Sarah Engel of Angelus Domina

~ The Creative Process and Sewing ~

"How do you write an article on the Creative Process of Sewing when you don't feel like you have one?" I demand helplessly of the room at large.  I have eagerly agreed to put fingers to keyboard on this topic, and am now stumped.  My eyes skate helplessly over a wall full of Anthropologie clippings and other paper inspiration, a desk covered in textbooks and the flotsam of a dozen projects, and the two house plants I haven't managed to kill.   I don't feel particularly lucid.

Fortunately, I have a sister ― actually, I have eight, but that's not relevant ― and she sets me straight.  She points out that just because my method works in reverse doesn't mean I don't have a creative process.  She gives me ideas, bolsters my confidence, and sends me back to my computer.

So here I go.  But the credit really goes to Hannah.

My creative process looks less like painting on a blank canvas, and more like an episode of MacGyver. 

There are two reasons for this: first, I'm generally skint (that's British for 'broke'), and second, I like it that way.   You see, unlimited options freak me out.  Have you ever felt this?  Clean drawing paper, so white it's practically fluorescent... fully stocked bead shops, offering every color of every size of every material ever to be strung on a cord... brand-new journals, fresh from Barnes and Noble... and don't get me started on fabric warehouses.  The imagination spits out so many ideas and combinations of ideas and revisions of mutations of ideas that it overheats and shuts down within an hour.   Piff.  No more creative juice for you.

On the other hand, the boundaries of a box of oddly cut scraps of paper... the challenge of a commission for lederhosen with no pattern available... these are fuel.  Unlimited creativity may be epic, but limited creativity is cozy, like a hobbit hole.  It's common sense.  It's problem solving.  Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

I buy beads from WalMart and Michaels, but only if I love them.  I shop for fabric on clearance and online, but mostly I cut up old clothes and blankets and upholstery swatches.  I horde old books with busted spines.  Finally I make a mound of everything I've collected (figuratively speaking), and consider what I want to create.  

So the first question is "What do I have?" 
And the second question is "What can I make out of it?" 

I have: a pair of old blue jeans, a ruined blouse, some grosgrain ribbon.

What can I make?  A messenger purse.

I have: an old shabby-chic pillow case, 
scrap fabric from a quilting friend, 
and left-over leather from the local Cherokee craft outlet.

What can I make?  A pair of baby shoes.

I have: a box full of shell casings from handgun target practice, 
and an ordinary picture frame.

What can I make?  A NOT ordinary picture frame.

See how fun this gets?   

We haven't even started building bombs, escaping terrorists, or rescuing cute blondes with 80s hairstyles.

My first hobby was a crash-course in 'making do'.  As a kid I built a dollhouse-without-walls on my dresser top.  I set up tiny furniture, laid down rugs, filled tiny bookshelves with tiny replicas of all my favorite books.  When I had money, I would buy pre-made furniture or real glass dishes from the hobby store, but mostly I made my own minis out of bits of trash: glue caps, broken jewelry, toothpicks.  As I and my hobby grew, an aunt took pity on me and gave me an actual dollhouse.  I swapped out a lot of my rougher attempts for more sophisticated creations, but some pieces survived. 

I have: feathers teased out of my feather pillow, felt, ribbon scraps.

What can I make?  Fancy hats.

I have: a ball of crocheting thread, a very soft old bra.  
 (Mostly girls read this blog, right? *grins*)

What can I make?  A wedding dress.

However, sometimes the process works in reverse: you have a highly specific need, but your materials are still limited. 

I make costumes for the community theatre, and the directors usually know what they want, but there isn't enough money in the budget.  What's a seamstress to do?  If possible I make over a piece we already have, but a lot of the time a costume has to be made from scratch.  For example, we performed 'Little Women' this past winter, which required a lot of period dresses.  When Amy goes to Paris in the second act, she needed an updated post-Civil War style, and that meant: a bustle.

My first stop is always Google Images.  I hunt up reference pictures... 

I make sketches in my notebook...

I stalk fabric sales at all my favorite online suppliers (ebay, Hancock Fabric Online, etc.)... Sometimes I buy patterns.  In this case, bustle patterns were too expensive and called for too much fabric, so I decided to cannibalize a pattern I already had; I would use the bodice, but design the skirt and bustle myself.

Here the creative process for sewing starts to feel like engineering or carpentry.  There's math to be done, and phrases like 'structural integrity' start crossing your mind.  You stare into space a lot as you try to fathom how on earth seamstresses in the 1800s attached the bustle to the underskirt... or did they...?  You guess.  You sketch some more.  You bemoan the fact that you don't have a real dress form and instead you tie a pillow to the back of a highchair and use it to test all your crazy ideas.  You pin and unpin a lot.  Holding real fabric is the best way unlock your inner textile genius.

Finally, you firm up your battle plan
and you measure
and you cut
and you fit
and you trim
and you sew
and you stab yourself with pins
and you attach the sleeve the wrong way
and you reattach it the proper way
and eventually...

...you're finished!  (That's Hannah; she played Amy.)

I imagine there is a lot of satisfaction in creating works of art out of thin air.  The idea of Michelangelo staring at a piece of white marble and seeing a statue of David inside it blows my mind.  I admire those artists immensely.  But I'm a MacGyver, not a Michelangelo.  Fortunately, the world has plenty of room for both sorts.

...Which sort are you?

{ written by sarah engel }


  1. Well, MacGyver, I think you've got a bit of Michelangelo-ishness in you anyway. You are immensely talented!!! And I love this post! Thank you much, dahling!

  2. Hahaha! This was great, Sarah. Very fun, informative and enjoyable. Though you don't get to give me any credit cause I know you would have figured it out on your own. ;P I love those tiny hats! ;D

  3. Excellent work! I love love love your writing style. I also love how you have such an attitude of "I can do this.". This definitely inspired me and in a way reminded me to get back to basics and not overwhelm myself. Thank you. By the way, I never saw baby shoes coming. :)

  4. How fun Sarah! I love your style, great comparisons. I too have made tiny hats but mine didn't ever look that good. Beautiful art!

  5. i love your line

    The imagination spits out so many ideas and combinations of ideas and revisions of mutations of ideas that it overheats and shuts down within an hour.

    fabulous post, sarah. to answer your question, i don't think i'm much of either. i definitely copy more than anything; i'm a mimicker. but that's alright with me- as long as there are good artists like you to copy. :D

  6. I really liked this post, thank you for sharing :) And your abilities astound me, as I am extremely uncreative :)

  7. I'm always amazed at you Sarah - I'd say you are a master in many things! Love your projects. When you start your Etsy shop you should definitely include those precious baby shoes, I love them! :)

  8. Great essay!! :) You've just gained a fan ;)

  9. considering you werent feeling very lucid.... WOW!!!! Amazing stuff and a really fun blog to read too! Youve inpired me although I think I need you to cast your eye over my huge box of scraps and tell me what to make!!! Thanks for sharing!!


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