Meanwhile, people who do know what they're talking about might not join the discussion because talking about "lady things" is in bad taste. And their silence can leave even women with wrong ideas about their own bodies. Like the women who told me that sitting on a cold rock would give me a yeast infection or that douching with Pepsi prevents pregnancy. I don't like talking about "lady things" in public, either, but it hardly seems right to let the ignorant blowhards have the mic unopposed.
So, in today's post, while I will eventually talk about the sewing of cloth menstrual pads, I will start by discussing... don't be frightened now... menstruation. I will not be super explicit nor include any gross, bloody pictures; instead I will give a general outline, some links to more complete medical sources, and a few myths that need to die.
WHAT IS MENSTRUATION?
Before a woman ovulates (releases an egg to move into the womb if it gets fertilized), her womb starts padding its sides with a layer of nutrient and mineral-rich tissue. If she gets pregnant, that cushiony layer, which lines the uterus like an inner-tube lines a tire, becomes the placenta, and feeds the baby. But if she doesn't get pregnant and the egg gets old and needs to go, her body produces progesterone, which liquefies the uterine lining and sends it out of her vagina through a series of minor contractions. This whole process, from lining the uterus to expelling the lining, is menstruation, so a menstrual cycle is about twenty-eight days. The expelling part of things is called "having her period", and can be short (mine's around three days) or very long (three weeks is the longest I've heard of, and that woman was eventually put on birth control pills to trick her body into thinking she was pregnant so the flow would stop).
Girls can start menstruating pretty young, like eight or nine years old, sometimes. Or they may start later in their teens. Getting it early doesn't mean that a girl is "more sexual", nor does getting it late mean that she's faulty or broken. Menstruation is part of growing up, but it's not a sign that the girl is now a woman, nor does it mean that she's old enough to have sex or get pregnant. Her womb might be able to bear, but the rest of her body and mind and emotions are not ready. Several other milestones should be met before a girl is considered a woman.
When a female is born, she already has in her body all of her eggs for her whole lifetime. Menstruation is how her body brings one or multiple eggs at a time into play for potential pregnancy. When she nears the end of her stock of eggs, her periods will come less regularly, with erratic timing and changes in flow, before stopping entirely. This is menopause. Just as menstruation is a biological fact but not a sign that a girl-child is now a grown woman, so menopause is a biological fact but not a sign that the woman is suddenly old or no longer a "real woman".
Womanhood is far more than a woman's reproductive capacity.
NORMAL PERIOD PROBLEMS
Nesting - A few days before the period comes, many women do things called "nesting", which is an allusion to bird's building nests to get ready for eggs. Nesting behavior in human women can include stocking up on food, starting big projects (she has to get her life in order!!!!), cleaning everything, or similar "prep work" for the week of the period. It's funny because once you have a name for it, you see it happening, but at the same time it's kind of irrational. An example: once I was getting ready for a shower, and I saw some dust on my medicine cabinet, so I wiped it away. Then I thought "Hey, what about the top of the cabinet? Might as well be thorough!" So I stood on my bathroom sink (stark naked), to clean the top of the medicine cabinet. Then I realized what I was doing. What if I fell? I was naked, locked in a bathroom, in an empty house! If I fell and hurt myself, I'd be in a real pickle for hours, and once I was finally rescued, how on earth would I explain to people that I broke my neck because of my sudden urge to do naked housework?! Two days later I started my period and it all made sense: I had been nesting. A downside of nesting is that the surge of productive energy that makes a woman start projects may drain right out once her period comes. Then she has unfinished work to deal with.
Diarrhea - A side effect of progesterone is that it liquefies stool, too, and so diarrhea is common. Drinking more fluids and getting electrolytes is advised.
Cramps - The "minor contractions" are minor in comparison to the big contractions that deliver a baby, but they are still painful. Imagine a charlie horse happening inside your abdomen, where you can't reach it or soothe it. Drinking lots of water can help. Various over the counter medications also help. Excercise helps even though the woman might not feel like doing it. In addition to abdominal cramps, backaches and headaches are normal. Crippling cramps that incapacitate for days are NOT NORMAL. See a doctor.
Cravings - I experience diffuse cravings a day before my period comes... I want to eat everything in the kitchen, but nothing satisfies, and I get full and bloated but still want to eat more. Some women crave foods while they're on their period. As a rule, if my body craves something, I assume it's either trying to meet a need or trying to feed an addiction. So I listen to my body, but let my brain have the deciding vote: if I'm craving sweets, maybe I should fill that need with fruit instead of candy?
