An elegant solution for “wardrobe orphans.”

I don’t know why this particular concept hasn’t caught on, but the “Pick One, Sew Two” plan from Christine Jonson Patterns is pretty clever, especially for dealing with “wardrobe orphans.” It’s not overwhelming, and it’s logical. You take one garment you already have and pick two sewing projects to match it. I mean, that’s it. You could make up something inspiring about capsule wardrobes or minimalism or whatever buzz word you need to get enthused about it, but…it’s pretty straightforward.

I’m very intentional regarding my own wardrobe choices under normal circumstances. If something doesn’t fit, feel comfortable, or coordinate with other items it’s usually passed on without much further thought on my part. But every once in a while I buy something crazy (that I love) or a key piece wears out, and I have something I like to wear that doesn’t go with anything else. I currently have an eShakti skirt and a pair of Old Navy trousers that fit into this category. Both are sort of awkward, but I genuinely like them. The skirt was custom made to slightly larger than my current measurements, so I have a temporary alteration in place on the back waistband that is too messy to wear with a tucked-in shirt. (I didn’t want to permanently alter the skirt, as my waist measurement can vary by several inches, as I’ve previously explained.) I decided that a couple of cropped t-shirts (like the Seamwork Astoria) will work this back into my wardrobe. In the case of the Old Navy trousers, they fit well for (non-custom) RTW, but they have weird fake pocket welts on the back that bump out and kind of ruin the lines of longer tops. This was a major disappointment, as I had ordered these pants to replace a pair of worn out black pants — so the shirts that went with those trousers don’t work with these.

Sometimes it’s hard to be so picky.

Anyway, I just made plans to remedy the situation, as you can see above. (Forgive my hasty, smeared, and beyond-amateur drawings.) I plan to use patterns and fabric I already have, too. Better yet, all but one of these planned garments will coordinate with other pieces I already have, thereby better tying my entire wardrobe together. Win-win.

Summer of Sewing: May Review.

Sarah's Summer of SewingI have actually been sewing. Imagine that.

I genuinely love Me Made May. I think I would enjoy it even if I didn’t actively participate, because I love seeing all the garments that other people make and wear — and one of the best things about it is that it isn’t a fashion challenge or a photo challenge. These are (for the most part) the real clothes that people wear day to day, like multiple copies of a favorite t-shirt. I’m also the sort of person who makes many versions of the same sewing patterns over and over again — so I like to see that I’m not alone. You see people dressed as they usually do — to run errands or work in the garden, not just dressed to the nines with perfect make-up and accessories. It’s like street fashion, but much more casual.

Because I follow so many plus sized sewists on Instagram, May is also a good opportunity to see sewing patterns on a variety of bodies. I’ve already purchased one pattern that I was on the fence about because I saw it looked so good on someone shaped like me!

I followed through on my pledge and wore something self-made on every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday in May. I even managed to post a picture each time on Instagram. (I know that’s not the point of the pledge, but it is part of the fun.) I really did wear the things I normally wear; I only took care not to repeat anything. (Darth Marple style forever!) I wasn’t able to wear a couple of things I had planned on because it got so hot so quickly — and I also saw from the pictures that one of my bras doesn’t fit correctly and needs to be replaced — but I had a good time with it.

I do admire all of those dedicated Me-Made-May participants who make 100% of their own clothing, but I don’t aspire to that level. I don’t have the energy for it, and I’m mostly satisfied with the ready-to-wear* I have in my wardrobe. (I’m extremely picky — if it’s still hanging in my closet, it definitely works for me.) I know I’ve said before that I tend to sew simple things, a lot of “beginner” type patterns even though I’ve been sewing for more than half of my life. I mean, I’m capable of sewing all sorts of things. I used to make Victorian dresses and Renaissance costumes, for crying out loud — I am not afraid of zippers and buttonholes — but I choose to keep it simple because my energy level is so low. I mean, the amount of energy I would need to invest in sewing a pair of jeans — multiple muslins, all that bloody topstitching — could easily net me three or four tops and a dress instead. I’m not saying that I aspire to be my own sweatshop, or that quantity is always better than quality. I’m just saying that for me, personally, most of the time it makes sense to focus on the simpler things.

