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From Issue #17 May 23, 2013

A Ribbon Runs Through It

When one sews one’s own clothes, the questions have a common thread.

By Erin McKean Twitter icon 

“When did you start sewing?” I’m asked, and I reply, “When I was 12,” which is the truth, but the real question should be “When did you start to love sewing?” The answer to that has actual documentary evidence, in the form of a snapshot, the kind that today makes you think “bad Instagram filter.”

My friend N. and I are both about 15. We’re grinning, with my braces on full display, as we hold up the ribbons we won at a summer Latin competition. (It is an extremely geeky picture.) I’ve been sewing for a couple of years, but only in fits and starts, with more unfinished, overambitious projects wadded up in the sewing closet than finished dresses. My mom made my dress, and my friend N. is wearing the dress I made from the same pattern.

We’re on our way to the dance, and there will be cute boys there — cute boys who think it’s awesome that N. and I kick ass at tests of Latin derivatives and are wearing slightly weird, obviously homemade dresses. This is one of the first times (if not the first time) that I realize life is for doing — and wearing — what makes me so happy in the company of like-minded folks.

Every new dress I make evokes that feeling again. In a new dress, anything can happen.

How long is a piece of thread?

“How long does it take you to make a dress?” they ask. “Four hours if it’s a pattern I’ve made before, a bit longer if it’s something new or complicated or if there are a lot of buttonholes,” is the hedge-filled answer, and sometimes these calculations are visible.

It just takes so long to drive to the mall or the department store or to wander down a street of little boutiques, so long to surf through favorite shopping sites, to check the daily-deal emails, so much time to try things on, to stand in line at the post office to return something. None of which are as enjoyable as the snip of the scissors through the fabric, the hiss of the iron pressing a seam flat, or even the held-breath suspense of checking to see if the zipper lined up right.

Four hours sewing late on a Sunday night, after everyone else has gone to sleep, in order to wake up and put on a new dress the next morning; five hours on a Saturday afternoon with rap music blaring as accompaniment to a tricky fitting problem; a three-hour marathon session cutting out several dresses at once, until my hands get sore and the podcast queue is empty. Plus the time spent browsing fabric Web sites over my breakfast, or running to the fabric store in the Mission in the middle of a project because the spool ran out of black thread with one last seam to go.

I don’t sew to save time; I sew because I enjoy the time I spend sewing.

Thank you for your support

“I love your dress! Is it vintage?” the clerk at that same fabric store asks me while cutting me three yards of lightweight twill with little black and gray heart-and-lightning-bolt amalgams on it. I’m daydreaming about what I’ll make — a shirtdress? another Vogue 9929? — and so she asks me again.

“It’s from a vintage pattern.” I used a metal zipper, too, just to make it more vintage-y, so it’s not a dumb question. I like this dress, but I’m self-conscious about the patch pockets, which are not quite perfect. I never get them exactly right. It took a few years, but I no longer respond automatically to dress compliments with an apology for its imperfections.

“Oh, but is the fabric vintage? It looks vintage.”

“I bought the fabric in Japan, I think. Five or six years ago, so kinda vintage.” Now she’s cutting me four yards of bright pink seersucker plaid. It will look gorgeous (and feel marvelous, light, and billowy) as a big full skirt.

“Oh, yes, it looks Japanese.” The print is little white, red, and brown birds on a mustard background, but I know what she means. (Japanese fabric is not all red chrysanthemums picked out in gold paint.)

On this particular Saturday afternoon of running errands, four people tell me they love this dress: the nice barista at Blue Bottle (who reads my blog, so that doesn’t really count), that fabric cutter, the clerk who rings me up, and a woman who calls out to me on the street as she walks by with her friends: “I love your dress!”

My response is always the same: “Thank you very much.”

I sew only to please myself, but (as happens with so many things) the more I like a particular dress, the more public approbation it receives. I don’t think it’s because my dresses are examples of exquisite craftsmanship (those wonky patch pockets!). It’s because I look happy while wearing them.

I am not a billboard

“Where did you get that dress?” I like full skirts, bright colors, and loud prints (especially camouflage, alphabet prints, and bold stripes), but even my weirdest clothes can make me feel safely invisible in a way: it’s almost impossible to tell how much they cost.1

When you make your own clothes you can opt out, to some extent, from participating in brand culture: there are no labels, no logos, no convenient shorthand ways for people to pigeonhole you by your clothes. You have to be dealt with as a special case; you are distinctively anonymous. Nobody knows where you bought that dress.

There is, of course, another way to escape fashion-branding hegemony. William Gibson outlines it in his description of Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition:

CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That’s what Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention.

What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She’s a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult.

But dressing in CPUs (as cool as it is) means you miss out on color, most shapes, and flair. Unless you make everything, you have to participate in brand culture to some extent — but Cayce-like, I prefer what are now called “heritage” brands. These are brands that have had such long lives that they aren’t tied to one time, place, or group: A Levi’s jean jacket. Keds. Plain penny loafers and ballet flats, plain T-shirts, plain cotton cardigans. Since most people’s wardrobes are built of solid-colored separates, they want elaborate accessories, so the simple option (not printed, no logos, without snazzy buttons or “jewels,” without ruffles or trim or decorative anything) is harder and harder to find, and almost always more expensive.

If I’m going to be judged by what I wear, I want what I wear to be as direct a reflection of myself as possible.

That said, I am not judging your jeans

“Do you ever wear…regular clothes?” These questioners come the closest to suspecting that “regular clothes” make me antsy and that my “fun hobby” might be near-as-dammit to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The joke answer is that since I started blogging about sewing, people feel disappointed if I’m conventionally clad. But the truth is that if I don’t wear something I’ve sewn myself I feel disappointed and not myself; it’s like I’m wearing a costume.

