In previous postings, I’ve written about the environmental problems created by our obsession with cheap, disposable fashion (It’s time to dump disposable fashion). We’re finally realizing that we can’t keep buying and indiscriminately disposing of clothing without giving consideration to what becomes of the millions of pieces of unwanted items in landfill. As I was reading an article in the morning paper about how a designer is taking ‘vintage’ clothing and reworking the pieces into something new and fashionable, a lightbulb went off in my head. Why aren’t more people doing this, particularly the Gen Xs, Ys and Zs?
The answer is simple. The younger generations don’t know how to sew. Not only can they probably not perform simple tasks like sew on a button or hem a pair of pants, most have likely never even seen much less operated a sewing machine. Maybe it’s time to bring back “Home Ec” in schools. It would have to be given a cool twenty-first-century new gender-neutral name like “Fun With Fashion” or “Practical Personal Growth” in order to get buy-in from the selfie-obsessed Instagram set. Much as we hated those classes in the sixties, we definitely benefited from what we learned, even though I’ve never actually made an honest-to-goodness cheese soufflé (our first grade nine cooking project) in real life.
Our first sewing project in grade nine was an apron, a great starting point. We learned how to cut from a pattern, hand baste and gather material at the waist, and sew in a (reasonably) straight line. During our first year of Home Ec, we worked on manual treadle sewing machines (I’m really old). As we advanced, and the school advanced to electric machines, we learned how to do collars, buttonholes, plackets, sleeves, zippers, pockets, and other refinements to make a shirtwaist dress that incorporated the complete spectrum of our dressmaking skills. Then, we put on a fashion show in the school gym for our mothers to come and see us model our creations. Great fun.
I was so inspired by my new skills, I even did some voluntary sewing during the summer holidays in high school. My creative cousins made their own Barbie doll clothes on my Aunt Betty’s treadle machine. “Pop-tops” were all the rage in the sixties and were a snap to make. I whipped up a couple and with the left-over fabric bits, I fashioned a purse from the same material. Using an empty Kleenex box (the cardboard was much sturdier in those days), I covered it with fabric to match my pop-top, added a shoelace handle and proudly strutted my new fashion look uptown. You can imagine how I turned heads and generated smiles on Front Street from people obviously impressed with my tasteful, couture fashion statement.
I made my first wedding dress and saved a fortune. No bridezilla meltdowns involved. The dress was simple. I combined the draped sleeves from one pattern with the dress part of another pattern and added assorted lace appliqués I’d purchased at Fabric Land until I ran out of lace. My sister-in-law at the time was an expert seamstress and she inspired me to try things I might not have attempted on my own.
As I reflect on our motivation back then, it was a combination of being creative and being broke. We weren’t making much money in those days and economy was a great motivator. In the sixties and seventies, my boomer gal pals and I were always whipping up something on our little Singer sewing machines. The girls I worked with at the telephone company would turn up in stylish new outfits they’d made over the weekend and we would compare fabrics and patterns. We could produce a little skirt from a yard of material in the evening and wear it to work the next day, at a fraction of the price we would have paid for ready-made.
It seems young women today have a lot more disposable income than we did, not to mention limitless credit cards. There’s no incentive to be creative and save money at the same time. We’ve become far too affluent and we’re overloading landfill with our cast-offs that will never biodegrade. We have closets full of clothing and probably wear only fifteen or twenty percent of what we own. French women are known for owning fewer, better quality pieces and wearing them to death. There’s a lot of merit in that approach.
I still have the heavy, cast-iron beige Singer sewing machine that I purchased in 1968 but it mostly gathers dust. I’m thankful that I still have it, however, for the times when I need to make a quick alteration or repair a seam. It’s been decades since I’ve bought a pattern and fabric to make a dress or top. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think about it, though. When I look at the simplicity of Eileen Fisher clothing and the pricey cost, I still find myself fantasizing about taking some old linen curtain material and turning it into a wearable shift dress or tunic top. And I bet I’d even have enough material left over to create a matching purse.
Reworking vintage clothing just makes sense. You don’t have to make a business of it but if you could, that would be even better. Simply cutting the hems off old jeans to get the new “raw hem” look costs nothing, and I’ve done it. Adding embellishments to tired garments, trading clothes with friends and recycling old leisurewear into sleepwear also costs nothing. What about cutting old dresses down to tunics. Removing sleeves, tapering oversize sleeves, layering tired old pieces over or under more current ones has possibilities. I’m sure there are a million ways we could reduce the amount of disposable clothing that goes into landfill by reworking or reimagining pieces we already own. Tory Burch has made a fortune copying and manufacturing sixties fashion.
Imagine once again teaching young people in high school to sew their own clothing or restyle vintage clothing into something current and hip (is that even a word they would use or is the word hip vintage too?) like the designer I read about in the paper. The fashion industry is a major contributor to environmental pollution and we perpetuate it by continually hitting the malls and buying more disposable fashion. We’re all guilty.
I’ve recently made a conscious decision to limit my trips to the mall in order to reduce impulse purchases although I must confess my online habit still needs work. I’m convinced the economy and Amazon depend solely on me.
At the very least, we should start looking more at vintage and consignment shops for new purchases. In the meantime, I have no plans to get rid of my sewing machine. Who knows? Maybe I’ll pull a Scarlett O’Hara and turn those old linen curtains in the guest room into something spectacular that will turn heads and generate smiles at our Saturday night oldies dances. Do you have any ideas to share about helping to reduce, reuse, and recycle clothing?