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
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
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?
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.