Sewing for the Life You Want

There has been a lot of talk around the blogosphere about sewing cake vs. frosting, ie basics that you can wear in your everyday life vs. fun things that you can’t wear on a daily basis. I understand this sentiment- it’s why I sewed a few basic t-shirts & skirts this summer. However, I also find some of it a little difficult to understand. If you’ve been following my blog, you may have noticed I have a habit of making highly patterned & colorful things. I also have a tendency to wear vintage dresses as everyday dresses, where a lot of people I’ve met stick to jeans & t-shirts for their basic wardrobe. My skewed view has helped me realize there’s an important & valid reason to sew fripperies in addition to the necessities of life.

I enjoy wearing 50’s inspired dresses to work when others are used to wearing basic jeans or skirts with blouses. This has inspired one of my co-workers to wear more dresses & I only get weird looks occasionally (alright, really just from the one lady, but we all know someone like her).

We sew fun things because that’s the life to which we aspire. We want to be able to go to a grand ball in a lovely gown or attend regular fancy parties in smashing cocktail dresses. Why not? Why not sew those things & strive for the life that goes along with them?

You know you’ve had dreams of dressing up & dancing with Mr. Darcy at a glittering ball.

So many times I’ve seen people write or talk about wanting to be that woman who always looks smashing & well-dressed, even at the grocery store. Sewing beyond basic jeans & t-shirts can help achieve that desire (not to say that a good pair of jeans & t-shirt can’t make you look great, but that’s another post- the topic of putting together a cohesive wardrobe is touched upon here).

I like my sewing to have some utility & don’t want to make something I’ll never wear. But sewing is supposed to be fun too. It’s fun to make outlandish outfits. Just because they’re outside our normal, everyday garb doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sew them anyways. Sew your basics, but don’t not sew a pattern you love just because you don’t think you’ll be able to wear it anywhere. Only sewing basics can take some of the fun out of sewing if you’re always itching to make something more grand.

Incorporate your outlandish outfits into your lifestyle.

Go to a fancy dinner so you can wear your fancy pants outfit. Can’t afford a restaurant because you spent all your dough on silk taffeta for your 1950’s reproduction dress? Have a black-tie potluck party at your house or go on a fancy picnic instead. Yes, picnics can be fancy.

When one of my sister’s childhood friends was moving away she threw a surprise picnic for him. Decades prior they had had a candlelight dinner on the beach post-prom with a spectacularly romantic view of downtown Chicago. She recreated that picnic in the same spot with a folding table (covered with a tablecloth), fancy food from a fancy grocery store & me as a waiter. Why not do the same thing for an excuse to wear your special dress & to create a fantastic memory? Making an occasion special & personalized, even if you spend a fraction of the money that you would at a high-end restaurant, will make for a more memorable event.

But you don’t need a party as an excuse. Going to the grocery store might feel a whole lot less like a chore if it means you get to wear your special outfit.

Just because you wear a nice dress to the grocery store doesn’t mean you’ll look like one of the Stepford Wives.

You don’t even need a destination in mind to enjoy your fun clothing. This one I’m working on: taking walks. I really like walking, but feel like I always need to have a purpose, ie a destination. I would like to start walking just for the enjoyment of it & think this might be the perfect time to don some of my not so office appropriate garb. Sure, I wouldn’t go for a walk in a ball gown, but a loud print &/or revealing cut that I shouldn’t wear to the office, why not?

No one wants to end up like Scarlett & go to a casual & homey birthday party looking like an attention-starved sexpot because you’re wearing an inappropriate frock that your husband forced you to put on. This is not the kind of thing I advocate taking a walk in on a whim, but a nice 50’s dress sans rhinestones with some wearing ease might fit the bill.

Change your basic wardrobe to match your sewing proclivities.

