Change of season
On making a coat
The first chill of autumn is in the air when I move in with my grandma. She urges me to hang my clothes in the wardrobe, but I don’t want to take them out of the suitcase. On the first day, when I feel like hiding in a small, dark space for hours, she makes me chicken for dinner and says, with unbearable concern, Lai Lai, now you will not get married, to which I say — absolutely nothing. Somebody at work gets engaged; a school friend has a baby. I drink bowl after bowl of soup, which is all I have the appetite for.
I decide I should sew something complex and labour-intensive, to keep my sadness only a shadow, while my hands make something of nothing. Several months ago, I decided I would make a TFS Poppy Coat come winter, an oversized, proper cold-weather coat, with a single button closure and a big soft rounded collar. It’s not winter yet, but I am cold all through and half my clothes are still at the old house, so I start the coat.
Coats are my favourite type of garment because they represent a kind of escapism. Auckland is never really cold enough for a coat, but wearing one in grey July makes me think, anyway, of snow falling on woollen shoulders, as it does in all the cities I’d like to live in. Also, they make any outfit look put together, and they pair well with enormous scarves, which I have too many of, and above all, wearing one means feeling safe and held. A coat is protection, against weathers external and internal.
I bought the fabric for my coat on sale in summery January: a muted grey plaid in a brushed wool so heavy and plush, it could be a blanket. I had intended to buy navy Melton wool, a felt-like fabric that cuts well and doesn’t fray, recommended for beginner coat-makers like me. But in the shop, I saw the grey plaid and changed my mind. I like to think that sometimes the right choice can be unexpected.
I have never been good at sewing slowly — it’s too exciting to go fast — but I don’t get a choice here. I print the pattern in A0 at a local shop, then cut out what I think is my size. I look at Poppy Coats made by sewists around the world, on Instagram: Poppies in pale jacquard, black boiled wool, shearling with checked lining, lilac cashmere. I read all the captions and take notes on recurring advice: size down 2-3 sizes; practise the pockets; use a point turner; press every single seam. Perhaps, for once, I will do it all as I should.
My cousin Lisa — who is really my aunt, or perhaps my second cousin, in the spaghetti of our family tree — is making a coat at the same time, of two contrasting black and brown tweeds. We share one sewing relative — her grandmother, my great-grandmother — who died when we were small, but both of us remember her knotted hands, which cooked chao fan for sixty years, and tended the garden, and made the whole family’s winter coats.
We begin our coats together, and it’s a new sort of companionable. I lug my sewing machine to Lisa’s house one Saturday and cut out my pattern pieces on the floor, to the delight of her overactive dog. On the days we are sewing and apart, we send each other progress pictures — us in half-coats, in single sleeves, with facings inside out and linings trailing, threads bird-nested at hems, everything unfinished and promising — and it is just what I want.
The Poppy Coat is certainly the most difficult garment I’ve ever made. It takes me a whole morning to learn to make welt pockets, those funny formal rectangular pockets you get on school blazers or the backs of suit trousers. I smooth my grandma’s sputtery iron over many metres of interfacing, a lengthy process with pattern pieces this big. I cut my lining — a liquid, champagne-coloured viscose that slithers wildly under the chalk — on the hard white tiles of the bathroom floor, the pattern weighted with library books. When I have sewed the shell together and it looks like a coat, with functioning pockets and half the collar, I have been sitting at the machine for seven hours, so long I can barely straighten my neck anymore. The wool is too heavy to press the seams open properly, and the bobbin thread keeps snapping because I’m sewing three thick layers too quickly, and on second thought, perhaps I’ve snipped just a millimetre too far into the corner on one of the welt pockets, which means I’ll need to patch the back before I put the lining in. But the coat is a coat, made for my body by my hands.
Like gardening, sewing is an investment in the future. More so than gardening, it is an investment in a very personal future — in what sort of person your future self will be, and how she will feel about her body, and what she will want to wear. I choose this grey plaid and cut it to my size thinking unashamedly of myself and how I want to feel, which is not how I feel now.
More fundamentally, as writer Sofi Thanhauser puts it, “Sewing something for yourself implies belief in a future self.” Pressing the lining today means I will stitch it into the outer shell tomorrow. Inserting a pocket now means one day it will hold my hand. I clip into the collar corners; learn and execute the finicky couture of buttonhole stitching by hand; wrestle determinedly with the petulant lining. Sewing means proving to myself I haven’t given up on either work or joy.
Lisa finishes her coat before me and sends me a picture from in front of her bathroom mirror. She looks fantastic. It remains amazing to me that our sewing — this silly little hobby of ours — could turn out something that looks like an actual coat. When I next see Lisa, she is wearing her coat out in the world, an idea made real. It looks as good as anything you could buy, but she shows me how inside, where the lining meets the shell, there is a slight misalignment: a reminder it was made by (inexpert) hand. I think this is quite beautiful in her coat, but when I attach the lining of my own coat to the shell, it’s similarly crooked and I feel annoyed. I hate this feeling, and this month I’m tired of having feelings, and what I end up doing, after unpicking twice, is letting it be. I move on to the next step, so eventually I can send Lisa a photo back from in front of the bathroom mirror.
The day I finish the coat, I have been living with my grandma for a month. I don’t know what to make of this slip of time. I rise each morning at six; I write before work; I make small, simple meals. The rice cooker lisps beside the stove; the orchids pose stark and flowerless in the living room. The washing machine plays an irresistible electronica version of Die Forelle to announce the end of a cycle. I enjoy my enjoyable job; I save money; I have not one single drink, and in many ways, I feel good. On the other hand, I still wake too early every single morning, in the middle of a panicked half-dream in which I am looking and looking — inside my suitcase; beneath the bed; in the drawer in the old apartment where I kept old keys and shopping bags — for something I’ve lost and cannot have back.
My grandma is amused by the coat saga: she grew up in an era when you sewed not for pleasure, but because you could not afford to buy all your clothes. Every afternoon, she calls one of her many friends for a gossip — about what so-and-so paid for her house, which family member has caught Covid now, and me. She still hasn’t realised I can understand almost everything she says in Cantonese, but I hear her telling everyone she knows that for some reason I am making a coat, and that she’d like me to stay.
I love it more than anything I have ever made. I hang it to wait for winter, the first item in the closet in my new room.