The Class Dynamics of DIY Clothing

A common refrain among some people when a fat person laments the lack of fashionable clothing in larger sizes is “sew your own!” Which I’m sure is meant in a constructive way, and it would be great if everyone could just sew their own clothes. But simply advising people to sew their own ignores the very real class issues involved with sewing and DIY in general.

Some seamstresses are lucky enough to either have items gifted to them, or find items cheap, like at a thrift store or yard sale. To sew effectively you need a machine, which is at least $100 retail, and the good ones cost more. Sure, you could attempt to sew a wardrobe by hand, but that’s seriously unrealistic. So you need a machine, which needs notions. I’ve found notions at yard sales and thrift stores, but with a lot of them I had to buy them retail unless I wanted to count the stars until I found that magic item at a yard sale. Then you need patterns — and here’s where being fat again comes into play, because patterns also come in sizes and plus size patterns are no more fashionable than plus size clothes. I know you can resize patterns, but that does require some skill and time which a lot of people don’t have. Learning to sew requires a significant time investment in the first place, not to mention the time it takes to make the clothes once you know how. Many people working two or more jobs, or even just working one job that has long hours, don’t have the luxury of that much free time. There’s also the cost of fabric, which can get pretty pricey depending on the type of fabric needed. Then you need access to a store that sells fabric and notions. Unfortunately, outside of the “indie” community, sewing your own clothes is somewhat of a dying art. So for those who live in small towns or towns outside the reach of a major metropolitan area, there’s not always access to those kinds of stores.

As revolutionary as it would be for every fat person to reject the discriminatory mainstream fashion industry, it’s simply unrealistic. It’s also unrealistic to expect that a regular person with little free time is going to be able to develop the skill to sew themselves say, a suit for job interviews. For many people it’s not just a matter of fashionable clothing in their size, but clothing, period in their size. I would say it’s more important for us as fat people to advocate for a larger range of sizes in retail stores than simply spend a lot of time trying to make our own clothes. While sewing the occasional skirt or dress may be within one’s reach, unfortunately for most people it’s just not a viable option to sew an entire wardrobe.

This is not to dismiss those who sew for pleasure, who do have the time and resources to sew, who manage to successfully repurpose other clothes or who are lucky enough to score sewing supplies on the cheap. I personally own a sewing machine and a serger I got off eBay that I never use, and I have a ton of sewing supplies and fabric piled up from yard sales and flea markets I’ve visited over the years. I like to sew. I’m not all that good at it, but it is a fun hobby and if I had more time I’d probably learn how to do it properly. So it’s not like I’m saying “don’t sew, it’s pointless”. I’m just pointing out that responding to fat women’s problems finding clothes that fit by telling them to sew their own clothes, when done by non-fat people, is extremely dismissive and insulting. When it’s done by other fat women, it’s misguided and possibly marginalizing because of the class issues involved.

And hey, some fat women just don’t feel like sewing their own clothes and they shouldn’t have to. The proper response to a discriminatory industry that we all depend on in some form or another (because buying patterns is still supporting the fashion industry) is not to let it be and go off and do your own thing. Do your own thing if you want to, AND work to end the exclusionary nature of the fashion industry. Support fat women having choices, whether they shop at Wal-Mart, Torrid, or Joann’s.

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  • Tracy

    As I have been thinking lately, it's easy to tell someone to opt out when you have the option to do so.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Seriously. Options can be privilege.

  • http://eema-le.blogspot.com Limor

    I agree that not everyone can make their own clothes, I agree that retailers should make clothes (and not just 3-4 items) in a broader range of sizes, but I don't think that it's fair to classify those of who do sew out own clothes as somehow economically advantaged. I sew my own clothes because I can't afford to spend $30-$40 on a top. I buy patterns on sale (99 cents), and fabric at the thrift store or with one of those 1/2 off coupons. I stock up on thread and notions when they're on sale (1/2 off). I know many women who sew their own clothes because they can't afford to shop retail. I'm not saying that sewing is a solution for everyone, but having more sizes available in retail shops wouldn't help those of us who can't afford to shop retail to begin with.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I don’t think that it’s fair to classify those of who do sew out own clothes as somehow economically advantaged.

      I don't think I said that. I think I stated that some people can find items for a lot cheaper. Not everyone can, though. I go to flea markets, estate sales, yard sales, etc all over the metro LA area but find few sewing supplies and when I do it's things like skinny people patterns and hook and eye closures. And for a lot of people, time is also an issue, and that can equal expense. Especially when you're learning.

