Make It Yourself

When I was eleven years old, or somewhere in that preteen time, I realized that by sewing my own clothes I could have more than if we bought them ready made.  My grandmother had always made my clothes, but she was beginning to suffer from arthritis, and so was having to cut back on her own sewing.  The solution was for her to teach me.

Today, people don’t sew in order to save money, unless they are in the custom of buying it all at Bergdorf Goodman.  Clothes have gotten so cheap that in most cases it is cheaper just to buy a garment and be done with it.  But there are plenty of people who sew not because it is cheap, but because they like being able to create their own clothes.   The fit can be better, and you get to choose your own fabrics and colors.

But it is a mistake that by sewing (and knitting…) you are eliminating all social and environmental problems from your wardrobe.  The growing and manufacture of cotton and other textiles is costly in terms of water, dye, and chemical usage.  Slave labor is associated with cotton farms in Asia, and textile factories in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are big polluters.

There is still textile production in the US, though it can be hard to source.  Organic cottons are also available, which at least helps with the problem of pesticides.  If you like wool, made in the USA Pendleton is hard to beat.

If money is not a concern, there are still factories in France and Italy that make stunning silks and woolens.  The UK produces Harris Tweed and other woolens, and the superb Liberty cottons are printed in the UK.  (I could not find where the cloth was actually manufactured, though the cotton is grown in Egypt.)

But the best solution is to try to source fabric secondhand.  Most serious sewers have a fabric stash.  You can see an old photo of mine above.  Most of the pieces I can pick out in the photo were ones I found at my Goodwill Outlet Center.  I have a really hard time leaving behind great fabric, and so I have quite a collection.  To be honest, I could be kept busy for several years sewing up what I already have.  When at the Goodwill bins I also look for garments made of great fabric that I can adapt to something new.  There is also lots of great vintage fabric on ebay and etsy.

As with ready made clothing, you need more than just fabric to make a garment.  There are still thread manufacturers in the US, but most of them produce in bulk for industrial use.  When I bought my new sewing machine (nine years ago!) the consultant advised me to only use a high quality European made thread, like Gütermann, as they are tightly spun and do not produce as much lint.  If you have ever used a cheap thread, you might have noticed how it actually looks furry.

I also buy good vintage thread when I find it.  The sheen of a roll of old Coats & Clark mercerized is hard to beat.  But always do a stress test on any old threads, as if stored in high heat, they can become dry rotted and will be too weak with which to sew.

I love it when I run across the remains of a seamstress’s sewing box at the Goodwill bins.  I always stock up on elastic, snaps, hook and eyes, zippers, and buttons when I find them.  And look at the bottom shelf in my photo to see a bin filled with vintage bias binding and rick-rack.

One thing I would really love to do is learn to knit past a simple knit and purl.  Knitting has become so popular that it has helped sustain many small fiber farms which produce wool from sheep and other animals.  There is an alpaca farm just a few miles from me, and their yarn is in very high demand.  I’m afraid to get anywhere near the front door of a yarn shop, as I know I’d be sucked in.  But it is great that this resource is available to knitters.

Making your own clothing can be one way to  improve your closet, but as with buying ready made clothing, you have to do a little work and research to ensure you are making wise environmental choices.

28 Comments

Filed under Sewing, Viewpoint

28 responses to “Make It Yourself

  1. How exactly do you stress test old thread? I come across it often, but only buy the old Corticelli silk on wooden spools for its looks. I leave the C&C or Talon behind because I have no idea if it’s OK or not. Thanks.

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    • Thread is also damaged by exposure to light — many people store thread on spool racks hanging on the wall. (It’s better to keep thread spools in closed bins/boxes sorted by color — warm, cool, and black-white-gray — and only have the “in use” spools on your rack.) If you pull 2-3 feet of thread from the spool, give it a sharp tug, and it breaks — that’s rotten thread. Sometimes you just need to unwind and discard the outer layer of a spool, but if you keep testing and it keeps breaking, get rid of it. You will waste a lot of sewing time if your thread keeps breaking! I remember a costume shop where useless thread in relatively short lengths was put out for the birds to use in nest building…. Only In the spring, though.

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    • Witness2Fashion is correct. I love it when I find old Corticelli silk!

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  2. Ahhh, sewing one’s own apparel. Now there’s a difficult task to require the public to achieve. Having tried to teach the multitudes that skill for several decades I will have to say that only a few seem to grasp this technology. Yes, there is vintage fabric out there, but knowing how to use it is a skill few have. And then, it’s not often ‘on trend’ when you look into sourcing vintage fabric for today’s styles. Perhaps it’s too obvious, but we could reinstate Home Ec back into junior high curriculum and see what happens. Maybe ‘they’ would learn to prepare wholesome meals for themselves, and create apparel as well. Sometimes I think we are back where Home Ec started out trying to teach the general public how to live healthy lives.

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  3. When I returned to sewing a few years ago, I tried buying vintage fabric online, with mixed results. While the pieces I located are lovely, I had trouble getting the smell of camphor out. I think there is a difference in the Goodwill outlets where I am from as I haven’t seen sewing supplies there, though I will look. I like the idea of finding old notions, too.

