Did I ever tell you how I started sewing? When I was about five years old, we had a babysitter who was a quilter. She taught me how to thread a needle, knot thread, and sew a running stitch. I took to it immediately. My childhood memories feature hours of pulling treasures out of scrap bags and making little creations.
Tiny hands make tiny stitches, and by eight or nine years old I could hand sew just about anything expertly. One summer during 4-H Camp I signed up for a sewing class and I was surprised to find it was real machine sewing! That summer I learned to wind bobbins, thread machines, and work the pedal properly. My first sewing project was a bandana bikini and I loved it (and wore it) to death. My second project was the one I entered into the 4-H fair — a dark brown knit shorts and tank top combo with white topstitching. I got second place because my topstitching wasn’t perfect. Of course. Oh me and topstitching… what a tangled, messy history we have together.
For the next few years I dabbled in sewing but it wasn’t until college that I really got into it, mostly out of necessity because I was broke-ass broke. Most of my clothes came from thrift stores, one store in particular that had huge bales of clothing you could dig through and they sold it all to you by the pound. It was a great way to find vintage clothes and beautiful fabric for just a few bucks. My hippydippy style fit this methodology perfectly. During senior year I made dresses out of old men’s ties and sold them at concerts. It was a way to make money and it was really fun.
When I moved to California I was still broker than broke, but I had my first “real” job and I tried to wear what I thought professional people wore to work. To me, that meant store-bought clothing. At that time I was pulling down a cool $17K/year at the Daily News in Los Angeles and all my money went to rent, gas and rice and beans. I had about four outfits to my name that were presentable for work. One was my “grown up” Jones New York navy blue interview suit and the others I don’t even remember, I was so young and overwhelmed by the city that my clothes weren’t top of my list.
Then something happened. I don’t remember the names of the girls involved, or what I was wearing, or even if I told another living soul when it happened. All I remember is very clearly feeling real shame over my clothes for the first time in my life.
For context, it helps to know that the Daily News was a very hard place to work. It had been through multiple layoffs and crabby old timers and hungry up-and-comers were frequently in conflict in a hyper competitive work environment. At that time there was a pack of young women who had bonded together (the Ultimate Mean Girls) and I was decidedly not one of them. I still had a country accent and I was terrified of driving on the freeway and I didn’t fit in at all.
Two girls in particular had singled me out and I knew they were awful, but mostly I tried to ignore them. One day I was in the bathroom in a stall when they came in and started talking. They were laughing and chattering and talking trash about someone and suddenly I realized it was me, and they were making fun of my clothes.
I wish I could tell you there was a great Hollywood Pretty-Woman ending where I burst out of the stall and they were mortified and I got to parade around later in front of them while I was wearing Valentino but actually I just sat there until they left and then I went and cried in my car.
Hearing someone talk trash about you sucks. It doesn’t matter how strong and tough and smart you are, or how hard you work, or what your life is about to become — in that moment I was just a poor kid from a small town and I felt humiliated. I did not want to be the country girl in the lame clothes. I was just barely past 21, my bank account was still empty, and I desperately wanted to be a real reporter with good style and not get made fun of in the bathroom for chrissakes.
While I lacked the resources of my colleagues, I had more than enough determination. I also had my 4-H sewing skills, my 1960s Singer Fashion Mate, and a whole lot of free time in the evenings.
The weekend after my bathroom humiliation, I went to the mall to do some clothes investigating. In my purse I had folded up sheets of plain white tissue paper (the kind you use to stuff in Christmas boxes), three charcoal sketch pencils in a baggie, a notebook and a measuring tape. I walked from store to store looking at the clothes to see what was in style. I tried on all kinds of cute outfits I could only dream of purchasing. And I spent a lot of time in closed dressing rooms tracing seams. I spread out each miniskirt and vest and jacket and made tracings of the seams and shapes. I measured buttonholes and zippers and hem allowances and made notes on each piece in my little notepad.
On Sunday I took the bus downtown (scared to drive on the freeway, also by the way taking the bus is equally scary) and I bought about $20 worth of fabric in the garment district. There used to be a little shop near Michael Levine’s that sold fabric and remnants by the pound and it became my serious go-to spot. I remember splurging on six beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons and a separating zipper, but everything else was fabric.