      So no, I don't think you have to be seriously economically advantaged to sew, just advantaged in some other way. Which isn't your fault, everyone is advantaged over another in one way or another. I really just want to speak to those who would proscribe to others that they should sew or be "buying into the system", that if you're going to say that then you need to recognize the implications of what you're saying and they include class issues.

      having more sizes available in retail shops wouldn’t help those of us who can’t afford to shop retail to begin with.

      Clearly, if shopping retail is more expensive for you than sewing, and you have the time and inclination, then the choice is clear. For me, sewing would be significantly more expensive than just going to Ross or whatever and buying a $10 top, but then again that's advantage because not every small town is going to have a Ross. So you see, you have to keep all that crap in mind.

      I wanted to bring up an issue that I think is overlooked often in the craze to DIY everything.

  • http://www.wicked-whimsy.com Michelle

    ^Ughh that post is TERRIBLE. Jeez. Clothing police much?

    I think this is a great post – people act like sewing is soo easy to pick up, which I think is a. sexist (because hey, if a woman can do it, it's not that hard right?!) and b. just plain silly. It takes a lot of time to learn things, especially if you're doing it mostly on intuition without a formal teacher (it probably took me two years of DIYing in high school before I was anything near decent). Assuming that someone has the cash to buy a machine, and supplies, and probably classes if they want to save themselves the frustration, is HUGELY classist.

    Although my vintage machine loving self can't help but add – it's really easy to find amazing vintage machines for $20-50 by scouring thrift stores, and most of them are made SO MUCH better than the cheap plastic machines from today. I recently had to sell my Rocketeer out of needs for money, but it was a total workhorse, and I will never let go of my Viking 6440.

    • http://kelly.hogaboom.org Kelly

      Michelle I wrote Gertie (blog author) a note citing this stuff and she wrote write back and wanted to feature my comments in an Op-Ed. So, that's cool. She is a great author and tackles issues of "plus-size" and race in fashion which is quite promising; some of the content from commenters makes me want to cry. But then, I'm used to the type of modding at SP etc.

      Oh and vintage machines FTW. I am addicted to them; find them for $5 at garage sales, tune them up, & gift them to would-be sewists.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I seriously envy you guys who have well-stocked thrift stores. I can never go to a regular thrift store and find shit I'm looking for. That's the disadvantage of living in an area that is so spread out.

  • Teaspoon

    Thanks for this; it's something I haven't thought about enough.

    I've offered friends the use of my machine and what skills I have if they're interested in making a piece or two to fill in the gaps of what's available around here, but even that can end up on the wrong side of the line between a friendly offer and marginalization of one flavor or another, all bad.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I think that's awesome that you offer your friends help. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. It's not like you're just offering it to the poor ones or something. I would love to have a friend who knew how to sew offer me help in learning. I can only do alterations like putting in an elastic waistband or sometimes hemming.

      • Teaspoon

        Yeah, so far I think I've managed to stay on the side of "friendly offer." I just realized on closer inspection that the line might actually be nearer than I originally thought, particularly when I get to complaining about trying to find decent stuff in my size and shape and forget that I have it easier than a number of my friends do. That's probably where I'm most at risk of saying something asinine.

        Here via Snarky's Machine, btw — hi! Unfortunately, the distance between Oregon and Wyoming makes it a little awkward to invite you to crash my next sewing day for tips.

        • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

          Here via Snarky’s Machine, btw — hi! Unfortunately, the distance between Oregon and Wyoming makes it a little awkward to invite you to crash my next sewing day for tips.

          Good to have you! Unfortunately that is a bit far, but thanks for considering making the offer. Ha.

  • O.C.

    I've sewn since I was a child, and it's taken me almost that long to develop a skill set such that I can really make just about anything I want to, in my size, well enough that it doesn't look homemade. Yes, we might all be able to sew if we had the time and resources, but it really does take a long time, lots of practice, and the waste of a lot of projects that don't work out right to really get good at it. So, while I'd definitely advocate for people who want to learn to sew, and who have the resources to do it, I'd never assume that any of us can just pick up and sew whatever we want right now. It's just not gonna happen.

    That said, I'm very glad to have the option of sewing my own clothes. For example, I live in a semi-tropical part of the U.S. It's hot. And when I get hot, my face sweats like a fountain. I need to get ready for a job interview, and have been looking for professional jackets. There is not. one. jacket. available in plus sizes, that's high enough quality that it doesn't look junky, and that's cool enough that I won't be spouting sweat like a fountain. They're all either too casual, too poorly made, or fully lined with (insert ugly curse word here) polyester. If I didn't have the option to sew my own light, unlined, 3/4 sleeve jacket that fits, I truly would be screwed out of the potential to get this job, because I'd look like the stereotype of the slovenly, sweaty fat woman.

    We do get painted into corners at fat people, don't we?

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      We do get painted into corners at fat people, don’t we?

