I Made A Shirt

Tracy Williams

© Copyright 2004 by Tracy Williams


Photo of a sewing machine.

I am the stay at home mom of a 5 yr old son, Connor. I moved to Austin, Texas,  from Canada after having found love online. I took 4 years off to dedicate my time to my son. Now, I spend my time writing out the stories of our lives much to the horror of my family and sheer delight of small parenting magazine readership. I am compiling and sharing my stories of the adventures of a career woman’s descent into the absolute abyss of motherhood.

I ran myself virtually through with a pin when I attempted to make one very funky retro-looking bowling shirt. I'd pinned pattern to fabric and was smoothing it out with my hands. Tissue paper patterns never actually lay flat and if I learned nothing in my Grade 8 Home Economics class, it's that if you want a pattern to work, you just have to lay the pattern and cut it properly. Mrs. Whats-Her-Name would be proud I'd carried that tidbit with me all these years.

I was attempting to flatten the paper pattern pinned proudly upon my first piece of black fabric and slid my hands quickly and firmly from the center of the piece to the end when I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my right middle finger. I said "ouch" loudly but thought something more akin to what a drunken sailor might mutter. I looked down, frozen in my position and noticed a pointed bump just beside my nail on my middle finger that I'd not noticed before.

"That's wrong", I thought. I slowly lifted my hand up off the table to see I'd lifted the pattern and fabric with me.

"That's very wrong", I thought.

I turned my hand over gingerly to see a bright green pin head and almost a third of a pin sticking out of my finger. Oh yes, I'd bought designer colored topped pins, any project worth doing is worth doing with designer colored topped pins.

The floaty paper pattern piece and black fabric were bunched in that one third of a pin. Now, I've never been good at math or able to make mathematical calculations in my head, but this time I managed to. I made the mental calculation that if I saw one third of a pin that meant, logically, the other two thirds of the pin had to be somewhere else. I swallowed hard when I realized the other two thirds of the pin had to be in my finger and perhaps causing the bump on the other side.

"That is so very very wrong". I grimaced and said, "euww, ouch" as Connor came over to check on my progress. I once again thought something far more profane.

I firmly grabbed the bright green designer colored topped pin head and yanked. The pin came out, the paper pattern and fabric fell to the table and the bump beside my nail on the other side magically disappeared. I didn't want to compute that connection. There was a delay in feeling and action. I had luckily moved away from the fabric laying clumped on the table as I looked at my suddenly throbbing finger, there was a slight dot of red. In slow motion, the dot became a little river in the crevices of my fingerprint, then into a bubble and the bubble burst and the blood ran down my finger, pooling in the palm of my hand.

"Ok then, I've apparently mastered the blood portion of the "blood, sweat and tears" that people refer to". I dashed into the kitchen and thrust my now leaking, truly aching and throbbing finger under the cold water tap and watched as the water turned from dark red to light red to pink to clear. I twisted a piece of paper towel around my wound. "One down, nine to go."

Day one, hour two and I'm wounded. What other adventures lay in wait for me during my first foray into frugal world of homemade clothes making housewife-dom. Don't they sell these already made somewhere, I had to wonder. Although, it's only a shirt, how hard can it be? Needless to say, my aching, throbbing, finger continued to ache and throb and was bumped, pressed, knocked and squished pretty constantly during the rest of my shirt making venture. It just added to the experience, made it more memorable. Anyone can make a shirt, I surmised, but it takes ME to do it run-through. Didn't someone say, "No pain, no gain". Funny, I never thought that would be relative when referring to a sewing project in suburban Texas.

I've never tried to make anything wearable other than crazy fabric one seam pull up pants for my son, we call them funky pants. I have never made "real" clothes before. My husband, David, got it into his head that I could. He bought a pattern, fabric, the right color thread and dug through bins and bins of discount buttons to find just the right ones.

It became the giant black and neon yellow elephant in the middle of the room that no one mentioned on in our house as I put it off and stalled and delayed. It took me an entire weekend to muster up the wherewithal to wash and preshrink the fabric. My friends started calling, asking where it was folded this week. Ok, the girls are on to me at least.

The pile of fabric sat folded on my washing machine, then on the dryer, staring at me, for weeks. I occasionally moved it neatly to the kitchen table, to the dining room table, back to the washer. Everywhere I went, they seemed to be lurking in the distance staring at me. David would periodically inquire, gently, as to the progress on his shirt. I think I ironed it all twice.

When I felt self-induced pressure to perform, I'd find sewing sites on the internet that had large diagrams and have them displayed on my monitor when he returned from work, "Research on how to do the shirt" I'd proudly state and manage to justify ignoring that black and yellow pile for another few days. No, I never read any of them, too technical and convoluted. Just had them open on the computer purely for my husband's benefit.