This might change in the future, of course. My energy level could improve, for one thing (hope springs eternal), and I’m already so dissatisfied with most ready-to-wear that I could see spending a couple of months sewing a winter coat or something like that.

Collage of May photos.

I finished a few things I already had cut out this month and made a couple of other simple things from scratch — including a pair of leggings for my Mom. I made a total of six new garments: Two dresses, two tops, and two pairs of leggings (including Mom’s). I’m more than satisfied with that!

I plan to complete the first draft of my new novel next month, so I bet my sewing momentum slows down a bit. I hope to finish a robe and another t-shirt dress before our vacation in July, though — and I plan to do at least the first muslin of my test project. That’s probably more than enough for June, but as I said, I’m pleased to have started off my Summer of Sewing with some tangible success.

Onward to June!

(*I’m not saying that I’m satisfied with what ready-to-wear currently has to offer plus sizes — I’m patently not. Also, I have to admit that the much of the ready-to-wear I own — aside from loungewear and underwear — is custom made to my measurements via eShakti. So it’s not exactly “off the rack” to begin with.)

Late to the party.

Here are all of the projects I chose for the 2018 Make Nine challenge. From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Burda Robe 01/2017 (#126). I have needed a robe for a long time, and I really like the gathered detail on this one. It’s also made of knit fabric for extra comfort.
  2. A Seamwork Arden dress. I intend to alter this to sleeveless. Almost no one seems to have made this pattern, but I’ve always liked it.
  3. A Baktus Scarf replacement. My old one got a couple of big moth holes in it (a lesson to be learned regarding proper storage there), and it was the first thing I ever knitted with “good” yarn (Jo Sharp Silkroad DK Tweed). I also loved the shape of it. I don’t knit much at all these days, but I loved that scarf. This will probably be the only thing I knit this year.
  4. Something green for my birthday. My birthday is St. Patrick’s Day, and although I don’t really celebrate the holiday I do wear something green every year. I have two very different bright green fabrics in my stockpile, but haven’t decided which I’ll use this year — or which project I will use for either fabric. This is fairly hazy, I know — but it has an obvious deadline.
  5. A Concord t-shirt swing dress. I am just as in love with the Concord Tee as pretty much every other plus-sized woman who sews, and I really need some more easy dresses for hot weather. Two of my favorites are pretty much worn out and I’ll be really sad come spring if I don’t make at least one replacement.
  6. Simple trousers, to be determined. Another vague intention, I’m afraid — but I haven’t settled on which trousers I want to work on. I think I will stick to a pull on stretch woven style, but since I have failed with at least three of these patterns at the muslin stage, it might be time to try something else. I just ordered the Fast & Fabulous Miracle Pants from Hot Patterns (goodness, their pattern titles are always so breathless), but we’ll see how they test.
  7. A Heidi Purse from I Think Sew. Confession time: I’ve had this cut out for months, but never got around to sewing it. I really hate inserting magnetic closures, and that’s probably the whole reason for my procrastination.
  8. A Springfield top. I’ve tried other woven tanks and never can get them to fit very well. My pattern alteration skills just aren’t as far along as I’d like, but this pattern has so many positive reviews that I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
  9. A Suki Kimono from Helen’s Closet. Yes, that’s another robe. I don’t have any robes at all right now, and I spend a lot of time in sleepwear or loungewear and I’m trying to up my game in this area. I mean, I can be comfortable, but why can’t I also pretend to be visiting someone’s country house in the 1930s? Exactly.

None of these projects are too hard — and several are very easy — so I hope I can make some good progress on these. I do want to focus more on my sewing this year. I am less and less satisfied with most of the clothing I buy, so I’m fairly motivated to make more of my own stuff. I’m going to try to be more diligent about posting pictures of finished projects to Instagram this year, too — and to the blog here if I have anything particular to explain in detail.

Here’s to a productive (yet peaceful) 2018!

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Be the Handsome Villain You Want to See in the World

I’m wearing a repeated and remixed Comino Cap dress for the final day of Me Made May 2017, along with my eShakti cardigan and my favorite vintage scarf.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Thirteen
Be the Handsome Villain You Want to See in the World

We’ve reached the final day of my Month of Clothing Philosophy, and there was so much I meant to say that I didn’t. I may add a few more essays along the way in the future, but never with this level of saturation. I really want to thank you for reading these pieces, and I hope that I’ve encouraged you to think about your own wardrobe.

