This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed 1138 people and injured many more. In remembrance of that great loss, all over the internet, people have been asking "who made my clothes?"
For me, that answer is simple. I make almost all of my clothes. This morning I counted my wardrobe and found that out of the 66 woven garments that I own, only 6 are not handmade by myself. That means that 91 percent of my clothes are made by me. I am not counting sweaters, knits, or underwear in the total number because I don't currently have the capacity to make those things, but in case you are wondering, my few sweaters and t-shirts fit neatly in a single drawer along with my one pair of jeans and my one set of exercise clothes. My socks and slips other delicates also fit in a single dresser drawer. I thrift most of my sweaters and turtlenecks, so I don't think they are adding much to the problems that beset global fashion right now. If you want to learn more about the toll that the fashion industry takes on garment workers, the environment, and even the people who wear clothes that they may not like but feel pressured into wearing and quickly discarding because they have no personal relationship with the garments on their body, there is a lot of information on the Fashion Revolution website.
I started sewing my clothes when I was quite a small child. My mom taught me how to sew with a plastic needle and plastic canvas when I was a toddler, and by the time I was seven years old she had me sewing myself a matching shirt (teal blue with a pattern of white cats---I'll have to find the photos of me wearing it to share some time) and shorts set (with lots of her help, of course). I remember crying when the thread would snarl up, and laying on the floor feeling like I would never finish. But I did finish that outfit, and I wore it until it was worn out. Although I made things here or there through my youth and teens, it took me until I was married and had a sewing machine of my own to take up sewing my own clothes again more seriously. It has been a long six years since then of learning and making that I am glad that I continued with. My classmates at art school questioned whether spending time doing things like sewing was worthwhile, especially if it took time away from art-making. It is something I have questioned myself, since sewing certainly takes time and patience. But it also brings creative and aesthetic pleasure, and it is part of the 'total work of art' which is life. Artists like Georgia O'Keefe (who sewed quite a few of her own clothes) and Frida Kahlo valued their clothes as a means of expression. Why shouldn't I, as an artist, a seamstress, and a woman?
Sewing my own clothes means that I have a personal relationship with my clothing. I get to wear things that I like and that fit me. My clothes are made from mostly thrifted fabrics and cheap remnants from the fabric district, so I can feel confident that I am making as little negative impact on this beautiful world that I love that I can.
Every year we have the chance to make a little progress if we keep practicing.
Do you make your clothes? How does sewing impact your life?
(The photo above is a sneak peak of a new review coming soon. I've got three sewing reviews worth of photos ready to post, so expect some action here on the blog in the next week!)
For this shirt, I chose a tan linen fabric. I felt like the natural color and rough texture of the fabric was appropriate for the style of this shirt. I took my time working on some of the details like getting the pockets to match as perfectly as possible, finishing seams, and carefully putting in even top stitching on the collar, pockets, and cuffs. I made a few changes to the original pattern. My version of the shirt has a placket on both front pieces of the shirt which made it necessary for me to draft a larger collar. This turned out to be fortuitous because it added an extra 3 cm or so that made the fit a little more appropriate. I am really happy with the outcome. The fit is excellent and the design is classic.
I, Mrs Rat, of Mr and Mrs Rat, do pledge to wear me-made garments and jewelry through the month of May. I pledge to minimize outfit repeats, wear as many me-made items as possible, and to be more adventuresome while creating outfit combinations. I will document this here on the blog and I will also attempt to document it on Instagram if time allows me to (you can find the link to my profile by clicking here) with the intention of discovering which sewing projects will be useful to plan for the rest of the year, how to make my wardrobe more cohesive and practical, and how to be more confident wearing my me-mades.
