Uncommon Threads

by Carmen Kew

‘Look, look!’

The skirt flares around me, a great susurration of rippling colour. Spinning, I can transform inanimate fabric into unfettered joy. I can make it lift and blur, transmuting into a mysterious wave-like substance. Even though I am very young and mostly at the mercy of the world, I can harness the ferocious forces of earth just through a calypso pattering of my feet, just by wearing a skirt and whirling.

When I was less than five, being able to harness such tumultuous energy was thrilling.

When I was less than five, it was acceptable to test every garment by making sure that it twirled properly, and I did.

When I was less than five, I already had an inkling that garments had the power to shape reality.

My mother inherited her own mother’s clothes. My grandmother was a professional harpist in Seattle during the 1930s, and her performance garb included impossibly alluring concoctions of net and spangles and beads. She wore stardust and dreams for work. I was allowed to play dress-up in them. Those glittering gowns were utterly intertwined with my own heroic make-believe.

Perhaps I would have grown out of such high romance.

But the United States Bicentennial was celebrated in 1976, when I was eight. Staunch, idealistic women marched through eighteenth-century American history in billowing skirts. Abigail Adams and Martha Washington, famous as they are, were merely placeholders for the women in my own family. Elizabeth Hall Pelton, Hannah Hammett and Mary Eddy Standish are among my ancestors; their blood thrums in my veins. That heritage promised membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. I thrilled to their almost-certain bravery. I wanted their adventures, their exploits.

I knew what females in skirts were capable of.

• • • • •

‘I don’t like it when the boys look, Mama.’

The skirt was too short. If I climbed the rocks or crossed the monkey bars it rucked up, exposing scant white underpants. If I swung high on the swings, the skirt shifted aside to expose chilled, goose-pimpled flesh. It only pretended to be clothing, failing in all practical application.

When I was nine, I cared deeply, pedantically about the difference between real and make-believe, and that skirt was not true.

I also cared about beauty. The hated garment was a foetid green-and-yellow plaid. It was woven in wash-and-wear polyester that abraded my skin, creating blotchy, itchy patches. The boys wore soft, moss-green trousers in cotton corduroy.

I was among the first intake of girls in a formerly single-sex, fee-paying school. The administration’s intentions were egalitarian, but their decisions regarding uniforms were not. Girls wore shoulder-to-knee petroleum-based sacking. It failed utterly to either serve or protect.

I am aware, now, that my indignation was out of proportion. But American schoolchildren do not typically wear uniforms. And my home, Washington State, was situated on the far-western frontier of the nation. It was the final refuge of pioneers and wild men, non-conformists by nature. I was more likely to encounter a bear than another child in school uniform. I felt that a position of trust had been egregiously abused.

• • • • •

‘Daddy, please come and get me. I want to come home.’

My parents spent inheritance money freely, and then sank into poverty. In one last flutter, we went to buy my new wardrobe. No more fee-based education or school uniforms for me. The tactile pleasure of angora sweaters and stylish knickerbockers were to be my consolation.

I did not choose well.

The other girls wore blue jeans almost daily. The other days, they wore denim overalls. Tiny embroidered alligators featured on almost every shirt. Angora and knickerbockers were nowhere to be seen.

I was invited to a slumber party. There was no slumber. There had been intense, secret planning aimed at providing me with a make-over. With the misguided enthusiasm of a forced religious conversion, my classmates crammed me into a stylish wardrobe.

Thick crotch seams bit mercilessly into tender flesh and heavy fabric rasped against skin. I was shoved and moulded into a vision of pre-teen splendour. The denim felt like a straitjacket.

Around midnight, I telephoned my parents and asked to be taken home.

• • • • •

‘I won’t wear second-hand underwear. Or socks.’

My family moved again. Our socio-economic status had not rebounded. My wardrobe came from charity shops. I picked garments based on fabric quality and fit, despising cloth that sagged and bagged or showed sweat stains. I had a marked distaste for denim.

As I reached my adult contours, I began to acquire well-made pieces, presumably suiting intended for professional women. Dark colours wore better. Good tailoring felt nice on the body. And people responded differently when I wore those clothes.

Scabrous teenagers mistook me for a teacher. Old-fashioned clerks treated me with disarming respect. It was addictive.

• • • • •

‘Can you please tell me what colours your wedding party will be wearing?’

I became a commercial harpist, like my grandmother. I played bread-and-butter jobs, providing unobtrusive melodies for corporate events; atmospheric tinkles at art shows; personalized soundtracks for people’s weddings. My playing was increasingly polished, but I was distinctly aware that – at least sometimes – I was hired as much for how the harp looked, and how I looked behind it, as for my music. On days when my fingers refused to behave, that was good.

My wardrobe became a rainbow of cast-off prom gowns and bridesmaids’ shining one-time wonders. Seated under the Chihuly glass sculpture in the Union Station in Tacoma, Washington, I wore a dress that glowed amber. When the bridesmaids were arrayed in front of the rose gardens at Point Defiance Park wearing fuchsia, the shade of my gown was only slightly less violent. I turned up in nicely calculated blue when the Democratic convention hired me at the last moment.

My professional clothes took on a distinct flavour of Cinderella’s ball. Dressing for work was like inhabiting another life, another personality. Dressing was transformation.

• • • • •

‘Yes, there is a dress-code for recitals. I’m afraid your child will need to change rather than perform wearing their swimsuit.’

I performed, but I also taught. There were tiny children acquiring skills for beauty pageants. Diligent school-age children who would later become teachers and performers came, too. I saw self-conscious teenagers and bored housewives and bright, talented adults finally finding time for music lessons after retirement. I organized recitals.

