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Sewing your own clothes can help you create a specific item in a custom size, and it's relatively waste-free.Shutter2U/iStockphoto

The directive was clear: Find a black, A-line skirt that nips in at the waist, flares out at the hips and falls below the knee. A skirt so simple and classic it can be worn regardless of trends, that looks crisp when paired with a white oxford shirt and relaxed when worn with a grungy vintage band T-shirt.

I scoured thrift and secondhand stores across Toronto in search of this hypothetical skirt, spent countless hours hunting online and even tried going to the mall, but nada. After a fruitless, three-month quest, it was obvious that if I wanted to possess the imaginary skirt that had taken up permanent residence in my brain, I was going to have to sew it myself.

One hundred years ago, sewing was a commonplace – albeit highly gendered – skill. All but the obscenely wealthy sported clothing that was likely sewn by a member of their immediate family and wore until it could no longer be repaired. Now sewing has shrunk to the province of a small number of dedicated hobbyists and professionals. But as the thrall of sustainable fashion grows, the reasons to reconsider this antiquated skill are flourishing.

Sewing represents the ability to create a specific item in a custom size, meaning it is relatively waste-free. Normally, an individual who wants to replenish a wardrobe is at the behest of what is already available for purchase in stores, but a sewist (the gender-neutral term for a person who sews) has no such restrictions. If people possess the aptitude to create custom versions of what they want to wear, the options for staying clothed expand exponentially.

According to Emma Thompson, a PhD candidate researching sewing in contemporary culture at Queen’s University in Kingston, there have been several cultural shifts in the way people consume clothing since the industrial revolution. First, the invention of the sewing machine brought clothing production into the home. Later, globalization incentivized clothing manufacturers to move operations offshore and clothes became cheaper than ever. Yet, despite the unprecedented convenience of affordable options, there are a number of reasons why people are once again drawn to picking up needle and thread.

“Sewing really transforms your relationship with clothing and with your body,” says Sarai Mitnick, the founder of Seamwork, a digital pattern company that creates resources for would-be sewists. Seamwork’s Instagram feed is brimming with heartfelt quotes from community members on why sewing is important to them, including sentiments such as, “I realized I could make love notes to myself and live inside them.”

For people of all shapes and sizes, sewing represents an alternative to the often disappointing experience of shopping for clothing in stores. The ability to adjust commercial patterns definitely falls into advanced sewist territory, but mastering that skill can empower people to create anything they want to fit their body. “I finally understand why my clothes never fit correctly. It wasn’t about me, it was about them,” reads one quote on Seamwork’s Instagram.

Mitnick also suggests many are drawn to sewing because they are compelled to create garments they want to wear but can’t find on the rack. “A lot of people who come to sewing are creative people and they want to express themselves.”

Sewing may be unlikely to hit its previous levels of popularity. But, according to Dr. Anika Kozlowski, an assistant professor of fashion design, ethics and sustainability at Ryerson University in Toronto, home sewing has the power to cut into fast fashion’s monopoly. “Any time we’re in [an era] of momentous scarcity, those practical skills are emphasized.”

From the moment I walked into a fabric store on Toronto’s Queen Street West, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice, but after a few minutes the intimidation shifted toward a sense of what might be possible. I left the store with three yards of black wool crepe and lining (total cost: $96) and was prepared to get to work.

Here’s where I admit to being born on third base when it comes to learning how to sew. My mother is a professional seamstress with 30-plus years of experience and tackling this project was as easy for me as taking a trip home. There may be numerous barriers preventing people from learning how to sew, namely cost and time, but for those with access to a sewing machine, it’s possible to learn the basics entirely from YouTube.

What surprised me most about the process was how little sewing was actually involved. I spent far more time measuring, cutting, pinning, ironing and prodding fabric than I did sitting down at the sewing machine. Another revelation was how truly frustrating it is. Sewing is finicky and fastidious work and the margin for error is extreme. Anyone looking for a relaxing hobby should try cooking or ceramics. I consider it a personal triumph that I succumbed to only one rage blackout during the entire process.

As frustrating as sewing may be, it was also exhilarating to watch a lumpy piece of fabric take shape into a veritable garment. The skirt took 12 hours over the course of three days to sew, bringing the total labour cost to $168 using Ontario’s $14 an hour minimum wage as a baseline. Materials plus labour bring the total cost of the skirt up to $264, and that’s with zero markup. At a retail store, this skirt would cost upwards of $400, something to consider the next time you cringe at paying more than $20 for a garment.

Recently, I whittled away an evening browsing the wares on the Ssense website when I stumbled across a pleated Comme des Garçons skirt that looked almost identical to the skirt I had just created. It cost $1,225. Suddenly, the time and money I poured into creating my perfect skirt didn’t seem so strenuous at all.

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