To kick off Handmade week of Slow Fashion October — being as we’re nearing the five-year anniversary of this blog and with so many new people reading all the time — I thought it might be good to take a step back, reintroduce myself, and talk about why I make my own clothes. Or why I make as many of my own clothes as I do, and why I care where the rest of them come from. It’s a subject I’ve talked about in a lot of essays and interviews and podcasts elsewhere, and that I write about as a gradual and omnipresent matter-of-course on this blog, but I don’t know if I’ve ever tried to put it into a single blog post before. It’s really, really long but I hope you’ll find it worth your time, and I look forward to your thoughts! So here goes—
I come to this naturally — you’ll see it’s been an evolutionary process for me, but one that has everything to do with how I’ve lived my whole life, and that I trace back to my roots. My parents both grew up on the farm. My mom and her sisters made their own clothes, and she made ours when we were little. She raised me the way she was raised, passing along all of the domestic skills she had learned and used in her daily life on the farm — from hand-stitching to canning to whatever. But as I was a child of the suburbs, I didn’t use it much. Other than sewing. I was obsessed with clothes from the time I was a toddler (I still remember the day I told her that after careful consideration I had decided I no longer wanted to wear patent-leather maryjanes) and in the ’80s, we were all about tampering with our clothing. Between “Pretty in Pink” and Madonna, cutting, recombining, embellishing and otherwise personalizing one’s clothes was all the rage. I’ll spare you the tales of the pegged men’s 501s and hospital scrubs turned into Hammer pants, but I also had proper sewing skills, and wowed my 8th-grade sewing teacher by showing up with a pattern and fabric to make a popover anorak with a front placket and hood. (It was navy blue duck, well-made, as I remember it, and I wore it so proudly!)
But before that, I was a little kid in and of the ’70s — when Earth Day was invented and community recycling began with newspaper drives at the elementary schools. Watching Saturday morning television meant being treated not just to Schoolhouse Rock, but the crying Indian and “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” We were raised to be environmentalists, and that has never felt like a passing fad to me. A constant uphill battle, yes, with some eras more in tune than others, but not something anyone who believes in it ever stops believing or caring about.
There are countless ways in which this informs my life. As a print designer in my first years out of school, I would never have considered using anything other than recycled papers. At Fringe Supply Co., we almost never use paper bags — 95% of orders are packaged in muslin bags which I count on you to reuse, and you won’t find any promotional trash in there either. I’m not perfect, by any stretch — and I never mean to preach when talking about these things. I’m just offering a few small examples in an attempt to describe who I am.
Interior design is another lifelong fascination, and for a time I was editing and writing books on the subject, but I’ve never liked store-bought furniture. Every home of mine has been chiefly furnished from garage sales, flea markets and hand-me-downs (or pass-arounds between my sister and me and some of our friends), with just a little bit of Ikea thrown in here and there. I buy couches and mattresses new, and have recently bought two small pieces directly from local makers, but just about everything else comes with its own past life and stories to tell.
And yet until a few years ago, I hadn’t found a way to approach my closet with the same mindset as the rest of my life. I’ve never had the patience for thrifting — although Ann has me thinking — and my love of fashion made me gluttonous for store-bought clothes … as it does. (The very opposite of how I feel about furniture.) When I learned to knit, it made me want to sew again, and I also started following or hanging around with some extremely thoughtful makers for whom making their clothes was about more than just the clothes. I’ve written an ode to some of them here, and I am so indebted to them and the rest of this community that opened my eyes to the rewards of the effort. It’s been a slow and gradual evolution in my brain and in my closet these last five years, but at this point there’s rarely a day where I’m not wearing at least one item I made — something that seemed inconceivable to me only a couple of years ago — and I’m working on the “directly from local makers” part, as well.
It might have taken me a lot longer to get here, but for me, there’s no going back.
