The pleasure of working by hand

Adding vintage embroidery to a new pillowcase

I spent the morning covering a pillow with vintage fabric, likely from the 1930s. I stitched the seams by hand, unreasonably happy when it was done.

This evening I stitched some vintage needlework, probably from the 1960s, onto new pillowcases. The whites don’t match exactly,  but that’s part of the charm, I think.

I love sewing by hand.

I find it meditative, soothing, calming. I think of the women, going back centuries, likely millennia, who used their needles and thread — whether a bone needle lacing dried gut or a gold needle sewing silk by a 17th. century fireside — and feel connected to them, and to the long history of domestic arts, no matter how simple my attempts may be.

I have a sewing box. In it are spools of thread, hundreds of antique buttons of mother-of-pearl and brass and glass I keep collecting, with no specific use in mind. I just find them lovely to look at and to touch. I don’t use a thimble so I often prick my fingers. I have, and use, pins, stabbing them into a little pin-cushion I’ve had since childhood, now impossibly politically incorrect — a pillow of red silk encircled by tiny Chinamen holding hands.

It feels good to disconnect from metal and plastic — Ipods, Ipads, the phone, and, most of all, the computer that makes me feel like a cow attached to a milking machine (all production, all the time!) — and re-connect with soft fabric. I wonder whose skin it touched, who designed it and printed it and wore it, where and when it was a part of their life before adding beauty to mine.

Now Jose is off pricing sewing machines for me…and turns out we’re part of a trend, among both men and women, reports The New York Times:

Once the domain of apron-clad matrons tasked with domestic busywork, sewing, like knitting before it, is making a comeback. At 3rd Ward, the number of monthly beginner classes has doubled to four. Purl in SoHo offers popular sewing seminars. The number of members at BurdaStyle, a five-year-old social network for sewing novices, grew to 753,184 in mid-May, an increase of 47 percent from a year earlier, the company said.

And sewing-machine sales are booming, with sales in the United States expected to top three million in 2012 at SVP Worldwide, the maker of Singer sewing machines, up from 1.5 million a year more than a decade ago.

While some of the craze can be chalked up to the popularity of reality television shows like “Project Runway,” sewing instructors say students in their 20s and 30s, particularly women, are embracing sewing also as a form of self-expression and a way to assert their independence.

“What once was considered a womanly task is now a way of defining oneself,” said Patti Gilstrap, an owner of Flirt, a clothing store in Brooklyn that teaches introductory classes in alteration and skirt making.

The other day, hoping to revive sun-faded fabric on a balcony pillow-cover, (vintage linen I’d bought in Paris), I soaked each piece in dye, one yellow, one deep blue, then hung them on the clothesline. It worked! I felt absurdly self-sufficient — $4 worth of dye, an hour of my time and a plastic bucket.

Pioneer Girl!

It’s too easy and expensive to just buy new stuff. I love it when I can restore older things and keep them in use.

What do you enjoy doing by hand?

34 thoughts on “The pleasure of working by hand

    1. Nemesis

      I neglected to add… I derive much the same pleasure from adjusting my MotoGuzzi Griso Termignoni Transverse V1100 Quattro Valvone’s clearances… It’s PureZen.

  1. I love baking bread. Women in my family don’t cook or bake, so I had to teach myself (with the help of the internet). It seems like a luxury to slow down, focus on the details and enjoy the result of my labors.

    1. I’m impressed! I’ve not yet tried making bread but it’s such a sensual thing to do. I love to bake (mostly simple stuff like muffins or quick breads) but would love to try making bread as well.

  2. I like to work with my hands, too, though nothing as ambitious as sewing by hand. I make beaded necklaces. When my husband was very ill, I crazily made dozens of them and gave them all away. It kept me sane. He’s well now but I still make necklaces. Very relaxing.

  3. seecathywrite

    I also think of Anne of Greene Gables, when Marilla made her see patchwork to teach her how to wit still. I wonderful if that’s an extra benefit.

  4. Pingback: L’apprentissage | One quality, the finest.

  5. I enjoy translating by hand. It takes longer, especially when doing Asian languages and there’s a lot of technical vocabulary. There’s something very Zen about seeing the handwritten words just waiting to be unlocked on the page.

  6. I learned to knit when I was very young and I recently took it up again. I’m no master at it, but I can make scarves and hats. I love the yarn shop near my house that has a kazillion yarns with different textures and colors, yarns that are ribbon. Like you, I find the work meditative and soothing. I enjoy the quiet of it, the silence punctuated by clicking needles. I heard someone refer to these kinds of crafts as “wisdom work.”

  7. Reading your post made me realize I use my hands quite a bit. When I cook, unless I’m preparing for a very large number of people, I prefer a simple knife and cutting board to a food processor. I like to crochet, which was a life lesson. I’m terrible at it, but still find it relaxing if I stick to simple patterns. When I’m beginning a new writing project I always start with a pad and pencil, not switching to the laptop until I’ve got the flow completely established (could be an opening scene, could be the first two chapters).

    1. Me, too. It’s what what great chefs do!

      I love the “life lesson” of crochet. Listening to Paul Auster being interviewed yesterday on the Leonard Lopate show, he said he still writes by hand. I’ve only done it a few times. I know it produces a different way of thinking.

  8. catierobbins

    “unreasonably happy” love it. i know just what you mean. i love sewing by hand too, and am disappointed by the lack of need for it

  9. Creo, honestamente que no existe nada más gratificante en el mundo, que contemplar y sentirte orgulloso u orgullosa al contemplar tu propio trabajo, tu resultado, y además si les gusta tambien a tus amigos, es definitivo. es el tercer placer despues de: comer, sexo.

    1. Combinar los tres? 🙂

      Translation: I think, honestly, there’s nothing more gratifying in the world than to contemplate and feel proud of your own work and its results, and, even more, to enjoy them with your friends. It’s the third pleasure after eating and sex.


      1. Si pudiesemos combinar los tres placeres, estariamos practicamente en equilibrio con nosotros mismos, esta energia equilibradora resultaria beneficiosa, un mejor equilibrio mental supone una alegria y felicidad interior que tiene una influencia positiva sobre nosotros y el beneficio que proyectamos hacia los demás.

  10. Creo, en mi modesta opinión, que durante todo nuestro desarrollo tecnologico, como sociedad hemos olvidado, un valor fundamental, tan antiguo como la especie humana, << la realización personal, no laboral ni de trabajo, sino, el desarrollo espiritual y equilibrio emocional, a través de estos pequeños detalles, los más importantes. Moriremos con la conciencia de lo que hemos hecho en la vida, nada material nos llevaremos. Una muerte en equilibrio.

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