In many ways, I am well reflected in the sewing community. I have advantages in accessing and participating in sewing. Advantages that mean I can share here in relative safety.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months wondering how each one of us – queer and straight- navigates presenting ourselves with respect to our gender and sexual identities. Gender and sexuality are complex and nuanced. But we’re all surrounded by cultural systems with specific ideas about gender, sexuality, all the time. How does all that impact how each of us gets dressed every day?
I’ve been pondering that question on a personal level, too. The more I want to explore beyond the norms, the more I’m confronted by how challenging that is. It’s hard to explore expression of gender and orientation for yourself when it’s hard to see a full range of possibilities. We all get ideas about what it means to be x gender and y sexuality from looking at other people. We all get ideas about what the options even are from each other and cultural narratives. It took me a long time to self-identify as bi and fluid because I saw so little modeling of bi-ness and no discussion of fluidity for most of my life, that I wasn’t able to see myself reflected and realize, oh, that’s me. Now that I am self-identified, I’m still figuring out: what does it mean to be bi? What does that look like for me? And, even more so, if all my ideas of how to be a woman were rooted in being a straight woman, what does it now mean a woman who isn’t straight?
Sewing is a phenomenal opportunity to go explore that, but I bump into limitations, too.
Representation is far and away the biggest challenge. For years, I literally didn’t know of any other bisexual people in the sewing community. I haven’t seen or heard bisexuality discussed as a central topic of conversation. I’ve web searched for “bisexual sewing blog,” more than one time, with no success. I suspect this speaks more to the reality of bi (and queer) people in sewing than to me potentially not being clued in to some secret underground bi sewist network (although if that is a thing, I want in). It shouldn’t be that hard to know or find other bisexual (and queer) people who also like sewing. I’m absolutely not the only one.
All this time, being completely stymied at even spotting another bi+ sewist, I may as well have been the only one. Feeling alone in any part of your identity is isolating. I’d bet all of us have shared that feeling at one time or other, be it about sexual orientation or something else. I’d bet we can all relate to how much it stinks to feel you are alone and how bad it is for your well being and mental health.
I love seeing many examples in sewing of what gender looks like. There’s so much range, and it transcends the range of options presented in media and culture. Seeing all of you has helped me figure out elements of how I want to go about my own gender expression, and I really value that. At the same time, I often feel alienated by gender visibility and norms in the sewing community, which are mainly dominated by or rooted in straightness. It’s really hard to pinpoint this in words, but I can best describe it as sometimes feeling intangibly out of sync and uncomfortable: so close, but not quite right.
I love seeing people sharing what they’ve made for their partners of all genders, in part because it models different relationship possibilities, but here’s another subtle way bisexuality is not readily visible. Any of these relationships could include bi people, but you’d never know it just by looking.
There-in lies the rub: Orientation, especially bisexuality, can be tricky to spot, for straight and queer people alike. Often, you can’t see bisexuality just by looking. There’s no one way of looking bi+ (#whatbilookslike). You can’t tell by who we are dating or partnered with (if we are dating or partnered at all). People who are bi are definitely around, but often rendered invisible. Bi-ness is a catch-22: Even if it’s really no one else’s business, if I don’t make it known, I will never fully be seen.
Another challenge is patterns. I am at an advantage being a cis-woman, but I bump on sewing patterns being largely based on the assumption that the person sewing them will be straight, cis, and gender normative. Many patterns have little to do with what is useful to my life or my personal agenda for how I want to feel in my clothes. Sometimes what I want to make for myself is just hard to come by, especially when factoring in a desire to explore nonconforming gender expression. Noninclusive sizing especially compounds the issue of what my options are. I’m in-between straight and plus-sized. Frequently when I do find a pattern or company with an aesthetic I like, I’m outside the size range.
