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Home Sewing: Is it worth it?

Once upon a time, many moons ago, your Aunty used to teach workshops on spinning. This was a time of Birkenstocks and flowers in the hair and dirt under the fingernails and livestock out in the barn that needed to get sheared once a year. And once in a workshop, I was approached by a very earnest couple who asked me this: “I want to make a sweater – what sort of sheep should I get?” And I asked what their goal was. If it was to get sweaters, then they should go to a store and get sweaters. If it was to learn how to knit, then go to a yarn store, get some yarn and get lessons and learn to knit a sweater. If it was fiber work, they could buy fleeces and learn how to clean and dye them and get them carded for spinning into yarn. But NONE of any of those things, I explained, was as expensive or time consuming as buying, raising, and caring for a sheep. And this has a bit of connection to a topic that is near and dear to my heart, which is: Is it worth it to make your own clothing or clothing for family members? This is a two-part post which talks about this in terms of this issue.

I am told time and again that I am wasting time and money making clothing when I ‘can buy it at deep discount at Wal-Mart, Target, Kohls, H&M’ etc. I am not going to get into an ‘ethical clothing’ discussion here. Your Aunty is going to stick to bottom line issues, which deal with ‘true cost’ of an item – what it costs from the time you acquire it until you pitch it into the rag bag, the bag for the charity, give it away, etc. Studies have shown that most clothing purchased from deep discount retailers (much of which has a high petroleum content) are actually worn very little and then thrown away. In the UK, which has a well developed ‘charity shop’ retail sector, this sort of clothing can never be resold and ends up in bales going to Third World Countries. In the US, a lot of it ends up in landfills. So, if we go to a deep discounter and buy a dress or a pair of pants for $30.00 (and let’s not get into the whole “I saw jeans at WalMart for $15.00 thing, ok? This is by way of illustration) and wear it twice, whereupon it falls apart in the washer or dryer, then the per wearing cost of that item was $15.00 a time.

So, let’s say you avoid shopping at the ‘naughty retailers’ and always try to get quality. There are plenty of places to buy clothing, but one of the almost universal problems that people have, unless they are of a certain shape and size, in terms of buying clothing is finding clothing that fits. When clothing does not fit well, people do not wear it often and it oftentimes ends up at the back of the closet or off to the Salvation Army. Again, another high cost per wearing.

We won’t get into the issue of ‘fashion’ or even ‘likeability’ – just ‘do the buttons gap in the front’ or ‘can I raise my arms over my head’ or ‘is it too tight when I sit down?” I do not care what size or shape anyone is – for all the petite, missy, plus, women’s whatever out there in retail-land, finding things that a) you want to wear, b) that actually fit and c)that you can afford is almost an impossibility. For those of us, ahem, of a certain age, the memory of clothing available in sizes such as: Child, Pre-Teen, Teen, Junior, Junior-Petite, Petite, Missy, Women’s, Half-sizes, and Plus sizes is but one indicator of what has happened in manufactured clothing. Child, Pre-Teen, Teen, Juniors and Junior Petites have been amalgamated into Child and Junior. Either you are 8 years old, or you are Britney Spears. Either you are 15 years old…or you are ready for the boneyard. And the loss of fitting opportunities has gone along with that because people change dramatically between the ages of 15, 20, 30, 40 and so on. So, finding things in styles that you want, that will fit you, and at a price point that you can afford is the Holy Grail of clothing. No matter how little or how much you are willing to spend or can afford to spend, the vast majority of us are faced with stuff that is not going to fit, which produces a situation which most of us are very familiar with: people who wear clothing to fit their largest measurement and then it is either too long in length, the shoulders are falling off, the sleeves are too long and so on. People are not looking or feeling their best in retail clothing. The answer to this many times is to have alterations done. If you have THAT set of skills, then you are home free. If you do not, the cost of them for most of us can be equal or more than sewing the item from scratch ourselves.