I wanted to do something a little different to end the month, so I decided to share a list of my current fashion inspirations. I’ve been following a few of these people from all the way back in the days of the Fatshionista LiveJournal! I often wish that I’d had some source of street fashion when I was a kid. Sure, I subscribed to Vogue as a teenager, but these days I can open up Instagram and see real people wearing awesome clothes and looking fabulous — a far more interesting thing, in my opinion.

First off, a couple of exceptions. Buttercup’s Frocks isn’t on Instagram (as far as I know), but her Tumblr is still going strong. One of the very few over-50 outfit-of-the-day bloggers, she proves that a cardi and dress combo needn’t be twee, but can be an explosion of color and creativity. I would also like to give a shout out to Australian blogger Kath Read, who I admire greatly for both her fashion sense and her role as an activist, but her Instagram is private.

My Current Instafaves:

Shannon describes herself as “dandy femme” and makes me long for a well-fitting waistcoat.

I simply love Yvette’s style — her dress game is on fire.

Sonya Philip is an artist and sewist, and the originator of the 100 Acts of Sewing Project. She is a fearless mixer of prints in a lagenlook style.

Tasha is known for her amazing vintage style, mostly self-made — both sewn and knitted.

Margot Meanie wears all of the things I would want if I were 20 years younger and still 100% goth.

Amina Mucciolo is both a unicorn and a mermaid in human form — and either way she is gorgeous.

Rachel Jayson is a very fashionable musician with a Fluevog collection so extensive and fabulous that it makes me want to weep.

Tanya Maile is one of my favorite sewists on the entire World Wide Web. Everything she sews is fantastic, especially her vintage-inspired stuff.

Cynara Geissler , the originator of “Toddler Grandma Style: The Fashion Approach That Will Set You Free,” is probably my favorite of all time. I would pay to raid her closet. She is the best. Really.

You might notice something about my Instagram inspiration list. Sure, some of them primarily buy ready-to-wear, and some of them sew…but only one person in that whole list is straight sized. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not disgusted by thin bodies. (You guys are beautiful, too! Besides, as the saying goes, some of my best friends are thin.) But representation is important, and one of the ways I learned to stop hating my own body was by surrounding myself with images of people who looked like me.

I turned to “regular” people who posted pictures of themselves online because — with very few exceptions — every pop culture representation of bodies that look like mine are meant for comic relief or are villains. When a fat body appears in a story, you can be pretty sure that you’ll either laugh at them or be afraid of them — or both. Sometimes it feels like there’s a fine line between Mimi Bobeck and Ursula the Sea Witch, you know? So I think it’s especially important for regular fat people to be visible — even when the culture at large wishes we would hide away.

I may look like a villain, but I’m just a regular person — well, a regular clothes-obsessed person. And although I may long for a glorious plaid suit in the style of TV’s Hannibal Lecter, I’m not actually a bad guy.

There’s no need to vilify my body or others like it.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Make It Your Own

I’m wearing a brand new frankentee today for Me Made May — basically a Cashmerette Concord T-Shirt with the Jennifer Lauren Handmade Gable Top neckline. Not all frankenpattern experiments are successful, but I will definitely make this combo again with a little further tweaking. And who doesn’t love a good fox print? :fox_face:

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Twelve
Make It Your Own

In my opinion, the very best thing about sewing your own clothes is that you can make almost anything you can imagine. If you have the skills and you can find the right fabric, the sky’s the limit! You can make your clothing as individual as you want…or you can copy things you could never afford (or find in your size). Sewing can give you an almost endless sort of sartorial freedom.

If you only want to wear purple for the rest of your life, you can make that happen. If you want an entire closet full of copies of the same blouse, you can do that — even if you want to copy a ready-to-wear blouse you love. If you want to chase every trend or simply blend into a crowd, sewing lets you do that, too.

You don’t have to sew everything from scratch, either. You can alter thrift store finds to better reflect your style, and alter new ready-to-wear for a better fit. You can take off sleeves, add (or subtract) trim, or even dye a light colored garment to a more pleasing shade. You can upcycle garments for yourself or cut them down for children.

