I spent my childhood in windowless back rooms full of women fussing over sewing machines, surrounded by bolts of fabric, scraps, patterns carefully folded and replaced in their envelopes, paper turning brown, strands of thread and dust on the floor. Before sewing was a charming hobby for twee millennials trying to establish a brand, it was a grown woman’s territory; my mother and her friends, quilters, swapping patterns and tips. The weeks she spent at “quilt camp,” a mysterious trip she took to a place full of women, just women, grey-haired and serious over their squares. The quilt enthusiasts, when I was a child, were like men who collect records, their crafting rooms overflowing with fabric, their attitude obsessive, looking down at me with a pensive half smile, asking, “And do you sew?”
My mother always says she’s a terrible quilter, even as she produces work of art after work of art; once gifted, they go immediately into use and they lie on beds for years, their colors fading and fabric thinning from years of being clutched, held, loved. She’s always focused on her deficiencies: she ran out of this fabric and had to use another, this square doesn’t line up quite right because her measurement was wrong. The real work, she protests, is being done by her friend with the long arm machine.
Usually when I go home to see her there’s some quilt show or another that she just happens to want to go to. We go to the community centers, the school gyms, the fairgrounds, and pay a few dollars to be admitted. The quilts are hung from walls or on movable displays. She points patterns out to me by their difficulty, and sometimes by their sense of humor. I only ever recognize Log Cabin, the center square inside each quilt square representing the hearth. So many of the traditional quilt patterns have stories, logic. You can follow along as someone points out the features to you, like someone pointing out the stars in a constellation. This is the hearth. This is the knot. This is home. The woman bent over a sewing machine, the steady hum of the motor, the needle rising and sinking.
In the back of a local fabric store, I join a handful of other women to spend a Saturday making a dress. The instructor is grown up, very calm and mature. We iron fabric, we set up sewing machines. I’m using double gauze, two layers of gauze on top of each other, impossibly soft and uncooperative. I can barely sew in a straight line. The other women are more experienced, know the instructor, know the pattern, know how. They chit-chat about famous fabric stores and patterns, and at this point as a grownup I’ve made an oilcloth cover for my sewing machine and an A-line skirt, so I am left out. One woman said, by way of introducing herself and why she sews, that she used to think sewing was anti-feminist, and the rest of us all made a sound. A sigh, a chuckle, a tsk. “I don’t think there’s anything more feminist than making your own clothes,” the instructor said, and all of us nodded.
There was a time before the hipster knitting revival, the DIY-celebrating lifestyle, when it seemed like rejecting the feminine was the way to be taken seriously, and there was nothing more feminine than the fiber arts, the room full of grey-haired old ladies bent over their quilt weight cotton, the sound of the motor. Now, it’s okay to make things for yourself. My husband’s niece has been watching a YouTube channel to learn how to make rooms for Barbie out of stuff lying around the house. In these rooms, Barbie teaches a class, Barbie works in a shop, Barbie crafts. By using old cereal boxes, cardboard, wrapping paper beads, and things I might have regarded as “trash,” she creates something unique, something only she has. Sewing is like this.
It’s shocking, in this world of $5 H&M dresses, that making a dress for yourself costs so much. Fabric at $10, $20, $35 a yard. Those Liberty of London prints, begging to become a summer dress, thanks, I made it myself, $45 a yard. Holding a $5 dress in my hands, I can picture the supply chain all the way back to the cotton rocking lazily in the sun. The people at every stage are opaque, at first, but turn over the label and there it is, made in Bangladesh, Vietnam. They rarely mention where the materials came from, as if it springs fully formed from the cotton plant. And unless you’ve seen how cotton is harvested, then ginned, then spun, stretched into fiber, the fiber dyed, sent to the rooms full of women bent over sewing machines, it’s easy to look at the clothes and imagine it all happens separately, like this dress is a cut of meat behind plastic in the grocery store—who knows where it came from, who knows where it will end up.
For an obsessive like me, in a fabric store, I can’t stop touching, evaluating. I love the patterns but am picky about the texture. I’ve always been a collector, even though I am rarely an expert. I can never remember what the names indicate. Oilcloth. Voile. Suiting. Lawn. Dupioni silk. So much of garment-making requires understanding how the fibers become fabric, how the fabric behaves based on how it was created and what material was used. The drape of cotton, the drape of linen. I have to force myself to pay attention to how the material lies when I drape it over my arm, instead of just focusing on if it makes my skin prickle or not.
