The Sewcialist Interview: Shannon of With A Rare Device

Today, Becky brings you an in-depth interview with Shannon of With A Rare Device. If you are not part of the communities for which Shannon works so hard as an advocate, we hope you enjoy the chance to listen and learn. If you ARE part of any or all of the communities, we hope you feel seen and valued. Enjoy.

Becky (B): Shannon, you have your hands in a lot of stuff! You have your own blog and Instagram, you’re working in the Curvy Sewing Collective (CSC), you’re published on Cashmerette’s blog, you just launched Sew Queer, you’ve worked with Seamwork/Colette Patterns, you’re working on your PhD in Art History… From my experience, people who have the drive to have their hands in a lot of stuff have a drive from deep down. What is the catalyst for your activism?

Shannon (S): I think the thing they all share is a teacherly drive; I like to share things I know so people can connect them to their own experiences. I think this is something I’ve always had, but has come more to the forefront because I actually like teaching now that it’s my job. I’ve realized how much I enjoy it. Sew Queer and things I’ve written for the CSC are also about that, and the missing representation in the world.

It’s taken a long time to figure out my own identity, how I fit into this world, what my future looks like, and what I want it to look like. A lot of that struggle was because I didn’t have examples of the kinds of relationships, gender expression, types of careers, and ways of constructing one’s life that I knew I wanted to have…I didn’t really see those in the world. Part of this is I’m in a place where I can put myself out there, and if that resonates with other people at all, that’s really great.

(B): Do you find that your art history background has a lot of bearing here? Combining your activism with being a teacher, do you feel you’ve consciously put those things together, or am I completely putting words in your mouth?

(S): I think they’re related, but not exactly in that way. One of the things that drives me in art history is that creating things IS part of the way we understand ourselves.  That is where I connect art history to sewing, particularly. Anytime you’re creating, such as taking raw material and making something new out of it, you’re drawing on a long history that came before you.  Any artist working today is building on a long history, even if they want to show something you haven’t seen before, it still relates to this world of images and this world of creativity that continues to be really important to us. We find real pleasure in connecting to this history, finding real meaning in seeing these objects, and connecting with them now.

(B): Do you feel that when you’re working through sewing and making clothing, as you’re solving that sewing puzzle that you’re working on, you’re also mentally and/or emotionally working out other puzzles? Do you find you like the process?

(S): Yes. One of the things I envision sewing does, alongside working on my dissertation, is it allows me to work out puzzles in an entirely different way than writing. Art history is wading through a lot of different theories and interpretations; it’s synthesizing a lot of material together in a way that communicates to people. Also, when I’m sewing, the puzzle solving is about still about synthesizing and bringing things together, but you’re doing it with your hands, spatial configurations, and that is something I never do when I’m working on my writing. Sewing allows me to use a different part of my brain, but then I realize when I’m posting things, and when I’m talking about them, I’m still using the same skills I use when I’m working on my dissertation. The two are never really that far apart.

(B): Do you think that your education in art history and working on your dissertation have an impact on your body image and how you perceive things? …and I wish there was better phrasing for “body image” etc.

(S): Yes, but probably in unexpected ways. It’s less about the type of art I’m working on. My dissertation is all contemporary art. Sometimes it has human figures in it, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes they’re important, sometimes they’re not. It’s not really about the representation of the human body that I’m writing about. When I think about my own body in relation to the work that I’m doing, it’s not really about the bodies that we see in art history.

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(B): Right – like art is not all about realism…

(S): Right, so one of the things that has impacted me a ton is thinking about my body in front of the classroom, and what I look like when I’m teaching. I think about what it means to be a young queer woman in this profession, and what it means to have authority in that place, but also represent myself in a way that feels like I’m recognizing the fact that I’m coming from a particular point of view. My job is not to erase the fact that I’m a human being with opinions when I’m in the front of the classroom. To me, trying to dress really unobtrusively, where I fade into the background, would be trying to erase that I have a point of view. So instead, I try to dress in ways that signal parts of my identity that feel comfortable to me and also allows me to exist in my authority about the subject in a way that will hopefully allow me to connect to the students.

(B): Speaking of putting yourself out there and being comfortable in your body and identity, you self-describe as “dandy-femme.” I really love this combination – it’s such a pair of loaded words with a lot of history behind them. Just the words “dandy” and “femme” and their history start a conversation, which I find fascinating, but do you find anyone coming across this is already knowledgeable?  In other words, is it more important to connect with others already looking for a LGBTQ+ connection, or are you interesting in breaking through that and trying to normalize. I’m interested in your take on the idea of taking negative power out of words such as Bitch, Queer, and by relation Dandy & Femme, etc. by using them more.

