Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Folly of Sewing Your Own Wardrobe? Perhaps Not!

Good evening from Very Small Closet Headquarters!

All throughout my teens and beyond, I worked in the costume shop of a repertory theatre company in Salinas, California. It was there that I learned to sew, to mock up patterns, and to do a modest bit of tailoring. I loved being involved in the creation of some truly amazing costumes. The designers and first hands were unbelievably talented, and I was really lucky to be able to learn from some of the best in the business.

Although I graduated from the costume shop with some decent sewing skills, I never really achieved the proficiency required to sew my own wardrobe. I did try...I have made some really nice outfits for myself over the years...but sewing is a time-consuming hobby, and my end products didn't really seem to be worth the time investment. Then, too, I discovered that bought patterns had the terrible habit of producing ill-fitting garments...and instead of the "couture" look I had been imagining, my clothes always had that unmistakable "homemade" look. I even tried some of the pattern-making software available, but still had problems.

Considering the incredible time investment, the lack of good patterns, and the deplorable fabrics available in the local fabric stores, I decided that trying to sew your own wardrobe from scratch was folly indeed.

But the funniest thing has happened...I've noticed that a great number of visiters to my blog and website are sewers...and some pretty impressive sewers, at that!! all you sewers out there, this post is for you! :-)

I'd love to do a post on the pros and cons of sewing your own clothing...and who better to help me out than all of you. I'm interested to hear all about your adventures in sewing...your motivations, what advice you might have, and how much of your wardrobes you sew yourselves. Please feel free to introduce yourselves here, or you can contact me through my wardrobe planning website.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you!

Jennifer Skinner


Anonymous said...

it is so funny that you had brought this topic up because I have begun to sew an entire wardrobe of clothing for myself and my new "small" closet! (I only have a few more items left to make for winter, then on to my spring "transitional" and summer items!)

After cleaning out my too large custum built closet (posted about it a few days below), I started to make items of clothing to fill in the gaps. By sewing my own clothing I get to choose exactly which styles I want and which fabrics and colors work best.

My personal preference is to sew with natural fibers so I purchase white linens, wools, and silks and then dye them to whatever colors I want -- therefore making my wardrobe coordinate as well as I can. Since I can vary the shade by adjusting the amount of dye or mixing the colors, I can make sure that I have nice variations in the colors but they still coordinate well.

Then, I use the patterned fabrics (plaid, floral, etc) or look at the Pantone color forcasts for my "seasonal statement" piece(s).

I cannot tell you how wonderfully things have worked out for me by doing this. Instead of getting carried away by wild fabric shopping "sprees" -- each item of clothing and the fabric (or color) choice is carefully thought and planned out to guarantee that it will fit in my wardrobe perfectly.

I have been such a victim of impulse shopping in the past. But, since it can take several weeks to decide on fabric and color choices and then another several days or weeks to make the item -- sewing my own clothing eliminates those impulse buys and clothing mistakes.

Using the "look book" technique you posted about last week I was able to pull together my "small closet" into 3 different lookbooks (summer, winter, and transitional) by using fabric swatches, color swatches, and the line-drawn pattern photos. This way I am able to focus on colors and garment shapes and lines (which are things that can be overlooked on an already made garment).

By doing this I have also been able to streamline my color choices well so everything kind of flows from one season to the next -- yet things still work well together. For example:
Winter: dark browns, dark greens, charcoal.
Transitional (spring/fall): med browns, green-blues, navy. Summer: light browns, blue-greens, light blues.

And, of course, since I am dying my own fabric, I have that variation in the greens (for example) so everything blends but isn't the same identical color. (I used procion MX dyes).

Such fun! :-)

Susan said...

I made a lot of my clothes as a young child and in high school, then I got away from it until I was about 30ish when I taught sewing for over a decade including everything from swim and underwear through designer jackets, evening wear, bridal, Lundstrom knockoffs and winter parkas. I enjoyed sewing for the children when they were young, made my wedding dress and all bridesmaids and have a few jackets that do not look homemade at all. My issue is that my body changes size constantly and, in the end, it is not worth the effort and cost of materials if I am currently fitting into something off the rack. I did love the creativity!

