When I was a little girl I was obsessed with making dolls clothes. I would hand stitch things until I was allowed near a sewing machine, and begged my mother to teach me to sew. My Nonna eventually bought me my very first sewing machine around the age of 9 or 10, which only served to solidify my desire to learn to make my own clothes. Surprisingly, I didn’t study textiles at school when elective subjects rolled around. I couldn’t tell you why, though I suspect it probably conflicted with Art or Photography. I do remember sewing in the junior classes and being the only one allowed to make whatever they wanted while everyone else fumbled around with the sewing machines, but that’s really my only memory of that time period.
While forming my own sense of style as a teenager I settled comfortably amongst the bohemian “hippy” style, with long flowing skirts, flared jeans, and tie up tops. I began messing around with scraps of fabric and thrifted scarves, making tops for my best friend, and playing around with shapes. Eventually I bullied my mum into helping me make something out of a commercial pattern, and in an age where everyone lived in jeans, shorts, and miniskirts, I was proudly wearing my two hand-made dresses. This process was my first real experience in understanding how commercial pattern sizing is very different to commercial clothing. Patterns definitely do not make you feel great about your size, especially as a long-suffering overweight teenager. I did my best to swallow my fears of the measurements, and focussed on how great it felt to make my very own clothes. Looking back on it now, the funny thing about those two dresses is that the fabric I chose is still something I would choose now (some 15 years later), far removed from my bohemian style and more firmly in my vintage pinup style instead.
I dreamed of making my own formal dress, designing and working it out all on my own despite having absolutely no knowledge of how to do so. I’m one of those frustrating people who automatically wonders how to make something, rather than where to buy it… And for my 18th birthday my best friend coordinated all of my friends to put in and buy me a brand new sewing machine. Looking back on that, I’m certain she put in quite a bit of her own money towards it despite rarely even splurging her hard earned money on herself. By the end of that year, however, my weight skyrocketed and I felt too ashamed to make the dress I dreamed of. Instead, I begged my dad to help me buy something commercial that was more fashionable than my heart really longed for. Normally not one to just fit in, that’s all I wanted at the time as I felt I stuck out due to my ever growing size.
Despite that experience, that little light inside of me telling me to design and create remained shining within, and from that point on would begin to brighten very rapidly. That summer I found a retro bikini pattern in a relatively new girls magazine (Frankie) and resolved myself to sew once more. I made my sisters a bikini each for Christmas, and later one for myself with fabric mum had been hoarding since the 70s. I’ve since lost that damn pattern, but am hoping I will unearth it at some point. I do, however, still have that bikini with the retro fabric so I may just have to draft a pattern off that instead! I’ll admit, the ones I made for my sisters weren’t great. I had no idea about using ballpoint needles for stretch fabric, or different stitches. I was just fumbling around and working it out. Kind of how I approach life in general, really.
After high school I started working in admin straight away. I felt a duty to put my creativity aside and to get a job and earn money. The thing is, that never did really satisfy me, and a year later I decided to apply to study fashion. I’ll never forget the tears of joy upon receiving my acceptance. Those two years were some of the most wonderful and fun times of my life. If there is one point in my life I would relive, it would be studying fashion. I met some beautiful people (friends and teachers), and learned some wonderful lessons. Again, my weight was always at the front of my mind during this time, but in learning patternmaking I also learned about proportions, and individual shapes and sizes. I was almost the same measurements as our standard drafting blocks at one point, which, as a long-time suffering overweight girl, blew my mind. I learned that our measurements mean nothing, really, in the grand scheme of things. When we were learning to draft patterns off our own bodies (picture a room full of women from all ages and nationalities) we were all so confronted by what the numbers said. Two girls who looked so different had similar measurements, and it really blew our minds. I think a few diets may have started that day, but for me it was that first glimpse of understanding that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my body.
