For many years I have been (like most readers here) a Selfish Sewist – I sew for my own closet, my family, my friends, for fun.
I am also a professional designer and custom clothier. Going pro has involved not only continuously educating myself on every aspect of garment making – design, pattern drafting, construction planning, materials engineering, cutting and manufacture, fitting, alterations, styling – but also the deeper practice of business-building. I’ve had to teach myself accounting, marketing, social media, customer care, website building and client management systems, community-building and brand messaging, logo and branding.
You get the drift.
It’s a lot.
Sewing for my body was one discipline. Sewing for a lot of other bodies, is a whole Thing.
I first made something for someone else, and took a form of payment, about nineteen years ago. We were at a birthday party and as everyone else drank and caroused I narrowed my eyes and surreptitiously watched my friend move about in the halter top I’d constructed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it; imagining how I might improve, modify, or riff off the design.
That was a long while back. I’m now full-blown pro and pay taxes and all that good stuff. And in these years I’ve had every experience imaginable in the realm of my clientele’s figures and what they think and how they feel about them.
Here are just a few.
I’ve had clients say the cruellest things about themselves as I took their measurements – in such a relaxed fashion it was clear this was part of a lifelong lexicon. Some have begged me to help cover them up, skim over their “problem areas”, disguise their rolls and bumps. Some instructed me to reveal their figures: wiggled and beamed and tugged straps to show off more, a deeper décolletage, a briefer hem, a touch of cameltoe or a wedgie jean. I’ve watched clients sigh in relief as I let out a seam or released a hem or took a skirt up a few inches and they finally felt comfortable in a garment, for the first time in years.
I’ve had clients insist on taking their own measurements and pull the tape super tight, to get numbers more to their liking. I’ve had clients retain me for my work after a weight loss journey – only to return to their setpoint soon after and hide the garment in their closet for “someday”. I’ve had clients slim down, pay for an entire project, gain weight, then disappear from the process.
I’ve had clients strip naked for a fitting or muslin, walking boldly into my living room even when the curtains were open. I’ve had others who kept multiple layers on, protective and private and shy and obviously distressed but willing to let me witness. I’ve had clients speak a mile-a-minute about their fitness routines or calorie counting. I’ve had clients look at my body and then make recommendations to me for clothing I should wear – or workout regimens I should adopt!
I’ve had mother-daughter pairs where one of them financed the garment and had an idea for what the other should wear. This is not a situation I was initially prepared for; but it has happened more than once and it can be quite a tricky affair.
I’ve had clients tell me about surgeries they’ve had or planned; traumas they’ve endured. They’ve told me about the things they always wanted to wear but until today, had not dared. They tell me some things that they’ve never told anyone else.
I’ve designed and sewn for clients before, and then after, their gender transition (and I’ve also done this work for my own child). This body of my work is my pride and joy, and delivers me so much professional and personal satisfaction.
A few years ago a bride and her best friend made a six hour roundtrip to see me, arriving on my doorstep practically in tears. I was next on the list after two failed attempts to acquire a custom bridal piece. The first seamstress told the bride that a floaty lace crop top wasn’t appropriate for her figure; the second seamstress essentially said the same thing by creating a stiff, full coverage, glossy bodice.
It was easy for me to understand exactly the look the bride wanted. In fact the project was relatively straightforward so after taking measurements and saying adieu I fashioned a wearable muslin in soft cotton scallop lace and mailed it along. This first draft fit perfectly (which doesn’t always happen) and the bride’s problem was solved easily.
The joyful of her wedding day remain one of my happier accomplishments.
Sewing for others is so much more than technical competency.
My job is a designer, a muse, a businessperson – and yet my job is also a cipher. I am not there to tell my clientele how to think or feel or conceptualize their corporeal form. To me, their bodies are gorgeous and I feel honored to – with consent and a great deal of loving care – wrap a measuring tape, gently pin a dart, smooth a pleat. I get to ask them about their favorite childhood overalls or that hot-ass pair of red jeans they used to pour into. Or their desire for pockets, more pockets! (a few years ago I made an interlined and lined linen overdress with eleven pockets – most of them hidden!). I get to hear about their relationship with their bodies as they age, after birth, as they lift weights or diet or experience illness and injury or disability, or as they finally relax into their own style and stop trying to be something they are not. I get to slap pocket placement templates on their bums and we have a laugh while they peer in a two-way mirror view to get a look.
It’s a complex dance of technical skill, of knowing when to encourage, when to remain silent and just hold space, when to gently lay a hand, when to pull back my energy and make room.
It’s not my job nor within my power to “solve” a person’s relationship with their body, I think we can all recognize that. And even if I could help improve someone’s perspective on their body it would do little to change the oppressive culture we live in: a society that punishes marginalized populations and persons in systemic, institutional, familial, and personal ways. I can feel so low, when I think of it that way.
But I don’t think of it that way, not usually anyway.
I don’t think of these things in the moment I’m with my clients. When it’s a mild summer day and the breeze is coming in through my curtains and Brianne pushes her selected fabric sample across the table and confesses she was called “scrawny” as a child. When Fiona asks shyly – “Can I get this in a bright green?” and I look her directly in the optic nerve and say, “You can have whatever you want!” When Brett flushes as he pulls on his new blazer and beams in the mirror, and says he always wanted one in pink but he grew up in the deep South and never thought he could. When Aisha gets misty-eyed to see her favorite teenage dress rebuilt for her adult body. When Sam pulls on a simple hoodie and lets out a delighted gasp that for the first time in their adult life the garment fits the hips – and the sleeves aren’t too long!
No matter where my career takes me, my partnerships with my clients feel like love-letters. They feel personal, they feel unique, each and every one. Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s straightforward.
But it’s always sublime.
This? Is a welcoming space.
Kelly Hogaboom is a nonbinary artist and intersectional vegan designer living in Aberdeen, WA with their partner, unschooled teenagers, and four kitty-cats. You can find their writings weekly published on their BMC page. They share their sewing work at @kellyhogaboom and provide coaching for Creatives who want to professionalize at @bespokehogaboom.
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