If you are in the sewing community you have surely heard of the SMYLY challenge. SMYLY stands for Sewing Makes You Love Yourself and is a sewing/mental health challenge run by Hattie, Lisa & Athnea on Youtube. I am not a vlogger (at present) so thought I would complete my challenge over here. The idea is that you make something that you feel amazing in and talk about your sewing journey, what benefit it gives you especially in relation to mental health.
I’ve seen some amazing stories and have enjoyed listening to them or reading them all. Its so fascinating and inspiring not to mention liberating to hear us sewing girls talking about mental health without shame or judgement. Some people view mental health as a thing you either have or you don’t. I dont see it this way – I feel that everyone deals with mental health, it is a spectrum. At one end you have those that barely notice any issues (the lucky few) and a graduated peak until you get to the other end where your mental health is sadly so severe you cannot look after yourself. I’m not a health care professional and my opinions are only that of my personal experience and what I witness around me. Please do not take anything I say as verbatim, you should always contact your GP if you have any concerns.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach this topic, which angle to come from, and I am still pretty clueless. There are many facets to what I want to talk about today, so I think I will just talk – I may go back and forth (I am not sure at this stage) but feel free to ask any questions you have. What I write is a true and accurate account of my life from my point of view.
When I was young sewing and particularly dressmaking was not on my radar. My mum had a sewing machine but as far as I am aware she never really used it. She was more into machine knitting (which incidentally seems like a good idea to create knit fabric!). My late nan (who passed away a year ago yesterday) always had a sewing machine out, at least whenever she got the chance. I remember she had a nestle of 3 tables and used to sit the sewing machine on the biggest one and sat working on the sofa. How she did that I will never know, particularly as she was usually sewing curtains, upholstery or bedding. I dont recall ever seeing her sewing clothing, though perhaps she did. Up until my early 20’s I was very close to my nan and loved her dearly, I am sad that I never really got to show her my love of a good sewing machine.
I have a picture of me wearing a dress (right). I must have been about 8 in that picture. Look at the pride on my face in wearing my new dress. If I recall that was in my other nan’s house (that nan incidentally was a hand knitter who taught me to knit) and it was Christmas time. I suspect I may have gotten this dress for Christmas, or to wear at Christmas. Looking at it, I do wonder if its hand made though I cannot be sure. That is the only time I was ever into what I was wearing as a child.
I have been suffering from Anxiety for as long as I remember. My first memory of becoming aware of it was probably around the age of 10 although I definitely remember being a panicky person before that. At 10 my parents divorced and my life was turned upside down, so that may have had an impact. Probably from that age I was becoming self aware and my confidence was dropping. I was bullied in school from around this age until I left, and then it continued through my life in other arenas. During my teen years I felt very awkward and didn’t at all feel confident in how I looked. I loved my food always, especially anything with sugar in it. I remember my sewing nan saying to my parents when I was about 7 that she’d never known a child so obsessed with sweet food. I did a paper-round in my early teen years so I got plenty of exercise and didn’t notice the multiple chocolate bars I ate every day. This is how I coped with the bullying. Then I left the paper-round and the weight began to pile on. Looking back I wasnt that much bigger, just a little chubby for a teen. I could have easily grown out of it had I been aware enough. So clothing was not on my radar at all. I just wore what I fancied, usually what made me feel comfortable and that was that. One of my best friends at school was a total fashion victim (self confessed) and I found it hilarious that she wouldnt wear anything unless it was in the magazines, and when she did wear it it wasnt necessarily because she liked it!
I always thought I was fat no matter what I weighed or what the measurements said. I remember when I was pregnant with my son (who is now in his 20s), before I was showing. I was going out to a club with his aunt and she said she was re-fashioning me. She made me wear one of her mini skirts with a tight top and tights with nice shoes. She told me I looked good. My then boyfriend’s mate said I scrub up well. Thinking back I probably looked transformed from my baggy comfortable wear-what-i-can-find-that-day wardrobe but I didn’t feel it. I felt awkward and like an imposter. My pregnancy grew and I was over-eating to cope with the emotions of being pregnant and alone and so the idea of mini skirts were gone forever.
Once I had my baby I was on a very high level of anti-depressants. My doctor put me on them when I went and asked for help to loose weight post partum. She told me the tablets would make me feel better then I would eat less. I wasnt actually over eating at this time. It was baby weight but when the weight didn’t come off (in fact more went on) she kept increasing the dosage until I was on about 260mg! In the end I took myself off them after a year and the weight dropped off. I then found myself pregnant again, I wont go into the details but I was forced into an abortion against my will. A lot has happened to me through my life but I think this is when I hit rock ROCK bottom. I experienced a phantom pregnancy where I convinced myself the abortion didnt work and over ate in order to keep up the pretence that my bump was growing. I went into myself, I didn’t leave the house unless I had to and my mum was supporting me a great deal at this time with my toddler. For 8 years I kept myself massively overweight and unapproachable.
