singer sewingMy mother taught me to use her putty-colored electric Singer sewing machine when I was 4. The toy sewing machine she bought me didn’t work right, and being practical, she figured she might as well teach me to use her machine. In the years after, I learned well how to follow a pattern to construct a garment from yardage.

When I was in college, I would stitch up a dress or a pair of pants on my grandmother’s ancient, gold-embellished black electric Singer when she brought me home to Tipton, Ind. for the weekend. I had my own machine at my parent’s house in St. Louis—a Pfaff I’d bought at the PX in Belgium when I was in high school—but I missed having a machine, and was grateful for the use of that straight-stitch machine at Grandmére’s.

When my grandmother died, I inherited her machine. I rarely use it, but I’d have a hard time letting go of it.

I also own a non-electric sewing machine with a leather belt drive. Place both feet flat on the treadle, and drive the belt by pushing your toes down, then heels down toward the floor, over and over. Maybe it makes the most beautiful stitch because I have to work the hardest to make it happen.

After sewing clothes for myself (dresses, skirts, pants, winter coats), my husband (trousers, Hawaiian-style shirts, dress shirts) and my sons (overalls, t-shirts and Halloween costumes), not to mention a dozen or more bed quilts, I’d probably put a hundred thousand miles on the Pfaff. In the early 1990s, I replaced it with a gently used Bernina from Odegaards. I still own that machine, and it’s still my favorite (don’t tell the other machines), even though I acquired an industrial straight-stitch machine a few years later.

Sometime in the ’90s, I bought an overlock machine, hoping it would help make my garments look more professional. A couple of years ago, my mother gave me her Serger, so now I have a total of six sewing machines. Six machines feels excessive, but I wouldn’t be able to get rid of any of them at this point.

I’ve been sewing for more than 50 years, but fitting a pattern hasn’t always been my strongest skill. I could sew circles around anyone, but hated taking the time to match pattern to body. I could get close, but that wasn’t always adequate. Following a pattern was easy, but adapting and adjusting was harder: forging your own path requires being comfortable with uncertainty.

So around 1995, when my boys started insisting on store-bought clothes, I stopped making garments. Clothing construction no longer felt compelling anyway.

But now that I’m working on a new project that necessitates these skills, I’ve been catching up on fit and pattern-making concepts, via Youtube. With fresh (but aging) eyes, I’m relieved to learn that fit isn’t rocket science: it’s engineering.

My friend Wendy and I talked a few weeks ago about ebb and flow, and what that means for our careers. We mostly agreed: sometimes you’re on top, and sometimes not. But that has practically nothing to do with what we’re currently doing or interested in. Mostly it simply means that the world is paying attention to something else. And that requires us to redefine ebb and flow for ourselves.

Flow is a trip down a sunlit path, where the next step is apparent, and the end is in sight. Flow is the sensation that the outcome will be “right,” whatever that outcome is. Flow is smooth sailing on clear, calm water in a sea-worthy craft. Or rough sailing with the skills and tools to handle whatever rough weather comes along.

In my creative process, ebb is not the opposite of flow. It’s a rest, not an undoing. It’s certainly not a shaky place. Ebb is thinking. Ebb is noticing and processing. It’s paying attention and preparing to take action. Ebb is coming to grips with a creative problem, and letting the universe work on it without me for a while.

It’s a lot like an exercise that I do sometimes: I stand on a flat platform with an inflated surface underneath to give my core and balance muscles a workout. To stay upright requires that I stabilize between two (or 100) different planes. I travel from fugue state to being utterly present. I place both feet on the uneven surface of my life, using every one of my tiny muscles to stay upright. And even when I fall, I know there are zones of goodness on the floor. Sometimes I have to crawl to get where I’m going.