PHOTOGRAPHY BY GRACE NUTH
I encountered intentional sewing as a concept when my Gothic-literature-loving mother gave me Barbara Michaels’s Georgetown trilogy, which explores the possibility of human emotion and, indeed, magic actively embedded into objects—a place, a piece of art, a textile. The final book, Stitches in Time, finds the heroine searching for the history of an antique wedding quilt that carries a curse.
I won’t give away the plot. You can read the books. They’re perfect cozy reading in the winter season and also relevant in the current climate in unexpected ways. But the concept of intentional sewing, or creating an object with intent as you work with it—that I’m delighted to discuss.
One of the things the modern era, with fast fashion, fast food, and fast gratification, has gotten wrong (in my opinion) is replacing the value of craft and craftsmanship with just a thing that can be acquired easily, mass-produced and identical to a million other things. They’re valued only for function, and even then just barely. That might be fine for some things. I don’t want to build my own flat-screen TV or smartphone. But I do want the TV housed in a lovely wooden cabinet and my phone wrapped in a distinctive cover—dare I suggest a hand-fashioned one. And that’s where craftsmanship comes in.
Sewing and textile production are traditionally feminine crafts (although anyone can do them). Today, most of us make things for very different reasons than our grandmothers and ancestors did. They crafted clothing, quilts, knitted hats and socks, embroidered garments, and leather shoes by hand because that was the best and easiest way to get fine, useful things in those economies. Now we do it to relieve stress because we can’t find the things we need (especially if fae-shion is our thing), or because we aim to recall past time periods. I mean, who doesn’t want an Outlander-style outfit?
But even though it’s outside mainstream trends, sewing and textile weaving remains a wonderful and magical endeavor. What Barbara Michaels did was remind me of the magical implications of those acts of creation. Creating a thing makes it part of your life, whether that’s knitting a cozy scarf, making a quilt to wrap up and read under, or making a dress for your sister’s new baby. Whether you recognize it or not, it’s all done with intent. Intent is another word for magic, for changing the world by will.
First, there’s the very act of doing something deliberately by hand when you could easily buy an equivalent. Our ancestors understood handcrafting made a thing special: It imbued an item with the energy of the artist as much as its functionality. My friend Carol has worked protective energies into sweaters she makes, for example, intensifying their coziness. Second, there’s the mind-set, the personal energy you put into the project. If you make something with love, with hope, with joy, those emotions weave themselves into your work with every stitch. So many of my favorite things are handmade gifts—the wine rack built by my woodworking father, the huge Ren Fair cloak my mother made me in high school that I still own, a white wool medieval hood my friend Jennifer made me, the kitchen knives my husband the bladesmith made. Every one of these things was crafted with care, intended for me, out of love and friendship. That’s powerful sorcery.
As in Michaels’s story, the intent isn’t always positive when we craft with intent. But personally, I try not to put anything cruel or nasty into my work. If that’s what I’m feeling as I work, I try to use the work itself to repel those feelings—to find equilibrium and balance. I don’t want to make something intended for longtime use to be full of anger, resentment, or frustration. And personally, I have moved past working for people who bring out negative feelings in me or who do not value the work I do.
As I’m working on costume pieces for different friends at once—elegant garments for two friends about to be king and queen in our SCA kingdom, a linen maternity dress for a close friend, a Viking caftan for my husband—I get the chance to return the same love, energy delivered whether by hand or by machine stitching. I’m putting in not only my time but my hopes for them, my love, my care, my happiness—and willing those energies to carry over.
It’s the whole act of creation that’s magic: the planning, the color choices, the final details. And in the end, skill results in something that truly meets the definition of unique.
In this, I understand the whys behind all the clothes and gifts my grandparents, children of the Depression, made for their grandchildren.
For those of us whose spirituality values intent and believes in magic, the act of creation can be planned more richly. For example, you can leave threads, fabrics, and pieces on a personal altar or in a sacred space in your home. You can fold things with herbs and flowers from the garden to absorb scent and the magic of the plants themselves. You can set them beneath the full moon, whispering a susurration of words—succor and kindness, healing and strength. Or you can work the pieces at specific times, actively blessing the process and the work in many different ways, according to tradition and need.
As many of us seek to reclaim the notion of witchcraft in an era of increasing backlash against women, there is nothing more witchy-wise than creating something intended to last, intended to bring joy, intended to protect and soothe; it’s something to matter in life. Craft is fundamentally part of the word: witch-craft. The act of making, whether it’s a spell or a garment or a garment as spell (or any other object as spell), is a powerful thing in a time of cheap mass production.
There were always things made and mentioned in the witchcraft trials, in Salem and in Europe—poppets, knots of thread, even woven tapestries, writings and offerings left in building walls or tossed into sacred springs. So, too, in the traditions of Africa and the Caribbean faiths it spawned. Modern practitioners of neo-pagan and mystic faiths adapt these ideas, and faiths from Christianity to Buddhism have long used a made thing to represent a larger mystic concept. To make is to will into existence; when you will something into existence with additional intent, magic results.
My lovely friend Simone tells me a story: “My sister was in Kyrgyzstan on a natural-dyeing project years ago, and she brought me a gift: It’s a special rope, made of horse and goat hair, intended to go around a door and charmed to ward against biting and stinging creatures. It is so much more than a rope. It is a tangible piece of our sisterly bond, her wishes for my safety, our shared love of learning, our shared respect for other cultures and faith traditions, our recognition that making an object by hand is a sacred act. It connects us to all other human hands, passing knowledge and strength to each other across space and time.”
This winter, for the first time, at the urging of my friend Lanea who has started an online quilting bee, I’m making a quilt. I’ve collected vintage and antique quilts for years and done repairs (some are more than a hundred years old), but I’ve never made a whole one on my own. I’m making the quilt of linen scraps, from costumes and clothing I’ve made for my husband, myself, and our friends for years. It’s a great way not to waste. But the notion of sleeping deeply under something I made consciously, remnants of other pieces of our lives, once or still worn by those beloved to us—there is delight there. It is cozy and protective and the very heart of the concept of hygge to me.
• The Vogue Sewing Book. Find an old copy on Amazon or eBay for less than $20. The best source for learning fine sewing techniques.
• Alabama Chanin School of Making book series. Find them at alabamachanin.com/t/collections/the-school-of-making/studio-books. I’ve interviewed Natalie Chanin many times, and her philosophy on making and restoring local crafts is gorgeous. Her books are filled with patterns you can make at home, and embellishment inspirations.
• Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guild to Quilting. A fantastic book if you’re new to the craft. Aside from my friend Amy’s online quilting bee, this is my guidebook. You don’t need to be a super-experienced seamstress for this to be helpful.
Crafting, Textiles, and History:
• Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Not about magic, but about how the world needs a transformation from instant gratification to appreciation. Dana Thomas does a brilliant job of underlining the damage done by the rise of fast fashion and what we can do about it.
• Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. A history of textile production and patterning, all the way back to the beginnings of human work with fiber. It’s well-written, intriguing, and thoughtful, and Barber throws in a good dose of detail on the relationship between clothing and ritual from the dawn of civilization.
• Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. Alexander Langlands explores the implications of doing things by hand as our ancestors did and how that changes our approach to work and the goods we own. Crazy Lanea, at crazylanea.com/fiberarts. My quilting inspiration’s blog about crafting, singing, and historical research.
• Words, Web, Woad, at simoneparrish.com. My friend Simone’s blog about art, cooking, and language.