Normally I do book reviews on Tuesdays. But you know what? I’m breaking the mold this week (and might continue to break it in a streak of rebelliousness against my own rules). Enjoy this midweek book review!
I am a glutton for crafting books. When Al and I were living in London and moving from corporate apartment to hotel to corporate apartment every few weeks, my loads of books came to be such a burden that we had to rent a storage space in the city so we wouldn’t have to keep lugging them around. And I felt lost without my knitting and sewing books. There’s something nice about having a reference library full of resources for those times when you get stuck on something, need inspiration, or just want to indulge in some wishful thinking. Some of the crafting books in my library fall more on the inspirational side of the spectrum (for example, Best in Show: 25 More Dogs to Knit, by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne, is pure knitting eye candy), but when I was first (re)teaching myself to knit last year, I tore through Jennifer E. Seiffert’s Fearless Knitting Workbook, and when I got into sewing, Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop was similarly helpful. Having practical, easy-to-follow guides on hand, especially when one is still learning a craft, is essential.
I was happy to discover that Nicole Vasbinder’s Super Stitches Sewing is both practical and easy-to-use. Its premise is very straightforward: it demonstrates, in clear drawings and simple text, 50 common machine stitches and 18 hand stitches. The book is meant to be used as a reference guide: if you come across a stitch on your sewing machine that you want to know how to use, pop open the book and look it up. Or, if you’ve always wondered how to do a darning stitch, for example, but aren’t sure what it entails, you can look that up, too.
Hand stitching still scares me and I avoid it at all costs, so I decided to face my fears and test out a few of the hand stitches in the book. I sat down with a piece of scrap fabric and some thread and attempted one of my old nemeses: the backstitch. And — I think I get the backstitch now! For those of you who sew, you may be thinking, “What kind of idiot doesn’t ‘get’ the backstitch?” Um, this kind of idiot. Something about it always confounded me, but the diagram and instructions in the book helped me to see that it’s actually really easy. Oh. So, guess I can backstitch now.
I’m glad to have this book to my shelf because I think it’ll come in handy as I attempt more sewing projects over the coming months. I bought an adorable stuffed animal kit online and have been putting it off because it involves so much hand-stitching, but I think I might be able to muddle my way through it with this book by my side.
The only complaint I have about the book is that it’s not a workbook. It doesn’t claim to be, of course, but as someone who learns by doing, I would have enjoyed a couple of simple exercises that combined some of the stitches to actually make something. But this is a slim little volume with no fat or fluff; it lays out the stitches, and that’s it. Recommended as a reference guide for beginning or intermediate sewists, or for advanced sewists who aren’t sure what the heck the Walls of Troy stitch is, but would like to learn.
For almost a year now, Al and I have been lucky enough to live abroad: first in South Africa and now in the United Kingdom. When we signed up to do this international stint, we wanted an adventure: namely, the opportunity to live in and travel to new places. And we’ve certainly gotten that. When we were in Joburg, we got to travel all around Southern Africa, and now that we’re here in London, we’ve gotten to go to Scotland (twice!), Denmark, and Corsica, and hopefully we’ll get to do a bit more traveling before we leave. It’s pretty awesome. Al and I look at each other sometimes and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to do this.
BUT. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)
The truth is that the price of being mobile (or, to put it differently, being hobos) for a year and a half is that there is a crap ton (i.e., a lot) of uncertainty about where we’re going next, and when. The way we’ve chosen to do this within Al’s company has meant that we must go where Al gets staffed, with little notice ahead of time. So, although we’ve been in the UK for three months now, we don’t know how much longer we’ll be here, or even where we’ll go next if we don’t stay here. There’s always a cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads in the short term, which means that we have to be really flexible. And being flexible is hard.
The other day, for example, we had to move out of our corporate apartment and check into a hotel for one night and then move back into the corporate apartment. In preparing to do this, we realized how much stuff we had accumulated (and I will take credit for a lot of it: my sewing and knitting habit adds up to a lot of crafty detritus) and how annoying it is to have to haul all of it around London. We resolved to do a purge of our stuff when we get back to DC, and in the meantime, to put a lot of it in storage so that we can move more easily on short notice, if we need to. This is the sensible solution; it’s always better to have less stuff.
The stuff I’ve accumulated — sewing books, knitting needles, yarn, cloth, thread, scissors, the handmade products of my labors, and so on — represents, to me, a life in one place. And, despite my love of travel, I really like living life in one place. Don’t get me wrong, traveling is great! But I enjoy having a home to come back to afterwards. And home, to me, means a place where I have bags of yarn and needles, books on shelves, tea and edibles well-stocked, and clothes put away in closets and drawers. When you’re living out of suitcases for extended periods of time, it just doesn’t feel like home. I’ve realized that the main tradeoff to being wild and crazy guys/gals who travel around the world on a moment’s notice is that you must leave behind the stuff that makes a place feel lived-in. Al and I have always differed a bit on this front: he relishes the thrill of traveling to new places. I do, too, but I’ve always preferred settling into a place. I like traveling somewhere and then putting down roots, getting to know the place, pretending to be a local. This is what I did when I moved to Brazil, for example. And to be honest, I’ve really started to settle into London, which means, if we have to leave, it’ll be hard.
I’ve been trying to adjust my attitude about uncertainty. I remind myself how lucky we are to be doing this and how exciting it will be to see new things. If the trade-off for traveling to marvelous new places and having adventures is that I have to put away the cozy trappings of home and shake up my comfortable routine, so be it. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. But it’s nice to know that when this adventure is over, we’ll be staying in one place for a while.
