On sewing, and napkins

I’ve been saying for a long time that the most important thing I learned in high school stage tech was a paradigm that I usually phrase as “Things are made of stuff.” For example, a door isn’t a single discrete unbreakdownable unit; it’s (more or less) some pieces of wood with pieces of metal attached, and you can use tools like screwdrivers to take it apart and put it together.

(Side note: It turns out that Bill Nye has used that exact “Things are made of stuff” phrase. I never watched Bill Nye, so I didn’t get it directly from him, but it’s possible that I got it from someone who got it from him.)

I recently acquired a tiny cute sewing machine, on which I hope to learn the basics of sewing. (No advice, please.) To get started, I watched a sewing-tutorial video on YouTube, which showed how to set up a sewing machine. The second half of the video walked through a very simple project: making a cloth napkin.

And partway into that second half, I had an epiphany:

Napkins are made of stuff.

That seems like it ought to have been an obvious corollary to Things are made of stuff. But somehow, for me, it wasn’t.

Apparently, I have always thought of cloth napkins as being magical objects that spring fully formed from a napkin tree, or something. Or rather, I had never thought about how cloth napkins are made, or what they’re made of, at all.

I know that clothing is constructed out of pieces of cloth. Also curtains. Also bedding. But it had never occurred to me that someone could take a square of cloth and sew seams around the edges and turn it into a napkin.

Surely, I had apparently thought, you wouldn’t want to wipe your mouth on just any old cloth! It must be some kind of special napkin cloth! But no. I went and looked around online and found a bunch of information about what kinds of cloth napkins are made of, including cotton, and linen, and polyester, and silk. (No need to tell me more details about what napkins are made of. I’m just describing the thought process I went through, not looking to learn about napkins.)

It was a little disconcerting to me to stumble over this area of unexamined lack of knowledge.

But it was also empowering. The idea that I personally can take a square of cloth and, with a little bit of pretty straightforward work, turn it into a cloth napkin, makes sewing feel accessible to me in a way that I don’t think it ever has before.

I’ve done tiny bits of hand-sewing before, to (clumsily) close up holes in various items of clothing and such, but that’s been super-basic. And I’ve seen clothing patterns, and I know the basic idea that you can make clothing using such patterns, but that’s always seemed far beyond something I was ever likely to be able to do. Mary Anne showed me and some other people some sewing-machine basics a couple years ago, but we ran into some thread-tangling issues.

But somehow a napkin seems easy and manageable and straightforward, and that makes me more willing to believe, at a gut level, that sewing is a skill that, as with most skills, one can learn gradually and get better at over time.

I am pleased.

…Note: I suspect that for many of you, the urge to teach me many things about sewing in comments here will be nigh-overwhelming, but I’d like to ask you to refrain. I have kinda idiosyncratic ways of learning things sometimes, and I will do much much better with this if I find my own way. When I have questions, I will ask, but for now, please don’t give me any kind of advice or instructions about sewing or sewing machines or napkins or other topics mentioned here. My post here is intended as a description of an interesting-to-me epiphany, a neat shift in perspective, not a request for further information or instruction. I know that it can be frustrating to hear that, and I apologize.

5 Responses to “On sewing, and napkins”

  1. Sumana Harihareswara

    I had a similar feeling several years ago when I went to a sewing workshop and then, the next night, a Debian packaging workshop. Yay for this epiphany!

  2. Mya

    I simultaneously have always wanted to know how to use a sewing machine, and found sewing machines oddly baffling and terrifying. At various points I have owned one, or more, but I don’t know if I still do. Maybe at some point you can teach me how to use one. 🙂

  3. Marie

    Starting with fleece off a sheep, processing it so that I could spin it and then knit it into a garment, that was magic for me.


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