On Ethics: 1

Molly and Sunita

So, one of the reasons I am so enthused about starting sewing is that it provides an antidote to the cruelty of the high street fashion industry which results in abuse, exploitation, and increased poverty for the poorest members of society, and in the worst cases,  such awful tragedies as the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012. I confess I’ve been wilfully and shamefully turning a blind eye to the awful working conditions that mean we can buy £4.99 vest tops on a whim, or £9.99 shoes. I have had  the occasional pang that has resulted in brief moment of, ahem, ‘activism’ i.e. I walked out of the newly opened Primark on Oxford Street in protest at the labour conditions necessary to produce so many clothes at cheap prices and then walked straight into another high street shop and bought clothes there. I am entirely convinced that these would have been produced under similar conditions, and all I achieved was paying more for clothes that the workers who made them got paid next to nothing for.  Pointless, depressing, and made no difference whatsoever.

I have also occasionally bought from Fair Trade or ethical clothes stores online, but our culture of entitlement has left me thinking that they are expensive. I know rationally that they are being the sold at the actual price they should cost if workers are paid well and non-environment destroying production processes have been used, but after years of buying things at knock- down prices, everything seems a rip off. I think that if I liked the styles more, I might feel more content with my purchasing, but they are often in frumpy fabrics or small sizes and do not provide the instant gratification that cheap and nasty unethical but fashionable high street or online shopping can  give you. As much as people are trying to modernise ethical fashion, often the ‘modernising’ only happens in ‘chic’ brands with a very small size range, and the few options for anyone over a size 16 are quite frankly, dull. If I put ethics aside, which is far too easy to do faced with a really really cool sequin playsuit (or maybe that’s just me), why buy one not really very interesting dress for £80 in a cut and fabric you don’t really like, when you can buy 6 different ones from a less ethical supplier that are MUCH more exciting?

I don’t think the ethical shopping offer at present is enough to undo my hardwired delight in having shiny new clothes. One new shirt I don’t really like every month is just not the same as all the fun things from ASOS Curve. But what is enough to undo it the drastic change of perspective that sewing gives me.

I have been needing a shock to the system, and that is what sewing my own clothes has given me. It has given me a deeper understanding of what exactly I am under-paying people to do. I can’t believe how much work goes into making one item of clothing. Granted, I am a beginner, and granted I don’t have the industrial sewing machines and sergers and fabric cutters used in factories like the one in Karachi. But the fact is, clothes take time to make. They take concentration and skill. There is absolutely no way that pricing a t-shirt at £3.99 is reasonable. Especially when you factor in the cost of fabric, the cost of shipping these items from far way to the UK,  and the cost of displaying them in a shop. The only way that these prices are possible and profitable  is by cutting corners every possible way that one can: by under paying staff, giving them long hours with no breaks, offering no benefits and providing appalling working conditions with old machines, cheap fabric, poor sanitary facilities and no thought paid to health and safety.

I know you are now shaking your head in despair at me, thinking ‘I knew that already, it’s been known FOREVER, how come it has taken you so long to work this all out?’. But the fact is I have had all this knowledge in my head for years, but until I started doing what men, women and children in the garment industry do every day, for no thanks, little reward and a lot of back ache, I didn’t really understand it. I needed to feel the fabric running through my fingers from the comfort of my own home to even be able to understand a tenth of what it must feel like for people who do this, not for a hobby, but for 15 hour shifts, day in day out, to appease an ever changing and fickle disposable fashion industry. I’m disappointed at myself for lacking the interest or imagination to really understand this before, but I am glad I am beginning to now. Quite often, when I am fretting over a difficult pleat section, or inserting a tricky sleeve, my husband will say to me ‘they are clever, those children in factories in China, eh?’

Note 1: I am aware that there are many problems in buying the cheap fabrics that I have been snapping up to practice on. I will write about this in a later post. But for now, I am grateful, that for the forseeable future, I will be the only one leaning over a sewing machine to make any new clothes I wear.

Note 2: I am very aware that for many people buying cheap clothing is the only option. I understand  that buying ‘ethical’ fabric, expensive sewing machines and thread is not possible for many people. I understand that the space to sew is a luxury. This is not meant as a post to criticise people on low incomes. It was meant purely as a slap on the wrist for me for being so ignorant, and buying so many cheap clothes that I didn’t need, and which have continued to boost the demand for sweatshop made clothing.

The Collette Moneta Giant Orange Monstrosity

I know everyone is making the wonderful Moneta. I know it’s supposed to be foolproof. But it wasn’t quite me-proof.

The reasons it all went a bit pear-shaped (or should I say saggy orange tube shaped) were these:

1: I genuinely didn’t know how tricky jersey could be
2: So I bought really fine, thin, super stretchy cheap jersey
3: I didn’t follow the Collette sewalong and was a bit casual in my reading of the instructions. I’m really not good at reading instructions properly.
4: I didn’t have twin needles or a ballpoint needle.

The first two points led to total disaster, the second two, had I understood the first two better would not necessarily have doomed the project, but combined with the fabric and the naivety were pretty fatal.

