What We Wear Mapping My Body with Sewing Patterns
“The clothing I produce may be simple, but it belongs to me and my body in a way nothing else can.”
My early memories involve pins and needles and the rattling sound of a sewing machine on the dining room table, watching my mother. She would alter my clothes, sew my family pajamas for Christmas and elaborate costumes for high school drama productions and Halloween. In between making doll clothes and reupholstering living room sets, she spent weekends recovering chairs for friends and family. My mother drafted a pattern and sewed my senior prom dress, finishing it moments before I popped it on to take pictures. In pictures from her childhood, she and her seven siblings are in matching plaid outfits they made themselves, like the von Trapps on summer vacation.
I remember constantly being frustrated once freed from a grade-school uniform. My body was so suddenly so difficult to fit into this new kind of clothing, all low-rise bell bottoms and baby tees, even though I fell firmly in so-called straight sizes. In high school, even as my mother told me that my body was perfect and my own and that I should never feel pressured to change it, we fretted together about our weight gains. Constantly tugging my necklines up, she feared I would expose something intimate or sexual or monstrous or beautiful to the world. What if they knew? What if they saw my shape? When eventually I gained hips in proportion, my waist slimming out, giving me an hourglass shape, I attracted unwanted attention when clothed too closely in body-conscious fabrics. My flesh was perpetually trying to escape my clothing at every turn, and I tried desperately to contain it in the kind of fast-fashion mall clothing that I saw everywhere.
When I discovered vintage clothing, I remade how I clothed my body. Often handmade or altered, always fitting like a glove, never slipping or spilling illicit flesh: The modest cuts of the 1940s and ’50s were a revelation. I discovered high waists and non-stretch cotton and linen, nipped waists and low hemlines. Suddenly I was presentable, even conventionally beautiful. Nothing about my body had changed: It was the cut of the clothes, the patterns that had been drafted with a different kind of body in mind. I was liberated even as I felt jolted into the past. My modesty was considered becoming, despite constraining my style. But clothing that fit without struggle was such a relief, I wore those clothes for years, through stints in fashion magazines, law firms, tech and publishing companies. I wore those cuts like a suit of armor that rendered me visible in an acceptable way.
The world is a strange place for women who love their bodies. We are taught from a young age that there are acceptable ways to use it, to display it, to dress it. We are taught to shrink it, the bodies that are small and smooth and unobtrusive are the most desirable ones. The definition of desirable bodies is perpetually shifting and narrowing, an unwinnable contest no matter which body you walk around in.
When I think about my hips, I think mostly about what it feels like to have someone else’s hands rest on them. My wide thighs are an inheritance that I carry, otherwise invisible in my freckled fair skin and red hair and green-blue eyes. It’s been a long time since I could be made to feel badly about this body, which I consider a lovely vessel for my mind, and not the other way around. There is no separation of church and state here, just a tangle of nerves and skin and bone that holds my books and eyes that read and a brain to hold a mind that contains all of that. Bodies are wild; mine had carried me across continents and gotten me lost in cities. It is joy and warmth and scent and sweat and I refuse to be ashamed of it. I just want to clothe it in what it deserves, all the joy and celebration and thoughtless ease of its normal nakedness.
Later, when my beloved body changed again, not because of age and hormones this time, but because of a nexus of stress and loneliness and medication and chronic illness, it left me larger, though no less beautiful. My clothes didn’t fit, but I didn’t blame my body for that. Instead I blamed the fashionable cycle of clothing cut for a particular body type or types. I headed out to shop for new vintage, but found myself too large. I tried to buy clothing new, and found I now lay in the murky territory between straight- and plus-sized fashion, always too big for patterns graded up from a two, always too small for patterns that graded down from a sixteen. Nothing fit right; everything had to be altered.
I want the clothes I imagine, and not from some distant past. And I won’t wait for some distant future, where it makes economic sense for brands to grade their clothing patterns to the middle of the road, or somehow intuit my exact and perfect shape. I have the tools, and the skills, and I will do it myself. I’ll grade the patterns myself. I can do it. I’ll sew the garments myself.
This is how you make a garment from scratch as an amateur in 2017:
First, you lose hours on Pinterest looking for the perfect pair of trousers, or the ideal summer sun dress. You follow the links in frustration, everything overdone or too expensive or made in synthetics or in a limited size range or in a mystery factory overseas. You despair, and then you remember you have an industrial Singer machine and have been sewing ten years.
Second, in a fit of resolve and a lost Sunday afternoon, you haul the enormous rolls of pattern-drafting paper from under your bed in a tiny Brooklyn bedroom. After tracing likely garments, measuring and tweaking and messing up at least twice, you cut the pattern. It is now one a.m. and you have work in the morning.
The third step is to forget your pattern, or rather, let it lurk guiltily on the edge of your consciousness for weeks while the rest of your life sweeps you up in a never-ending stream of to-dos.
Finally you hit the fourth step—another free Sunday evening in which you cut and piece fabric in a fever dream of joyful accomplishment. You sew darts in opposing directions and lose an hour pulling stitches while watching Netflix. It is now, again, somehow one a.m. and you must go to bed without hemming this new item of clothing.
Step five is to hang the garment on the back of your door to glower at you as another two weeks rush past you. Feel a mix of pride and shame every time you see it.
Step six usually happens when you are procrastinating on something important. Seize the moment and hem your dress. Wear it immediately the next day with total disregard to the appropriateness to occasion and weather. Revel in the compliments, answered with: “Thank you, I made it myself.”
This desire to take up the needle is in my birth and blood. Born just outside the Industrial Revolution-fueled textile manufacturing belt of Northern Massachusetts, my childhood landscape was dotted with converted (and dormant) textile mills and the US’s original garment factories. My mother’s family traces lines of textile tradesmen all through our working-class Sicilian heritage. My grandfather and great-grandfather worked fixing Singer sewing machines and creating commercial upholstery. The other great-grandfather was a tailor, and all the women were handy with a needle. My mother learned to sew from my grandmother, a practical mother of eight and a teacher, though she and her enterprising older sister learned garment work in home economics and applied it to making swimsuits that would otherwise be out of their reach.
It’s not just my heritage. Our grandparents and great-grandparents made their own clothes, or bought them in a store and had them altered. Maybe they weren’t good with a needle, and so took fabric or a pattern or a beloved item to a tailor and asked them to create the world anew in fabric. Prior to the late nineteenth century, clothing was handmade as a rule. There were the fashionable and the rich, who commissioned designs, and the clothes made by parents and aunts or middle-class tailors. It was assumed clothing was sewn, or at least altered, to fit your precise and unruly body. But with the rise of the industrial production of clothing through factories, clothing became mass-produced in standard sizes and sold at fixed prices.
Sewing your own clothes gives you a crack at a particularly kind of bodily autonomy that seems only available for the wildly wealthy: custom designed to your distinct taste and a pattern cut for your anatomy, every bump and curve, taking in seams where the fabric pools or buckles. When my mother sewed my clothing, I took this process for granted, only remembering the occasional stick of the pin and the feeling it was my body’s fault that my legs were too short for my jeans, that my wrap neckline needed extra fabric tacked to the bodice to cover my chest properly. Surely no one else felt like their clothing pinched and pulled and warped on their frame. Who else’s mother added straps, took off inches, fixed a broken zipper instead of buying a new garment? The uniqueness of my clothing always made me squirm, even if no one knew I was wearing something homemade.
As I’ve gotten older, I have grown to admire more the simple lines of a hand-stitched dress. Walking into the Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s handmade clothing alongside her art work, I had a new appreciation for the art of the craft of sewing, but also the independence from stores and brands and runways. This famous, wildly talented woman focused on functionality within her own style: detailed tops, wrap dresses, jeans, tunics, smart suits, skirts, and trousers. With small touches of ornamentation, hers was her own particular austere glamour. Her wardrobe oozed the determined minimalism and self-sufficiency of Georgia O’Keefe, her particular tastes only refined as she aged. The artist almost always made her simple clothing herself or had it made for her, not only to free her body from the styles of the times, but to assert her independence. It shaped how she was perceived, and she had total control over this image, down to every pattern and stitch. It wasn’t just about fit, or about affordability. It was about style, and freedom, and joy in being adorned, far outside of the dressing room.
Submerging myself in the gallery filled with O’Keefe’s gorgeously, meticulously simple clothes lent gravitas to my yearning for my own wardrobe autonomy. My body’s changing shape and size had refined my taste, but I had no visual vocabulary for homemade that did not look homespun, where simplicity translated to elegance rather than a lack of skill or imagination. My desire for ankle-length cotton voile dresses became an achievable victory, rather than an expression of my limits as a seamstress or the outline of my hips. The clothing I produce may be simple, but it belongs to me and my body in a way nothing else can.