Thursday, 25 October 2012

Leave the Kids Alone

The world of fashion remains a place that is unrelated to my experience of clothing. I have always just loved to sew. No-one led me to this realization nor tried to guide the path of my development and education too closely. I had a personal, intense interest that I pursued privately in my bedroom at home, outside of school hours.  

Because the school I attended had a mandatory uniform, I had nowhere to wear the things I made and no one to see them. I would usually find my way downstairs at a certain point in the evening because I wanted to show my parents something I had constructed. They always congratulated and praised me in a way I felt satisfied with - not too much and not too little. They acknowledged my work enough to affirm that I was doing something of value, but it didn’t enter the territory of over-praise that the parenting culture of the moment often slips into. 

There is so much discussion in the media these day about parents micromanaging their children’s lives - worrying that if they don’t enrol them in every available extra curricular activity and expose them to every obscure experience possible, that their child is not going to reach their full potential. Humans are way more complicated than that. Kids find a way. They know what they like. Leave the kids alone.

If there was one thing that helped create the right environment for me to develop my skill and interest in sewing and clothing it was that nobody cared. In other areas of my life it felt like everyone was too involved. Small scholastic, musical and dance achievements were extrapolated either into grand future successes or were seen as terrifying premonitions of future failure at life. When it came to sewing, my parents didn’t see my often questionable efforts as the work of some kind of prodigal fashion genius whose growth they should harness and direct. I was just a teenager, quietly immersed in sewing alone in my room. There was no social value to what I was doing, no culture to support or validate it, no place to display it, and no way of assessing it. It was the one thing I had completely to myself outside of the hyper-controlled world in which I existed.

I taught myself to sew almost entirely through trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes. A LOT. I basically destroyed clothing and fabric for the first ten years of my sewing development. After a couple of years I had exhausted my mom’s closet of things I could “cut up”. Luckily, I discovered Value Village around that time and it allowed me access to unlimited, affordable raw materials with which to experiment.

I would buy piles of clothing, often vintage, take it all apart, look at how it was made, and put things back together in a different way. I repeated this basic activity for years. By the end of high school I knew how to make just about anything. Not “properly”, but well enough. I was totally reckless with my experimentation because there was no one watching and no one to judge me.  

The mother of one of my good friends was saying recently that she and all her peers who were given sewing training in high school in the 1960’s were cripplingly afraid of not doing things “correctly” when sewing. In order to create an acceptable quality garment there were specific skills you were supposed to master - the mitered corner, the vent, the bound pocket. The result was an environment where it was impossible to take any risks when it came to clothing construction because anything that didn’t fall within the prescribed guidelines was considered to be wrong. I always feel incredibly sad hearing this type of story because sewing and clothing construction is a source of such joy and freedom for me. Despite what many teachers and mentors will tell you, there is no “right” when it comes to creation, and presuming to judge the value of someone else’s work based solely on how well they stay within the lines is not particularly broad minded.

I have alway felt absolutely fearless when it comes to anything to do with constructing clothing. I would say that I am borderline reckless when it comes to developing patterns and working on the fit of muslins. I don’t agonize and second guess myself, I have no sense of shame at not doing it “right”- I just do it and judge later. As a result I am fairly prolific when it comes to pattern and muslin development. Recklessness hasn’t always served me well in life, but in this case it is a very valuable tool.

I didn’t receive any official training or much “interference” in my work by others until I was almost in my 20’s and by then I had developed my own style and my own approach to constructing clothing. At that point I had the confidence and skill to easily integrate all the boring technical stuff that institutions lean so heavily on. I am so thankful that this thing that I have loved so purely since I was a child was spared the judgement of peers, the assessments of professors, and the advice of parents while in its tender developmental stages. It allowed me to find the beauty and freedom in it early on without it being turned into something that was “work”. We all have the natural ability to find the right path for ourselves if we are just left alone to follow our genuine interest.


  1. This is really interesting to me because sewing is foreign to me, but you could just as easily be talking about drawing and painting.

  2. Hi Jason! You're right - I hadn't though about it from the perspective of another craft but it must be a very common experience among those who are self-taught.