Wardrobe Advice

No, this isn’t a post telling you how to dress. (If you’ve met me in real life, you can probably already guess that!) Rather, I’m setting out to share some ideas on creating a low-footprint wardrobe that works for your lifestyle and climate, and is a one-of-a-kind expression of your aesthetic sensibilities while costing little money.

Some tips, in no particular order:

If you design and sew your own clothes, hooray you! Your wardrobe is already one-of-a-kind. You can minimize its footprint by choosing easy-wash, easy-dry fabrics. If you can get your fabric from the remnants aisle, or at thrift stores, or if you can repurpose old fabric from other clothes, all the better — for your wallet and for the planet.

But most people I know don’t design and sew their own clothes, though a few do. (I’m mainly addressing a USA-based audience here.)

Myself, I know how to sew, but my forte is “editing” existing clothes rather than making from scratch. You can do this even if you don’t sew; it’s amazing what you can do with just scissors. That said, sewing is a great skill to have, and an enjoyable way to pass the time. Also: Hemming is pretty simple to get the hang of, and other than embroidery or other decorative stitching, hemming is pretty much the only sewing skill you really need for “editing” clothes to your liking.

Hems on your own clothes don’t need to be perfectly even; the stitching can be uneven lengths, a bit crooked. Your stuff doesn’t have to conform to industrial standards! In fact, there is even a DIY fashion movement that prizes obvious hand-stitching and other imperfections signaling handmade.

As it happens, I have a strong aesthetic preference for asymmetry and ragged edges. But if you prefer symmetry and straight hems, I am confident that you can attain your own standard. In the olden days, just about everyone sewed (even men, sometimes!). Or, you can pay someone in your community to do hems and other alterations for you. You might even be able to barter — but I find that local cottage-based stitchers charge shockingly low prices for their work. If I needed something symmetrical (pant hems etc.), I could probably get it done really well for about $12 — which is roughly just a little over my average hour’s wages. Well worth it to me to get pants hemmed in exchange for an average hour of my pay, if I had pants needing hems.

Repair or alteration can double as decoration. Appliqué, embroidery are easier than you might think, and they can greatly extend the life of your clothes while creating a one-of-a-kind garment. I once got a gorgeous red wool sweater from a thrift shop for $2. It had several moth holes in it but I concealed them by stitching on red hearts in a shiny fabric. The hearts were the same shade of red as the sweater, but the shiny aspect made for a pretty contrast.

Almost all my clothes come from thrift shops, or from friends getting rid of old clothes. I then “after-market” them by cutting off collars, trimming sleeves to my desired length, customizing skirt lengths, adding embroidery, crochet, or seam binding, and so on.

With a pair of scissors, any sweater or other pullover can instantly become a cardigan, tie-front top, etc. The reverse is true too: You can easily convert a cardigan into a pullover by stitching the front together.

I notice that my wardrobe is determined mainly by 1) the hot humid climate I live in; 2) my active outdoorsy lifestyle; 3) ease of care (easy to wash by hand, quick to dry on the line); 4) what feels both cute and comfortable (for me, that tends to be stretchy clothes such as leggings, stretch skirts, tank tops; for you it might be something else). Also 5) I don’t want to have to think very hard to get dressed. For me, what works is having very few clothes. A sort of uniform, with a bit of variation. A few tank tops, a few skirts, a couple of long-sleeved tops, a couple of wool sweaters, a couple pairs of stretchy leggings.

You might find it helpful to run through that list of variables and see what your own answers are. Another variable for you might be, How much do you need to shield your skin from sun or wind?

The more time you spend outdoors or in non-climate-controlled indoor settings, the more urgent it becomes to have a wardrobe that’s really suited to your climate, and to your physical constitution (are you hot-natured, or do you get cold easily? etc.).

Warning! Nowadays, some clothes that seem to be designed for hot weather are made of fabrics that are NOT hot-weather-friendly. The first time I saw nylon sundresses for sale at a local shop, I was struck speechless.

Old-school summer fabrics such as gauze and seersucker are great for hot-weather clothes. I find a lot of good summerweight garments at thrift shops. Use as-is, or edit.

T-shirts are another good source of fabric. Note: Even within the category of 100% cotton, there is much variation in fabric weight. The difference between thicker and thinner fabrics can determine if a garment will be breathable or stifling on a hot day. BTW old t-shirts can be made into sleeveless tops or even skirts with little or no stitching. (Without the top 6 inches or so which includes the sleeves and collar, an old t-shirt becomes a tube-shaped garment which can be made into a skirt or haramaki.) Conversely, a thicker t-shirt might allow a person to go without a bra. Finally: Avoid buying t-shirts new. There are so many feral t-shirts out there in need of good homes!

For both extremely hot and extremely cold weather, the new “high-tech” fabrics used by the sport-clothes industry to make clothes for cycling, hiking, etc., can be great. Naturally, clothes made with these fabrics tend to be expensive. But a few key pieces such as a sweat-wicking tank top can be worth the investment. Also, I sometimes find used high-tech athletic shirts and other clothes for sale at thrift shops.

