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.
Last year I made myself a nightgown out of two dollar-a-yard cotton flannel (given to me by my mom) using Simplicity 3573 in a size small. I probably could have made an extra-small, but I think small was the better choice, since I wanted my nightgown to be loose and warm and comfortable, and it is. But it is very chilly here in the mornings and evenings, so I went back to my pattern last month and decided to make the matching robe, also in a size small. I waited for cotton flannel to come on sale for two dollars a yard again at the fabric store, and once it did, I quickly washed it, cut it, sewed it, and started wearing it right away. It is satisfying to be warm in layers of soft flannel during this time of year when light and warmth are in short supply.
Simplicity 3573 is a good pattern for an advanced beginner or early intermediate sewer. It does require buttonholes at the front, elastic casings at the cuffs, and patch pockets, which might be challenging for a beginner with no assistance. For a sewer with more experience, it is a fast and easy pattern. The only adjustment I made was to not leave a gap in the front of the robe---I sewed the gathers on mine all the way to the edge of the front button-placket, so that when I am wearing the robe the front skirt overlaps slightly at the top. The neckline is finished with white bias binding turned to the inside and top-stitched, and I finished the seam allowances with pinking shears. The buttons were from my button-box. Luckily, the white buttons for the nightgown and the larger white buttons for the robe matched each other very well.
I liked the shape of McCall 5526 with its slight peplum and sharp collar, so last winter I decided make a heavy jacket with it, making some modifications, since the original pattern is unlined and meant for light to medium weight fabrics. I made mine out of wool and tried some tailoring techniques for the first time. The whole front of the jacket is interfaced, as is the upper back, the bottom of the sleeves and the bottom of the hem. I used a stiff interfacing for the collar to give it more structure. I top stitched all the seams and edges by hand to make the wool lay flat and keep the corners sharp and crisp. The hand stitching sinks into the wool and becomes fairly invisible. I used the pattern pieces to draft a lining: the back and front are lined with cotton flannel, for warmth, and the sleeves with polyester lining fabric, to make it easier to put on and take off. I used some of the leftover pieces of flannel to make sleeve-heads to give the tops of the sleeves a nice shape. The faux-leather buttons are from an old clearance sale at JoAnns, and the fabric was a decent sized piece that I found at the thrift store. I stitched the button-holes by hand.
I cut the pattern to a size 8, and am mostly pleased with the fit, although I think I would make some changes the next time I make this pattern. I think the shoulders are a little too wide, since they tend to wrinkle a bit in the back, and sit out a little further than where my shoulder ends. Next time I will try narrowing them at the edge and a little at the top of the princess seams. After looking at the photos Mr Rat took of me wearing the jacket, I think the back waist may need to be shortened very slightly, also. And although I don’t mind the way the peplum gapes a bit in the front, I would need to add some more fabric to the hips to accommodate my full skirts if I would like it to close all the way next time.
Mr Rat took some photos of me wearing my jacket over my striped cotton McCall 6209 dress at the monastery on Sunday afternoon. It was a grey, beginning-of-winter day, and the garden was green with recent rain. Gia came along with us; though she was too busy smelling the squirrels’ hidden caches of acorns in the tall clover to want to join in the photos with me.
This blouse has two things that I particularly like: an interesting collar, and very full sleeves. I had previously made the jumper from Simplicity 8611 (although Mr Rat and I haven’t photographed it yet) and looked at the pattern again and thought: I should make the blouse, too. The pattern is a size 8, dating from the mid-to-late 1970s. The blouse is a pullover style, with a small collar, long ties at the front slit neck opening, a straight bodice, and full sleeves gathered into buttoned cuffs. I made it out of soft white cotton, finished all the interior seams with pinking shears and edge-stitched the collar, cuffs and tie for neatness.
I’m pleased with how it turned out. I would like to make it again, maybe in navy or black rayon, or dark brown cotton. It is a versatile blouse: it looks nice worn with skirts, or under jumpers, or with the collar and tie peeking out of a jacket or sweater.
