I’ve always been very preoccupied with being good. Call it “motivated” or “obsessed” depending on how you want to spin it. I tried really hard to be a good kid, a good friend, and a good person. And of course, I wanted to be good at all the things. I still do. However, I’m 29 now and I’m learning that as a person who is disabled and neurodivergent, the standards of goodness weren’t written with me in mind. For a long time, I worked at fitting into standards anyway, only to be met with failure and frustration. Then I tried rebellion, and I began to find joy.
My sewing adventure and journey with chronic illness and neurodivergence are intertwined. Though I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and fibromyalgia as a teen, these conditions didn’t have a daily impact on my life until I was in a car accident in November 2015. I found myself experiencing pain all the time everywhere in my body, and my thoughts were overwhelming and uncontrollable. Everything changed and I thought I was losing myself. That’s when I found sewing.
My sewing adventure started in rebellion. I learned to sew in a costume production course. This course was among my final three classes to finish my theatre degree. I was so close to graduation I could taste it. I couldn’t, however, read. Weeks before the start of that last term I was in a traumatic car accident. What I thought was just a little concussion turned out to be a full-blown traumatic brain injury with damage to my optic nerve.
I was so isolated and disconnected my creativity, because everything I knew was basically taken away. This new inability to read removed me from theatre and the social creativity on which I built my life. The injuries to my ribs severely impacted my singing ability and my concussion changed the way I engaged with listening to music. My identity as theatre artist, singer, academic, creative leader was all crumbling.
But I was positive and determined! So I continued school instead of taking time off like everyone told me to. I was rebelling not only against my circumstances, but also against my body. I failed two of the three classes I dragged myself to that term. Somehow, though, I passed Costume Production.
It was awful. The course consisted of two projects: one for the stage production and one garment for yourself. For the first project we were assigned a costume to make, with the pattern and fabric chosen by the designer. It was so stressful. My executive function was so scrambled that remembering all the steps — threading the machine, putting the foot down, remembering seam allowance — felt impossible. I remember sitting alone in the studio one afternoon just sobbing. Within three short weeks, I learned to sew and completed my first project, which went directly from my hands to the actor on stage.
But then the second half of term we shifted to making garments for ourselves. My dress was a disaster (I wish I had pictures!), but something in me clicked. My creativity was reactivated by imagining fabrics and patterns together. It was so amazing to take an idea in my head and use my hands to realize something tangible. After being cut off from the intellectual and performative creativity that I knew, sewing introduced a new type of creativity that made me feel like myself again.
Almost five years later, rebellion is still a big part of my sewing practice. But instead of rebelling against my body, I’m rebelling with her and for her. I have loved being part of the sewing community these last five years. I’ve learned so much, but I’ve also picked up a lot of subtle messaging about what makes someone a “good sewist.”
I’ve struggled with these notions of being “good” in my sewing practice and in the last year, I’ve been able to recognize how these internalized virtues have been harmful to me and others. Don’t get me wrong, no one cornered me and maliciously told me “this is how you must behave!” but they’re subtle messages that built up over time and I accepted them. Here’s what I mean:
- A good sewist builds their skills in conscious and continuous steps. There are clear milestones like jeans and coat making. They should always be willing and excited to learn new techniques.
- A good sewist always pre-reads the instructions before beginning a project and follows those instructions through the entirety of the project.
- A good sewist sticks to their sewing plans.
- A good sewist is tidy, organized, and completes tasks methodically.
- A good sewist practices sustainability. They use what they buy and work hard to limit waste. Natural fibers are morally superior to man-made fibers.
- A good sewist doesn’t take shortcuts. They always make a muslin, stay stitch and press every seam.
- A good sewist is concerned with fit and will make several toiles to get it right.
- A good sewist always pre-washes fabric as soon as they bring it home.
- A good sewist always uses French or flat-felled seams. Overlocking or zig-zagging is lazy.
So I tried. I bought all the fitting books. I Frenched every seam. I forced myself to keep to my sewing plans. I made plans and bought patterns for items I didn’t want to make but were “skill-builders” — jeans, coats, button-down shirts, etc.
