Sew What? Handmade for Everyone!

There is nothing quite like an extended weekend vacation to the north woods to reconnect with your animalistic, pure self. Luckily for the tiny towns of the North Shore in Minnesota, we are so lacking in our humanistic connection with nature that every week, loads of stressed out Twin Citians make the four hour drive up the “coast” (of Lake Superior) to kick back, soak in the fresh air and take in the sights of the lake and surrounding waterfalls.

The bar I would spend most of my time at: The Gunflint Tavern in Grand Marais.

While tourists’ experiences vary in terms of just how connected they want to get with nature once they leave the fourth round of suburbs, I personally tend to go a little nuts. Ignoring that little voice in my head that reasons that I would get bored of hitting up the same (and only) bar after about a week, I tell myself that the actual secret to happiness and self-actualization is to move to some cabin in the woods with my honey and our pets, turn it into some solar-powered wonder (with our bare hands), and spend my days split working at my own head shop/art gallery/coffee joint/fair trade gift shop and rolling around in the dirt somewhere, connecting with the Earth Goddess.

After all of this, I’d grow all my own food, work on my wholly unique artisanal craft that is some how set apart from the typical bear-themed art you find littering most gift shops up North, sew all my clothes and most likely, because as much as you take the womyn out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the womyn, blog about it.

This is how I would dress.

This is sort of what my imaginary storefront looks like, except mine is a bit less flashy.

Bear art.

As I read over this idyllic fantasy, there is one part about it that strikes me as impossible. And no, it isn’t the rolling around in the dirt part (I love dirt); it’s the “sewing all my clothes” part. I have confession to make: I don’t sew. I love the idea of sewing, I think it is great that there has been a resurgence of the creation of clothing through the craft movement, and I have bags filled with sewing materials as well as pieces of clothing that need fixes, alterations, or that I have just been holding on to for some rainy day that never comes, but I don’t sew.

This really depresses me. When I was a kid, I was, as my mom says, “crafty,” and she would bemoan the fact that she couldn’t teach me how to sew. While her mother and sister were amazing seamstresses, it appeared as though my mom’s horrid experience in high school Home Ec (where she failed the course for making her skirt too short…I think she was probably just trying to be edgy) scarred her for life and she never took the time to learn the skill and thus was unable to transfer it to me.

Not that I was totally unwilling to learn from others—as a youngster, I learned how to crochet and knit from a variety of older women in my life, as well as the basics of sewing mechanics. I pretended, as I still do today, that I was really committed to the handmade and would hoard those box craft projects, like the ones where you make baby dolls out of old nylons. I once tried to sew a little outfit for my stuffed elephant and started crying when I realized it didn’t fit, because one of the first things you do when you sew something from scratch is take accurate measurements.

Slowly, but surely, as I grew up, these experiences began to have the same effect on me as my mother’s Home Ec class did on her. I continue to hoard the materials, but know, in the back of my head, that I would not use them. I still go through spurts when I get really into the idea of making things. Most recently, I started looking up how to make homemade shoes (nothing like starting big) and fantasizing about creating goods out of recycled leather. Like clock work, every fall I start some sort of knitting project, with the intention of creating a beautiful winter accessory as well as giving me something to do during the colder, dark months of the year. Every fall, I realize I forgot how to knit and would abandon my more ambitious plan to create a hat or a pair of mittens and eventually find myself with a half finished scarf.

It has taken me until now, the 29th year of my life, to realize that, for whatever reason, I don’t sew. This becomes even more apparent given the previously mentioned craft movement where so many people are now joining stich’n’bitch groups, selling their goods on Etsy and creating beautifully crafted quilts and clothing. After years of attempting to be a crafter, I have started resigning myself to the fact that it will take me a year just to sew a button onto a piece of clothing.

Recently, I’ve been openly discussing my inability to sew with friends, many of whom share the same experiences—they feel as though they should be creating their clothing, that they should knit, that doing so is one way to stick it to the man and to be able to express oneself in ways that you can’t find at any chain mall store. Something, be it lack of time, experience, or patience, holds them back.