I make my clothes for many reasons:
1) It’s fun. I love the entire process: hunting for inspiration and/or patterns, choosing yarn or fabric, plotting out my garment … and I love the time spent doing the actual sewing or knitting. I work very long hours, usually seven days a week, and have very little free time — so that time is precious. I snatch an hour to knit before bed when I can, or a few hours to sew on a Saturday once in awhile, and it’s that time that feeds my soul — and where I feel the most like myself.
2) It fills me with pride and satisfaction. I love learning, and love being capable of things. Knitting and sewing provide endless opportunities to expand and explore new skills, and the feeling of finishing a garment and putting it on defies description. It’s an awesome experience — and one no purchased garment can ever hold a candle to.
3) I’m a control freak. I’ve spent my whole life with ideas in my head about how I want to dress, and an inability to match it with what’s available in stores. I’m also, like pretty much every human alive, not a perfect match for the standardized measurements that mass-market clothes are made to. I have broad shoulders and a small chest, a long torso and arms for my height. It was great in the ’80s when everything was giant on top anyway, but otherwise challenging. And I loathe plastics and synthetics, which are taking over the world. Literally. By making my own clothes, I have control not only over the color and fiber content of my clothes, but the fit as well. It takes time to develop the skills to modify things to one’s liking, to understand how a yarn will behave, and so on, but exploring all of that is part of the joy — and again, the payoff is beyond worth it.
4) I know who made my clothes. When I was first hoarding store-bought clothes as a teenager, they were at least made in the USA. My mother taught me to look for that on labels when I was a child, and in those days 80% or 90% of the clothes sold in the US were made here, so it wasn’t that difficult. But as the entire garment industry moved offshore in recent decades, it became nearly impossible. The best of the big brands who have overseas factories cranking out crappy clothes at earth-damaging rates of production might insist on working only with factories that abide by local labor laws, but the whole point of manufacturing in those countries is they don’t really have much in the way of labor laws. And they also can’t know if the factory is subcontracting behind their back. The fact is, when you buy a garment in a chain store, you don’t have any way of knowing where it was really made, by whom, in what kind of conditions, and how poorly they may have been paid. When I’ve made something myself, I know nobody was harmed in its making. (We’ll talk a lot more about all of this next week, as well as the challenge of knowing where your fabric and yarn come from.)
5) I value every garment. It’s not just about pride — although, again, there is that. When you’re making clothes yourself, you (learn to) take your time in deciding what to make and with what fabric or yarn, and consider how it will fit into your wardrobe and your life. You may spend hours or months in the process of making a single garment, and you don’t think of it as disposable. Each garment is a treasure and a time capsule — a record of where you were literally/physically and skill-wise as you were making it. Just like growing your own food changes your feelings about what you eat, making your own clothes changes your relationship to getting dressed.
6) I no longer have a taste for store-bought clothes. The end result of all of the above — of having a closet full of clothes that each have a story to tell — is that what I once spent so much time and money pursuing, I no longer have any interest in. Store-bought clothes feel as soulless to me as store-bought furniture always has. For that — and for the fact that I no longer ever set foot in a mall — I am so grateful.
A few years in, my closet is not 100% handmade or known-origins — maybe more like 50%. I have clothes left over from my shopping days that I will wear as long as they last, and then find ways to repurpose. There are still times at present (although rarer all the time) where I buy a garment that’s the equivalent of an Ikea piece in my house. But it’s called Slow Fashion for a reason. Nobody’s closet was built in a day, and rebuilding takes years. Fortunately, it’s a ton of fun getting there.
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Karen, you are an inspiration!
Always so enjoyable to read your thoughts.
Almost all of the clothes I wear that are not handmade come from the thrift store (when we lived in the US) or the op shop (here in Australia) or (far fewer) have been bought second-hand on eBay. I love thrifting for clothes, although I’m aware that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. It is often really educational too. If you ever needed proof that there is not a single extra synthetic garment required in the world, just take a look at the thrift store. And if you ever wish to lose your illusions about fast fashion/chain store clothing, just check out what it looks like a season later, worn and washed a few times, taken out of the glossy store context – no, not at all worth it.
