The Artist Sews Her Clothes II graphite on paper 2017
If any of you have ever looked on our 'about' page of this blog, you will probably already know that I am an artist, and have a website for my artwork at www.eowynwilcoxmccomb.com. Mr Rat and I have been visiting our parents in Southern California these last two weeks, which is why this blog hasn't been very active (I do have some new things to photograph and share once we go back north in a few days). While we've been down in LA, I had the chance to go out to lunch with an artist-friend who suggested that it is time I joined social media and started an Instagram account. While this account is for my artwork rather than my sewing, I thought some of you readers might be interested, so I am going to include the link here in case you would like to follow along: https://www.instagram.com/eowynwilcoxmccomb/
For those of you who are American, I hope you had a happy 4th of July. Otherwise, happy summer to all! We will be back with new reviews soon. We had a nice visit to the Los Angeles fabric district while we were traveling (they had the largest selection of cotton woven fabrics I've ever seen there---any LA sewers reading this, you should visit now to take advantage of all the beautiful shirting and gingham and striped and plaid fabrics they have for less than $4 a yard!), and I found some great vintage patterns at the thrift store during our visit, so we are well stocked for new projects.
Monday May 22
I wore my brown cotton blouse, my long brown skirt and my brown jade and ocean jasper necklace.
Mr Rat wore his first Hawaiian shirt.
Tuesday May 23
I wore my new black wool vest (reviewed here), my peter-pan collar shirt, and one of my black simplicity 7880 skirts. My brooch is a vintage sterling silver Taxco rose.
Wednesday May 24
I wore my bandana print dress.
Thursday May 25
The weather turned cold and windy and when we went walking I imagined myself on the moors of Haworth with the Bronte sisters. I wore my long brown skirt, my black wool cape, and a large black scarf that I crocheted for myself two winters ago.
Mr Rat wore his grey worker’s shirt.
Friday May 26
I wore my brown smock dress, my homemade red jasper necklace and a thrifted vintage shawl. Is it unseasonal to like to wear autumnal shades year-round?
Saturday May 27
I wore my black dress, my yellow-ochre jade hand-made necklace, and a thrifted wool shawl that I originally thought might be Ukrainian but turned out to be Japanese when I finally located its label.
Sunday May 28
I wore my tan striped dress, a vintage wool scarf and vintage brown leather gloves that, interestingly enough, were made in the American zone of Western Germany. When I read that on the inside of the gloves, I found myself holding them for a while, lost in thought, pondering their age and history, the tumult in which they were made. I wonder what woman bought them there, and how they came to end up in Northern California, soft with wear.
Monday May 29
This may be repetitive, since I already wore this dress several times this month, but my bandana dress was too perfect for our Memorial Day picnic to not wear it again. This time I wore it with my red jasper necklace and a blue shawl I found at the thrift store a while back.
Tuesday May 30
I wore my new tan striped shirt and one of my black Simplicity 7880 skirts.
My reflections on a month of wearing homemade: In some ways, it wasn’t challenging. I already wear my homemade clothes every day, and the only things I missed wearing were my few basic button-up shirts and my vintage jewelry that I’ve thrifted over the years. I have a few embroidered tops I wear on special occasions, and the rest of my non-me-made clothing are mostly sweaters, my single pair of jeans, and some jackets and coats. I do need to test out more of my jacket sewing patterns. It would be nice to have more homemade outerwear.
In other ways, though, it was surprisingly challenging. I had been looking forward to May, feeling excited to plan my outfits and make new combinations, only to find that emotionally the month was exhausting, the weather was unpredictable (rarely cold enough for my coldest weather homemade clothes and rarely warm enough for my warmest weather homemade clothes), and besides that, I was often too anxious and too busy with day-to-day needs to do much more than wear what I usually wear anyway. It was difficult finding time to take a photo every day, and sometimes I missed the chance to get a photo of Mr Rat wearing his homemade clothes.
Looking over the photos, though, it does make me realize a few things: My most common daily outfit is a shirt or blouse tucked into a full skirt (with long sleeves getting favored over short), I like wearing dresses, but rarely wear my full length dresses anywhere but church (perhaps this is a confidence issue, since they are not any less comfortable than my midi-length dresses), and as I wrote before, I need to sew some more jackets and maybe even a coat. I also realized that I favor my darker colored clothing and my white shirts more than anything else in my wardrobe.
So, Me-Made-May was helpful in its way. I think I have more direction now for my sewing projects for the rest of the year. I also finished sewing my vest this month, which was one of my new year’s sewing resolutions. It is always satisfying to achieve a goal, and satisfying, too, to have completed a challenge.
