Sewing and making clothes can inspire us, heal us or connect us to the past | Sewing
It was because of the movie Labyrinth that I learned to sew.
When Jennifer Connelly’s character recites the monologue that I, in turn, would recite endlessly in front of an audience of Vermont pines (“My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great”), she wears a Loose-fitting cream-colored blouse with loose, pleated sleeves. Her costume marks her as a heroine, in search of a heroine. I had never seen anything so captivating. With the adamantine will and romantic imagination of an eight-year-old child, I swore I would not rest until I could wear this finest of all clothes.
I asked my mother what the shirt was and she told me it was called a peasant blouse. I asked her if it was possible to buy a peasant blouse. I asked and I asked. I must have exhausted him with my pleas. What, other than sheer exhaustion, could have produced a trip to Ames in St Johnsbury, a provincial department store in New England circa 1991? No one would have expected him to stock a piece of clothing, even from afar Labyrinthinterpretation of the mid-’80s Renaissance, and indeed it was not. I slipped those disappointing shirts around the circular metal display bar, my mind racing, determined to examine each one carefully just in case.
When the Ames journey failed and I remained committed to the vision of the peasant blouse, my mother suggested that I learn to sew. Her friend had a teenage daughter, Hannah, who was a good seamstress, and Hannah agreed to tutor me with my best friend, Molly, who also wanted to learn. Classes were held in the greenhouse of Molly’s family’s vegetable farm. Geranium, dill and the warm musk of tomato plants scented the air in our cutting room. Hannah looking over our shoulders, we cut the patterns out of thin paper and pinned them to the fabric she had us wash and iron, following each step of the pattern carefully and carefully, as I no longer have never been able to do without Hannah’s watchful shadow over me.
The first project she assigned was a nightgown. The next a sleeveless dress with multiple panels in the skirt, so that it flares out at the knee. Finally, I took “the peasant blouse”. By then I must have assimilated the peasant blouse into my being so well that I did not deem perfect fidelity to the original color necessary and opted instead to use a bright pink jersey. The blouse was a failure. It was never draped like Connelly’s, it looked stiff and cocky where his had been languid.
If I could travel back in time, I could explain to my child myself that it wasn’t his sewing that was faulty. Much more than a blouse had produced the effect of the blouse. It was the stage lighting, the make-up, the music, Connelly’s breasts—those objects of mystical significance to my prepubescent self—that together formed a bundle of immense desire called “peasant blouse.” The blouse owed its drape to the molecular structure of rayon and did not reflect Connelly’s personal courage.
“Playing dress up”, as adults call it so curtly, as if it were a question of frivolity to be tolerated in children for obscure reasons relating to their “development”, is a repetition towards the realization of self. Joseph Campbell wrote that the heroism of the hero consists in agreeing to be the protagonist of the story, and what protagonist does not have a costume? There are good reasons why words like ‘rehearsal’ and ‘scene’ are inescapable when it comes to describing life’s most pressing acts, whether personal, political, social or romantic.
In the 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, no one has sufficiently supplanted the metaphor that all of life is a stage, and on that stage one is in costume. When I learned to sew, it was closely linked to my desire to take on a role, and my needle has not abandoned me, for so many years, in the face of the demands that come with this decision.
In my early twenties, I tried to reproduce the dress worn by Ada, the futuristic bohemian character of Bernardo Bertolucci 1900 who ends up marrying a fascist and becoming an alcoholic. The dress was a floor-length turtleneck with long sleeves, slightly gathered at the waist, very tight. My version, once made, seemed too fancy to wear everywhere I went at the time, so it sat idle for a while in my closet until an opportunity presented itself. My friend Lila, who worked as a nanny at a restaurant owner, was invited to eat at one of her trendy restaurants and brought me as a guest. I wore the dress that night. Claire Danes was sitting at the table next to us and she was wearing a T-shirt, which disappointed me.
After dinner, we went to a vernissage and I met a Chilean artist. Because I wore this dress the night we met, it became special to me, and after he broke my heart, it took on an aura of grief and failure. But the dress had been imbued with fatalism from the start, by the futurist who could not escape either alcoholism or fascism. Maybe the dress helped start the sad story, bringing with it some kind of alluring curse, or maybe I somehow knew I was going to need the right costume for a tragedy. Sewing made me enter this story, and leave it too. The artist had left a black T-shirt in my apartment and I embroidered a hammerhead shark on it and left it outside his door. I don’t know why, but it healed my grief.
To sew is to produce and it therefore has the natural optimism of the generative act, but it can also accommodate death, decay, stagnation. It is spacious. It can be a way of waiting when we are outnumbered, when our own strength is not enough to overcome the circumstances. Sewing is ultimately a way to survive winter – and there are many types of winter.
A few years ago, I made a skirt out of my grandmother’s old curtains. It’s a very bright scarlet: she loved that color. She died almost ten years ago and the curtains were taken out of service a decade before, but they had been stored in a box under a bench and had retained their shine. I wanted, for some reason I could and can’t name, to use them all, so the skirt is huge, with hundreds of little pleats to bring it down to the waist. Several children could hide under it.
There is a scene in the Nutcracker when eight children appear under the skirts of Mother Ginger, played by a dancer on stilts. There is a scene in Günter Grass tin drum, in which Oskar says his first memory is of hiding under his grandmother’s skirts in a potato field. For a child, a full skirt is a palace. To become this palace, as the wearer of the skirt, is to embody a particular type of matriarchal power. When sewing the scarlet curtain skirt I had only thought of my own body, but from the moment I first tried it on it began to beg to house other bodies too. I wore it when my young nieces came to visit me in Brooklyn. It seemed like it could be a protective force for them as we moved through the city together.
Anthropologist Jane Schneider has argued that the manufacture of clothing under capitalism is unique because capitalism is “unable to generate or sustain ideas of benevolent spiritual or ancestral involvement” – ideas inherent in the fabric traditions of all peoples. corners of the world since as far as the knowledge of them. extends.
Yet the powerful connection between sewing and reproduction endures, as the Navajo weaver Velma Kee Craig pointed out to me once, even in the twisted strands of two-ply yarn that looks so much like genetic coding. In this skirt, I was balanced between my grandmother and my nieces, a link in the chain.
Couture connects generations, but it also connects the future and the past. Sewing something for oneself involves belief in a future self. During the pandemic, I made a dress using a 1940s pattern I bought on eBay, with dark brown deadstock flannel made in the USA. I wanted something sculptural and elegant that also looked like pajamas, because I wanted comfort, but I also wanted to be able to imagine being among people again one day. This vision of sociality was constructed in the act of ordering the pattern, its fabric and its buttons, following each of the stages of the crumbling pattern. Each point has a way of saying, “I believe in the future. I believe in the future.”
Oorn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser (Allen Lane, £20) is Available from guardianbookshop.com for £17.40