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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Learning to Sew...

My mission this weekend was to learn how to use my new sewing machine... I won't lie, it took the majority of the weekend, but I think I've got a hang of the basics now! (Although my cats are not at all impressed)

If I am entirely honest, I have not used a sewing machine for over 10 years. All I can remember was becoming increasingly frustrated and giving up on whatever I was ttempting to make (I think it was a dress). Despite having many occassions where this skill would have come in handy since then, particularly as I have delved more into performance work (which requires costumes), I have avoided mechanising the process due to this prior experience. Instead, when I had the need to sew something (usually gold stars onto a blue outfit) I would opt to hand sew it. Which is fine, but it takes fucking ages and isn't that neat.

What prompted me to finally buy a sewing machine, was an idea which has been festering at the back of my mind for a while. Since my Brexiles projects, I've becoming fascinated by the concept of identity and how that could be represented visually through shape and colour. Which got me thinking about flags... Generally speaking, flags represent a collective identity; usually, a nation, region or some kind of club, but also gender, or sexuality. I realised that I want to create flags which could represent an individual identity, specifically, people with complex, intersectional identities which can't easily be lumped into a collective group and labelled as "this" or "that". I want to create a flag for the "citizens of nowhere", people who have been made to feel like they "don't belong" or treated with prejudice and discrimination for the crime of being themselves. I want to create flags which unashamedly celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, turning the very concept of a flag on its head. There was just one problem; Flags are made from material, therefore I would need to learn how to sew.

The first thing I realised about sewing machines is that they are actually quite complicated. I spent several hours poring over the destructions, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. The second thing I realised is that winding a bobbin is so satisfying - definitely the most enjoyable part of the whole process, probably because it is the easiest bit. The third thing I realised is that thread tension is a very difficult balancing act to get right - and you can't just figure it out once and leave the settings as they are, because the required tension changes depending on the fabric you are sewing - which basically means you have to practice and fiddle with the thread tension every time you sew a new item. The fourth thing I realised was that sewing takes a lot of patience, and there's no point trying to cut corners because it will show.

Once I'd figured out how to get the bloody thing working (which took a few hours), I then practiced different kinds of stitches, trying to get the tension right for two different fabrics (satin and linen). The sewing machine I bought had quite a good selection of different stitches, and the ability to adjust the length and spacing of the stitch, so I played around with it for a while to see what different stitches looked like.

I decided that I wanted the first thing I attempted to make to be frivolous and silly since I wasn't expecting it to turn out well (my expectations were met). I opted for a "cat-cape" in blue satin with the words "CATS 4 EU" stitched on in yellow thread. Someone recently told me about a campaign they had run called "cats 4 EU" which had amused me, and since i have previously dressed my dog up in (hand-stitched) EU costumes, I thought why not make one for the cats too. In hindsight, satin was not the best fabric to attempt to embroider onto, it is a very unforgiving textile, and instantly rumbled around the zigzag stitching, making it very difficult to write the letters out neatly. I persevered, nonetheless, and sewed the hems with an easier line stitch, attaching two strips of material to tie the cape with... Needless to say, Boudicca was not impressed when I put it on her.

Next I decided to try sewing letters onto the linen fabric, which I expected to be easier. I decided to make another cape with 'FUCK THE CATRIARCHY" (just for lolz) written on, for the other cat, Kafka. I cut the letters out of felt, ensuring that they were the same height (4cm) and width (3cm) and then pinned them to the linen.

It was a little tricky to sew the letters on because the letters were quite small and fidly to get around all the edges, I slipped off the felt in a couple of places which looked a bit messy, but overall it worked. The rounded letters (U, C, R and P) were definitely the most challenging, because the sewing machine stitches quite fast, it's very difficult to get around curves neatly unless you do it manually with the knob.

After finishing the lettering, I sewed the hems and strips of fabric to the top of the cape, as with the first one, so that I could tie it to the cat. I realised the strips weren't long enough on the first cape to tie a bow, so I made these ones longer. Kafka actually wasn't that bothered when I put the cape on him, which surprised me because he usually makes a massive fuss when you put a harness/lead/collar on him. This meant I could get some nice photos of him as he slinked around the bed posing in his new attire. (I think Boudicca was jealous that her cape wasn't as good).


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