A Philosophy of Sewing

This post was originally published on April 25, 2016.

Or, why I took a break from sewing, and why got back to it.

I worked myself raw in the years after Lachlan’s birth and first two heart surgeries. I filmed my Craftsy course, came out with a ton of new patterns, and attended my first Quilt Market. Sew Liberated was our primary source of income while Patrick was in grad school, and since we had such high medical bills, it needed to grow. Sewing became work – something that took me away from my little family. But Sew Liberated wasn’t cutting it. We made the decision for Patrick to teach himself programming so he could jump off the history PhD ship that was sailing to oblivion. We needed to be able to stay near Duke for Lachlan’s cardiology needs, and we needed a more stable income. When he landed a programming job, I became a full-time mom, and no longer had the time to work on Sew Liberated, even if I had wanted to.

Lachlan’s third open heart surgery was on the horizon, and I did a ton of mental work to prepare myself for that sickening moment when I handed my baby off to scrubbed and masked strangers. I meditated. I did yoga.  I tried to get us out into nature as much as possible. Tried to create a nurturing cocoon of a home. Tried to do anything in my power to equip my little ones with love, attention, and good memories. I birthed a sweet baby girl. I felt my ability to focus on anything other than my family slipping away into a pleasant, homey blur. My family became my creative outlet. Months went by, and I didn’t touch my sewing machine. Then a year passed. I didn’t miss it. It was work. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

I didn’t miss that rushed feeling of trying to sew “just one more seam” before the baby awoke. I didn’t miss feeling frustrated when I didn’t finish a project in the allotted time frame. I didn’t miss the constant stream of project ideas that would hound my thoughts when I could have been enjoying the present moment with my kids. I didn’t miss the creative to-do list. I didn’t miss the stacks of yet-to-be-used fabric, beckoning me from the shelf. They used to cast a shadow of resentment over my children for their incessant needs that took me away from being a more productive creative person. 

The surgery day dawned. If I hadn’t focused on Sew Liberated since before Sadie was born, now I didn’t even give it one thought. Facing the tender, fleeting, mortal nature of being human gives you tunnel vision. This little boy of mine had his heart mended and fit by a tailor far more skilled than I. His surgeon’s skilled hands touched Lachlan’s heart, stitching pieces of previously-used human cloth onto my baby’s own fresh tissue. Weaving gortex with muscle, he re-designed a circulatory system that would, for the first time, provide Lachlan with near-normal blood oxygenation levels and the energy of a typical three year-old. Lachlan’s heart is re-purposed. Fully functional, yet beautifully flawed, like (in)visible mending. 

Nearly six weeks later, after battling with accumulating fluid on his lungs and the subsequent dehydration of his treatment, Lachlan’s little mended heart slowed and stopped. I was at home, nursing a stuffy-nosed baby and five year-old. Patrick was with him as they rushed him to the pediatric cardiac ICU, soon starting chest compressions. When I got the call, I was eating a veggie quesadilla, which I spit out while I screamed and fell to the floor. I thought he was dead. I guess, in a way, he was. Had he been at home, 30 minutes from the hospital, he wouldn’t have survived. (Hence our eventual move downtown. Covering bases, you know.) 

Lachlan recovered. But what does it mean to recover? To cover again. To mend. The mending is visible. Like his heart, life for our family would never be quite the same. There is a patch that covers our physical and psychological wounds. There is stitching that holds it together. Sometimes the stitching is pristine, in other places it is knotted with fear and anger. But we are functional. And achingly, imperfectly beautiful. 

We are still mending. A well-rubbed piece of cloth will, eventually, break down. When it does, we take up a needle and thread and piece it together any way we can. In my family, the cloth is often made threadbare by sibling bickering, hidden scary medical memories, and parental stress. But it can always be mended. Re-covered. Made functional. Unique.

At some point, perhaps when that subtle shift occurred and my toddler started to spend long stretches playing with her dollhouse, a few minutes opened up in my days. I wanted to make her clothes as a gift of love. I cut into some soft cloth. She sat on my lap and removed the pins as I sewed. It was slow. But it brought me so much joy. I didn’t take pictures of it. I didn’t have to market the design. It was just that, a physical manifestation of love.

And then the real ah-hah moment: I could sew myself clothes as an act of love for myself, for my body and mind, as it is right now. I could sew as a way to heal from my trauma. I could also get dressed as an act of love and healing, and start to show up in the world as my “new,” somewhat broken, but beautifully mended self.

Sewing has an important place in my life again, along with writing. But I have a personal manifesto that I now follow.

  1. Begin each project with the intention of expressing love and gratitude for the intended recipient, be it myself or others.
  2. Breathe deeply while cutting. Breathe deeply while sewing. Sewing is slow, and the act of slowing down is a gift of mindfulness. Accept any interruption in the process as a gift to be present. Find joy in the process, and appreciation for the amount of time it takes.
  3. Bring creativity not just to sewing, but to the act of getting dressed. Use sustainability as a creative parameter by styling what is already in your closet in new ways. Thrift what you need but don’t have time to sew. When clothing wears down, mend it.

If I returned to my old way of sewing – the resentment, the oppressive to-make list, the feeling of being squeezed for creative time, I would need to stop and reassess. With this healthier creative practice, I can mend my heart as well.

I made these Rainbow Shorts for Lachlan using the Basic Pocket Pants pattern in my book. It took me two weeks to sew them – a seam here, a seam there. He helped me. So did Sadie. He is clothed with love.

Years later, my kids are thriving – including Lachlan – and still love wearing Mama-made (and Mama-mended) clothes. In the photo above, they are wearing Mini Hudson pants and Flashback Skinny Tees. Sewing is an act of love.

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  1. I love this. This is just what I needed to read at this moment in my life. Thank you.

  2. My family is a heart family too. This post really spoke to me, opened up such compassion for my Mum – thank you.

    You see, my little brother – well, he’s not so little anymore, he’ll be, gosh, 49 in a few short months! had his first major surgery after being flown away by air ambulance at just 8 hours old. His most recent surgery was a heart transplant, coming up for three years ago now. (He’s doing really great, even working permanent part time in a job he loves).

    And that first surgery? My Mum already had me and my sister to look after.
    Yes, I remember the many times Mum and my brother had to fly to the big city from our country town for him to have treatment or checkups. But I also remember my Mum always making us new clothes for special occasions, mending play clothes, adding another band to a favourite dress as we grew, turning the collars on Dad’s shirts to get a bit more wear from them, patiently sitting with me at the Elna sewing machine as I learned to sew spirals on paper…

    Mum and I still connect with our shared love of sewing. As we slow down now, and clear out our sewing rooms, we are both sewing more mindfully, thinking more carefully about each piece we make, each pattern we buy.

    We’re both back to mending, turning collars on shirts for our husbands.

    I’m rambling. But I wanted to let you know that from one lifetime sewist to another, from a sister of a heart patient, your post meant something to me.