Coming Out

Note: I’ve been writing this for most of the day, and finally finished a first draft.  I copied and pasted it into 3HoursPast, with the intention of whittling this down for word count and possibly for content, to do my usual corrections of verb tenses and pronouns.  After I posted this into the blog form, I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft.”  That published my post to your inboxes and feeds.  So instead of whittling and polishing as I meant to do, I decided to add a few links and publish as-is.   Thank you for stopping by, it’s been too long.

It’s been nearly two years since I posted here with regularity, and I still miss you. This post is not really about sewing, or Cake, or patchwork pillows. This post is the removal of a mask I’ve outgrown, moving past a persona I don’t want to use anymore to share the human being I am.   It’s messy, long, probably sharing too much and may be upsetting to some, but I think it’s important to write this for anyone out there who lives trapped in the kind of life I was living. It doesn’t have to be that way.  And I’d like to share where I’ve been and what I’ve learned while I was gone.

Last July, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. The DSM manual (used to diagnose mental illnesses) chose to remove “Aspergers” in the latest edition because it is named after a person, replacing it with “Autism Spectrum Level 1, no delay in speech or intellectual development.” I tend to refer to myself as an “Aspie.” Semantics aside, this diagnosis was a blessed relief, pointing me towards a community where I could contribute, grow, and be myself, giving me tools to better understand and manage my condition (instead of my shots-in-the-dark approach), and making me feel for the first time ever like I deserved to be well and happy in my life. I quit fearing “The Thing,” and dropped 29 years of resentment about being different- I felt fifty pounds lighter. I decided I didn’t want to die, after all. Perhaps my family would indeed be better off if I were here with them.

The diagnosis was the clearest-cut “end and a beginning” I’ve ever experienced in my life- more powerful than leaving my birth family as a teen, more than going to college or immigrating to the other side of the world, and more than becoming a wife, then a mother. Before last May, I had no idea that Aspergers could be expressed in any kind of person, not just in math-genius little boys who line up the train sets and beat their heads on the wall. I wish I’d known differently sooner. Let me back up and explain how I got to Aspergers. You were here, too, for part of it. You saw the outside, but let me explain the inside.

Two years ago, sometime after the Hummingbird release, I started “glitching” worse than usual. This was my private term for noticing when my perceptions of the world around me were either illogical or impossible, or when my mind goes blank. I was retaining very little information spoken to me, sometimes not even hearing it. This has always been something of a problem that I’d learned to compensate for, but my strategies were not working. When I sat to write a blog post, I felt deeply confused, lost in a sea of links and pages and photo files and swimming words. I started to make more mistakes, and to get nauseous headaches while sitting in front of the screen. I told myself I was tired, worn out, I’d rest after I got the next collection out and everything would be fine. I had less and less patience or time for my family, desperately trying to make Cake into what I knew it could be, failing, and also failing my husband and daughter.

Then one day as I rode the bus, a cyclist pulled up beside my window at a stop. To my utter shock, I looked into the face of my father when I glanced over. I sat there staring, going through my mindfulness/reality checks, expecting his face to melt into the face of a random dude as I brought awareness to my breath and carefully took in my surroundings. Instead, I picked out the particular line of my father’s jaw, the stormy blue eyes, the shape of his hairline, a scar on his hand, the shape of his fingernails. It scared me because even as I looked at him I knew it wasn’t real. As I pulled away, I knew it couldn’t be my father, aged ~32. He’s old now, living on the other side of the planet. After that, I went in for yet another round of psychiatric assessment.

I’ve spent years in and out of psych offices, primarily for PTSD treatment. This time, I very calmly told the doctor that I was hallucinating and needed to be checked. For me, hallucinations were always a Code Red- do not mess around, go talk to someone asap. I always felt my hold on what we call reality was less than firm, and had been vigilant about “imaginary friends” since late adolescence. I told the doctor my history of trauma, and answered a lot of questions about my current lifestyle, family life, and work. The doctor eventually cleared me of PTSD, saying my hallucination was possibly a PTSD after effect triggered by stress, and I should rest. He also cleared me of Bipolar disorder, which was nice. I’ve been called “bipolar” by plenty of people, and even wondered myself if that was The Thing, if one day I’d have to commit to mood medication in order to function. I definitely have soaring heights of productivity and blank times of nothingness, but I’m not Bipolar.

I got back to work and tried to rest more, though that quickly went by the wayside. I gave up trying to blog here on a regular basis, because assembling blog posts had become a laborious, painful grind. We started the Red Velvet Collection presale right about the time my attacks started. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, feeling like a burning dagger was being driven between my shoulder blades. I’d gasp, and writhe, and get out of bed so I didn’t wake up my husband, then lie on the couch, waiting for the Panadol to kick in. It took the edge off the pain so I could sleep. At first, these attacks were once a week and in the middle of the night. They became more frequent, sneaking up on me after lunch while I sat writing tutorials, sometimes circling my body. I thought they might be another one of those stress reactions, and I tried to ignore them, hide it, and get on with life.

By the time we were shipping Red Velvet dress patterns, I was having around 4 attacks a week. I was also doing too much. I remember putting together those shipments in a blind haze, with that burning dagger between my shoulder blades while I tried to plan my in-real-life shows and the Sewalong. I stopped eating much, wasn’t sleeping, and had a pregnancy scare when I stopped menstruating. I was ignoring my husband, and spending little time with my daughter. Worse, as the weeks wore on I felt my Reason fleeing me. It wasn’t the first time, but I thought I’d grown up enough and worked hard enough and changed enough with a stable enough lifestyle that my Reason wouldn’t do that anymore. I felt my ability to make sentences, to communicate, to think in an orderly way, to cook dinner or even clean up the bathroom was fading away into the black confusion I felt as a child. The house fell into a mess which amped up my anxiety. It was terrifying, and I felt like I was watching it happen from outside my body. I’m sick, I told myself, I’m really sick and when I’m well it will be ok.

I went back to the physician, I was having 5-6 attacks a week at any time of the day. She said I had reflux, and gave me medicine. I might as well have swallowed sticks of sidewalk chalk for all the good it did. I went back, got stronger medicine that also did nothing. Everyone around me was saying “Reflux this” and “Reflux that,” giving me well-meaning advice based on their own experiences. I tried it all and nothing worked. Besides, I had reflux during pregnancy and I knew this wasn’t the same thing. My body and mind were literally falling apart and fading away, and no one could help me even when I asked for it. I felt angry, a sort of rage I hadn’t felt since I was a kid, and I mostly turned it against myself for being so “useless” and not getting my work done. I kept taking the pills and suffering as privately as I could for two months. The attacks worsened in frequency.  and around the holidays, I quit being able to eat at all without it coming back up during an attack, often running from the table to throw up.

Finally, I had an attack that lasted four days. I spent most of that time in bed or in a hot shower or with my head in the toilet. The pain and nausea wouldn’t go away, so we dragged me back to the doctor who grudgingly sent me to have an ultrasound. She thought I was malingering. The technician checked me for ectopic pregnancy, then scanned all of my organs for signs of damage. The good news was everything except my gallbladder was fine. The bad news was, I had a gallbladder packed with stones and needed immediate surgery. I was really out of it, and by then I was so terrified of myself and my new inability to make sense of the world around me that I tried to just stay inside myself. I hate being hospitalized, too- needles make me woozy or faint, blood and guts talk does the same, I dislike being touched, I dislike strangers and always react very badly after being put under. The morphine was nice, though.

They let me go after 3-4 days, I really don’t remember my time in the hospital that clearly except the emails from my aunt in Texas. She’d taken me in when I was a teen and was like a mother to me. Her emails helped me hold everything together while I was stuck in the cold, bright, sterile hospital hooked up to machines that put fluids into my body and took them back out again. I must have worn her out, I know I wasn’t in a fit state of mind to communicate with humanity at that time. When I got home, everything was worse. I couldn’t do anything except lie on my back and binge-watch TV shows. Meanwhile, I still had two designs out on pre-sale from the RV collection and they preyed on my mind. I got heaps of messages and questions- rightly so, and it was maddening to be able to do exactly nothing about it even though the work was nearly complete. I swore to myself I’d never, ever ever pre-sale anything ever again.

About five days after the surgery, I woke up one morning completely black. I fought it at first, as I always fight when I wake up that way, because the blackness causes destruction if it takes over, and I know if I weathered it quietly, it would pass. But I was weak. I was tired. Everything hurt. I couldn’t fight and it took over. Everything around me in our little house seemed like a reminder of a personal failure, even our wedding photos covering one wall mocked me. I was really happy on that day, to be marrying my best friend. But I was also really overwhelmed by all the well-meaning strangers in my husbands’ family trying to talk to me, by the expectations everyone places on a wedding and what a bride should act like, and wishing I had my best girlfriend there to help me with it all. By the time we were taking pictures, my face was doing the weird face thing it does and later I was accused of purposefully ruining the photos. The ones on my walls were beautiful candids my sister in law took of us happily playing together on the beach in our wedding clothes, no faces. I liked those photos, to me they seemed a perfect representation of our relationship. But that morning, I couldn’t bear to look at them for one more second.

After my daughter went to school, I ripped them all down and smashed them into bits, trying to smash away the painful memory of how I “ruined” my own wedding by being weird. It wasn’t enough. I howled and sobbed and screamed, but it still wasn’t enough to quench the blackness. It was like fire in my veins, an aching hollowness inside, a poison- remembering every time I’ve done the weird thing or the wrong thing or a stupid thing and every time someone had mocked me for acting weird or using big words, and not understanding why I’m this way. My husband came home sometime in the middle of this and I told him I’d like to die, that I was sick of living this way and I hated my life, but I didn’t know what to do about it. He talked me down (it’s hard to sustain that level of emotion when you haven’t eaten solid food for weeks) and put me to bed. Later, my aunt and uncle in Texas Skyped me and I tried to explain these things, but I was falling asleep from the effort of all that rage. Later, they told me I seemed drunk (I wasn’t on anything). When they suggested I go get some “help,” I could have laughed if I had the energy. I thought-I’ve been seeking help my whole life, and it had not helped this weird problem. There’s no help for someone like me, I thought, I really should just go die somewhere and leave everyone else in peace. I said no, they can’t help me. Then my aunt told me to grow up and I did laugh. As if I knew what that meant, as if I wouldn’t have already done it if I knew what that meant.