Don’t buy thread, fabric, needles, lace, embroidery floss, seam tape, buttons, or other supplies new without checking around first. Someone right in your neighborhood probably has an overflowing sewing-basket (or a whole room), and would be happy to part with supplies for cheap or free. You can trust me on this: I am that person with that supply closet! And there are many many others like me. many of us are storing supplies accumulated by multiple generations of women, and no matter how much we might love doing needlework, we have no hope of using up these supplies in our lifetime. Post a notice on NextDoor or your neighborhood Facebook page or whatever, saying what you need.

Not only supplies, but also possibly instruction, is available for cheap or free. YouTube is a treasure trove. Or ask that neighbor with a garage-full of supplies if she’d be willing to teach you a few things for cash or barter. I must confess, I find most sewing instructional vids off-putting because they are very precise and can involve many exacting steps because they’re doing it the “official” way. You might enjoy that aspect though!

To add variety, I have a couple dozen pairs of earrings and a few neck scarves. And a few hats. Easy to add to any outfit.

I’ve lived and worked mainly in hot humid climates, but have lived in places with cold winters as well. The one constant I’ve noticed, whether in hot or cold weather, is that layering seems to work best . So even if I go north to visit my family in the winter, I don’t need a special “winter coat.” I just layer an old nylon jacket over other layers of clothes. (Obviously if I were living in Minnesota or something, I’d probably have to have more dedicated “winter clothes.”) Anyway, one of my main bits of advice if you want a more comfortable, versatile, practical wardrobe is: LAYERS! And tank tops are a great inner layer in all climates.

In the past, I have had separate clothes for different categories: gardening and other outdoor chores; exercising; everyday; and “dress-up.” But in recent years, I find that the categories have for the most part become merged. Skirts are actually great for gardening and other chores; I find them more comfortable than pants.

In some climates, trousers might be essential. I will never forget the week I spent at a beautiful eco-village in North Carolina back in 2005 for a bioregional congress. It was July, and my good ol’ trusty black tights were ZERO protection against chigger bites. I needed sturdy non-stretch pants, with high boots. At the end of the trip I had about 100 bites on each leg! I was miserable for weeks afterward!

I’m not the only one: A lot of women I know who are into permaculture, farming, or other outdoorsy occupations wear skirts, sarongs, etc. even when doing manual labor.

It reminds me of photos I’ve seen of women in India, East Asia, Africa, looking very elegant yet comfortable as they go about their work in their saris, sarongs, or other traditional garments. Someone on Facebook posted a series of photos of mothers from around the world carrying their babies as they work. Let’s see if I can post the link here. Here you go. Hope it works!

And: You can see photos of me in a couple of my main outfits in this post on my Deep Green Facebook page.

One distinctive feature of my wardrobe that has emerged in recent months is very short tops worn over a longer top. I started this when I could no longer bear the feeling of any kind of bra against my ribcage in our hot ultra-humid climate, yet wanted an extra layer of fabric over my breasts. I would be so happy if it became a bit more “mainstream legit” to go braless if one chose, and I sometimes do that, but I often feel a bit self-conscious, like I’m “flashing” people. (Then again, guys have nipples too, right? Some even have boobs. And yet they don’t feel compelled to wear bras. Ah, social norms!) Anyway: The cropped outer top gives me that extra layer without the sweaty, pinched skin around the ribcage.

So: Wardrobe-wise, what’s working for you? What isn’t? Is there a garment you wish someone would invent? Or one that you wish did not exist?

Further Reading:

A Prescription for How to Begin Slow-Stitching (Mark Lipinski). “If you’re feeling creatively bare, mojo melancholy, and inspirationally barren, you need to find an antidote – and fast! For creative types like us, being in a visionary funky-dunk can feel lethal and lead to burn out, over eating, compulsive shopping, a mild depression, a messy house, anxiety, crankiness and more. Boosting your creativity, pumping up your brain power, and finding your creative self again is key to kick starting and maintaining our healthy and balanced lives. …Purposeful and focused immersion while stitching or craft making is like a fascinating elixir that benefits us in physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual ways. It gives us a brand new way of looking at our work and how we approach the world in general.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Slow Sewing (Leslie Rutland, seasonedhomemaker.com). “There really is something magical about working with your hands which is why I titled this post The Life-Changing Magic of Slow Sewing. Being able to slowly create something with my hands seems to alter time a little. It takes me from multi-tasking down to doing just one simple task. When I’m in this place I can feel myself breathe.” Bonus: This article includes an embedded video “The Quilts of Gees Bend.” In Rutland’s words, “Have you heard of the quilters from Gees Bend, Alabama? You could say they wrote the book on slow sewing. You will have to watch this video because there.are.no.words.”

Sashiko: What “visible mending” means to crafters (vox.com): “Instead of hiding rips and tears, the visible mending movement turns them into art. Born from the Japanese art of sashiko, visible mending enables crafters to eschew fast fashion and make mistakes beautiful.”