(S): I think for myself, there are two projects happening simultaneously. One is the really public writing I do on my blog and things like Sew Queer, where part of that is very much about “in-group” identity. I want people to see that and think, “YES! People like me are out there in this community. I can see that and it feels affirming.” But at the same time, the folks who are following Sew Queer, or who are following me, who have no idea what is going on in the queer world, or with trans identities, are learning things.

In my own writing personally, I try to be accessible enough that people who are coming to it wanting to find out more will be able to, but not necessarily reaching out to people who are resistant. If you are a person that is, maybe, cool with gay people, but you don’t understand why someone may use the word “femme” or why someone may be struggling with their gender identity, I do want it to be a place where someone could go and say, “This one person is this figuring it out this way. That’s really interesting; I’ve learned something from that.”

(B): What has it been like launching the Sew Queer community account, and what advice would you give to people who want to launch a community?

(S): Launching the Instagram page was not actually my first intention. I wanted to start a series of blog posts on my own blog where I talk about my queer identity and my sewing together. I was then going to post them to my Instagram, and then also post a tag to be used by other people if they also want to use it. But then, I was talking to a few friends, but in particular Kate Whittle of @makerandshaker, about building queer sewist communities, and she said I should make an Instagram account that we use to build community. I built it and launched the #sewqueer hashtag all within a week.

It’s been great and has grown much faster than I expected it to. I’m hoping to continue and expand it, but it is a slow process that I’m trying to do very deliberately. I am trying to be thoughtful about my own capabilities and my own time. I want to engage with a variety of people, and I’m also trying to engage really authentically. I try to make sure I can add a comment to reposts at the top, like with my reaction to the post. That part feels really important to me. I want this to be a place where there is a lot of mutual affirmation happening. That sometimes is the hardest part also, because I need to have the mental energy to engage in that authentic way. I’m mindful of the fact that I’m one person. But if you are a person that wants to engage in the community, and particular if you’re new to using the #sewqueer tag, I will repost you happily.

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(B): I feel like this #sewqueer venture is really energizing for you and for all the involvement you have with plus size and art history as well. You’ve been involved in the plus sized community for a long time, so do you feel that putting this part out there too is helping you as a person?

(S): The funny thing is, my first social media experience was all queer rather than plus size.  Before I started my sewing blog and before entering the Instagram world, I had and still have a Tumbler that was a daily outfit blog Tumbler. I post queer, kind of femme/androgenous outfits pictures and a lot of outfit inspiration stuff. My following base over there meant that I got featured in a couple queer fashion blogs. I’ve been on Qwear and on DapperQ, which are the two main queer fashion blogs. So, all of my initial exposure to the social media world was in the queer community, not sewing related and not plus size related.

Well…there’s some plus size, there’s some intersection. That was already a comfortable place for me, but starting Sew Queer and starting the hashtag was also really specifically about thinking about my sewing and how it relates to my queer identity and my gender identity. For example, a lot of menswear patterns have a lot more technical difficulty, and there’s more fear in tackling them for that reason. But also, I have been still working through my own gender identity and ways of expressing it that feel authentic. Sew Queer and writing on my own blog are ways of working on those things that are not really resolved yet, but being open about it, because part of my interest in being a person out there talking about my identity is also talking about the ways in which you figure it out and now you’re done. The difficult parts are when what you feel like what you want goes against what everyone is telling you should want.

My Sew Queer series is about thinking about my own visibility in the community, and thinking about my own gender identity, and sort of a broader, non-gender-binary queer space community, thinking about my own relationship and how it is atypical in a lot of ways, and all of those relate to sewing for me because sewing is one of the places where I work those things out. I work out my feelings about my own body, work out the way people see me in the world, it lets me work out my love for my partner, Morgan, and send them things they get to wear, and it feels good to write about it. I have this concrete, tangible way of working it out, then putting it out in the world to see if that resonates with people.

(B): Speaking of being public and how you put yourself into the world, we dress ourselves to say, “this is how I choose to present my body.” How do you resolve dressing to define an identity and to defy societal structure?

(S): I think of it in a couple different ways… you can’t control what other people are going to think about you or what their impression is going to be because everyone has their own brains and is bringing their own assumptions and different understandings to the table. I can’t control if someone thinks something terrible of me, but also I can’t expect everyone to know some queer signifiers I might be using. If you’re not a person in the queer community, you might not be able to understand some of those signifiers. That’s not something I can control nor am I interested in controlling.