When you do sew from scratch, you’re not limited to just the sewing patterns you find. Even if you can’t draft your own sewing patterns (which isn’t as hard as it seems), you can “frankenpattern” your favorites together. Maybe you like the fit of one dress, but the collar and sleeves of a different dress. You can combine them and make exactly what you want. You can easily alter sleeves and necklines with just a little practice — and an absolute beginner can make something shorter or longer. Most commercial patterns already have a line marked for that.

I began sewing as a teenager because I couldn’t find what I wanted to wear in stores, and returned to sewing later as an adult for much the same reason. I like to wear pretty specific shapes, colors, and fabrics — and have a difficult to fit shape (even for a plus size person). Sewing gives me the ability to wear the exact sort of things I like, and even if it takes far more effort than ready-to-wear, I think the results are worth the time and energy I spend. I also just plain enjoy the process. I don’t enjoy shopping at all, but I really do love sewing.

Although there’s a temporary (and somewhat frustrating) period for every new sewist where your taste exceeds your ability, the first time your end result matches up to your imagination is an amazing feeling. You’ll want more of that. You get a distinct sense of satisfaction when you wear something you’ve made yourself. And it’s a heady feeling when people compliment your self-made garments — though it’s kind of hilarious when other people act like you’re a wizard when they learn you sew your own clothes. (They do that more often than you think! It cracks me up every time.)

Sewing gives you an opportunity to truly make a garment your own. You choose the design, the color and print, and through your own effort make something both practical and beautiful. It can be an art and a craft at the same time, and the end result can be as unique as you are.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Not Quite a Minimalist

In total relaxation mode for Me Made May this Memorial Day afternoon. I’m wearing a self-drafted knit tunic whose neckband will not lay flat because I miscalculated its length. I didn’t bother to fix it because it was only ever meant to be lounge wear, and sometimes good enough is just plain good enough.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Eleven
Not Quite a Minimalist

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when it comes to my wardrobe accessories are clearly my weakness. This is partly situational. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life living in very small spaces with almost no room for storage. Consequently, I have less clothing than most clothes horses generally do, and very few accessories. I wear the same few pieces of jewelry again and again, mostly necklaces. I don’t have pierced ears, though I do own exactly two pairs of clip-on earrings — and a handful of rings I wear on special occasions. (I don’t usually wear bracelets at all because I don’t like the sounds they make when I type.) I don’t have many purses or belts, and only a few hats. I have terrible feet and need to wear very supportive (and sometimes pricey) shoes, so I don’t really have that many — and they’re mostly boring.

I do love scarves and have a good handful, but I often don’t think to wear them. I’m not sure that I’m really any “good” at accessorizing, but probably some of this is rebellion, too. Everyone expects a fat lady to have the best accessory collection, because that’s all she can buy in “regular” stores. Maybe I like to play against expectations.

Because of this tendency to pare back, you may think I’m a minimalist — but I’m not. I’m definitely drawn to minimalist imagery in both fashion and decor, but I’m also drawn to gleeful overabundance. Given enough time and money, I could definitely see myself becoming one of those people with an entire room full of clothes and accessories. Realistically, though, that could be overwhelming. One of the benefits of having a smaller wardrobe is that it’s easy to choose what to wear, especially if you really like everything you have. I think that’s the idea behind minimalist capsule wardrobes, but I think having a really small variety of clothes would be too boring for me. A popular number is 33 — just 33 items of clothing and accessories. I can’t imagine that. But I can’t really imagine having endless variety, either.

I described myself earlier as medium fat and medium femme. As a person drawn in some ways to both minimalism and maximalism, I’m again choosing a middle path. I think maybe — to coin a phrase — I’m a mediumist. I’m Goldilocks looking for that “just right” balance between too little and too much.

A medium sized wardrobe really is the best of both worlds. Large enough to be interesting, but small enough that favorites don’t get pushed to the back of the closet and forgotten.

Not everything is in balance yet. I probably do have too few accessories, and I think I probably have too many cardigans — despite having only 17 right now, a stunning five year low. (I usually have 23 – 25 cardigans. Maybe that’s too many. Maybe. I don’t know. I really love cardigans. It’s hard to say.)

