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Until about two hundred years ago, all clothing was handmade and (generally) locally produced. Sewing was an essential skill. Most women were readily able to fashion garments for themselves and their families. However, the Industrial Revolution changed the way garments were manufactured and paved the way for the unsustainable and poorly made garments flooding the market today. Instead of repairing or tailoring clothing as we historically did, most people throw their clothes away—ending up in landfills to be incinerated. The environmental cost of fast fashion is immense. Our current clothing consumption accounts for 20% of wastewater worldwide and accounts for 10% of worldwide global carbon emissions.
In order to stop fast fashion, it’s time to re-think how our clothes are made and cared for. Repairing clothes and self-made clothing have largely become lost arts, which is tragic considering humanity’s ancient ties to creating clothing.
A Brief History of Clothing
The advent of clothing began an estimated 100,000–500,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of humans making clothing dates back to 120,000 years ago in Morocco. A changing climate and the evolutionary loss of fur necessitated the fashioning of crude garments. Ice Age clothing was made of animal skins, woven grasses, bones, and feathers, draped or wrapped over the body.
Sharpened bones sufficed as early needles, allowing early humans to create fitted garments. Scientists discovered a bone needle dating back to 50,000 years ago, created by a now-extinct species of human, the Denisovans.
Possibly derived from basket-weaving techniques, fabric weaving became one of most important early technological discoveries. Scientists have carbon dated woven flax older than 34,000 years. Woven garments were typically rectangular tunics, or long swaths of cloth draped over the body and pinned in place. The earliest clothing involved minimal sewing, just enough to ensure the fabric stayed in place.
Over time, garment construction became more complicated as technical knowledge of fit and function grew. Tailors and dressmakers became skilled artisans, respected for their ability. Apprentices studied for years to perfect the craft of garment making, and techniques were closely guarded. The average person did not have a “full closet” of clothing, but the clothes they owned were well made with strong seams, designed to endure the wear of daily life.
All clothing was handmade, custom fit, and locally produced for the majority of human history. Clothing was designed to last a lifetime, and to allow easily alternations to adjust to new styles and weight fluctuations. Patching, darning, and adjusting the fit of clothing was common knowledge. Clothing was continually repaired, instead of being thrown out.
Handmade garments were the only way to produce clothing until the invention of the sewing machine, less than two hundred years ago. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for machine-weaving of fabrics, as well as mass production. Today we struggle with fast fashion: poorly made clothes, weak fabrics, unethical production, and hefty environmental costs.
Perhaps it’s time to take a step back, and approach clothing in a more traditional light.
I recently became the proud owner of a treadle (non-electric) sewing machine, and have been trying my hand at sewing clothing. While learning has been a frustrating ordeal, I’ve found ways to minimize fabric waste by utilizing old sheets, torn sarees, and sad-looking old t-shirts to practice. I started small, repairing holes in existing clothing, making face-masks and child-sized clothes.
In order to understand pattern making, I began attempting to “clone” clothing I already own, copying the cut and design of shirts, pants, and even a toddler hoodie. I’ve also gotten quite good at embroidery, which is an easy way to add a lovely embellishment to any garment (flowers on jean pockets look so cute!). My ultimate goal is to have an entirely self-made wardrobe—down to my undergarments.
Obviously, not everyone can devote the time and energy it takes to do this, but learning basic sewing skills can definitively lengthen the longevity of your current wardrobe, as well as allow you to tailor the fit or cut of your clothing to suit trends, your personal tastes, or your body.
Tips for beginner seamstresses:
- You will make mistakes. It’s part of the process! Invariably you will have badly cut fabric, misshapen clothes, seams that must be ripped out, and a growing knowledge of how garment making works. Fabric cutting anxiety is real, but you can’t learn if you don’t take the chance of “ruining” fabric!
- Save your scraps. Use them for pillows, dog beds, as cleaning cloths, patches for embroidery work…re-use everything possible!
- Start small. Try repairing a tear in your favorite leggings, making a scrunchie, or sewing a pillowcase.
- You don’t need a sewing machine or any fancy equipment. Yes, hand stitching takes forever, but it is an immeasurably useful skillset. Plus it’s practically free—the cost of needles and thread is negligible.
- Wash and iron your fabric before cutting! This ensures the best quality end product, as it minimizes the risk of fabric shrinkage and gives you a smooth surface for the cleanest cut possible.
- You can buy pre-made patterns, which takes a lot of mental work (and stress) out of the garment-making process.
- Although not technically sewing, you can create warm garments for winter by learning to knit and crochet. You can even make cozy blankets!
If sewing just isn’t your thing, you can still support skilled artisans by buying handcrafted clothing. Often the price tag is a factor, but consider the fact that well-made handcrafted clothing is meant to last years. Instead of buying poorly made garments you’ll need to replace multiple times (a drain on your pockets and the planet), invest in durable clothing with longevity.
Designing and creating your own clothing is an endeavor that can end fast-fashion for good. Not only can you have clothing that is well-made and long lasting. You can also purchase sustainable or secondhand fabrics for garment making, further minimizing your closet’s eco-footprint. In the age of convenience and fast fashion, hand made clothing is revolutionary.
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Photo: Olesia Buyar via Unsplash
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