quick hit: pro-tips from a cranky craftivist

Tattooed and Ready For Action

(just in case you all forgot my main sources of inspiration)

My sewing acumen is brought to my attention profoundly every now and then – like today, as I assisted a woman in making a dress and watched her attempt incredibly counter-intuitive methodologies. I am not a classically-trained professional, but I do have experience, and I have it to offer others. I’m reminded of this body of work (often hard-earned through much trial and error) when I’m helping someone who is new.

Now of course, the “mistakes” my student made weren’t really mistakes, as she was a beginner. Indeed, watching a student for a few minutes is the best way to gauge where they’re at and how to best help them. I’ve had students who took to sewing near-immediately, and ones who couldn’t, despite repetition and several different methods of explanation, easily grasp even rudimentary concepts. When someone sits down at the sewing machine I can always tell if they sewed as a child, or if they’ve sewn at all. I remember a young woman I helped in my dining room; her husband had wound the sewing machine bobbin for her – poorly, and all by hand. Very sweet, and the kind of thing that never would have occurred to me since I’ve “always” known how to correctly wind a bobbin.

My craft – garment sewing, although I get up to all sorts of other stuff too – is not a popular one around these parts. It is very odd but at least where I live there is a simultaneous lust for, and devaluation of, the artisan craft – the homemade, homesewn, tailored, and bespoke. I’ve spoken about these issues before, but today I want to write on practicalities. To wit, how to not make an ass of yourself around those who knit, sew, sculpt, build things that are amazing. To wit: if you really admire someone’s work, stop making it about you. To wit:

How To Be Friends With The Super-Crafty*

1. Don’t call them “crafty”. “Talented” works fine. Or “skilled”. Or “impressive”. Stop saying “crafty”.

2. Ask them about their process; but. But, if they don’t seem to want to talk about it, drop it. Most artisans have something they’re really into, or a latest-thing they’re geeking out about. They probably do want to talk about it. This is a great opportunity for you to learn a bit more about what goes into what they do. You’ll learn a bit, and also be poised to help your crafty friend, and your other friend desirous of craft (or instruction), meet up and make a beautiful craft-partnership. Isn’t that peachy?

3. If they do any work for pay, feel free not to comment on their pricing. I earned my first sewing dime, probably fifteen years ago. I’ve tried all sorts of pricing and not-pricing and sliding scale and low-balling and I’m just now coming up with what works for me. You’d be surprised (or maybe not?) how many people try to tell me what I should be doing.

When it comes to an artisan’s prices, just: don’t (that includes gossiping about it behind their back, by the way). Now, if they open this discussion, it’s probably fair game. But ask questions rather than giving advice.  What are their goals? What has their experience been? And here’s an idea. If you really really feel you have some advice? Ask, “Would you like my suggestions?” and then literally pause and wait and see if they do or not. Their body language and mannerisms are going to tell you a lot about whether this field of discussion is helpful or interesting to them.

It is unlikely you have thought about this as much as they have. You also don’t know their resources. I knew a gal who wasn’t particularly technically gifted, but was able to sell her simple items – made of high-quality materials – for a very good price. She had independent source of means, and connections in a few high-circulation publications (whether her connections were through privilege or doing footwork, I have no idea). It is inappropriate to guess at or tell someone how much they should charge because you don’t know what their craft means to them, why they do it, how much support or resources they have, the market they’re aiming to – or if indeed they think of their work like a business at all (many don’t).

4. Don’t ever ever tell them “You could sell those!” There is likely not a single soul out there, who is any good at making something, or even marginally okay at it, who hasn’t had this thought flit across their mind. And it is far more likely, especially if they’ve been an artisan for some time, they’ve imagined ways they could sell, or sell better, or earn more, or reach more people. Et cetera. “You could sell those” can be replaced by a lot more interesting conversation. And for all you know, they are profoundly uninterested in selling, and likely have valid and interesting reasons why they’re not.

In short:

Please. Please. Please quit commoditizing their craft. Please quit telling them to charge less, or charge more, or market this way, or make this, or make that. Just: stop.

You know what? This might be a time in your life you get to walk away not having told someone what they should do with their beloved work. This is actually a good exercise for all sorts of situations, maybe I’ll write an article on that at some point.