I have a thing for suit patterns. Looking at unique jackets makes me think about how much I’d love to make them. But then I think about how I almost never ever wear jackets or blazers & that they’d just languish in my closet, a waste of time & money. Wrong. I’m changing my style. I’m going to sew jackets & wear them. Why not? My work place is a mix of casual & dressy; I can wear a jacket & not look out of place. This doesn’t have to be limited to the office. I imagine I’ll like wearing nicely tailored & unique jackets with the brightly patterned skirts I’m fond of. I’m hoping to turn what would be a “specialty” item in my wardrobe into an everyday thing.

Take what you want to sew & make it work for you.

If you like sewing fancy things but have a casual lifestyle, find ways to make them as fancy as you want, but dress them down with a casual purse or jeans. Choice of materials & embellishments can make a big difference too. For a basic, everyday hoodie I used a lace knit & elevated the whole thing by edging it in some unique ribbon. Instead of ending up with a ho-hum hoodie I made something special.

A basic hoodie becomes special with the right fabric & embellishments.

Maybe your bent lies less towards silk gowns & more towards sewing office inappropriate patterns. Sew up your office sanctioned attire, but add a fantastically outrageous lining to it (right now I’m imagining fabric fit for a bachelorette party- let me know if you hear of such raunchy fabric). One of my go-to skirts is a plain brown a-line with some white edging. The lining is blue penguins. I can’t help but smile every time I put it on & know that there’s a secret in there only I can see. It helps brighten up my days in the office.

Office sanctioned on the top, fun on the inside.

You can also seek out interestingly cut patterns. Need an office appropriate black suit but think you’ll be more bored sewing the plain thing than you would be working at the office? I recommend looking at designer Vogue patterns. Issey Miyake has very interesting & complicated patterns that can also be modest enough for work. Channeling your energy from a complicated dress to a complicated suit might be just the thing. And doing it all in a solid color will let the interesting seam lines stand out.

Vogue 1186, an Issey Miyake design

Do you absolutely have to sew basic camisoles for work? Choose luxury fabrics like wool & silk blends. I saw a gorgeous & simple linen shell that was elevated by two rows of wing stitching down the center. Need a sports top? When I bought high-performance moisture wicking fabric the whole project feel more special & exciting, even though my pattern was basic. Make otherwise boring items fun to sew by being very choosey with your materials & embellishments.

If you you have the opposite problem & like to sew basic things but have a life that calls for fancier events, sew your basics & dress them up with great shoes or jewelry. For instance, I took my veggie dirndl dress (not office appropriate on top & I suppose not all that basic given the patterned fabric I used, but it’s basic for me) & paired it with a cardigan to make it modest enough for work. Now the dress can do double duty as a summer day dress & as an office outfit. Choosing a nice fabric or a simple embellishment can help people with this problem as well by being an easy way to dress up your basics.

The office appropriate version accessorizes with a cardigan & ballet flats. The hopping around town version goes with sandals & no cardigan, revealing the skinny bra straps that hold the dress up.

Sew for the life you want & make that life happen.

As I said, I’m making jackets & changing my wardrobe. I’ve already got my first one cut out. Also, many of my dresses are short sleeved or no sleeved, so I’ve been sketching up some interesting cardigan designs to keep me warm at work. I’m tossing the boring cardigans I dislike & making ones that I love. I hope this will extend my summer dresses into the spring & fall. Plans are also in the works for a fancy pants house warming party so I’ll finally get the chance to wear this gorgeous vintage dress. Will you follow along with me & change your wardrobe? I think aspiring to the life we want & making it happen can make us happy. When I wear something special it gives me a boost all day long.

It may not look like much on a hanger, but this 1950’s dress is gorgeous. The pattern you see is embroidered, while the neckline & pockets are piped in velvet. Usually I’m not a fan of sparkly shineys on my clothing, but the studs on this dress add to its beauty. This dress goes with the life to which I aspire: simple glamour with good design & excellent fit, helping make every day special.

Your thoughts are much appreciated. Do you think we shouldn’t sew those big, costumey dresses or is it OK to embrace the frosting & go all out? Have you found a happy middle ground & are you planning on making your sewing proclivities match your lifestyle?


