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Why we sew: Sierra’s stitching story

I love the soft creaking, crackling sound of scissors slicing through felt.

It’s a sound I get to hear a lot during kid’s classes at Threaded Together, where the little “twwwwiiirrriiiip” sound of scissor blades is the precursor to creation, and better yet the privileged experience of watching young minds work through new skills and get to the business of imagining in thread and fabric.

I’ve watched students craft faces for their stuffed animals, pillows, and puppets. I’ve seen students transformed into mini-makers using little more than a few sheets of craft felt, scissors, a needle, thread, and their creativity.

But my FAVORITE sound in the Threaded Together classroom isn’t the shift and slice of scissors.

Sierra (left) helps a student start stitching an "eye" onto a stuffed animal.

That came one day as a chorus of chatter that rose up from a group of seven, eight, and nine-year-olds as they chose ribbons and fabric they would need to design jellyfish plushes.

One student, a little girl who’s become a regular in our community classroom, piped up out of nowhere proclaiming to the room that she LOVED sewing!

The chorus was picked up by the other kids who, like birds joining in a song, layered their voices one over the other to exclaim how much stitching meant to them.

Why do they like sewing, I asked.

Their responses seemed to gush out all at once, powered by the kind of energy elementary school kids seem in singular possession of.

Threaded Together students work on their "Jellyfish."

“Because it’s fun!”

“I like it here!”

“I make things for my sister!”

“I make things for my mom!”

“Because it’s cool!”

“I love to sew too!”

The moment of feedback was interrupted when we started talking about measuring materials and returned with our “jellyfish tentacles” to the small fleet of donated sewing machines.

It was rewarding to hear how much the kids in the class were enjoying their experience. Better still, as a sewist myself, I was thrilled to see reflected in them the same feeling I have whenever I finish a new project. The feeling that you CAN make something. That you can manifest an idea into a true, useful, and tactile object with a little energy and the right tools.

The very first time I sewed, I was no bigger than my students. I started with a stuffed animal too.

My great grandmother, who I called Nannie, spread newspapers out on her kitchen table. She told me we were going to make a pattern for a stuffed animal or a doll. I, obsessed with Animal Planet and convinced that I would grow up to be either a veterinarian or a female Steve Irwin, decided to make a plush dog.

So, Nannie started to draw on the newspaper. She cut it out, and showed me how to lay the paper over fabric and cut that to match. In the end, I had a toy that looked more like a kangaroo (or maybe dog) shaped pillow than a proper stuffed animal. It had button eyes that didn’t match and was made of quilting cotton… yellow on one side and red on the other.

At the time I remember being captivated most by Nannie’s fabric stash, which she stored in a tiny room at the back of her house (a room I swear to this day I can close my eyes and see and smell in vivid detail).

I’m not sure why my sewing journey seemed to stop there… at least for a while. The next time I would really come back to a needle and thread would be MUCH later.

As an adult, I would rediscover sewing at a time when I needed it most. I had left my career as a television journalist (not by choice) and was struggling to find fulfillment and enrichment in nine to five marketing jobs.

I missed the everyday excitement of the news cycle. I also missed the way I could begin the day with an idea, gather information, contacts, video clips, and interviews, and edit them together to tell an engaging, coherent story. I missed the structured creativity of the process. Having tied up so much of my identity and sense of self in my job title– journalist– I was feeling more than a little lost.

I would soon find a new title to take on. A title that would mark me as a member of a beautiful community. A title that meant I had a certain set of skills that I could wield to CREATE again.

That title? Sewist.

Sierra is pictured wearing the candy print circle skirt that brought her back to sewing as an adult.

While planning an event for my job at the time, I dropped into our local JoAnn store and stopped suddenly in front of the pattern rack. Always a fan of fashion and experimenting with style, I suddenly realized that I might be able to MAKE the clothes I imagined. Over the next couple of days, I discovered a sewing podcast (aptly named “Love to Sew”) and started making my very first garment (a circle skirt, stitched in a bright lollipop print).

In short order, the dark cloud that was Spring 2020, descended. Faced with more uncertainty than ever, and a paradigm-shifting pandemic our communities suddenly had needs that could be met by sewists. There was a surge in demand for masks and hospital gowns, and the gaps between supply and demand left healthcare and frontline workers desperate for the items they needed.

That’s how I ended up at Threaded Together.

When there was a need for PPE, I felt a kind of once-in-a-generation call to action. I felt like this was our generation’s “Rosie the Riveter” moment. A way to move into manufacturing to serve my community… and I was so lucky to be able to be of service with our team at that moment.

While I made gowns and masks with the team at Threaded Together, I continued to make my own clothes.

Sierra holds up a freshly mended camouflage hospital gown at Threaded Together's old location.

Increasingly I felt as if I was crafting my own armor. Making something to wear into the world that fit me uniquely, and that I knew was an accomplishment in itself. No matter what happened in that great big shifting pandemic laden world, no matter what challenge I faced, I knew I could take it on because I had at least done one wonderful thing. I had made my dress.

Sewing is a lot like making a news story. Each project begins as an idea. Then you collect the materials- not interviews, but fabric and notions and patterns. That done, you can set to work cutting and splicing, and stitching the pieces into something new. Something real. Something that, when you’re feeling lost or weird, could help you lift your chin and square your shoulders, and know that you have the power to create something.

Today, I think that the opportunity to teach sewing at Threaded Together is a gift. I have the chance to show others what my great-grandmother showed me- that a little imagination and a little fabric go a long way. I have the opportunity to share the thing that brought me back to myself, that brings me joy and power, too.

In teaching folks to sew, it’s enough for me that students find a little fun in the process, but I know that having these skills can mean so much more. For me, sewing became a source of empowerment, a source of employment, a way to serve others, a way to care for myself, and a vehicle for finding friendship ( both online and in-person).

So every time I hear the sound of scissors slicing through felt, I smile. And when I hear a new sewist delight in the process? My heart absolutely sings.

A group picture of the Jellyfish class

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