Making, Meditation, Meaning

I met my friend K just over 20 years ago. We were both still relatively new mums, our now 20-year-old daughters a mere six months into their lives.

I was early (of course) for the meetup at the YMCA.

I had bundled my daughter up against the prairie cold of February, driven down unfamiliar roads and made my way to a downtown I didn’t yet know. I had located the correct building and parked, carried my daughter inside, and searched for the room which a Somewhat Concerned public health nurse had recommended I find.

At six months, my daughter was smiling, sitting, crawling, exploring, babbling, sleeping through the night.

She was thriving.

I, on the other hand, was not.

I was teetering on the edge of something I don’t like to remember.

We had had *quite* the six months, my husband and I and our baby. There was the jolt of new parenthood: colic and nursing and diapers and sleepless nights. But there was also the move to a new province a mere eight days after she was born. There was the leaving behind of friends, family, career. There was two months of bout after bout after bout of shivering and painful mastitis. There was a house in disarray with boxes to unpack. There was my husband’s new job and his travelling schedule. There was crushing loneliness and a creeping and pervasive certainty that parenting wasn’t actually something I was built for, that I was incapable, that I would ruin this beautiful child.

When I found the room, there were a few mums already there, chatting and laughing and sitting in pairs or threes, in what was beginning to look suspiciously like a circle.

Heart pounding, I took a place by myself on the floor, setting my daughter in front of my crossed legs where she faced the centre of the circle. I kissed her on her temple as I did so often when I read to her at home; she had a smile on her face and I tried to breathe in her untarnished confidence, willing my skittering nerves to calm as I waited for the room to fill.

K, if I’m remembering correctly, raced in right-on-time, and took the only empty spot remaining, the one to the right of me, the new girl.

When I realised what the group did, I nearly panicked. What may sound simple to some — introduce yourself and tell the group how your week is going — strikes terror in those of us with anxiety. And when my short speech had to follow on the heels of a mum whose infant son had just lost an eye to cancer —

Can you imagine? In hindsight, that mum’s pain should have magicked away my loneliness and my overwhelm; why ANY of us had anything to say after that bleak report I now simply can’t fathom.

And yet, I tried—

Hello, my name is Marian, and we moved here six months ago, and I’m…just…so— 

And then, with a silent score of strangers to witness, I slid ashamedly into tears.

I can still hear K’s Oh dear!

And after a moment, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to go on, while I fumbled through pockets in search of kleenex, she repeated her Oh dear, and said, Should I just take my turn?

I’ve often reflected that K saved my life that day.

Which is (of course) hyperbole for what she *actually* did: she extended a hand, she pulled me out, she propped me up, she stopped the sinking.

(Never underestimate the power of friendship.)

I like to imagine I’ve returned the favour. I do know I’ve received it right back again with interest, on more occasions than I can count, despite the fact that we moved away from that prairie city seventeen years ago, and that K and I haven’t met face to face since the September day we left.

This is the sweater I’m knitting for her first granddaughter:

Pattern: Granny’s Favourite on Ravelry.  Yarn: Bamboo Pop (colour Silken).

This is what I know:  when a dear friend is expecting a baby (or a grandchild), one simply must knit a sweater … or crochet a blanket … or stitch a name onto a Christmas ornament … or sew a romper … or cook a lasagna.

For me, this welcoming simply must be handmade. And that’s because, for me, making is not merely about raw materials and a product: it’s not just yarn drawn around needles, loops engaged, fabric created; it’s the route by which hope and love and fervent good wishes are somehow made solid.

Although it’s my hope that the recipient will be able to discern this — that there will be a shot of something hormonal in this realisation, something that more-than-compensates for the lack of a Gap label — it’s perfectly okay if they merely see a sweater.

And that’s because the act of making has already served half its purpose.

It’s been meditation. It’s been coping. It’s been necessary action.

This — the knowledge that making things is both a comfort and a necessity — might just be the sum total of what I know about life.

It might even be the only thing I have ever known:

When scared witless, cross-stitch. When in love, crochet an afghan. When grieving, brew tea, sew clothing, keep stitching. When pregnant after a miscarriage, sew a quilt. When overwhelmed, crochet snowflakes. When patience is stretched, knit mittens. When the fact that you exist infuriates the very people for whom you would throw yourself in front of a bus, bake cinnamon buns. When worry threatens to swamp you, make a garden, make soup. When daughter grows up and goes off to university, knit socks. When you are helpless to help her, knit more socks. When 17-year-old son is too young two days away from leaving for university, sew him a housecoat, offer to sew a pencil case, hide inordinate pleasure when he accepts. When said son is having a worrying amount of fun at university, knit him a hat. When words are insufficient, knit socks for husband of 26 years. When grown children come home to visit, cook curries and bake bagels, mend clothes and sew buttons and darn socks, reinforce their belongings with thread and imagine it’s not a metaphor — imagine it’s literal, that it’s strength you’re weaving into the very fibre of their beings — and then send them off again with containers of love cookies and muffins.

This making has been my solace, my crutch, my raison d’être — I make, therefore I am — my entire life.

And now — especially now — when the world is too much and too wrong and too ugly — when my chest has tightened and I can barely breathe for considering a new life entering upon it — this is the only way I know to stave it all off, and to keep going:

Make something beautiful, do something useful, solidify hope, turn love into a tangible thing.

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Braided Rugs

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My mother had a copy of the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework sitting on our living room bookshelf, and when I was young I would sit quietly and pore through its pages imagining all the things I could one day make.

