Sewing: Womanly Skill, Not Women’s Work

You don’t have to sew to be an accomplished woman, but every woman needs a diverse skill set and a creative outlet.  Could sewing be for you?

I’m not talking about fixing a hem or replacing a lost button–these useful life skills are for anyone, regardless of gender.

I’m talking about sewing as craft, and it’s making a comeback.  There’s a growing desire to customize our clothing, get crafty and make things with our own hands, and go local and not big-box with our purchases.  Skillful sewing makes these things possible.

Some women see sewing as a way out of the girls’ fashion dilemma.  They’re making their daughters’ clothes instead of buying off the rack, customizing fit and length to suit their tastes, and creating their own fashionable, modest apparel.

And adult women are sewing their own clothes so they can have exactly what they want.

My mom sews, and when I was in grade school she equipped me with a basic knowledge of how to work with patterns and her fancy Bernina.  I thought it was fun, but I didn’t actually make anything more exciting than headbands and hair scrunchies.

One summer in my late teens, I decided I wanted a pretty halter dress to wear to a party.  What I really wanted was Cameron Diaz’s dress from the karaoke scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, but I couldn’t find anything like it anywhere.  So I made one.  Actually, it turned out so well, I made three.  (I couldn’t find a pattern for the style I wanted either–so I altered a blouse pattern.)  I was surprised that the limiting factor wasn’t my skills–it was the fabric selection.

It was enormously satisfying to create three darling dresses from my own pattern all by myself.  The compliments poured in.  I couldn’t avoid the “where did you buy it?” line of questioning–and finally admitted, with some embarrassment, that I’d made them.  To my surprise, the compliments really poured in after that!

I haven’t sewn much since that summer, mostly because I don’t own a machine.  But I’m thinking of taking it up again, especially as I reflect on the creative satisfaction of conceiving and crafting a nice garment yourself.  (Of course, there can be enormous frustration in it as well.  But my daydreams focus on the upside!) And when you’re finished, you get to wear your creation!  It’s a very tangible success, much like cooking–but the results last much longer.

If you’re thinking about plunging into sewing, do it for the right reasons.  Some advocate sewing for reasons of thrift and frugality, but unless you’re making your child’s wardrobe out of old curtains a lá Maria Von Trapp, sewing isn’t cheap.  Good machines are expensive, and even basic models run at least $100.  Fabric prices vary widely, notions like buttons and zippers must be purchased, and the time investment can be significant.  After adding up all these costs, a $60 sundress can look like a bargain.

Readers, do you sew?  What have you made lately?  What advice do you have for us newbies?

Pattern photo credit.

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  1. Hannah says:

    There are some lovely websites featuring quilting and sewing out there. You can get some great tips and ideas…some even have basic patterns to teach your girls to try. When my girls are older, we’ll probably try it out. By the way, before you buy a machine, ask around. I’ve found a lot of women who want to get rid of theirs because it takes up too much space and isn’t used. Good luck!

  2. Debbie says:

    My very godly grandmother was a seamstress. In fact, my mother could send her my measurements and she would whip out the most beautiful outfits for me – custom made! She passed away when I was 18 -and while she was sewing, my mother was learning to cook, so the skill was not immediately passed down to me. But I have a STRONG desire to pursue sewing and appreciate this post a lot! =)

  3. Jodi B says:

    I have turned to sewing as a creative outlet and am learning the joy of making my own clothes. It has taught me a lot about appreciating the individual beauty of every woman in her unique proportions. It is ridiculous to expect woman to wear standard sizing when so few of us are standard sized. I hope one day (when I have time) to accumulate a small wardrobe of well-fitting handmade items. You know when I have time to pull it together with my 4 kids, 5 and under.

  4. Betty says:

    I sew because I can never find what I like at the store! By the way, you mentioned that sewing isn’t necessarily a very frugal pastime. However, there are a few things you can do to cut costs. We recycle old jeans and turn them into Bible covers, purses and bags. Also, look at garage sales for cheap clothing that can be repurposed, especially for buttons! You were right that buttons and other notions really add up, but you can get some very nice buttons from a 50-cent yard sale find and then repurpose the material as doll clothes, a purse or a patchwork apron, depending on the material. Thanks for the interesting post!

