Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Vintage Sewing: the Anti-H&M?

Several commenters rightly brought up the idea of "fast fashion" last week, and I can't pretend to have an unbiased opinion on the subject. Stores like H&M and Forever 21 just make me feel . . . gross. The ugly fibers, the poor workmanship, the clothes strewn sloppily all about, the trends that will be over in five minutes. Ugh. It depresses me just to step foot into one of those stores.

And yet, I am the demographic that these retailers are targeting. Female, urban, professional, 30 years old, childless, interested in fashion, and with a certain amount of "disposable" income. (Problem is, I would much rather dispose of my income in a fabric store.) The attitude among my peers seems to be that anything cute and cheap is a great thing. But, as many people have pointed out, this kind of fast fashion isn't harmless. Its victims are the people who make the clothes for less than a living wage, as well as the environment.

I was interested that commenter Hanna brought up the idea that perhaps vintage fashion/sewing is a reaction to this fast fashion culture of disposable clothing that we live in. She resisted the notion that raunch culture, as I proposed, was at play here and made a very compelling argument for her point of view:

I've really enjoyed reading this discussion and the older one about vintage fashion and gender politics. Can I suggest another modern trend that fans of vintage clothes might be reacting against? It is 'throwaway culture' or whatever you like to call it - the way you can buy items of clothing (or indeed lots of other things) for astonishingly low prices, the kind of prices that make it cheaper to replace something when it wears out rather than repair it. As several other people have pointed out, sewing vintage patterns is a way of connecting with the skills of the past . . . Perhaps we also like to connect with the attitude of that past, when even mass-produced clothing was generally of a higher quality and cost more relative to other household goods than it does now, and was therefore less disposable and more cherished.
Well said, Hanna!

I think she's on to something. Have we perhaps gotten so fed up with the unethical way stores churn out cheap clothes that we've turned to sewing to counteract it?

Of course, it's also easy to get into a mindset of fast fashion even when sewing. As I pointed out yesterday, I often get into the mindset of "fast sewing:" trying to make more and more projects, and practically turning my sewing room into a sweat shop. And many pattern companies seem to be gravitating more to "one-hour" projects. Are we really in such a hurry?

But, at the heart of Hanna's point is the idea that when you sew something, you cherish it and honor it. When you buy it at H&M, it's more likely to end up as a cleaning rag (or in a landfill) by the next season.

Thank you, Hanna, for your excellent points. If any others have theories on the return to vintage fashion and sewing, you know I'd love to hear them.


  1. Thanks Gertie; I'm touched that you used my post to start this discussion! I'm so interested to hear what the intelligent, articulate, stitching readership of this blog has to say.

  2. Hmmmm, I have mixed opinions on this topic. In order to explain myself, I have to give you a sight of life in Serbia (where I come from).
    Fashion stores like H&M and Zara are rather expensive for average consumer in Serbia. This is due to 2 reasons: 1) very low payments and 2) huge profit margins of the vendors. Hence, not as much for the quality of the clothes, but more for its expensiveness, the "fast fashion" clothes is not as disposable over here as it might be in other countries.
    Personally, I find most of the clothes disposable, no matter whether it was store bought or sewed. The more I sew, the better I become in this craftmanship. But, I've been sewing for the past 16 years and amount of my wardrobe has increased A LOT! Knowing me - I'm never going to stop sewing, so I'll have more and more clothes. And some of this clothes simply has gotta go!
    So, every season, I give away or simply throw away lots of clothes. And most of those garments were made in the previous season. Therefore I think I can consider myself a fast fashion consumer in a way.

  3. I agree. One of the reasons that I sew is so that I can have garments of better quality, and made with better fabrics than what could be purchased in the stores.

    Sometimes people assume that I sew because it saves money, but in all honesty it does not. I could easily purchase a shirt for 10-20 dollars at a store like Target, Kohl's, or even H&M, but why? So I can itch? So I can wear ill-fitting clothes? So I can throw it away next season? So the seams fall out the first time I wash it?