    I spend a lot of time in Italy for family reasons, which makes a fabric-lover’s life easy, although fabrics can be expensive in shops meant for tourist dressmakers… My view with respect to fabric is that I’d rather squeeze other things I value much less out of my budget (restaurant meals, beauty products, etc.), and buy a nice cut of high-quality Italian wool or silk than something of lesser quality. If I make the garment carefully it will last and will likely be less expensive than a moderate-quality item I could buy at a mid-range store. In the end the economics work in my favour: I have fewer clothes that last longer and I enjoy wearing them more. Win-win for me. That said, from an environmental cost perspective of course it is better to buy materials that have already been used. Obviously the buying of expensive, quality fabrics is not going to work if you are living hand to mouth and can’t find them readily. It is, however, what I think is a more European than mainstream North American perspective on consumption.

    Jen O’s comment is very interesting. I learned the basics of sewing from my mother (and to cook well as she is an excellent cook), but we also had Home Ec classes in school and I remember enjoying them greatly. It does seem that the masses would benefit from the reinstatement of such training!

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    • If I had ready access to Italian fabrics, I’d indulge as well! As for online buying, I’ve had successes and failures, but I just find that not being able to actually feel the fabric before buying it takes away a bit of the pleasure of picking out the fabric.

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    • Ruth

      Steph, something just came to mind that you might try for used fabrics with a strong odor. I bought some cloth one time like that and washing didn’t really seem to help. The next thing I tried was spraying it down with Febreeze, lightly, don’t drench it, and running it through a wash and dry cycle again. If that doesn’t seem to help, try washing something by itself and use a cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle. That helps, too, when things have been left to sit in a wet pile before you could get them in the dryer. This works best with cottons or blends, polyesters need a little more care, possibly dry cleaning to get rid of bad odors.

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  4. I did not know there was so much to learn about about plain ole thread. I was a Home Ec Major and all I ever heard of was Coats & Clark and Belding & Corticella (the silk thread) … I also did not know they no longer offered Home Ec in the school curriculum.
    I am ashamed to say, I have a whole bed room full of cloth (bought at bargin prices from the thrift store) which in no way could I ever ever sew up.

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  5. erinfromiowa

    I love your blog. Sharing with you verypink.com Her how to videos are fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Knitting is a very expensive activity, and hard on the carpal tunnel issues, so I had to give it up. It is less expensive to buy really nice fabric and make something that has more seasons of wear in it, and is washable.
    I really do miss the ability to make shapes I can’t make with sewing, though.

    I purged a lot of thirty year old fabric I am just not going to make something out of, and am doing my best not to buy it back at Value Village. I have found so much good yardage and stuff to alter there, I needed to pay it back.
    Always leave something for someone else. Somebody left that treasure for you!

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  7. Christina

    Liberty Tana lawn fabric is woven in Italy although the high thread count cloth may be woven in other countries.

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  8. Sewing certainly presents many of its own ethnical concerns. I love cotton, but as you say it is has one of the worst ecological records. Luckily there are now organic cottons on the market that are beautiful and not astronomically expensive. If you are in the market for vintage fabric, get to know your local American Sewing Guild chapter. They all have fund raising sales of fabric, yarn, and notions every year. In my chapter, all fabric, from polyester to silk, sells for $1 a yard. This year I got lucky and came home with piles of silk. Sometimes I think that all the textile mills in the world could stop producing and there would still be enough fabric to go around.

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    • I like the idea of exchanges within a guild. My local sewing shop in fact has a psuedo exchange of materials between clients with small donations for each piece going to a local charity (usually $5, no matter the size of the piece, so a good deal).

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    • An exchange is a great idea. My “local” ASG is in Charlotte, about two and a half hours away!

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  9. As you know, I love to sew and nothing gives me more pleasure than sewing with a gorgeous piece of vintage fabric. Another asset of sewing with vintage yard goods is the opportunity that so often presents itself to find original source pictures of the fabric (and therefore the manufacturer) in vintage sewing magazines. This is also an excellent way to date the fabric. Fun!!

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  10. Ruth

    Oh man, I don’t want to think about all the fabric sitting in boxes right now! i haven’t had the energy to sew in five or six years because of two moves and caring for two invalids, it’s all I can do to get through housework, meals, and hopefully, yard work. I desperately want to clean up my sewing area and get back to it. I made clothes for myself and my sisters many years ago, my husband’s shirts, and clothes for our children, plus other accessories and household items. I love vintage or thrift store fabric, even have some of my grandmother’s! I, too, have mixed success with online auction sites, but as long as I don’t pay much for it, well, it’s donated again.

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  11. Jessamyn

    I am currently sewing a very pretty summer dress with a ca.1941 pattern and using a lovely vintage white cotton pique printed with small roses that I got at that Goodwill outlet (and I keep thinking of you!). It wasn’t quite so lovely when I got it, but the nice thing about cotton is that it can go in the wash.

    When I bought it it was two curtain panels two yards long each, fortunately with no lining and the simplest of hems, and at 36″ wide the original maker had simply used the unmarked selvages at the sides without turning under. The only issue was that the roses had faded at the center of the panels where the sunlight hit, so it was a good thing I had a full four yards of this narrow fabric — I wound up deciding that a certain amount of ombre effect was perfectly fine as long as I got it even on all the pieces, so I had to lay all the skirt pieces out with their hems at either end of the panels and the bodice pieces in the middle. I have a lot of awkward offcuts.

    It’s worth the trouble to me, but I can certainly see why most people couldn’t be bothered!

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