Still, I keep striving for balance, and I get closer all the time.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: My Best Sartorial Advice

I almost forgot to take a photo today for Me Made May, but I’m wearing a mostly hidden, very old Comino Cap tee under an even older RTW cardigan.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Ten
My Best Sartorial Advice

I may not be a well-known fashion guru — heck, I don’t even aspire to that — but I still have a few pieces of advice for people looking to up their wardrobe game.

Forget about conventional wisdom.
Don’t worry about the colors supposedly appropriate for your coloring or the shapes that are supposedly correct for your body type. Wear what you like! There is no literal fashion police to arrest you. I’m a redhead who constantly wears red, for instance, and a pear who sometimes wears bright colors on my oversized ass — and I have not been sent to the fashion gulag yet. Wearing clothes that you genuinely like, regardless of how “flattering” they are, can give you a sort of buoyancy in appearance. Please yourself and the effect is often pleasing.

Make sure your wardrobe reflects your real life.
It’s easy to make (or buy) garments for a life you wish you were living — like sewing endless fancy dresses (that you have no reason to wear) or buying workout clothes (that you think will make you work out more, but never do). Worse still is to have a closet full of clothes that are either the wrong size or that simply reflect some previous phase of life. I think it’s fine to keep a few sentimental garments, but if you’ve changed jobs and have a drastically different dress code, it’s reasonable to replace your work wear. Anuschka Rees has a very useful method for analyzing your clothing needs by activity here. In fact, I highly recommend her wardrobe method (though I don’t aspire to minimalism) for any analytically-minded clothes horse.

Spend money on your priorities.
If you prefer quality over quantity, spend more on well-made basics (or on high quality fabric). If, on the other hand, you truly like a lot of “churn” in your wardrobe feel free to spend accordingly. There’s no one right way to dress, after all. You can chase fads or stick with the classics — just be true to yourself. (I do recommend setting a realistic budget and sticking to it, either way — but I’m one of those bummer thrifty people.)

Start where you are and build on what you already have.
Figure out what you like that you already have, then try to figure out why you like it — then make or buy similar pieces. One of the reasons I’ve never liked makeover shows is that they want you to throw out who you already are and start from scratch. That’s neither reasonable nor realistic, in my opinion. Maybe you truly are tired of wearing sweatshirts and jeans every day, but instead of buying or making 10 business casual dresses you’ll never wear again, why not try a work appropriate knit top and some stretch twill trousers? It’s always easier to add new things than to subtract old things that you genuinely like.

Leave the snark unsaid.
Constructive criticism is great — when asked for. A general tendency to read to filth anyone who doesn’t look the way you think they should is a horrible habit. Whether you’re denigrating yourself or others, a constant barrage of body shame and clothing mockery only serves the kyriarchy. It oppresses everyone, and we’re already playing an appearance-based game that no one can truly win. Give sincere compliments and be honest when asked, but try to leave the body and clothing based snark behind.

Feel free to ignore all of my advice.
As the receptionist in “Beetlejuice” said: “It’s all very personal.” Clothing can be a way we represent ourselves to the world, and as such can serve an entire host of purposes — all different, depending on who we are and what we value. Although we’re all in this together, we certainly don’t have to dress alike.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

Posing in the rain for Me Made May today. I’m wearing a Colette Patterns Sorbetto top with a story behind it. Colette recently redesigned their basic sewing blocks for both misses and plus sizes. (This means they changed the way their patterns are drafted — therefore changing the way they fit.) They re-released this free pattern with the new block to encourage people to test the new fit. I never got the original Sorbetto to work for me, and the fabric for this test garment actually came from a failed old Sorbetto and its scraps. I removed the pleat and had to introduce a center front seam to make the pattern pieces fit, and since I couldn’t pattern match I deliberately cut one of the fronts on the wrong side of the fabric to create a faux chevron effect. Considering that I used fabric on hand that would otherwise have gone to waste, and thread and bias tape leftover from another project, this shirt was completely free to make (apart from my time).