When I felt particularly guilty, I'd unfold and open the enormous instruction pages from the pattern and lay them across either the coffee table or the dining room table. "Trying to figure this out before I dive in", I'd limply state when he'd notice. I spent time moving the pattern, still in it's packet from room to room for the illusion that the process would begin imminently. I'd let it go so long, I thought perhaps he was starting to think me legitimately dim. Ok, so it's just a shirt and hey, how HARD can it really be? I'm a bright gal and the fabric is only a couple bucks, so long as I start when he's at work, I can play, cut, toss it out, dash to the store, replace the fabric, bring it home, fold it neatly and put it back on the washing machine, he'd never know. There's the right attitude, not only prepare for defeat, but plan your cover-up in advance. I AM a bright gal!

Monday morning, cover-up plan firmly in place, the time had come. I brought the fabric into the dining room again and lay it out flat; I picked up the pattern and opened the enormous flowing pages of printed tissue paper. I told Connor, my son, "Today we make the shirt". I had no illusions I'd be doing this alone. He's 3, he helps. "Do you know how?" he asked. "Nope, haven't the slightest idea what on earth I'm doing". I laugh. "Let's just dive on in".

I pulled out all the folded pieces of patterned paper. I attempt to lay them down on the dining room table, instructions spread out on the backs of both the couches for each standing reference. I started cutting random pattern pieces out of the completely uncooperative floaty flowing blowing tissue paper.

Have you ever considered how many actual separate pieces there are to any particular article of clothing? When you buy a unisex pattern for children, teens and/or adults, do you have any idea how many different sized pieces of the same thing there are stamped on the floaty flimsy thin blowy, frankly uncooperative, tissue paper? Did you know they're all sort of numbered but not necessarily in any sort of order on 5 different pieces of giant flimsy tissue paper? Were you aware the instructions give 3 or 4 options for layout and which pieces to use for any given completed pattern? Have you any idea how thin that paper is and how effectively, easily and quietly it blows across a room with an open window and a ceiling fan on? Did you know what a 3 year old boy does when, while sitting quietly watching television, suddenly has his head virtually encased by said giant piece of thin floaty tissue paper that makes a stealth run off the table with the slightest wind from the open window and floats silently toward your unsuspecting child when you're busy cutting other things? I know the answers to these questions.

I managed to get the paper pattern pieces I need cut, with only 4 extra. I carefully laid out the fabric, checking and rechecking the poorly worded, and even worse illustrated, instructions. The exercise was relatively wound free, always a good thing. My aching throbbing finger reminded me not to slide my hands along pinned fabric. If nothing else, I learn quickly. I remembered David's carpentry mantra, "measure twice and cut once". I took that to a new level with "measure ten or fifteen times and tentatively almost cut but then stop and re-check it again".

It took me hours it seemed. I had the brilliant idea that I wouldn't have to cut the flimsy paper pattern so carefully if I used tracing paper and a tracing wheel that I'd found in an old box of sewing "notions" given to me by my grandmother years ago. I'd never known what it was for but had kept it safe and neatly down the side of my notions box. I saw a picture of it on the back of the package of tracing paper in the store when I was wondering why on earth someone would use tracing paper on a sewing project. Who would have ever thought I'd be dealing with "notions" of any kind, let alone the sewing kind.

I somehow managed to trace the patterns onto the fabric with my trusty designer colored tracing paper, purchased to match the pins of course. Only a few hiccups along the way, like not realizing tracing paper wears out so I did trace a few pieces, proudly lift the paper over my head with a dramatic, "TA DA" only to find there were no markings on the fabric. A lot of my time was spent re-laying the pattern pieces. You live, you learn.

After numerous cuttings, I checked and rechecked the instructions. It appeared I had cut the correct pieces, laid out the correct way on the fabric and could this be? Was I ready to sew? Oh yes, this was going to be the easy part.

On an aside, I don't think I've spend so much time hunched over my dining table dealing with anything other than consuming enormous amounts of food or copious amounts of drink in my entire life.

I left the instructions strewn about the living room, grabbed piece 1 and pieces A and B and marched them into my kitchen where my sewing machine is set up. Having memorized step one AND two, I proceeded to sew front side A and front side B to the appropriate location on back side 1.  I ponder the fact that someone should at least deal with all letters or all numbers when writing instructions.

I race into the living room, thrilled that my front and back pieces actually match and, as I tell my adoring audience member, "It’s starting to look like a shirt!"

"Yippee! Mama! Good job!" He is, if nothing, supportive.

Now I'm cocky, "I can do anything" I chant as I meander back to the instructions swinging parts A, B sewn beautifully to part 1at my side. The collar is next. Two pieces fabric, on piece interface. I can handle that. Truth be told, I didn't even know what interface was until I discovered it listed as a requirement during one of my forays into the instructions while I was still contemplating this undertaking. Collar number one was wrong, sewn inside out and sort of skewed. It didn't look inside out initially, although when I flipped it, I did notice that a collar should really have fabric on both sides of the interface.

