words lydia higginson
photo janina fleckhaus
My inner seamstress has a way of putting the world to rights. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she was there, helping me carve out shapes and stitches as I sat in my freezing cold studio making a coat from heavy herringbone wool. It took me five days to cut and sew that coat and cover it in rich embellishment. In threads of forest green and maroon, shimmering ochre and gold, embroidery spans the length of my spine. At its centre is a golden cross. That cross marks the place behind my heart where fertile veins of creativity run deep. It also marks the point where the end of a gun was pressed up against my back during a brutal assault.
I made that coat in the depths of winter. Being stripped and sexually assaulted made me completely disconnect from my body – I wanted to re-dress myself. Over the cold days and nights, I created quilted jumpers, turquoise silk lingerie and jumpers from cashmere. When the spring came, I started making flowing skirts, denim jeans and softly tailored shirts. As spring turned to summer, I wanted to wear wild printed jumpsuits and sporty silk bomber jackets, so I made some of those too.
Then leaves started to fall and my sewing slowed down but never completely ground to a halt. I continued to create lace knickers, simple camisoles and wideleg culottes. As the year drew to a close and winter once again set in, I hunkered down in front of my sewing machine and made floral cords, a furry gilet, leggings printed with the beauty of the cosmos and another embroidered coat, this time with a dusty pink, cosy velvet hood. Over the year, my inner seamstress spent over 1,000 hours designing and creating the clothes I’ve always wanted to wear – over 60 garments. All the clothes I’d ever bought from shops have been given away and the only ones I wear are ones that I have made myself.
Making my own clothes was my way of feeling strong and alive again. It allowed my body to heal from five years of holding on to trauma. After being assaulted, I was desperately seeking a way to breathe colour, movement, texture and sensuality back in to my life and, when I wear garments that I have stitched from scratch, my body feels realigned on its natural creative compass. My healing armour made of silk and lace and cashmere.
Creating my wardrobe afresh – sleeves, collars, cuffs – wasn’t only a process of recovery. It was also one of discovery. Of my seamstress inside who had just been waiting to be given a needle and thread. Passionate, creative and tactile, I need my seamstress to face life. It feels like she has been stitching away since the beginning of time – I just drop into her rhythm for a while when I’m sat at my machine or have a thimble on my finger. She’s helped me to create beauty from brutality. When I’m in touch with my seamstress, I feel able to be the woman I want to be – dressed in a wardrobe I’ve stitched from energy, time and golden thread.
Lydia has recently launched Threadworks in London – a space for fashion and textile artists in the week and a place to learn new sewing skills at the weekend. You can support their Crowdfunding project here. If you're a print designer, pattern cutter, embroiderer, weaver, seamstress, tailor, costume designer or small fashion brand that might be looking for space, get in touch via the Threadworks website.
'Thread' was originally published in Oh Comely issue 37, featuring three more personal stories of touch. Pick up a copy here.