Under Construction

For more than a year, I’ve been working on perfecting a pants pattern. The goal is to create a properly fitted master pattern that I can sew in different fabric any time I need a new pair of pants—no more trying them on in stores, which I hate doing because it’s so difficult to find a pair that fits properly, is made of good quality fabric and is affordable.

I do some fitting and sewing, then I stop for months, then I pick up the project again and work on it some more, then put it aside once again. I made one pair of pants from the pattern that didn’t fit quite right, went to a master seamstress for help refitting the pattern, got some more fabric to try it again, cut out all the pieces, then sat on the project for another stretch.

Here’s the reason I keep stopping and starting and dragging this out: My hands can’t sew the way I used to, and I’m afraid of messing up, so I avoid it.

I discovered sewing when I was about five years old. Someone, perhaps my mother, gave my sister and me matching sewing boxes; hers was white with purple trim and mine, white with blue. Each held a packet of needles, spools of different colored thread, a red tomato-shaped pin cushion, some pins and a pair of scissors.

I was in heaven. I began hand-sewing clothes for my Girl Scout Brownie doll, whose name was Shirley, out of old fabric scraps. Her fanciest outfit was an orange corduroy coat with uneven sleeves and a white button. Shirley didn’t seem to mind the amateur workmanship, though I was frustrated that the coat didn’t come out as I’d planned. But I kept on sewing.

As a teen, I learned to sew my own clothes by machine with guidance from a friend’s mother. My first effort was a robin’s-egg-blue jumper with a scoop neck and white braid trim. It had a 22-inch zipper in the back, which I tried to insert unsuccessfully seven times, after which my friend’s mother did it for me. This outfit I wore with a yellow print store-bought blouse at my junior high Girl Scout troop’s fashion show. A few years later, I sewed my senior prom dress out of a black rayon print and inserted a hand-picked zipper.

With practice, a lot of mistakes and some successes, I got better at sewing technique. When Al and I married, I wore a white satin and lace gown that I made myself. I hand-stitched nine yards of lace trim onto white tulle for the veil. When I finished, my fingers were very swollen. A few weeks later, I learned I might have scleroderma.

Though my hands continued to deteriorate, I was determined to keep sewing and made many outfits for my two daughters when they were young. But I have not sewn for myself nearly as much as I would have liked in the years since.

For one thing, I have a lot of fingertip ulcers swathed in cloth bandages, which makes it hard to feel the fabric and manipulate it. Even with a threading tool, I have trouble inserting thread into a needle. Pinning fabric and sewing by hand are very challenging. My hands get tired. I bang my knuckles on the edges of my machine when I’m not paying attention.

But I’m not willing to give up. I have a collection of adaptive tools—an ergonomic rotary cutter to relieve pressure on my wrists, bent-nose tweezers for gripping and pulling, a Y-shaped gadget that I can use instead of my fingers to maneuver fabric through my sewing machine, a 25-year-old Viking Husqvarna that has never failed me. I love paging through sewing magazines and handling fabric. I still design outfits in my head, a favorite pass-time since childhood.

So this Sunday, I pulled out the languishing pants pattern, already cut out of khaki cotton gabardine, sat myself down at the dining room table and began marking the pieces with white chalk to prepare them for construction. The first step involved sewing a fly-front zipper. It was really hard, requiring hand basting through some thick layers.

But I did it. Slowly. When I messed up, I removed the stitches with a seam ripper and did it over. And to my great surprise and pleasure, it came out as close to perfect as I could ever expect, even limited by a pair of hands that don’t always cooperate with my head.

I’ll keep plugging along. Who knows? Maybe this pair will actually fit right. And if not, I’ll just make more adjustments and try again, even if it takes me another year to finish.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.


  1. Ana Luisa Monge-Naranjo says:

    I love your story, as always. My mom is a very good seamstress, so are many of my relatives. And, though doing handicrafts was an important part of my upbringing, I never consider myself good at it. However, I keep doing some sewing for several reasons: to keep my hands agile, to have fun and to make creative things with my hands.

  2. Pat Bizzell says:

    I admire your courage, as always, Ev. Good luck with that pants pattern! It is awesome that you sewed your own wedding dress. That is a family heirloom for sure. I have kept the one my mother made for me to wear at my first wedding in 1977, even though that marriage ended in divorce and neither of my daughters would ever likely want to wear it. Too bad I did not learn sewing from my expert mother when I had the chance . . . she’s been gone for almost ten years. But my second husband is very handy with a needle. He says he learned it on long deployments when his clothes would be ripped and sox full of holes if he could not do the mending. Believe me, I take advantage of him now!

    • Thanks, Pat. Of course, as for you, neither of my girls would ever wear my wedding dress–neither their style nor their size. But it’s still packed away in the attic.

      It’s always good to have someone handy with a needle in the house! Sewing is a bit of a lost art. I doubt if it’s taught in schools anymore, though it was required in Home Ec when I was in 8th grade. Maybe as we all become more recycling-conscious, sewing skills will regain their rightful place as a valued home art form, for women and men.

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