When I made the orange tube, I also did not think about my sizing properly. As the Collette Sorbetto size 18 was a bit small, I decided the obvious size to make would be a 3xl (approx size 26). This despite the fact that I was using a much more forgiving stretch fabric. I think what had happened was I read somewhere that for dresses waist size was the crucial factor, and being an apple shape (I’m pretty generous around the middle), I was a bit nervous about the clear elastic it said it needed digging in, so I picked the biggest size. This may be the case for non stretchy dresses that you have made a full bust adjustment on, but is emphatically not the case for the Moneta. I also decided, based on the fact that the waistline of  many of my dresses tends to rise up and become a bit empire line on me due to big boobs and middle, that I definitely needed to add 6 inches to the bodice length. I didn’t measure myself or the pieces to know this, I just ‘knew’.

Me trying to make the orange tube look good in the work toilets

Me trying to make the orange tube look good in the work toilets

Turns out ‘just knowing’ isn’t what sewing needs. Sewing requires accurate measurements and cutting out. Sewing requires that you pay full attention to the instructions, even if they do appear to be written in a foreign language, in shorthand. This is is an incredibly good discipline for me, because as my husband will tell you: I’m not a details person. I regularly declare that I am going to cook a dish for dinner that sounds delicious from a recipe I saw, buy all the ingredients and then get home and discover that I need to soak something overnight, or the cooking time is six hours long, or I don’t have any of the equipment I need.  Inevitably I will have skim-read the recipe at best, not read it at all at worst, and it will end in disaster. My husband now does pretty much all of the cooking. However, sewing is changing me slowly. Because I am so new to it, because I don’t know enough to muddle through: I have to pay full attention. This is good. It is helping me to concentrate and focus much better than I normally do, and sometimes I even achieve ‘flow‘. I will write more on the meditativeness of sewing at a later date. But it is incredibly good discipline for a distractable, flighty, flibbertigibbet like me.

Anyway: back to the dress.

Just cutting it out was enough to make me want to throw either my cheap scissors or myself out of the window.  I don’t have very much room at home and had to cut my fabric on the wooden floor. Oh dear me it was awful. It slipped and stretched and WOULD NOT OBEY. I hated it. I made cut marks on the parquet floor and so very nearly gave up entirely. But, using another zygotic skill, patience, I got through. And ordered a beautiful new pair of scissors  (Sheffield steel: whoop!) for next time. And then the sewing. I used a standard needle on a small zig zag stitch for everything because I didn’t have the right kit. This meant all my hems and seams didn’t look crisp, and in the thin jersey, puckered. For some reason I used white cotton as well which just added to the amaturishness of it all. But the big issue was the waist. I was actually ok with sewing on the clear elastic to gather the skirt, and found it easier than I thought. But I hadn’t looked at the Sewalong about how to attach the skirt to the top (or more accurately, read the questions from other sewers in the sewalong as the demonstration uses a serger which I don’t have), and wasn’t sure whether join the bodice to the skirt on the clear elastic again, or under it. I wasn’t sure if the elastic was just supposed to float around in the seam. I thought that if the join was the stitching and not the elastic this would snap. So I tried sewing the bodice to the skirt on the elastic, with the effect that the seam allowance was so small, I missed bits, and had lots of gaps and holes all around.  Instead of trying again, I went for the ultimate bodge-job fix, which was to try to cover it up with another bit of fabric. This also served as a kind of suspender belt as it had the triple function of covering the holey waistline, pushing the too long bodice up so it could billow over it, and holding the skirt up which was pulling the whole thing down as the waist band was too loose, and too low to actually sit on my waist, and the fabric was too thin and to stretchy to hold itself up.  It looked ok, ish but I knew it wouldn’t survive many washes. Also, I just hated it. Everything was too big and the fabric was just too thin and too clingy to be flattering.  I wore it once, then chopped it in half with the aim of reusing the skirt fabric for something and turning the top into a t-shirt, then decided that I didn’t want anything in that crappy thin stretchy orange fabric of doom and binned it. By this time I had made a smaller, much better Moneta in a  gorgeous stripy, thick double knit, and I didn’t need this orange monstrosity.

A close up showing too big sloppy shoulders. By the way, these aren't my shades, I was trying on my friends, they look terrible, I know. But not as bad as the dress.

A close up showing too big sloppy shoulders. By the way, these aren’t my shades, I was trying on my friend’s, they look terrible, I know. But not as bad as the dress.

So what did I learn?

1: Do not buy cheap thin jersey

2: If you do regardless (because you are a sucker for cheapness): make sure you have good scissors, have read all the instructions  and reviews for your pattern, take your time and use the right needles.

3: If you have buggered it up: don’t try and patch it up, but unpick and start again. Otherwise what you have made will end up in the bin.

4: It is a very good idea to make a muslin. This was essentially a not-very-wearable muslin for my successful Moneta as the fabric was cheap and I wasn’t very attached to it. Even though it ended up in the bin, I am so glad I made it as otherwise I would have had all these issues in the fabric that I really liked, and that would have ended up in the bin instead.

5: Measure yourself: don’t guess.

6: Round sunglasses don’t suit me.

