Why Sewing Is The Classic Pastime Offering Solace & Creativity Right Now
Putting needle to thread, whether for creative purposes or to help others, is providing plenty of comfort
If anyone is feeling nostalgic right now, you’re not alone. While I sit at home doing the very modern thing of Facetiming my grandmother, I’m taken back to much simpler memories of her, specifically the memory of her pre-arthritis, whizzing away over a black mid-century Singer sewing machine complete with a motor drive belt with one hell of a grunt.
The portable sewing machine was how my nan would pour out her heart and soul into clothes fashioned from fabrics she purchased on her weekly trips to Barker & Pollock on Karangahape Road. Sewing was a cathartic release; an opportunity to express her creative spirit, and on other days, a chance to vent her frustrations — mood swings many of us can relate to right now.
Without fail, that old-timey sewing machine became the portal for where all her creative energy could be channeled.
Creativity blooms in crisis are what some might say right now, and whether it’s the story of the Waikato supermarket worker sewing face masks for her essential colleagues or the desire to simply take idle hands away from our screens, the growing interest in sewing during lockdown is an unsurprising return to a traditional skill favoured by previous generations, in a world filled with much uncertainty.
A handful of local fashion brands have put their sewing resources and skills to good use too; Ruby is connecting with its community through virtual sewing classes and shoppable patterns for some of its popular styles.
Other designers including Annah Stretton, Rachel Mills and Frances Lowe of Loclaire are just some of the brands sewing and selling re-usable facemasks. Annah Stretton’s masks, made from fabric off-cuts, are in daily demand — over 10,000 have already been sewn and sold through its buy one give one scheme.
Luxury behemoth LVMH committed its workers and relegated its workshops — spaces where next season's cutting edge designs are usually being produced — to the necessary task of sewing masks and protective clothing for medical professionals working during the Covid-19 pandemic.
April's localised Fashion Revolution Schedule included a ‘Stitch & Bitch’ session amongst other virtual sewing related activities, to mark the global anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1138 people in 2013.
The activity of sewing has proven to be a source of comfort and much-needed support during this time.
“Sewing is a very forgiving pastime, as you can always unpick anything that doesn’t work” explains avid sewer, vintage advocate, and New Zealand Fashion Museum trustee Rose Jackson, who has also worked as a workroom assistant for Auckland based label Pearl.
“Don’t be hard on yourself or feel like your sewing has to be perfect. We’re all working with limitations at the moment, which can bring some unexpectedly beautiful results to any creative project. Enjoy taking your time and see where your instincts lead you. Anything we can do to occupy our hands, so we can avoid scrolling through never-ending news updates, is a good thing.”
Part of the appeal for sewing comes from its strong sense of community. London based Tara Viggo, who grew up in Dunedin, now runs the popular domestic pattern-making company Paper Theory Patterns @paper_theory for home-sewers around the world, cultivating a following of like-minded sewers. Her most popular pattern, the Zadie jumpsuit went viral last year, becoming the most made sewing pattern worldwide. It’s an accomplishment Tara believes comes down to sewing’s inclusivity.
“I think its popularity is due to the fact it is easy to wear regardless of your size or body shape” she says from her home in London. “It has a forgiving fit and you can modify how much you want to accentuate your waist with ties. It doesn’t have a zipper or any trims — everyone hates to sew zips. I have a more inclusive size range than most traditional brands which I think is really appreciated by the sewing community as many people make their own clothes because they feel unwelcomed by the current size ranges on offer from designers.”
Auckland-based journalist and sewing enthusiast Maggie Wicks, says the sewing community’s inclusive spirit is appealing for challenging times. “The sewing community, in New Zealand and internationally, is the most incredible community. We review patterns for each other, heap praise onto each other’s Instagram posts, openly share our body measurements — nothing is out of bounds. It must be the safest space on the internet” she says.
“Once a year around the world, Frocktails events are held. Here you’ll find a roomful of women wearing outrageously beautiful outfits that they sewed themselves. Wellington and Auckland have their own events, although most recently sewists around the world took part in a lockdown #virtualfrocktails — basically an excuse to put on a nice dress and some lippy, and justify a 2pm cocktail at home.”
