Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Planned Wardrobe: Thinking about quality

I've been doing the 33 items in my wardrobe thing for 2 weeks now. I won't bore you with my Thoughts So Far, although only because I plan to write a really long and boring post about my Thoughts So Far at the end of the month.

What I have been thinking about is the question of quality and the small, planned wardrobe. MaryMary86 linked me in the comments of my previous post about my 33-items-of-clothing-for September to a blogger who has an even tinier wardrobe. Here's that blogger's very recent post about the 12-item core wardrobe + extras that she's planning to wear this autumn/winter. (In reality, when you count in the extras, she has just over 20 items in her wardrobe, including t-shirts and blazers and so on, but it's still a very small wardrobe overall.)

A few things strike me about this: (a) there's very clearly a huge climate difference between where I live and where she lives; (b) there's also clearly a big difference between what she can wear to work and what I can wear to work, but above all, (c) wow, her wardrobe is tiny but it's also EXPENSIVE and she's obviously gone out of her way to buy quality. The descriptions are all silk! Designer labels! Jimmy Choo shoes! But then she says in the notes to her video that she's owned quite a lot of her clothes for several years, despite the fact that evidently she wears them all week in, week out during a season since she has such a small wardrobe. So obviously she takes care of it all AND it's all high enough quality that it lasts. So that was the first thing I was thinking about: the idea that if you're going to go small and wear things a LOT over a given period, you should make sure it's stuff that's going to look as good in week 13 of 13 as it did in week 1. Looking at my September wardrobe, it's painfully obvious that a good part of the wardrobe I have right now wouldn't cope with the demands of being worn very regularly for a full season.

I also read this article about wearing a "uniform". It's again part of that simplify-your-life blogosphere that I'm not really a part of at all, but it did remind me of my interest in making TNTs, and being able to have a wardrobe full of clothes that really, truly fit me. My suspicion is that a lot of the "dressing well" thing is bunk, and outside of a few industries like fashion I bet most people don't really notice what you're wearing at all. Certainly most people wouldn't notice if you used the same pattern over and over but in dramatically different colours and configurations of co-ordinating items. I suppose I might notice if a woman I knew wore the same exact dress pattern but in a lot of different colours or fabrics, and maybe so would some of the rest of us hobby sewers. However, I don't know that I would notice it negatively, as in, that I would think it was odd or unfortunate of her (unless, I don't know, the thing she was repeating over and over was badly fitting or unsuited to the office, or it was a dress pattern with some really dramatic and unique feature). In fact, I've known really chic, elegant women and I was aware then that often they wore the same sorts of things all of the time, just in different colours.

So, here are my conclusions: If I'm going to keep my wardrobe pretty small (and, spoiler, my experience of the first two weeks of this relaxed small wardrobe experiment is that it is AWESOME, so on the basis of the first fortnight, this isn't an implausible decision) perhaps I should really make the effort to buy/make really GREAT clothes. If I'm only buying 2 sweaters, I could make sure they are wool (or cashmere, even!) rather than buying half a dozen crappy acrylic sweaters that pill in three washes. I could buy a metre of silk jersey if I made one basic jersey top rather than six. I could choose to spend a lot more time on fit and technique if I decide not to sew for volume in any way but to concentrate instead on making things with the very highest standard of quality I could manage.

The big stumbling blocks I have for this initially are (a) my extensive cheap fabric stash, which is kind of a black mark against a high quality wardrobe; (b) the fact that I actually can't sew that well yet; and (c) I haven't got any TNTs yet, really, other than that one t-shirt pattern from Ottobre, and even that will need to be adjusted for weight loss eventually. Individually, these are each a bit daunting as problems go. However, they actually work together really well if I think about my future, theoretical, planned awesome wardrobe in a really long-term way.

Among my cheap fabrics there are some nice things that I really like, but I don't have much that is very high quality. Going purely on price, I have maybe three or four pieces of fabric that were over the £5/m mark, but the vast majority cost around the £3.50 mark. Fibre content-wise, there's a lot of synthetics in there, and there's a lot of stuff that just outright isn't the highest quality. I'm not saying the fabric won't make up nice clothes, but, crucially, it's not necessarily going to make up into clothes that have any more longevity than cheap high street clothes.

