It’s in our human nature to adorn ourselves with garments that bring a tangible sense of identity, which ground us in our selves and the groups we wish to belong to. It’s speculated that people have been wearing clothes for over 170,000 years: from sealskin parkas of indigenous cultures that may predate our recorded history, to the 16th-19th Centuries, which were colored with bespoke beaver skin top hats in the west, and sashiko adorned garments in the east. And to today, as we begin to reinvent our vast accumulated global archive of garments into new silhouettes by wearing them in new ways or creating something new.
In the beginning, we made the garments we needed with our hands, thread, and a needle. Today, we have malls and landfills overflowing with mass-produced machine- and unethically-handmade garments. The purpose and pleasure behind clothes is being pushed aside, while the profit of massive companies is prioritized. With almost twice as many hands as people in the world, how have the majority of us become so distant from the origin stories of the clothes we wear every day?
I wonder, “Were my clothes made with inspired hands?” Most of us won’t know the answer. I’m left feeling detached from the origins of my clothes, and in turn, I feel a bit further from my principles and identity. How could something I depend on each day have a story that is such a mystery to me? There’s a reason why we keep the sweater our grandmother knit for us, the shirt we bought directly from a small fashion design studio, or some personally tailored heirloom trousers. Handmade fashion serves us through the pleasure of knowing that we or someone kind put time and care into making something we needed. Most will spend the majority of their short time on earth wearing clothes, so we should consider being intentional about it. Similar to the joy that tending to a garden can bring, tending to our closet helps us feel closer to our human nature.
Of course, we can’t all afford an entirely bespoke wardrobe. But perhaps we could manage to source a needle, thread, and a slice of time to mend a hole, or even make a garment ourselves. Perhaps we have a talented friend or relative who can help us. Collaborating on a garment with someone, or doing it ourselves, creates a haven for a primal kind of human connection. The next best thing is to re-home used clothing — it helps to keep us at arms length from fast fashion, and encourages us to go for what we really want, rather than what’s trending.
I wanted to hear the voices behind some of today's handmade garments in my area, so I spoke with a few Toronto-based fashion designers to learn more about what handmade fashion means to them — Gabe Ting of The Wandering Wit (work-wear, through and through), Eske Schiralli of Mad mfg (modern designs with a sustainable and deconstructive approach), and Anastasia Ikonnikova of NUIT Clothing Atelier (bringing the Middle Ages into our present day). In an effort to focus on the primal delight that garment making can bring, my questions were distilled around an acronym I’ve coined:
. Purpose, Longevity, Ethics, Asymmetry, Style, Utility, Refashion, and Empowerment. Gabe, Eske, and Ana’s responses are collected in the channels below.
Observing the garments of fashion designers, big and small, we also see a part of who they are. Whenever I get dressed, I ask myself, What do I need from my clothes? Is it going to rain? Am I going to be sitting a lot? Walking? Do I want to wear something entirely impractical but completely stunning? I went to a party this summer and needed a fun fancy dress to wear, so I made one out of purple sheets and sheer curtains! The dress was cut from a wide rectangular zero-waste pattern, with gathering at the waist and long sheer sleeves. I decorated it with a bow and a couple jingle bells. It was extremely comfortable and satisfying to wear. It was much cheaper than buying a dress, and because I made it, it got a lot of love from the party goers. I felt proud to be wearing something that served its purpose so perfectly, and was born from my own two hands. As I was meeting new people at the event, a part of what they found out about me was learned through seeing what kind of dress I decided to make, and the fact that I took the time to make one myself.
When clothes are made by the volition of an individual with a purpose, rather than a corporation’s pursuit for a quick profit, they are made to withstand their desired lifespan. From an Icelandic sheep wool sweater that effortlessly lasts through generations, to a cotton T-shirt that has earned patches and darning throughout its hard life and will only fully retire once it manages to turn to dust, the quality of life that a garment lives is also usually considered in handmade fashion. It’s quite accessible to source high quality materials second hand, although it may involve some deconstruction. When you’re investing your own time into making something, there’s a pleasure in making it to last so that you can get good use out of it. Personally, my stitches often come out very messy when I’m using a machine, or weak when I’m doing it by hand. But with a handmade garment, I’m naturally drawn to mend it when a stitch unravels, extending its life on and on, making due with whatever construction abilities I have. It feels a bit as if I’m putting a band-aid on a child I'm responsible for — I love and care for them!
Making garments by hand serves as an opportunity to express our ethics through a fabric megaphone. We might want to avoid fast fashion, express ourselves fully, provide an example of what it looks like to sustainably up-cycle, or question beauty standards. Ethics are complicated and subjective, and each garment maker has their own set of them…
Whether it’s of a precise deconstruction design, or the accidental signature of your first sewing project, the asymmetry of a handmade garment tells a story of its purpose or origin. Signs of mending on an old pair of socks are badges that honor their history and hard work. Alternatively, an intentional asymmetrical pattern may masterfully suit a body and provide a new material voice to its wearer. When we make something by hand, we’re drawn to make it in our own unique way, instead of some mechanical standard way — it’s a gateway to innovation!
We can spend hours upon hours shopping, yet never find what we’re dreaming of. We might settle for something that we end up never actually wearing. Why not serve your imagination by sewing your dreams into reality. The next thing I want to make is a cape. I believe a cape is inherently an iconic garment, so my hypothesis is that to make one which suits my personal style and needs perfectly will be incredibly grounding. When I visited Ana at NUIT, I tried on a wool cape of hers. The contrast of its soft comfort, and its semblance of a mysterious hero’s cape made me feel calm and powerful, which is just the kind of energy I need more of in my life. I will hold that experience with me as I go about crafting one of my own. What energies are you trying to channel and express with your hand-made clothes?
A good garment has utilitarian details that uniquely serve an individual’s needs. I think about the scene in Hannah Montana where Dolly is wearing jeans with no pockets…
Even though garments like pants with no pockets might seem un-utilitarian, to some, it’s what works for them, and might intertwine with their style. It’s up to preference! When we make our own clothes, we can tend to our personal utilitarian needs.
Refashioning comes in many forms. Maybe you want to reimagine a traditional trouser pattern, or perhaps you’d just like to alter a shirt to fit your body better. Refashioning adds your voice to a garment. What do you want to say and how? Or more simply, what changes would make a garment more practical for your body? Refashioning gives us the freedom to decide. Recently, I took in the waist of some black jeans that fit ideally otherwise, and now it’s as if they were made for me. I could wear them forever — so I know their lifespan will be well spent!
When you hear the origin story of any major designer, you’ll likely find out how fashion design empowered them. How they were able to translate their ideas and beliefs into garments over years of experimenting. It’s empowering to hold an artifact of your potential, even better when you can wear it. Trying your hand at garment making could also inspire and deepen your connection to the people around you. To alter the jeans I mentioned earlier, I borrowed my friend Carling’s mom’s sewing machine and worked in the kitchen of her family’s home. Not only did deciding to mend these pants bring a better garment into my wardrobe, it also brought me closer to a dear friend and her family. Carling’s sister and I were all doing different crafts together at the table. Carling was beading something, while her sister drew, and I sewed. It felt like we were quiet trees in a forest, letting our roots communicate while crafting in a huddle. And when one of us finished something, or came to a creative block, we cheered each other on.