Guest Post: Sewing and Body Image

I don’t sew, so you might wonder why I’m a daily reader of Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing. Well, THAT’S an easy one: Gertie is a fabulous writer with unique insights into personal style, body image, trends, vintage culture, and the unparalleled rewards of creating your very own garments from scratch. She’s funny, astute, kind, and fair, and her readership generates lively discussions on a daily basis. You don’t have to sew to appreciate what this powerhouse is busily creating in her warm, welcoming corner of the blogosphere.

So I begged her for a post exchange, naturally. My contribution to GNBFBS is right here, a short tutorial on incorporating vintage pieces into everyday wear. And I asked Gertie to write a little about how sewing one’s own clothing can affect body image, for better or for worse. I think you’ll find her response absolutely fascinating. I know I did.

* * * * *

In the love/hate relationship that most women have with fashion, I think one of the things topping the hate list is the problem of getting a good fit in ready-to-wear clothing. Women’s bodies are unique, often spanning the gamut of three dress sizes or more in one body. (For example: size 8 bust, size 10 waist, size 12 hips) Have you ever found yourself frustrated in a dressing room, hating your body, thinking “I wish I could sew, dammit!”?

Well, you’re not alone. Many women turn to sewing to alleviate these fit issues – with the hope of also alleviating their body image issues. I’m certainly one of them. I learned early on in my sewing adventures that I could trace different sizes of one pattern, resulting in the perfectly fitting custom-made garment. Like lots of things worth doing, sewing takes time and patience to learn, but anyone can do it. It’s my favorite way to spend my free time and nothing makes me feel better than having a perfectly fitted and lovingly constructed garment that I made myself.

As much as I would encourage everyone to learn to sew, the sad truth is that the sewing world isn’t always a feel-good land free of body judgment and self-loathing. Since lovely Sal asked me to write specifically about sewing and how it intersects with body image, I thought I’d share my main observations on the subject here.

Talking about fit issues can compound insecurities. One of the coolest things about sewing for yourself is learning how to fit clothes to your unique figure. It can also call for some brutal honesty about your body, though. Sewists need to know their exact measurements and fitting issues before starting every project, and this can sometimes serve as an all too-present reminder of the things that make our bodies different from a mannequin’s.

For example, after making a muslin (test garment) for a winter coat, one of my very astute readers pointed out that I had slightly rounded-forward shoulders, resulting in some rumpling around my upper back. I read up on this fitting issue, and learned that this is an easy problem to fix and one common in aging women. Having turned 30 last year, I started to obsess about my rounded shoulders, convinced that it would be no time at all before I found myself fitting my dresses around a dowager’s hump.

I’ve chilled out about this since then, but it’s not uncommon to hear seamstresses grousing about their fitting problems, which include huge thighs, flabby arms, flat busts, etc. Doesn’t sound too different from a fitting room in any given department store, does it? This is why I stress on my blog that we need to be kind to ourselves, not see our body quirks as defects, and remember that well-fitted garments will make us look and feel like a million bucks.

In sewing, there are no illusions of vanity sizing. Sewing patterns are actually sized on a decades-old system, meaning that a ready-to-wear size 8 is more like a 14. So be prepared for some shock when you find out your sewing pattern size! This is actually a great thing, though. Unlike store-bought clothes, sewing patterns from the major companies all have a standard sizing chart, so you don’t have to expect any wild variations from garment to garment. Additionally, each pattern piece tells you what the finished garment measurement will be. If only fashion designers would be so honest!

Sadly, the online sewing world can replicate the harsh, sizeist expectations of mainstream fashion culture. Since I’ve started writing about body image on my blog, I’ve had plus-size women speak up and say they feel uncomfortable showing off their handmade garments online. The owner of Colette Patterns, a fabulous independent sewing pattern company, wrote to me, sharing some nasty comments she got on her blog after using larger-than-average models for her designs. In another form of nasty criticism, I got several demeaning comments about my tattoos after I entered an online sewing contest last summer. In each of these instances, however, the negative voices were the minority and hundreds of commenters stood up in positive solidarity.

In general, the positive news is that the sewing community is fairly small and very welcoming, and a dialogue has been started about these issues. I definitely still stand by my earlier statement that sewing your own clothes is one of the most body image affirming things you can do for yourself.

What do you think? Do you sew for these same reasons – or have you thought about learning?

  • Meli22

    I really have been wanting to learn to sew, not so much to put together a whole new garment, but to customize those I have bought and don't work for whatever reason (hem, length, I ripped a seam, etc). I also would LOVE to buy more thrift store items and alter them to fit me.

    I like the idea that the sizing is standard with patterns! Numbers don't bother me as much as a previously perfect fitting (pants, blouse, etc) that no longer fits beacause of weight loss (my case usually because of some health issues) or weight gain. I'd like to keep myself where I am at or slightly heavier, but not much more or less than that.

