Stitching With Stories As A Labor Of Love
Disclaimer: While this is an important and relevant topic, the following is also only my experience. It is not true for everyone, and my experience with diaspora is not the experience that needs to be at the forefront right now. I am privileged, and white, and live in a community that is primarily made up of the same. If you want to work on healing the pain caused by displacement and diaspora, don’t just look at that which is past. Look at the present. Help the people who are currently being forced into diaspora. Listen to their stories and, if you can, help ease their pain. Their experience is of crisis, dealing with the open wounds of being separated from place. I am writing about scar tissue.
I believe that stories are the warp and weft of our world. They are the holders of meaning, the why and the how and the for what.
Now, when I say stories I don’t just mean the kind that live in the spoken word and printed page. I don’t just mean the articulate and linear and tangible. I mean the long past, the unspoken, the unarticulated, the possible-but-not-yet-borne. When I say stories, I mean the way a sparrows genetic code contains the recipe for the perfect feathers for flight before the bird has even taken a breath of air. I mean the way that the air has held millions of sparrows before this one, and knows the feeling of beating wings before they are spread. I mean the story of the cattywampus worlds that emerge every time a child says “what if…?” and giggles. I mean the stories that have been written down and the stories contained in a single drop of water, and the stories that lie in stains on the pages of your favorite cookbook. I mean the collective memories and fantasies and pasts and presents and futures that our universe holds, the weavings of countless lives and chemical processes.
When I sew, the stories I am weaving together into a new creation become especially tangible. This is one of the reasons that I love to sew by hand— it slows time, and I can savor each piece as it falls into place. When the project is done, I know every stitch in and out, every oopsie-daisy and happy accident, and have spent the hours that it took to make stewing in the thoughts of the stories I was bringing together to create it.
I have always loved clothing, and stories and histories, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that I really started to discover the ways in which they intertwined. Since then, I have deepened that delving in, and been focused on exactly which stories I am weaving with intention into the garments that I make. As I work with remembrance, I am inspired by my ancestors. I am inspired by all those who came before me as well as the colors and shapes that I am drawn to as an individual.
I’ve been making a couple skirts as I write this series on crafting through diaspora and learn more about the history of the diasporas in which I am living today.
One of them is a vaguely 18th century/Folk inspired skirt made with rectangular construction. (For those of you not familiar with the term, rectangular construction is just what it sounds like— when a garment is made out of a series of rectangles, squares or triangles instead of tailored pieces). This is by far the easiest (and lowest waste) skirt that I’ve made, taking only about 11 hours from bolted fabric to wearable piece, which is pretty quick for a piece of hand made clothing (and this time includes at least 45 minutes trying to pin the pleats unsuccessfully). I love working with rectangular construction because it is not only easy but it is also the product of very old and practical wisdom. A garment made with rectangular construction is easily adjustable, wastes no fabric in the process, and usually leaves minimal scraps behind. It doesn’t require any fancy sewing tools, and you can even get away without a proper measuring tape if you’re careful.
The skirt that I made after this style has long ties (meaning a completely adjustable waist) and a side slit closure in which an independent 18th century pocket can be put later. (If you’re not familiar with 18th century pockets, I highly recommend a google search).
This skirt is made with a historical-ish fabric that I got secondhand and chose for it’s rich colors and patterning. In learning more about Eastern European textiles, I’ve learned that the colors and patterns (often stripes) woven into a garment could tell you a lot about a person and where they came from. Different colors and stripe patterns were significant of different meanings in different places, and often each village or group would have their own pattern (much like Scottish tartan). I don’t know what villages my people came from, or what their patterns and colors were, and neither is my story the direct and sole product of that place. Whatever those patterns were or are, they are not the patterns that I am wearing in diaspora. In diaspora I am sewing machine woven fabric on a budget, and choosing colors because I like them and the stories that they hold for my life here, not because of any traditional meaning. I am also sewing with patterns because not staining clothing is absolutely impossible when you live and work closely with the land and are a messy crafter.
For the silhouette of the skirt, I based it off of photos and videos that I’ve seen of Eastern European costumes and clothing— midi to knee length, and full. I based the pleating style loosely off of some vintage Hungarian petticoats I have, and did the exact length and pleating based on what I liked and was able to do easily.
The waist band is a bit thicker than I’ve seen on either 18th century skirts or folk clothing, but I changed this detail because I know that I like a more belt like waist band, as it tends to feel more supportive. And what’s the point of making something that you won’t wear?
The whole project is stitched together by rich red thread that I got in a tiny shop in a tiny village in Guatemala. I love this detail, because it is quite literally the thread that is tying me to my ancestors who lived half a world away, and it comes from the most magical once-upon-a-time home-away-from-home. It was made by people who changed my life with barely a language in common, and if I listen to the thread right I can almost hear them gossiping as they weave. This skirt, made to clothe my body for a lifetime, is the product of grandmothers who stretch across multiple continents and multiple centuries, reaching out with textile knowledge and tied together by stories.
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