Thoughts Sewn Together

How Sewing Saved my Teenage Soul

Written by Kamuela

I find myself telling the story of why I think sewing saved me from teenage hell at least once a month. Its very real for me, even though I often toss it out causally, like a sales pitch for one of my classes.

Only its not – I really do believe sewing saved my teenage soul.

I don’t have a big hard story, no survivors badge on my left arm, just the knowing that sewing afforded me life lessons that shaped how I saw the world and me in it.

As a teenager I was not cool. I was so not cool I don’t think I knew what was actually cool. I was sure I looked funny – too wide – to short – too curvy – too talky and thinky – too much everything. I was starting to feel what it was to think about fitting in, and pretty much figured out I did not.  I was sure I was odd. I was sure I was the only one. I think that is the test to determine if you are in fact a teenager; do you believe these things are true about yourself.

When I got to middle school – ugg – I remember thinking about clothes in an insecure way for the first time. I think I thought if I looked like everyone else I would be like everyone else. I would be accepted. It never occurred to me that the cost of being like them was me. I was 12, losing me did not seem possible.

My mom had always made my clothes – it was a frugal thing. I got a few skirts, shorts and blouses a year that my mom made, everything else I wore had been gifts. Stuff lasted from year to year and while not many other kids in my class had homemade clothes it was not a thing. It was the late 70s and kids dressed like kids. In Hawaii if you had clean feet and your hair did not smell you were ok.

Feeling like I looked out of place I asked my mom if we could switch up my style a little. I will never forget what she said: I make wrap-around skirts and button down shirts, you want more then that you will have to learn to sew.

I was 12 – challenge accepted.

I mean how hard could it be – I had been helping, which at 12, I imagined was as good as doing it, for years. My mom was one of our High School art teachers –remember when high schools had a whole department of art teachers. She was a good teacher; always gave kids room to test themselves and then gave them the tools to succeed to the next step when they needed them. When I look back on the kind of teacher she was, I know her ego wasn’t very involved, she loved watching when a student got it, and then enjoyed seeing where they would go with it. She really didn’t seem to have a set way they had to come to an answer or complete a project. She was curious. We need more of that in our everyday.

Anyway the conversation was something like – great I am going to get fabric and a pattern and I head toward the door and my bike. She followed me with “do you know how to use my machine?” Again – I was 12 – I knew everything.

Me: YES!

Her: lets take a test. I want to know you will not break my machine.

Me: eye-roll – ok.

She drew on a piece of fabric a bunch of lines and a few curves and a place where I had to make a buttonhole and said follow these and you can use my machine.

15 minutes later I handed her my ‘finished’ piece, she laughed and said ok – you can use my machine.

I confidently headed for my bike. It took all my babysitting money but I bought a Vogue pattern and 3 yards of rayon. I thought I knew how to read/look at a pattern – years of helping helped with this confidence. I had everything I needed – at that point that meant – I had the materials needed. I got to work as soon as I got home, I laid out the pattern and tried not to rip it too many times, I pinned and cut on the floor, I work on it all afternoon and into the night. Only stopping for dinner and to say good night to my parents when they went to bed. I was going to finish this before I went to bed. I did.

In the morning my mom asked me when I got up how it turned out.

BAD – its SO ugly – was all I could say.

She took a sip of her coffee and said yes it does!  We laughed – it was so ugly – there was no sugar coating – just the truth.  She then said if I wanted to make a wrap around skirt she would help. This use to be normal parents use to tell kids when stuff was ugly and then help them learn to take the passion behind the attempt into a skill that might take time to learn but in the end would be an earned win.

That was my first sewing project – a total failure – a zipper that looked like it belonged on Frankenstein, shoulder pads that were somewhere around the middle of my upper arm (it was 1980), and fabric that slipped and slide all over itself. It was ugly. I never wore it. I spent $25 on a mess of materials – that was 25 hours of babysitting time in my world. I had failed. My mom did not pick up the project and fix it, she laughed at it with me. Later that day I made a cotton wrap around skirt very successfully.

I learned that I could fail, try again and succeed. What a gift to get this at 12, or at least get the experience of this. There were so many more failures ahead, had I stopped trying because of them, I cannot image where I would be.

I learned that things take time and work and that sometimes you have to learn how to do something in stages. 10,000 hours started for me right there. To see failure as opportunity to try again: to go slow but to keep going, that’s something. That carried me through college, graduate school and past the 3rd and 4th rounds of editing my dissertation.

This notion that things take effort and time and that success is earned rather then instant still hinges my everyday. It made it possible for me to start a business at 45 doing what I love even as I stumble and fail. I am putting in my 10,000 hours here too; quickbooks is killing me, the rent is always due, and I am back to making a dollar an hour some weeks. On an up note, last year I hit the 10,000 hour mark on the invisible zipper. I have mastered that one. I can put them in first time – perfect. All those years of pulling them out, sometimes carefully sometimes not, paid off. I have confidence all the other projects in my life are going to pay off too. I know 10,000 hours starts with 1.

I first learned the payoff at my sewing machine. I learned there are some things worth trying again and again – skirts, really cool dress, zippers and life. I know it sounds simple but this is one way sewing saved my teenage soul – I have lots more but those are for another time.

So when I say sign your teenage up for a sewing class I am really saying give them the feeling of hour 1 on whatever their 10,000 hour journey might be.


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