Our Hands Remember

I’ve been thinking about my hands a lot.

The process of learning to sew has left my fingers stiff and aching, the skin at the edges of my thumb and index fingers (where my needle rests) raw and peeling. My hands don’t know these movements yet, and they ache with the pain of learning.

But they know other motions. They have other memories.

I’m a student of the martial arts. My knuckles are scarred and calloused from bag work and conditioning drills. My fingernails are trimmed short and filed down, with at most a new moon sliver of new growth. My right middle finger is slightly crooked from the time it got partially dislocated a few years ago.

I’m a dyer. The beds of my nails are still stained a faint blue from the indigo dyeing I did over Easter weekend. My skin is dry from repeated dunks into dye baths and mordanting solutions. I have dirt under my fingernails from foraging for dye materials, and from tending to my budding dye garden.

I’m a knitter. My hands know the motions of knit and purl as easily as I know how to draw breath. They are calloused and grooved from hours of knitting needles resting against my fingers, of wool slipping through them, of making warm things to keep those I love cozy.

I’m a kitchen witch. My hands always seem to smell faintly herbal, no matter how much I wash them. My wrists and my forearms are strong from chopping, mixing, kneading, lifting heavy roasting pans.

Our hobbies shape our hands. They tell our stories– of where we’ve been, what’s important to us, where we’re going.

Our hands remember.

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On Blank Pages, and Fear of Failure

Has it really been almost a month since my last post? Seems like March really got away from me! We’ve been having some technical difficulties here at Chez Kitsune that means my laptop is in the capable hands of the folks at my local Apple Store, so I’m borrowing a cup of internet at work to write this. I hope to be back to a more regular posting schedule soon! I’ve been on some fun adventures that I’m looking forward to writing about.

My Hivemates and I have been collectively thinking a lot about fear of failure, as we begin our Initiate years in earnest. We’ve been tackling new things and developing skills we thought we could not master. My Hive sister Ravensong wrote beautifully about discovering a newfound love of gardening, and transforming the lies we tell ourselves about “I can’t” and “I’m not good at” into more positive intentions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes lately, both where they come from and how they’re made. I went to a really wonderful discussion on the idea of “slow fashion” at A Verb For Keeping Warm, one of my very favorite places in the Bay Area, and it really lit a fire under me in terms of trying to make some of my own clothes.

The only problem? Years ago, I had managed to convince myself that I Could Not Sew. I’ve been slightly afraid of my sewing machine for a long time, and while I have some basic sewing skills and can read patterns okay, I had built the whole process up in my mind to be this scary, incomprehensible thing that I was Not Good At and Could Not Be Good At. The idea of cutting into a blank piece of fabric, where there’s no turning back once the scissors bite into the threads, is unbelievably intimidating.

Sonya Philip, one of the panelists at Verb and the brilliant mind behind 100 Acts of Sewing, said some very wise things on this exact topic that really got through to me. She talked about failures not being failures, rather a documentation of the learning process. She talked about getting out of one’s own head, and just making something. I am the sort of person who reads obsessively when they get an interest in something. I have a fair pile of books on sewing, both technique and pattern, which I’ve read cover to cover multiple times, but there comes a point where I have to pull my nose out of the book and actually try. Making that leap is hard, and very scary.

I decided to start with hand-sewing, which felt friendlier and more approachable to me. I’ve been a big fan of Natalie Chanin’s work since I heard her speak on The Moth a few months back, so I sat myself down with one of her Alabama Chanin books and a pattern for a basic sleeveless t-shirt. I had been holding onto this shirt with a beautiful Green Tara design on it for a long time, so I thought cutting it down into a more fitted design would be a good place to start.

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The raw materials.

I read the size charts and the fit notes, selected a size I thought would work, and traced the pattern pieces.

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I cut them out, transferred them to the t-shirt (which required a little creative arranging, a process that had not occurred to me when I decided to work from a pre-sewn garment), and with no small degree of terror, applied scissors to fabric.

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Good tools really do make a difference here! I splurged on a pair of nice dressmakers shears, and I now understand the fuss people make about fabric shears being used only for fabric.
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Cutting away the excess.

This part of the process definitely did not go flawlessly. I made some minor tracing errors that meant the pattern pieces didn’t line up perfectly. I had to get a little creative with the back neckline. The curved edges aren’t as smoothly-curved as is ideal. I made mistakes– and that’s okay. I was still doing it!

The rest of the afternoon flew by much the same. I am without a doubt a novice, and I made a few mistakes. My seams are crooked, my stitches a little wobbly. My fingers ached something fierce by the time I took a break to make dinner. But after I finished sewing my first shoulder seam, I was hooked without a doubt. To my delight, I find hand-sewing to be really calming and meditative, much the same as knitting has been for most of my life. It was as if my scissors had cut away not just the excess fabric, but the excess fear and self-doubt I had been holding onto. I was embracing my wonky lines and clumsy seams. I was doing it!

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In a surprisingly short amount of time, I was done. With some trepidation, I turned the finished garment right-side out and examined it.

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It looked like a t-shirt! It was vaguely human-shaped! And now the real question: would it fit? Would my seams hold?

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And lo! They did! It fit! It fit, and it didn’t fall apart when I tried to put it on!

I’m not embarrassed to tell you, dear readers, that I may have cried a little at the end of all this. This first foray into sewing has taught me a lot, not just about the craft of making clothing but about trusting myself. Trusting that my work has structure and value, that my hands can make strong seams, that I can make mistakes and not be a complete failure. I have discovered what might be a new love, and I am already looking forward to what my next project will teach me.

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That blue fabric my scissors are resting on will be the subject of another post. I dyed it with indigo!

In Joyful Service,
Kitsune