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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What do you know how to do — IRL?

By Caitlin Kelly

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For those of you who don’t have one — and I’m guessing that’s most of you — here’s my current sewing box: needles, thread, ribbon, vintage and new buttons, a bit of vintage cotton, my beloved and very un-PC pincushion of Chinamen (wrong phrase, yes I know) holding hands. My thimble appears to have gone missing, but I rarely used it anyway.

I pulled it out the other day to repair a cotton rug whose edging, after only a few washings, had begun to come apart and fray. I think there are people who would have kept it looking crappy and others who might have simply thrown it away. Not me.

I also have some mending on my to-do list, old cashmere with a few holes.

I love using my hands to make and repair things.

Some of the things I can do, or have done, very happily far away from a touch-screen:

— cook a good meal, with sauces or nicely plated

— bake quick breads, cookies, cakes, pies

— sew and mend

— take photos, draw and paint, (both artistically and walls/furniture, etc.)

curry a horse

— play acoustic guitar

— set and trim sails: jib, spinnaker, mainsail

— paddle, steer and portage a canoe

— fence saber (nationally ranked for four years)

— prune a (very small) tree

Here’s a recent story from The Guardian about a guy who learn how to butcher.

Inspired by this post, from Kentucky high school teacher Paul Barnwell:

Here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this.

How about you?

What are some your handy skills, in real life?

What are some you wish you had, or hope to acquire? (I’d like to learn to knit.)

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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?