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Reflections on a Home-Sewn Wardrobe

I certainly couldn’t have imagined in 2009, when I began sewing, that I would eventually wind up sewing my entire wardrobe, from outerwear to underwear and everything in between, but that’s what happened. I started with the simplest garments and gradually took on projects of increasing complexity until I no longer needed to shop for ready-to-wear clothing. With the exception of a few specialty garments (noted below) that is still the case: My wardrobe is home-sewn.

Peter Lappin wearing a blue shawl collar sweater from his home-sewn wardrobe
Peter Lappin wearing a blue shawl collar sweater from his home-sewn wardrobe
Peter Lappin wearing a shawl-collar sweater, madras shirt, and pink pants, all from his home-sewn wardrobe
I made the exact same blue cotton shawl collar cardigan, shown above this pic, in a beige colorway, too. The patchwork madras shirt and pale pink pants are my creations as well.

Garment sewing holds some challenges unique to men: primarily, the lack of a large sewing community (though the community is growing) and the lack of easily available patterns (this, too, is changing thanks to independent pattern companies). Sewing one’s clothes, regardless of one’s gender, requires resourcefulness. The payoffs, however, can be enormous.

Sewing yielded multiple benefits

1. Self-confidence

Even though when I started sewing I had some basic technical skills—I could install a light switch, hang a picture, and paint a room—I didn’t know how to make anything. When I bought a sewing machine and started experimenting with it, I discovered I could use it to clothe myself, something I had never imagined possible.

Sewing clothing has given me the confidence to explore additional practical skills, including sewing machine maintenance (most sewing machines can be serviced at home, particularly vintage mechanicals), furniture refinishing (like the beat-up vintage Singer sewing table I found in the trash and refinished), and currently, restoring vintage watches.

Featherweight sewing machine table before and after restoration
I found this discarded featherweight table in the street; it was in sorry shape. I restored it to beautiful condition.

2. A marketable skill I could pursue as a designer, teacher, and writer

From sports jackets to wedding gowns, I’ve been able to earn money from my sewing. More recently, I’ve created online classes in shirtmaking. While this wasn’t my original plan (I had no plan at first beyond being able to perform some basic alterations to ready-to-wear clothing), it resulted in unexpected payoffs. Who knows what’s next?

Women's blazer made in an African wax print
One of my favorite client projects is this women’s blazer I drafted myself and sewed in an African wax print.

3. An appreciation of clothing, whether home-sewn or not

Sewing my own wardrobe means that nearly everything I wear has a special meaning to me. While some garments get more wear than others, every item has a history and significance that ready-to-wear clothing doesn’t have. Sewing has taught me how much effort goes into creating clothing, which was something I took for granted. In a world where, for so many people, clothing is a disposable commodity, I’ve learned to appreciate the labor involved. Of course, like everybody who sews clothes, I’ve also created garments that were disappointing—at the beginning of my sewing journey and even now—but I’ve purchased ready-to-wear that was disappointing as well, and I didn’t get to practice my fine motor skills in the process.

Multiple zippers, gripper snaps, Velcro, and lots of pockets: This mountain parka I made from a vintage Daisy Kingdom pattern made me appreciate the intricate construction of ready-to-wear.
I don’t need to sew my own underwear, but isn’t it nice to be able to?  I made this pair of briefs using Jalie 3242.

4. Self-reliance

Without a great many men’s patterns to choose from, I’ve had to develop my own strategies, like learning pattern drafting (and eventually draping) and to seek out, purchase, and adapt vintage patterns. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, men’s styles have changed little over the decades, but a few minor adjustments can give older patterns a more contemporary look.

This vintage Kwik Sew jacket pattern needed a few alterations (primarily a smaller collar) so as not to have such a Seventies feel.
I made this Kwik Sew jacket in cotton velveteen.

As a person on the shorter side of normal (five feet, seven inches tall and with a slim frame), sewing my clothes means I never have to worry about finding clothes that fit well. Sleeves don’t have to be rolled up because they are too long, and I can adjust the rise of my pants to just the way I like it. Of course, I also had to learn how to adjust patterns, even in my correct pattern size, since just like ready-to-wear clothes, most commercial patterns are drafted for someone slightly taller and more square-shouldered.

Peter Lappin wearing a home-sewn dark summer suit
This summer suit is made from cotton twill and fits just the way I wanted it to.

5. Creativity

I’ve never been much of a practical wardrobe planner. With the exception of blue jeans and a basic all-weather parka, very little of what I sew falls under the heading of “basics.” It’s not interesting for me to sew the kind of clothes I can find at a Uniqlo or the Gap.

The most satisfying sewing projects aren’t necessarily the most complicated, but they may involve an unusual fabric or creative placement of a design motif.

Men's shirt featuring a sewing-themed novelty print
I made this shirt using an Alexander Henry print based on the vintage Home Sewing is Easy instructional booklet by Sally Stitch. it’s a great novelty garment and a real conversation starter.
Avant-garde ensemble from Peter Lappin's home-sewn wardrobe
A rare experiment in avant-garde style includes a polka-dot skirt, boldly printed cotton-silk voile shirt, and pleated polyester shawl.
Peter Lappin wearing a floral men's suit from his home-sewn wardrobe
I made this suit using a vintage Seventies floral bedsheet I purchased at the Salvation Army. It remains one of my favorite springtime garments.
Home-sewn wardrobe: men's newsboy cap and scarf
I’ve even tried my hand at sewing hats, like this newsboy cap I drafted myself.

Specialty garments not home-sewn

There are a few garments I don’t sew for myself. I’ve been a runner and swimmer for decades, but I don’t sew my own sportswear. It’s certainly possible to do so, and patterns can be found, particularly if one has access to out-of-print and/or vintage patterns. For one thing, the appropriate technical fabrics can be hard to find and are often proprietary to the manufacturer. The designs for running gear are often complicated and the manufacturing standard extremely high, at least with sporting goods companies like Nike.

Many swimsuits are also made from proprietary fabrics (e.g., Speedo Endurance, or Tyr Durafast, both Lycra-free and highly resistant to chlorine) that are almost impossible for a home sewer to source. I have made a few nylon-spandex swimsuits for the beach, but I’ve never found these projects to be satisfying.

Home-sewn flame-print nylon Lycra swimsuit worn by Peter Lappin
I’ve made only a few swimsuits: This one is a flame-print nylon-lycra.

Interest in the home-sewn wardrobe

This is an interesting time to be sewing. The home sewing field, after a long period of contraction, seems to be expanding, albeit differently than it did in earlier periods of growth, due to the internet. Garment sewing today is more of a niche hobby, and for most people the necessary supports—fabric and notions stores, sewing communities—exist primarily online. I am fortunate to live near the New York City Garment District, so it’s easy for me to engage in sewing projects without a lot of preplanning. If I run out of thread or need a particular type of zipper, I can run out and buy it.

But there seems to be a growing interest in sewing and wearing garments that are unique, that fit the wearer exactly as desired, and are an expression of one’s creativity. A home-sewn wardrobe may not be practical for most people, but it’s a wonderful way to develop practical hands-on skills in an increasingly automated world.

How much of your wardrobe do you sew?  Is there anything you can’t—or are unwilling—to make yourself?

Home-sewn duffel coat from a vintage Vogue pattern
I made this wool flannel duffel coat from vintage Vogue Sport pattern 8452.

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