Sunday, 12 July 2015

Longevity and sewing my wardrobe

The other day as I was wandering around the sewing blog world I read something, somewhere (and I genuinely can't recall where it was) where someone was talking about how their goal is make clothes that have the potential to last for 5+ years. From what I recall, she seemed to be making an argument, as many people do, for using higher quality fabrics, sewing more slowly and using good finishing techniques in order for things to last even if they're in regular high rotation.

This came to mind again yesterday evening because I spent the day wearing a blouse I made last month (with New Look 6407). I felt at the time of writing about the shirt in question that my finished item was exceedingly mediocre at best and since then I've only worn in twice, including yesterday. At the end of yesterday, however, I almost ripped it off my body, cut off the buttons and flung the remains in my bag to go to fabric recycling because NO. AWFUL. GET RID OF IT. NOTHING about it worked for me except for, for once, the fit through the bust. Other than that, the shoulders pulled, the lower back was tight, the various little sewing flaws bothered me, and that gaping neckline that didn't seem to come near my neck drove me more and more insane as the day went on. Life is too short to wear clothes that drive you mad (unless you HAVE to, of course, because it's a work uniform or something) so: death to the navy blouse of doom!

Of course, the reality is that this was always a "wearable wadder" (TM on this term to L, who as it happens coined it as a result of an experience with the same pattern although I know she ordinarily really likes it) and really never should have made it into my wardrobe. It's still rather annoying to me to discard something I made after only a month and two wears. Certainly I've failed to reach that forgotten blogger's lofty aims of making things that last half a decade!

It then occurred to me to wonder how much of a change it would be for me to own the same clothes for five years. As is well-documented, I am a data nerd. One of my more nerdish endeavours is that I keep a spreadsheet with my entire wardrobe listed on it, along with when I bought it and how much it cost to buy or make. (You can think what you like of my spreadsheets; I long ago learned to accept my obsessive data gathering habits.)

I've mentioned before that for three years from 2008-2011 I bought almost no new clothes and just wore what I already owned to the point of extinction. I then did a fairly epic wardrobe purge in 2012 just before I started sewing. Since 2012 I've gone through multiple size changes both up and down from where I started (my weight, never stable, has been wildly volatile for the last 3 years for reasons related to my various health issues and medications/treatment) and I started sewing for myself. So, I went into this exercise fully aware that most of my wardrobe is of very recent date, which is in fact the case: almost half my clothes (46%) were made or bought in the last 18 months.

However, despite size changes and ruthless culls of the worn out, decrepit or badly fitting, about a third of my clothes (35%) are 5+ years old. Of those, I have a handful of things that are truly elderly (about 5% of my clothes are 10+ years old, with the oldest thing I own dating from 1986). The more interesting part I suppose is what those clothes actually are:
  • Jeans;
  • "Investment buys", e.g. my winter coat, which cost me me much more than I usually spend and which I have looked after pretty carefully;
  • Sentimental clothes, a.k.a. "I don't care what this looks like, I love it/wear it anyway" (e.g. ancient t-shirts with peeling logos, threadbare along every seam, that I wear to sleep and do yoga in at home);
  • Rugged/hard-wearing garments that are intended to survive a lot of abuse (e.g. my Gore-tex anorak);
  • Things that hardly ever get worn (e.g. a beach cover-up, which I've owned since 2000 and worn about a half a dozen times. I don't do beaches that often, but when I do, I need a cover-up);
  • Things that probably wouldn't have survived this long if they'd been in high rotation, but they fell out of rotation because my size changed and they therefore spent some of those 5+ years in a storage box under my bed. Noticeably, however, there's nothing really sentimental or special about these clothes. They are mainly just things I think of as wardrobe staples -- I have one pair of black work trousers in each of 3 different sizes that don't currently fit me, plus a pair in my current actual size on my spreadsheet, for example.
It's all RTW, of course, since I only started making clothes in 2012. Noticeably NOT on this list: any tops, any sweaters or other knitwear, any non-jeans trousers unless they've been in store. In a way, this is a relief. I've been kind of annoyed with myself over the last three years of making clothes that so many of them haven't really lasted that long (some of this is due to poor sewing and fit, but a lot due to fabric deterioration), but then clearly the same categories of RTW clothes didn't survive either.
There aren't too many knit or woven tops in my wardrobe that are more than three years old, and those that are older are on their last legs.

I'm not saying that RTW longevity is anything to aim for, at all, but at least I don't seem to be doing worse than my pre-sewing RTW purchases. Realistically, unless I radically change my laundry habits (unlikely) the fact is that lightweight cotton and knit clothes just won't survive the kind of wear/wash/tumble dry abuse I put them through, whether I make them myself or buy them. I'm not saying I won't continue to try to make better fabric choices and use better sewing and finishing techniques to give them as long a life as possible, but I think it's reasonable to assume that I'm going to discard and replace those type of items more frequently than others.

