10 things I learned from sewing my own wardrobe in 2022

Since the beginning of 2022 I’ve sewn an entire summer wardrobe completely from scratch. Hand-sewn. No machine. Six dresses, four vests, two undershirts and a cardigan. I also altered two dresses, four Hawaiian shirts, three button-up shirts, two pairs of jeans and a pair of palazzo pants.

During 2020, I moved to Japan and found myself without a mask (this was at the height of everyone panic-buying everything even remotely useful) so I used an old tshirt and a travel sewing kit to make my own.

It awakened something in me.

I made about a million of those little bastards.

As the pandemic raged on, I started binging YouTube videos in between doomscrolling, and stumbled down the Costube rabbit hole. ‘Costube’ is the name of the community of youtubers who make their own clothes inspired by history, fantasy, or costume. They are different from typical sewing youtubers because the clothes they make are more eccentric, less adaptable to modern trends, and full of whimsy. A wonderful palette cleanser while you’re watching the world burn.

In particular, Bernadette Banner, Rachel Maksy and Micarah Tewers were a lot of fun to watch.

I like to think of them as three points on a spectrum: Bernadette “turned and felled down with tiny felling stitches” Banner is on the detail-oriented side, as close to history as she can get while making clothes that will likely outlive us all; Rachel “we have fun here” Maksy is in the middle of the spectrum with her thrifted bedsheets, commercial patterns and everyday cosplays; Micarah “don’t overthink it” Tewers is a mistress of chaos who cuts her fabric by eye, uses snickers bars and racoons as measures, and once made a Marilyn Monroe dress in a couple of hours.

So I was absorbing these creators – others too, like Morgan Donner, Abby Cox, Sewstine, etc – while I was sitting around, twiddling my thumbs, brain melting with fear and horror. It was inevitable that I would pick up what they were putting down.

Later, I realised that Japan is inhabited by women who have a significantly different body type to me, and that if I tried on any clothes in the shop I looked like stuffed sausage. However, I found that buying over-sized clothes and tightening them with some of the tricks I’d learned from the Costubers got me decent results.

And then… some stuff happened. I needed an outlet for my brain that wouldn’t make me weep, so I picked up a needle and BAM! Hyperfixation station, baby!

Bernadette does a lot of hand-sewing for her historical reconstructions, so I knew that clothes made by hand would stand up if I made sure to do the seams properly. Sewing machines are too loud for my sensitive, PDDNOS ears, so a needle and thimble were really my only options. Watching Rachel use cheap, second-hand materials to make whimsical clothes gave me ideas for where to get the raw materials, while Micarah’s utter disregard for the ‘rules’ of sewing gave me the confidence to just mess around and figure it out as I went and not worry too much about getting things exactly right.

Working on my own clothes let me play around with colour and texture in a way I’ve never done before. I learned that the way I sweat can be accommodated with an adjusted armscye (the hole your arm goes through) and that I can feel the difference between fibres on my skin. I developed an appreciation for the sheer amount of time this shit takes, and so have sworn off cheap fast-fashion and try my best to buy things I can’t make from independents or second-hand sellers. I learned what colours I prefer to wear, the silhouettes that I prefer, and the way I like my clothes to move with me.

Overall, a very useful quarantine skill to pick up.

Without further ranting, here are the ten things I learned from making my own clothes for a year:

  1. You can put a pocket in most things. And you should.
  2. Fibres make or break the experience. Some fabrics just have no manners – linen will do everything it can to avoid being cut in a straight line and rayon is a slippery little shit. It’s not your fault. Start with forgiving fabrics like cotton (readily available and cheap) and work your way up.
  3. You only have to figure it out once, then you never have to figure it out again. I keep all of my patterns and reuse them as I’m trying to get the hang of a particular style or technique. I have four dresses made from the same pattern, another two from a different one, four vests the same, two chemises, etc. There are some little tweaks and they use different fabrics and colours, but making them required no extra brain power. I even used on of the dress patterns to make a winter vest pattern – I just made the bodice longer and flared out to fit my hips.