  • Vanessa

    I love this, Sal! I'm so glad you did this interview– Gertie seems absolutely fantastic! I don't sew, but this was still really interesting, and I'm going to check out Gertie's blog.

  • goingungracefully

    I'm a wanna-be sewist and I have been following Gertie's blog for some time. I probably found it through you, Sal!

    Nothing in RTW truly fits me either and that is my primary motivation for wanting to learn to sew. Numbers in sizing don't bother me at all, so that doesn't worry me.

    I think that measuring myself accurately and regularly will help keep me honest about my eating and (non-existent) exercise habits.

    There are things I love about my body and things I don't love so much. That's another wonderful thing about sewing one's own clothes though! I can choose or modify patterns to show off what's great and camouflage what I'm not as thrilled about.

    Thanks for doing a guest post Gertie! I'm a big fan of both you and Sal.

  • Toby Wollin

    I originally got into sewing to make things I wanted as a teenager but since becoming a mom, I've became far more aware of RTW and its limits from making things for my daughters who are built exactly like me: short and round. The tearful scenes in dressing rooms were replaced by pretty satisfied looks in the mirror when I figured out how to copy wide legged blue jeans and tops that matched what their friends had. The girls have since moved on to their own style senses but I think going through the process of fitting and getting clothing that they wanted, in the styles that they wanted helped them build a much healthier sense of self-esteem. When you have a more sophisticated sense of style than what is available to plus sizes, being able to draft, fit and sew are really the only ways to get it. And garments that fit well make everyone look a lot better.

  • alethia

    I totally agree with your point of view. I learned to sew in the 9th grade because I love clothes and fashion. I never stop sewing; I sew because I love it. I have done quilting, home dec and sewing for family and friends. Now my primary focus is sewing for myself. Because as I got older it became more difficult for me to find acceptable fitting clothes and every time I went into the department store the frustration of not being able to find a garment that fits my body became too much. That is why sewing being able to sew for yourself is wonderful, as you said it’s not easy and you have to be patience and you will be rewarded with a garment that custom fitted to your body.

  • The Girl in the Yellow Jacket

    I LOVE that red coat. Its very stylish!

  • Diana

    I think I just found a new favorite blog. This is really making me want to get back into sewing again.

    It's very true that sewing will give you a more realistic view of your body size, which can be difficult at first to get used to. Having to cut out a pattern with a number that is several sizes larger than your ready-to-wear number can be difficult. But once you make that item perfectly fitted to your body, it's like heaven. I'm still struggling to sew items that turn out perfectly, but one day I'll get there.

  • Katie

    I adore Gertie. I came over from her blog to read this. I love how encouraging she is for us to be honest with ourselves. So often with ready to wear items we stress over the size tag instead of just being grateful for our quirks (Another benefit of sewing your own clothes… NO TAGS to stress over!=) ) I am trying to follow Gertie's lead and become more comfortable with my own body image and am so thankful to have someone like her to have as an inspiration!

  • Jane W.

    Insightful interview, and certainly reflective of my own experience as a sewer.

    I highly recommend "independent" pattern designers like Colette, Betsy Ross, and Great Copy. Their directions are often far superior to mass-produced patterns, they're often made of sturdy paper as opposed to flimsy tissue, and the designs allow for self-designed embellishments.

  • Sheila

    This makes me want to sew, but I am so hopelessly lazy. 😛 I will admire these lovely results instead.

    By the way, I love the first picture, where Gertie's tattoos are prominently displayed! Gorgeous!

  • Sarah R

    I love the idea of sewing. Time wise, not sure I will ever be able to pull it off while I still have kiddos in the house.

    I'm a plus sized girl, and I dislike most plus sized fashion. I don't want old lady tops, and I don't like short skirts. You'd think it would be easy to find a basic a-liine skirt that is knee length, and not made out of something flimsy? NO. I bought a skirt pattern and will be attempting skirts very soon. Once I master skirts, I'll be working on tops that cover both my bust and my stomach…I know, what a concept. At this rate, if I buy a shirt, I always have to wear a cami with it to cover the girls. Not so bad? Trying living in Florida in the summer. So I'm already fat, then add 102 temp with 98% humidity, a sturdy bra and two shirts. No wonder I stay inside.

    And yes, I ADORE that red coat. Gorgeous!

  • futurelint

    I love to sew and while I mostly use my skills to hem pants and skirts, I've also made myself whole dresses and skirts. I even made all the costumes for two middle-school plays which took forever and was soooo hard, and I have vowed never to sew for anyone but myself ever again! Sewing does force you to be honest about your body shape, but it's a small price to pay for a perfectly tailored outfit!