Towards the end of this eight years I was experiencing panic attacks and could not leave the house. It was weird, the feeling, because prior to this incident I was very outgoing and bolshy. With the help of someone close to me who had recently done a psychology degree I slowly overcame the panic by simply not letting it control me and I started to go out more. Then my best friend of 30+ years dropped dead unexpectedly and it devestated me. In her name, I joined a gym, met a fantastic fitness instructor called Sam who was really positive and encouraging about the fact I could lose my weight and look good again. I think the fact I had someone positive in my life for the first time in a long time really made me want to impress her. I would go all out at the gym constantly pushing myself, getting off on the adrenaline, and loving it when my appetite reduced. The weight was falling off me, I was losing a stone a month. Within 7 months I had all the weight I wanted to lose and felt great! It was helping to distract me from my grief. See this picture here->
This was probably the first time in my life I knew I looked good. I’d gone from 19 stones down to 12 stones! Everyone was telling me. I dunno, maybe they thought I couldnt see in the mirror! But I was loving the compliments. I started to get into clothes more than I had previously. I was still far from a fashion victim but I enjoyed wearing close fitting clothing for the first time. I swore to myself that the weight would not go back on. It didn’t for a good 5 years or so…
Not long after I’d gotten to my goal I remember being in the gym unable to do much. I was slowly going to the gym less and it was taking longer to recover. I’d have been in the gym every day if I could have but my body wouldnt allow it. I would look at the regulars in the gym and feel it is unfair that they recover faster. At this time I was also experiencing IBS symptoms and getting what felt like the flu every 11 days. I never put all of this together and neither did my GP. I had bloods done and they were fine. The GP told me that my immune system was a picture of health. So, why then can I not drag myself out of bed? I was back and forth to the GP for over a year and I am sure I was known as a hypocondriac. They diagnosed depression but as I told them this is not what depression feels like. My motivation is at 1000% and myt physical capabilities at 3%. I couldn’t walk, or even sit up. I would get up and be close to fainting. If I exercised I would be bedridden for 4 days. All carbohydrates would make me ill, even fruit and veg. I felt like the walking dead, except I wasnt walking very far. One day laying in bed after a week with zero energy I managed to Google my symptoms and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome came up. There were 10 symptoms to look for and it said to see your GP if you have 2 or more. I had 8 of them. I went back to the GP yet again and was told it was highly unlikely I have this condition but they would refer me to a specialist for further investigation. Then my referral was lost and had to be re-referred. Further arguing with doctors this isnt depression and I finally saw a specialist after 3 years of suffering. The specialist diagnosed me with ME/CFS within a heart beat stating any idiot can see this isnt depression. With that diagnosis things got easier. The condition isnt one that has been believed by the medical profession because there are no available tests however with a diagnosis they had to at least take me seriously. Things are on the up now in that field so I do hold a moderate level of hope that one day my suffering will cease. Check out this movie UNREST produced by a woman who came down with the condition and wasnt believed. Its on the OSCARS shortlist and is fast becoming health professionals point of education on the topic. (This film is on Netflix now so if you have Netflix please watch)
Once I had my diagnosis I was able to get signed off and get some much needed rest. There were some really low times; my mum had to pretty much take over my parenting responsibilities, I was crawling to get to the toilet, unable to sit up for more than a minute at best. All the while GPs were advising me to get some exercise and fresh air and I’ll be right as rain! My mental health went further and further downhill. Not only was I suffering but I wasnt being believed either. You’ve no idea what a lonely place that is unless you’ve been there. Yes I considered ending things but I’d seen what dying had done to my best friend’s children and I wasnt prepared to do that to my son. My condition has the highest suicide rating amongst all chronic illnesses and I think its to do with isolation. But anyway, what doesnt kill you makes you stronger right?!
I decided I wanted to do some volunteering in a job that I could comfortably do once I was in a better position. In my naivety I decided this was admin. I sent some letters out on spec and ended up volunteering for the Stroke Association. They were incredibly supportive and I credit them with helping me to get back on my feet slowly. I mentioned one day to the woman mentoring me that I always wanted to try making jewellery but didnt know how. So she gave me a 30 min tutorial at her house and I was hooked. For the next year I made so many designs and began to make a small income from it. I didn’t make profit as I got obsessed buying the stuff for it on ebay. I currently have over £1k of stock sat on top of my cupboard never used! While doing this it really opened up my creativity channels. I’d never previously considered myself creative but it was flowing like a beast! I was starting to take notice of other crafts too. I started to get into crochet as well and that eventually took over from the jewellery making.
One day I was in Ikea and saw a sewing machine (pictured right) and it was only £45. We’d discussed sewing machines at work with a colleague who sews and I wanted to give it a go at some point so I bought the machine. I think it was more about my urge to buy things to make me feel good than because I had a desperate need to try yet another craft. This was proven when it sat in the corner of my lounge for about 6 months.
