Above good grades, a plethora of friends, and a spot on the basketball team, the only thing I wanted in the seventh grade was to be cool. I had just moved to a new district and didn’t know a single soul at my middle school. In preparation, I reread The New Kid on the Block, Shel Silverstein’s book of poems, but there was not one good piece of advice for the newly relocated adolescent. However, I did use the titular poem for a sensational reading in English class that year, so I suppose I broke even.
Sixth grade was a banner year. I was cast in the school musical, and although I only had one song, I made the most of it when my CD accompaniment failed and I led the audience in an impromptu rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Despite being obsessed with movies since birth, it surprised me that my obsession with everything Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy did could result in an actionable skill.
And yet, when the time came to choose electives for my first year in middle school, I balked at the opportunity to take Speech Arts and Drama. This is the Peter that still dreamed of sports glory, who got up every morning an hour earlier than he needed to, just to watch SportsCenter. If only I had realized I was watching it more for the witty catchphrases and less for the highlights, I could have saved myself a lot of time.
In lieu of drama class, I chose an elective that would surely connect me with the cool kids on day one – Keyboarding. It may be unfathomable to younger generations who were born unaware that “app” used to mean “spinach and artichoke dip,” but there were entire classes devoted to proper positioning on a computer keyboard and upping our Words Per Minute. I’d learn about QWERTY during the day and hone my skills with Mario Teaches Typing for Windows 3.1 at night. I really thought this was how my transformation into a social butterfly would begin. I rose to a WPM of 70, but my FPD – that’s Friends Per Day – flatlined. When I realized that all the friends I managed to make were taking Drama 8 with Mr. Andrukonis next year, I quickly signed up. I may have only been following their lead, but at least Theatre Arts was truthfully where I should have been from day one.
I’m still not over this irrational need to be cool. This manly mission of mine is an extension of that. I find manliness attractive, so if I do all of these activities I relate to masculinity, I’ll be more attractive by society’s standards. In many ways it’s no less ridiculous than taking keyboarding in an attempt to woo the cool kids. In the pursuit of getting the world to like me bettering myself, I’ve only focused on the stereotypically manly attributes, neglecting anything that doesn’t fit into that narrow criteria. But if I truly want to be a better me, I can’t be nearsighted about what falls under the manly umbrella, especially in Week 48.
It’s only recently that I’ve discovered the joy in having clothes that properly fit. My parents would often send my church clothes to the seamstress across from my grandparents’ house when I was younger, but for some reason it took me a long time to realize I could do the same for myself as an adult. Having clothes tailored seemed like a indulgence reserved for those with multiple three-piece suits, but it’s amazing how attire fit for your frame can affect every part of your life. Maybe I would have discovered that middle school confidence much earlier if I had instead taken Home Ec.
But because dropping clothes off at a seamstress is hardly a worthy topic – this coming from someone who wrote 2300 words on getting a haircut – I thought I might double my manly points by attempting to tailor clothes myself. Thankfully, choosing Drama in the eighth grade paid off for this particular challenge, since the theatre world is full of people who make their living off clothes.
I met my MANtor Cailin through a mutual friend. Cailin works as a dresser on Broadway and has been sewing ever since her grandmother, who was both a minister’s wife and the de facto seamstress for her family, sat five-year-old Cailin down at the sewing machine when she was misbehaving. But this impromptu diversion backfired because every time Cailin would visit, she’d ask her grandmother to demonstrate a new sewing technique. Before long, Cailin was making her own clothes and soon found her way into the costume shop of her high school theatre department, never looking back. Cailin’s grandmother passed away recently, but her legacy lives on in the work Cailin performs each day.
Cailin pulls out a pair of old jeans we can use to practice so we don’t have to jump right into clothes I plan on wearing. I’ve dabbled in crocheting and knitting, but I’m hoping the promise of something wearable, as opposed to making ear muffs or a baby blanket, will help to cement Cailin’s instruction in my brain. She demonstrates two basic stitches I can use to hem pants – the whip stitch and the cross stitch. The easy way to differentiate between the two is that the needle always points down for the whip stitch, and as Beyoncé would approve, always to the left (to the left) for the cross stitch.