At the same time, clothing has been for me a way of controlling the gaze. I felt at a very young age people were looking at me a lot because I developed young, and you learn to use clothes to control the way people see you. If I wear this, it will allow me to present myself in this way. I still do that. There’s a lot of different situations where I am in front of crowds, where I am teaching, or presenting at a conference, and choosing what I’m going to wear kind of allows me to focus. The way that they’re seeing me feels comfortable to me, even though giant groups of people terrify me. It helps with that.

The flips side of that, for me, in thinking of my own gender identity and my own gender expression, in terms of how I feel and how I experience my gender internally, and then in terms of how I show that to the world by what I’m wearing. A lot of the things I feel about my gender are a lot of things many people are going to be able to comprehend. And this is hard to explain, because I don’t totally understand it always myself. I’m not totally done with the gender identity journey, but because of the shape of my body it is very unlikely that anyone who doesn’t know me is going to look at me and see anything other than “woman.” I have breasts, and hips, and feminine features, and longish hair, and all the signifiers that we tick off that say “woman.” Unless I’m in distinctly queer circles where it’s more typical to have non-binary gender expression, and it’s understood as more of a regular occurrence, that’s not necessarily something I can control.

For the most part, that’s not a difficult thing for me, but there’s also this part of my gender identity that’s sort of not “woman,” that in addition to that, sort of in-between space; something that’s sort of amorphous and not able to be encapsulated by one gender. That’s something I feel pretty comfortable expressing in circles among people that already have that vocabulary. I don’t have any expectation that is going to be super visible to the average stranger, necessarily.

For myself, I do walk through this world of relative privilege because of the fact that “passing as woman” is not a difficult thing, in the way it might be for other folks, like who are trans or who identify as non-binary in a different way than I do. There’s a lot of different experiences we can have in this world, some more difficult than others.

(B): I want to talk about your voice in the plus-size sewing community. In international standardized metrics, plus size grading ratios are very obviously an afterthought. Previous to recently finding this out, I had no idea what the hang-up was about making size-inclusive patterns, and honestly I’m still not sure how or why the standards do not appear to be reflective of real people. You’ve been very vocal and instrumental in leading the community drive for inclusive-sizing in sewing patterns, but please tell our readers, how do you feel about plus-size inclusion, or lack of inclusion, in sewing patterns?

I think that one of the things is that, while I understand grading patterns is difficult, once you’re dealing with bodies of greater mass, you’re also dealing with greater variation. Where weight is distributed, and how it is distributed is different from person-to-person. My problem is that when pattern companies that work in sizes, say, 0-16, are the norm, and it’s said that everyone else is “catering” to a specialized market. What’s not said is that pattern companies that only grade from 0-16 are ALSO catering. They have a specialized market. The problem is that no one seems to talk about that…and what that leads to is when someone wants to start a new pattern company, they think they have to do sizes 0-16 first, then maybe they’ll expand into plus sizes. The reality is they can choose any size range they wanted. You could do sizes 8-22. There would be a customer base for that range. The company could say that this is the size range they wanted to do, the fit model is a size 16, and they’re basing it off of that…that is something a company could start out and do…but instead, 99% of the companies start out doing sizes 0-16, then maybe expand if they want to later. I think Cashmerette is one of the few that starts out in a completely different size range. I think she starts at size 12. (Editor’s note: Cashmerette is sizes 12 – 28 with cup sizes C-H for variations in weight-distribution.)

(B): I find Cashmerette’s range incredible. The standard-sized grading I’ve seen goes from 0 to 18 or 20, and the standardized plus-sized grading I’ve seen over laps at 14 and goes to 32, but the overlap and the plus-sizes are not congruous at all in the ratio of increase. I’d love to know Jenny’s (of Cashmerette) grading metrics just from a nerding-out perspective. The overlap between the standardized charts doesn’t match up, so what does a pattern company do? Split the difference?

(S): That’s the thing. There are a lot of choices to make there! And that is what frustrates me, is that everyone seems to go with the easiest choice to make.

(B): So, is the answer then to push back to the standardization of sizes? Do we push it back farther up the chain? I don’t feel you can go to a mall, watch the people go buy, and come away thinking they’re all sizes 0-16.

