It was the first quarter of first grade, and we were coming up on the first open-house event where our parents would take a tour of our classrooms, meet our teachers, and browse some of our accomplishments as first grade students. To prepare for the open-house, we were all given the same assignment: to construct a small diorama. Something roughly the size of a shoebox. I don't remember whether everyone was assigned a book, a story, a theme, or if it was left open-ended... But I do remember that I wanted circus elephants! Circus! Elephants! No doubt because I love(d) elephants, I was (and remain) a fan of Disney's Dumbo, and my family and I had recently seen an exhibition involving circus miniatures (perhaps it was a flea circus exhibition? perhaps it was a Calder exhibition? I wish I could remember!).
To assemble said "circus elephant" diorama, I pulled together my three best elephant figurine toys. Then I asked my mother for her help dressing them up like circus elephants, somehow. Taking a cue from Dumbo, we reasoned that circus elephants wear something draped over the forehead in a vaguely triangular shape, and something draped over the back in a vaguely rug-like shape. These two accessories added to each figurine should be sufficient to signify that my toy elephants were in fact "circus elephants" — We had a plan! To complete the plan, my mother taught me to sew. And so this was my first sewing lesson.
I believe I was five years old.
Sometime later, my mother showed me how to use the same sewing skills to make clothes for troll dolls. And that set me and my sisters on a whole troll trend in which we were obsessed with collecting more troll dolls, so that we could craft an elaborate wardrobe for each of our favorites. The trolls we designated 'female' were the easiest to tailor for, because the construction of a troll 'dress' was unbelievably simple: First cut a rectangle out of felt roughly as tall as the troll's body length from toes to chin, and as long as it takes to wrap around the troll's waist, once, plus a slight overlap (about one quarter of an inch worth). Then cut away two round holes just slightly closer together than the open palms of the troll's two hands, with the center of the rectangle falling between these two holes. Add a single snap; the two halves should be sewn at each end of the rectangle. Any decorative embellishments you might desire can be cut from additional colors of felt, and sewn into place before dressing the troll. To do so, simply slip its hands through each hole, then secure the snap in place at the back. Finished! Unbelievably simple. (The result looks something like this or this.)
And so my two younger sisters and I were delighted to while away our spare time innovating more and more variations on felted troll fashions, or other similarly simple projects... ...That is until I was around eight years old, and my mother taught me how to assemble a three-dimensional plush toy using a pattern she copied directly from one of my most well-worn and well-loved toys: a little felt Eeyore, with a mane of black yarn (remarkably similar to this one).
It was the sewing lesson that changed everything for me. From this moment on, I was no longer content simply to make accessories for readymade toys. Now — and this was a serious breakthrough for three little girls who never received an allowance! — now I could make my own stuffed animal toys. From scratch. I could have anything I wanted to play with! I just had to sew it for myself. And sew I did. Sometimes for days in a row.
In the years that followed, I drafted an untold number and variety of patterns for toys inspired by anything and everything that interested me. I drew up plans for toys based on children's book illustrations, cartoon characters, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, fairy tales and science fiction stories. I even reproduced antique rag dolls and other toys to the best of my ability. And because we had already established a kind of sewing circle ritual, I also taught my sisters how to do what I was doing. We learned to sew on the machine, as well, both from my mother and from our honorary aunt, Teresa Reynolds (aka Sassy-T). I was far and away the one of my sisters most eager to learn these skills, the most fascinated by all things sewn, whether by hand or by machine, and also the most ambitious in my self-assignments. Arguably, this is as true today as it was then!
Sewing was never just a rainy-day, arts&crafts, time-sink for me. My needle, scissors and thread were revolutionary tools — weapons of mass creation! In grade school, I harnessed my sewing skills to provide my sisters and I with an endless supply of new toys and accessories to play with. During my high school years, I exploited these same sewing skills to earn extra pocket money by selling handcrafted dolls with articulated and pose-able limbs, many of these on commission. Just one of several money-making ventures of mine at the time... (We never received an allowance! Really! I think I mentioned it already, but it bears repeating.) And I invested seriously in making such sewing projects a manageable and sustainable aspect of my daily life, outfitting myself with a briefcase in which to carry the necessary tools and materials for each work-in-progress, something I could take to school and open at a moment's notice. I was dedicated and I was disciplined. I meant business. I showed my work at arts&crafts shows (looking back, I think I was breaking some rules, showing up at those events guerrilla style), I competed in art contests, I aggressively sought out new commissions, and I studied the works of other artists and craftspeople.
Sewing skills were just the beginning, of course. I was determined throughout my childhood to learn as many hands-on-skills as adults were willing to teach me. I started whittling wood around age eleven, working in the woodshop around age twelve. I learned to cane baskets, bead-weave, mix and apply water-based paints (including watercolors and acrylics), stain and seal wood surfaces, sculpt and bake polymer clays, as well as to sculpt, glaze and fire earthenware objects... I learned to cast plaster objects from a mold, tool and stain fine leather, bake pies, cookies, and cakes, care for flowers and plants in the garden, prepare tinder like a Native American, even groom ponies and horses the way cowboys do... and more. All before I graduated high school.
Sewing was the skill that set me on a path by awakening in me the realization of my own potential. Once I understood how to visualize the construction of a three-dimensional object and then draft a pattern to execute that vision, I really and truly believed that I could make anything, given the right tools and materials (and a little time). And this belief liberated me, too, from always waiting on the adults in my life to provide for me the things I wanted for myself. For this reason, sewing is and always will be the cornerstone upon which my practice as an artist is grounded. It is also, understandably, my strongest skill, having had decades of practicing this skill.
I would be interested to learn which skill or technique sparked your personal revolution. Perhaps we can talk about it, should we ever meet online or anywhere else?