In 2023, I took a sabbatical. It wasn’t quite like a normal sabbatical, in that it didn’t take exactly one year, and I didn’t entirely stop working, nor did I study or write a book like an academic might, but I did step back from almost all of my duties at our communications agency, Flod, and, after finishing up with my primary client towards March, I managed to change the direction of my future work in the same company to be more in line with my values and physical needs. I also moved house in a big break with the past, spent less time posting on social media and practically no time writing this blog. I just needed to do something different from before but I didn’t quite know what. As I scrambled to find “solutions” to what I perceived as my “problems”, sewing played a huge role.

sewing a top
There are numerous cool independent pattern designers you can find through Instagram – this is the Manhattan top by Sewing in the City that I made in September in my less-than-ideal sewing space slash office.

A sabbatical is a huge privilege and I was very conscious of not letting it go to waste. If you’ve ever taken time off when you’re a natural workaholic, you’ll know the sense of emptiness I had once I found time on my hands, the lack of productivity I felt because I judged my day by how much I’d done, not how much I might have achieved in things such as personal growth or simply catching up on sleep (which, no matter how much I practice, still feels like a waste of time, yet also so necessary for me). At first, I tried mapping out my goals and then finding tasks with which to structure my days into a new routine and then I realized that this would be counterproductive as I would be treating my “healing journey” just as if it were work.

Let’s take a step back. Why did I need a sabbatical? I’d been working in the same small to mid-sized agency for a dozen years in various roles in social media. I put in pretty long hours but I found it rewarding (heck, I found a job that combined writing and photography, things I did for fun anyway). Back in 2019, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis after months of severe illness and years of working up to it, and I took very little time off. Having a chronic intestinal disease takes a certain amount of lifestyle management – more sleep, proper meal planning, ideally less stress – and I worked the first two into my schedule without missing a beat. Three years in, I hadn’t gone into remission despite an important drug regime.

The first outfit I made was ready by Spring

Meanwhile, at work I began to experience creative burnout. The only thing I was working on for which I think I did a good job was a European Union funded project called shemakes about empowering women in the sustainable textile and clothing industry. It’s here that I found the strength to make changes to my life. The group of researchers and workshop leaders didn’t meet for the first year of the project due to Covid, but we immediately established rules for cooperation that made me feel heard (if you’re curious, see our gender vision). As communications officer, I watched and told stories of women who made things with their hands, who found working with wool therapeutic, who sewed or experimented with natural dyes and biotextiles and I thought how much I’d love to try some of these things myself. I’ve always owned a sewing machine and in high school I enjoyed altering and making clothes but the ol’ Singer was tucked at the back of a closet with the DVDs and my piano sheet music. It came out for my sabbatical.

In search of creativity

Working in social media, either for yourself or for a client, you’re constantly in search of new, easy-to-digest ideas, or that photo that is the bomb that will make your account bring in the numbers that you or your client expect. There are people that can do this brilliantly, on the same topic, for many years. I think I’m not one of them. I find I need to change stimuli and feedback method. My work became too routine, easy, yet strangely stressful. I felt emptied of ideas. My first step during my break was to think a lot about creativity. I started reading the book Creative Confidence by the founders of IDEO. It’s a good book but it wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know until there was a bit about finding the thing you do that makes you most happy or satisfied about your day. Other than a predilection for napping, what was my happy place?

The first page of my sabbatical visual journal

When I was feeling really lost and in search of new routines and new methods to find creativity, an old acquaintance reached out. Katrin Grote Baker is a German artist whom I met in Florence many years ago and I own and love one of her paintings. She offered to tell me about a method she uses to coach artists and children towards greater self-expression through abstract painting. She suggested daily visual journaling, in any medium. She helped me by providing prompts so I tried to express these sometimes complex concepts in this book of words and scribbles. Drawing frustrates me more than it rewards me, so the method turned out not to be for me but it taught me something important about creativity. I realized that we each have our own medium, creative approach, and working method that functions best for us. As I “failed drawing”, I thought about my colleague Leo, our illustrator, who doodles his way through meetings but is not a verbal communicator or my colleague Marco who needs constant stimuli whereas I thrive in a calmer environment. I thought about how a team of creatives interacts and what might work worse or better due to each person’s creative style, and I’m carrying this consideration back to the workplace in the form of greater respect for those who differ from me.

sewing class participants
The proud graduates of the ABC of sewing class (ph. Sartoria in Circolo)

I signed up for a daytime sewing course that quickly became an addiction. I started attending Sartoria in Circolo, run by a young tailor named Gloria who teaches classes at the Circolo ARCI out near Florence’s airport. With her I took a basic sewing class and then proceed to drafting classes. In the summer we drafted and sewed simple palazzo pants, and in the autumn we learned how to make a top.

adjusting a toile
Gloria adjusting my toile, the mockup that you make based on 12 measurements of the bust before actually drafting a womens’ top

That one spends much time at the sewing machine when making clothes is a myth, especially if you’re drafting your own patterns. There’s a lot of measuring, drawing, even the dreaded mathematics, and much ironing. There’s stitching but sometimes an equal amount of unstitching, which comes with head-scratching as you try to figure out what went wrong.

self drafting patterns
Drafting your own clothing includes a fair amount of math, which I’ve always hated

Learning to sew, I learned a lot more about patience, concentration, precision, problem-solving, forgiveness and acceptance. I found this medium to be my happy place at this time in my life when I was searching for something non-digital to get back my groove. I like the way that sewing challenges me but also follows rules and produces tangible results. It’s the antithesis to social media: there is a set method that is not a vague algorithm and it’s not measured in fickle numbers but in a final result that is often satisfying despite some imperfections (at my level, you’ve got to accept errors!).