A Colette Sorbetto for a hunk

My mum always used to tell me I would be the ideal Victorian woman. I was in fact, partially named after Queen Vic herself. Apparently when I was born, I looked ‘not amused’. But this was not why I was the ideal Victorian woman. No, that was because I had the shoulders of a goddess, according to the mores of the late 1800s.  I don’t really have shoulders: my neck kind of just slopes into my arms. Straps do not stay on these non-shoulders: I am forever hefting bra and vest straps up and using willpower to try and keep them there. In essence, my shoulders are too small. My mum tried to make me feel better about my endless strappy top woes by telling me a gently curving, small ladylike shoulder was a sign of Victorian gentility, that it meant I had not been toiling in the fields all day. I’m not sure why she thought Victorian gentility was what I would be pleased by: as yet another strap fell down by my elbows, I seriously considered a career as a farm labourer. If it was possible, I would become an olympian swimmer, so I could get firm broad shoulders that would keep my bloody straps up all day.

Navy blue Victorian evening dress with short sleeves and sloping shoulders

The type of Victorian Shoulders I possess

But I digress. Why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because I made a top that was very pretty, but which did not cater at all for my non-shoulders. But I am so glad I did, because, as with all these things I am making at the moment, they aren’t so much wearable items as educational projects, and with each new thing I make, I learn one or two more skills, or I identify skills that I need to learn for later projects. (I wear what I make anyway, even if it is a bit weird because bloody hell, I’ve put enough blood sweat and tears into it!).

So what is this project, and what did I learn?

Floral cotton vest top with bias binding round neck and shoulders

The Colette Sorbetto, as made by Colette for a person with Shoulders

A few weeks back I made myself the (FREEEEEEE!) Colette Sorbetto top. If you haven’t discovered Colette yet, you need to, and a good place to start is by downloading their free PDF pattern for the Sorbetto. Colette patterns are wonderful, as unlike standard sewing patterns, they are written in normal English, with clear, educational instructions and lots of pictures. They are also beautifully packaged and presented, offer and wide range of really fashionable, flattering styles, and are modelled by women of all sizes. Some patterns go up to size 3XL (which for Britishers like me is about a size 26-28). The website is super cool, and has regular sewalongs, lots of advice and a great newsletter full of top tips. So, I love Colette.

Enough gushing. What did I learn?

1: PDF patterns are an arse. This was free, so I can’t complain, but cutting out and assembling 8 pieces of A4 paper, matching lines exactly, was tedious, and the finished pattern pieces are rigid, opaque and likely to fall apart when your sellotape dries out. You also need a lot of space to put the pieces together. The Sorbetto is pretty much one of the easiest and simplest patterns in the whole world, and I still found assembling the pattern from a digital file tiresome. I would not want to do this with a more complicated pattern. I personally think it is well worth splashing out for tissue patterns (though of course they are also extremely annoying and take up space: they at least do not need to be assembled and sellotape is not involved), unless of course it would cost loads to import a pattern from abroad. Colette is an American company, but I have found at least one company that sells her tissue paper patterns in their gorgeous packaging at a reasonable price from the UK.

2. I love bias binding. Oh goodness it makes things look so neat, and retro, and colourful. It is really easy to put on, and makes your hems, necklines and armholes so nice and professional.  I am now compulsively buying bias binding in all the colours (alongside all the fabrics and all the patterns: sewing can be very expensive) to add a flash of cheerfulness to my creations.

3. I can’t really just sew a pattern without making some adjustments. One of the major reasons to start sewing your own clothes is to actually own clothes that fit you, and not a random mannequin in a factory. I sewed the size 18 straight up in a cheap and pretty polycotton with contrast binding.

A Colette Sorbetto as modelled by shoulderless me

A Colette Sorbetto as modelled by shoulderless me

It’s a nice and wearable top, but it could have been so much better if I added a couple of inches of length at the bottom and if I had known that such things as Full Bust Adjustments and Narrow Shoulder Adjustments existed, and in fact, could both be done at the same time. As it was, when I cut out the fabric I could see that this was going to pull a bit across the bust, so I just made my centre pleat a bit narrower, which is fine, but I would have liked a wide pleat. I Then realised this wasn’t enough so added a 3 inch extension panel in the back, so could have probably kept my pleat a normal width. I would also have liked the straps to sit on my shoulders, and narrowing the pleat in the centre and adding a few inches at the back actually meant they sat even further out than normal. The bias binding also tipped inwards due to the extra fabric around the neckline. An FBA would have solved my problems a lot better.

Inside view of garment back panel seams

The pattern was very busy, so it was easy to put a panel in the panel without anyone noticing (can you see?), but boy did that wreak havoc on my decolletage

Still, it’s a great, easy and wearable pattern, and one I will definitely make again, with the adjustments I know are possible. I am attempting both these adjustments right now for a wax print cotton summer dress, and I definitely haven’t got them quite right. The Full Bust adjustment has worked a dream, but the narrow shoulder adjustment just seems to have narrowed the strap a bit, rather than bringing it closer in towards my neck. Still, it’s a start, and I am learning all the time. One day, I will have a strap that stays on the shoulders Queen Vic herself would be proud of.