Did any of you participate in Me-Made-May this year, or during previous years? What have you learned from your experiences?
This is my second attempt at 1990s-era Simplicity 8620. The first version had shoulders that were far, far too wide for me, so I did a half inch narrow shoulder adjustment on this version. I feel as though it is a little too wide still, although the wrinkling the wide shoulders caused in the first version is not so obvious in the second, partly because of the soft drape of the rayon I used this time, I think. I got the rayon out of a remnant pile in the Los Angeles fabric district two years ago and it has sat on my shelf because I have been too frightened to use it. I’ve never sewn with rayon before, and have read on other sewing websites that it can be slippery and difficult to work with. But since my striped silk blouse (which was also sourced from the LA fabric district) turned out well, I felt like I should overcome my fears of using new fabrics and try it out. I suspected that Simplicity 8620 would do better with a soft and flowing fabric anyway, since it is so loose and unfitted and has no darts, and I think I was right. I’ll have to write a note on the pattern to only use soft fabrics with it in the future. Sewing with the rayon was challenging, but the soft folds of the fabric are forgiving, and if my edge-stitching is not perfect, it is probably not noticeable by anyone but me.
I used a lightweight interfacing to stabilize the facings and cuffs, and sewed my buttonholes by hand, as usual. I finished the inside seams very simply, mostly by pinking it and doing a line of stitching next to the pinking. The buttons are from a big bag I bought at the thrift store some years ago. They’re quite versatile in their plain simplicity, and I use them on a lot of my projects.
I’m wearing my new blouse with one of my Simplicity 7880 skirts, my home-made tiger-eye necklace, a thrifted pashmina shawl and a vintage silver ring that my mother-in-law gave me.
I’m sure I’ll be wearing this blouse a lot this summer, but I will probably give the earlier pink version away. Every time I wear it I am bothered by the extra wrinkles around the shoulders, and it diminishes my pleasure in wearing it. Do any of you have this problem too? I find that with store bought or thrifted garments I rarely focus on problems in fit or any other minor issues they may have (unless it is something I can fix, like a loose button, or a tear in the lining), but with my home-sewn garments I feel hyper-alert to any problems or mistakes and find myself worrying that they are obvious to other people when I wear my outfits out and about. Does anyone have any solutions to being overly or negatively self-conscious while wearing home-sewn clothes?
I don’t think it helps that the clothes I like to sew and wear are so out far out of the bounds of what is considered ‘normal’ and acceptable in the silicon valley (which is a very conformist place, much to the surprise of most people who live outside of it and think the vast numbers of Google employees that live around here must all be non-conformist. When in truth they all wear the same plaid or blue shirt to work every day and the same North Face windbreaker and expensive sneakers or leather loafers. It makes me miss LA, where all kinds of non-conformity were considered part of normal, and wearing something unusual was something to be enjoyed and appreciated). While I was wearing this outfit and Mr Rat and I were walking to the park with Gia to take some photos, some bicyclists rode by and made the comment, “a little early for Halloween, isn’t it?” Now even though I know what I like and won’t let other people dictate to me what I should wear, I do feel hurt when people stare or make insulting comments like that. Has anyone else had these experiences? How do you still step out with confidence in a community that is not friendly?
Does anyone have other anxieties about wearing their home-sewn clothes? I think Me-Made-May is a good time to ponder these interesting questions. I’d be really interested to hear about your experiences, or to read any suggestions you might have.
I made this blouse last summer thinking of the wonderful painter Frida Kahlo. She used clothing to shape other people’s perceptions of her identity, so that they remembered her as beautiful, proud, and queenly, rather than vulnerable, injured, and in constant pain from childhood illness and multiple surgeries. By choosing traditional Mexican clothes when her upper-class peers were wearing American-style clothes she chose her own history and made her divided identity (half German, half-Spanish-Mexican) whole in style, if not in fact. She was a woman who was not afraid of looking feminine and wore lots of lace, ruffles, embroidery, and beautiful jewelry. She chose aspects of herself that most people would see as weaknesses and made them her strengths, so that she was memorable, even unforgettable.
I used McCall 6437 cut to a size 8 for the basis of my Frida-Kahlo inspired blouse. I don’t think I will use this pattern again, because the fit around the neck and shoulders is poor for me. It is still a wearable blouse, but I would have to totally redraft the neck and shoulders of this blouse to sew it again, and I don’t think I’m likely to. The blouse itself is not hard to sew, so it could be a good choice for others. The fit is very loose and forgiving, and I like how it looks tucked into skirts. The arm-hole is very low, though, so you have to be wary of easily flashing some underwear when you raise your elbows.
