If You Want Change to Happen, You Have to Do It Yourself

Gillian Whitcombe, co-founder of The Sewcialists, wanted to build an online community where everyone would feel welcome.

Sewing your own clothes might seem like an old-fashioned hobby, but Gillian Whitcombe knows it’s a radically creative, radically inclusive, radically empowering act — and so do the thousands of people who gather at the online sewing community she co-founded, The Sewcialists.

Creating custom garments that fit just right does a lot more than expand a wardrobe: it liberates people from the tyranny of the size tag (and the price tag), puts them in touch with their bodies, and flexes their creative and analytical muscles. And when they do it as a group, they share more than patterns. They share their inspirations, their ideas, their frustrations, themselves. Here, she tells us about the impetus for The Sewcialists and the teachable moments it’s created.

“Why don’t I fit into this size?”

I’ve sewn ever since I was a kid. I got my first sewing machine when I was 18 and I moved out. When I married my husband and the two of us moved in with my parents in a small town, sewing and the online sewing community was a way to be part of the wider world.

Sewing is amazing because it’s really creative and really logical at the same time. It’s not like, “Why don’t I fit into this size?” You know your body inside and out; it’s really empowering that way. But you’re also thinking about the mathematical part of it, and the 3D shape, and what order are you going to do construction in — all that mathematical but creative part as well.

“It was about social media and sewing, so: sewcialists.”

The online sewing community started on Twitter. Blogs were just beginning, so we were meeting on Twitter for Friday chats about fabric or impromptu sewing challenges. It was about social media and sewing, so: sewcialists.

Eventually, there were all these individual and niche blogs. There’s an Instagram account for sewists over 50, for chronically ill sewists, for plus size, tall, petite, whatever. But what we didn’t have was one meeting place where anybody could join. We decided we needed a blog where we could bring people together. I started it, someone else ran the Twitter account, someone else had a separate website with a blog aggregator. It was organic — there wasn’t a big plan. It was just a way to bring everyone together, and we all contributed.

If you sewed, you would be a sewcialist, right? I like to think that we’re the slightly sassy center of the community. Anyone can join the Sewcialists from anywhere, any skill level, any size, age, gender, income.

“That feeling of being unwanted… that makes people feel awful.”

I identify as a plus-sized sewist. I’m right on the cusp — maybe the pattern will fit, maybe it won’t. And that feeling of being unwanted because somebody has not bothered to think about whether you want to look great in your clothes, that makes people feel awful. A huge number of sewists, myself included, have had big changes in how they see themselves after they start sewing. They start seeing other makers who look like them, and start thinking they can look fabulous too.

In our sewing challenges, we also try to choose things that are easy to join: garments that don’t require a specific pattern or an expensive kind of fabric, that will work in any weather or hemisphere, that will be appropriate no matter your religion. We’re not going to do Christmas party dresses, but we might do “sew stripes.” We have a “menswear for everyone” challenge coming up in February.

And we try and make sure everybody gets highlighted. We highlighted tall sewists because they have certain challenges. And then the petite sewists were like, “wait, where’s our turn?” We aim for minority topics first because we know that those people aren’t being represented elsewhere.

It was organic — there wasn’t a big plan. It was just a way to bring everyone together, and we all contributed.
Gillian Whitcombe

“Sometimes people need that vote of confidence or that push.”

If we’re discussing what it’s like to be over 50 or what it’s like to be a person of color who sews or a man who sews or an LGBTQ person who sews, it’s more powerful when we hear from more than one person. At Sewcialists we can have five or ten people contribute to a post about that topic, and discussion continues in the comments. We had a closeted sewist who didn’t feel comfortable coming out as queer. She couldn’t post that on her own blog because then she’s just outed herself. So we’re that safe platform to tell stories that, on an individual blog, might not come out.

One of my favorite posts is by an sewist who is biracial and queer. She wears quite a feminine style so she can buy sewing patterns. Her wife likes an androgynous style, and so she custom-makes clothing for her wife that suits her wife’s gender identity. She wrote this phenomenal post about the intersectionality of her life: the way she is perceived because she is black, a woman, and gay, but also the ways she is privileged to have enough income to craft as a hobby, and fit into a wide range of patterns. Sewists who are demographically like me — hetero, thirties, white, female — had so many comments about not ever having thought about that before. Their eyes were opened.

We had another sewist, a plus-sized woman of color, who wrote about feeling a physical gut punch the first time she saw a pattern that had a picture of a plus-sized black woman on it. I’ve never felt that because I’ve seen white women on lots of pattern covers. But for her, there was a visceral response to seeing herself represented for the first time, and stories like that need to get out to a wider population.

So sometimes I think people need that vote of confidence or that push. If you want change to happen you have to do it yourself.

“If it’s something I can think of right now, I’m dreaming too small.”

What do I want for the Sewcialists next? Mostly, I want to be surprised. If it’s something I can think of right now, I’m dreaming too small. I would love for us to be well enough known in the community, that when people wonder about a topic about identity or intersectionality or those tough, deep discussions, they think of us. I want them to think, “I bet the Sewcialists would talk about this.”

If you feel inspired to dust off your old sewing machine — or to learn more about this thriving community — visit The Sewcialists, Gillian’s WordPress.com-powered hub.

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