I also want to say (for the sewists in the crowd) that the new Colette block is much better than the old one! Because this was a test the only pattern alteration I made was to grade out to a larger size at the hips. I made a straight 16 at the bust and shoulders, and although I would make several changes in the future (narrow shoulders, raise darts, swayback) the fit is comparable to ready-to-wear now. The armscye and sleeve are beautifully drafted — the sleeves set in like a dream, and I didn’t even need to make a large bicep adjustment. I can’t vouch for the new plus size block as my measurements put me in regular sizes at the bust and shoulder, but I am very much impressed with the new misses block.

(Please forgive the ridiculous look my my face. My Mom kept making me laugh and we wanted to get out of the rain!)

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Nine
Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, and only shopped for brand new clothes a couple of times a year. Many of my clothes came from garage sales — and later thrift stores — but we also would have several things sewn each year, too. Home sewing used to be ubiquitous, and a way to have high quality garments for less than retail cost. Sewing was still cheaper than ready-to-wear in the 1980s, though the fact that we went to a neighbor instead of a professional seamstress probably helped to keep costs even lower. Her name was Christine, and she sewed mainly for pleasure. She took in sewing projects from other people just to supplement her retirement income, as far as I can remember.

She made a lot of my favorite clothes, too. I remember a specific plaid dress she made that I wore until I nearly burst out of it. It was almost two sizes too small when Mom made me give it up! I still think about that dress today, honestly. And the fact that the dress lasted that long was a testament to her skill, too. She finished seams with pinking shears and made beautiful handworked buttonholes with tiny perfect stitches enclosing each opening. She saved us money and was a treasure, and we only stopped going to her when I learned to sew myself.

Now it’s often cheaper to buy brand new ready-to-wear clothing than sewing in most cases, and resale items are even less expensive. Going to a professional if you lack the skills yourself is very costly — bespoke clothing is completely beyond an average shopper’s budget these days. Fast fashion changed the entire retail clothing game, and not for the better in any way except in price. Ready-to-wear clothing is cheaper than it ever has been before (and the quality reflects it), but many people can’t afford anything else. Knowing that an $8 t-shirt comes with an unseen price tag in both environmental impact and human suffering doesn’t seem all that important when you have difficulty paying your rent.

There are still exceptions, of course. Formal gowns and party dresses can be surprisingly simple to sew (though I would hardly recommend a wedding dress as a first project), and even when high quality fabrics are used they usually cost less than department store prices. Christine made a beautiful semi-formal dress for my 8th grade graduation — black satin with a boned bodice — for less than $50 when something similar would have been over $100 retail even then! My aunt Karen made her own wedding dress in the early 1990s, too — and it was truly designer quality, as she spent countless hours applying beading by hand — but it cost literally hundreds of dollars less than a comparable gown. Although I haven’t made anything formal lately, I think it’s safe to say that it would still be cheaper than ready-to-wear much of the time even now.

You can also mitigate costs by repurposing clothing you already have and using either thrifted garments or linens for fabric. (I often use thrifted sheets to make muslins, for instance, and have been known to buy long gathered skirts just to harvest the fabric from them.) Just like when shopping for ready-to-wear, you can look for fabric sales, too. I personally think the coupon shenanigans of Jo-Ann Fabric (the last brick and mortar fabric retailer in most places) are more of a hassle than they’re worth, but they do have legitimate large sales a couple of times a year — and most online fabric stores have sales once or twice a year, too. Some people have good luck when thrift or estate sale shopping and find amazing (sometimes vintage) fabric for a song, but I never have. Sewing patterns can also be expensive, but using them multiple times can bring down the cost per use. (Be sure to trace off a sewing pattern to preserve it — that way you don’t have to buy it again to make other sizes if you gain or lose weight, or want to sew it for someone else. I make clothes for myself and my very-differently sized Mom from the same patterns all the time.) Printable PDF patterns are usually cheaper than paper ones — though you do have to go through the trouble of taping them together. There are also lots of free patterns online now, too.

Another way to keep down costs is to resist FOMO — or the Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO can lead you to buy fabric and patterns that you don’t need and may never really use. It’s easy to squirrel away far more than you can reasonably use, and I am as guilty of this as the next dedicated sewist. I have, according to my spreadsheet, over 130 yards stored in our closet, as well as two large plastic tubs of scraps and remnants. There’s nothing thrifty about that! I used to buy fabric for only one or two projects at a time, and would finish those projects before I got anything else. That was back before I had much in the way of disposable income, of course — but I still long for that kind of simplicity, and it certainly makes sewing less costly to pay for only one project at a time.

