I have never considered myself a seamstress of any kind. I understand the basic mechanics of sewing – move a needle and thread through separate pieces of fabric to attach them together – but not the art of sewing.

One time in college, when I repaired a snapped key lanyard by hand-stitching it, my roommate said that it looked as though I had sewed it with my eyes closed in the dark … and now that I look back on it, it was actually kind of a compliment in that she used the word “sewed.”

But I have this dream – a relatively small one, but a dream nonetheless.

I have an old DKNY comforter cover that at one time, years ago, was a strangely large emotional and financial investment for me, a splurge in the name of claiming the right to own something nice. This comforter cover is a burlap-colored linen with a geometric hand-stitched pattern. It’s still on my bed, now worn and threadbare, and I plan to replace it when I can afford to. And then what I would like to do is turn it into a crazily beautiful Edwardian-style ball gown worthy of a runway.

It might take me decades to pull this off. But that’s why I’ve designated it a “dream,” and not, say, a “task.”

 

FIRST STEP: LEARN HOW TO USE A SEWING MACHINE

So last week I enrolled in a beginner-level class called “Intro to the Machine” with Better Living Through Sewing, an Oakland-based small business that does exactly as its name implies: Helping people live better through sewing.

I was one of five people in the Sunday afternoon Intro to the Machine class, which was held at the home studio of Better Living Through Sewing’s proprietor and instructor, Diana Stasko. For an additional five dollars, I was able to rent a sewing machine from BLTS, which was especially helpful because the rental machine came with small affixed labels that identified different parts of the machine and what they did.

The three-hour class was hands-on and interactive and Stasko an extremely knowledgeable and patient teacher. Stasko explained basic concepts like the difference between knit and woven fabrics, how to choose an appropriate needle, machine maintenance and her recommendations for threads. She then walked us through the different parts of the machine – a tour, which broke down into manageable steps the complicated and maze-like process of threading a machine, which could be summarized as such: “Put switch over to right, press pedal for three seconds, wind bobbin, press pedal for 10 seconds, switch to left, put bobbin into base, thread through, turn hand wheel, pull thread up and through and around and over and through needle, pull bobbin thread through and ta-daaaaa!”

By the end of the class, I had learned how to thread the machine from beginning to end and could serviceably produce four major machine sewing skills: seams, curves, hems and corners, the foundation of most of the sewing one might do.

And I walked out of the class clutching a bookmark-sized strip of scrap fabric on which I had practiced my shaky seams, curves and corners using bright crimson-colored thread. I feel irrationally proud of this scrap. If I could somehow get married in that scrap of fabric, I totally would.

Stasko has found that her students often come to a new appreciation for, and understanding of, the work that goes into every piece of clothing – something that isn’t apparent when we purchase mass-produced clothes divorced from the people who sewed them.

“Nowadays, you go to the store and buy your clothes the way you go to the grocery store and buy your food,” she said. “You have no idea where it comes from. People will hold up a garment that they bought and ask me, ‘Is this hand-done?’ and I’ll go, ‘It’s alldone by hand. Yes, with the aid of a machine, but a person sat there with a machine and made that garment.’ There’s this disconnect with the things that people buy.”

Indeed, the rarity with which people hand-make their own clothing in developed countries has rendered today’s clothing, for the most part, cheap, disposable and trend-dependent commodities rather than items that are made to last for a long time.

Stasko says that, back in the days before mass-produced clothing, children’s garments were made with huge amounts of fabric in the seam allowances so that they could be let out as the child grew. Fashion trends didn’t change very quickly because garments weren’t made to be quickly replaced. Scraps were put to use rather than thrown away. Clothes were quite clearly made by real people rather than apparently mass-produced in factories by machines.

The current state of working conditions in the garment industry came onto the global stage in last month’s disastrous collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,120 garment workers were killed in the single most tragic event in the history of the garment industry. But sweatshops have a long history in the story of human labor.

 

THE CLOTHING EVOLUTION

Sweatshops originated in the early 19th century in urban centers like London and New York, and centered specifically around garment-making – a time-consuming, arduous process that the well-off were willing to outsource to the less well-off. Garment-making became an undervalued and underpaid skill, the domain of women and the poor. As with many other forms of production, what was once an everyday household task has since been outsourced, on a mind-boggling scale, to domestic prisoners and overseas sweatshops.

Stasko herself grew up in a context where sewing was a necessary and important household skill. She learned to sew at a young age from her mother, who grew up “out in the middle of nowhere” on a farm in Willows, Calif., a town a couple hours north of Sacramento. It was the ’40s and ’50s and Stasko’s mother and aunts all learned how to make their own clothes. Stasko remembers, at age 5, watching her grandmother and mother, respectively, making Stasko a marble bag and sets of Barbie clothes. In high school, Stasko wore a vintage ’60s suit that her mother had made (“though I made the skirt a lot shorter,” she said).

During college, Stasko worked at a costume shop in Lansing, Mich., where she helped to make costumes for Shakespeare productions.

“With costuming, it didn’t matter what it looked like on the inside. The inside was full of Velcro and things whip-stitched and jerry-rigged together,” she remembered. “If they could have used duct tape, they would have because so many people had to fit into them over the years.”

She then worked at an alterations shop in Chico, Calif., where she learned the opposite of what she had learned in the costume shop: How to sew and alter with impeccable precision, how to sew two perfectly straight seams side-by-side, how to make adjustments and then return the garment to exactly the way it had originally looked.

Stasko started teaching private and group sewing lessons in 1996, with class topics ranging from “The Ins and Outs of Commercial Patterns” to “Mad Men Sewing.” She also offers open sewing labs and runs a blog, “Shantung and Corduroy,” about her personal sewing projects. Stasko calculates that she has, by now, taught thousands of people how to sew through BLTS. Her group classes usually max out at six people so that every student gets enough individualized attention.

Even after all this time, Stasko said she finds a continual pleasure in the challenge of teaching students with different levels of skill and experience.

“I recently had a student who was really struggling with hand-eye coordination,” Stasko said. “I just sat there with her and guided her through sewing a straight seam. She got through first one side, and then the other, and I could tell that this cloud had lifted for her because she had accomplished something that was really hard for her. Being able to help people get to the point where they’re doing something they’ve never done before, that’s a victory both for them and for me.”

As with many of the forces driving the do-it-yourself movement these days, there is also a distinct politicization to making one’s own clothing. Knowing how to make one’s own garments means removing oneself from the chains of the global garment industry and all of the abuses inherent therein. It allows one to recycle and reuse the forgotten materials that would otherwise go to the dump. (An annual event at the de Young Museum, Discarded to Divine, showcases the runway styles that fashion designers make out of reclaimed materials.)

It also allows a full claim over one’s own style without being beholden only to what is trendy and available in stores. Making clothes means getting a perfect fit and an entirely unique garment. It means unplugging from the computer and reconnecting with the experience of making necessary things with one’s own hands.

“When I sew – especially when I look back at the history of sewing and fashion – I get into a zone where I feel like I’m connecting with this ancient process,” Stasko said. “Facilitating that, and helping people come out of a class holding something that they made with their hands, is tapping back into a forgotten practice.”

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For more information about Better Living Through Sewing and upcoming classes, visit the BLTS website at betterlivingthroughsewing.com.

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Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

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