Before we can start those stitches, Cailin first shows me how to prepare a pant leg for a hem. We measure two inches from the bottom and make a chalk line. Using white thread, she sews a simple line through the chalk, denoting our final length line. Cailin turns the jeans inside out and rolls a cuff so that the thread marking the hem line runs around the edge of bottom opening. She pins the cuff in place and lets me practice both the whip and cross stitch until I feel comfortable.
With pins and needles dangerously close to my fingers, I ask Cailin how to avoid getting stuck, but she admits that even with all her experience, her clumsiness sometimes gets the better of her. She says the worst is when she is sewing a costume with white fabric and can’t figure out where the blood is coming from. It makes me realize that despite my own well-documented issues with coordination, I actually haven’t drawn blood since I used a safety razor in Week 2, Week 32’s visit to the blood bank notwithstanding. Though after this challenge, I may be resetting the “46 Weeks Since Last Accidental Blood Drawn” sign back down to zero.
Both the cross and whip stitches are easier techniques to grasp than knitting so we move onto the real world scenario after the short practice period. I put on the dress slacks in question and Cailin helpfully marks a chalk line on each pant leg indicating the final length line. Pants are the perfect practice material; Cailin can demonstrate a technique on one pant leg while I mimic her on the other. She rips the existing seam in the pant leg with a special tool before cutting off excess fabric for the new hem line. I stifle a gasp as Cailin takes scissors to my pants. A stain on my shirt is enough to put me in a sour mood, so just the sound of ripping fabric gives me anxiety. Adding to my concern is the realization that our lesson has to end in the next few minutes so I can go to work. Cailin quickly shows me a special trick to tie a knot in thread not unlike a fishing knot and cross stitches about a quarter of the way around one pant leg before it’s time to pack up. I’m a bit nervous at the thought of finishing the alterations without Cailin’s helpful guidance, but I suppose it is more authentic to take her lessons and apply them on my own.
That weekend, I sit by the window, turn on the Relaxing Coffeehouse playlist on Spotify, and retrieve my sewing supplies. It may be a far cry from the manly image of sitting down to enjoy a Porterhouse and Scotch, or crawling through the mud pit of an obstacle course, but I posit that it’s simply another variation on the theme. This is just the micro version – it’s all happening between my fingertips.
Finishing the pant leg Cailin started is no sweat. I can look at her first few stitches to confirm I’m on the right track, and the only new business requires tying a knot when I’ve finished. Starting the other pant leg from scratch requires some trial and error, and unfortunately I don’t have many errors to spare. I one up the old adage by measuring three times before cutting once. The pins pose another problem entirely because I can’t remember how Cailin managed to place them in the fabric one at a time while still keeping the folded part held at the correct length. I eventually figure it out, though not before pricking myself squarely in the thumb. It doesn’t break the skin, which actually disappointments me. It would have been a nice arc to bleed at both the beginning and end of the blog.
Once I secure the folded fabric in place with pins, the rest of the process is a continuation of what I did earlier in the day. Tying Cailin’s special knot requires a visit to YouTube, but I’m pleasantly surprised with how much I do remember from our short time together. Sewing is quite relaxing – there is a calmness to the repetition of the movement and the pattern of the stitches. After I finish the second pant leg, the joy of completing this project is only trumped by putting on my newly tailored pants and seeing that they don’t look half bad.
It’s easy to fool myself into thinking I’m self-sufficient. But the reality is if dry cleaners, hardware stores, supermarkets, and tailors suddenly vanished from the earth, I’d barely make it a week, and that’s assuming Q is around to help. Many crucial skills get neglected because it’s so easy to have someone else do it, but that’s no excuse for ignorance. I may never reach Cailin’s abilities, but now I don’t need to rely on my neighborhood seamstress. That feeling of satisfaction will always be manly in my book.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Only choosing challenges I could see the Brawny Paper Towel Man doing was not limiting in and of itself, but I didn’t consider how varied his skills could be. Of course the Brawny Man knows how to sew! His clothes always impeccably fit his bulky frame. And if he takes his outfits to the tailor, well, he’s missing out. There’s nothing like a needle and thread in your hand and folksy music on the stereo to remind yourself of what it is to be a man. 3.48.
NEXT WEEK: No computer and no TV makes Peter something something.