Saturday, May 16, 2009

On my own hand-crafting: a shameful hobby of a poor kid?

I've always loved making things. When I was a kid, my paternal grandmother would buy me crafts from stores so I could paint sculptures, or make fun decorative objects. My mother taught me to hand-stitch when I was still in elementary school, and I found a fun and rewarding past time in crafting crude stuffed animals and dolls out of old clothing, which I would then give to my friends as gifts. Admittedly, they were ugly creatures. I had no sense of depth--I would simply draw a cat shape or a dog shape in a continuous line on two pieces of fabric, cut, and sew them together. Mismatched and chipped buttons served as eyes. I didn't even turn the animals inside out after stitching them together (and had no concept of right-side vs. wrong side), so the bunched stitches outlined the bodies, and blue marker lines were visible beneath the threads.

I would cut pieces of old t-shirts and jeans and used them for blankets for my dolls and Littlest Petshop toys (the old cool ones that actually looked like animals, not these stupid ass bobble-heads that they sell today).

I learned to crochet in sixth grade, a friend of the family teaching me the various loops that make the stitches; she taught me to read the strange abbreviated language of patterns.

In seventh grade I found instructions in a magazine on how to make a denim skirt. I made one out of a pair of jeans, and wore it to school. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but I was proud to have made something I could wear. Of course, the cruelty of kids is an opportunistic dagger, and soon after I proudly strode into school to show off my handiwork to my friends, other students were laughing, asking if my family was too poor to buy me clothes. I was embarrassed and crushed. It was then that I realized that being poor, or at least seeming poor, was cause for ridicule in the kid-world. I became ashamed of the skills I was trying to enhance.

I still crocheted and sewed, but I didn't attempt larger projects that would make people assume my family was poor.

And then in my junior year of college I took an art class involving dying fabrics. After each unit, we were to create a project utilizing the dying methods. For my screen-printing project, I decided to dye pieces of denim and print a motif on each section, creating a denim jacket. But I had never operated a sewing machine before. So my art teacher showed me how to read a sewing pattern and use the machine in the classroom. She was amazed by my aptitude, since no other student could sew a seam as straight as I could on the first try. And thus, my China Mieville King Rat-inspired denim jacket was born (see right--note the red rat with a crown. This was taken last year when my hair was still red. It's back to blonde now--too many creepy dudes demanding to know if it was real). There are also rats on the front, but I couldn't get a good picture of that.

After that class, I asked for a sewing machine for xmas from my dad, and I kept at it. I bought dozens of clothing patterns. I made blouses and skirts. I am at the point now where I refuse to buy anything I'm capable of making myself. Just yesterday I converted a pair of jeans into a skirt (I've much improved since I was in middle school, thanks to my skills with the machine).

When I got engaged back in January, I decided to make my own wedding dress (which is almost at completion now--I actually finished it within two weeks, but I still need to add some decorative stuff to it, and some more "umph" in the bust). I also plan on making jewelry for myself and my bridesmaids to wear, which they will be allowed to keep as gifts afterward.

Anyway, since the incident in seventh grade I had not experienced the shame of crafting my own clothes as a poor person's act; at least until my fiance's father kindly offered to buy me a wedding dress--after finding out I had already made one.

I was listening to my fiance assure his father that I do, in fact, love my wedding dress, and really want to wear it. When I asked my fiance why his dad wanted to be certain I wanted to wear the dress (since I'm not of a mind to waste my time, money, and energy on an unnecessary project) he told me that his dad wanted to make sure I made my wedding dress because I wanted to, not because I had to.

Well, both are valid reasons to make my own wedding dress. I liked the idea of making something for my wedding--why not the dress? That way, when my friends and family see me in it and admire it, it will be something crafted by my own hands (this is where I get poetic with my needlework). But I'm also broke too. Before I had decided to make my wedding dress, I scouted around for possible pre-made dresses. The ones that fell in my price range did not leap out at me as something I would want to wear. Making the dress myself ensured I would a) have a dress made specifically for my body shape, that b). fits me perfectly and is c). cost effective. I think I only spent $120 dollars on all the materials including the pattern, the satin, the lining, the overdress of lace, the zipper, thread, extra needles, ribbon, breast padding, and plastic pearls.

