For the past few years I have spent a lot of time thinking about my wardrobe (remember when I did a capsule wardrobe?), pairing down what I own, learning about where my clothing is made and paying more attention to the garments I feel good in and how much use I can get from my clothing. It's a process. It's taken years of changing how I buy and adjusting my habits and I am still far from a ideal slow-fashion consumer.
During those past few years I have also gotten more excited about making my own clothing - both through sewing and knitting. If you've been here awhile you have seen my experiments in this over the years! There has been some success but a lot of failures too. I finally feel (seven years after learning to sew and 24 years after learning how to knit) comfortable following patterns and creating clothing that I am proud of and want to wear.
I have been sharing my adventures in DIY clothing on Instagram a lot recently and wanted to round up answers to all the questions I frequently get in one place. As always when I post something like this I have to give my disclaimer... I AM NOT AN EXPERT AT THIS! I do things wrong, don't follow all the rules and am still learning. This is My Experience not "The Experience."
Ready? Get some cake or something this is over 5000 words.
How do you have time to do this?
The first thing that I always have to say with time is that my girls go to full-time childcare Monday through Friday at a local daycare/pre-school. I hate for people to think I am working full-time job while raising two little ones and sewing a DIY wardrobe. Maybe some people are doing that, but I am not.
That said, I mostly knit while watching TV in the evenings with Paul. I knit while the girls are playing or painting or watching TV themselves. I knit while waiting for the mac and cheese to cook. I knit while on the phone or while on a trip with friends and family. When I am loving a project, I knit all the time. Some parts of knitting patterns demand focus and counting but the majority of each project is just mindless stitching. I LOVE to have my hands-moving. For me, knitting fits easily into daily life.
Sewing is a little bit harder because it's not quite so "pick up and put down" and a sewing machine is loud and not really portable. But sewing garments takes so much less time overall. It might take me two months to knit a sweater but just an afternoon to make a tank top so that helps. But here is the other thing...every single sewing pattern can be broken down to these basic steps:
- find pattern (and print/assemble if necessary)
- find fabric
- wash fabric
- iron fabric
- pin pattern to fabric
- cut out fabric pieces
- sew initial pieces together
- sew more pieces together
- sew more pieces together
All of those steps take about 10-20 active minutes at a time (maybe less). So often I break up my sewing projects into 10-20 minute chunks. I take the girls with me to shop for fabric on the weekends. I wash my fabric along with other laundry. I iron while the girls are playing. I pin and cut when I have some spare minutes often right on the floor in the middle of their stuff (they are VERY used to seeing me work on projects). I sew and iron when it makes sense, sometimes while they are around or at school or sleeping. I fit it into my life the way I fit walking or reading or anything else.
This is a hobby that I enjoy and so prioritizing it is important to me.
Do you have any tips on time management when it comes to making clothes? Sewing is more time effective for me, but I love the look and feel of knitted garments. I’m just a slow knitter unless I use a larger gauge yarn.
I don't really. Knitting does take longer! But that's okay. Slowing down the process is part of the beauty. :)
If you stall out on a project do you leave it for awhile and come back or give up on it? How do you keep momentum of a project gets hard?
My personality isn't really a "stall out" type. I either finish or quit...without much fanfare either way. That said, if I get bored with a project but not bored enough to give up completely I will keep it in a basket until I'm ready to go through and evaluate. Sometimes I can rework and start over or sometimes I can salvage the materials for a new project.
It's tough when a project gets hard but this is my hobby so working through challenges is part of the point. I just google until I have figured out what to do next.
Is this expensive?
This depends on a million factors. We all have different ideas of what is expensive. As far as hobbies go, I have had more expensive hobbies (pottery) and much cheaper hobbies (writing pep talks). I have also learned a lot over the past seven years. I made my first top out of quilting cotton because that was the only fabric I new how to find and buy (and didn't wear it much). Today, I make most of my garments out of linen. I go with linen because it washes well, drapes well, feels good to wear and I tend to like neutrals colors in my wardrobe. PLUS (and this is key) I am very comfortable sewing with linen. I need to explore other fabrics but this is the place I am right now in my sewing adventures. You can get linen at Jo-ann Fabrics for $9/yard with a coupon (and I do) or $31/m from a shop like Merchant & Mills (and I probably will someday if I have something extra special to make).