Obviously experienced, now, I was horrified to see that collar two was produced to the exact specifications, not of the instructions but unfortunately, of collar one. My mother had reminded me, before I started this, that the secret to a good homemade shirt was the points at the collar. We had a brief discussion about what tools would be useful. In what I thought to be a brilliant move, I determined I'd use a fondue fork. Always a useful thing to have. As the point started to actually point, there was a resounding "RIP" and out poked my fork surrounded tightly by frayed torn neon yellow. Perhaps this isn't right. I study the instructions. No computer graphics artist produced these grey black half fuzzy drawings. I'm thinking the "artist" was on their way out the door when they finished these up. Four collars later, I proudly hold up my bright neon yellow rectangle with very pointy points thanks to a single metal chopstick I found in my "stuff I never use but should have in case I need it one day" drawer. Doesn't take much to thrill me to pieces, I'm feeling truly brilliant.

In two valiant attempts I managed to sew the collar onto the other pieces and to my shock and delight, it was beginning to resemble something potentially wearable. Taking self credit where I can, I begin to marvel at my new-found seam ripping abilities. "Anyone can sew, it takes a pro to rip it out this many times without destroying it", I think. I toss the beginnings of an article of clothing around my shoulders and model it for Connor. He is duly impressed and marvels at my brilliance. As I said, he's nothing if not unconditionally supportive. "Sleeves!" I announce.

I wrestle, fidget, maneuver and manage to get the sleeves sewn on. I gather up the shirt and once again flounce into the living room where my poor neglected child has been television bound since I started this venture. I swing the shirt around my shoulders, adjust the surprisingly erect collar which is reminiscent of something Elvis may have donned and stand before my darling.

"Well? How's this? It's looking good, isn't it?" I ask.

He stares at me, cocking his head slightly. He's looking at my shoulder. "I think that's wrong, Mama".

I look sideways and notice on my right shoulder is a beautifully sewn steam, standing straight up. I close my right eye, maybe if I don't look. I turn to the left side. There it is, on that side as well, a beautifully sewn seam, standing straight up. "At least they're even!"

Connor starts to laugh. I grin and then can't contain it either, I start to laugh. "You don't like it this way?" I march around the living room raising one shoulder at a time. "C'mon, it'll be the new look! We'll tell daddy they're handles!" We giggle and I think, "I hope I've taught him a grand lesson as he watched me dive into this, doesn't matter what it is, or if you haven't a clue what you're doing, just forge madly ahead, see what comes of it and have one hell of a good laugh along the way".

Luckily, my proficient seam ripping abilities enable me to undo my recent do and on only the second attempt, third on the left side, manage to sew the sleeves on in a relatively sleeve like manner. I modeled again and Connor was impressed. I point out that the best kinds of sleeves are the kind where the seam goes inside.

I stick to what I'm good at and focus on a couple straight seams and hems. Mastered first time. I'm more than a little relieved. I hang it in the laundry room. I can't cope with buttons and button holes at the moment. "I need to wait to have my husband try it on before I dive further into this", I think, partly I'm sure to justify my strong desire to never see this shirt again.

I looked at the clock and realized my whole day had been consumed by the neon yellow and black monster, it was dinnertime. Connor announced he was indeed hungry and I rushed us out to the grocery store. No human can sew AND feed their family in the same day! We came home with fixings for sandwiches and chips, not healthy but fast. Connor pointed to my covered dining room table and asked, "Hey, Mama, where can we EAT?" I chase him away from starting to clear my perfectly arranged chaos on the table and suggest we "picnic on the floor, for fun". He's on to me and begrudgingly agrees not to eat at the table. We eat our sandwiches as I giggle about how long it's taking to make the shirt and my darling son agrees. "You took a long time for sure, mama, you even forgot to give me lunch today" he says as he finishes his second sandwich.

"ACK! You're right, we didn't eat did we? I'm so sorry baby!" I am filled with guilt. "Why didn't you say something?"

"I wanted to help you finish the shirt” Oh, there we go, mother guilt of undeterminable proportions. It goes without saying; Connor got a lot of cookies and treaties that night.

David came home from work and spied the half shirt hanging. "Is it done?" He asks actually gleeful. "Almost" I proudly announce. He dashes in, grabs it off the hanger and puts it on to model. He comes into the living room standing slightly crooked and says, as he pulls half the shirt down, "Um, is it supposed to be like this? This side so much longer?"

"Oh, funny" I laugh. He tells me he quite likes it and I secretly think he's sort of proud of me. I am.