  • Liz Lefebvre

    Hi Gertie,
    I started sewing this Fall for exactly these reasons – it's hard to find nicely-fitted RTW clothes. I don't like constantly tugging at things to get them to quit riding up or riding down or bunching in awkward places. I made a pretty ugly green jacket that i absolutely LOVE, and am working on a pair of wool pants now, with darts and a zipper and a waistband and everything! It's very exciting. But my main mistake was refusing to believe the tape measurements!!! As a result, when I went to try on the pants, I was unable to bring the bum seam together! Not by a good 2 inches! Well, I told myself that "there's no WAY I have 39-inch hips. No WAY." and this is the result. I'm finishing the pants anyway, having added a little fabric to the outer hip seams (my boyfriend says I deserve better than patched pants and encourages me to start from scratch with correct measurements), but I certainly learned a lesson about trying to lie to myself about my true size.
    Why do we do this? Who on earth cares what the tape measure says?? Ladies and girls – we only punish ourselves when we lie about our size. The truth is more beautiful than a gaping bum-seam, patched pants, or too-tight clothes could ever be.
    Encouragement to you all!
    Elizabeth in Montreal, QC, Canada

  • amber

    My main motivation for picking up a machine last year was to make clothes to fit ME! While I am considered a regular misses size in RTW, I am such a typical pear shape that getting dresses from woven fabrics and most skirts/pants to fit is a nightmare. It has been so incredible being able to sew things that actually fit and not having to squeeze my body into something that is obviously not right for me.

    The upside to this has been a whole world of clothing choices that are open to me now. I've always stayed away from fitted dresses and pencil skirts because they just don't fit me in stores, but amazingly, the first straight skirt I made for myself fit like a dream! All of the sudden, I realize there are so many styles out there that might actually work for my body now that I can tailor them according to my measurements. I can't tell you what this has done for my confidence in clothing. :)

    While I know there are some negative nellies in the sewing community, it seems as though the vast majority of people are lovely and supportive, much more so than the fashion and design world, or so it seems.

  • The Cupcake Goddess

    Thanks for these fabulous thoughts on sewing! I'm a home seamstress and I love to sew so much. I love being able to fit and sew for the issues I have with my body. I feel like a millions dollars when I get it right and I have a beautiful garment that will last me a long time and will be classic and chic for years to come.
    As a side note, I simply cannot believe that Sarai of Colette Patterns would be getting negative comments about the models she used for her latest line of sewing patterns. They are gorgeous and the way they modeled the patterns are lovely. After all the work that goes into a huge project like that I can't believe that someone would actually have the audacity to minimize it in any negative way. That is so sad. She has gorgeous patterns and they are wonderful to sew with. I highly recommend them and their beauty to anyone!
    Wonderful guest blog!

  • ninaluna99

    Thank you Gertie! I'm attracted to sewing for many of the same reasons – looking to fit and accentuate the good parts of an actual body and wanting clothes with more womanly/vintage silhouettes.

    Unfortunately I'm at the sewing level where my garments still fit a little wonky. (I can't walk too fast today or my skirt will ride up.) And I still lie to myself when taking my measurements…

    Until I can get Tim Gunn over for a tutorial, I'm following Gertie and hoping she'll show me the way!

    And thank you for showing the tattoos!

  • a little sewing on the side

    I sew for the love of sewing. And if I didn't sew, I would be stuck wearing an ill-fitting Lands' End wardrobe.

    Learning how my body is shaped and accepting my own body is one part of the equation. Deciding what I want to wear (exercising my creative muscle) is another big part. The other piece is actually making the garment. All of this comes together in a wonderful process that has done wonders for my self confidence.

  • spottedroo

    Like Gertie, I've had a mixed experience with sewing and body image. When I first started sewing (a little over a year ago) it made me feel *great* about my body. Being able to produce garments with the perfect fit, color, and style was so rewarding. Without the constant tug off ill-fitting pants to remind me that I wasn't a standard shape I thought much less about my body and consequently felt great. As I continued to sew, read, and post, however, I found the constant looking at images and thinking about fit became unhealthy. If I didn't get much response to a garment I wondered if the problem was my figure. I like to show my garments on me, since that's who they were designed for, but posting a picture of yourself can be nerve-wracking and make you feel very exposed. (Especially for someone who is generally shy and not particularly fashion-conscious.) The other day I reminded myself in a post that I feel best when I dress in an outfit that is most explicitly *not* about trying to look good for other people. I still love to sew but it is not a cure-all. The best way for me to feel good about my body is to feel good about myself as a whole.

  • Charlotte

    I love to sew, and did more of it before I started thrifting so much–now it's simply cheaper and easier to buy a thrift-store garment. Mostly now, I find myself cutting long skirts off and making them into shorter ones, taking garments in, etc. I once remade a size 2x blouse that I loved into one that fit me. And I'll sometimes take super-sized thrifted garments and use them for the fabric. My fabric stash is huge, though. Beautiful fabric is hard to resist.

  • Nancy K

    Clothes that fit are the new black! I agree, that you have to learn to look ruthlessly and honestly at your body to get clothes that fit well. But the process will get you clothes that flatter the body you have instead of showcasing it's flaws as rtw so often does. I look at the fitting process as trying on lots of clothes but with a much better outcome. When you start out with your measurements, you don't have thr angst that comes from trying on 10 pairs of pants in the same size that each fit differently with some that don't fit at all.