(Oh, yes, weirdness epitomised … )

One of the sections in the book deals with various ways-and-means of rug-making, and I remember that this subject held particular fascination for me. Although I was well-acquainted with the process of hooking a rug (because hello, it was the 70s) I didn’t know that one could make a rug by braiding strips of fabric together:

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Hmmm … yes, but that looks SO time-consuming … and hand-stitching it together? Yikes.

I’ve always loved textiles, a propensity that seems to walk hand-in-hand with my half-Dutch sensibilities. To my eye, rooms are immediately made cosier when hard surfaces are softened by textiles. A kitchen table, for example, looks homier when covered by a cheery tablecloth; a simple linen runner on a sideboard can be transformative; a small rug set before a sink adds colour and comfort. And for me — a person who grew up drooling over a needlework book, a person whose hands were always supposed to be busy — the idea of having handmade textiles … ? Well, that was all the better …

Growing up, I was taught — and dabbled in — nearly every imaginable craft: embroidery, cross-stitch, knitting, crochet, sewing, darning, macramé, rug-hooking … and of course, that other seemingly ubiquitous craft-of-the-70s: spool knitting.

I still own two …

(Does anyone else out there have fond — or otherwise, as will soon be revealed — memories of spool knitting?)

I confess I once-upon-a-time imagined, that like Sister Bear (in the Berenstain Bears Too Much TV) —

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— I could produce a rug of the sort pictured in my mother’s book, not by braiding, but by spool knitting. But sadly, however much staying-power I exhibited for other crafts, spool knitting utterly defeated me.

Excruciatingly slow —

(And here I simply must interrupt this post to say two things. Firstly: Stan and Jan Berenstain — shame on you for perpetuating the spool knitting myth; there is NO WAY IN HELL that Sister Bear could make that kind of progress in one afternoon! And secondly: Sister Bear — I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are, in all likelihood, on a fool’s errand; your illustrator is clueless, and you will be lucky to emerge from the ordeal with a pot holder.)

— I remember sitting there, spool and stick in hand, wondering if I would EVER see the fruits of my labour emerging from the bottom of the spool. And when — finally! — those first-wrought stitches DID peep out, it was nothing short of a eureka! moment … only to be quickly replaced by the painful realisation that it would likely take YEARS to produce sufficient length in order to make a rug!

(I swear, spool knitting is THE craft to give a child if you want to torture them school them into developing the patience of a saint.)

When I got married, my mother gave me my own copy of the Reader’s Digest Needlework book, and although it’s come in very handy over the years (I used it to re-teach myself knitting, for example, when I was pregnant with our first baby and suddenly craved some tiny-sweater knitting), it’s also sat there, tauntingly, with all those “one day” projects — most notably the braided rugs — whispering quietly to me.

Fast forward to this house, and to the (first-world) problem of finding an area rug of a suitable size/shape/colour/material for my daughter’s newly hardwooded room. I searched high and low* and bought several** (only to return them all) and then suddenly thought, WHY NOT MAKE ONE?

Hand-stitching a braided rug still seemed like a crazy thing-to-do, but thankfully it was no longer the 70s, and I had access to a little thing called the internet.

I ended up using a slightly modified*** version of this tutorial to make this rug for my daughter’s room:

This is a close-up to show you that this rug was MACHINE-STITCHED! It’s quite large — about 4X6 feet — and was made entirely from stashed fabric.

I ended up so in love with both the process and the results that I’ve since made several more. Six altogether, to be exact, although I won’t bore you with photos of all of them:

This one is in the powder room and contains fabric from chairs I (like an idiot) made for my kids when they were very little … and which they didn’t actually enjoy sitting in.

 

This rug was made for my now 18-year-old son. It contains stashed fabric, an old shirt that had belonged to my husband, a threadbare pair of lightweight denim pants, and several bits of leftover fabric that I had used to make clothing for my kids. (Shhh…don’t tell him, but there are teddy bears in that rug…)

 

This one is in our bedroom, made using leftovers from our quilt and duvet.

 

And this is the latest, but not likely the last …

So … I admit I may be slightly obsessed with making these! The reasons these rugs make me happy are severalfold:

  • They’re great for stash-busting — they provide a good use for leftover lengths of fabric as well as fabric bought with Good Intentions or Just Because.
  • They can be made using clothing or linens that are too worn to be donated to charity, and which would otherwise only be useful for rags or would be destined for the landfill.
  • They’re fully customizable with regards to shape and size.
  • They provide a means of incorporating sentimental textile items back into daily use.
  • They’re useful, providing warmth and cosiness to a room.
  • They’re a (mostly) mindless project, which means they make one feel productive and less guilt-ridden about Netflix binges.
  • They come along surprisingly fast (take THAT, spool knitting!).

*Not really; I hate shopping.

**Two equals “several”, right?

***I made my strips of fabric thicker (about 4 cm) as the suggested 2.5 cm (1-inch) width seemed too narrow.

Randomly, On a Summer’s Day

I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.

This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY! 

Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?

I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.

On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).

That would be my daughter’s Gryffindor scarf underneath my knitting. The Sorting Hat would definitely place her in Gryffindor; it would be Hufflepuff for her mother

In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.

On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.

Details, details … the two boxes at the forefront are Dutch biscuit tins (which I have had *forever*); they house my spools of thread.

And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …


*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions…  The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.

