I took up sewing last December when my younger sister decided I should have a Singer as a creative outlet.

That’s only partially true. She and the older sister were both tired of me asking them to repair this garment or sew that hem.

(Sometimes they ask me to write things for them, but apparently that’s not an even trade. Ha!)

As a Teen, I Sewed a Lot. I wrote a Lot.

In junior high school Home Economics class, the teacher was a stern, methodical disciplinarian. How we butted heads! (Is she why I dislike cooking?) When we got to sewing class, I had already been creating my own clothing at home. I made corduroy pants blue-legged on the front left and rear right, reversed with red on the opposite pieces. There was a calf-length vest made out of airy blue material covered in tiny white flowers, trimmed in white. The only outfit I have a photo of is green corduroy pants and a vest trimmed in black. Mom helped me with that one. She was an amazing seamstress, making the bulk of our childhood clothing.

The teacher insisted I follow the directions. I wanted darts down the front, extra buttons on the sleeves and … you get the idea. I wore that—funny I never thought of this before!—dark blue corduroy jacket until college. Either I was fascinated with cords, or it was the least expensive material we could find at Woolworth’s!

Siblings make the best friends
The Green Outfit

I’ve been stitching stories together since I was twelve. I have some of them, including the Vampire Chronicles—courtesy of Chiller Theater, no doubt. Being a teenager in the 1970s, it was mandatory that I write poetry. Good move since it won me a summer’s slot in Pennsylvania’s Governor’s School for the Arts (PGSA). It was incredible to spend weeks with 279 other artistic students, a chance not to feel like the odd ball. The only downfall: the public presentation we all had to give.

Who Doesn’t Fear Public Speaking?

At seventeen, I’d never spoken in front of more than 40 of my classmates. Now there were students, teachers, administrators, support staff … and I had to read before them. Terrifying. I put it off until the last night of the program. Then Art Gatty, the head of the program waved me to the microphone, “It’s your turn, Mur.” I read a poem about one of my childhood accidents, which they graciously applauded. It didn’t help me get over my fear of public speaking, but I appreciated the kindness the claps conveyed.

The Poem
Remembering
churning washer
mom folding clothes
Jeep in the driveway
outside closed garage door
trying to open closed hands held shut
the fingers don't unlock
thrilled little child
pedals tricycle to window
and climbs
reaches the seat and peers out the glass
an uncle smiles in
knocking, waving
child causes commotion, trike rolling backwards,
and falls
crying now, skinned knees and hurt pride
a four-year-old's first mountain, lost.

In college, I postponed freshman speech class until my last semester, senior year. However, I was smart enough to volunteer to go first every time and get my fear out of the way!

Laying Out the Pattern is Like Outlining a Story

You delicately pin the tissue-paper pattern to the fabric, building your foundation inside out. Following the grain-line is as critical as is smooth cutting. It’s important to be careful outlining the shape of the pattern and notating the triangles. Using a special pen or needle and thread, you mark dots and darts.

You have to keep the right tools on hand—straight and safety pins, measuring tape, scissors, thread, needles….

Because of how I analyze words (instructions—you should watch me cook), I read and re-read patterns. I write my own directions or make copies to write notes on.

Jackie gets most of my questions because she has sewn more than Joanne—the machine instigator. Which leads Jackie to tease Joanne about adding to her “RM-workload.” This leads them both to torture me: How do you not know that?

Red flannel floral robe sewn by the author
I call it My Princess Robe

Isn’t it fabulous to be sixty-one and learn something new? The third robe I made featured a first-time-ever machine-sewn hem. What a feat!

Since I’m learning, why not also create from scratch? The sisters make fun of me for my sewing MacGuyvering. But who designs a robe without pockets? Or belt loops? Why would I want a vest without zippered pockets? What led designers to think women don’t need or want pockets in our clothes? Are they nuts?

One winter, I thought that I must be a little crazy to still be pursuing writing. Then I placed in one writing competition, won a place in another…. I think: Yep, I’m doing the right thing. I might have delayed exposing my writing until the second half of my life, but I’m pursuing it like mad.

In My Thirties, Given an Ancient Singer Machine, I Resurrected My Teenage Sewing

The job I worked in Billings, Montana required dressing up, but didn’t pay enough to cover that sort of wardrobe. Jackie made me a few dresses, a suit, a blouse or two…. My, was I spoiled having a tailor on hand! Eventually, I gave it a go—such colorful fabrics! A blouse, a dress, a flowing skirt! How I tried!