At the doctor’s office, I say I’m allergic to latex to avoid the long conversation about the angry, blood-filled, abstract shapes that pop up under my skin if I wear a latex bandage too long, or if they leave the blood pressure cuff on too long. When did that start; how bad is the rash. Some doctors want to solve all the problems that come their way—obsessive—and it’s boring. I’m not here to talk about latex. Switch gloves and let’s get down to business. Doctors didn’t give me the name for what I experience sometimes from the things that touch me, or the things I touch. I learned about contact dermatitis from Google.
We all have sensitive skin in the family, my mother says. We used to bathe you in mineral oil for the eczema. I can’t wear wool without developing a rash, I wash everything carefully in free and clear detergent; I avoid anything with beading or sequins that might touch my skin somehow. I sometimes wear long-sleeved shirts that feel fine until I discover the abstract blood shapes coming up from under the skin of my inner elbow.
There was the time I wore a new shirt without washing it first. I broke into hives, all up and down my body, over my face. I was in college and uninsured. My friend brought me allergy medication and cortisone cream and I spent seven days in my room in a Benadryl haze because every time I tried to stop taking the Benadryl the hives returned. I looked at the tag on the shirt to see what kind of fabric it was and it said in tiny capital letters, ACRYLIC. Acrylic is paint, I thought. I grew up in fabric stores and couldn’t picture the supply chain that led to an acrylic shirt causing me to break into hives. I threw the shirt away.
The joke isn’t funny, but I tell it anyway. I can’t tolerate her smug face, all her satisfaction that she doesn’t have to spend her parents’ money at Forever 21, and anyway did we know they used sweatshop labor? Child labor? All for our stylish clothing? There’s always that one crusader, the one primly eating vegan snacks and judging your lifestyle as not as virtuous as hers—you’re spending your time on this earth mindlessly consuming, and she’s spending it offsetting her fucking carbon footprint. My friend is looking at the table, everyone else is pretending not to hear. I glance down at the beading on my friend’s shirt and say, “You need tiny fingers for this detail work.” My friend lets out a soft sound—somewhere between a laugh and a sigh.
The prim vegan tells me: “Not everything is a joke.” In a few months she’ll be arrested as part of a “dead-in” outside the Leo Burnett ad agency. Her group is protesting Burnett because they do ads for the Army. Shouting about the dead and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, her group will fall down “dead” on the sidewalk and street outside the Burnett Building, and a designated person will walk around chalk outlining their shapes on the ground. The Leo Burnett ads say: you are an “Army of One.” This will be one of the shortest-lived slogans in army history. It will be replaced with “Army Strong.”
Not everything is a joke. We watched them drop bombs on Baghdad, again, inside a diner on Broadway, on a tiny television. “I really feel like this is our generation’s Vietnam,” someone tells me at a sit-in I go to instead of class with the permission of the professor, who says he protested Vietnam, and we should go, we should show up with our voices and our bodies to protest, the earnestness in this comparison demanding to be mocked. Nothing was more dull than listening to a bunch of art school kids talk about war, like they’d ever had a recruiter visit their high school and ask if they want to get an education, see the world. The President stands on an aircraft carrier in a flight jumpsuit under a banner that reads MISSION ACCOMPLISHED and when the Chicago police arrests my classmates they drive them around the city, from precinct to precinct, to hold the processing up, so that no one can find them for hours. This wasn’t even a fraction of what the CPD did, and does, regularly to the black men and boys they arrest in Chicago.
Make a joke about sweatshops. Make a joke about the cops who broke a classmate’s arm arresting him as he and others blocked Lake Shore Drive. Make a “Stop resisting!” joke. Make a joke about the war. Make a joke about how many times I threw up outside a house party. Not everything is a joke—are you kidding me? I have to schedule all my classes for late afternoon because I can’t sleep at night. I’m awake until dawn and then I fall asleep on my couch or my twin bed, by myself, because some part of my brain refuses to relax when it’s dark out. I eat so little and drink so much that I’m constantly taking four or five Advil at a time just to function past my constant low-grade headache. What’s not funny about any of that?