I'm very pleased with it so far, and can't wait for it to be finished (as of right now it's still full of potential as an artwork in progress), but I can't help but feel there's a stigma attached to my hand-crafting abilities as an act of the poor. I can't say if I'd have had a propensity for making things if my family had been as rich as my fiance's, but it's something that I love. It's more than a hobby for me because, like writing, it's creation--and it impresses people when it's executed well. I love the hard work. I love how it takes up space. I love the sound of my machine driving the needle through the fabric, creating seams out of loops of thread. I love that my hands created something useful, and I find it absolutely insulting that this creation is seen as less-than by those without the skills to create. So when did people decide that making things by hand is shameful?

Certainly this is associated with class. Rich people have no need to learn to sew or crochet--they have money to pay other people to do it. Though it is a skill, and not an easy one, it is a skill of lower class people. It is a symbol of poverty, and so in a way it is looked down on. Don't get me wrong; I acknowledge that there are upper class people who enjoy sewing; but this isn't the first time where I've been made aware that my family is not as well off as others. This is why I was laughed at in school for wearing a skirt I had made from an old pair of jeans. This is why my fiance's father offered to buy me an honest-to-God made-by-someone-else's-hands dress. Because "hand-made" and "home-made" are synonymous with "poor," and we all know that people are poor by choice, right? Ugh.

I'll probably post pictures of it on me once the pearls are attached and the bust completed.
If you have love for hand-making items yourself, share it in the comments.


ouyangdan said...

Your dress looks beautiful.

I love to make things, and will try anything once. When The Kid was a baby I made all of her dresses and winter coats. I always made the ones I had her professional pictures taken in b/c it made me so proud. I also make her Halloween costumes (except last years b/c I was too ill). I love to sew if I have time, but my machine crapped out on me. I get nervous using the fine materials on a machine that may snag it. :(

I crochet, self taught. I can manage blankets and scarves, and only want to learn to do one particular stitch (the granny stitch? I am not sure what it's called but my Grammy made all of our blankets using it).

Mostly I do scrapbooking and card making. I haven't sent a store bought card in I don't know how long. I love dragging out all of my craft supplies and fiddling w/ them until something falls into place and looks perfect to me.

I would have done more beyond painting in school but I never had anyone around w/ time to teach me how to do something. All of the things I do I have taught myself b/c I was tired of watching my family be able to do it and not do it myself. I want to be able to design a garment and sew it myself. It's also how I learned to cook, self taught.

There is something so rewarding about making things yourself.

MsLaurie said...

Your dress looks lovely.

I wouldn't have the skill to make something as complicated as a wedding dress, but for each of my friends' babies (so far!) I've made a little tiny outfit - a warm jacket for one born in the winter, a teeny sundress for a summer baby...

I think of things handmade as being made with love and care, and show more attachment to the item than picking something of a rack at a store.

The skills are only 'poor' if they are poorly made. If you make with skill and care, then why is your dress not considered corture? :)

The Knitting Professor said...

That dress is gorgeous! I love it, and you should be totally proud of it.

I completely identify with your experience of growing up poor with homemade clothes. My mom used to make mine, but then I got teased so much about it that my older sister, who was an adult and had a fairly decent job and no kids, swooped in and bought my clothes for me. Not that it stopped the teasing because they all knew I was poor, but it removed at least one of the targets. I refused to learn how to sew while I was growing up as a result, but I've come back to it now that I'm older.

Eleniel said...

Totally hearing this post, thank you <3 I have been sewing for about a year now and recently bought a machine. The process of creating you talk about and the satisfaction of making something useful is so right on. I just love it. I love bringing off-beat designs to life. Most recently I made a corset; it took two weeks to complete and was the most challenging thing I've made yet. Reconstructing old clothes is a lot of fun, too!

One day I hope I can make my own wedding dress, and I hope it'll be almost as beautiful as yours!

Happy sewing =)

Renee said...

The dress is beautiful. Though we act like there is no value in homemade stuff to me it always means more when someone took their time to make me something rather than purchasing something prefab,

I cross stitch. It is something I have always found soothing. It is not a cheap hobby but I get so much satisfaction at seeing the end product and knowing that it is my labor that produced it. One other thing my aunt who also sews everything and I mean everything always said to me never forget the more skills you have the less chance that you will go hungry.