I was not patient enough with the process. 

Jackie got tired of fixing my mistakes and took to saying, “Pin the pattern, cut it out, then step away.” Yes, I was that bad and wisely moved that old sewing machine along to someone else.

For twenty plus years, I stuck to writing and painting—walls, that is. My hands often don’t cooperate with images in my head when it comes to sketching, painting, crafts, etc.

I thought about getting a sewing machine.

Being a minimalist in the belongings department, adding another item to our house was unappealing. Where to put things is always an issue—like the Instant Pot or the small electric fireplace to cozy the living room on chill winter mornings.

Life is like that. To allow the new in, you have to shift the old out.

Stitching and Editing Relate to Each Other 

When sewing, you can fudge that seam a little here or there, maybe skip the recommended understitching. But you’ll be found out in the end. The neckline won’t lay correctly or the armhole will pull where it shouldn’t.

When researching a book to buy (local!) or borrow from the library, I’ll first read GoodReads or Amazon reviews. As soon as a reader notes, “too many grammatical errors,” or “should have hired an editor,” I abandon the book. I make enough of these mistakes in my writing—constantly revising to eliminate adverbs (get it?) or over used adjectives.

It would have been safer to set my finished (Beta Readers, critique on!) women’s novel, Silent Woman, in Pittsburgh and leave it there. But no, my protagonist insisted (characters do this to us writers) on going to Newport, Pembrokeshire, Wales. And another woman? Yep, she moved to Manarola, Italy. 

Could I have done the best I could do with those settings and let it go? Relying on photographs and notes in my Travel Journal, conversations with Jackie and Alex—co-travelers to those places? Yes, I could have. But like skipping that topstitching, the story would not have rang true in the scenes set in Wales and Italy. Ever reluctant to ask for help, I left my comfort zone. I asked adopted sister Sara in Saundersfoot, Wales and friend Lorenzo in Magenta, Italy for help correcting the details. What fun answers and my friends get to be part of my book!

So I edit, changing words or correcting settings to match my friends’ corrections. I rework a key chapter to make it read with the longed for intensity. Jackie reads and re-reads it, “Not yet. It’s not emotional enough. Make them argue here and agree here.” In the end, writers pray what we envision in our heads is adequately stitched together for the readers.

What Good is Our Work (sewing & writing) if We Don’t Share it?

Like presenting at PGSA, sharing my blog, sharing me sewing is nerve-racking. I’m going out a limb this year and sewing Christmas presents for four people—at least. We don’t do elaborate gifts to start with, so this year decided we would share things we made. Sewing attire for another person is nerve racking—especially as a surprise. I made Jackie a robe for her birthday last spring, hoping it would fit her just so…. It did, so you would think Christmas gifts wouldn’t be so terrifying. But they are—wouldn’t it be safer to sew … I dunno … placemats?

For years, and I mean from twelve to thirty, I stumbled around my writing. I created poetry and stories, sharing some, stashing others away. I knew that as a writer, eventually you have to go into the world and talk in front of people.

No way was that happening. Although I continually wrote, poetry to fiction, that whole speaking in front of others wasn’t happening. Nope. Even with PGSA and applause and speech class under my belt, sharing myself out loud was frightening.

Then I learned to facilitate seminars. Turns out practice is the key to being a good presenter. Practice and when you think you’re ready, practice again. Expect heckling, don’t let it destroy you. Stick to the subject matter, cheer the breakthroughs by participants. Keep moving forward.

Sounds a lot like writing a book.

Sending Our Art (and sewing) into the World

By thirty-five, the stories fought to get out and my choice to hide from possible—probable—public speaking was pushed aside. I’ll deal with that tomorrow, right Scarlett?

I started my blog, having zero idea what I was doing in those early days of blogs. The site Medium came along and I wrote for them and earned $100 on one of my first stories. My friend Jody started Market 5555 in Red Lodge, Montana and sells my Travel Journals! Writing progress—success—is happening.

Silent Woman is with five beta readers. I cringe awaiting feedback; I’m elated awaiting feedback. I ask them, tell me if I jolt you out of the story. Tell me if you love a passage or hate it. Point out a typo if you want, but don’t worry about editing—those corrections will come later. Help me, I ask my friends, to be better at my art, my writing … 

When someone gets a sewing project, let me know if there’s a better way to stitch those darts. 

*

Read: Sister bonds are the best