8 Lessons Learned from Building a Self Sewn Wardrobe
I really can’t believe that this year is closing and that now it's time to reflect back and imagine up some new dreams for the next one. I didn’t accomplish every goal, but because I wrote a lot of what I wanted to do down on paper, I did accomplish a lot of them! And one of them was building an almost entirely self sewn wardrobe. I think I’m at about 90% and I’m not counting shoes in this summary because I don’t know how to make those yet!
I wanted to write this up to share with you the inspiration that it truly can be done. And to let you know some of the pitfalls I encountered along the way, some parts of the process you can tweak, and share with you some of my personal opinions on what worked and what didn’t work for me. And a lot of this information I have shared and proven with my students as well and I’m finding that building your own wardrobe really does have some universal aspects to the practice that will come in handy to know.
Lesson 1: Suitability
At the end of 2015 I sold off the clothing that was store bought, used it to pay off my student loans from grad school- yeesh, I would have loved to invest that in fabric, but being debt free is amazing so not bummed about that in the least. I donated a lot of the pieces that were worn to tatters, thanks fast fashion, you truly are worthless, and started over.
When I began, I didn't really know what I wanted my personal style to be. I had long been immersed in sewing products to sell, not necessarily items I sewed for myself. So what I made first were really simple minimalist tunics and sheath dresses, and smocks that had gathered drop waists and button fronts to use in the studio.
The fabric I used was fabric I had been given from the last costume project I worked on. I had a lot of linens, cottons, and mostly woven fabrics that had a patina of age because the show was a historical piece so it had that antique look of pastoral field wear.
I was choosing these kinds of silhouettes because I was seeing them online, and lots of luxury brands that I follow had these gorgeous pullover dresses and I just loved them. However, now looking back in review, I did not consider suitability at all- I didn't think about how the garment was actually going to look on me and my unique shape.
Lesson Learned- When I look back at the pictures of myself in these dresses, I can see that they really aren’t that flattering for my body type. The colors of the cloth really washed me out, but that's honestly because I was using what I had gathered in my stash. Now, all is not lost because I do know how to dye cloth and can change the color of the garment. But the key take away is even when you are making your own wardrobe, you really still have to treat it as you do when you are shopping.
I never tried on tunics like that, I just admired them, so I had no idea if they were really going to flatter me. I just had the freedom to forge ahead because I know how to make those types of garments. It's really important to check the silhouette of the pattern before proceeding. And a really good idea to go out and try on some similar looking garments, so you can see how they are going to look before you take the time to sew them up.
Lesson 2: A Quarter of What You Sew at First, You Might Not Like
Double bummer. Even if you are able to sew it up and make it fit, you must give the garment a few wears to see how you really feel about it. When it's on you, you are going to see if it fits your personality and improves your confidence. There are several garments that I sewed up that passed this test.
If I wore them regularly, even more than once in a week, then that pattern goes to the hit archive, because it passed my comfort and confidence test. If I got lots of inquiries and my friends noticed it, then it got bonus points, because folks do get used to seeing you a certain way on a regular basis, and if it passed that test then I knew it matched my personality.
Now unfortunately, some garments I tried did not, and I gave them to friends for whom they were better suited. There are some similar qualities to sewing your own clothes that are like buying ready to wear. Unfortunately, after you try on the garment and give it a wear you might figure out you don’t like it.
Learn from this so you don’t repeat the same type of pattern. I've been really shocked to see how many patterns are so similar. Really study the technical sketch, and record what did not work about the garment for your body type. At this point, I want to emphasize, it's important to not get discouraged.
This happens to everybody, it's not you or your body. There will be fails, so remember what you have committed to and try again. I have had students who sew up some things they don’t like, and the students who are progressing in their sewing keep trying.
Lesson 3: Pattern Alterations can become a block in the Skill of Sewing
I am so fed up with forcing patterns to work that just don’t work. Sewing patterns have a lot of the same qualities as ready to wear clothing, they are standardized from average measurements, made for certain fit models and body types, and are set in current trends of fashion. That means in the process of building your own wardrobe, you will come up against what plagues you about ready to wear. And you might get extra frustrated because it took you time to make the garment, not just the time to find it.
