A Stitch Between Reality and Imagination: Thao Thai on Sewing and Summoning Possibility
When I’m Not Writing, a Series About Writers and Their Hobbies
Imagine two strips of satin, unwieldy and impossibly liquid, slipping through your fingers. Through mechanical propulsion and your own gentle pressure, the fabric dips under a needle with a clicking sound, then out again, magically united by a stitch that acts like punctuation, a series of staccato hyphens. The satin waterfalls over the edge of the table, the greenest green you’ve ever laid eyes on.
From the right angle, the two pieces of satin are joined by an unpuckered crease, as if they had always been meant to lie together. What emerges is a breathless combination of imagination and physicality. The mind sees the thing, and the body brings it to life. It is such a common and extraordinary experience.
My mother told me that when I was a toddler, I roamed wild in my grandmother’s fabric shop in Vietnam. She said, in lieu of childcare, I would often tag along with family members while they worked in the store. They’d bribe me with candy and scraps of silk, which I’d loop around my head like a rainbow wigs. All day long, wobble underfoot, listening to the haggling and the gossip, gobbling sesame candy offered by the parade of aunties.
We don’t have pictures of the store, but having been to fabric stalls in my hometown, I can picture it: a shadowed hallway filled to the tarped ceiling with the most exquisite bolts of fabric you can imagine. In my imagination, I see watercolor silk in those vibrant ‘80s shades of fuschia and ice blue; shirting fabric so crisp a fold could cut skin; tightly flowered calico for two-piece house sets; and sheer cotton that wafts dreamily over a child’s sleeping form.
My aunt became a criminal in the family fabric store. If she spied something pretty being delivered—pink eyelet trim or buttons that resembled little gemstones—she’d steal it for me, slipping her finds into her pocket with a wink. Days later, when I appeared wearing a new dress with shiny, familiar buttons, my grandmother cut her eyes at us. She scolded. But then she’d finger the Peter Pan collar on my dress and reluctantly praise my aunt for her artistry. Craft and beauty, in our home, often trumps the murkier questions of ethics—at least, the low-stakes ones.
Sewing feels solidly practical and easily quantifiable, in a way that at least my writing often isn’t.
Most of the women in my family are expert seamstresses, the kind that don’t use patterns at all. They can look at a Macy’s mannequin through narrowed eyes, then go home to draft the same blouse—for a fraction of the price—from bits of leftover fabric. In Vietnam, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to take sewing lessons outside the home. Ready-made clothing was expensive and slightly more rare in the ‘60s and ‘70s in our small town, at the time when my mother grew up, so it was imperative to learn how to clothe your family affordably. My mom says she was forced to spend three weeks sewing a straight line before her very stern instructor finally allowed her to advance.
After we immigrated to America in the nineties, we bought two appliances first: a rice cooker and a sewing machine. I often fell asleep to the solid, comforting thump of that sewing machine, breathing in the dust from threads that blew into the air, then settled like alighting dragonflies. To be a sewist—and I mean the creative kind they are, not the haphazard kind I am—requires a kind of dauntless imagination.
You have to be able to see what things could be: how a flat piece of spandex can become a body-skimming bathing suit to turn heads, how a pile of satin and lace becomes a wedding gown for a hopeful bride. Because sewing is, after all, a form of hope. If we dress for identity, as well as the lives we wish for, then there is power in shaping the garments that enclose our fragile bodies.
Though my mother gave me a sewing machine of my own at the age of eight, I didn’t have the patience to follow through. It sat unboxed for decades. In the meantime, the women in my family sewed less. Their jobs became demanding, their eyesight strained. My mother still piled her fabrics high—she loved collecting polka-dotted cotton and fussy lace trimming—but they were largely ignored, a reminder of a life when sewing was pleasurable and creative, rather than another pull of time in a day bereft of it. For my part, I filled my days with books and writing, deadbeat boyfriends and trifling purchases from Wet Seal. Life sped along.