But, when you are the type who perserveres with the hunt, there is great stuff that continues to be great, even when it has been worn and washed many times before, for a long while yet. It’s the incredible quality stuff that I have found that I love to own and wear and cherish – vintage Pendleton tweed jacket, georg Jensen brooch, knee high jil sander boots amongst many other well made, natural fibre items that keep me well clothed and make me very happy.
Thanks for taking the time to lay all of this out so articulately.
Very well articulated as usual, Karen. This expresses many of my thoughts exactly.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that the time I spend making is precious time spent with myself. This is not something I saw a need for when I was younger. Back then I wanted to get out more, socialize, make friends, search for a companion. That has all changed now and, with the many demands of work and family, I delight in these solitary moments of creativity, industry, contemplation, meditation and accomplishment.
When I was a child, I was a maker. I was even written up in the local paper for sewing presents for my dolls at Christmas time. In the 70’s I was part of the back to the earth movement. I tried to grow all my own food and make all my clothes. Then busy life got in the way. Now that I am older, I am trying to get back to being a maker full time. You are an inspiration and give me so many ideas. The internet has broadened our minds of many possibilities from people we don’t even know.
Similar background here too. Born in early 60″s and both parents raised on farms. We recycled when no one did and my mother also made many of my clothes. I learned how to be self sufficient from my parents and our kids have been raised with the same values. So my desire to make my own clothes stems a lot from that drive to be independent. I love the entire process and love how it keeps me in the moment when I am sewing. It is important to me that my clothes were not made by exploited workers and of the clothing I do buy RTW I try to buy from brands that are made in the US or are fair trade etc. A lot of my wardrobe is me made with exceptions to coats,outdoor/active wear and underpinnings. I have no real desire to sew any of those types of garments. For me, that is where RTW does it better. Of course, being able to control fit is such a driving force to make your own.
I really wish I could knit, it seems to really bother my wrists. I get so frustrated with the knitwear choices available in RTW.
Absolutely inspiringly! Am rethinking what I do since I am also an avid maker
Why I make my own clothes: 1. I started making my own clothes as a hobby. I way to pass time and keep my hands busy. 2. It was cheaper than buying clothes. I started off making clothes from old t-shirts on the sewing front. On the knitting side, I would buy Goodwill sweaters and unravel them for yarn to make a sweater that I liked. Really soooo much better than buying yarn but sometimes hard to find good sweaters to unravel. 3. Then it developed into … I make my own clothes so that they fit MY body the way that I want them to. I can’t even stand wearing most store bought shirts any more. They just don’t fit right, so why waste the money. Now if I can just figure out how to make the perfect pair of jeans ….
When I was little, my Nanna lived with us. She was the ultimate expert in home arts. Every year we got slippers she knitted, afghan throws she crocheted, dresses she sewed. I still have a quilt top she hand pieced out of 1 1/4″ squares. I vividly remember her sitting watching TV with the little piles of squares lined up by color on the arm of her chair. Our Thanksgiving feasts were enviable–I remember my sister and I burning our fingers on the almonds she toasted, trying to sneak some right out of the oven. The divinity she made was truly divine! I remember her grinding whatever you grind to put in a mincemeat pie with an old grinder attached to the kitchen counter…And I remember pulling taffy–my sister and I would pull until our little arms gave out, and she would take over, pulling the candy with her strong arms. She passed away when I was in 3rd grade. When I started junior high school I took a sewing class and discovered I loved the making process. By high school my “crazy” clothing was kind of a signature thing for me.
When my own son was expecting his son, I was discussing “Grandma” names with my mother, and she said “You should be Nanna, like your Nanna.” And so I am, and carrying on in my own way sewing, knitting, and cooking from scratch as I can, in my own way. My clothes making is a way to express who I am, and to have clothes that fit and are comfortable (I am taller than most, and have long arms. NOTHING worse than 2″ of arm sticking out of the bottom of a long sleeve!) It also makes having clothes that are made of luxury fabrics affordable for me. I really, really wish she had lived long enough to have passed on some of what she knew and to share the love of making.