One evening I was browsing and decided to search for sewing blogs. I came across Tilly & the Buttons and for some reason (probably clever branding) it really inspired me. I bought Tilly’s book and my sewing journey began. I was watching vlogs and tutorials and getting really absorbed. I made skirts, pouches, dresses and anything else I could think of. Very quickly though I outgrew that sewing machine. I think I caved and bought a new machine when the thread kept snapping. It really was a dirt cheap machine and only really good for the odd alteration. This time I went into a supplier so they could advise me. Looking back I think it was poor advice and wasnt the right machine for me but at the time it served me better than the IKEA one. I probably had the second one for a year before I purchased the first machine I truely loved. That was my Janome DKS100, the sewing machine on the Tilly & the Buttons website. I loved loved loved and still love this machine. It was stylish and worked so much better than anything before. Not to mention looked good. It was a pretty penny but in my view worth it.
I’ve been sewing for nearly 4 years now and am as in love with it today as I was the first day I picked up my fisher-price-esque IKEA sewing machine. I think that is because you have a project, you chose the fabric and notions, and the pattern and you make something. Its creative and therapeutic – it enables me to switch off from life and dive into my sewing bubble where the only thing to think about is sewing in a straight line, or getting seams to match, or making alterations to the pattern. There has also been a huge learning curve; I have come such a long way from the early days when I had no idea even what a basting stitch was to now understanding construction, grading and couture techniques! I’ve learned a valuable skill that not everyone has, a skill I will never lose. Knowing I can make a dress rather than rely on finding one in the shops is an amazing thing. I also love that you’ll never learn everything, there is always something more to learn, always something to get inspired by.
There is also the sewing community. It is fantastic to meet a like-minded bunch of people and have even met some really lovely sewists in real life. I started up a meet up group last year and it had a good turn out, it was good to sit and chat about the thing we are all so passionate about. There is a downside to this sewing malarky for me though, and I recognise this is my own issues. I havent seen anyone else talking about this so it may just be me. The community is great, we make good things and we like to show it off. I started a Facebook group to do just this which has had fantastic growth and now has over 5k members. Everyone shows their makes… the sad thing is it feels like it is predominately slim, beautiful people in these pictures. I feel like they are the people who have the courage to share pictures and its really sad, actually, that people like myself shy away from it. I cant speak for others but for myself my self esteem is fragile. I know that a picture of me wearing something isnt going to garner the popularity that someone more attractive will achieve. And they are my own issues, I can see that. The reality is most others wont judge me because people are generally nice. The interesting thing is I dont think this way about others, quite the opposite, so why I beat myself up I have no idea. So anyway, I dont share every make and if I do its usually a picture of the garment on a stand or coathanger rather than on me. One thing I am learning from SMYLY is we dont know what is behind a picture. Hattie for example looks amazing and I would never have understood the struggles she had with trying to maintain being perfect. A picture or video doesnt show the whole story and this SMYLY challenge is helping to give me some perspective on the issue.
I’ve wanted to do a Youtube channel for my sewing for some time now and have filmed vlogs a few time and just never published them. The process of editing is brutal if you have self esteem issues and I always cower at the last minute. I saw Sian from Kittenish Behaviour at the Knitting and Stitching show and she briefly filmed me. When I saw myself on her vlog I cried and turned the vlog off. That was over a a year ago and I still to this day have not continued to watch that episode. Its because I’ve put on so much weight through illness and other things that I am not happy with seeing myself. I am this year going to force myself to work on this with the goal of having a channel that I regularly update.
I heard someone say recently there are no bad bodies only badly fitting clothes. I like this concept. One thing I havent liked from pattern companies is the size range. Its been so restrictive. Its getting better but still has some way to go. It irks me when companies go up to 1XL and call themselves plus sized. That is not plus sized at all. Its bigger than average. The emergence of companies such as Cashmerette and Colette/Seamwork is fantastic, although I think Seamwork could do some work on the way they shoot the clothes. I admire, respect and am pleased they are tackling the plus size range in a serious way but lately the majority of their clothes are frumpy. Big people want to wear nice cinched in clothing just like slender people do. What I love about myself is I taught myself grading. So now I can attempt pretty much any pattern because I know how to make it work for my figure. I’m currently altering the pattern for the Nancy dress by Sew Over It which I never could have done without this skill; so many patterns would have been off limits to me.
This brings me nicely on to what I am going to make for SMYLY. The idea is to make something you feel amazing in. I’ve bought this gorgeous dusky pink velvet (4 metres) and have just gotten the Eve Dress by Sew Over It. I think the two will go wonderfully. I am not sure where I will wear it but I am sure I will find an event.
In the quest of facing my fears here are some photos of me in my makes:
Thanks for reading if you got this far, its a really long story. I am sorry if anything I have said in this offends you, that isnt my intention. I’ve really laid bare my life, my feelings, my emotions so please be kind if you leave a comment. I’m really nervous about posting this but in a quest to remove stigma from the topic of mental health I am going to. It may not do much but it is my little contribution.
Look out for part 2 where I talk through the construction of the garment I am choosing for SMYLY and the pictures of me wearing it.