Right at the beginning of the lockdown, I started sewing again. Before I became a geographer, I was a fashion student, and I still have all my sewing equipment in my room: a Singer machine, a pattern cutting ruler, assorted tape measures, scissors and metal tools, and several boxes filled with fabric, buttons, thread and needles. At the moment, I am not making clothes for myself – apart from my current quilting experiment – but rather face masks and scrubs, due to an utterly preventable shortage in the UK. Various groups have set up sewing hubs – either for ‘production line’ type sewing, for resource distribution (mostly fabrics or bedsheets) or for the distribution of the actual attire. I have always enjoyed sewing, however, talking to some of my female friends, it sounds like there is a clear divide: either, there is a total rejection of sewing as gendered oppression, or a total embrace as empowerment and liberation from the impositions of the fashion and home decoration industries. In terms of the NHS situation, it very much feels like gendered impositions: where male politicians fuck up, an army of mostly women with sewing machines has to come to the rescue. In the English language, even sewing related vocabulary feels gendered. At the same time, there is a pleasure in competence and creativity, which, although often exploited by people in power, cannot entirely be discredited. This made me think about why I started sewing, and why I kept persisting, although I was not actually that competent.
One reason was definitely an escape from the constraints of gender expectations. While I appreciated both extreme feminine and masculine styles (my childhood photos are rather trippy), clothes shopping became stressful when I had to negotiate concerns about adequate gender representation from parents and nervous shop assistants. This movement between clothes designated ‘male’ or ‘female’ still remains a problem, as many shops insist on separate changing rooms between rigidly gendered departments (for more reflection on unnecessarily gendered spaces, see geographer Petra Doan’s work). This is not helped by designers and companies that produce clothes for a narrow range of female stereotypes. I vividly remember not being able to find non-pink or purple indoor sports shoes for girls in my hometown even in the 2010s. There are some queer led companies now – US label Haute Butch being one example (some more labels discussed here) – that specialise in female masculinity or non-binary looks, but they sadly can’t be found on the high street, and they also do not cover the entire range of clothing needs.
My first attempt at rejecting ‘girl’ designated colours and patterns was through permanent markers and spray paints, received with thanks from my friend Nadine – via her dad who ran a Bosch garage. ‘Put edding on it’ became an in-joke as a solution for all sorts of social weirdnesses that presented themselves to us as teenagers. The logical progression then was to make my own clothes by sewing. Thankfully, my grandmother had won a near-indestructible sewing machine in the early 60s – she participated in every magazine and advertisement competition she could get her hands on – so I didn’t have to stitch everything by hand. First there were alterations, followed by things made from scraps and finally patterns and store-bought fabric. I remember the first big sewing project I attempted. I had found some ugly 80s white jersey with a black leopard pattern. For some reason, I thought this would make good shirt material, and decided to compliment this with black velvet cuffs and collar. Unsurprisingly, this was really hard to sew with a shirt pattern intended for a much lighter fabric and not jumper or coat fabric. Although the outcome was badly sewn and totally hideous, I wore it proudly, with a red beret and a wide black patent leather belt that my mother had lent me. Over the years, I tried my hand at overalls, sparkly blazers, brocade suits, bat costumes and musketeer shirts. Unsurprisingly, my friends and family made fun of me, but, despite everything, I really loved these home made clothes: I felt best, when I looked like an extra in an 80s B-movie.
When I finished school and a year’s job training as a secretary and translator, I decided to study fashion. It became impossible to get a job as a secretary anyway with my increasingly crazy hair. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in the fashion industry – I had undergone sufficient ‘reality shock’ through work placements at a local fashion factory and the local theatre’s costume department. However, I felt that fashion might be a space where I could be myself, meet other queer people and gradually shake off the mental prison that I could feel but not yet dismantle. I knew I had a lot of work to do against my imposed and internalised homophobia, which I would not have been able to put into words then – it was more intutitive. I also didn’t know about drag culture and the sewing practices that circulate in the queer community, and that even straight people are now familiar with through films, TV series and pop videos. Despite this lack of knowledge, in my teenage imagination, this mental work could not be completed in a regular job. While this now sounds totally naive, it actually worked – kind of. I feel that it was the moving to a different space – and growing older and more confident, being able to put things into words – that was helpful in the end, rather than fashion specifically. Nevertheless, I still associate the building of my queer identity with sewing.
In the present, I am reunited with my long suffering student machine, which has mostly been sitting idle, apart from the odd bit of mending and new human related presents. As soon as I dusted it off and started threading it up – with terracotta thread still from a charity shop in Wakefield where I lived as an undergrad – I felt a new relationship with my craft. I got out my scissors, my pattern cutting ruler, tracing paper, sellotape, pens, and started working, in a mode completely unknown to me: I suddenly knew what I was doing. I didn’t just feel unnaturally competent, even though my sewing/pattern cutting probably wasn’t that much better. I think I felt more in the moment, because I became aware of why I was doing what I was doing (Matrix moment alert!). On the one hand, I felt more connected to generations of women (and men) in my family who had sewn, woven and practiced other crafts; on the other, I felt connected to generations of queer people who had used sewing as a tool for identity finding and affirming, teaching and even grieving (my gay housemate immediately associates sewing with the AIDS Memorial Quilt). Technically, this should create considerable dissonance, given the fact that most people across my family history would not approve of my gender identity and sexuality. But somehow it doesn’t. Here is perhaps why:
In addition to the above, I feel a wider geographical connection through the ‘queer’ mix of people at my local sewing shop who represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages, (dis)abilities, gender, technical competence and purpose. These interactions have especially shaped my view of ‘craft’. Usually, craft is associated with necessity, enforced ‘tradition’, reproduction and lack of expressive and emotional power, in order to delineate it from art. By contrast, associate expressive and emotional power more with craft than with art. In fact, I associate art with a valuation as such from the outside. Although both art and craft are frequently practiced without the hope or desire for economic valuation, I feel that there is a different connection between valuation and how art and craft manifest in space, especially in terms of self-expression. For example, craft items tend to be things that one uses or looks at on a daily basis, and in many ways that one is judged by. It feels like the question: ‘is this art?’ is by-passed to go straight to questions such as ‘why does this guy have/make pastel pink bowls with penguins on them?’ This also allows for an interesting relationship with referencing, whether this involves geographical references, messing with gender stereotypes or juxtaposing time periods. While this sometimes leads to ethical issues with asymmetric cultural appropriation – for example, of Indigenous crafts – there is also an argument for a more hopeful kind of synergy.
Video: Many people agree that the quilts of the Gee’s Bend Collectiver are masterpieces. They are, in fact, now sold as works of art, although there is controversy around who actually profits from the sales (many thanks to Kirsten Barrett for the source!)
At my local sewing shop, and some offline and online sewing communities that I have visited, there is considerable sharing between people from different backgrounds, as well as considerable agreement on what constitutes great work (see video above). This could be seen as a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ type of environment where conversations can take place as long as you don’t perform your specific identity too much. However, it could also be seen as a nerdy focus to which other identities, at least temporarily, come second. By this I do not mean that the other identity does not matter or should be treated as less important. The focus on the craft obviously does not erase tensions – I have had and witnessed many difficult interactions in craft spaces – but it also potentially gives a way in through curiosity about how someone else does something. This may, over time, translate into curiosity about how someone else is something. I understand that, for some people, this may be too invasive and undesirable, but it can also be a way to understand more of yourself rather than (as much as? by way of?) helping others understand you. For some craftspeople this is a very deliberate move – to flaunt skill and claim a space – whereas for others this is is more of a quiet, accidental or even unintentional practice. Although one could argue that there is always (self)expressive intention in craft. As one of the women in the Gee’s Bend documentary says: “And, if nobody else likes it, so what? [The quilt] is going on my bed – because it’s mine.” This is an attitude and way of making space that, for me, epitomises craft, and this is pretty much exactly the point from which I started.
This post is dedicated to my late godmother Sieglinde Wenck who passed away on Easter Sunday & whose fabric scissors I’m still using.