Mistakes: i made these gorgeous shorts but didn’t calculate “ease” which is what makes clothing comfortable enough to wear. A perfect fit except if you have to move. Had to give them to my thinner sister in law.

No, I’m not opening up shop, but I did learn a lot about clothing

As I started posting on Instagram about sewing I got a lot of positive feedback, including from many people who suggested I open up a handmade clothing business. But that’s not why I sew. I don’t want sewing to become work – it’s complementary to my work! Not to mention that anyone who sews can tell you just how long it takes to make something, especially if it’s made to measure, so it’s hard to find a price point that covers your time. As a “sewist” (a word favoured over “sewer” for good reason), you suddenly appreciate the construction and quality of clothing, often to the point of not wanting to buy mass-market items.

self drafted top
My lastest self-drafted top has puff sleeves that actually fit my narrow shoulders!

Alongside sewing, I decided to experiment with the idea of not buying any new clothes for a year, a concept I got into since working in textile and clothing sustainability projects like shemakes and others over the years (this is also the direction I’ve taken my work from 2024 onwards). I found it remarkably easy to avoid new clothing. I guess that at a certain age your own closet amasses plenty of things that can be rehashed (perhaps taken in or out or upcycled), and currently “fashion” is extremely varied. I’m part of a group of similarly sized girls who have seasonal swap parties that satisfy the need for new injections into my wardrobe – now actually in Florence there’s a new vintage store / sustainable learning space called Biofashionlab that holds public and free swap parties! I totally recommend organizing a swap party: ours involve plenty of food and drink and stories about each item of clothing and you end up with stuff you’d have never thought of for yourself.

swap party
Summer swap party at Michelle’s trying on everyone else’s fancy dresses, followed by me wearing Jackie’s dress that seemed made for me to a party that same evening (sorry, I don’t own proper shoes for this type of dress)

Affordable vintage or charity shops are also finally finding their way to Florence and I sometimes allow myself the thrill of a cheap purchase there, though mostly I look at these places as if they were fabric shops (and generally I’m disappointed). I had to draw the line at new shoes, which I needed by the end of the year, but otherwise I think I’ll continue the “no new clothes challenge”. Remake, a global advocacy organization, offers a 90-day no new clothes challenge suggesting options to swap, upcycle, rent etc., so if you’re interested in playing along you can sign up at their website.

fabric store
Fabric stores can be very tempting places. At this historic store in Florence I did concede myself a little Liberty cotton remnant.

There’s a huge sewing community on Instagram, from which I’ve picked up lots of tips and techniques, but there are some accounts that make it seem desirable and possible to make new clothes for yourself every day. There are also a lot of posts about hoarding fabric and hauls at the fabric store. To me, the point of sewing is to slow down, to appreciate what we wear and to use what’s on hand. I have a bit of a fabric stash but I only buy deadstock (unused fabric ordered by manufacturers, destined for trash) or receive samples of it from a deadstock dealer friend. Sewing for me goes hand in hand with sustainability. I may have spent a lot of the past twelve months on sewing-related activities, but have added only six coordinated items to my wardrobe. I’ve mended stuff and made things for friends just as much as I’ve sewn for myself and I resist strong urges to make impractical things I’d never wear in the same way as I would resist those items in a store.

vintage bernina sewing machine
Historic Bernina sewing machine advertisement

Connection and empowerment are two more keywords that explain why I’ve spent so much of my sabbatical concentrating on gaining sewing skills. There’s a connection to the past, to a traditionally female form of work, and to the present day revival of this art and its community. There’s a form of empowerment that comes from learning and applying new skills. Finally, I’d say I’ve found my creative medium in sewing and how it allows for self-expression and independence from a toxic fashion system. It’s also humbling to recognize how many years of study goes into designing and sewing clothes well, and knowing that I’m no more than a confident and passionate beginner.

upcycling workshop
Attending an upcycling workshop at Del Vecchia and finding a community

As 2024 begins and I get back to working on a more full-time basis, I’m approaching both work and life with slightly more wisdom and balance than before. Did I achieve all my sabbatical goals? No. But sewing saved my sabbatical, giving me a meaningful and creative outlet that prompted reflections and changes that I hope I’ll carry forward into this next phase of my life.


PS: Arttrav blog and Instagram will not be transitioning into sewing instead of art and travel! I might even get back to posting more regularly on this blog.

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