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Stitching Storytime: Pirate Shirt Process

Ok, I know y’all are here for writing and bookish content and not Etta’s hyper-fixation of the week, but hear me out on this one. Usually, in my how-to posts of the month, I walk through my personal process for some element of the writing process. I’ll never say that my way is the Proper Perfect Official and Only way to outline, but sharing methods provides another tool for writers to pull out of their set when they need a new angle to solve a problem.

This month’s writing problem was the dreaded ~burnout~

I hadn’t realized how badly the accumulated stress and exhaustion of this year had worn on me until suddenly I had the free time to throw myself into the next project and just…. couldn’t. My major goal for this summer was to finish editing Runaways, but I’m struggling to even process the story, much less find the energy to comb through each line and hyper-analyze my word choice. Furthermore, I got sick with bronchitis, which had me wiped out for several weeks, and the fatigue hasn’t really left since recovering from the cough. At first I beat myself up for being lazy, but I’ve realized since finishing this project that my inability to sit down and grind through words came from a much deeper-seated issue. I needed something new and refreshing to refill my creative well, that wouldn’t require a lot of mental effort, and preferably wouldn’t put me in front of a computer. After rifling through my long list of hobbies and coping mechanisms accumulated from many years of doing this to myself in cycles, I landed on sewing.

If you’re facing burnout or a packed schedule, I recommend checking out my alternate post on How To Stay Creative When You Literally Can’t Write for some more suggestions on the topic. The rest of this post will walk through my process of tackling a not-writing creative project to serve as an example (a good one or a bad one is up for you to decide).

The Inspiration and Resources

As a homeschooled child, my mother made home economics a mandatory subject, which included learning to sew at age 8. When I started, amid my fashion-designer-phase, I loved my simple hot-pink projects, but by the time the tween years hit, my mindset had resolutely changed to thinking, “I’m not like other girls! I’m gonna look like a gremlin and swing a sword!” I made a cloak for a Ranger’s Apprentice costume but had convinced myself I would never pick up a needle again unless under extreme duress. My teens were a wash of being far too busy with school and work to care about my appearance, and so this hobby remained waylaid for several years.

And then the Great Plague hit and pitched my interests back into the 14th century as I decided I needed an Apocalypse Sustenance Garden and an embroidery hoop to keep my hands busy during zoom classes. Now that I have freedom of time and space and money and expectations to experiment with my style, I want to get back into sewing and refine my wardrobe into something more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing than my current selection of years-outdated hand-me-downs and “safe” neutral tone Macy’s finds. To start with a simple project, I decided to embellish my existing cargo jacket and make one extremely personalized piece that includes everything I love. It’s uncompleted, as I have roughly a dozen patches and embellishments yet to add, but this is the current progress towards filling it up:

This summer threw another factor into my grand scheme as I finished reading Mistborn and felt the mighty need to chop off my hair in the name of a Vin cosplay. However, making a Mistcloak without access to a sewing machine sounded worse than fighting the Lord Ruler, but I still wanted to sew, and so I decided to tackle the other elements that would make up my cosplay. The first element would be the C. 18th century men’s shirt that Vin wears, and for the sake of my future sanity, I wanted this to be a multi-purpose costume base. This excellent video by Mariah Pattie informed much of my thought process.

I want my me-made wardrobe to be practical enough to mix-and-match with different costume pieces to make closet-cosplays, nice enough to dress up for special occasions and professional events, and comfortable enough to wear around the house. Of course, this means a perfect place to start is the ubiquitous fantasy-pirate-ren-faire-history-bounding poofy white undershirt. With some creative layering and accessories, this could easily turn into a dozen outfits, and while it might not be that great for lab work, I think it could get along reasonably well in an office with some modern pants and professional hairstyle. After choosing my project of choice, I knew exactly where to find a good tutorial. I’ve been watching Bernadette Banner’s channel for years, and she states at the beginning of the video that this is a good beginner’s project, as it’s mostly squares and rectangles, so as a rusty seamstress, it was the perfect lazy place to start.