Until then, I’m going to take my knitting bag with me.
I’ve always loved making things. As a kid, I did latch-hook; I made beads; I wove hemp necklaces; I painted; I sketched; I sculpted. I was always making something. I can’t remember a time in my childhood where I didn’t have several projects, of various sorts, going. As an adult, I never lost my desire to be constantly creating things, but there were long years during which I figured making things just wasn’t something I got to do anymore. There was never enough time. Or energy. Working at a law firm, I found that I was so unhappy with my work life, I had little energy after work to devote to being creative. Instead, I’d come home from work and watch TV, or read, but I wouldn’t create anything more elaborate than dinner because I just didn’t have the energy. Consequently, my creativity languished for a long time. Then, I quit my job and rediscovered unstructured free time, which has been an absolute joy. I am now an adult who gets to make things during my day. In fact, my job now requires me to be creative: I get to tell stories for a living. Best job ever, right? (Well, best job ever for me, anyway).
As I mentioned a while ago when I talked about knitting, I love to do activities in my downtime in which I am creating something — that is, in which I am making a product of some sort, whether it’s a hat or a casserole, that I did not have to invent from scratch. I like following a knitting pattern or a recipe and ending up with something I can be proud of, but which I did not have to pull out of thin air. I love knitting, especially, because in the end, you have a product — something you can wear or use — and, best of all, the knowledge that you made that product with your own two hands. So satisfying.
So, I decided, given my love of knitting, to seek out sewing classes in London. I’ve wanted to learn how to sew for years but never got around to it (see: law firm job), and I figured there’s no time like the present. Thus, early last week I reported for a four-day, twelve-hour Intro to Sewing class at the lovely Sew Over It in Clapham North. And I loved it! I came back from my first day of class, completed pillow cushion proudly in hand, and told Al that I was “pretty sure” I could “master” sewing. Yes, I used the word “master.” No one ever accused me of hedging my bets. I was encouraged, you see, by my early success at creating things made entirely up of square pieces of fabric sewn together in straight lines. To give you an idea, here are the projects I completed in my intro class:
Feeling on top of the sewing world, I immediately signed up for an Intro to Dressmaking course, figuring that after another twelve hours of instruction, I’d basically be able to start a side business as a seamstress and/or make all my own clothes from here on out. But oh!, dressmaking brought me low. My first day of class was intensely humbling. We made a circle skirt, which is so named because when you hold it up, it’s in the shape of a large circle with the waistband in the middle. It sounds simple — and the pattern looked simple — but that circle skirt nearly broke me. I messed up the hem line, the waistband was bumpy, and, when the dratted thing was finally done, I found that I had made the waist just a tad too small, so that the back would not stay closed if I so much as breathed. Ugh.
I was convinced, the entire first two days of dressmaking class, that I was the dolt of the classroom. I had trouble visualizing what the teacher was telling us to do. “Stitch here,” she’d say, and I’d wonder, “But why?” I didn’t understand the why of any of it. Why do those stitches go there? What will happen if I put them somewhere else? What larger purpose are these stitches serving? This inability to visualize my final product, it seems to me, is the biggest difference between my experience with knitting and my experience with sewing. For whatever reason, perhaps because knitting is necessarily a much slower process of construction and one has time to wrap one’s mind around the contours of what one is making, knitting is just not as confusing as sewing. Sure, while knitting I may have trouble executing certain tricky maneuvers or I may accidentally mess up the measurement of a piece of work, but I generally understand why I have to do a certain thing when I see it on a pattern. With sewing, though, the patterns are just big pieces of paper, and I don’t think my spatial visualization skills are quite finely tuned enough to picture said pieces of paper arranged into items of clothing. Folds, in particular, confuse me. There are no folds in knitting.
Long story short, my first two days of dressmaking class were stressful. My Type-A, detail-oriented inner lawyer (who, let’s face it, is probably always going to be with me) was freaking out at every mistake and berating me for not understanding the instructions. I was dismayed that other people in the class seemed to zip right along, with no signs of nervous sweating. This made me even more nervous (and sweaty). I left class that day feeling discouraged, with my misshapen, ill-fitting skirt stuffed into a plastic bag.
The next day, though, we started on a simple shift dress, and things began to make a little more sense. I understood a little more clearly why I was doing things. Yes, there were certain parts of the pattern that I found confounding, but mostly, things made sense. And, in the end, my dress came out really well. It actually, believe it or not, fits me. I’ve sewn my first piece of wearable clothing. Huzzah!
So, what have I learned from the experience of learning to sew? One, I can’t expect everything to come easily to me right away. Not to brag, but I was a bit of an (idiot) savant at knitting. I was good at it right away, and could master new skills easily by looking at a book or watching a YouTube video. No teacher required. Sewing is not like that for me, and that’s okay. It is going to take a bit more practice and patience on my part to get good at it. Second, it’s good to learn a new skill, even — and perhaps especially — if you’re not good at it right away. Keeps you on your toes. Life gets boring if you don’t have to stretch now and then, after all. On her blog The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about the three levels of fun: challenging, accommodating, and relaxing fun. Learning to sew is challenging fun. It’s hard and frustrating at first, but as you get better at it, it gets more fun — and that’s more rewarding than coasting at something you’re already good at.
Here’s to more challenging fun, then, and to always making time for making things.