Why everyone should learn how to sew
Many of us learned to sew at a young age, either in school or at home, usually taught by the women in our family – our mothers, grandmothers or aunts. Theirs was a time when you sewed out of necessity, and knowing how to thread a needle, sew on a button or mend a small tear was routine. Fast forward a few decades to the age of fast fashion and these skills looked to be on the verge of dying out, erased by a culture of consumerism.
And yet… just as sewing seemed destined for landfill, where it would sit discarded with every worn-once dress, the late noughties came and brought with them the beginnings of the craft revival as Folksy and other marketplaces made it easier to see and sell handmade, the rise of Pinterest and the YouTube tutorial made it easier to learn how to stitch, and then in April 2013 a little TV show called The Great British Sewing Bee appeared on our screens, bringing sewing into the living rooms of the masses. Between 2014 and 2017, more than 1 million people took up sewing and the Craft & Hobby Trade Association estimates there now around 7 million people in the UK who sew their own clothes. However, it’s not all rosy in the land of stitch: six out of 10 people still can’t sew and in a poll for the Big Stitch Campaign almost a quarter of people admitted they couldn’t even sew on a button or mend a rip in their clothes.
Helen Spencer from HelloSewing.com is here to convert that remaining 59% of people to sewing, and tell anyone haunted by missing buttons about the joys of being able to make, mend and create. Here are her reasons why everyone should learn how to sew…
1. Sewing is good for your wellbeing
Sewing provides me with a time to reflect, plan and understand how I tick. I often think back to my first embroidery kit – the joy of creating something slowly and methodically gave me a real sense of calm and achievement and I still get that feeling today.Elaine, Ellie’s Treasures
Creating something useful and beautiful from scratch does wonders to your self-confidence and also helps us manage our moods and boost wellbeing. This is backed up by new research commissioned by BBC Arts in collaboration with UCL which revealed creative activities help us:
- avoid stress – by using creativity as a distraction tool
- reassess problems in our lives and make plans by allowing us to contemplate and giving us the mind space to think
- face challenges by building up self-esteem and confidence
This doesn’t just apply to people who can already sew, as the study showed that the positive benefits of the doing something creative applied regardless of your skill level, and learning a new craft skill was actually found to be more beneficial than doing the same activity for more than 10 years. The researchers saw emotional benefits from just a single session of creativity and cumulative benefits from regular engagement.
The findings probably won’t come as a surprise to most Folksy sellers, who have long recognised the benefits of craft on wellbeing and mental health. When asked recently what sewing has brought to their lives, it was top of the list for many Folksy sellers, including Kim Blythe from KB Creations who explained that when she’s sewing she becomes so engrossed in what she’s doing that she forgets her problems: “It’s relieves my anxiety and helps me cope.” Her experience is echoed by Lisa Bennett from In the Making Aprons, who agrees, “Sewing clears my mind of worries. Whether it’s sewing aprons for my Folksy shop, artistic and decorative sewing or mending to bring clothes back to life, they all have a little thrill of achievement,” and Hannah Burton from Bramble and Burt who says, “Put simply, sewing soothes my soul and quietens my mind.”
For many people, like Marie Randall from Made in the Temple, sewing is uplifting and plays an integral part in their lives. “The stages of my life are defined by my sewing machines,” she explains. “An old Singer saw me through childhood making dolls clothes and ’70s clothing. A wedding present of a New Home sewing machine made soft furnishings and fancy dress costumes for school and now my Brother machine makes bags and purses for my little business. I sew every day if time allows it gives me a sense of wellbeing and fills that creative urge.”
So every time we pick up that needle and learn a new stitch or complete a pattern, we’re not just creating something, we’re also strengthening our coping mechanisms, easing our anxieties and building our confidence.
2. Sewing builds independence and brings new career opportunities
I learnt to sew after being given a cross stitch embroidery kit when I was little. It was so rewarding as a child to see something materialise in front of your eyes as you stitched away. I went on to study fashion design at university and became a childrenswear designer, which took me all around the world. I now run my own business making personalised textile gifts and cards. Who would have thought that giving a cross stitch embroidery kit to a little girl would result in a 30-year career?Ali Millard, Milly & Pip
The creative industries are filled with stories like Ali Millard‘s, where someone’s first experience of sewing comes as a child, perhaps making clothes for their toys or opening a Christmas present to reveal a sewing kit, and their new-found skill not only gives them a strong sense of independence but eventually leads to a career in sewing.
As I’ve previously discussed at Hellosewing, a successful sewing career isn’t limited to fashion design either. There are multiple avenues open to you, from adjustments and alterations, to patternmaking, embroidery, upholstery, or even creating your own range of homeware, gifts, or accessories. It takes patience, perseverance, hard work, originality, time and skill, but it’s a great choice for talented individuals who love to sew. At the last count there were almost 150,000 people employed in the craft economy in the UK and 1.9 million people across the UK creative industries as a whole, so there are plenty of opportunities out there.
