My Handmade Wardrobe Evolution
Get ready because this is a bit of a ramble about the evolution of my handmade wardrobe and my experience transitioning from art, to fashion, to the home sewing world. This isn’t about how I got into fashion, or my academic and work route to where I am currently with my business, I think you all know that story by now, this is about the feelings I had on the way here and the ones I still have. It’s something I think about less these days since I’m now confident in my career path and interests, but this post on Dressing like a Feminist from Morgan over at Crab & Bee brought it to mind as well as this post that’s been going around my Facebook friends about uniform dressing and decision making. No promises that this post is going to make a full circle, or get to any sort of ‘point’ at the end. Here goes!
Back when I was a kid I was kind of a nerd, I had glasses by 2nd grade, liked reading, was super crazy shy, was good at hanging out on my own, and liked making things. All of these things are still true. One of my good friends and I would make all sorts of stuff for our dolls, dresses, beds, furniture, then we convinced our moms that we should learn to sew. I had grown up with my mom sewing most of our clothes and some of our toys so it didn’t seem weird to me at all that I would want to learn to sew. We took a sewing class and made pajamas (mine were light blue flannel with snowflakes and maybe snowmen) and some shorts (green cotton with dancing frogs) and it was pretty awesome! We probably made a few other things also but I can’t remember now. As I got older I realized that most people weren’t interested in sewing. At some point in Jr. High Home Ec. we had to make a stuffed pillow from a kit and I just remember loving it kind of secretly while everyone else complained that we had to sew. I also remember secretly hand-sewing the tiniest mini-quilt in my room after school one day with some of my mom’s scraps. She was, and still is, a big quilter and I wanted to try it, but I definitely knew it wasn’t a cool thing to do.
I’d always been into art, but high school was the first time that I’d been able to take more than one class a year and I dove into it full on. I think this thing happens in art classes when you’re a teenager where you kind of turn a little anti-fashion because you’re just into art and it’s so cool or whatever. We had a fashion program and I still thought about sewing sometimes but I did not fit in with the kids taking the fashion classes so it never even occurred to me to take one of the classes. It seemed like most of the kids who took these classes didn’t care about making things really, they just liked clothes and shopping, which I did not. I still hate shopping! Anyway, in high school I wore typical late 90’s art kid clothes – a wool military jacket I found in a closet in the basement, oversized button down work shirts, weird thrift store tee shirts, that kind of stuff. Not really ‘fashionable’ for the times, but I was kind of specific about it, so it wasn’t really anti-fashion or anything like that. It’s just what I liked. Whatever.
From there I went to school at the University of Illinois and ended up in the photography department. I did my art thing for the first 2 years and found myself going back to fashion and sewing over and over in small ways. I printed cyanotypes onto Hanes t-shirts (it was the early 2000’s guys), learned to knit on the way to NYC in fall of 2001 when my college best friend and I decided we needed to check out ‘more serious’ art schools (insert laughing till you cry emoji), and eventually brought my mom’s old sewing machine down to my apartment at the beginning of my junior year. I was probably a little precocious, we were the students who were always requesting extra art theory readings, pondering post-modernism, my best friend was a sculpture / women’s studies double major so we always talked about that. I felt sort of conflicted about the fact that I was sewing, traditional women’s work. I ended up making a bunch of super art school girl video art about this – if you happened to go to art school you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about I’m sure. By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t going to pursue photography, especially in the art sense we were studying it, and my real interest was sewing, specifically I wanted to know how to make the patterns. I was experimenting with doing trace offs and just winging things with measurements and it was frustrating because I knew it wasn’t the right way and I love doing things the right way. So I finished up my photo degree and tried to figure out what my next move was.
Eventually I ended up back in school but it took me a lot of going back and forth with my thoughts on pursuing fashion as a career. I think society definitely brands it as a shallow profession and this isn’t completely without warrant, especially with the rise of fast fashion etc., but that paired with my fine art education made me feel guilty about the whole thing. I mean, we were the kids who were going to move to NYC to make it as artists! It sounds so hilarious now thinking back but you know, when you’re 20 and weaseling your way into graduate art theory classes it makes total sense. I found myself wondering if I would end up wasting my life on this super shallow pursuit. Would I regret not doing something more ‘academic’ instead? I finally decided to just fuck it and go back to school.
While in school I realized I made the right decision. It was definitely tough being older than the other students, I was much more focused and knew what I wanted from the program, was paying for it myself, and was taking a full course load while working essentially full time, though at a few different jobs. A lot of the kids there were there because they loved to shop but I was really lucky that I found a few friends who were in it for the same reasons I was. I think I only made about 5 really close friends while I was there. I remember being a TA for one of the advanced patternmaking classes and the kids freaked out when they found out I was born in ’82, they could not believe how old I was! Anyway most people wanted to move to LA or NYC and make it big as a head designer at a large brand or strike out on their own as the next big thing, they wanted to be famous! I on the other hand, knew that wasn’t what I wanted and it was so hard to explain that to people. This was around the time that Built by Wendy released her pattern line with Simplicity and I just thought, that’s what I want. A small line with a little pattern line attached! It just sounded amazing to me, but super weird to other people so I mostly kept it a secret. Even when I started this blog and up until after I published my first pattern I still didn’t tell people I was blogging or that I wanted to make home sewing patterns!
