Although these days we are more accustomed to walking into a shop to simply lift the clothes we want off a peg, pay for them and take them home to add to a bulging wardrobe, making your own clothes remains a major hobby craft. Recently, a BBC television programme called the Great British Sewing Bee showed that this skill is very much still alive and is one of the few things that whilst technology may have intervened to make it easier, has remained true to the original craft.
When humankind decided on the need for clothing for warmth and protection, fashion was born. Clothes very quickly moved from being mere garments to serve a purpose to works of art that made a statement. They also soon became an instrument defining social class. The wealthy could be easily distinguished from lower classes by the style and quality of their clothing and their dress fabric.
Throughout history, clothes making has been a major feature of society. Women have always sewn, whether it is making clothes for themselves and their family, or being a seamstress as a servant or in a commercial venture. It is somewhat incongruous that throughout the centuries as wealth became less evenly distributed, richer women would buy their clothes and invest heavily in the latest dress fabric, but the practice of embroidery was considered one of the essentials of a lady.
The growth of commerce moved much of clothes making out of the home to retail and off-the-peg, and dressmaking became a hobby or a necessity. That is, until World War II. Although there had been deprivation in Britain during the First World War, at this time, people still made their own clothes, or had them made for them. When rationing was introduced in World War II including all dress fabric, and clothing coupons had to be collected, the issue of “make do and mend” found women all across the land resurrecting and employing their sewing ingenuity to revamp, alter and embellish existing wardrobes in the absence of new garments.
In the 21st century, tailoring and dressmaking are still very much alive as commercial enterprises, while for home sewing there are electronic and computerised sewing machines to work with. The art of making clothes is also no longer a female domain. Male fashion designers usually start with the basics of sewing at home.
Anyone can make clothes at home. All you need is a sewing machine – even the most basic model can help you create simple, good-looking garments. Simple garments such as pull-on skirts can be made without a pattern, whilst paper patterns can be purchased to make everything from a simple vest top to a wedding dress. As well as retail patterns, there are dressmaking magazines and periodicals that include patterns.
Patterns sometimes contain tutorials, but the best way to learn is to start with the simplest garments in easy to handle fabric and then move through the skill sets learning how to produce features such as buttonholes, overlocked seams, French seams, gathering, smocking, and pleating. All modern sewing machines will have instruction booklets that explain their features and many also contain tutorials.
Alongside a machine, patterns, and fabric, other home dressmaking essentials include sharp scissors for cutting and scissors for close intricate work, a tape measure, needles, pins, and maybe some tailor's chalk (used for transferring patterns to fabric or for making marks specific to a pattern’s success).
A huge variety of fabrics are available; although fabric stores aren’t a general feature of the high street these days, there are market stall retailers and also, warehouse type stores are dress fabric sources. Alongside all the fabric, there is usually a huge selection of accoutrements such as buttons, ribbons, braids, tassels, and motifs. Where high street haberdashers might be few and far between, department stores often have a haberdashery department, even if they don’t sell fabric.
From the off, you need to be aware that the benefits of making your own clothes do not include saving money. Mass-produced clothes – mostly produced in the world’s developing economies – are much cheaper than hand-made clothes made at home. The** benefits of making your own clothes** are more aesthetic.
Very few people buy off-the-peg with the intention of altering them to fit. When you make your own clothes and choose your own dress fabric, you can adjust to fit as you go along. Those problem areas that shop bought clothes might present your particular body shape – gaping shirt buttons, too short/too long sleeves, loose waistbands – can all be eliminated.
Everyone likes to think they have a personal style. This can be hard to achieve though when everyone is buying the latest fashion craze from the same shops on the high street. When you make your own clothes, you can make your own statement. You can follow the trend but with garments that no-one else is wearing.
In the same way that home dressmaking allows you to follow the trend but be an individual, it also enables an expression of creativity. Once you have mastered the basics, you can make your own patterns to your own designs and try different types of dress fabric for different patterns and styles.
Fabric and patterns
Many customers are put off buying a certain garment because even though they like the style and cut, they don’t like the pattern, colour, or fabric. This isn’t an issue when you make your own clothes because you have complete autonomy over the dress fabric you choose. The choice of fabric can turn a garment from an item of clothing into something special. There are no rules. Skilled dressmakers can make a shift dress that is being sold in the shops in a boring crepe polyester in a gorgeous flowing silk, taking it from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Alter and embellish
Home dressmakers also have the skills to take bought garments and make them their own. Unlike the general buyer who picks a garment because they like it, a skilled sewer can see how an existing garment might be altered for the better. A tuck here and there or the addition of a ribbon or furbelow and a high street garment is transformed into something individual and creative, and certainly different to the one worn by the other girl at the party who just happened to have specially selected that outfit for the event.
As with most hobbies and handicrafts, there is a sense of fun, enjoyment, and accomplishment. Stepping out in a superb unique garment in a beautiful dress fabric that you have made, and receiving compliments for it, is very satisfying and rewarding.
Maybe it’s time to give some thought to the idea that you can make your own clothes?
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