Many people who can sew find it opens career opportunities at different stages of their life and in different forms too. “My mum was a seamstress, so I picked up sewing when I was little,” explains Gaynor Marshall. “I made most of my own clothes when I was a teenager and I gained professional qualifications in advanced soft furnishings when my boys were younger. I was then asked by my tutor to teach the City & Guilds course that I had studied. I also ran my own soft furnishings business for a number of years, before creating textile accessories and sewing-related art. Sewing has always been part of my life and something I always return to in one form or another.”
Sewing isn’t always an initial career choice either; people often return to it later in life as it enables them (particularly women) to start second careers, earn a living while bringing up children or maintain an income after retirement. This was the case for Inga from Cushie Doo: “My mum taught me to sew when I was five and I started using a machine when I was eight. I had hoped to go to art college to study fashion but that didn’t happen. Fifty years on from when I first started sewing, I’m using my skills in a new business, hand printing my own designs on to fabric and then making it into a range of sustainable homewares and accessories. I will continue to sew for as long as I am able as I love it so much.”
3. Sewing your own clothes allows you to express your individuality
My mum wasn’t very good at sewing so I was taught to make dolls clothes by an aunt and a neighbour. By the time I was in my teens I was making my own clothes, which came in useful because I had something individual and didn’t run the risk of turning up at some do wearing the same thing as someone else.Helen Cameron, A Pinch of Stardust
When you sew your own clothes, you aren’t bound by current trends. You can make stuff that can’t be found anywhere else, so there’s no more meeting your reflection on the street. If you go to a high-street shop or even a designer store and buy yourself a lovely dress, skirt, shirt or any other piece of clothing, you won’t be only person who owns it. Who knows how many identical pieces have been manufactured and sold to people all around the world? But if you make your own clothes, no one else will ever have the exact same thing – AND your clothing will fit perfectly, no matter what body type you have. It’s worth remembering that clothes in shops don’t have to be bought either; you can draw inspiration from them and then create your own version of something you saw, making it unique to you. That way you can have a wardrobe that feels high-end but without paying the store mark up.
You don’t even need to make a whole outfit from scratch. Just learn a few stitches and you’ll be able to customise your outfits to make them individual to you, as Johanna Oxley from Cherry Peg points out: “I love the sheer versatility of sewing. You can make a whole outfit with a sewing machine or just add a few stitches by hand to decorate something.”
4. Sewing can save you money
I’ve sewn my home, saved a fortune I don’t have and I can turn my skill to making anything my family needs. Sewing is cheaper, more creative, meditative and far better quality than the cheap hit of consumerism. I love it.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
Sewing your own clothes as well as your own homeware – things like cushions, quilts, napkins, tablecloths and curtains – can be really economical, especially if you take into account the quality of fabric and finish, and use the same sewing pattern many times over. Often the amount of money you’d spend on one new piece of clothing would be enough for you to sew at least two pieces instead. Sewing also allows you to repair clothes you’d otherwise throw out.
Factor in the gorgeous handmade accessories you can sew from the left-over fabric, like purses, make-up bags or glasses cases, or the heirloom quilt you could create from even smaller scraps, and it’s even more economical.
5. You can stitch unique one-of-a-kind gifts
Did you know that every year in the UK we receive around 81 million unwanted presents, that one in 10 of these gifts ends up in landfill and that, when surveyed by Ziffit about Christmas presents, two-thirds of people said they expected to receive unwanted gifts that they will never use? Among the least wanted gifts are gadgets, which ties in with research that shows thoughtful gifts which demonstrate that you know the person well are the most valued. As Ryan Howell, a psychologist at San Francisco State University, told Live Science: “The most important thing in the exchanging of gifts is it shows that you really know the person well, and you really care about them.”
Tailoring your gift to the recipient is much easier if you make it yourself, as you can sew something you know they need or would appreciate, in a colour and design that fits their home or personal style. Beautiful cushions, Shibori pillowcases, decorative napkins, hanging decorations, embroidered or bespoke bags, personalised Christmas stockings and, of course, custom clothes are all great options.
Interestingly, studies also show that people appreciate handmade gifts more than machine-made ones, as they perceive them to contain love, transferred from the maker to the object. This is true even when the customer doesn’t know the person who created it – but if you’ve made it yourself, your friends or loved ones will no doubt value your present even more, precisely because you have taken to the time to really consider what they would like and make it especially for them.
6. Learning to sew teaches you to value handmade
The things I make are really a way of prolonging the history of the things I uncover. All those anonymous designers and embroiderers, I want them to know their work is still valued, even though I will never know who they are.Petra Bradley
When you experience first-hand how much effort it takes to sew something like a dress, how complicated it can be to follow a pattern or draft your own, or how long it takes to embroider by hand, you’ll learn how to respect the work that has been put into making other products as well. By knowing what goes into every handmade item – the hours of making, the time spent sourcing the perfect materials, the creativity involved in creating an original design, and the investment it takes to learn new skills – you’ll also understand what to look for whenever you shop and why handmade can and should cost more than something mass-produced.