Here’s where many folks turn to “well, now I have to learn pattern alterations and then I can make this pattern work”. That’s not always true. From what I have seen over the past few years and studied, if you are altering a pattern beyond a few adjustments like the fullness and reduction alterations, and doing so much that you are almost redrafting an existing design, and you are then at risk for this pattern to really make you mad.
A full/small bust adjustment, slight size increases or decreases or seam width adjustments, or a maybe an extra dart, these are the common alts that most folks face. If you are altering the pattern beyond that, then you are in tricky territory because likely the pattern wasn’t drafted to accommodate what you want it to do.
It's frustrating when the design doesn't work, but a good idea move on to another pattern- or pattern company. If a certain pattern company is not fitting, likely other patterns in their line will cause you to struggle. If you are getting to the point where you hate all patterns, then maybe its better for you to learn pattern drafting and make your own, then give up your dream of sewing. You might just not be acknowledging that you have design ideas and that might make good PATTERNS. Heck, drafting your own patterns could turn into a side hustle for ya, because if the patterns aren’t suiting your needs, then you have found a market that needs your help!
Solutions- First get a great book. I turn to two all of the time because pattern fit is so nuanced and is different for every body. One is “Fitting and Pattern Alteration” a book myself and many of my students find very helpful. Another is a vintage gem, called “Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book”. This one is only $2 on Amazon and is what I used before the first book came out.
2nd- if a pattern is really vexing you, and you are just perplexed as to what the heck is going on, have you considered contacting the designer or pattern company? Independent pattern designers are very accessible, and care about your experience with their product that you purchased and who better to ask than the person who made the pattern. Also I have heard that the Big 4 companies like Simplicity, Butterick, Vogue, and McCalls are super accommodating when a pattern goes bad for their customers. You just have to call them.
Palmer Pletsch does a tissue fit class, which I saw many have success and break throughs with during the sewing camp I attended this year. One woman was almost about to give up sewing her own clothes because she couldn’t fit them, and stick with her quilting, and she took this class and her issues were solved. I have heard from 2 of my own students that this method wasn’t for them, but it's worth looking into.
Lesson 4: Not All Patterns are Created Equally
Another thing you can do, is try out different sewing pattern companies and alternatives. I will admit, I only started sewing indie patterns in the recent year. I always did Big 4 patterns and pattern hacked them if I wanted to change the design, in fact I grew up hacking them so I didn't know any other way.
I still sew them and get some great garments. However, I almost think you have to be more advanced with sewing to really get the most out of some of them because the instructions can be confusing if you aren’t familiar with the process and order of garment construction. If this is the case, you should really check out my Basic Patterns online class because I show you my process I use to read and use these patterns.
Some of my biggest wins this year have been with indie patterns, and I highly recommend them to those of you who are unfamiliar with garment construction, because sewing indie patterns are often like taking a sewing class! The instructions are so detailed and the pictures are very clear. And if you are struggling with fit, give some of these patterns a try. Most of the indie patterns I sew, I almost never have pattern alterations, which is so appreciated.
The patterns I have had the most success with that I can recommend to beginner sewers because of their careful instructions are Grainline Studio, Closet Case Files, Deer and Doe, and Victory Patterns. I can’t say all indie pattern makers are to the standards that these 4 have brought to my sewing, but I haven’t had as many lemons as when I started sewing these patterns. And my technical skills have grown too because of the tricks included in their instructions.
Lesson 5: I treat my wardrobe sewing like my cooking. It's become a domestic activity
It's improved our home, and our budget. My husband is a fashion guy, and thank God he now sews his own clothes too. I don’t necessarily treat my wardrobe sewing as my creative practice because I do have my own garments I design for the exploration of the potential and pleasure of surface design and abstract pattern making.
I need clothes to work in and go about my day to day, and wardrobe sewing is replacing the items I used to shop for- like underwear. I sew my own bras and undies now, and am saving so much money. The material costs for a bra are under $7, unless you are going all out on super luxury lace or buying ready to make kits.
I have taken time at the end of this year to learn clothing classic staples, and next on my list are jeans, something like lingerie, I never considered that I can sew for myself. My husband sews all of his own jackets, jeans, and tees, and it's definitely been a huge benefit to our budget as well as a great way that we spend time together.