I used bits of lace bought from various thrift stores to trim the yoke, the neck and the sleeves. The blouse is made of plain white cotton, and the button closure is just a simple white button from my button-box. My top-stitching ended up a little wobbly around the yoke, so I did some extra stitching by hand to make it more decorative, and I think that solved the problem in a nice way.
Even though my blouse is simpler than most of hers were, I think it does capture a faint reflection of Frida Kahlo’s beautiful style. It makes me feel more boldly feminine to wear it. Here, I am wearing it with a red jasper necklace and earrings that I made myself, and my brown skirt, previously reviewed here and worn again here.
Today is the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka Bangladesh. 1138 people died and over 2500 others were injured. This is an astonishing number to me, since every school I have ever attended, including college, had fewer students than that. While the collapse caused widespread shock at the time, it doesn’t seem to have changed very many manufacturing or shopping habits in the long term, something that the group Fashion Revolution is trying to change. Such an epic and tragic loss of life does not deserve to be forgotten, especially when there are millions around the world who still work in underpaid and unsafe conditions in the garment industry today.
Nicole, of the Artyologist, has a good introduction to Fashion Revolution week on her blog, or you can look at Fashion Revolution’s website for more information about the events they are hosting across the internet this week to raise awareness about the high cost of clothing manufacturing and clothing waste.
One of the questions Fashion Revolution asks is: “Who made my clothes?” I am pleased to answer that for the most part, I have made my own clothes. Out of the 70-ish garments that I own, over 60 percent is handmade by me, and those items that are not are by and large second-hand which in many cases I have repaired to make wearable again. Many of the items that are not made by me are things which I don’t have the resources or knowledge to make: a few knit items like turtlenecks, two special embroidered jackets that I found at the thrift store, a few heavy winter coats, two t-shirts, one pair of jeans, and some sweaters. I hope that as the years progress a larger and larger percentage of my clothing will be handmade, until when I am asked, “Who made my clothes?” I can simply answer, “me.”
The ethics of clothing are something we all have to consider every time we put something over our skin. The need for clothing is universal, and as sewers, we more than anyone know how much time and skill is needed to make the simplest item of clothing. I have been pondering some of the things we can do to improve our relationship with our clothes and to show more respect and gratitude for those who make them:
Mr Rat and I have decided to participate in Me-Made-May this year. My goal is to wear only homemade clothing and jewelry every day, and Mr Rat has committed to wearing homemade at least four times a week. We’re going to document our goals and hopefully update this website weekly with our progress throughout the next month. I hope it will teach me more about what else I need to make or things I need to change in order to have a home-made, loved wardrobe, full of clothes that feel right.
Do any of you have any other ideas to share about ways you’ve improved your relationship with clothing, your own methods for wardrobe planning, or how to make your loved clothes last?
I would like to not buy more patterns so that I can get to know the ones I have better. I would also like to re-use more of the patterns that have worked well for me in the past, adding different details like a ruffled or tiered skirt, a collar, ribbon trim, patch pockets, different sleeves, etc.
I would like to not buy more fabric unless it is needed to finish a project or an ensemble. We have a large stash of fabrics found at thrift stores and clearance tables over the years folded neatly in our sewing closet, waiting for our attention. Mr Rat and I would like to use as much as we can make this year.
Related to the previous goal, I want to sew warmer and sew more wool. We have some nice pieces of wool and I have always been nervous to sew much with them. Having lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles all my life, I have never owned a lot of cold weather clothes---a few sweaters, some tights, and two or three heavy coats was enough to manage through the winter. It is much colder here, so I would like to use the wool in our sewing closet to make some warmer clothing that I can wear in layers: skirts, dresses, vests, jackets, and capes.
The clothes that have been most on my mind for future sewing projects:
To find a vest pattern that fits.
To make more skirt and jacket ensembles.
To make some more long-sleeved blouses.
To make dresses, since some of my old ones have worn out.
And maybe even to make myself a new apron or two this year.
I’ve been reading Anne Hollander’s book ‘Sex and Suits,’ and while I don’t always agree with everything she theorizes about clothing, I find what she writes unfailingly interesting. One quote that struck me is about fear of fashion:
“People uncomfortable with taking full responsibility for their own looks, who either fear the purely visual demands of social life—‘appearance’ or ‘appearances’----or don’t trust the operation of their own taste, feel threatened and manipulated by fashion, and have called it a tyrant. The constant element of fiction in it makes it smack of inauthenticity, pretense, and pretention; and it is indeed obvious that fashion is a perpetual test of character and self-knowledge. . .”