Are you planning on participating in Me-Made May this year? I like to photograph my outfits as part of the challenge, but Zoe, of So Zo What Do You Know, who runs the Me-Made-May challenge has made it clear that you do not need to take photographs or have a blog or social media account to participate. My first time participating in Me-Made May was last year (you can find the link to my posts on the right hand of the blog) and I thought that it was an interesting and challenging experience, and it did help me plan out my sewing projects for a while afterwards. You can find the sign-ups for this year's Me-Made May by clicking here. With fashion revolution week right before Me-Made May starts and right after Earth Day (Sunday, April 22) ends, I think it is a good time of year to ponder our relationship to our clothes and to consumption and production (since we are not just shoppers, but sewers and makers also). It is also a good time to plan for the rest of the year ahead, as we creep towards the halfway mark of June.
(the photo above is one I took of myself during last year's Me-Made May wearing a homemade blouse from a 1980s pattern, a homemade skirt from my favorite 1970s Simplicity 7880, and a homemade sodalite necklace)
Here is my way of using up fabric scraps: save up money, adopt two beautiful rats in a big cage, clean said cage with repeated scrubbing, cut leftover fabric scraps in pieces and use to decorate cage for rats, let rats enjoy. Enjoy rats. Repeat cleaning, cutting, decorating (also watching the rats redecorate), and enjoying.
Marigold and Daisy seem to like it, anyway. And I really like having pet rats again.
I have sewn 1970s-era Butterick 6469 before, but it was long before Mr Rat and I started this blog, and I wasn't as pleased with that original long-ago dress that I made as I am with this one. Since it has been several years since I last sewed it, I forgot how fitted this pattern is. While the dress is comfortable to wear overall, the tight sleeves don't give me a full range of movement. I think the simplest way to solve this problem in the future is just to switch out the long, slim sleeves for a puffed or flared style.
The sewing process for this dress was simple and straightforward. The only changes I made were to widen the skirt for more fullness, leave the buttons and loops off of the center seam and the sleeves, and to add some more of the cotton crochet trim to the neckline and sleeves. These particular sleeves have never eased in quite smooth for me, so I made a slight gather at the top to make it look slightly puffed. The gingham is from a queen sized cotton-poly blend sheet that I found at Goodwill recently. The cotton crochet trim is from Hobby Lobby, and was pre-washed with the fabric before I sewed it on by hand after the dress was complete.
I think this dress will look nice in the summer with a big straw hat and straw purse. Even though it is still grey and cold out, and I had to wear it over stockings and boots and under a heavy cape and shawl, at least the color and the pattern of this dress remind me that spring is coming.
You can see that I persist in sewing hopeful spring/summer clothing despite the weather's just as persistent insistence that it is not warm enough to wear them. I had just finished my first attempt of 1970s-era Butterick 3953 before Mr Rat and I decided to go visit the Red Butte Gardens in north-eastern Salt Lake City this past Saturday. Since it has been too dark, too stormy, and too busy to take photos for most of the month, Mr Rat suggested I wear my new blouse and he could photograph it during our exploration of the garden. It was a hopeful suggestion, but most of the time I was bundled up in my homemade grey wool cape and my long brown skirt and the only time my blouse saw the very weak sunshine was when I took off my cape long enough to capture the few photos above.
We enjoyed our trip to the gardens, and seeing the first bulbs blooming in the midst of the grey and brown expanses of grass and soil and bare branches. I also enjoyed wearing my new blouse, and foresee it making many reappearances during Me-Made-May and afterwards, as the weather warms up. I like the fit, the ruffles at the bottom of the sleeves, and the scooped neckline. The hardest part of sewing it was turning the long drawstring inside out. That took me quite a while of patient poking with a bamboo skewer. And the next hardest part was sewing the bias binding casings on straight for the sleeve elastic and the drawstring waist. The rest of the blouse was quite simple: it has no darts, just a little easing at the sides of the bust, and all the shaping comes from the casings. I did the buttonholes by hand, used thrifted buttons (I have so very many of these white buttons! You will probably see them on a lot of my summer sewing ahead this year), and added white cotton crochet lace trim by hand to the neckline, the bottom hem, and the ends of the sleeves. I like the crochet trim a great deal: it is delicate and simple. I try to buy a few spools of it whenever trims come on sale at Hobby Lobby and I happen to be near a store. Then I pre-wash it, since it is prone to shrinking, and iron it before I sew it onto my chosen fabric. This particular fabric is a thrifted piece of seersucker in a nice shade of grey-blue.
