A question I get a lot is whether I take commissions—whether I sew clothes or reupholster furniture for people for money. It took me a while to figure out a response that people will accept.
No one is satisfied with “no,” or with my winky jokes about how they couldn’t afford me.
For a while I would try just getting really real: my mom’s mom and my mom’s sister spent their careers as seamstresses working out of their home in Tehran. I know firsthand what that kind of labor does to your free time, your back, your eyesight. I know exactly what a privilege it is to sew exclusively for myself, and because I want to. In honor of my grandmother and aunt, I intend to keep it that way.
No one is satisfied with that, either.
I get why they ask! Since my very first Instagram post in 2012—I very painstakingly made a t-shirt out of a slightly-too-small length of gorgeous silk with a pattern of whirling dervishes woven into it—I’ve been sharing photos online of stuff I sew.
In just the past year or so, I’ve made 10 dresses, a jacket, a pair of shorts, a shirt, a jumpsuit, a leather harness, and a winter coat, with a pair of red corduroy overalls well under way. You can find photos of all of them on my Instagram, and while “asking for it” is a fake concept, I understand how this looks like an invitation for me to share my skill at making clothes with others. It just turns out that’s not QUITE what it is that I’m sharing.
Sewing is solitary—it’s me and the fabric and the sewing machine and the idea in my head. It’s also deeply satisfying to see a garment come to life, if you’re the kind of person who gets really excited about spatial reasoning and thinking in three dimensions. (Full disclosure: Sometimes when I’m bored I visualize in my head how the plackets on the sleeves of a collared shirt are made.) When I started sharing clothes I made on Instagram, it was about finding an outlet for that combination of nerdy, exciting, and totally solo labor. Social media is about sharing what you’re excited about with your community, right? There’s nothing more exciting than basting an orange polka dotted pocket onto an orange polka dotted top so that all of the dots match up perfectly. Seriously, look at it! (And if you scroll back far enough, you CAN look at it.)
I think it’s easy to be cynical about Instagram—after all, Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, have done quantifiable harm in the world—but I try to resist that urge. Like most types of social media, it feels best when it’s sincere enough to be effortless, when the underlying message behind a photo isn’t just “I’m still alive and I want you to pay attention to me right now please,” but “this thing I’m sharing is making me feel really alive, and I’m excited to share it with you because I think it’s worth your attention.”
I spent a few years like this, getting this kind of low-level community validation by sharing the stuff I was sewing that I was psyched about.
But here’s the other thing about Instagram that I refuse to think of as terrible, although of course it can be. The very act of posting a photo is a form of performance. Like, it’s a performance when it’s a photo of Emily Ratajkowski in a bikini, it’s a performance when it’s way too many Instagram stories of a glamorous-looking but probably actually boring party at your friend’s work, and it’s a performance when it’s me, posting yet another photo of my feet in grey wool hiking socks with a bunch of floral linen spread out on the floor below me for a new dress.
And if all of those individual types of Instagram are a performance, years of sharing singleton photos of my completed or in progress sewing projects add up to quite the act.
Maybe a better phrase, though, is “quite the praxis”—the ongoing practice of a particular skill. Sewing for myself, my very favorite activity in the whole world, had become even more meaningful because I was developing a practice of doing it in public.
About a year ago I finally figured out the magic words for making people accept that I don’t do commissions, that I don’t mix sewing and capitalism: “oh, sorry, no—not making work for others is part of my artistic practice.”
I fully started doing this as a joke—the joke being that duh, my sewing isn’t art, it’s just me pinning together pieces of fabric to make yet another sack dress with extremely conceptually rigorous seams!
And it took time for me to change my mind. The fact that this answer was wholly satisfying to the friends and acquaintances and strangers at parties who had asked was initially shocking to me. I still have a deep belief in pure craft as an end to itself, and like, I’m still a little resentful that my simple “no” was never enough to make people accept that I don’t have to do this thing I love for money. But seeing people take me seriously because I was taking my work seriously felt ... good.
Setting aside the baggage of a specifically “artistic” practice, having my Instagram sewing praxis externally validated like that made me more confident in owning that labor and in owning the (often very strange, or at least not conventionally attractive or even conventionally perfectly crafted) clothes I sew.
Again, the thing about sewing is that it’s solitary—it’s easy for the emphasis to be on the finished garment and not the process of making it. Once you’re done, the dress or coat or shirt takes on this elemental quality, and you can’t imagine anymore how someone constructed it out of fabric and thread. Making the labor of sewing visible as a performance unto itself, and treating that performance as part of my work, lets me have way more fun with it.
So back in December, inspired by all the Savile Row tailors I binge-follow on Instagram and the completely wild designer suits that Harry Styles started wearing on his first solo tour after One Direction went on hiatus, I decided to make myself a new winter coat between Christmas and New Year’s when I’d have a few days off work. It would be a double-breasted navy wool coat with all kinds of ridiculous bespoke details like giant swoopy lapels, functional buttonholes at the cuffs, double vents in the back, welt pockets, a slanted breast pocket even though I think pocket squares are dumb, and a full silk lining. It took two really intense weeks to make and I Instagram story-slash-performed the heck out of it—you can see it in my profile right now—and it was maybe the most fun I’ve had sewing in my entire life.
At one point, it was about 1:30 in the morning and I really, really wanted to get as far as finishing the welt pockets of the coat—a process that involves very precisely stitching tiny horizontal strips of fabric to the front of the coat before flipping them to the inside and attaching a pocket lining—before I went to bed. This is objectively stupid: no precise sewing task should happen after midnight, and fucking up can mean hours lost to picking out stitches. I figured I would at least admit my potential mistake by documenting it in public, so there I am in your Instagram stories, mouth set in a line, holding up the basted body of the coat like it’s a dare, with the caption, “extremely snacky but also extremely want to finish the last two welt pockets before I get too tired to work.” The last photo from that night is timestamped 3:55 AM. I finished the goddamn welt pockets, which are very slightly wonky if you know what you’re looking for, but having documented the reason they’re a little wonky, I kind of treasure them just the way they are. It turns out—surprise!—that the narrative of making the garment and the garment are inextricable!
In writing this essay, I downloaded my six years of Instagram history and counted all the stuff I sewed. I realized that I think of the 90 or so garments I’ve sewn since 2012 as part of a coherent, growing body of work with clear themes and transitions. Instagram allows me to read each garment as a narrative in itself, and to see each of the things that I make as adding to the larger narrative of my “artistic practice.”
It just turns out that MAYBE my artistic practice isn’t simply the production of clothing, it’s a long-term performance piece about labor that happens to produce clothing as artifacts of the performance. I’m kidding—kind of—but I have no regrets about the fact that the interactions I have sharing what I make on social media are as much part of my work as needles and thread.
This piece was originally read at an event for the launch of Alanna Okun’s essay collection The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater on May 3, 2018 at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City.