What I’ve Been Sewing…

So … as promised in my last post, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been sewing. First though, I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned over the last several weeks:

Sewing seems to have a muscular use-it-or-lose-it quality: I used to be a fairly fearless seamstress. I’d take in, let out, alter necklines — and all without hours of angst —- but my decade-and-a-half hiatus (during which I only sewed Halloween costumes and home decor) has cost me dearly in the confidence department. The mechanics of sewing seem to be the equivalent of riding a bicycle, but the leap-of-faith straying from what the pattern instructs is a whole ‘nuther ball game. (Am I allowed to mix that many metaphors?)

If I’m the sewer, I’m also the designer:  Perhaps this is a no-brainer, but I still feel it’s worth pointing out that there are NO pattern police! Who’s to say how a piece is supposed to look? I’ve done a lot of googling these last few months, pulling up countless images of various clothing items. Noticing the endless “anything goes” variation in style has been incredibly freeing.

I need to keep my expectations reasonable:  I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which can be problematic in the creativity department. But I’ve been taking a close look at manufactured garments and they’re not perfect either. The fact is, no one but me will ever scrutinize my lines of stitching for evenness. (Well, my seamstress mother might, but she lives clear across the country.) My new mental measuring guide is now the question, Is this better than an Aéropostale t-shirt? (Which is, admittedly, not an extremely high bar; however, this too has been incredibly freeing.)

The internet is a dream-come-true for this particular sewer:  The fact that the internet is chockablock with techniques and inspiration is a given; however, there are other ways in which it’s a godsend, especially for those of us who are sartorially-challenged. Part way into this sewing adventure I did something I should have done right at the outset. I googled clothing to suit [insert problematic body parts] … and Oh. My. Gosh. the things I have learned … !

For instance, I now know that raglan or dolman sleeves are a good choice to minimize my broad shoulders. I also learned that boatneck styles will only further emphasize my shoulders, as will horizontal stripes. And, because dark colours recede, if I’m going to be doing colour blocking, I should choose a darker tone for the sleeves than for the body of the shirt.

Shoulders aside, I’ve learned that for my particular body type — small-busted and too slim — I should be wearing dark bottoms paired with lighter or patterned tops. Additionally, I should look for tops which have details around the bust, such as pleats or pockets or gathers. Shirts that are belted or which have an empire waistline are also on my “flattering list”.

What’s really interesting to me is that much of this advice jives with what I have intuitively felt about particular items of clothing in the past. The light-washed denim jeans of the 90s always felt wrong, as have khakis. More recently, one of my special occasion outfits — a light blue top paired with a black skirt — felt “right”, whereas another very similar outfit, but which had the tones in reverse — a black top and sweater with a light grey skirt — felt “wrong”.

And now — finally — onto the clothing I’ve been sewing …

As I discussed previously, last year I tried to sew a couple of blouses, neither of which turned out well. Reflecting that what I wear most often, and really needed, was t-shirts, I decided to turn to knit fabric. I do have a serger, which is ideal for stretchy fabric, but it is entirely possible to sew knits using only a sewing machine, and the internet is full of techniques for doing just this.

I used this pattern:

 

… and bought several pieces of knit fabric from our city’s ONE fabric store (in other words, I cannot be overly choosey…).

I began with the piece I liked the least, one which had only enough fabric for the body of the shirt, and I cut up an existing t-shirt (one with a stretched-out neckline) for the sleeves. Being a Very Bad Blogger, I didn’t take a photo of this first t-shirt in its initial stage of hmm-Well Crap!-this-is-too-tight-around-the-bust-and-shoulders-and-doesn’t-look-very-good. Nope! Nothing to see here, folks; move along!

Because this was a trial piece, I proceeded with trying to see if I could salvage it by slitting the front partway down the middle and inserting a strip of fabric in order to add some ease in the bust and shoulder areas. I then proceeded to finish the neckline, using a self-bias binding technique (which had been my favourite neckline technique for woven fabrics when I sewed clothing for my kiddos, although I always do mine* in reverse of this tutorial, which I think results in a neater finish).

This is what it looked like at this stage:

Yes, this is just WEIRD …

I didn’t like how this neckline binding technique worked on the knit fabric, so I removed it and inserted a banded neckline, and then used a double needle, along with my walking foot, to topstitch the seam. This looked much better …

… and by better, I mean the neckline looked better, not the shirt in general.

I had hoped, during this process, that I would end up with a top I actually liked. Unfortunately, after all that work, I didn’t. The less-than-expert insertion down the middle was just wonky and weird, and the white sleeves seemed to emphasize my wide shoulders, making me feel self-conscious.

(And here, of course, is where the internet came to the rescue — those white sleeves were, in fact, the equivalent of a neon billboard shouting out, Hey, look at these broad shoulders!)

This exercise did prove to be useful, however. I had figured out the fit of this particular pattern (and I now know that for those of us with wide shoulders a bust measurement isn’t necessarily going to be sufficient to ensure a proper fit when it comes to a raglan sleeve pattern). So, making a mental note to stay away from white sleeves, I sewed these three t-shirts:

The neckband for the pink shirt came from the white t-shirt I had cut up for the trial shirt. The middle shirt is an amalgam of the original pink fabric I bought (I had just enough for another front piece) and a purged golf shirt that had belonged to my husband. The neckband on the mottled blue shirt is self-fabric, but wrong side out, and I turned the hem on the sleeves to the outside, rather than to the inside, to mirror what I had done with the neck. The neckbands all look a bit wavy, but they do lay flat when I wear them.