What I have learned (through repeated trial and error) is that when I spend some money and take care to do my best work I am often happier with the result. When I am happy with the result I am more likely to wear the piece again and again and THAT is the whole point for me. This doesn't mean that buying the most expensive fabric will result in the best garment. It doesn't mean that buying the cheapest fabric will result in something you don't wear. It just means that cost or "getting a great deal" can be a factor but it cannot be the only factor. If cost (or saving time) were the only factors I would not be experimenting with this hobby.
How do you end up with something you love? I always end up something wonky that sits in my closet. I understand the "just start and try it" mindset but I've screwed up enough things that I'm a little gun shy now. I'm stuck in between the try it and see mindset (& a willingness to spend money on hobbies) and my desire to not be wasteful or have extra crap lying around.
Yep, yep, yep. I have definitely had my share of wonky crap. It's not fun at all to spend time and money on something and have it not turn out. However, it's part of the process. If you don't want to make some mistakes along the way don't sew or knit...or try any new hobby. ;)
There is a learning curve with this just like anything else. It has taken me years to develop my style as a consumer of clothes and then even more time as a maker of clothes. I am finally at a place where at least I know what I really like to wear and what fits my body and lifestyle. I wear simple clothes that are easy to care for. I wear mostly blues and neutrals and muted tones. I don't love florals or big patterns or bright colors. I love stripes.
For sewing this means simple (often boxy) tops and loose fitting tanks with a longer hem (thankfully these are easy, straightforward pieces to sew) in a linen or more recently I tried and loved a cotton double gauze.
For knitting I finally figured out this means thinner yarns (DK or smaller) in neutral colors with un-complicated shapes. Chunky knits are fun and fast but I don't wear them. And who cares if it's fun and fast if I don't wear it? I would rather spend months on something with small yarn if it becomes the piece I reach for over and over again. I also learned that I would rather spend the money natural fibers from smaller brands than big box stores. All of this - the cost and the time that goes into each garment - means I make less but I love what I have much more.
The above photo grid is not all handmade but it's a good sum of my style over the past few years. There are four me-mades (black and white striped top, navy dress, Ellerie's skirt & the knit striped top). Then the J.Crew jacket and maroon Ace & Jig dress were both bought second-hand. The brown striped tunic top was the first high-quality handmade item I ever bought from years ago. I remember it was over $100 and I was very nervous to purchase. But it's linen, timeless, perfectly-me and has held up so well.
Part of the point to all of this is that you have to have some trial and error to create a wardrobe you love. That goes for shopping too. We all make dumb purchases or buy things we regret. One thing you can do is figure out what has gone wrong in the past. Did you chose overly complicated patterns? Start with something more simple. Did you choose fabric that you "loved on sight" but didn't really match with your existing wardrobe? Go with a neutral. Are your technical skills not there yet? Spend some time sewing a quilt or knitting a blanket. Making something other than a garment will help give you practice getting comfortable with your sewing machine or with your stitching. If you have never knit or sewn in your life then take all of this advice: start with something simple, use a neutral and practice your skills on NON-garments first.
The most important thing (with sewing and life) is that you can't continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. I had to look at my failed garments and figure out why I didn't like them in order to make changes and build pieces I was going to love (and wear).
I’d love thoughts on cost and time - I know the point isn’t to get clothes cheaper than you would in a store, but just curious about the investment and how you view that.
I enjoy this process very much. I enjoy looking for patterns. I enjoy looking for fabrics. I enjoy keeping my hands moving and the thrill that comes with garment construction (it's MAGIC I swear). I love putting on a top that I made. So for me, the hobby of making is worth the cost and the time.
But also, I read the book Overdressed in spring 2016 all about the cost of fast-fashion and it made me think hard about my consumer habits and the definition of "cheap." This year (2018) I am not buying ANY clothing, shoes, accessories, etc. This has been a gradual transition (I bought very little in 2017 and most of that was from smaller brands). Some of the money that I save from not shopping I will put towards this hobby but I know I must stay very aware and not just mindlessly make. This isn't about HAVING ALL THE STUFF but instead investing my time and money into a hobby I love and having a wardrobe that feels like me and is enjoyable to wear.
ON LEARNING TO SEW/KNIT
When did you learn to knit?
My grandma taught me when I was nine. Then I made scarves and blankets for 18 years. Then cowls then finally my first sweater in 2014. I did not love my first sweater but you gotta start somewhere. (I should have started with a kid sweater.)