61 thoughts on “Sewing for the Life You Want

  1. What an inspiring read. And, you are right about when we are children. I remember dressing as a kid with a fun, carefree spirit. Now, it’s like a chore but yet I love clothes, fashion and sewing but that passion rarely is seen in what I wear. Well, I’m doing your challenge and maybe this will loosen up the creative and fun spirit of dressing that has laid dormant. Thanks so much!

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  3. Oh, I definitely sew like this … and then have a small stash of ‘appropriate’ neutrals that bring it into the whole ‘business casual’ realm. I mean, I figure, if not now, when? That green glasses dress is NOT going to be more appropriate when I’m 50, and if I don’t make it now, it’ll always be in my system and then I’ll go do something twice as outrageous then (or, uh, maybe I’m just self-enabling, but whatever). Love this, couldn’t agree more!

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  6. Great post – definitely, we sew for fun, so we should allow ourselves to sew the things we want. And you’re so right about finding reasons to wear those lovely things we’ve made too… Although I tend to sew lots of basic t-shirts when I’m in a rut, I definitely get more long term satisfaction from the more complex or individual garments I’ve made – so it makes sense for me to buy the basics that I’ll struggle to maintain interest in sewing.

    Regarding your picnic suggestion, one of the most romantic dates I ever went on was a picnic – with my then boyfriend’s best friend acting as silent chauffeur and then silent waiter. Definitely a dress up occasion!

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  8. Thank you so much for this post! I am learning this exact same thing, right now. I finally decided to quit dressing the way everyone else does and wear what I want. I made this great 50s dress that I fell in love with and I get compliments every time I wear it. Let the individuality shine!

  9. I love sewing frosting! I wear my dresses most of the time but skirts and blouses don’t get much love cos skirts are hard to match with a top and blouses have to be ironed. So last month, I decided to make a concerted effort to wear them by only wearing skirts to work until I’ve worn all my skirts. In process, I’ve tossed or altered some skirts that no longer fit my life but I hold onto for sentimental reasons. Doing the same this month for dresses and I have a new pile of ill-fitting dresses that need to be altered or refashioned. Next month I’ll tackle blouses/tops.

  10. Love your post! Came over from 3 hours past the edge of the world.
    I have started changing my wardrobe to a more vintage styling – being a stay at home mom I have more flexibility than most people. I have a 1960 Hannah Troy McCall’s 5673 dress & jacket pattern that I am working on – got the lined jacket sewn up but need to sew the dress.
    Out & about in my dresses & hats I do get a few looks but most are followed by compliments so that is always nice. I feel like I am really finding my style & it gives me more confidence, especially since I’ve sewn it all 🙂

  11. I feel grateful for the (sartorial) freedom of being a teacher — I can dress like Ms. Frizzle and the students just think I’m weird, or trying a little too hard to get them enthusiastic about the day’s topic. But in general, I’m with you on trying to sew for the life I want — that might be why I have so many pretty pretty princess dresses in my closet! I think what I need to work on now is wearing them to the grocery store. I will say that I try to throw on a fabulous frock when I go to the sewing shop, since it’s more likely to be noticed (and appreciated) there!
    That veggie dress is awesome…I would totally steal it if I could!

    • Thanks! But I don’t think Walnut is stealthy enough to slip that dress out of my closet for you.

      One of my friends dressed as Mrs. Frizzle for Halloween one year & it was awesome. I’d love to see a Frizzle outfit adapted for your current students. Speaking of adapting character outfits to everyday wear (& since you’re a superhero fan), you might like this Wonder Woman dress.

  12. Cool post! I’m personally at a point where I’m not thinking too much about where I’m going to wear something and I just enjoy making stuff for making sake. I do dress up often enough that I end up making things like the 1912 stuff or a Victorian Snow White costume. I don’t wear it every day…hehe…but, anyway, your post has me thinking about cake vs frosting. Love the discussion. 🙂

  13. i really love this advice! i’ve been trying to re-establish my personal sense of style since changing jobs and moving from easy to wear but boring nursing uniforms to actual grown-up clothes (as prttynpnk said). it has been a surprisingly awkward transition! one huge limitation is the distance we live from decent shopping, so i’m trying to fill my wardrobe gaps with some home-sewn goodies, and blogs like yours are helpfully inspiring!

    • Thank you so much! Honestly I’m a bit touched to hear you say that. Good luck with your transitions! Maybe try good, basic patterns that can be sewn up fancy or plain. I think a good solid t-shirt & skirt can be the basis for a nice & varied wardrobe as you can dress them up or down.

      • i’ve been on the hunt for a great skirt pattern, and i keep coming back to ginger and beignet. i really should order them already!
        thanks for the great advice, and keep up the inspiring 🙂

        • Those look like good options- I’ve seen a lot of pretty ones around the web, although I haven’t tried them myself. I’ve taken a shine to Simplicity 2185. The pattern pieces swirl around the skirt & you can make it up in a knit or woven. Here, you can see I made it reversible. I’ve also done it up in a plain knit, but have yet to make it in a woven. That said, it’s always nice when we can support indie designers! You might also want to make your own block so you can alter it & come up with your own designs.

          • making a reversible skirt is so clever – especially if it needs to be lined anyways. i’ll remember that!
            making my own block sounds like advanced class work…yikes! thanks for all of your advice 🙂

  14. What an interesting post – and blog! Thanks StephC for introducing me to this one:).
    I think we’d really get on. I work in the Foreign Office in my country – dress code is smart, suits, sober, I wear mainly dresses made from vintage 50s and 40s patterns – a lot of them are in brightly flowered quilting cottons – that actually worked for the patterns I chose believe it or not ! I couldn’t resist these particular prints – huge bright pink peonies, big white lilies on yellow :)… I have a couple of cropped jackets – green and black – that I can pop on if called to a meeting, and have never been told off for not fitting the dress code – probably because the look is more ladylike than most of the women who wear the black or grey standard suits – very short and tight with very high heels rolleyes….. I also tend to wear Mss L Fire and Irregular Choice shoes – ie bright and decorative – or stick a crocheted flower on to my shoes to cover the tattoo on one instep….. I have cake but none of it is really plain P:)

    • You’ve hit on the topic of a post I had started writing next! I believe you when you say the cottons go with the patterns- I have a similar habit, although I’ve been stalled on my last two dresses like that. I have a love/hate relationship with my Irregular Choice shoes. They’re freakin gorgeous. But the heels are so high I never wear them because of the pain. 😦 Have you tried United Nude shoes? Not as whimsical, but definitely unique. I’ve found Melissa shoes to look great (she collaborates with designers in other fields like architecture), but my pair haven’t lasted that long.

      • I just looked at United Nude – very cool – never seen them before – I usually buy shoes from Javari as in Malta there aren’t any really fun shoes. There used to be Camper but I don’t like them that much…. My sis had a couple of Melissa ballerinas and she loves them. Have you checked out Irregular Choice’s other makes? They tend to be less high – Poetic License which are mainly fabric and mid heeled, and Bed of Roses which are their “comfort range” – adorable.

  15. I could wear ‘adult clothes’ to work- instead of scrubs. The reason I don’t is my worry that people will think I’m crazy or something. Things I think are a great idea don’t always translate well to my small town. I should start fun linings to help reconcile myself to adult clothes!

    • So glad I’ve turned you on to fun linings! From your blog I wouldn’t have imagined you ever dress so plainly (& I mean that in a very good way). When it comes to wearing what I want I do feel fortunate that I live in a big city. It’s pretty much guaranteed every time I go out there’s someone wearing something more “out there”. For awhile on the morning commute I’d see a woman dressed in what looked like a little girl fantasy in a porno- all pink tutu with ruffled garters. She looked like a cupcake & it was always the same exact outfit. I didn’t know whether to commend her or cringe in horror!