I got to the point where I was really stressed about sewing — something that was supposed to bring me joy! I was using up precious energy, movement and mental space to further guilt myself into “growing.” I shamed myself for making plans without following through. I pushed my body past the point of pain and refused to make accommodations that could make things easier for me. I told myself I needed to get over it and power through.
It was around this time that I also started accepting my conditions as part of daily life, rather than isolated episodes or the after-effects of my car accident and traumatic childbirth. I started warming up to the idea of actually calling myself “disabled.” As I learned more about disability and societal expectations, I began to unravel some of the shame I had placed around my sewing.
I realized my drive to learn all the things was really a masked search for validation. I thought I could feel better about not working if I framed my sewing hobby as “educational” — like I was pursuing something that I could someday monetize. Even though I wasn’t working, I still felt like I had to produce something at a full-time rate.
And all that guilt about not following through with my sewing plans or ideas? When I really looked at where that was coming from, I heard the voices of past teachers and mentors who didn’t care to understand my ADHD brain or called me a flake instead of understanding how chronic illness works. As I peeled back these layers, I realized how I allowed sewing to become a vessel for all my shame, frustration and internalized ableism and capitalism. I considered letting go of it altogether.
Instead of removing my toxic sewing practice, I decided to heal it. It’s been almost two years since I gave myself permission to stop being “good” at sewing. It’s an active practice to remind myself that I deserve to enjoy something without it being part of climbing any ladders or as a means to some next goal. I often find myself drifting toward self-imposed deadlines or feeling like I’m not doing enough.
In these moments, I try to take a step back and lean hard into joy and rebellion. By choosing to follow my joy, I’m rebelling against the idea that my worth is tied to what I can or cannot produce. I’m rebelling against the idea that I’m lazy because I have less energy and strength than a typical person. I’m rebelling against the idea that I’m flaky because I don’t always follow through with my plans.
I’ve isolated the parts of sewing that I love and have pretty much done away with the rest. Firstly, I love planning projects. Seeing the possibilities of pairing fabrics and patterns is so stimulating and inspiring to me. I love putting the combinations in my color-coded spreadsheet, even if I don’t get around to making them. Secondly, I love wearing what I’ve made. I love the boost I get when I put on something that was once only a blip in my mind and now a fully realized creation. I love getting to dress myself in reflections of my imagination.
My sewing joy comes from planning and wearing what I make, not really from the actual making process. This is why I struggled so much with bigger “sink-your-teeth-in” kinds of projects, or ones with several rounds of fitting. While I love watching other sewists’ fitting journeys, it’s just not for me. I get stressed out and a very nasty, very critical version of perfectionism comes out to berate me until I end up giving up on the project.
For a long time I thought I was being a flake and a quitter for losing interest in longer projects, but I realize now how that inclination was a healthy invitation to leave that negative spiral I often found myself in. So now I don’t make fitted dresses or intricate coats. I make the same patterns multiple times, I cut corners, skip muslins, and my overlocker is my best friend. And I’m much healthier for it.
I’ve reclaimed my sewing practice to be one that honors my body and mind. I’m focused on allowing my creativity to flourish while practicing respecting my own boundaries. As a disabled and neurodivergent person, it’s a radical thing to center my joy when most of society tells me that my body and mind are something to apologize for.
I guess my message is find what about sewing is life-giving to you and let go of the rest. Here’s your permission slip to make accommodations without shame or questioning or blame. Whether those adjustments are to your whole making philosophy or simply towards practical choices about how much to fill your iron because if it’s too full it, it’s heavy and hurts your shoulder. You don’t have to power through. You don’t owe it to anybody to be “a good sewist,” not even yourself.
Bri Ooms is a queer disabled sewist and temporary editor with The Sewcialists. Bri is an Oregon girl and West Coaster at heart, but she currently lives in The Netherlands with her partner, toddler and fluffy cat. Find her @BriMichelleMade on Instagram or blogging at AStitchAcrossTheSea.com.