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??

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.48.40 AMOver the past few years, I’ve been moving gradually away from making the majority of my garments from novelty prints, things that get worn once or twice but then hang in the closet, to trying to create a wardrobe of things that I really reach for and want to wear each day.  First-choice garments, if you will.  And I’ll be honest, it’s been hit-or-miss.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.49.23 AMI get bogged down because I have Big Plans, but I have a hard time always executing them.  Or I get all my patterns and fabrics and piles all organized, and suddenly the seasons turn and none of those garments have the instant gratification attached to them that makes me want to wear them RIGHT NOW.  Or I’ll make the first thing in the pile and it will have THE most disastrous fit, and I’ll be completely derailed.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.46.45 AMAnd then there’s the issue where I end up with piles of garments and not ONE SINGLE OUTFIT.  Not one.  And it’s so discouraging.  Like, I spent all this time and effort and, let’s be honest, money–and I still have nothing to wear?  I have three new dresses but not the right shoes, and one of them is too short because somehow my knees got old before I could finish sewing, and there are a couple cute tops but they don’t work with that skirt, and gag, I’ll just throw on jeans and a tee shirt and call it a day.  Are you smelling what I’m stepping in?

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.47.23 AMOur family is going on an Epic Vacation this summer, and we’re all pretty excited.  Because I am an unapologetic planner, I started putting together fabrics and thinking about ALL the new clothes I was going to sew, pretty early on.  But I did something I haven’t really done before: I started by thinking about my PALETTE.  Now, I’ve told people for years and years that they have a “secret palette,” the colors they turn to again and again whether they realize it or not, and I knew that I had certain colors that I love–turquoise, pomegranate, avocado–that occupy most of my sewing.

But–and this pains me to type or even to think out loud–I was never really deliberate about building around that.  I mean, for reals??  I HAD MY COLORS DONE BACK WHEN IT WAS COOL, YOU GUYS, I SHOULD KNOW BETTER.  (I’m a spring, by the way.)  But I seriously never used that as a STARTING POINT?  I sewed and sewed, but didn’t work intentionally toward building a wardrobe.  For myself.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.46.03 AMThis giant epiphany wasn’t anything as organized or strategic as the Wardrobe Architect series that Christine has been working through using the guides created by Sarai over at Colette.  You all know how I love a printable worksheet and a Master Plan, but this was much more organic than that–and maybe that’s what has made it stick so much with me.  This was me thinking, “Hmmm…what if all the things I’m making WENT TOGETHER?”  Kinda like a capsule wardrobe, but just for this one trip.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.45.50 AMAnd so I pulled a few fabrics I’d been hoarding.  And then I dug around the internet for some color swatches and printed out a few pages of “palette ideas.”  And then I dig around my zillions of stashed fabrics–all yardages of two or more, because who loves a crazy lady?!?–and started making piles.  And you know what I learned?  THEY ALL ALREADY WENT TOGETHER.  I just wasn’t sewing with them that way.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.47.55 AMThe other truly life-changing (or at least habit-changing, boat-rocking) thing that has deeply affected me this year has been the League of Adventurous Dressmakers.  Working through the topics we’re covering each month has been inspiring, mostly because I really feel like we’re all in the same boat together: we all want to make better clothing.  Boom.  No more, no less.  And so I’ve been making more things for myself, and have been asking more questions than I ever have previously: WHY doesn’t this work on me?  WHERE can I change this garment to make it perfect?  WHAT constitutes a really, really good fit at the shoulder or at the bust?  HOW can I work my handmade clothing even more deeply into my wardrobe?

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 11.48.58 AMSuddenly I was printing out PDF patterns I’d forgotten I had and making obsessive, exhaustive lists of garments to sew.  This was right around the time that my husband and I did our bi-annual Major Closet Purge, and I started asking myself all these OTHER questions, too: do I really NEED all these new clothes?  What “spot” are they taking in my existing wardrobe?  Do I wear these things that I already have, and just because I paid a lot for it, is that a reason to keep it when I know I don’t wear it?  Those tee shirts that are quitters, should they really even be able to sell those for five dollars?  AND WHY DO THESE UNDERWEAR RIDE UP SO MUCH?

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.56.18 PMAnd so what happened was that I got rid of about 35% of my existing wardrobe, because I’ve been working through some issues of my own greed.  And instead of replacing those garments at a store, I’m planning out–strategically, intentionally, deliberately–garments to replace them.  And as I plan those garments, I’m carefully taking my measurements and making muslins, sometimes two or three or even four, to make certain that I get the right fit, so that the new garments last a really, really long time.  And I’m avoiding duplicates, because I can have fewer and wear each piece more often, to get more wear out of each one by combining the elements in different ways.  And I’m working with a highly defined palette–because I realized when I pulled all those fabrics for my “vacation wardrobe” that I could make SIXTY-FOUR different garments without buying a single yard of fabric, and ALL of it was already within that palette (and also, I realized why I never ever wore some of the garments that I tossed, because duh, they didn’t work with anything else I owned).

