My handmade wardrobe role models

My handmade wardrobe role models

Ever since my Woolful interview first hit the airwaves, I’ve heard from a lot of people who say they were inspired by my views on the concept of a handmade wardrobe, which is really wonderful to hear. But I also owe a lot of my thinking to a lot of other people. On the podcast, beyond the sheer joy and satisfaction of making one’s own clothes, I talked mostly (as I recall) about wanting to exercise more control over my wardrobe — to not be at the mercy of what’s in stores — and about having some lovely handmade clothes in my closet that made me think less of mass-market stuff. Of course, there’s so much more to it. Way more than I could address in that conversation — or in this post, for that matter. But I want to at least scrape the surface—

There’s my general dislike of mass-produced goods and preference for things with character, patina and “presence of hand.” (I’ve always preferred second-hand or handmade furniture, for instance, but the same did not always go for my clothes.) There’s my distress at our culture of endless, needless manufacturing and (again, other than in my closet) desire to tread lightly on the earth — from turning off the light when I leave a room to driving the same car for as long as it agrees to run. There’s the issue of overseas factory working conditions, which I’ve read a lot more about in the past couple of years. (One of the most thought-provoking comments I read somewhere was that a conscientious company working with a foreign factory might make them sign an agreement saying they will use only non-slave, legal-age, local-minimum-wage compensated workers — as if having to stipulate this is not alarming enough — and that they will not subcontract the work. But it’s not uncommon for these factories to subcontract behind that company’s back, and there’s no way of knowing what the conditions might be like in those secret second-tier sites. In other words, we really have no idea where our mass-market clothes might have been made, or what we may have contributed to.) There’s the aesthetic and economical fact that store-bought clothes are generally not well-made, increasingly synthetic, and either overpriced as compared to the quality and material, or unsustainably cheap. Like I’ve said before, I don’t want to eat a hamburger anyone can afford to sell me for $1, and the same goes for shockingly cheap clothes. Where is the meat/fabric coming from, and who’s processing/making it under what conditions? There’s that epiphany I had last spring about wanting to be more connected to — and more responsible for — my clothes. That really is just scraping the surface. But more than anything else, what influenced me was a lot of other makers, in a variety of ways. These are just a few of the people who got me thinking:

TOP LEFT: Kristine Vejar. When I took up knitting, it also reignited my interest in sewing. My local yarn and fabric shop at that time was A Verb for Keeping Warm, owned by Kristine. The following year, Kristine launched Seam Allowance, a community of customers/followers who would each pledge to make at least 25% of their wardrobe — roughly one out of four things one might be wearing on any given day. I never took the pledge, and only made it to one meeting before moving away, but the idea has definitely stuck with me. (ICYMI: Kristine in Our Tools, Ourselves)
(pictured in a Fancy Tiger Sailor Top sewn from linen she dyed with cutch)

TOP RIGHT: Sonya Philip. It was at the Seam Allowance launch party that I first met (very briefly) Sonya Philip, who was then in the first year of her 100 Acts of Sewing project. Read this statement, if you haven’t before, but it’s also her very personal style and zest for what she’s up to that draw me in.
(pictured in layered garments sewn from her own patterns; the shawl pattern is Earth & Sky)

MIDDLE LEFT: Felicia Semple. I no longer remember how Craft Sessions founder Felicia and I first became online friends (she lives Down Under), only know that we’ve had a little mutual admiration society going on for a couple of years, and so I loved being paired with her on the Woolful episode. If by some chance you stopped listening at the end of my segment, go back and listen to hers tout de suite. Her enthusiasm, attitude and outlook on crafting amaze me. (And of course, I love her blog.) My favorite part of her Woolful interview was when she talked about being mindful not only that we make, but of not making in a way that’s as gluttonous and unsustainable as other forms of consumerism.  That’s my paraphrase, mind — go listen.
(pictured in her smartly modified Vitamin D cardigan; more pics/details on her blog)

