We can't help but transform the world around us—even if no one else can tell.
To look at me on any given day you may not be able to tell, but I am very particular about my clothes. Most of the stuff I wear is secondhand, even the newer, trendier clothes from Forever 21 or H&M, which I’ve most often found in a thrift store or at a yard sale, hanging from the branch of a tree on someone’s front lawn. As approximately fifty percent of you know, the sizing of women’s clothing can vary wildly, and it has changed over the years, which means that when you look at anything made before 1990 the real meaning of “size 4” or “size 14” or whatever is almost impossible to guess. Since this is how I shop, I have developed a good eye for what is likely to fit me. I usually ignore whatever the tag says and if I don’t feel like trying something on, I’ll just hold it out in front of me and squint. For a dollar or five I’m willing to take the risk that a pair of pants or a sweater might not fit me, especially since I know I can alter it if I need to.
I’ve gotten pretty handy with the old sewing machine. I own one, a Brother XL 5600, that my mother gave me as a birthday gift a good few years before I was mature enough to be able to sit down and learn how to use it properly. I used to get so frustrated with it, taking forever to wind the bobbin and thread the needle and somehow always jamming it within the first minute of actually sewing. But over the years I’ve gotten more patient, and my need has grown. I am more interested in clothing now than I used to be, and my interest grew at about the same rate that my cheapness did. I have found that I can afford to have a large and varied wardrobe by doing small alterations to secondhand clothes myself, and occasionally making patterns by tracing my favorite pieces so that I can replace them with something similar after I’ve worn them to shreds. It’s been worth it, taking the time to learn to operate the machine. These days the fabric is less apt to bunch and seize up under the needle. Instead it glides through the machine like a warm knife through butter.
The fixes I’ve come up with are either messy concoctions of my own design—Crop-top? Sure! The scissors are in the kitchen!—or else very simple and common alterations, like taking up a hem. Since I’m not actually any good at this, the quality of my work varies wildly. The first time I tried to turn baggy, high-waisted mom jeans into figure-hugging skinny jeans they came out wrong and ballooned at the hips like jodhpurs. Terrible. But I got the hang of it eventually, and so help me God I will never wear another pair of boot-cut pants for as long as I live.
One of the projects I’m proudest of is the hem I gave to a light green polyester skirt that I liked in every way except for its dowdy length. It has a little bit of comfy elastic at the waist, and its synthetic fabric never wrinkles. But it fell to calf-length and honestly looked dreadful on me, with my bone-white ankles poking out of the bottom. So I hacked about a foot and a half off the bottom of the skirt, turned the edge under, and went to work sewing it up until I saw that my machine was creating a very visible and unattractive hemline. Yipes! That wasn’t how the skirt looked originally, I didn’t think, but I had no idea why. I pulled the thread out with my seam ripper (the tiny, knife-sharp jimmy-jam that’s shaped like a wishbone—such a useful little tool) and called my mom to ask her what I should do. Oh, just make an invisible hem, she said.
Invisible! How magical that sounded. But how do you do it? Turns out it was as simple as slowing down and sewing it by hand, turning the hem under twice and only putting the thread all the way through to the front every several stitches or so. I tried it and it worked. The stitches disappeared. When I wear the skirt now, you can’t tell that it ever looked any different, that it didn’t look this way when I found it hanging in the musty one-dollar room of a thrift shop in south Jersey. It’s not just shorter, it hangs better, and my little calves look way less pitiful now that my curvy behind is a featured player.
The phrase invisible hem has stayed with me. There’s just something so awfully poetic about it. And it gets better. Though I don’t often refer to the sewing instructions in them, I do own a small library of books on fashion and costumes. Paging through one of them not too long ago, I learned that just as there is such a thing as an invisible hem, there is also a job called invisible weaver, also known as invisible mender. This refers to a tailor who can expertly repair a tear in an article of clothing, particularly in something that is hard to mend, like suiting fabric. The task is to make the clothes look like new, and if the mender is completely successful then we never even know he exists.