I made them in a longer length than the pattern indicated, and I’m quite happy with how they turned out; however, there is one problem with them: except for the navy fabric harvested from my husband’s golf shirt (which was cotton), they’re all either polyester or an unknown “mixed fibre” blend. Ideally I would want cotton t-shirts, but cotton knit seems to be a rare beast at my local fabric store. Knowing I was going to require something cool for the summer (and quite frankly determined that my wardrobe should be more than just all-tees-all-the-time), I decided to re-visit the woven fabric blouse conundrum. I decided that this pattern —

— which I had purchased last year to make this trial shirt —

— was not necessarily a complete dud. I had chosen this pattern partly because raglan sleeves are easy to sew, but I now knew that they should be a good style to complement my square shoulders. Reasoning that the blouse might be flattering if there were some pleats or gathers around the neckline to soften the front, I simply moved the front pattern piece 4 cm away from the folded edge of my fabric, thus adding 8 cm to the width of the front of the shirt. (This 8 cm number was arrived at by pure guesswork.)

This is actually blouse #2. Being a Very Bad Blogger, I forgot to take a photo when I was cutting out blouse #1. (And just in case you’re confused about what’s going on in this photo, I layered the back pattern piece on top of the front simply to have a guide for the sides. This pattern has a front which is made from three vertical sections, but I wanted my front to be a single piece instead.)

The first shirt required quite a lot of experimentation. I played around with pleats at the neckline, but didn’t like how they were looking, so then moved on to trying gathers … happy with that, but deciding that the extra volume through the front was causing the shirt to look slightly maternity-like, and knowing that an empire waist was supposed to be flattering for me, I proceeded to add some gathers part-way between the waist and the bust, covering up and securing my lines of gathered basting with a strip of fabric …

I was very happy with how this turned out, so I made another two tops from the same pattern, although with slight variations.

For top #2, I added ties to the sides which gather the front at the waist in a similar manner to the stitched-in gathers of the first top. I made this one in an even longer tunic length and left slits in the side seams:

And for the third top, I cut the front horizontally at an empire waist height, added gathers to the lower edge of the top part, and then removed the “excess” 8 cm from the bottom piece (by trimming 4 cm from each side). This is also tunic-length, with slits in the side seams.

So … I have to say I have LOVED wearing these tops, which is all fine and dandy … EXCEPT … I now have another problem: I don’t even want to THINK about wearing any of my old and ratty tops … meaning I’m now scrambling to whip up a few more blouses to round out my wardrobe.

I have yet another iteration of this same pattern on the go, and one would think, that by the FOURTH rendition, I would no longer need my seam ripper … but no … I’m not sure what’s going on with this one … maybe it’s the sleeves, maybe I didn’t get the position of the gathering correct, maybe it’s the wild floral pattern … but there’s just something about this top that isn’t yet working …

While I’m mulling over top #4, I’m also trying out something entirely different. This next one is inspired by this top, and I was hoping to use the fabric from this skirt, which has been in my wardrobe for at least 22 years:

I have always LOVED the fabric of this skirt, but haven’t worn it very often. It’s a bit shorter than I would like a skirt to be (mid-calf versus ankle), and whenever I did wear it — paired with either a navy tee or a white blouse — it never quite felt “right”. Now that I know I “should be” wearing patterned tops and dark bottoms, this makes sense — it’s the reverse of what I should be wearing.

I’m thinking that a bit of navy at the top, with the skirt fabric gathered just above the bust might work …

… but indecisiveness is causing me to hesitate: perhaps this isn’t the best use of this fabric (is the pattern too wild for a top?), and perhaps this style isn’t even going to suit me (in which case I will have wasted some perfectly good fabric which I love. Gasp!).

I am, now, in the process of making a trial piece of this style from some scrap fabric, and perhaps once I’ve finished I’ll have a clearer idea of what to do. Any thoughts or suggestions you might have would be most welcome!

🙂

 


*I wasn’t sure how much detail to put into this post … because I’m not a “sewing blog” I felt I should spare you from all of the nitty-gritty intricacies of construction, but if anyone does want clarification on anything I did (or would like to see my technique for self-bias binding), I’ll be glad to share.

On Clothing and Sewing

Five years ago, during our first summer living in Ontario, my husband said something that sent my mind spinning in a near panic: Marian, this year we’re going to the office Christmas party. No ifs, ands, or buts!

Now, perhaps this has you rolling your eyes and thinking, Panic? Puh-leaze!

Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

Are you familiar with the saying, You can dress her up, but you can’t take her out? This is (was) me … in spades … except for the unfortunate fact that you couldn’t actually dress me up … because I had nothing to wear … and pessimistically believed I would never EVER be able to find something appropriate, because nothing EVER seems to fit me well …

When I voiced this lowly self-estimation to my husband, he (ever-supportive) vehemently disagreed that the taking-her-out part was a problem; however, he did recognize that the dressing-her-up part posed a bit of a conundrum. Alas, he wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Proverbially donning the pants in the relationship, he informed me that he was going to the Christmas party — with or without me — and that he sincerely hoped that by giving me enough lead time I would be able to find something appropriate to wear.

So, despite the fact that the prospect of a fitting room filled with “evening wear” inspires more dread than a root canal, I put on my big girl pants and went to the mall. And miracle of miracles, I DID manage to find something to wear for that first Christmas party.

I paired this with a just-above-the-knee black skirt, and it was a very middle-of-the-road outfit … I was neither the fanciest nor the plainest, which is a good spot for me.

Furthermore, reflecting that it felt really, really nice to be (for once in my life!) appropriately dressed, I’ve since made the effort to find other outfits, suitable for other special occasions.

