Sewing by hand

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By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you sewed anything by hand?

It’s now considered such a retro idea. Get new clothes! Take them to the dry cleaner for repairs!

Do you even own a sewing box, filled with needles and pins and a rainbow of spools of thread?

 

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When I was at boarding school, we each had a two-tier sewing basket. I loved it and the sense of always being ready, that it gave me. We learned only a few stitches but I’ve never needed more, and have made tablecloths and pillows without a machine using these simple stitches.

I admit, embarrassedly, I don’t know how to knit or crochet or embroider, all arts I truly admire. So this, for now, is the extent of my skill.

 

 

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Instead of being attached to yet another screen, touching more plastic and metal, there’s the softness of linen or cotton or silk.  The endless challenge of threading that damn needle!

As someone always curious about pre-industrial life, I love how this simple action repeats one made over millennia and across every geographic boundary.

I find it meditative and soothing and love making little repairs or making small sachets filled with dried lavender out of vintage textile scraps, tucking them between ironed pillowcases in the linen closet or thrown into our suitcases when we travel.

I also have some lovely antique buttons, with no official use (yet!)

Here’s a pillow cover I recently made from some flea market white linen and a great 30s bit of cutwork I found in a Paris flea market that someone dyed indigo.

 

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Got mad skillz?

Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry.
Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people possess certain skills that leave me gobsmacked, thinking they’re simply not possible — when, clearly, they are.

Just not by me. 

While house-sitting, I  needed firewood. I didn’t dare try splitting logs without supervision, so asked my friend Sally’s husband Rick to do it. Which he did. (They live at the edge of a lake, in the woods, year-round, and have for many years.)

Sally designed (!) their house and adjacent studio and Rick, a professional carpenter, built it. Every time I step foot in their cosy, lovely, light-filled home I’m in awe of this fact. How pioneer-esuqe to be able to design and build your own home!

In my Dad’s fridge were some gorgeous jams and jellies made by his 80-year-old neighbor.

Being surrounded by all this self-sufficiency made me think about my own skills, few of which would allow me to survive without electricity, running water or heat — all things that many of us in the more developed world take totally for granted.

The new American television season offers the weekly drama post-apocalyptic Revolution,  set 15 years into the future after every form of technology has died, shoving the world back into an eat-or-be-eaten set of warring tribes. It’s a popular fantasy and one I think about as something quite likely to happen. People know how to use axes and arrows, a skill set fairly unusual in suburban New York where I live.

The city-dwellers I know consider “skills” as being able to steal a cab from someone at rush hour on 42d. Street or snagging a reservation at the hot new bistro or making sure your new book gets a decent review in the right places.

Not exactly life-saving.

I took a class last year, and wrote about it for The New York Times, that was — like my silent retreat a few months earlier — life-changing, this one in how it made me relate to the natural world and wonder much more deeply about my place in it. It’s taught by Shane Hobel, whose skills left me open-mouthed:

The day’s class began with a lesson in cordage: turning virtually anything, from a cocktail napkin to the soft and pliable inner bark of some trees, into a length of rope useful for lashing branches together to build a shelter, to make a fishing line, or to string a bow. Mr. Hobel patiently showed everyone how to make cord by twisting raffia that he brought in lieu of cutting open a tree, and how to double or triple it in strength and length.

Within minutes his students happily saw the fruits of their labor. “This feels familiar,” said Ms. Browning, a knitter.

“These are time-tested skills,” Mr. Hobel said. “Many years ago we all used to know them, and now we’re bringing them back.”

The key to surviving in the wilderness, he explained, is conserving precious time and energy by remaining calm and aware. “The more skills we have, the more capable we are,” he said.

Spending a few hours in the woods reminds me that I’m simply one species among many, and one extremely ill-equipped to survive, or thrive, without the trappings of domesticity. In the woods, I observe more carefully. I can usually tell the time within 20 to 30 minutes by the quality of the sunlight. I notice things like mushrooms, and if I really knew my stuff, I’d be able to forage some safely for dinner.

I wish!

Some of the things I know how to do well, some well enough I’ve been paid for:

Teach writing

Edit others’ writing

Translate French

Shoot a gun, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun (best with a Glock 9mm); yes, I’ve had professional training while writing my first book, about women and guns

Sell on a retail floor, the subject of my second book

Translate and interpret Spanish

Take photographs

Draw and paint

Cook

Design an interior

Trim a jib for a sailboat race

Build a fire

Sail, canoe, row, kayak

Ride a horse

Buy 20th, 19th and 18th century antiques fairly knowledgably, having studied the field

Ski, downhill and cross-country

Ice skate, (fast and backwards)

Play acoustic guitar

Orient myself quickly in unfamiliar territory

Speak publicly

Organize a public event

Some I long to acquire:

More sophisticated cooking

Making pottery

Speaking a new language, or several — (but which ones?!)

Use a sewing machine

Knit

What sorts of mad skillz do you, or people you know personally, have?

Which ones would you like to acquire?