    When I sew, I do it because I want something BETTER than what I can buy at a mass-market store. So, in the end, I may spend 30 dollars and up on shirts and pants, and 50 or more on dresses. Let's face it, that's not a savings over the chain stores.

    On the other hand, to find a dress made with the care that I put into it...the seam finishes, the fitting, the hand work...the only way that I could purchase that is to purchase from high-end designers.

    So in the end, my sewing is no "savings" over purchasing disposable clothes from the chain stores, but it does allow me access to a custom made garment, made from high-quality fabric, and finished with seam finishes only found in couture garments...something that my income would allow me no access to. I also have clothing that is classic, and can be worn for many seasons.

  4. Great post. I've always hated cheap RTW, mostly because of fit issues, but I've been starting to think more about fast vs. slow fashion in terms of labor practices and environmental impact.

    I wanted to say something about Michelle's comment: "So in the end, my sewing is no "savings" over purchasing disposable clothes from the chain stores". I have to disagree. If you look just at the purchase cost of a dress or a shirt or a pair of pants, then yes, they may cost the same as something you sew - but if you look at things in terms of "cost per wear" and assume that the handmade garments will be worn much more than cheap RTW will (due to better fit and greater durability), then handmade garments (or even custom made clothing, for that matter) are often *much* less expensive than RTW. I've recently realized that a classic styled cotton/silk blouse that costs me $50+ to sew (and that will be worn for years) is a smoking deal compared to a $19.99 shirt with wonky darts, cheap plastic buttons and fabric that pills/pulls/shrinks the first time it's washed.

  5. This article helps me. I admire you so much for wearing what YOU like and not giving into trends simply because they currently the "in" thing. That takes a great amount of confidence that I don't possess yet. I visit alot of fashion blogs and notice that everyone looks the same. I have a tendency alot to want to be "in", and those are the times I think about stopping sewing and just saving my money for purchasing over the counter clothing. I find myself wanting to look like everyone else, but in doing so, who am I trying to please---them!! and certainly not me. This is something I have been dealing with alot lately. Really, though, who cares if I am "in" as long as my clothing makes me happy and fits well. I heard a wise person say one time that we spend most of our time trying to impress people that we really don't care about and who really do not care about us.
    Great article!!!

  6. I forgot to add that I too find myself trying to do fast projects to have more and more. Why? I have no clue. Again, this is a great article and I love your blog.

  7. There must be something in the air....I read a blog this morning along the same line, then wrote a post of my own and now I read yours ...and Hanna's...gracious we're on a roll!
    A fine fitting well made that even possible to buy anymore? Toss modesty into the mix and SWOOSH!!! out the door it flys! Now, I am no prude, but there is a time and a place for your lingerie to be showing....and then there is place where it shouldn't..and I say that based that I have respect for myself as well as others.
    IMO... We live in a throw away, must have it yesterday, not satisfiable society...for the most part...and therein lies the problem. Until we learn to be satisfied with what we have right in front of us, that is perfectly good and stop comparing ourselves with what "fashion" people tell us we must wear or look like, nothing will change.
    That's why I sew :)
    It gives me a sense of fullfillment, a pride in doing a good job and I get a proper fitting outfit all at the same time!
    (course, sometimes that takes QUITE the effort!)
    Sewing CAN be more pricey...but if you don't have to have it "yesterday" you just bide your time and watch for the sales.
    Thanks for the yer blog!!

  8. As the mom of a 14 year old fashion maven, I'm feeling a sense of hope.
    So far, I haven't been able to get my daughter interested in sewing, but on a recent shopping trip, I was surprised that she skipped over the cute and trendy stuff for the classic and well-made. All her life, she has watched me either making clothes or buying quality items and wearing them year after year after year. She's a smart kid. I guess the lesson is rubbing off.

  9. I agree, since stepping into 1955 my fashioin can't ever go back to 2009, in fact 1956 fashion, here I come!

  10. If people chose the clothes they bought with as much care as they planned sewing projects, rather than based primarily on price, your point wouldn't hold. It's the shoppers, not the stores, that are the problem.

  11. athough I do shop in stores like H&M, I noticed that since I started sewing regularly (and not just 4 items a year), I really compare what I really need to buy and what I can easily make myself. Going to school, I can't really afford "better" shops, so I buy my basics here and things I can't sew or that would be way more expensive to sew myself.

  12. I have to agree with Dasha that sometimes quality storebought clothes are a value.

    And I also say this because (true confessions) I really like H&M. Some of the designs have been inspiring to me, and I do have some lovely pieces that have lasted forever. I bought a gorgeous wool skirt at an H&M in 2003 and it's still the piece I wear most in the winter. Still beautiful, too.

    But I think your point is well-made, and I do agree for the most part. "Cheap" fashion benefits no-one-- not the seamstress, not the buyer.

  13. Well, I remember my mom - a sewer - always examining fiber content, seams, linings etc., turning a garment inside out, before buying anything. So she may have made me a better H & M shopper! I have always been a very critical buyer, and have worn most garments out before throwing them away. When I didn't sew much, I bought a lot of these garments at H & M, finding their quality no less than a lot of other "brand names". That said, I certainly wouldn't buy all of their stuff (polyester etc.). And I might have been a less discerning shopper if it hadn't been for the "sewer's lesson"!

  14. I think with a good eye, you can take advantage of items from lower price point stores. Before sewing, I bought two summer cotton blouses from HM and actually they are my absolute favorite summer shirts to this day! I like mixing things up for an outfit--my clothes are made by me, higher and lower end stores. I don't depend on just one location--it is the hunt for a unique accessory/outfit which is fun and allows me to shop wherever! Now I am very picky and have high standards but open to give any place a shot.

  15. Hi Gertie,

    The reason I'm so drawn to sewing and vintage fashion isn't a reaction to "Raunch Culture" and it isn't a reaction to the shoddy workmanship and materials utilized by the chain stores. My reason for sewing and for adoring vintage fashion is because it allows me to live in a simpler way.

    My small closet isn't full to bursting and my budget isn't blown every time I go shopping. I choose to sew rather than watch TV and I choose to read vintage Forties and Fifties magazines for inspiration rather than spend time reading about Brad and Angelina's latest baby-making escapades.

    Am I inspired by the simplicity of earlier eras? Of course. Would I rather have lived then? I don't think so. WWII, pre-feminist housewifery and myriad other reasons make me happy that I'm alive in the second millenium. But, the little part of me that wishes to have lived before Peak Oil, internet psychopaths and Genetically Modified Organisms is more than happy to go down to my sewing room and pretend, for an afternoon, that children walk home alone after dark in my neighbourhood and that my local fabric store still exists.

  16. Christine, I had never thought of it in terms of cost per wear, and you are exactly right. In the end, it is much less to make a high quality, if more expensive garment that will be worn for years as opposed to replacing the same shirt 3 times in a year. Thank you!

  17. I still have to restrain myself from buying fast fashion when it's discounted under $10, but I try to remind myself of that last pieces I loved that I had to get rid of because of cheap construction, and too often I can spot the flaws while still in the store. More and more, time spent shopping equals time not sewing, although the garments I make haven't reached the height of perfection because I still want a quantity of clothes and don't have the patience.

  18. I love both!!! I have many many items from F21 that I have customized. Some have been a wardrobe staple for over 2 yrs now. I think that if you have a good eye and some imagination then you can use this to your advantage. I love the idea of fast fashion AND classic vintage looks all rolled into one, otherwise I would just get bored!

