Creative Corner: Learning to sew let me reclaim my sense of style

Incorporating my favourite fashion trends into well-loved projects

ILLUSTRATION: Angelina Tran / The Peak

By: Sahej Kaur Bhalla, SFU Student

Imagine going to the mall and seeing an amazing outfit on one of the mannequins, but when you go to try it on, there is something slightly off about the way it fits. You buy it anyways, but whenever you wear it you find yourself tugging at the sleeves self-consciously, making hapless efforts to keep them in place. 

As a tall girl, I have far too often found myself in this position. The constant adjusting and compromising with clothing produced according to standard measurements has not only impacted my confidence in the way I look, but also my enthusiasm to go buy new clothing. This made family trips to India all the more exciting, as travelling meant we could go shopping for fabric for custom-made kurtis. Finally, I had the opportunity to let my style reflect my personality, choosing bright colours, prints, and patterns according to measurements that I felt confident wearing. The sharp scent of fabric became closely associated with thumbing through prints at the local Indian markets and listening to the stories behind each richly embroidered saree in my grandmother’s closet.  

While my internal designer always existed, the opportunity of learning how to sew my own clothes came in an eighth-grade textiles class. I started out with small projects, like learning how to sew seams and different types of stitches, which built foundational skills. After learning how to operate the machine a reliable Singer Prelude I was able to move onto projects where I could apply more creative thinking, such as quilting squares and customising clothing measurements for garments. 

“Relaxing the constraint to complete each project ‘perfectly’ has let me become creative with my approaches to fixing mistakes and visualising what ‘end result’ I desire from the project.”

Quilting squares or paper-piecing is the sewing equivalent of “paint by numbers.” For these projects, I started by searching for patterns that I liked on Pinterest and printed them out on a piece of paper. Then, I would go through my supply of fabric scraps in search of stronger cotton to use for the project. I would then lay them on the paper, sewing along the lines of the page to make seams on the fabric. After this step, I would iron down each seam, watching as the image slowly began to form as I repeated the steps. For these types of projects, I enjoyed the ability to incorporate fabrics with the shimmering and intertwining flower patterns present on the Indian suits and sarees that captivated my attention from a young age. 

One of the best parts about some of the sewing projects I have made is the meaning attached to them. I love the process of selecting fabric at the store with my mom and debating which print would look best for the project I have in mind. Watching the look of pride on my mom’s face as she marvelled at a blue sweatshirt I made for her in a fabric that she chose was one of the highlights of my life — I treasure being able to share a passion of mine with her in this way. Another meaningful project of mine was a blue and gold summer dress that I made. When I first started sewing, I always dreamt of making a dress for myself. As I began to construct the garment, I experimented with the standard sizing on the pattern, cutting out some of the fabric pieces in the largest size to later take them in according to my own measurements or add fabric for a longer skirt length. The end result had a couple flaws, requiring a bit of hand-sewing to fix some details, but I’m still proud to have achieved my goal of making a summer dress customized to my size!

The greatest gift from the art of sewing, however, has been the ability to look past small mistakes and focus on the bigger picture and the process to get there. Sometimes I have to redo the work I do, while other times, I have learned from it and moved to the next step of the project. Relaxing the constraint to complete each project “perfectly” let me become creative with my approaches to fixing mistakes and visualising what “end result” I desire from the project. It engages me with the entire process, from choosing the fabrics to wearing the garment. 

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