Before we can start, we measure each other. Nothing bonds six women together like having to read their measurements out loud. We have an odd number of participants and when everyone else is paired up as the two who know each other, the two sitting next to each other, and me, the odd duck in the back, the instructor approaches me with her tape, saying it’s more accurate to have someone else measure you. I find myself reflexively apologizing to the instructor as she wraps her arms around my waist to pull the tape around me. She has the same no-nonsense attitude my mother had the first time she let me pick out a pattern from those lovely books at the fabric store, the ones I could never stop flipping through. All those happy people in their homemade clothes. I was obsessed with the Vintage Vogue patterns. Oh to be the woman on the pattern envelope, in a sundress with French darts, sketched out to be lithe and chic.
“They’re not store-sized,” my mother said. “So don’t get hung up on the number.” It’s still true: the sizing of garment patterns is nothing like retail sizing, and if you’re going to stop to lament over your small number suddenly becoming larger because it’s coming from McCalls, you’ll never get anywhere. I try to focus less on the numbers the instructor measures on me, and more on writing them down. I find the size my measurements indicate, and as we’re cutting out, I try not to think how I’m the biggest here. Is sewing now a hobby for thin women with vague volunteer-based jobs and lots of disposable income? It seems that way.
In the class, it’s remarkable how much I know, how much I remember. My hands walk me through winding the bobbin, inserting it, threading the needle. When the bobbin gets caught up mid-stitch later in the day, my hands take the bobbin case apart like magic, find the bit of dust or thread that jammed up the works, put it all back together—et voila—like magic. When a button pops off my favorite pair of pants I sit with a hotel sewing kit and sew it back on by hand. My stitches are messy, yes, but the pants go on to live a long life, where the loss of a button might have led someone else to throw them out.
We are all-purpose in the class. The instructor shows one woman how to blend sizes; she shows another how to work with plaid, so all the lines match up perfectly. My Japanese double gauze is a busy but abstract pattern, so there’s no need to worry about matching, but the instructor guides me through the process of sewing with a fabric that seems to ripple under my touch, composed as it is of layers. I want to be good at this, without effort, but that’s not the case. I struggle.
I’ve given up on a lot of things. Hobbies, mostly. People, too. I sew, I knit. I’ve painted. I made crafts out of old law books, things people give to my library thinking we can use them, but there are few things made of pulp and ink more useless than an old law book; I cut out the centers and make them into book safes. I play piano, I play guitar, I buy a clarinet from a coworker and yes, I remember the scales, I remember what I played in high school band, but there’s never been a clarinet emergency for me to show up to.
I lose my appetite and ability to write and read at roughly the same time and I spend one hot afternoon planting flowers in the merciless, inhospitable soil of our front yard and in the weeks that pass, I watch them all die one after another.
I’m restless; I can’t be kept to one hobby. I even failed at addictions, growing tired of wrapping myself in a Xanax fog, losing interest in getting so drunk I puke in the street. I played video games. I baked. Over one long semester of high school I accompanied a friend to a ballroom dance class, until I lost interest in the class and the friend, but oh, I can still salsa. I’m not good at everything I try. In most cases I’m passable. I can see where with time and effort, I could become good at something. But not if I keep splitting my time and attention. Your hobby can’t be “all the hobbies” if what you want is to improve.
A friend of mine who plays guitar leans over to me and says “You need something just for you. You need something no one can touch.”
The rich interior life of the mind, I think. The garment factory women, they must have something, something they do when they’re not at the factories making my clothes. Sing, maybe? Is leisure only for the Global North?
I take another class, this one also full of women, hopeful and bright, writers. “Writing is a muscle,” one says, tempting me toward violent thoughts, because aside from one weekend at another writing-focused workshop, I haven’t written anything of substance in two years, maybe more, depending on how you define substance. You can see where I found all the time for hobbies. All that time, my brain was empty, and I filled it with whatever would do.
The teacher tells us to write from a place in our body that hurts.
I hold the pen for a little while, weighing it.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. For two years, I’ve said it. I don’t believe in writer’s block. And it’s true that I am writing, in a fashion. I tell jokes on the Internet. I write formal reports for work, and they receive compliments. “So readable!” I recap a reality show for a website just to force myself into doing something, see, here, this, I wrote it, everything’s going so well.
All day long, it hums inside me, the need I have to be effortlessly good. To effortlessly achieve. To have eyes look at me and be able to read the thoughts behind them, to see how impressed everyone is with me. I want to be good without effort. But I struggle anyway.
After the class, I buy patterns, I buy fabric, and I come home from my eight or nine hours in an office and sit on the couch and the last thing I want to do is fucking sew. I do the math on the dress I made in the class, and even leaving the cost of the class aside there’s the cost of the fabric and the time. What is my time worth?