  19. I can't say that for me, sewing is a complete reaction against disposable fashion... my mom taught me to sew when I was a kid (which was kind of weird in the 80s), so I've basically grown up doing it. But that has become more of a consideration for me since my college days. I did several rounds at the Wardrobe Refashion blog (I'm off the pledge right now, but mainly because most of my work pants bit the dust at once and I just don't have the fitting know-how yet to make pants work well... will be taking some online sewing classes soon that will hopefully help with that!) and have become much more aware of the environmental and social impact of where my clothes come from as a result. Fit and modesty are also big factors for me, especially given that I work with kids (including teaching a band of predominantly middle school boys) and have to be careful about my shirts being too low-cut or whatever. I can definitely see how vintage sewing in particular could play into that, though (other than a few 70's patterns I stitched up as a teenager) it's not something I've dabbled in much myself.

  20. I absolutely agree that, as a society we've traded in quality for disposable trendiness in apparel. Consumers as a whole are less picky & less educated: understanding of fitting garments in particular has really decreased, and the higher-end retailers learned quickly from the fast-fashioneers that consumers now have a really high tolerance for really poor quality fabrics in particular, but also workmanship. It is amazing: the quality that you used to find limited to Target-type apparel can now be found in high-end department stores. I'm not saying you can't find absolute gems from time to time at all price points, and I'm as big a sucker as anyone for cheap shiny baubles! I'm just saying that overall manufacturers have got our culture's number as a whole in terms of demand for quality: there just isn't much.

    I think it's quite tied to not just baggy T-shirt & cargoes fashion, but the decline of home sewing. With sewing comes a better understanding of fit. As it is, with this I'm really only at the level of being vaguely aware of how much I *don't* know about fit. I can still send my mother into paroxysms of horror at the fit of some outfits I think look really smart. But then she was raised either sewing herself or having her mother sew almost everything for her, carefully tailored to all her measurements-- so her eye is really well-trained in ways mine is not.

    But I also agree that a desire for higher-quality items definitely drives my sewing. Now that I'm paying off grad school loans, I couldn't ever afford to buy the kinds of things I'm making with the quality of fabrics I'm using, even if I could find them.

  21. I agree. I also am the demographic the stores are targeting and every time I step foot in the mall I'm disgusted. I'm fascinated by fashion, but really fed up with the trend that production has left the US, and the American mindset that more is more, regardless of quality.
    I love sewing vintage because it's a creative outlet, I can make something of better quality that will last and is exactly my size, regardless of whether or not it actually is cheaper than someplace it could be purchased. I used to love going in to stores like Anthropologie for inspiration, but these days when I get close up enough to look at how it was made in comparison to the price being asked, I generally leave frustrated and more determined to find my clothing vintage or make my own.
    I have very much enjoyed this post. Thank you for raising such an interesting topic.

  22. I sew because I love beautiful clothes and I refuse to pay for clothes that I can make just like the high-end shops do!

    I make the same type clothing for my children.

    I do shop carefully - weighing both my time and cost with the cost and such of the clothing item I might buy (it is much easier just to buy blue jeans though for my teens!).

    I also sew because I can make the clothes a bit more modest (you know with cap sleeves, a slighter higher neckline, no booty showing when I bend over in my trousers).

    I also sew because I have a classic hourglass figure - and do you know how bad hip pants look on me? Or the lose fitting peasant tops? (I look pregnant and I am done with that, thank you.)

    I guess I have become a clothes snob - I prefer beautiful, well made and fitted clothes. So if I have to sew to get it for me and my be it!

  23. I'm not a fan of the stores because for the most part, I'm not attracted to the styles they're offering.

    But with regard to the point that the are harmful because they pay the seamstresses less than a living wage:

    I have no idea where H&M garments are produced, or under what conditions. But generally, over the past few years, I have altered my thinking a bit with regard to clothing that is produced in poor countries for wages that are less than what we in the US would call livable.