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.57.55 PMSO much thinking–so much thinking I THOUGHT I was thinking, but that I couldn’t have been thinking, or it wouldn’t seem like such a revelation.  You do all that kind of thinking, and then suddenly you find yourself on the shores of that last remaining dresser drawer: socks and underwear.  And I’m already knitting, so why not socks?  And I have all these tiny scraps of jersey and interlock left over from making tee shirts, so why not underwear THAT DON’T RIDE UP?

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.57.26 PMAnd that, my dear friends, is how making your own clothes becomes the most natural thing in the world.  Not by being the best seamstress.  Not by being the busiest or having the biggest stash or by spending the most time sewing.  Making your own clothes becomes natural to each of us when we have that AHA! moment, when we realize WHAT we want to build and begin to seek out the HOW of beginning to build it.  Never mind that I made my very first garment (cough) over seventeen years ago.  It’s never too late for an epiphany that can change your whole closet, one hanger at a time.

I hope you’re watching and thinking and dreaming during Me Made May, the month on the internet when we celebrate our handmade garments.  It got a little weird for me last year, because I felt like there was all this pressure to “keep up,” and I smelled a little greed and gluttony in my own posts.  But this year has felt like a fresh start, with fresh wind in it, as I see what I’m building lasting longer than what I buy.  Here’s sending some of that investment energy along to you: may we all sew pieces that we’re proud to wear out and pass down.

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  • Judy
    May 9, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    I love your current post so much.
    I still have the cute a line skirt I made in your craftsy class.
    If you make your undies too, you will wear them all the time. Keep thinking keep sewing!

    • Deborah
      May 11, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      Haha! Hooray for undies that don’t ride up, yes?!? SO pleased to hear you still have a skirt from my class, and that you still love it. I have so many things I’ve made over the years, and have had some tough conversations with myself about them–but the ones that I made when I was only sewing for ME, for what I wanted, and not for any other reason, those are the ones that I love the most. Here’s wishing you a whole closet full of things you’ve loved to sew and love to wear! 🙂

  • Linda F
    May 9, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the laugh and for the reality!

    • Deborah
      May 11, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      Yay!! I’m so glad I get to work through my jumbled brain here with all of you–it makes moving forward seem like an adventure rather than something scary to be avoided. Let’s both hope the reality leads to deeper thinking about what and how we sew, and lots more joy from the results!!

  • Sabrina B.
    May 10, 2016 at 8:54 am

    Love this essay!

    I recall that when I started sewing (about 6 years ago), I read on Tasia’s Sewaholic blog that she intended to sew all her own clothes. I thought that was kind of crazy (the idea shocked me, actually), but I clearly internalized it because as the years have passed, I have refused to buy any clothes and my sewing ambitions have steadily grown. I finally recognized that I intended to sew all of my own clothes! I haven’t been super systematic about it, but I’m definitely trying to be intentional.

    Another note you touch on in your post is greed, which is interesting because I find this in my sewing, mostly with buying more fabric than I have time to sew. I’ve tried to periodically go through my fabric stash and sew from it instead of buying. In the end, that is more satisfying. A key element for me here is to close my computer, get up, and look at what I already have rather than pining for what could be. The online sewing community is wonderful, but it can cause me to have a bit of “me, too” envy or something, so that I spend too much of my mental time in the future (planning=buying) instead of the here and now (actually sewing). At the same time, I recognize that the planning part is satisfying in its own way, so I try not to guilt myself over it either.

    • Deborah
      May 11, 2016 at 12:47 pm

      Yes, exactly!! I think Tasia was talking about sewing less “frosting” and more “cake” then, right? Totally the same idea. I want more first-thing-I-reach-for projects, because I want to view the things I have made as the SUPERIOR garments rather than continuing to embrace the paradigm that if it came from a store, it must fit/be constructed/be made better. I’ve spent so much time thinking through garment CONSTRUCTION that I’ve overlooked the bigger picture–and now that the League is running, I’m obsessed with ideas of FIT and how to build a wardrobe that lasts for years.

