A special occasion* is coming up, for which I’ll need a dress.
Up ‘til now, when circumstances have called for a pretty dress, I have simply gone out and bought one (or, when unable to quickly find something that meets my three requisites of 1. Colorful; 2. Inexpensive; and 3. Comfortable, I’ve borrowed dresses from friends, or from my sister). This time, though, I am learning to sew.
Making a dress, I’ve come to learn, is not nearly as quick and easy as buying one, nor as economical as borrowing. In fact, it is time and resource-intensive, tedious, and physically uncomfortable. It cramps your neck, strains your vision, and makes your fingers ache. It also gives you a newfound appreciation (bordering on reverence) for the ease of online shopping.
But it is also deeply, deeply satisfying.
The dresses I’ve bought and borrowed over the years have had perfectly straight hems, flawless stitching, creases and zippers and clasps in all the right places. This dress—well, the parts of it that I’ve worked on myself**—has crooked seams, frayed edges, and visible pencil marks. But I think it will be the most beautiful garment I’ve ever worn. What sets this dress apart form any other is, in part, the nature of the occasion for which it is being created. But it’s also different in that when I behold it, I don’t just notice the color, and the shape, and the shimmer of the silk. I see the big carboard box awaiting me at the Roseau General Post Office, filled with orange-toned silk chiffon my mother selected, lovingly and painstakingly, from a fabric store in Portland, and express-mailed to me in Dominica. I see the livingroom full of friends gathered around our makeshift sewing table, taking turns threading the needle, pinning the fabric, snipping the loose strings. I see our six young neighbors crowded at the window, chewing on stalks of sugar cane, watching us pin and cut the fabric on my bedroom floor. I feel the crink in my neck, the stiffness in my fingers, the surge of excitement when I first put my foot to the sewing pedal. I hear the whir of the machine, the lilt of Francillia’s laughter as she expertly stitches the bodice to the skirt, the reassurance of Christine’s voice telling me that every mistake has a remedy. I smell the vanilla cake Marvis and Dillon baked to nourish the hungry sewers, and the styling grease Kimberly used to plait our hair during sewing breaks. This dress will ever be an invoker of memory.
It’s the difference, I guess, in the view from a mountaintop when you’ve ridden up there in a cable car…or when you’ve climbed.
Beauty resides not only in the view, but in the process. And this dress-making process, I’ve come to realize, is sort of a microcosm of my experience in Dominica, or perhaps that of any Pioneer…or even, I’d venture to guess, that of any endeavor that involves process, creation, innovation. There will never seem to be enough time, or enough resources, and you may find yourself attempting—literally or metaphorically—to make a dress in less than ideal sewing conditions (think frequent power outages, a faulty sewing machine, bat droppings falling from the rafters, the neighborhood kids running towards the silk chiffon with mango juice dripping from their chins and fingers, etc). Adjustments are necessary and inevitable. A sense of humor is crucial. And patience, flexibility and humility must be the watchwords, if any progress is to be made.
Speaking of humility. I have been forced to acknowledge that sewing is a skill that does not come easy to me. I sort of thought it might—that my ability to write calligraphy and cut paper neatly would transfer to the sewing table. But I quickly learned that cutting silk is nothing like cutting construction paper, and a sewing machine is slightly more complex than an ink pen. But the nice thing about being flagrantly inept at something is that you have nowhere to go but forward…and the process of learning and gradually strengthening your skill is so very rewarding.
Aside from baking banana bread and (a very recent development) shelling almonds with a cutlass, I possess lamentably few practical skills. The experience of living in a community where hands are put to excellent use (cooking callaloo, weaving baskets, peeling yams, building houses, plaiting straw, catching crayfish, chopping firewood, carving calabash) has created in me a strong yearning to increase my skill set. I’d been considering the idea of learning to sew for a while now, but would likely have never gotten around to it were it not for the encouragement of a dear friend (who will also be participating in the upcoming special occasion). And it just so happens that I am currently sharing a home with an exceptionally good seamstress, who was thrilled with the idea of teaching me to sew, and making a dress in the process. Thus far, she has been the most wonderful instructor: gentle and encouraging, willing to explain and re-explain every step of the process, calm when I sew the wrong pieces of fabric together, or spill coffee on the silk lining, or break the thread for the eighty-third time. Thank you, Christine, for this dress, and for this experience.
I will post some pictures of this work-in-progress now…but my hope is that you’ll get to see the finished product in “real life” (which is, of course, also a work-in-progress). And when you do get the chance to see the dress, I trust you’ll pay no heed to the irregular stitching, and lopsided seams.
*I plan on sharing with you a little more about this special occasion in next week’s posting, or maybe the week after.
**Francillia and Christine, both accomplished seamstresses, have done all the trickier parts…and those stitches are flawless.
My bedroom floor is our sewing table
Trying (unsuccessfully) to cut a straight line
Emelda tries on the lining
The bodice is beginning to take shape
The neighbors watching us work from the window
Francillia sews while Christine studies the pattern
First time at the machine (concentrating REALLY intently!)
Marvis and Dillon baked banana cake for everyone
Roushy joined us for the sewing party via skype!