(S): I think you’d have to push back at all levels, because it’s not just something that is happening at one level. It’s not just happening at the pattern company level, and it’s not just happening at the indie pattern companies. I tend to push back more on indie pattern makers because they are the ones making the choices about the product being made.

I think that if you’re an indie pattern maker, and you decide to start with sizes 0-20, that’s fine but tell us why you chose that range. Tell us why you think that is your base customer. Instead of acting like this is just the average customer and it would be something special to do a different size, recognize that the range of 0-20 IS something special. You are serving only a subset of the population. I think it is important for companies to articulate who they think is their customer. I think they can articulate their values in ways that would be appealing to a sewing community where there’s a lot of people who are really interested in values-based consuming. It’s going to benefit the consumers to know who the pattern company is serving, and it would help the pattern company to put out there what their values are, and maybe if they plan on expanding in the future.

With so many indie companies that have built a brand with this idea of authenticity, and this idea of women-run companies that are serving a community of predominantly women, that is about creating clothing to express yourself in really authentic ways…if they’re doing that but making choices behind the scenes where they’re only making patterns for a subset of the population, I think this is something that should be ethically addressed.

I understand it is difficult for indie pattern companies to take a risk; there’s a lot of fear around doing something different and whether or not it will sell. I understand it is difficult for someone not in the plus size category, talking about what it means to be in a fat body and what it means to create your own clothing and express yourself in that way can be really difficult. I think that makers who do not identify as plus-sized or fat, are more attentive to the fact that perhaps it is not possible for them to understand. However, when an indie pattern maker is trying to reach those consumers they don’t empathize with or have experience with, it shows. It has happened, and still happens, that when a pattern company moves into plus sizes, they use words that people who ARE plus-sized don’t necessarily appreciate.  As an example, you read a pattern, and it reads, “And it DISGUISES all of these PROBLEM AREAS” – I don’t want my body to be talked about that way. I don’t want them to tell me it’s going to be flattering, I don’t want them to tell me it’s going to hide my tummy, I don’t want them to tell me it’s going to make me look skinnier. This is not something I’m interested in, and I don’t want a pattern company to tell me I should be interested in it.

I also don’t feel I want someone who is a smaller size to give me permission to enjoy my body, such as the common comment, “Just go sleeveless and let your arms be free. It’s okay!” My point being, if you are a pattern maker, and you are looking to make plus size patterns which I think you should be…there are lots of people interested in making plus size patterns…you need to bring on some consultants, and you need to pay them. You need to talk to people who are plus size, who are fat, who are super fat, who are in those larger size ranges, and you need to ask them about ways to market to this community. You need to learn ways that are authentic, that are affirming, that are not dismissive or patronizing, and that do not assume things about the way we feel about our body.

I get a lot of indie companies are one-woman-shows with only one woman at the helm of them. The thing is, you don’t need to rely on just your own experience. There are a lot of people out there who will come on as consultants. There are quite a few in the CSC that you can ask to talk, and pay them for an hour or 2 consultation fee. You can recognize there are people who are going to have different experiences that are useful to you. As a pattern company, you should see the value in that information and their time.

I feel like there’s a market out there for more range in the plus size patterns too. Cashmerette is great and there’s a lot of basics there that everyone loves. But also, I feel that there’s enough of a market for other styles. What about a more challenging sew, like a coat, or where is the Jenny Overalls for my size? Companies like Tilly and the Buttons and Grainline Patterns have very distinctive styles, where are those for plus size patterns? There’s a market for it.

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(B): You’ve been writing about this for quite some time, and even my favorite art history teaching post of yours is a year ago now…how do you feel things are changing? Or even IF things are progressing and changing?

I feel like it’s one of those things where there are small advances being made. It’s hard to measure in terms of the sewing industry. Patterns take a long time to develop, so change isn’t going to happen overnight. My experience has been when I talk about these things, on Instagram for instance, I get a lot of folks saying they feel the same way and they are also frustrated by lack of sizing options and empathy. The feedback I get is that people are glad I’m talking about these things, but folks are still thirsting for that conversation to continue. So…a year on, nothing has really changed all that much but the conversations are still going on. Concrete changes as per plus size ranges, I don’t know if it’s happening, but the conversations are happening so I’m hopeful.

(B): I wonder what the sales are regarding plus size patterns. I mean, I feel all of this would happen a lot faster if the sales supported more plus sized patterns. Without knowing those numbers, it’s hard to say if the plus sized community is a vocal minority, or if there’s a huge market need not being met, and ignorance of that market is prevailing. That said, even in the case of a possible minority, being vocal can change a lot of things. Of course, I’m just guessing, and I have no idea, but if things are financially motivated, they seem to change faster.

