SN writer Beth Bradley chats with author Sanae Ishida about her book Sewing Happiness.
Any devoted sewist will probably tell you that sewing brings her joy. Sewing gives us a way to express our creativity, connect with fellow makers, and show our love and care for others. However, there’s often a hidden depth to this joy that is rooted in surviving personal struggle, pain or loss. Ask any sewist if sewing has helped her through a difficult time in her life, and her answer will likely be a resounding yes. No book has described the healing and life-affirming practice of sewing more beautifully than Sanae Ishida’s Sewing Happiness: A Year of Simple Projects for Living Well. When Sanae faced both a job loss and a chronic illness, she was devastated and overwhelmed. As she gradually worked her way back to health and fulfillment, she rediscovered her love for sewing while challenging herself to make clothing for her daughter. She also began sharing her writing, sewing projects and photography on her blog. These experiences were key to her overall healing process, as she recounts in Sewing Happiness, which is part memoir, part sewing manual and part how-to project book.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Sanae about her book and about the wonderful world of sewing in general. She also discussed the important role that the online community of sewists and makers have played along the way. Read on to find out more about Sanae’s inspiration for the book, her advice on sewing for clothes for yourself and others, her philosophy for incorporating sewing and creativity into your daily life, and of course, where she finds the gorgeous fabrics and supplies she uses for her projects.
How did sewing come into your life and who taught you to sew?
My mom had sewn all of my and my brothers’ clothes growing up, and though she attempted to teach me the basics, I wasn’t a very enthusiastic or willing student. But in 2006, when I gave birth to my daughter, I suddenly had the urge to sew pint-sized dresses and outfits, so I purchased a cheap sewing machine and taught myself how to sew from Japanese craft books and online resources.
You describe Sewing Happiness as not being your typical sewing book. How is it different and why did you feel there was a need for a different kind of sewing book?
I can’t say that I felt there was a “need” for a different sewing book, but I did know that I’d never come across a sewing book that also included personal stories that I could relate to. The memoir/recipe hybrid style is very common with cookbooks, and I enjoy them immensely, which gave me the idea to try something similar with a sewing book.
You describe how challenging yourself to make all of your daughter’s clothes was a catalyst for renewing your love of sewing. What was it about that goal that really inspired you?
In a weird way, I think what motivated me was that it seemed ludicrous and frivolous, which meant that it was a lot of fun. There was no reason for me to sew all of my daughter’s clothes, although I was shocked to discover that neutral, so-called “tasteful” kids’ clothing at boutiques boasted a price tag well out of my budget and I remember thinking, “I could make that!” Mainly, I wanted to become better at sewing and I’ve always LOVED clothes. Also, a baby wardrobe seemed less daunting than sewing for myself. It was a good way to practice. However, I let my initial enthusiasm lapse when I went back to work full-time, and it was only when I was recovering from my illness in 2012 that I picked up sewing again and dove in with gusto.
How did you approach the challenge of making your daughter’s wardrobe? Did you discover any helpful ways to keep on track? How was your blog important in achieving your goal?
I didn’t have much of a sewing plan (and still don’t!), though I did have a rather impressive collection of Japanese sewing books. I started by selecting patterns that appealed to me and seemed easiest, and as I gained more skills, I thought more about how the various pieces would work together. The blog was a fantastic way to stay accountable. I know that it’s a cliché, but I truly never expected anyone other than my mom to look at my blog. My mom is obsessed with her only grandchild, so I knew that she would appreciate seeing what I was making for her.
What did you learn about sewing and/or about yourself throughout the process of working toward your goal?
I learned so much and I could go on about all the lessons forever! I learned about the technical aspects of sewing, obviously, and about fabrics, patterns, techniques, etc. I learned patience and perseverance. I learned to be okay with mistakes, which is not something that comes naturally to me. I made many, many mistakes and got accustomed to keeping the seam ripper by my side. I learned that like most things in life, the steps are simple, but by building upon each step steadfastly, amazing results can be achieved. Often, I would whip something out of the sewing machine that looked, dare I say, professional and I would be completely flabbergasted that I made it.
Do you recommend taking on a big goal or challenge to spark action and creativity?
Actually, I don’t. I’m a big proponent of starting with minuscule goals. Yes, I had an overarching goal of sewing all of my daughter’s clothes for a year, but my REAL goal was just starting. As I mentioned, I actually thought the big goal was a bit crazy and I was okay with not achieving that. What I wanted to do was create a habit of sewing regularly so I broke it down into small steps and focused on just finishing each step: select and trace the pattern, cut the fabric, sew the seams, complete the item. Before I knew it, I was embarking on my fourth year of making clothes for my little girl and for myself without an end in sight.
How do you work sewing and/or creativity into your daily life? Do you have advice for fellow sewists in terms of making time to sew?
I think about this a lot. I hear so often that people don’t have any time to sew or write or paint or whatever, but one of the things I discovered about any kind of creative endeavor is that it doesn’t have to take massive amounts of time. I believe it boils down to a matter of choice. It’s so easy to fritter away minutes doing things that we know aren’t that important to us, and all these wonderful technologies have figured out how to lure us into a rabbit hole of lost moments. My mom, who is my hero and role model in so many ways, is a powerful example of someone who prioritizes creativity. She’s an artist and when I was a kid, she supported our family through waitressing and then as a screen printer at a factory. Despite the insane hours that she worked to make ends meet, she ALWAYS made time to work on her own art. It might have been five minutes before heading out to the restaurant, or a couple hours after her shift, when she came home at midnight. Our home was filled with her paintings and they were a constant reminder that if something brings you joy, you make time for it.