A few years ago, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a series of public lectures on the theme of change. One of the talks was on something called “The Mysteries of Translation,” and the speaker was Alastair Reid, a Scottish writer who is probably best known for his translations of poetry by Borges and Neruda from Spanish into English. The translation of poetry is a topic that really interests me, so I put the lecture on my calendar and looked forward to it for weeks.
The talk was held in the cozy lecture hall in Penn’s archeology museum, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. As kids our parents took us there and I loved standing in the dusky wing of Ancient Egypt, staring at the mummies until I gave myself a proper chill. Years later I went to college at Penn, and I took a few anthropology courses that were held in the classrooms on the Museum’s second floor. Sometimes I’d buy a small lunch at the cafeteria and eat it before class, sitting in the windowed dining room that was surrounded on either side by primordial-looking fern gardens. It felt like such a fucking blessing to be there, I swear.
On the evening of the lecture I settled happily into my bouncy auditorium seat and plopped my shoulder bag into my lap. Alastair Reid came up to the podium and surprised me by being pretty old, but then I realized that he’d have to be, if he had been translating Borges and Neruda when those guys were writing back in the ‘60s. He lived for many years in Latin America, but he grew up speaking his native Scots at home and with his friends. Never in the classroom, though—they had to speak the dominant, “correct” English language there. He told us that Scots developed out of a severe Calvinism, which he thinks is reflected in the language. For him, learning Spanish was an “opening up.” “I had so much more fun in Spanish than I ever did in English,” he said, which made me smile. We all smiled, I think. He said: “When you learn another language deeply you grow another self completely.”
Reid knew Borges. They were friends. Neruda, who Reid also knew personally, once famously placed his hand on Reid’s shoulder and asked him not to simply translate his poems, but to “improve” them. Is it necessary to know the poet whose work you’re translating? I wouldn’t have thought so, but maybe poetry has more to do with human connections than it ever did with theory or PhDs. In The Wild Braid, a book Stanley Kunitz made with a young photographer just before he turned 100, he writes that to properly understand a poem you need to know where it came from: who wrote it, where that person lived, and what their life had been like until the point of writing it. The thing about translating a poem, when it comes down to it, is that you aren’t just bringing it from one language into another. You have to write a new poem, one that gets inside the mind of the first one. “When you translate someone’s work well,” Reid said, “you become them.”
Alastair Reid has lived an incredibly varied and itinerant life, one that seems enviable and impressive and kind of hard to believe to a homebody like me. In his memoir-ish collection of essays, Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, he writes about the many, many homes of others that he has stayed in and visited throughout his life, even just within New York City, where he bounced around from apartment to apartment and had an office at The New Yorker where he was a staff writer. In that book, he uses the word translation in the most wonderful way, to describe the transformation he underwent simply by changing location. For a time he and his son owned and lived on a houseboat in London that was moored in Chelsea, and they made special arrangements with friends in other parts of that massive city to switch homes for a weekend now and again. (How have I never thought to try this? Let’s all try it! We could have like a dozen pied-a-terres!) Reid seems to have a special understanding for the objects in our lives, and although (or maybe because) he hasn’t tended to settle into any one living space for long stretches, he appreciates the “extremely complex ... act of inhabiting and humanizing a house.” I dearly wish I knew Alastair Reid, and could ask him to share his feelings on clothes, those dwellings and self-made identities we carry with us everywhere.
He seemed to enjoy himself up there that night, talking to us about language and art and the mind. As he spoke I thought about how unusually down to earth he seemed, how warm and honest and happy. It struck me that his unpretentious personality shouldn’t come as any surprise; I mean the job of translating someone else’s work might be the ultimate in not drawing attention to yourself, kind of like a ghost writer. Or an invisible mender, if you will, who makes his work so perfect that he himself disappears.
I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking of this poet as an invisible weaver, and of my altered secondhand clothing like translations, probably because I have such an abiding love for things that are old and new at the same time. Third-rate seamstresses and first-rate poets alike, we all change the things we touch when we imbue them with ourselves. However unimportant our little lives may be, however invisible we may sometimes feel, we create the world around us just by being in it.
Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing, and an upcoming book about language. Read more of her blog posts here.