  • Lauriana

    I'm definately with Gertie on the sewing-and-body-image point! I think the lack of vanity sizing in sewing patterns may put off some beginners, but then again, it should just make it easier to ignore the number. I've been drafting my own patterns for about two years. This, once again, takes extra time but it means fitting problems just disappear altogether. Being skinny, I sometimes get comments on my blog ( saying that I'm model shaped, so I could wear anything. I'm certainly not model-shaped. Sewing, pattern making and careful posing just give me a hell of a lot of room for cheating.

  • centrallyisolated

    It is definitely tricky sometimes to find the line between identifying ways that your body is different from the pattern so that you can make clothes look better, and identifying how your body is different so that you can beat up on yourself.

    I recently did a 3D body scan as part of a research project at the apparel design school on my campus. It was really cool, but also gave me lots of material for potentially negative obsessions. Turns out, for example, that my thigh circumference is larger relative to my other measurements (which I suspected already), but is also larger than my partner's thigh measurement, and he's a 6'6" guy! While I know intellectually that 1) bodies are just really different, and 2) it's easy to adjust the thighs on a pattern, I have to admit that this did get me down for few days.

    Overall, though, I think sewing is great for my own body image. Sometimes when I look at the incredibly small differences between one size to the next, I wonder why I ever stressed about going up or down a size.

  • Meg

    just a little story about being hyper critical…my arms have not seen the sun for a few years now, having caught sight in a shop window one day, i decided my elbows were to saggy and the tops of my arms spread waaayyy to much! fast forward to 40 (i am getting older and bolder!) and i wanted to make a pretty singlet top embellished with doilies. each time i have worn it out, have recieved heaps of compliments on how nice the top looks…and not one person has told me i have saggy elbows or my arms spread to far!
    PS. love your tattoos 😉

  • j.p.

    Ooh, how exciting! I just started sewing again not even a month ago; I hadn't sewn since high school. I am loving it again, though I am making frustrating first timer mistakes all over again! (Making note so as to only make them once…hopefully.)

    My Reasons for sewing:
    1) I feel my wardrobe is sorely lacking in skirts and dresses, and I simply cannot find what I am looking for in stores (mostly) — in any kind of store. I have found my basic desires in patterns and am altering from there.
    2) I have felt the need to put my hand to something creative and to spend some time "doing" something that results in an artistic result; without this, my "doing" usually results in one more spreadsheet or financial plan, blahhh.
    3) I want to "own" a craft, become proficient in something that takes time, heart, head, patience, skill, persistence, etc. Something that can be used to develop character in me. Sewing is what I have chosen to pursue.

    Thanks, Gals, what a post.

  • Meg

    What a great post. Yes, I got into sewing because I have an awful time finding garments that fit. My first few attempts were failures, which I have now realized was because I wasn't being honest about my body. I thought I could make them to fit my high school figure, not my 30 year old self. 40 pounds and 13 years will change a body! I was shocked when I realized I was an 18 on top and 14-16 on bottom in sewing patterns. I have a renewed interest in making garments that truly fit, and spend last night adjusting two dresses to fit my bust and back and height. I also am going to start blogging again to document the process, I really want to be part of the online sewing community.

  • nancy

    Thanks for highlighting one of my favorite vintage seamstresses on your blog, Sal! I love the sentiment behind your blog title, and I enjoyed your guest post on Gertie's blog.

    Gertie-Girl, you know I sew because I aspire to be as talented at fitting as you are! LOL.

    Seriously, I completely agree with your point about sewing your own clothes making you more self-conscious about your body. My body has changed radically since I entered my 40's, and I've suddenly found body image issues I never had before. Measuring yourself (literally) against patterns on a weekly basis can mess with your head if you don't slow down and be kind to yourself.

    Reading your body image & sewing posts have been a huge help in this department, and I love the discussions that ensue on your blog!

    And your tats are beautiful. 'Nuff said.

  • Kelly

    I REALLY need to know how to sew. My torso is a nightmare to fit so I often just resort to ill-fitting stretchy knits. It works alright, but it's not ideal, and I've become too frustrated the few times I've tried to sew that I've given up. But I need to buckle down and take a class because this author looks SMOKIN in her custom dress.

  • AsianCajuns (Lauren)

    Gertie and Sal, thanks so much for this post! I have actually been thinking about learning how to sew for these exact reasons that you mention. I'm a petite person and finding things that fit (especially height-wise) is always a challenge- and I hate when people suggest shopping in the kids section- urgh. I'm not sure if I have the patience for sewing, but I'm going to get inspired by visitng Gertie's blog now! Thanks you two!

  • Candice Virginia

    First, I chuckled out loud when I read the part about discovering your pattern size–this is so true!