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  17. Well done, great post. 🙂 I completely agree about building bits of whimsy into your life if that’s what you like to do. Completely.

    I guess for me, there came a point when I realized that my closet was full of whimsy. Whimsy that didn’t go together, necessarily. I could get away with stringing the whimsy together with some prim white vintage blouses and super simple pencil skirts mixed in for the office. Then I quit working in an office/classroom full time… I got to the point where if I was honest with myself, I could not justify sewing anything else of that type- the whimsy. Like, at all. I think I have enough whimsy for the next five years. The *only* sewing I could justify to myself was utility wear, so that’s what I focused on. And it doesn’t have to be boring… 🙂

    Again, great post, lots of really good tips.

    The *only* thing is… I just know too many people who make closets full of dresses they never wear. Like, people I know offline, personally. Lots of people like the idea of making those types of dresses, they like the idea of sewing clothes for the lives they want to live, they like the actual sewing, but when push comes to shove that dress wastes away in the closet. I’m definitely not one of those, my big ol crazy dresses get worn everywhere. To the grocery, to protests, to the library, to classes, out hiking if I feel like it that day.

    But at some point, I realized I’m a lunatic and most other people aren’t going to do that. 😉

    • A fellow lunatic thanks you for your well thought out remarks!

      I was given a bunch of fantastic vintage dresses & it’s been killing me that I haven’t been wearing most of them (some are puffy, satin, vintage prom dresses & I have no desire to go to another prom). This post kind of grew out of my frustration with that, because while I will happily wear a vintage velvet opera coat around the house, a prom dress or a finely embroidered dress just don’t seem to make sense for lounging about (why one is ok & not the other I couldn’t say!). Then I’d hear about all these people not wearing the things they made & well, I guess I just wanted to help change people like I wanted to change myself! To give us all a boost to wear the things we love but never don. Why make them otherwise?

      I think part of the solution can be like I was talking about, making the basics special in some way, be it with an interesting cut or a unique fabric. Also, I think it’s possible to sew a closet full of whimsy & make it (at least somewhat) cohesive. When I sew one of my frivolous skirts I like to make sure it will go with a few of the tops or belts I own, or if it only goes with one top that there are multiple ways I can style it. And that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t have those basics. I also find it helpful to limit myself to certain kinds of whimsical things. Say, I would never do pants in a loud print & I don’t mix certain colors.

      As with most things in life, I love balance. I think most of us need a mix of things, a closet full of options. I tend to dress according to my mood & it helps having a range of choices, from the completely frivolous to the boring, mass produced basics.

      • Oh! Lunatic sister, if I had a velvet opera coat I would totally wear it around the house! I did steal a silk embroidered dressing gown from my husband and wear that all the time… It’s really deliciously tacky and reversible, with a huge dragon on the back. It’s a souvenir from one of his mother’s work trips to Vietnam… When I first stole it, he told me it was for “special occasions because it’s so nice” and I was like… uhm… it’s a dressing gown. And I proved to him that silk is a very utilitarian fabric because I’ve been wearing it not so gently for years and it’s fine. Fine.

        What if we like put our heads together and make a button or something for a week of wearing frosting every day? Some kind of MMM solely for the weird but fun stuff that never sees the light of day? A flickr gallery we can peruse and contribute to and laugh lightheartedly and encourage the less lunatic among us to wear the crazy stuff they love?

        Like I said, prim white anglaise blouses and sensible black skirts go a loooooong way towards making a closet of whimsy work friendly. Also, I think it helps that I’m in a creative industry more or less.

        I saw a trend last summer in Scandinavia (I wasn’t there, I mean on the internets) that was all about pants made of loud floral prints. Part of me said “yuck” and part of me wanted some… So… who knows?