My Process

To reiterate the most important point: this is supposed to be a lazy, low-stress project. I knew I would be learning new skills and tackling fun challenges at certain points in the construction, but 80% of the work would just be mindless stitching together seams after I got it all arranged and pinned in the proper places. Starting with the basics of fabric choice, I went with cotton rather than linen. Both are natural plant fibers that will breathe well for summer wear and satisfy the sustainability criteria, but cotton is less “slippery” than linen and significantly cheaper. I neglected to do the boring and annoying thread picking and just drew my markings with pencil and a ruler instead. Since I cut with enough room for seam allowance, having perfectly straight cuts didn’t matter so much as having straight stitching, since the edges would just be cut down and finished in the end to prevent fraying.

Cotton also has a feature where you can just rip it down a single thread, letting the scissors glide like when you’re cutting wrapping paper (if you appropriately contort yourself into a pretzel to stamp down the fabric as you go). I hand-stitched it because I’m in an apartment far from home without access to a sewing machine and I wasn’t about to buy one when my mother has a perfectly usable spare I can probably steal in a month or two. Since I would be hand-stitching it, I bought cotton thread and beeswax to make my life easier, rather than using the polyester thread I had on hand. Thread is cheap, so this was a minor concern for having less tangled threads.

After measuring and cutting out all the pieces, I got the easy bits together of the collar and cuffs, and tackled the sleeves. Not shown: I put the gusset in wrong the first time, unpinned it, fixed it, then repeated the same mistake on the other sleeve. Figuring this out was a fun challenge I did in an hour one night when I had the energy and motivation to tackle it, but after that, it was just a matter of putting everything together. Unlike writing, which requires constant mental effort, with sewing you still get the satisfaction of having worked through a problem, learned how to fix your mistakes, and Made Something at the end, while still letting your brain check out for hours. Several long discord calls later, I finished all the seams and added the patch for reinforcement.

~fashioun~ and some detail work on the hand stitching with some very dingy 2am lighting. While I put effort into making nice neat stitches on the backstitched seams so the shirt would stay structurally sound, I allowed myself to do quick and dirty hems to speed up the process when I could afford to get sloppy about it. Again, lazy, low-stress projects help with recovery.

I then laid out the rest of my pieces, realized I misread the instructions, went back to the store to buy extra material, extra pins because I ran out, and some new buttons since I left my stash at home. Then I came back to lay it all out on the floor. Not Pictured: the dozens of pins scattered around the carpet I miraculously did not stab my foot on whilst walking around barefoot for the better part of a month. For lazy projects, if you happen to live alone or have the space to just leave it sitting around, don’t bother putting things away. Having the half-finished thing within eyeshot at all times was an excellent motivator to finish the next step, and since I didn’t have to muster up the executive function to clean up and take out all the pieces I needed, the barrier to starting again was a lot lower.

At some point, I also put on the cuffs but neglected to take pictures of that step. Whoops. Most of these pictures come from spamming out my friends with updates on my progress, who all responded with enthusiastic cheering and shameless enabling. Get yourself a cheer team that won’t guilt you for taking breaks from your Big Projects for your mental health, and will encourage you to follow your passions, including going back to your book when you’re ready. They weren’t there to keep me accountable as an anxiety-inducing-override-procrastination tool (which is useful in some situations but not this one), but to serve as a source of renewed energy for the work.

Next was attaching the sleeves to the body of the shirt, then sewing all the seams together to make the fabric stayed in one piece. All the gathering was a new skill for me that took a lot of second-guessing and unpicking, and so the minute I had it semi-assembled, I threw it on for a quick fit-test to see if I could still move and hadn’t accidentally closed the arm scye. I was worried it was too full and just looked baggy, and the neck was too tight, but I went ahead with the process, trusting that once I got the cuffs closed and the alterations to the neckline, those issues would resolve themselves as the tutorial promised. Trusting the process is so important, especially when the time-clock gremlin in the back of your brain is throwing a hissy fit. It’s useful to know when to let something go so you can move forward, or to spend more time on a step to make sure you’re content with it, and not let the inner boss bully you into thinking you’re doing it wrong for no good reason. Easier said than done, but this illustrated it for me in a new light.

