If I could I would sew for my sister a coat of soft leather. I would ply malleable pink hide for an effort so vital, but a gabardine twill is perhaps more practical. Gleaned from the coats of animals, culled from the cocoons of silkworms, scavenged from the seeds and leaves and stems of plants, remnants, vestiges, reckoning, reckoning.
Organic materials carry the living.
My sister’s red hair would be a fine fiber for fabric. I would fashion a vest from her fiery red hair. A cocoon of stout thread, woven securely. It would be narrow and binding and tight in the middle. It would hold fast, hooks and eyes clasping. Tenacious and unyielding, it would twine things together.
Natural fabric is breathing, air in and out, good for my sister, who’s prone to disruptions. Of skin. She is also, like fabric, soft yet durable. When small I would pummel her belly, pinning her to the ground with my knees, watching her struggle as she tried to breathe.
Which I now regret.
Man-made fabrics are conjured from chemicals. Is this what you want against your skin I ask my sister. My sister doesn’t mind because synthetic fabrics are light, some sheer, some wick moisture. She likes the wicking in the hot summer heat, and she loves luxury, even though she has nothing now. Three kids and no job and her insides collapsing.
I felt her stitches, a seam of small partings along her belly.
Don’t worry I said don’t fret.
Looks are deceiving. For all its delicacy, silk is as strong as wire of same thickness. The woven silk fiber makes flowing nightgowns and soft panties. Fabric of silk touts names like crepe, shantung and satin. My sister’s shoes are made of raw silk, little high heels of nubby raw silk. She wore them for clients, criminals who’d committed acts of torture and rape. I begged her to tell me these tales from work.
It is this time spent hearing stories of human frailty and evil that has taken its toll on my sister. She drinks all night. She has become dry and brittle and it seems as though she could fall to pieces in one’s hands, like silk as it ages.
In yard goods generally, the outer edges of fabric, whether wool or cotton or chiffon, are constructed so they will not ravel. To ravel is to undo. To ravel is also to unravel. I don’t mind the overlap, the one becoming the other. But not my sister, with an infection attacking the borders of her bladder, the bowel and the intestines. She does not aspire to dissolution.
To avoid the ravel, the edges of the fabric boast a tight warp. They are stiff and firm and hardened. My sister would approve of these edges. Her body requires a new boundary, especially after surgery and her nightmares of dissolving.
She can’t discern her own borders anymore.
The finished edge on fabric is selvage. The self’s edge is the edge of a piece of cloth, made strong. If I could, I would unravel this harsh edge. I would loosen the threads between us and reweave them. But my sister says colostomy and catheter to name the things that trouble her body. My sister would scorn the frayed edge whose loose threads fly free.
Slack yarn, with its insufficient tension, or worse, a yarn that’s too tight, yield slubs caused by uneven spinning. I imagine a bevy of rapacious silkworms chewing through tissue and blood inside my sister, spinning muscular cocoons in a fury. My sister needs repair, a close inspection and mending, and if I could, I would scissors her open and do the burling and darning myself.
To make something — almost anything at all — you have to cut off the selvage and discard it. You can use pinking shears or you can cut on the bias. But you have to cut away the hard edge and risk having your goods go to pieces.
If I could, I would sew for my sister a whole suit of warm skin. I would cut the fabric and discard the selvage, then sew a long suture. I would sew a seam, flat-felled, surely the most intricate, the most durable and the most beautiful of seams. I would baste my apology inside the sleeve. I would embroider my grief along the neckline. I would use my own skin if I could.
Holly Willis is a writer whose work moves across arts journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry and academic prose. She has published two books about cinema, edited two collections of essays related to new media, and contributed to a variety of journals, from Variety to carte blanche. She is interested in writing that explores the interstices.