The Power of Sewing: On my favourite pattern, body confidence, and design philosophy

I think we’re probably all agreed that sewing is more than just a hobby; it’s a way to express ourselves, to empower ourselves, and to take care of ourselves. There are plenty of hashtags floating around that tell us so: #sewingismysuperpower, #sewingkeepsmesane, #sewingismytherapy and so on, and the sentiment I truly love is in Sarah’s strapline for her blog, that sewing soothes the soul. Ever since Rich and I set up Valentine & Stitch these sentiments have become even more relevant to me, as we embark on a journey that not only soothes my soul, but allows us to connect with many other people on a journey of their own.

If I had to pick one pattern we’ve designed that most reflects both me as a person and the company we’re building, I wouldn’t hesitate: it’s Dune. What started out as an idea for a simple sleeveless summer top just grew (literally) into a dress that makes me feel like a bombshell every time I wear one. What’s that got to do with body confidence and design philosophy more generally, I hear you cry? EVERYTHING. Because despite regularly being told by acquaintances that it’s “alright for me” because I’m slim (don’t even get me started on this…), I have a difficult relationship with my body and sewing is one of the ways in which I give myself confidence. Can you feel a backstory coming on?!

Any excuse to trot this photo out. I still can’t quite believe that’s me!

Let me start with the opening lines of a poem I have long loved: “The Ideal” by James Fenton.

This is where I came from.

I passed this way.

This should not be shameful

Or hard to say.

When I was 12, something pretty awful happened in my life. Despite the beautiful sentiment in Fenton’s poem, I do find it hard to say, so we’ll leave the details out of it, but I dealt with it by “secret eating”. Within a year I had gone from wearing children’s clothes to wearing a women’s size 16. I spent my teenage years feeling alienated in my own body. And that’s not to say that being heavier or curvier is somehow fundamentally less “right”, not at all, it’s just not my natural body shape and on me it was an outward sign of things not being right inside. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I started to take back control of my body – that’s 18 years of feeling like a stranger to myself. Inside me there is still a girl who looks in the mirror and can’t truly see herself.  I dress for that girl, as she was then, young and lonely and insecure, as well as for me, as I am now, age 40 and happy and confident. My clothes need to flatter my figure, show off my good points, and help me forget – or not care? – about the less good points. I found that I was routinely making an array of alterations to even seemingly simple patterns to feel good in them, and so a plan began to form to design my own patterns: simple, thoughtful designs that would be easy to sew and easy to wear. So with a lot of determination, unwavering support from Rich, old-fashioned hard graft from both of us, and more than a few melodramatic declarations that we are Just. Giving. Up. Right. Now. Really (from Rich. OK, OK, from me)… Valentine & Stitch was born…

If in doubt, stick your leg to one side and drop your hip.

That girl I just told you about always dreamed of wearing swishy dresses. But they would just hang off her hips and make her look as wide as her hips all the way to the floor. So when we were designing Dune, and the original plan was to make a knee-length version, on a whim I said to Rich “let’s try it as a maxi dress instead!” The directive (am I the only one who hears that word and thinks of WALL-E?!): keep the design philosophy of the Dune top (fitted at the bust, skimming over the tummy, kicking out at the hem) to create a dress that skims gently over all the areas I (and many women) feel self-conscious about, and then swooshes and swirls around at the ankles. For the first time in my life, I am wearing maxi dresses, and it makes me feel like I’m walking on air.

Swish! Swoosh!

Every time I wear a Dune dress, I feel amazing. If you follow me on Instagram you may remember I had a bit of a saga planning my outfit for the GBSB live event (in a nutshell: made a dress a week in advance. Felt serene and mildly smug. Tried dress on again three days beforehand. Realised dress looked sack-like. Panicked. Needed seasonally-appropriate feel-good dress. Made new Dune at the eleventh hour). By the skin of my teeth I was ready to go, and from the moment I met Sarah on the train until the moment I said a reluctant goodbye, I felt fabulous. The power of a TNT pattern, right?

Having fun at the GBSB live.

What a great day that was… you can’t see much of my dress in the end as I was wearing my blue maxi Edie over it in all the pics, but the highlight wasn’t the dress, it was meeting all these lovely ladies in real life. You might recognise some familiar faces! But I’m including the next photo to show you a glimpse of my younger self. Mark from Girl Charlee took this photo for his Instagram stories as my dress is made from Girl Charlee fabric: look how much less comfortable I am when I don’t know where to put my arms or how to tilt my head…

Unfamiliar camera pointing at me! No-one telling me where to put my hands or where to look! PANIC STATIONS!!