From left to right, these tops were worn to a fall wedding, another Christmas party, a high school awards ceremony, and yet another Christmas party, all with either a long black skirt or a shorter black skirt, and all paired with a scarf.

But while I do now feel covered (pun intended) for dressier events, I’ve allowed my everyday wardrobe to sink to dismal levels of shabbiness, with nearly all my casual clothing hovering in some state of shrunken-ness, stretched-outed-ness, holey-ness, or — sigh — complete inappropriateness.

This is a mere drop in the bucket in my closet of shame…

I was going to tell you a long-winded story about how wearing the Green Eggs and Ham t-shirt outside the house caused one of my children to have words with me, but I’ve decided to skirt that and keep it short. Suffice to say a nice little grey cardigan worn overtop didn’t fix the egregious faux pas, nor did the fact that I happened to end up at the library on the day in question.

(The LIBRARY! Surely that would have made it all—

No. Just No.)

Sigh.

Now, if it were only my children’s opinions of my wardrobe that had me worried, I’d perhaps not be writing this post.

The fact is, I (me, myself, completely independently) am tired of looking shabby. And not only that, but I am also tired of being the idealist who rails against the fact that appearances shouldn’t matter, that that’s all superficial trappings and that it’s what’s on the inside, and the inside only, dammit, that counts.

(Appearances SHOULDN’T matter. But I am raising the proverbial white flag and ceding the battle:  Society 1: Marian 0)

Mixed up in all this though, is the acknowledgement that clothing possesses powers far beyond what “other people” think. I am just now coming to realize that my lack of effort in the clothing department has been affecting my state of well-being. If I am self-consciously tugging down a shrunken t-shirt, if I am wearing ill-fitting pants, if I look around and perceive that I am the least-well-dressed person in the room, this does nothing but erode my already shaky sense of self-confidence.

I’ve just turned 49. And I’ve set myself a goal: in this, the year before I turn 50, I would like to transform my wardrobe. I don’t need quantity, and I don’t need “perceived quality” (in other words, I don’t need designer labels). The only thing I want is to have a small range of well-fitting and flattering clothing, in a style that will go with my un-dyed and Egads!-it’s-positively-silvery-in-the-sunshine coif, something that fits with and says, I’m very close to 50 and I’m totally okay with that!

So what am I doing to further this goal?

I’m trying to get back to sewing.

You see, dear reader, I used to sew. I used to sew a LOT.

My mother was a seamstress extraordinaire, and although our relationship was such that I didn’t actually allow her to teach me much, I nevertheless grew up marinating in a can-do world of needles and pins and fabric and thread.

When I moved out, I inherited my mother’s old sewing machine, and a few years later, just before our daughter was born, my husband bought a serger for my birthday.

And Oh! how I loved that birthday present! The serger lit a creative fire under me, and I sewed my heart out: clothing for the kids, clothing for me, home decor items, cloth Christmas gift bags, aprons to give away as gifts …

At the time, we were living in Saskatchewan, in a house with a den on the main floor. My sewing machine and serger and ironing board were set up 24/7 and I was the queen of snatched-moment creativity, capitalizing on every spare five minutes I could find. And the thing is, I felt really good about this. Not only was sewing a creative endeavour, but equally important, it was a frugal endeavour: to me, sewing = saving money. As a newly minted SAHM who had been used to bringing in a paycheque, this was my way of contributing to the work of raising a family.

I sewed both our dresses.

But when we moved to Minnesota in the fall of 1999 all of this suddenly shifted.

Now, there were a number of factors at play: not only had I lost my let’s-close-the-door-on-this-mess sewing room, but fashion was changing. Suddenly, my hitherto-pleasing (and easy-to-sew) 90s-styled tents shirts and dresses felt formless and tent-like huge.

BUT — I also lay part of the blame directly on Target and Kohl’s.

So, I’ve just gotta pause here, because:

Oh. my. word! 

Kohl’s!

Target!

For a Canadian who had only ever been to the U.S. once before, there was something positively heady and swoon-worthy about this new-to-me over-the-top American* abundance on display in Kohl’s and Target!

But … there was also, I soon discovered, something very disheartening about it all: if I could buy a $5 Merona shirt then why the heck should I bother sewing it? For a seamstress whose love of sewing hinged on both creativity AND frugality, this nulling-and-voiding of one of the addends zeroed the entire equation. (Um, yes, mathematically speaking, adding a zero does not result in a sum of zero. This is purely metaphorical math I’m employing.)

And thus, just like that, I became a consumer of cheap fashion, and for the past 16 years my closet has more-or-less been a revolving door (albeit a very slow moving, somewhat minimalistic one) of buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, with my satisfaction in my wardrobe ebbing and flowing with the fickleness of fit and hemlines.

Now, I had tried, last spring, to get myself out of this rut by sewing this:

If this at all resembles a clown top it’s because I ACTUALLY took a Halloween costume pattern and modified it

And using a remnant to “try out” this pattern:

McCall’s 7093

Unfortunately, neither top worked out very well. The first one was based on the blue special occasion top I had bought, and although I measured carefully and adjusted the Halloween pattern, my creation elicited comments of that looks like maternity wear from my two teenagers. As for the second top, it was so unflattering as to make the real thing not even worth trying.

