Make This The Year You Sew Your Own Wardrobe: The League of Adventurous Dressmakers

Years ago, before I started Whipstitch, I was a schoolteacher.  Schoolteachers are not, as a cultural group, widely known for their fashion sense.  For the most part, I suspect I dressed like a sad librarian.  I know this because the most common days on which I received compliments from my students for looking “nice” were the days when I DIDN’T get dressed by choosing the top thing from the unfolded pile of clothing and instead ironed something that had been in the closet.  Short version: I didn’t dress like I cared all that much about how I dressed.

But that wasn’t a wholly accurate reflection of how I felt on the inside.  In point of fact, I cared a great deal about how my clothing fit and looked.  I was (and remain) particularly focused on silhouette, and in how garments work together to create a pleasing whole when layered and combined.  Most of my inspiration came from magazines and window shopping–this was before the internet, so I couldn’t Pin my ideas or create a virtual inspiration board.  Instead, I tore sheets from fashion magazines and made literal, actual, old-school bulletin boards of looks and colors that I loved, that I felt reflected on the outside how I saw myself on the inside.

A teacher’s salary, though, wasn’t really up to the price tag of my taste level.  Most of the clothes that I admired were far beyond my reach financially.

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I did most of my shopping at discount outlets, and occasionally would find a real treasure at thrift stores or consignment shops.  Often, I was able to get pretty close to what I wanted, even if it wasn’t exactly the right color or the fit was just a little bit off.  What I knew, though, was that I could sew.  Not very well, not right out of college, anyway.  But it was a possibility.  And so as I tore sheets out of magazines, I collected patterns on sale at the big box stores, and bought yards of fabric that I thought might do the trick to flesh out a copy of a style I’d become enchanted with in a shop window.

I can remember some dismal failures.  The pair of palazzo pants (one surprisingly savvy college skateboarder I knew called them “Mary Tyler Moore pants”) that had a drawstring waist which must have measured a minimum of 72″ around.  The poly-chiffon “spaghetti” strap dresses with “French” seams (they measured about an inch each, finished, and I’m pretty sure the French would have disavowed any relationship to them) that had almost no shape and truly tragic puckered, uneven hems.  But there were also some true winners in the mix, like the white pencil skirt I made with a lace inset above a pretty pleated hemline.  It looked almost identical to the $138 skirt I’d seen at J.Crew, but it cost less than $12 and took only a few (really enjoyable) hours to sew.

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Over time, I tried to go back to the stores where I used to just window shop, to browse the sale racks or maybe splurge on a brand-new this-season piece using a gift card from my birthday.  On occasion, I found something that inspired me the way those magazine pictures used to.  With very few exceptions, though, the reality just didn’t live up to the dream.

Like I’m hearing from a lot of other folks, shopping at some of the stores that used to carry garments I would have gleefully spent my lottery winnings to own, stuffing them into shopping bags with wild abandon, each style in three different colors, toting them delightedly home to fill up my closet with glorious fabrics and limitless options…it doesn’t hold the joy it used to.  For lots of different reasons, I think, but mostly because they’re just NOT THAT GOOD.

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The fabric seems to be really cheap.  Tee shirts that should last years sag and gape within a few wearings, and don’t tolerate washing well.  They wear thin really quickly, and the stitches pop.  Woven garments have sloppy, flimsy finishing techniques, and seem like they were made in a hurry with the least amount of effort possible: serged hemlines, careless construction, weak seams.  The workmanship on a lot of these garments, expensive garments that women I know salivate over from places like Anthopologie and Banana Republic, stores where there has been at least SOME expectation of quality in the past, is really poor.  The clothes feel cheap, but they are NOT inexpensive.

When I started looking around and seeing this trend, I felt frustrated.  And then I felt disappointed.  I mean, FOR REAL.  At those prices?  We should be able to do better.

