(Re)learning to Sew


Last quarter, I taught a new course at University of Washington — En Vogue: From Feathers to Leather — about the animal, human and environmental impacts of the fashion industry and garment production (with a focus on leather, wool, feathers, and fur). Going into the course, I really had no idea how students would respond to the material. There’s always a chance that things will go awry with a new course. But the students were engaged and motivated by what we were learning together and we had an overall pretty productive quarter.

What I really wasn’t expecting was just how much I would learn about fashion and garment production throughout the quarter — I was so busy trying to anticipate what students would get out of the class that I forgot that a lot of this material was new to me. We read the book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline, which talks about the rise of fast fashion, sweatshop labor, and the general trend toward treating clothing as disposable. Cline explores throughout the book the history of garment production and reminds us that there was a time, not too many decades ago, when people knew how to sew and would make their own clothes. Or when people would buy ready-to-wear garments and then have them tailored to fit them.

What we’ve lost in the rise of fast fashion (and places like H&M, Forever 21, Walmart, etc.) is the ability to make and have control over how our clothes are produced and take shape. The result? A population walking around in cheaply made clothes that don’t fit us and supporting cruel and unjust labor practices around the world. When we dump our unwanted clothes at Goodwill, we don’t think about the enormous amount of clothing that leaves Goodwill as waste — shipped overseas and dumped on vulnerable populations who now have to deal with the environmental burden of Western overconsumption. We don’t think about the environmental and animal welfare burden of leather production, polyester or spandex production, or the devastating pollution created by processes like dyeing clothing.

In just one or two generations, the vast majority of us have lost the ability to sew. Indeed, many of my 18-21 year old students had no idea how to even sew on button. With the loss of sewing knowledge, we’ve also lost much of the sense of pride about the clothes we wear — because so many of our clothes are manufactured to be disposable (we may have many of them for only a few years before they wear out), we don’t think about how to make a garment last a life time, or at the least, for a decade or two.  This was one of the truths that hit my students and me the hardest throughout the quarter — the fact that relearning to sew, as a generation, could be a powerful statement about the kind of global citizens we wanted to be.

Sewing suddenly became political to us. And we were inspired! Not only was sewing a way to reclaim a lost art, a way to push back against capitalist globalization, unfair labor practices, and environmental degradation, sewing our own clothes also offered a way to avoid animal-derived materials in garments. Several of my students made their own clothing for their final projects — impressive, beautiful garments which they could take pride in wearing. Quietly, on my own, I started sewing again. My mother taught me to sew and it’s a skill I have tried to cultivate over the years. I had never made adult clothing before, so this was new to me and I started slowly — with a dress. It turned out well and I’ve worn it a few times, but I chose the wrong fabric and it is a cat hair magnet! This spring, I intend to look for patterns and make some spring/summer clothes. And maybe even design some of my own clothes. For now, though, I’m already daydreaming about making the jacket and pants in the picture above from Burda Style Patterns for next fall/winter.

Nowadays, you can purchase inexpensive PDF patterns online and print them out on scrap paper and tape them together and do it all at home. Fabric can be found at local thrift shops, or you can find lots of new ecofriendly fabrics online and at local fabric stores. In Seattle, many of the fabric stores have their own sewing classes for different levels, if you’re new to sewing and need to learn how. This is a great way to try out sewing and see if it’s for you before investing in a sewing machine and other sewing supplies. So I have to ask — do you all do any sewing? Have you ever made (or thought about making) your own clothes?

Photo Source: BurdaStyle.com

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  1. My mom has a theory that sewing skips generations. Her grandmother was a master seemstress, but her mother lacked those fine skills. She in turn learned from her grandmother, who lived with her growing up and made all of the family’s clothes. That legacy was passed on to my sister and I who largely wore homemade clothes until my sister attained tweenhood and put her footdown demanding esprit everything. In my early 20s I made a lot of my own clothes, but found it harder as I transitioned into more professional settings. ( my skills not being nearly as refined and my mothers).

    1. Leonie — That’s interesting! I really like the cross-generational dimension of sewing; that it’s a skill that is best passed down between two people (instead of reading a book to learn how to sew or something). My grandmother was/is a wonderful seamstress and made my mom’s clothes when she was growing up. My mom knows how to sew and made us wonderful Halloween costumes when I was a kid, but sewing wasn’t a common activity in our house when I was growing up. I agree that it can be hard when transitioning into more professional settings where clothes need to look more tailored and refined. I’m hoping to practice on some beginner and intermediate patterns with the hopes that I can tackle some more advanced garments some day. A blazer perhaps? Or some tailored pants! Thanks for sharing your experience! 🙂

  2. I never learned how to sew, knit or crochet. My mother did not do any of these things. My aunt did and would make wonderful gifts including a blanket she made for my wedding gift 18 years ago. I sometimes wish I new how since I am not happy with the quality of clothes I see and frankly we are not all the same size or shape. Maybe I should make this a goal. Did you create your dress by machine or hand? I don’t own a sewing machine but see some at reasonable prices. Thanks for sharing this thought. It might turn into a 2014 goal

    1. I created the dress on a machine. I think you’re right that there are some good deals on sewing machines, especially when you think of the long-term investment. Would love to hear if you end up doing any sewing projects! And I totally agree about the benefit of sewing something as a way to fit it to different body types. I’m forever looking for pants that actually fit my body properly — I’m hoping I can improve my skills enough to make some! 🙂

  3. I would love to have this skill and took an intro class at a community college a few years back. Oh my goodness, it was a disaster because I couldn’t figure out the sewing machine and I just didn’t have a lot of patience to learn! I have a huge amount of respect for people who know how to make things, but I guess my time in the kitchen satisfies that outlet for me. 🙂

    1. Totally! I really do think about time in the kitchen (especially making up recipes) as creative time. Love it. 🙂

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