I’ve always been an old soul. I’ve spent much of lockdown 3.0 listening to Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer on vinyl and soaking in the bath. Pre-pandemic, I would pass my commute embroidering, and often ended up exchanging pleasantries with elderly fellow Tube passengers about my steady hands. So when I told my friends last year that I was teaching myself to knit (thanks, YouTube), they responded: “Can’t you already do that?”
It has been a year since I last bought an item of ready-to-wear clothing (save for tights and socks, which remain beyond my skills). This may not be unusual for you, but for me – a teenage Topshop addict who, predictably, graduated to become a 20-something Cos addict – it is. I have not been so virtuous as to forgo fashion altogether, but rather, armed with the sewing machine I bought during the first lockdown, I have committed to make it for myself.
I was lucky enough to grow up with two creative parents – an architect and a primary school teacher – and so have developed the kind of confidence about crafting that I imagine others have about sport. While some people might look at a ball and think, “I could catch that” (I most certainly couldn’t), I look at a birthday card, a dish in a restaurant, a jacket, and think, “I could make that”.
My mother taught me to sew as a child and, generously, did all the unpicking for me when my projects went wrong. I had planned to study textiles at A-level, but, at the last minute, chose politics instead; read into that decision what you will about its effect on the course of my career.
Over the past year I’ve made dresses, shirts, jackets and, of course, masks. I’ve mastered mitred corners, vents, flat-felled seams and plackets, and only broken a few needles in the process. I am still terrible at installing zips and have nursed many pin-inflicted injuries. The thundering of the sewing machine has been my lockdown soundtrack. Currently on the cutting mat is the denim for my first attempt at a pair of jeans, and I am splicing together patterns to make the trench coat that has lived in my mind for years but which I’ve never found in a shop.
My attempts at knitting have been more faltering, largely because the patterns are written in impenetrable code. I have ripped out my current project and started again four times. But it is therapeutically repetitive, too, each new conquered stitch a victory, and I know the frustration will, eventually, make binding off my first jumper all the sweeter.
I certainly don’t make my own clothes because it’s cheaper than buying them. My most recently completed piece – a boxy, short-sleeved shirt of the kind you’d be likely to find in Cos – cost £17.50 for the pattern, £44.25 for the materials (a navy Japanese seersucker, buttons, thread) and eight hours of labour: at the London living wage, £86.80. All in, that’s £148.55 for a single shirt. (Only good lingerie, it turns out, is cheaper to make than to buy.) These calculations make me horrified that I ever thought £40 was a fair price for a dress.
I could tell you I do it to reduce my carbon footprint and so I am not complicit in unethical factory production, and it is true that you are more likely and better equipped to fix clothes you have made than to send them to landfill when they start to come apart. But creating your own clothes only gives you control over one part of the process; there is still the manufacture and distribution of the machinery, the tools, the fabric, the yarn. The truly worthy thing to do would be to stop buying altogether, and that I cannot bring myself to do.
Mostly, I do it for my sanity. My little black book of sketches and fabric swatches has become the one area of life where there is a point to planning. Having a project on my ironing board or my knitting needles, and another ready to take its place, gives me structure, a sense of attainment, the promise of beauty and gratification to come. In a world where much movement of the mind and body – a loop of repeating anxieties; walking without direction – seems fruitless, there is affirmation and satisfaction in making something from nothing with your hands.
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth