Sonya Philip is a fiber artist who likes to nestle down in the space between art and craft. You can find more of her work here. Sonya lives in San Francisco, with her husband and three children.
In spite of the relatively uneasy relationship I’ve had with sewing in my past, I started the project, 100 Acts of Sewing, with the goal of making one hundred dresses. Even though there always seemed to be too many rules dictating the “right” way of doing things, I never stopped sewing. I lugged my mother’s old Singer Fashion Mate with me through many moves; Halloween costumes were made, as well as baby blankets, and quilts with corners that didn’t meet. But I wrote off sewing clothes when I had to cut my then 3-year-old daughter out of a dress that I was able to get on over her head, but not back off again. Time passed, I discovered knitting and my textile-creating urges were satisfied for many years. However, there are only so many sweaters, scarves, and other wooly things one person needs, even in foggy San Francisco.
Something about being older and somewhat broader in the hips made me crave simplicity in my wardrobe. I didn’t want to put a lot of energy into getting dressed each morning. I wanted a uniform. I discovered lagenlook or layered look, along with the clothing of Krista Larson, Flax, Cynthia Ashby, and others. It wasn’t in my budget to spend several hundred dollars on a single item and I spent many hours watching eBay auctions. I scourged thrift stores and found some lovely items, but also bought a lot of things that would never be worn. I started refashioning long linen jumpers by chopping off the bottom, ripping out the side seams, and inserting the extra fabric to create shorter, A-line dresses. Then I took a pattern making class at A Verb for Keeping Warm with Cal Patch. I’m not sure if it had to to do with my being older and more patient, or an improved understanding of garment construction due to sweater knitting, or that Cal was such an amazing teacher, or if it was the desire to use all the beautiful fabrics at Verb. It was probably all of the above. But I made a dress. And then another. In one week I made four dresses. With this eager excitement, 100 Acts of Sewing was born.
What was conceived as a personal challenge, has developed into a larger exploration of making versus manufacturing. These days we buy more clothes and wear them for less time. Clothing companies, chasing higher volume and cheaper production costs, have largely moved manufacturing into sweatshops, maquiladoras, or overseas. Because of this, we don’t often think about the real costs of cheap labor and lax environmental control. When we know how to sew our own clothes, we can become more discerning consumers and put more consideration into what we purchase. Sewing clothes is an investment of time over convenience. It provides a welcome way to slow down. Compared to other crafts, like knitting, sewing on a machine is less social. There’s more concentration required so you don’t sew through a finger. But sewing on my mother’s machine or hearing stories from women whose grandmothers made favorite pieces of clothing are reminders of a rich legacy of wisdom and expertise. Learning how to sew is a way to reconnect with this tradition.
Sewing is also a way of reclaiming personal style. By making your own clothes you can make things that fit and flatter your body type instead of fighting against it. Although, many of my dresses are made with patterns I drafted, I also sew with commercial sewing patterns. Even using someone else’s designs offers choices, from the color or fabric type to print. Sewing clothes enables a way to truly express individuality. I am personally drawn to a flared silhouette and most of the dresses I make reflect this. They tend to be on the shorter side, cut to the knee, and usually worn layered over pants. I mainly incorporate comfortable and easy to wear natural fibers like cotton and linen into most of what I sew. As much as I am captivated by the beautiful prints of new fabrics, I also try to use vintage yardage when possible. Readers might notice how pockets are often an important feature in my dresses. They provide practicality and often act as a focal point to showcase some great fabric. The best part, is you only need small amount to make a big impact.
One aspect of 100 Acts of Sewing is encouraging others to sew for the first time or to give it another try. I put this into practice by teaching workshops on how to make dresses from my designs. These are very minimal in their construction, some having no more than four pattern pieces. It’s true that sewing can be unforgiving. Even the most deft hand can make wonky seams and there’s no way to un-cut cloth. But like many things, skill in sewing comes from practice as well as care. By making a garment simple yet very wearable, sewing becomes truly accessible. A person can then build upon the foundation of each successful project. I know the more dresses I’ve made, the more I’ve found myself following those rules I once resisted.
Many of the dresses in the project were made for me and I wear them on a regular basis. I also made dresses for friends, as well as several that act as size models for workshops. None of them are for sale, as the plan is to display all of them in an end-of-project exhibit. I am currently almost two thirds of the way towards my goal and on track to finish in December. In the coming year, I plan on developing a sewing pattern to sell based on the workshop dress. I will also continue to exhibit and teach, locally here in the San Francisco Bay Area, around the United Sates, and hopefully farther afield. Through this project, my aim is to inspire people to use their sewing machines, as well as value the skills it takes to create the garments they wear.