Are we Sewing Too Many of the Wrong Clothes?

When you sew all day, your mind has a chance to wander and wonder. Things that make me stop and THINK include the morning newspaper, stuff I read online, movies, music, videos….usually 2 or 3 different ideas combine to create a single question, and today the question is “Are we sewing too many clothes?” More specifically, are we sewing too many “quick-sews” that will be worn only a few times, as opposed to better-quality clothes that will last and get lots of wearings?

Here are the sources that got me questioning my sewing goals, and how they fit into the Big Picture of using the earth’s resources:

  1. This interview with Latvian designer Arta  of MimiiKids (“I always keep in mind that my designs need to be both chic and simple so that they can be worn for more than one event and more than one season; I like the idea of making clothing that children can keep wearing as they grow.”)
  2. A post on Facebook: “I am sewing to avoid fast fashion, not to make it. ” (Thank you, Lenka Uzakova!)
  3. Hurricane Harvey, and people collecting clothes for those whose homes were flooded in Texas (I’ll explain in a minute where this comes into play.)

First, a confession: I’ve sewn more clothes for my daughter than she “needs”. More than we have room for, really. Our house was built (circa 1940) with just one closet, only deep enough to hold a handful of hangers going crosswise…less than 3 feet of hanger rod. In the forties (in this area anyway), people generally had 2 sets of clothes: an outfit for work or school, and one for church.  Laundry was done once a week. Compare that to a house built today which likely has:

  • a main floor coat closet with about 4′ to 5′ of hanger rod
  • possibly a mudroom for jackets and sports apparel and shoes
  • an apparel closet for each bedroom
  • maybe a walk-in closet in the master suite

Typical household hanging space has ballooned from 3′ to about 30′.  These large closets in modern homes are not empty. They are jammed full in many cases. Some of the best-selling books are about how to de-clutter your closets. I wonder how Americans would have felt if you’d told them in 1940,  “By the year 2000, having too many clothes will be a problem.”

 

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What does this have to do with sewing? Just as many of us purchase more clothing than we need, some of us sew more clothing than we need. At heart I’m a libertarian, believing in the freedom of every individual to do what she pleases with her time, energy, and resources. However when I see countless Etsy shops and IG posts with handmade kids clothes specifically designed to be worn once….I wonder if adding to landfill (12 million tons per year in the U.S.)  justifies the “making memories” aspect of one-time-use clothes.

Is it necessary to make a new outfit for every one of life’s occasions? Yes it is a huge part of our culture to have a special dress for weddings,  a dress that most likely will never be worn again. Graduation robes used to be rented and returned, now they are often bought and discarded. We already have plenty of limited-use clothing ( Halloween and school play  costumes,  dance recital dresses, tee-shirts from every running race and summer camp and vacation spot). Do we truly need to sew special “wear once” outfits for:

  • baby’s take-home from hospital
  • first birthday,  2nd birthday, etc
  • trip to the zoo, trip to Disney, trip to the ice-cream parlor
  • first day of pre-school, last day of school, 100th day of school, history day at school, color day at school, science day at school
  • Disney movie premier, Pixar movie premier
  • Christmas dress, Easter dress, St. Patrick’s Day dress, Valentine’s Day dress
  • apple picking outfit, pumpkin picking outfit
  • visiting the fire station outfit (yes I’ve seen that multiple times)

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Sure, this is fun for all, and obviously good for business to keep the dollar circulating, but is it necessary? Not to be a party-pooper, but there are some downsides to this trend of making a special outfit for one-time events:

  • stress on mom who stays up late making dreams come true
  • stress on the family budget
  • storage space for outfits that have limited use
  • what is this teaching our kids about limited resources?
  • or outward appearances?
  • how do the classmates feel, who don’t have these special outfits?
  • is this really for the kids? Or is mom needing validation?

Yes, it’s creative to make special outfits. Yes they help make cute photos. Yes, they bring joy  to  an occasion….but that’s the problem: it’s AN occasion. The more specific the apparel piece, the less likely that it can be worn again….by that child or any other child.