I recognized myself in her description. I certainly feared fashion when I was younger, and felt intense dread and helplessness about being judged on my appearance, and anger that we are judged on appearances more rather than the substance of our spirit. But as I have grown older I’ve realized that external appearance and internal states are connected, and although we cannot control our face or body shape to a great extent, we can still shape our appearance through grooming, posture, and clothing choice. I use my sewing now to try to bring my external appearance closer to my internal perceptions of self. Although I am still not certain that I pass the “perpetual test of character and self-knowledge” that fashion presents, as I feel that my understanding of what I like and what suits me is still deveoping as my skills at sewing and what materials are available to me continue to evolve.
Have any of you read any of Anne Hollander’s books about fashion theory and clothing history? What do you think of her ideas about why people are afraid of fashion? Do you recognize yourself in any part of her description too? Do you believe that fashion is a “test of character and self-knowledge?” Does it really matter how we look and present ourselves to the world, or is clothing only superficial and cannot be relied on to reflect personality?
While I can’t claim to have a uniform, I do have certain outfits that I wear a lot of variations on over and over. One of my most common outfits for weekday work, for instance, is a blouse tucked into a full skirt. This is one of my oldest skirts, made from Simplicity 7880 again, this time in brown cotton. Very often my cotton clothes are in fact made of clean old sheets I’ve found at the thrift store and washed and used as yardage. This skirt is made from an old sheet, and it has been very durable. I’ve been wearing it at least once a week for over three years, and other than some slight fading from washing it so many times, it is doing fine.
Since the election earlier this month, I’ve been reflecting on the difficulties Americans face on so many fronts, including economically. The online sewing community can sometimes seem like an economically exclusive place---full of hobbyists who can and do spend their well-earned money to buy beautiful fabrics and make attractive clothes. While sewing your own clothes is always an ethically better choice than buying fast fashion made in sweatshops at vast distances across the world, it doesn’t always seem like the financially easier choice, and when most of the examples online are of middle-class and relatively well-to-do sewers making lovely clothes with a large budget, it can be hard not be to envious, or to wonder whether it is still possible to make better clothes for the same price you would spend at the thrift store or on the clearance rack.
I do believe it is possible to make beautifully sewn clothes and save money. But you may have to widen your search for materials beyond the fabric store. Instead, you might find yourself thrifting most of your fabric and bindings, waiting for sales and coupons before purchasing thread and needles, going to your local garment district of whatever large city you live closest to buy wholesale priced yardage, refashioning and patching older garments, and yes---sewing with sheets.
Sewing is an affirmation of personal choice. It is ethical, since you know the value of your time, and it is your own time and skill that is devoted to the covering of your body. It is creative, because you can express inner states of being through your appearance. It is practical, since with a little practice you can make clothes that fit better and are more durable than the flimsy clothing sold at stores now. You can also customize your clothing to suit your own needs: modest hem-lengths, pockets in all your skirts and dresses, colors that aren’t popular this season but are your personal favorites, high necklines or low----you can choose for yourself.
Fellow sewer Bianca Esposito recently wrote on her blog The Closet Historian: “I can't help but feel us ladies" and I will add, gentlemen, "have to be more devoted to our passions, louder in our assertions of our own agency, and more committed to raising each other up than ever before." One of my closest friends, a fellow artist, wrote in a similar vein to me in a recent letter. He said it is important to keep making artwork during this time of increased prejudice and limitations. Whatever it is you make or create, please keep on, and don’t be discouraged. To create is to expand the number of possibilities and choices in your life, no matter what your circumstances. I believe this because I try to do it every day, and I often find some of the limitations of my own circumstances heavy to bear. But every day we can choose to find time to create, and every day we can face what makes us sad and try to keep on working anyway, and every day we can try to form and shape our lives according to our own principles, as much as we can.
My mom says I wear too much black. My artwork is quite colorful, but my clothing is more subdued: a lot of black and white, some grey, and navy, and the rest are shades of earth-tone browns, tans, and occasional burnt sienna, olive green, yellow ochre, pale blue, and rose. I used to wear brighter and more varied colors, but I found over the years that my favorite clothes were my most simple and subtle in coloring. Once I started making my own clothes, I could choose the colors I liked to wear best, instead of relying on the random choice of the thrift store. Choice is one of the chief delights of sewing.
There is something about black in particular, though, that makes it intriguing. It is simple, versatile, high-contrast, mysterious, and elegant.
When you wear black, you make your body into its own shadow. It is like making your clothing into a cutout silhouette. You can reshape your body through the exaggeration of line and volume.
Black is visible, black is invisible. Black is both strange and familiar. Black is serious and solid---it covers, it envelops. Black is comforting in the way that shadows and night comfort, because they wrap around us snugly.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew