Regular readers of this blog know that I have been teaching myself to sew. The whole process so far has been more fits than starts, if you know what I mean, but I think that I finally might be making some progress. I’m not really hoping to save money by eventually making most, or some, of my clothes. Fabric can be pricey, after all, not to mention thread and zippers and buttons and all the other notions necessary toward finishing a garment. Home sewing used to be a way to save money, but we live in a world now, and in a country, where clothing is available to us at price points that would have been inconceivably low some 50 or 60 years ago. A page from a 1955 Sears catalog shows a full-skirted, beautifully-detailed, satin dress on offer for $6.98, which would cost about $62.00 today. Jonathan Logan, a company that specialized in designing and producing higher-end dressy and career apparel for younger women throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, typically offered dresses hovering around the $25.00 mark–which would be about $220.00 today.
“$220.00!” you might say. “For one dress? I could get two dresses at Banana Republic for that kind of money–maybe three if I hit a sale. Or five dresses at H&M. Good dresses too. For $250.00 I could get ten dresses at Target. Ten dresses!”
I suppose one could be forgiven for believing, given today’s array of choices and prices, that we are living in a Golden Age of clothing. But are we really? That vast selection of cheap clothing relies on the overseas outsourcing of nearly every aspect of the clothing production process. In 1950, 90% of the clothing worn by Americans was produced in this country. That percentage has dropped to 3%. The workers who make these clothes are almost always drastically underpaid and perform their jobs in conditions that can be shockingly unsafe. The 2012 fire that broke out in the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh killed 112 people and carries eerie echoes of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in this country. More recently, the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, a complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which included several clothing manufacturers, killed over 1,100 people.
And, really, how good are the clothes? My experience of cheap clothing is that it often falls apart very easily. I have a two cardigan sweaters, one from Ross and the other from Target, that developed holes in the elbows after a mere two months of wear. Necklines stretch out of shape and colors fade quickly. Most of the time, you can forget about quality details like French seam finishing or linings–even with higher-end goods. Now I don’t want to misrepresent myself here. I buy, or at least have bought, as much inexpensive stuff as anyone else. Lately though, I’ve started to seriously rethink that clothing strategy, especially after reading Elizabeth L. Cline’s fascinating book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. Candid and well-written, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about the fashion industry and perhaps concerned about their own choices.
According to Cline, in 1930 the average American woman owned about nine outfits and probably considered herself well prepared for any given situation that might come up in her life. Today, the typical American–of any gender–will buy 60 or more pieces of clothing in a year. Yet many of us face cluttered, overstuffed closets combined with the nagging feeling of having nothing to wear. Weirdly enough, although the cost of clothing has overall gone down, our total spending on it has increased. In 1950, we spent about $7.82 billion dollars on clothing. Today, that number is about $375 billion per year. What are we getting for that money?
I don’t believe mass boycotting of companies that use overseas labor is necessarily the best answer to the ethical concerns that currently plague the fashion industry. The reality is the economy that we live in today is largely a global one. I do think there are steps that concerned folks can follow to reduce the negative effects of the clothing industry (which can be environmental as well as ethical). First, one can choose to spend more money on fewer clothes that will last longer and then take very good care of them. I know from experience that I have often “felt broke.” I’m also aware there are many, many people who truly have no money to spare. But maybe, those of us who can, should consider saving our dollars up a little longer for more special and durable items of clothing. There is also the option of buying second hand clothes from thrift stores and consignment shops. Now, this has always been something of a yes-and-no proposition for me. I don’t always have the patience required to go through rack after rack of clothes to find something that appeals. Still, there are plenty of people who love the challenge and there are many sound reasons for giving a pre-worn garment a second life.
Finally, there is learning to sew well enough (not to mention enjoying it!) to construct some garments from scratch and to “refashion” other items that don’t quite suit. There’s a lot of help online should you be interested in pursuing this path, and two of my favorite sites are Refashionista and verysweetlife. The Refashionista is Jillian Owens, a South Carolina native who does some incredible transformations on some pretty hopeless looking thrift store goods. The mind behind verysweetlife is Sarah Kate Beaumont, who since 2008 has made all of her own clothes–and I mean all her clothes including lingerie and hats. Such skills do not come without years of dedicated pursuit and, in fact, both of these women are accomplished seamstresses. My ambitions, for now, tend towards the more modest end, but I have to admit to a personal desire to start doing some refashioning myself. This can be something as simple as switching out the buttons on a shirt to remaking a garment into something entirely new. Are you interested in pursuing this way of thinking about clothes? If so, DCPL has resources to help and inspire.
I have mentioned this book in a previous post, and Threads Sewing Guide: A Complete Reference from America’s Best-Loved Sewing Magazine remains an excellent reference for basic and more complicated sewing. This book will be especially useful to those of us who need to alter the fit of purchased items (for me this is most of the time). Also, the photographs are beautiful. Another recommended reference for those of us interested in altering clothes to fit us (or others) perfectly is McCall’s Essential Guide to Sewing by Brigitte Binder, Jutta Kuhnle and Karin Roser.
An approach to “green sewing” is presented in Sewing Green: Projects and Ideas for Stitching with Organic, Repurposed, and Recycled Fabrics, Plus Tips and Resources for Earth-Friendly Stitching by Betz White. The idea here is to take a recyclable garment and turn it into something completely different. Thus, men’s dress shirts become aprons, pretty sheets become lounge pants, and a couple of old wool sweaters become a cute, felted scarf. Toys, baby blankets, colorful shopping totes–they’re all here. White’s ideas are really creative and, as a bonus, the book features profiles of designers and craftspeople behind such innovative companies as Harmony Art and Alabama Chanin. Very much worth your time.
Finally, keep an eye out for DIY Wardrobe Makeovers: Alter, Refresh & Refashion Your Clothes, Step-by-Step Sewing Tutorials by Suzannah Hamlin Stanley, which is currently on order at DCPL and promises to be a treasure trove of methods to help you–as the book’s subtitle indicates–alter, refresh and refashion your existing wardrobe.
How about you? Are you a lover of second-hand? Are you interested in refashioning and/or sewing clothes for yourself or for others?