On Clothing and Sewing

Five years ago, during our first summer living in Ontario, my husband said something that sent my mind spinning in a near panic: Marian, this year we’re going to the office Christmas party. No ifs, ands, or buts!

Now, perhaps this has you rolling your eyes and thinking, Panic? Puh-leaze!

Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

Are you familiar with the saying, You can dress her up, but you can’t take her out? This is (was) me … in spades … except for the unfortunate fact that you couldn’t actually dress me up … because I had nothing to wear … and pessimistically believed I would never EVER be able to find something appropriate, because nothing EVER seems to fit me well …

When I voiced this lowly self-estimation to my husband, he (ever-supportive) vehemently disagreed that the taking-her-out part was a problem; however, he did recognize that the dressing-her-up part posed a bit of a conundrum. Alas, he wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Proverbially donning the pants in the relationship, he informed me that he was going to the Christmas party — with or without me — and that he sincerely hoped that by giving me enough lead time I would be able to find something appropriate to wear.

So, despite the fact that the prospect of a fitting room filled with “evening wear” inspires more dread than a root canal, I put on my big girl pants and went to the mall. And miracle of miracles, I DID manage to find something to wear for that first Christmas party.

I paired this with a just-above-the-knee black skirt, and it was a very middle-of-the-road outfit … I was neither the fanciest nor the plainest, which is a good spot for me.

Furthermore, reflecting that it felt really, really nice to be (for once in my life!) appropriately dressed, I’ve since made the effort to find other outfits, suitable for other special occasions.

From left to right, these tops were worn to a fall wedding, another Christmas party, a high school awards ceremony, and yet another Christmas party, all with either a long black skirt or a shorter black skirt, and all paired with a scarf.

But while I do now feel covered (pun intended) for dressier events, I’ve allowed my everyday wardrobe to sink to dismal levels of shabbiness, with nearly all my casual clothing hovering in some state of shrunken-ness, stretched-outed-ness, holey-ness, or — sigh — complete inappropriateness.

This is a mere drop in the bucket in my closet of shame…

I was going to tell you a long-winded story about how wearing the Green Eggs and Ham t-shirt outside the house caused one of my children to have words with me, but I’ve decided to skirt that and keep it short. Suffice to say a nice little grey cardigan worn overtop didn’t fix the egregious faux pas, nor did the fact that I happened to end up at the library on the day in question.

(The LIBRARY! Surely that would have made it all—

No. Just No.)


Now, if it were only my children’s opinions of my wardrobe that had me worried, I’d perhaps not be writing this post.

The fact is, I (me, myself, completely independently) am tired of looking shabby. And not only that, but I am also tired of being the idealist who rails against the fact that appearances shouldn’t matter, that that’s all superficial trappings and that it’s what’s on the inside, and the inside only, dammit, that counts.

(Appearances SHOULDN’T matter. But I am raising the proverbial white flag and ceding the battle:  Society 1: Marian 0)

Mixed up in all this though, is the acknowledgement that clothing possesses powers far beyond what “other people” think. I am just now coming to realize that my lack of effort in the clothing department has been affecting my state of well-being. If I am self-consciously tugging down a shrunken t-shirt, if I am wearing ill-fitting pants, if I look around and perceive that I am the least-well-dressed person in the room, this does nothing but erode my already shaky sense of self-confidence.

I’ve just turned 49. And I’ve set myself a goal: in this, the year before I turn 50, I would like to transform my wardrobe. I don’t need quantity, and I don’t need “perceived quality” (in other words, I don’t need designer labels). The only thing I want is to have a small range of well-fitting and flattering clothing, in a style that will go with my un-dyed and Egads!-it’s-positively-silvery-in-the-sunshine coif, something that fits with and says, I’m very close to 50 and I’m totally okay with that!

So what am I doing to further this goal?

I’m trying to get back to sewing.

You see, dear reader, I used to sew. I used to sew a LOT.

My mother was a seamstress extraordinaire, and although our relationship was such that I didn’t actually allow her to teach me much, I nevertheless grew up marinating in a can-do world of needles and pins and fabric and thread.

When I moved out, I inherited my mother’s old sewing machine, and a few years later, just before our daughter was born, my husband bought a serger for my birthday.

And Oh! how I loved that birthday present! The serger lit a creative fire under me, and I sewed my heart out: clothing for the kids, clothing for me, home decor items, cloth Christmas gift bags, aprons to give away as gifts …

At the time, we were living in Saskatchewan, in a house with a den on the main floor. My sewing machine and serger and ironing board were set up 24/7 and I was the queen of snatched-moment creativity, capitalizing on every spare five minutes I could find. And the thing is, I felt really good about this. Not only was sewing a creative endeavour, but equally important, it was a frugal endeavour: to me, sewing = saving money. As a newly minted SAHM who had been used to bringing in a paycheque, this was my way of contributing to the work of raising a family.

I sewed both our dresses.

But when we moved to Minnesota in the fall of 1999 all of this suddenly shifted.

Now, there were a number of factors at play: not only had I lost my let’s-close-the-door-on-this-mess sewing room, but fashion was changing. Suddenly, my hitherto-pleasing (and easy-to-sew) 90s-styled tents shirts and dresses felt formless and tent-like huge.

