The other day on social media a fellow embroiderer asked, “When I stitch I feel…?” It was an interesting question to ask and one I’d never really given a lot of thought to. Obviously I feel happy when I’m sewing—or I wouldn’t keep doing it. But what surprised me was the ﬁrst word I thought of was “powerful.”
When I stitch I feel powerful.
It seemed so haughty to put that out there, but honestly that is how I feel. There are so many things in my life right now that make me feel weak. Relationships gone hard, my age (I’m over 40), my body (let’s not go there), my ﬁnancial status, my business, the pre-teen in my house… I could go on and on. But when I sit down with my hoop and needle or when I sit at my sewing machine, I feel strong. I feel like I’m sitting in front of something that I can manage.
When I think of the word powerful, I don’t think of being forceful or bragging. Powerful can also mean intoxicating or spirituous. When I’m in the midst of a project, I do feel intoxicated with power. Even after sewing for more than half my life, I am still in awe that my two hands and the skills that I’ve been gifted with—the skills that I enjoy and cherish—can take simple materials and form them into something magical. How can one not feel amazement at taking simple materials such as fabric, threads, and needles and then watching them transform into something that you can wear or just enjoy on your wall?
I feel spirituous in the way that my sewing connects me to my past. I feel connected to a heritage of women who spent their lives creating. But their creating was even more powerful because they created out of need. Winter brought the need for quilts; summer brought the need for new dresses; children brought the need for dolls and other entertainment. When you can take the two hands that you have and use them to clothe a family and keep them warm, there is immense power in that.
The ﬁrst time I really picked up a hoop and embroidery ﬂoss was shortly after the birth of my daughter. I had stopped working full-time and was staying at home with two small children for the ﬁrst time in my mothering life. Those four walls can become very small, very quickly. When my toddler refused to listen and my newborn refused to nap, it was in running a needle and thread through fabric that I found solace. Taking a mix of colors and a simple outline of a design and watching it come to life through simple stitches gave me a sense of peace in a world that was very tiring and chaotic at times. And even 10 years later, that sense of sitting still with a project in my lap is still overwhelming to me; but it’s overwhelming with power and grace. The longer I sew, the more amazed I am at the magic that happens with such simple materials.
Last year I started branching out with my embroidery, learning more stitches and combining diﬀerent types of threads. Wool threads, cotton threads, variegated threads, even making three dimensional pieces for my hoops. There’s something about running my ﬁngers over the wreath of ﬂowers—roses, daisies, giant ﬂower petals I just ﬁlled in with stitches—that ﬁlls me with this immense sense of wonder. One of my most powerful moments lately has been learning the art of stump work embroidery. Combining simple wire, threads, and stitches and then seeing the formation of a butterﬂy wing take shape—not a ﬂat wing but one that raises up oﬀ my hoop—is amazing to me.
But what about the times when I have to pull threads out? Or what about that dreaded seam ripper? How does removing something I’ve sewn still evoke feelings of strength and not feelings of failure? I think it’s because it’s ﬁxable. I always tell my sewing students that one of the best rules of sewing is that there are very few unﬁxable mistakes. When I sew a pocket on backwards or when I choose the wrong stitch for an embroidery project, there’s no failure in that. There are tools and ways to remedy and move on.
As I’ve taught sewing to others, both young and old, I’ve seen this power come over them too. When they turn on a machine they’ve been so frightened of and then hold up the fabric that they just sewed together, I see this look on their faces. There is this pride and amazement that truly is almost intoxicating. It’s the sense that they can do this and that this machine will not overcome them.
One of the ﬁrst times I felt like this was early in my sewing life. I had decided to make a denim jacket for my husband. We were newly married and money was tight so I wanted to impress him, with not only my sewing skills but also with my frugality. But this jacket pattern had these inset pockets that I had never even contemplated before—I had hardly even sewn regular side pockets! I got to the point with the jacket that I had tried and tried to get those pockets right and I was stuck and feeling helpless.
The problem was, to make inset pockets you had to cut a hole right into the front of your fabric. Giving up, I went to the store where I bought the original denim to get some more so I could just start over without the pockets. Wouldn’t you know it, all the fabric was gone! But I ran into a friend that day at the fabric store who asked me what the problem was, and who told me to go back and try again. So I did. And it worked. Those pockets came right together. Even now, 18 years later, I can still remember the feeling of power that I felt when I realized that I hadn’t just given up. I had conquered those beastly pockets and they even looked good! Every time my husband wore that coat, I know he wore it to please me. But for me, every time he put on that coat I saw those pockets and I saw something that I had overcome. Even in the midst of seeming failure, it wasn’t an actual failure.
There are so many things in life that you can’t take back, but sewing is ﬁlled with opportunities to begin again. It is ﬁlled with a million ways to try again.
Sewing is a beautiful picture of forgiveness. And forgiveness takes power.