Who We Are: Being a Left-Handed Sewist

Melissa from A Happy Stitch
Who We Are: Left-Handed Sewist

We have all heard it said, “Lefties are so creative!”  We have also seen the images in the self-help aisle, a picture of a brain with color and paint exploding from the right side (the side in control for the left-handed) while the left side of the brain sits gray and dull.  In my eight years of teaching sewing, I personally haven’t found a proportionally higher rate of creativity among my left-handed tribe and suspect these proclamations are little more than an attempt to make up for the years when being left-handed was Exhibit A for ‘most probably a witch’.  Yet, given the reputation for creativity among the left-handed you would think the wildly creative world of sewing would be filled with leftie-friendly tools.  Alas, it is not.  I was painfully reminded of this recently when I splurged and bought a fancy new iron.  I quickly discovered that the iron’s special ability to release tiny holding feet from the soleplate when you release your hand mean that if I use my left hand and press the steam button at the same time the tiny feet will sporadically release making ironing impossible. The advice I got from a fellow sewist with the same problem was, “train yourself to work around it.” 

Despite the proliferation of messages about lefties and creativity and the inherent creativity in the act of sewing, sewing equipment itself is still (mostly) built for the right-handed. So much so that when I was asked how I deal with being left-handed and sewing I was speechless.  I was a fish being asked to describe water.  

My own left-handedness came as a surprise to my family and while inquiring “where did THIS come from?” it came out that my grandfather was left-handed but the school had forced it out of him at a young age.  No one ever explained exactly what that meant but it sounded awful. My own grandma blandly implied his left-handedness remained a very unattractive part of his personality. My sweet grandfather replied with a meek shrug to the whole conversation. I know that meek shrug: it is Midwest-speak for a resigned, “What can you do?”

Indeed, just as with the iron re-training, this is the general approach I and my southpaw comrades take to life as left-handed sewists.  What can you do? Not a lot. I mean, what you do is adapt.  After thinking about it for a while, asking a few friends, and doing a bit of research I came up with a few thoughts. 

 Some things just don’t work and it’s ok: 

I struggled for the longest time to get my automatic threader to work. After trying again and again, I declared that automatic threaders are useless! Only recently did I realize that automatic threaders are operated by the left-hand and therefore rely on the right hand to grasp and guide the thread. Well, with a right hand unable to work fine motor skills, the use of the automatic threader was impossible, certainly for me.  This, of course, doesn’t make them useless for everyone.  There was, after all, no need for the drama. I just don’t use my automatic threader.

Additionally, I cannot operate a rotary cutter with my right hand. When I am teaching my class on how to make espadrille shoe, I have to alter my language and instruct students to use their non-dominant hand to hold down the fabric and pattern and their dominant hand to cut. This helps eliminate any confusion about how to properly cut for those uninitiated with rotary cutters. 

Melissa demonstrating on how to make one of her espadrilles kits

Thankfully, I am ambidexterous enough to use right-handed scissors for cutting fabric.  Though, I have heard from a number of people who are so left-handed they need to buy special left-handed fabric scissors and the word is they are more expensive and hard to find. That sounds like a left-handed person’s tax and I say boo to that!

Some things are better for lefties! 

You know how left-handed baseball players are the cream of the crop? Some sewing implements have hidden and accidental advantages as well. 

For example, I recently learned that during the industrial revolution, when the sewing machine was invented, it operated via hand crank.  Because it took great strength to operate the hand crank, it was placed on the right-hand side where most of the population was strongest.  Of course, over time sewing machines moved to a foot pedal operating system but kept the machine the same.  Therefore, the modern sewing machine maintains a left-sided orientation even though the flywheel no longer needs a good crank. 

While discussing all of this with another sewing instructor on Instagram, she described how she uses being a leftie to help her teach.  When she stands directly in front of her right-handed students and sews, she is a perfect mirror for what they need to do. This helped me realize that I have inadvertently done this as well.  Who knew?!

Melissa on a stool, sewing an espadrille and demonstrating the mirror-effect of a left-handed person to a right handed person

Most of us conform and adapt to a right-handed world

At its heart, sewing is the act of manipulating fabric with a needle and thread and that means listening to your body’s comfort. Yes, I hold my clear ruler with my right hand so my more skilled left hand can do the cutting. When I am making espadrilles, as is often the case these days, I have to hold the shoe in my right hand so that I can hand-stitch with my left hand.  It’s the opposite of how I saw it illustrated on-line when I was learning but, without realizing it I flipped the script in my head. I adapted and made it work for what is comfortable for me. 

I have, for example, mastered the weirdness of my new iron and can honestly say that I now love it. I’ve even learned how to switch it from one hand the other without triggering the release of the tiny holder feet.  Score!

Thankfully, sewing is such a tactile and intuitive process that it’s relatively easy to make adaptations work for the left-handers among us. In fact, I love being a left-handed sewist.  I’m part of the 10% of the population that might just be a witch after all. If that turns out to be the case, I will be well prepared to make my costume.

A photo of an espadrille kit

Melissa Quaal is a blogger at A HAPPY STITCH, a garment sewer, instructor and the creator of The Espadrilles Kit. She sells her all-in-one kits for making espadrille shoes on Etsy and loves inspiring people all over the world to make their own footwear to wear with their fabulously handmade clothes.