5. Ask for favors and freebies. Why not? This is not going to be a popular suggestion with some people. But I say, it’s on the craftivist to say, “I’m flattered, but no thanks.” I have sewn and helped others for free (or the cost of materials), and through both missteps and slam-dunks I’ve learned what I can comfortably say No or Yes to. Coming to mind, the time I made a jacket and offered it up to help a friend’s blog – as a give-away. You know, I never heard word one from the person who got the jacket gratis – gift-wrapped and all – but I did enjoy making that jacket, and I also enjoyed learning: fuck giveaways. For me, personally.

6. Give feedback. This is going to vary from artisan to artisan, but I absolutely want to know how fabrics and garments held up under performance conditions. Often people buy my pieces and never tell me if they were happy or not. I haven’t had to issue any refunds (and I offer a 100% refund policy), so either people are happy, or too reticent to be honest.

7. Don’t tell people what to make. This happens to me often. People tell me to sew clothes, if I comment on ill-fitting ones. People tell me to sew curtains, if they see I don’t have any yet (I hate sewing curtains! And it is cheaper to buy them than sew them!). A better bet: ask someone. “Do you sew clothes for yourself?” “Do you sew home dec stuff?” (or for different crafts: “How many different cheeses do you make?”, “Would you ever make an ashtray?”, et cetera). Again, a better conversation for everyone.

8. Ask for help. Do you want to learn how to do something? Look online first (after all, we often make tutorials and we usually answer emails!), but then, if you can’t find it or if you’re lost or need details or even hands-on assistance: ask! I’m not too grumpy to love teaching. I spent a handful of hours today helping not one, but two women. It’s not only an opportunity to learn skills, it can be an opportunity for the artisan to let their imagination fly. And, curmudgeon-y tone I am writing with aside, I obviously like to help people.

9. Want a requisitioned piece? Do your homework. Most artisans have a body of work. Investigate and figure out if you like their style. If you don’t, look elsewhere. Avoid unnecessary dissatisfaction.

10. Don’t compliment gifts if you don’t mean it. When I’m making a gift, I really do try to make the “perfect” gift for the intended recipient. But in general, I do not need someone to like my pieces or my style. I like my work, and that’s enough for me.

So this whole, you-don’t-like-my-stuff thing doesn’t have to be awkward. If I or some other craftivist gives you a gift you don’t care for, you can say “Thank you,” and leave it at that.

11. Tell your friends. If the crafter makes pieces for sale or barter, tell your friends who seem like they might like the artisan’s stuff.

12. If you’re able & willing, send them money, buy them yardage, give them supplies. I have had so many friends pick up something at the thrift store, or out their closet, and give these items to me as a gift or loan. Sometimes the materials aren’t to my taste, or something I can use. But very often I can use these things, and I’ve had wonderful projects come alive from these gifts! One woman mailed me a quilting ruler stand. One woman gave me an old sewing machine – that I love dearly and use regularly! I’ve sewn with yards and yards of gifted fabric – and the items I haven’t used, I’ve assiduously donated to the appropriate artisans/shops. Cash donations are wonderful and have helped me make wonderful clothes for my children (that then get passed to other children). Think of it this way: most artisans are creative and want to splash out goodness to the world. Give them something to work with!


Tomorrow: pro-tips TO the cranky craftivists.

handsewing & bitchy

Handsewing & bitchy

* YMMV of course; just a list of my preferences and many others’ I’ve spoken with.

look fabulous or go home

Look fabulous!

"Why on EARTH she'd think box pleats were acceptable in society is beyond me!"

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Nice White Lady Syndrome, a condition I myself struggle with. Hell, I used to be a walking Typhoid Mary (I’m trying to heal, people).  NWLS is elusive for me to describe but it’s real.  I could easily off-hand name some of the common traits. We with NWLS are concerned with being “nice”, of course, and will go to great lengths (including avoidance of subjects or people) to ensure the facade does not shatter.  We are incessantly – internally or aloud – policing the bodies, clothes, manners and appearance of ourselves as well as other women, thereby making sure any concept of “sisterhood” runs concomitant to the pledging of a sorority that allows some (worthy ladies) in, while some are most stridently refused.

Yet despite the desire to be “nice” many afflicted with NWLS will devolve to hateful language and ad hominem attacks if you call out – however respectfully and accurately – problematic behaviors. In fact in our rigidity against admitting wrongdoing we have a core of steel that matches the most unapologetic purveyor of hate speech.  Now I hardly need point out that not all white ladies who are nice suffer from NWLS (so please don’t be bringing me that bunk). 1  I shall leave it for another post to write much more about my thoughts on this little syndrome but I will say: you see its true colors when you disagree with our most treasured bigotries, perpetrations, and prejudices.