When it comes to the things that clearly do survive, and that, on reflection, I would expect to survive, I can definitely see myself replacing the "investment buy" with the "investment sew" in the future. For sure any outerwear at all is on that list of both "spend more to get a good outcome" and "it should last a really long time if I take care of it appropriately", whether it's RTW or hand-made. I do plan to start sewing some coats and outerwear so that fits in well. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to source specialist fabrics for things like Gore-tex jackets, so I'll probably continue to buy those. I'll also probably keep buying jeans, at least for the time being, for various reasons. On the other hand, if I need any random one-off items like a beach cover-up, I'd be reaching for my pattern collection first, not a RTW catalogue.

My big conclusion though is that what I really need to do is learn to make my wardrobe staples really well, and consider them to be investment sews, even though a lot of my wardrobe staples depend on good fit. If I'm honest, I haven't delved into making some things because my weight has been so incredibly up and down the last three years that it hasn't seemed "worth it" to work on e.g, fitting tailored trousers when it's quite likely that I'll be in a different size 6-12 months later. I am annoyed to realize that I've been embracing this off-shoot of the irritating "I'll deserve this when I'm thinner!" thing that I so very much dislike and heartily enjoin others to ignore. In reality, clearly even if I do size out of clothes, if I like them and they're in good shape I can just put them away until I need them again.


  1. I'm impressed and slightly intimidated by your obsessive data-gathering! This seems like a great project to get to know your habits and where things could use some improvement as you sew more and more of your wardrobe.

    Thinking about it, I don't know how many of my things are more than 5 years old. My size changed a bit (not too drastically) about a year and a half ago, so I've been phasing in smaller things that fit properly. It would be interesting to track just how long I keep and wear the things I'm making now--you're tempting me to start my own spreadsheet!

    I'm very interested in hearing about any new, sturdier pieces you make, and especially what you're doing differently to make them so!

    1. It probably helps that I'm a data gathering nerd by profession as well as preference -- apparently my instinct when faced with the unknown is to record everything I can and analyse it to death.

      To an extent I've already started to try to sew for longevity -- I've been putting a lot more effort into finishing my garments over the last 12 months than previously, with somewhat mixed results (some things really worked well, but on the other hand my new linen shirt shredded the first time I washed it despite my best efforts in this respect). So it is a bit of an on-going project I guess!

  2. I sew multiples.of pieces that I really like. But then, I'm the type who buys one in every color that suits me and 2 or 3 in black and white when I come across something that works for me in rtw. Right now I'm sewing 4 of the same style knit top because I love the style on me! A lot of people do this. If it works, go with it. And when it wears out, make more if it still works for u. Good luck!

    1. I do make a lot of the same patterns over and over as well! I'm a big fan of the TNT.

  3. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm more likely to keep rtw five years or more than something I've made. I had not thought about this until I read your post. Everything I make is either a wearable muslin or a wearable wadder. Some items never get worn, some are pitched immediately. Interesting.

    1. Are you just in the process of learning to sew? I definitely didn't wear most of the first things I made at all, maybe a couple of times each at most, even the things that turned out reasonably well. These days though it's unusual for me NOT to be wearing something I sewed for myself, as I've become more competent at making the things I like to wear. There is a HUGE learning curve I think to get to the point where you start to make things that are legitimately on a par with what you consider to be normal/comfortable fit in RTW, and I think you do have to learn to be fine with the fact that a lot of early projects are going to have "argh, no, fling it in the bin" or "I can wear this but do I really want to?" outcomes.

    2. Yes, I consider myself a beginner even though I've been sewing on and off for a few years. Most of my wearable wardrobe is rtw.

    3. I've been sewing clothes for just over 3 years, and there's literally nothing in my wardrobe that I made myself that is more than 18 months old. All of my early stuff was legit completely terrible. Just keep plodding up that learning curve and you'll get there!

  4. This was quite fascinating and I love that you have gathered all this data!

    I think it's great to see suggestions like this from "better" sewers (you know what I mean), but then to take it and apply that to your own reality.

    So like you say, you like lightweight knit dresses and tops...that need be machine you already KNOW that the likelihood of years of wear from those are slim. And that's okay!

    In my last gig I was prone to ruining clothes; the nature of the job. So the idea of using expensive wool to make trousers or to spend three months sewing a blazer was laughable. Hey, I love those garments when other people made them but they made NO sense for my own life.

    I also think some things aren't worth sewing, and that list varies based on the individual (eg I'm not interested in sewing bras), so if you need it and can buy it RTW, buy it! :)

    1. I am not really sure why so many people are going nuts over sewing bras at the moment! I mean, never say never, but for me, I can't see the appeal of all that super tiny fiddly seam sewing, not to mention how hard it is to even get the notions etc.

      I've pretty much decided that my goal is probably to have a wardrobe that hovers around the 2/3 to 3/4 hand-made ratio. At the moment I'm at around 30%, so I still have a long way to go before I even get there!

    2. The notions! I can buy decent bras without spending an arm and a leg...just that I tend to have to buy online. I am not that interested in experimenting with the bra fitting and sewing.


      I got over my swimwear excitement pretty quickly too!