Before the first mass production of off-the-rack clothes, people either consulted a tailor or made their own. The earliest known sewing machine was patented by Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal in 1755, and the lockstitch sewing machine was invented in America by Walter Hunt in 1832. Walter Hunt’s lockstitch sewing machine is the model upon which all modern domestic sewing machines are based.
The first mass-produced, ready-to-wear clothes were military uniforms for the War of 1812, after which ready-to-wear men’s civilian clothing became widely available, but ready-to-wear women’s clothing was not a thing until the early 20th century.
Fast forward to 2015. I do a lot of sewing. I have made a variety of garments, from a simple singlet to a 19th century ball gown. If you are an experienced seamstress/tailor, you can agree that a singlet is a no-brainer. A 19th century ball gown, however, would require a little more skill than what it takes to stitch up a singlet. When I am wearing a garment that I have made myself, I get compliments all around, but the one that irks me most is, “Wow. I can’t even sew on a button.”
Okay, before we continue, here is a tutorial on how to sew on a button by hand. No excuses now. Voila! Now you know how to sew on a button!
Now, onto other reasons you should learn how to sew.
#5. You will have something unique, and it will fit
You walk into a fashion boutique, see a dress and think “OMG, This is awesome!” You try it on, love it, buy it, and wear it to a club… only to see another woman wearing the same dress. If that were me, I would shrug it off, and think, “Meh. Whatever.” Others, however, might not be so dismissive. I don’t know what a man’s reaction would be if he saw another man wearing the exact same shirt as him, but legend has it that the two men would become best mates by the end of the night.
Alternatively, you step into a Spotlight, Clegs, Lincraft or other store, flick through the pattern books, and see a gorgeous dress. Same reaction. You get your pattern, and browse through the shop, looking for a fabric that equally grabs your attention to make the dress with. You find one that you like, and then go and pick out a matching zipper, thread and other items that you require. After you’ve brought your stash home, you chop it up and make it into the dress, and it looks AWESOME. You take a photo of your dress, and upload it to your Instagram, Facebook and/or Pinterest. You go out, but the chances of you running into another woman wearing the same dress appears to be very remote.
The major sewing pattern manufacturers are Vogue, Butterick, McCalls, Burda and Simplicity (which also incorporates the New Look range of sewing patterns). They have a variety of garments for men, women and children, and have bridal/formal, casual, corporate, sportswear and intimate apparel. With the exception of Vogue, there are plenty of cosplay, Halloween and historical costumes. Vogue has the additional perk of having patterns by high fashion designers, including Donna Karan. You can try your luck with finding out-of-print patterns in op shops or online via eBay or Etsy.
Further, walk into any fabric store, whether it be a large chain store such as Spotlight or an independent store, and you will see a vast range of fabrics to choose from. The fabrics will vary in quality, depending on the stockist and where the fabric was sourced. Any good retailer will tell you how to care for the fabric, with stores such as Clegs printing the care instructions on the purchase receipt when you buy fabric from their stores. I am a regular customer at Clegs and I have seen the care instructions printed on every receipt from all my fabric purchases. And they do have some lovely fabrics!
#4. It will work out cheaper (for the most part) than buying off the rack
This is debatable. If we’re talking children’s clothing, it may not be. Op shops sell children’s clothing relatively cheaply, and in families with at least three children, the younger ones tend to get the hand-me-downs from their older siblings. As anyone with children can testify, children grow out of their clothes pretty quickly.
For a fully grown adult, on the other hand, it may well be cheaper. So, let’s put this idea to the test.
Exhibit A: Alannah Hill, “Take Me to Paris” dress. Compare Vogue pattern 8969, View A, or Vogue pattern 1424. While these are not identical, what they have in common is that they are a sleeveless, knee-length dress with a back (or side) zip closure. The Alannah Hill dress has a price tag of AUD$299.00, and is made of a 95% polyester, 5% elastane fabric. Suggested fabrics for the patterns are poplin, crepe and jersey (for V8969) and moderate stretch knits, Ponte knit, jersey and cotton knit (V1424), which are not too far away from the fabric used in the Alannah Hill dress. The ready-to-wear dress is fully lined, and both sewing patterns call for a lining.
The Vogue sewing patterns are the most expensive of the major brand patterns, and can retail for as much as $25 in the stores. Periodically, the large chain stores such as Spotlight hold pattern sales, offering discounts on paper patterns. In the past, Spotlight have had specials on Vogue patterns for as little as $5. Alternatively, you can find them on eBay or in op shops for much cheaper. Care should be taken when sourcing patterns from op shops, on the off-chance that a pattern might be missing a piece, if the pattern has been cut. Uncut, factory-folded patterns are best.
As for the price of thread, a 500m roll of Birch thread alone can cover multiple sewing projects and I have never bought a 500m roll of Birch thread for more than $2. Guttermann thread is the best, but it is expensive. Mettler is as good, still expensive but not as much as Guttermann. I have found that Birch thread does the job just as well as Guttermann or Mettler, and you can buy 500m rolls in a variety of colours without the extra expense.
I have used the Clegs online store and V1484 only, for referencing fabric prices below.