Case in point, I enjoy following Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing, a lovely series of entries that are akin to one of those entrancing, snapping insect-killer lamps for so many American mid-to-upper class white ladies like myself (we’re in the “working class” category if you’re curious). On May 28th Gertie wrote a bit about her experiences in classes with (illustrious and amazing) professional Kenneth King. In brief, her post stated the following: that as she pursues an interest in fashion and fitting clothes for oneself, inevitably she begins to find problems in the fit of ready-to-wear (RTW) clothing she sees out in the world.  Thus her passion for personal clothing construction becomes a nit-picking enterprise on other people’s clothing – and this troubles her a bit.  Or as Gertie herself says, “It makes sense that as we become more proficient fitters and sewers, we’ll become more observant of the garments all around us. (Unfortunately, we might also become more annoying, petty people in the process!)”2

Gertie makes a good point but the issue is not so simple as mere “nit-picking” or “petty[ness]”, since the intersection of a whole mess of issues comes to the fore when we begin to look at other (usually female) bodies and decide what looks good or bad (I think of sexism, racism and classism FAIL right off the bat, but of course homophobia and transphobia rate quite high).

Sure enough, many comments following this post exhibited quite the buffet of harmful worldviews: mostly with regards to body shaming, a whiff of slut shaming, and socio-economic class insensitivity to put it mildly.  Essentially the reader is treated to many lectures on people who wear too tight jeans and too-small stretch fabrics which means they are basically Letting Us All Down by not looking good enough.

Wait, why am I writing “people”? The vast, vast majority of the eighty-three (so far) comments on this post concern women’s bodies, full stop.  The list went on: people (women) are in denial about their size; thus they wear ill-fitting clothes which are somehow a grievance committed against us, the viewer; people are gross for being fat but they’re really gross for not disguising this fat in some way according to the standards of the poor innocent bystander who has to see this body.   All women should consider body shapers or getting their bra fitted. People should make sure to have their pants properly hemmed because please – “spare a few bucks”, your dry-cleaner can do it for you. Shaming and dehumanizing language abounds: “embarrassing sausage-in-a-casing look”, “trashy”, “rubbish”, “gross”. Muffin-tops, camel-toes, and skeletal women are all disgusting. Anyone and everyone outside of the parlances of what fashion provides should either learn to sew or do whatever it takes to not look slovenly.

I won’t deny that, as a seamstress myself, fit analysis is a huge subject and once you get some chops you may notice poor fit all around you.  It’s where one crosses the line into the many types of dehumanizing language and assumptions, insensitivities, and unacknowledged privilege that things get gross.  Along with this nasty stuff comes the adjunct prescription that all women owe everyone, everywhere the duty to wear something flattering or becoming according to – well, I’m not sure who gets to decide that part (the “flattering” prescription for ladies is a feverish mantra in our society).3 In these four-score comments only one (Tasia’s) pointed out there might be financial and lifestyle considerations that might excuse someone for not making Looking Their Absolute Best a high priority.

There were glimmers of hope in the conversation.  Several commentors laid the issue of poor fit in part at the fashion industry’s ill-service to women in particular aspects.  But many comments were kind of muddy – like this one, which took me on a roller coaster of hope before quickly plummeting into more typical territory regarding fat people and compulsory-DIY4:

I also deplore baggy shoulders and shapeless side seams on plus size women, myself included. I don’t blame the women for this, they can’t help it because many manufacturers offer poorly executed plus size designs. And at certain income ranges that is all that is available to them. When I see this I want to grab the women and tell her, “Yes, you can buy a t-shirt for ten dollars, but if you make your own it will actually fit you and look good and you will feel better about yourself when you see how sleek you really can look!”

Oh dear good Lord.

Then there was: “there is nothing more tragic than a larger busted woman with a seam that SHOULD go under her bust…”

Nothing! More! Tragic!

Believe it or not dear reader, I could go on with more problematic content.  Wondering what might happen, I sent this email to Gertie:

I think it’s awesome you are starting to really SEE clothes and fit issues – and that you have the means, time, and privilege to explore a self-education in creating well-made, homesewn clothes. It’s also wonderful you are sharing your experiences with your readers! I have you in my feed reader and look forward to your writings.