  • They can’t be handed down to a sibling or cousin.
  • They can’t be donated to a flood victim
  • Thrift stores don’t want them!

Yes, even the thrift shops have too many clothes.  Goodwill and The Salvation Army regularly purge their racks because they take in far more clothing than they can get rid of.  Guess what happens to the clothing they can’t sell? Some of it ends up in landfill, much of it is sent to third-world countries where, again, the more specific the clothing the  less appeal it has.    If you want a real shocker as to what happens to hundreds of shipping containers of American and European clothing each year, please watch the video “Unravel”.

https://aeon.co/videos/this-is-the-final-resting-place-of-your-cast-off-clothing

Pay attention to the part where the workers explain that they’ve been told the reason for the endless containers of used clothing from the west is that we apparently have not enough water to do laundry, so we are forced to keep buying more just to have clean clothes. Also,  think of the carbon footprint: the majority of our clothes (and sewing fabrics) are made in Asia, shipped to America and Europe, then a whole bunch get shipped BACK to Asia.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think  carefully whether your child wants a special outfit, or you just want to make it, and if so, is this the most efficient use of your time and resources.
  • Invest in better fabrics and sew fewer, higher-quality clothes in classic non-trendy colors and prints that will wear longer, wash well, and serve multiple children.
  • If you love to sew so much that your kids already have too many clothes, consider sewing for charity; there are children who do not have clothes other than hand-me-downs, or who do not know what pajamas are.

Last word: obviously the beauty of a free culture and the open market system is that you can have, buy, make, sew anything you want to, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I know that I was blessed to be born in America, and I’m thankful that my husband immigrated here. To each his own, but personally I would rather spend my precious time making fewer pieces of clothing using finer quality fabric and better sewing techniques…making apparel that lasts, that’s timeless, that can be shared and passed down and enjoyed by more than one person, for more than one occasion.

Please keep the people of Houston, Texas in your hearts.

 

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14 Responses to Are we Sewing Too Many of the Wrong Clothes?

  1. Great post. My goodness I couldn’t think of anything more ridiculous than buying or making my kid a tee shirt for their first ice cream/outing to the zoo/etc etc. marketing and consumerism gone mad!

  2. Julie R. says:

    Amen! “I would rather spend my precious time making fewer pieces of clothing using finer quality fabric and better sewing techniques…” has become my mantra too. Thanks for this post.

  3. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    It’s not unusual though! In the past 2 decades (since my kid was born) there was the advent of the digital camera + the scrapbooking trend which pushed mamas to photograph and “make memories” of every event, big or small….with special scrapbook stickers and cut-outs and yes, cute special made-for-the-event outfits. Then came Facebook and Instagram and the voracious appetite for “likes”, and the explosion in baby photo props began. I have no idea how the schools got so crazy with the “special” days that require new clothes, that is ridiculous. If the teacher thinks the kids need hands-on learning for special events, why not put that in the lesson plan? “We’re all making Pilgrim hats out of construction paper today!” Why dump that on busy parents? What about the kids whose parents don’t have the time or resources for this nonsense? And I’m not immune to any of this, I sewed my girl back-to-school dresses, I made an adorable farmyard outfit for a friend’s daughter’s “Petting Zoo” birthday, I sell lemonade stand aprons. But there’s a limit as to how “event specific” anything should be. It’s gone out of control lately.

  4. Elle C says:

    Great post.

    The event clothing isn’t limited to children. My husband and I both work in nursing homes, when he first started working with the elderly, I made him a Christmas and a Halloween scrub. He was the only one who had anything like that. Now over a decade later I work with women who wear Christmas scrubs for all of December, and some wear a different one each day. There are Easter, Valentines Day, and Canada Day scrubs.

    You have made me re-think my sewing habits. Good job!

  5. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Good points, and I am as guilty as anyone to sewing too many clothes. I do wear things out and I now have five Christmas shirts (one made every other year since I started back to sewing) to be worn in December, but I will have them for a long time.