Mood swings - it's normal for a woman to be cranky when her hormones are fluctuating and she's in pain, and something kind of gross is awaiting her every time she goes to the bathroom. My personal experience is that I'll be short-tempered with people until I realize that I'm on my period, then I understand that the problem is in me, not them, and I compensate. I also get teary and the world takes on greater emotional weight when I'm on my period. For example, I once started crying because I saw a glass door with the smeary marks of a child's hand on it, and I imagined a tiny child trying to open the too-heavy door, and then the parent pushing the door open, and the child and the parent both going through, and they're gone now; it was an ephemeral moment recorded by a single handprint and so sweet and sad and happy and... WAAAAAAAH! It's not wrong or bad to feel things; it's part of being human. On the other hand, mood swings that are wild, violent, uncontrollable, or significantly interfere with life, are NOT NORMAL. See a doctor.
Sore breasts - It's normal for them to be tender. If they're agonizing, see a doctor.
Little Clots - If the period blood is mostly liquid but there's an occasional clump, smaller than a quarter (coin), that's normal. Remember, though we call it "bleeding", women are not actually bleeding. Period blood is liquefied placenta, and so it's sometimes not totally liquefied. Large clumps, a period that is mostly clumps, or fibrous chunks or strands that hurt coming out are NOT NORMAL. See a doctor. Blood that clots after it comes out, and gets stuck in pubic hairs, is normal. It can be softened with water, or the problem can be prevented with a bit of shaving beforehand.
Heavy flow - No woman's period is the same as another, but a good rule of thumb is that if the period lasts more than a week, or if the woman has to wear a tampon and a pad, and still soaks through them and has to change them several times an hour, or if she experiences bloody spotting all month even when she's not on her period, it's NOT NORMAL. See a doctor.
This is an incomplete list, in no particular order. I am addressing myths I have encountered in my life or on the internet, not every myth ever. I believe most of these myths come from a place of disdain for women and a desire to shame and control them, so I don't expect my debunking to change the minds of the people who spout the myths. I hope my debunking will sway people who don't already hate women and will reassure women who've been attacked and shamed about their periods.
"Never trust a creature that can bleed for several days and not die!"
It's not bleeding. Bleeding is when blood that flows in the circulatory system (veins or arteries) comes out because of some damage to those vessels (a cut or rupture). We call the period "bleeding" because it seems like bleeding, and the language we use predates the scientific understanding, but we now know that period blood is not the same as blood in your veins. It's a mix of blood, liquefied tissue, and "bloody matter". It's not being pumped from damaged blood vessels; it's being pushed (through contractions) from the uterus. It's not a sign of damage; it's a sign of healthy functioning.
The "never trust a creature" formulation is designed to suggest that women are not human. Comparable to "Gingers have no souls!": it sounds like a joke, but it's actually awful.
"Periods should only be a single tiny dot; that's why they're called 'periods'. Bleeding for days is a sign that you're broken as a woman, probably because of [insert favorite conspiracy theory here]"
Nope. They're called 'periods' because they happen periodically, meaning on a regular schedule and for a regular amount of time. This particular myth comes up a lot on Black Twitter, usually spouted by black men identifying with the Hotep movement. According to them, black women need to give up all "white ways" (i.e. Western culture, hair products, diet) and be more "natural" like their ancestors in Africa. Then, magically, they'll have "clean" bodies.
The "clean little dot" period is bullshit. In reality, no woman could bear any children if her placenta were just a tiny dot. Healthy periods are, alas, messy. It's cruel to tell a woman that her healthy period is a sign that she's doing something wrong and violating her Black identity. Even crueller to ask her to strive for a period that is in fact impossible.
"Women use their periods as an excuse to take extra breaks. No-one needs to run to the bathroom that often! Just hold it in!"
This might come up in workplaces, but more often in schools, where children sometimes need to ask permission to use the restroom. The idea that women should be able to "hold it in" when they're having their period is false. Let me be clear: women have three holes in their nether regions. Two of them (the anus, where poop comes out, and the urethra, where pee comes out) are sphincters. People can "hold it in" when they have a sphincter. The third hole, the vagina, is NOT A SPHINCTER! It's more like the finger of a glove, made of muscle. It's always open. It can clench a little, and stretch a lot, but it can't close. So women can't hold their periods in.
Related to this myth, women can't close their vaginas against penises, either. Women who are raped are not to blame because they "should have just closed up". Nor can anyone tell just by looking at the vagina whether a woman is a virgin or not. There's no door on it. The hymen doesn't cover it. It doesn't get stretched out from overuse. (I'm getting off topic, but there are a lot of upsetting myths about vaginas. It's a good idea to learn the truth so you can sniff out the lies. The subreddit r/badwomensanatomy is a pretty fun place to get caught up.)
