They're everywhere. Piles I've nudged into the backs of closets, under sofas, hidden in cupboards and behind dressers. Why do I bother saving my old, worn out, and outsized clothes when a trip to the local charity shop would give them a more respectable ending?
The answer is that I've had aspirations to become a DIY style goddess for years. Like any wannabe, I'm clinging to a vision of the day I have a wardrobe full of fabulous, original, stylish outfits that I've had a hand in creating. These old clothes help keep my dream alive.
But while the piles were growing, I wasn't getting any closer to unleashing my creativity in my old favourites. I'd planned on buying a second-hand sewing machine, but I needed to learn how to sew first. I know there are loads of sewing classes available, but between work, husband, and raising a son, do I really have time to take on such a time-consuming hobby?
Meanwhile, my husband suspects I'm in on some illegal smuggling activity, what with all those tightly tied innocuous looking parcels that are growing in our storage spaces, which I refuse to let him open and which periodically move from one place to another. If he knew what they were, it'd be straight to the charity shop for me. And my excuses are running perilously thin.
So you'll understand why I jumped at the chance to meet DIY style goddess, Eithne Farry, who's been re-fashioning her own clothes for many, many years. Her new book Yeah! I Made it Myself is a guide to 'no-sew sewing' for the not so domestic goddess and makes doing-it-yourself look easy and fun. We agreed to meet for lunch near the Ecologist's HQ - I was to bring a selection of clothes I couldn't bear to do without and she would bring ideas on what I could turn them into FOR VERY LITTLE TIME AND MONEY.
Time and money, you see, is really the key. For someone like Eithne, turning a tattered but beloved old jumper into a gorgeous handbag is just a few minutes spent before going out on a Saturday evening. For most of us though, the gaping hole between a beginner and an experienced seamstress seems daunting. With all the on-line shopping portals selling designer cast-offs at cut rate prices, anyone with a good eye for a bargain can be 'fashionable'. So what exactly was I getting myself into?
Call it bull-headedness, a desire to be more self-sufficient, an innate frugality, or a rejection of our 'throw away' society - I couldn't get the idea of refashioning old clothes out of my head.
You could tell Eithne's no slave to fashion, but wow did she have style. It threw me when she said not only did she make the fabulous dress she was wearing, but the carry-all handbag she brought had actually been refashioned out of old place mats. Despite her obvious talents, she was anything but intimidating and I felt at-ease instantly.
The ideas she had for the selection of pieces that I'd wanted fixed, altered, or made into something else were impressive. For the sari I bought years ago to go to an Indian wedding: 'With a snip of the scissor - that'd be a stylish beach kaftan'. The Paul & Joe silk chiffon shirt that was way too big: 'Just tie a pretty ribbon around it to pull it in'. The sweater I had a strange superstition against throwing away - despite the fact that it was so worn I actually hated it: after a quick look at the tag she said, 'Yep, it's 100% wool. Just felt it.' What? 'Throw it into boiling water, it'll shrink and be perfect as a soft winter handbag'. Finally there was the denim pregnancy skirt with a huge elastic waist band - It didn't even fit well when I was pregnant - so could it be reincarnated too? 'No problems. It'd be a cinch to replace the waistband and hem it in. You could even add some embroidery.'
Sewing Ups and Downs
It was almost a blessing not having my own sewing machine - I needed a bit of handholding and didn't want to be alone. I was a sewing virgin after all.
There I was inside the local The Sewing Rooms, in Putney, next to Claire, a veteran seamstress pointing to a panel of different stitches on the digitalised sewing machine in front of us. Five minutes into my lesson and I was sewing my way through a piece of practice cloth. But wait a second. Wasn't this supposed to be difficult? Isn't the point that only after toiling away, fingertips raw and brow wet with sweat, would I earn the DIY credentials I was so virtuously pursuing?
'Not anymore', Claire read my thoughts. 'You can keep your hands busy by picking apart this seam here with an "unpicker". That'll keep you out of mischief for a while.' Right. So not all aspects of sewing had been unfettered by technology.
After an hour's one-on-one, I'd wound the bobbin, threaded the needle, practised a few stitches, and reversed. I was quite chuffed with myself.
With my very own £1.50 seam unpicker, I set off home to unseam the waistband of my skirt - which I did throughout three 20 minute bus rides to work. The next week I was back during 'Sewing Club' hours to finish the job. With Louise, another Sewing Rooms aficionado just a yell for help away, I had carefully removed the zipper, measured and taken in the waist, sewn on a new waist band and re-sewn the zipper. In all, it took me two and a half hours, the length of a feature film.
A week later it was time to take a couple inches off the bottom of the skirt and add some embroidery (only a few buttons to push!). And I'd done it. With my first piece finished, I hungered for more.
My new skirt not only fitted, it didn't look half bad on. No, it wasn't a Marc Jacobs, but I didn't expect it to be perfect. After all, who paints like Velasquez after one lesson? The thread on the waistband was the wrong colour, and I clearly had a shaky hand while doing the embroidery. While I'd go to lengths to show my originality, I don't want to look like an unmade bed. The next piece I tackled would be better, no doubt. As for the dodgy jumper - that might actually go to the charity shop.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2006
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