Personal Essays

Homestead Hobbies

Hobbies, or interests that take time away from work, cleaning or dog caregiving, haven’t ever been a high priority for me. But I’ve slowly been trying to get involved with some activities that fall into more of a “hobby” category.Gardening and genealogy for example, are fascinating, fun and require no technical skills whatsoever.

Running, reading and cooking, are practical for maintaining your body and mind.

But I have finally found a hobby mixing the somewhat unnecessary with the practical. And where being a novice and having no technical skill doesn’t actually bother me. (As the skilled trades are not my forte).

Sewing…

Minor projects…

Uh…by hand.

In sixth grade home-ec class, I broke the needle on the sewing machine sewing a pillow. My blind stitch was also decidedly not blind and ripped apart as soon as I brought the pillow home. I managed to do the same thing at home in high school to my great-grandmother’s sewing machine when attempting to repair my favorite hand-me-down orange vintage tank top. Snapped the needle.

Naturally, I became weary of sewing and convinced I was awful.

So what convinced me to try and start sewing?

Clothes.

I love my clothes! (Uh…and shoes…I adore shoes)! I take tremendous pride in wearing a yellow chiffon midi dress with pockets and purple peep toe pumps, or putting my mom’s mid-90s cropped leather jacket over a 40s style romper with flutter sleeves, or pairing a Black-Watch plaid tartan a-line skirt with striped sailor shirt and Vera Wang mary janes.

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A few from above of just a few of my shoes on a rack.

As a Catholic and a woman, I am not naturally boastful and I even tend to be self-depreciating. Except when it comes to my clothing and shoe collection. I have an amazing clothing and shoe collection and I will rant and rave about my collection until the cows come home. Which can and does happen in Iowa.

There is an impeccable Diane von Furstenberg blue cotton dress with kick pleat that fit like a tailored glove right off the rack I purchased from Barney’s in 2007. I continue to wear a decades-old wool purple jacket with large 1960s style buttons in the fall and spring over an assortment of sheath dresses. There’s the extra-long, high-rise wiggle pencil skirt I break out with a cropped cardigan and wedges and the Derek Lam snakeskin (but not actual snakeskin) ankle boots that I build an outfit around each fall. I have above the knee high-heeled black boots to pair with mini-skirts and leggings during cold weather and extra-wide leg linen pants for hot summer days. I wear two of my grandfather’s (Marvin’s) sweater vests in the fall, one dark red and one beige. And I’ve stolen so many of my parents clothes (yes, both my mom’s and dad’s) that I’m not sure they even know they use to own some of these items. In fact, in our basement, I have numerous labeled tubs, that contain clothing items I rotate in and out of my wardrobe based on my current size (always fluctuating) and the weather (also always fluctuating).

And I recently switched over to buying most of my clothes brand new to buying second-hand for ethical and economical reasons. I discovered what great deals one can get shopping thrift if you know a little about clothes. Like the time I bought an iconic Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress (I believe either 1970s or repro-1990s) for $5. Five dollars people! Or the embroidered J-Crew pencil skirt that still had it’s original tags. A mere $6. Or how about the 1980s red plaid wool skirt I found at the Spencer Goodwill for $4. All skirts at the Spencer Goodwill are FOUR DOLLARS! (I wear plaid and tartans a lot, my attempt to honor my Scottish heritage).

My clothes are ready-made off the rack items and most I have to have altered; whether new or second-hand. I have them taken in, hemmed, add pockets, darts, repair lining, etc. Interestingly, I noticed that some of the thrift items were altered with simple hand-sewn methods. There was a denim skirt that had a blind stitch hem in a criss cross pattern. A black jacket that had a single stitch to take in the back that was draped in such a way you didn’t even notice there was a stitch. It was intriguing.

Alterations have been a part of my life since my college-days, and really make the difference between just looking good and looking put-together. Alterations are so important, partly, because of my body shape. If you take my shoulder vs hip measurement, I have the much-coveted hourglass shape. This is not the shape I grew up with. (Apparently, I didn’t fill out to my actual body shape until my early 30s). Not to bemoan the point, I like my shape much better now than at my “thinnest” at age 23; but I always looked more girlish than womanly and the change does actually mess a bit with my head. I know I look good and that makes me uncomfortable. (Oh what a study in feminism could be garnered from this sentence alone)!

Back to the facts. I promise this is going somewhere. I had to alter my clothes for my very small size in my late teens through my twenties and now have to alter my clothes for my hourglass measurements.

Clothes measurements for hourglass shapes usually include quite a bit of extra room in the bust. The hourglass body type has a similar measurement at the shoulder/bust and the hips. But unlike standard hourglass shapes, I don’t need extra room in the bust. I have a small bust. It’s my shoulder measurement that solely matches my hip measurement. However, on the flip side, clothes for small busts often don’t have enough width for the broad shoulders I carry. Apparently, and understandably so mathematically-speaking, broad shoulders usually exist to carry a large bust. For me, either a top or a dress has three to four inches of extra fabric in the chest, or the seam on the shoulder falls high on my shoulder blade instead of at my actual shoulder, but doesn’t gape in the front from all the extra material. Further complicating matters, I have an eleven inch difference from my waist to my hips. Meaning pants either fall off my waist or squeeze my hips, thighs, and belly so tight it physically makes me ill to wear them. Like actually physically ill. (I resort to wearing skirts often for this very reason).

Dressing this new shape has been…an education all in itself. In the last year or two, I’ve come to own a number of maternity jeans to help with the waist/hip issue and taken to tying my shirts in a knot to fit my waist; in order to not look like I’m wearing a sack.

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My little sewing kit.

But the problem is…like I already mentioned…I adore clothes.

I needed a way to make my “newish” shape work for the clothes I already have that I love, and the future clothes I would purchase without spending a fortune on alterations. I saved up some money and bought a medium sized sewing kit, additional thread and a variety of buttons. If the thrift items I purchased could be so easily and simply altered with a couple of hand-stitches, what was I to lose by trying to learn these techniques?

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The color in the photo didn’t turn out well, but this is a navy cardigan where I replaced the buttons with these teal ceramic ones.
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I purchased this black Gap maxi dress with a gift card for under $10 on clearance. It came with regular black buttons. So I changed the buttons for these silver metal ones to make it look a little more expensive and then added these two Union Jack buttons on the sleeves for fun.

I began with what I knew best, buttons. Taking some staple cardigans I’ve had for years, I replaced their original buttons with flashy pieces. Some were buttons I purchased from sewing stores, others from antique stores, and some I removed from older clothing that was worn and tattered but had lovely button details. I have been known to buy a less than stellar shirt secondhand merely so that I could remove and reuse the buttons.

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Reproduction 1970s wide leg pants.

Then I took the plunge with period reproduction pants or actual vintage pants (including a pair of wool trousers my dad use to wear) and started to learn to hem. Reproduction and vintage pants tend to have a higher rise which works better for my long torso and are often a looser fit in the legs, allowing me avoid the dreaded stomach ache that modern pants leave me with. My first hems were visible hand-stitched hems. And I’ve now been working on a blind stitch hem.

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My first attempt at a blind hem on a 1940s reproduction pair of pants.
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I added two small stitches to tuck in an extra pleat and make the waist smaller, while keeping the hips wide. The belt helps hide these tucks. 

Beyond that, I’ve been adding nips and tucks in skirts and pants (occasionally adding hidden buttons and eye hooks) to help with the fit difference in the waist versus hip area. I’ve removed shoulder pads (a broad shoulder gal does not need shoulder pads) and then re-sewed up the lining of jackets and shirts. Each time, getting a little bit better, but still very much a novice.

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Adding two snaps along the side of this pleated skirt. They are hidden enough that I can wear the skirt snapped or open-to adjust the size throughout the day-does anyone else need clothes that adjust throughout the day? Is this just me? 

None of this is done with much precision. But most of the ugly-parts are hidden, and I don’t mind if it’s not quite perfect. And it is certainly making me more bold and comfortable in my body shape. But most of all, it is fun! I can’t believe how much fun it is to work on a small, manageable project to make something I own a little bit easier to wear. Or, a little bit flashier or more special or one-of-a-kind. Maybe even one day, I’ll try an actual sewing machine again. But, then again, why complicate matters?

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