MIDDLE RIGHT: Alyssa Minadeo. Alyssa is a good friend and invaluable collaborator of mine, and an amazingly talented sewer. (If you have one of the first-edition Fringe Supply Project Bags, Alyssa sewed it … after having worked with me on getting that bag out of my head and into three dimensions. More news on that soon, I hope.) She’s another person who is nearly always wearing something handmade — even her coat! — which seemed astonishing to me when I first met her. Her skill and output both made me want to sew more for myself, but in the meantime she made me some of the best clothes in my closet.
(pictured in a Kelly Skirt sewn from a Nani Iro fabric)

BOTTOM LEFT: Z. When I wrote about her on the blog in May 2013, she asked that I identify her only as “Z,” but she’s the one person whose handmade wardrobe I would take over any store shopping spree. She makes the most beautiful, wearable basics, and her pattern and fabric choices are right up my alley. Nobody would take a look at her closet full of impeccable clothes and think they were homemade. It’s the epitome of a handmade wardrobe, in my opinion.
(pictured in her Ondawa sweater; details/pics on her blog)

BOTTOM RIGHT: Me Made May/Fancy Ladies. A blogger named Zoe launched a campaign a couple of years ago called Me Made May, which I only really know of through Instagram. As with Seam Allowance, I believe it’s up to each participant how they define their participation, but the past two months-of-May I’ve followed the hashtag and been stunned and amazed at all of the people who have sufficient amounts of handmade clothes in their closets to be able to take a meaningful number of selfies in those clothes over the course of the month. None more so, though, than Fancy Jaime and Fancy Amber, the owners of Fancy Tiger Crafts (now friends of mine), whose handmade wardrobes are jaw-dropping in their skill and depth, as they’ve been building them over the course of many years.
(pictured in their Perkins Cove variations; details/pics on their former blog)

One other is a more indirect influence. I can already hear many of you asking where it is that I read what I’ve read in recent years about the socio-political costs of mass-market fashion, and honestly a lot of it has just been links from Sarai Mitnick’s Weekend Reading posts on her Coletterie blog (another Blog Crush of mine). I promise to make it a point to pass more of them along! (Just as soon as I figure out why her blog stopped showing up in my feed reader some time ago …)

Them’s my thoughts — in a nutshell. I’d love to hear yours—


CORRECTION: The original version of this post featured a photo of the Fancy Tiger ladies wearing Gudrun Johnston’s Northdale sample sweaters — my mistake! The photo was updated to one of the many of them wearing their own work.

39 thoughts on “My handmade wardrobe role models

  1. Thanks, Karen! Lot’s of great info today… can’t wait to dig a little deeper when I have more time!

  2. Lots of great people to look up, thanks!

    I made my way here recently after listening to your Woolful interview. I’ve known the very basics of knitting for a long time, but have only recently started to go in deep, so to speak. I picked up my needles again to help me cope with illness (there’s a lot more to be said on that idea) and something really clicked for me this time around.

    For the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and learning about consumption, and trying to live more responsibly, and at the same time have been paring down my wardrobe and developing a stronger sense of my own style. Like you, and many others, I’m dismayed by the poor quality of clothes out there, and the decline has come alongside my growing awareness of good materials and good construction. As I listened to that podcast, I realized that knitting and sewing my own clothes is the natural extension of what I’ve been working on for the last few years. And in that light, I keep thinking how important it is to know where my materials are coming from.

    I have always crafted but have always liked the process more than the outcome and have not felt that excited about any of it in a long time. Now I’m approaching it from the perspective of the outcome being a functional and “responsible” wardrobe and suddenly the missing piece seems to have fallen into place for me!

    • That’s very well said, Olivia — thank you. Knowing the origin of the materials is something I touched on in that interview but will also have a lot more to say about.

      • Thank you! I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on materials. I’m working on a list of brands to consider, thanks to this blog and others, and also trying to think about what my criteria for “responsible” even are. I don’t really have a stash (yet) and am glad to have stumbled into this community of people who care about where our things come from before I’ve done much in the way of yarn buying.