As a result your shopping habits may change and you may find yourself making more conscious decisions about how and where you shop. You’ll probably also end up taking better care of everything you own or buy, with the result that your purchases last much longer, saving you money in the long run.
7. Learning to sew can reduce your environmental impact
I don’t have the ruined lives of sweatshop workers on my hands and I have the freedom to choose exactly what I want to wear. I spend my money wisely, investing in fabric; wonderful linens and tencel from Japan that is 100% environmentally friendly – even all of the water used in production is reclaimed.Nell Swift, Hem: Handwoven
Good music and weird hairstyles aren’t the only things we got from the 1980s. They also gave us fast fashion, as shops started focusing on making cheap clothes that were affordable for everyone and generating new collections each season to keep people buying, while consumers got used to buying new pieces every few months and throwing away their old ones. This disposable clothing mentality is not a good thing. Here’s why:
These garments don’t last, they are made that way. WRAP states that in the UK over 350,000 tonnes of these clothes go to landfill waste each year and, as many are made from synthetic materials, it takes them around a thousand years to fully decompose. Making these clothes is also extremely damaging to the environment. Fashion is one of the most-polluting industries and is estimated to produce as many greenhouse gases as all the planes flying in the world. Cotton producing requires insane amounts of water – clean water that could be used for animals or humans; dyes, softeners and other chemicals contribute to toxic water contamination; and since most of these garments are made in countries that provide cheap work force, transporting them across the world contributes considerably to air pollution. Most of these factories pay very little attention to working conditions and they don’t care much about the safety of their workers. Developing countries suffer from this the most because they provide the cheapest workers – one example is the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which a garment factory collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers.
By sewing your own clothes, you’re reducing your impact on the environment. You are also creating something that will last for years, so even if you stop wearing a piece altogether, you can pass it on or give it to a charity. Either way, it will be used instead of lying around on a landfill. But one note of caution here, home sewers waste around 30% of the fabric they buy (remember the ‘Transformation Challenge’ in episode 5 of this year’s Sewing Bee, when the contestants had to create a useable garment from the scraps they had binned in their previous projects?), so to make your sewing as sustainable as possible cut your fabric carefully, make the most use of the material as possible, reuse where you can, and look at the eco credentials of the fabric and materials you work with, choosing hemp or linen, organic cottons or other natural materials over synthetic fabrics as these shed thousands of tiny microfibres every time they’re washed, polluting the marine environment (read this BBC article for more info on the problem with man-made fibres and this article for advice on how to reduce the harmful effects of fast fashion).
8. Sewing connects us to our history
Speak to anyone who sews and they will almost always have a special tale about the person who taught them, and often own sewing-related heirlooms passed down through the generations, like from Anita at Froopabella, who still treasures the little sewing case her mum made at primary school 75 years ago: “I grew up with my wonderful mum, who was a child in the war so the ‘make do and mend’ attitude runs through me to the core. She taught me to sew at an early age and I spent hours as a kid creating something out of nothing.”
Connecting to our past isn’t just about nostalgia either, it can also help ground us and help us understand our place in the world, as Sarah Brophy of The Pink Rhubarb Shop explains: “My grandma taught me to sew when I was a little girl. She used to make me beautiful smocked liberty dresses and I have and use all her embroidery threads, which are still in the old sweet jar where she used to keep them. My other grandma used to buy me beautiful sampler kits. I still have her old button box, which is an old wooden tea caddy with her address on. They are some of my most treasured possessions. I love hand sewing in particular – it gives me a connection to the past and slows down my mind and allows me to escape from the busy-ness of modern life. There’s something lovely about inherited skills and I will be passing them on to my children. They are very proud that I have started selling on Folksy.”
Sarah’s point about inherited skills is an important one, as sewing, like many other crafts, is increasingly missing from the school curriculum and to keep these skills alive we’re reliant on them being passed from one generation to the next. Diane Kozlowski from DK Embroidery Designs is just one of those who learned this way: “I have evolved from generations of needlework enthusiasts. I progressed from the age of eight, making dolls clothes by hand from curtain-material scraps at my mum’s feet while she worked on her old singer sewing machine, to making my own clothes and even my own wedding dress.”
Sewing can also be a wonderful way to keep memories alive. “My lovely mum taught me to sew at an early age, and I have sewn ever since,” remembers Anita Burgess from Froopabella. “She is no longer with us so, for me, sewing holds many precious memories and a lovely sense of nostalgia.”
I hope that article inspires you to pick up a needle and thread and start sewing. You’ve got nothing to lose but you do have a whole lot to gain! I’d love to know what sewing means to you too and why you would encourage someone to pick up a needle and thread and learn to sew.
Find more articles on sewing by Helen, with tips to help more people learn the basics of sewing on her website https://hellosewing.com/ where she shares her knowledge learned over decades of sewing.