When did you learn to sew?
Right after my wedding in 2010 (I got a sewing machine for my bridal shower) my mom taught me to make curtains. Then I was off and running.
Do you crochet?
What should I start with?
For knitting: start with a scarf. Go back and forth making rows and rows until you get used to using your hands in this way. Then, make a cowl - here is my tutorial. A cowl is an important next step because it will teach you how to knit in the round with circular needles. This IS NOT THAT HARD but like anything takes some practice.
For sewing: start with a pillow. Sew some straight lines and just get comfortable on your machine. Make a quilt. Pillows and quilts are just straight lines and the fit isn't a big deal. You can take my Get Quilty ecourse if you want some lessons in buying quilt fabric, sewing and making five fun projects.
I just want to start with a garment though.
I hear you. I promise you will not regret doing the scarf/cowl/pillow/quilt first.
Where can I find tutorials?
I recommend purlsoho.com for knitting tutorials. They are super clear and easy to follow. Watch them once. Then pause as you work through the steps. I pull up these videos all the time.
What about online classes?
There is such a need for a super straight-forward beginner online knitting class that works you through the basics then has you learn a few different projects. In my next life I'll write it. For now Craftsy has a ton of both sewing and knitting where you can learn oodles of techniques.
How do you follow a pattern?
One. Step. At. A. Time. I know what I am doing at this point and reading a full pattern still makes me nervous so I NEVER DO THAT. Instead I gather the supplies and worry about one line of that pattern at a time. When I get stuck I google the exact phrase "make one left" or "pick up one below" and let google tell me what to do. Some patterns are written better than others. Wiksten knitting patterns in particular are GREAT. I highly recommend. I learned how to knit socks from Jenny (using a pattern in this book) and got back into knitting last fall by test knitting a kid sweater for her.
THE KEY HERE THOUGH - you are only going to learn by doing. You have to get your hands moving. You have to make the the mistakes. You have to sew the sleeve on inside out or wind up with a hole in your scarf in order to figure it out. Garment construction is complicated but also amazing. The more you learn the more you'll understand and the instructions you are following will start to make sense. You will begin to appreciate how the pieces in your closet were constructed (and be able to note the many flaws). It's extremely rewarding. Don't try to avoid making mistakes, learn from them. You'll get better.
ON KNOWING WHAT TO MAKE
How do you find patterns?
For knitting I follow a bunch of knitters on Instagram and basically piggy-back off their ideas. I like to see the types of yarns and patterns they pair together and use that for inspiration. I also am on Ravelry (eliseblaha is my username) and find patterns there. You can see my favorite patterns here for some simple shapes. What I love about finding a pattern on Ravelry is that I can see other people who have made it which gives me a better idea of how the pattern looks in real life. I recently knitted the lightweight raglan sweater from Purl Soho. On their site it looks it's fine. But what sold me on the pattern was the knitter who added stripes to hers. I added stripes, added length to the body and shortened the sleeves and wound up with a garment I loved.
For sewing I (again) follow a bunch of sewers on Instagram and love seeing what they are making. I think the most important part of pattern shopping is looking past the color and pattern to the shape of the garment. It doesn't matter what color it is or what the fabric pattern looks like. How's the hem? The drape? The neckline? That's what matters. I often will search Instagram for a pattern hashtag before making it - again to get that "real life" idea of a garment. This also gives me ideas for the type of fabric I should try to use.
Would love to hear how you find patterns and know which ones are worth investing your time and resources in. I'm new to knitting so I can only liken it to food recipes: if I pick a random recipe off a website I know I have a higher risk of it not turning out than say if I use a recipe Smitten Kitchen. What is the knitting/textile equivalent of this?
As mentioned, ravelry.com has a library of knitting patterns. Many are not going to be the best fit for you BUT you can find patterns that have been tested by 1000s of users and that helps or you might find a knitter that you really love and do a few of their patterns. Again, I'll link to my favorites.
What are your go-to sewing patterns?
I have made the wiksten tank a bunch in linen. I make a few adjustments to this, I use bias tape for the neckline and armholes because it's easier than cutting a strip from fabric. I also pull up the neckline a bit (maybe a half inch). The seams on this are french seams so there is no fraying. (I still don't have a serger but I have asked for one for my birthday next month.)