So I gave up, and once again put my sewing machine and serger away. I’d occasionally wander into Winners (TJ Maxx) to see if they had anything in the way of casual clothing that worked. (Nope.) And I even, once, wandered into a small independent clothing store which I had heard advertised on the radio. I was the only customer in the store that morning and the owner was a very chatty woman who told me at length about her lines of Canadian-designed, responsibly-manufactured clothing … but as she left me to ponder hangers arrayed with a selection of that-won’t-suit-me, it’s-lovely-but-where-would-I-wear-it, that’s-too-expensive I literally began to sweat under the pressure of taking something off the rack and going to a fitting room in order to try it on. And when someone else mercifully came into the store I slipped out the door with a breezy, Thanks, I’ll be back!

I lied, dear reader; I haven’t been back.

And then, a couple of months ago, I watched The True Cost, a documentary about the societal and environmental problems of the “fast fashion” industry. A review of the documentary would be an entire post in-and-of itself, and because I know Rita has a post brewing about this issue I’m not going to dwell on the movie itself.

And besides — apart from the environmental impact of clothing (which, my goodness, WAS an eye-opener) — the fact is that unless you’ve been living under a rock, much of the movie isn’t actually news. It wasn’t to me, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be to you. I’ve known for a very long time that sweat shops were not something I should be supporting with my dollars. I’d heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. I’d also heard that Joe Fresh labelled clothing, a brand which makes up at least 75% of my current casual wardrobe, was found in the debris.

So what this movie has been for me then, is a tipping point. If I don’t want to take part in this destructive system, then what are my alternatives?

  • I could start to scour thrift stores for quality used clothing.
  • I could attempt to source responsible clothing by returning to that small, independent clothing store, or by checking out one of the handful of others located in our very small city.
  • I could do my homework and take a weekend shopping junket to Toronto.

However …

  • It’s absolutely not in me to sift through scads of stuff at Goodwill in order to unearth a treasure.
  • I don’t possess the self-esteem necessary to shop at a tiny store, one in which the mirrors might be outside the fitting rooms, or one in which a saleslady might make a tactless quip about my figure.
  • Toronto is too far/too busy/too hoity-toity.
  • “Responsible” clothing is expensive and unjustifiable for this SAHM who has no office to go to or meetings to attend.

And it’s this last point that has become the clincher: if responsible clothing (unless found at a thrift shop) necessarily translates into more expensive clothing, then once again:

Sewing = creativity + frugality

And that means this seamstress is back in business.

It’s been weeks of trial and error, but I’m absolutely determined to make this work. I’m happy to report that I have learned a tremendous amount, and more importantly, I’m finally starting to see some success. BUT, because I’ve once again been way too long-winded, I’m going to leave the “showing” for my next post.


* I must explain — lest you wonder, But are there no stores in Canada? — that my reaction to Kohl’s was coloured by two things:

  1. Prior to moving to the U.S., I hadn’t been much of a shopper. It is entirely possible that our city in Saskatchewan had a huge variety of fantastic, bursting-at-the-seams-with-stock clothing shops, but because it was my habit to shop for clothing at the fabric store, I simply didn’t know about them.
  2. I had just — a week or so before packing up the house — traipsed through the cavernous, nearly-empty, EVERYTHING-MUST-GO space that was the soon-to-be-closed Eaton’s store in our Saskatchewan city’s downtown core. Eaton’s was one of Canada’s flagship department stores, and it began devolving in the fall of ’99. If you’ve ever had occasion to walk through a closing-down department store, and then shortly afterwards visited a Kohl’s, I’m fairly certain the contrast would astound you as well!

 

Does Everyone Need a Hobby?

About a year and a half ago, my then-seventeen year-old daughter requested something that made me inordinately happy:

She asked me to (once again) teach her how to crochet.

Have I caused you to roll your eyes and say, Oh, puh-leaze!?

If so, you might want to stop reading.

For anyone who’s not rolling their eyes, here’s the backstory:

I’ve been crafting *forever*. My Dutch mother put a threaded tapestry needle into my hand at a very young age, and started me off with running stitches on scraps of linen. Rows of cross stitches soon followed, which were then translated into pictures on printed canvas, which quickly morphed into charted (counted) projects, all at a very young age. I can still remember — forty-some years on — the extreme embarrassment my mother caused when she brought my needlework to my pre-school (yes, to my PRE-school!) so she could show my teacher what an accomplished little stitcher I already was.

Although my mother schooled me in nearly every other imaginable fibre-craft as I was growing up — crochet, knitting, rug-hooking, macrame, weaving, sewing — it was cross-stitch that held sway with me. Growing up in a turbulent household, those Xs became what I now recognize as a bit of a lifeline: stitching away in my bedroom, concentration on the pattern perforce blocked out at least some of what was happening outside, and it became a bit of a compulsion, or — shoving questionable mental health under the rug — at the very least, a hobby relentlessly pursued, one project held just threads away from completion while I started the next, the rather whacky un-spoken feeling hanging over me that my universe might just implode if I didn’t have a project on the go at all times.

While all this stitching did absolutely nothing to forward the childhood feeling that I was destined to be a novelist (and in fact, can largely be blamed for a rather dismal resumé of books read), it did result in this:

(pardon the wonky light and wall colour – I’m a stitcher, not a photographer!)

Here’s a close-up:

And then there’s this, the first and second vignette in another bell pull, this one a montage of Dutch nursery rhymes and songs:

And a sampler, one of many:

(this one with a paraphrased quote from The Secret Garden)

How many samplers does one need? It’s a good thing my husband is comfortable with his masculinity and isn’t opposed to needlework adorning the walls.