    • Anne says:

      Thanks for the great tips. So many of you know soooo much more than I do, and I appreciate you sharing your secrets!

  5. Lucky says:

    I few years back I got a basic machine for making pillows, curtains and other household stuff. I haven’t done as much as I like…someday.

  6. Clare says:

    I sewed for several years before college stole away all my free time. Fabric was expensive, though, so I have to admit that I eventually *did* start making dresses out of old curtains, bedsheets, and tablecloths acquired at thrift stores. It actually worked pretty well and made a couple fun dresses.

    I never figured out a way to make it less costly are far as time went, though, so now that I don’t really have that to spare, my sewing machine is tucked in the back of the closet.

    • Anne says:

      Clare, I just looked at your dresses. Wow! I am way impressed. You should pull that sewing machine back out!

  7. Katie A. says:

    I’m an avid quilter and sometimes clothes sewer. I’ve had great luck making reversible wrap skirts and plain A-line skirts over the years. I love to sew because it’s amazing to know that no one else has the exact same item of clothing you’re wearing.

  8. sarah beals says:

    When my kids were little, I did lots of sewing. I made their baby dedication dresses for church, bonnets, flower girl dresses for my sister’s wedding. I made a dress for Emily that had smocking all over the front- my first and last smocking project! 🙂 I do sew easy things. Made curtains, and bedding for the kids when they were younger. I just made Waldorf dolls for Holly and Hope. It can be fun–when I am in the mood! 🙂 In fall I am so much more in the mood. Also, when the kids were little I had a business where I designed vintage motto samplers and sold the kits. (Vintage Needleworks) I did that for about 10 years, until homeschooling took over my life. 🙂 Do you know what mottos are, Anne? Like in Marilla’s kitchen. Needlework that say different things like “Labor Has Sure Reward” or the one over Anne’s bed says “Faith, Hope and Charity.” They are beautiful!

  9. Leslie says:

    My first thought – buy the best basic machine you can afford (you won’t need all the bells and whistles) and take the classes to learn how to use your machine to the fullest.I’ve received such satisfaction in finishing a project that stayed done as opposed to dishes or laundry that never stay done. enjoy!

  10. Jamie says:

    I quilt, and love it. I’d be delighted to take up sewing my own clothes as I have such a hard time finding anything decent to buy, but I can’t find anywhere to take sewing lessons! I’ve tried teaching myself out of a book, but just get frustrated. The few classes I’ve taken from places like JoAnn’s have been a joke – expensive, short and dumbed down; the most we ever made was a pillow case.

    Until the day I find a seamstress willing to teach me, I will stick to my quilting and just dream of being able to sew my own clothes. Though I too, struggle with the reality of how expensive fabric is. Even if I could sew, I’ve done the math and making my own would be nearly as expensive as just buying something good quality to begin with. Ugh!

  11. Kathleen says:

    I learned to sew back in Home Ec class in high school, and I’m glad I did. I’ve enjoyed occasionally making my own clothes, plus costumes for plays, over the past 40 years. Most recently, I sewed my own wedding dress and my maid of honor’s dress for my second marriage in June 2009. I wanted a Jane Austen-type look, but saw nothing remotely similar in bridal stores, so I found a pattern and made them myself. I was so pleased — they were absolutely unique, and I received endless compliments on them. You can see a couple of pictures of them here:

  12. Alice says:

    Sewing is a hobby/skill that once the basics are learned will never leave you–similar to bike riding! I am no pro, but learned a tremendous amount in college taking a basic construction class as a requirement for my Home Economics major (back in the day. . .does that major still exist?) One of the most important, practical one sentence lessons was to “Cut the pattern out exactly!!!!” I used to think that if it was “close enough–within a 1/4 inch or so–that it would be okay. Little did I know back then that those quarter inches multiplied, and suddenly your pieces don’t fit together well because you’re more than 1/2 inch off, a disaster for matching seams. Leslie’s advice to buy the best basic machine you can afford is excellent. I’m teaching my 6 year old granddaughter on my machine. She sits beside me on my sewing bench, and loves the whole experience. Don’t put yourself or anyone else through the frustration of using a machine that doesn’t work properly. That’s a sure way to kill the potential joy of a job well done and make them quit before they really get started. A cute blog about sewing is I just stumbled upon it one day–you can find lots of tutorials on line if you look for them.