I also have made the basic tank a few times and I often use the top portion of the pattern to make dresses too. The top on the left is a woven cotton and the dress on the right is the same top with a bottom that I made up. It's sewn from linen. Neither of these have finished seams and both have gone through the laundry at least a dozen times with no issues.
What other patterns do you recommend for beginners?
I have made the Lou Box top and the shirt no. 1. I plan to try the Hemlock tee from Grainline studio (it's free when you sign up for their newsletter) later this spring. I knit the harvest cardigan for Ellerie and it was a fun easy pattern. I want to try the Gardenia Dress this fall.
What is a good first sweater knitting pattern?
I wish I could send you to a perfect easy pattern that you'll love to wear but because it took me so long to knit something I actually wanted to wear I can't! I can only say, try a kid sweater first. If you don't want to start with kids, check my ravelry faves for some (what look to me) like basic patterns. Also, if you just want to dive in on something with teeeeeeeny yarn... I knit the lightweight raglan from Purl Soho and am currently working on the striped spring shirt.
ON KIDS CLOTHES
With kids (who I feel like need more clothes & grow out of them more quickly than adults) how do you decide what’s worth making vs buying?
I do not have as much experience with this as I do making things for myself. My girls are picky. I make them skirts and dresses and sometimes they are into them and sometimes they are not. It's sad. But it's also okay. I like to have my own style and I want them to have their own too. I just stick the new pieces in their closet and drawers and usually there comes a day when they pull them out to wear. I definitely tend to make "extras" for their wardrobe more than basics and like to make things like dresses a bit bigger than they need so we can have them for the closet for a bit longer (it helps that with two girls everything has two chances to wear).
What about kids' knits?
Knitting for kiddos is a GREAT place to start because you'll do all the same techniques but it will take less time (and yarn) to complete a piece. This is a perfect way to learn. Even if you don't have kids - give it to a friend, niece, new mom, etc - you'll learn a lot and gain the confidence to try something adult sized.
I’d love tips for picking yarn. I think I get sticker shock on buy quality yarn and then I regret making items out of itchy hobby yarn and we never use them.
SAME, SAME, SAME. I used to think $19 for a skein of yarn was bonkers. So I'd buy cheap stuff and hate the results. $19 for a skein IS expensive. But if you don't wear the piece you made with the $6 yarn that's also expensive. The key here is are you going to really wear it? My main tip is that I often look for the exact yarns that other people have used for a project because then I know it's going to turn out similar to a photo I have seen. This helps me feel less scared. I also buy during sales when I can and that helps some. But really, I still feel like a novice in this area and I really should not be giving advice. ;)
Where do you buy yarn?
Purl Soho & Madeline Tosh for my last few projects plus there is a local yarn store in Sacramento I love to wander when I am in town. I am currently knitting with a Madeline Tosh DK weight and a Woolfolk Tynd. I often google the yarn I am looking for and then check all the places it's sold online. Sometimes you can get a better price doing that.
Where do you buy fabric?
I get a lot of linen in store at Jo-ann Fabrics with a coupon. I think this is a good place to start because it's not very intimating and you can walk through and touch all the fabrics. This is hugely important. Be sure to check the end of the bolt to see the washing instructions and what exactly is in the fabric too!
Online I buy fabric from Purl Soho because their selection is small but well-curated. I am DYING to go to The Fabric Store in LA and they have an online shop too. But really, if I opened up the comments on this post and asked for recs there would be 700 ideas of where to buy fabrics and I think that's LESS helpful. Too much choice is not ideal when you're just getting started.
Overall, I like to see what other makers are using and then google those exact brands or types of fabric to see what pops up.
Do you have a lot of knitting supplies?
Sort of! I buy needles as I need them for different projects and store them in an ikea drawer.
I am overwhelmed and don't know where to begin with supplies.
Yes. Here's the important thing to keep in mind: 99% of all patterns you are not going to like. 99% of the fabrics and yarns you are not going to like. This is great news. There are millions of patterns and fabrics and yarns but you only have to care or be interested in just a few of them. The rest are just noise and things you will sift through to get to the stuff that just right for you. So the point is, feeling overwhelmed is normal but if you know that going in and just veto and veto until you find what works you'll be okay.
If you are comfortable with your sewing skills and ready to make a top go to your closet. Pick out your favorite, most reached for top. What's the cut like? What's it made out of? (check the tag.) Is it solid colored? Patterned? These are clues for where you should start on your first piece.
