Thursday, March 7, 2013

DIY Month: Your Starting Point

DIY gets a bad reputation sometimes. It's often associated with shoddy workmanship, poor materials, a bad fit, and all sorts of other negative things. In alternative fashion, especially, we get judged based on some impossible scale that tops out at perfection, and handmade clothing tends to fare even worse under those conditions.

But it doesn't have to.

I've been sewing since I was six (almost eighteen years!), but other people are just starting out. This month is for them, really. But, folks with experience, I want to welcome you into the discussion. Have something to add? Want to make a post of your own covering a similar topic? Join the discussion. I'd love to have you here, and I'd be proud to link to blog posts if you make them.

To start this month, I think it's best to talk about starting points. When you're making your own clothes, it's important to start somewhere, and, the way I see it, you've got three options.

1. Your fabric
Fabric is probably the best starting point. Sometimes, you'll see a fabric and have the whole idea for something pop into your head. This one happens to me all the time. I'll see a fabric on a shelf and suddenly know exactly what kind of garment it needs to be. That blue and gray small plaid over there? Clearly it needs to be a jumper, worn over a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. That cotton printed with a floral modeled after Russian folk art? It needs to be a dress with contrast trim at the neck and hem. That subtly tweedy suiting? A pair of wide-legged trousers waiting to happen.
And, once you've got your inspiration, you can go searching for the pattern. Patterns are the easiest thing to modify, really. You can draft your own. You have years and years of patterns to look through. You can modify one of those preexisting patterns.

2. Your pattern
Patterns can be a really easy starting point if you want a simpler outfit. Solid colors and basic patterns (houndstooth, plaid, stripes, etc.) are easy to find in all different styles.
Sometimes, though, finding the perfect fabric can be tough. I once wanted a simple black and white polka dotted cotton fabric for a 1950s style sundress. I found it in satin and jersey. I found bigger polka dots than I wanted and smaller polka dots than I wanted. I found it in pink and green and brown. But it took six months and sending out the message to the extended family to find just the right fabric.

3. Your concept
This is the hardest starting point, especially for beginning DIYers. It's like trying to hit a moving target from a moving platform.You have a vision in your head, and you not only need to find a pattern that works but a fabric that works, too. It's kind of maddening when this happens, but what can you do?
Well, there are several things you can do. You can sketch it and sit on the idea until you find something perfect. You can design your own fabric with companies like Spoonflower. But, I must admit, this is the hardest one because you need to have many skill sets: fabric design, sewing, pattern drafting, maybe even screen printing or applique or painting.

Personally, I find the design process to be either the easiest or the most frustrating part of a sewing project. Sometimes, you get this image in your head and spend days, weeks, or months chasing the perfect fabric or pattern to make your vision a reality.

And sometimes, sad to say, you never find it.

But other times things just fall into your lap. You're not looking for the perfect tweed suiting for a pair of wide-legged trousers, but it just happens to be on the sale rack and machine washable, for example.

The real point is that you need to start somewhere and I most recommend starting with the fabric. Wander through the fabric aisles and find something beautiful. Then, be brave and make it into something wonderful.


  1. I do this all the time when I'm browsing the aisles at JoAnn Fabrics. I'll see something wonderful and know exactly what it's mean to be.

    I had this shameful habit of often making my clothing freehand - no patterns. I know, more or less, my body measurements and I fit things to my body as I sew them.

    This was such a disastrous idea in the beginning but I think I've got it down to a science now. Granted...I would NEVER do this if I were making a garment for someone else....

    1. My mom taught me years ago how to sew, and I've only ever sewn clothing from a pattern. Except for dirndl skirts (the nice, basic, gathered ones), which are simple enough that no pattern is necessary. Sewing without a pattern takes practice and a commendable lack of fear of screwing things up.