Monday, February 06, 2006

Measure Twice -- Cut Once

Part of me has always been attracted to science because it's not girly. "What's wrong with girly?" you ask. Well, the good feminist in me would rather do non-girly things because she doesn't like the implication that she can't do them. The evil anti-feminist in me likes non-girly things better because girl stuff is boring. It's usually guys who have all the adventures, in books and movies and so on, and when girls do participate (Alien, Alias...) you get the feeling they're not the kind of girls who sew.

So... what could be more manly than machine tools? Drill presses, grinders, band saws, spinning blades of all descriptions, capable of slicing right through steel (and bone! Grr!) Mere "power tools" are for wimps. Oh, and soon we'll be welding!

But what I have learned (and I commented briefly on this before) is that the actual skill sets for these things seriously overlap those of the girlier arts.

For instance -- it is amazing how similar the workings of a vertical band saw are to those of a sewing machine. Sewing machines have a spindle and a bobbin. Vertical band saws have a drive wheel and an idler. The main difference is that the thread keeps unspooling, while the band simply goes round in circles, but the mechanics are the same. On a sewing machine, you can lower the "foot" to hold your material in place and ensure that you stitch a straight line. On a vertical band saw, you can lower a foot to hold your material in place and ensure that you cut a straight line. Except I think they don't call it a "foot." That's just what I've been calling it, in my head. Both are manual drive machines, meaning that the needle (or saw blade) moves up and down and the operator moves the fabric (or metal) across. Stitching a curved line and cutting a curved line are both difficult, but if you can do one, you can do the other. Treat the needle (or blade) as the center of the circle and move the work piece in arc around it as you push it through. Both have adjustable speeds, and you need different needles for different fabrics, just as you need different blades for different metals. And don't kid yourself: a needle through the finger may not be quite as bad as a slice through the tip, but it's nothing you're gonna laugh off, either.

The last step of our first project (a plumb bob) was to put a piece of string through the hole we'd drilled. This was difficult, 'cause the hole was long and the string was floppy. I couldn't resist pointing out that a tool existed for doing this job - the humble needle threader. This is just a fine piece of wire folded into a loop. Stick the loop through the hole in the needle (or screw). Put the thread through the loop. Pull the loop back through the hole. They didn't have any of those in the shop. I have one at home, in the little sewing kit I bought the last time my keys tore through the lining of my coat pocket.

And then there's the whole process of planning, measuring, marking, tracing, leaving extra material around the edges on your first cut, the scrap baskets for small pieces that might come in handy later.... And honestly, is my plumb bob really any more useful than any of the decorative pillows I made in Brownies?

Okay, sewing doesn't involve fire, and machining eventually will. But on the other hand, cooking does, at least if you use a gas stove. (Man, I hope the welding torch lights itself. I hate lighting invisible streams of gas. Stoves, ovens, fireplaces, Bunsen burners... I always panic that either I'm going to somehow light the whole stream of gas, all down the pipe, and explode the building, or fill the room with gas and explode the building.)

I feel like I've made a discovery, here. Like there can't be all that many people who've noticed these similarities, because how many people have actually used both a sewing machine and a vertical band saw? How many people took both shop class and Home Ec in high school? Why are there so few? If you enjoy one of them, you ought to like the other. It's all about working with your hands, making things. If you're good at one, you'll be good at the other. What I think we need, is a class that teaches both.


Simon W said...

The similarities are actually greater if you compare like with like - the industrial sewing machines that you find in a costume workshop are scary beasts...!

Actually, theatre in general is probably somewhere that there is more crossover than much of the rest of life. It's not uncommon to find male costume people, or women building the set (female flymen are unusual, but that's probably partly because good flying still has a lot to do with weight and strength, except in very new and modern installations).

Having said all of this, the metalworking that I did as part of a physics course (an optional part, too) was never intended to teach me to work metal well; it was more so that I could speak intelligently to the people who did. Even if I could learn enough in 4 days, I just don't have that aptitude.

Orjan said...

When I went to school in Sweden, we had both "hard" and "soft" craft lessons, working with wood and fabrics, respectively.

Sewing machines and knives were available from the age of ten, IIRC, and as we got older we got introduced to toys like electric drills, band and circle saws, lathes, and mechanical planes.

We even got to do blacksmithing and other metal work, including welding, at the age of 15.

Both boys and girls did both parts, and while there was a prejudice about what girls and boys would like, this generally meant that a girl interested in "hard" crafts and a boy interested in "soft" got a lot of encouragment from the teacher, if not their peers.

I have to say I haven't made a garment for two years now, while I did carpentry just last weekend, but that's more down to needs than any preference of material to work with.

Anonymous said...

I own a sewing machine and have done quite a bit of costuming in my day. In my tech theatre class in high school the band saw was actually my favorite of the shiny happy power tools. I want one eventually. Just thought I'd mention it.


Mary said...

Jen, I'm not surprised.

So I should either move to Sweden, or get into theatre...