But with your last post, I’m sure your intent was not to start a classist bunch of fashion-and-clothes policing. Where I live lots of people are just trying to pay the bills and feed their kids and have clothes on their backs and try not to freeze their asses while they wait an hour between buses (and of course, I’m a white American and surrounded by far more wealth and privilege than many global citizens have). I seriously cannot imagine looking at ANY fellow human being and picking on their “rubbish” or “trashy” or “cheap” sense of style.

I know there are ways to talk about fashion and the pursuant fun of achieving it that respect all human beings. I am sad to see your comment stream is not a respectful space in that manner.

I love your writings and I hope you take my comment knowing I come from that place.

Gertie wrote back almost immediately and asked if she could publish my email in an Op-Ed on the site. I agreed, although my stomach sank because You know? I’m not super-awesome about wanting to speak up about social justice a crowd of inter-netz anonymous who had committed such egregious class and size acceptance FAIL already. But hell, I know I’m okay with what I wrote so I said Sure.  The morning of May 31st the little “Op-Ed” was published with my email and a sparse introduction from Gertie.5

Since most my Underbellie readers are beyond 101, you can imagine what happened next.  A very small series of comments granted my points; many sent up defensive arguments and of course, ad hominen attacks on yours truly (one commenter described me as “insane”! Shoehorning in the ableist pejorative – w00t!). A handful of people said I was “unfair” and handing out “badges” of wrongdoing (so apparently, no matter how politic you point something like this out, you’re being – let’s face it – a pesky bitch to cite it at all). Notable too were the many who said there was “nothing wrong with Gertie’s original post” (although I’d made clear I was speaking about the reader comment stream specifically), a classic Derail that carried through the discussion over. & over. & over.6  I was accused of taking myself too seriously, told I should take on a “real” social issue, and that everyone should wear “sackcloth and ashes” to meet my standards of social justice.  I expected a few attacks, but I will admit I was surprised to hear how many people claimed style and clothing options have nothing to do with socioeconomic class.

Interestingly enough, those who defended my points said when it comes to commenting on other people’s clothing, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” (this happens to be another adage in the NWLS canon). Although I have often employed the “don’t say mean shit” strategy at specific instances in my life, what’s funny is of course, we absolutely can discuss fashion and fit and style – holding there are good and poor strategies and builds for clothing – whilst respecting other human beings who inhabit clothes we personally wouldn’t wear (and due to our various degrees of privilege may not have to).  Eschewing describing a woman as “trashy” is something I can commit to while discussing an erroneously-drafted or ill-fitting empire waist – this latter an interesting subject to me in terms of garment fitting as I don’t often wear this particular style myself. And yet again, discussions on this subject often devolve into that policing bit; that is, a woman who fully knows well where her empire seam is and doesn’t give a Good Goddamn is thrown under the wheels as Unsightly; so too is her sister who is busy thinking about things other than clothing like – oh I dunno for example, food, shelter, her job(s), her family, her passions, her aging father she’s providing round-the-clock care for in the home, her chronic pain issues, her looming layoff, etc. etc.

Most odd of all were the accusations I was this kind of lurky dark-sided outlander trying to make Gertie “feel bad” for her silly hobby (someone claimed I said “frivolous” and of course as you see – I didn’t).  As most my readers here know I share the same exact hobby (garment sewing). Sewing is a life-blood creative source of joy for me; incidentally, I also share some of the same types of privilege Gertie does. I don’t require her to feel bad about any of these things to make my points.

So you know, my whole speaking up thing just felt like oh, making-fart-noises-with-my-mouth. Fail.

But you know?  Amongst the comments following the “Op-Ed” were some diamonds in the rough:

purplesews wrote:

I grew up steeped in the idea that the best thing to do was go home and stay indoors until you’d lost blankity pounds and then buy clothing – and it’s taken me some time to unlearn that and learn to fit my own unique figure without jumping right to disliking myself – so yeah, that comment thread did make me sad in places. The idea that you owe it to other people to wear “the right” clothing for your age/size/coloring/whatever tends to annoy me – while the fact that the market can’t presently provide most of us with the right clothes for our bodies is one of my hobbyhorses. But then, I feel this way about a lot of kindly-meant fashion advice, right down to good old Stacy and Clinton: I feel like if you walked up to the average poorly-dressed person and handed them $1500 and walked away, they would – well, probably pay off part of their mortgage, but if they had to spend it on clothes, they would probably be better dressed immediately, advice or no advice. I also think it’s interesting that we as a culture look down on vanity – there’s definitely some puritanism to the everybody-in-t-shirts aesthetic – but are very gung-ho about having some duty to others to look nice. It’s a strange dynamic.