Mr Rat is very fond of his old Levis denim jacket and wears it several times a week in cool weather. But it is so old that it has been getting holes in it and Mr Rat asked me if I thought he should throw it away. He looked so sad about the idea that I suggested that he give his jacket to me and I would see what I could do with it. So I patched it up for him with bits of bandana and plaid cotton from our scrap box, and he was delighted to keep wearing his jacket, which he says has more “character” now.
My advice for anyone interested in patching their clothes is to add reinforcement stitches along the inner portion of the patch as if you were quilting it. It helps keep the patch from being easily snagged or ripped and gives it extra durability. It also looks nice in a decorative way, especially in a contrasting thread color.
Does anyone else patch their clothes? I wonder sometimes, living in an area where everyone’s clothes look so very new, whether it is considered socially appropriate to wear patched clothing. But when one has a personal attachment to an item of clothing that is only growing more beautiful with age, doesn’t it make sense to prolong its lifespan by patching it and mending its holes and rips? To wear clothes for very long does seem like such a rarity now.
I had some romantic impulse last month that made me think that a blue hooded cape was just what I needed for early fall, when the weather is changeable and it is nice to wrap yourself in something light in the cool shade that is easy to take off in the warm sun. So I pulled out some beautiful fabric the color of water that I found at the thrift store a few years ago and made myself one. I am not sure what the fabric content is---it is loosely woven, drapes beautifully, but is relatively thick, like linen. Perhaps it is ‘homespun?’ It was easy to sew with, but did stretch out a great deal in the areas of the cape that were cut on the bias.
The pattern is Simplicity 1771, cut in a size XS, which looks like it is intended to be a costume pattern to make hobbit outfits. With some imagination, though, many costume patterns can be used for more ordinary, daily clothing, especially those costume patterns designed to make simple old-fashioned dresses, cloaks, and aprons. This cape pattern is easy to sew for anyone with a little bit of garment sewing experience, and the most complicated part of the process was evening the hem after it hung several days for the portions cut on the bias to stretch out, which they did considerably. I finished the seams by hand to make them as invisible and unobtrusive as possible while making sure they couldn’t fray. The neckline is held together by an old frog closure that my mom had stored away in her sewing cupboard, which matched the fabric perfectly.
This is another favorite shirt of mine, made last year to wear to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house. The pattern is vintage Simplicity 7372 from the 1970s, in a size 8. I didn’t have to make any adjustments---it fit very well, like most size 8 patterns from the 1970s. I’m not sure why the patterns from the 1970s in particular fit so much better and so much more consistently for me---perhaps they were designed for a relatively narrow shouldered, slightly built woman like myself? Because I have had so much success with size 8 patterns from the 1970s, they are my personal preference for sewing, since I can almost always rely on them to need little to no adjustments. I feel lucky that out of all the decades, it is the 1970s that fit me well, since it was an eclectic decade, with wide-ranging influences from the previous hundred years of clothing styles. The patterns often have interesting collars and sleeves, which I like, and long, full skirts, which I also particularly like. Many older patterns are easy to update by choosing a simple and beautiful fabric and keeping the trims subtle as well, unless a more exotic, exaggerated look is what is desired.
This shirt is made from smooth, thick, 100 percent cotton. The disadvantage is that it wrinkles easily and must be thoroughly pressed every time I wear it, but it does iron well, and it was easy to sew. I finished all the seams with faux French seams. The buttons are made of carved shell---I cut them off of an old shirt from the thrift store when it was too worn out to wear anymore, and re-used them on my shirt for their beauty. The buttonholes are finished by hand, since my machine refuses to make automatic button-holes. I don’t mind doing buttonhole stitch---it doesn’t take very long when you get used to it, and doing the finishing touches by hand on my sewing projects is a restful and quiet activity.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew