RTW vs Handmade | Is it really a competition?

RTW vs Handmade | Is it really a competition?

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.

(Header photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash)

“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.

QUALITY

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.

Is there a competition between our handmade and RTW wardrobe? Let's explore and debate!
Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

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.

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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!

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Is there a competition between our handmade and RTW wardrobe? Let's explore and debate!

“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.

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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.

Is there a competition between our handmade and RTW wardrobe? Let's explore and debate!
Not sure where on the high street I could find pink culottes like these. And I don’t care, I can make my own!

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.

Is there a competition between our handmade and RTW wardrobe? Let's explore and debate!
Photo by Crew on Unsplash

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.

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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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18 Comments

  1. 11 March 2020 / 7:50 AM

    Interesting post! I completely agree about the myth that RTW is shoddily made – at least in the UK everything I look at in the shops has lots of detailing and is well finished. The higher end brands have amazing accuracy – never a mismatched seam or a wobbly binding to be seen. I wonder if it is different in other parts of the world.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:58 PM

      I think it depends on the brand. I have seen some pretty ropey clothes, and I have heard from people that they fall apart after a few washes. But I have also seen some great finishes on other High Street shops. I love taking inspiration, especially for the techniques and finishes!

  2. 11 March 2020 / 8:42 AM

    RTW is pretty vast – from v cheap fast fashion to higher end well made labels. I do think that consumers dont assess quality the same and dont care for clothes the same as perhaps they used to 20 plus years ago and a lot of fast fashion is made from some very low quality cloth.
    Clothes 20 years ago were much more expensive (when compared to take home pay) as they were expected to last much longer
    I tend to see clothes from the perspective of thrift shop as I remake old clothes and I find the quality of thrift shop is rather poor and filled with fast fashion and ironically the reduced rail is likely to have a great quality wool coat or silk dress which may have a dated cut

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:56 PM

      Yes, that is a very good point! What annoys me the most about cheap RTW is that is devaluing the work of all the people involved in fashion production, and they are so so many. I would hope that as sewers, we have more of an appreciation of how complicated it is to make any piece of clothing and therefore value it more.
      I am not a big thrift shopper, but I am getting more and more into it for the pieces that I can’t sew myself. But you are right, from my experience with the charity sector in the UK, the quality has gone down in recent years.

  3. 11 March 2020 / 9:49 AM

    What I really think is also terrible, is to replace RTW that fits, you like and is wearable with handmade. Just because it’s RTW (and therefore bad), replacing something good with something new self-made why? As you have written, Independent of RTW or handmade wear it as long as possible and care for it.
    I also once heard that hobbsyewists waste about 40% of the fabric. Substantial is something different. But that’s a bit of your topic.
    My wardrobe is a mix of old and RTW and handmade. My oldest piece is Dirndl bodice from my grandma, worn very often, refitted and mended. My newest addition are a pair of handmade pants out of deadstock fabric, that will be hopefully be a long time part of my life

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:50 PM

      Could not agree more! And yes, we do end up wasting fabric, mostly because of the fabric requirements on patterns, that are bigger than what is really necessary. Such a lovely story about your grandma’s dirndl!

  4. 11 March 2020 / 6:13 PM

    Great post – totally agree. I have some RTW that fit and I adore!

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:48 PM

      Thank you, Susan! Yes, having pieces that you can adore, handmade or RTW is the main objective.

  5. 11 March 2020 / 7:30 PM

    Ah, a voice of reason. Thanks for the excellent post. My wardrobe is also a combination of both self made and RTW. If we think about what we purchase/make, we can have a pleasing, sustainable and stylish wardrobe we can enjoy and be proud of.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:47 PM

      Thank you, Linda! This is a principle I have been trying to apply as much as I can to my own wardrobe and stopped buying new clothes in 2015. I try to take good care of what I have and sew the pieces that I might need to fit in the gaps. So far, it’s working pretty well.

  6. 11 March 2020 / 7:36 PM

    Fantastic article – couldn’t have said it better. Very much a mix of RTW and handmade in my wardrobe. I don’t buy RTW anymore (had lots of fit issues which made it difficult to buy much), but I have lots of 20-30 year old clothes that I still wear. They have lasted well, anything newer has tended wear very quickly. I would say it is probably the quality of the fabric, rather than the skill used for construction that is the problem. I do like pattern-matching though across seams, when was the last time you saw an RTW skirt where the pattern matched across the back seam, or a pair of checked RTW pjs where there was any attempt to line up the checks?

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:45 PM

      Thank you, Nicola! I agree that older garments from years ago tend to last longer. I haven’t bought any new clothes since 2015, so I can’t really compare, but I know from my work that the quality standards have dropped in the average high street shop. And oh, don’t get me started on the pattern matching. Although I do realise that the fabric matching wastes so much more fabric and it’s not efficient in the industry, I do love some nicely placed lines.

  7. 11 March 2020 / 9:09 PM

    My main concern when comparing handmade with RTW has always been that it actually can take a lot of practice (and unwearable garments) to get to the point where a sewer can confidently wear what they make. This can mean a lot of wasted fabric, notions and electricity. Tho at least fitting was a lot simpler when I was younger…

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:41 PM

      That is such a great point, Violet, and one I often struggle with myself. That is why I hate making toiles, because of the fabric waste, but then if you end up with a garment that doesn’t fit, you also wasted fabric, not to mention time and energy. Tough one… Thanks for raising such an interesting point!

  8. artcoopsville
    11 March 2020 / 10:19 PM

    I have some very well lived RTW garments, but I started sewing as I struggled to find clothes that fit. Over the last few years I discovered that sewing helps me achieve a good fit, better than RTW. My sewing skills are good and I love to wear unique styles.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:39 PM

      That’s awesome that you found a way to get the best fit! Also, sewing is so much fun, so win-win there, right?

  9. 13 March 2020 / 8:54 PM

    I’m another one with ancient fitting RTW and problems finding RTW to fit now, so I am dressmaking to get clothes to fit and bring the orphan RTW wardrobe items back into rotation by making clothes to wear with them. I don’t want to get rid of my RTW clothing and if I can find RTW clothes that fit, fill the gaps and make my wardrobe work then I am happy to buy them. I’m also trying to shop my stash and remake things that don’t work before buying new fabric.

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      15 March 2020 / 7:38 PM

      That’s such a sensible approach! Sorting out orphans really is a key step towards a more streamlined wardrobe. And shopping the stash is also a great way forward! Thanks for your comment.

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