A guide to building a meaningful wardrobe

I am an aspiring sustainable-living human!

Most of the time, I’m failing, sometimes epically. Rarely, I give myself a pat on the back for ticking one box that I feel makes a tiny bit of a difference.

In 2015, I stopped buying clothes. Not from high-street shops, not from ethical shops, not from charity shops. No clothes at all! I hope I don’t sound self-congratulatory because I’m not. Alright, just a tiny little bit.

I had a huge head start, mind you, with two large wardrobes full to the brim, 60 pairs of shoes, and a serious sewing habit.

Three and a bit years later, I am still on the wagon but suddenly, I started feeling a bit less smug about my successes towards sustainable living. I still sewed clothes that didn’t fit my lifestyle, from fabric I didn’t like very much (and man, did I hoard the stash!), and I still had handmade items that I never wore. That is in spite of reducing my wardrobe by more than half (RTW and handmade alike – I am ruthless that way). Not to mention all the sewing to have something to post on the blog (I’m sure my fellow sewing bloggers know exactly what I mean!). This is almost as bad as my previous fast-fashion, ‘get them fast, get them cheap, get them out’ addiction used to be.

Pile on the guilt! I mean, I’m consuming unavoidable plastics every day, I shed microplastics every time I do laundry and probably I’m killing orangutans every time I wash my hair. And this one thing that made me feel a bit better about myself is not as worthy as I made myself believe.

Joy!

So I pondered through a lot of anxious tossing-and-turning nights. How can I tick most boxes in a way that did not involve living off-grid in the woods in Wales and wearing homespun hemp shirts?

I can’t stop sewing (addiction, remember?). I can’t stop craving the newness, because, you know, being human. I can’t stop expressing myself through what I walk out of the house in.

But what I can do is make what I add to my wardrobe mean something and wear the life out of them.

So, now I have a mission.

Build myself a meaningful wardrobe!

Err, what’s a meaningful wardrobe?

There is no one size fits all definition for a meaningful wardrobe, but one thing it’s definitely not is throwaway and bloated. The idea behind this project is to curate a set of garments that you love, that make you feel amazing and that you take care of for the long haul.

For a sustainability perspective, once a garment is produced, the worst thing you can do with it is to throw it away (be it landfill or incineration). Even the most sustainably made garment – say handmade by you from organic cotton that you got from a charity shop – if only worn only once and discarded, will have a serious environmental impact because it will contribute to textile waste to landfill or to climate change through carbon release from incineration.

A meaningful wardrobe is an intentional wardrobe. I absolutely get the appeal of the sales (especially fabric or pattern sales). The FOMO is real! But how many times you got home to realise you feel guilt instead of elation? Or that your shiny new garment (or fabric) does not match what you already have in your closet? Or it doesn’t fit you? So what I am advocating is thinking things through and curbing impulse purchases. Is this filling a gap I have identified already in my wardrobe? How many outfits can I build around this garment (sewn or shop-bought)? How many of the same or slightly similar have I already got? Do I wear them enough to justify another? How much of a difference is there between the new items and what I already own? Sleep on it and then add it in.

A meaningful wardrobe is a lean wardrobe. It’s is full of select few clothes that get worn a lot. According to WRAP (a UK environmental charity), we have an average of £4000 worth of garments in our closet that we never wear, some new with tags. And how many pretty dresses have we sewn that we never wore or wore only once? So, let’s spend our money and our sewing time on garments that we will love and wear all the time instead! And, btw, passing it on to charity is not always the right answer either!

A meaningful wardrobe is an informed wardrobe. How much do I actually know about where my clothes (or fabric) come from? What are the sustainability or ethical credentials of the company I am giving my money to? I am not advocating spending a lot of money on sustainable brands, as they are often more expensive than regular high street one, and definitely more expensive than ultra-fast fashion ones. But I can ask the questions and do a bit of research and understand a bit more about what my purchase is helping support. This goes hand in hand with the intentional part, as by avoiding impulse purchases, you think about what you need before going shopping and you have time to do a bit of research too.

A meaningful wardrobe is a quality wardrobe. We already established that the most important thing you can do with your garments is to wear them as long as you can. But how can you do that if they fall apart after the first wash? That also goes for handmade garments. If the fabric is pilling after the first wear, if it deforms, fades, bleeds, or your stitching comes apart, you have wasted a lot of time in making something that will not endure. So take your time, use the best techniques you can, choose the best fabrics and learn to take care of your shop-bought and hand-made garments alike. And make sure they fit and flater the body you have right now. My dad always used to say that we are too poor to buy cheap clothes, and I have found through experience that this is absolutely the case in sewing as well.

I want to also stress what a meaningful wardrobe IS NOT.