emadethis wrote:

This is well-said. I shudder to think of people stopping others on the street and pointing out the defects in their garments. I’m distressed when I see poorly made garments on the rack. The deeper you get into sewing, finding these defects becomes just an outgrowth of your learning. A lot of people cannot afford well-constructed items, myself included. I consider myself blessed that I can sew for myself, but many are not in that camp either, and we need to respect where people are on that continuum.

Solitary Crafter writes:

Maybe I just have low expectations of people on the internet, but I avoided the comments on that post because I assumed that it would devolve into critiquing body size and that comments would be made about people shopping at walmart and all the rest.

As much as I enjoy sewing and crafting magazines and blogs, it’s always clear that people like me – poor, redneck, white trash – aren’t considered to be the ‘class’ of readers or commenters desired or expected and the issues faced by poor sewers and crafters, those of us who shop at walmart and thrift stores for fabric and patterns, tend to be either ignored or brushed away as unimportant.

No, I don’t expect everyone to cover the issues facing people like me, I have other resources for that, but neither do I expect understanding when the issue comes up.

Maybe I’m a coward and maybe I’m just pragmatic, but this is one subject that never can be resolved, even among people with the best of intentions.

A handful of comments like these in an otherwise rather dismal showing gives me hope that what I write and speak about is important (enough).  In particular Solitary Crafter’s comment tugs my heartstrings – I know exactly the exclusion and dismissal she speaks of and indeed was pointing it out.

Part of me aches for the person (woman) who is defensive and angry at my observations. I really do know what it’s like to suffer the pain of having my “niceness” bubble popped, especially in an exposed setting. I know what it’s like to be called out in public (which the inter-netz obviously is) and while many can shake it off, I have on occasion blanched and felt my heart race at such things.  In short, I really do have empathy for how upsetting this sort of thing can feel (and I was only calling comments out primarily with regards to classism; you want to see NWLS in full-blown danger mode, speak up when a white lady has said or done something racist and yes I’m aware by even suggesting “white” has anything to do with these kinds of behavior I am inviting some indignant denial-screeches!).

An investment in being “nice” is/was a seductive condition.  There were so many perks (if I had good “intentions” my actions could not, I repeat not be called into question) even while it took away my ability to handle constructive criticism and listen to other worldviews. Additional “perks” came in the form of believing I was someone who Meant Well and was Part of the Solution and it was totally other people who were Part of the Problem. Since I had a black boyfriend or a few gay friends or since I came from a “poor” background I’d passed some kind of test where if someone ever brought up those issues with regard to my behavior I’d know I wasn’t in the wrong(, ever), so please do not ever point that out.

I won’t say learning differently wasn’t painful. It was (still is sometimes). In my case (personal story), I became active on a social networking site that had a significant proportion of women of color and queer women and unmarried women with children and I got schooled more than once. I was told when I had said something racist, or classist, or elitest, or using heteronormative language or being a garden-variety asshole. It hurt.

Funny thing is even after I left this community I kept seeking out those types of spaces online.  I kept wanting to learn more even if it meant being called out (sometimes in error, but often with a fair bit of accuracy), yes “publicly” and often not nearly as politic as I myself tried to intervene here.

In attempting to shed my biases and denials and sense of White Lady Sainthood (and I hasten to add I am still working through these things) I’ve become a much better listener and I have a broader perspective. I’ve experienced a greater diversity of friends online and IRL who value what I bring to the party.

But some, it seems, still prefer to stay “nice” – until they have to shout rudely over someone else. I wish them the best in their journey.

Do read the links below, especially the writings of Tasha and Natalie.


Thanks Arwen and Paige for your personal assistance in writing this post.

