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    On Grandmothers, Drag Queens, and Mending Your Clothes

    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.

    Published on Feb 25, 2013
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