    This is a wonderful post. I recently started reading your blog and I enjoy it so much. I am relatively new to the sewing world and I love feeling like I have a little moral support online, if only by reading your posts documenting the successes and frustrations you experience.

    For me, sewing is something that did not come naturally. I have never been a work-with-your-hands type; I have always shied away from art classes, sewing class and so forth, even though I respect artists immensely.

    I come from a family of seamstresses. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother all make/made their living via their craft. I grew up watching my mom teach sewing classes late into the night. She is a dedicated woman who always has time to help others learn. I watched her turn to sewing when everything else in her life was sad and painful.

    Sewing was not natural for me because I did not excel at it from the beginning. But I asked a lot of questions for many years; I watched and learned and thought–a lot– about learning to sew.

    And now here I am. I have a wonderful sewing machine (a Bernina 1080) that sits beside me on my work table/desk and waits for the times when I can switch off the computer screen and roll over to pick up where I left off.

    So for me, sewing is almost an emotional experience. When I am sewing, I feel a strong tie to the women in my family who did the very same thing, all those years ago. A girl's sewing machine can be one of her best friends; I know mine is.

  • Michael McGraw Photography

    I am quite envious of those who can sew. The pictures here look awesome.

    I want to sew luggage.

    It would also be nice to be able to visualize how a flat pattern translates to 3-dimensions.

  • Elaine

    This was a great post! Makes me want to sew more.

  • vampfan30

    I am actually just learning to sew…right now, all I can do is alter pants, jeans, etc; which for me is a good thing considering I'm under 5 feet tall & clothes are a pain & then some to come by. But sewing plus the Goodwill is certainly a blessing!

    is that you in the awesome blue dress? fab color & the tats are great,too ! Just got my third on last weekend…


  • Vix

    I'm another non-sewer who enjoys the photos and discussions on Gertie's blog.

    I think sewing blogs often have a wealth of info about fit, construction, fabric choices, and proportion, all of which are certainly useful for those buying RTW. Especially those of us who seem to spend a big chunk of our clothing budget at the tailor/seamstress.

    Because I know what proportion/shape tricks I want, I actually cheat and pay to have stuff made or customized by certain local boutiques who do in-house production for about the same price point as bridge lines or upper-end mall stores. So not cheap, but not completely out-of-reach for many people's budgets. I've gotten a few friends hooked on the process, too.

    Paying for labor does mean I have a pretty small wardrobe, though–I admit I envy the sewers I follow for their quantity of well-fitting clothes! [Of course I don't spend on fabric stashes, ha.]

    I know I'm definitely spoiled by having the above option, but there are other ways to reach out to people who have the skill to create what *you* envision!

  • brocadegoddess

    I've been sewing like a maniac for almost 14 years ago, having started when I was 18 (go ahead, do the math). Funnily enough, my reason for starting had nothing to do with fit, and everything to do with fun, being quirky (I went to university for art), and being economical (even now one of my fave places to fabric shop is thrift stores).

    And it wasn't until I started paying closer attention some years ago to the fit of the clothing I made that I realized how poorly RTW fit me! This, in turn, was precipitated by the first person to ask me if I'd made what I was wearing because it fit so perfectly.

    Now, fit, quality, and of course beauty, are the driving forces behind my sewing.

    When I first started, I too was shocked by the size numbering (and vintage patterns are even worse – a 27-28" waist = sz 16 in the 40s/50s!). But for a long time now, my thinking has simply been in sewing pattern sizes, I'm completely lost now when it comes to RTW sizing!

    Really nothing beats great fit, and everyone will notice. They may not all understand why you look so fabulous, but they'll sure see that you do look fabulous!

  • Amy

    Great post! I agree that sewing definitely makes you take a realistic look at your figure; I so shocked at my "standard sewing size" when I first measured myself up, but even making up a muslin of a simple shift dress, I could see how much better the fit was with a few tweaks!

  • The Raisin Girl

    I've tried to sew…and I can do a few very simple things, but I'm one of those people who has to have things SHOWN to them, so I can't just read a book or watch a video even, and figure it out. As a result, about all I can do is simply t-shirt reconstruction, inexpert hemming, and button-replacement. I'd love to learn more, though, because sometimes I really just want something that isn't in my size, or that would almost fit me right if something were changed.

    • Jen C

      I’m in same boat, but I’m dead set on making clothes from start to finish with a pattern so I went on craigs list and got a teacher, she’s not the best, but was the cheapest around so that way I could afford go twice a week, but so far I had toss the first dress I made and now I’m working on something else with her and praying this time she can help me make it wearable.

  • The Waves

    I think that the world of ready-to-wear clothes (especially the cheap highstreet brands) have really changed to way people (don't) recognise "fit". For a lot of people out there, a piece of clothing that does not fit is a sign of them having the wrong kind of body, whereas in fact it is the piece of clothing that ought to be blamed. With ready-to-wear, clothes come first, body second.

    For me, sewing is a great way to create unique clothes that become very dear to me because of all the effort that goes in, but it does take some courage to get face to face with the measuring tape at times. All in all though, I think sewing is all about putting body first, clothes second. :)

  • GirlNextDoorVintage

    Great post! I can't believe people would be so awful as to criticize people's bodies, tattoos, or whatever online. I know it happens all the time, but it just seems so ridiculous to me! For me at least, posting images of myself online is so nerve wracking, even though for the most part I think I have a pretty good self-image. How could anyone who's felt that nervousness criticize someone else who was brave enough to post their pictures?

    And for the record, your tattoos are awesome!

  • Dara Chadwick

    I LOVED this post! My mother sewed and made just about every formal dress I ever wore — including my wedding gown. She could make anything fit my five-foot frame.

    The downside is that I never learned to sew, partially — I think — because I didn't think I could compete. She's been gone almost seven years now and the three machines I own — hers, my husband's grandmother's and the beginner Brother machine my mom once bought me when I said I wanted to learn are calling to me. I've been thinking about it more and more lately and reading this post may have been just enough to make me break out one of my machines.

    I can sew straight edges — pillows, etc. — but I'm lost when it comes to patterns and can't imagine actually fitting something to my own body. It's making me break out in a sweat just thinking about it ;-).

    Any advice for the best place for a novice to start with patterns?

    Thanks for this great post!

  • atomicliving

    Great post and wonderful insight. I only really began sewing last year, when I traveled to 1955, and since have made myself skirts, tops, dresses, and even my first dress without a pattern but my own design. Though my sewing is still very basic, I recently found my dream machine (the 1959 Singer 500 "Rocketeer")and as soon as that arrives, look out! Great guest post, great blog, wonderful. And, it is odd yet not surprising how the anonymity of the Internet allows people to be rather rude and forget themselves.

  • Steph

    I've been sewing off and on since I was a teen, mostly focusing on historical costumes rather than everyday clothes. The investment in patterns, fabric, time, etc. just didn't seem to be worth it when I was younger since ready to wear clothes are so much less expensive and for a long time I didn't have too many fit issues. Lately I've been bored by the ready to wear styles available, mostly in dresses, as well as by the lack of availability in larger petite sizes for dresses, so I've started sewing everyday clothes as well as costumes. The thing I've noticed is that finding the correct size in a pattern can be more difficult than shopping for ready to wear items. So many people swear that vanity sizing is absent from the home sewing pattern industry, but I've found the opposite to be true. I wear a size 12/14 ready to wear, and based on my measurements, I should be using size 18 patterns. But when I've made up muslins in that size for dresses, they swim on me and I've ended up having to recut them to between size 14 and 16. It's frustrating. So anyone who's interested in getting into sewing should be aware that making test muslins for a pattern you've never used before is a MUST. You may find yourself using one size for one part of your body and another size for another part of your body.
    My advice is that if you're working with a pattern you think you'll use again be sure to mark what sizes you ended up using for each pattern piece.
    And yes, the necessity of confronting your body's unique shape, contours, and sizes is a constant reminder of your imperfections. And that can be really tough to handle. You just have to push past the bad feelings, acknowledge and own your imperfections, remind yourself that no one is perfect, and remember that once you're done with a project, you'll have a garment that fits your imperfect body perfectly and makes you look and feel fab! The satisfaction of that alone can make up for the fitting trauma that comes before.
    There are tons of online sewing resources out there that anyone sewing their own clothes should check out. My favorite is, a tremendously useful comprehensive pattern review site that also offers online classes, tips, and tricks. It's been a boon to read other sewists' experiences with patterns I'm interested in using.

  • Casey

    Bravo, Gertie (and thanks Sal for having her guest post!)!! Love this article; you echo so many of the thoughts I have on sewing and body image. I know that for me, I feel like sewing has helped alleviate some of the issues I had with myself when I relied more often on what the shops had. It's a great feeling of empowerment not only to be able to cloth myself in custom sized pieces that truly flatter and fit, but also an exercise in sartorial creativity! 😉

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  • fleur_delicious

    I started sewing because I'm handy and I love to make things. It's a hobby that also feeds my love of clothing, textiles, and embellishment – it's perfect!

    I also find that if I am making the garment, I can be certain that it is well made, that seams and hems are finished with care and that garments are made to last. This seems important; it's the anti-fast-fashion.

    Thirdly, sewing for yourself means you know what things are made of. Polyester and nylon make me sweaty. So I only make natural-fiber clothing.

    Finally, I find that making my own clothes CAN actually be cheaper than buying RTW. A few caveats here: First, I wait for the really GOOD clerance sales at my favorite online discount fabric store and then stock up. Vera Wang Lavender Label lambswool flannel at $2 a yard? Yes, please! I buy $35 at a time (enough to get free shipping at, and focus on getting large cuts (3-6 yards) of a few things only, so that whatever pieces are in my stash are large enough to give me some flexibility. I do this a couple times a year (for Christmas/birthday, a family member will frequently get this small tab) so I'm sitting on a decent stash of quality materials and can pick and choose to make what I want as mood strikes. This seems important – room for inspiration!