Altogether, I am pleased with my first attempt at this pattern. I think I might change the slope of the shoulders just a little, so that the neckline is a little tighter, but otherwise I don't think it needs any adjustments.
Has spring sprung in your part of the world yet? (Or autumn, for the lower hemisphere). Do you ever sew out of season, just because you are looking forward to the next one a little more than the one you are in? Winter feels like it has been going on for such a long time.
Now that the snow is melting and the sun is back warming up the very-blue sky, perhaps I can finally try to catch up on some of my sewing projects here on the blog. It is still cold to photograph outside, so I used the tripod and took a few photos of my new blouse in my studio (you can see some pieces in progress and some of my various sketches and paintings behind me). This short and simple top exists almost entirely thanks to thrift store finds and a little bit of work: I found both the pattern, 1970s-era Simplicity 5639, and the fabric, a black cotton with a subtle stripe woven into it, on separate thrift store trips. I think I've had the fabric since we lived in California, but I found the pattern here in Utah. It is always a nice thing to find a pattern I like in my size at the thrift store, and even nicer when that pattern is not missing any pieces.
I like that this pattern is a very quick and easy project. It didn't take me long to finish it. In fact, most of the sewing was done in one day. There are no closures to worry about, which speeds up the process even more. I did my usual finishing touches: edge-stitching the yoke all the way around, and finishing the hems with a narrow machine-stitched seam. Although it may be hard to see in these photos, I cut the yoke on the crosswise grain so that the stripes run perpendicular to the rest of the blouse. I'm pleased with the fit, which is breezy and comfortable. The simplicity of the cut lends itself well to highlighting handmade jewelry, like this honey jade necklace I made last year, or a beautiful shawl. The only concern I had during the construction would be that the blouse would be too short and I would worry about raising my arms whenever I wear it. But it turned out not to be a problem; with a narrow hem, it hits me at the high hip, and I can stretch any direction without trouble.
I imagine I will wear this blouse a lot as the weather warms up. It is wearable now with one of my long handmade Simplicity 7880 skirts over a slip and stockings and socks, and layered with a shawl, but it will be even easier to wear when it is hot enough to not need so many layers. In fact, this pattern strikes me as being so perfect for summer that I already cut out another copy in unbleached cotton muslin. I suppose it is optimistic to be thinking ahead to warm weather clothes, but I feel a need for hopefulness right now. Maybe the snow will finish melting this week---maybe it will be warmer next week---maybe by next month I can start planting flowers and re-potting my faithful houseplants, and even draw outside again.
What are you looking forward to doing when spring arrives? Or autumn, if you are in the southern hemisphere----summer can be just as hard to endure as winter, which makes the transitional seasons of spring and fall so beloved, so beautiful, and yet so brief.
While we are waiting for better weather to photograph our new sewing projects, I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the patterns I've thrifted in the past few months. Utah is much richer hunting ground for patterns than California, I think. I've also found some lovely pieces of fabric, but you'll have to wait until I sew them up to see them. . .
I think most of you readers are not new to sewing, so you can skip this post if you like. One of Mr Rat's coworkers has asked us to teach her how to sew, so I've been putting together a list of supplies she needs to get started. Since it has been very difficult to get photos of my new sewing projects with all of the snowstorms we've been having the last few weeks (and are supposed to keep having the next few days), I thought I'd post the same list here in case there are any visitors to this blog who are curious about learning to sew and don't know quite how to start going about it.
Things you need to get started sewing:
A sewing machine – for dressmaking, the only essential stitch is the straight stitch, although it is convenient to have a machine that also does a zigzag stitch. If you want to sew with knits, look for a machine that has a stretch stitch as well. It isn’t necessary to have lots of decorative stitches unless you want them, and I would avoid getting one of the expensive quilting machines or a computerized machine (which can break when exposed to magnets), since they are more specialized than you need as a beginner. We used to use a contemporary Singer Heavy Duty machine before we found and refurbished our current Singer, which was made in 1946. The vintage metal-body machines are more durable and reliable than modern machines. If you decided to buy a used machine you can either buy a refurbished one from a shop or look online at sewing forums such as patternreview.com for advice on what brands and models best fit your needs. It is useful to have an automatic button-holer on your machine, but not a necessity, since we can teach you to make your buttonholes by hand. You’ll also want a cover or case if the machine doesn’t come with one. You can use the box the machine came in (if it had one) to store the machine when you are not sewing with it, or buy a portable carry-case, or some older machines come inside of cabinets (special sewing machine desks) and cannot be carried, but still need to be covered or put back inside their cabinet in between uses. Dust can clog and damage your machine, so you need to protect it somehow when you are not using it---a piece of cloth will work in a pinch.
A small brush and a tiny screwdriver – most machines come with one, but if yours doesn’t, you will want a small brush to clean the lint out of your machine. If you are using an older machine you will also need to buy sewing machine oil to keep your machine running well. Not very many contemporary machines are built in a way that you can open them to oil them, so refer to your manual to see if your machine needs to be oiled or not. If you buy an older, used machine, you can usually find and print the manual off the internet. This will instruct you on how to use and thread the machine, how to clean and care for it, and how to switch stitches and fix problems. If your machine does come apart to be oiled, then you will need a tiny screwdriver to open the machine to oil it.
A steam iron and ironing board – it is helpful if your steam iron also has the feature of using concentrated bursts of steam, and the ability to adjust the amount of steam as you iron. Your ironing board should be a comfortable height and have a padded cover.
An ironing shield/cloth – I use a plain white cotton bandana for this purpose. You can also use a large square of white cotton. This is used to place between the iron and your fabric when you are concerned that the iron may leave a shine or a mark on the fabric.
Bent-handled sewing shears – these are the scissors you need to cut out fabric. The bent handle makes it easier to keep the bottom blade flat against the floor or table when you are cutting. It is worthwhile to spend some extra money to get a good pair (we use Gingher) because you will be using them a lot, and will want to get them sharpened every year rather than having to buy a new pair when the blades get dull.
Sewing or embroidery scissors with a pointed end – these are your all-purpose sewing scissors, used for trimming seams, making notches, and cutting threads, etc. If your machine doesn’t have an automatic button-hole feature, then I would recommend getting some small embroidery scissors with a sharp and pointed end for cutting buttonholes.
Ordinary scissors – for cutting out patterns. You don’t want to ever use your sewing scissors on paper, as it will dull the blades very quickly.
A package of hand-sewing needles – you will need these for doing slip-stitch as well as sewing on buttons, etc. You can buy sets with different sizes, just be careful you are buying a set that is intended for hand sewing rather than embroidery or leather, etc.
A thimble - this will protect your fingers when you sew by hand, especially if you are sewing into a heavy fabric. It should fit tightly but not squeeze your finger. There are many varieties of thimbles out there---we use old-fashioned metal ones, but there are also leather and rubber ones.
Dress-making pins – if your pins don’t come in a closable box, you will also want to buy or make a pin-cushion or a magnetic pin holder to keep your pins handy while you sew.
Weights for cutting out patterns – we use small canned goods from our pantry. You can also use large, heavy, clean washers from the hardware store.
Measuring tool/point turner – this is very helpful for measuring seam allowances and hems, adjusting the placement of buttons, and turning things inside out.
Seam-ripper – self-explanatory, I think, and very necessary. We all make sewing mistakes and need to unpick seams from time to time.
