For me, there’s a fine line between having something uniquely special and looking crafty-crazy in handmade garments. I certainly am not interested in making something so mundane and generic and unobjectionable that I could buy it at Old Navy for $15. And knocking off something fantastic that is well out of my budget is, of course, totally understandable. But what about the rest of it? The stuff where you start to take more artistic liberty and exercise your creativity? Is it better to make something that looks like it could have come from a nice store, or is it better to make something that you couldn’t possibly get it in a store because it is just that special and unusual? On one hand, it’s flattering when someone thinks your handiwork looks so professional and your choices so on-trend that they say, “That’s a great dress. Is it Banana Republic?” But if you’re going to work hard on developing skills to make one-of-a-kind garments for your own one-of-a-kind self, is it special enough if it looks like commercial clothing you could buy at a chain store? And if it doesn’t look like the sort of thing that any store would sell, do you look a little crafty-crazy when you wear it? (Nothing wrong with looking uniquely artsy-craftsy, of course, but the Selfish Seamstress personally has more conservative taste, so it’s not her style.)
I’ve thought about it a fair bit, and have come up with a heuristic that suits me very well: If it’s not something I would want if I saw it hanging somewhere, then it’s not worth sewing to me. Granted, you can’t know for sure how it will look when it’s done so there’s still some uncertainty. And I don’t think that this is a philosophy that would suit everyone, or that it’s the only way to approach garment sewing. But as a general rule of thumb, it works well for me. My general method for deciding whether to make something is this: Imagine the finished garment made up in the chosen fabric. Imagine that I am not the person who made it. Regardless of whether it’s something that would realistically be sold in a store or not, imagine seeing it hanging on a rack somewhere. Would I want it or not? If it’s something to which I would say, “eh,” then it’s not worth it to me to make it. If it’s something that would set off my crafty-crazy alarm, then it’s also not worth it to me to make it. Don’t get me wrong. I love the process of sewing and that’s mainly why I do it. But I’m not so keen on applying my skills to making garments that I’m not excited about on their own aesthetic merit. And I don’t want to wear something if the only thing I like about it is the fact that I made it myself.
There are a lot of garment “types” that I think hobbyists and crafters make mainly because they appreciate the technique and construction involved, and because they allow them to engage in the process of making. I suspect that these aspects of the process may ultimately be more important to the makers than whether the end product is really the sort of garment that they drool over. Examples of such garments are patchwork vests made by quilters, or most non-lace crocheted sweaters for adults. And I mean no offense whatsoever to quilters or crocheters– I myself have been an avid crocheter for the last 26 years and know that there are some crocheted sweaters that are chic by fashion standards, not just in the crafting community. But let’s face it- most patchwork quilted vests and heavy sweaters of solid double crochet are garments you’re more likely to find hanging from the torsos of hobbyists than in stores, catalogues, (non-crafting) magazines, or anywhere else, and sometimes (not always!) they look a little crafty-crazy. And perhaps the creators of these garments do make them because they really love the aesthetic and this is exactly the sort of garment they want to wear, which is wonderful. Or perhaps they make them, as I hypothesized, mainly because they just want to engage in the making process. If so, more power to these folks- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this even if it’s not my approach to deciding what to make for myself.
All that being said, I started to wonder: What are the garment projects that hobby sewers undertake because they want to engage in the making rather than because the end product itself is chic? What are the things we make that ultimately only another sewer would find cool? What is our version of the patchwork quilt vest?
[In case you're wondering where this rambling train of thought came from, it's because yesterday a couple of folks suggested making a cape or capelet from my sweet potato plaid wool. I've been drawn to cape 111 from the August 2009 issue of Burda (pictured up top) since I received the issue, and had actually thought of using the fabric for it. But I'm never sure if capes fall into the crazy-crafter category or whether they're actually chic (or at least respectable and legitimate) clothing in the real world. Do fashionable women really wear them in real life? Or do hobby seamstresses just sew them and post photos on Pattern Review because we think that if it's in every other issue of Burda, people must be wearing them? Has the world of sewing penetrated my sense of aesthetics so deeply that I can no longer objectively judge whether certain pieces of clothing look crazy in the real world? If I make the cape, will I be stepping into the world of crafty-crazy that I try so hard to avoid in my wardrobe?]
Update: Thanks for the comments so far! You might be right– plaid + cape might be too much. Here are some samples of plaid capes. Crazy or no?