But THEN!  I realized that I didn’t feel frustrated, or disappointed.  I felt EMPOWERED.  I already knew I could make clothing that mimicked the styles I admired.  What I really thought was: I know about how much the supplies cost for these garments, so how can I possibly rationalize paying their sticker price?  The mark-up is HUGE in some cases, and the workmanship didn’t seem to justify the cost.

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I went back to that pencil skirt with the inset lace and pleated hem.  The construction was a LONG way from perfect.  But you know what?  It wasn’t that much worse than the workmanship I saw in stores.  There was totally room to grow in my skills, but the potential was there.  I was inspired in a whole new way than before–this time not to reach the heights of the clothing I saw in windows and magazines, but instead to build a wardrobe of clothing MADE BY ME that I could get excited about.

I’m a long way from being the only one.  I think you’re feeling a lot of what I’m feeling, right?  You’re frustrated that the clothes in stores don’t fit YOUR body–as if there’s something wrong with you, when all of us know perfectly well it’s the fault of the clothes.  Or you feel strongly about the conditions under which garments are manufactured these days.  You want to avoid “fast fashion” and seek out alternatives that are more sustainable and that you can feel good about.  Or you have ideas of your own about how you want your clothing to look and feel, but can never quite find it in the shops.

The League of Adventurous Dressmakers is for you.

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I launched the League last year as a place for all of us to become Sewing Superheroes, people who want to sew better clothing, period.  We want to make clothing to suit our individual style, our body size, our standard of quality.  And we want to do it with solid skills and the best results we can get.  We do that through focused lessons on specific sewing techniques, broken down to their core elements so they can be learned and applied in very practical ways, to projects we know we will use and love.  We are encouraged by one another when we share our projects and see what everyone else is working on.  And we’re motivated to keep sewing as we create a reference library of tools and skills that we can dip into again and again.

Not to get all super serious, but this past year has been one of THE BEST YEARS I have ever experienced as a seamstress.  I have felt so excited and empowered, in ways I can’t even begin to put into words.  My garment making has been INFLAMED this year, and I have been more satisfied with every single thing I’ve made.  I really didn’t expect that when I launched this club last year, honest I didn’t.  I thought it would be a fun group that would benefit members, and where I could play, too.  But I could never have predicted the level of enthusiasm and encouragement that I got out of the group FOR MYSELF, in addition to the enormous reward of getting to know these women and see them sewing and so excited about what they were making.  It has been magical, truly magical, from start to finish.

Not to mention the fact that I’ve done more sewing for myself in the past twelve months than I had in the previous THREE YEARS combined.  That alone was worth the work.

Archer popover shirt in yellow lawn

The League of Adventurous Dressmakers is not boot camp.  It’s not sneaky shoes and tough criticism.  It’s careful, thoughtful instruction in core garment sewing techniques, designed intentionally and deliberately to lead you to better clothing construction.  Monthly up-close video lessons give you hi-def views of techniques and their variations, and a practice pattern with each lesson gives you a chance to apply what you’ve learned.  A printable technique guide (which can also be read on your tablet) gives you a permanent reference for each skill, and the private Facebook group provides a familiar space for connecting with other League members.  I’ll be there alongside you, researching and discovering and exulting in the joy of making garments we can be excited about and proud of.

When I named this club a “League,” I was thinking very Sherlock Holmes “Red-Headed League” and also the Superhero League, I was thinking of a group of individuals, strong and capable in their own right, who band together to form a corporate body capable of even greater things.  That’s my vision for this year: a club that gets together on a single topic each month, explores it in depth, and comes out the other side stronger.  We’re going to keep the world safe for better garment sewing, one project at a time.

Join us!  We need your strength and we want your companionship.  Come find your people, the ones who know that we can SEW BETTER, TOGETHER. Learn more about the League here.  Registration is open and space are limited!  Come spend 2017 with us and make your garment sewing the very best it can be.

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The Murder Mystery Quilt and The League of Adventurous Dressmakers: BACK FOR 2017!