Do you follow handmadebycarolyn.blogspot.com? If not, you should.
I started sewing and knitting some of my own clothes throughout high school/college, combining these items with second-hand finds, and the sense of fun, anticipation, and creativity that I remember is exactly as your post describes. 15 years later, I’m hoping to make a slow return to garment-making through knitting again. “Each garment is a treasure and a time capsule” is so true! Thanks for this inspiring post.
Thanks for sharing, it is always interesting to learn more background about how one comes to calling themselves a “maker.” Coming to terms with this as an artist first, and as a new knitter, I’m thinking more and more about where the “artist as maker” and the “maker as maker” can intersect. For example, I find that I’m approaching knitting my own garments in the same way as I approach my photography practice–always seeking to find the balance between form, function, and aesthetics. I’m drawn to the same sort of details, colors, shapes, and textures.
So amazing! And with the huge push these days for more ethical wool, I’m loving being a knitter in this day and age. I’m interested to read your forthcoming post about sourcing ethical fabrics. It seems like it’s almost impossible to get sewing fabric that has a transparent manufacturing process and is produced ethically and with the environment in mind.
Thank you for sharing, you’re always so inspiring. The comments are so interesting to read too! I would love to sew my own clothes more than anything, but I can only hand-sew. I wish I had someone to teach me how to use a sewing machine (there’s a cheap one from Ikea somewhere in my house, but I have never managed to make it work…). So, my clothes-sewing choices are very limited; however I can crochet, and the happiness and sense of accomplishment I get when I finish a project is simply incomparable. I love the sense of control there is in choosing the pattern, the yarn, being able to make alterations to best fit my body shape and tastes, as opposed to having to adapt to what the big chain stores want to sell me. Thanks for making Slotober happen! :)
Lovely post, thank you. And it didn’t feel at all long to read.
I am looking forward to articulating my “why” for home making this week too. I have enjoyed writing about each of these topics so much. Thank you for being such a considered and thought provoking host for this great month of thinking.
Love this line “and its that time that feeds my soul-and where I feel the most like myself”.
I didn’t think this was long at all. I thought about it, enjoyed it. Thanks
Thanks for this (and I agree – not too long at all!). I’m trying to make most of my own clothes firstly because I love the creative act of making. I have a little of that “I want to learn to make everything.” My partner and I joke that I approach life like I’m in high school choosing electives.
But back to the question at hand – there is tremendous satisfaction in being in charge of all the aspects of what will eventually be an article of clothing. I feel like it gives pleasure on so many different levels – there’s the discovery of the yarn or fabric that sparks something in you and then inspires the hunt for the perfect pattern, or if you choose your pattern first, the thrill of finding the right yarn or fabric; there’s the validation of using your skills and learning new ones; there’s even the joy of problem-solving; and then there’s the ownership and pride of having the finished item. Not all of my me-mades are great nor do all of them actually suit my style, but I enjoy the process, and I just keep learning. If I’m not learning something new, then what am I doing?
Thanks so much for sharing your journey to where you are now- I’m on that same journey myself!
Oh, this is so wonderful! And the point about making where you feel most like yourself, that is huge to all of this. I love the customization that making and re-making offers. As big-name brands seem to merge into each other and look very similar, not only does the act of making give us a way to feed our creativity, it gives us a way to express our individuality.
This is a really interesting post. I started to write yesterday about visible mending. As I was writing it a lot of other thoughts popped into my head; about where clothes come from, why is it now ‘acceptable’ to use a dress once and then throw it out? why do I no longer find anything I ever want to wear in the shops (with a couple of notable exceptions) and why do I feel the need to mend things – pretty much the five points you raise at the end of this piece. I’m a knitter mostly, and just making forays into sewing (which terrifies me a bit, but I just need to get over it) but I hope more of my clothes will be me made as I go on.