So, what can we do? That couple at the beginning had a goal of a sweater. The goal in clothing(besides coverage, warmth, protection from the elements, etc. – for the moment, we will not discuss ‘fashion’ or ‘managing perceptions through clothing’) is to be able to obtain clothing people are going to like and that they will actually wear – a lot. When you are able to do that, then you will not only save money up front but also all the way along the lifetime of the garment as it gets worn over and over again. It is a commitment and investment of time to do so but the alternative is a waste of money and time. Aunt Toby is going into this (and I am biased – I admit it) with the philosophy that the US retail clothing sector has nothing to offer those of us who are not built like the companies’ fit models and I also resent things falling apart in the washing machine. Being able to build fit and quality into a garment from the ground up, to me is an answer that works. It might not work for everyone, but I do think it works. So, what are the key areas to being able to do this?

1) What do you know how to do already? Producing clothing that looks good AND fits well takes two different sets of skills: fitting and sewing. There are millions of unfinished and finished but unworn items in bags on the floor at the back of closets all across America because the item did not fit or the item did not fit comfortably. Being able to fit a pattern to yourself or a family member is crucial to being able to turn out clothing that looks good and feels good. This goes double if you have kids that are entering their teen years and you want to sew for them or teach them how to sew. So, if you know how to put clothing together from your home ec class or 4H in high school but are not sure about fitting, then you need to buy a book, find a class, etc. As far as Aunt Toby is concerned, anything else you do in the technical sewing area is totally wasted if you do not know how to fit because all your work will end up wadded up in a bag at the bottom of a drawer or the back of the closet. Especially when you are sewing for or with teenagers (who have all sorts of body consciousness issues) you need to be able do this or guide them to do it themselves. If all you are able to do ultimately is produce a prom gown that your daughter loves, you will have saved a boatload of money. I devoted a lot of time and effort learning fit so that I could do this for my two daughters and probably over the six or eight formals I made for them, I saved several thousand dollars and the girls had gowns that passed the ‘twirl in front of the mirror and with smile on the face’ test.
2) What sorts of clothing are you interested in making? If you are the sort of person who needs more formal business clothing, it is definitely worth the trouble to take a couple of tailoring classes so that you can get jackets looking correctly. A skirt or pair of slacks does not require nearly the amount of fitting or technical expertise that a jacket does. If you can learn to make a solid tailored jacket with chest pieces, shoulder pads, under collars, bound buttonholes etc., then you will be able to make coats as well. These items are a major expense when bought ‘off the peg’ – it’s worthwhile learning how to do this. Some people feel that learning to make really expensive clothing items such as this is the only reason to learn how to sew.
3) Alterations? What if what you want to do is just to alter ready-to-wear? Doing alterations well is an entirely separate set of skills because what the sewer is doing is basically taking the clothing apart in the areas that need altering and grading in the alterations. Learning what to do and why and for what reasons (sloping shoulders, large bust on a narrow chest, large rearend, and so on) is an almost completely separate set of skills and experience. Most alterations folks come to it from a tailoring background anyway, so I’d recommend taking classes.

So, here is your homework: Think about the issue of clothing for you and your family. What are your needs now and for the next five years. Would being able to fit, sew, or alter clothing that your family will wear a lot be something that you’d be interested in doing? Would you like to gain a skill that you can share with your children? Let’s not get into the details now of “I don’t have” or “how do we do..” Just think about it as an family expense issue.

(Dressmaker’s form photo courtesy of misswired)

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One Comment

  1. Sewist says:

    For those of us, ahem, of a certain age, the memory of clothing available in sizes such as: Child, Pre-Teen, Teen, Junior, Junior-Petite, Petite, Missy, Women’s, Half-sizes, and Plus sizes is but one indicator of what has happened in manufactured clothing. Child, Pre-Teen, Teen, Juniors and Junior Petites have been amalgamated into Child and Junior.

    –Why did that happen, I wonder?

    If you do not [have alteration skills] the cost of them for most of us can be equal or more than sewing the item from scratch ourselves.

    –I once spent $100 to have a $300 Tahari suit altered. (I think it was on sale.) It did look great. Can’t fit into it anymore however.

    –In addition, even if you know how to alter clothing, the clothing has to be alterable, with sufficient seam allowances, etc. Cheap clothing tends to use a little fabric as possible to keep the cost down.

    Some people feel that learning to make really expensive clothing items such as this is the only reason to learn how to sew.

    –Could not agree more. Although I’d also like to develop some patterns for basics like t-shirts.

    I grasped a while a go that fitting is a separate task and potentially overwhelming. I’ve bought some books, but I’m planning on working with someone this summer to help me with that.

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