You might have noticed that I am referring to both RTW clothes and hand-mades alike. Sewing a 100% handmade wardrobe is not my goal (though kudos to those for whom it is). I have RTW garments that are hand-me-downs from older friends and family that are almost as old as I am and I LOVE them. They have meaning, they are good quality and they fit my ‘meaningfulness’ criteria. I have cheap high street clothes that I have worn to death, fixed and worn again and that I don’t want to replace with hand-made ones until they are completely unwearable. At the same time, I have handmades that I don’t like and don’t wear at all, because I chose badly or my style has changed. (It’s a bit of a struggle to figure out what to do with them, but about that some other time).

My 3 steps towards a meaningful wardrobe*

*This is not just for sewing people, btw. Just replace ‘sewing’ with buying, swapping, borrowing etc

1. Analyse

We all love a bit of style navel-gazing now and again, don’t we? If you follow minimal style bloggers like Unfancy, Style Bee or Into Mind, this is the first step towards your sustainable style journey. What do I like? What do I hate? What kind of clothes are most suited to my lifestyle? Why do I wear this colour the most and avoid another like the plague? I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, just check out some of these resources that are already out there. I personally did the Style Architect series in 2015 (well, got part-way through it), and I was also an avid reader of Into Mind. I did not buy the book, but I hear it’s pretty good.

What really helped me hone in things was the 10×10 Style Bee challenges, when I really learned that life is so much easier with less options and that I love having themed collections that all go with each other. It helped me figure out the gaps and how I would like to fill them with my sewing plans.

If you are a sewist, Me Made May is also great, because it really helps uncover the gaps in your handmade wardrobe and it quickly becomes painfully clear that all those pretty frocks really have no place in your school run or when you work from home in your PJs.

If you are madly OCD (or just more organised than I am), you can also start keeping tabs on what you wear every day for a period of time and through sheer statistical analysis, figure out the workhorses, fancy togs for special occasions and the items you just never wear.

What’s the point of this?

This actually helps a lot towards the Intent part. If you understand what you like and dislike, what you are most likely to reach for, what the gaps are in your wardrobe, then the next item that gets added will fit better with all these criteria and will end up being worn and loved and therefore, meaningful.

2. Learn

So you’ve figured out what’s missing, but there are a million options of what you can fill those gaps with. So this is when it would be great to understand a bit more about what can you do to make decisions that align with what’s important to you. Is it ethics? Is it the environment? Is it price?  Or quality? Or the latest fashion?

For examples, if the environment is important, but also quality, you can look into the types of fabrics that would wear well and also be less damaging to the environment. Btw, nothing is perfect in this world and you always have to make trade-offs. You can try to understand how different types of fibres are made and make an informed decision based on what you have learned. For example, did you know viscose (or rayon) is made from trees?

If you are looking to buy a new RTW garment, you can look beyond the high street and find out if there are other brands that might offer what you want with better sustainability or ethics credentials. Or even if it’s a high street brand, which ones are making more of an effort to do good?

You can also learn how to take better care of your garments. Do you know what the symbols on the care labels mean, for example? Or what’s the best way to wash viscose or silk or wool so it lasts a long time?

3. Curate

When you are introducing something new in your wardrobe or thinking if you should remove something from it, ask yourself these 3 questions.

  1. Will I wear it 30 times? I did not come up with this rule, it was actually the brainchild of Lucy Siegle and Livia Firth, but in essence, it’s about making sure that what you are making or acquiring will get as much wear as possible. This is great from an environmental perspective but also will make sure that you are very thoughtful when you choose a certain garment.
  2. Can I pair it with at least 5 other items I already have? The Style Bee 10×10 challenge really brought home for me how important multi-tasker workhorses really are. Yes, it’s easier for coats and jeans and jackets, but even a humble top or a simple dress can be made to work as part of different outfits. And of course, make sure it’s a well made, quality item that you will get a lot of wear out of.
  3. On a scale of 1-10, how much do I LOVE it? I really wanted to stay away from the whole Marie Condo joy thing, but it really does boil down to how much you love a garment to make it meaningful. It might be because it makes you feel like a million bucks; because it represents a milestone in your sewing journey (like the first pair of jeans you’ve made); because you bought the fabric (or the garment) on a special holiday or because you saved a long time to get it. An emotional attachment to a garment will make it meaningful and you will find ways to wear it for longer and style it into a lot of interesting outfits.

How to build a meaningful wardrobe capsule wardrobe in black, white and red

And then…. rinse and repeat!


As I mentioned in the beginning, I am far from living the sustainable life to be truly proud of.

But I also think that doing a little bit is better than doing nothing at all. Even if you just become a bit more informed than you were before and share what you learned with someone you know, and they share with someone else and so on, overall, we are all a bit better off. If you end up with more clothing you love and wear and spend your money rewarding companies that try to do the right thing, again, a small difference has been made.

So, thank you for joining me on this journey, I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts and also, your stories of trying to live a bit more sustainably through the means of the clothes we made and buy (or swap, or thrift).

PLEASE LEAVE ME A COMMENT, I’D LOVE TO HEAR YOUR STORIES, ADVICE, IDEAS AND TIPS TOWARDS BUILDING A MORE MEANINGFUL WARDROBE!

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