Here is a thing you may not know about me: I really like sewing. I know, I know, all I do here is jabber about books, and my job is reading books and turning them into books in English, but I actually do things that are not related to books. And one of those things is making clothes. When I was little, at least half of the clothes I wore were made by my mom, and I spent a *laht* of time watching her make them and learning by osmosis. I got my first sewing machine for my ninth birthday (because I asked for one; it was not one of those horrible you-should-be-a-lady gifts your grandma gives you), and by the time I reached junior high school and my first Home Ec class, I had been making my own clothes for a few years. So when in that first Home Ec class, my teacher made us sew on paper to learn to sew in a straight line, I was rolling my eyeballs so far back in my head, they spun right around to the other side.
When I moved to Japan, I couldn’t take my machines with me (that first move across the ocean was supposed to be a couple of years at most, so I only took whatever would fit in my allotted two suitcases), but you can’t keep a seamstress down. Within a couple of months, I was borrowing the machine of a teacher I worked with to sew new covers for the hideous dusty rose sofa I inherited with my rural apartment. And that was my first contact with Japanese sewing culture, which is, like so many other aspects of Japanese culture, both similar to and totally different from the sewing culture I was familiar with. Something so simple as the pedal I was used to pressing on with my foot turned into a lever I pushed on with my hand. Because J-peeps were more likely to be sitting on the floor. It was weird.
But perhaps now you can understand the pure delight I felt at stumbling upon Tsukuroitatsu Hito, a manga with a woman sewing on the cover. At last, my true loves of books and sewing had come together! The only question I had when buying it was why I hadn’t I learned about it sooner since volume one came out in 2011 and I only came across it last year. They even made a movie about it! It is a thing, this manga. A manga about sewing.
And it is a manga about sewing, not fashion, although the titular seamstress does make and sell her own designs as well. But fashion is secondary to the act of sewing, altering, and creating clothing. Ichie takes over her grandmother’s dressmaking studio after studying under her for years, as is the Japanese tradition, when her grandmother is admitted to hospital. We never see the grandmother, only feel the empty hole her absence has caused through the various people in the neighbourhood who drop by to have something altered or fixed. It’s one of many emotional marvels in this manga. Through the reactions to the grandmother’s absence, we see what this dressmaking studio and the person behind it has meant to this area, and are made acutely aware of exactly what Ichie is up against as she tries to fill those large shoes while also forging something new.
Interestingly, we first see Ichie through the eyes of a young buyer at a department store, Fujii. He is completely taken with Ichie’s designs, but not from any kind of cold economical perspective. He admires her craftsmanship, the details of her stitches; he likes how she sews. And he wants to see her succeed and make a butt-ton of cash because she is actually talented and deserves it. This kind of start could have turned into a boring “young woman is indebted to wise man who showed her the true path and so she falls in love with him because she has no agency of her own” sort of story, but Ichie is more than that. She has no interest in being a “brand” and having her dresses sold in department stores. She wants to sew clothing for people who appreciate clothing.
As a former seamstress for hire, I definitely appreciate this desire to sew for people who appreciate it. So many people have this idea that order-made clothing should be just as cheap as the poorly made fast fashion you get at one of those chain stores. It is maddening to have to educate people on the differences between the two. And Ichie doesn’t really bother, although people end up educated on this difference through other means because this is a manga and if people didn’t come to appreciate the quality and uniqueness of handmade clothing, the story would end with Ichie going out of business and dying alone.
But although this is a manga ostensibly about sewing, it is, in the end, about people and their relationships with each other and themselves. In that sense, it very much reminds me of IPPO by est em. Tsukuroitatsu has less of the bespoke-item-of-the-week feel than IPPO, but it has the same emphasis on coming to terms with a part of yourself through that bespoke item. The art styles are also different and the same. Ikebe employs a minimalist style when it comes to backgrounds and details that does call em to mind, but her linework is much simpler, more straightforward in a way. Her lines made me think of the Nishiokas, even though the content and general style is completely different. And I love the way all her eyes are essentially black holes, and yet are still so engaging and expressive. So much of the emotion is captured in a sidelong glance or lowered eyes.
One of the things I love about manga is that the industry in Japan can support so many kinds of seriously niche stories, stories about ballroom dancing, pregnant armies, a housekeeper cat, a time-travelling fridge. And finally, that gloriously varied world had given me a story about sewing and the love of the craft. Everything is as it should be.