My benchmark for this is a shop I never shop at, Zara, only because they are unusually open about how long inexpensive fast fashion "should" last: 10 washes. I don't buy a lot of what might strictly be considered fast fashion, I buy mostly from mid-to-low end high street, but I very much doubt that there's any appreciable change in longevity between Zara and places like Next or M&S if you're buying seasonal clothes (acrylic jumpers, jersey tops etc. Things like suits from M&S probably do better). It is openly part of Zara's strategy that purchasers are expected discard clothes after a season, and they reckon 1 season of wear = 10 washes. So they design clothes that don't have to last more than 10 washes. In my experience, if something is designed to disintegrate after 10 washes, it looks a wreck after 6 or 7 washes. So, imagine I make something and it ends up in a 33-piece wardrobe. Each 33-piece wardrobe is for ~90 days-ish, and let's assume my very favourite things (on current evidence) get worn every 8-10 days. That's 10-12 washes in a three month season, right in line with Zara's seasonal expectations.

My actual experience of what I have sewed is very much in line with this. My very informal/unplanned summer capsule wardrobe didn't all survive 10 washes intact to wear for another season. The jersey tops I'd made faded and pilled, one of the woven tops shredded at stress points, and the other faded. To be fair, some of the problem is the result of bad sewing on my part but I am pretty confident some of the problem is that I used cheap fabric.

The upshot of all of which is this: if my clothes are made from fabric that will only survive 10 washes, and my sewing will only survive 10 washes, and my weight loss is of the slow and steady variety (which it is, historically) where I probably spend about 90 days losing enough weight to drop a whole clothes size, then I should stop worrying and start sewing my way through my cheap fabric stash to make clothes that fit right now and work for the current season, with the assumption that I am, for the time being, making my own version of fast fashion. This also has the advantage that as I reduce my stash I create space to start consciously moving my stash away from "lots of cheap fabric that I picked up without much of a plan" to "a much smaller amount of really high quality fabrics that are all bought for a specific reason". The sheer size of my stash means that's a long-term plan, anyway. I kind of feel like it should maybe be my three-year plan for while I'm here in Ireland: arrive with over 200m of cheap fabric, leave with MUCH less, and what I leave with should all be awesome.


  1. This actually makes me feel a lot better about how much clothing I have. It's not that I buy a ton, but that if 10 washes is the average, my stuff beats probably that by an order of magnitude. I think the oldest items of clothing I still regularly wear are from 2005. This is probably tied to how much I hand wash and hang dry.

    1. It's hard to say exactly how many clothes I have that are genuinely 5+ years old and still going because the fact my weight changes so much/frequently means there's often long gaps when I can't wear stuff. However, I too have quite a few things that are definitely well over the 10-washes-and-you're-done line, although I have to say that I have quite often had to sew buttons back on or sew a quick hem back on quite a few of those items. I feel like a lot of people don't know how to fix a pair of trousers if the hem comes down and probably toss them at that point. Off-hand, my most-worn/most-laundered clothes are probably some jeans I bought in 2006, but then, I would expect jeans to outlast almost everything else in my wardrobe. I probably have some t-shirts that have been worn and laundered just as much but they're no longer in any state to wear in public and I mostly use them as PJs.

      I've been thinking about my most hard-wearing items of clothing ever since I posted. None of the things that lasted come from fast or value shopping outlets though. When I think about long-lasting items, it's always stuff I spent a little bit more on or was higher quality to begin with.

  2. I am really enjoying this series of posts, especially as we have many of the same challenges (current size, weight loss, stash quality). One of the best dressed women I have known, always bought two or three of exactly the same items, in different colours. I worked with her for several years before I noticed. It is a very effective strategy.

    Now if only I can get a job that requires me to dress like a grown up. Then I get to play with my wardrobe too. 8-)

    1. One of these days I'll figure out what I could wear that will make me look chic and I will totally do the multiple buy/make method. The hurdle is figuring out what the hell to wear in the first place. :|

      Weirdly, the hardest part of the planned wardrobe is turning out to be the mental part of it about not shopping and not sewing. I don't even think of myself as that much of a shopper, novelty seeker or materialist, but it's strange how setting a rule NOT to do something alters your perception of how important it is to you.