V1484 dress (size 12):
Fabric: Viva Ponti 2 way stretch knit – 2 metres @ $29.99 per metre – $59.98
Lining: Stretch lining – 1.6m @AUD$10.99 per metre – $17.58
Zipper: Zip dress nylon 22″ zipper – $1.65
For an experienced seamstress with an ample supply of sewing patterns and thread, this dress will cost $79.21 to make – a saving of $219.79. Add the cost of the thread and the pattern itself to the total, and it’s $106.21 – still cheaper than the off-the-rack designer dress.
Vogue patterns are generally the best for corporate and office attire and haute couture, but what about everyday casual clothes? Unless you shop at op shops, casual wear can be hit-and-miss. If you’re a cosplayer, however, there are plenty of historical costume patterns on offer from McCall’s, Butterick and Simplicity that are museum quality. It may still cost a packet to make a period costume such as these two Butterick patterns, or a character costume such as this Game of Thrones-inspired pattern from McCall’s, but you could save a packet as opposed to having it made for you. Lastly, if you find someone who can make a wedding gown for $20, forget it – because in many cases, you get what you paid for.
#3. The fashion industry will have to do some soul-searching
First, here’s an entry on the fashion industry from Encyclopaedia Britannica, which gives a comprehensive explanation of the history of the fashion industry and contemporary practices.
The fashion industry has come under fire in recent years, with accusations of sweatshop labour, child labour and the like, particularly in developing countries such as China, Bangladesh and Honduras. More links to websites raising concerns over sweatshop labour in the textiles industry can found here, here, here and here.
And it is still happening, as these Norwegian fashion bloggers discovered when they visited Cambodia. Big-name brands have been caught in scandals relating to sweatshop labour. For those who are thinking, “What’s a sweatshop?”, sweatshop labour usually involves workers being paid a pittance, working in unsafe and/or unsavoury conditions, working long hours and/or children working in these conditions. It doesn’t just happen in developing nations, however – it’s happening in Australia too. There are organisations that are stepping up to the plate in the fight against sweatshop labour, with Oxfam, Ethical Clothing Australia and the Clean Clothes Campaign raising awareness and addressing the issue of sweatshop labour in the textiles industry.
Granted, hand-made clothing by small sellers can present challenges of its own, as detailed in this blog. However, if a good portion of the population learned sewing and made their own clothes, it would reduce demand on ready-to-wear clothing. It could be seen as a form of protest against the unethical practices of the fashion industry as noted in the above paragraph. When the profit lines start to drop, the fashion houses that are in the thick of the sweatshop scandal are going to have to rethink their business model. As for the workers in those sweatshops, you are not so much putting them out of a job so much as protesting against their exploitation. Which brings us to…
#2. It is more sustainable than ready-to-wear clothing
Millions of off-the-rack garments end up in landfill every year. If it’s not the ones that don’t sell, it’s the ones that do sell but are worn a few times (or not at all) before going to the op shop donation collection points. The business model of the “fast fashion” or “disposable fashion” fashion houses is of particular concern, which have a higher burden on the environment as succinctly pointed out here by the Slow Fashion Movement, another movement focusing on sustainable and ethical fashion. Other alternatives such as swap meets, other forms of ethical fashion (many of which is very compatible with the home made sewing), upcycling and thrift shops/op shops.
By sewing your own, you have complete control over the quality of the fabric, thread and other sewing notions such as zippers. If you skimp out on quality and your handmade garment falls apart, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
#1. You will gain a new appreciation for how much work goes into making a garment
I am not completely against ready-to-wear. I have bought corsets and other items that were beyond my level of expertise at the time I bought them. It is convenient, and a viable option for anyone who is time-poor.
Sewing is an art. In my opinion, mass-produced clothing takes the heart and soul out of creating a garment. Instead of a lovingly crafted garment that reflects the personality of the person who made it (or the person it was made for), mass-produced clothing is cut in bulk on industrial cutters and sewn on a super-fast machine, like components put together on an assembly line. Please refer to the link below for the Sewing Sustainably with Style blog – she explains it in greater detail than what I have room for here. If you’re too lazy to scroll down, here’s the link.
However, I can justify the price tag on various garments, knowing how much work would go into a comparable garment that was put together on a domestic sewing machine. Sewing machinists in Australia are paid a minimum base hourly rate of $16.87 for a trainee, to $20.87 for someone at the highest skill grade. Casual rates and penalty rates are higher (Source: Fair Work Ombudsman). A sewing machinist has the right to a living wage, just like you do.
Generally speaking, the more seams that need to be sewn, the longer it will take to complete a garment. On a domestic sewing machine, a pair of trousers can take 2-3 hours, while it took me in excess of 40 hours to make this Victorian era ball gown. And it took me a good half a day to make the long version of this dress.
At the end of the day, you have something to show for all that hard work. And that is priceless.
An Approaching of Social Classes: How ready-to-wear changed society and its relationship to Fashion by Priscila Weigandt (link)
Sewing Sustainably with Style blog (link)
Sewaholic blog (link)
Pretty in Green: How to dress sustainably (link)
Shedding light on textile recycling (link)