      • Wow, thanks! I’m nearly beside myself with excitement about knitting at the moment!

  3. This is amazing! You (and all of these beauties!) have inspired me completely. I’ve never sewn anything before, but I plan to start this weekend (with my dad’s trusty sewing machine.) Thank you for living and sharing.

  4. Oh! This comes at me in a timely manner, my friend!! I have just stitched the third shirt in a row, new-to-me pattern for each, at each time it came out the wrong size. Adjusting and figuring out what version of a pattern which works for me…I’ve almost given up! Thanks for the renewed inspiration/ raison d’etre. And the ladies, above? SO good. It’s always helpful to know who else might well be out there, winding their way towards more focus or spiraling out of sync with a pattern.
    Here’s to happy crafty wardrobing success for all~

  5. Totally agree. We need to learn back using our ability and the skills of talents ones : sewing, knitting, cooking…not too make incredible things but just simple ones , juste what we love, functionnal and ecofriendly ones.

  6. Wow, thanks for the post Karen! I’d already heard about many of these ladies, but this is a great post! I now have the reading for the rest of my day sorted. I always feel like the odd one out when all my friends buy their clothes at Primark without even looking at the tags, so it’s very nice to know I’m not the only one committed to having a meaningful and sustainable wardrobe.

  7. Karen, this post is off-the-charts inspiring! Its taking me awhile to get through it because I’ve been savoring all of the links. And after I post this I’m go over all the responses. I quit shopping malls/big chain stores for new clothes years and years ago. I realized the headaches I’d get was most likely from “off-gas-ing.” I began to hear about all the things (as in Earth damaging) done to clothes to get them to market. The slave-labor sweat shops, what it takes to give jeans a “worn” look etc – ugh! So I snag great cotton stuff at the local thrift stores. After your post last year on cleaning out the closet and reading the links there, I had my own epiphany of what I actually wear. Though bright colors appeal to my artist self, I don’t wear them. That realized, I cleared out sacks and sacks of “someday” clothes. Also, I love wool and cotton and some silk. Except for a bit of nylon in socks, I try and keep to natural fibers – they just feel better to me.
    Sewing clothes. I used to do it all the time – for myself and my kids. Long time ago. But you are inspiring me to get back into it. Even my husband – who used to sew a lot, too – has set a goal of getting his own machine this year and making his own shirts again. These beautiful artists above – wow oh wow! I gotta get on over to the studio … :)

  8. That was very inspiring and nice to see your role models and hear their thoughts. I have been sewing for myself for a long time and really enjoy it. Thanks.

  9. Thanks for collecting all these inspiring people in one place! I somehow came across the Seam Allowance group online before, and I’ve kind-of adopted a version of their goal – to be wearing one item that I made (or repaired) each day. I wish there was a group like that near me – where we could meet up, encourage each other, and work on our handmade clothing projects. I have a small collection of socks I’ve knit, and this past autumn I knit my first sweater/vest. I just finished sewing my first dress, and I’m very exited about improving my sewing skills.

  10. Thank you for posting about this. It really reflects a lot of my own thoughts over the past years about consumption, the planet and ethics, not only in terms of what I choose to wear but in the other areas of my life as well. Purchasing second hand is very important to me as I hate the thought of a working item that has already been produced being thrown away so that the same thing can be produced in its place.

    I also live more remotely before, i.e. working from home, so I am less influenced by my immediate environment and more by pinterest :) This led to my discovering Japanese fashion and independent designers. When I went back to North America for the holidays and had time to shop, the clothing at Forever 21 just couldn’t compare. All the clothes in the shops were tight fitting, overly revealing and garish. Where were the gentle neutrals, natural shades and muted colors? Not to mention the increase in synthetic materials. The market has evolved toward a low price strategy and the products definitely reflect this.

    I am an obsessive knitter so it makes sense for me to base my wardrobe on handmade. I should really take the time to learn how to sew. But what might work better for me is an exchange. I know a few talented people with sewing machines who have been admiring my knitting. I would be happy to get a sewn top in exchange for a sweater!