I too have been making clothes since I was a small child, I made a pair of curtains for my mum back in the 50’s when I was 5, on a tiny ‘Vulcan’ child’s sewing machine. My Nana taught me to pattern cut and I have never looked back. I’ve held classes till my health failed, but I still love to make most of my own and my G/daughters clothes, in fact the youngest, just 7 has to make something every time she’s here. A chip off the old block….
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thank you for sharing your thoughts! I couldn’t agree more on the reasons why to make my own clothes, I completely found myself in your text… there is the stimulating fun part of choosing the pattern, the right fabric, yarn etc… and then the process of actually making, the creativity, that relaxes; though I’m always eager to quickly finish a piece; but I’ve been more aware this year that a really good piece of sewing or knitting is not a rush process, it takes time, which I sometimes find frustrating, but it is even more frustrating to have to redo things because they don’t fit due to rushing… the pieces I really treasure and wear nearly every week, are those where I took the necessary time. It’s an ongoing learn curve , which is inspiring and also stimulating (even if sometimes frustrating)… thanks so much for your inspiring posts! Cécile
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I appreciate this post, and your articulation of the WHY of handmade.Thank you!
All the best reasons! I would add one more–it’s usually easier to make something than to find something you really like, or just the thing you are looking for.
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I really really enjoyed this post. I felt as though I could have been the voice behind the writing of it! I’m so encouraged by the fact that so many of us are moving in this direction. I hope it continues and that others learn the soul-uplift of engaging with making in this way.
reading your post about making your posts reminded me on marie condo’s philosophy to appreciate the objects around you and to make very mindful choices when selecting them or saying goodbye to them. when you spend hours and days making things, i can see how mindfulness comes to the forefront. it is a slow, thoughtful but perhaps regret free way of living. thank you for these thoughtful words!
I like your last comment about Slow Fashion, that it takes time to build a new closet of hand made clothes and the whole process takes time. You’ve been in it for several years and still progressing, and I find this encouraging as I’m slowly embarking into it myself. I will not hurry this process but take the time to make it mine. Thanks for this encouraging and inspiring post.
Beautiful post, Karen– thank you for providing the opportunity to talk about why we make, and for sharing your answers. I very easily slip into envy and FOMO when I see the beautiful handmade things other people are wearing, but it really does take time and SHOULD take time! I can hardly believe I had much left over to say about this after reading your post but turns out I did: http://rigatoniknits.blogspot.com/2016/10/knitting-and-unknitting-and-knitting.html
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It’s a JOY to read what you have written. Thank you.
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I very much appreciated your thought-provoking article. I’ve been making all of my clothes (except underwear) for the last 3 1/2 years, and find that sewing has changed me equally as much as it has changed my wardrobe. Just as you, I never go to a shopping mall, and I don’t miss it. I wish I had a good fabric store nearby, as I would love to feel, compare and coordinate fabrics before I buy, but I have managed to accumulate a sizable stash, despite this handicap. My old, store-bought clothes do not appeal to me anymore, and I am puzzling over what to do with them. I understand that charities sell only about 10% of donated clothing in their stores, and the other 90% ends up in a land fill, although some is said to be shipped to Third World countries. For example, I keep my old blouses in a spare room, and look to them for linings, facings and bias strips.
I never thought of harvesting bias — that’s genius.
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These are beautiful. I think garments can be made by other people, but like you said many people don’t have a need for buying clothes, probably because it is not made with detail and care. A lot of the clothes sold today aren’t made with enough passion. So, I understand completely your transition into making your own clothes
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Thats really awesome that you can sew your own clothes. Im not good with a sewing machine but i recently took some of my old pices that i wasn’t wearing in my closet, to a seamstress and she made me some new favorites! I just started my blog and i would love if you checked it out and gave em some feedback! Dressdontguess.com Thank you xoxo
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