    The second caveat is time. In 15 minutes, I could spend hundreds at J.Crew or Anthropologie's websites – click, click, click, I'm broke. But I'm kind of a slow sewer. I can fill several weekday evenings carefully ironing, pinning, cutting, stitching – just to make one garment. It definitely slows the pace of the process of consumption, which does save me money in the long run.

  • k-k

    Thanks, Gertie, for your always lovely insights, and thank you, Sally, for inviting this conversation to your blog!

    I would like to echo what Gertie was saying about sewing being a body image affirming activity: I started to sew my own clothes when I was recovering from an eating disorder, and it was a significant part of my recovery process. I usually "hacked" thrift store finds to fit my body, so I didn't have to worry about numbers and sizes…if it fit, it fit! Everything I make is a size "me."

    Sewing also helped me develop my own sense of personality through style. I didn't feel pressure to look like everyone else because with my unique style, I couldn't look like everyone else…and didn't want to!

  • Rad_in_Broolyn

    Love this post! I'm slowly teaching myself how to sew with a second hand, very old Singer I purchased on ebay. I used to hand sew really ratty costumes for myself when I was a little girl and I miss it. There's so much to learn but it's very exciting. Plus, while I support economic development opportunities in the "Global South," it's nice to know the conditions that the clothes you wear are made under. It's kind of radical to challenge the dominant idea that it's a "waste of time" to make your own clothes. I
    How adorable and amazing is Gertie? She looks amazing. And I wish I could see models like the ones for that pattern site (the ones that were so controversial? For what, being attractive?) more often. How inspiring!

  • Marley

    What a fantastic post! My mother is an excellent seamstress, and when I was a lucky schoolgirl, she sewed quite a bit for me (including one gorgeous prom dress!). I wish I had her skills. And I REALLY want a dress like the one in the last picture!!

  • A-C

    I actually would love to sew my own clothes. I grew up with my mom sewing a lot so I know the basics of fitting a pattern together. What I need though is a sewing machine. Gertie, do you know of a good, not expensive starter machine that would work for a while?

  • thecadaver

    Ready to wear clothes frustrate me incredibly. As a teenager with a rather exaggerated hour glass figure it's impossible to find anything that fits in stores aimed at my age group, and while shopping in the general women's section isn't horrible, occasionally I just really want to wear what's in fashion for my age.
    I'm yet to make a piece of clothing from scratch, but I frequent thrift stores and cheap clothes outlets and alter them to fit me properly. While there's a great sense of achievement when you put on a finished garment to find it fits you perfectly, nothing feels better than ripping out the sizing label.

  • Klik

    My thoughts about my own body have changed dramatically since I started sewing clothing, instead of just quilts. I had reached a place where I thought my body was “okay,” after dropping a freshman 30 that I couldn’t really afford to add in the first place, but I was still continually frustrated trying to buy clothing that fit. My hips measure three sizes larger than my bust, so sheath dresses were out of the question and pencil skirts were always ridiculously large at the waist. Having success in making such pieces for myself (including a Halloween costume partially inspired by Gertie’s own Joan dresses) has helped me realize that a store’s inability to design for my shape is their problem, not mine. I am a pear, and if I lost another 30 pounds I would just be a smaller pear. Either way I can now wear clothing that fits my hips properly and emphasizes my tiny waist.

    I like that the pattern sizing is so very far off of retail sizing – I feel like I’m just dealing with abstract numbers, instead of a baggage-laden marker of self-worth. New sewers need to be careful though and actually take measurements before picking up a pattern. You won’t be the size you think you should be, and different sizes are packaged in different envelopes. Also make sure you are taking those measurements correctly – I have twice made a garment several sizes too big because someone (me) or other (my sister) measured their bust incorrectly.

  • kristophine

    This is a wonderful post! The issue of different sizes for different portions of my body has been driving me nuts for ages, and if my boyfriend had a nickel for every time I've shaken a fist in the general direction of clothing manufacturers for not using a based-in-reality measurement (like men's pants sizes? HOW HARD IS THAT? Seriously?), he'd have an awful lot of nickels.

    I learned to sew a little when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism as a teenager, and I loved it. Making my own corsets gave me the ability to make them just how I wanted them, and wearing my own hand-made corsets made me feel beautiful. I haven't sewed much in the last few years–grad school has sucked my free time like I never imagined possible (case in point: it's 11:33 pm and I just finished my homework/grading/experiment prep), but I keep planning and starting projects, and I have hopes I'll get back to it once I graduate and have a steady job.

    I hope most people have the sense to see plus-size sewing for what it is: freaking awesome. The fashion industry often fails plus-size women, and making one's own clothes is like a strike back at the evil empire.

