Conjuring up your own clothes won’t just feed your creativity and save your money – it could help save the planet, too, writes Lisa Morrow about her beloved hobby.
Most people boast that they taught themselves to read before starting Kindy. In my case, it was learning how to sew. I still remember using a pair of safety scissors to cut out two squares of lined writing paper and threading a length of wool through the large eye of a darning needle. I pushed it back and forth into the paper until I finally got the hang of how to make the two pieces stay together.
Fast forward to age eight, and I’ve just made a formal outfit for my favourite toy, Mr Rabbit. I used lace scraps for a Darcy-style cravat, canvas for a waistcoat, and left-over green velveteen for cut-away tails. Cream cotton pants with black bias binding sewn on as cuffs completed the look. He still looks good in it to this day, if a tad worn!
Looking back, it’s not surprising that I ‘found’ sewing. My mum, both my aunts and my grandmother made their own clothes. Dad’s mum, Nana, worked as a professional seamstress and sewed for the Sydney Lord Mayor’s wife. After living through the Great Depression of the 1930s, ‘waste not want not’ became a way of life for them. That didn’t change even after my parents became the first generation to graduate from university and join the middle classes.
As the youngest of three I was alternately dressed in bespoke clothing or hand-me-downs. Jumpers worn by my siblings eventually became mine and were passed on again when I outgrew them. Some were painstakingly unpicked to be knitted into hat, scarf and gloves or ended up in the charity bin.
By age 12, well before Pretty in Pink (starring Molly Ringwald as the misfit teen making a splash in revamped op-shop finds) hit the screens, I scoured these same charity shops looking for a bargain. Saint Vincent (aka Vinnie’s) was a favourite of mine, but the best by far was the White Elephant store next to the railway station in Chatswood. It was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave for those of us who could sew. I regularly picked up gorgeous shirts, skirts, and trousers made from linen, cotton, and silks I could only dream of being able to afford brand new. The idea that ‘second hand means second best’ never entered my head.
By reshaping sleeves, tapering pant legs, and altering collars I created my own unique look, for next to nothing. Being a teenager with limited funds and few ways to earn more, this was important. I was also (unknown to me at the time) helping the planet.
According to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in May 2020, on average Australians send around 23kgs of textiles to landfill every year. That’s each person throwing away the equivalent of a seven-year-old child, weight-wise. It’s a huge amount, but there are easy ways to help reduce it. Second-hand and charity stores are a good place to start, even for non-sewers. Many are run like independent boutiques now, with stylishly accessorised mannequins gracing the windows and a Saturday night out soundtrack playing over the speakers. They’re a fun place to shop, and although I doubt I’ll find a pair of original Bally basket weave leather sandals being sold for $12 ever again, there are still plenty of bargains to be had. Not to mention the excitement of being able to create and change your look by experimenting with different styles without having to take out a bank loan first.
With a little bit of effort, you can alter a ‘not quite right top’ into a ‘where did you get that, it’s gorgeous!’ signature item. Changing a button, taking up a hem or even attaching applique pieces can make a huge difference. The internet’s a great resource for how-to videos and many local councils run basic sewing courses. Failing that you could phone a friend or ask at the dry cleaners. All you need is a good eye and creative vision.
I love the hands-on experience of feeling fabrics and rummaging through racks of clothing, but for those who don’t, there are plenty of online groups dedicated to recycled and upcycled items to explore.
Now that I have arthritis in my thumb joints (just like my nana developed), these days I rarely sew… But recently, I picked out a selection of lace and fancy buttons from the huge collection I’ve inherited from family members and gave them to a centre for displaced people. The women there will use them in reworking donated items of clothing and breathe new life into old. Somehow, this re-creation feels like stitching in continuity, and the creation of a better future for us all.