For example, I have a love of classic men’s tailoring. My dream wardrobe for ages was literally custom tailored suits, with the pocket squares and the cuff links and the colorful socks. The visual language of menswear is a dream to me: it speaks to me as a way to convey power and confidence and coolness, exactly what I want in how I look. Unfortunately actual men’s RTW clothing mostly looks horrific on my particular body because curves. So this is place were sewing has a lot of potential but also limits. My dream sewing project is a immaculately tailored classic tuxedo. The current market suggests there’s not many options for people (of any gender) looking for classic tux patterns. I hope by the time I’m technically ready for that, there’s more patterns and resources available, for all genders and bodies and sizes (and with cup sizes, please!!!).
Another example: What does it take to get a boxer brief pattern that is gender inclusive? I could drown in classically feminine underwear patterns, but struggled for ages to find options that affirm my preference for the superior comfort and versatility of the boxer brief. I gave up and sprang for RTW. (Bruce is an option, though).
Another challenge is language. Jasika and Shannon went into more depth on this, so I’ll just share one of my personal least favorite examples: Personal style discussions posited as “dressing for men” or “dressing for other women.” The implication here is that you are a straight woman, that dressing for men means dressing to be attractive and seductive, and that dressing for other women means looking chic and cool. It completely erases that a woman could be dressing for other women because they are attracted to other women. Or that someone could be attracted to men and/or women and/or all genders and/or no one. Or that you could be dressing for yourself and not anyone else. Or any other number of permutations and scenarios.
Challenges aside, when it comes to sewing and dressing, it’s hard (impossible? pointless?) for me to sort out the lines between bisexuality, gender expression, and being a feminist with a low tolerance for bullshit. The one commonality, though, is desire. Recognizing my sexuality is about owning my desire. Eschewing gender roles that don’t work for me is about centering my own desire. Being a feminist is about honoring my desire and supporting the rights of everyone to get a fair shake at doing so, too. Sewing my own clothes is about listening to my own desire. Women and queer people in particular, but not only, are often socialized to minimize their desires. I say to hell with that. I’ll follow my own compass, thanks very much. Sewing is one particular, tangible strategy to do so.
Sometimes, staying true to my desires is easier said than done. Sometimes, having to make a choice about, or even acknowledge what I really want, or advocating for myself and others, is exhausting and overwhelming. Sewing is a way to take a break. To practice hearing my desire with lower stakes decisions. Asking myself what do I want to make? is a gift. Choosing to say, sew comfy knits in a pretty color and be cozy while I figure stuff out, is a gift.
There’s interesting conversations to be had about gender and sexual identity in relation to making clothes and getting dressed. How do we use straight or queer visual signifiers? How do we get dressed to accurately have our orientation read? Is that possible for everyone? How does your gender and orientation intersect with other elements of who you are? What’s the relationship between orientation and gender expression when getting dressed? How do bi and queer people in particular navigate all this?
Those are big questions — way beyond the scope of what I can answer here by myself. But hearing stories from people living those questions is valuable for growth, understanding, and inclusion for bi and queer people and otherwise oriented individuals alike. We need space to hold those stories with empathy and respect, we need to include room for them in our conversations about making clothing, and we need to make the barrier for sharing them less intimidating. That’s built on an atmosphere of trust, where people feel safe and seen. We could perhaps all use a reminder that people of all genders and orientations are part of the sewing community.
It’s awesome to see self-fashioned, everyday clothes on cool, smart, skillful people across a spectrum of backgrounds and personal presentations. What’s been deeply missing is the pieces of the conversation representative of bi+ people, the whole range of gender expressions, identities, and roles, and diverse expressions of queerness and sexual identity. Let’s keep changing that.
To bi and queer sewists: Hi! Let’s connect and keep building a network. I’m @darkroomlove, which is a reference to my love of photography.
To lgtbqia+ allies: Let’s also connect! And, here’s what you can do to be awesome.
- Follow queer sewists. Make sure you are seeing a range of gender expressions, gender identities, and orientations. Check out #sewqueer and @sewqueer.
