a philosophy of sewing



Or, why I took a break from sewing, and why I'm back at it.

I worked myself raw in the years after Lachlan's birth and first two heart surgeries. I filmed my Craftsy course, came out with a ton of new patterns, and attended my first Quilt Market. Sew Liberated was our primary source of income while Patrick was in grad school, and since we had such high medical bills, it needed to grow. Sewing became work - something that took me away from my little family. But Sew Liberated wasn't cutting it. We made the decision for Patrick to teach himself programming so he could jump off the history PhD ship that was sailing to oblivion. We needed to be able to stay near Duke for Lachlan's cardiology needs, and we needed a more stable income. When he landed a programming job, I became a full-time mom, and no longer had the time to work on Sew Liberated, even if I had wanted to.

We hired Danica to run the show, and I took a deep breath. Lachlan's third open heart surgery was on the horizon, and I did a ton of mental work to prepare myself for that sickening moment when I handed my baby off to scrubbed and masked strangers. I meditated. I did yoga.  I tried to get us out into nature as much as possible. Tried to create a nurturing cocoon of a home. Tried to do anything in my power to equip my little ones with love, attention, and good memories. I birthed a sweet baby girl. I felt my ability to focus on anything other than my family slipping away into a pleasant, homey blur. My family became my creative outlet. Months went by, and I didn't touch my sewing machine. Then a year passed. I didn't miss it. It was work. I didn't want anything to do with it.


I didn't miss that rushed feeling of trying to sew "just one more seam" before the baby awoke. I didn't miss feeling frustrated when I didn't finish a project in the allotted time frame. I didn't miss the constant stream of project ideas that would hound my thoughts when I could have been enjoying the present moment with my kids. I didn't miss the creative to-do list. I didn't miss the stacks of yet-to-be-used fabric, beckoning me from the shelf. They used to cast a shadow of resentment over my children for their incessant needs that took me away from being a more productive creative person. 

The surgery day dawned. If I hadn't focused on Sew Liberated since before Sadie was born, now I didn't even give it one thought. Facing the tender, fleeting, mortal nature of being human gives you tunnel vision. This little boy of mine had his heart mended and fit by a tailor far more skilled than I. His surgeon's skilled hands touched Lachlan's heart, stitching pieces of previously-used human cloth onto my baby's own fresh tissue. Weaving gortex with muscle, he re-designed a circulatory system that would, for the first time, provide Lachlan with near-normal blood oxygenation levels and the energy of a typical three year-old. Lachlan's heart is re-purposed. Fully functional, yet beautifully flawed, like sashiko mending. 


Nearly six weeks later, after battling with accumulating fluid on his lungs and the subsequent dehydration of his treatment, Lachlan's little mended heart slowed and stopped. I was at home, nursing a stuffy-nosed baby and five year-old. Patrick was with him as they rushed him to the pediatric cardiac ICU, soon starting chest compressions. When I got the call, I was eating a veggie quesadilla, which I spit out while I screamed and fell to the floor. I thought he was dead. I guess, in a way, he was. Had he been at home, 30 minutes from the hospital, he wouldn't have survived. (Hence our eventual move downtown. Covering bases, you know.) 

Lachlan recovered. But what does it mean to recover? To cover again. To mend. The mending is visible. Like his heart, life for our family would never be quite the same. There is a patch that covers our physical and psychological wounds. There is stitching that holds it together. Sometimes the stitching is pristine, in other places it is knotted with fear and anger. But we are functional. And achingly, imperfectly beautiful. 

We are still mending. A well-rubbed piece of cloth will, eventually, break down. When it does, we take up a needle and thread and piece it together any way we can. In my family, the cloth is often made threadbare by sibling bickering, hidden scary medical memories, and parental stress. But it can always be mended. Re-covered. Made functional. Unique.


At some point, perhaps when that subtle shift occurred and my toddler started to spend long stretches playing with her dollhouse, a few minutes opened up in my days. I wanted to make her clothes as a gift of love. I cut into some soft cloth. She sat on my lap and removed the pins as I sewed. It was slow. But it brought me so much joy. I didn't take pictures of it. I didn't have to market the design. It was just that, a physical manifestation of love. An expression of my creativity and a happy investment of my time. I never want to sew for any other reasons.

Sewing has an important place in my life again, along with writing. But I have a personal manifesto that I now follow.