There is something really nagging at me as I write this—that the act of creating and sewing your own clothing has become a privilege, rather than a way of life. It reminds me of this image a friend of mine posted on facebook recently:

We are living in a really interesting time, where the corporatization of every industry has led, in huge part, to an increasingly popular movement to self-sufficiency. It has been noted by many, however, that this movement is often limited to a rather homogenized group of people, who are often in places of financial privilege. When you are juggling four different jobs, it is flabbergasting to think of throwing something like sewing yourself a pair of pants into the mix. What follows are a few issues that should be taken into account when examining one’s own willingness (or ability) to pick up the needle:

Time. I would say that currently, time is the biggest deterrent to my embracing of the handmade lifestyle. Then I think of all the time I pissed away at the mall, especially as a teen.  As a society, shopping has become an expected part of our lives. Just think about how insane malls get around the holidays—how much time is spent traveling, parking, wadding through crowds of people, standing in line.

Our time is precious, no doubt, so why is it that people become more accepting of the insanity that is shopping at the mall, instead of picking up a project and creating something on your own? It doesn’t even need to be from scratch—it could be as simple as some alterations on a piece you find at a thrift store. As popular as craft nights have become amongst people, it is worth considering how much more pleasant and enjoyable hanging out with some good friends and creating something can be compared to shuffling around the mall together.

Cost. People keep mumbling how the price of clothing (along with everything else) is going up. Working in resale and being obsessed with thrifting means that I nearly have a heart attack every time I go to the mall and look at the price tags. Even shops that are incredibly cheap, such as Deb and Forever 21, are, in my mind, expensive for what you are getting and what it cost to make the item at hand.

Just think of all beautiful half-finished scarves you could make with this yarn!

Even though it may cost a pretty penny to purchase materials if you are shopping at a specialty craft shop, thrift stores are usually chock full of materials that can be utilized for projects. On the other hand, when you consider how much it would cost to purchase a really nice, well-made article of clothing, such as a thick wool sweater, investing in nice yarn, even if it is expensive, can in the end cost less.

Which brings me to the larger issue of “cost.” Our society is so bent on “deals” and massive consumption that the way clothing companies make so much money is by stamping out any sort of judgment or consideration about why and how these cheaply made clothes are available in such massive quantities at such low prices. Think about that, because it is really disgusting—especially how children and young people are socialized into this sort of mindlessness through marketing and their parents’ well-meaning shopping habits.

What these kids need is a good sewing lesson.* Note: I am pro-nudist, but that lifestyle is just not realistic in my climate.

Experience. Speaking of parents, it seems as though a lot of people have stopped being crafty when it comes to clothing as a result of simply not learning the skills needed to do so. As it has become less necessary for people to make their own clothing, common knowledge on the subject has disappeared, in much the same way much knowledge about things like basic mechanics and food preparation has become isolated.

Those who grew up around people sewing all the time tend to be the ones who do it today and who make the rest of us feel a bit…incapable. I think it is time to get over this lack of sewing confidence. Witness, if you will, my friend Carly’s most recent project. She decided to go wild and create a dress from a vintage pattern—even though she is not a major sewer. While she stated that the final outcome was a bit “wonky”, with the zipper being a bit crooked and some “seam mishapes,” the experience is what made it—now she can say she has made a dress! After all, they say practice makes perfect.

A dress in process!

Carly's inspiration

The finished product—wonky but nice!

I also thought it was really cute how Carly’s grandmother responded to her post about the dress on facebook saying “Carly, you are awesome! Wonky isn’t part of my experience but it looks very nice to me. Grandma.” Grandmas rule.

 Incompatibility with personal interests. I’ve worked in retail long enough to know that people can be really weird about things like resale or thrift shopping. I am going to go ahead and assert that these sort of people also find the idea of sewing their own clothing complete abhorrent—something that would make them very “common.” I would not want to hang out with these people.

To each his/her own, though, so if anything, it would be awesome if there was a way to get more people into sewing that show an interest in it.

Connections with our clothes. Clothes are very personal—I tend to get very connected with certain pieces that have been my favorites or had stuck with me through memorable times. It’s a bummer that our society is so bent on constant consumption that there is more emphasis on getting whatever is new and little appreciation for well-made, well-loved clothing. What better way to really appreciate your clothing than to make it with your own bare hands?

