During my recent foray into wardrobe minimalism and a general engagement on the philosophy of what to wear and where to find it, I’ve been thinking a lot about buying well-made clothes. And well made in two senses: made with a high degree quality and made in an ethical and socially responsible way. I’d love to jump off the fast fashion train entirely, but let me tell you, it is hard to find affordable, ethically made garments. If you get tired of searching, you could be like my friend Maggie, who just makes her own clothes.
Yes! She makes her own clothes. Even though I was homeschooled, I cannot even imagine attempting the same. But I find her endeavor so inspiring, and I wanted to sit down with her and talk about her lifestyle of dressing herself in handmade garments.
Interview with Maggie Stein, Who Makes Her Own Clothes
When did you start making your own clothes? (And how long have you been doing it now?)
Growing up, my mom made a portion of my clothes. I had a number of jumpers with very full, satisfying-to-twirl-in skirts during the early grade-school years, and flowy butterfly-princess costumes. I was very opinionated about clothes and the feelings I wanted them to evoke. When she could create something to fit my vision, she would. Otherwise, I’d wear boring department store clothes.
In my sophomore year of high school, she agreed to make my homecoming dress. We worked together during every step of the process. I was uncomfortable with my changing body, so I asked her to make alterations to the pattern that were either beyond her skill level (what we thought at the time) or completely impossible (what I now believe), and she made a gorgeous dress that couldn’t meet my expectations. We both cried over it and I wore a cardigan over my dress the entire night.
After that is when I started making my own clothes.
What was one of the first pieces you made? Do you still wear it?
The first few pieces I made, as a teenager in the late 90s, were HIDEOUS! They were my own lazy/unique interpretation of the strappy, backless tops that club kids and hippies wore.
I probably wasn’t brave enough to wear them out of the house, so my parents never told me I couldn’t. They were quickly discarded.
What inspired you to attempt to make your own clothes?
I was about to say “teenage shenanigans aside…” but I think that was a great example of why I sew. Sometimes I have an idea in my head of something I’d like to wear, and I’m unable to find it in stores, or unable to find it in my proportions, or unwilling to pay the asking price if I do find it.
Another example: I was given my own sewing machine in college and spent years making nothing but flannel and fleece pajama pants, mainly because I’d never been able to find loungewear pants that were long enough.
How has making your own clothes changed the way you dress yourself? Your sense of style?
I no longer have to figure out how to fit my body into the clothes I find or the current trends but instead can accept my body as it is and create a wardrobe that fits my particular shape and style preferences.
I guess the real question I want to answer is, “How has this changed my relationship with my body?” I no longer feel like there’s something wrong with my size. I’m taller and curvier than standard RTW sizes, which means clothes in stores are often too tight across the bust and hips, too loose on the shoulders and waist, too wide and too short on the arms, waistbands are too high, hems are WAY too short… I used to approach these thinking, “If only my hips were narrower and my shoulders wider! There is something wrong with me!” But, in reality, I have an awesome body! I am TALLER and CURVIER than the standard woman! I am TOTALLY WINNING! The problem is not my body, but those clothes, because they weren’t made to fit my body.
The way I dress myself and my sense of style were influenced by my mom’s strong eye for color and knowledge of what flatters (I still have her copy of Color Me Beautiful) and years of watching What Not to Wear every Friday night. (Maybe I shouldn’t admit that. I would watch it with my best friend! We would always have beer and popcorn, so it was almost like a party!) Making my own clothes has allowed me to take what I’ve learned and apply it without being restricted by what’s available in stores.
How has this changed the way that you shop? Do you look at clothes in stores differently? Do you have higher (or lower?) standards for store-bought clothes now?
Well, for starters, I rarely expect to find what I want in a store. So I’m often shopping for inspiration, or I study the way something is made. I’ll ask, “Can I make this? If I made this, what would I change?”
I’ll buy something if it’s well made in a fabric that I might not be able to purchase or wouldn’t want to sew with (silky, sheer, difficult to source). I’ll also buy something if it’s super-trendy or inexpensive. In both of those cases, I have to ask whether it’s really something I need.
Given the cost of supplies, and the time investment, it’s not always less expensive to make my own clothes. It might be more ethical — at least I know who made my garment, but I don’t necessarily know who grew the fiber or where the cloth was made.
About what proportion of your regular wardrobe is handmade by you?
Hmmm… good question. I mean, I have a lot of T-shirts and sweaters and pants that aren’t made by me. But a majority of dresses and skirts I wear at this point are handmade.
What’s one of your favorite garments to make?
There are so many! I have one pattern that I’ve made perhaps a dozen different dresses from — the pattern itself came from a dissected Target dress that fit me perfectly. Each version is different — the original was sleeveless with an A-line skirt, then I made one with a fuller skirt, then I figured out how to add sleeves, and it became my staple day dress. I have it in a lightweight cotton for summer and long-sleeved in flannel for winter. I attempted to make it out of a suiting-weight wool, with lining, but that version is currently in Time Out. (I made some mistakes. I’m making it up as I go along, and some of the choices aren’t very flattering, so I need to unpick a lot of work and start again.)
I finally overcame my fear of knits and have enjoyed the freedom of sewing with fabric that stretches! My three most recent favorites are all knits: a ¾-sleeve ballet-neck skater dress, a scoop neck loosely fitted T-shirt, and a wrap cardigan that I drafted myself using pieces of the T-shirt pattern.
Is there any type of garment that you would never attempt to make yourself? If so, why?
Until recently, I would have said jeans and bras. But a few indie patternmakers have started tackling those. Not only are their instructions clear and detailed, but they often post sew-alongs on their blogs, sharing pictures of each step and discussing the more complicated techniques. (Also, I can wait until other people/bloggers have made the patterns and learn from their lessons.) In my room right now are supplies and patterns for both jeans and bras, waiting for me to be ready.
What are some of your favorite fabrics to work with? Least favorite fabrics?
Lately, I’m moving away from very simple, sturdy, inexpensive woven fabrics (think bedsheets) to higher quality fabrics with more interesting draping qualities. Fabrics that require more attention/preparation when sewing are often more beautiful to wear, so I’m slowly learning how to handle them well. I’ve also started using heavy-weight knits, which are so cozy and delightful!
If someone wanted to make his or her own clothes, what advice would you give them? Where does a person start with such a venture?
I’m tempted to say, “Start with something simple!” Easy wins will give you confidence to move forward. But really, I think it’s just as fun to start with something you’re REALLY motivated to make for yourself over and over again. There are things that fall into both categories, but no matter where you start, you’re going to have a lot to learn, so my advice would be to have patience, to expect mistakes, to learn from them, and to keep going!
Okay, one piece of solid advice: Start with an indie pattern. They tend to have instructions catered to a beginner versus established patterns that assume you know the lingo.
What are you wearing right now?
My winter wardrobe: a cozy handmade dress, black tights, and sturdy black ankle boots.
For more of Maggie’s musings and examples of her impressive handmade clothes, check out her great blog: Maggie Makes It Better. Thanks so much, Maggie! A delight to feature you and your work.
All photos in this post: © Maggie Stein.