- Let your favorite pattern and sewing companies know you want to see marketing, language, and designs inclusive of LGBTQIA+ sewists and other communities that are not well represented by the industry.
- Give positive feedback when pattern and sewing companies get it right!
- Support queer and queer inclusive/friendly designers, sewists, blogs, shops etc.
- Remember we all have different backgrounds and lived experiences. Be respectful and kind.
- Make and respect spaces grounded in empathy where people can share their stories.
- Bi+ Specific:
- Recognize and acknowledge that bisexuality+ exists.
- Assume bi+ people are participating in the sewing community.
- Remind yourself that other people’s orientation is Unknown To You Until Told Otherwise. Bi+ people in particular can be hard to read by presentation or partners alone. Be cautious in making assumptions and don’t assume straightness as the default option.
- If you want to go the extra mile, learn more about bisexuality!
- What else?
Thank you: Gillian and the Sewcialist team for organizing and hosting; LGBTQIA+ “Who We Are” Contributors, #sewqueer, the thoughtful, amazing Sewcialist community. You all set examples that helped me work up the courage to share.
P.S: “Hey, what does the plus sign (+) after bi, bisexual, or bisexuality mean?” Bisexuality is being used as an umbrella term that is inclusive of a variety of orientations / labels.
I love this essay a lot. There is so much texture and reality and thought. Thank you.
Thank you, Matti, for your kind words and support!
Completely my pleasure. I am also a bi+ cisgendered female person. I am part of a happy polycule and have simply amazing others. I try to live out loud, but there is so much opposition and potential backlash. It’s difficult to walk those lines. I want to be out loud and also am employed in the current world in the midwest, soooo…..
I forwarded your essay to a sweetheart who is gender-fluid . They really liked your writing, too! It was eye-opening for them to hear about the self-empowering strength of sewing and creating one’s own image. This is not a crafting person, so hearing that sewing can = self-love and actualization was delightfully mind-altering.
Matti, it’s awesome that you’re in a happy, supportive polycule and confident in who you are.
It’s definitely hard to balance being loud and proud with the possibility of real consequences (job insecurity, physical unsafety, or social exclusion, etc). Geographic location plays a big part, too. Disclosure is always a calculated risk.
It’s a huge compliment that your sweetie liked the article, too, and had such an exciting mind-expansion moment! Fun! 🙂
Yes to this post! I am a bi (cis female) sewist who is not very loud about my bi-ness and the line “Even if it’s really no one else’s business, if I don’t make it known, I will never fully be seen,” really resonated with me! I feel a bit caught between communities because I hate that I’m assumed straight, but I don’t feel “fully queer” because I’m in a relationship with a cis man. I love that the sewing community is generally very accepting, even if pattern designers and some of the language hasn’t caught up yet.
YES I totally relate to this, being in a 6+ year relationship with the best guy ever, my life is totally heteronormative. The longer I am in this relationship, even talking about also being attracted to women feels like seeking attention.
Thanks Claire, for writing this excellent post, and both Claire and Catherine for reminding me I should not forget my bisexuality being in a long relationship.