      We do indeed. I think it's awesome you can get over that obstacle by sewing your own jacket. That takes a lot of skill!

      I like to buy clothing from indie designers on Etsy. Then at least I'm supporting someone who sews.

  • http://www.thefullnilson.com Leah

    I don't totally disagree with you, but I come from a really small town and worked at a fabric store for 3 years while I was in high school (also I'm the daughter of a seamstress/quilter/high school home ec teacher). I find that (at least in the case of midwestern/upper Canada) in more rural areas, handmade clothing is more common. And more common with people from lesser socio-economic backgrounds. There was also a not insignificant amount of first nations women living on nearby reservations who would sew most of their clothing by hand (to the point where the women from specific rezs had unique "looks"). It was the kind of town where you would get teased for having home made clothes, because it was associated with being poor. Values from small towns in the area I grew up in are very different from city values, cost of living is much lower and perhaps because of these factors there are still a lot of women who are homemakers, who may have the time to sew clothing but do so out of thrift and necessity.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I'm up in a small town in Oregon and I find that what you say is true, I'm way more likely to come across sewing supplies at yard sales and stores that sell fabrics up here than I am to find them in the poorer areas of L.A. Or any area in L.A., really. My mom sewed some when I was young but mostly I got clothes from thrift stores. Thrifting is much cheaper than sewing, at least here.

  • http://fatheffalump.wordpress.com sleepydumpling

    What it boils down to is that nobody should "have" to sew their own clothes simply because they are unable to buy them. There needs to be adequate clothing available (adequate also includes fashionable – not high fashion, but fashionable) to fit every single human being.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I totally agree.

  • Katy

    I had a couple of years of sewing classes at school, and I think I am just genetically unable to sew. My teacher just felt sorry for my incompetence. If I had to make all my clothes, I would be wearing outfits held together with iron-on repair patches, superglue and safety pins. Is that really what the world wants? Lots of fat people wandering the streets clothed in badly chopped strips of fabric coming apart at their glued-together seams? Although, thinking about it, that could be a man good mass demonstration at a few shops that refuse to see clothes in a decent range of sizes… Hordes of fatties clamouring for clothes, dressed in safety-pinned and velcroed sheets…

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      Ha! Nice dystopian scenario.

  • Angela

    I can't even sew a straight line and managed to botch sewing a pillow case and wind sock in home ec class in junior high. I'm good at the design portion, I can visually figure out how things should go together and cut the pieces from scratch but I can't sew them. My mother had four years of home ec with sewing in high school and she is only marginally better than I am(she can shorten pants and sew a semi straight line). I think a lot of DIY culture ignores both individual differences and class differences when it assumes that everyone should be able to do these things.

    • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

      I think I could probably sew better if I had the room to spread out the fabric and also patience in doing the prep work. I just don't have the time to spend learning.

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  • Tigerlily

    You are so right. There are fewer patterns in sizes over 16 and they are generally more sacky (which is the problem with most store bought clothes over size 16), and it’s really not like you can sew yourself a suit for a job interview, even if you sew. And even if you sew, you can’t possible have the energy to sew the variety of clothes and styles that a working woman needs in order to keep feeling an interest in her wardrobe. I love clothes and I don’t want to wear the same style every day.

  • http://www.redvinylshoes.com Tasha Fierce

    I do find you’ve got some errors going on there, for instance that you need a machine upwards of $100 to sew clothes or that there are no fashionable fat patterns (they are certainly rare but they exist).

    I am totally open to being wrong about the price of the sewing machine. I don't think I need it to cost upwards of $100 for my point to be valid, though. And I said that patterns are no more fashionable than fat retail clothes, which means that there's some fashionable stuff and some not. I have looked at the pattern books and found some cute stuff, but there's also some crap.

    Wait, but you just said sewing our own clothes was anything BUT simple, right? I hope you’re not being prescriptive there; that is an individual person who’s rockin’ the fat DIY and being awesome about it is doing just as valid activism as those of us advocating for the larger size range in RTW – right?

    Nope, not simple, just using the word "simply" instead of "just". Rereading it, the language is not as clear as I would like it to be, but I'm basically trying to say we shouldn't give up on trying to change RTW fashion just because we've opted out. Because it's still important to advocate for that. If you can rock an all DIY/vintage/thrift wardrobe, I think that's an awesome achievement. But we just need to be aware that the circumstances vary.

  • http://kelly.hogaboom.org Kelly

    “we shouldn’t give up on trying to change RTW fashion just because we’ve opted out.”

    Absolutely, and besides, no one can really opt out and it’s only an illusion to think that’s much of a tenable option. Or at least no one I’ve met is making ALL of their dresses/pants/shirts/jackets/bras/underwear etc.