(S): Right, and also in the sewing community, I don’t know that we have good metrics on what the measurements of people who are already sewing. What IS the average size of the average sewist? But on the other hand, not everyone is sewing, and as a pattern company, you’re always trying to get new people sewing. In that alone, there are really big barriers for aspiring plus sized sewists.

If you’re a plus size person, and you want to make your own clothes, first, where do you find the patterns? Second, if you’re on social media, the vast majority of sewing influencers are thin. The vast majority of the sewing company owners are thin. When we see tester versions, the testers are thin. With any kind of pattern, there’s a self-replicating effect. If you see it on someone with a body like yours, you’re going to want to make it. However, if there isn’t a sample shown by the pattern company or they’re not sharing images representing their full size range, you may never see someone with a body like yours make that pattern. If you’re brand new to sewing, that is super intimidating. Therefore, we’re not getting NEW plus size sewists at nearly the rate we are getting smaller sized sewists. There are folks out there that want to make their own clothes; they exist. I don’t think the sewing community is particularly welcoming them, because it’s very daunting. Being new and even reading, “You can make that pattern, and you need to make these 12 adjustments to make it fit your body” is terrifying.

(B): So, this becomes an issue of…if you don’t see yourself in the population, then you’re not going to aspire to be a part of that population.

(S): Yeah…and if you go to sewing classes, and the sewing teacher doesn’t know how to do the adjustments that are necessary for your body, or often sewing classes only choose patterns that are size 16 and smaller, and never offer higher sizes in their patterns that they choose to teach. How are you supposed to learn? There’s a lot of barriers to the entry of the community that don’t need to be there.

(B): Do you think the take away for pattern companies that want to include plus sizes, is they need to show more size ranges in their promotional photos?

Yes. If it’s feasible, have multiple models in multiple points in your size range, with one always at the top end. Or at least a second line drawing included with a larger body type in the PDF. Make sure your tester pool is really broad and if you’re doing a blog post with tester round up photos, make sure you’re including examples at the top of your size range. Make sure you’re promoting them equally, if you’re a company that reposts things in the tags on Instagram. Check your own personal assumptions. Try to figure out how much you’re representing in terms of size, race…like, if you’re only reposting relatively thin, white women, then you’re telling us very much what your brand is, and that’s a problem.

(B): You have a lot of work that is intersected here with your activism and teaching. What is your big hope to come from all of this work? What keeps driving you?

(S): What makes me so happy, and this comes up time and again both in Sew Queer and in my various plus size rants, when people say to me:

  • This feels really good to me
  • This is something that hit home to me
  • This is something that feels affirming to me
  • I didn’t know there other queer sewist in the world
  • I didn’t know people were doing this work
  • I didn’t know that people were thinking about expressing their sexual or gender identity through sewing and this feels awesome
  • I’ve never seen someone with a body like mine that dresses like me

It’s about that representation: I am affirming you the way that you are by talking about these things. Particularly sew queer. This is not ‘the ways you can be’ or presenting role models, but more ‘the way you are is awesome; let’s talk about it’ or ‘let’s affirm that.’ Make connections with other people. Hopefully folks are following each other and saying “I want to know that person” and I want to be friends with them. Mutual affirmation and connection.

One of the things about the Sewcialists community, and one of the things that has come up, in particular with Sew Queer, is that sometimes people will say they don’t know if they identify ENOUGH as queer for #sewqueer… one of the things I say, not to push anyone who’s not comfortable, but if you feel the tiniest bit queer, you are queer enough. That is true, no matter how much or where you are in life, YOU ARE ENOUGH to be yourself, and enough to be part of my community. I use queer because I like it as an umbrella term, but obviously this includes everyone LGBTQ+.

I read this joke once, I don’t recall where: The one universal experience that we can claim as queer people is that at one time or another, we have all felt not queer enough.

The Sewcialist Interviews are a chance to hear more from some of the leaders in our sewing community. We will search out pattern makers, fabric designers, teachers, designers, and all-around awesome people that embody the Sewcialist spirit, and bring you the interviews to help inspire your sewing journey.

We thank Shannon for her time and participating in our interview. Shannon will be looking for community volunteers for Sew Queer. If you are interested, please contact Shannon through the Sew Queer Instagram account.

(All images property of Shannon of With A Rare Device)