Home Sewn: Handmade Clothes Make a Comeback

By Jenn Hemmingsen

Like many people, Alex McKeon thought garment sewing was “out of her league” before she tried it. The accomplished weaver remembers being awed by people who sewed their own wardrobes.

“After my first class, I was stunned to see that, like so many things, it’s simply a series of steps.”

Sewing is making a comeback as more Islanders rediscover the art of making their own clothing, whether to minimize environmental impacts, because they like the challenge, because they like the control it gives them over their appearance, or just because they find it fun.

Alex McKeon wears a dress she sewed herself. Before trying garment sewing, the accomplished weaver says she was “in awe” of people who made their own clothes.

For Alex, garment sewing was a revelation. Since her first class, she has gone on to make skirts, dresses, button-down shirts, tops, pajamas, jeans, and “the most comfortable rompers and robes.”

“It was empowering to be able to make the clothes fit my body instead of trying to make my body fit the clothes,” she says.

“Once you have something that fits you very well, you realize how badly everything else fits,” says Marla Kazell, a Portland-based couturier and guest sewing instructor at BARN. “With custom garments, you aren’t tugging or pulling things to be in place, because the fit is right.”

Marla has sewn everything from swimsuits to ball gowns, but her own closet is simple: “I’m not my best customer,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of time to sew for myself. What I have is some basic patterns: a basic pants pattern, a jacket, a shirt, and a T-shirt. And then I can just mix it up with pattern and detail.”

Making your own clothes ensures high-quality craftsmanship and materials, often surpassing the quality of mass-produced garments. 

“Get the good fabric,” says Piper Tupper, owner of Esther’s Fabrics, who teaches garment classes at her store and at BARN. “You’re doing something that takes time and you want an item that feels fantastic to wear.”

Billee Gearheard started sewing as a teenager in the 1960s. She says it was fun and easy on the family budget, adding, “It was a way to make things mine.”

Billee, who insists she’s “just a bumbler who can read a pattern and sew a straight seam” has also recently rekindled her love of the craft, starting an annual tradition of sewing flannel lounge pants for her grandsons at Christmas. 

Others see sewing as a way to circumvent the labor concerns and devastating environmental effects of fast fashion. Like the designers in ReFashion Bainbridge’s annual Fashion in the Forest Show at IslandWood’s Welcome Center this weekend, they embrace their chance to choose sustainable fabrics, minimize waste, and be ethical consumers of fabulous clothes.

Sewing instructors like Couturist Marla Kazell help students overcome their fears of zippers and other sewing skills.

Jennifer Horner made her first garments in elementary school. Today, she scours second-hand stores for garments with interesting fabrics to deconstruct and reassemble into something new. She’s one of many sewists who find altering existing garments is a fun and empowering way to practice sewing skills and expand their wardrobe options.

As Jennifer says, “I can always preserve the life of a garment or alter it to make it fit.”

The key to sewing your wardrobe is to start small and build your skills.

“Don’t start with an overly challenging project,” says Piper. “This is supposed to be fun.

“Decades ago people sewed because they had to. We now have the flexibility to sew for fun, not because we have to. So start with a rewarding and fun simple project. With the win of a completed project and with each completed project, you’ll gain skills and confidence and that is all you need to be able to sew clothes.”

Marla adds that once you find a basic pattern you like, you can play around with customizations, like adding pockets or changing the width of the leg or the length of a skirt.

“I know people who won’t make anything with a zipper in it because it’s too scary,” says Marla. So, she teaches an entire class to help people get comfortable with this tricky closure. In another short course, she focuses on hemming — machine hems, hand hems, skinny hems, and wide hems — because the more ways you know how to do something, the more prepared you will be when you encounter a situation or a fabric that just doesn’t work.

As garment sewing experiences a resurgence, more Islanders are discovering the rewards of this fulfilling and accessible hobby. They’re taking control of their closets and finding joy and satisfaction — one stitch at a time.

Jenn Hemmingsen is a writer, mom, and dabbler in many creative pursuits. She’s the Marketing Communications Coordinator at BARN. Contact her at jennh@bainbridgebarn.org.

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