I don’t think we ever really shed our past selves, and maybe that’s a good thing. My younger self reminds me every day how lucky I am to have the life I have now.

And because you can never have too many “instant boost” dresses, I made a second autumnal Dune from a plain navy fabric… with both of these two I extended the hem length to the next size up, so that they can be worn with a small heel if I want to. And here are both of my new Dune dresses, with me safely back in my “hand on hip” comfort zone in my favourite corner of our garden:

I thought the navy one would look quite casual as it’s a plain cotton jersey (also from Girl Charlee), but actually with a pair of pumps (as opposed to the barefoot prancing around for the photos of the floral version!) it looks smart enough to wear to a more formal occasion! And with flat sandals next summer it’ll be great for everyday wear too. And did I mention I feel amazing in it?!

So that’s the story of my love affair with Dune, the importance of sewing in my positive self image, the awkward girl I still carry around inside me, and our priorities when we design our patterns. I have long felt that teaching me to sew was one of the greatest gifts my mum gave me, as in doing so she gave me the ability to empower myself, to make my own rules about what to wear, and to feel fabulous.

The final stanza of Fenton’s poem opens with this line: “This is my past, which I shall not discard”. We are all made up of our past as well as our present selves, and every day that I achieve a positive self image I feel I am not only making the best of who I am but also honouring who I have been.

What about you, what does sewing bring to your life? Do you have a pattern that makes you feel like a superstar every time you wear it?

30 thoughts on “The Power of Sewing: On my favourite pattern, body confidence, and design philosophy

  1. suzy roberts

    This is such a heartfelt, moving post Helen and I am so glad you shared it, although it must have been hard.
    I feel for the past you, and rejoice for the confident happy you of today.. No awful catalyst happened to me, but I put myself though awful things in my teens and twenties with anorexia and bulimia…and I wasn’t happy with who I was, so I do understand what you are saying. I think sewing is super important for our self esteem and for having a feeling of control over our lives… I have one-off clothes that fit my shape and also I have learnt to not shy away from the camera., not to mention the amazement when people realise I have made what I’m wearing – hopefully it’s good amazement! Un abrazo …Suzy xxxxx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you so much for this response Suzy. Yes, it was hard to share – in fact I had this post ready a week ago, and it’s taken me a week to press the button! But reading your reply makes me glad I did. We live in a world where we curate what we show of ourselves, and it is too easy to think there’s nothing more than an enviable life behind the photos. When I decided to write a post about our design philosophy all the other stuff came out too and so there it is, a real person behind a smiley photo! I feel for you too with what you went through – I think it is impossible to be happy in life until we are happy in our skin. I would never have known there was a Suzy who shied away from the camera or put herself through those things, so thank you for sharing that with me too. I agree about the connection between sewing and feeling in control, and yes, surely always good amazement at your lovely clothes! Un fuerte abrazo para ti tambien xxx

  2. Maxine

    Oh Helen this is a beautiful post, I’m so sorry for what you have gone through in the past at such a young age but so pleased that you have come out the other side and are now a happy, confident, mature businesswoman, wife and mother, so many positives to be grateful for. I had issues with food as a youngster and hated my skinny, flat chested frame but instead of trying to put weight on I got obsessive about fat in food and made dinner times very awkward for my mum, I remember scraping butter off bread and refusing to eat roast potatoes or chips because they were cooked in fat! I’m still skinny, no boobs and a thickened waist but sewing is gradually helping me to overcome these hang ups and make clothes that work for me. I’ll never be at ease having my photo taken though 😂 The Dune is a great pattern and I’ll definitely be making another next spring.

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thanks so much Maxine, I am a big believer in the old phrase that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those past experiences, painful as they were. Thank you for sharing your story too, I am so sorry to know that you suffered with similar issues, and I can understand the feelings you describe. Sewing is truly empowering for creating clothes that make us feel like the best version of ourselves, isn’t it? And you should see some of the terrible photos I end up with – I have taken to just moving around as naturally as possible and hoping we get some that aren’t blurred, because otherwise every photo of me has a smile like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit! I’m really happy you like your Dune dress too, and shall look forward to seeing your next one. I hope that your daughters never go through the same difficulties you did, they must be at a sensitive age now. I’m sure you will know how to help them through their hangups xx

  3. Sew Sarah Smith

    I love this post and I’m so glad you wrote it. I love that it’s an Ode to Dune (oh my, I LOVE that navy version – I could write a stanza on that myself!) ; it is also quite rightly an ode to your own growth as a beautiful human being. Now I just want to give you a big hug and have a reeeaaally long chat. xxx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you, my lovely friend. I’m happy you like the post (and also the navy Dune – I promise I shall swoosh around in it next time we meet in sunny weather!) and I am so touched by your reading of the story. I hadn’t thought of it as an ode to my growth but what a beautiful way to read it, thank you. Big hug and long chat coming soon, for sure. xxx

  4. Lori

    Helen, what a wonderful post and expressing all of this. You look wonderful and I love everything you make.