So it should be pretty clear that while I didn’t have a clue how to write a novel, I did know how to produce home decor. I think I must have reasoned that until such time as I could figure out how to write that novel, I might as well keep stitching. This plan — I now know — will never produce a novel. But it did fit in well with my early life lessons: my mother’s admonitions that (female) hands must always be busy, and my German father’s strict work ethic (Be Productive!), the result being a copious output of completed needlework projects.

This past-time continued, unabated, until at the age of 29, pregnant with our first child, I was overcome with a sudden urge to knit a sweater for the small person kicking around inside me.

Out came my trusty Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework (given to me by my mother upon my marriage, because what else does a woman with Dutch blood need when embarking upon married life?), and tucking long needles under my arms, I re-taught myself to knit, and very soon was clacking off a sweater.

Our baby arrived (a girl!), and while she grew and the boys came along, my spare hours were spent sewing and knitting (cross-stitching left off as suddenly and irrevocably as Forrest Gump stopping his running in the middle of the desert), my knitting expertise growing as the years went by. Pieced sweaters on the long, held-under-your-arms needles were left off when I discovered neck-down seamless patterns which could be fashioned on much more comfortable circular needles. I taught myself how to use double pointed needles and knit items I had always viewed as nearing rocket-science: socks and mittens. And because this level of obsession was something that was just begging to be shared, I had cozy visions of teaching my growing daughter to stitch or knit or crochet — anything, really, just so long as she had her *thing*.

And oh, how I tried!

Over the years, I taught her cross-stitch, latch-hooking, crochet, knitting, and sewing. My mother was in on the scheme as well, bringing back stitchery and spool knitting kits which she had gleaned from trips home to The Netherlands.

But nothing took. Truthfully, our next-in-line — our first son — showed more interest in stitching than she did! And although my daughter was creative in a myriad of other ways as she was growing up — painting, drawing, card-making, modelling with clay, and imaginative play galore — there was no fibre arts craft that I felt she could take into adulthood with her, something she could work on while watching tv, something tangible that could flow from her hands to mark that her quiet hours were well-spent.

And then, in my daughter’s grade twelve year, she came home from school one day and said, “Melissa crocheted herself this really cool infinity scarf!”

I waited for her to ask me to make her one, but instead, this was what she said:

“I was thinking I’d like to make one too. Can you show me how to crochet again?”

🙂

Three scarves later (the third finished while watching The Walking Dead on Netflix), she’s still at it.

Successfully shushing my minimalist self who kindasorta wanted to ask, How many scarves do you need? Should you perhaps branch out…?, we bought yarn for her fourth scarf when she was home for the Christmas holidays, and while we were looking around, the owner, an über-helpful woman (as all yarn shop owners seem to be), came up to us, and in her chatty way, informed us that knitting is good for warding off dementia.

“Crochet too, I’m sure!” I quickly put in, glancing at my daughter. (I needn’t have worried: at eighteen, she’s not worried one iota about dementia).

Although I will allow for the fact that the woman, as the owner of a shop, might have some self-interest in promulgating the notion that knitting is the miracle cure for dementia, this was welcome news to me. I’ve had some alarming slips over the past few years — gas burners left on low; names of people I know I know, dammit!, completely forgotten; my embarrassing problem with disappearing nouns (not safe for work or with children around, but a hilarious must-watch) — all causing me to wonder whether this was just “normal” aging, or if my neurons were beginning to fail me.

And this is where I finally (!) — Phew!, you’re saying — tie back in to the title of this post: in the interest of exercising our brains, do we all need a hobby? Some sort of occupation for the snatches of quiet in our evenings during which we could be doing something — anything! — beyond binging on Netflix? (Or — ahem — while binging on Netflix?)

There’s reading, of course. A resounding yes to reading! But unfortunately, reading isn’t so easy to do while binging on Netflix.

And writing. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a writer, of course you have to write! /whistles uncomfortably/

But it’s exceedingly hard to write while watching Netflix.

There’s crossword puzzles and sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and stamp collecting — all of which can be done fairly well while glued to Netflix.

And then there’s woodworking, but of course it’s not quite so easy to watch, let alone hear, Netflix with a table saw running (to say nothing of the danger involved in such an endeavour).

Gosh Marian, you might be saying at this point. What the hell is it with you and Netflix?

I think maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to talk about Netflix.

Here’s the thing: Why (she asks plaintively) does there have to be such good stuff on Netflix? Because if our brains have a better chance of thriving into our old age when we challenge them with novel and difficult tasks, AND if a little escapism is good (because there’s only so much sitting quietly and pondering Earth going to hell-in-a-handbasket one can do) then how in the world can I expect myself to knit something as complex as these Queen Street mitts for my daughter:

Pattern: Queen Street mitts by Glenna C

when I have to catch all the gorgeous nuance in Downton Abbey? It’s one thing to treat an episode of Friends or Mad About You or Star Trek like a radio program, but to attempt that while watching Call the Midwife?

Yes! Success! I’ve mentioned Call the Midwife, which was part of my diabolical plan all along 😉 . Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can tell you that I can no longer hear or think the word Gosh (as in the Gosh, Marian, above) without it coming through in the deepish tone employed by Miranda Hart aka “Chummy” whose character drops a husky Gosh every chance she gets. And, best of all, now I can finally ask the question that’s been burning in the back of my brain for weeks: was anyone else out there in Netflix-land slightly disappointed about the slip-up in the third season afghan episode?

For those of you who haven’t watched Call the Midwife, I’ll explain:

Call the Midwife is a period piece set in London in the 50s, and in this particular episode the nuns and midwives are tasked with making an afghan for charity. They’re all shown busily knitting away, making squares for what eventually becomes a granny square afghan.