  • TeeMcBee

    Living in Ohio with challenged retail, being plus sized in addition to being an Image Consultant – I deal with this issue everyday. Body Image #1, helping women kick the habit of all black wardrobes #2 while Streamlining Your Daily Routine ™ to easily manage a consistent Personal Style Recipe #3.
    I don't sew and really don't have time or patience for it – BUT I have great relationship with an outstanding DressMaker! That secret weapon has been the key to having off the rack items tweaked to fit and I've taken a few key pieces and she has duplicated in my power colors and adjusted the details exactly as I perfer. So I love women who sew! Its been a life saver – for my pleasantly plump curves.

    Looking my best in Ohio,
    TeeMcBee Image Consulting

  • mimi o

    For me…I sew because, pretty much, anything RTW does not fit me. I'm lucky to find jeans that will be long enough after washing several times to fit my ridiculously long legs. Being 5'10" creates some definite fit issues. I shy away from trying things on in the store because I know for the most part they won't be long enough. Also if I buy for my waist size the hips are way to big and baggy. Nothing ever really fits. There is tall clothing available out there but unfortunately you pay the price for getting those extra few inches. That is why I have sewn for myself and I was very lucky to have a great teacher, my Mom, who showed me the way.

  • Anna

    There are ways to work around being overly conscious of your body shape when sewing.

    Measure in centimeters if you're used to inches, or inches if you're used to centimeters (you will have no idea of what is "good" or what is "bad").

    With these measurements, you can either buy patterns that use those other measurements (Marfy, for example, uses centimeters to designate size- a plus to this is that size 40 is also pretty meaningless if you're used to worrying over American sizes), or you can draft your own patterns. I recommend the latter if possible because the results fit much better than commercial patterns. You won't want to use a commercial pattern, let alone buy RTW clothing!

  • Jen C

    I’m a beginner sewer, nothing I’ve made has been wearable yet unless you count an apron. I own about 300 patterns though so I guess I have faith that I’ll get there, I’m addicted to patterns both old and new and anything with a retro pin up flair, started when I found some old sewing patterns of my mom’s from the 60s, now I’m in middle of trying to make a 1964 cocktail dress wondering if I should keep it true to the era and leave the boob darts the way they are, which I think will make the boobs sorta pointy or do I try to modernize it, haven’t decided yet. My first dress got really screwed up and is unwearable and that was making it partly with a teacher, I go twice a week for lessons and I’m still having trouble. I’m dying to make a million things though so I have no plans to give up and luckily own not one, but two seam rippers as those darn tiny things have a knack for rolling away and disappearing. I also had fit problems, but unlike most women my problem is being too thin or boyish type figure. My hips actually indented and went inward instead of outward and I used be able take pants on and off without undoing the zipper. I had to go to Mexico to get injections of a permanent filler to try look more like a normal woman. I was mistaken for a boy many times when younger. I look better now, but my hips still barely make a size 0, I can buy tops from places like J Crew, but never the darn pants, one day I hope to be able to sew pants, which I hear is hard and right now dresses are hard enuf so I guess it will be quite a while, but I sure need some pants. I’m stuck wearing juniors pants in like size 1/25 or 26 still despite being near middle age. So I do eventually want get back to Mexico to get just tad more filling of the hips so yes while I still don’t have them where I want them to be, my sewing is a constant annoying reminder of how much I hate them, but I figure by time I get good at it, maybe then I can get the time and money to go back to try get a bit more filler and try make them proportional to the rest of me. I think I have figured out that my vintage pattern size is a bust 32 and the hips that go with that are pretty small so I’m not really seeing a need to mix sizes and so far with new patterns tend to need cut whatever is the smallest size or around a 6 or 8, maybe if a pattern has a 4 it might actually be too small for me, who knows, but mostly I think I tend to be whatever the smallest size is and so I’m just really happy that I made it into the misses patterns and am not stuck buying only retro patterns that were plentiful for slendar builds or juniors type patterns. Being that there are a million size 32 vintage patterns, well, I have a crazy amount of them for someone who really can’t sew well yet. So anyway, that’s my story, too big or too small or whatever you are sometimes you just think that sewing your own clothes will solve that problem, but it takes time. As much as the vintage patterns come small, I found when looking for vintage clothes, oddly enough it was always too big and the fabric was too old and frumpy so I figured too that if I wanted to do a retro look I was gonna have to learn to sew. The prices for frumpy , stained old clothes at vintage stores was off putting as well. But I plan to wear anything I like both old and new, I also kinda like quirky novelty prints, polka dots, etc. I’m working on my first jersey dress with a polyester bright pop orange sherbert and turquoise squares with dress forms and people that don’t sew think it’s bottles, oh well, but they are dress forms. Already the arm hole seams are all puckered and need some redoing and I think the bodice top has ended up a bit too short or tight at the neck line and seems be riding a bit high is supposed sit a bit below the collar bone, but I feel like this is going over the collar bone like one them really high 60s dresses. But if the darn thing ends up wearable, and is still really cute and different, then I’ll be happy.