In my thirties, I became a mother. During those fraught early days, I couldn’t read much at a time without my eyes glazing over, my focus slipping away. I certainly couldn’t write. But when I gazed at my new baby, clad in a panda-printed onesie, I felt an urge to create something for her. I remembered my aunt’s baby dresses for me, each so exquisite and carefully sewn that they felt like wearable art. I wanted to give that to my child.
Because sewing is, after all, a form of hope. If we dress for identity, as well as the lives we wish for, then there is power in shaping the garments that enclose our fragile bodies.
We’d just moved to a new town, a developing farm community with picturesque houses and sprawling acreage and a palpable undercurrent of xenophobia. There, I was lonely and sometimes scared. My mother, hundreds of miles away. My aunt, spending much of her time in Vietnam. Both offered encouragement as I began sewing, but I wanted to have them next to me, breaths warm on my shoulder as I tried to thread a needle. I needed their stern proficiency, their depthless wells of compassion.
Sewing, too, had always been safety for me. At first, I tried learning the basics online, through YouTube, but I’m the sort of learner that thrives on dialogue. I called the local fabric store and pleaded with the owner, Miss Robin, to allow me to take a private class with her.
Every desperate tear, every frustrated crumple of fabric, becomes another notch forward, another symbol of perseverance.
That weekend, I toted my inexpensive Brother sewing machine to the sewing store—tucked into a tiny street with a donut shop and a greasy diner—and spent two hours learning the basics of my machine and all the stitches that would serve me along the way. Miss Robin was matter-of-fact, but patient. “Give yourself grace,” she said. “Everyone starts somewhere.” It was hard for me to understand this, having been only exposed to master sewists, but I saw that there was value in becoming a beginner again. Every desperate tear, every frustrated crumple of fabric, becomes another notch forward, another symbol of perseverance. I tried to channel my mother, who spent three weeks sewing a single straight line over and over again until her instructor was satisfied. I took heart.
Soon, I was able to sew a crooked, A-line dress for my baby from a pattern from Miss Robin’s fabric store. It hung too large on her, but my family praised me for my careful stitches, though it was doubtful they could see that level of detail through the snapshot I sent. I kept going, moving onto the much fussier knit fabrics that caught under my presser foot. I sewed matching baseball tees for us and empire-waisted baby dresses and even tiny bloomers to go under them. I began collecting fabric, too. As the years went on, I sewed so much that whole seasons would arrive, bringing with them a completely hand-sewn wardrobe for my daughter. Sometimes I made things for myself, but that never felt as fun. Everything’s better in miniature.
Now, my daughter is six, and I don’t sew quite as much as I did in the mania of her babyhood. In my makeshift basement studio, there are industrial shelves that hold teetering piles of fabric, visited less and less. She tells me that her style is “sporty,” and prefers loose-fitting tees from Target to the vintage-inspired dresses I usually sew. And for my part, I have less time than I once did, too, now that I write full-time.
The comparisons between writing and sewing are perhaps too obvious. Both are acts of creation, relying on pattern and ingenuity to produce a new thing in the world. A garment, a sentence, is composed of common elements rearranged in specific and fateful ways. Both require dedication and precision, and often, many, many instances of redrafting. In my mind, the two practices are positioned as opposites: I sew when I’m blocked on a piece of writing. Sewing feels solidly practical and easily quantifiable, in a way that at least my writing often isn’t. But in reality, sewing and writing have always been inextricably linked for me. They both act as a kind of language, a way to relate to the external world.
Once in a while, a certain fabric grabs my attention, or I have a vision for something spectacular, and I can’t help but go back to the sewing table. Right now, I have my eye on a tie-dyed fabric for a full-skirted spring dress with flounce sleeves. I see her swirling in the sunshine, a miraculous storm of color and youth and joy.
I share my idea with my daughter and her face brightens. “Now?” she asks. “Can you go make it now?” Spring is ages away, I protest. She smiles and shrugs, knowing as I do that sewing is about possibility. Hope. Making a tie-dye dress in the dead of winter is a gesture of yearning and also, a resolute conviction that brighter days lie in wait. If we imagine it, it will come.