A handmade wardrobe

sewing frenzy 1
Everyday Skirt (size 14) in Robert Kaufman chambray union light, and Aster Shirt (size 12) in Luminous Crosshatch Straw

For the past few months, I have been inspired by several maker blogs that focus on apparel sewing.  I had been thinking for some time about sewing my own clothes, but often felt too frustrated and intimidated by the process. However, the posts of other bloggers, particularly Karen Templer of Fringe Association, really made me think about some crucial issues, as well as the concept of honing down my wardrobe to several basic, well-made pieces that all worked together. What a relief it would be to go to my closet and have only a few pieces – but beautiful, well-made pieces – to pick and choose from! That might seem like a strange thing to say, but it feels like the more clothes I have, the less I appreciate each piece, and the more overwhelming it is to figure out what to wear each day. In any case, I just end up wearing the same core pieces over and over, so why do I have a closet full?

I did know how to sew, and I’d sewed clothes for my daughters, but I’d never successfully sewed my own clothes – at least, not pieces that I ended up liking in terms of fit. I was worried that if I tried it again, I’d have the same frustrating results, so I decided to buy a few private lessons at Modern Domestic, a great sewing/fabric store in Portland, and see if I could learn some tips that would get me started.

sewing frenzy 6
Scout Tee (size 14) in Robert Kaufman chambray and Everyday Skirt (size 14) in Robert Kaufman chambray union light

I began the lessons in late July, and since then I’ve sewn an Everyday Skirt (Leisl + Co), two Scout Tees (Grainline), two Tiny Pocket Tanks (Grainline), a Zinnia Skirt (Colette), two Aster Shirts (Colette), two tank dresses that my instructor and I hacked from a store-bought dress, the Tofino Pants (Sewaholic), and I’m currently working on the Moss Skirt and Lark Tee (both Grainline). I feel like I’ve learned so much through this process, not just in terms of technical sewing knowledge, but even more, what it takes to try to sew a wardrobe that I will actually wear. I sat down and put to paper some of those thoughts:

Lesson One: Fabric Matters
I guess I should have already known this, given what I know about the importance of choosing the right yarn for a knitting project, but I think it might be even more crucial with sewing apparel projects. Unfortunately, while a knitting pattern will have a recommended yarn – whatever the sample was knit in – the same is not true with sewing patterns. Instead, the pattern lists only broad categories: cotton, lawn, etc. A good pattern might give some further recommendations about how light or heavy the fabric should be, the drape of the fabric, etc., but most of the time, all you’ve got to go on is “cotton.” Of course, that’s like listing the yarn for a knitting pattern as “wool.” What weight, gauge, hand, drape, and a million other descriptive terms? My most successful sewing projects were sewn with the exact fabric that my instructor recommended – and, I found, it’s much easier to buy a pattern you like and then find a good fabric to sew it in, rather than picking out a fabric you love, and then trying to match it to a pattern. Sometimes I was steered away from fabrics I really liked and agreed to choose something I wasn’t as crazy about, but I always liked the end result better than when I plowed ahead with a fabric I was drawn to, even if it wasn’t ideal for the pattern I was working on. The moral of this story: choose your pattern, then get help from knowledgeable experts in a fabric store to choose the best possible fabric for your particular project.

sewing frenzy 2
Zinnia Skirt (size 14) in Robert Kaufman chambray dot, and Aster Shirt (size 12) in an unknown stash fabric

Lesson Two: The Right Tools Make All The Difference
As in so many handcrafting hobbies, I found that a few crucial tools made a world of difference. First amongst these were sewing machine feet – I quickly acquired an overcast foot, an edgestitching foot, a foot with a seam guide, and several others. Even though they’re a little expensive, they’re well worth in if you plan to keep sewing clothes. The reason: they allow your sewing to be more precise, especially the stitches that you will see when the project is done, and it is the preciseness of these lines that makes your project look professional. A straight and even seam line goes a long way to making a project look well done! Sewing feet and other tools take a lot of the guesswork and struggle out of the project. Some of my favorites (all under $10): a seam guide, Wonder Tape (for adhering buttons so they stay in place while you’re sewing them on), a chalk marker, and Swedish tracing paper (for tracing and customizing your patterns – this might be more like $15).

