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My First Piece of Clothing

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

I’m going to be one of those little old ladies who has a giant sewing room in their house. I just know it. When I’m old, I’m going to have a gothic cottage that has yards of fabric strung everywhere like a Buddhist temple. My army of black cats will fetch scissors and threads for me when I run out of them at my sewing machine. With how well I know myself and love all of those things, I know that is the station where this crazy train is heading.

I first wanted to make clothes around the age of nine. Growing up, my mom sewed a lot of my clothes along with all of my Halloween costumes. She stopped when I begged her for a Marie Antoinette robe à la française. That was where she drew the line. She could create useful things out of fabric, which seemed like magic to me growing up, and made me want to create things as well.

Later that year for Christmas, I received my first sewing machine. It was a basic Singer that wouldn’t overwhelm me. For the first few days, my mom sat with me and showed me how it all worked. How to thread a bobbin, what a seam allowance was. It very quickly became overwhelming for me. I honestly don’t think I did any sewing projects on that machine beyond test runs and maybe a pillowcase. I grew bored of it and stashed it away in my closet.

Flash forward nine years later to me, a recent high school graduate, cleaning out my room of anything I might take with me to college. Inside my closet, beneath the layers of discarded clothes and old toys I hadn’t seen for years, I unearthed the forgotten contraption.

It took me another month to realize that I wanted to sew my Halloween costume that year. Now, I hadn’t fully given up on sewing. I still had dreams of creating dresses and having a closet full of clothes I made by myself. But as always, I overestimated what I thought I was capable of and I grew frustrated over the fact that I wasn’t an automatic pro at sewing. I wanted it to be the one hobby I was good at from the get-go, and since it wasn’t, I viewed myself as a failure. I didn’t see a point in trying to get better at something I was having trouble with, so I convinced myself to not think about the machine tucked away in my closet. Buried underneath layers of other failed hobbies or projects.

I had taken a sewing class in the years between getting my sewing machine and rediscovering it. I wasn’t a total rube. So I thought making an Edwardian-style dress with a train was completely doable. It was my first sewing project that involved clothing, but truthfully, I’d like to forget I ever made that dress. My takeaway from that whole experience was a very expensive frock that will probably never see the light of day ever again.

That project taught me some important lessons about making your own clothes, like don’t spend what little money you have on fabric that you’re going to ruin. But I learned a far more important thing about myself. I learned that I am a deadly concoction of perfectionism and procrastination with an unhealthy dose of overestimating my abilities.

Freud had a theory that humans have a “death wish,” a subconscious desire to destroy themselves or anything they do. As much as I don’t want to give any of his ideas any credence, all evidence of my life points to the contrary. As with everything I do, I push myself into going above what I consider safe and try to be more daring with my abilities.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that when I attempted to sew another article of clothing for myself, this time going for what I thought was a practical piece to add to my wardrobe, I still decided to pick one of the worst types of fabric patterns for a beginner to start on.

I chose plaid.

When sewing plaids or stripes, you’ll want to make sure the pattern you’re working with is lined up. This also usually means you have to buy more fabric than what the pattern might call for so you’ll have plenty of room to match up your lines. If you’re someone who doesn’t really care about that sort of thing, it’s not a big deal. But to a perfectionist like me, it’s a nightmare. I wanted the skirt I was making to look professionally done. Which was asking a lot, apparently.

For some context, I had been going through a near year-long writer’s block. My energy was zapped from my final year of college and a part-time retail job that became more and more demanding. I was already running on fumes when Covid hit. So suffice it to say, the only writing I was getting done was making sure I had my name spelled right on my resume.

My self-esteem was hitting a new low. And I felt that I was incapable of doing anything. Since I apparently couldn’t write a line of text to save my life, I decided to express myself some other way. Just to feel some level of accomplishment. And I thought, why not sewing?

I chose a pattern for a below-the-knee skirt with giant pockets that took up about a third of the skirt’s overall size. The whole thing was giving me the vibe of a medieval peasant woman who has to bunch up her skirts to toil in the family fields. We had people walking around in plague doctor’s masks, so what better time to embrace the 14th century aesthetic? And since it was labeled an “easy pattern,” I figured I could handle whatever it might throw at me.

Fitting the cut-out pieces to my size was easy. Putting interfacing inside the waistband to give it the strength it needs to hold up the skirt; child’s play. I came to feel that the pattern was living up to its easy setting, the only problems I was facing were self-made, and not the pattern’s fault. The instructions were short and clear, and it looked like they would stay that way throughout the pattern. So long as I made sure I didn’t stray from the instructions, what could go wrong?

This is what we call foreshadowing.

I took the time to line up my pattern’s lines correctly, only for them to not line up as I pinned everything together. Fine, I thought. It’s one of my first pieces of handmade clothes. It wasn’t a professionally-made piece, even though that’s what I thought I was going for… but I could live with it. Too late to fix it.

Sewing two pockets that could each easily conceal a honey-baked ham took some time and patience, but there was no hair-pulling at that point. That came when the instructions didn’t explain how the pockets are meant to be attached to the skirt itself. Also when I forgot to cut notches into the fabric that serve as markers on where I needed to attach the pieces to each other. Great.