Darryl Pace said...


Great post. I don't sew, but gosh, what a great skill that would be to have!

Darryl Pace

Jennifer Skinner said...

Wow! Your fabric and color choices sound stunning. I love how you've designed your wardrobe with color flow in mind. And you are even using the Pantone forcasts...excellent! I'd love to see pics. :-)

Jennifer Skinner said...

I should have guessed that you would be an amazing seamstress. Swimwear and your own wedding dress...I'm impressed!

Mary said...

I stopped sewing years ago for many of (what I thought were) the same reasons.

Recently I had a bra fitting; once I started wearing my properly fitting (E) cups, my blouses all gaped terribly.

In the meantime, a friend (who has impeccable taste and who sews) told me the key is sticking to simple patterns and wonderful fabric.

I realized the things I had sewn that turned out well were simple skirts and tops. I used expensive fabrics and had these garments for years.

I also learned from that it's worth the time to look for a pattern that has been well reviewed and then take more time to fine tune the fit for me (if necessary - many skirt patterns fit me out of the box.)

There are several indy pattern lines that are getting great reviews and a dream to sew. One line worth checking out is Jalie - their knit tops are simple, stylish, easy to sew and they fit.

Buying great fabric is a little more challenging since most great brick and morter shops have closed but the Internet is a good source as well as a weekend trip to NYC!!

Finally sewing is cost effective for me as I can handwash/preshrink fabric before sewing and then eliminate the need for dry cleaning.

Matthew Shields said...

Hi , Jenn
Unfortunately I’m not much of a sewer. It is great though that people do enjoy to do this. In todays throw away society I’m glad that there are still people who take the time to do things like this
Happy Trails
Matthew Shields
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RobFromGa said...

Sewing is not my forte...

Comment here…

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Lena Milukh said...

Hi Jennifer
I also wanted to be able to sew, but never actually had a chance to learn to sew. The only clothes I did were for my dolls and they definitely had a home-made look.
Great post
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Anonymous said...

I have two main motivators...the left one and the right one. Together, they add up to a 34F cup. NOTHING in RTW (except Bravissimo, in the UK, and I find they are not very good quality garments) fits my bust without pulling, gaping, or riding up in front -- or falling off my shoulders if I go up in size enough to have something fit through the bust (and then I look 30 pounds heavier due to all the excess fabric below the bustline). I also find I need shirts and pants with extra length in the sleeves/legs - manufacturers are SO stingy with fabric these days that it's hard to find things with the extra 2" I need. And (last but not least), my waist is about a size 12/14 in RTW, while my hips are 8/10, so I get the choice of being cut in half by a too-tight waistband, or having comfortable but baggy-assed pants (or, the third option: elastic waist pants...ewwwwwwww!!).

I'm in the process of sewing/knitting 100% of my shits/blouses/sweaters but I'm still wearing the RTW things that are not totally hideous on me in the meantime. I sew more and more of my pants and skirts, but often I will alter nice RTW pieces that I find at Goodwill.

The biggest drawback to sewing my own clothing is that I have to mail order almost all my fabric. Where I live in Maine, there are no decent apparel fabric stores, and I'm not interested in what they sell at my local Jo-Ann's or Walmart fabric department. But most online fabric vendors are quick to send swatches, and I end up with the kind of quality that doesn't exist in even the most high-end retail clothing these days.

DIYlawyer said...

Sew What??????

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JohnWShoemaker said...

I can sew buttons on!

Intuitive John
Learn How To Harness Your God Given Intuitive Powers To Have A Better Life

Anonymous said...


thank you for the compliments with regard to my wardrobe color combinations. I am very pleased myself -- and I am so happy that the time I spent on my decisions is paying off.

I would love to send you the photos -- not sure how to do this. I shall email you about it.

-- elizabeth (anonymous #1)

David J Parnell said...


I couldn't imagine sewing a shirt much less an entire wardrobe... I am with you.

David J. Parnell | Communication Expert
The Communication Expert Blog

Laura said...

On one sewing board, some of us sewers were talking about your blog in regards to a SWAP contest (Sewing With A Plan) which is all about sewing coordinating pieces in a limited color palette. The SWAP philosophy fits very well with your wardrobing philosophy.

