Why I Sew, Repair, and Mend

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I learned how to sew decades ago, partly from my mother and partly in the home economics classes that every girl used to take in junior high and sometimes, high school. According to my children, those classes seem to be called Family Consumer Sciences. Everybody, boys and girls alike, takes this class. Shop class seems to have gone by the wayside, at least here in our school district in the Sweetest Place on Earth. I suppose the reasoning is that you don’t need to know anymore how to operate tools to fix your house and repair your car but you still need to eat and run a household. Most of the graduates from Hershey High School will be able to pay for carpenters and mechanics, but they won’t be able to pay for full-time, live-in cooks and housekeepers, thus keeping the Family Consumer Science program alive for at least a few more years.

sew at home

Every girl used to take in junior high and sometimes, high school.

We had real working stoves in fully equipped kitchens (there were knives!) for the cooking portion of home-ec. The sewing room came fully equipped with real sewing machines, one for each girl. There must have been fabric cutting tables with sharp scissors (the horror!) and pattern cabinets but I don’t remember that part.

What I do remember is making a few garments. A dress with a back zipper, a blouse with multiple buttonholes, collar and cuffs, a skirt with another zipper and a set-in waistband. That sort of thing. I even wore the clothes sometimes. The sewing portion of Family Consumer Science that my children took consisted of choosing to make either a small square pillow or a drawstring bag. The pillow concealed its unfinished seams inside itself. The drawstring bag shows every defect of its design and construction. If you want to learn to sew more than that, even something as basic as a button, you have to go elsewhere. You certainly aren’t going to learn how to pick out a pattern and cloth, select, lay out and cut out the fabric, and then sew it all together, fitting as you go, and inserting zippers or making buttonholes.

I got a little sewing at home as well. My mother made most of our everyday dresses, back when girls in small towns still wore dresses to school every day. She made curtains and bedspreads, and repaired everything to make it last longer and save money. When you don’t have money, you spend time.

Clothes were more expensive then, relative to income, and every store there was from dime stores like Woolworth to department stores like Sears carried fabric for home sewers. Even the Sears catalog sold notions to go along with its fabric selection. Now, it’s damn difficult to find a place that sells fabric besides an actual fabric store. Those are becoming few and far between, as they get replaced by craft stores and sometimes, quilt shops. Quilt shops sell fabric which you can use for clothing but it tends to be expensive. They don’t sell any specialty fabric like flannel-back satin, fleece, interfacing, or home-dec. They don’t sell patterns or garment notions. You can buy thread, though.

Clothing is so cheap now. We take it for granted that you can walk into any store and find heaps of clothing, priced well below the amount of fabric, notions, and workmanship that goes into it. The garment cost has nothing to do with the fabric or the amount of work involved. A shirt that has two front pieces, back, yoke, two set-in sleeves, a placket with ten buttonholes and ten buttons, plus collar and cuffs (with more buttonholes and buttons) can cost less than a T-shirt which consists of four pieces of fabric sewn together (a sized tube with no side seams, two sleeves, and collar). T-shirts these days may not even have hems! The sleeve and bottom edges are raw and unfinished for that in-your-face, edgy look. An edgy look that won’t hold up in the wearing or the wash.

Price No Indication of Quality

I saw, just the other day in Boscov’s, this fact of construction vs. cost clearly demonstrated. A pair of Isotoner gloves, each consisting of front, back, thumb piece, and three fourchettes each (this is the part of the glove that is the inner piece between each finger that connects the front and the back of the glove), plus decorative trim panels, lining and an inner lining of Thinsulate cost less than half the price of a shawl made of polar fleece that consisted of a rectangle bound in bias tape and with a narrow strip cut out to allow it to go around the neck better. How can this be? The shawl’s construction made it a basic home-ec project! It was made of about one yard of cheap fleece with a few yards of cheap bias tape! Well-sewn gloves are one of the fiddliest, most detail-oriented projects imaginable where there is no margin for error and the seams have to be 1/8 of an inch (or less) and yet still hold tightly.

Whenever I look at the clothing in the stores, I am constantly amazed at how little is being charged for basic garments. Yes, I know many of them aren’t that well sewn (1/4-inch seam margins!) and made of the cheapest fabric. But I know exactly how long it takes to make a basic shirt, and I know that unless I am given the fabric, the pattern, and the notions, I will rarely spend less than ten to fifteen dollars for supplies. And then I will spend hours of my time. The result: a shirt, that if made of basic plain cotton won’t look much different than the Walmart special. I will make it a lot better, it will wear better, and it will fit better, but is that worth the cost of my money and time?

If you want cheaper clothes, you go to the consignment stores, thrift shops and yard sales that cover the country. Or, you pull your clothes from open trash cans, Dumpsters, and piled up on the sidewalk with a “FREE” sign on them. I’ve done all of those things. Don’t let the fact the clothing is dirty or wet stop you. Clothing can always be washed and free garments are well worth playing laundry roulette.

The second-hand clothing market is so enormous that there is no reason to ever buy new clothes again, other than socks, undergarments, and sleepwear. Those items tend to not show up at all, or they are worn almost to rags. Otherwise, some time spent shopping will produce whatever you want: scarves and neckties by the bushel basket, handbags, coats, ball gowns, Fair Isle sweaters, wedding dresses, tuxedos, jeans, jeans, jeans, khakis, velvet, satin, suits, and leather jackets. Whatever you want.

If the regular Goodwill isn’t cheap enough for you, look for their bargain stores. They are more widely scattered but in them, if you are willing to paw through the bins, you pull out your Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger garments and pay for them by the pound. Bargain bin stores also carry bedding, table cloths and draperies of every description. This can become an important source of raw material for projects, so keep an open eye and an open mind when you rummage through a bin.

Hand-Me-Down Networks

Lowest in cost is playing pass-along and hand-me-down. We have been part of several hand-me-down networks, both back in South Carolina and here in Hershey. Older son was once given a huge bag of fancy summer shorts that I would swear had never been worn by the older relative. There were so many pairs of shorts that I split them with a friend and both our boys ended up with twelve new pairs each just for the asking. Of course, when we are finished with a garment, I make sure it’s clean and in good repair and it goes on to live again in someone else’s closet. Any age person can participate in a pass-along loop from babies on up to adults. Never say no to any garment; just pass it along if it doesn’t suit you.

So with this wealth of clothing available to us, why should you do any sewing at all? Because if you really want something that is unique, something that is well made, something that fits well, you have to do it yourself. If your body type is anything other than a standard size and height, or you are not built like a clothes hanger, and you want attractive, well-made, properly fitted garments, you have to go with custom-made. If you have unusual needs, such as maternity wear that doesn’t look like what a five-year-old would wear (peter pan collars and cutsy designs); if you are breastfeeding full time and on demand; if you have a handicap that prevents you from using zippers or buttons; if you need costuming for your steampunk lifestyle; then custom is the way to go.

Next Week: How to Get the Look You Want