Monday, 18 March 2013

On Sewing Your Whole Wardrobe

Today in my lunch break I ended up writing a whole screed that probably most people will TL;DR out of on Pattern Review, so I wanted to reproduce it here, not because more people will read it (though I see you, you dozen people who have subscribed to this blog through various RSS readers. Hello!) but because I wanted to put the screed somewhere I can find it again.

It was part of a conversation about the disposable nature of current design. This comes up all the time on PR and it's basically an excuse for people who sew to complain to each other about how trashy RTW clothes are these days and feel self-satisfied that they do sew. Someone remarked, as a part of this conversation that it's just not practical for most people to sew a total wardrobe, and this, on top of a discussion about Overdressed, caused me to write the following about my ambition to one day have a mainly hand-sewn wardrobe:

I think part of the problem with the question "who has time to make an entire wardrobe?" is that in part it depends on how many clothes you think you're going to need to make. If Overdressed is correct, women in the US (and I am pretty sure on average in the UK as well) buy 50-60+ items of clothing per year. If you wanted to match that but sewing your own then yes, that's a really major time investment that most of us just can't make. If you were going to buy 50-60 high quality pieces of fabric and lining and thread and notions and everything else it will also get very expensive very fast.

What I think about my personal wardrobe though -- and I'm not at all saying this is generalizable, but it's what I have noticed about my own clothes -- is that when I was a 50-60+ item a year purchaser, it was never because I was buying all the latest trends or colours. In fact, I am actually a pretty bland dresser -- I am not very fashionable, I tend to wear very similar outfits and colours all the time, adjusted for weather and supplemented with a few trendy items and special occasion outfits. If you're the kind of person who buys 95%+ one-off, very fashionable items with few repeats and few things in your wardrobe that you consider "classic" or "basics" then I don't think sewing your own wardrobe works the same way. You might still do it because you love it, but the hard fact is that it's not cheaper or easier than shopping. But then, not everything needs to be cheaper or easier to be worthwhile, does it?

For me though, my discovery was that what I was actually doing to end up buying 50-60+ items per year was shopping over and over for what I consider to be classic, foundation pieces of clothing. I'd buy the same same basic black work trousers three or four times a year from mid-range high street shops. They just wouldn't stand up to regular wear and regular wash and would look shabby in months. Or they would just never fit quite right to begin with, and I'd end up replacing them with another pair in the (vain) hope that a new pair would fit better. Considering seasonal variations and buying different basic colours (black, navy, etc), I easily bought 10-12 pairs of work trousers every year.

At one point, however, I owned a very expensive pair of black wool lined trousers, beautifully tailored and constructed and happily an absolute perfect fit straight off the hanger. They were CRAZY expensive -- I could have bought 10 pairs of trousers from my usual outlets for the price of that one pair. I bought them but it felt horribly extravagant. Then I wore them. And wore them. And wore them. I wore them twice a week, every week, all autumn/winter/spring for FOUR YEARS and they just did not wear out, ever, or even start to look shabby. One pair of perfect black trousers, insanely expensive though they were, meant not buying 12-16 pairs of cheap black trousers over those four years. I only stopped wearing them when I had a drastic weight change and they no longer fit.

I do think that if I could learn to make trousers like that one perfect pair, I'd be better off overall AND I would not need to make all that many clothes per year. Yes, I'd have to buy high quality fabric, which isn't cheap. I'd also have to invest a lot of my time in fitting, sewing, learning construction techniques, and so on. However, if I made one pair of trousers with great care and good fabric, the cost comparison would not be to one cheap pair I could pick up on the high street, but to 10+ pairs of cheap high street trousers. Or to one pair of crazy expensive trousers that you might have to look for for a YEAR before you find them (if you ever do -- how lucky was I to find a perfect-fit-on-the-hanger pair of trousers to begin with? I've never managed it before or since!)

And, if I could sew my perfect trousers, and considering the longevity of well constructed items, gradually I'd reach a point where I made only 2-3 pairs of trousers per year -- replacing pairs that came to the end of a (hopefully long) life, maybe adding a new colour occasionally, and so on. So I would need to sew a lot less than I bought: 10-12 pairs of work trousers per year that I used to buy versus 2-3 pairs I would make myself. Even better if I found a TNT that I could use regularly or incorporate into new patterns that I was interested in: the big time investment of fitting and adjustment would be behind me.

My dream wardrobe is full of high quality, long-lasting, hard-wearing classics, beautifully fitted and constructed. I aspire to producing 95% of that dream wardrobe myself, by sewing. I am nowhere near achieving that, and it will probably take me years and years to get there. Given how much I fail at sewing and the present relatively poor quality of my output, it could be a very long time indeed before I'm making anything at the standard of those perfect trousers. Maybe it would be cheaper and easier to go out and try to find high quality basics, no matter how crazy expensive they are, and build my dream wardrobe by shopping. But as I said before, "cheaper" and "easier" are not the only definitions of worthwhile.


  1. Yes, exactly how I feel Too!

    1. I knew I couldn't be alone in feeling this way! :D

  2. I agree totally as well. For me it's also a matter of making basics that fit my body without being a tent.

  3. This is so well put. I do not need work pants as I work in scrubs but this is how I feel about jeans. Yes I can make them but it is far more worth my while to save my time for other garments. The high hip area is where I show weight loss or gain and I can find jeans that fit in Target or Jag and go up or down as needed. My other garments, mostly me-made will fit the same for years.