  1. Begin each project with the intention of expressing love and gratitude for the intended recipient, be it my own body or the vibrant bodies of my children.  
  2. Breathe deeply while cutting. Breathe deeply while sewing. Sewing is slow, and the act of slowing down is a gift of mindfulness. Accept any interruption in the process as a gift to be present. Find joy in the process, and appreciation for the amount of time it takes.
  3. Buy less. Make what you need, but not more.  When clothing wears down, mend it. Bring a mindset of minimalism to the fiber arts.
  4. Sewing is an act of self-care. It is not selfish. It is practice of mindfulness mendfulness. I sew because it helps me on my journey to be a more aware, loving mother and creative person. 

If I returned to my old way of sewing - the resentment, the oppressive to-make list, the feeling of being squeezed for creative time, I would need to stop and reassess. My time with these three little children is too short. With this healthier creative mindset, I hope to mend together my creative nature with parenthood.  


I made these Rainbow Shorts for Lachlan using the Basic Pocket Pants pattern in my book, using Kaffe Fasset's Exotic Stripe in the Earth colorway.  It took me two weeks to sew them - a seam here, a seam there. He helped me. So did Sadie. He is clothed with love. 

"mama to mama" and haiti

Photo by Amanda of Soulemama, a new craftivism website launched by Soulemama, provides an easy way to connect crafters with communities in need.  From Mama to Mama:

There are so very many reasons why we craft. We craft out of necessity, we craft out of love, we craft for pleasure. And we craft, sometimes, to bring a little peace to our lives, to our hearts, and to our everyday moments. Taking that just a step further, we can - and do, like so many crafters before us - turn our crafting into peace for the world beyond our homes. The simple act of creating something with intention and heart - for someone in need, can have a beautiful effect on the lives of others. We can, indeed, do something to create a more just and peaceful world...all with the simple, mindful and crafty work of our hands.

Mama to Mama's first project, making the above jersey newborn caps for distribution in northern Haiti, is particularly dear to my heart. Patrick spent time in Haiti prior to the US-orchestrated coup in 2004 and came to know the grave, systemic injustices that pervade the country and its people. Haiti has a long history of being "punished" by the Western world for leading the first successful slave rebellion, thus becoming the second free nation in the Western hemisphere after the United States.  Haiti was required, at gunpoint, to pay France for its liberty in 1825. In inflation-adjusted terms, the amount would be about $21.7 billion, the cost of which crippled Haiti economically from the get-go. The Haitians have lived through a US occupation from 1915-1934, several cruel dictatorships installed and propped-up by imperial powers, and are currently suffering from an unprecedented ecological disaster - the Haitian landscape has been ravaged and is no longer capable of producing sufficient food for its people. Haitians rely on food aid from crop excesses in the US to survive. This summer, I was reading a NY Times article on the plight of the US corn crops during this very wet summer. The corn crop was estimated to be much, much lower. At the very end of a three-page article, the expert was quoted: "We'll have enough corn for our consumption in the US, but we won't be exporting. I don't want to think about how this will affect countries like Haiti."

He's not alone in not wanting to think about Haiti. Haiti is a HARD country to think about. It flies in the face of all that we were taught in school about Western civilization. In a way, it scares us - it scares us to see the results of centuries of racism and brutality played out like an insensitive board game. It's HARD to think that forces of humanity are capable of such evil. But I believe that it's important to reflect on the "why" and "how" of Haiti. It's important to learn from the past so that we can do whatever needs to be done to keep history from repeating itself. Moreover, it reminds us of how important it is to bring justice to the people of Haiti in the here and now. Here are several things you can do:

- Start by making some baby caps from old T-shirts and send them to Mama to Mama. We all need a place to begin, to use our talents, and to work mindfully with our hands to create something that fills a need. I love how this project allows you to think about the baby that will wear the cap, infusing it with love and good intentions.

- Watch this 60 Minutes clip about Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health. If you want to watch more videos about Haiti in general, visit the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

- Visit the Partners in Health website and consider getting involved in the Malaria Net Challenge. Also, consider cutting back on your holiday expenditures this year and donating the extra money to Partners in Health. Whenever Patrick and I can afford to donate, this is where our money goes - we know it's put to immediate use to save lives. We also make donations to the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. You might be interested in signing up for IJDH's action alert list or volunteering for them in some way.

- Read Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment by Peter Hallward.

- Read The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer.

- Read Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor by Paul Farmer. This book is a particularly good read if you are religious, as Farmer weaves in liberation theology theories from his Catholic background.

I thought I'd close with some Haitian proverbs.

Sa ou fe, se li ou we.
What you do is what you see.

Dye mon, gen mon.
Beyond the mountains, more mountains.

Craft with a cause!