Later that night, I was still black, but limp. Spent. I wanted to cease living, I wanted my husband to feel the same level of hopelessness and fear I felt. As if spreading around the negativity makes it easier to handle. (Pro tip: it makes everything worse for everyone.) I started talking about all the ways I could never commit suicide. I listed off method after method that was handy without leaving the house, and then started listing off ways that would be better because they’d look like accidents but were still unsuitable in one way or the other. I told him what to do after I was gone, how to look after our girl. I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t help myself, but I was also calm and quiet and lying in bed when my husband had enough. He went and called the men in white coats to take me away. As if in a dream, I got dressed and threw my wedding rings at him. I stood outside to wait, because I didn’t want to wake our girl. The men in white coats turned out to be EMTs in an ambulance who told me I could come “voluntarily,” or they could physically restrain me. I said I preferred not to go at all and they were wasting their time. For half a minute, I considered simply running. I couldn’t run as fast as those men, but I knew I could easily hide in the neighbourhood I knew like the back of my hand. But one of the EMTs looked like my cousin who had been a brother to me, tall and pale with red hair and brown eyes, the same bony look and soft demeanour. I let him put me into the ambulance. We pulled away and as I quietly refused while passively allowing blood pressure and temperature checks, I thought “I always knew things would end this way.”

Being committed was literally my worst fear come to life. Some children fear the boogeyman or aliens or monsters, but I was always terrified of being committed. I’d heard stories in my childhood about my father’s aunt being locked away for decades, but all I ever really understood about her was that she was “off” and “weird.” Weird like me, perhaps. My father taught me ways of hiding the weirdness when I was a kid, lest I end up locked away as well I suppose. I was always, always the most afraid of that. In the mental wing of the hospital, I found myself locked in a bright, cold waiting room with a man three times my size who was pacing and muttering. Later I found out he was schizophrenic and off his meds, picked up for raving and being violent.

A nurse tried to make me take Valium, which I refused, requesting a panadol and showing them my torso that was still bandaged. It took hours to get it, but they kept trying to push that Valium on me while I sat there quietly seething. One nurse came to try to persuade me and said I was suicidal. I said I was not suicidal, I simply wanted to cease living. The distinction was lost on him. I’ll never forget the way he cradled the Valium in his palm and leaned toward me quietly saying that next time, I should “Take more care. Take more care.” I felt like he was telling me to just kill myself and be done with it, but perhaps he meant not telling anyone around me how I was feeling. Neither sentiment seemed appropriate to me coming out of the mouth of a mental health professional. The night wore on and they gave me a bed to sleep on because of my condition. As the door shut behind me in my little cell, I gave up being reasonable and screamed and cried until I was spent. Then I got up and found a room where some people were watching World War Z with glazed eyes. I sat there too, and saw a very large woman carried past me, bleeding and screaming. She’d tried to cut her wrists on the bathroom fixtures. That’s suicidal, I thought.

I talked to a doctor the next day who agreed with me that I should go home. I was angry, very angry at being placed there. My husband took his time coming to pick me up, and said he’d been talking to my doctor, giving me an account of my doctor’s conversation that didn’t seem to match with what I had just experienced. I knew I was glitching, maybe I’d missed something, and I could barely stand the sight of him, so I let it go without arguing much. Besides, I’d been up all night. I still think it was wrong for my doctor to talk to him that way, I felt very threatened and like everyone around me was actively trying to make me crazy. I guess crazy is easier to understand, easier to write off. He took me home and almost immediately, I left to go stay with a friend. My husband said he’d not known what to do, that my aunt told him to call the mental health professionals if I got suicidal. I guess they don’t understand the difference between wanting to die and wanting to murder oneself, either.

I gathered the shreds of energy I had left to call my aunt and let her have it. I felt like she should see the after effects of the “help” I was supposed to have gotten.  I know she has an aversion to foul language and loud noises, I know they short circuit her system. I got her on Skype and let loose with the loudest account of my night that I could muster, using the most colourful expletives I could summon. I saw her “shorting out” through the screen, and continued to unload on her. Just before she shut the computer, she said I was lying (not so much, everything I said was true).  I wasn’t finished with her, and took to email to tell her precisely what I thought of her conservative world-view that she pushed on me and her church filled with dead-eyed hypocrites. That wasn’t quite fair, really, because I know her faith and my uncle’s faith is true, but I knew it would hurt her at least as much as I was hurting. She’s barely spoken to me since, except in a 20-odd page hand-written letter I only read much later. If I’d read it when she wrote it, I would have gone ahead and just jumped off a cliff. The not-speaking-to-me is a thing she’s always done (and denied doing) with me when she decides I cross a line, the first time it was devastating, the second time it was heart-breaking, the third time gave me pause, but this time felt more like a weight off.  I still miss her, and love her, and kind of wish I hadn’t screamed my message, and I do talk to my uncle.

Eventually I went home, and submitted to yet another round of counselling with a clinician who has helped me make positive changes in the past. I finished the last two Red Velvet designs and put them into the shop with very little zest or fanfare. I felt like my counselor and I were circling a drain, covering the same old ground we’d always covered. I wasn’t about to tell her about the things like glitching, I focused more on my sense of having no identity, of not feeling like I had a place in the world, of that nasty feeling I have when I’m around other people like I’m in a glass cube and can’t quite touch them or be with them. She gave me assignments, which I dutifully did, which had little effect. I started seeing friends again, though I wore out quickly. I tried to work events, though I barely had myself together and could hardly speak straight. I spent a lot more time with my daughter, soaking in her sunshine and trying to figure out how to keep her from becoming like me.  The signs were already there, she’s very much like I was at her age and I hated seeing it. I wanted to conquer The Thing so she wouldn’t have to. We got a cat. We went camping. I started trying to repair my relationship with my husband. I was depressed, in a low-level-functioning, blank kind of way. I got The Tee out, which made me happy for about five minutes until my inbox started to fill with hate mail.

Then one day, while reading Gawker comments (of all things), I read a throwaway line about how someone’s mother might be Aspergers, that it shows up very differently in women than men. I was intrigued and turned to google. I like to collect information about the variety of the human condition, and somehow I’d missed this one. I thought I’d do some interesting, diversionary research. As I settled in to read the first page that came up, something happened. This wasn’t a piece of light google research at all, this page was a mirror. I read there in that list all my everything lined up next to each other, with nothing left out. The weird medical ailments I’d given up mentioning to doctors (that I now know is all Sensory Processing Disorders), my specific failures (dropping out of college, losing friends as soon as they got to know the “real me”) and weak points (I am exceedingly clumsy, and that one problem I’ve always failed at fixing has a name- Executive Function), my strong points (tenacity), my gifts (I think in vivid, visual, synesthetic ways), my secrets (my reading comprehension is so poor that long ago I learned I had to read something 3-6 times before I had a hope of catching the meaning. As a gifted student, I simply learned to read faster and repetitively and shut up about it because grades were one of the few avenues I had to get approval). A few things didn’t fit, and I rejected others out of hand that later I understood were things I do actually do. I cried, and cried, and cried. Then I was done crying.  I was done raging.

I read the list to my husband without a preface, and he thought it sounded like something written about me. He reeled that back when I told him that means I’m autistic. He knows me better than any person on this earth, I’ve shown him more of myself and the things I struggle with than I ever showed any other person, and I trust his judgement over mine because he’s usually right about things. I needed him to help me sort this out. We took a few days to read separately and think, and even took some online Autism quizzes together to compare our scores. The big long 100-odd question quiz that spits out charts shaped like webs made us both laugh as we read out questions and answered aloud “Of course ——,” only to discover the other person put the opposite answer. By the end, without looking at our results, he tentatively agreed with me that autism was worth investigating. I made an appointment to see my counsellor to get a referral for diagnostics. She wouldn’t be back from holidays for a few weeks, so I had to wait.

Sometimes I thought “Yes! This is The Thing! It’s only autism, after all! I can work with this!” and other times I thought “No, you’re insane, you can’t be autistic, what does that mean, who am I, why are you still on this earth?” I read a few blogs by Aspies and felt a powerful connection to the lived experiences expressed there, and I read a book called Aspergirls that resonated with me, but I also didn’t want to queer my diagnostics from over-reading. So I tried to stay away from the blogs and books to work on my growing Tidepool Collection concept.

I was always a fearful, anxious child growing up, prone to panic attacks. My father taught me how to conquer my fears, to grab hold of them and to face them because living in fear of something means we live a life that’s smaller than it should be. That’s how I overcame fear of heights, fear of small spaces, fear of deep water, fear of people, fear of leaving my luggage behind on accident while traveling overseas, aversion to hand dryers- through exposure, grabbing onto the fear and realising my fear was more detrimental to me than the thing I feared. This is how I handled my uncertainty in this case. I sought out a local Aspergers adults group and decided to go to an upcoming meeting on women in autism, with a special guest speaker from Denmark.

The morning of the meeting, I was so nervous I threw up twice. But I was determined to see for myself, to face things, one way or the other. It helped that the meeting was at a big library on one of my usual routes through the city, so I didn’t have to think about how to get there. I dressed nicely for the meeting, as is my habit when meeting new people. I went through my ritual of putting on makeup, checking my hair, and making sure I was well-put-together from shoes to hairpins before leaving the house. I thought “At least I’ll know, and if I don’t fit there, it’s just one more group where I don’t fit in, no big deal.” The library has a large open square in front of it, and it was pretty full of students and families that morning. I walked to the doors and suddenly two young men approached me, letting the girls in front of me pass by. “Are you here for the Aspergers meeting?” one of them asked me. I nodded and they showed me to the meeting room. Later I found out that many people on the spectrum can “pick it” in other people, which is how they spotted me despite my normal-person veneer.

