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The handmade tale

She wears only what she sews Add to ...

In Vancouver, Natalie Purschwitz is perhaps best known for Hunt and Gather, her Gastown clothing boutique from 2005 until last spring. In Italy and elsewhere, though, she is better known for MakeShift, an unusual online experiment that will see the designer wear only clothing she has made herself - including shoes and underwear - for a year.

Every day, Purschwitz puts on a new homemade outfit (anything from a simple uniform to a dressy skirt and sweater), takes a digital photo of the ensemble and uploads it to her blog, makeshiftproject.blogspot.com.

Part fashion challenge, part performance art and part exercise in viral marketing, the project, which started Sept. 1, has attracted the interest of thousands of fashionistas and do-it-yourselfers in Canada and abroad.

"I started getting Italian e-mails one day and then I discovered that I had been in [the newspaper]La Repubblica," she says. "All of a sudden, I had 2,000 visitors to my blog."

The attention is influencing how she chooses her outfits. "I had imagined that I would just wear my jumpsuit every day for a week sometimes - that would be my safety net - but now I feel like I can't just wear the same thing; I have to wear a different outfit."

The length of the project means that Purschwitz will have to dress for every season, requiring her to make everything from toques to bathing suits. She says that she got the idea for it while running her boutique.

"People would come in and say, 'Oh, I really like that. Did you make that?' And I would often say, 'Yes.' So it just kind of occurred to me that, gee, I wonder if I could actually make everything that I wore for a year."

Her spartan, two-room workshop is built around her primary tool, an 80-year old Singer sewing machine. Beside it is a basket of spools of thread, and leaning against the wall are rolls of fabric. Her time is split between her workshop and a tiny studio on Cordova Street, where she welcomes drop-in visitors who want to learn more about the project.

The 24/7 exercise doesn't stop when Purschwitz leaves her studio. When she gets home after a day of making clothes or working in the showroom, she changes into slippers and a robe she also crafted herself.

"It's not a very good business model," she says with a laugh. "You can't really make money just making one-off things."

Since closing her boutique, Purschwitz sells her clothing online and from her studio to pay the bills while she sees her handmade year through.

During a recent visit to her studio, she served as a walking billboard for her wares. Among the elements of her ensemble were:

A rough-edged T-shirt

Most of us buy our T-shirts at stores like the Gap, but Purschwitz's 100-per-cent-cotton-jersey T-shirt with unfinished edges took her about two hours to design and sew. "I am finding that I don't really have enough basics," she says. "I'm always trying to squeeze in an extra T-shirt here and there." The cost of the material was $10 plus thread, while the labour took up two hours.

A one-sleeved sweater shrug

"An extra little cozy layer," Purschwitz's linen cape with a single sleeve and silk trim is, she says, among the most popular on the blog. To make it, she sketched out her idea, cut a pattern and tested it with cheaper fabric before making the final product, which is made from pure linen milled in Japan. Cost of materials: $45. Labour: several days.

The holey jacket

Made from a two-and-a-half-meter piece of Japanese wool with holes felted out of it, Purschwitz's so-called holey jacket, which is lined with cotton and has a diagonal snap closure, was made a few years ago. As she recalls, singer Jane Siberry wanted to buy the jacket off her back when they met in Vancouver through a mutual friend. Purschwitz couldn't part with it, and instead made Siberry a jacket incorporating some of the scraps. Cost of materials: $95. Labour: several days.

Homemade tights

Making tights is tough because they are "really 3D," Purschwitz says. Hers are made out of French knit cotton and Lycra, with an elastic in the waist. "It's the seams that make it a little uncomfortable," she says. As an alternative, she is planning to make a garter so she can just wear "really long socks." Cost of materials: $10. Labour: four hours.

Ad hoc shoes

To give her homemade shoes their form, Purschwitz melts a thick, plastic-laden fabric over wooden lasts in an old toaster oven. She then sews the leather-like pieces together on a homemade shoemaker's bench and glues on layers of leather and rubber for the sole, which she fortifies with a shank. For this particular pair, she "just cut pieces of aluminum from an old eaves trough" to make the soles and used recycled materials for the rest. Cost of eyelets and ribbon shoelaces: $4. Labour: one week.

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