I think I’ve just convinced myself to pick up the knitting needles again. But this time, I am going to finish what I start. Stay posted on my upcoming line of handmade shoes and leather goods!


About hollyhilgenberg

A freelance writer specializing in vintage, thrifted and resale fashion and critical media studies. Professional whim chaser and self-proclaimed Gemini. I blog over at Operation Sparkle ( and run the creative women zine C.L.A.P. (Creative Ladies are Powerful).


  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    My mom sewed all of my clothes growing up. She tried repeatedly to teach me, from the time I was a child up through my late teens. I broke 3 of her sewing machines. Her gift just never took.

    I STILL think about how it would be awesome if I could order a vintage designer pattern (because it used to be that all high end designers would make their patterns available to sewing stores around the country, enabling anyone to purchase a Dior for a couple of bucks and the cost of fabric and thread) and make my own Yves St. Laurent outfit. I can build my own coffee table, but I can’t make a blouse happen. Or curtains. CURTAINS ARE JUST RECTANGLES!

    Re: thrifting and vintage shopping…. I have also tried THAT throughout the years and, while I haven’t broken any thrift stores, have found that 99% of the time nothing in thrift stores or vintage stores fits me. I seem to go places that are awash in boot cut white jeans and shirts that look like table cloths. And maybe this is because my vintage shopping has only happened in LA and SF, but I find that most “vintage” is just cheap polyester taken from a thrift store, given a hand written tag with a loosely compelling description, and marked up to $60.

    I know that this is your specialty, so… advice?

    • hollyhilgenberg

      Well, as I really have yet to embark on this new journey, as of right now I am with you on the inability to sew. Still, you could barter your skills for handmade objects! Bartering in the best. I have a friend who got Adobe photoshop suite for hemming a pair of pants for a friend.

      Finding good deals via the thrifting and vintage way is all about location—and unfortunately places like LA and San Fran are among the worst for these sorts of shopping. At my job, I am constantly hearing people freaking out about how expensive something would be in California, compared to how we price the items. With the rise in popularity for resale and vintage shops, I think prices have gone up across the board, but for the most part, if you are looking at a smaller metro area, you will find better deals and selection. I love checking out rinky dink thrift shops in tiny towns when I am traveling as well, though you might not find as many gems—but the ones you do are usually dirt cheap.

      My advice? Check out places when you are on vacation! And maybe plan a vacay to the Midwest…which to this day has been the best area for vintage and thrift shopping in my experience.

      • Michael von Braithwaite


        Hm. Maybe my trip to Chicago next year will yield something. Chicago is the Midwest! I grew up in Nashville and every time I go home I think “OOOH! Southern thrifting!” Then I come face to face with aisle after aisle of Budlight t-shirts. Memory has a golden sheen that reality lacks.

  2. I sewed all kinds of doll clothes using fabric from my mom’s scrap bag when I was a kid, and I’m really sad that the skill didn’t transfer to my adult life. Because I can draw decently, I always think I must be crafty. But the minute a third dimension is introduced, it all goes to hell.

    And although I just bought some dirt-cheap stuff from the two-for-one sale rack at Forever 21, I’m with you on our culture’s weird obsession with getting a deal. When we say, “That’s a steal!” we should think about who we’re stealing from. Today, I’m pretty sure I stole from some underpaid workers in China and Mexico, not to mention the now not-paid-at-all Americans whose jobs were outsourced.

    • hollyhilgenberg

      My friend (the same one who bartered for the Adobe Creative suite) told me about this crazy documentary she saw recently about the death of the fashion industry in New York—meaning how everyone started outsourcing their labor and now practically no one makes their stuff in the garment district any more. It sounds really freaky, and unfortunately I don’t remember the name of it.

      I have to admit that I am not a saint when it comes to mall shopping, but I’ve been trying! It certainly makes shopping a lot less enjoyable when I start thinking about where the clothes actually come from…I think it is interesting, however, how much we are encouraged as a culture to not think about it—talk about being in a place of privilege.

  3. Pingback: Possibility in a Prom Dress: Cheryl Klein Covers an Incredible HS Fashion Show « Ironing Board Collective

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