  13. MelanieB says:

    I haven’t done much clothing sewing since high school. I made a skirt and a costume dress (with some help from a talented seamstress friend.) But I do quilt. I got an old sewing machine from my mother-in-law and it isn’t fancy but it works. I’ve made quilts as presents for family and friends and I made quilts and pillows for my girls which they adore. Her mommy-made quilt is my second daughter’s lovey and that is such a good feeling. But I haven’t done any sewing in more than a year. Having my third and then fourth baby has made it hard. Right now my sewing table is buried and it’s at least a two day project to unbury it. Hard with a nursing newborn and three other children five and under. One of these days I’ll make my boys quilts too. It is such a wonderful creative outlet. Here’s a link to some of my quilting photos:[email protected]/sets/72157612728885036/

    I’d love to take up sewing clothes one of these days. I can never find skirts I like at the store. And I’d love to make doll clothes for my girls too.

    • Anne says:

      Love the quilts. Did you make all those? Wow! The one called “tree’s quilt” on the top row is my favorite!

  14. MelanieB says:

    Anne, Thank you. Some of the individual quilt squares near the end were sent to me as part of a virtual quilting bee; but otherwise, yes.
    Tree’s quilt is one I made for my sister, Theresa, as a thank you for being my maid of honor. I loved making it for her because every fabric I chose was something that reminded me of her. It’s so sunny and bright. And it was extremely ambitious. I don’t know if I could do something with that much piecing again.

  15. Elisa says:

    What a fun post. Found your blog through Betty Beguiles. I LOVE sewing. I can’t say I’m very good at it. I’ve made a few very basic things, like needle cases, easy pants, and a quiet book that I’m most proud of.
    I have three little boys, and if they were all girls, I bet I’d sew a little more. I’m still a beginner, in my opinion, but I can manage w/ a pattern and just go find a sewing lady somewhere if I get stuck. =)

    • Anne says:

      That quiet book is amazing! I have a wee one who would love it, and a not-so-wee one who would love to help make it. Thanks soooo much!

  16. Anna says:

    We bought a basic sewing machine a few years ago on sale at Target. It works but eventually we’d like something a little better.

    We’re part of a 4H group, and my daughter has been attending a clothing class through 4H for the past 2 years. She began because she enjoyed sewing (she had been making little pillows and fleece hats on her own). The leaders (moms who have had some sewing experience) guide the girls – but the girls do all the work. Last year she made a fleece coat, which she was able to use in the winter. This year she made a dress, all by herself, at age 13. Anyone can learn if they are interested. (I will be posting a picture on Monday on my blog of the dress.)

    I do agree that making clothes can be expensive, depending on the fabric and the cost of the pattern. I appreciate the great ideas other readers have submitted above that could save some money– thank you! I’m not sure we’ll be making too many garments, but it is nice to have the skill to make one if desired!

  17. Amanda says:

    I think I am a lone voice saying, I cannot sew a lick. Not even putting back on a button! I think I once sewed a vest for a Girl Scout badge in elementary school, but that was it. Nobody in my immediate or near-extended family sews, so it wasn’t a “tradition” for us. My great-aunt was a quilter and they actually had to retire the category at the county fair because she won every year 🙂 Her quilts are phenomenal and such treasures. She has dementia now and doesn’t even remember that she liked to sew, so sad. I’ve thought about trying to learn some basics, but it’s pretty far down the priority list as far as picking up new hobbies in limited free time goes. All that said, I think you’re right. It’s definitely getting kind of “trendy” to take up sewing these days!

  18. yang li says:

    I’d be charmed to take up sewing my own garments as I experience considerable difficulties discovering anything OK to purchase, yet I can’t discover anyplace to take sewing exercises! I’ve had a go at encouraging myself out of a book, however simply get baffled.

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