Anyway when I graduated I was working locally as a patternmaker and decided to start my own little line, hound. I really just wanted a small line where I designed and produced things and I did that for a while. It was really fun, but also really stressful, and I dealt with a lot of questions from people like why I didn’t move to NYC, or why I wasn’t manufacturing on a larger scale, why wasn’t I wholesaling? One thing that people love to say to you is “but you’re so talented, you could totally make it doing ____!” but what they fail to understand is that you actually don’t want that. You want something smaller, more intimate, less stressful. The pace of fashion in NYC, the cost of living, just the hecticness of it all is something I don’t want for myself. While doing hound I got totally burnt out and happened to release my first sewing pattern on my tiny little blog I started for fun. It went well, so well that eventually I stopped doing hound, I love doing this so much more it wasn’t really a hard decision at all. People didn’t understand that, having your own line is so cool they thought! Eventually I stopped my day job and they wondered why I would take myself out of that environment where I was a ‘legit’ patternmaker, and here we are now. The funniest thing is that my students at Columbia now are so completely unimpressed with what I do. Even though I make a living doing exactly what I went to school to do, exactly what I want to do, the fact that I design home sewing patterns is so boring and lame, they just can’t understand why I didn’t try for something more. I suppose when I was younger I might have thought the same, but luckily when I went back I was old enough to know better what I wanted.
When I read a post like Morgan’s where people are questioning whether they should feel guilty spending time on fashion or making clothes (mostly in the comments, I absolutely love Morgan’s post!) it takes me back to everything I’ve experienced in my journey to where I am now and all the doubts I had on the road to justifying what I wanted to do with myself. For me sewing my own clothing is about a few things…
First of all, I am just fascinated with making the patterns to make the clothes. I absolutely love patternmaking, it really is just engineering for the body, but since making clothing is traditionally “women’s work” it maybe doesn’t get as much respect as it should. It’s incredibly intricate and detailed, knowing the curve that you need to make the perfect sleeve cap while not restricting arm movement, or the most flattering hem, it’s just endlessly interesting to me and I love challenging myself to make each pattern better than the last.
Secondly I’ve always loved making things and in my mind making your wardrobe is the ultimate thing you can make for yourself. You have to wear clothes every day to fend off the elements as well as prevent yourself from getting arrested (can’t be walking around naked!) so the fact that I have the ability to take a piece of paper, a pencil, and some rulers, make a pattern, then take a length of cloth and turn it into something I can wear every day, I just can’t get enough. You aren’t stuck with what’s available in the stores, you can make what you feel comfortable wearing which (at least for me) will in turn make you feel more confident. I really take pride in this second fact!
Lastly, making these sewing patterns allows me to share these things with other people who share similar interests as me. I’m able to share the pride I feel when I make an amazing garment that becomes part of my daily wardrobe. I don’t want to just sew special occasion garments, I don’t really do special occasions. I want to sew the clothes you wear every day so that when you’re on the train on your way home from work you can look down and smile to yourself that you made your shirt and it looks amazing. I love throwing on an outfit in the morning, heading to work, and in the car on the way there thinking, ‘I made my hat, gloves, coat, sweater, and shirt” and smiling to myself about it. It’s not about other people and what they think of it for me, it’s really all for myself.
I used to not really care if I had an entirely handmade wardrobe, and to some extent I still don’t. I love supporting business that make quality goods, especially ones that use local supplies and labor, but lately I’ve been falling more and more in love with making as much of it as I can without making more than I need. With all of the tutorials and variations I do it’s hard to not make more than you need. Lately I’ve been doing the sew-alongs in my sister’s size so I’m now providing both of us with handmade wardrobes which is pretty cool. One of my current sewing goals is to replace worn out store bought basics like t-shirts and tanks and to also make some workout clothes for the yoga I’ve started doing. Of course I’ll still be making fun things like silk button down shirtdresses etc, because I do love that too!
As far as feminism and sewing, I don’t have that much to say about it really, except that sewing is what I like to do and I don’t think that ignoring that and choosing a less traditionally feminine job would make me more of one. I love my job and I think that what you do in that situation is keep doing what you love and be cognizant of what came before you and also of what lies ahead and know the reasons why you do what you do. This idea kind of applies to most facets of life though, in my opinion.
Anyway this was a seriously long stream of consciousness ramble which I am not proofing because if I do I’ll probably decide to not post it. So, my questions for you after all of this are… Have you ever had similar thoughts about sewing? Why do you love sewing? What pushes you to make your own clothes? What are your sewing goals? Now if you excuse me, I need to plan out my winter wardrobe sewing and definitely check out Morgan’s awesome post!