The case for slow fashion.
What I’ve realized when sewing (and baking and knitting,) is that what I really want is to find value in smaller things. In things beyond money and power and prestige. I know there are better options for all of us. Making things for myself and for the people I love is my better option.
To be honest, I don’t know how it all started. Sewing has always been a part of my life, even though, until recently, I wasn’t actually the one doing the sewing. The whir of a machine was the background noise of my childhood. I’m used to pulling stray threads from my jeans, and I spent many long summer afternoons sorting my mom’s fabric scraps with my cousin. But even though my mom taught me to sew when I was younger, I was never really interested in it, like I was with my other hobbies. I remember flipping through thick pattern books at the store, but it was easier to just let her make things for me. Like many things we learn when we’re young, I never really forgot how to sew. But my skills were dusty. I was scared to try again. To relearn something I never felt particularly good at to begin with.
Since college I’ve dragged an old Bernina sewing machine from apartment to apartment, city to city. It gathered dust in a corner, pulled out on occasion to hem a pair of pants or fix a seam. So I don’t really know what possessed me to sit down at Joann’s and flip through pattern books when I’d come in to buy a replacement button.But I did, and I bought fabric and thread and bias tape too.
I cut out and began my first dress (Simplicity 1080) that night, staying up until 3 am, ending up puffy eyed and overly caffeinated at work the next day. All I wanted, throughout my long day of classes and meetings and office hours, was to go home so I could finish my dress. It took me until 11pm that second night. It was full of its mistakes and imperfections, and I redid the pockets twice. But when I finally tried it on after all of those hours of work I knew it was true love.
That was two months ago and I’ve been hooked since. I had no idea what I was doing, but I kept doing it. And my hems got less wonky, and patterns took me less time to figure out. I learned how to put in a zipper and an invisible zipper, to stitch a facing, add in-seam pockets, and mark even buttonholes. It is easy, in a world of perfect Instagram posts, to focus on the finished product and to measure oneself against other people. But real skill takes time. It can’t just be about the product. It has to be about something else too. It’s about the way it feels to wake up and sit down at my sewing machine. About buttoning up the back of a particularly challenging dress after finishing the last hem. About finding that perfect pattern or piece of fabric, and envisioning the garment it could become. It has to be about walking through the world, wearing something I made, and feeling just a little bit more special and different and confident for it, not so I can post a picture, but because I believe in the importance of making things myself. It’s about cultivating a love of the craft.
As adults, we aren’t really encouraged to learn new skills. We’re supposed to decide who we are and what we like, what we want to do with our lives, so early, before we’ve really had the time to try. So many people act like being bad at something is the worst possible thing. But you have to fail at it first if you want to get good. Sewing is something that no one is great at right away. There are many steps and pieces, literal and figurative, to figure out, even for advanced sewists. Whether you dive straight into a dress (like I did) or start with something small mistakes are inevitable. But every wonky hem, every seam I ripped out a re-sewed made me better. It has been frustrating. I am not too proud to say I’ve cried over difficult instructions and missewn sleeves. But all the hard parts are worth it.
There will always be jobs I don’t get, magazines that reject my stories, and people that don't want to give me a chance. But when I put on a dress I made myself, that I cut out, and marked, and seamed, and top stitched in the little back room of my little apartment, all of those rejections, all the times I’ve failed, and all the things that haven't turned out how I hoped, just sort of fade away. I want to say it feels powerful, but that is not quite the right word. Because it is about more than just me. Making something yourself means choosing not to participate in fast fashion. It’s one less shirt in a landfill and one fewer hour of exploited labor. It’s a personal choice and a political one. And maybe there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all try to do better in the ways that we can.
I know not everyone can sew, or has access to the tools to learn. I know in many ways it is privilege to be able to afford fabric and even more so, to have the time and energy to make my own clothes. But for me, as summer winds on, working towards a 70% handmade wardrobe has become a feasible goal. What I’ve realized when sewing (and baking and knitting,) is that what I really want is to find value in smaller things. In things beyond money and power and prestige. I know there are better options for all of us. Making things for myself and for the people I love is my better option.
Sewing isn’t new, and it probably isn’t that cool. Like most work done by women it is historically undervalued, and thought of as obsolete or boring. But I love it. I really do. Since that first dress I’ve sewn twenty-two garments. That feels big. It isn’t how I thought my summer would go, or what I imagined I’d be doing, but I am proud of it. I know something I didn’t know two months ago. And maybe it is all coincidence, but my life has felt more vivid and awake since then. Learning something new can make everything feel new. It feels like there’s a lot of power in that.
Want to cultivate your own love of craft? Here are some resources to get you started.
Love at First Stitch by Tilly Walnes
The Colette Sewing Handbook: Inspired Styles and Classic Techniques for the New Seamstress by Sarai Mitnick
Stretch by Tilly Walnes
Seams to Me by Anna Maria Horner
Sew Many Dresses, Sew Little Time by Tanya Whelan