The shields we choose

When I was a wee tiny thing, I found myself impressed on a head-spinningly regular basis by my Mammy, and her seemingly endless list of creative skills.

She could trace images from my favourite story books (especially popular was a book about a young witch with stripey socks and curly toes, anyone remember the name of it?), she could embroider (she can still french knot like the wind), press wild flowers (and not-so-wild ones), knit me and my little sister jumpers (even if they were sometimes made of itchy mohair with necks so tight I tried repeatedly to ‘lose’ them in friend’s houses…), french darn, regular darn, crochet (of course).

But the thing that struck me the most – a kid of the 80’s whose life was all hand-me-downs and mass-produced kiddy clothes – was the fact that she’d tell us tales of when she was young and would make her own clothing.

She’d. Made. Her. Own… Clothes.

I don’t mind telling you this blew my little tiny brain.
Where, I wondered, would you even begin with something like that!?
This was magic to me. Was my Mammy a witch or something?!

As I grew up, she introduced me to her hand-crank Singer sewing machine and patiently taught me how to thread the needle, load the shuttle-shaped bobbin, and sew the only stitch the machine could do – a straight hem.

I was in heaven.

Of course, I was undisciplined, and used it more often to punch holes in paper to make “stamps” than to do any actual sewing, but the fascination with making my own clothing has remained with me ever since. It’s the benign, ever-present monkey on my back I have no intention of shaking.

More recently, I have gotten to grips with my own machine (a 1970’s electric classic I found for 20 quid in a charity shop in England. Bargain!), and have begun to experiment gently with it. And suddenly having the opportunity to make my own things, and with a mind bent eternally towards design, I have been pondering the possibilities and the magnitude of expression that comes with this burgeoning superpower.

All this creative experimentation has got me wondering about the off-the-rack clothes we choose to wear, what draws us to them, and why? I mean, every single item has been designed by strangers, made by strangers and sold to us by strangers who have no concept of the nuances of our personalities (or, the shape of our butts..)

I feel it’s important at this point to say that I am not being judgemental here, folks. This is purely me musing aloud about a thing I have not really reached a conclusion on yet. I am aware that dressmaking is a skill, and takes time, money and patience to get even half-way decent at. I am lucky I found that machine, and that it works. It has, nonetheless taken me ten years to get from “Oh, that’s how you thread the bobbin!” to “why is the tension all over the place!!?!” to “hey, that stitching is actually straight for once. Hurray!”

The dress I am perfecting the design for could not be less fussy if it tried. There are no ruffles, no ruches, no prints or patterns on the fabric. It’s plain cotton, is bordered with bias binding, fastens with two, very unassuming plastic snaps and I can put it on or take it off almost as fast as Wonder Woman could. It is gloriously utilitarian and I cannot wait to make a billion more.

I have always used home-made things as a form of emotional armour when going to events that make me nervous. Having a hand-knit jumper on for Christmas at home reduces the considerable stress that day inspires for me. Wearing a home-made dress that I have designed, sewn, and dyed to a crafting event I know next to no-one at affords me a level of protection I simply don’t feel in a shop-bought piece.

And I think it’s the intention behind the make that gives me such comfort. It’s almost like these events – these times when anxiety is crinkling the edges of my brain and the memories of past, public panic attacks are looming – are easier to deal with when I have slipped on my very personal, very individial armour. I spend time preparing a piece, making every single decision about how it should look, how it’s made, how it functions, and I get to wield it as if it’s a shield on which is emblazoned my tribal alliegance.

“This is me,” is whispered with every flick of a hemline, every turn of a cuff.
It’s suble, subliminal even, but spectacularly uncompromising.

I present an image as I wear that dress, that jumper, that shawl, and I am showing the world exactly who I am without even having to open my mouth to explain. It’s a visual shorthand I rely on very much, indeed.

I guess maybe there’s a life lesson in there somewhere? I’m not sure.
For now, perhaps it’s enough that it’s a trick that works.

Perhaps, it’s best if I just keep sewing…

About Aoibhe Ni

I'm a crochet shawl designer from Ireland. Feminist. Trekkie. Dog Lover.
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9 Responses to The shields we choose

  1. Kathlyn says:

    I think you just nailed why I almost always have a shawl I made around my neck when I leave the house. I might not have designed it, but I put in the time and effort to make it, I chose the colours that suit me, and it proves to me that I *can* succeed at doing something, even when I feel useless or anxious.

    I’m not as super-crafty as you (and definitely not in the same league as your mam!) but I’m doing the best I can, and my mini-armour makes me feel good. Thank you for sharing that with the world – I’m so glad it’s not just me, and it’s lovely to see the feeling put into words!

    (Btw, was it the Mildred from the Worst Witch books that you’re thinking of?)

    • Aoibhe Ni says:

      Hi, Kathlyn!
      It is so lovely to hear from people who use their hamdmakes for the same purpose. It is SUCH a help at times, isn’t it? ❤

      (and, to be honest, The Wrst Witch was my first thought, but on looking at the images on google, they don't fit my recollection, so I'm not sure. It's entirely possible my little kiddy brain hasn't recorded it at all accurately. I'll ask Mam when I'm over next, and might just report back!)

  2. Brenda McDowell says:

    Way back in the 80s, I loved to wear simple hand sewn skirts that I could either dress up or down by choosing different types of tops, sweaters, and accessories. Part of the expressiveness and enjoyment of making these skirts came from my love of fabric. I had so much fun selecting fabrics and wearing those skirts!

  3. Breeda27 says:

    Great inspiring post Aoibhe. There is nothing like the confidence and courage gained when feeling comfortable wearing own work, I get this wearing my own jewellery or indeed shawls made to your wonderful designs. And I still use my granny’s Singer -does the job!

    • Aoibhe Ni says:

      Nothing beats those old Singers, eh? My Mam’s one is still on the go, too. Amazing machines.
      And I’m so glad to hear you feel the same effect when wearing not only your crochet work, but your jewellery, too. You do such lovely work, all round.

  4. Maura McGrath says:

    I grew up with my mother sewing clothes for herself & 3 daughters. So I learned to sew and have made clothes for myself and my children, as well as having a sewing business. I find that the experience of sewing garments has taught me how to adjust knitting and crocheting designs to fit me.
    I heartily agree that the things we make from other people’s designs do express ourselves because we have selected the design, fabric or yarn, put in time, adjusted for fit – all to make it our own. For example, I love your designs and because I am allergic to wool, I have to select which type of yarn I will use as well as the color. Thank you for your inspirational designs and post.

    • Aoibhe Ni says:

      Thank you for your heartwarming comment, Maura!
      And pssst, you’ll be glad to hear, I’m currently awaiting yarn for a future design that uses bamboo lace. 😉 I hope you like it!

  5. Aoibhe Ni says:

    Oooh, I had them too!
    I had forgotten all about them, though. I will absolutely have to get some of them later on for my tiny niece.

    But, no. The ones on thinking of were a little more complex, and there were definitely looooong stripey socks involved.
    My adoration for knee high striped socks definitely came from somewhere. Hehe

  6. Michelle Pearce says:

    Meg and Mog?

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