I don't think that sewing is worth doing just to have clothes, unless you are ridiculously hard to fit and can't afford to pay someone else to make you clothes. But if you enjoy it, it can become a rewarding hobby as well as a way to get clothes that are the exact design, color and fit that you want. Not many people make a lot of clothes anymore, and independent fabric stores are becoming more rare, so you do have to take some time to find quality fabrics and patterns. Fortunately there are a lot of great fabrics available online as well as places like to find help and advice. It takes an investment of a bit of money, and more importantly a fair amount of time (although you can do a little at a time) to become really good at construction and fitting; the first few things you make may have that 'homemade' look, but if you do some research and practice you can come out with some high-quality stuff (and have fun doing it).

Josie said...

I love sewing! It truly is my passion. I love being able to challenge myself to do a little bit better with every garment. I only wish I had more time to do it, but if I didn't have a job I wouldn't have anywhere to wear what I make!

I have been reading your blog and your website for a while and I am just about to embark on a major wardrobe overhaul based on your 'very small closet' principles.

Thanks for the great information!

Jennifer Skinner said...

It sounds like is a great place to get information. The next time the sewing bug bites me, I'll have to remember to start there first. Do you have any favorite online sources of fabric?

Jennifer Skinner said...

I agree! I am really appreciative of artisans who use their talents to create beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces.

A friend of mine started a doll clothes business on ebay, and ended up being really successful. In some ways, the miniature outfits are much harder to sew than larger pieces. Learning to sew isn't hard at all-- but getting really good at it takes dedication!

Sewing on a button is a good skill to have. :-)


Jennifer Skinner said...

Anonymous 2-
I totally get your fit frustrations! Fit through the bust is one of the most challenging things in RTW...with length being a close second. I still avoid most woven tops for just this reason. I just may have to take up sewing again!

You're welcome! And thanks for the email...I'll be responding shortly. :-)

Thanks for stopping by. Your point about the motivations for sewing is well taken. The SWAP contest sounds really neat. Is this something you do every season or was it a one-time challenge?

Welcome! That's great that you are an avid, enthusiastic sewer. And please do keep me posted on your closet overhaul...I'd love to know how it all turns out. :-)


Anonymous said...

Some of my favorite online fabric stores: (for kids' fabrics)

(Anonymous #2)

Mary said...

Jennifer - the two I've used so far are and Sawyer Brook has high end quality fabric, complete matching service, swatches, and fantastic service. If you start ordering on a regular basis, you'll get swatches for free. My only issue with SB is that I don't often find colors I can wear easily. I get the feeling the buyer is a gorgeous, cool blonde with impeccable taste!
I've been buying knits from Gorgeous Fabrics but have seen some beautiful high end fabrics on her site. I love her blog - the owner often sews fabric from her business and blogs with lots of good quality photos. She's an editor of SewStylish magazine and a great teacher. The things I don't like - no swatching service that I can see. I can't buy fabric in units less than a yard (if my pattern calls for 1 1/4 yards, I have to buy 2 yards. The fabric is cut so poorly (terrible jagged edges - I mean big zig zags - that it makes me hesitate to order expensive fabric. They claim they give you so much more fabric in your order that it makes up for not being able to order fractions but that hasn't been my experience. I've only ordered twice so maybe I just caught someone on a bad day. The fabric wasn't expensive enough to fuss about so I didn't complain. I do wish I had snapped a few pictures of the yardage to show others - it's just good to know. Another positive about Gorgeous Fabrics - I like a lot of things the owner buys - she has great taste and a great sense of style. Oh - she called me about one order because she felt they had posted a color description as a true black and the color was a soft black. She wanted to make sure that was okay - it's funny to me that they take so much care with parts of their service and then slash the fabric up like they do. It makes me think she has a staff and perhaps the employees don't take the care they should when cutting and packing an order.
I hope you do get the sewing bug! I don't know if you've sewn with really nice fabric, but it's so worth it. Once you have a simple pattern that fits, it goes together like a dream when you are working with high quality expensive fabric. I hope you'll give it a try! Maybe try a simple skirt to test the waters!!
I made a silk tank years ago and took pains to use French seams and nice ready to wear techniques to bind the neck and armholes. I swear you feel like you are getting to wear French couture and you really get spoiled!
Sorry this is so long (can you tell those of us who sew are passionate?) but I just want to end by saying how much I enjoy this blog. It's great to have a plan when taking pains with your sewing and this blog provides much more than a "plan" - you are helping me learn style also - not just a formula that will crank out a certain number of outfits.