This past year has been one of the happiest, most rewarding years I have ever spent sewing, and that is down to a single factor: the people I spent it with.  I made the decision almost exactly one year ago that I was going to focus on two groups in 2016: The Murder Mystery Quilt and The League of Adventurous Dressmakers.  The first has been a pet dream of mine for ages, because who doesn’t love a mystery??  The second was a passion project, born directly out of my desire to sew better clothing with people who love to learn.

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It was so, so, SO much better than I ever could have imagined.  I discovered through these clubs THE KINDEST people on the internet, folks who are clever and creative and funny and kind, who are interested in seeing what you’re sewing and who get inspired by the projects you’re creating.  They made me laugh more times than I can count, they have quick wits and nimble fingers, and they are happy to welcome new friends to share their interests and ideas.  For real, all year long I’ve been saying that if someone looked at these groups and thought the entire internet was like this, they’d assume that the internet was HEAVEN.  I am not convinced that I expected to find bosom friends in these clubs, but there is no question that I have, and it has made for an incredible, rewarding, exciting, FUN year.  I am so indescribably grateful.

Even better than that, I get to do it ALL OVER AGAIN IN 2017!!  I am launching registration for BOTH these clubs again, and hope that you’ll be a part of it this year.  Some quick snippets below (with registration links if you’re chomping at the bit to be part of our group), and more details next week–including some samples and treats for you to download and print for free.  These clubs are my babies, and combine all my most favorite parts about what I do at Whipstitch: designing curriculum, shooting video, writing, creating patterns, exploring a story and building community.  The response this year has been overwhelming and invigorating and exciting–and I am elated to share it with you in the coming year!!

HUGE shout out to all my 2016 club members–such an amazing group.  I can’t wait to see all of you back next year and to share more adventures with you!  And WELCOME to those of you who will be joining us in 2017 for the first time.  You are in for a treat, with new friends and new skills and lovely patterns and lots of laughs.

See below for details on each club and links to register!

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The End of the Stash

I wore my Driftless Cardigan–photograph below from Instagram, and yet another garment I have yet to blog about because I’m too busy wearing it–this morning, and a friend asked if I had made it.  And what I told her is this weird revelation that I’ve been having over and over, and that feels so obvious that I keep doing a double-take, because how have I failed to see the truth of this so many times?  It is this: I wear the clothes most that I like most.

navy Driftless Cardigan | Whipstitch

I mean, FOR REAL.  Like it’s possible to have a more banal epiphany, a more lame realization.  I WEAR THE STUFF I LIKE BECAUSE THAT’S THE STUFF I LIKE.  This is, perhaps, not the deepest thought I’ve ever had.  And yet!  It feels so pivotal!

Plus, see, there’s a little more to it than that.  Honest, there really is, particularly if you’re someone who sews.  The point of my comment to my friend this morning wasn’t that I wear stuff I like–it was that I have made a LOT of stuff in the past, with my very own two hands, that I didn’t really wear that often.  And it was because I didn’t like it as much–certainly not MORE–than things I already had in my closet.  I wasn’t making those garments because I needed them, or even because I wanted the actual finished product.  It was because I wanted to do the sewing, but not because I wanted the sewn item.  Do you see how that can lead to a lot of back-of-closet pieces?

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I think more and more of us are aware of the ways in which consumption affects our lives, and how easy it is as someone who Makes, capital M, to fall into this trap of accumulation.  We call it “stashing” but I think we all recognize that it’s really hoarding.  I have said multiple times recently that I’m working through some uncomfortable feelings about my own greed.  I don’t like feeling that I’ve bought a ton of stuff that I didn’t really need, I just wanted to HAVE it.  But then I never use it?  It just sits there?  What IS that?

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Let’s put those two ideas together, two ideas that don’t seem to relate to one another, but gimme a minute and I’ll show you how they’re actually two puzzle pieces that fit in a way that makes it obvious that this one’s the corner and that one’s the bottom edge and we’re finally getting the borders done so we can start to work on the inside.  ONE: I keep sewing things I don’t really want.  TWO:  I keep accumulating fabrics that I ONLY want.

