Time to Sew

Decade N° 5: A Not-so-Average Blog on Middle Age

Month 8

Facing planned and unplanned stressors against the backdrop of COVID, I’m turning to a once-beloved hobby for relief.

Photo by Ilya Lix on Unsplash

By Carrie McConkey

I’ve been crying a lot lately. My husband John and I have lost several loved ones in recent months, and I’m still recovering from elective foot surgery. The grief and physical discomfort, combined with the constant and pervasive presence of COVID, has made my once bubbly demeanor solemn. I’ve even doubled up on my therapy appointments.

I’m relying heavily on faith, but I know I need to find an earthly source of peace. It’s time to pull out the big guns. Or, more specifically, the seam ripper and pincushion.

For two and a half decades, sewing gave me an identity - a means to express myself, a way to earn a living, and even a path to love. The journey started when I was eight years old.

My Mom was an accomplished seamstress, and patiently passed the craft down to me. I hand-sewed at first — big, uneven running stitches on projects like an envelope-shaped purse hanging from a grosgrain ribbon handle, or the seams of a fabric rectangle that wrapped around my Barbie doll asymmetrically. The “dress” was secured at the waist by another ribbon — this one, satin. The designer Halston would have been proud of my one-piece dress pattern.

As our family moved to different cities with my Dad’s job, my hobby was a steady constant. I became brave enough to use the noisy sewing machine and my doll’s designs became more sophisticated. Soon I was constructing clothing for myself. There was a hidden motive to my creative endeavors: I was so small I had to shop in the children’s department. I could wear more “grown-up” silhouettes when I sewed my own outfits, and while I was at it, I could also copy the looks I saw in VOGUE and Seventeen.

I would become consumed with whatever garment I was working on. On long summer days, my Dad would urge me to go to the pool and enjoy the sunshine. But if I was working on a sewing project, it was a no-go. I was lost in the stitches and seams. My Type A personality made the process arduous at times… on more than one occasion I’d lift the lid off the garbage can and my newly-constructed item would go “plop!”, right into it. But I moved on, seeing myself as a fabric scientist whose experiment didn’t work. It wasn’t a failure, I just needed to conduct more research.

My expertise provided confidence throughout my high school and college years. In my Freshman Home Economics class at Farragut High, I became a star during the weeks we learned clothing construction. The teacher called on me to help my fellow students, and I felt competent as I helped Nicole, the prettiest, most popular girl in class, thread her machine. At Carson-Newman College, I was known for my custom-designed clothing, and my courage was bolstered. I often got into trouble at the Baptist-affiliated school, however… my skirts were a bit too short.

During and after college I experienced the joy of getting paid for my obsessive hobby. Between my Sophomore and Junior year at Carson-Newman I once again sewed during the heat-filled days of summer at my first job as a junior seamstress at Pamela’s, a full-service bridal boutique in Knoxville. Starting work during the height of the bridal season, I proudly ran my machine at a tiny table tucked in the back corner of a workroom crowded with fat garment bags containing voluminous gowns. At 19, I was the youngest of the dressmakers; the husband of one of my co-workers nicknamed me “Baby Seamstress”.

I found my own husband at Pamela’s when I fell in love with the UPS man who delivered dresses and shoes to the back door three times a day. A year after graduation I made my own wedding gown for my marriage to John, and opened a small, home-based business as a bridal gown designer. To help me relax at night and drift off to sleep, I’d rehearse the construction of wedding dresses in my mind… adding boning to the bodice, sewing in the sleeves, inserting the zipper, hemming the train.

When the tragic day of September 11th occurred and the economy suffered, the wedding industry was hit hard. Knowing it was sink or swim, I “retired” from a decade of being immersed in white silk and sequins. During the transition into a new field of Career Services and a radically different lifestyle, my cherished hobby — a nearly daily activity — ceased.

I tried to soften the blow by collecting vintage clothing and jewelry. Each one-of-a-kind piece offered its own unique story, a feminine fit that was getting harder to find in ready-to-wear, and a similar avenue to self-expression. I thought it would be enough, but through the years I had periods of deep longing for the solace of sewing.

Sewing provides positive physical and mental stimulation. When deciding what to create, a myriad of artistic principles are called into action: color, texture, pattern, line, proportion. Sewing also offers flexibility: the path you choose can change mid-project if the look isn’t suitable. And the process of constructing the piece — be it a throw pillow or an evening gown — brings its own rewards. The cutting of the fabric, the hum of the machine, the magic of making something flat into a three-dimensional object.

I added up the many years that have passed since I held a needle in my fingers. What memories haven’t I captured in the threads of a garment? What opportunities to meet new people, start a conversation, or find inner peace through using my hands have I missed?

I know I need to make time… time to sew. Sewing offers a way to regain control: the occasion, place, manner, and components are mine, and only mine, for the choosing. Sewing takes me away as much as an enthralling book, and instead of experiencing wistfulness when the final page is turned, at the end of the journey I have a new creation to enjoy. Sewing is a hobby that brought me life and love in my youth. Now, during times uncertain to us all, it could provide a familiar foundation for a decade of my life that is just beginning.

In my sewing studio, 1993

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