Lesson Three: Get Help!
When I began this journey, I already knew how to sew – I’d sewed many quilts, blankets, tote bags, curtains, pillows, etc – all things that didn’t require much fitting! I had also sewed a lot of cute dresses for my three daughters. But once they got old enough that they didn’t want to wear what I sewed for them, I wanted to try sewing my own clothes. The problem: every time I sewed something for myself, I felt like it fit poorly. I was following the directions, so what was I doing wrong? I decided that there must be some tricks of the trade that I didn’t know about, so I signed up for a series of private lessons with a sewing instructor at one of Portland’s great sewing and fabric stores. This was immensely helpful, not only in teaching me important techniques, but also in teaching me little tricks and tips that are never in the published sewing patterns, and in increasing my overall confidence.

sewing frenzy 3
Tofino Pants (size 14) in Luminous Big Love Candy, and Scout Tee (size 14) in Kona shot cotton

Lesson Four: Be Prepared to Sew a Pattern More Than Once
I almost never knit the same pattern more than once, especially if it’s a sweater – let’s face it, a lot of time and yarn money go into one sweater! Sewing a piece of clothing takes less time than knitting, although it doesn’t go as quickly as you might think when reading the pattern because set-up (pressing and pinning in a hem, for instance) often takes as much as 3-4 times as long as the actual sewing. Nonetheless, for me it was much more feasible to sew a pattern twice than it has been to knit a pattern twice. Which is a good thing, because I think you have to sew each item you make at least twice in order to achieve a good fit. Once I accepted this – and looked at it as an opportunity to try out different fabrics – I was a lot happier with my finished products. I will likely wear the “first run” items I sewed, but it’s the tops and skirts that I sewed a second, or even third or fourth time around, that I like the most. I think this is especially true with tops, because the fit tends to be much more exacting than with a skirt (unless the skirt is form-fitting- most of mine had some gathering, so the fit wasn’t so exact).

Lesson Five: Fabrics Cut on the Bias Can Help With a Flattering Fit
My greatest success was when my instructor and I took a factory-sewn dress that I liked the style and fit of, and hacked a pattern straight from the dress. It was extremely easy – no sleeves – but the final result was beautiful, so much so that I sewed two of the dresses, and I’m working on a third. While working on this project, I learned a lot about cutting fabric on the bias – how it is much more difficult and expensive, since it requires a lot more fabric, but how it also can result in a much more flattering fit, because fabric cut on the bias stretches and drapes in a way that helps positively accentuate your form. I now look for patterns where at least part of the apparel piece is sewn on the bias, because I think it’s much more likely that the result will be a flattering fit.

sewing frenzy 4
Tiny Pocket Tanks (size 14) without pocket, in Robert Kaufman chambray union light and Nani Iro double gauze Poppy Trip Kuso

Lesson Six: Sewing Bias Tape is an Essential Skill
I discovered that of the most essential – and difficult parts of sewing any kind of shirt or top that looks like it fits well is how it fits around the neck (and armholes, if it’s sleeveless). By and large, this is a matter of how well you sew (and edgestitch) the bias tape. One great trick I learned: if the neckline seems to gap or hang open, it means that you need to tighten up the bias tape a little. In other words, when you’re pinning the bias tape to the neckline, pull on it – just a little. It’s very stretchy (of course, since it’s cut on the bias) so you don’t want to overdo it, but by increasing the tension on the bias tape, you’ll help tighten the neckline a little, to prevent gapping. Good pressing will help too, but it won’t completely solve the problem of a neckline that gaps or hangs open.

Lesson Seven: Choose Your Patterns Carefully
I have found that I prefer the patterns published by independent designers much more than the traditional patterns (McCalls, Butterick, etc). However, the independent patterns are much more uneven in terms of a good fit, clear directions, etc. For that reason, once I find a designer that I like, I’m inclined to buy more of that line of patterns. For instance, I’ve found Grainline patterns to be explained clearly and to actually fit a wide variety of “real” women’s shapes. Because a pattern often doesn’t have a single photograph of the actual item, being worn by an actual person, I found it very helpful to use Pinterest and Instagram to see how the finished product was being sewn – and worn – by real women. If I saw a variety of women in different shapes and sizes, all able to wear the piece and have it look flattering on them, then I knew that it was the pattern for me!

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From-scratch dress pattern in Robert Kaufman Brussels Washer yarn dye black (55% linen / 45% rayon) (left), and an unidentified 100% linen fabric from Bolt Fabric Store (right)

In the next couple of weeks, I will post photos of me wearing my newly sewn wardrobe – I think you get a much better feel for how the pieces look and fit when someone is wearing them, but it’s a lot more time-consuming to put together that kind of a photo shoot 🙂

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2 comments on “A handmade wardrobe

  1. You’ve been so productive! Your sewn items look so lovely. The ladies at Modern Domestic have also helped me start my diy wardrobe experience. So far I’ve finished the Tiny Pocket tank in chambray and I wear it all the time. Looks like we have similar taste in patterns! ????

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