I have wanted to learn how to sew for a long time but have never been able to find a class that is convenient in my tiny little town. I think it would be great to make drapes and clothes for my family.

FilthyGrandeur said...

thank you all for all the wonderful compliments. my aim with this dress is to make it so no one knows that I made it until i point it out to them.

i find making things myself is very rewarding. i've given countless gifts to friends and family, either by sewing, crocheting, painting or drawing for them. in fact, everyone in my family got some sort of drawing last xmas--the only costs were my time and skill (i have a cache of paper from the years of my grandmother nurturing my artistic gifts). i recently painted a landscape for my mother and mailed it to her (she and my stepdad live in Florida now, and she wanted a landscape of palm trees for her living room). i once drew a portrait of a friend's beloved pet dog, who had died earlier that year, and given it to her as a wedding gift. i was very pleased that she reacted with adoration.

to Renee:
i also picked up cross-stitching, though it's been put on hold since my fluffy Princess has decided she would like to nap on it, and i don't have the heart to move her (not that she does when i nudge her anyway). there is certainly a great satisfaction in creating with ones hands, and I love to challenge myself with new skills (i think i mentioned making jewelry for my bridesmaids--i've never made jewelry in my life).

most sewing patterns are pretty easy (and most come with a "level" guide). drapes would be really simple to start with. i don't know what sort of craft stores you have in your neck of the woods, but a lot offer demonstrations on sewing machines and classes. using a sewing machine is easier than you think once you get the hang of it. it's wonderful too, being able to create a seam in like two seconds. i was amazed at how fast i assembled my dress (the tracing, cutting, and layering of the various materials took more time than actually putting it all together!).

Perpetual Beginner said...

That is a lovely dress.

I made my own wedding dress. My father had something of the reaction your fiancee's father had - combined with a disheartening lack of faith in my ability to actually make a dress I liked. (He showed up with my mother, three days before the wedding, quite prepared to buy me a dress on the spot.) I have never regretted making my dress for a minute. I got exactly what I wanted, fit exactly to me. I did spend a little more than you did, though. $400-500 for a two-layered dress in silk twill and sueded silk. Still a bargain when you check the prices for premade silk dresses.

Renee said...

Thanks I never thought to ask at the craft stores...I will look into it because I have wanted to learn how to sew for awhile now.

FilthyGrandeur said...

something i've learned about people is that if you express interest in something they love, they willingly will teach you all about it. i actually met a woman last year who learned to make jewelry when she happened to admire a necklace in a store (I interviewed her for the magazine i now edit for). the store owner said that it couldn't be sold, but instead offered to teach her to make her own. it's flattering for most people to be asked to teach others.

M. said...

i want to see your dress on you!
i'm sure it looks as wonderful as the rat king coat, which totally rocks my socks.

Isn't it so great to be able to wear what you make. i have been wearing this purse that i knit myself! i just love when people take notice and then i can say YES i made it!!!!

Intransigentia said...

Before I go any further I need to heap love and admiration on your wedding dress. It's going to be amazing.

Your phrase "shameful hobby of a poor kid" really struck home for me because I think there really is a class issue happening here. If you're poor, making it yourself is shameful because it means you can't afford to buy it.

If you're privileged enough, on the other hand, there's this whole phenomenon of "conspicuous competence" personified by Martha Stewart and her ilk, where if you can make or do anything yourself, it's some kind of status symbol that you have the leisure time to devote to it and can afford supplies and classes.

Sabertooth Screaming Lemur said...

I just read the thread at Shakesville re: douchebags yellin' dumb stuff. I didn't to derail, but: I. love. that rat coat.
I think being able to make cool stuff like that is awesome, and I would totally wear 'rat-matif' clothing. Or you could try ferret patterns! :)
I just wanted to come gush. Ok I think I'm done.
(Do you ever make those to sell? My partner needs a birthday present. I hope that's complimentary not presumptuous!)

FilthyGrandeur said...

Sabertooth Screaming Lemur--

thanks! i'm glad so many people love the coat! unfortunately it is one of a kind. the process of dying fabric and screen printing is a hobby that requires a lot of space, as well as ventilation, which my apartment doesn't allow for. i actually made that coat for an art class when i was still in college, otherwise i wouldn't have had access to the proper amount of space. as much as i would absolutely love to be able to make more printed coats, i just don't have the space right now, which kinda sucks...