A marking tool – while you may not use this all the time, it is helpful to have a washable fabric pencil or piece of tailor’s chalk, or even a small sliver of soap to mark pocket placements, pleats, etc. We often use pins to mark our projects, so buying this right away isn’t a necessity.
A flexible tape measure – this is important for taking measurements, especially of your own body, and also the fabric and pattern-pieces, to make sure that they will fit.
A box or basket to keep your sewing supplies in – there are lots of sewing baskets at the fabric store, but you can also use any handy medium sized box or basket that you like to keep your supplies in. It is useful if it is lidded to keep everything dust free.
Your first pattern, fabric, thread, and notions – it is easiest to start with a less-fitted pattern (such as a loose, pullover dress without darts or a pullover blouse with few or no darts) or a pattern that is fitted in only one place like the waist (a full skirt gathered to a waist-band would be an example). But if you want to sew a basic, fitted dress with bust darts and a full or a-line skirt, it is not too complicated to sew for the first time if you have some guidance along the way. For your first few times sewing, I would recommend buying inexpensive fabric, since you will be figuring out fitting and sewing techniques. Cotton is among the easiest of fabrics to sew with, since it frays very little, washes and presses well, and can be used for all sorts of clothing. You will want to pre-wash your fabric before you cut out your pattern. Use the same method to wash and dry your fabric as you will for the finished garment. This is in case the fabric shrinks or warps in any way---it is better to know this before you cut into it than after you’ve finished sewing your garment. Before you choose your pattern size, know that the sizing on patterns is quite different than ready-to-wear from the store. You will want to use your tape measure to take your own body measurements and write them down. It is not uncommon to fall within two different sizes for your top and bottom; most modern patterns are multi-sized, so this is not a difficult issue to work around. Most patterns will fit better if you use your upper-bust measurement rather than your full-bust measurement. It’s very helpful to get onto JoAnn fabric store’s e-mail or mailing list for coupons and mailers. They do pattern sales regularly where you can buy the patterns on sale for anywhere from 99 cents to 5 dollars each. The pattern envelope will tell you what fabrics are recommended for your sewing project, and what notions (zipper, buttons, bias tape, etc.) you will need to buy to complete your garment.
Interfacing – Almost all sewing projects require interfacing to give fabrics structure, stability, and support in necessary areas (such as collars, button bands, cuffs, necklines, and sometimes hems, pockets, lapels, and waistbands). I usually buy several yards of it when it is on-sale at the fabric store and keep it stored with my sewing supplies so I can use it when I need it. Lightweight or featherweight fusible interfacing is a good all-purpose weight for most sewing projects.
Things that are nice to have, but you don’t need to buy right away:
Tailor’s ham – This is incredibly helpful for ironing darts, princess seams, and any kind of curve. If you are going to sew fitted, darted dresses, then I would recommend buying this sooner rather than later, because it gives your pressing a much more professional look.
Pinking shears – If you sew a lot with firmly woven fabrics such as cotton, pinking shears are a quick and easy way to finish your seams so they go through the wash better.
French Curve – This is helpful for making fitting adjustments on your pattern, copying patterns from books and magazines, and drafting your own patterns.
Yardstick – This is helpful for measuring fabric, measuring dress lengths, and pinning up your hems or checking that they are even all the way around.
Extra bobbins – Most machines come with two or three extra bobbins. You can also buy them at the fabric store in a little case. It is useful to have extra for when you are switching thread colors---this way you don’t have to unroll your bobbin to switch colors every time.
A white glue-stick – this can be helpful when putting collars and cuffs together, or when attaching trims that you will sew on by hand or machine. The glue helps things stick together while you work and washes out of your finished garment.
Sewing books – I like the Vogue sewing guide from the 1970s-80s, although I also have a 1970s-era Butterick sewing book that is packed full of useful information and diagrams. These books will help you solve problems and learn new techniques.