I don’t know what I expected to find in that room, but I was shocked at how familiar it felt. The motions of the bodies, the way one guy paced around at the edge of the room, the guileless friendliness, the butterfly-hopping conversations about engines and physics and conspiracy theories, the gesturing hands felt to me like I walked into a family reunion. The only thing missing was a Roman-candle war. I still can’t think of any other way to describe that moment, I was dumbfounded to walk into a room of strangers and to suddenly feel so at home. I’d never felt at home like that in Australia. This is not my life, this is not the way walking into a room of strangers usually feels. I sat and chatted with a young man, discovering that most of the people in the room can’t drive, either. Then the speaker moved to the front of the room and I was lost in her words. She’s from Denmark, raised by a single mother, and was diagnosed at 16 but other than that, much of what she said struck me to my core and spoke to my own experiences in life. I couldn’t believe it. This doesn’t happen to me, feeling like I belong in the space I’m taking up. I went home that day secure in the knowledge that whatever I was, whatever the diagnosis, I liked these people and got along with them. That felt like a massive win, I’ve been lonely for a long time.

I met a woman that day who has become a treasured friend, a real reciprocal woman-friend who doesn’t seem to bring along the confusing baggage that other women friends often do. She’s not my keeper, or my counselor, or my mother-stand-in, or someone who takes pity on me or is jealous of me or who wants anything from me. She’s just my friend. When I’m down, she knows exactly how to help me up, and I do my best to help her in the same way. I’ve learned more about myself from her and from our friendship than I ever did in any book or doctor’s office. I’m really grateful for her friendship.

After that, I got my referral and then went to the Attwood Clinic to be checked. The meetings showed me what I needed to see, but I also wanted to be formally checked out and know one way or the other what was the source of The Thing. Before the appointment, to quell my anxiety I went through my mental-health-meeting checklist and made sure I was very well groomed, clean, nicely dressed, well-made-up. I knew it wasn’t “Aspie” to dress well, but it is a very ingrained habit and I really could not stop myself doing it. If I’m uncomfortable about a situation, I compensate by being as well-presented and prepared as I can be. My husband came along and was also interviewed, I took a test, I was asked questions, though some of them seemed to come at random and I felt my mind go blank.  I’d grope around mentally for a minute before finding the answer, feeling embarrassed I’d fumbled.  I was there for hours and hours. Later on, riding home, I went back through the whole thing and berated myself for showing my glitches. I always do that- rewind, look for what I did wrong, berate myself so I would get better. Then I stopped and had to wonder if those random questions were meant to make me glitch. Then I stopped berating myself for glitching.

They told me I’m on the autism spectrum, Autism Level 1, and what that means- I am high-functioning autistic.  Though that sounds nice and mild, or maybe fun it isn’t always. It means that when I’m functioning at my best, I can pass for a normal smart person, perhaps a trifle quirky if you look close. It doesn’t really speak to the worst, though, the way I have to carefully avoid bright light or face days of migraines/a meltdown. The way I spent most of my life feeling like some sort of alien dropped onto the wrong planet (Wrong Planet, I later found out, is the name of one of the largest online autistic communities). It doesn’t speak to the days where I’m so “out to sea” that I can’t remember how to get dressed (pants go on the bottom half, shirts go up above) or how to speak to the people around me properly. “High-Functioning” says little about the way I always have social hangovers from interactions with other humans. Even when I enjoy the interaction, I always have to pay for it later. I’ve built it into my life, accepted that as part of the way I am even before diagnosis. The clinician did not recommend me for disability (that wasn’t why I went there, anyway), because I have two very important people in my life who help me make up for my shortcomings- my husband, and Susan Katz, Cake’s Editor. I was told to trust them, to go home and work on my business, to engage with the autistic community, to self-monitor my high and low times in a more intelligent fashion, and to read up.

So that’s what I did, with an enthusiasm about life that I’d not felt for a very very long time. I felt like maybe life was worth trying to live well, instead of a sentence to be endured. I felt so much anger and rage I’d been carrying around leave me. I’d tried so many ways to get rid of that anger, I knew it seeped into the rest of my life and poisoned everything, but I could never quite root it up, only cover it over. Then it was gone, replaced with a better understanding of who I am and what I have to offer and how that fits with the rest of society. We moved to the countryside, and that also had a dramatic positive effect on my health. It’s silent here, I look out over seas of treetops and hear the birds. In our old house, I remember sometimes sitting on the floor rocking and crying and not knowing why I was falling apart as the sounds of a busy city invaded my house- traffic, sirens, children screaming, neighbors looking after their lawns. Here, I can think. I can focus. My baseline anxiety levels have dropped to almost nothing.

With Susan’s input and support, I re-arranged the way we work on Cake to help me work with my strengths rather than against my weaknesses. We settled into something of a regular work-day, hammering out the new designs. I built home/family/personal care routines for morning and evening, slowly taking on more responsibilities and fitting them into the day. I found out that the Loss of Reason that had so terrified me is something called Autistic Burnout, which means an autistic person is so stressed and overloaded, they begin to lose functionality that they’ve built up. It’s like an overloaded electrical grid that has brownouts, or even blackouts. I still don’t feel like I am at the place I was before I started getting sick, in terms of functionality. Over the past year, sometimes we had to halt the work for a few days or weeks at a time so I could rest. I would never have permitted this before, but now I know that’s what I have to do and I submit. It’s taken my body and guts longer than expected to recover, as well, and I’m still working on building my physical strength and stamina to something like a 30 year old woman instead of a frail old lady.

But most importantly, I find myself in a place where I’m engaged with life. I’m taking care of my family well, taking care of myself, growing as a human being, and work doesn’t occupy the same misplaced priority that it did. I’m much more relaxed with other people, and feel more secure in myself. I think I made friends with my in-laws (that’s a big deal).  I don’t want to die any more. It’s taken a lot of work, a lot of honesty, and a lot of courage, but my relationship with my husband is as close and loving as it was when we got married. Perhaps even more so. I don’t let work dominate my evenings and weekends anymore, so I have a lot more time to spend cooking delicious food and hanging out with my little daughter. I’m not so terrified of ruining her now. If she has my proclivities, my mental architecture, no amount of self-flagellation will change that because it’s already in her blood- she just needs my love and care, maybe some of my coping mechanisms, but not my baggage.

But one thing still haunts me from that time when I was sick with “reflux.” If you’re reading this, it’s likely you read my public meltdown on a big blog, just before I disappeared from the internet. I’m not going to link to it, because the whole thing makes me feel disgusted. When I started this blog, I very deliberately created a persona of myself to use for writing, blogging, and socializing. It grew into my real-life work persona, too. I did this because long experience has taught me that most people prefer me best when I play a character of myself, than if I am actually myself. The common advice of “Just be yourself and everything will be fine, treat others as you’d like to be treated” does not apply to people like me, it seems more like a very cruel joke. StephC is an amalgamation of several characters I play, mixed and melted together so that anyone who already knew me and read my blog would still recognise “me.” I didn’t do this to be dishonest, I did this because this is the way I know to best get along in the world, to best connect with other people. (Incidentally, this is a very common Aspie woman coping mechanism called “masking.”) I worked very hard on my StephC persona, to keep my worst traits out of her while still being true to who I am as a person. I strove to be sincerely kind and helpful, while being truthful, to approach the sewing and blogging with transparency, showing my processes and inviting you into my mind. It was really useful, approaching the writing through StephC’s eyes and always looking for positive or useful techniques and ideas to post. I always feared in the back of my mind that one day I would Mess Up Bad, just like always happens. I had some little slip-ups, mostly because I tend to mirror people and that means if a person is a Jerk, they get Jerk handed right back to them, usually even if I try my hardest not to do it. Those didn’t worry me too much. I did pretty well (for me) for years.

Then some blogger wrote a week of posts about what garbage my work is, despite the fact she got a pretty decent dress out of my pattern. Big deal. Most of the time, I’d laugh that off and move on, considering her attractive dress the best kind of revenge. I couldn’t let it go, though. It galled me. Now, I put this down to my fading Reason, and being overworked. For about a month, it ate away at me. Then one afternoon, when I’d been up for several days and also had a cold on top of the attacks, I lost my restraint. That wasn’t the right thing to do, I know that. I should have left it alone, but I didn’t. I said a lot of things I’d been holding onto for a long time, a lot of resentment, and frankly quite a lot of things that had very little to do with the situation in front of me. I’m going to be very careful here, because I’m not sorry for having those thoughts and feelings. I’m sorry I let them go in such an inappropriate, unproductive, and public fashion. You shouldn’t have to see that. Not even Blogger McCuteDress deserves to have to see that.

In the weeks and, yes, months that followed, I endured a prolonged deluge of truly nasty hate-mail in my inbox, to the point where hearing my inbox alert tone set my pulse racing. I was called names, accused of sexism, racism, ageism, pretty much everything except eating babies. When I checked my website stats, I saw that my meltdown caused unprecedented traffic on my sites. Truly. Nothing, not a single good or useful or interesting thing I’d ever done had driven as much traffic as me losing my temper for an hour. This disgusted me, all of it disgusted me for a long time. I’ve been in the online sewing community enough to know how much pride is taken in what a kind and supportive community we are, and I took those numbers as a sign of exactly the opposite. I was disgusted and disillusioned. That was hate-traffic. That and the mean spirited emails that hounded me while I was already wishing to be dead gave the lie to the myth of utopia, to me. Every time I would start to write a blog post, I’d think about that and go find something better to do with my time. Why should I bother, when it’s such an effort anyway? If I wanted to be read, I’d been shown very clearly the best way to get that attention. It wasn’t through hard work or consistency, it was to be a big bratty bitch. I don’t want to be that way, though, I’m not that person except in times of extreme stress. So I left it.