Practice helps, too. Once you reach a certain level of competence the sheer quality of self-made garments helps to cancel out the cost. With care, well-finished home sewn garments can last longer than ready-to-wear, and therefore require fewer replacements over time. These days there are so few mid-range clothiers that it’s hard to find quality in the marketplace to begin with (especially if you’re plus sized), and it only takes a moderate amount of skill to sew something of higher quality than a fast fashion retailer.

Regardless of cost, when you make your own clothing you can make things that you could never find in a store — things that exactly suit your preferences. You get used to getting exactly what you want, and ready-to-wear starts to look less and less appealing over time. The satisfaction of sewing your own clothing can be priceless.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Failures of the Marketplace

I wore a very old (but still good) Sewing Workshop eShrug for Me Made May today.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Eight
The Failures of the Marketplace

One of the biggest challenges of being a plus sized woman who wants to buy ready-to-wear clothing is finding clothing to buy. That probably sounds insane to you — if you’ve only ever worn straight sized clothing — but I can pretty much count on two hands the total number of brick and mortar retailers from which I can buy clothing in person here in Houston. Besides the anchor department stores’ very small plus sized sections (sparsely populated with ill-fitting and extremely overpriced — not to mention ugly — garments), there is exactly one plus size retailer in the mall nearest my home. One store. One. And I’m a smaller fat person — I’m not sized out of any plus size retailer, some of which only go up to US22.

It’s true that online retailers have started to fill in the gaps in the plus size market. Modcloth was one of the first to really expand their size range (though they made some other boneheaded moves regarding their extended sizing as time went by), and lots of other more mainstream retailers have extended sizes available online (that are definitely not available in their physical stores). But what that means is that instead of taking two or three sizes to a dressing room, a plus sized person will have one of two scenarios to deal with, especially when trying an unfamiliar retailer:

  1. Order the size they think will fit best (fingers crossed that the retailer’s size chart is accurate), pay for shipping, try it on at home, and see whether or not it needs to be returned for a different size, pay for return shipping if it does, hope that the alternate size is still in stock, and wait for the replacement to come in the mail before they maybe have to start all over again.
  2. Or order two or three sizes of the same garment (who can afford to do that with every single piece of clothing they buy?), pay for shipping, decide which one fits best and hope the retailer will accept the other garment(s) in return — after you’ve paid for return shipping, of course.

Yeah, that all sucks. When you take into account how awful most ready-to-wear plus size clothing is, it’s even worse. It’s often poorly constructed and made of subpar fabric — while still being far more expensive than equivalent straight size clothing, sometimes even twice the price. There are fewer options for almost everything, and most of those options are of a lesser quality.

It’s even tougher if you already have a firm sense of your own style. I’m beyond picky when it comes to color palette and fit, and most of the time I no longer settle for “almost-but-not-quite.” I buy very little ready-to-wear clothing these days. I do thrift some things, but I’m just as likely to walk out of a resale shop empty handed as with a purchase. I buy the occasional t-shirt at Target, basic cardigan sweaters at Old Navy, and most of my workout wear from Rainbeau Curves online. I mainly buy work clothes and party dresses from eShakti, which carries every single design in sizes 0 – 36W, and can customize to your measurements for only $9.95 more. I cannot stress how much I love them. I know I sound like a commercial, and I’m sorry for that, but the first time I ordered a custom dress from them and saw how well it fit at my shoulders and my hips, I very nearly cried. It’s the best compromise between ready-to-wear and having your own seamstress that I’ve ever encountered.

That being said, of course I also sew many of my own clothes.

However, it’s not fair to expect sewing to compensate for the failures of the marketplace for plus sized women. There is a real — mostly unseen — classism inherent in sewing as a hobby. (I highly recommend Tasha Fierce’s essay “The Class Dynamics of DIY Clothing” for a more thorough examination of these issues.) Besides the time and energy involved in learning to sew, there is also a large monetary investment in a sewing machine itself and the various other tools needed. Fabric isn’t cheap, either, and many self-made garments are more expensive than their ready-to-wear equivalents — especially if it’s a basic, like a t-shirt.

