Sewing improved my mental health and restored my professional ambitions

The work showcased by Inter National Institute for Design at the New York Fashion Week Feb. 9, 2019, were a blend of Indian textiles and techniques and Western cuts and designs. (Photo: INIFD)

“I brought this fabric for you,” my mom said in Bengali. She lifted an emerald and ecru plaid from a Jo-Ann bag. My fingers read the twill weave. We couldn’t tell what the fiber was exactly. Maybe rayon? The yarns had a sheen, like the glint of an eyeball. My mom let the cloth hang from her hands to show me its heavy drape. “I thought you could make a nice skirt with it,” she said, her voice breaking.

My mom understood how sewing fluttered me out of depression. After all, sewing compelled her, too. When I was growing up, the thrum of her sewing machine would lull me to sleep as she pulled all-nighters to make us matching shalwar kameezes – tunic, trouser and stole sets – for Eid. Her machine was humming in the background the evening we found out from family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that Nani, my maternal grandmother, had died. My cousin tucked me into bed and said my mom didn’t know. Later in the glow of my night light, I heard the sewing machine fall silent and my mom cry.

In May 2015, after taking my last law school final, I asked my mom if we could sew a dress together. I knew my way with a needle and thread, but I wanted to learn how to construct a garment. For me, sewing clothes like my mom and aunts do had always been a latent aspiration. My legal career loomed that summer. I dreaded joining a Midtown Manhattan law firm in the fall. Conforming to a corporate firm’s glib culture felt distant from my creative ambition. Sewing, with its paper patterns, step-by-step instructions and my mom’s example, reaffirmed my confidence and encouraged me forward.

I tend to pause on how my mom must have felt in the fluorescence of Jo-Ann, examining the plaid fabric. In the summer of 2015, she had observed my inability to study for the New York Bar Exam in July. To my parents’ disappointment, I had skipped my law school graduation that May to attend a swimsuit-sewing class in Brooklyn instead. In the months after, I ignored lectures and floppy textbooks that were supposed to prepare me for the Bar. I retreated to a small room in my parents’ house with a sewing machine and a cutting table. By the time I sat for the exam, I hadn’t opened a single practice test. But, I had cut into a black-and-red polka dot Lycra and ruched the fabric for a ’50s style swimsuit with a sweetheart neckline.

My swimsuit project coincided with my discovery of the online sewing community. Instead of reviewing covenants and easements, I curled up with tea in the mornings and pored over sewing blogs, where sewists all over the world gush about fabric and patterns and share their processes and techniques. My imagination was awash with drafting princess seams, hemming chiffon and applying lace. When I didn’t feel like getting up in the morning, I pictured the dresses I wanted to make.

Although I grew up wearing clothes that my mom and aunts sewed, the online sewing community opened the horizon of what I could accomplish. I progressed quickly with confidence that I struggled to find in my legal practice. I have sewn bras, T-shirts and culottes. I am tailoring my first coat! In the evenings after work, I’ve been basting silk organza to black wool and cashmere for a crisp winter coat with raglan sleeves that reaches past my knees. The only thing keeping me from sewing a gown for the Met Ball is an invitation.

It’s hard to overstate the elation I feel when I’m wearing clothes I’ve made. One of my first dresses was a bright floral sheath with puff sleeves. I had picked out the fabric from my mom’s stash, thinking it was good to practice with because of the loud primary colors. I felt happy as soon as I put the dress on and shimmied to my parents’ room to show it off. The silhouette enveloped my frame. I can only imagine the depth of my mom’s joy in seeing me smile again.

During my first year at the law firm, my mom often ended up holding my hand at the kitchen table. “I see you, and I can’t understand why you would feel so low about yourself,” she said. “Why can’t you get out of the water and shake it off, like a duck?” My mom shook her shoulders to show me what she wanted me to do. “Look at everything you’ve accomplished,” she said. “I was never that ambitious.”

Never that ambitious? My mom deferred her dream to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology to raise my little brother and me. But she continued to cultivate her ambition by sewing. She has sewn my Halloween costumes, suits for high school speech tournaments, and a prom dress from my drawings of designs and clippings of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. For my Sweet 16, I opened my European history textbook to Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation and pointed to Empress Joséphine. From that tiny image, she sewed an ivory silk gown with three-quarter-length sleeves, a gathered bodice and an empire waist. Is this not ambition?

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” my mom would say when I showed her my sketches. Now that I sew, I know what she meant. I realize how much I hadn’t noticed in her handiwork before: her clever solutions when there was barely enough fabric and her foresight in allowing for fitting adjustments. To sew is to engineer with cloth and anticipate how it might stretch or sag with wear. To sew clothes to last, my mom thought beyond how the garment looked on the outside and assessed how to join and reinforce seams that people might never see.

My own sewing practice reflects my mom’s habits and drive. Like her, I press every seam before stitching it to another one. When I get stuck on a project, I call her to discuss ideas. Through her, I have accessed a craft that reminds me of my capacity for trial and error. As I checked off projects, sewing confirmed that if I tackle something a little bit each day, I can progress toward my goal. In a way, my sewing practice offered an analogue to moving forward in my career.

While I hesitated to approach law firm partners, I grew close with my pro bono asylum client. We met almost every week to talk through her story and draft her affidavit. “I will pray for you,” she said in French when she sensed my sadness. Our connection prompted me to look for jobs in public-interest advocacy. The diligence that I indulged in with sewing helped me reshape my daily routine to research and pursue the organizations I might work for.

As my handmade wardrobe grows, my confidence as an attorney grows, too. My pencil skirts buoy me before judges. My knit dresses keep me cozy in the office. The clothes I make support my body as I discuss forms of relief with clients. When I am trying to finesse a legal argument, looking down at my stitches assures me of my ability. And when the subway stalls, I can dip into daydreams about blazers and bishop sleeves.

Sewing may not be necessary for me as it was for my mom and aunts in present-day Bangladesh. Nevertheless, for my mental health and creative compulsion, sewing has been indispensable. When it’s difficult to make out a path, I can turn to the steps of making a garment. I can wear the confidence that sewing brings.

I’m thinking of making an A-line skirt with two pleats at the front out of the plaid my mom got me. It’s a simple design that’s easy to sew and comfortable to wear. As I weave through crowds and beat green lights to cross streets, I can grip the fabric to remember that I contain the diligence to step toward where I want to be.

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Ahmed is an immigration attorney with a non-profit in New York City.



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