    When I was in college, my roommate from Bangladesh told me about the garment factories in her country. She told me that although they pay low wages, the wages are much, much higher than those otherwise available to those workers. She shared with me her bitter frustration that when those factories are forced to close because of the good will of protesting Americans, the people are much worse off than before. Of course there are better humanitarian options, such as providing skills training. But for those who at this time don't have lucrative skills, these factories can change lives for better.

  24. I'm willing to spend money on clothing that will last a bit longer and while I have bought items at H&M that have lasted (a pair of linen trousers that I've had for 9 years!)I find that a lot of clothing I have bought retail (regardless of price) has fallen apart rather quickly.

    I have a similar concern though about sewing--looking at the range in price of fabric, aren't we perpetuating the same working conditions and "fast/disposable fashion" when we use impossibly cheap fabrics in our sewing?

  25. This is kind of a long comment - I apologize!

    I started sewing with vintage patterns 10 years ago because I've always loved fashions from the 1960s and 1970s. I realized that sewing with these patterns was the most practical and affordable way for me to make/re-create that perfect mod a-line dress or high-waist bellbottoms that I longed for, specifically in my own size. Like you, I would much rather spend my money on vintage sewing patterns and fabric than purchase new, trendy clothing (although I do *try* to avoid mass fabric retailers like Jo-Ann because they too contribute to our disposable culture by importing cheap made-in-China fabrics and seasonal junk).

    I have never shopped in an H&M, and I rarely ever go to the mall (only to buy staples that I don't make - like undergarments, tights and socks). The last time I did go to the mall, I ventured into a Charlotte Russe store and was shocked at how cheaply made and inexpensive everything was. Any other clothing that I purchase comes directly from thrift stores which - surprise - are now overflowing with last season's disposable trendy garments from Target/H&M/Charlotte Russe/Forever 21, etc. - UGH!

    I am still fascinated whenever I find a vintage garment from the 1950s or 1960s in a thrift store that still has it's original designer label attached - usually the label/design will be from a smaller local/regional designer and, of course, they were made in the United States. And, if worn today, these 50 year old garments would STILL outlast anything that comes from Target!

    Unfortunately, I believe there is no turning back from this disposable trendiness in our culture. Too many consumers want their clothing cheap and don't care where it comes from or how it's made or about the consequences that result from that. I didn't start sewing with vintage patterns as a recation against modern retail practices, but I'm happy that I have the skills to make unique clothing that I can feel proud to wear.

  26. I notice that a lot of people have mentioned how sewing their own clothes has made them look at ready-to-wear differently. Like me, many still do buy ready-made clothes from stores in all different price ranges, but we all seem to look at clothes more carefully as a result of our sewing. I certainly find that being able to make my own clothes makes me look carefully at the ones available in stores and ask myself something along the lines of: do I love this enough to make one myself? And if I did, would it cost less/look better? And sometimes it's yes to the first and no to the second and then I buy it - it can be cheaper to buy ready-made! But even when I do, I think I cherish the garments more because I have a better understanding of just what it *means* to make an item of clothing. When you make something yourself it's not just any old thing that will protect your pathetic homo sapiens hide from the elements: it's something you really want; that you've thought about; that you've carefully planned and even more carefully made; that has taken time and effort and skill. And after a while I think, your attitude to all clothing changes as a result of this process. I wonder, for example, if home sewists are more likely to take clothes to charity shops (thrift stores) or to clothes recycling banks rather than throwing them in the bin? And if their greater willingness to repair/refashion garments is not just a result of having the necessary skills, but of an attitude that these things deserve a bit more care and attention?

  27. My grandmother used to show me the insides of her clothes and say it should look as good as the outside. My handmade clothing can, but for the fast fashion chains, that's not any where near what it's about. My clothing is about quality and fit, something, as Michelle said, I can't possibly afford at my income level unless I make it myself. I am not saving money if you compare what I spend to the chain store clothing, but if you compare it to high end rtw, I am spending a whole lot less for a garment of even better quality.