Photo credit: clotho98 on Flickr

Mentioned/Further Reading:

“Body Image, mothers, classism, fashion, Karl Lagerfield, and social inclusion” at lisaschweitzer.com

“Nice White Lady to the Rescue!” at Alas, A Blog

stuff white people do, a blog

“Defensiveness as a Signpost of Privilege” at Shakesville

“Where My Sistas At? The Underrepresentation of Black Plus Size Models in Mainstream Fashion” at racialicious

“Are There Class Cultures?” at classmatters.org

Very brief primer on how classism functions within feminism or women who consider themselves pro-woman, at everything2.com

“Women and Class” (and the avoidance to discuss the latter) at classmatters.org

Tangentially and to sort of soul-destroy anyone still clicking through my links, while searching for a CC-licensed picture I found this charming series of comments under the photo titled “Fatties”. If yer so inclined you can sooth your eyeballs on the photo caption of this treasure: “My Neighbor Is A Big Fat Ugly Pig”. OK, I’ll stop now. Promise.  Just: it was rough finding a photo.

A little ray of sunshine – because there are many people out there working for the Good: definatalie is writing some of the best articles re: fashion snark. Besides her “skinny jeans” post you can read “Confessions of a Former Snarker” recently published on her blog.

  1. This is similar to nice guy vs “Nice Guy“, as explained here and many, many other places.
  2. You can find “Like ANTS Crawling on Your SKIN: Clothing Pet Peeves.” at BfBS.
  3. One of the  most amazing, wonderful rebuttals to this very common and socially-enforced meme is definatalie’s “You Can’t Bully Me Out Of My Skinny Jeans”
  4. Concomitant but not in response to Gertie’s post, blogger Tasha Fierce wrote beautifully on this subject the next day: “The Class Dynamics of DIY”
  5. Op/Ed Column: on Fashion Policing at blogforbettersewing
  6. Derailing for Dummies

craft pr0n and how it’s killing America

This Hood is FTW

against a sun-dappled backdrop, my son artfully plays with a wicker, um, whatever the hell that thing is

I love to sew.  If you’re reading here, you probably know this.  I learned to sew so long ago I don’t remember not knowing the craft, but when my life turned to child-raising and home-life this desire simply asploded from my loins like a flaming, golden hawk.  Some days it’s an effort to think of other things; think of them I must, however, as I do believe it’s both an honor and respectable, satisfying work to do – you know, everything else (kids pets cleaning dishes laundry mending planning shopping cooking playing cuddling reading bathing scrubbing vacuuming; Ok, my husband vacuums, not me, but still).

As I said, I love to sew.  So you can imagine how much I enjoy flipping through the latest of a sheer glut of craft books and finding all these wonderful ideas, fabrics, products, tutorials, kits, trims, embellishments, machines, notions, and supplies.

But wait, you can’t imagine it.  Because the truth is, I kind of hate these books, websites, and blogs. Shocker! No, I personally find it exhausting to consume or be exposed to the world of Unbearably Tasteful Craft, even for the bits and pieces of know-how I pick up.

Look, it’s only recently I’ve become frustrated.  I, like many before me, was taken in by the first little celebratory crafts-for-laydeez blog.  I saw a white woman, her hair tied in an artful kerchief, sitting demurely on a sun-dappled hardwood floor.  Her adorable children’s (clean) hands hand-felted winsomely-flawed baubles and she sewed them to a vintage linen tablecloth.  Maybe there was a bowl of apples sunning themselves on the shelf of shabby-chic armoire, right next to a striking display of hand-wound wool yarns (Red Hart, get thee out Satan!).

Awwww.  So sweet.  I want that life, I thought to myself.

Then there was another.  This time the (white, young, beautiful, slim, hipster/urban ingenue/sweet hippie) posed in a halter dress she’d made from her husband’s old cotton dress shirt, her hands carelessly dipped in flour as her happily docile child licked the spoon to messy and cutesy effect. Across the door threshold fluttered hand-cut wool banner flags in a muted colorset as this duo of mother-and-child enjoyed an apparent blissdom of epic, Unicorn-making-out-with-Johnny Depp, proportions.

I’ll spare you further examples.  There have been, and continue to be, a germillion of them.

Here’s the thing: I’m not going to pick on a single author, website, or publishing house.  I don’t have the expertise or knowledge base to do so, nor judge any particular person’s intentions.  When a blog turns from a “hey, I made this” site to first sponsorships, then little ads in the sidebar, and eventually a resultant book deal – yay! For them. I mean if it makes someone a living it’s no more right to criticize that individual than anyone else who earns.  These books and sites do, obviously, inspire and to some extent instruct (although I’ve yet to see much “new” invented in the field of stitching that our grannies and great-great-great grannies didn’t know how to do).  People who know how to do stuff should write it down and share it, absolutement.

