I’ve been going through an interesting transition the past few years- from the quest to tracking down the perfect vintage dress to gathering inspiration and sewing most of my own clothing. My family have always been collectors and I was encouraged at an early age to find a passion and learn about it, collect objects, and properly store or display them to keep their value. Whether it be Beatrix Potter figurines, Barbie Dolls, or The Little Mermaid- our family display case had a shelf on it that was devoted to my use. I think I was rather fortunate! When I started getting into vintage clothing back in the early 1990s I approached it with a similar perspective. I was completely unaware that wearing vintage as clothing was even an option! Let alone that there was a whole subculture completely devoted to it. I started saving my money to purchase a prize item at a vintage show once a year, or would see an item at an antique store when I was out with my mom and save, hoping it would be there when I could come back and get it. Granted, my tastes back then leaned more to a Victorian and Edwardian bent, but as time went on and as the swing crazy hit in the late 90’s, so expanded my tastes. All of a sudden I became aware of people actually wearing the clothing I thought of as collectibles and as I met more people (the internet helped) my tastes expanded and I became pretty firmly planted in the 1930s as my decade of choice (other than my first love of antique clothing which I’ll never shake). I began to scour shows, antique malls, flea markets, and Ebay for the perfect dress for the perfect event, and everything was just perfect. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent trolling the internet on my quest, but I’m sure many of you know from experience as well! But these last four or so years I’ve noticed a decided curve in my tendencies. Instead of spending a lot of money on one dress I tend to put the money into patterns, research materials, and sewing materials. These days I am looking for patterns first, accessories next, and clothing after that. Last night I got to thinking about my decided shift in interest and I made up a top ten list. Keep in mind this is my personal list and I’m sure there will be differing opinions, but for me, this rings true.
Why Sew Vintage
1- Authentic vintage is hard to find– sure we can see a dozen (or more) dresses dancing their way to us on Etsy or Ebay any given day. But when you take into consideration size, color, style, and a condition that would make it wearable we narrow down the bar further. I’ve always been remarkably picky in the vintage I choose for myself, so maybe this hits home more for me than others, but if I want a dress “just so” I can wait a few years for a dress that matches me perfectly then fork over $$$ (which I actually do still do, but I need something to wear in the meantime)- or I could make it myself just how I want it, when I want it, and make it fit perfectly and wear like new.
2- Authentic vintage will not hold up to daily wear and laundering- Now, I know, this is where I get into trouble with some folks who swear up and down that vintage wears just as well if not better than normal ready to wear. True to a degree. I would wager that with tailored garments like suits and midcentury and later clothing that this can be true, but nearly all vintage has a flaw of some kind. Even dead store stock items have been sitting neglected for years and unless they have been stored absolutely perfectly will have dry rot in the fibre and thread and often times fading along the lines where it was folded. Those lovely rayon frocks won’t stand up to daily wear and the oils that our bodies naturally omit will spoil the textiles over time. Personally, I still wear 1950s stuff frequently and it holds up well, but I find 1940s and earlier to be too frail to be worn in a regular rotation, while reproduction or homemade clothing can often be thrown in the washer and dryer (if that’s the way they were meant to be laundered, mind you) without a thought because the textiles and materials are new.
3- Authentic vintage should be preserved for future generations- I know it’s not possible to save every single vintage dress out there, nor should we, but we also shouldn’t leave it entirely up to museums to house collections of clothing from eras gone by. The study of “vintage” is still relatively new, and while the study is new, wearing old clothing is not. I’m sure everyone has a story (I know I do) of the absolutely perfect dress being spoiled by getting out of a car too quickly, catching the hem on something, dancing in it till it falls apart, or just being stored wrong and having the hangers poke through the shoulders. It breaks my heart! The clothing survived 60 (or 70 or 80 or 90) years and in a moment of airheadedness I ruined it. *sadness*. We just really need to know the limitations our clothing can take and respect it, because it won’t come back again once it’s gone. Museums and private collections often times seem to focus on high end designer or couture garments, but I truly believe that in time people will be just as interested in what an average person wore, and that’s much harder to trace although the camera certainly did catch a lot of things that in past centuries were lost except through the romantic interpretation of painters. Am I saying that I think vintage clothing should never be worn? Of course not! I wear it and love it, but I think just having a consciousness and respect for it is important. I hope someday I can share my love of vintage and antique clothing with my grandkids, but I certainly want to enjoy it in the meantime.
4- Sewing vintage is investing in yourself– I know nearly nothing as satisfying as knowing I completed a new technique successfully. It makes me very happy and proud of myself that I actually *did* what I set out to do. And, of course, there are times for whatever reason that I want to sling something across the room and cry because I can’t get the darn thing to do what I want it to do! But whatever love/hate relationship you happen to have with your project, learning to sew really is an investment in yourself. You are teaching yourself a dying art, and the more you put into learning the more rewards you will reap in your finished project. There’s constantly something to learn and new techniques to master if you want to, and that’s exciting to me. Learning to sew is also very useful. You won’t believe the amount of times you’ll be glad of your skills- not only for clothing but for household things and gifts for others, and the amount of money you’ll save in fixing something yourself instead of having it repaired.