  28. I think there can be some benefits to fast fashion stores. As much as I like to sew, sewing my own clothing is very expensive and I can't always afford it when I need it. Normally, if I don't have the money for something I'll do without but that isn't always possible. One example, I went to high school in Thailand, so when I moved to the U.S for college the warmest items in my closet were a light cardigan and one pair of jeans. Obviously that's not enough to last through the winter in. However, because I moved right before school started it was August, and I couldn't make it through the winter to wait for the coats at nice stores to start going on sale. And I don't have the sewing skills, or the fabric money to make myself a coat. But I found a comfy warm wool coat at H&M for $40 at the start of winter, and so I bought it. And it wasn't a throwaway item, I still have it two years later and it looks just as nice as when I bought it. I also sometimes go to those stores, because, as many people have mentioned, sewing your own clothing is expensive. I also don't have much time or space to do it in a dorm room and there are no thrift stores within biking distance of where I live (there is one goodwill, but the smallest sizes are usually 12s and I wear a 4). So I go to the mall, but what I need, but I make sure to examine it closely to make sure it is in good condition so I'm not wasting the money.

  29. I think there are two major problems with "cheap" clothes from chains like H&M and Zara. Both have to do with the fact that they're too cheap (not in all countries but many).
    The first is the labour-wages, I'd rather pay a little more and know that the person who made the clothes got a proper paycheck and had fair or even good working conditions.
    The other is that since they're so cheap that most (or many)of us can afford to buy them without considering whether we A. really want them and B. really need them. SO we just buy new, without consideration.
    I've bought loads of clothes at H&M, some of them are my most treasured and used and other I've just used once or twice.
    I've tried to make myself think more carefully before buying new clothes, no matter if they're cheap or not, to make sure I buy only things that I will use, but I don't think I'll stop shopping at H&M (although I've reduced the amount drastically since I took up sewing again. But then, I buy fabrics instead now...).
    Btw, this is a really interesting discussion!

  30. Although I do like the quirky style of H&M (UK) fashion, I have to agree with the fact everything is becoming so bland, same-ish and five-minute-wonders. The problem with they way everything has been mass-produced for customers is just simply wrong - we keep on complaining that we have to be individual and unique, but how can we when we're buying the same clothes as everyone else? What happened to one-off pieces designed to fit us perfectly? It makes me sad and angry that there is a huge percentage of people in the world that have lost touch with the art of craft. Sewing is dying - WE NEED TO REVIVE IT.

  31. My nana, who was a fashion plate herself back in the day, and of whom I have pictures wearing those "vintage" clothes from the left column of your blog, was never one to buck to fads or trends. She knew, indelibly, these things: 1) Coral was the color in which she positively shined, so she favored it over any current new black, 2) Pencil skirts hugged her figure so lovingly and generously that it would be like cheating to wear anything else, and 3) You have to be comfortable in your clothes or you'll never look good in them. Those were the tenets of her fashion sense; she rarely strayed, which is why she was always exemplarily dressed. I just realized the other day, while inside one of their stores, that I HATE H&M. The clothes they sold used to be silly cheap, so that you could feel somewhat ok about buying a 10-minute trend because it could be tossed away like a plastic pink razor, but now they're just as expensive as some quality-made garments! It's a total rip-off, and the clothes aren't even cute! I am now learning to sew because I'm tired of having to settle for what the industry offers! (PS Thanks for all your tips and tricks--they're really helpful! :)

  32. There are so many interesting comments here ! I started sewing my own clothes again a couple of years ago; primarily because I was disabled and needed something creative and challanging to do with my time. But what happened was that I started to notice how badly things were made that came from Target, H&M, etc.Plus, I like to wear natural fabrics, and they were not to be found at the discount stores !I started out slowly, and have now really weaned my self off of my Target addiction completely. I do with fewer clothes, which I think everyone could easily do if they learned to be creative. I also shop at Consignment stores and Thrift shops and look for quality clothing. I think that once you start sewing for yourself, you beginn to look at the cheap mass produced clothing out there very differently !


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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