Finishing the hems so the shirt wouldn’t fray from the inside out was by far the most tedious part of the process. I also conveniently got sick again around this part of the process and spent a few days on the couch, incapable of anything besides zoning out on the couch because of the splitting headache, but awake and bored enough to put on YouTube and stitch for 8 hours straight. I’m convinced my hands spontaneously developed arthritis by the end of this, and I decided that while I love hand-sewing and find it very stimmy and meditative, I will permit myself to postpone projects until I have a machine available for these kinds of hems.

With that, the last thing to do was to put on the buttons. I was so happy to find these golden roses at the Joann’s. At first I debated between several other gears and nature designs, but when I saw these, I knew I had to get them. Commit to the bit, keeping it on-brand, inventing a gimmick, whatever you want to call it – I’m super happy with how these button holes turned out. They add a little touch personality and color to an otherwise standard shirt, and I love the idea that I can carry my personal symbol with me, no matter what cosplay I put this garment towards.

With that, it was time to head down to the river for a photoshoot! (ahh the joys of living in a landlocked state) With the high-waisted pants, belt, and treasure-map necklace courtesy of my friend Ben, I think the outfit really came together! The extra fabric gathered nicely to create an appropriately dramatic amount of poof.

Reflections

And I find you with a thimble weeping
May I, I ask, may I?
And you gently gift it to me
Cos you’ve no clue how to sew
And I know the kindest thing
I pray to god it’s the kindest thing
I know the kindest thing
Is to never leave you alone


– Lyrics by @theamazingdevil from “The Rockrose and the Thistle”

I spent a lot of time thinking about this tiny story within a song as I worked on this project. The creative process is often a very lonely one, and not just because many of us are introverts. It’s tough to share your unfinished seams with people, only to have them pick apart the fraying edges of the story, or have people see through the holes left undarned. It’s easy to keep stubbornly pushing through a plot point that just isn’t working, and hurt yourself in the reckless effort of shoving a sharp tool through the layers. I’ve found the best thing to do in these situations is to ask for help. It’s not an admission of failure, but an opportunity for your trusted friends to contribute their own expertise to the creative process, or even just a bit of encouragement, or permission to rest. The writing community is one of the most positive places I’ve ever found on the internet, and I’m thankful to have found the people who know the kindest thing is to not let anyone go it alone. This is an open love letter to every sweet soul who’s patiently taken the story from me as I ramble through a problem, providing a sounding board and fresh perspective. This is especially relevant as I began re-outlining Laoche alongside this sewing project, substituting the burnout-inducing editing for a different exercise that let me brainstorm without any expectation of word-counts. Those same friends who supported me through the pirate shirt process also served as sounding-boards for late night the rubber-duck-debugging sessions and helped me reach several breakthroughs, so I truly cannot thank them enough.

Of course, after finishing the project, I had a hard post-project crash where the idea of starting the next thing seemed so daunting I couldn’t work up the motivation to even open my word docs. As of writing this on 8/3/2022, I’m still working up the energy to revist editing after I finish getting my blog posts ready to go for this month, but this recovery season has helped me to feel much less overwhelmed and intimidated by the work that’s left to be done. I’ll still set goals for myself, of course, but I’ll make it a priority to pace myself.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the nature of the creative process and cycles of burnout. Have you ever experienced this before, and if so, how did you deal with it? What other creative hobbies do you have besides writing? Let me know in the comments. I want to start a discussion about this. If you’re still here, thank you for indulging this long rambly self indulgent post. I’ll be back next week with a post about strategy, but I want this blog to be more than me shouting into the void. If I can use this platform to help boost other creators, I’d love to see your work too. If you want to have your recommendations and/or your own writing featured in a Resource Rec post, or if you want to collaborate with me, you can leave a comment below for both, or contact me on either tumblr or IG! If you feel so generously inclined, you can support my writing (and fabric buying addiction) by leaving me a tip on my Kofi or donating using the secure box below. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy writing!

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