In the age of ultra fast-fashion, in which brands such as Shein, Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo render making sustainable fashion choices increasingly difficult, making your own clothes feels almost radical; a gentle rebellion against the tide of fast fashion.
Facts and titbits about the fast fashion industry, such as the oft-cited if the fast fashion industry was a country, it would rank almost as highly in terms of emissions as the entire European continent, can overwhelm even the most desensitised of persons.
So, how can we step away from the fast fashion industry while maintaining an interest in fashion? One possible answer lies in the skill of dressmaking.
I don’t suggest that individuals making their own skirts, tops or dresses is going to revolutionise the fashion industry (though that would be a happy thought); however, it is capable of rewiring the way one thinks about clothes and how they are made.
When I began learning how to use a sewing machine and how to make clothes, I hadn’t thought about just how many steps and intricacies were involved. It would be a lie if I didn’t admit to becoming frustrated at times, but for every seam I sewed incorrectly and had to unpick and then re-sew, my appreciation for the sturdy, long-lasting clothes I have grew and flowered.
Soon, I found myself looking in amazement at how seams on my pillow cases, my dressing gown and my jean pockets each contained such great detail. Through this rewiring of my previously naïve conception, my understanding and appreciation of why sustainable clothes are often priced at a higher mark than clothes from the highstreet was consolidated.
I was lucky enough to secure a spot in a beginners’ dressmaking course at my local Kilcoe Studios in Ballydehob, West Cork. This studio is a wonderful resource in the community and is run by artist Sonia Caldwell. The course was open to five people and run by local dressmaker and a favourite at West Cork markets, Tamsin Blackbourn.
The course was broken into four 2.5 hour sessions throughout February, with the aim of having a skirt made entirely by us to wear by the end. I was relieved to discover that the others were also complete novices at using sewing machines – a spider was even sighted scurrying out of one machine as it had been left untouched for so long.
I used my mom’s cheap and cheerful Silvercrest sewing machine, which is often available in Lidl. Facebook marketplace, Adverts and Done Deal can be good options for anyone wishing to purchase a second-hand machine, too.
Although eager to show off my new found skills of winding the bobbin and sewing zigzag stitches, we did not touch our sewing machines during the first session. Instead we focused on taking the time to understand how to follow commercial patterns, and how to measure our waists, hips and the length we desired our skirt to be.
Commercial patterns can be bought in fabric shops and online and provide a guide on making professional standard clothes. They include panels of paper which correspond to each piece of material which will be sewn together to form a piece of clothing. In our case, two back panels, a front panel and a waistband of an A-line, mid-length skirt.
Tamsin spoke of her belief in the importance of using up as much fabric as possible, resulting in as little wastage as possible. As, unfortunately, many commercial patterns suggest laying out the paper patterns on the material with little concern for how much material is going unused, Tamsin instead guided us on how to optimise our fabric usage.
Tamsin’s dedication to using natural fibres, which mostly consist of Irish linens, avoiding the use of zips (due to their plastic content) and instead opting for natural mother of pearl buttons, and natural cotton threads was inspiring. Her ethos of ensuring her clothes can return to the earth, where they once came from, without causing harm, reminded me of the importance of acknowledging how deeply enmeshed we are within the ecosystem, where our clothes come from, and how they are made.
During the four sessions, which bled into five…and a sixth for some members – a testament to how time consuming and addictive dressmaking can be – we pinned, tucked, cut, ironed, stitched, unpicked and laughed our way towards a fully formed skirt. There is something so wonderful about learning a simple, practical skill as an adult.
Tamsin spoke of when commercial patterns first became widely available through being printed in newspapers, and women (as it nearly always was women who made clothes) were able to scale up minute patterns to size and follow them perfectly. The separation of the consumer from the production process has created a rift in appreciation of our possessions. This undoubtedly feeds into the overconsumption led destruction of the environment.
Learning the skill of dressmaking has unlocked a new confidence within me and has fostered an appreciation for the clothes that already exist in my wardrobe. How exciting it is to be able to respond with “I made it!” when someone asks you where you got your dress. Learning to make clothes can be a lifelong investment into yourself, while forging environmentally conscious habits.