Over the years I made things here and there; costumes for parties, gifts for friends, but rarely anything for myself. I was always chasing an ideal size and didn’t feel that I could put that much effort into something if I was “going to lose weight”. That phrase followed me around, taunting me forever as I yo-yo’d up and down, uuuup and down. I made my own wedding dress and was a little too ambitious in what I expected my waist to be, and ended up semi-starving myself to fit into it. Just more proof that I couldn’t make myself clothes because they just wouldn’t fit this body of mine. Body shame was rampant, and I was convinced I wasn’t allowed nice things unless I was a nice size. And then one day I got made redundant. On one hand, totally traumatic and terrible… but on the other hand totally liberating as I’d been working at a financial institution for 3 years and was granted a pleasant sum of money. Since I got a new job within a short period of time, I took myself shopping… Ok… I splurged on things that I had been eying off for ages, allowing myself to totally indulge in my growing love for the retro pinup style. I still have every single item I bought that day 4 years ago, and it is these items that lead me to return to making my own clothes again, and learning to appreciate my body.
I couldn’t afford to feed this clothing habit, with a wedding to pay for, and sensible grown up things to spend money on and save up for. So I treasured this handful of retro clothes, and kept them in good condition, buying cheaper variations of the style here and there, but mostly just cheap clothes of no particularly inspiring style. My shape went from the tiniest it had ever been (hello, wedding weight) to expanding beyond what I had ever been, and in this time a little part of me curled up in the dark and wept. As clothes stopped fitting, I stopped allowing myself to wear beautiful things. I didn’t deserve them, I told myself. And I had no intention of remaining that size, so I didn’t want to spend money on larger clothes if I’d be small again soon. Here and there I altered clothes for friends (I’m pretty good at hemming bridesmaid dresses now!), and began stockpiling patterns and fabric, but was never game enough to make anything. On the one hand, I was embarrassed to wear something hand made, and on the other I was ashamed of my body.
Two years ago, sick of feeling terrible about myself, I joined the gym. I worked hard on and off for a year, with very little changing in my weight, but a lot changing in my heart. I grew stronger physically and mentally, and the view I had on my body shifted. What had worked in the past was not healthy, nor was it kind on my body. I had to learn a new way. Almost a year ago now I started the Keto diet and the weight finally started to fall off. Slowly, but surely, all those beautiful dresses I’d bought before my wedding began fitting me and I grew bolder. I changed my hair to what I wanted it to be. I learned how to curl it, and how to style it retro. But one thing remained; how to increase my wardrobe without breaking the bank. Studying fashion meant I was a bit of a pattern snob, but at the same time I lacked the energy to put a lot of time and effort into drafting a new set of patterns, and my skills had sat dormant for so many years that I was certain I’d fail. At some point in the year I picked up an old half-made dress and figured the only thing I could do was just start trying. That pattern, however, really did my head in and I had to put it aside and start somewhere basic. So, I started with some circle skirts. About as basic as you can get. They were pretty average, and I’ve not worn one outside the house, but a little light came on that reminded me of how much I enjoyed making clothes.
My fabric stash began to grow, and so did my retro pattern collection. I drafted a basic pencil skirt, perfect for my shape, and with that things really started to flourish in my mind. My body is not average, and so I need to learn to adapt to suit it rather than try and make it fit the mould. I have a little waist and larger hips and bust – generally I’m a whole size different top and bottom compared to my middle! Slowly, but surely, with each garment I make, I am focussing less on the numbers versus my worth, and more on how to mould this piece to my body and show it off. I’ve stopped fearing the thought of being a 16 in a pattern (when I’m between a 10 and 12 in commercial clothes) and have learned to accept that in order to produce sizes, there has to be some sort of categorization system, which tends to be numerical. The thing is, I’ve learned I have to fade between a 12 and a 16 depending on the garment I’m making. So, does that make me a 12, or a 16, or does it even matter as long as the garment looks awesome?
I’m less afraid of wasting fabric now, knowing if it doesn’t turn out, or I need to change the sizing I can easily do that at will. There will always be adorable fabric, and I will always have a body to dress, so why not have some fun with it? I think as I learn about my body through making my own clothes I become more comfortable with the things I once saw as flaws. I am not flawless, I am perfectly imperfect, and that’s ok.