However, in the sheer volume of these bewitching tomes ($15 to $40 for each hardcover, lest ye forget) and sites (cluttered with ads to niceties we hadn’t originally planned on buying, and perhaps can’t afford even if we want them*) we get a sly underwhiff of nastiness: bit by bit they build an aspirational picture**: white, classy, pure, “natural” (whatever that means), beautiful, clean, tidy, creative, tasteful***, and in the case of kids, cute-but-well-behaved.  A book I currently have on loan from the library happily sighs, “Take nothing into your home that is not a thing of beauty”.

Because, really?  Most who know me would likely think I am a selective consumer – heck, we currently lack a table to eat on because I’m waiting for the right one (affordable and well-made, probably used).  But the concept of a household only displaying items that are “things of beauty” is not the world nor the lifestyle most people find themselves in (A. if they could afford it and B. if they shared the aesthetic).  The people I know around these parts, they have like three jobs and four kids and juggling exes and daycare and t-ball fees and stuff.  These people shop at Walmart because That’s What’s Here (we literally have no apparel fabric store in a community of about 25,000) and They Haven’t Yet Learned Less Is More (and perhaps they will never be interested, P.S. even “simple life” peeps have a heck of a lot more shit than lots of other people****).  A little compromise, perhaps?  Or do we really have to all have the same sun-washed linen-curtain lifestyle in order to proceed, you know, learning how to stitch?

Buying only “the best” fabrics and threads, etc., is all well and good if you can do it; any stitcher knows the sheer bliss of handling well-made fabrics, thread – heck, even well-made needles (see Unicorn/Johnny Depp reference above).  But most people I know buy sweatshop-manufactured clothes and inexpensive fabrics because A. that’s what’s predominantly available to them, and B. many of them can’t easily afford otherwise.  Ever taken apart a Walmart t-shirt once it’s worn out to make something new?  You probably should proceed carefully as this may not be worth it, depending on your skills in re-stitching and the item’s intended purpose.

And this brings us to the the (time-honored, but currently undergoing green-wash and trendy revival) subject of repurposing. “Simply take items you love and when they’re worn, recycle them into your life.”  Fair enough.  I do this: tons.  Yet the book I have on hand that details the process and end results is not altogether relatable: picture after picture (several dozen models, all thin, all beautiful, all able-bodied, all young, and all but one white) in their repurposed and time-intensive garments literally standing in cornfields looking into the distance. Aw yeah… that’s the shit I usually do in my hand-sewn stuff.  Stand on red-dirt roads looking awesome.  This same site features a hand-stitched coat for $4,400 (worth every penny, and I’m not kidding, but a bit out of the ken for…  you know, lots of people).  Re-purposing, a subject I could write many, many more words on, is both time-intensive and often necessitates a competence, if not expertise, in knowing one’s fabric needs (more in a minute), style preferences, sturdy construction techniques, and time management (how many “re-purposed” projects are currently sitting unfinished, stuffed in someone’s closet?).

About those models and those lovely pictures from this book and many, many more:  the race-fail is obvious. Some are better than others but it’s basically a white-fest.  So there’s that.

The sizeism gets to me more than most other -isms; not because I, at 5′ 5″ and 190 pounds, feel especially butt-hurt or fat-shamed (I’m over it), but I know just how many women do get tripped up on the sum-total message that to be beautiful and expressive you need to be small or slim (in fact last week I received an email from a big girl who wants to sew but can’t find patterns in her size and her style. She is currently – surprise! – not sewing).  The “repurposing” site I mentioned above?  They put out a book with a lovely pattern – that goes up to a women’s size 12.  Just so you know, the average American woman is a 14.  So, if you’re fatter than a size 12 you don’t exist.  Or you don’t deserve to look fashionable.  I’m not sure which one.

And don’t give me that, “Oooh but they couldn’t possibly draft up every size, ever”.  Um, yeah, they could, or a heck lot more of them could: Jalie immediately comes to mind for improved size ranges.  Besides, I’m not suggesting every single garment come in every imaginable size from premie baby to the World’s Tallest Man*****.  But maybe, you know, a woman’s pattern could include the same size iterations from the size 14 midpoint.  If you know, you’re going to bother making a pattern at all.