I struggled with this for a long time, because I am nothing if not a sincere person. I would not dishonour you by issuing some kind of fill-in-the-blanks bullsh*t apology, as was suggested to me by several people. I also felt like my thoughts on the subject wouldn’t be heard. So I shut up and kept working. It’s only recently, in going over and over the topic that I started to understand something. In the aftermath, I felt resentful that all my hard work and helping people had been disregarded like it was nothing. An outburst like that was very out of character for me and a serious symptom of my life going completely off the rails, yet no one seemed to wonder if I was in trouble. I guess it was more fun to kick me while I was down. It seemed to be assumed by many that this enraged being was “really Steph” and somehow I’d just faked everything else for years and years. I suppose that’s partially true, but it was especially poisonous because I’d actually learned the opposite through being StephC, I’d learned to look harder for positive reactions and logical answers, to be more patient and thoughtful. I’d fed my good traits steadily through blogging and it made me a better person, made it easier to live with The Thing, because finally I found a way to connect with others- through the cloth.

And somehow, somewhere, while thinking about this, I started to turn those thoughts inside out. I thought that perhaps the way I felt let down by the community falling short of its ideals might be how I made you feel that day about me, about my work, about what I do. I let you down when I lost it, I hurt you, possibly disgusted you. I’m genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, very sorry about that. I’m sorry I hurt you, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, I’m sorry if I disgusted you. I know this happened a while ago, but it’s been on my mind to write this ever since I had that epiphany. I needed time to find words to express these things and I also didn’t want to come out with this randomly with my hands empty and nothing to show for myself. I also realized that in the same way I felt rejected despite the hard work I’d done, I was rejecting the sewing community on the whole for the actions of a few dozen frustrated individuals. That’s not fair, not at all, and I’m sorry I carried that resentment for such a long time. You don’t deserve it.

To everyone who sent me kind wishes for good health, and lovely notes in the past year, I want to say thank you.   Your kindness meant more to me at that time than I know how to express, and was and is very much appreciated.

My 2014: Movement and Shaking It Up

Hey!  It’s been almost a year since my last post, and even longer since I lost the habit of regular updates here.  It’s been too long!

I cut my hair, lost weight, and lately I like a pink or berry lip...

I cut my hair, lost weight, and lately I like a pink or berry lip…

I had to step away, blogging became too hard to maintain as I struggled with a physical illness and mental exhaustion.  After surgery, I found it difficult to get up and get better. I opted to take my time to let life settle before poking my head back out into the world of blogging and social media. Thanks so much for your words of support during that difficult time, your notes meant more to me than I can express.  My family and I faced a lot of changes this year, most of them very good!

The biggest change we made was a move from Brisbane to a quiet house in the country, in northern New South Wales.  We were offered a chance to rent/caretake this lovely property and jumped at the opportunity.  It’s been a fantastic move for all of us, we really needed a change.

My husband is working on landcare projects, planting gardens and writing papers.

I have a big, quiet sewing room all to myself, and my daughter loves that we’re just down the road from her beloved Nan and Grandpa.

The furriest change we made this year was adopting our first pet!  This is Arya, found at the RSPCA on Lila’s birthday.  Lila loved her at first sight. Arya turned out to be one of the sweetest kitties I’ve ever known! She creeps into the edges of my sewing pictures and videos, and I’m sure will be a regular around here.

3 Hours Past

Every day now, I wake up and look out over the trees outside my window and think to myself- Stephanie, now you really are 3 hours past the edge of the world!  Get back to blogging!  I did start an Instagram account, and it’s been a really fun way to keep in touch and share a little. I keep wanting to blog the way I used to before Cake Patterns took over my life- random thoughts, experiments, little projects, meditations in a quilt, design inspiration and art/fashion history.  But I wasn’t sure- can I do that?

Last week, I took Cake on the road and worked the Brisbane Quilt & Craft Show with Kylie from Voodoo Rabbit fabrics.  Every day, I talked to people about the sewing and taught hemming, v-neck binding, and buttonholes.  I caught up with friends in the bizz and old students, ooh’d and aaah’d over the Cake clothes proudly worn to the show.  I forgot how amazing it is to interact that way, the pure magic of putting a nifty technique into someone’s head and fingertips!  I missed that.  I missed you.

It’s time to blog again. I want to hear how you are, what you’re thinking about, and open up my creative universe like I used to.  You are all so inspiring and thought-provoking; your input always encourages me to dig deeper, try harder, and to see things from another perspective. If you’ve been reading for a while, you may find that 2014 changed me, but I hope you find it’s for the better.  I’m better.

This is my most recent project!  I brought this fabric home with me from the Show, I had to have it in my life.  I didn’t do anything special- folded the fabric in half with an invisible zip in one side, stitched the rest of it closed, and made tiny gusseted corners so it sits square.  Not too shabby for half an hours’ effort, I reckon.

Well, how are you?! What big things (or small ones) happened in your 2014? What was the last thing you stitched?

Not Buying It: Styles for Body Shapes

If you’re like me, you’ve read “style for body shape” articles in style books and ladies’ publications to help you figure out how to dress in a pleasing fashion.   They’re…nice, but I don’t buy it and haven’t for as long as I’ve been sewing clothes for myself.  Limiting style choices by body shapes is irrelevant for anyone who can sew.

My skepticism is based on three things: observation, the nature of RTW/Sewing, and the fact that “flattering/pretty/pleasing” is in the eye of the beholder.

I’m drawing on my experience with the “hourglass” shape and the common wisdom associated with it because it’s simplest for me.  I’ve read plenty of contradictory, confusing, or silly advice for other body shapes, too.


I have the dimensions of a so-called “hourglass” figure type.  I first started to doubt the common wisdom for dressing my own shape after reading things like “You have the best/easiest figure to dress!” “An hourglass figure looks great in everything!” and “Wear a Wide Belt”.

I should be able to mother my daughter in public without risking exposure.

I should be able to mother my daughter in public without risking exposure.  Red Stripe Tiramisu.

Let me tell you, it is not easy to dress an hourglass figure well.  It’s a delicate balancing act between “sexy” and “frumpy.”  In my book, “dressing well” means I dress in a way that prevents me from accidental indecent exposure but is also feminine and comfortable.  I have my own sense of style I express through colors and textures and cuts, which is a personal preference.

Picture 16

When almost every article I read patted me on my curvy backside and assured me I’d look great in anything despite my own experience struggling to dress myself, I smelled a rat.  (Also, the last half of the second paragraph above directly contradicts the “no ruffles or bows or bulk on your bust” rule found elsewhere. )

The Nature of Shopping vs. Sewing

Picture 13

This is pretty typical style advice for an hourglass shape, and I remember struggling to find button down shirts and blouses to fit me properly when I only wore RTW (Ready to Wear) clothing.  Everything gaped open over the bust from the time I was 13 or so.  Sometimes a well-placed safety pin came to the rescue, but over time I learned to simply avoid these styles.

click for great article on history of bras...

click for great article on history of bras…

And a minimizer bra?  Of course!  Why didn’t I just bind down my breasts so I could slip into a button-down shirt?  It makes so much sense to alter my body shape so it’s more suited to the garment.  I’m shocked it never occurred to me.

What is this, 1923?

I get it though, I do.  In the interests of mass-producing thousands of shirts at one time, the multitude of shirts are cut from standardized patterns.   The patterns are usually based on skewed sizing data compiled in the late 1940’s.   Most RTW brands still tend to draft for a B cup size, too, regardless of the overall size of the garment.

this is from two years ago, my first self-drafted button down top

this is from two years ago, my first self-drafted button down top

When I understood that, it made sense to me that I didn’t fit in those off the rack shirts.  Then one day when I was sharpening my sewing skills, I discovered the Full Bust Alteration for bodices and shirts.  I could wear button down shirts again!

This is just one simple example, based on my own experience but I suspect other sewists out there have had similar “Ah-ha” moments while sewing.  What’s yours?

“Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.”

Pink Tulle and Linen Jersey Pavlova

Don’t get me wrong, I like to dress prettily.  I regularly slosh on my makeup and twirl around to take photos for your amusement.  But “pretty” can be a cage, a small place to lock yourself inside every day.  “Pretty” is also harmful when it’s the sole measuring stick used to judge another human being.   Erin, the wise and witty writer of Dress A Day has a huge impact on the way I think about the way I dress, including this piece titled You Don’t Have to Be Pretty:

But what does you-don’t-have-to-be-pretty mean in practical, everyday terms? It means that you don’t have to apologize for wearing things that are held to be “unflattering” or “unfashionable” — especially if, in fact, they make you happy on some level deeper than just being pretty does. So what if your favorite color isn’t a “good” color on you? So what if you are “too fat” (by some arbitrary measure) for a sleeveless top? If you are clean, are covered enough to avoid a citation for public indecency, and have bandaged any open wounds, you can wear any color or style you please, if it makes you happy.

Agreed.  I think a great deal of the often arbitrary and contradictory style advice we’re given comes down to the subjective perception of what’s “flattering” or pretty, and what isn’t.

Picture 14

To return to my hourglass example: I’m not supposed to wear “boxy” tops.  This one says jackets, but it’s a common thread.   I’ve broken every rule on this list, anyway.

OH no!  I don't have a waist!  Gasp!  No darts! And my triceps are less than toned! It's ok.

OH no! I don’t have a waist! Gasp! No darts! And my triceps are less than toned! It’s ok.

But boxy tops are comfortable, practical, they’re simple to make, a great way to show off pretty fabric and I like them.  Sure, maybe some people who see me think I’m fat, but who are they?  Why do I care if someone thinks I’m heavier than I am?  Why does that matter?  People will think what they think and they’re entitled to their opinion.  But why would it matter to me?  Fat or thin or indifferent, I am a woman with my own personality, thoughts, achievements and flaws.  My waistline is hardly my defining characteristic, and I’m secure in that knowledge. (Let me tell you, it took me years to find that security.)


And by the way, I know I look rad in turtlenecks.

I Don’t Buy The “Styles” for Body Shapes Wisdom

I believe in good fit, nice fabric, pretty colors and solid stitching.

Exhibit 1: The Tiramisu Dress

Picture 19

I’m not supposed to wear this dress, I always knew to avoid surplice fronts and underbust seams when shopping because the surplice would gape and the underbust seam would barely cover half my boob.  The Tiramisu Dress suits a variety of figure types, just check out my Pinboard of Tiramisu Dresses from blogs and the internets to see for yourself.

