my love for smithfield: block t

The Studio

The old doors of the lift rattle open before I prop them wide with a green and white weave basket filled with eight sewing machine peddles and two coiled extension leads. Out come the machines, two by two, and then the bags of sewing notions and left over sewing projects from a class I taught that morning. It might only be one flight up but the lift makes my weekly workout just a little bit easier. Inevitably, I will open the door to the first floor of Block T and Chris will take one look at my stack of machines and immediately offer help with moving everything down the hall to the studio. Chances are that I probably had collected the machines that morning on my own, taught a two hour sewing class and have just lugged everything back again. With each week the machines get lighter as I get stronger and my appreciation for Block T grows.

I was a latecomer to Block T but an early enthusiast for sewing. Following a run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in secondary school my drama teacher told me that I should really take up costume design as a career because I came alive while doing it. “Yes,” I said, “but there is something I love more.” I pursued the first dream while maintaining and developing my sewing skills as part of my oasis of self-care. I would sew dresses for friends here and there while up-skilling in courses that were relevant. In my visits to Canada I began to take up quilting too and was adopted into the great big quilting family that is somewhere in every Canadian town.

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Two years ago I found myself in a fairly important transition time and was looking for a way that I could contribute to the community as an act of love for it, no strings attached. Generosity that is genuine and wholehearted changes places, it changes people and it can change communities. Sewing came to mind even though I had never taught a class before in my life. When I told family and friends they confirmed what I had been thinking – this made sense! It was a natural progression from some of the community work I had been doing before. At the same time, I was terrified. Theoretically, it made sense. Practically, I was recovering from some emotional wounds that left me afraid of anything I thought I was good at before. I was even having panic attacks when sitting in front of a sewing machine about to stitch a straight line. Friends patiently walked with me as I breathed through fear and took a courageous step in asking a local school if they could do with a sewing teacher. Within a month we had scrounged together ancient sewing machines and a diverse class of students. Soon I was getting calls from other local services asking if I could teach a group with them as well. Some generous people donated money for me to put together proper equipment for classes and in summer of 2015 all of this moved with me into Block T where I began sharing studio space with my good friend, co-founder of C Squared and visual artist, Laura Pettit.

Sharing a space with a visual artist is inspiring. Each week I enter into a space that is charged with eyes that see differently and shapes and colours that express intangible realities that resonate deeply. As I drift through the hallways of Block T, I am reminded that the world can look different. This old probation office building has been a Petri dish where new hopes and dreams for the future are given a chance to start incredibly small in order to become something that grows big enough to shape the culture of a city. Our practices interact with each other. During one Tuesday evening before Christmas I was in the art classroom with a sewing class. Paint was splashed across surfaces and well used easels stood as our backdrop – a room well loved with the lingering affects of art. Our gift in return was the calming smell of lavender from making scented heat packs. On evenings that I have ended up staying late to prepare for a class the next day, Kevin will knock on my door and ask if I have listened to this artist or that song. He helps me find them on my computer and they become an unexpected and very welcome soundtrack for my work. It has been an absolute honour to teach basic machine sewing skills as a part of their skillset programme as well as in the community. It is one way that I have been able to exchange generosity for the environment, opportunity, plasters (for when I cut my fingers open by being careless with a rotary blade) and helping hands every week.

Block T is a generous place. A dreamer’s place. A culture maker’s place. I, for one, will be sad to see it leave Smithfield Square in the coming months as it seeks a new home. Homelessness is a problem in this city. Meanwhile, I will be thankful as I think about my love for Smithfield and the role that Block T has played in strengthening many things that have been weak.

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lavender scented heat packs

2015-11-19 10.42.08-1The weather finally turned in Dublin, bringing in storms Abigail and Barney one after the other. Somehow, not all of our trees have figured it out that winter is coming. They are holding onto a few green leaves still. Days and weeks continue to roll over in spite of their ignorance … and Christmas is coming! The past week has been a busy one. There have been stockings to sew for the Christmas Fair in less than a week, Christmas cookies to bake and sewing classes to teach (amongst a few other things)!

