Don’t Fear the Needle

Hand-Sewn Blue Felt Ball

The thought of hand-sewing used to terrify me. When I first started sewing, I borrowed my friend’s grandmother’s ancient Singer. I didn’t know the first thing about machine sewing—or sewing, period. I didn’t even know how to thread it, so I just used the thread that was already in the machine, which fortunately was a nice neutral brown that pretty much worked with everything. Eventually, though, the thread broke, and I was faced with the daunting task of tackling the Singer’s baffling series of tension knobs and hooks and loops. I might as well have been trying to build the space shuttle from scratch for all I knew about the process. Of course, I didn’t have a manual either. So, I turned to the handy-dandy Internet and voila, seconds later I had a PDF of the manual in front of me. I set to work, being in general rather confident in my ability to accomplish pretty much anything as long as I have directions. Sure enough, shortly thereafter I once again had a functional, threaded sewing machine. No sweat. (A few months later, I bought myself a very nice Brother, and I was off to the races. I thread that thing like nobody’s business! Ah, how far I’ve come…)

So why, then, was I so scared to pick up a sharps needle and throw down some stitches with the hands God gave me? Perhaps it was a generational preference for technology, my instinctive presumption that I could never do as good a job as a machine. Also, I did not grow up with a tradition of sewing. I didn’t have a mom who patiently sat with me and passed along all her sewing wisdom, and the wisdom passed down to her from her mother, and so on. I hear these stories so often from sewers and quilters, and I’m always envious. Regardless, I didn’t have that, and I picked up sewing all on my own. (Apparently my paternal grandmother was a master seamstress, though, as was one of her daughters. Unfortunately, my grandmother died before I was old enough to learn to sew, and my aunt was well into a sad case of dementia by the time sewing caught my fancy.)

The first things I sewed were bags, and I dreaded the thought of having to hand-sew the linings closed. I’d read through the directions on a project, and every time I’d come to the point where I was told to turn the bag right side out and blind stitch or slipstitch the opening, I’d think, Well, surely there’s some way to get around this, right? I can’t really have to hand-sew it! Oh, the horror.  I got over it, and actually became a teensy bit proficient at it. I distinctly remember the first time I finished a bag and I truly couldn’t see where I’d stitched it closed. I was so excited I grabbed my clueless husband and shoved the bag at him. “Look!” I squealed. “Can you see where I stitched the opening closed? You can’t, can you?  Yeah me!” He gamely agreed that he couldn’t find the stitches and professed his amazement at my growing skill level. (He’s a sweetie like that. I’m sure he didn’t  have the first clue what he was supposed to be looking for, but after many years of marriage, he is exceedingly well trained in the art of when to blindly and generously praise.)

That was more than a year ago. In recent months, to my surprise and delight, I’ve learned to not just tolerate hand-sewing. I’ve actually grown to love it. It’s a graceful counterpoint, a delicate and subtle contrast to the blunt instrument of machine sewing. It gives me a welcome feeling of control, as opposed to machine sewing, where often I feel that I’m grasping for the reins and my machine is about to bolt for the hills. I’m just holding on for dear life half the time, praying for everything to go as planned.

The rhythms of hand-sewing have become a part of my daily life. And did I mention the convenience? The portability factor is huge! I love being able to sit on the couch with a project in hand, after getting the kiddo to bed, and watch TV with my husband (in the 5 minutes we have alone every day before we pass out from exhaustion). I have taken projects to 3rd grade basketball games, doctors’ waiting rooms, and the school parking lot at pickup time. I’ve even sewed while stuck in a traffic jam!

A year ago I would have been shocked that my current favorite project, the one I’m always itching to pick up when I have a random 30 seconds of downtime, is this:

Alabama Chanin style embroidered, hand-sewn skirt

This is the first of four sections that, someday, will be my first Alabama Chanin project. I’ve read her books, and have long been dazzled by the incredible creations she comes up with—all of them completely hand-sewn—but this is my first attempt at using her techniques. It’s just a starter project, really, a trial run with some black cotton jersey I got super-cheap at Fabric Mart. I’ve got several yards of Chanin’s gorgeous medium-weight organic cotton waiting in the wings, but I wasn’t about to experiment on that—it’s spendy, to say the least! A splurge I hope to put to great use as a sparkly, flattering one-of-a-kind garment I create with my very own hands—the ultimate DIY. I have started with simple Alabama Chanin “eyelets.” I’ve got my eye on some more ambitious embellishments for the next piece, but my hand-sewing skills have lots of room for improvement first before I tackle those.

I’m anxious to see what this first skirt will look like when it’s done, and to wear it, but I’m surprised by how much I’m loving the process.  As much as I’m looking forward to wearing my (hopefully) beautiful new skirt, I know I’ll be sad to finish it as well. I’m not giving on my sewing machine by any means, but I’m hooked on hand-sewing now, and I’m already planning my next hand-sewn project. Now instead of fearing the needle, it’s tough to put it down!

So am I alone in my fear of hand-sewing? Is it obsolete in our technology age? Or do you think the maker movement has sparked renewed interest in this practical and beautiful skill?

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