Why We Sew

As January draws to a close, I'm feeling somewhat reflective (I know - I'm a month late). This is an article I wrote for the late, great Vogue Patterns Magazine right before they closed up. As an aside, CSS Industries, the company that ruined purchased McCalls and Simplicity, has been sold to a British ribbon and wrapping paper company. More on that Here. Back to the subject at hand, I still feel this way about sewing.

Why We Sew

So often we hear about Fast Fashion – clothing sold by mass retailers, who crank out new collections every 6 weeks in vast quantities. There are several downsides to this phenomenon: environmental impact, garment workers who are overworked and underpaid or worse, and garments that fall apart after a few wearings.

I recently made a couple of repairs to garments for a friend’s daughter. Both came from high-volume, fast-fashion retailers. One garment, a pullover sweater knit top, had completely come apart at the side seam. Another was a skirt whose lining had come undone at the center back seam. Upon inspection, I was appalled by what I saw. The side seam on the sweater knit top had a ¼ inch seam allowance on the front, but the back was caught by just a few threads. It took very little for those few threads to let go, resulting in a wardrobe malfunction for the wearer. The lining seams, when I went to repair it, were sewn with basting-length stitches (5 mm). I knew fast fashion had a bad rep, and these two garments exemplified why. They also made me realize why it is that I sew almost all of my own clothes. 

Quality over Quantity

As sewists, we can exert an infinite amount of control over the quality and construction of our garments. I have some garments that I have worn for decades. A Karl Lagerfeld for Vogue Patterns jacket comes immediately to mind. I made it as a suit before my children were born, and 25 years later I still wear it, albeit not as a power suit. These days I toss the jacket over jeans. I have many other garments that are over 10 years old and are still in heavy rotation in my wardrobe. Let's explore why.

Fabrication

One of the first indicators of a garment that will last for years is the fabric of which it is made. In the case of my Lagerfeld jacket, it’s made of a high-quality wool gabardine. It’s lined with China silk, and supported with high quality interfacings that are sewn in.

It’s important to choose your fabric well. If you’re sewing with, say, a double knit, you’ll want to find one that doesn’t pill. Briskly rub your fabric against itself to see if the fibers start to rise and look flannelly.  If it does, it’s likely to pill after a few wearings. Hold your fabrics up to the light to make sure that they are woven/knitted consistently with no areas that are thin. Check for fibers that are loosely woven/knitted and prone to unraveling, that have a stiff feel that doesn’t seem to fit the fabric type. A quality fabric will stand up to wear for a long time.

Construction

A well constructed garment has tight, smooth stitching on the seams and hems. By contrast, fast fashion seams generally are sewn with longer stitches and thinner, weaker threads.  When I sew a garment, I use a stitch length of 2.5 mm. If I’m working with a bulky fabric, I lengthen the stitch to 3-3.5 mm. Topstitching should be longer – I use 3.5 mm stitches for most garments when I topstitch, to emphasize the topstitched feature. Edgestitching should be 1/16 inch away from the edge, using a 2.5-3 mm stitch length. Some fast fashion garments aren’t even sewn; they are glued or fused at the seams and hems.

In very high-end RTW, and bespoke or couture garments, much of the topstitching is done by hand, especially pick-stitched edges. This is something you never see in fast fashion. But as sewists, we can take our time to make beautiful finishes. 

In much fast fashion, seam allowances are ¼ inch, to make it easier to construct (no clipping, grading, etc.). While this speeds up the process, it has the potential for disaster, as evidenced by the sweater I fixed. As sewists, we determine the seam allowances we want, making it easy to adjust for fit during construction and after the garment is complete. For instance, we can use 1-inch seam allowances in our garments, allowing for alterations later. 

Fit 

Speaking of alterations, one of the true pleasures of sewing is the ability to adjust the pattern to ensure that it fits specifically to the wearer’s body. Are you full-busted? Many sewists can do a full bust adjustment in their sleep. Do you need to move a dart? It’s easy! How about add or subtract length to the torso of a princess line dress? You can’t do that in RTW, but it’s straightforward on a pattern. Want to move buttons around on a shirt to avoid gapping? It’s a simple process on a pattern. The list goes on and on and on.

Interfacing and Structural Support 

In most fast fashion garments, interfacing, if there is any at all, is cheap, usually non-woven fusible that is glued to the garment. After a few cleanings, it invariably bubbles and puckers, leaving you with an unwearable mess. High end garments, and those that we sew, use very high quality fusible interfacing whose base fabric (also known as a ‘substrate’) is a quality knit or woven fabric. Couture garments use sewn-in interfacing, usually different types for different areas of the garment. As sewists, we can customize our interfacing choices to give as much or as little support as we feel we need. We can cut our interfacing on the bias so it curves with our hems. 

We can add support elements readily to our garments. Are you making a strapless dress? Put as much boning in as you need. Add an integrated corset for support, bust cups to fill it out, a waistline stay to keep it in place. Possibilities abound.

Linings 

As sewists, we have access to all sorts of linings that simply aren’t available in most ready-to-wear, and certainly not in fast fashion. We can choose the amount of stretch, fabrication, breathability and more. If we want the ultimate luxury, we can line our garments with silk. These not only last beautifully, because silk is surprisingly strong, but they impart a sense of elegance, comfort, and secret pleasure to the wearer. RTW lining can’t do that. 

Designer Details

In addition to construction techniques that stand the test of time, we sewists can add unique and personal details to our garments, setting them apart from anything available in stores. Finish a jacket with a multicolored zipper. Add beading or embroidery to a neckline. Make a self-fringed hem. Attach unique buttons. And if we can’t find exactly the trim we want, we can make it. The possibilities for creativity are endless.

After Care

An oft-neglected aspect of garment making is the care after it is finished. In my years working in textiles, I’ve found that garment manufacturers will routinely instruct consumers to dry clean any garment. The reason is obvious: liability. Rather than trusting the average consumer to know how to treat and clean different fabrics, they stitch the same care label into their pieces. Do you really need to dry clean that rayon jersey dress? Maybe not. Dry cleaning isn’t necessarily more gentle, nor is it better for the environment. Perhaps you can get as good or better results over the long term by hand-washing your garment and allowing it to line dry. Not every garment can be treated this way, but as sewists, we have options, and we know how to use them! Test a swatch of your fabric in different cleaning situations (machine wash at different temperatures, hand wash, dry clean if possible) and see how you like the results. I’ll tell you – I like to machine wash in the gentle cycle or hand wash and line dry many of my garments. It helps them last and last.

There are so many reasons we sew. I’ve pointed out some. How about you? Why do you sew?