Written by Abigail Burdess


The Needle and the Damage Done

Abigail Burdess has taken up sewing. And it’s a blast. Just don’t mention the blood (or the “crappy shirt”).

Illustration by Louise Boulter

I’ve got a hobby.

This is because my psychiatrist told me to get one. Or, more accurately, my psychiatrist said: “It’s interesting, isn’t it, how you don’t do anything which could be described as ‘relaxation’. Do you think this is healthy? Hmm? Hmm?”

I don’t think it’s healthy. For some years, as an actor/writer, I’ve been in hot pursuit of 100% tax deductibility and now I’m nearly there, the prize looks a little tinny. It’s great when “work” is “fun” but it does mean that “fun” is also “work”. People have hobbies don’t they? I thought. Stuff they don’t get paid for. I mean I do stuff I don’t get paid for but I call it “writing for the theatre”.

So I got the hobby. This is – literally – just what the doctored ordered, like drugs would have been if he’d ordered those, which is what I was hoping for.

What’s nearly as good as drugs? Sewing. Sewing is one of those skills that have rock-bottom status when performed by an old lady amateur but are fantastically well respected when done by a 40ish male professional. To be fair, nearly all skills are like that. The only exception is solving murders. Miss Marple really flipped the status quo on that one.

I figured if I pretend I’m a gay man then needlework has cachet. I already had a machine my mum had given me. I’ve seen The Great British Sewing Bee. “After all,” I thought to myself, “my clothes are currently made in Taiwan by 10-year-olds – how hard can it be?” As it turns out: really, really hard. And just to be absolutely clear: I think that child labour is bad and wrong, and so is my sewing.

But, I told myself, it doesn’t matter if I’m bad at it, it’s FOR FUN. So this fun is difficult. This fun takes an unfeasibly long time. Plus, you tend to get injured with this fun. To do this fun you must put tiny metal gauntlets on your fingertips. It’s a challenging, time-consuming fun for which you must wear miniature armour.

As I persevered, Frozen costume by Frozen costume, needle injury by needle injury, I began to experience what you’re meant to experience with a hobby. I actually began to enjoy myself.

For starters, I like playing with a machine where you can see the moving parts. My usual interaction with technology involves staring at mysterious white boxes which I’m pretty sure are staring back at me. If my computer or phone stops it’s because an algorithm in Silicon Valley has worked out I’ve reached the exact point of irritation between “I’ll just turn it off and on again” and “I’m throwing this out of the window’ – a point called “I’m buying a new one”. If my sewing machine stops it’s because something has got stuck in it.

I like seeing my kids in the clothes I make. And they like the clothes! They like the falling apart, bloodstained clothes I make. As for my husband: he hid the crappy shirt I made him in the wardrobe and we do not speak of it. But it was when I got round to making something for myself that I began to suspect method in my psychiatrist’s madness.

As mentioned previously, sometimes I do acting. The nature of this profession means an actress is often someone who, when confronted with a dress smaller than her body thinks not “I should get a bigger dress” but “I should get a smaller body”. Despite months of unemployment, there is still a bit of actress within me.

Browsing through dress patterns, it hit me: they, unlike the clothes you normally buy, are made to fit you. You are not required to fit them. You, whatever you are, are the standard size. You are the ideal against which the clothes must be measured, and if the clothes don’t fit you, well then, the clothes are wrong. You aren’t wrong. Something I had accepted without question for my kids and my husband came as something of a revelation: you aren’t wrong.

And I’m getting better at sewing. I mean; I’m not going to be in the final of Sewing Bee. I won’t be fashioning an evening gown out of the fabric of space-time (taffeta); each stitch rocketing me back to the 1780s before the invention of the sewing machine so I can “finish it by hand”.

But I’m learning. I mend. I save buttons. I’m trying not to buy stuff made by Taiwanese ten year olds. And I’m going to make a dress that fits me.

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Written by Abigail Burdess

Abigail writes comedy for the telly, radio and stage. She is also sometimes allowed on them. But not so’s you’d notice. @AbigailBurdess