Ever since I have been part of the sewing community, I came across two recurring themes. First is that RTW is bad, poorly made, using terrible fabrics and could never compare to handmade clothes (especially couture). The second is the fear of people who make their own clothes that they are not good enough and could never stand to scrutiny when compared to shop-bought clothes.
So I really wanted to explore this apparent conflict between homemade and RTW and whether there is a place in our wardrobe for both.
To note I am not talking about handmade but rather of homemade or home-sewn. This is a pet peeve of mine because we often forget that even shop-bought clothes are still made by hand, albeit in an industrial setting, but made by people nevertheless.
So let’s dig a bit deeper into these two scenarios.
“RTW is the source of all evil”
I have heard it many times, people who really aspire to have a 100% self-made wardrobe and completely eliminate those evil shop-bought clothes from their wardrobes.
Please allow me to strongly disagree with this one. And here’s why.
IT’S ABOUT CLOTHES THAT LAST
In the grander scheme of things, a sustainable wardrobe is a wardrobe made of items that last and get worn. They can be self-made or RTW and both are equally worthy and valuable. So eliminating RTW out of your wardrobe just because they are not handmade is not a productive mindset.
The oldest item in my wardrobe is an RTW skirt that was a hand me down, so must be a good 30 years old if not longer, and not only it still looks amazing, but I still get a lot of enjoyment out of putting it on every time. So both physical and emotional longevity. Conversely, I have clothes that I made that I hardly wear at all, and although they are perfectly fine, I never reach for.
Another blame that gets thrown at the RTW clothes is that they are badly made, made fast and in general, soullessly mass-produced.
While there are a lot of badly made clothes in the shops, you, as a discerning buyer (especially knowing what you now know about what good looks like from your sewing experience), can steer well away from those.
Mass-produced does not necessarily mean badly made. In most cases, it will mean produced very efficiently, with highly specialised machines and techniques that were specifically developed to work in an industrial workflow. Many RTW manufacturers have strict quality controls in place and they need to make sure that the finishings are impeccable.
I often found myself turning RTW garments inside out and trying to figure out different finishes that I have not tried before. That is how I learned to machine my lining to my zipper tape instead of slip-stitching. Every time a pattern instruction asks for hand sewing, I always think that surely there must be an easier way, as no one in the industry would ever hand sew anything.
I also find that the industry mostly has access to fabric qualities and types of fibres that are not available to the home sewers. For example, technical fabrics like waterproofs and high-performance shells, or laces and lingerie and shapewear fabrics. So there are certain types of garments that I won’t attempt in a hurry when I can find a perfectly decent RTW version that fits me fine.
RTW DOES NOT FIT ME
Now, speaking of fit, this is another issue people have with RTW. And this is one I tend to agree.
Back to the standardisation point, RTW is made to be efficient, so they can’t make a variation for every body type and size combination. They have to make standard clothes for standard people. The trouble is that there is no such thing as a standard body (or select few that are the exception rather than the norm).
And while I don’t have a problem with this per se, fashion is a business, after all, what I take great objection to is the associated marketing that is trying to tell us that it’s about the clothes and not the body. They are selling us the myth of the size 0 models upon which a sack would look sexy, but when the same garment, graded to a regular size, goes on a regular body, it does not deliver the promised benefits. So of course, we are lead to believe it’s the fault of the body. And that is wrong!
SAVE THIS FOR LATER ON PINTEREST
“MY SELF MADE CLOTHES ARE NOT AS GOOD AS RTW’
Now, let’s tackle the converse problem. As home sewers, we often may feel that our products are not as good as what can be bought from the shops. I used to fall into that trap when I first started sewing, but I feel much more relaxed about it now.
There a quite a few resources out there that deal with how to make your handmade clothes look more professional. And there are many quick wins that I wish I knew when I first started sewing, like pressing properly at the very least.
Yes, my clothes don’t look like RTW, but I don’t want them to
The whole point about making your own clothes is self-expression, and being creative. So why would you like to look like everybody else who wears the same themed clothes, based on the same trends from the same shops?
I think we should take pride in our imperfections because they make us unique. However, that does not mean not improving and learning from mistakes to make the next garment even better.
Homemade = amateurish
I think the days of making clothes at home because we had no other options and long gone. Also, we live in a world where information and ways to solve problems, including fit, is at our fingertips. Also, there are so many patterns available and it’s easy to choose the brands that work for our body shapes and that we know will fit well.
I also feel that we are beginning to overcome a bit of an image problem that sewing had from back in the days when it was a necessity and not a hobby. In the past, you sewed because you could not afford RTW, so you made do as best as you could.
However, because of the new wave of making and, to some extent, to the young and hip crowds on social media that did not have any hang-ups, sewing is cool again and even aspirational. So I’m glad to note that home sewing is more and more a creative expression and a passion and less something your gran used to do.
BRANDED CLOTHES ARE BETTER
I personally have never been a brand person and most of my RTW clothes are average high-street at best, and even some ‘fast fashion’ brands like H&M. When I buy new, which is very rare and usually shoes, I look for what that brand stands for, what their environmental policies are and how that product is made. I look for quality and durability, and unfortunately, even with some big names, this is not guaranteed.
So this argument has very little sway with me. Also, it’s so easy as a fairly experienced sewer to reconstruct or knock-off in a nice way some RTW piece that I might like, but I don’t want to buy new.
And if I must have some designer pieces that I cannot live without, there are always charity and vintage shops where I can find some gems.
SUSTAINABILITY AND RTW vs Handmade
We often equate homemade with sustainable and RTW with unsustainable. How I wish things were so black and white!
Because the answer to ‘what is the most sustainable….?’ is most of the time ‘it depends’, my one true measure for sustainability is utilisation/resources expanded. So, how many uses did you get out of one particular garment vs the resources that went into producing it.
If you make a t-shirt by hand from hemp you grew in your garden, spun and wove yourself and dyed naturally, but wore it once and threw it away, it can be worse than buying a fast fashion t-shirt that you wear for 20 years and then recycle into cleaning rags or stuff into a draft excluder.
This is, of course, an extreme example, but as you can see, it really has nothing to do with whether it’s handmade or RTW. It’s about the choices we make on how to behave towards that particular garment.
So RTW can be very sustainable if worn for a very long time, washed less frequently and disposed of appropriately. And the same can be true for handmade.
Having debunked these two myths, I feel really strongly that our self-made wardrobe and our RTW pieces can happily coexist in a thoughtful closet. We should make sure that we both sew mindfully, as much as buy quality, investment pieces and taking care of them all equally.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. LET ME KNOW HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT RTW VS HANDMADE AND DO YOU THINK THAT YOU ARE ‘CHEATING’ ON SEWING IF YOU END UP BUYING THINGS THAT YOU COULD MAKE?
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