Good grief, are we all just a bunch of sad bunnies lost in a snowy forest, or what?  WHY AREN’T WE SEWING THINGS WITH THAT FABRIC WE’VE BEEN HOARDING?

navy Demi Pant | Whipstitch

Because then, I would have lots of items I am really excited about, and a much smaller trove of neatly stacked “precious” fabrics that will molder and become dust before I can possibly get to them.  It isn’t so much about not stashing fabric, it’s more about making things I really love and love to use.  I don’t want to address the greed of having lots of fabrics I don’t need by replacing it with the greed of having a lot of GARMENTS I don’t need–I want to use the two categories to build the DNA of good sewing practices, deliberate acts of creation, the double-helix of satisfaction and beauty, without waste or gluttony.

The thing is, having more fabric stashed is not the same as using less or consuming less.  We’ve still spent money on it; if we ordered it we’ve still used fossil fuels to have it shipped to us; we’re still giving up space in our homes–and in our chi–to keep it folded up and put away (and heated and cooled!).  It may be stashed, but that doesn’t make it LESS.  And all those same observations apply equally to anything we make from that fabric!  That’s the kicker.  The trick isn’t to sew through it mindlessly, just to say, “Hey!  I’m using up my stash!!”  The trick is to find the balance that sews through it mindFULLy, leaving us with less in the stash and more things we WANT TO WEAR EVERY DAY.

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What are the garments you’re most happy with? For me, it’s the the ones that are (A) nicest, that mimic expensive clothing, like my Liberty tuxedo tank top, which took such a small bit of fabric but feels so expensive; or (B) classic basics that are building blocks for my everyday life, and that work with every outfit, like that Driftless Cardigan up there, sewn up in a buttery soft navy French terry/fleecy hybrid that looks good no matter how much I wear it.  I don’t wear the novelty pieces, like the zillion skirts I have given to charity over the years made of the cute kawaii fabrics that I love but don’t really know how to use in my wardrobe.  I wear the navy linen cropped pants that are the perfect alternative to shorts, and the black rayon maxi dress that’s cool and comfy and appropriate for a wide range of outings, and the linen checked Tova top that makes me feel casual and chic.  These are the pieces that don’t always make it on the blog–because I’m too busy waiting for them to come out of the dryer so I can photograph them, but as soon as they do, I put them back on and never get the chance.

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We wait and wait to use fabrics because we don’t want to “waste” them–but instead, we end up wasting our time and energy because we sew things we don’t really desire.  How upside-down is that?  When I read Amy Herzog say of knitting that we ought to knit up big swatches before starting a project to ask ourselves, “Do I want to wear this fabric?” it was this ENORMOUS game-changer for me.  I don’t know why it struck a nerve right when it did, but my brain opened up and birds flew out and around me like a Disney movie as I realized: I am NOT thinking that way about the things I make.  I am not thinking, “DO I want to wear this?”  I am thinking, “Do I want to SEW this?”  And those are different questions that act on different drives.

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They will never stop making fabric.  There is no, no, no reason to save up fabric.  It will fall apart and turn to dust over time and you will never get to enjoy it if you leave it sitting on a shelf, un-sewn.  And didn’t you buy it so you could enjoy it?  Didn’t I buy it because I loved it so much that I ignored the contraints of my budget in order to get just a little piece of it?  Aren’t we all preventing that fabric from realizing its DESTINY by leaving it un-sewn??

I know that for some of us, it seems so expensive to cut into our precious prints.  We don’t want to “waste” it.  But if I have learned nothing else in 20+ years of garment-making, I have learned this: use cheap fabric, get cheap clothing.  It’s not that you have to spend a fortune on supplies–it’s just that instead of spreading our budgets out over LOTS of supplies, why not get really good ones and end up with something you love to use, over and over again?  And if we stop asking “Do I want to sew it?” and start asking, “Do I want to WEAR it?” we make different choices in how we invest our resources before sewing.