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you so much Lori, you are so kind and I appreciate this comment greatly. I love everything you make too, and am really glad to have connected with you online.

  5. Kelly

    What a beautiful and inspiring post Helen. I’m so sorry for what you went through but I’m so happy that you were able to turn something negative into a positive that lead to your pattern company. You have most certainly made an impact on my life. I never felt comfortable wearing knit dresses or any dress as I hated the way they looked on my lower half. Now that I have made Dune and Angelina I have worn dresses probably more this past summer than all my past summers combined. Thank you for giving me that option and freeing yourself from your past. You are a wonderful and courageous person! 😊💕😊

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you Kelly for this lovely comment. You are very kind and always see the good in everything. I feel very blessed with the friends I have made here. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that our patterns have made a difference to you – I would never have thought that you wouldn’t like how you look in dresses, as I think you look so beautiful in them. Just goes to show we can’t know everything behind the photos. Big hugs to you 💕

      1. Kelly

        Thank you Helen! You’re too kind 😊 You touch many lives with your patterns. You and Rich are building something special and I can’t wait to see what is to come! 💕

  6. Bridget

    Thank you for sharing your sewing/body image story. I am sure it was even harder than you say. Don’t you wish you could hug your younger self, tell her it’s going to be okay, and show her the company you’re building? And I wonder how the sewing community can reach those little girls and young women now?

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you Bridget. Every comment has brought a tear to my eye today, this one really choked me as it’s so true, I often want to be able to show my younger self a snapshot of my life now, so she knew things would work out. I’m sure everyone has a story and feels that way about something in the past. As for reaching people now, it looks to me as though you are doing something amazing in that respect with the initiative you’re setting up in the middle school. I think you will touch many lives. Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful comment 💕

  7. Monika

    wow..who would’ve thought you went through hell, awful. I can relate to what this post more than you can imagine. sewing is more than a hobby, it truly is a therapy. love your dresses and passion for sewing xx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you for this lovely comment Monika, and I’m happy to connect with you a little more through this story, though I’m sorry to know that you can relate deeply, as I know there must be so much more behind those few words. I think that sewing is so much more than a hobby for many of us, it’s such an empowering way of taking some control over ourselves, perhaps when we feel control has been lost or taken away in other areas. Sending you big hugs and thank you for reading the post xx

  8. Paula Lansdowne

    Your heartfelt words brought a tear to my eye Helen knowing that you have been through this difficult period in your life. But so pleased to see that you have now created a loving family and successful business with your lovely Rich. I have experienced of having to be brave when you really don’t think you can and difficulty in your like do shape you but they don’t define you. I love to see your gorgeous posts with your talented creative makes and also your perfect posses. I also always enjoy the fun we have. You are a beautiful strong women and thank you for sharing a little more about yourself . Love Paula xx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Oh Paula, thank you for these words. You are so right that difficulties shape us but don’t define us. I think we have a choice in that too – will this define me or will I re-define my own life. I know that there is always a story behind the smiles and I don’t think I would have connected with you and these other lovely people if you/ I/ we were superficial. We choose to show the best of ourselves and that’s good in my opinion, but sometimes we know each other better by showing a bit of the less good stuff. I always enjoy the fun we have too, it makes me laugh out loud and I am so glad to have got to know you in this virtual world! xx

      1. Paula Lansdowne

        Yes, we all put up our “pretty “ pictures but as I have seen from all your warm & encouraging replies….. behind every picture, we all have our stories. To some what we do may be considered supperfical, but we all have our layers and depths ….and not forgetting our creative talent😏😂😂
        It’s amazing how Instagram has connected so many of us all I feel I know you even a little bit more now. Look forwards as always to seeing your posts and what you are up too……and the poses 👍🏼💪🏼💕xx

        1. valentineandstitch Post author

          You’re so right Paula, and I think that having those “stories” ourselves means we are aware that others have their own too. I never look round a room and think “well look at you, not a care in the world” – who gets through life without pain? But the thing that matters is how we deal with it, which is pretty much what you said in your earlier comment. I don’t think that what we do is superficial: we are sharing a common passion, and supporting and encouraging each other. Anyone who thinks we’re just a bunch of self-indulgent narcissists can just jog on… hehe, maybe they’re the ones who keep unfollowing me on Instagram?! I have long learned not to care about the opinion of people who will judge me without knowing me. Thank you for your lovely comments, I feel more connected to you too and here’s to many many more happy moments in our little corner of the internet!

