I started to sew for a simple, selfish reason: I just wanted cool clothes that actually fit my body. I was a very tall teenage girl in an era long before online shopping was popular, living in a small town where the mall options were limited at best. (Our mall did not even have The Limited.) And I was lucky enough to have a crafty midwestern mom who had a sewing machine set up in our basement. One day, I started using it.
I did not think then that I was forever altering my relationship to buying clothes. If anything, I was just following a teenage whim. I rode my bike to the Goodwill up the street, bought some floral bedsheets, and turned them into pajama pants. (This was not couture. I remember mismatching the crotch seams and having to resew them with my mom’s help.) Soon after, like any good grunge girl of the mid-’90s, I made a skirt out of neckties. And then I was hooked.
My skills improved as finding clothes that almost fit and adapting them became a hobby, then a habit. By college, I was making whole garments. The era of fast fashion was dawning, but Forever 21 and H&M had yet to make inroads into my town—and didn’t carry pants with my lengthy inseam anyway. In order to have an aesthetic I loved at a price I could afford, I had to make most things myself.
Having a basic understanding of how to make and alter clothes has fundamentally shaped the way I dress myself. But if I’d grown up in the age of $10 Shein tops and $15 PrettyLittleThing dresses, I’m not sure I would have found my way to a sewing machine. This is doubly true because fast-fashion brands are now the ones that tend to cater to extended sizes. I probably would have ordered those pajama pants with just a few clicks, then tried not to think about the garment worker who’d made them, or how many times I’d wear them before the seams unraveled and I threw them in the trash.
Fast-fashion behemoths know that their customers are aware of the many reports detailing the hazardous materials and labor violations underlying the mountains of landfill-bound garments. They apply the word sustainable to select items made with recycled polyester and nylon; meanwhile, the bloated market for disposable clothes just keeps expanding. For shoppers, fast fashion is cheap and easy; truly sustainable clothing consumption appears expensive and confusing. Many small-batch or eco-friendly brands have limited size options, and even with the rise of secondhand-shopping apps, sifting through inventory can be time-consuming. Impulse clicking “Confirm order” in several sizes and then going through a returns process later seems so much easier by comparison.
Learning to sew will not only help you avoid the environmental horrors of modern retail; it will show you the thrill of wearing clothes that actually fit. This is not an argument for a cottage-core lifestyle in which you hand-make every raw-linen garment that touches your body. I’m more for an incremental approach: Acquiring a few basic sewing skills, little by little, will change how you get dressed. Even if you never make a whole garment from scratch, knowing how to adjust a seam will make secondhand shopping easier and more accessible. And when you’re looking for new clothes, knowing your measurements will help you order only items that are likely to fit. The goal is not to become a master tailor. It’s to become fluent in how clothes fit your body.
When you sew for yourself, you really learn your body. You also relearn how to think about your body. Even a beginner-level sewing project makes clear that it is impossible to reduce your complex contours and spans to a single number or letter on a tag. And you learn how you like things to fit you: where you prefer your waistband to hit on your belly, what inseam works for a crop length versus ankle, how low you like a neckline to go. Once you know these things, you will never acquire clothes the same way again.
Sewing skills open up the possibilities of secondhand shopping. Instead of hoping to strike gold with the perfect fit, you can see garments for their possibilities. That dress would be perfect if I took off the sleeves, you’ll catch yourself thinking. Or, I could hem those trousers in about five minutes. And the same goes for your own rarely worn items. The ritual of a closet clean-out takes on a new twist when you can alter things to match your current shape and style. I’ve transformed a shift dress into a skirt and boxy top, turned an old bedsheet into the backing material for a quilt, and cropped too many T-shirts to count. Instead of ending up in the trash or a giveaway pile, these items have gotten a second spin through my wardrobe.
Learning to sew has also profoundly affected how I buy new clothes. Knowing my body and my measurements means I can check the actual dimensions of an item before I buy it. Few retailers list those numbers, so in many cases I have to email customer-support representatives to ask for actual inches instead of the meaningless designations of S, M, or L. This might sound annoying, but it’s way more efficient than scrolling through dozens of comments, hoping someone with extra-long legs has noted where the pants hit them. No more guesswork! Measurements help me feel confident that an item will fit, which means I don’t have to order multiple sizes or fret about two-week return windows.
I have simply become a more discerning shopper. Understanding a bit about how a garment is constructed means I know what a quality seam looks like, and working with various fabrics means I know how various materials feel between my fingers. The differences between polyester and modal and linen are immediately apparent. Paying attention to these details means that, when I do buy new clothes, I tend to save up for better-quality ones. And I have a bit more money to do so, because the rest of my closet is secondhand or handmade.
Ready to join me in sewing eco-bliss? Evangelists who tout their head-to-toe “me made” looks have always been a little alienating to me; I would lower the stakes by finding a few YouTube or TikTok accounts devoted to repurposing thrifted materials, and then experimenting with tweaks to a garment you’d otherwise throw away.
A few other dos and don’ts:
Don’t use that 1970s sewing machine you inherited from your great aunt. It will take ages to thread and be bulky to store. Do spend less than $100 on a basic new machine that will be easier to thread and move to and from a table or desk. Get a fresh pair of scissors (ones that you use only to cut fabric) and some straight pins. That’s all you need.
Don’t feel like you need to throw out half your closet and fill it with homemade items. Do take stock of your wardrobe and body. Take your measurements from top to bottom and write them down. I keep mine in a notes app so they’re always handy. Measure the garments you own that fit you well. (You just might learn that all your favorite pants have the same rise and waist size! Who knew?) Look closely at an item in your closet and examine how it’s constructed. Where are the seams? This is how you start to learn the anatomy of a garment. Don’t feel like you need to do anything to these clothes—it’s just about noticing what’s already working for you.
Don’t rush to a fabric store and buy a bolt of new material. The linens and housewares sections of your local thrift store are great sources of decent-quality fabrics. Cotton bedsheets are the cheapest and easiest sewing material for beginners. But any fabric that feels good in your hand—and isn’t too thick or too stretchy—will do. Wash it, dry it, and iron it before you start.
Don’t try to make a wedding gown right off the bat. Try a beginner project like a boxy top, an A-line skirt, or a tote bag. Or take one of the clothing items that fits you well (here, too, avoid stretchy fabric) and use it as the pattern to make something new. The goal is not to win a CFDA emerging-designer award but to develop a basic understanding of how clothes are made. Play. Experiment. Pay attention.
You will mess up. You will sew the butt seam to the side seam and create an unwearable pair of “pants” with no leg opening. You will accidentally snip the center of a huge piece of fabric, destroying hours of work. You will get big tangled knots in the thread of your machine. You will curse and scream and tear your hair out. You will occasionally destroy an item you were hoping to rescue.
In these moments, it can help to remember that you have a higher purpose. You are not filling every corner of the Earth with nonbiodegradable tube dresses and puff-sleeve tops, and you won’t have to remember to return the sizes that didn’t fit. Best of all, when you do succeed in finishing a garment, you will receive compliments about your clothes. And you will respond, in the humblest tone you can bring yourself to adopt (which is really much closer to a brag), “Thanks. I made it.”
Trust me, it never gets old.
This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.