With two hands: Life lessons learned working at a sewing machine

Radish Magazine | April 2013

There are little metal panels under the needle of a sewing machine called feed dogs. The first time my sewing teacher referred to them I laughed and asked about the origin of the name. Unfortunately, she did not have an explanation for me. I quickly added the phrase to my sewing vocabulary and it became unfunny in the way that constant use makes anything unfunny.

Amusing name or not, feed dogs are important. Covered with tiny teeth, they churn up and down constantly as the machine runs, pulling the fabric under the needle and moving the whole project forward. If the material jams or the stitches bunch up, the feed dogs hustle everything along. My hands guide the project from the top, but the feed dogs are like another tiny set of hands that guide from below.

A funny thing about feed dogs: They can be disabled. My sewing machine has a tiny wheel on its underside that lowers and disengages the feed dogs. When I first heard I could do this, I was baffled.

“Won’t the stitches sew on top of each other?” I asked, picturing a ridiculous pileup of thread.

“No,” my teacher replied. “With the feed dogs down, you can guide the project entirely yourself. Many sewers use this function for freehand quilting when they want to create crazy stitch formations.”

Tentatively, I tried retracting the feed dogs and doing some experimental sewing. It was both disconcerting and a strain on my hands; my stitches were no longer perfectly even and perfectly spaced.

I haven’t tried sewing without my feed dogs since that first time. Content to allow the machine to help my projects along, I prefer to keep everything neat and tidy and in place. Recently, however, I have been thinking about feed dogs again. Here, on the cusp of adulthood (I turned 20 in February), I’ve realized that my parents have been my “feed dogs.” They pull me along, working behind the scenes to keep everything going and functioning and succeeding. This realization is coupled with a startling discovery: The process of growing up is all about disabling the feed dogs. That is scary.

Most days I’m not sure I’m ready for freehand quilting. It feels equal parts ludicrous and revolutionary. Allowances, curfews, chores and the other accoutrements of childhood sound comforting and safe.

Other days (days that come with increasing frequency), when I retreat to my bedroom with a mug of coffee to churn through piles of college homework and plan my upcoming adventures, I am seized with a surge of creativity. I am overcome with a desire to pull the future closer with my own two hands, faster than the feed dogs can move, eating through fabric with crazy-colored stitches and looking back over my handiwork with the satisfaction of someone who chose her own pace and design.

Some nights (nights that come with increasing frequency), when I am driving alone down a starlit highway with the radio blasting in my car and home miles behind me, I laugh at my crazy zigzag freedom. I can do whatever I want. Squiggles, swirls, doodles, across seemingly endless yards of time — I am free to sew them all.

Of course, even the craziest of crazy quilters knows there’s a fine line between whimsical design and a tangled mess. Get too loopy, and your work becomes chaotic. To even reach the stage where free-form stitching is a possibility takes a precise understanding of the fundamentals of sewing and the patience to measure, cut and seam accurately. Skip these linear preparations and your stitches look childish, not artistic.

When it comes to life, my parents know this well. They’ve done their best to give me a good foundation, to teach me how to find a balance between creativity and disaster. Now it’s up to me. I am poised to sew a masterpiece but the excitement of adulthood lies in the fact that the design could still go awry. But I am determined to make each stitch matter, even if I don’t know where they will ultimately lead. I am determined to learn to live two-handed.