Exhibit 2: The Pavlova Wrap Top

Finished Pavlova Wrap Tops are cropping up on the Pavlova Community Gallery page and in the Flickr stream as Sewalong-ers finish up their entries for our friendly House Prize Race.  They’re cute!  On curvy bodies, on willowy frames, and on body shapes in between.  The common thread here is good sewing and good fit.  (By the way, entries close by midnight on the 26th, so do hurry to upload before the deadline!)

It Doesn’t Really Apply to Us

I’m not saying that the “rules” for body types and styles is completely irrelevant.  I just think we sewing people should take them with a hefty pinch of salt, because this advice doesn’t really apply to us.   These style guides are produced by ladies’ magazines and various publications in relation to “off the rack” clothing.  Those clothes are mostly created with little or no allowances made for the simple fact that two women can have the same exact measurements but entirely different body topography.

If we can sew, then we can sew the clothes we like to suit our bodies.

What do you think?

Have you found yourself less than impressed with this type of style advice?  What advice would you give a fellow stitcher in pursuit of personal style?  What are your standards of being well-dressed?

(no post tomorrow, I need to tally up the Sewalong house winners and get ready for the Hummingbird Presale!)

2012 in review- 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

It’s that time of year – the end of one year and the beginning of another.  All over media from social to international news channels, people are pausing and weighing up the year while looking forward to the next.

I always liked that about New Years.

Problem Solving | Cake Patterns

I’ve been taking stock like anyone else.  2012 was a year of learning for me- of hard work and late nights and teeth-gnashing frustration while I figured out what to do with the skills I have- I started out 2012 as a drafter, a sewist, a blogger and a teacher.  I lacked skills as a model, photographer, digitizer, and project manager but I’m much more confident in these areas as 2013 begins.

It took me a while to decide to make a paper pattern company- that was in May, if you can believe it.  Now we all have Cake.  I know how the process works now (more or less), which means I’m not learning new things every single day, which means we can play together more in 2013 than we ever did in 2012!

I’d say I had quite a few mis-steps along the way, mistakes, and complete failures.  The trick to failure is to find a way to learn or to grow from it, to pick up and move on.  I feel like I learned that over and over in 2012!

Picture 42WordPress summed my year in blogging for me better than I could myself.  They sent me a cool infograph of blogging statistics, so I thought I’d share with you a bit.  3 Hours Past has had nearly half a million views since I moved here from blogspot last year (in Oct 2011).  My poor brain can’t process numbers that big- I really can’t grasp it but it’s certainly exciting!  Thank you so much for sticking with me while I wandered around the blogging wilderness, trying to figure out what to do with myself.

Picture 43These were the most popular posts at 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World in 2012.  I don’t particularly understand why my old post on gaucho pants should still be so well-read, but the internet is a mysterious place sometimes.  In case you missed them, the other top 5 posts were:

Picture 44

These sites were my top 5 referrers for 2012.  Many thanks to AnneW at Craft Gossip, the lovely ladies at Sew Weekly, to Casey and to Mushy!  And most of all, thank you everyone who cares enough about what I’m doing to put me in your reader, and to all of you who read these words I write and encourage the sewing.  I could never, ever, ever have done what I have without you.

Picture 47

Since I mentioned Sew Weekly, I wanted to say that while I dropped out of the Weekly challenges mid-year (Cake is a demanding mistress) I learned *so* much from completing the challenges and working on Sew Weekly as a group blog that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.  That’s not to mention all the lovely sewing people I met.  Part of me feels terrible for quitting, but a bigger part of me knows I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to make Cake happen.  Congratulations to everyone who completed the 52 week challenge, and to everyone who posted even once.  It’s hard work, you’ve got to hustle, well done!

Personal Fave of 2012

Picture 46

I think of all the Finished Object and Hack posts I made this year, my favorite top and photos came from the Lacewing Top.  We took these shots at the Brisbane Botanical Gardens on a lovely family afternoon out, and that’s what I think of when I see these photos.

Picture 48

These are two favorite garments I can’t wear ever again, as they were lost in the great Whites to Pink Disaster last May.   Why do I keep returning to that little incident?

The Backstory on the Pinks, and Why I’m ok with it now

May 2012 was an extremely hard month for me.  I had been working on a wardrobing book proposal with a big craft and sewing publishing company.  I had patterns, samples, and much of the copy already written before I started querying publishers.

The first publisher I approached loved my concepts and kept drawing out more of my ideas and saying lovely encouraging things about our future together- though they weren’t quite on board with my pattern ideas. They were going through a transition phase as I was working with them- we got all the way to the final round of negotiations and they dropped my proposal.  I was devastated, but didn’t want to talk about it here.  Now I’m over it.

Then I spilled some liquid on my lovely laptop and nearly lost several years’ worth of notes and images.  Luckily, my Father-in-Law was looking for someone to take his old laptop off his hands so he could upgrade in good conscience- and Stephen helped me recover all of my files.

I also had some rather upsetting family drama news from America in May.

Then, right around the same time, I lost that load of whites.  I believe that’s why I was so beside myself about it- on top of everything else, I’d lost a sizeable chunk of my wardrobe.

I also couldn’t find a regular teaching space in Brisbane, I couldn’t make pdf patterns work the way I wanted them to- I felt blocked every time I turned around, except when I posted here to chat with you all about sewing.

And then there was Cake

Cake is for you- all of my applied knowledge and observations from twenty years of sewing and taking copious notes, wrapped up in a pretty pretty envelope and just waiting for you to pick her up and play.

Tiramisu Step 12

I drafted Tiramisu in June, right after that series of unfortunate events- I needed to.  The design wouldn’t leave my head and even when computers and families and washing machines conspired against me, I knew I could withdraw into my little world of lines and dots on paper and everything would work out.  I draft and “grade” entirely by hand, I enjoy the physicality of it and don’t see myself learning to digitally draft any time soon.

Once I finished the drafts I knew I had something worth producing well- as a real paper pattern.  Through those months of working out production issues and building Cake Patterns, every time I wanted to quit I came back to two things:

  • You guys are the best
  • The drafting/concept work is good

Through every rejection from the industry, every digitizer who acted like I was crazy, through printing woes and logistics issues, I kept going back to those two things.

I’m so so pleased you all like the way I’ve made Cake- from the sizing based on measurements to the way we set up the instructions, it felt like a gamble.  My instincts told me you’d like it, but you never know for sure until the work is “out there.”

Picture 49I’m also incredibly pleased with all the great reviews of Tiramisu that are out so far, and the variety of your Tiramisus to reflect your individual style and climate needs- wow.  It’s such fun to watch this gallery grow.  If you’d like me to add your Tiramisu review or photo or blog post, let me know and I’m on it.  You’ve been so kind in your praise of the pattern, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together.

Perfectly Quick Knit Waistband Feature

In 2013 I look forward to doing my very best work for you through Cake and  Now that I mostly understand printing and logistics, I feel like we can finally get some sewing done!

Tomorrow: Outline of 2013- Petit Four, Cake Rolls, Cake Riffs, Lamington (pants, oh yes, pants!) and Hummingbird project teasers.  Also a class preview (because I have a teaching home!) and some other tidbits…. It’s basically an introduction to the projects I’ve had simmering here quietly and a Table of Contents…  Mom was asking me on Skype the other day what exactly I’m doing over the next few months, I thought I’d respond to her in blog post form…

Picture 25

And then: A few cool posts leading up to Tiramisu including the “4th Dimension of Tiramisu” and the Full Bust Alteration and how to apply it!  Then we’ll dive into the 30 Minutes a Day Sewalong and make up an army of Tiramisus.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Thank you again, over and over, for your support in 2012 as I got my feet under me.  From my viewpoint, 2013 looks like an exciting year.   I hope you have a happy and productive 2013!  Upward and onward!

The Visual Diet Study and Pinterest and Me

Before I dive into the Visual Diet study, I just want to say thanks again (and again and again and again!) for your support and patience while I handle Cake’s last big hurdle– shipping logistics.  I can scarcely believe the difficulties that cropped up in the past week, but I’m working through them as efficiently as possible.

I haven’t been blogging because I have been digging deep personally to handle these logistics problems- constant email streams, compiling files, creating new shipping labels for Snow White the Distributor, staying up late and getting up early so I can talk to the United States on the phone- all while attempting to maintain a healthy work-life balance.  The laundry still needs folding.  That is not a metaphor, it is all over the kitchen bench.

The lesson here is that no amount of research can protect a project from “issues.”  For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, your pre-order patterns will arrive at your house next week!  Woohoo!  For the rest of us, well, the patterns should arrive next week, too!  Each pre-sale order will receive a shipping notice once your pattern leaves our (mine or Snow White’s) possession.  Once all pre-orders ship, I will make the digital download and paper version of Tiramisu available for purchase.  Whew!  Nearly there!

Don’t you love it when a study comes out that quantifies and verifies an idea you already believed?  I certainly do.  On November 7th, Plos One (an open-access journal) published the findings of a team of British and Dutch evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists titled “Visual Diet versus Associative Learning as Mechanisms of Change in Body Size Preferences.”  Basically, they discovered that exposure to various images of bodies influences the brain’s perception of a body’s attractiveness.  It’s not a long paper, very interesting, please take a look if you’re interested in media and body image.

The researchers used images divided into two groups: Aspirational and Non-Aspirational.  Aspirational images included women from a range of body sizes from underweight to plus sized, but all well-dressed and well-presented.   Non-aspirational images were women in gray leotards without heads, of a similar range of body sizes and shapes.  They exposed groups of women to various collections of images and recorded the results.

Then they discovered something interesting:

click for article

I am not surprised.  The images we ingest through our eyes affect our mind as much as food ingested affects the body.   I was raised in a very Christian household.  A strong emphasis was placed on guarding our eyes (and also our ears) against things that weren’t positive or useful in some way:

I’m not trying to be preachy, and I apologize if it comes across this way.  These verses and several others were etched on my soul early in life, there’s no removing them.  They surface in my mind every time I look at a screen or a magazine (though it’s been a while since I looked at one of those).  Besides, I don’t want them removed, even if I haven’t always followed the excellent advice they express.

