Monday 12 October 2015

The 5 Essentials of Building a Self-Made Wardrobe

I've received a few questions about different aspects of DIY clothing so I figured I'd answer them all in one place. On my quest towards a selfmade wardrobe you better believe I've tried and failed many times.. But learned from every failure! Making your own clothes means you are putting a few hours of your life into each piece you craft, so it's worth making sure those hours count. For me it boils down to 5 essentials - If you've thought about each element, you're far more likely to make garments that add up to a sustainable, well-put-together, timeless wardrobe. 

I. Foundations

There are two pieces to what I think of as foundations, and the first one is Motivation. Why do you want to make your own clothes? Maybe because you can't find what you're looking for in the stores, you want to minimize your part in the [World's second most polluting] industry, you want your pieces to be unique, or you just happen to have proportions that make it difficult for you to find off-the-rack clothing that fits. My personal reasons include all these + the design aspect; for me, making my own clothes is a creative outlet I enjoy beyond words.

Goals are good in everything you do in life. Whether you share my ambition of a wardrobe that's mostly selfmade, or are just looking to make a couple pieces here and there, there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in the feeling of doing what you set off to do.

The second piece is personal style. Do you have a clear sense of what yours is? It's easy to fill your wardrobe with disposable pieces from the sale racks - Little consequence on the wallet, so who cares if you only wear it once? WRONG. Even if you don't care about the impact on the planet, thinking long and hard of every purchase is worth it for the sake of style consistency. When you have at least a clearly defined colour palette in mind, you'll quickly weed out the one night stand-type garments that will only clutter up your space. Don't get me wrong, I'll be the first to admit I absolutely went through a phase of loud prints & routine dumps of unused clothing in the nearest donation box.. But moving continents twice with only 2 suitcases is an excellent streamlining exercise!

Today I have a crystal clear sense of what I love and will wear until it disintegrates. My only real rules revolve around colours; black, white, grey, navy, neutrals/earth tones (beige, taupe, khaki, ivory, olive..), and the occasional light pastels are on my love list. When it comes to prints, I go for classic stripes or grids in monochrome or a few subtle colours. Figuring out your colour palette and strictly applying it to your wardrobe results in a wonderful thing: all of your clothes suddenly start going together.

II. Inspiration
There isn't much of anything creative without inspiration. Luckily we live in an era of digital goodness overload (most call it Pinterest, my other favourite browsing sources are for runway shots, Tumblr for general visual fulfillment, and le 21ème, The Locals, Carolines Mode & Street Peeper for street style inspiration). The key to finding inspiration around you is to stop expecting ready ideas. When you cease looking at garments as something exact you want for yourself, you'll start seeing them as sums of details, colours, and finishes that you can incorporate into your own projects in endless combinations. Sometimes I do see something so perfect that I try to re-create it as is (like this dress originally by Reformation), but most of the time it's a combination of a few details/materials that come together (like in the case of this Derek Lam -inspired skirt).

Whenever I see something that might develop into a piece I want to make, I add it to my inspiration file. I then come back to browse the images and let the ideas evolve, and after a while I usually know what my next project will look like (and am sure I it's something I really want vs. a passing fling. It's the imaginative equivalent of the stores' 14-day return period). Note: It's also incredibly helpful to have these visual guides for yourself when you go fabric shopping - a picture is worth a thousand words when you're trying to explain to the store staff what kind of material you are after.

III. Tools
You know what you want to make and how it will complement your wardrobe - Next up is figuring out your toolkit. These are my fundamentals, in use in almost all of my projects:

  • SEWING MACHINE - I'm a Janome fan, I've had a MyStyle 100 in the past (it was supposed to be a temporary machine until I found the one I wanted, but I ended up using it for a year and a half - most of the stuff on my blog I've sewed on that baby!) When I moved to Dubai my plan was to get my dream machine (Janome Décor 5018), but I couldn't find it anywhere, and ended up getting another basic edition (RE1312) until I can upgrade. Here's the gist: you don't need a crazy expensive/advanced machine to make most things. When machines get more expensive, they start having a wider range of stitches, (often for embroidery etc.), computerization, and a better engine; a smoother and less loud sewing experience. But you can get very far with a more basic machine - the key things I'd look for are: stretch stitch, button hole, and a free-arm platform for sewing sleeve hems and pant legs.
  • SCISSORS/SHEARS - Get good ones, and don't use them for anything other than cutting fabric. Get your scissors sharpened when you notice they've lost their edge.
  • PINS, NEEDLES - A good set of different sizes of needles for hand sewing, and some good quality pins.
  • CHALK/FABRIC MARKER - Chalk is easier and faster to get off your garments after you've traced your pieces, if you use fabric marker, it's worth testing first on a scrap.
  • MEASURING TAPE - The heavier the better so it lays flat nicely.
  • IRON - I can't stress enough what a difference a high quality iron makes. I consider the iron my most indispensable sewing tool after my sewing machine. Good steaming function and an easy-glide plate are imperative to me.
  • PATTERNS/TRACING PAPER - Personally I rarely use any, but you might want to start off with some ready patterns (thrift stores are a great place to find some!) or tracing your own based on existing garments you have. Clothing you already own and love is an awesome tool in itself - just lay it flat on your fabric and trace around it to create your own version.
  • + BONUS: FUSIBLE HEMMING TAPE - This is one of my best tools for finishing hems quickly when I don't feel like hand-sewing, or attaching small details before I hand-sew. 

IV. Materials
Remember that even if you're making most of your own clothing, it doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear in terms of sustainability. Also fabric is produced somewhere and by someone. Whenever possible, I try to select materials produced in countries where I can trust the local regulations to control working conditions (Germany and Italy, usually). However China & India are still the World's 1 & 2 players in the industry - when buying materials from these countries I pay extra attention to quality and try to buy local as often as possible (to minimize impacts from shipping).

In terms of what to buy, here's my thinking process:

  1. What's the planned project? If I have a vision in mind, I try to bring an image with me as a guideline so the good people at the store can help me find the right fabric.
  2. What style of fabric is required? If I don't have a specific idea and I'm just shopping for stock to sew later on when inspiration hits, I go back to my foundations of colour palette. I avoid buying any crazy prints or loud colours I don't usually wear, and stick to what works for me.
  3. What type of fabric will work? Does it need to be firm and structured or light and flowy? Where will you wear it? In what season? Wool blends are great for colder climates, whereas natural fibres like cotton, linen & rayon are perfect for the hot/humid weather. Also think about ease of sewing: if you're a beginner, stay away from silk chiffon, polyester wovens, and anything that has a slithery quality to it. On the other hand, cotton, linen, rayon, tencel, and wool are lovely to work with. Finally, think about ease of maintenance. If you aren't willing to dry clean your garments in general, then silk, acetate, velvet, and other delicate, thin fabrics might not be your jam.

In addition to fabric, I also keep a small stock of these around:

  • Selection of threads based on my usual colours of choice (polyester is a good universal thread)
  • Zippers (invisible and regular)
  • Interfacing for adding firmness to flimsy fabrics
  • Elastic for waist bands
  • Buttons 

V. Patience
If I had to identify one core reason for most of my DIY fails, it would be haste. I am generally not a very patient person and sewing has definitely taught me a few lessons on the virtues of restraint and grit. When you find yourself at 2 am hand-sewing some ridiculous fabric that you're sure by that time was put on Earth only to torment you, you discover reserves of dedication and perseverance you had no clue you possessed.

By now I've learned not to take shortcuts with my projects. If there's a seam you suspect will look better hand stitched, don't cut corners and use a machine. If you're frustrated and nothing seems to work, walk away and get back to your project once you've calmed down. And if you think something is an utter failure, don't shove it straight in the trash - I've actually had presumed DIY fails turn into something else, equally great, as what I was originally planning. Finally, when it's time to let go, let go. When you've poured your sweat (and in my case, sometimes actual blood) into a project, it's hard to admit it didn't work out. But those are the ones you learn from (like that time I tried to put fray-stop on chiffon, cause I was too lazy to hand-stitch a hem. The result was the skirt equivalent of a bunny that fell into a glue jar, and I've since learned to view slip stitching as a meditative exercise.)

If you have questions I didn't cover here, I'd love to hear them.




  1. Great article. I've been reading the archives--they are wonderful! Because the garments are so timeless, it's like you just published these posts in 2023. Thanks for making this blog, I'm enjoying it immensely.

    1. What a lovely compliment, thank you!!


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