For the next few weeks I would come home from work and make my patterns and cut my pieces and sit at my kitchen table and sew. It’s funny how nostalgic I feel about that time. Even though I was kind of lonely and Los Angeles seemed so unfriendly, I remember sitting in that tiny studio apartment in Woodland Hills with my sewing machine whirring and KROQ playing on the radio and scraps of fabric and loose threads everywhere. It made me happy to make beautiful clothes. It was also achievable, it was something I could be great at and it felt magical even back then, turning nothing into something.
My outfits were amazing, by the way. I made little button-up vests with welted pockets and skirts and matching jackets and even a soft back stretch velvet dress that I think I still have packed away somewhere.
About six months after The Bathroom Incident, one of the mean girls complimented my outfit and asked me where I got my skirt.
“Oh, I got it at the mall,” I said.
“It’s cute,” she said. And she wasn’t even being snotty.
I was still too embarrassed of being poor to admit I made my own clothes, and back then handmade wasn’t cool, but I remember feeling a twinge of pride at making my own “mall” clothes. TAKE THAT, MEANFACE.
She got fired a few months later, by the way. I do remember that detail. I still believe it was delayed karma.
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Things are different now. I can buy all kinds of clothes and do it quite well if I say so myself, and I feel grateful I have the life I’m living. But those old skills are still in there, and sewing again makes me remember all these old parts of my life I hadn’t dusted off in years.
Yesterday I had an afternoon to sew and I wanted to make a hoodie. I didn’t feel like driving to Joann’s for a hoodie pattern. The only one I found online that I kind of liked was all in Japanese, including the instructions. So I decided to make my own pattern. I pulled my favorite hoodie out of the closet and got out all the old tools of the trade. This time I used generic wrapping paper from Ikea as the base, and I am fancier now so I have a patternmaster ruler and a big self-healing cutting mat.
It’s all the same process, though. Smooth out the garment and trace the outline of it, paying special attention to the curves of the sleeves and armholes. Measure the hems and mark any buttonholes. Mark which direction has stretch or if something looks like it can be cut on a fold. Clean up your drawing lines with a ruler and a sharpie, then add 1/2″ seam allowance on all edges (except not on the fold, of course.) Cut out your pattern and use it exactly as you would a store-bought pattern.
These days I don’t have to flip through my old sewing books for tips, either, I can just watch YouTube videos of people making similar garments. I watched one of the online sewers I love make a hoodie a few weeks ago so I followed her steps (mostly). Her name is @WithWendy and here’s a link to her video.
One of the best parts about cloning your clothing is that you know you’re going to love the fit. If you already love and wear something, it’s a good bet you’ll love the clone.
And while I do like making clothes from store-bought patterns, sometimes it can be a real tossup to see if it is wearable at the end. When it’s not good, it can be so sad because you wasted time and fabric and effort. With cloned clothes you’re more likely to wear the finished product. There is a special kind of happiness that comes with making a garment from a pattern you traced yourself. It feels magical, like you made something out of almost nothing.
Below are the pics of my Sunday hoodie-making adventure. And you can see an image of the Captain being my model. When I asked him to put it on I got extra happy because it’s an oversized hoodie so it totally fit him, too, except on the length and the sleeves. If I just add a few inches to the bottom hems I could totally make us matching Christmas hoodies, and you know how crazy we are and like to be samesies.
I felt almost high after I finished this project, it was a feeling of accomplishment and pleasure I have not had in a long while.
If you’ve never tried making clothes this way, I hope you’ll try it out and let me know what you think. It’s surprisingly easy to clone most T-shirts, shorts, pants, dresses and skirts. And search on YouTube for tutorials, there are so many good ones that make it easy for you to learn the tricks.
Plus, it’s a great way to make things you love at a fraction of the price. My original tie-dye hoodie came from Nordstrom and it was about $60 from the store. My copy cost about $10 in fabric and one afternoon of happy crafting.
And these days I am more than proud to tell you it didn’t come from the mall — it was 100% handmade!