I don’t know about you, but I count anything that makes women (or men) feel like sh*t in order to sell them a product they probably could live without to be an evil thing- vile, worthless, dare I say wicked?  Is that word too old-fashioned?  I have less than zero sense of humor about it- it’s a predatory practice.  It makes me mad.  I wrote about this in kinder terms some time ago- advertising as mental pollution.

So what do we do about it?  Well, friends, we make our own media.  We take our own photos, with tripods and remotes or loved ones pressed into service.  We define our own boundaries by exhibiting the rare beauty of strong and smart and nimble-fingered women and men who slowly stitch fashions in quiet, private moments.  We celebrate their achievements.  We share our experiences with others, and support those who share a piece of themselves with us.  The online sewing community has been doing this gently for years, and I have very much enjoyed contributing.

And then came Pinterest.  Y’all know I find Pinterest infinitely useful, but it’s also very interesting to peruse as an observer.  When I find a new Pinterest friend, I take a quick look at their boards.  At some point, I realized that checking out someone’s pinterest collection was somewhat akin to looking around the inside of their brain.  The images represent a thought or idea the curator wanted to save.  Pinterest feeds are much the same- it’s a visual snapshot of what a group of people decided was worth saving and remembering at a given point in time.  I find the “popular” button particularly interesting.

I have a few “visual diet” pinboards.  One is labelled “Females.”  It’s too easy to get wrapped up in my own little world and begin to believe that I’m ordinary and most women are more or less like me.  That’s not true, not even a little bit.  Statistically speaking, brown-haired white women (me) are not the majority of women who tread this planet.   There are as many ways to be female as there are women on the face of the earth, who am I to walk around believing I’m “typical”?  As a mindfulness exercise, I keep an eye out for images to add to my Females board that wordlessly express to me qualities that are essentially female.  It’s a work in progress.

Another work in progress is my “beauty” board.  Too often, I think the word “beauty” conjures images in our minds that are very much influenced by the entrenched status quo.  That is, I noticed at some point that my Pinterest feed and my boards were dominated by pretty pictures of young, slim white ladies with impeccable hair and makeup.  There is nothing wrong with being any of those things, but it’s a very narrow representation of beauty.  Is this 1955?  No?  I thought not.  Are well-groomed, slim white women the only beautiful people in the world?

No, ma’am.  I don’t have to accept that standard, and neither does anyone else.  We have the power to change our perspectives.

These are just the thoughts in my head- my opinion.   What’s yours?

Remember, Remember the 5th of November!

Remember, remember, the 5th of November

Hummingbirds, beaches and shoes-

Birthday time teaches that hummingbirds, beaches

And T-Straps delight and amuse…

Y’all, I just had the best birthday.  Birthdays are hard for me, usually I feel embarrassed to mention it or try to ignore them.  But this year, this year I feel like my feet are underneath me and connected to the earth.  Or the sea.  Connected to something.

I was so busy with Cake Patterns, life and election-watching, I was happily oblivious to the fact that the 5th was rapidly approaching until last week when Stephen asked me if I’d like to go to Byron Bay for my birthday.  Yes!  Then he went away camping for the weekend, and I decided to get my bake on.

My buddy Enid came over with her little boy for a sleepover on Saturday.  When I hit up the grocery store for Hummingbird Cake ingredients, I saw these tiny quiche pans on sale.

“Mini-cakes!!!  Enid!  Mini-Cakes! Let’s make mini-cakes!”  Full-size layer cakes kind of intimidate me.  They’re so big!  They don’t fit in the fridge!  And once you cut into a cake, it loses some of its charm…  I’ve been looking around for smallish cake pans for ages and these dropped into my kitchen at just the right time.

click for source

A little while ago, I discovered a metric recipe for Hummingbird Cake.  Have you ever had Hummingbird Cake?  The cake is like a light, sweet banana bread with walnuts (some prefer pecans) and pineapple that bakes into the cake.  Slathered with cream cheese frosting, and I like the raspberries on this version.  Once upon a time, in the southern United States, a young 4-Her named Stephanie won blue ribbons for her Hummingbird Cakes.

When I moved to Australia, I found I could not longer bake them- to my profound disappointment.  I’ve very recently discovered that American flour is different from flour here.  Something about the gluten content- which explains my early failures.  It’s safer to stick to metric recipes, they always work for our flour.

I followed the recipe to the letter, filled my mini-quiche pans nearly to the top and baked them for about 15 minutes, keeping a careful eye out lest they burn.

Did I mention some of the clearance-quiche-pans were heart shaped?  They totally were.  I let the little cakes rest in the pan for about a minute before turning them out on a wire rack.  All told, we ended up with about 12 mini-layers.

Lila helped us by frosting two heart-shaped layers and decorating the cake herself.

Enid and I lazed around Saturday night watching Downton Abbey, trimming cake layers and smothering them in frosting, fruit, nuts and cinnamon.  Yum!  These were the cakes that survived Saturday night and also Sunday morning brunch.

I can not adequately describe how satisfying it is to dig into a miniature Hummingbird Cake for brunch.  “It has fruit!  Vitamins!  Fiber!,” Enid and I smugly told each other.

Then on Monday I packed up our remaining little cakes along with our beach gear and Stephen, Lila and I headed down to the northern New South Wales coast.  Warning for Carol- gratuitous Byron Bay pictures!

The brilliant summer sunshine Down Under overpowers my senses.  It’s like drinking a pint of whiskey when you’re used to beer.  My first two summers here, I thought I was finally and completely losing my mind.  Eventually, I talked to enough immigrants from the Northern Hemisphere with similar symptoms (supercharged anxiety, insomnia, skin pustules, physical fatigue, mania, dizziness, nausea), I realized it had to be something in the environment.

I’m not a doctor, but I can tell you that limiting my sun exposure and keeping the house semi-dark in the summer has helped me keep my head together during the past three bright seasons (not to mention the skin pustules- all gone!).  This year, we’re adding family trips to the beach to my toolbox of coping mechanisms.  In the late afternoon or the early morning, I love nothing more than to run around on the sand with my little girl or to throw myself headfirst into the rushing, relentless waves.  I leave refreshed, renewed.

So we headed down the coast for a long late afternoon playing at Byron Bay.  Dolphins leap from the waters of the Bay, the humpback whale migration passes twice a year, and there’s some wonderful snorkeling off the rocks at the mouth of the bay. That’s not to mention the quietly cosmopolitan atmosphere of the small town full of hippies, yippies, backpackers and occasional international celebrities hiding out from the world.  I love Byron.  I could live there.  It’s a magical place.

Case in point- a beautifully detailed pyramid sand sculpture on the beach, unattended by the unknown artist (also in the banner).   This is pretty common in Byron, and people tend to pause and admire these sculptures rather than destroy them.

Stephen and Lila were inspired to bring this enormous sand dragon to life while I went for a long swim.  Raaaar!

At dusk, we headed to my in-law’s little piece of paradise- an organic citrus farm in the coastal hinterland.  My MIL made a delicious vegetarian meal (Thanks, Jan!) and we turned out all the lights in the house so I could blow out the candles on one more of my tiny cakes.  She even took care of Lila’s night-time routine so Stephen and I could sneak off for a starlit stroll on the nearby local’s beach where we were married.  With no light pollution, we laid on our backs and stared up into the vast twinkling universe.

Then early this morning we got up for one more frolic in the Pacific.

When the sunshine got too strong for me, we headed to our favorite falafel stand.  We visit every time we’re in Byron, damn they make good falafel. (11 Bay Lane, about a block from the beach)

Could it be a more pleasant few days?  Yes, yes it could- the stars aligned and Lauren started the pre-sale for her 23Skidoo T-strap shoes just in time for me to spend the birthday money sent from home.  Bliss!  Lauren is running a giveaway for the 23Skidoo Shoes, so if you’re dying for a pair but it’s not your birthday, why not give it a try?

Sharing lemonade over lunch

Over the past few days, through successful cake-baking and spending quality time with people I care about (and, uhm, SHOES!), I realized how grateful I am for the life I have.  For the small things, and the loving people and beautiful places.  It hasn’t always been this way for me, but these days my cup runneth over.

Do you like Hummingbird Cake?  I think it’s a southern America regional thing, but Brits like it too?  Pecans or walnuts?  What are the small things in your life you’re grateful for?  And ooooooooh how great are those shoes?  (I think mine will be red and white.  Probably.  We’ll see!)

Upcoming sewing-related posts: assembling the Lonestar Burst quilt top, my notes on abusing fusible webbing strips, and the felted-sweater-turned-tote-bag experiment.

Frosting Fortnight, Clearing My Wardrobe, and the Pitfalls of Comparison

Click for source!

It’s the 15th of October, time to get myself ready for Frosting Fortnight!  Mari from Disparate Disciplines and I (and a crack team of guest bloggers!) are working together to tease out the meaning of “fun/crazy” and also “useful/basic” clothes through a series of wardrobing posts from the 18th of October until Halloween!   To encouage the wearing and sharing of our less-than-strictly-practical wardrobes, we’re posting daily outfit posts to the Frosting Fortnight flickr group!

Several others have joined, and all are welcome!  Head over the the flickr group page to make a pledge to join up!  I think Halloween will be the most fun- do think about chiming in for the ultimate Frosting Holiday if you don’t wish to join the Fortnight.  Fingers crossed that Snow White makes an appearance.

My own pledge is rather personal:

I, StephC of 3 Hours Past, pledge to pull every single bit of crazy and frippery and frosting from every nook and hidden guilt-cranny in my house and expose them to the light of day as I wear them during FF! I’ll find homes for my sewn orphans- either on my back, in my re-fashion stash, or in the rag-bag!