We get Connor to bed and I think I can face the shirt again. I grab scrap fabric and begin to try to figure out my "automatic" button hole making sewing machine. I try without the manual and realize I can't figure it out. I find the manual and begin to read. David reads over my shoulder and very helpfully points out the first 4 words of the chapter, “button holes are easy...”  103 failed button holes later. David and I join forces. We lean into and over the machine, trying different settings, pulling, pushing and turning knobs and dials. He dashes into the garage and emerges with a sinister looking screw driver, "here, try it with this". He's supplying his beloved "man tools"? I'm enjoying this.

It's "me" time, pure and simple. Not household, dishwasher, laundry or child related, it’s just a game for me. I look over at him and think this feels like the first joint "just for the fun of it" project we've had since Connor was born. No pressure, not the slightest bit important in the scheme of things. I was enjoying our silly time together, trying to convince a machine to make us a button hole. There was no talk of finances, bills, job security, job hunting, work and life related stresses, child rearing issues, nothing but the task at hand. The two of us, a united front, against the machine. He periodically would repeat those daunting words from the manual, "but Trace, remember, button holes are easy, the book says so!" We'd start to giggle. I'll admit it; I had a great deal of fun that night.

The grand button hole attempt failed miserably. Tuesday morning arrived and Tuesday night's bowling league loomed. The pressure was well and truly on.

When David went to work and after I remembered to give Connor some breakfast, I called Singer. They made the machine; they ought to be able to talk me through it. I had a very funny conversation with a very helpful gal. For 45 minutes, she bravely and patiently talked me through making the same failed button holes over and over from the night before. I laughed a lot and explained to her that I "used" to be pretty clever but that now I was someone's mom and apparently was suffering from mother-brain. The conversation ended with her suggestion perhaps the machine was faulty. A much gentler than what I suspect she was thinking, that it was the operator of my machine was the problem. I appreciated that.

When in doubt, call in the cavalry. I called my mother in Canada, long distance charges during prime time be damned, this was important. David had already called me starting the countdown of how many hours were left till he just HAD to wear the shirt. Yes, yes, she was at work but damnit, I had a button hole crisis that needed dealing with. She regaled me with stories of having other people sew her button holes in the past and of a wonderfully silly sewing project with her mother where half the shirt ended up with upside down penguins. I'm not getting a lot of concrete help here but the laugh and the diversion is helping me face the project and crisis at hand. We devise a plan whereby I will forgo the machine and attempt it manually, or at the very least, let the machine do a partial button hole and I'll finish it off by hand. I was embarrassed when I admitted to her the concept of sewing any part of it by hand hadn't even occurred to me. We laugh. We laugh a lot anyway. I like that.

I forged bravely ahead, managed to get the machine to do part of the work and found that if I pulled hard on the fabric during the second half of the button hole making process, the thing looked just fine. I finished all 5, snipped them out and even used the machine to sew on the buttons. I was only stabbed slightly in 3 fingers while attempting to position the buttons for the machine to sew them on, managing to keep my wounded, aching, and throbbing, run-through finger safe from new injury.

I called David as I was ironing on a wonderfully tacky appliqué of a bowling ball and falling pins to announce I was DONE. He dashed home on his way to the bowling alley and stripped down in the front hall and donned his new wonderfully retro bowling shirt. He modeled it and spun and turned and looked quite dashing. I was impressed that he was actually going to wear it outside, in public. I'd cursed at him during the button hole night that he was doomed to wear it daily here at the house but that I was under no illusions he'd wear it in public. He marched out wearing his shirt. We joked about whether the seams would hold. I tossed him a tee-shirt as he walked out, just in case.

Connor and I went to the bowling alley a little later to watch them play and all the guys on his team asked me, separately, to make them one. I flatly refused them. "There's not enough love nor money around to have me undertake THAT again". I laugh, they plead, I refuse firmly. I had a very proud moment when the last guy on the team arrived and commented on how "cool" David's bowling shirt was. David didn't know I saw or heard and replied, looking a little bit proud himself, "Hey, my wife made it for me!” He looked down at his new shirt and ran his hand down the front, smoothing it out. I just smiled. I'm honored and secretly thrilled that I succeeded.

The shirt held together, none of the seams came apart, the Elvis collar relaxed a bit, the appliqué stayed stuck on and my husband bowled great games.

Much to David's delight, while he was modeling the shirt at home, Connor asked sweetly if I'd make him one to match, "only a little one that I could wear". Unlike the guys on the bowling team, I cannot deny him. My finger doesn't ache so much now, just a small scab and bump from the run-through. It's only a bowling shirt but I learned from it, laughed doing it, hopefully taught my son a lesson about trying anything, and having way too much fun doing it, by making it, had fun playing, had some "quality me time", and hung out with my husband like in the pre-child days during it. The little pain in my finger is a very small price to pay for the silliness, the giggles and the pride involved in this little project. I'm going shopping for the same fabric for Connor's shirt tomorrow.

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