Thank you Erika and Catherine for these comments. It means a lot to me to hear from other sewists who are bi. Figuring out how to manage bi+ visibility and hold your space for the fullness of your bisexuality, especally in a long term, monogamous relationship (regardless of the genders of the people involved) is super tricky. It takes a lot of energy to honor it and make it known to the degree you want, especially when there’s that feeling of being in-between communities or like it is self-involved or like you’re not “queer enough.” I find it helpful to remind myself that bi people are the biggest demographic in the queer community! 🙂
Thank you for this! I’m a queer cis woman and beginner sewist, and I really related to what you said about feeling “so close, but not quite right.” I love reading blogs, finding new patterns, seeing everyone’s projects, etc., but I still feel somewhat isolated as a queer maker who is still in the process of discovering exactly what my personal style is (hoping that as I sew more I’ll be able to develop a more consistent and authentic “look” but we’ll see, haha). I think for me part of what it boils down to is that even if the sewing community as a whole is really kind and accepting (which is true!) it’s still second nature for most non-queer sewists to fall into heteronormative etc. language I appreciated the example you gave about “dressing for men vs. dressing for other women” for that reason – that’s definitely something that’s rubbed me the wrong way when I heard it. Why can’t we just talk about dressing to be attractive to others vs. dressing for ourselves? That seems to be what people are actually getting at when they say it. The implication that “dressing for other women” = not worrying about being attractive, or not trying to be attractive, also opens up even more wormholes for women who are attracted to women. E.g., if I am attracted to women, is my presence in a sewing space where straight women sewists are “dressing for other women” going to be unwelcome? I don’t actually think that’s the case, because as I said the sewing community as a whole is definitely welcoming and I doubt anyone would actually think that – but the language used can still make queer sewists feel uncomfortable. And I say that as someone who leans more femme and can easily find patterns that interest me style wise. (Although not always size wise – that borderline straight sizes/plus sizes life!) I can only imagine the isolation for new sewists especially who can’t easily find patterns or bloggers that match their gender expression, etc. Sorry this comment ended up quite a bit longer than I intended – I hope all my thoughts kind of make sense! – but I really enjoyed this post and it really resonated with me 🙂 Thanks for writing it!
Jenny, thank you for this comment! You’ve hit on so many points brilliantly. One, that it can be isolating to be a queer maker and find your people. There’s a challenging in identifying each other. Two, that the sewing community is full of humans all living in a culture of heteronormativity. We all carry that baggage with us and it’s easy to default to without even realizing it. Three, yes, the underlining issue of “if I’m into women, can I still participate?” I agree with your take on it, and also have totally felt the same way in female spaces: like is it okay for me to still be here? It’s a tough one and part of that not-quite-fitting in culture thing. Four, “that borderline straight sizes / plus sizes life!” uh YES! I just love how you phrased it. Five, let’s just say what we mean when we talk about whether we’re dressing to be attractive to other people or not. Six, that the sewing community is pretty awesome and accepting!
“Another challenge is language.” I gotta say, this is a challenge for me, as I’m realizing as a straight woman. I’m in a Facebook sewing group that is 99.9% women. I find it very easy to compliment when “your make is so frilly and feminine!” but hard to compliment a sewist that has made a traditionally masculine-looking make. It feels weird to me compliment a woman with a “your make is so strong and masculine” type of comment. I notice these group participants rarely get comments and I feel bad – like their makes don’t generate an equal amount of curiousity or enthusiasm as those of sewists who make things that look traditionally feminine. For me, being told I look masculine would hurt my feelings. But I’m finding I really need to get through my head that if a woman made it, and if a woman is modeling it with a big smile on her face, clearly she prefers a more traditionally masculine look.
The answer, of course, is to quit making comments that reference gender. In that regard, I don’t know that the sewing community is very skilled at that. But this post has been a wake up call that we need to do better.
Jill, if someone has made some suiting trousers or a shirt or fitted waistcoat, perhaps you can compliment the skill, fit, colour choices etc, and stay away from the masculine/feminine terms.
Thanks for sharing this reflection, Jill. Great awareness thinking about the culture of your sewing group. I agree with Sew Ruthie, complimenting skill, fit, fabric choice, color, and so forth is a good strategy!
Have you looked at the boxer wear briefs at Stitch Upon a Time (SUAT) patterns? I haven’t actually tried it myself but I’ve been meaning to, and it looks like it might work.
Yes, Leslie. I think they’re another great candidate. I considered them, but was on the fence about the style lines. Now I’m realizing they are very similar to my RTW ones, ha!
I kept on meaning (and forgetting) to make a comment recommending this pattern as well! I have made them a few times and those pairs are on heavy rotation. You can see a couple in my Instagram (@allison_neverdid) that are definite influenced by my bi-ness.