  6. Esther says:

    I loved this post, and the whole of your blog, which I discovered recently thanks to Beth of SunnyGal Studio . I certainly do not have the problem of sewing too many clothes, as I am a slow sewist ;), and when my children were small (they are now 15 and 17), the school they attended was very conscious that it couldn’t be very demanding on the parent’s time if it was not very related to the education of the children.

  7. JustGail says:

    I can’t be accused of sewing too many clothes, I’m doing good to get 5-6 tops a year done. Certainly not enough output to make special items for specific holidays. And the clothing I do wear, gets worn until it’s too tatty to pass on. OTOH, I’m definitely guilty of buying too much lesser quality fabric. Part of it is thinking “if it doesn’t turn out, at least I didn’t spend much on the fabric”. But too often I’ve been bit by having something turn out good, but the fabric failed after a few launderings.

    I grew up in the 60s-70s, and had 2 small wardrobes – 1 for school, 1 for home. As items were outgrown but still good, they got passed down sister to me, and from me to cousins. If they got tatty and worn, they got demoted to home wear. I don’t recall having many new clothes until high school after sister had moved out on her own. Maybe that’s why I don’t follow trendy fashion too much – wearing clothing 5-6 years after they were in style trained me to not care while growing up.

  8. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Oh definitely not just kids! Adults have, as you said, themed scrubs, and also the ever-present tee-shirt (or sweatshirt, or even jacket) with the name of a business or an event plastered on it. My husband gets a souvenir shirt for every golf tournament or company outing….he even received one from the hospital when our daughter was born (a “new dad” tee). Some thrift stores now post a “no teeshirts please” donation policy. Thankfully we have a fiber recycling center in our little town: they take used sportswear, underwear, sheets, towels, even sewing scraps!

  9. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Guilty here as well! Even today, I am making samples for an “autumn” and a “Thanksgiving” dress for my little Etsy shop. Not my usual stock (mostly I sell white and ivory) but still, there it is: very limited-wear clothes. PS: I hope you get invited to lots of holiday parties so that you can show off your Christmas shirts!

  10. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    I wish there were more schools like that! While it’s probably “fun” for the kids to wear a special event outfit for school, why not make it a classroom project? Instead it’s often the parents who must provide the time, materials, finance, and sometimes do the work too. It’s the same with homework: shocking how many parents do the work instead of the students! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10578136/One-in-six-parents-do-all-the-homework.html

  11. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    I grew up on hand-me-downs too! From my sister to me, and then pass along to cousins. But the clothing was more classic than nowadays: smocked dresses, plaid kilt skirts, white blouses, navy or red blazer jackets. Pants were not allowed at school, only for play, and yes those got worn down since we were outside all the time. Maybe you could treat yourself to some really nice fabric when making a pattern the second time around?

  12. Carol Korsholm says:

    Janet, I love this post! As usual, you have great points in here and things I too, have pondered and wrestled with. In your town, the fiber recycling center, could I have a link to it, please? What do they do with these fibers? Do they shred the clothes and make new fabric? Or, are they shipped off to other lands? 😉

  13. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Carol, I’m not sure what happens to the fibers, my guess is that they are sold to a recycler (such as http://leighfibers.com/) but what they do with it, I don’t know. This is a link to all of the recycling in my little town: https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/recycling-energy-sustainability/pages/what-do-i-do-with. All they say about textile recycling is this: “Textiles – Leave clothing, shoes, blankets, stuffed animals, etc. in white recycling bins at Nock Middle School on Low Street, Bresnanhan School on N. Atkinson or at Compost Facility off COlby Farm Lane (formerly Crow Lane).” I really should try to find out what happens…I was so glad to know SOMETHING was being done that I never got further than that!

  14. Sharon says:

    I completely agree. I do make my children special outfits, but never something they can’t wear again. I hate fast fashion, and planned obsolescence, it’s destroying our planet. I like to make clothing that my kids can wear for a while and quality items. I also used handle downs from my sister who tends to buy quality items too

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