Whatever the illusions of grace and angelic goodness that surround the harp, the reality is earthy. To play, I sit with my thighs skewed as if riding a horse, feet jamming athletically at pedals, arms held like a fencing master. During one performance, I paired the wrong repertoire with a tight-fitting bodice, and ripped the left sleeve out of my favourite red silk dress.

Then a student showed up for a recital dressed in a tight mini-skirt. A mini-skirt is fine in its place, but its place is not hiked up to the hips and creaking at the seams, faux-silk pants peeking out from the hem. This look is not improved when worn by a portly, awkward adolescent straddling a harp. Explicit rules were necessary where good sense failed. I realized I was teaching people to fulfil a role, not just play an instrument.

• • • • •

‘How much fabric would I need to make this?’

I was gifted an elderly but entirely functional sewing machine. When it ran, it sounded as if a train were coming through the walls. Along with the sewing machine, I was given a ragged box containing the remains of a dozen once-gorgeous velvet curtains. I could experiment. Included was a copy of the Vogue sewing book.

I ripped out more stiches than I ever left in. My fingers bled, pricked by pins. My front tooth, I am convinced, has the tailor’s notch (identified by archaeologists) created by breaking the thread repeatedly with the right incisor.

But I gained the power to make garments that fit my body. I am only five feet tall, but possess the unmistakably rounded figure of an adult woman. The sleeves in store-bought clothes often shroud my hands, and necklines can fall nearly to my navel. Shopping is a misery of disappointment and shattered expectation. Sewing, on the other hand, allows me to wear clothing made for me, rather than for a shop mannequin.

• • • • •

‘I think that I will continue to wear underpants, thank you.’

My midwife was earnest, authoritative, and knowledgeable. I trusted her, and I strove to follow her directions as she cared for my heavily pregnant body and growing baby. But her commitment to me shedding my underwear did not seem practical.

She contended that the nether regions of a woman’s anatomy need air to stay healthy. I understood, but I was reluctant to unwittingly seep bodily fluids or expose embarrassing parts of myself while in public. Still, I struggled with my treacherous system and its repeated infections and irritations.

We negotiated a compromise. I offered to wear skirts for the duration of my pregnancy. This provided sufficient ventilation to satisfy her.

The tired sewing machine became my best tool, my weapon of choice. My home-made garments were utilitarian, but they were also comfortable. Soft, gem-hued material was my greatest weakness and best comfort.

And, too, I was suddenly free of the repulsive apparel foisted on pregnant women by retailers. This was a minor revelation.

• • • • •

‘The average eighteenth-century woman on the Tennessee frontier would have owned three outfits.’

I bore three children and moved cross-country. My performance career was gone, my teaching load scant. Another way of being was necessary. I learned to knit, then to spin, and finally, to weave. I revived my interest in early United States history. I joined a fibre arts guild.

Not much later, I was presented with a newspaper clipping containing an article on Marble Springs, the home of Tennessee’s first governor. The main structure was built in 1797; it had just celebrated its bicentenary. They wanted someone to demonstrate spinning. This person would be required to wear historically accurate eighteenth-century dress.

I decided to try.

I took their demand for period-correct clothing seriously. For the first time, I found myself sewing with linen and wool, fabrics that the earliest Tennessee settlers would have used. Clothed in corsets, multiple petticoats, and an ankle-length gown, my hair hidden under a modest beribboned cap, I observed the average American tourist in bulk for the first time. From behind the whirring spinning wheel, I began to question some of my assumptions, and reach some conclusions.

Scanty coverage by synthetic fabrics did not seem to make people comfortable. But linen wicked sweat away from my skin. Gauze-fine sleeves and the kerchief covering my neck meant that I could leave the sun-cream in its bottle. My head was cool under its linen cap. I clapped on my wide-brim straw hat when outside, repelling the blistering sun from my European-fair skin, and began to wonder if it was all about living history. My long, full skirts mean I could move freely, energetically, without constraint or worries about embarrassing exposure. Corsets provided good back support and, once I found some that were well-fitted, were surprisingly comfortable. I loved the romance of my billowing skirts and slim bodice, but more prosaically, I realized that this is an eminently practical costume.

I began to think that perhaps people were not comfortable enough in their own skins to wear what was comfortable on their skins. And I was aware how rarely I truly loved my modern clothes.

• • • • •

‘I won’t need the hospital gown. I can lift my skirt for the injection and there’s a zipper for the chemo port.’

I am too young. Every risk factor that I can manage is low. I exercise, I breastfed my first baby before I turned 26, and use olive oil in my cooking. Processed foods are not my weakness. I never smoked. Breast cancer should not happen, but irrevocably, it does. I do not want to wear the ugly, see-through garment they hand me. It is the uniform of a patient, a victim. It is too short, too ugly, and I hate how the fabric feels against my traumatized skin.

But I am no longer a child, and there is no requirement to conform to a dress code. While complicated projects may be beyond the capacity of my chemo-addled brain, I can still make most of the clothes I wear during treatment. Soft fabrics and gentle shapes again become my refuge.

I create access to all the anatomy they need. I leave hospital appointments in record time, too, because I do not have to change clothing. My clothes allow me to deal with the practicalities of the disease without it becoming my identity.

• • • • •

‘Thanks. I made it!’

I made it through cancer. I made a life. I made the pattern. I made my dress.

And I like how it twirls.

Born in the Pacific Northwest, Carmen’s first career was as a professional harpist and music teacher. In eastern Tennessee, she also worked as a costumed demonstrator of spinning and weaving at historical sites. Since moving to England in 2010, she has gained a history degree, married her childhood sweetheart, and settled in Sussex amidst books, instruments, fibre, and four rescued cats. She is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing through the Open University.