Rip-Shirts

This story zigzags like my life. I apologize for having no consistency.

I generally have a rip-shirt in the closet. The current one is somewhere between 15-20 years old. The vivid color of the shirt has faded, and the fabric is stretched past its intended shape. But I keep fixing the rips and frayed edges because that is what life is. I’ve done every activity you can imagine in that shirt. (Don’t overthink that.)

Because I have always sewed, I sometimes dabble with a variety of things that require it. My Grandma Cook taught me to do a stitch when I was very young. I loved sitting at her feet on the rough floor and sewing anything she handed to me. And often, my fingertips. Thimbles were available but made poor guides for novice sewers.

My Dad and brother loved mercilessly teasing me about my penchant for making non-bunching pillows many years ago; my favorite kind involved going to a fabric store or department and choosing something appropriate for the intended v̵i̵c̵t̵i̵m̵s̵ recipients. Sewing has always been meditative for me. I’m not GOOD at it, of course, but you know what I’m going to say: I don’t care. No one in their right mind would ever invite me to a quilting circle for my sewing skills unless they needed comic relief.

In my early 20s, I started doing what I call rip-shirts. Some of them took me 100 hours to make. Simply put, I choose a shirt, usually of a distinctive color, then spend hours sewing stitch patterns all over it. Part of the fun is using a wide variety of threads, especially of different colors. It’s supposed to be garish. It’s possible to do intricate monograms this way, too, which I’ve done. I gave away many of these for years. One of the key advantages of such a shirt is that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish if it should be discarded, as all subsequent rips, tears, and issues can be restitched and become part of the resulting pattern. One of my shirts had over 500 hand-stitched lines on it. For another, I sewed a difficult-to-see curse word cleverly hidden in the stitch lines. That one amused me greatly.

Later, I discovered Kintsugi’s idea, where breaks and defects in bowls and cups are repaired using lacquer and gold dust. Theoretically, such repaired bowls can be fixed repeatedly and still be both useful and beautiful.

Rip-shirts fulfill the same purpose for me. They are each unique.

As the fabric wears, it becomes softer and more comfortable. If you rip the shirt, you can just sew it back. Unless you tell someone, they’ll assume all the stitches were purposefully placed.

When I was 30, I made a shirt for someone I initially thought was mocking me. He pulled me aside to correct me and told me that the idea was perfection to him. Because he was a large black man, I chose a very large shirt. I monogrammed his nickname along one sleeve and put hundreds of stitch lines on it. It was the only time that I worked hard to get the stitches perfectly aligned. When I handed him the shirt, he teared up. “Wow. I bet this took twenty hours to make, X!” I shook my head. “No, it took fifty.” He couldn’t believe that I spent so much time making him the shirt. He died much too young a few years later. What breaks my heart when I think too long about it? I told him I could teach him to do basic stitching in less than 15 minutes. So it came to pass that I sat in an industrial office in a vast poultry plant patiently showing another grown man how to stitch. It occurred to me how strange the idea would have been to my Grandma.

I indeed caught a fair bit of mockery for wearing these shirts. Likewise, I also wore my clothes inside out for fun, too, or made exotic and ridiculous headbands, sewed on a long-sleeve to a t-shirt, and a wild variety of stupidity. I went inside what is now First Security on Emma. The plant manager for the company I worked for had a wife who worked there. I went to the next teller, and it was the plant manager’s wife. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized that my t-shirt had the sleeve of a long-sleeve button-down dress shirt sewed on it instead of a standard t-shirt sleeve. She laughed so hard that a bubble came out of her nose. The look of mortification on her face was etched in marble. And then she laughed more. The person in charge of the tellers walked over to see what the problem was. The plant manager’s wife was crying from laughter and trying to tell her what the joke was. Looking at the floor manager in the eye, I said, “I got robbed, and they did THIS to me!” – and I pointed at my sleeve. The plant manager’s wife and I both laughed for another full minute. The floor manager walked away, shaking her head.

I made several rip-shirts for younger kids, who were fascinated by the concoction of stories I created to go along with them. Kids take a bit longer to lose their sense of adventure or categorically reject something interesting.

Somewhere around 2000, I was at the store wearing a rip-shirt, and a gentleman asked me where I bought the shirt. I think I was at Hastings Records. “I didn’t buy it. I made it.” He seemed genuinely interested. That particular shirt had a lot of neon threads in it. I grabbed the hem of my shirt, pulled the shirt up and off, and handed it to him. “Here,” I told him as I stood there shirtless near the main entrance. He didn’t argue or hesitate. “Thanks, Man!” You would have thought I handed him my wallet. At least fifty times that year, I bragged that I was willing to give someone the shirt off my back.

As my eyesight naturally worsened, I began to sew less often. That was a mistake.

I wonder where some of the rip-shirts ended up or if they still exist. Each of them was made by my imperfect hand. Each one of them is a literal tapestry of the moments I spent making them. They are not for everyone.

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