Extra sewing machine needles – as you sew, you will need to switch needles as they get dull after a few projects. Size 10-11 is the most common needle we use, since it works for light and medium weight fabrics. But if you sew with especially light or heavy-weight fabrics, you will need different sized needles to accommodate your fabric choice (the smaller the number, the lighter the fabric----the larger the number, the heavier the fabric). If you sew with knits, you will need a ball-point or special knit needle so as to not damage the fabric. You will also need special pins for sewing with knits, or fine and delicate fabrics such as silk.
Beeswax - this is very useful if you sew a lot by hand. You pull your thread through it, which strengthens the thread and makes it harder to tangle.
Happy belated Valentine's Day! I'm glad I took these photos of my new dress yesterday on Valentine's Day, when there was a little bit of sunshine, because today we woke to a world transformed by snow.
I'm sure many of you will recognize one of my favorite patterns, 1970s-era McCall's 6209, which I have made before in tan striped cotton, black cotton-polyester broadcloth, and most recently in black flannel. I am fond of this pattern for its fit: it is more semi-fitted than fitted, and the ease makes the dress very comfortable for every day wear. But the small waist and full skirt and sleeves still give the dress a fitted look without the discomfort of tightness.
As I've mentioned a little bit before, I'm trying to experiment a little more with sewing with patterned fabric. Last summer I found that I like to sew and wear gingham, and I've sewn with stripes a few times, but so far I haven't tried many floral fabrics until the last few months. Our local Goodwill has a good selection of sheets, and recently I've found myself drawn to the ones with rose prints. At $2-$4 each, they are a small risk. I bought a few and have made two dresses out of them so far (only one of which has been blogged about), and I have yet another floral-print outfit cut out to start work on next. Roses are among my favorite flowers, and I miss my mother's rose garden very much. Wearing roses on my clothes reminds me of the places and plants that I love so much, and brings a little cheer to the grey winter that is so close to spring.
One of the advantages of sewing with sheets is that they are often already soft with washing. This sheet in particular had a nice drape and was easy to sew with, especially since the print hides any tiny imperfections and mistakes like a bust dart that isn't perfectly aligned with the other bust dart, or edge-stitching that can get a little wiggly. Imperfection has become a theme for me. I have to remind myself often that the goal is to get better slowly, and to make wearable clothes along the way. This dress turned out very wearable; it is so light and comfortable. Already since I finished it I've worn it twice, and received more compliments on it from people at church and from family members than any other garment I've sewn. When my grandpa saw it, he told me I was quite the "flower girl."
Since I've written about this pattern before, I will keep the construction notes brief here: I pinked the seams, finished the waistline with some thrifted bias tape, and had to trim the bottom a little to even it before I turned and finished it with a narrow hem. The zipper is stitched in by hand, and I stitched twice around the arm-holes to reinforce them. As usual, I edge-stitched the top of the sleeve-bands and the neckline to keep them crisp.
Mr Rat and I had a pleasant and quiet Valentine's Day. I wore my new dress and a Mexican silver heart necklace that I found a yard sale last year. I made a black-rice vegetable salad and prepared the ingredients so that when Mr Rat got home from work we could cook okonomiyaki together (savory Japanese pancakes with vegetables and little bits of meat cooked into them). We picked out our gifts for each other at a local antique mall a few weeks ago. One of the gifts Mr Rat gave me was a lovely little gold brooch shaped like a bouquet of violets, which is near the bottom of the photo at the end of this post that I took of my drawer of vintage brooches. Some were my grandmother's, and some are lucky finds from thrift stores, and some I've found with some careful searching on ebay for under $5. It's nice to have choices to wear with my dresses and blouses and jackets.
Did any of you do anything nice for Valentine's Day (with or without a significant other)? I like that Valentine's day can be a celebration of love in all its forms, including that of friendship. When we lived in Santa Clara we invited our friend K and her daughter to come have dinner with us, since her husband worked very late into the evening. It's pleasant to find a way to celebrate, no matter what the circumstances. And who doesn't need a reason to celebrate when winter feels like it has been here so long?
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew