Lockdown saw thousands of people start making their own clothes – a movement that was born out of creativity and conscious consumption.
My foot is tensely hovering over the pedal of my sewing machine. I’m carefully working my way through the sew-it yourself kit from Pattern Project, a “microfactory startup” in south London. It is the first company to use laser cutting technology to cut patterns quickly and efficiently. I have cut the pieces to make the drop-sleeve dress. The laser whizzes across the Irish linen and scorches faint seam guides into my fabric. This helps me know where to sew.
Shruti Grover (34), and Simon Johnson (35), founders of Pattern Project, are looking for funding to open their first shop. Grover describes it as a “22nd century” vision of fashion. It will not stock any clothes, but it will sell custom-fit clothing made from local, ethical, and sustainable fabrics. The clothes are then sewn by Grover.
They collaborated already on a zero waste pattern for Phoebe English’s latest collection, and they also exhibited last weekend at the V&A in west London as part the London Design festival.
Pattern Project is at the cutting edge of a make-your-own-clothes revival, but it is not the only business facilitating home-sewn fashion. Covid was the catalyst. Michael Jones, of Merchant & Associates says that six weeks of sales were achieved in one day. Mills sells everything you need, including patterns, fabric and tools. You can also make your own tutorials with the online tutorials. 18 months later, sales are still 50% higher than they were before the pandemic.
The sew-it yourself (SIY), movement has evolved from its old, hobbyist image to something more modern, social, and sustainable. Sewers are now called “sewists”, as they can be mistakenly thought of as waste pipes. It is easy to find current patterns, available in pdf format, from independent pattern-makers around the globe thanks to a new wave.
“When I tell people I make my own clothes, they look on me like: ‘Oh you poor thing’,” says Leila D’Angelo, a 34 year-old insurance broker, who reassembled her sewing machine after the English lockdown. “Then, I bring in a bustier gown and they are like: “Sorry. What? “That’s not what was expected.”
Jones says that the new customers are mostly young and mostly female, who are against fast fashion and more concerned about environmental issues. Many people are motivated to sew as it allows them to avoid sweatshop production. Lydia Morrow, 25, a Glasgow-based sewing blogger who shares microtutorials via Instagram Stories, says “A lot people are clear that cutting is where the exploitation occurs. I can cut it out now.”
Newbie sewists have plenty of support. The Fashion District festival, a five-day celebration of sustainable fashion that took place last week in Stratford, east London, dedicated a third of this year’s programme to maker workshops, including a tutorial on upcycling scarves into kimonos, hosted by the community interest company Trashion Factory. Helen Lax, festival founder, says that there is a lot of interest in people being involved in their own fashion. This is a new way to live the good life. The maker community is not content with following a set pattern. They are open to trying new things and going off-grid. It’s all about having the ability to control your own style.
The face mask was an important tool for many sewers. Lydia Higginson founded Made My Wardrobe sewing kits after she saw a need for 500 cloth masks at a homeless charity. She says, “It was a quick victory – the perfect little challenge to get people back onto their machines.” “And then they were like, ‘What else can you make?’
Mail-order sewing kits are the new standard in the industry. They come with a pattern, sustainable fabric, and the promise that they will be clean. This is a hand to help novice sewists navigate the difficult process of making dresses. Made My Wardrobe has sold over 20,000 dungarees patterns and kits since their launch two years ago. They also offer kits for underwear, period trousers and swimwear made with recycled denim and fishing yarn (in UK sizes 6-24). Made My Wardrobe or Pattern Project have “sew-along” video tutorials for those who are stuck.
While you will find only British and European organic fabrics at Pattern Project (as well as an Italian polyamide that they claim will biodegrade about five years after disposal), the bigger fashion problem it wants to solve is overstock. Overstock is the biggest fashion problem. It is estimated that 20% of the 100 billion items of clothing each year aren’t sold. They are usually buried, shredded, or burned. Grover says that brands always order more. Grover says that it’s more cost-effective to produce more stuff and sell it at crazy discounts later than to make less quality stuff. Pattern Project’s ultimate goal to have its zero-waste laser installed in fashion shops and haberdasheries all across the country is to allow clothes to be cut and sewn quickly and affordably.
Atia Azmi (38), a GP, is a host of the un:CUT Podcast. According to Fixing Fashion 2019, “as high as 15%” of fabric could end up on the cutting floor. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric were wasted in the design and production stages before it reaches the customer.
The agenda of the sewists is to reduce “fashion miles”, which refers to the distance that a garment and its components travel through the supply chain. Joss Whipple, its co-founder, said that the new .Mend Assembly . in Totnes, Devon was a two-storey center offering a maker’s space, repair workshops and upcycling.
As well as utilising “existing waste streams” (upcycling old sweatshirts into kids’ leggings, say), Mend Assembly hopes to work with the regenerative “farm-to-clothing” concept of the non-profit group .Fibershed, whereby local demand for clothing is met by using local, natural fibres in a closed loop. Mend Assembly’s website states that clothing that is aligned to local practice will lead to a reduction in carbon and transport, as well as a deeper connection, respect, and care for the clothes we wear.
This connection is evident to all those involved in the maker community. “When you wear something that you made, not for a second are you unaware of it,” says d’Angelo. “Every time I look down I think about the mistakes that I made and how I saved it, and I feel filled with pride. This is the pinnacle of conscious consumption.”
The Pattern Project dress took me four hours to make, while a professional could do it in one hour. I gained a new appreciation for the skill and craftsmanship of the millions of garment workers all over the globe. Azmi says, “The more you do for yourself, you realize how much time and effort it takes – and how expensive it is on the high street compared to how long it takes. Cost has reduced the value that people attach to fashion.”
D’Angelo is a self-confessed “mile a minute person”, and sewing is “the only thing that allows me to slow down and allow my body to relax.” Morrow, who made half her clothing, said that it felt so empowering to create from scratch an extension who she is. For Azmi, it’s about the morale boost that comes from perfecting the fit. “I am 5ft 2in [1.57m] tall, so clothes often don’t fit me right or are too long. They can be tailored exactly how I want them or matched to a hijab or made longer sleeves. It makes me feel more confident when it fits properly.”
D’Angelo suggests following the hashtags #sewfrosting and #indiepatterns on Instagram to get involved. There will be monthly challenges that are loosely related to a theme. But the ultimate challenge is sewing your entire wardrobe. Working towards an 80:20 ratio of handmade to bought clothes, d’Angelo challenged herself this summer to make a 15-piece holiday wardrobe. Sewing right up until the last second, she says she felt like “a capable person in a world spinning out of control”. Research trips have replaced shopping sprees. Instead of asking “Should I buy that?” she asks “Could you make it?” She replies: “If it takes me five hours to make it, am I really going to want it?”
I walked out of Pattern Project in a perfect fitting dress in the exact colour I had chosen. The cost of the kit was 60 Pounds. I am now wondering: “What should I make next?”