Wardrobe sewing is like cooking- you follow a recipe. While I can’t say that sewing is always going to save you money, it's like food where you can make some incredible items for yourself, learning and enjoying the experience and it's much less than the cost of a restaurant.
Here’s me working on my exploratory sewing. I consider this to be my design practice and try to create a capsule collection each year to add to my portfolio. It keeps me happy and curious to discover new pathways in design and sewing.
Lesson 6: Don’t make too much!
I can’t believe this is a lesson, but it is. In the beginning because I had a surplus of fabric as I described above, I was cutting out 4 to 5 items at a time, and sewing them up. I did have a lot of holes in my wardrobe that forced me to do this, but this is where I did end up with the fails that I spoke of above. I didn’t know if the silhouettes were going to work, so instead of slowing down and doing some research and trying things on, I just went for it and speed sewed them up.
Now I sew one item at a time. And I make a muslin, which I didn’t do before because often the garments were simple styles and basic fits that I would make the adjustments right on the actual garment. If a garment is especially complex, and has a lot of details, bet your booty I’m making a muslin. But I also make a muslin to test the suitability now, so that I’m not being wasteful with my materials and am being very careful to ensure that what I’m making I’m going to love and wear for the long term.
If this garment is a super winner, I sew them up 2 or 3 times. Because I love the garment that much and it's on my regular rotation of wear.
Lesson 7: Consider the Seasonality of Where You Live
I’m born and raised in Iowa and I love winter wear and coats. Now I live in the south where it's at least 80 degrees 9 months out of the year. I just really don’t have a need, and my sewing time is valuable, so of course, I’m going to spend it sewing the items I’m going to wear the most. I really love layers, but just don’t have a need for many, so I analyze each project based its suitability and fit AND how often I will wear it. I really want to make a coat, but will likely wear it once. So unless we are moving northward, I’m going to invest that time into swimsuits and convert some of those coat patterns into light linen vests to wear as a layer over summer dresses.
Final Lesson 8: Where You Get Stuck, Frustrated, or Want to Give Up, is Just Showing You Your Next Learning Curve
I wanted to end with this, because in my classes, life, and conversations with other people, I have heard the frustrations and expressed my own.
The core frustration for I've seen for students is that first sew up that’s the real disappointment. I see folks spin out, stop, and get to the point where they are examining that one garment so intently for what they did wrong. It's not you or your level of knowledge, it can be a number of things.
Sometimes a princess seam is not as successful as what a waist and side dart bodice can achieve. Sometimes it really is how the pattern is drafted- this happened to me the other day and while I had tested the top, the bottom of a particular pattern must have been a size and a half smaller. The disappointment made me question my body, my shape, needing to work out, oh the rabbit hole.
Then I just remembered- hey, you have seen weird drafting Andrea- do what you know works and make it work. So I discarded the princess seams and made that bottom A-line and now have a dress I have received many compliments on. On the second go, I over came the frustration and made a garment that’s now a classic for my closet.
If fit’s the issue, that’s your next learning curve. Try out some different patterns, check out the books I mentioned, and seek other opinions. I know sewing lends itself to doing everything yourself, but speaking from my own experience, I had to get around other experienced makers to really grow and learn more tricks that I could not teach myself on my own. Taking the bra making class made me realize, I can really make EVERYTHING, it just takes investment and the willingness to learn from others.
The resistance and frustration shows up to force you to expand upon the ways you are doing things. It's time to explore, dig more, and and go beyond the internet and the videos on you tube. I have met people who have changed all my perspectives, like the master seamstress who taught me her tricks that allow me to sew a classic button down in under 2 hours- an unbelievable blessing.
Ah, you may be thinking, that’s not going to happen for me, I’m isolated where I’m at! Instead of staying in the frustration, lean into it, and trust, if this is showing up for me, something is about to change. The problem is there, but so is the solution. To find the solution, start by slowing shifting your patterns of how you think the solution will appear- likely the solution is a new way of learning that I guarantee you will find. And that makes life so much more interesting :)
Are you a lifelong learner too?In my email newsletter, I send articles to teach you sewing practices to create clothing that is meaningful to you. Sign up to receive email lessons on garment design, the latest blog posts and video tutorials, and all the latest class announcements and promotions.