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  12. I am one inspired by your interview at woolful, though I am not familiar with English to catch up with your relatively fast speaking. A CEO of fast fashion company in Japan was ranked as a millionaire in the world. Thanks to your comment, I cannot let it by. Now, let’s CO.

  13. Z/grimfrosties projects, who I found through your blog, have been very inspiring to me. In the past couple years I’ve refocused my knitting and spinning to items that’d fit into my everyday wardrobe and it’s been very satisfying. I haven’t sewn a garment for myself since junior high school–my sewing machine only gets used for alterations as I’m pretty short so my skills aren’t too rusty, but I’m looking forward sewing up some summer tops this year, as well!

    I listened to your Woolful episode recently–my husband’s first job out of art school was in advertising and I appropriated his old Letraset box for storing delicate, smaller sizes of wooden circular needles and dpns!

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  15. This topic is long over due…I just wish more people would start having this conversation. It is heart warming to be apart of this online community, who are saying “no thank you” to the unconscious corporations and consumers who think their wealth is measured in “units”. I don’t make the majority of my clothes, but I do try to shop locally, buy USA made and do business with companies who are known to be environmentally friendly and make other positive contributions in the world.

    Having said that, I would like to encourage Anna, as well as others, who posted before me to find that friend who sews and barter/trade your creative skills. I currently have a couple of friends who love to sew and we have made any trades for services that have allowed each of us to get something we really want or need. The other benefit is that they get to do what they love (sewing), and I get to do what I love (knitting)! As an example, I have a friend right now who is making a quilt for my daughters 21st birthday and in exchange I knit her (4) hats at Christmas (one of each family member) and I am also going to knit her a cabled sweater. We discussed what we each wanted and how the trade in services would be worked out ahead of time. Because I also am a quilter, and know how much time goes into that craft, it was easier for me to know what might constitute a fair trade. In general, my friends and I trade out of the love of each of our crafts, but I also want them to feel like their time was as important as mine. Maybe this is the start of reclaiming some of the by gone days, when life was slower and less complicated.

    Thank you Karen, for keeping it real and discussing topics that really do matter.

  16. Dear Karen,

    I wish it were true that if we knit and sew our own clothes, we are living a sustainable and cruelty-free exploitation-free lifestyle. I also love sewing, and recently began knitting. I used to wish I could knit and sew my whole wardrobe, for some of the reasons you mentioned. But let’s face the truth – fabric and raw materials of is also made in some cases by exploiting 3rd world countries and by being cruel to animals and damaging the earth. The process of creating cotton is bad for the environment. It is overwhelming how much damage humans do.

    I think if we really wanted to be sustainable we would own as few clothes as possible – and how many does a person really need? Surely not as much as the average (or even the poor) person in a 1st world country.

    I try to live a life that is less damaging to the environment – but I am very far from it. I recycle and I don’t watch advertisements and am a vegetarian. To be really kind to the earth takes huge steps. Much much more.

    Knitting and sewing our own wardrobe is still being a consumer of yarn, sewing machines, lots of fabric for an excessively large stash, etc. It is the painful truth. I’d rather not pretend otherwise.

    • Hi, Karen — yep, agreed. Not sure if you heard the Woolful conversation, but I talked quite a bit (as I do regularly on the blog) about the issue of knowing where your yarn is made and, even better, where the fiber comes from. It’s harder with fabric, in my opinion, and that’s something I plan to get into in a future post. As I said, this one only scratches the surface of all the issues that are wrapped up in all of this.

  17. I haven’t heard the Woolful conversation – I saw this post featured on ravelry – but I will check it out after work. I only now realize I should put more effort in checking where my yarn is made or anything else for that matter. Better late than never. Goes to show how important awareness is, and how easy it is to overlook these important matters.

  18. I’d love to do a handmade wardrobe. But I’m going to start by mending and keeping what I have. I chucked out a loaf of clothes and I wish now if kept a few for mending and fixing!

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