I’m “using” Frosting Fortnight as a time to challenge myself to tighten up my closet’s contents and share what I learn about wardrobing.  It’s personal, but I think it might be useful to others who might struggle with some of the same issues I do.   At any rate it’s impossible to talk about the contents of one’s wardrobe without getting personal so brace yourself. No undies in this post, but maybe a little dirty laundry…

True to my pledge, I dug around my house and found 4 years of style, engineering and design experiments in various stages of being “finished.”  I pulled them from every hidden guilt-cranny and dark space I know I’ve stuffed clothes.  I knew this mountain existed before I pulled it all out, to be honest dealing with this mass of textiles has been rather low on my priority list.

Some weeks ago, a work associate challenged me about the authenticity of my devotion to sustainability and the environment.  At first, I couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth- so I kept my own mouth shut and let her speak.  Eventually she got to the point of her concern and said something like- “How can you justify making so many clothes all the time?  Doesn’t it conflict with your sustainability ethics?”

Like I said, she’s a work associate and a generally likeable person.  I assume she didn’t mean to sound so judgmental.  I suppose I should have reacted indignantly to defend my “green” credentials or something, but I just nodded and smiled and said we all have to do what work best for us in our own sewing rooms before changing the subject.  I like her and had no interest in quarreling or playing one-up-manship with our sewing processes.

The fact of the matter is, comparing our sewing and greenie cred would be an utter waste of time.  Her comment showed a complete lack of understanding about the process involved when creating a sewing pattern that others will love to sew and wear.*  That’s fine! I do my thing, she does hers.  She sews herself a few basics and cute dresses from already-made patterns and does a beautiful job with her work.   She’s sewn for years and has mastered the art of sewing for her body and her needs, and I’m sure she wastes very little fabric or time in her sewing.

Shirts, long lost shirts.

Besides, as far as it goes, she’s right.  I make a lot of stuff.  Some of it’s rather odd.  I used to post more of it than I do nowadays.  Sometimes I get a crazy idea in my head and I can’t relax until I’ve made it happen.  (Seashell pockets, anyone?)

Then I wear it, I tweak the design, I wear it more, I make another improved version, I wear it some more, I wash it frequently, I crumple it up and stuff it in a drawer, I pull it out and shake it, I wear it some more, I make another two or three in different fabrics and wear those, too.   I consider that an important and necessary part of developing a new pattern (call me crazy..), whether it’s a Tried-N-True pattern or a new design for Cake.  I may not “finish” one of these garments completely, and I often discard ideas that work beautifully in my mind but less so in the cold hard light of Reality.

Is that really waste?

After giving it some thought, I decided it’s not.  I must muslin repeatedly and can not avoid sewing a decent volume of fabric in order to do what I do.

Even if I weren’t working to create a pattern company, I think a certain amount of “wasted” fabric and effort goes into learning what works for an individual’s body and styling.   That’s ok!  No more guilt for learning curves!  It’s a part of the process!  I say pull the buttons off those wadders and throw the baggage out!  Or make rags…

Instead of worrying or feeling guilty, I turned my attention to all the space in my small home that is wasted curating my muslins and design experiments.  That’s the waste- wasted space.

This is Megan’s Revenge, from the Mad Men Challenge. I think this dress is full of bad ju-ju, I don’t like wearing her but I don’t know why.

So for Frosting Fortnight, I’m pulling out all the muslins and all the design experiments and garments I don’t wear and giving them a second chance at life.  During Frosting Fortnight, every day I’ll wear at least one thing that’s “out there” or experimental or simply hasn’t been worn in a few months.  I’m turning my wardrobe inside out to help me understand what I like to wear.

When all else fails, at least I can reclaim some of my button/zipper/lace stash…

I’ll also look at why certain garments don’t get worn- does it need mending/finishing?  Is it the wrong color?  Is it the cut?  What can I do with the clothes I really don’t need in my house and my life without simply throwing them out?  Why do I have so many quilting cotton blouses I never wear, and a few I do?

These are the questions I’ll explore over the next two weeks for Frosting Fortnight.  I hope it’s useful, and I hope to pick up ideas from other Frosting Fortnighters along the way! (I also have a few unrelated finished object posts, a bra update, some fun with color and an amazing amazing vegan-ethical lipstick review…)

I started out simply today. (note: right up until I almost hit publish, I thought today was the 18th.  All day.  So I already added my outfit to the FF flickr group.)  I’m wearing a current jeans design experiment and a woven “Not-a-Tee.” It’s made from a delicious, expensive red Indonesian batik with a fun neckline.  I haven’t worn this much because the fabric is “too nice” for daily wear, and it’s too boxy to be worn untucked.  Shame! I think this top deserves a comeback.  She’s back in rotation!

I dyed my hair black, friends. I can’t talk about it yet, maybe later when we talk about lipstick…

What do you think?  What’s “waste”?  Is it wasted fabric from a failed sewing project, wasted space taken up hoarding clothes not worn, or wasted energy feeling guilty about it?  Does high-volume muslin and garment sewing hurt my greenie cred?

What about effort spent making a garment you think you “should” make but don’t love, when you’d really rather be sewing and wearing the fun stuff?  Is that a waste, or is it discipline?

And tell me, I’m curious- how often do you clean out your closet?

*Great sewing patterns don’t just appear on the drafting table.  It takes work, revision, work, work, muslining and test-wearing, especially when wearability and good sewing practices are a priority.

Tearing Down or Building Up? The Body Image Debate

This morning, I found myself thinking about the “Body Image and Media” debate (or I dunno, call it a war crusade) that rages through women’s blogs and social media.  I get the occasional petition announcement from  They sent me this one about Cleo magazine today:

Public pressure is building across the world for magazines to stop altering images of girls. In the US a teenager convinced Seventeen Magazine to publish one unaltered spread a month after thousands joined her petition. I think Cleo should do the same for their readers.

I want Cleo to stop selling images that hurt girls and break our self-esteem. Let us see real faces and real shapes in at least one photo spread a month — and always put a warning symbol on any image that has been altered.

Ok.  I confess ambivalence.  On one hand, I think that’s great- girls and women joining together to tear down harmful standards and practices to reform the mass media.  In fact, I signed the petition.  Why not?   It’s against something I think is stupid and harmful, and in favor of something I think could be positive and useful.

On the other hand, I have a deep conviction that buying and reading these types of magazines only serves to reinforce the legitimacy of such publications.  That is to say- if people buy it, then there’s a market for it and fashion mags that present unrealistic ideas of beauty will continue to exist.

I had to google Cleo magazine to find out what it was.  Turns out, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill magazine that targets Australian women.  I don’t see anything about it that would set it apart from any others.  (Hey now, maybe their marketing department should pay attention, it’d help them stand out from the crowd if they did as the petition asks…)

You know what I do read?  Blogs, mostly sewing blogs.  I also read style blogs, “entitlement” style blogs written by wealthy teenagers (maybe she’s 20 now), parenting blogs, domesticity blogs, cooking blogs, history blogs and classic movie blogs.  My google Reader is my own personal magazine, I choose the authors and the topics.

After I checked out the Cleo petition I thought about the futility of trying to turn around the massive nuclear tank that is the women’s magazine industry and started clicking around to catch up on some of my favorite sewing blogs.  Liza Jane recently made some rad brightly printed shorts for her upcoming vacation and shared heaps of delicious construction details.  In my “de-Cleo” frame of mind, my eye skipped over this:

Click for a great post on Burda shorts-making

Ok, so they are not super short or anything but this is a big step for me.   I have not worn short shorts for several years now.   I feel silly for saying this, but I haven’t worn shorts because as I got older and more, um, well-rounded, I always thought my legs looked funny.  I’ve always had big legs, this I know.  But really?  I can wear short shorts.  My legs are totally normal.  One positive of snapping so many pictures of myself over the last couple of years is that I have a much healthier image of myself.  Hope that doesn’t sound too self-centered, but if you take photos of yourself you know what I mean.  This is what my legs look like.  And they are just fine.  They take me where I need to go.  Ok, enough of that.

I love this for several reasons.  First because I know what she’s talking about- blogging has definitely helped me become less judgmental about my body.

Second because the sentiment she’s expressing is not a thunderclap out of nowhere but a personal epiphany that’s expressed a thousand different ways on sewing blogs all over the internet.  Somehow or the other, body acceptance has become a part of the fabric of blogging about sewing.  I think that’s wonderful.

Third- read the comments section.  It’s supportive and positive.  Many of the commentators express healthy attitudes towards their own bodies.  It’s pretty typical of comments on sewing blogs.  Posts like that do help change women’s ideas of what’s beautiful, what’s normal, what’s healthy, and what’s acceptable.  I see it as “building up” each other.

Finally- LizaJane’s post is not about her legs.  It’s a nitty-gritty “this is what I sewed, here are the insides, and this is the pattern” type post.  The focus is not on the way she looks, but on what she has done and the way she chooses to share with us.  Again, this is common in the sewing world- sharing knowledge and celebrating a job well done. (disaster sewing posts are good, too.)

Besides, print media is dying– or at least, print media is no longer the primary way to disperse information to a wide audience.  Changing one monthly spread in one magazine can definitely be counted as a step in the right direction, but it’s a drop in a bucket.  A leaky bucket.  It’s possible to change something like that one step at a time, but it’s very hard work.  Why not focus instead on building each other up, and improving our attitudes towards our own bodies to create a thriving alternative? I think that’s already happening, and blogs are definitely competing with traditional print publications on several fronts.

But I don’t just mean blogging.  We can take the positive attitudes we find in the blogs and “build up” in the real world, in daily life.  Ever stopped a stranger on the street to tell her the color of her blouse sets off her eyes?  (Try it sometime, but make sure the compliment is sincere.  Compliment-bombing is super fun.)   What about praising a little girl not for being pretty, but for sharing well with the other kids?  Or taking the time to show a younger person how to sew their first seam?  Or making space in your day to go for a short jog to keep your heart healthy and get those endorphins going (rather than exercising primarily for weight control)?

What do you think?  Is it worthwhile to attempt to “tear down” the toxic universe of women’s magazines, or is it better to simply work on changing our personal attitudes to create an alternative?  Or both?  Or neither?  How do you “build up” in your daily life?

