|Ah, the sweet sounds of childhood...|
I've been wanting to do a sort of personal history of how I got into sewing and knitting for awhile now, and since Slow Fashion October is finally upon us, I finally have the perfect chance! The first post is meant to be a "getting-to-know-you" deal, so let's start way back in the golden and glorious early 80s, when some of the earliest seeds of DIY were first planted in my impressionable wee brain.
I grew up in a small town on Vancouver Island, one of four kids born to a pot smoking mill-worker dad and a stay-at-home mom (who later worked in the explosives industry, post-divorce). Like everyone else of their generation, my parents had some vague and largely unrealized back-to-the-land tendencies, which led them to fill the family book case with craft encyclopedias and can the odd jar of pickles. My dad had some decent carpentry and gardening skills, and I can recall my mom sewing curtains for the kitchen windows, as well as some Halloween costumes. But these projects and hobbies were often small, and not long-pursued. We did, however, go in for secondhand in a big way. As a family of six being supported on a single income, we didn't often have the luxury of indulging in new goods: I distinctly remember getting boxes of hand-me-down clothes from bigger cousins in Ontario once a year, and these being divided between whichever siblings they were appropriate for. And while I appreciated the new clothing my nana sent at Christmas, still covered in tags and smelling of the department store it came from, I was equally happy with my older cousin's holey sweatshirts.
|The fabulous L7 and...Twiggy Ramirez|
Let's skip ahead to my high school years, where we are now firmly in the frayed and musty-smelling 90s (sorry!). On the one hand, I feel like this wasn't such a bad time fashion-wise to grow up female: you could totally get away with wearing thrifted, baggy, IDGAF clothing, and be considered cool (in the larger world at least, if not in my shitty redneck hometown). On the other hand, Marilyn Manson happened, and I decided to throw my sartorial lot in with his dress-wearing bassist/guitarist, Twiggy Ramirez. Since this was pre-Hot Topic and early, early internet, I was basically pushed into learning to sew for lack of any suitably goth clothing outlets in my locale. However, my skills were rudimentary at best, and my mom's sewing machine basic to say the least. Work space was also incredibly limited, and I can still remember the frustration of trying to cut velour fabric on the carpeted floor of our living room. Still, I muddled through, and my then-baffling fashion sense led me to make a wide range of bizarre garments, including the following:
- a t-shirt with non-stretch lace sleeves and some random goth word hand-stencilled across the chest (and before you ask, no, I most certainly could not bend my arms)
- boot-cut pants made from non-stretch (again!) yellow and black striped twill (which split up the ass seam at a dance)
- faux leopard fur flares, complete with safety pin closure (no zippers for this budding seamstress!)
- a floor-length skirt with alternating satin and lace panels, which I wore to school like I was the goddamn Lady of Shallot
I also scoured the thrift stores for vintage, A-line house dresses from the 60s, which invariably had to be altered, and had my fair share of handmade band t-shirts (including a bright yellow one with the word "Prick" written across the front in black Sharpie, which earned me a trip to the principal's office).
If any of this is making me sound like some kind of intriguing, small town grunge pioneer, don't believe it: I was most decidedly not cool. I was a tall, scrawny, socially awkward, female version of Joey Ramone, who had things thrown and shouted at me from the moving vehicles of rednecks on a daily basis. Still, this is where I first gained an interest in making my own clothes (however hideous they may seem to me now), and where a basic foundation of skills was laid. Let's move on, shall we?
|No Logo, Erin O'Connor on the cover of i-D magazine|
OK, 1999 - 2005, the university years: my redneck hometown is a thing of the past, and I am safe and free going to art school in the closest thing Vancouver Island has to a big city. Like every other first year student in the history of forever, I experienced something of a political awakening (WTO! Women's studies! Socialists are still a thing!). I also read Naomi Klein's "No Logo", and my previously vague "fuck the man" feelings became considerably more focused. Whereas previously I distrusted corporate culture and wore thrifted goods because Kurt Cobain did, I now had a lot of very specific information regarding the global manufacturing industry to back my choices up. Fashion-wise, this was a very twee time for me: lots of skinny pants, tight vintage tees, and retro tops with whimsical prints (a kind of Belle and Sebastian-inspired librarian couture).
Although my sewing skills were mostly used for altering secondhand clothes at this point, I did make a significant jump in skills-acquisition by teaching myself to knit from Debbie Stoller's "Stitch 'n' Bitch" book (yeah, early 2000s Bust magazine!). It was a slow process, but I did manage to make matching garter stitch scarves for myself and a girlfriend (in hideously inappropriate yarn). I also made a few knitted gifts and started a few sweaters that I never finished. The truth was, I simply didn't have the time: for my last years of university, I was working and going to school full time, and there were precious few moments when I could do anything unrelated to projects for my art courses. Towards the end, I even felt resentful of my fine arts practice, because the results seemed so impractical and useless compared to the things I made sewing or knitting (not that I truly believe art is pointless, but...the art I was making was pointless). Anyways, I plugged away at my various interests, finished my fine arts degree, then decided to get outta dodge.
|Photograph by Corrine Day, i-D magazine from early 2000s|
Like so many Canadian anglos living outside of Quebec at the time, I decided I had become too cool for the town I was in and decided to move to Montreal. I packed one pair of jeans, three thrifted t-shirts (with wolves and motorcycles on them, natch!), a coat that proved to be woefully inadequate for Montreal winters, and caught the Greyhound east. I also brought my sewing machine and serger, both of which took a nasty beating during the trip, but still worked on arrival. Like most transient people my age, I wound up working in a call center and going to shows (mostly music or "art", often involving overhead projectors). My income was so low that I don't think I bought one single solitary item of new clothing while there, except for socks: everything was either thrifted or bought off ebay. I had a million roommates, started a quilt I never finished, acquired way too many vintage sewing patterns, experienced one terrible relationship, drank too much, and came home after two years.
|Freja Beha Erichsen, photographed by Cass Bird|
Once back on the West Coast, I decided to get serious about a lot of things: I worked two jobs to make ends meets, went back to school to get my teaching degree, cut out the excessive drinking, and ended the remnants of my awful Montreal relationship. I also got way more serious about making clothes: I realized that for all those years, I had considered myself a knitter and sewer of garments, yet I didn't really have a single piece of finished handmade clothing in my closet. So I started to learn more about fabric, researched patterns beyond the Big Four, got my sewing machine tuned up, and set to work. I did the same thing with knitting: I found some pattern magazines and companies that were more in line with my tastes than the more mainstream sources, spent some time learning about different fiber types and yarn weights, and tried to learn new techniques at a rate that was manageable for me.
I'm now 35, and have been back on the West Coast for about eight years. I have a great job as a teacher, and for the first time in my life, I also have the time, space, and income to support my interests (sewing, knitting, being more responsible and ethical about things I need but can't make). I've slowly taken on a lot of projects that would have seemed impossible to me even five years ago (coats, button-down shirts, jeans), and my taste in clothing has evolved as well. This is probably the first time in my life that my sartorial choices are not linked hard and fast to whatever subculture or music I'm currently into, and while that can be a bit disorienting at times, it's starting to work (all part of getting auld, lol!).
Anyways, that's a whole lot of my life in one long-ass blog post. Please share something about yourself in the comments if anything resonates/inspires/helps!