At work, I do no strenuous labor, no work that requires my fingers to be nimble or my eyes to be keen. I sit or stand at my desk and do the majority of my work on a computer. As a garment maker, no way I’d be worth what I make in my cozy office. I can barely sew in a straight line. But I do the math as if I make a US minimum wage as a garment maker, and it the dress made in my class is among the more expensive I own—the fabric and time pricing it somewhere above one hundred dollars.
It’s strange to compare what the dress I made cost in labor and materials versus the price of the clothing I buy. I wish I could say I spend real money, check labels, look for fair trade, organic. But I usually don’t. I could hold up a piece of clothing in a store and choose to imagine the human cost behind the price tag—but I don’t. Unlike my college classmate with her protests and vegan diet, I can’t/won’t exempt myself from the global market. I participate.
My clothes say Made in Cambodia.
My clothes say Made in Bangladesh.
I read an article that says for some women in Bangladesh the choice is between garment manufacturing and sex work; in the country, both are dangerous and exploitative, but sex work pays better. The choice, of course, is no real choice. Even if a woman is trafficked, and subsequently “rescued,” from sex work, she has to work, and in the factories, she is just another body to be used for her skills. No breaks, no rest, for hours a day, without end.
It’s possible, of course, for garment factories to not be sweatshops. There are many such places. Maybe the clothes I have from Bangladesh don’t have a sad story behind them. Maybe the factories are air conditioned, maybe the breaks are plentiful and the pay good for the area. Maybe even if I choose to bypass those garments made there, because I read an article about terrible labor practices, maybe it doesn’t matter, the imports will continue. Maybe it does matter, maybe everyone reads the article, maybe we all bypass Bangladesh when we see it on a label, maybe the factories shut down, maybe the women are free from the factories, but then they still need an income, so they’re back to sex work, or start working any of the many types of underpaid, undervalued jobs women have throughout the world, or they don’t work, and they starve. Maybe the factory relocates to somewhere else, somewhere we’ve made a new trade agreement with, somewhere the tariffs are low, and it keeps the prices in the US low, and then I pick up the dress Made in … because I haven’t read an article about how bad the garment work there is yet, and so maybe this is me, being a global citizen, making global choices.
Or I can exempt myself entirely, I can make all my clothes myself—the instructor at my dressmaking class says she is almost always wearing handmade, and of course it makes sense that someone who writes books on sewing and teaches sewing classes and sells sewing patterns has the time and the skill to make her own wardrobe, out of organic, fair trade fabric, grown, harvested, woven into cloth here in the USA. Before manufacturing, this was what people did: they made their own clothes.
My mother had five children. She cared for as many as eight: kids from other marriages, other lives. Everyone brings their own baggage with them. Sometimes that baggage needs to be fed, clothed, housed. I was the last. By the time I was old enough to play on my own, most of the other kids had grown up and moved out. She had more time for quilting, and she also started making stained glass. She worked part time in a quilt shop, and part time in a stained glass shop. Both hobbies nipped her hands occasionally. Left her with burns on her fingers, or holes in her skin. I would sit in the Catholic church on Sundays and admire the stained glass windows with the understanding that putting them together brought with it the risk of wounds.
I wanted to be like my mother, busy on a sewing machine. I had her buy me two yards of plain white cotton. In her workroom, I laid down on the floor and traced my outline on the cotton, drawing a dress for myself. I cut out the pattern, sewed it up. I didn’t know how to finish ends, so the sleeves and neck and hem were left ragged and loose. I wore my first dress for days. You couldn’t get me out of it. My mother was amused by my creation, impressed with my ingenuity. This might have led to heartwarming mother-daughter sewing; after a few days, I played with mud in my white dress and it was ruined, and I went back to reading.
When I wear shorts and sit on the grass, angry rashes break out all along my legs. When I wear shorts and try to run, I get hives. I feel sickly, like an heiress in a novel. I scratch my neck, and abstract blood blisters rise.
At home, I use the pattern from the class and make another dress out of linen, a beautiful dark copper-colored linen that looks remarkable in the fabric store. I use French seams to contain the linen’s natural urge to unravel. I try on the dress and the dark copper color now just looks drab brown. The soft, comfortable fit of the dress now looks like something a mental patient would wear. And the linen makes my skin prickle wherever it touches.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.