Since the pocket is the same size as the rest of the skirt, I kept grabbing onto the pocket, thinking it was the front of the skirt, and pinning that in place, creating a giant flap of unidentified fabric. So I settled into a three-hour cycle of having to unpin the pocket, re-pin it, discover what I’d done wrong, and try to pin it again. I did it backwards, wrong side out, and, on more than one occasion, upside down.

Finally, I’d had enough. I handed the instructions and fabric to my mother, who is an accomplished sewer, and asked her to help me, and even she couldn’t figure out how the hell the pockets were supposed to go.

I literally stared silently at the fabric for ten minutes before I tried pinning it one last time. And what do you know, I finally got it right.

If it sounds like this skirt took a long time to make, it did. I had to take several days off from working on it to recuperate from the pocket debacle. That was just enough time for my cat to find it and make it his new bed. Even though he was comfortable with the skirt, I guess he was feeling a little insecure at the moment, since he decided to mark it as his territory. That wasn’t a major problem and I washed the fabric after he did it, but it just added another layer of my frustration onto the creation of the skirt.

Once it was clean, or when it didn't smell as bad, I spent another few hours gathering the fabric around the top of the skirt. It’s an important part of the process, as it brings all the excess fabric together, creating a bell shape that is meant to flatter the waistline and make it appear smaller and the hips fuller.

If that wasn’t tedious enough, having to sew it to the waistband while trying to keep the gatherings from coming undone proved an even worse task. Every step in the project seemed more and more determined to grate upon my nerves. But there was worse yet to come, as the true test of patience came when adding the invisible zipper.

True to its name, an invisible zipper is made to be invisible. Groundbreaking. It’s usually placed on a side or back seam in order for it to blend in naturally with the garment. Now I had never sewn a zipper before, let alone an invisible one, but seeing myself as a natural seamstress, I thought that I could do an okay job on my first try, so I watched three different tutorials on zippers and went to work.

And I failed. Repeatedly. I figured out every other way other than the correct way to sew an invisible zipper. I started on that stupid thing at eight o’clock at night and didn’t feel confident with my work until ten minutes past midnight. With how many problems I was having with that skirt, I was expecting it to spontaneously combust. That would have been the highlight of my week.

But I did it. It fit and all around, it looked okay in my book. All that was left was to hem the bottom to cover up the raw edge and keep it from fraying out. Simple enough.

My biggest hobby is embroidering, which is stabbing a needle and colored floss through fabric over and over again. After lacemaking and weaving, it is the third most tedious art form out there. And I love it; it makes me accustomed to repetitive tasks. But hemming that travesty by hand was pushing the limits of my patience. I watched the four-hour-long slog that is Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra just so I had some noise going on in the background to keep me from going insane while I fought to finish that disaster. It didn’t take me the whole film to hem the stupid thing; I got done halfway through the movie. But I was so tired, I decided to keep watching it because I have been and always will be a slut for period pieces. I give it three out of five stars for its performances and costumes only.

Like the film, the skirt could have been worse. The grand ambitions of its creators were watered down to something pretty okay. Maybe even good. The mismatched pattern bothered me at first, but I've grown too comfortable with the skirt to care all that much now. But another minor issue I’ve noticed while wearing it is that I keep getting myself caught on every corner and door handle I walk by. I’ve had to repair the pockets a few times to keep me from accidentally ripping them off.

It’s also too damn hot to wear in the summer since it’s seven pounds of thick cotton. However, the solution for that has presented itself in the form of fall and winter. It has become a major staple of my home wardrobe during the cold months of the year.

Ellen in her skirt

Overall, I love my big dumb skirt. I love its design, its pattern, and I’m proud of the fact that I made it all on my own.

Even though sewing has taken up more of my time recently, I’m a writer first and foremost. What little confidence I’ve had in myself has always been in my writing. I’ve stuck with it for so long and gotten a degree with it because it came easy to me and people always complimented me on my pieces. But it’s hard for me to think that my writing has any real permanence or value unless I’m holding a printed-out copy of it in my hands.

Taking the time to do something other than writing let the truth about my skills and abilities sink in. I have grand ideas of what I want a dress or a script to be, but I give up on it when my rather rudimentary skills fail me.

Sewing is like writing, you can do several drafts, mock-ups if you like, in order to get your final product right. If you expect to get it right on the first try, don’t be surprised that with time it turns out to be a disappointment.

It’s been over a year since I made that skirt, and my more recent sewing projects have improved immensely. They’ve also put some wind back in my sails, as I’ve gone back to a few of my scripts and have been tinkering with them. Nothing on the scale of writing War & Peace, but it’s made me want my writing to be better. I don’t want to be just okay at something I am passionate about.

I still have a long way to go before I can say that I’m an accomplished sewer. I have many plans for clothes I want to add to my wardrobe, and I feel like at the rate I am going, I’m going to be a competent seamstress by the time I have gray hair and a cottage surrounded by black cats.

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katie wilkerson
katie wilkerson
Sep 06, 2021

Damn, the perseverance!

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