Take THAT Fashion Industry! Learning to Sew for Myself

I just got engaged, and I’ve decided to do something that seems completely ridiculous to many of my friends: I’m going to sew my own wedding dress.

I have some complicated feelings about marriage: I hate how patriarchal systems have served to oppress women and marriage can be one of those; I have a family history of traumatic divorce; and I feel deeply uneasy about the so-called “Wedding Industrial Complex” and the sheer amount of money some people spend on one day. I love my fiance, and I’m so excited to marry him but all of this other wedding bullshit can be hard to deal with.

But I do know I want a beautiful dress, and I know I want to make it myself.

I imagine my mom’s suit looked a lot like this. (Image via Etsy)

I haven’t always sewed. In fact, after a few disastrous attempts in middle and high school, I just resigned myself to not being a sewist. I figured I was the woman in my family who just couldn’t sew. My mom and my aunt both sewed many clothes growing up, including wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, costumes, and three piece skirt suits made from rust orange Pendleton wool. How I wish you still existed three piece Pendleton wool skirt suit! Did I mention my mom also quilts and my sister makes costumes for her kids?

Then there’s me. I’m crafty and some might say skilled in various other forms of domesticity: I cook, I bake, I make collages, and can handle basic DIY tasks around the apartment. But sewing was not a big part of my life until a few years ago when my mom mentioned she had gotten a sewing machine on sale for me. She lives in Chicago, and I’m on the East Coast, so while I appreciated it and thought I might experiment with it, I didn’t think I could get it on a plane. Finally, I drove out there to pick up boxes of books, old clothes, and yes, the sewing machine.

After a few small projects—pillows, curtains, the world’s easiest caftan—I got some friends together to make a simple dress pattern.

It seemed like it took me so long. Cutting out the patterns and then the fabric challenged my spatial reasoning. Following directions was harder than I thought. Shouldn’t this be more intuitive? Why is it so hard?

I sewed some things on backward, and the fit wasn’t great but I made a dress! The feelings of accomplishment after following the steps of the construction process and seeing the final product on myself was magical. It made me feel giddy because I knew that with enough time and practice, I could make almost whatever I wanted for myself. My clothes could be my own and completely unique to me.

I jumped headlong into more sewing. I’m still not an expert by any means—I’m afraid of inserting zippers; it’s a problem—but I love trying new techniques. I found that I was able to get really comfortable sewing with knits which some sewists consider to be difficult. I didn’t know that it was supposed to be difficult, so I just followed pattern directions and experimented.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how hard it is for me to try new things and to experiment with tasks at which I may not be naturally adept. Sewing can be really hard! I remember reading somewhere on a sewing blog about how challenging it can be to take what is essentially a two dimensional, flat pattern and put pieces of that two dimensional pattern together in a certain way to make a three dimensional garment. Oh yeah, and it has to fit my unique body that depending on the pattern, can be three different sizes for my bust, waist, and hips.

Sewing can be so rewarding as a creative pursuit and a technical craft, yet it’s still seen as a traditionally feminine and domestic hobby. The trend for “artisanal” crafts these days, which I do appreciate, fails to include home-sewn clothes. A home-sewn shirt or dress doesn’t come with quite the same cultural respect as artisanal bourbon or cheese made by obnoxious hipster dudes with handlebar mustaches, and I do wonder if it’s because sewing is a traditional feminine pursuit. Add in the fact that straight, male chauvinist culture views fashion as silly and frivolous, and a woman sewing for herself or her family rarely gets mentioned in the “farm to table,” “back to the land,”  bootstrappy nature of DIY culture.

Or for another example, let’s look at tailors, a traditionally male pursuit, versus men who are home-sewists. Male home-sewists might be considered weird at best or called metrosexual or gay, and not in a positive way. It’s not as culturally acceptable because, again, home-sewing is seen as, and undervalued as, women’s work. Sewing is all about following directions, imaginative thinking in two and then three dimensions, and a lot of care. These are all skills that anyone can learn whether it’s a man wanting to sew himself a well-fitted dress or a woman looking for a sturdy work shirt that she can’t find in stores.

This is what I'll be doing for the next, oh, three months. (Image via Gertie's Blog for Better Sewing)
This is what I’ll be doing for the next, oh, three months. (Image via Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing)

I’m fully aware that sewing my own wedding dress isn’t the feminist, anti-crazy wedding culture protest that I think it could be. It will still probably be white-ish and lacy. And it’s still a dress, and I’m still a white lady marrying a white dude. Radical feminist revolution this is not.

What I do think is fairly radical is how sewing your own clothes makes you so much more aware of the process. It’s not always possible to know where your fabric comes from, but you at least know who is sewing it and that conditions are good and not inhumane or dangerous. It might take a couple of hours to sew a simple knit dress, so it makes me so much more appreciative of all the work that someone has put in my ready-to-wear garments.

Also when you sew your own clothes, you can free yourself from the sizing nightmare of women’s clothes. Sure pattern companies still use number sizes, but it’s so much more about the actual physical measurements of your body. Depending on the pattern company, I’m anywhere from a size 4 to 8 to 16. And again, my bust might be a size 4 in one pattern company’s sizing metric, but a 10 in the hips. Honestly, it makes me feel like ready-to-wear sizing is confusing and essentially meaningless.

It’s not a perfect system. I know that I’m a 30 inch waist and not a 24 inch waist. I know I’m not going to be losing 6 inches off my waist any time soon to get down to tiny celebrity size. I’m just the size that I am; my size could go up or down, but that doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else. It just means I have to adjust my patterns and fit. At the end of the day, I find it easier to not compare myself to other people’s sizes because I can make myself clothes that fit me perfectly and are shaped exactly the way I want.

I don’t sew all of my clothes, but the ones I do are special to me. I want my wedding dress to be special, but I also want the button down shirt I’ll wear every Saturday to be special. Taking the time to craft something perfect for myself isn’t just for the wedding, it’s part of how I interact with the world and how I see myself as a feminist: doing it for myself in the way I want.

Will my wedding dress be perfect? Probably not. There’s a good chance I’ll sew the arm holes closed or something else stupid before it’s all done, but that’s ok. Taking the time and challenging myself is important. Perfection isn’t.

Anna Tschetter

Anna Tschetter

Anna is a teen librarian North of Boston. She runs, sews, eats cookies, and is so obnoxious she names all of her D&D characters after 19th century New England whaling families. Tweetsies: @lcarslibrarian