      Having said that, I am SO on board with not having any guilt. It’s all a process, one step at a time, and I refuse to go so hog wild that the joy gets sucked out of the sewing. I don’t want to sew self-righteously any more than I want to sew mindlessly. I want to sew JOYFULLY!! So glad to know you feel the same way! 🙂

  • Karen
    May 10, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    I love your honesty in this post. I tell myself I have spent my clothing budget on fabric and patterns so I don’t go and buy RTW and think more intentionally about what I sew next, at least that is the theory ????.
    I got my colours done last year when it was not very cool, also Spring. I take the little swatch thing I got from my colour consultation when I go fabric shopping and it helps me not to buy the cute fabric that is on sale but will look terrible on me. It was fairly expensive to get my colours done but I think I’ve saved money because my fabric and clothing choices are more considered. It is not unusual for me to spend time in the fabric shop and come away empty handed now.

    • Deborah
      May 11, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      Yes, yes!! I can’t even tell you how many fabrics I’ve avoided JUST THIS YEAR by having a very defined palette–things I wouldn’t have worn, anyway, right?? I didn’t know until I linked to them that there was a little card, but I’ve been toying with the idea of making my own from Kona swatches, something I can keep in my bag. Of course, now that I type that, I could probably make the same thing from scraps of the fabrics I’m sewing with now… Hmmm….

      So glad to know another SPRING is out there having the same epiphanies as me!! Vive le Colors!! 🙂

  • Diane
    May 11, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Gurrrrl, you KNOW where I stand on the whole color thing and how it revolutionized my life back in the 80’s. I have saved gabillions by only buying within my palette. I also stayed with mostly solids since all my main colors always worked with all of the other ones. For me, it’s Pantone’s 2012 color of the year Tangerine Tango (orange red), nutmeg, vanilla, bright coral, sage-y green and periwinkle.

    I don’t sew my own clothing anymore, although I made it through high school, college and much of my adult life doing that. But my new thing is adapting what I buy off the rack. Why accept that too-short length on a linen dress which is otherwise perfect? Or the Dolman sleeve with the tight cuff that makes it impossible to do, well, anything?

    I’m all about the chop, chop, sew, sew, alter, adapt and revise. It’s a little daunting to wield those scissors the first time. But when you see that now you have a garment you’ll actually WEAR, you become courageous.

    • Deborah
      May 11, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      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, “I have them tailored. It sounds stupid, I know, but it makes all the difference.”

      What the WHAAAA?!? SHE HAS SOMEONE MAKE THEM LOOK JUST RIGHT FOR HER. Like, a regular tee shirt, just MADE BETTER. But for whatever reason, making the leap from understanding that, and actually DOING IT FOR MYSELF has been really hard. I’m sure it’s some kind of self-worth/getting older/blah blah blah thing, finally seeing the items that I made with my hands as being as good and worthy as something bought at a store–or letting go of some designer’s idea of how long/tight/short/whatever and knowing, like Audrey always knew, what looks best on MY form. And that what looks best on me IS right.

      So that’s a whole ‘nother blog post right there. But also: WHY DID I FIGHT IT FOR SO LONG?? xo

      • Diane
        May 12, 2016 at 12:03 pm

        I volunteered for the giant Southern Makers event here two weeks ago. 150 vendors and I’m talking Billy Reid and Alabama Chanin among them. Very, very cool event.

        I was assigned to Chanin as slave labor and, in homage to Natalie’s exclusive use of organic cotton jersey for her couture designs, deconstructed the volunteer T shirt I wore. I cut off the neckband, hem and sleeve hems while adding side slits and a scalloped edge. It was infinitely more flattering and comfortable. Would I have done this even a short time ago? I don’t think so.

  • Marina
    May 17, 2016 at 7:57 am

    Oh, how I luv reading your posts! They are always filled with brutal honesty and great wisdom. It is amazing how an epiphany of oneself creates a domino effect. Thanks for keeping your posts so true to you.

  • susan
    May 17, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    I love your blog! Especially that you respond to comments!
    I just today went through most of my clothing, getting rid of clothes that I don’t wear anymore, are too stained to wear any more (why are they my favorites?), or don’t fit. I was hoping to see where my gaps are and then sew what I needed to fill those gaps. What I found was that I have plenty of clothing and don’t really have any gaps except for shorts and summery pants. But, since I mostly live in skirts and dresses in the summer… Bummer. I will still sew for myself, my grandson, and some friends kids. I’m sewing from my stash and don’t plan on buying any fabric. I’m also repurposing some of those clothes I took out of my closet. I’ve decided that fit and perfecting technique are what I’m striving for now.
    Thanks for this post, I hope we get to see your Summer wardrobe

    • Deborah
      May 23, 2016 at 9:39 am

      Oh, thank you so much, Susan! I feel the same way about fit–I’ve spent so long focusing on construction that I forgot how fascinating it can be to really work to get an excellent fit on a garment. And I hope you sew some pants and shorts for yourself–I’ve got three styles I’m tackling and I’m scared & excited at the same time!

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