Being Comfortable

Heidi Pullover Dress

Wherein I talk about body image, mental health and making your own clothes

As a long-time garment sewer and knitter (not to mention designer), I often thought I had a more straightforward relationship with my body and clothes than the average person.

Ever since I was a young girl and my mother was sewing for me, my measurements were simply data points, abstracted by the oddness of things like nape to waist or sleeve length, which my meticulous mother re-measured prior to cutting out each new project. The measurements were just a string of numbers to be matched up as best as possible to the chart on the back of the pattern envelope.

As designer, I know that those sizing charts are somewhat arbitrary, and so I never took it personally when I had a two-size differential between my bust and hip measurements. The fact that sewing pattern sizes had no correlation to modern ready to wear (RTW) clothing made it even easier.  I was just grateful that I didn’t have to take in the busts of dresses I sewed myself as I had always had to do with purchased ones. It was even better when Sewaholic came out with patterns that I didn’t even have to grade between sizes!

Over the years as I took over making more and more of my wardrobe, I became much more comfortable in it. My handmade underwear didn’t shift in awkward ways, dress busts didn’t gap at the underarm, the waistbands sat exactly where they were supposed to, and I still retook my measurements before every project. Sewing clothes for myself was my happy place, my sought-after weekend activity, and a point of pride. All of this became even more important as I decided to source my clothing more ethically.

Then I developed anxiety.

For months and months, I dealt with crying jags, panic attacks, an inability to focus on anything but the stream of thoughts running through my head, and a constantly feeling that pieces of myself where chipping off and floating away like so many bits of peeling paint. I spent the majority of my energy around others trying to project normality. On the weekends, I still found solace in sewing. I did major projects – Jeans! A Coat! Stash busting skirts! So much of my life was being driven by obligations to others, but sewing was something just for me.

At the same time, my interest in other things had waned drastically. I wanted to give up knitting.  I wouldn’t go out much. I’d procrastinate on major projects. Finally, a very good friend, who saw through my attempts to pretend that everything was okay, pointed out that I wasn’t really sounding like myself anymore. I had more or less known that something was wrong, but having an outside perspective kindly call me out on it was the kick in the pants I needed to get help.

I had an annual physical coming up a few weeks after the realization that I really needed to do something. So I checked the box for “depression” on the pre-appointment questionnaire. I had a  lengthy and difficult conversation with my doctor. At the end of that conversation I decided to start taking medication. A few weeks later, we upped the dosage to its current level. I didn’t have to pretend to be normal anymore, I just felt like myself again. It was a godsend.

But it hasn’t been without side effects. There was some serious drowsiness the first few months and also occasional, but fierce insomnia, both of which has mostly subsided. And then I gained about 20 pounds in six months. Correlation is not necessarily causation, so while it was a significant increase, it wasn’t so rapid as to change my medication yet. Together my doctor and I decided we would monitor it and make a call at a later date. I also started seeing a therapist.

In the interim, I quite literally became uncomfortable with my body.

All my lovingly-sewed and ethically purchased clothing didn’t fit. It dug and pinched. I’d tear off my soft-cup, no underwire bra as soon I got home from work and change into pajama pants, rubbing at the waistband indent on my stomach. I didn’t want to buy new clothes, because it would feel like a failure not only to maintain my body, but also of my ethics. A shopping trip to Goodwill didn’t hold much allure and I didn’t want to spend time sewing clothing for a body I didn’t want.

So I stopped.

I didn’t sew anything for months (which, for me, is a very long time). Once again, I had lost motivation for something I loved. I was uncomfortable.

Everything came to a head about a month ago. I had the opportunity to design some knitwear for a magazine, but I had to turn the pattern around, including photos, very quickly. Cramped for time, I decided to model the thing myself.

I put on one of my favorite dresses, set up my self-timer for bursts of ten, and did my best staring off into the middle distance.  I had purchased the dress from my favorite dressmaker online, and had, as is usual with RTW dresses, taken in the bust when I first purchased it. Now, that bust was too tight. As I looked through those hundreds of photos (bursts of ten add up quick), all I could see was not the beautiful knitted item, but the pull lines on the dress underneath. I decided that none of them were publication worthy.  I took off the dress, grabbed my seam ripper and let the seams out.

A few days later, I put the dress back on and set up another photoshoot. Finally, I felt comfortable - I could move freely, breathe deeply. In that second batch of photos there were still several unusable shots thanks to my tendency to squint, but everything just felt better and more at ease. I looked at myself in those hundred plus photos (not an easy thing to do to in general) and I thought, my body may be a little different now, but it is still beautiful and still me.

I cut out a sewing pattern and sewed it up three days later.

I sewed a sweatshirt the week after that. I took a week off of work and sewed three shirts and a dress. I still need to work on making some more items that fit properly, but I’m no longer looking at it as a waste of time and fabric.

My body is what my body is now. This is the body that has allowed me to have much more balance and happiness in my life. Maybe, when I’m learning better how to manage the issues that brought up my anxiety in the first place, I’ll feel comfortable weaning off my medication and maybe then my weight will return to what it was before. Maybe it won’t. But if therapy has taught me anything, it’s to be kinder to myself, and for me, that includes making myself beautiful, handmade clothes and allowing myself to be comfortable.

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