But wait a second … hello? … you can’t knit a granny square. It’s crocheted!

I know. I’m being totally nit-picky and pedantic. And I probably should do something about getting a life. But there you have it. As much as I loved loved loved watching this series, I have to express my disappointment that seemingly not one member of the cast or crew of Call the Midwife picked up that obvious slip.

Yes, well …

Rather than leaving this post hanging by a thread of what could perhaps be construed as a blatantly anti-feminist statement —

(Am I actually saying that I expect all females everywhere to simply know — as though the knowledge is encrypted within the nucleotides of our second X chromosome — the difference between knitting and crocheting?! — Well, no … /hums nervously while looking at shoes/)

— I think I’ll end by showing you this:

This is the bench my sixteen year-old son made for his sister two Christmases ago. You see, I have crafty dreams for my boys as well 🙂 .

(Hmmm … I’m not sure an item made from wood by a male child (wielding power tools) lets me off the hook. I think I’d better add that I recognize — and fully support — the fact that men knit too).

(Disclaimer: No Netflix was watched during the manufacture of the aforementioned bench).

‘Tis the Season … To Buy Wrapping Paper?

Stores have had their holiday displays up for weeks, but until the snow fell this past week, I wasn’t quite prepared to think about it.

While I LOVE winter (I know … it’s a weird and unpopular thing to say) I find the holiday season to be a mixed bag.  On the one hand, it’s wonderful to spend time with family and friends; on the other hand, there’s the stress of obligatory and thoughtless spending (and the effort of trying not to feel like a Scrooge if you choose to opt out of the obligatory and thoughtless spending).  There’s the trips back and forth to the mall to mull over over-packaged crap.  And then there’s the sheer waste that accompanies the wrapping of all these gifts.

I often think that life would be so much easier if I weren’t cursed with a mind that extrapolates.  Because I don’t just see one store’s worth of wrapping paper … my mind’s eye imagines reams and reams of the stuff, stocked in stores everywhere.  I picture it being manufactured in factories — some overseas — shipped in containers over the ocean, trucked across North America.  I think about the energy and raw materials that go into each step of the process.  And then the end-result:  I see my neighbours setting out small mountains of garbage the first pick-up day after Christmas, a scene I imagine to be happening on streets all across our nation.  And if our landfills could talk, they’d probably be saying, “Thanks, but you really shouldn’t have…”

The City of Vancouver — forward-thinking like so many west-coast cities seem to be — has had some phenomenal advertising campaigns which urge people to think about the waste that gets generated during the holiday season, like this one in which garbage bags — bulging with discarded wrapping and packaging — are decked out with bows and gift labels which say:

TO: The Landfill

FROM: Residents of Metro Vancouver                                                

So there’s something very satisfying to simply saying, No, thank you to the plastic-encased packages of wrapping paper that are gracing shop shelves everywhere.

Here’s my alternative to buying rolls of gift wrap:

My mother taught me to sew when I was young, but the hobby hit new levels when my husband bought me a serger for my birthday when I was pregnant with our first child, over 18 years ago.  I spent many happy hours sewing adorable dresses and rompers for her — squeezing as much creativity out of her nap-times as humanly possible.  I also spent a fair amount of time at the fabric store, drooling over texture and pattern, my imagination running wild.  And that first autumn of motherhood, when the store brought in their holiday-themed fabrics, a light bulb turned on.  What better way to be festive and creative and to take care of the environment than by sewing reusable gift bags?

These bags are very simple:  a basic pouch with a wide upper hem and a gap in the side seam to leave room for a cinching cord.  That first year, I made them as I brought purchases home, making the bags just slightly bigger than necessary.  Over the years, as our family grew, I added to the collection, making some small enough to hold a gift card, some big enough to hold a large LEGO set.  I also left some lengths of fabric un-sewn: very large items can either be draped with fabric, or wrapped using exactly the same folds one would use with paper. Instead of tape, these packages are tied with a length of yarn, similar to the way paper gets bundled for recycling, or the way we used to tie packages being sent in the mail.  Gift tags are small bits of red or green card stock, hole-punched and strung on the cording or yarn.

And of course, this means that the aftermath of Christmas-morning present-opening is incredibly easy at our house.  There’s no hemming and hawing over which wrapping paper is recyclable and which is not, and there’s nothing to bag and set out onto the street for the garbage truck.  The fabric bags and lengths of fabric are simply folded up, the yarn re-wound into neat bundles, and everything gets put back into the storage bin for next year.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a seamstress to wrap gifts in an environmentally-friendly way.  Besides the tried-and-true newspaper comic or shoebox approach, a rummage through the linen closet can give you everything you need to wrap gifts:  there’s napkins, tea towels, pillowcases, sheets, tablecloths, those curtains you should’ve dropped at Goodwill months ago … any of that, plus a ball of yarn, and you’re good to go!  Presents can also be hidden in plain view:  my husband once “wrapped” my birthday present (a houseplant guidebook) by shelving it, and giving me a note instructing me as to where I should look.   A game of hide-and-seek and a present!

I know my mother-in-law some people enjoy making a pretty package; for them, gifts just aren’t gifts unless they’re wrapped in festive paper and tied with a curly ribbon. To these people I offer this thought:  take the dietary maxim, a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips, and give it a twist …

A moment in the hand, a lifetime on the land.

Is it really right that our ten seconds of anticipatory pleasure results in the creation of garbage that will likely never, ever disappear from the landfill?