Shame and the Art of Sewing

Lately, I’ve been struggling with feelings of shame. I’ve been unemployed since I got back to Phoenix, which has been about 7 weeks, though it feels like so much longer. A lot can happen in 7 weeks. At the moment, I’ve got about $40 in my bank account, nothing but debt, and I’m sleeping on my best friend’s couch. You could say that this is my rock bottom.

It was cosplay that was the catalyst for my learning to sew. I was 19 and had a very basic Singer that my abuelos gave me back in high school, and one day I got the idea to make a costume, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to use the machine. I took it to Joann and had the woman at the sewing center run me through the basics (seriously didn’t even know how to thread it) and when I took it home, I got on YouTube and just went for it. That was almost 10 years ago, and I have come a very long way since.

Sewing is an incredibly versatile and valuable skill. You’re probably wearing clothes right now, and someone had to make them, whether it’s a high end suit or a pair of cheap underwear you bought in a pack. Not only that though, someone sewed your curtains. Your pillow cases and bedsheets. They ran the machine that made patches for your hats or jackets. They worked to weave the rug you’re standing on.

When I sew something, I truly delight in the entire process. I love starting off with a pile of fabric and thread, and then seeing it come together step by step. I get in the zone on every project, often becoming so laser-focused that I can forget about eating or taking a bathroom break if I’m not careful. There’s something very zen about it, the measuring, the cutting, the pressing. Before long you’ve got something beautiful. When I finish a project, I can step back and say that I did something, and that I did it well.

Recently, I made a men’s shirt for my friend Ryan. I made it because I missed his birthday and wanted to make him something. Not only that, I wanted to try my hand at making men’s clothing. In every regard, it was a very personal project that I was keen on undertaking. I finished it with a sense of pride, and an aching back. I looked at it, all of its clean lines, and with a sense of accomplishment I posted some photos of it online.

If you sew, people tell you all the time that you should make things to sell. It is a strangely rare but also undervalued skill. If you sew, then people think you can make anything under the sun. All of a sudden a seamstress is at your beck and call to make anything that can be made with a sewing machine.

“Could you make me a prom dress?”

“I really need some curtains.”

“You have to make me some couch cushions!”

I’ve been reminded recently of how much of our self-worth we wrap up in the things that we do, and more specifically, our jobs. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been struggling to find work. And I mean struggling. I don’t have a car at the moment, so I am limited to applying to places I can reasonably reach by public transit. That is pretty limiting, but I continue to apply anyway. I haven’t gotten any calls back, and I’ve received several rejection e-mails. I don’t know the last time you were unemployed with no money and doing nothing but job hunting, but it’s draining. Not only that, but it’s very, very shameful.

Well, it’s not actually shameful. But we’re taught to feel shame about it, and I absolutely do. When I tell myself that I am trying and that I’ve only been back home for a little while, there is a little voice in my head somewhere saying you’re not trying hard enough. I can’t do anything without feeling guilty. I can’t even read a book without feeling guilty, because what right do I have to take time to read a book when I should be applying to more jobs. When I have a job, that’s when I can take a breath and relax for a bit. It’s very difficult to sustain that. I cry fairly often, wondering what I’m doing wrong and panicking about money. My masters program doesn’t start until January and I have to at least pay my bills in the meantime, and currently have no way to do that. What to do, what to do. In order to stop crying and feeling worthless, I know I have to do something.

So I sew. I make a pattern and I start a project, and after I send in my applications for the day, I sit, and I sew. Hours will go by, sometimes 8 consecutive hours, and I will still be sewing. When I do this, when I construct something piece by piece, I feel productive. I feel peaceful. I feel useful. I feel valuable. Even if I’m not getting paid for it, I still find so much peace in the hum of the machine, in the maneuvering of the fabric, and knowing that I am making something of value.

You might be wondering why I don’t try to make money off of sewing. I can tell you right now that unless you’re H&M, there’s no real money in making clothes. If you make your own clothes, it’s not because it’s cheaper to do so, I can tell you that, but that often seems to be people’s perception. I have made countless garments, received all kinds of positive feedback on them, people saying they’d like to buy this and that, but as soon as you tell people that it’s more than $40, no one wants to buy it. This recent shirt project took me about 25 hours, because I made a custom pattern for Ryan and then made the shirt itself. He now has a custom pattern, tailored to him, that I could use over and over again and make 100 more shirts from. If the new minimum wage is $15 an hour, then just the labor for that shirt is $375. No one I know would pay that much for any clothes, custom or not, and so even though I find purpose in sewing, it still feels undervalued. People will pay $375 for some gadget, or a new phone, or even designer clothes. Then I’m here doing something with skill and attention to detail and it’s almost offensive when I give them my price. Because I’m just one random person, I don’t matter. I’m not a brand. I’m just a tailor.

I sew for my own personal satisfaction. Even though I know it’s a contributing factor in this toxic obsession with feeling productive, It’s one of the few things that’s keeping me afloat right now. If I can’t find a job, I have to do something with my time, and sewing is always there to remind me that I am good at something.

All of the things that boost my self-esteem usually, things like dancing, or working out, I can’t afford to do right now. I can’t really afford anything. I can’t ask family for help. I am relying on just the love and help of my friends right now, and they’ve been amazing. But there’s something so acutely painful about needing this kind of help. I feel ashamed all the time. Embarrassed. It’s not like I’ve never been unemployed before, or dealt with this kind of stress. But something about this on top of all of the other emotional turmoil and upheaval I’ve been going through these last few months just makes it seem so much more intense and dire. What am I going to do? Why does my life continue to be such a hot ass mess? When will it start to fall into place?

Will things ever fall into place or am I doomed to live this kind of life forever?

I don’t know. Not knowing scares me a lot. I cry about that too. It’s hard not to feel like a loser all the time. For as much as we’re told not to compare ourselves to other people, I do it anyway. I try not to, but sometimes it sneaks in. Inside I know there is a voice telling me all of that is stupid, and that I’ve got so much to offer. But there’s another part inside of me, a part that is louder than it’s ever been before, that is wondering aloud if I’ll ever amount to anything. My therapist mentioned that maybe my relationship with my dad has something to do with my feelings of self-doubt. That it’s a father’s job to encourage their kids, tell them they can do anything, believe in them no matter what.

Maybe that’s part of it. But things with my parents are rocky at best. I can’t change them and I have to be my own parent now. I don’t know how to do that. It’s not quite as soothing to tell yourself that you can do it as it is when someone like your mom or dad tells you. It doesn’t feel as comforting. But I have to figure something out or else I’ll just crumble into a million pieces, and I can’t do that.

For now, I will sew. I will keep making things. Hopefully not as a distraction, but as a means to find some kind of peace, and maybe make something beautiful that I can feel proud of. Up next are more men’s shirts, for my love of satisfying lines, and fortunately Ryan is willing to be my guinea pig (not that it’s so difficult for him, he gets a lot of cool new shirts out of this).

Until next time, happy trails x

Asa

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