Utne Blogs > Environment

On Grandmothers, Drag Queens, and Mending Your Clothes

By giving old clothes a new life, Katie Haegele keeps up with fashion's whims while avoiding its excesses. Here, she reflects on the why and how behind her sew-it-yourself ethos.

You really don’t have to be a political radical or a homesteader with trendy chickens to make and mend your own clothing, but depending on your demographics it can certainly feel that way. People under 40 (that’s still me, woo hoo!), those who grew up in an urban environment or another area with no 4H club (also me), and those who went to a school with no resources for a home ec. program (me again) may never have received a lesson in the basic human skill of threading a needle and making or repairing useful things out of fabric. Even if you like to sew, you have to concede that we live a lot differently than the way people always have. It is now entirely possible to buy, rather than make, all the clothes you will ever wear, then chuck them out when they get worn or ripped, even if you aren’t rolling in dough. In one or two generations, sewing skills have become an extra rather than a necessity.

Examples of sewing keep springing up in the popular culture, though. It’s magic to watch the artists on Project Runway dream up clothing designs, then pin and sew their ideas into reality, one bead at a time. On RuPaul’s Drag Race, a kind of lower-rent but more imaginative Project Runway, the contestants make their own costumes. This is interesting to watch because some of them have a strong dressmaking background while others don’t. To make the things they want to wear the less experienced performers have to rely on their sense of invention (and also a hot glue gun). It’s inspiring to watch them work, a reminder that when you make something for yourself it does not have to be perfect. It can look like whatever you want.

Speaking of self-invention, I recently read a memoir called The Beauty Experiment, in which author Phoebe Baker Hyde gives up make-up and hair stuff for a year. She also scales way back on her clothes shopping and fashion choices, which creates a space for her to think about what her desire for beautiful clothing might mean, down-deep. At one point she tells a story about her grandmother, who grew up in rural Washington and, keen to escape her “farm-girl past,” married “southern breeding” and moved to a fancy suburb on the east coast. This woman, Sugar, could study an expensive piece of clothing on its rack in the department store and then go home and recreate it precisely, sometimes even adding a fake label to complete the illusion. Whatever you think about ideas like boot-strapping and label-loving, you’ve got to credit a person like that with ingenuity and creativity. She wanted to be something so she dressed like that thing, then became it. Those are my favorite kinds of stories.

After all this bloviating I don’t have a serious sewing tutorial to share with you, just this big honkin’ thrift store skirt that I bought a few weeks ago and have been wanting to take up. It’s a voluminous Talbot’s “petite collection” skirt made of heavy cotton, and I stood on a stool so you can see the whole unstylishly long thing. (I’m about 5’6” so I can only imagine how overwhelming this style would be on a bona fide petite, but I guess that was the ’90s for you. Or the ’80s. Who can tell, it’s Talbot’s.)


I bought it at a thrift store near Allentown, PA, for $6.99, which is a little more than I usually like to pay for secondhand clothes, but the skirt is well made and I thought I could find a way to wear it. I have some basic sewing skills that I learned from my mother as a kid and in a sewing class I took at a local fabric store as a young adult. I also own a sewing machine, which my mom gave me as a birthday gift several years ago. I’ve used it to make and alter many pieces of clothing and other useful things, such as a patch quilt for a cat, but almost every time I get it out again I need to watch this video by a lovely guy named Chris, in which he demonstrates how to thread a Brother sewing machine like the one I have. Chris has a gentle manner and he takes his time explaining what he’s doing, and the camera close-ups clearly show what his hands are doing with the fussy little parts of the machine. I love watching sewing tutorials on Youtube. For one thing, I find it much easier to learn how to do things with my hands when I can see them being done, as opposed to following written instructions in a book. Beyond that, the videos are a nice reminder that sewing is a skill that has been been passed on by example for all of human history. I find it really touching that on Youtube you can find what appears to be every single area of human endeavor depicted in an instructional fashion. It’s beautiful the way we want to teach each other how to do things, not for money, just because.

So. At a thrift store several years ago I found a plastic bag filled with wooden spools of thread for use on an industrial machine. I bought them because they’re old and pretty, and I keep them in a ceramic bowl on my bookcase.

But over the years they have sometimes come in useful, like today, when I found that one of them matches the color of my skirt almost exactly. I chopped close to seven inches off the skirt’s bottom, folded another half-inch under for a hem, pinned it in place with straight pins, and sewed it up. I didn’t bother ironing the hem before I sewed it because I’m lazy. (Actually it’s because I don’t own an iron, which is because I’m lazy.)

You do not need a machine to sew, and you certainly don’t need one to make simple alterations like this. If I’d felt like spending a few extra minutes on this project or if I hadn’t wanted the seam to show, I could have sewn it by hand and done a “blind” hem by only stitching through to the front every few inches. But my machine hem works just fine for this skirt. Its heavy fabric is almost like denim so it doesn’t need to look delicate. And anyway, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to look the way I want it to look. I’m pleased with how it turned out. What do you think?


For a really solid foundation on sewing, you might think about getting a copy of Raleigh Briggs’ pretty little zine-book, Fix Your Clothes, for $5. I ordered one and I have found it very useful even though I already know a lot of the basics. For instance, Briggs talks about when to use shank buttons as opposed to flat ones, which was a revelation to me, and how to remove and repair a zipper. I wanted to try that last one on a busted but nice-quality leather handbag I bought for a buck fifty, but I got intimidated by the thought of working with leather. Maybe next time.