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So, for me, this is the END of The Stash.  I don’t know that I can commit to not buying any fabric for a year, blah, blah.  I’m pretty bad at following through on those kinds of pledges and things, so I won’t bother making you or myself a promise I’m going to forget about later.  But I’m done buying fabric and shoving it in a closet.  And let’s be real: I don’t need to buy ANY fabric for a long, long time unless I have a specific project in mind.  I have a LOT of fabric up in here, y’all.

Anybody else picking up what I’m putting down?  I have felt a definite shift over the past year or so, toward a more thoughtful and deliberate way of approaching our sewing, and it smells GOOD.  Hope some of that is wafting your way and that your sewing is satisfying you today.

Do I Really HAVE to Block My Knitting?

It is finished!  My amazing yellow yellow merino-and-silk sweater is all done.

easy silk knitted cardigan

Well, finished depending on whom you ask.  Seems like nearly all the knitting sites I’ve seen say it isn’t really finished until I block it.  Which appears to involve soaking it and laying it out to dry, and if I understand it right, will make the fibers fluff up and then hold the shape better?

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#aggressivelyambitious and the Handmade Wardrobe

I did a personality profile recently.  Not like an online quiz kind of thing, but like a detailed personality assessment with a 39-page analysis and a person-to-person de-brief with the consultant.

It was so, so fun.birkman pages

I mean that completely un-ironically.  I LOVE test-taking.  LOVE IT.  Always have.  I would get all a-twitter on days when we had standardized testing, I thought it was like a treat, like Christmas coming early and ALL FOR ME.  I thought the PSAT was a PARTY.  (Side note: I am not normal.  I embrace and delight in this.  My personality profile told me so.)

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Supertote Backpack with Leather Handles

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I have never made a bag I liked nearly as much as this bag.  It is possible I have never OWNED a bag I like nearly as much as this bag–and I am deeply emotionally attached to my yellow full-grain pebbled leather Ralph Lauren satchel with brass hardware, so that’s saying something.  This is the Supertote pattern from Anna of Noodlehead, which I originally bought thinking it would be a great shape for a ballet bag for my girls (spoiler: it will be), but then realized would also make a great backpack for me for our upcoming family travels.  BOOM.

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Jen Aniston tailors her tees: Fit is Fabulous

jersey rosettes on bamboo tee

One of the most revolutionary “Hollywood secrets of the stars” I’ve ever read (well, maybe the ONLY one) was the interview where Jennifer Aniston was asked where she gets such flattering tee shirts. Instead of directing people to a $300 tee (like Gwyneth, bless her heart), probably made by an 8yo in China who wasn’t getting an education, Aniston admitted, “The trick to t-shirts is I that I usually tailor them. Which is silly, but it works.”

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Come Sew With Me at QuiltCon in Savannah!

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Hooray!!  Yesterday, the schedule for next spring’s QuiltCon was finally released.  Yay, yay!!  I can hardly believe how fast it’s coming at us, and that it’s already time to register!

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Stephanie Kwolek: A Great Woman In Sewing

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Stephanie Kwolek isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think “famous seamstress.”  But her scientific contributions have made more impact on our world that you might think–and it all started with a sewing machine.

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When Making Your Own Clothes Becomes the New Normal

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And then one day you catch yourself thinking, “Well, sure.  Of course I’m going to make my own underwear.  I mean, why didn’t I think of that sooner??”

But let’s back up a bit.

I came to sewing as someone who makes clothing.  I didn’t start out making quilts or bags or even really home decor.  I thought sewing WAS making clothing, for a big chunk of my life.  All the other stuff came later.  But even as someone who came into sewing making clothing, it never occurred to me to make…ALL my clothing.  ALL of it?  Like, ALL all??

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