Growing up in an Asian family, many women of a certain age still remember being taught how to sew. Your teacher might be your mother, your grandmother, or just a home economics class in school, but make no mistake – being able to mend a button, hem a skirt, and even do decorative cross-stitch, was considered an essential homemaking skill.
Unlike professional tailoring, basic sewing is a skill that has since fallen out of favour. When I was a very young child in the 70s, we all wore homemade clothes for good reason – it was not good economy to continually buy new clothes for a child who will outgrow them within months. Instead, mothers and caregivers hand-sewed children’s clothes that were easily adjustable to a growing child by moving buttons or letting down a hem. What we now call 'designer kids' wear' was just an everyday task for my mother, who created and made kids' clothes on her sewing machine.
In school, the very first garment we girls were asked to put together was an adjustable baby romper. Most of us botched it, even then disdaining a skill we thought we’d never need. After all, why put so much time and effort into sewing your own garment, when you can buy one off-the-rack in minutes? Indeed, the variety of clothes available for babies of any age was so staggering, there was no risk we’d have nothing to dress our future children in.
It has now been a long time since it was a matter of course for every girl (and some boys) to learn how to sew. Factories do it better and faster, and ship it out to you in a multiplicity of colours and fabrics. Jammed a zipper? Ripped a seam? Never mind – just throw it out and buy another.
Growing up in India, off-the-rack shopping was not necessarily a norm. If you liked an outfit you saw in the movies, you wouldn't go look for it in a shiny mall. Instead, you'd find a picture out of a magazine, bring it to your neighbourhood tailor, and in a few days, voila! You're dressed like your onscreen heroine. Because of the time it took to put your outfit together (not to mention the pocket money you saved!), you valued that outfit.
Most of us no longer have such a personal connection with our clothes. Unless it is a favourite item, or something costly like a wedding gown, we are no longer invested in the durability of our clothes, because we often have so many pieces. We buy our fashion mindlessly, blindly following trends or falling for colourful advertisements, then get bored and toss them aside or leave them neglected in our wardrobes. Eventually, these items add to the clutter and pollution in our world, and contribute to the ‘sweatshop’ mentality many big-label brands have in the production of their garments.
What’s the solution? Well, it starts with us, as consumers. Most of us can’t make our own garments, but there’s nothing stopping us from considering who does make them. Treat every purchase you make as if you are, indeed, buying something as important and expensive as a wedding gown. Where does the fabric come from? How are the patterns and dyes made? If it is woven, knitted or crafted in some way, how is that performed? Does the price reflect the work that has gone into it, does it seem likely that some of the profit has gone into a decent living wage for those who created that garment?
Don’t be afraid to purchase something that costs a little more – remember, if you spent more on a classic, good-quality item, you are far more likely to value it. You’ll wear it often, because it looks good, and doesn’t go out of style. You’ll take care of it, because it cost more. When it gets stained or damaged, you’ll take the time and effort to get it cleaned and fixed, so you can extend its lifetime. If your size changes, you can have it re-tailored. If your item is well made with good-quality materials, that lifetime could be many decades.
In short, you will treat it mindfully, and are far less likely to toss it carelessly down the rubbish chute because it’s missing a button.
If you bring that mentality to your entire wardrobe, sure, you will have far fewer clothes – but everything you own will be valued and useful. Besides, let’s face it – how many clothes do you really need?
And yes – part of that wardrobe should include be a sewing kit. It’s never too late to learn!