Why I truly, madly, desperately want to learn how to sew my own clothes

Today I microwaved a microwaveable plate that my mother gave me and it exploded. Nobody was hurt – because it was within the microwave and the microwave is not a person – but I wondered whether it was a sign that my day was going to be terrible. I often unconsciously look for such signs, find them and then go through a step-by-step mantra to remind myself that I am not a superstitious person and these signs cannot impact my day. Also they are not signs. Stop calling them that.

But my day has been terrible.

My first thought upon seeing the shattered china was, “can I fix this?” (I’ve been watching a lot of DIY videos) My brain then bypassed its knowledge of the existence of gorilla glue and thought, “No, a needle and thread can’t go through china.” I spent a good minute just standing there trying to interpret my mangled thoughts.

I want to sew something so bad. I was biting down on my pancakes after the plate incident. And I eat pancakes with my hands because nomnomnom and I also fold them over so I can bite into two layers at once. So I was biting my half moon pancake shape in even noms across the curved circumference and, as I get to the fold, I tell myself, “no I shouldn’t cut along the fold”. I stared at my nibbled half moon thinking, “I could use this as a pattern and eat another pancake then sew them together to make a pancake shirt.”

Now, I could have hand-stitched something to scratch the itch but no, I want a sewing machine. I want to press the foot pedal and feed material in and cut stuff and make patterns. I’ve been watching all the sewing channels on YouTube and mentally masturbating for weeks now. WEEKS!I have “projects” I wish to make. And not crop tops from normal tops either. Actual fancy clothing that will go on my body.

I de-cluttered my wardrobe a few weeks ago leaving only clothes that fit my current style and body and removing some items I have owned at least since I was 17. Now I look at those items and think of how to better them.

How do I better this item?

Me

But where did this urge come from? Eco-conscious millennials? DIY Queens? Slow Fashion enthusiasts? The vintage thrifty secondhand folk? Cosplayers? I mean it’s probably a combination but most likely my mother. And the clothing industry… my relationship with my body. A lot of things really.

My Mother

Picture it. My mummy, hunched over her sewing machine, a tape measure around her neck, gently feeding fabric into a noisy sewing machine. When I was little, she used my desk as her machine station. The floor would be strewn with bits of scrap fabric and frayed thread. I would then be given a mockup of a kameez or some trousers with poky pins where seams normally would be. I’d try it on, get poked, take it off, watch cartoons, try it on again and so on.

My mother made a lot of my clothes when I was young. And I helped her design a few of them or went fabric shopping with her to pick out things I liked. Any clothes I liked she would make copies of so that I had a wardrobe that fit my body perfectly (more on that later). I learned a lot about sewing and what was possible. I learned to identify fabrics as I was shopping and their quality. But I was an impatient child and never actually had much interest in sewing itself. I tried once and, together, we cut fabric for a dress, but I never ended up sewing it.

Honestly, it’s now quite embarrassing how impatient I was with my mother. I didn’t always happily leave my cartoons to try on a poky mockup. I often wanted the more expensive store-bought clothes and hated when my mother said she could make me the same thing. She would make me something similar but this was before people could take a snap on their phones and find near identical tutorials online. She did it all by eye and from memory. And she made a lot of clothes that were not what she was used to making. She was used to making traditional Pakistani clothes and yet she went out of her way to make me frocks and bell-bottom trousers (in the 90s, yes, what of it?) And the worst part is that she recently told me how bad she feels that she wasn’t able to pass on her knowledge to me. So yeah, I’m awful.

In hindsight, I was so much luckier than my peers. I was able to peek behind the veil whenever I went shopping and understand that not everything made was of the quality the price seemed to suggest. I was able to see that making clothes was very possible so it has always felt so accessible. Clothes are made. Made by people. And actually, quite a bit by my people.

My People and the Business of Clothing

In Pakistan, clothes made to standard sizes (e.g a size 12 in the UK) and sold in stores are called “ready-made clothes”. In the UK, they’re just called clothes. In Pakistan, hand-made outfits according to a person’s measurements are called clothes. In the UK, they’re called “tailor-made” clothes. It’s a different mentality. I’m from the UK. My mother is from Pakistan.

In Pakistan, people generally buy yards of fabric or un-stitched pre-cut fabric that they then alter and stitch themselves or have stitched by someone who knows how. Many of the women in my family know how. I remember when I first heard about ready-made clothes becoming popular in Pakistan, I was about 12 or 13. I remember looking forward to it and thinking, “ah, this is more like the norm”. But when I eventually went to a store, I realised those clothes did not fit me. Particularly bottoms. My bum simply would not fit in anything. And because the industry was quite new, it brought to my attention an issue I would have throughout my life in whichever country I lived in.