Another bit of subtle-yet-dealbreaking sizeist undercurrent in the urban/indie sites: okay, here’s a simple tutorial instructing you to cut up your husband’s dress shirt and make an a-line skirt.  Um, hello, unless your husband is much larger than you or prone to baggy fashion, you will not have enough fabric. The act of cutting a garment apart leaves you with significantly less yardage to create from given the design lines in the original garment.  Example: this week I started t-shirt corset.  It took 1.5 t-shirts in a men’s 2 XL to cut the pieces along the appropriate grainline (I am roughly that “average” size 14).  I am an expert at pattern layout; your average newcomer won’t be.

The abovementioned yardage question is Sewing 101 (OK, maybe 102) but, to a newbie, constitutes frustration and bad crafting experience.  Is it too much to ask the 101 “repurposing” folks write up some general guidelines so you don’t have average-to-fat ladies happily bringing home that Stones t-shirt thrift score only to be defeated when there’s not enough to go around?

(I realized I lapsed into seamstress speak in those last two paragraphs; stay with me now.)

Look, the books and websites I speak of are, ultimately, full of lovely DIY, inspiration, occasionally current links to sources for materials, and lots of pretty pictures (if you read nothing else here, please do read Kate Harding’s “aspirational” piece as linked below). Sometimes attendant to the books and sites are great communities for help and comradery.

Let’s not forget one thing, though: a huge component of the websites’ and books’ existence is to make money.  If they can paint a lovely lifestyle picture they may be able to make a buck.  Why else waste page space on a scone recipe smack dab in the middle of sewing tutorials?  Listen ass, first off, who doesn’t know how to make scones, secondly, I can find my own tried-and-true recipe, you know, elsewhere, perhaps in the field of cookery.

Here’s my point, in case it’s not obvious: the canon of craft pr0n seems less about helping you make things as it is promising you a lifestyle if you buy things.  Supplies are necessary to create but the acquisition of them is no substitution for the creative process.  (And don’t forget how many crafts and disciplines have their roots in creating for next-to-nothing, currency-wise.)  There are too many women (and men) who buy fabric, print patterns from a trendy online site, grab curtain lengths at a garage sale or thrift store, save up the money for a sewing machine…:

Then they simply don’t create.  I see it, often.  I am stopped in the street by people who know I sew: they want to, they can’t.  And I want to be a force for the Good in changing this for anyone who wants it.

A coda: I had the opportunity a few days ago to attend a workshop by international spoken-word artist Desdamona.  She was asked her work’s purpose and she said, “To empower people to create”.  This simple phrase was powerful for me to hear.  The drive to create is within us; the empowerment? Not always.   This is why I call myself a Sewing Activist.  This is why I assist as many who ask for my help.

True craftivism can be assisted by any material, book, tutorial, or blog, but it’s most effective at the grass-roots when we help one another along using what they have; even if our neighbor, yes, her entire works have thus far consisted of tie-blankets from JoAnns fleece printed with the Seahawks logo.  She’s my peeps just as much as the fashionable “good things” set, if not more so.

Mentioned/Futher Reading:

Google image search for “new craft book

Red Hart yarn, acrylic and therefore gauche

Ad-free blogs, a concept

** Kate Harding sums up my objections to the “aspirational”, a simple must-read

*** “Tasteful” should not be the of order of how we express ourselves; this is why I dislike Regretsy and I some others do too

**** Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Zenning my house, a process (blog post)


Vagzilla: All Genitals Great and Small, a wee  bit OT but a great perspective on human size variation

Jalie’s scoopneck top pattern in a 27-size range, from 18 months to a woman’s size 22

***** Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man

Fashion/fat police in the stitching world:  BurdaStyle’s “Marilyn Pants”, 74 comments and counting along the lines of: “Ugh, only thin people can wear this” and “Even that thin model can’t pull this off”, and “P.S. don’t be fat. EVAR.”

Leslie at Fatshionista briefly discusses the “trapeze dress” fashion-Gestapo

“Obsessed with Martha Stewart”, a blog

In response to compliments and a query on my daughter’s “wolf suit”, I performed a search for barkcloth on Reprodepot.com, yielding prices of $10 – $15 for a half yard.  Lovely fabrics, to be sure.  Affording them is a small feat.

Desdamona, a performance artist

No-Sew Fleece Blanket, a how-to