They look awesome, Allison! Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂
Thank you for your essay…some really interesting thoughts I hadn’t considered before.
PS Thread Theory have a boxer short pattern and posted about modifying them for women https://threadtheoryblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/12/comox-trunks-pattern-hack-lady-trunks/
Thanks for the link, E! I missed that mod. Glad you found the article thought-provoking!
My comment got lost in my new, “omg a non-frilly pants? Must go!” So I’ll be trying some bruce’s out soon. I prefer lots of coverage from my pants since I also prefer dresses, and I’m not the type of person to remember modesty! 😀 I want to be able to stretch up or grab things from the floor without fear of “who just saw flashes of blinding white???”.
Anyway, awesome post. Anytime those of us aren’t helping with our wording, let us know! Sewing people are good with constructive criticism!! 🙂
Haha! That’s fantastic, Chris. Yeah, they are unbeatable for modesty under dresses (and great for preventing thigh rub, ha!). Thanks for your support!
I’m surprised you aren’t finding the patterns you want. I’ve seen numerous white tuxedo shirts with cup sizing, I think from Simplicity. I’ve seen jackets that can be made in tuxedo fabric. Check out Silhouette Patterns, huge jacket selection with cup sizing and extended sizing range. I’ve also seen quite a few Vogue patterns, a Sandra Betzina one included. Petite plus makes D cup pattern tuxedo vest. My pattern stash is insane!
Suzanne, I am totally jealous of your stash! Ha! Thanks for the good suggestions. You gave me a light bulb moment, which was realizing, oh duh, a tux is really just pants, the shirt, and the jacket, which can all be modified from basic blocks or adapted from other patterns. I do wish there were more pattern choices and construction resources available, especially when compared to how much there is for say, making fancy dresses, but it’s nice to have these additional options you’ve recommended!
thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bi-erasure is happening everywhere, it’s a great way to counter that! And in the latest issue of seamwork magazine, there are some great “less feminine” underwear patterns!
Thanks for your support, Clara! I loved that you highlighted those seamwork patterns in your post – I missed them. Maybe there should be a gender-inclusive underwear pattern round up?
Wow great idea! Underwear and swimwear! Would you like to collaborate on that and submit the idea to the Sewcialists?
Yeah, let’s do it!
What a great post thank you so much for sharing. I don’t discuss much my personal or professional life on my blog but as a bi+ cis woman, I truly appreciate your openness and thoughtful words! I dress quite feminine so I never really struggled with finding my style reflected in sewing patterns but I definitely see how it could be a challenge. Regarding RTW underwear, two very good friends in New York run PlayOut. I thought you may like them!
Thanks so much! It’s definitely a fine line to manage that personal / private / professional / disclosure balance and it is different for everyone, especially about something so personal and when you have a business involved. I’m lucky to be in a position place where I can be open; I know not everyone can, for all kinds of reasons. I’m am glad that my post resonated with you! Also, yes, PlayOut is pretty great! It’s awesome to see more options RTW.
Such great sewing. I love all your stuff. Truthfully I need to get off my duff and just do it!
Thanks Tamara! Good luck with your projects – sometimes getting started is the hardest part!
It’s really lovely to have read this post and all the follow up comments! I definitely related to a lot of your thoughts as another bi sewist. I am not yet comfortably out in all parts of my life and am thus still hesitant to do things like use the #sewqueer hashtag on my posts, so I follow @sewqueer and the respective hashtag and have really enjoyed getting to see so much creativity. I am a beginner sewist and also hope to meet more of the community 🙂
Leye, thanks for your comment. It seems like a lot of us here empathize with and relate to the challenges of managing out-ness; it’s a real balancing act. Sewqueer has been such a gift. It’s been really exciting to find more bi and queer sewists to connect with. We’re happy to have you be part of the community! 🙂