On Grandmothers, Drag Queens, and Mending Your Clothes

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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.

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