For this month’s Q&A we chat with Erin Gilday. Erin is proprietress of Patchwork Underground and a frequent Stitch designer. Let’s get to know her!
Stefanie: How and when did you learn to sew?
Erin: I get asked this all the time and the truth is I don’t know the exact moment I learned to sew! There was no “before sewing” in my life. My mom ran a one-woman sheepskin slipper business called Wooly Bully Sheepskin Company out of our kitchen/backyard/garage. She had the industrial sewing machine humming in our kitchen just about every day and the clicker-press whomping away in the garage every couple days. I remember learning to read and write on the floor next to the sewing table. I learned to sew mostly from watching her, trial and error, and, later, reading books on the subject.
Erin’s Dresden Clutch from the Fall 2010 issue of Stitch.
At first, I would hand sew doll clothes, rag rugs, and things for my dollhouse. Mom wouldn’t let me use the industrial machine (good call, mom!), and at that point we didn’t have a home sewing machine so she bought me a junk yellow toy sewing machine. I graduated to grandma’s 70’s White sewing machine around 3rd grade. That’s when I decided that I wanted to make something I could wear—a knit tank top. Of course, all I had to work with was an ugly yard of country kitchen blue calico. I made the top out of the calico but I couldn’t understand why it didn’t look right. At the time, I thought I was a failure but it turns out even the best seamstress can’t make a knit from a woven using a sewing machine. But at 8 years old, who knew? I still thought sewing was magic.
S: How does sewing fit into your life?
It’s funny. People talk about a “work/life balance”—that’s a phrase in our culture now. There’s “work” and then there’s “life.” But are you dead when you are working? In my opinion, if the answer is yes, then you are doing something seriously wrong.
I work full-time as a pattern maker and designer for the craft market so I definitely sew for work. Before I started pattern making, I was selling one-of-a-kind patchwork clothing at crafts fairs and before that I worked as a stitcher in costume shops. In between each of those gigs, I took “normal” jobs—ones involving computers, phones, meetings and fake smiles—and hated it. I would sew on my time off. I still sew on my “time off.” But then, I also plan my next project in my so-called “time off.” So, I guess the answer is both: I sew for work and fun. But it’s probably also: addiction, religious experience, remembrance, exercise in mindfulness, political statement and just ’cause in no particular order.
S: Walk me through the steps when you’re making a project. Where does your inspiration come from, and how do you translate that into a finished piece?
E: I don’t have one way of working. I often find that I do my best “work” when I don’t think I’m working. I’ll think I’m goofing off, thrift shopping or indulging some other frivolous “side interest” or whim and then I’ll stumble onto something—a need, a shape, a color or a feeling—that inspires a great design. When I fight really hard and try to wrestle with my imagination, that’s when it all goes to hell. I can sit down and deliberately work sometimes but usually only after I have accidentally discovered that central, key piece. After that, I’m just filling in the holes.
I do have ways of triggering the “accident,” though! My best secret weapon is the list. I have a notebook filled with lists of things that need to happen: “sketch out designs for the next issue of Stitch,” for example. I’ll write it down even though there are no “designs” to speak of, yet. I’ll even schedule it out—”sketch designs tomorrow.” I think just having the written affirmation that there will be ideas helps make the ideas happen.
Erin’s Butterfly Mittens from the Fall 2010 issue of Stitch.
Also, when I am thrift shopping or flipping through books at the library, even if I don’t find what I want, I will imagine what I wished I had found, based on what could have been there. Bam, that’s an idea. I also like to imagine objects or clothing for particular people or events. What would John Lennon wear to his 70th birthday party? If Scarlet O’Hara took a job at a millinery, what would her first hat look like? If the Virgin Mary lived now, what would she wear?
Overall, though, the most important thing for me is to allow space for bad ideas and ugly things. If I make something hideous, I know that I am on the right track. It takes real balls to honor ugly things.
S: Several of the projects you’ve made for Stitch have featured appliqué and hand-stitching. What do you like about those techniques?
E: I love texture—textiles are all about touching! Applique and hand-stitching are also cool because they emphasize natural human shapes. I like to be able to see the motion of craft in the final product—imagining the crafter cutting out the applique shape or stitching lines into the fabric. It’s so much more evocative, emotional and varied than looking at another perfectly set row of machine stitches going around another square.