Of Sewing and Manliness

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Well, it finally happened. Kevin reached the great chasm that separates guys (as defined in The Dave Barry’s Complete Book of Guys) and sewing. Yes, sexual identity inevitably comes into play when any person possessing a “Y” chromosome sits down at a sewing machine. I can’t tell you how many oh-so-funny “seamstress” remarks I’ve heard over the years.

For Kevin, his rendezvous with the definition of manhood was reached when his next task called for finishing the outer edge of the vent (that’s the round piece of fabric that fits into the top of the envelope.) Yesterday, he cut a set of rectangular pieces that he then joined together to form a 19 foot square. We then spent last evening spreading the square out on the floor and proceeded (with a string and a Sharpie) to scribe the 19 foot diameter circle for the vent itself. (Thanks to Curtis Pack for some pointers on this technique.)

But lo, Kevin now had a circle with “raw” fabric edges. Not a good thing as raw edges tend to fray and the seams that terminate at the edge are no longer “locked” with back-tacking. What to do? The standard procedure is to fold the edge of fabric over twice so as to bury the raw edge inside the folds and run a line (or two) of stitching along the folded edge to hold it in place. “Is that what people call ‘hemming’?” Kevin asked. “Yes” is replied blithely.

“I don’t want to do it! I’ll sew load tapes around the edge! Anything! I can’t HEM! — HEMMING is for girls!” And with that, the floodgates were opened and a deluge of repressed gender identity stress came roaring forth.

I have endless sympathy for his reaction. My Mom sewed a great deal of her own clothing when I was a child. And my Mom, being a proper “libber” in her day, was quite amenable to having my brothers and myself (no sisters in the family) learn to work the sewing machine. In truth, I didn’t give a hoot for the product; I was much more interested in the machine itself. Cool mechanism. Highly refined technology. But clothes, I didn’t care about clothes. And, although I don’t think I actually put words to it at the time, I had a strong sense that guys just didn’t do this sort of stuff. There were limits as to how liberated I was willing to be.

The repulsive force between sewing and guys is a fairly powerful phenomenon. In addition to the “What, am I gonna sew doilies or somethin’?” reaction there is the fact that fabric is a maddeningly unpredictable substance. If you measure a 2-by-4 one day and then come back and measure it the next day, it will be the same size. (OK, its length will be a minuscule fraction different, but the difference will be too small to detect with your average Home Depot variety tape measure.) But measure a reasonably large (say 15 feet long) piece of fabric one day and it may be an inch or so different length the next. Changes in humidity, temperature, tension on the fabric, etc all have large effects. For a typical guy, who’s used to working with a milling machine where 1000ths of an inch are the expected level of accuracy, this sort of dimensional unreliability is simply more than he can bear.

Miraculously, women are not so bothered by such erratic behavior. My wife claims it is a coping strategy that evolved from having to put up with guys. Somehow, it seems like a good idea to not argue with my wife on this topic.

In addition to the fact that with fabric 2+2 never quite seems to be exactly 4, the other great impediment to guys sewing is the need to go into fabric stores from time to time. Such trips are unavoidable because fabric stores are the only place to get a seam ripper, needle threader or other specialized but necessary tool.

And fabric stores are truly distressing places for guys. You are nearly certain to be the only guy in the place. Every time I go I feel like I’ve crashed a bridal shower or something. All it takes is some unfortunate incident, such as a sale on calico chintz or having somebody ask you what “she” (the person for whom you are obviously buying the tool) wants to do with it, and it isn’t too hard to imagine why most guys run away screaming — usually in a mad search for a machine shop or other place with greasy tools where he can recover some sense of psychic stability.

By my calculations, about 3% of airplane pilots build their own airplanes. For balloons, the number is closer to 1%. The way I figure it, it’s the sewing that gets in the way. Maybe we should get some marketing folks to come up with a different name. “Woven material bonding techniques” perhaps. Ah but, it won’t work. One seamstress crack and the whole facade will come crashing down.

When I left Kevin last evening, he was still contemplating what to do about the edge of the vent. I’m sure he’ll find his way past this little bump in the road. But he’s still a bit shaky. It will be a while before I send him to the fabric store. Perhaps we’ll make a trip to Home Depot today. We need some rope and other manly stuff anyway.

3 Responses to “Of Sewing and Manliness”

  1. Jon Radowski Says:

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    Dan & Kevin -

    I’ve built all my balloons’ parachutes by folding the chute edge over just once and covering the raw edge with load tape. There may sometimes be circumferential forces higher than one might think - say, for example, when pulling the parachute down past the point of the normal operating range. Load tape will also keep the circumference at a relatively constant geometry, whereas just a rolled fabric hem around the edge *may* allow for increased stretch or change over the life of the envelope. I’m no thermal textile engineer, so take that as you see it. Things are looking good!

    There is a LOT of work remaining, so I hope you guys can keep on target and get all those “little” things finished!

    Good luck,

  2. Kevin Herschman Says:

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    Thanks for the comment, I went ahead and rolled the edge over and put a load tape over it!

    I’m now getting down to sewing the attachment points, I’m gonna do stick men on the envelope and am not exactly sure how I want to sew the tabs around the parachute. Any good suggestions?


  3. Adam Barrow Says:

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    I can so relate to this blog. I went through all the same emotions and the stick I still take from my mates is amazing. My mum even joined in the heckling by sending me a set of curtain plans so I could make them for her, oh HA HA indeed.

    I’m impressed Kevin, you are motoring through it. Nothing like having a deadline to focus the mind!