake in sewing, I think of all the ways to work around the error instead of redoing. With irritation I examine my work, flip it over, look at it closely: Can I get away with this? Can I just move on as though nothing happened? I think of how I can mask the error: Add a stitch at the beginning of the seam row! Misaligned fabric? I’ll use a needle and thread to tighten it up when I’m finished. And sometimes this entire internal dialogue takes up as much time as it would have taken to simply undo some stitching, catch up, and repair the error. What does this reveal about me? Does it reveal anything?

Sometimes I recognize habitual commentary, a voice I would recognize anywhere but no longer need to listen to. Other times the voice is a strategic argument, loud and aspiring to be a collaborator. I want to do a good job; I want this to be beautiful; I don’t want to mess it up. I can think of times when I was younger and it felt terrifying to be caught in a mistake. In high school, for example, convinced that one late homework assignment would topple me and make me beg for clemency from college admissions. Or stumbling into an awkward conversation, knowing I said something that landed wrong and hurt feelings. Our lives are full of moments we wish we could do over, return to, and apologize for—the chance to clear the air or at least to clear our conscience.

More Reasons to Make

Making things by hand can satisfy many creative and spiritual urges.

CONNECT TO THE PAST. Did you learn to knit from your grandmother or to sew from a gaggle of aunties? If your technique is rusty and dormant, borrow a book from the library or look up tutorials online; restarting a familiar heritage craft might be easier than it seems. Practicing a timeless craft tethers you to all those who have made their world before.

IT’S NOT VIRTUAL. Fast fashion, algorithms that seem to tap your brain to predict what you want to wear, and one-click shopping are taking up all the oxygen. Slow fashion—the deliberate choices and practice of making what you wear, mending what you own, and buying only from sustainable and humane makers—is a way to breathe again.

ACCEPTING BEGINNER’S MIND. Beginner’s mind, or shoshin, is a Zen concept that each of us can use when we try new things. It’s easy to entertain the oh-so-tempting fantasy that we’ll succeed and create world-class art on our first attempt at trying a new craft. (It is also just as easy to let the challenge of trying something new squelch joy, and to toss work aside if our first attempts seem subpar.) Avoid sky-high expectations or goals at first. Beginner’s mind allows joy and radiance to dominate the making.

As I grew more deliberate about sewing, buying patterns I loved and curating fabric and notions with care and enjoyment, I was more willing to do the work to undo errors. I made friends with the process, inviting it in as part of the act, just like scrubbing vegetables, sweeping the floor, and cleaning the darkest nooks of the refrigerator are essential parts of preparing delicious food.

If you take up sewing as well, with every pattern traced and cut, with every seam stitched, with every pocket set in, you will feel more at ease and confident, and you will also understand more deeply all the places you can go astray. (It’s an awful lot like growing up.)

Making peace with the small errors you will always make when learning a new skill—that is, when these errors are safe and affect no one else—is as much of a discipline as
any formal practice. And making things is an ideal way to practice being good enough, to enjoy doing just for its own sake.

Making—like living your life with tenderness and care— invites in softness and forgiveness.

Sewing making honest

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