Movie Review: Mrs. Henderson Presents

I’m on the mend after my second bout of flu this winter.  The flu is tiresome.  Sleeping all day and slurping soup isn’t so bad, except it feels like a waste of time.  I’m past that now, in the middle of the delightful stage where my skin hurts and I don’t have any energy or ability to focus, but I’m also bored and restless. (This post took a long time to write…)   It’s the perfect time to revisit my favorite movies, especially the cheerfully smutty flick Mrs. Henderson Presents.

I really can’t believe I never reviewed this movie!  It’s completely delightful, based on true events at the Windmill Theatre in the 30’s and 40’s.  Mrs. Henderson is an eccentric aristocratic lady (played by Judi Dench) who finds herself lacking direction in life after her husband’s death.  One of her friends suggests that an upside of widowhood is no one can stop you buying things.  Mrs. Henderson takes this to heart and buys a theatre, engaging the managerial services of Mr. Van Dan.  He’s not terribly impressed by her “eccentric lady” act and the interplay between their strong, occasionally clashing characters never fails to amuse me.

At first, the Windmill achieves great success by performing vaudeville-revue style shows back-to-back all day long, which had not been tried in England before.   They called it “Revuedeville.”  All the other theatres in West End quickly copied their formula, and the Windmill fell in popularity.  In a bid to one-up the other theatres, Mrs. Henderson proposes they “lose the clothes.”  The clothes are (of course) a big part of the draw for me in this movie.  I love all the vintage activewear on display in rehearsals and offstage.

But it’s the lack of clothes that eventually sets the shows at the Windmill apart from the other revues on West End.  Of course, nude shows were common on the Continent at the time but it simply wasn’t “done” in England.  Luckily, Mrs. Henderson knows the Lord Chancellor, the man who has authority to allow such shenanigans.  I chuckle every time I see the scene where she persuades the very stuffy old Lord Chancellor to allow her to feature live nudes at the Windmill.  She butters him up with a gourmet picnic lunch in the park, but he’s still squeamish about “the foliage,” “the somewhat sordid topic of the pudendum,” or “the midlands.”  It’s most satisfying to watch His Lordship squirm.

Mrs. Henderson assures him they’ll use subtle lighting and furthermore, a barber.  He agrees, provided the girls stay still, like nudes in art.

It’s not only naked girls, the song and dance scenes set my toes tapping, and I love the very 1930’s set designs based on photos of the actual sets at the Windmill.  Then suddenly, the Blitz comes to London and the girls spend their days working for the war effort and performing at night to keep up morale as their audience morphs from students and civilians to soldiers.  Many of the performers and workers at The Windmill moved into the theatre during the Blitz; because it was below street level and somewhat safe during the bombing.

In fact, The Windmill was very proud of the fact they never closed during the Blitz when all the other theatres closed down.

The cast is eminently watchable, the writing is good, the sets are lavish- and Judi Dench is indisputably the star of Mrs. Henderson Presents.  I love her portrayal of this interesting woman, it’s a fantastic story of an older woman who refuses to surrender her joie de vivre.  This movie may not be everyone’s cup of tea- there’s lots of nudity, but it’s always treated with dignity or humor, never exploitative or salacious.   I’m a fan, very few movies tend to make me laugh outright (especially upon repeat viewings).  I would not call this a serious film, but it’s a very entertaining movie.
Have you seen Mrs. Henderson Presents?

Now if I could just get myself off the couch…

How I Learned To Sew- Sharey Time!

The other day, someone left a comment that ended with:  “I see the mistake often in blogs by self-taught sewists, which is why I was surprised to see it here.”


Pardon me?  What’s wrong with being a self-taught sewist?  Besides, I am a self-taught sewist.  Sure, I picked some things up here and there, but no one taught me to do what I do.  Then I realized I never blogged about how I learned to sew.

Well- settle in, and I’ll spin you a story…

I was unschooled from 4th grade until 11th.  That means I was home schooled without using a structured curriculum.  My parents placed a strong emphasis on independence, critical thinking skills, and creativity.  I am grateful.  One method of learning involved “immersion” in a subject.  That meant when I studied English Medieval history, we cooked food from the time, played medieval games, I read Chaucer and biographies on Eleanor of Aquitaine, William the Conqueror and anything else I could get my hands on about the period.  I made gowns and headdresses, and we went to the Medieval Faire.  I ate, slept, drank and dreamt Medieval England.

In some ways, it was awesome.  The jousting was my favorite, I’ll never forget those enormous hooves thundering across the pitch.  I digress…

That’s when I remember starting to sew- to supplement my imagination and to make history “more real.”  I was a kid, so the materials were cheap and nasty polyester/acetate blends, but that didn’t matter to me then.

When I was 10, my mother (who does not sew) bought me a second-hand Kenmore from the 70’s.  I immediately made myself a yellow rayon shifty dress thing to wear to church, and when I think about the construction values I shudder.  But I was thrilled- I made it myself!  I wore it proudly and after the service a very kind lady whispered in my ear “You have to lower the presser foot when you sew.”  What a revelation- I had sewn the entire dress with the presser foot up!

I sewed doll clothes, quilt blocks, historical garments, Easter dresses, learned to embroider by hand, whatever came into my mind.  I had plenty of time and no television.  Eventually, I started competing with my garments in 4-H fashion shows but never won more than the second or third tier rounds of competition.  My taste was probably too weird.  I would make and model a black and gold boned Elizabethan gown with a cone-shaped farthingale and the other girls would model prom wear.

Later, I moved to Texas and went to a very large and well-funded public highschool.  There were 969 other students in my graduating class.  The theatre department attracted me and I worked under more senior costume designers.  Sure, it was highschool, but we were big and serious.  I learned to rip old gowns apart and bewitch them into completely new gowns, perfectly suited for the role and the wearer.  I saw the more senior costume designers work from sketches, and conjure a dream out of thin air- it’s possible!  I learned that an uncomfortable costume is worse than no costume at all, and how to critically analyze a performance to discover what the actor needed from the garment.

I also taught “stitch camps” for the younger girls who came in knowing nothing about sewing, so we could hand off boring piecework to them without stopping to explain how to sew on a snap.

At the University of Texas, I spent two semesters as a stitch hand under the Master Tailor in the theatre department. (I studied politics and language, sewing was my job.)  I was her bitch, which worked for me.  Once I had to make three perfectly identical red and white striped tailcoats.  I was so proud of them, all pretty and identical.  Then the Master Tailor told me to distress two of them.   It physically hurt to rip the new coats to shreds and smear them with mud.  At UT, I learned a little draping from the graduate student designers in our workroom and how to run a variety of industrial sewing machines.  Never lessons, just “go and do this” and I would.  If they didn’t like what I did, I was sent back to do it again until they liked my work.

After the state cut funding to the theatre department, I found a job making “Urban Reconstruction” garments at a local vintage clothing store.  It didn’t pay much and I’m pretty sure my boss was on some kind of drugs but I had fun cutting apart ugly old clothes and refashioning them into stuff people actually bought and wore.  I even saw my work walking around in Austin.  Twice.  It was thrilling.

Then I didn’t sew for a few years.  I wanted to do something besides sewing, I kind of hated how I kept getting “sucked into” sewing.  I sewed my wedding dress after I arrived in Australia, but it was solely out of desperation.  Search as I may, no stores anywhere carried the simple white full skirted knee length dress I had in my head.  So I made it myself.

Later on, after Lila was born and I was in the middle of a body-image/identity crisis something clicked in my brain as I watched Miss Marple with my husband.  “Stephen, I’m going to sew dresses like those and wear them.  All the time.”  Big, crazy gorgeous, 1950’s dresses.

“If that’s what you want to do, I think you should.”

“I’ll do it.”

“I have no doubt you will.  Do it if it makes you happy, I’m not going to stop you.”

At the time I had no sewing machine, no threads, nothing.  Very soon thereafter, I got a job at a sewing shop around the corner from my house.  I hadn’t sewn for years, and with my years of theatrical/historical sewing I felt myself very superior to those “professionals” and their fancy machines and gadgets and feet.  *I* didn’t need anything but a needle.  Oh yes, very prideful.  I belligerently bought a very low-level sewing machine despite wise advice otherwise (then 6 months later upgraded to my beloved Janome 4900- I do indeed use all the bells and whistles.).

But you know what- I was wrong.  I learned to use all those fancy gizmos and whats-its.  Sometimes I was actually taught, but more often I was told to go play with a cording foot until I liked it, or to make samples of knit binding.  I realized that while some gadgetry is bunk,  the vast majority of these tools and aids actually cleaned up my sewing.  I could wear a garment without covering up the bad bits.  I didn’t care if something went through the wash.  Best of all- my sewing time sped up incredibly.

That’s also where I started teaching in earnest.  My classes varied from one or two a week to as many as five, depending on the season.  I loved teaching people to sew because I realized it’s more than just sticking together bits of fabric, it’s more than just making clothes.  I could pass on the same thrill of creation that I get every time I sew: the incredible feeling of imagining a garment and then calling it into being.  I finally started to value the sewing, after years of trying to run away from it.

My students became more sophisticated, and as a result I had to start pushing myself to figure out the best way to bind a knit neckline, the simplest way to insert an invisible zipper, and eventually they pushed me into learning how to fit all kinds of shapes and sizes and to make patterns.

Now, you all do the pushing, and I love it.  Contributing to the online sewing community has become an important and rewarding part of my life.  A big reason I started blogging earnestly is because I wanted to help other self-taught sewists improve their work.  Someone has a problem, I know how to solve it, I write a blog post.  Who am I to hoard my skills?

I think spreading knowledge and information about our craft is incredibly important, and I have a LOT of respect for all the self-taught sewists out there. Especially those of you who are isolated.  It’s hard.  It’s even harder when other people arbitrarily decide which way to sew is “right” and which way is bad or wrong and put you down about what you do.  You don’t have to take that.  You worked hard for your skills.

The most important thing I’ve learned are that if a garment fits, if the wearer likes it and if it holds together then it is “right.” The rest is academic, there are many ways to sew.   Curiosity, an open mind and a willingness to try new things will always serve a sewist well.  Snobbery is a waste of time.

How did you learn to sew?