Anonymous said...

The guys who commented here need to check out the shirt book by David Coffin (search Amazon.) You may not decide to sew but you just may decide to hire someone to do your sewing for you!

Anonymous said...

mary - you *can* get swatches from GF - there's an option to buy a swatch at the bottom of the rectangular box on each fabric's page. (You do need to click "Add to Bag" after you go to the swatch page, though.) I agree with your other compaint...I do wish Ann would at least offer the option of 1/2 yard cuts instead of whole yard increments.

JohnWShoemaker said...

I do hire tailors to adjust clothes for me. So the idea of hiring someone to make a custom shirt is pretty good.

Intuitive John
Learn To Trust Your Intuition!

Jennifer Skinner said...

Mary and Anon#2-
Thank you for recommending sources for finding fabric online. I will definitely have to check these out!
Perhaps finding some good, quality fabric will cure me of my sewing malaise. :-)

This has been such a fun discussion, and thank you to everyone who stepped up to share. Your passion for sewing is really infectious!

Carla said...

My mother taught me to sew when I was about ten then I started taking classes here and there after I got the basics down. As a teen, I sewed about 1/3 of my wardrobe but fell out of in my 20’s. Though I still sew, it’s more of a hobby. Over the past ten years some of my challenges included: cost of fabric (that I want to use), not being able to sew without a pattern, not having a dress form (I have made many mistakes because I only go by my measurements or try to do the fitting on myself(!)), not having the space when I lived in a small studio, and not having the time (if I had more space, I wouldn’t have to take down my projects before they are completed). Right now, its time though I still work on smaller projects that I can complete in an hour.

Lisa M. McLellan said...

I've successfully made one dress for my daughter and a matching one for her doll. You are right - fun but not worth the time.

Sara at On Simplicity said...

I don't think I'd sew a whole wardrobe--finding quality patterns and fabric is a struggle. My recent method has been to sew pieces that would be prohibitively expensive otherwise.

One of my favorite pieces is a brocade pencil skirt. I never could've found it in a store, and it looks like a million bucks (but only cost $10). For more everyday items, I find it's not really worth the hassle of trying and tweaking patterns.

Still, the biggest benefit is breaking free of the trend treadmill. Since my limit is my own imagination, I dream up my own looks instead of relying on stores to tell me what's right.

Thanks for inspiring such a great conversation! (And having grown up in Salinas, I sympathize with the lack of good fabric stores!)

Jennifer Skinner said...

Carla- I SO agree about the dress form. When I worked in the costume shop, I got very spoiled having access to a form for nearly every size. If I were to ever seriously take up sewing again, I would want to invest in a dress form. It makes a world of difference.

Sara - Ah, Salinas! :-) I went back to visit a couple of years ago, and couldn't believe how much it's grown in the past (gulp) fifteen-or-so years. And I like your approach to sewing...a few select pieces to me sounds like the way to go.


Romance Coach, Online Dating Coach said...

Hi Jenn,

welllll, I took a sewing class or two but don't have the time and resources to devote to that right now.

HOWEVER I do LOVE this as one of the feminine arts.

and definitely good for wardrobe and style to be able to do SOME things ourselves!

Engaging topic!

All the best,

April Braswell

Online Dating Expert, Romantic Relationship Coach, Romance Coaching

Online Dating Sites Review, Internet Dating Sites Guide

Anonymous said...

Hi! I would LOVE to learn how to sew my own clothes...problem, my mom. Everytime i try to buy nice fabric she wont let me because she doesn't think I can sew well. I do know how to sew, I;ve been sewing VERY simple bags for special occasions to put presents in. But I have never ttempted clothing. I dont want my mom to teach me how because she wont let me make it the way I want it to look, so PLEASE give me some pointers!