Broken Needles

You know that cotton candy pop culture slice of free spirit encouragement, “work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching”. While it’s a nice if not schmaltzy sentiment, I’m going to add a line of my own: sew without patterns, cook without recipes.

My kitchen window overlooks what can at best be called a yard and at most accurate a desolate patch of earth with a cement slab that will at some point host my new garage. Beyond the tall fence at the back of the…yard…  is a car wash with one bright safety light mounted upon it, a safety light which I never noticed until they took the dilapidated garage down. I needed curtains.

I bought a sewing machine second (or maybe third or fourth) hand from the sewing machine shop down the road from my apartment in Chicago a few years ago. It’s a Singer and I loved it from the start. The first time I broke it in was to sew a dress for a Halloween costume (Priscilla Presley, actually. Elvis already had his jumpsuit ready so I had to get going and quick). I bought fabric and had the dress constructed and fitted (albeit a little poorly) within 24 hours, without a pattern. I laid down an A-line dress, traced it, cut, pinned, darted, hemmed and hoped for the best. There was a lace overlay involved and a total redesign of said overlay including a belt which formed an empire waist. I must say that for winging it, it went remarkably well…I say that now but I’m pretty sure that around 3 am the morning of October 31 I was ready to scream and chuck it off the porch.

I called my mom at one point and asked her for advice with a particularly tricky bit. She sort of guffawed and said she didn’t know how to help me because she never sews without a pattern. I thought about it for a moment and realized that she was telling the complete truth. She never cooks without a recipe, either. When I was 17 I decided to sew a top on her machine by ear. I asked her for help on a few things and she did what she could but really, I was on my own. Even the women at the fabric store couldn’t help me with pre-project questions. I brought in my Barbie-sized mock-up to show them my idea and they all threw hands up in awed confusion. When the fabric store ladies don’t know how to help you, you know you’re heading down the Colorado river alone, on a disc sled.

The top was a success (though I turned down lots of requests to sew them for my girlfriends, the process was a royal pain). I hadn’t sewed but for a few tiny projects since Priscilla. In previous years on my mom’s machine, I’d started about four different skirts and dresses. I still have the fabric pinned to the pattern tissue, cut and ready to be assembled. Something about the pattern took the fun out of it and I stalled, though.

That brings us to the curtains. I woke up Monday morning on my day off and hopped out of bed with a purpose. I went to the fabric store and examined bolts. Measure thrice, cut once. I bought the curtain fabric, muslin for a lining, thread and new seam ripper because if there’s one thing I can absolutely guarantee you, it’s that I will use it more than once per project. In spite of patterns and measuring and doing all I can to ensure accuracy, I will screw it up. Just like I mix up tablespoons and teaspoons unless I concentrate and read a recipe several times as I reach for them. Baking? That’s chemistry. You need to follow instructions. Dinner? Sewing? No, man.

Wing it! By winging it, you learn so much. You learn about process and what happens when you cut corners. You learn that you’re far more patient (or impatient) than you think you are. You surprise yourself. When it’s all said and done, even if the stitches are showing when they aren’t supposed to or they’re crooked or you wish you’d have used a different color thread, you did it. It’s better than any set of curtains you could have bought, or brownies you could have picked up at the store. Sew without patterns. Cook without recipes. Drive without GPS. Go on a walk and leave your watch at home. Do something you don’t think you could or should, just sometimes. Find a sentimental piece of fabric and make a pillow out of it. And don’t ever get rid of it, no matter what happens.


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