The last time I had to buy a pair of “regular” jeans was for a costume, a tease-a-colleague work prank. I went to the big flagship Levi’s store in San Francisco’s Union Square. I was probably the only person in the store wearing a skirt. It was just before closing and the stacks of jeans were tumbled and mauled, but I found a couple of pairs in what the label numbers said were my size.

They were not my size: waist and inseam measurements are necessary but not sufficient to find jeans that fit, and in my rush I had grabbed pairs from the wrong table. (Evidently I should have been looking for the Sir Mix-a-Lot table — “Oh my god. Becky, look at her butt!”)

I don’t think it matters how good you feel about your body: trying on clothes that don’t fit always makes you feel lacking in some way. (Why do we get mad at ourselves when clothes don’t fit?) I make my clothes to suit my body, not my body to suit my clothes. This is not to say that I don’t have “fat day” clothes, but sewing keeps me more in touch with (and forgiving of) those fluctuations. People sometimes tell me that they want to be at their “right” weight before they start sewing, but they have it backwards. When you wear clothes you really like that really fit, you feel better about your body and more inclined to take care of it.2

Another reason that wearing “regular” clothes sucks: 90% of ready-to-wear women’s clothing has inadequate pockets or no pockets at all. What I carry in my pockets every day: my phone, one or two pens, a lipstick, my wallet, a 3.5×5.5 notebook, my keys. Sometimes I throw in my sunglasses case, my earbuds, and an extra light or two for my bike. (My pocket role model is Harpo Marx: someday I will fit a mannequin leg and a puppy in my pockets, with space left over for a sled.)

My daily haul wouldn’t be that notable for a guy in a sports coat, but when I start pulling things out of my pockets in front of other women, their response is always the same: “I wish my clothes had pockets.”

My hatred for the handbag-industrial complex probably verges on the irrational, but you can’t tell me that the rise of the expensive-designer-handbag fetish and the lack of pockets in women’s clothing are purely coincidental. Pockets are a feminist issue: how much more could women accomplish if we had the full use of both arms?

Not for sale

The most uncomfortable questions always circle around selling: “Do you ever sew for other people?” “Do you sell what you make?” “Could you make me something?” I always feel selfish saying, no, my clothes aren’t for sale. Sewing professionally would turn my hobby into a job.

Professional work brings in all the worst parts of sewing: fitting, alterations, and slippery fabric. I don’t want to sew corsets, wedding dresses, or even trousers. Besides, no one would want to pay what I’d need to charge to make a living at it.

There’s a reason that all the clothes sold at the big retailers are made far away, by people making pennies an hour. My time costs me nothing; being my own sweatshop weirdly counts as entertainment. But the economics of sewing for other people just doesn’t work.

If they look disappointed at my lack of hireability, I try to sell them instead on the idea that they should try making their own clothes. It’s not a case of Tom Sawyer and the whitewash; sewing is hugely interesting, fun, fulfilling, and creative, and it’s not as hard as it seems. “If you can drive a car and follow a recipe, you can sew,” I say. “You just have to be able to use an accelerator pedal, measure stuff, and follow instructions.”

YouTube is crammed with videos that will show you how to do all the tricky things I had to learn from the “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.” There are sites (like BurdaStyle and PatternReview.com) that host feedback on patterns, show off finished garments, and even run online classes. And there are even places that will rent you a sewing machine by the hour.

The hardest thing to describe, however, is the feeling of putting on something that is your idea made real. That reification is familiar to anyone who makes, whether coder, chef, knitter, brewer, or beyond. And the more practice you get in making your ideas real, the easier it is to have bigger and bigger ideas. I don’t think I’d be working at a startup today if I hadn’t started sewing as a kid.

Asked and answered

I don’t really mind having these conversations, even the “will-you-make-me” ones, because talking about sewing is inherently pleasurable, and I will talk about sewing every chance I get. Traveling is an excuse to buy fabric; going to a wedding or giving a talk is an excuse to make a new dress. Heck, a sunny Tuesday is an excuse to make a new dress.

And it’s good that I’m happy to answer these questions forever, because I can’t imagine a future me who wouldn’t want to spend her Saturday mornings flooring the sewing machine’s pedal. When I plan for my inevitable old age, I think about what tech might keep me sewing. I’m thinking industrial exoskeletons, or probably a variation on 3D printing.

The “what” I sew might change — perhaps I’ll get deep into tailoring, or asymmetric Japanese patterns, or printing my own fabric — but I never want to lose that 15-year-old’s feeling that the world is a place for the exuberant indulgence of enthusiasm.

Illustration by Caty Bartholomew.3


  1. A typical dress for me costs anywhere from $10–$75 in fabric, made from a pattern that costs anything from free (sometimes people send me their patterns so they can live out their lives in a happy place, like sending your cat or dog to a farm) to $20 or so. Add in another few dollars for notions (buttons, thread) — and completely ignore the thousand dollars or so in sewing equipment (sewing machine, $100 iron, scissors, and so on). 

  2. Even if you don’t sew, it’s hugely worthwhile to take clothing in for alterations. Buy garments that fit in the shoulders and bust and hips, and get the length and waist changed to suit you just as you are now. 

  3. Caty Bartholomew is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and a master of both paint and pixels. She’s also a highly acclaimed teacher of toy design and illustration at Parsons and at City College of New York. 

Erin McKean is the founder of Wordnik, a blogger at www.dressaday.com, and the author of four books about words (including Totally Weird and Wonderful Words), one novel (The Secret Lives of Dresses), and a fashion field guide (The Hundred Dresses, coming in June 2013).

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