Where before clothes my mother bought or gave me just fit me, I was now a large in some stores or a medium in others. My body exists in relation to other bodies. The male store clerks in that “ready-made” shop pointed out how my body proportions were “unusual” which is why their “ready-made” clothes did not fit me. My mother would point out issues in the construction of pieces that only catered to a narrow variety of figures. And she, a woman who had been sewing since the age of 10, would get told by these men that they had been in this business for a long time and it was not their fault the clothes didn’t fit my body. They said I was “different”. It was nasty. The whole business was nasty.

Now, that kind of treatment of customers might seem abhorrent. Because it is. Yet, although nobody speaks to me like that in a store in the UK, I still feel very much the same. Because the underlying issue remains.

I had never had these issues before because I had not needed to fit into standard sizes. This is not to say I hadn’t bought clothes from a store before, but anything that didn’t fit me, my mum would alter or make for me instead. I never had to really deal with suddenly being a “medium” or a “large” and that’s it. Or how clothes fit in some places and not others. And I felt bad about myself. I didn’t grow up in Pakistan. I grew up in the UAE and the UK. So, once my mother no longer had the time or energy to make or alter my clothes, my reality became imperfect, standardised clothes.

My Relationship with my Body

Trigger Warning: descriptions of my body and body bits forthcoming. If you struggle with body image issues or body dysphoria, just know that store bought clothes don’t usually fit me that well and skip to the Recent Trends section. Thank you.

So in fashion, you have standard sizes. I am currently a UK size 12 in tops and 14-16 in bottoms. This should tell you I have a large bum. Also thick thighs and calves. And whilst I have been overweight in the past, in all my gaining and losing weight throughout life, proportionally there is junk in the trunk and it ain’t going away. Even when I was a size 10 in tops, bottoms were still a 14.

Now the first catwalk I saw was when I was 12 and I remember thinking, “okay, that’s what normal is”. And then clothes didn’t fit me the same and I was left very confused. In the 90s, even with a song that praised big butts where you could not lie, the women in the video still didn’t look like me. At least not compared to the average Nicki Minaj video now. Now I hear words like thicc and chonky and curves. Back then we just said fat. (Note: The size zero debate is a healthy bridge between these two times but it didn’t offer a lot of new vocabulary – and it was based on sizes, not bodies).

Having more words that were not just “fat” really helped me understand my body in minute detail. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I understand the argument that people should not have to obsess over their bodies. But for me, having new language to understand myself has helped me overcome the simplistic messages I was getting about normality from both the media and the existence of standardised sizes. I now get that, although I am of average height, I have short legs so should get short trousers. I also know that I have a narrow waist despite having wide hips, which is why I get the gap in the back when wearing jeans/trousers/skirts that fit my thighs. I recognise that I have wide shoulders so I do have a bit of an hourglass shape even though I am not heavyset in the chest region.

These are all so many wonderful little details that I am now able to accept as my reality. They are my proportions. Weight gain and loss can impact my standardised size but my proportions are absolute. I got chonky bottom bit, normal top bit and wide shoulders. I can look at a catalogue model now and anticipate whether those clothes would look good on me. And increasingly, I realise that most clothes don’t.

I am not the problem, the clothes are. I am not meant to fit the clothes, the clothes are meant to fit me. And going from being in that “ready-made” clothes shop as a teenager to this realisation took me over a decade. Over a decade of weight changes and style changes. And whilst there has been progress in the variety of shapes catered to in standardised clothing, I still struggle. I hate seeing something I really like on a rail and find it doesn’t actually fit me in any size because the proportions are off. I want to learn to sew so that I can learn how to alter and get clothes to fit me. I feel so empowered at the thought that I could do that.

Recent Trends

I always thought I should sew because my mother did. I never thought it was a skill I wouldn’t possess. But, in the midst of trying to achieve things my mother never had the opportunity to – like going to university, moving abroad to work, developing a career and so on… I never found time for it.

I also didn’t want to exclusively make traditional Pakistani garments so I felt like I could kick the can down the road and worry about it later. But little things would happen and ignite the flame bit by bit. I found myself drawn to the DIY trend and it got me thinking, “I don’t have to make clothes, what if I just made little sewing projects like a tote bag?” But you should know, as the DIY trend just became a chaotic mishmash of glue guns and pointless hacks, I became much less drawn to it.

The real trigger for this newfound desire was curating my own style. Which styles work for me and which don’t? This is where Pinterest came in. I started using Pinterest to save outfits I thought could work for me. Then I discovered tutorials made by people who could sew the kind of clothes I wanted to make for myself. And it all clicked.

De-cluttering my wardrobe resulted in a few bags destined for the charity shops, but now I look at it as my unintentional fabric stock. And my mother has located an aunty who has a sewing machine and I really just wrote this as a distraction while I wait to find out if she will let me have it.

I don’t think my entire wardrobe will be handmade, nor am I putting pressure on myself to be amazing at it first try. But I’m reeallly excited!

Update: While still writing this post I totally got my sewing machine and broke the needle on day one. Ordered more needles and waiting for them to arrive now. Still feeling good about this!


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