Whether it’s fraternising or getting stuck into a sewing project, Tara advises enjoying the process. Having established herself as a go-to pattern cutter over the years, working with a diverse array of fashion brands including River Island, All Saints, J.W. Anderson, Emilia Wickstead, Erdem and Giles Deacon; to creating costumes for Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes and Groove Armada, sewing, she says, is ultimately about self-expression.
“I think the most important thing is not to be too hard on yourself about how perfect your creations are. People often feel self-conscious that their sewing isn’t good enough, and it puts them off developing the craft further. I can guarantee no one else will notice the small blips that you’re obsessing over. It takes many years of practice to be excellent at anything, just because everyone’s grandmother seems to know how to sew, doesn’t mean it’s not a serious skill that took time to develop. All the little mistakes you make along the way are essential learning curves. If it looks shit just call it Punk and wear it with pride!”
Conversations around sustainability are also connected to sewing, and as the fashion industry continues to grapple with its impact on the planet, it’s a discussion even more fraught during the lockdown period.
“Sewing my own clothes has taught me that we should spend more, and buy less,” says Maggie. “If you knew how much time went into sewing a garment, you would know immediately that you probably did not pay enough. All clothing is handmade — even the cheapest pieces from fast fashion stores have a real person working the machines. In developing countries, the fashion industry is one of the largest employers of women, and those women are some of the lowest-paid members of the world’s workforce. We shouldn’t take our clothing for granted the way we do.”
Rose, who is also a member of the team behind NZ Fashion Revolution, agrees that the act of sewing is not only one way to keep creative indoors right now, but is also a powerful rejection of mass-produced fashion, a major contributor to the world’s environmental issues.
“When you make a garment from start to finish, from choosing fabric and trims to cutting, sewing and hand finishing, you get a true understanding of the huge number of processes that a single piece of clothing has to go through to be completed. It gives you heightened respect for all the garment workers of the world, many of whom are woefully underpaid to meet the voracious appetite for cheap fast fashion.”
Depending on your mood for what you’d like to sew right now, whether practical or frivolous — creative freedom is what makes a sewing project fun. “I’m currently sewing with Liberty of London silk, and an embroidered silk organza,” says Maggie. “I decided earlier this year that I should up the quality of the fabrics I wear, so I splashed out on several beautiful pieces. By the end of lockdown, I suspect I’ll have a large collection of inappropriately extravagant workwear.”
SEWING TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
Build Your Community:
Sewing is the perfect lockdown activity. It’s an indoor-only hobby, so we’re built for this moment in time" says Maggie. "But it’s a lonely hobby too — until you get connected.
Find sewists on Instagram (follow the hashtags #sewcialists, #memade and #sewnz as a start), and sign up for newsletters (The Foldline out of the UK is a good one to track high street trends alongside pattern releases).
"There are too many wonderful sewists to list, but I find @jasikaistrycurious (California), @_jeanmade_ (San Francisco), @sew.h_factor (Perth), @elisalex (London), @kylieandthemachine (Melbourne), @ebonyh (San Francisco), @trine.schroeder (Denmark) and @marcyharriell (New York) all hugely inspiring."
WATCH: Make Your Own Knickers With Tara Viggo
“A fun project I’d recommend starting with is a tote bag, as you can whip one up with as little as three seams and four anchor points for the straps" says Rose. "It’s quick, useful and easy enough to make from bits and bobs lying around the house while we’re in lockdown. Grab that old tablecloth you never use and fashion it into something that sparks joy while you have to endlessly queue at the supermarket!”
"Tessuti's Annie Skirt is a simple and free downloadable pattern" suggest Maggie. "Then move on to pyjama pants."
“Don’t sit on the fence" says Tara. "It’s literally and figuratively uncomfortable. This advice was given to me by a teacher at Fashion School, at the time he was talking in the context of being bold and obvious with your design lines as anything less looks wishy-washy. But since then I try to apply that advice to all areas of my life. Don’t let cheap buttons ruin an expensive shirt was his other sage piece of advice that I’ve never been able to forget. It’s not a complex metaphor, just literally don’t skimp and use cheap buttons if you have gone to the trouble of making a beautiful shirt.”