This month I have started teaching two new 4 week beginner machine sewing courses. The first class is almost always one of my favourites. People who have never used a sewing machine before or who have had a bad experience eye their machine as if it has fangs. By the end of the first 2 hours they have worked out how to set it up, move their fabric through it with control, troubleshoot problems and come away with a project in hand! I have yet to have one person who doesn’t leave without a sense of accomplishment and renewed determination after the first class. The project that I love to have people complete during their first lesson is a lavender scented heat pack. It is quick and easy, practicing straight seams, pivot corners, back stitching (reverse stitching, bar tacking … loads of different names for going backwards and forwards a few stitches!), clipping corners and top stitching. Now that we have reached the cold weather, it comes as a particularly welcome project. If you would like to join us in warming up this winter, or are looking for the perfect small Christmas gift to make, you can download the pattern we use for the Lavender Scented Heat Pack. Want to sew with us?

sewing project: small ikea cushion covers

IMG_9845Diversity in background and personality create changing classroom environments with every sewing course I teach. Each class is like a big beautiful gift that I can’t wait to unwrap and discover what is inside. Each person who comes through the doors can be celebrated in who they are, young or old, rich or poor, high literacy or low. The ability to learn is always the same. Sometimes learning to sew starts with picking up scissors as if for the first time. Sometimes it starts with hand, eye, foot coordination at the machine. Often it starts with learning to breathe through frustration. I have gotten really used to just giving verbal instructions and demonstrations to meet the learning preferences of many of my classes. When I asked how I could improve this last class, I was asked if I could write up directions. I often assume that my students don’t know anything about sewing, so try to explain with simple, appropriately detailed language. So here it is, my first attempt at writing up instructions in celebration of people who have asked for them! Want to sew with us? IMG_9843(Most English patterns only really deal in imperial measurements and yet I’ve only ever lived in countries that use metric. This pattern is a reflection of both!)

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sewing – taking it slow

11147844_887904891271181_7059155427763274568_nLearning something new requires patience to stop the beginners anxiety schedule that hinders success on the first try. I should know, I am an expert at failing the first time – like when I started learning to play the bodhran.

This past year I have started teaching a few community sewing classes. The youngest student was 8 and the oldest … well, a lot older. Recently I started teaching a small group of teen girls and decided it was time to pull out some of the technical skill sheets that I hated when taking 4-H in grade 6. Although I learned a lot in that year, I also decided that I didn’t like sewing. When I took it up again five years later and enjoyed it I determined to never make someone start sewing with boring things like sample sheets. I decided that I would teach through projects rather than regimented scraps of fabric. It is eight months since I started and I am finally now coming to terms with the value of small sample scraps as well as something fun to take home. In addition to specific sewing skills, I am making the girls go slow. I am teaching them how to breath and focus on the fabric in hand and peddle under foot so that they will have the emotional and mental stability to sew a straight seam the first time.

Success with sewing begins with learning the patience to take it slow. Slow down when you lose focus. Slow down when you get frustrated. Slow down to line up the fabric. Slow down to control the speed and outcome. Slow down to keep your mind on the first step even when the second step doesn’t make sense yet. My sewing students get to see success and trouble-shoot problems faster because they are learning to take it slow. They get to see success because they are learning technical skill. Somehow they are loving it!

my first sewing course as teacher

2014-10-04 18.10.56-1Experience sounds like: “the only reason I know what is wrong right now and how to fix it is because I have had it happen to me many times before!” Last week I really put my sewing experience to the test in our second beginner’s sewing class at my church. The main skills we were focusing on were interfacing and zippers.

There were six sewing machines set up with seven people working away. On occasion one machine would stop and there would be silence or a set of frustrated exclamations expressed from the participant using it. The Pfaff machines with top loading bobbins never had a problem (and I had to deal with slight sewing machine envy). I would go over and help troubleshoot the problem and within a minute the motor would start whirring again with the sound of a box pouch taking shape.

Every machine and every participant in the sewing class had obstacles to overcome that are common to the craft – needles breaking, thread catching, sewing wrong edges together. Each participant had unique personal obstacles as well. My job was to teach people to sew regardless of the challenges that would be presented. My weakness is that I often think I can cut corners because I have been doing this so long. When it comes to putting in zippers, cutting corners for me is not a good idea, ever! I am good friends with my stitch ripper (a.k.a. seam ripper).  Others had challenges that I will likely never have to face – ones that would stop many people from even trying.

I’ve started going to the gym … for Zumba mostly. When I stay around for a bit of time in the jacuzzi I look up and think about the words written on the wall: Excellence is not doing one thing really well. It is doing everything superbly. We don’t reach excellence because challenges don’t exist. We reach it because we are determined that challenges will not defeat or define us.

As teacher it was my job to help people overcome the obstacles they faced. It meant problem solving with them so that they wouldn’t get discouraged and give up. It meant encouraging them, letting them own their mistakes and successes, giving evidence that they could trust my instructions and creating an emotional environment that inspired risk.

When the bags were being turned right side out at the very end there were spontaneous (and loud!) squeals of genuine delight accompanied with little dances of joy. You would never know that most people had never put in a zipper before or had just begun sewing a short while ago. It wasn’t just about the sewing though. It was about the sense of community we developed while doing something we love … or are learning to love. Success.

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how the sewing machine made its home in the closet

Sewing machines are for sale in Lidl this week! Just one look at them and there are dreams of making home items to rival Cath Kidston’s, fashion items worthy of the runway or cozy quilts to proudly display. No one thinks: buttons, hems, alterations. In the contemplative stage of sewing it is a novel idea – the projects that will make the purchase all worth while. The shiny new toy is unwrapped at home. It’s smooth surfaces and pristine metal pieces admired. A conclusion is made:

I have a sewing machine; therefore, I am a great sewer.

Sewing is an amateur hobby that creates professional results … until the first project is underway and all the pieces hanging off the machine just stop functioning the way they do in the imagination. The thread catches and the needle repeatedly breaks. That seam needs to be taken out the FOURTH TIME! Everyone keeps asking if they can get their clothes fixed. Forget it, the machine is going back in the box! A love, hate relationship with sewing springs forth – the love of the possibilities and the hate of what the reality is. The machine gathers dust in the closet.

There is usually one reason that people give when telling others about why they gave up sewing: lack of patience.

Sewing classes have been the topic of many of my conversations over the last few days. For the first time ever, I will be teaching a class.

My parents have pictorial evidence of me sitting at the machine and stitching a couple of pieces of fabric together when I was about 7. Over the following few years I tried making simple Barbie skirts for my dolls. When I was 11 I finally took a 4H sewing course with others. During that year a couple of things happened: 1) I learned a lot of technical sewing skills. 2) I decided sewing wasn’t for me. I don’t think that I touched the machine again or even thought about using one for about 5-6 years. In grade 10 I signed up for a fashion arts class in school. There was some technical knowledge to learn about fabric and trends but mostly we just turned on the radio and worked on whatever pattern and fabric we decided on.. Soon I began to adapt patterns to become my own designs. My mom taught me more about actual patterns, fabric and sewing technique that year. I switched to a foods class for grade 11-12 but didn’t stop sewing. In grade 12 I took on the role of costume designer for our school play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That was the year I fell in love with sewing.

Sewing became a hobby and when I was attending my second year of college I began to work at a large fabric store. Every type of person worked there: someone from a high stress business environment who came to “just cut fabric” for a year; someone who had worked at Cowboys for seven years before quitting one night after someone asked if she would … I’ll leave that story; (East) Indian women from really happy arranged marriages; a Romanian with amazing embroidery skills; students needing a part time job; and our boss who had made and sold swimsuits on the beach in Puerto Rico for almost 10 years.  We all had one thing in common that superseded all our differences: A love of sewing!

I still have dear and close friends from my years working there (and some are probably reading this!). We shared our skills and often worked in the departments where we would best serve customers well. I learned about making swimsuits, quilts and window coverings. I learned about matching fabrics and fabric care. I learned about fabric quality. I discovered every sewing notion under the sun. I learned why people really give up on sewing:

Unrealistic expectations – Um, I think the first paragraph describes those expectations well. Yes, patience is needed because we are not born as super sewers. Being willing to start with projects at your skill level and knowing that you have to start slow before you can go fast really helps. I still need to remember this – when I have unrealistic expectations my seam ripper becomes my best friend and most hated enemy.

Not enough knowledge about how the machine works – It is a gadget with lots of pieces that need to be in the right place at the right time to work properly. Having the thread tension off by several millimeters or threading the machine incorrectly might be all it takes to pack away the sewing machine.

No one to ask questions to – Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of sewing clubs around and sewing courses can often be expensive. Having other people around is one of the best ways to get that one thing that’s not working to work again.

Not learning the basics – As I began to put together a sewing course focusing on the basics I realised how many things I just know because I had people looking over my shoulder correcting me: where to put my hands, how to pivot a corner, how to adjust the bobbin tension, keeping the needle up when taking the fabric out, having the right needle, make sure to have the pattern where it is supposed to be on the grain of the fabric.

A really boring sewing lesson!!! – Sewing should be fun! It is a creative outlet with technical skill. If the technical learning outweighs the creative expression it will become incredibly dull. No sewing course should ever be designed for “around the house sewing and mending” nor should it be for creating clone projects.

All of these will help people to lose patience, creating shattered dreams of textile genius. Consider the sewing machine in the closet again. Perhaps it doesn’t deserve its dust. At the very least, share it with someone who is just beginning to dream.

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