  9. Sarah Liz

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am sorry you went through a trauma that then made you feel deeply unhappy, maybe even ashamed. It happens to many people – including me and my husband (that’s a long story). And is still happening to many people – and I say people, because boys also are affected by painful events as well. Isn’t it wonderful to meet someone in your life that loves you for who you are, and is supportive of your needs. And I do think that people who have had past painful experiences develop a level of empathy and understanding of other people – just make sure you keep that, but with firm boundaries as well. Wishing you all the best.

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you Sarah Liz, for your empathy and these wise words. You are right to remind me that it is the love and support I have in my life that has changed everything – I don’t want to think what life might have been like if I didn’t have that. I’m sorry to know that you have been affected in deep ways too, but in some ways unsurprised as I think it’s rare to get through life unscathed, and also rare to feel a connection with people unless there is a deeper bond even if you don’t quite know what that is. Someone once said to me that it’s terrible the amount of pain humans can inflict on one another, and that is true, but it’s wonderful how much love and strength they can bestow on one another too. Thank you for reading, and for this thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

  10. Sil

    Wow Helen, thank you for sharing your deeply personal experience. We tend to conceal our struggles and pretend we’re fine to the outside world, for society views anyone going through internal issues as weak. The story of Dune is very touching. Now you shine with confidence and I love seeing that. It’s great to feel fab in a TNT; I also love when we step out of our comfort zones and empower ourselves with courage. V&s isn’t a business, it’s the embodiment of Love, perseverance, empathy and hope. Love what you do xx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Oh Sil, thank you so much for this lovely comment. That is how I shall always try to think of V&S when the going gets tough, thank you for articulating that for me! I agree that we conceal more than we show, and I don’t really mind that as I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve (no pun intended with the sewing thing!) but I struggle a little with the “curated” aspect of an online presence – I’m the first to love the beauty filter on my phone that makes me look fresh as a daisy when I’m tired and haggard, but at the same time that has a consequence. I’m very mindful of the news items we often see over here about social media causing anxiety and depression to young people because everyone else seems to have a perfect life. Thank you for reacting this way to my small attempt to redress that. Sewing brings so much to all our lives and I’m really happy to have connected with you through it xx

  11. Melinda

    I love reading your story and those of the replies. It makes me realize how many have had traumatic events happen during their youth. I was very blessed to have a happy childhood but my daughter was not as lucky. My 2 children are adopted from Korea. Two challenges for them from the start. And my daughter was born with cleft lip and palate. She has gone through 10 surgeries. Having issues with her looks was a struggle. Her teenage years were a challenge. She is 27 now and has worked hard to become happy and healthy. Thank you for sharing your story. I have learned that on the other side of fear is joy. And by telling our stories we can let go of that fear and be happy.

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Hi Melinda, thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to write this lovely comment. I feel for your daughter – and for you watching over her – as “difference” is so hard to manage in a peer group. I hope that she will continue to grow and to be happy. I feel more aware of this now as a mother myself, and I know from experience that being fortunate enough to have loving parents makes a massive difference to the ability to cope and to come out the other side. So I’m sure she will be all the stronger for the love and support you give her. I send you my warmest wishes, and thank you for reaching out.

  12. Diane G

    What a beautifully written and heartfelt post Helen. I’m so sorry to hear that a traumatic event coloured your life for so long. We never truly leave behind our past selves. More that they keep us company our whole lives and sometimes they might surface, but we now react differently and hopefully learn to live with them. Your lovely personality and warmth is testament to how you’ve risen above this awful time.
    For me it’s always been about friends and self esteem. It’s been there since primary school and will always be there to some extent…daily in fact. I struggle with being open and giving more of myself. Hardly the kind of awful struggle that you’ve gone through I know. It does colour my daily life though. I’m glad to have you as my friend.
    Thank you for sharing this Helen. I know it can’t have been easy at all.
    Huge hugs xxx

    1. valentineandstitch Post author

      Thank you my lovely friend. I think there is trauma in many things – whether it is one far-reaching event or an ongoing difficulty, so I would never think I had suffered more than you or anyone else. I am glad to know more about you too, and I agree that our past selves are always there keeping us company, hopefully showing us how far we’ve come. Like you I am careful with my friendships, and often guarded, so I can start to imagine how difficult things can feel in that respect and I am happy and thankful to have you as my friend. And most of all thankful that it’s our shared love of sewing and all it brings to our life that has brought us together! Huge hugs back to you Diane xxx

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