Factoring in time spent can make a garment seem astronomically expensive, too. Using a new-to-me pattern, a simple, uncomplicated woven dress can take 4-7 hours to make, counting all steps: tracing off the pattern, making and adjusting a muslin (test garment), ironing and cutting out the fabric, and actual construction and finishing. That’s quite a time investment when you’re busy or exhausted. It’s just not realistic to think that everyone can be expected to make that sacrifice just because they can’t find something to wear from a clothing retailer.

For me — and I’m only speaking for me — I choose to take that time and sometimes to pay more to make my own clothes when I can, but it is a choice and I own my privilege in this area. I have the necessary equipment, skill set, and time and money to do so. It’s only a partial and personal solution to the failures of the marketplace, but it allows me to feel less helpless in the face of an inherently oppressive system.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Pursuit of Elegance

I’m wearing a simple self-drafted gathered skirt for for Me Made May today. I thought you might be tired of seeing my mug all the time, so I changed it up. You get more of the the wild floral print this way, anyway.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Seven
The Pursuit of Elegance

I don’t know if every clothing-obsessed person had an identifiable turning point in their development of personal style, but I definitely did. I had loved clothing and design from the time I was a child, but aside from gothic tendencies, I didn’t have a defined style. I knew what I liked, but I hadn’t examined any reasons behind it.

It may be embarrassing to admit, but the entire basis of my personal style developed primarily from a single book: French Style by Veronique Vienne. I’d be willing to wager that you’ve never heard of this book, which is very much out of print, and was never very popular to begin with. Published in 1993, it was available from only one source — and that was the clothing retailer Express. That’s right: the turning point for my personal style was an oversized paperback purchased at Express. Filled with photos and illustrations both historical and modern, it was less of a prescriptive manual (wear this, as a command) and more of a guide to possibilities (try this, as a suggestion). More importantly, it spoke to the almost mystical desire I had to be enigmatic and elegant.

I knew even then that I would probably never be beautiful as society demanded, but I began to believe that I could be handsome and charismatic — which could be better in the long run. It was something I could age into instead of age out of — something that I could be at 20 or 30 or 40, if I did it well enough.

I found this especially comforting because so much about me was amorphous, at least physically. I was (at the time) an inbetween size, I was short, and I had freckles — the death knell of sophistication in my mind. Even the color of my eyes and hair were difficult to determine! My eyes were grey, but could look blue, green, or grey — and my hair was auburn, but was made up of all different sorts of gingery shades, and included a natural orange streak along the left side of my hairline. (I was occasionally called “skunk head” in elementary school because of my stripe.) I wanted to have something concrete and easily defined about my appearance, so I decided that I would learn to be well-dressed.

French Style does outline some rules, of course — actually helpful tips like “Don’t wear clothes that wear you” and “Mix, don’t match, lengths (and textures).” It also introduced me to the concept of “épater les bourgeois” — to shock the middle class. I would rather look shocking than dull any day! It helped to give me a sense of what styles to avoid, too. Even as a young adult I felt compelled to shun any style that might label me as frumpy — anyone over a certain (very small) size is easy to dismiss as matronly, regardless of age. I live in terror of looking matronly to this day, and I’m old enough now to be a literal matron.

Over the years I built on the basics French Style taught me, and developed my own internal set of rules for dressing. Some of these are admittedly sort of odd. I don’t treat blue denim as a neutral, for instance — I only wear it with black, white, or grey. I never wear true navy blue, pink, or brown unless it’s in a print with black. I never buy or sew a separate that doesn’t go with at least two garments I already have. Every single garment in my closet fits me at my current size, and is comfortable. But these are my rules — they don’t have to be yours.

I don’t necessarily follow standard fashion guidelines, either. I like horizontal stripes (quelle horreur!), and I don’t give much thought to what is considered typically flattering. I dress to please myself, not the arbiters of fashion or “good taste.” I’ve managed to stay true to my early style ambitions, though. I may not be completely elegant, but I think I’ve made excellent progress in that direction.