You also challenged yourself to start making clothes for your own wardrobe. I think a lot of sewists can relate to your description of how this helped you feel more comfortable and at peace with your body. When we receive so many messages from society and culture about a “right” way to look, how does sewing help you tune that out?
I can’t in good conscience say that I tune out the “‘right’ way to look” entirely. When you sew, it’s also easy to get caught up in what the latest indie patterns and fabrics are, which can be just as overwhelming as following traditional media and fashion trends. However, there’s this challenging yet incredibly rewarding aspect of facing and accepting how you’re naturally shaped when constructing your own wardrobe. There’s a definite sense of empowerment in that you can combine a pattern with a fabric that you love and then tweak it to your heart’s desire. I didn’t know that I had a very long torso until I started making my own clothes, and it’s so satisfying to be able to add a few inches to create a top that feels completely comfortable to wear. Gone are the days of staring at the changing room mirrors under unflattering florescent lights in shops, wishing the dress/pants/skirt/what-have-you would come in a different color/fabric/length/blah. That’s not to say there aren’t duds and failures when creating your own handmade wardrobe, but I’ve discovered that I learn more from my errors or flops, and my skills keep improving.
I also think a lot of sewists want to make their own wardrobe but struggle a bit with developing a personal style. When you’re designing/sewing garments for yourself, where do you find inspiration? Do you set out with a particular style or look in mind, or does that evolve more organically?
I still struggle with that and exploring my style is something I’m focusing on this year. I default to simple, clean styles and monochromatic or neutral color palettes, but sometimes I think, “Why not try a little ruffle and punches of color?” I do wonder if I lock myself into a particular “look” out of fear of trying new things, and I’d love to be more playful about the whole sewing process. I find inspiration everywhere! I love perusing through books and magazines and Pinterest is always a visual feast. I do follow a fair number of sewing blogs and Instagram feeds, but most of my inspiration comes from other sources.
Likewise, do you have any advice for making clothes that kids will like and wear? Or for making gifts that the recipient will like and use?
If there’s one thing I’ve had hammered into my head by my 10-year-old daughter, it’s that knit is the safest route to go. I’ve made so many beautiful linen outfits that haven’t seen the light of day (sad face here!). Though I don’t regret making them, it is a little heartbreaking to see them unloved–but that’s because I was making outfits I wanted her to wear and not ones she wanted. Ultimately, it’s about learning about the person you’re sewing for whether he or she is a child or adult. My philosophy about gift-giving is about listening and paying attention to the gift recipient’s preferences and taking myself out of the equation.
What is your favorite way to make sewing project feel special and personal to you and/or the recipient? (Maybe a special detail, color, or fabric?)
Oh! I had just said that I take myself out of the equation when giving gifts, but upon further reflection, I often try to incorporate a Japanese element if it feels appropriate.
What do you do when you find yourself frustrated or unhappy with a project you’re working on?
I stop. It usually means that I’m tired or overwhelmed and I need some space from the project. It’s rare for me not to finish a project, but if I still don’t feel good about working on it after a break, then I give myself permission to abandon the whole thing.
What are your favorite tools, fabrics, patterns, and/or embellishments to work with? Do you have any go-to sources for materials?
Linen! Japanese and indie sewing patterns! I love tools that make my life easier so I’ve tried pretty much everything on the market. I talk about some of my favorite sewing tools here and here and here. I love Miss Matatabi for Japanese fabrics, I often go to Drygoods Design, Nancy’s Sewing Basket, District Fabrics and Stitches, which are wonderful local sewing shops.
Do you enjoy teaching others to sew? Do you have any favorite resources for learning about sewing techniques?
If you had asked me when I first started teaching sewing, I would have said no. I taught English to high school kids in Japan in my twenties and I was convinced that I was a horrible teacher. I was reluctant to teach sewing (mostly because I didn’t feel like I had enough sewing skills), and as a result, my first few attempts weren’t all that great.
Lately, however, I do small workshops and even created an online Skillshare class of one of my projects from my book with the help of a friend, and I am enjoying it more and more. I feel like I still have a long way to go before I am a confident sewing teacher, though! I tend to accumulate sewing knowledge and techniques mostly from books and the vast number of tutorials available online.
What role does the online sewing community play in your sewing process?
The best part of my blog is the community I’ve connected with. Sewing/crafting people are the nicest! There’s a lot of sharing of information, exchanges of advice and general camaraderie that’s indispensable for the sewing process!
You also mention in the book that you’re beginning to take a more intentional approach to sewing rather than setting a specific goal or challenge, which sounds really interesting. Can you elaborate about that a bit?
My initial foray into regular sewing was quite regimented with the weekly productions for my daughter. After a while, however, I was making too many clothes for her and I felt like I was teaching her the wrong message and flooding her with excess choices in the form of clothing. After nearly five years of not buying any clothes for my daughter or myself, but not making as many of my own clothes, my wardrobe is looking…shall we say, a bit shabby? I’ve been in the throes of book-making for the past few years and had cut back on sewing time, but I’m ready to jump in again. I had so much fun sewing on a weekly basis and want to resume with more thoughtfulness about construction and purpose and style. In short, I want to sew well-constructed and stylish clothes that reflect who I am and who I hope to become.
Finally, in honor of the title of your book, how does sewing bring you happiness?
Sewing brings me happiness by allowing me to slow down, savor each step and (hopefully) enjoy the end result. The end result is the least important part, naturally, and it’s more about being open to all the possibilities.
Would you like a copy of Sewing Happiness for your sewing space? Comment on this post for a chance to win a copy. When you comment, let us know how sewing makes you happy. We’ll pick two random winners on Friday, 2.17.