  4. You can make most clothes using a few basic patterns. Most commercial clothing follows the same basic patterns with some tweaks or alterations. So if you see something you like in a shop, you can probably make it if you take note of where the seams are and what materials they used. That’s why it’s good to invest time in block patterns (a basic pattern that you know fits you perfectly that you can re-use for different projects), or you could even take a pattern from something you already wear that you like the fit of. Check out The Closet Historian for more detailed explanations and step-by-steps of how to do this.
  5. Your body isn’t weird – your clothes just don’t fit you. Before I got into sewing, I had never heard of things like ‘swayback’, ‘short-waisted’, etc. Clothes in shops are often made for longer torsos and flatter tummies and, because of that, I’ve often felt self-conscious in clothes I bought because they would either ride up or tighten around my pudgiest areas. I make my patterns with that in mind and – ‘lo and behold! – I feel better when I wear them!
  6. Quality is in the finishing. I noticed this when I was looking at one of my dad’s button-up office shirts – they had all of their seams flat felled! That means that they can be washed over and over and they’ll hold up. My own button-up shirts, on the other hand, tend to have their seams overlocked. The overlocking will keep the fabric from unravelling, but it is just a single thread looped around the edge of the cut – it’ll last only as long as that thread holds. There isn’t time or space here to go over why the men’s shirts are made with sturdier methods, nor why manufacturers would choose methods that are likely to lower the life expectancy of the clothes. Let’s just agree that if I’m going to spend hours making clothes for myself, I’ll want them to survive more than a couple of washes! I use the 80/20 rule: I spend 20% of my time actually putting the dang thing together and then 80% finessing the fit and covering raw edges/reinforcing seams. If I do it right, the seams are pretty much impenetrable*
  7. A tshirt should never cost $5. Retail price should include: overhead, materials, profit, sales tax, maintaining equipment, marketing, etc. If a tshirt is $5, how much is left over to pay the person who actually put it together? For an item that would, at best, take me a day to make, the sewist who made it is likely making cents. If you look at an item in a store and think “Wow, what a great price!” then someone somewhere is probably getting screwed.
  8. Having a low stakes creative outlet is pretty damn useful. Not in terms of $$ cost but in terms of personal investment. Some people build their whole identity around a particular creative outlet – for me, it’s writing. It’s a wonderful career that I’ve built for myself, but it does mean that there’s a lot of expectation, perfectionism, and self-judgement around what I produce. Whatever I write, I’m unsatisfied because a) I know I can do better or I tell myself I can because the vision in my head falls short of the product, and b) it feels like if anyone sees it, they’ll judge me just as much as they’re judging the writing I produce. Having a creative outlet that isn’t going to slice me to pieces is great. This is also why I’ll likely never attempt to monetize sewing – this is just for me to turn off my self-critical brain for a while and wrangle some fabric into something that I can adorn myself with.

    But speaking of cost…

  9. Low cost to entry; high cost to expertise. A needle and thread are cheap, and I taught myself this little hobby watching YouTube videos and practicing on bedsheets. I don’t think I paid more than twenty dollars on my first few projects combined. Sewing has a low cost to entry, but when you start to get ambitious then the higher costs will start kicking in. Right now, my main cost is materials (winter clothes = thick, heavy wool, and I hate the way plastic wool feels on my skin so you know I’m going for the real stuff). Certain materials might also require special tools, as shown in this video by Mariah Pattie, who had to buy a whole-ass new machine to sew stretch fabric. If I want to level up going forward and put together a robust winter wardrobe – and not just the floaty, flimsy clothes I can get away with in hot weather – then I’ll need to start budgeting to buy good-quality, sturdy fabrics.
  10. Apocalypse prep! Not really. But also… kind of? Sewing is a skill that not many people have and being able to create something from scratch or alter something from a base is a valuable life skill. It can be very rewarding to know that you’re self-sufficient in one area or another; even just simple repair work can leave you with a feeling of accomplishment because that’s something you didn’t have to pay to get fixed or throw away. I sewed a button back onto a colleague’s jacket once and you’d have thought I’d shown him Shangrila.

And there you have it! Ten things I learned sewing my own wardrobe in 2022.

All the clothes I made were summer clothes (easy materials to get my hands on, forgiving silhouettes), and I’ve got plans for a winter wardrobe in 2023. This will mean more expensive fabric (like wool) and more time spent on each project because the clothes are a little more complex. My parents also got me some crochet hooks for Christmas because I’d like to try my hand at knitwear. If things go well, I’ll be returning to Japan with a fully me-made wardrobe ready for any weather!

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 

* I’ve torn clothes by the fabric but the seams clung on like barnacles, it’s wonderful.


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