ON EVERYTHING ELSE
How much of your closet is handmade?
I have currently have seven tank tops (out of eight total), two everyday dresses (out of 11), one skirt (out of 3) and three tops (out of many) that are handmade by me. I reach for them often and am probably wearing something I made about 3 times a week. (Right now as I type this I have a black linen wiksten tank on.) I recently counted every item of clothing/accessory I have (including earrings, bras, swimsuits, work out tops, shoes, sunglasses, everything) and I own 228 items total. This to me feels like a very large number. I don't need to buy anything and probably would not ever need to buy anything ever again.
So how to you decide what to make next?
It's really more about "this looks really fun to make and I can see that being something I reach for" than "oh yes, I really can't go on without another striped sweater."
Does your wrist get sore when knitting?
Yes totally. I take a lot of breaks and stretch and try not to push it. I also knit Continental instead of throwing the yarn which helps me.
How do you use circular knitting needles?
I have a video tutorial for that! 10 minutes, watch it here.
How do you track patterns?
I have a list of projects I want to do in my planner. Then I also save things to my ravelry faves and save things on Instagram (using that collections feature) so I don't lose ideas. But I really try to not have many projects going at once and just follow through one at a time.
How do you strike a balance between colorful yarn/fabric you love to buy and create with, and neutrals that will be wearable?
I don't knit or sew garments with a lot of color for myself and instead use the color on items for the girls or on quilts/home projects. :)
Do you swatch for your knitting projects?
I used to not. I tended to knit loose and so I just sized down on needles and got lucky. But then I started knitting a bit tighter and that threw off my last project (I will need to pull it out and start again) so now I swatch and it's worth it.
How do you get sizing right?
I tend to buy small or xs clothing of the rack and so my general assumption with patterns is that I will be a small or extra small. BUT, you can (and should!) measure your body and compare that to the measurements listed on the pattern. You'll notice I don't make anything that's tight fitting and so exact size hasn't been that big of a deal yet. If I were to make a swimsuit or a pair of jeans I would have to pay a bit more attention to getting the fit perfect.
Something to try if you are unsure of size and don't want to waste your nice fabric is you can go through the pattern with muslin or something inexpensive (maybe old sheets or something you were going to donate). This is a chance to perfect the pattern and work out kinks. It takes more time, yes, but I think we have established after 4800 words that the point here is not "saving time."
You mention adaptions on your knitting patterns, how do you make simple changes to your patterns?
This comes a bit from experience and I am still learning a lot. Things like shortening or lengthening are easy because they just mean less or more rows but other than that I can't do too much yet. Here is a post that talks about creating your own top down sweater pattern though. This exercise would be a great way to learn a ton.
Tell me more about that book you are keeping to track your projects.
I shared on Instagram this album I am documenting the clothing I make in 2018. It's an old Kolo album I have had for years and its just a fun way to save my fabric and yarn scraps. I love the idea that I if I keep going with this hobby I could have a 20 year record of handmade pieces in there. It's 100% just for fun and was inspired by the journal Ace & Jig keeps of their fabrics.
Who inspires you with sewing and knitting?
So so many folks. It's hard to "tag" people here but if you click on this photo you'll see some of my favorite people & brands to follow. There are also fun hashtags to search like #memadeeveryday or #imademyclothes
Decide if this is actually something you want to do or if this is just something that you enjoy reading about/learning. There is a huge difference. I follow a rad photographer on Instagram and I watch every one of her super involved stories about crafting still-lives. I have no interest in being a still-life photographer but I appreciate her process and am inspired by her love for her craft. We only have so much time each day and making clothing is something I want to do with my time but there are a million things I don't want to do with my time. That's OKAY.
If this is something you want to explore more, evaluate what you know already and then decide what you're next step will be. Maybe you can take a lesson from a friend? Maybe you just need to pull the trigger and buy a pattern. Maybe you need to go get 1.5 yards of linen and give yourself two hours this weekend to try that tank top pattern you bought last year. Maybe you have never knit before but are going to go get some yarn and needles to try my cowl tutorial. DO NOT PLAN TO OVERHAUL YOUR CLOSET WITH HANDMADE NEXT MONTH. Instead, pick one thing to start with and give yourself a lot of grace as you embark on something new to you.