5- Sewing vintage helps promote small business- this may sound like a bit of a stretch, but really- a little button here, a pattern there, fabric from here, thread from there- we have a lot of options of where we get our materials and supplies and there’s a bevy of small businesses devoted to the art of sewing. Etsy is a great place to shop online, as are mom and pop stores you may have in your town. Even if quilting is something you’d never be interested in a million years, some of the small town quilt shops offer adorable vintage or vintage inspired prints that make up into darling house dresses and home decor. I honestly prefer buying my supplies from small companies, though I admit I do make a run to the big fabric chain every once in a while. I almost never buy patterns from “The Big 3”, and buy vintage or from small companies instead. And don’t discount your local antique mall! If you have antique stores locally count yourself lucky because they are a dying breed with the age of online commerce. I find all sorts of handy supplies and tools in antique stores- vintage buttons, fabrics, patterns, and even hats and purses and gloves to go with the dress I’m making. When buying new I know that a lot of our materials are made overseas, but I try to be conscious of buying American made if I can. In any case, I’d rather see one blouse I made from materials than buy into the three thousand blouses of the same style that are mass produced and not purchased and thought “junk” by next season.
6- Sewing vintage is cost effective- It’s no use to deny that the price of vintage is going up and up and up. With vintage being fashionable the sky is the limit. The same can be said for vintage sewing patterns, of course, but if you’re on a budget sewing vintage is still a great way to go. I have made dresses for around $20 or under by using materials on sale, with a pattern in my stash, with thread I had on hand. Think of your sewing machine, supplies (scissors, seam rippers, rulers, etc), and sewing patterns as investments. The thread, materials, buttons, zippers, etc, can vary from project to project, but if you’re on a budget and you’ve got only about three patterns from the same era and the same maker you can mix and match this bodice with that sleeve with that skirt, and create all sorts of possibilities. Just remember which piece went to which pattern in the end ;). Tracing your patterns first also helps preserve your materials and keeps your investment secure.
7- Sewing vintage (and buying vintage) is environmentally concious- Until a co-worker pointed out that my lifestyle was “green” I honestly had no idea. I was just into old stuff. But it’s true- whether we’re sewing with vintage materials or we’re wearing vintage clothing it is recycling. We’re not filling landfills with last season’s garbage. A lot of times when I buy fabric I will buy from “jobbers” who essentally sell cast offs from previous season’s collections. I’ll also buy fabric online that’s someone’s “destash”. But I do buy new fabric- I admit. If there’s one thing I think I really need to work on it’s being conscious of where my fabric was milled and what kind of labor it entailed. I would be most grateful if anyone had any links to share about this 🙂
8- Sewing creates community– All of my very close girlfriends are creative in some way, and we have at some time or another sat down and worked on projects together. It’s a great time for bonding, and it’s a great way to encourage each other toward your goals, learn from each other, and inspire each other. It also can be quite dangerous (“Where did you get that fabric?” “I think I need a pattern like that”, “I think I need a 50s dress now, too”, etc…). There’s loads of communities both online and in towns that are devoted to the art of sewing, and more and more that are specifically devoted to vintage sewing. Even if I don’t have a local group, there’s gals all over the world who share their projects and techniques on the internet. Vintage is a pretty big scene and can be quite overwhelming to the shy, but vintage sewing is somewhat smaller and easier to maneuver and sometimes easier to talk about! Not only do they like vintage, but sewing, and often times specific eras. You’ll always have something to talk about.
9- Vintage sewing means you’re nearly guaranteed to have a one of a kind dress- and one that fits you the way you want, in the style you want, in the color you want, and from the fabric you want. There are very popular repros out there (I’m mostly thinking of the reprints the big pattern companies put out) and you *may* see someone in the similar pattern at an event, but really- the population of vintage gals who sew is still pretty small, so even then the changes are slim. If you get into collecting patterns you’ll be almost guaranteed a one of a kind dress, as early ones are pretty rare, and some I have I’ve never seen another copy in the nearly 10 years I’ve been actively looking. The longer you look for patterns the more you’ll become familiar with which ones are common and which aren’t. Personally, I see mostly multiples of WWII and after patterns , but even then it’s not a huge amount. Look up the pattern on vintage pattern wiki and there will often be links to sellers who have the pattern. Although sometimes it can be sporadic that a multiple sellers have the same pattern, when you get to a list of four or so links you can guess that a pattern isn’t quite so rare.
10- Sewing vintage combines creativity with practicality- really, the sky is the limit, especially if over time you start building up your pattern drafting and draping skills. When you reach that skill level you can look at a picture of a dress and make one yourself- whether it be high end couture, a movie costume, or a pattern that got away from you. It does take years to build up, and often times this approach is not *that* practical (I know I’ve spent over $200 on materials alone for some dresses), but when compared to the cost of a custom made garment (which often range to thousands of dollars) , you’re still cutting corners. You can choose fabrics you can wash in your washing machine to cut down on dry cleaning costs. Instead of spending $300 on a vintage garment, you can spend $100 to similar effect, but with your own twist. You can take a base pattern and add all sorts of bells and whistles to it (top stitching, buttons, pleats, ruffles, piping, etc) and make it look like a whole new garment. Just be honest with your skill level and work your way up- let your early creative endeavors be limited to fabric and trimming choice and work up your construction skills so you can be creative in that way. The Singer Sewing Book and Modern Dressmaking Made Easy by Mary Brooks Picken are two of my favorite vintage sewing books and a great place to start with combining inspiration and technique as they both cover a variety of techniques that can be used to decorative effect. And most of all have fun, because that’s what this should be about!