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?