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the novice fashion designer

Updated on April 22, 2014

If you or your child want to become proficient at customizing clothes or would like to design interior decor with soft furnishings, the basic equipment you'll need will range from a hand-sewing kit to a sewing machine.

Hand-sewing for me, in flush times and dire financial straits, has always comprised of hemming trousers etc as I find that the iron-on webbing doesn’t survive successive machine washes even at low temperatures, sewing bra-straps in place when the elasticity has gone out of them, and moving or replacing buttons or fasteners rather than throwing out the whole garment.

I’m lucky in that I’ve a wealth of tricks up my sleeve from watching my mother in action. She spent a lot of her middle-age being heavier than she was in her twenties and at that time in Ireland there weren’t too many stores catering to the glamorous larger woman. (Because of her I will always associate sewing machines with her homemade outfits that augmented shop-bought style she found in McIlhenny’s.)

She was inventive: she would unpick the seams of dresses, waistcoats and blouses she liked, use them as a pattern for cutting new fabric, re-sew the older garment and the new one, and have both done in a morning’s work. She also knitted, made rugs and cushions and re-used bed linen and old curtains by joining the larger pieces together to make blankets. But that was while she was still in the Legion of Mary and hadn't yet found vodka. (In reality it was when her routine shifted back to working full-time that she gave up the Wonder Woman stuff with the sewing, knitting and rug-making.)

These were skills she used sporadically. In the 60s in Ireland, ‘make do and mend’ was still an ingrained characteristic in most people, and during the 80s, another time of economic recession, she revived the sewing machine rather than spend cash on the necessities of life: fashion and stylish home décor. She was a busy woman, for whom making savings by rejuvenating what she already had was given a fixed timescale. So none of her outfits or duvet covers were perfectly finished with straight seams or even had the same thread in the needle and the bobbin. The maxim was that if a blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t spot the fault then the cushion, frock, duvet cover or whatever she’d produced was lovely. When you’ve other things to do than improve your finishes to professional standard, this maxim is very worthwhile.

I’m lucky too in that I have her sewing basket, which I’ve replenished reflexively from a habit she instilled in me from an early age. Her ‘magic’ sewing basket is packed with buttons, bias binding, zips, fasteners, beads, a whole palette of colours of threads, some embroidery threads, machine needles, hand-sewing needles, crochet hooks, various band-widths of ribbon and elastic, small balls of wool for darning, as well as a Holy Communion medal, a set of dice and Daddy’s epaulette numbers.

I’m also lucky in that I am blonde. We’re not very bright, you know. So without examining why at the time, I’ve collected remnants of pretty fabric, saved attractive buttons, bought eccentric things like rolls of ostrich feathers from haberdashers and fallen for pretty textures, bold colours or unusual patterns in garments that don’t suit (or even fit me), and kept them. Now that I have the sewing machine and time on my hands I’ve reverted to some of Mammy’s tricks, such as cutting out the zips from garments that are just about to disintegrate from overuse. In previous times I might have donated old clothes to thrift stores simply to clear space in wardrobes and drawers for new ones. Now they’ve to pass a new set of criteria before they’re given away or trashed. Afterall, they could be the free, raw material for something new. They won't always suit your project but they can reduce the number of times you've to search for a new item to color-match or fit your new creation.


Get rid of anything that’s torn, threadbare, shiny or “knobbly” (turning the garment inside out before you put it in the washing machine prolongs the life of the fabric before it becomes “knobbly” and turning it inside out before ironing defers the point where the fabric becomes shiny).

Get rid too of anything that’s become discoloured or faded by washing.

Unless it’s your lucky knickers or some other item you simply cannot live without, commercial dyes can be more expensive than the garment, so trying to revive something through dyeing it back to its original intensity could be a waste of effort. Bleaching something back to brilliant white however is relatively cheap, so don’t necessarily trash something that’s been discoloured in one wash.

It almost goes without saying that some things are still sacred. If your beloved has a ghastly shirt that offends you, it must be put safely beyond use immediately. However, all this means is hiding it till he or she is in an amenable mood to discover that you’ve cut parts of it up to make something fabulous.

For less controversial acquisitions of raw materials you could, probably, randomly halve the amount of t-shirts, dress shirts, trousers and jackets he has, tell him he can use the cleared space for a whole new set of gadgets and there won’t be a peep out of him.

Cut out and keep attractive parts of garments you’ve decided are beyond salvation as a whole, such as pretty buttons, unusual lace or netting, zips or strips of Velcro, for instance. If you’re getting rid of a shirt, for example, you could keep the cuffs by cutting them off about two inches above the sewn cuff. (This allows you enough of a seam to sew them onto something else you want to salvage.)

If something’s ruined in a particular area – say spillage on a skirt, or fraying on a cuff – you can simply cut the ruined bit off and replace it with parts of something else you’ve salvaged. Saving whole sections of garments that you can quickly add to others, allows you to use your machine in its simplest setting – straightforward seams – and you don’t need to strain your brain or a cheap machine with fabrics that are too thick, find the button-hole setting, or lay out hard cash on patterns. You are unlikely to acquire the necessary skills to complete complex sewing jobs with the speed and efficiency of an accomplished machinist overnight, so if you’re adapting clothes in the hope that kids will wear them, the fruits of your labours can’t look weird or homemade. Re-using the valuable bits of the original machinist’s work not only saves you time making something, but also saves on heartache if the ingrate won’t wear it.

Fill in the gaps in your sewing kit by buying a machine if you can’t borrow one. Other handy things to have are pinking shears (scissors that cut in a zig-zag which often stops the fabric from fraying) to cut down on the time spent hand sewing. Hemming something with a machine becomes a simpler procedure than double-folding the fabric so the frayed edge doesn’t unravel and require re-doing. Filling in the gaps in your skills with free fabrics, accessories and simple homemade patterns (templates) means you may eventually produce garments or products that people want to buy.


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      Giles 6 years ago

      I'm a blind man just rediscovering sewing... don't have a galloping horse, but I did enjoy this post! I will look out for some of them thar pinking shears, they could be handy!