"Menstrual blood is filthy/magical/poisonous!"
Nope; it's a bodily fluid, like spit, mucous, piss, or regular blood, and no more powerful than any of them. Women should wash their hands before taking care of themselves -- especially if using tampons, because dirty fingers and vaginal walls are not friends. Used menstrual products should be wrapped up in paper and disposed of tidily, not flushed down the toilet to clog the pipes, nor tossed into the trash unwrapped to smear blood everywhere and attract flies, nor left on bathroom floors. Hands should be washed well afterwards, too, to protect other people from bloodborne pathogens. Merely menstruating doesn't make a woman unclean, and she can't hurt or pollute people by talking to them, touching them, or cooking for them.
WHY USE CLOTH PADS?
My two reasons are money and eco-consciousness. I never liked disposable menstrual products because they seem like such a waste of resources. Many years back, I thought "Well, how did women handle this before pads and tampons were invented?" I figured they used rags, and then I made myself a few cloth pads of my own design, roughly based on the shape of the disposable ones I had been using. Since my periods are pretty light, I rarely have any problems with blood soaking all the way through. I have been using cloth pads for over a decade now... I wonder how much money I've saved by not buying pads every month?
(SIDE NOTE: I started this post using third person to talk about "a woman's period", but midway through I found myself writing "your period" as though I was talking to other women. Then I thought this might be part of why men don't know much about periods... even information about periods is presented as though it's only for women, which makes it easy for men to tune out. So I went back and edited it to be about "a woman" all the way through.)
All right, now on to the sewing!
My old pads being somewhat worn out, I decided to make a new batch. I start by cutting myself a muslin pattern piece. In the pictures below, you can see how I folded the muslin twice to made sure my cuts were symmetrical.
For the uninitiated, that long oblong shape sits between the legs, in the crotch area of the underwear, and the short protrusions at the sides are "wings" that ̶e̶n̶a̶b̶l̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶e̶a̶r̶e̶r̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶f̶l̶y̶ wrap around the sides of the underwear's crotch. I like pads with wings, since they protect the underwear from getting stained if the pad shifts.
I cut several layers of fabric. I'm using a layer of printed cotton, then two or three layers of cotton flannel (depending on how heavy I want the pads to be), then another layer of gray cotton. Experience has shown me that dark colors and busy prints are good for pads because they don't show stains as much. Of course, a stain isn't the end of the world, and only I will ever see it... but I feel yucky enough that time of the month without having to look at something ugly, too, even if it is clean.
Next, I quilt the layers together, starting by basting along the perimeter of the pad, then filling the middle. I experiment with different quilting patterns, and decide that the best ones are the ones where the stitching starts and ends in the edges of the fabric (no need to tie off), and where the lines mimic the shape of the vulva. Looking at the four below, I think #2 is the best. #1 is too clumsy looking, #3 has the threads needing to be tied off and hidden because they stop in the middle, and #4 is just okay. #1 and #4 do the best at delineating the "wings" of the pad.
After the quilting, it's time to bind the edges. The biggest consideration here is making a low profile. If the binding is too abrasive, I could get friction burns on my inner thigh, and that's no fun. I sew bias tape all around the pad, fold it over, and sew again. The first few times, I try stitching in the ditch, but sometimes that leaves the folded-over side with little lips, and I didn't want them to abrade me, so I sew again. After that, I sew the last seam from the folded-over side, top-stitching close to the fold. On the other side, the stitching isn't perfectly "in the ditch", but I don't mind.
USE AND MAINTENANCE
Disposable pads have sticky gluey stuff on one side to hold them in place on the crotch of your underwear. Since cloth pads don't have that, I use them by applying them to myself, rather than applying them to my underwear. I never have any problems with shifting, because the combination of it being clamped, as it were, in between my bum cheeks and wrapped around my underwear, and curved up front in the shape of mons pubis.... well, it's like a cloth sculpture at that point.
After use, I rinse the pad quite thoroughly in the sink, using Fels Naptha (a hard laundry soap) to get stubborn spots out, before tossing it into my laundry and laundering like any other clothes.
A woman's period is simultaneously unique to her and yet a shared experience with other women around the world. It's strange and interesting and not very fun. I say whatever you need to do to make yours pass smoothly, you should do! For myself, I prefer to use cloth pads because I'm not adding plastic and paper to the landfills, and because I can make my pads pretty and feel in control of the whole thing.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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