        I’m always looking for balance, too. In everything, really. Sometimes I wake up feeling quite odd, so I dress like a surrealist. Sometimes I wake up and feel like a 50’s housewife, so I dress that way. Sometimes I wake up feeling sick of people treating me like the lunatic I am so I put on a tasteful knit dress and leather ballet flats and get treated like a regular person. 😉

        • I dress the same exact way! And I started working on a blog post about that last night after reading your comment. I am IN for a week of frosting (it will be good impetus to finish a few fun UFO’s that are lying around). I think it’s genius! Perhaps a challenge, a week of wearing the outrageous (although I think you might show me up with that) & a week of integrating it into a more “regular” wardrobe.

          Thanks so much for mentioning me on your blog again! And how could you not wear something so deliciously tacky? That dragon sounds awesome.

    • I’m a lunatic too, not that I’ve actually made very much and what I’ve made isn’t at the far end of frosting but I often get comments like “Oh, that’s too nice to wear to work.”, “Isn’t that a bit good for around the house?” or “Why are you so dressed up to go shopping?” . What is the point of having the clothes if they don’t get worn? And why can’t I wear whatever I want whenever I feel like it? I can. My mother had a lot of clothes that were too nice to be worn shopping/around the house etc. – they lived their lives in her closet until she hadn’t fitted into them for decades and I finally talked her into letting them go. One of the good things about coming home after an extended vacation is that I have access to ‘real’ clothes and shoes, rather than packable travel gear – I try to make the most of it.

  18. Fantastic post. Your timing is interesting, as I have been thinking along similar lines, although not nearly as in depth as you. I have a bit of a dilemma, as I am dieting (-21) and really don`t want to spend a lot of time sewing clothes that won`t fit in another 15 pounds. However I can make one really well fitted, well made garment at a time, and I am going to look awesome walking my dogs and grocery shopping. Thank you for such a great post.

    PS-I wrote a post about sewing bread instead of cake or frosting, ie panties, bathrobes and pajamas.

    • Nice bread post! I would think elastic waist skirts would be a good think to sew now that will fit later. My favorites to make (super easy too) are dirndl skirts. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see how I wear them three different ways. All you have to do is take a rectangle of fabric, rip it in half, sew up the sides, hem it & turn down the top, inserting elastic into the seam. I’ve also found Burda 7217 too look good when it’s too big. I cut the pattern to my size on the envelope, but like the big 4 patterns it’s a size too big. If you made it now to fit you fairly snuggly, it should still look good when it’s a bit loose. I find that pattern to be a bit magical since it looks good even though it’s too big. I think a good sweater or cardigan in a rib knit might work too.

  19. Great post! I have a lot of items in my closet that don’t get much wear, and i really should just wear the nicer stuff out running errands or for everyday activities. I don’t want to just wear something special once and then have it just sit in my closet. -Except my wedding dress, i just can’t get away with wearing it again (although i really wish i could!) I dress up for work, but then i always put on yoga pants and a t-shirt when i’m at home. Stuck in a rut!

    • I completely understand that stuck in a rut feeling. When I was taking science classes with labs I had to wear jeans for safety. After an entire semester I felt like such a slob. As for your wedding dress, I’ve seen a lot of people online repurpose theirs for other things, like baby baskets & even into a more everyday dress for themselves. You could also cut it up & cover an album full of wedding pictures with it. Then again, it may be too special to cut up. Best of luck getting out of your rut! I know it can be difficult.

  20. What a wonderful post. Really enjoyed it. I couldn’t agree with you more. I love making dresses with fun prints and just being festive in general. Like you, I am also planning some jackets/cardigans to let my sleeveless summer wear transition into fall, in colors *I* enjoy, not just the same old boring palette out there. And you’re right–grocery shopping is much more bearable when you’re wearing something unique. Thanks so much for all of the thought-provoking questions. Happy Cake-AND-Frosting Sewing!!

    • Thank you so much! I’m really glad you liked the post. Store bought cardigans can be the worst. After I graduated from college I bought some because I thought I NEEDED them for work. I think we’d all be happier if we didn’t feel like we had to proscribe to the basic boring things that seem to have become standard. Yet I still don’t feel like I can chuck them until I’ve made myself new ones, but I’m working on getting over that feeling!

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