BUT — I also lay part of the blame directly on Target and Kohl’s.

So, I’ve just gotta pause here, because:

Oh. my. word! 



For a Canadian who had only ever been to the U.S. once before, there was something positively heady and swoon-worthy about this new-to-me over-the-top American* abundance on display in Kohl’s and Target!

But … there was also, I soon discovered, something very disheartening about it all: if I could buy a $5 Merona shirt then why the heck should I bother sewing it? For a seamstress whose love of sewing hinged on both creativity AND frugality, this nulling-and-voiding of one of the addends zeroed the entire equation. (Um, yes, mathematically speaking, adding a zero does not result in a sum of zero. This is purely metaphorical math I’m employing.)

And thus, just like that, I became a consumer of cheap fashion, and for the past 16 years my closet has more-or-less been a revolving door (albeit a very slow moving, somewhat minimalistic one) of buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, buy, give to Goodwill, with my satisfaction in my wardrobe ebbing and flowing with the fickleness of fit and hemlines.

Now, I had tried, last spring, to get myself out of this rut by sewing this:

If this at all resembles a clown top it’s because I ACTUALLY took a Halloween costume pattern and modified it

And using a remnant to “try out” this pattern:

McCall’s 7093

Unfortunately, neither top worked out very well. The first one was based on the blue special occasion top I had bought, and although I measured carefully and adjusted the Halloween pattern, my creation elicited comments of that looks like maternity wear from my two teenagers. As for the second top, it was so unflattering as to make the real thing not even worth trying.

So I gave up, and once again put my sewing machine and serger away. I’d occasionally wander into Winners (TJ Maxx) to see if they had anything in the way of casual clothing that worked. (Nope.) And I even, once, wandered into a small independent clothing store which I had heard advertised on the radio. I was the only customer in the store that morning and the owner was a very chatty woman who told me at length about her lines of Canadian-designed, responsibly-manufactured clothing … but as she left me to ponder hangers arrayed with a selection of that-won’t-suit-me, it’s-lovely-but-where-would-I-wear-it, that’s-too-expensive I literally began to sweat under the pressure of taking something off the rack and going to a fitting room in order to try it on. And when someone else mercifully came into the store I slipped out the door with a breezy, Thanks, I’ll be back!

I lied, dear reader; I haven’t been back.

And then, a couple of months ago, I watched The True Cost, a documentary about the societal and environmental problems of the “fast fashion” industry. A review of the documentary would be an entire post in-and-of itself, and because I know Rita has a post brewing about this issue I’m not going to dwell on the movie itself.

And besides — apart from the environmental impact of clothing (which, my goodness, WAS an eye-opener) — the fact is that unless you’ve been living under a rock, much of the movie isn’t actually news. It wasn’t to me, and I’m sure it wouldn’t be to you. I’ve known for a very long time that sweat shops were not something I should be supporting with my dollars. I’d heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. I’d also heard that Joe Fresh labelled clothing, a brand which makes up at least 75% of my current casual wardrobe, was found in the debris.

So what this movie has been for me then, is a tipping point. If I don’t want to take part in this destructive system, then what are my alternatives?

  • I could start to scour thrift stores for quality used clothing.
  • I could attempt to source responsible clothing by returning to that small, independent clothing store, or by checking out one of the handful of others located in our very small city.
  • I could do my homework and take a weekend shopping junket to Toronto.

However …

  • It’s absolutely not in me to sift through scads of stuff at Goodwill in order to unearth a treasure.
  • I don’t possess the self-esteem necessary to shop at a tiny store, one in which the mirrors might be outside the fitting rooms, or one in which a saleslady might make a tactless quip about my figure.
  • Toronto is too far/too busy/too hoity-toity.
  • “Responsible” clothing is expensive and unjustifiable for this SAHM who has no office to go to or meetings to attend.

And it’s this last point that has become the clincher: if responsible clothing (unless found at a thrift shop) necessarily translates into more expensive clothing, then once again:

Sewing = creativity + frugality

And that means this seamstress is back in business.

It’s been weeks of trial and error, but I’m absolutely determined to make this work. I’m happy to report that I have learned a tremendous amount, and more importantly, I’m finally starting to see some success. BUT, because I’ve once again been way too long-winded, I’m going to leave the “showing” for my next post.

* I must explain — lest you wonder, But are there no stores in Canada? — that my reaction to Kohl’s was coloured by two things:

  1. Prior to moving to the U.S., I hadn’t been much of a shopper. It is entirely possible that our city in Saskatchewan had a huge variety of fantastic, bursting-at-the-seams-with-stock clothing shops, but because it was my habit to shop for clothing at the fabric store, I simply didn’t know about them.
  2. I had just — a week or so before packing up the house — traipsed through the cavernous, nearly-empty, EVERYTHING-MUST-GO space that was the soon-to-be-closed Eaton’s store in our Saskatchewan city’s downtown core. Eaton’s was one of Canada’s flagship department stores, and it began devolving in the fall of ’99. If you’ve ever had occasion to walk through a closing-down department store, and then shortly afterwards visited a Kohl’s, I’m fairly certain the contrast would astound you as well!