Colette

Are your clothes made to last?

40


{image: vintage postcard of the pyramids of giza, 1930s}

Do you think about longevity when you make things?

I’ve been thinking about all the benefits of creating things that are made to last. Some are obvious, some less so.

Longevity is iconic.

Above is a postcard of the great pyramids of Giza. They have stood for over 4,000 years, and for most of that time they were the tallest structures in the world.

But their scale and grandeur is only part of what is impressive about them. These are structures that, more than anything else, were intended to last for a very, very long time.

That is reflected in their aesthetics. They have a sense of the eternal which has part of what has made them so iconic.

In a way, the same principles apply to the things we make (or the things others design and we buy). If longevity is at the top of your mind when you’re creating, you’re much less likely to choose trends over the timeless. Thinking about longevity shifts your point of view and makes you see things quite differently.

Longevity is sustainable.

Today, the pyramids have implications for designers and architects thinking about sustainability and the environment. I recently heard structural engineer Steve Burrows on the 99% invisible podcast speaking about the pyramids:

“The longer buildings last, the more sustainable they are. The longer their life, the less materials we use in the long run.”

It’s a simple idea, but one I think we can definitely apply in our own lives. If you make and buy things that last, you waste far fewer resources.

This is good for the environment, yes. But I personally think it’s also good for our mental health. It helps shift us away from the consumer cycle just a bit more.

Longevity helps build skills.

The great pyramids were not the first pyramids. The builders had to first build many other lesser pyramids that have failed the tests of time. It was those attempts — and a willingness to fail and keep going — that brought us these monuments.

The builders refined their skills, passing them down over generations. When you’re trying to build something incredible, you have to accept failure along the way.

I think having a goal to create things of quality, things made to last, can help us to accept setbacks and learn from them. Skills like this take time and effort.

Do you think about how long things will last when you’re making them? And does thinking about that change your perspective or help you make decisions on what to make?

(PS: Definitely check out 99% Invisible, the shows are really short and always fascinating.)

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 40

Maddie Flanigan madalynne.com

More than longevity, I think about quality – excellent construction and perfect pattern making. Thinking about this though is another way of thinking about longevity. They go hand, don’t you think? By considering quality, I’m considering longevity. If so, then yes, I consider longevity when designing/constructing garments

FYI – great post. I like how to related a pyramid to sewing.

Kat coutureacademic.wordpress.com

I could not agree with you more. I’m all about quality and I’m so glad we as a generation are talking about quality construction again, since it seems to have gone by the wayside in the 80s and 90s. I think there is a profound shift in mentality right now from quantity to quality – that’s why I believe we’re seeing a resurgence in vintage techniques.
I also agree that building skills takes time…and I may add great patience and fortitude. It’s heart breaking to see a project go south after we’ve put so much work into it’s quality construction but made a fatal error at the last step. I’ve slowly learned to benefit from these ‘setbacks’ as you call them and realize that the great seamstresses of the world all made these mistakes and cried over them too. They just persevered long enough to achieve greatness in their craft. Thanks for your post.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I wonder if all this consideration of quality is a sort of backlash to the increasing rate of “fast fashion”? Clothes have gotten insanely cheap, and I think some of us are becoming very aware of the hidden costs.

Anna needleandhook.co.uk

I love the idea of things made to last, but in practice especially with clothes I do often find things look dated, no matter how ‘classic’ I think they are when I make them. Maybe I just need to wait longer. Like, a ‘classic’ little black shift dress I made in the mid 90s, the shape just looks all wrong now. Maybe my idea of what is the ‘right’ shape has changed… maybe I have changed shape!

With knitting and sewing both though I do love that the piece becomes precious through the hours invested in it. An antidote to throw-away fashion.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

That’s true. I like Lauren’s point below though… it all comes back again. But you’re right, tastes do change, even in regards to “classic” items.

I do think there are some things I will never get tired of (like stripes).

Holly H.

Maybe add some trim or alter the neckline or hem some. It may be your next great love!

MB@Yarn itunes.apple.com

Well, I try to make my clothes last…but darn fabric cops out! A stretch lace top I made died because repeated hand washings with a citric acid soap (I didn’t really think about what I was doing) killed the color,shine and stretch. A gorgeous black and white print jersey top I made a couple years ago is faded by bad cheap detergent…it will likely get tossed too. To make your clothes really last? Watch what you use to wash your garments. Hand wash, air dry as much as possible. If you really love a fabric buy as much as possible so you can remake a fav top if it falls apart eventually.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

I read this while wearing my favorite pair of black pants, which have sadly faded to an almost charcoal color at this point, since I wear them about once a week. I do plan to redye them though.

Lauren lladybird.wordpress.com

I do strive to make clothing that lasts – mostly because I am hard on my clothes! I guess I also don’t see the point in spending a bunch of time & money on a piece of clothing just to have it wear out/fall apart within the year. So yes, I take extra precautions to keep my clothing looking good & lasting as long as possible – extra reinforcement at stress points & curved seams, quality fabrics/threads/notions, making repairs when necessary, line-drying (instead of using the machine), etc. I treat my handmade clothing with the same care that I treat my vintage pieces.

But honestly, I’m not terribly concerned about my whole wardrobe being classic. I do love lots of classic looks, but I also love my super trendy stuff too. And I’m ok with making trendy pieces – I don’t really throw trends away after the season ends (some of which I’m still wearing years post-season aha!). And even if I did, it can always be stored & kept for when it inevitably comes back into fashion – or when someone finds it & delights in the “vintage” of it – because that will eventually happen! Some of my favorite vintage pieces are the trendiest ones (for the era).

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Yeah, I’m not anti-trend. I agree that things come back, and trends can open you up to new ideas! I think it has more to do with your attitude towards them. I think it’s different if you pick and choose what you like amongst trends, vs. buying things because they’re in.

I think if you make your own clothes you’re a lot more likely to be doing the former than the latter anyway, though. If you buy all your clothes, it becomes hard to avoid trendy things even if you might wish to. I always find it surprising how hard it is to find the simplest clothing to buy.

liza jane lizajanesews.blogspot.com

I agree with the comment about being careful how you wash your clothes. Nothing makes a garment fade faster or pill quicker than the way you wash it. I like making pieces that will last but I don’t always get it right. I thinking donating things to thrift stores is a good way to give longevity to things you make, too. Maybe someone else will love it and give it a new life.

Signe Marie

For me it boils down to this; When clothes last a long time, and get lots of wear, I get a chance to feel attached to them. I will link them to times I wore them and be comforted in that kind of recognition. I have a sweater, knit by me, that I happened to be wearing the day I got the message that my dear old aunt had passed away. I was outside, I cried all over the sweater, I remember thinking how good it was that I wore that because it’s warm even when wet. So, before that day, it was a lovely, old trusty sweater (good in itself, I’d say). But since that day it has been all that as well as a trigger of memories of me and my aunt. I like that kind of associations in things, and they dont have to be sad or bittersweet like this one, they can be anything.

So even though I would like to say that I care about quality due to sustainability issues, it’s really an irrational and emotional thing to me. I like things that last, because I like to know I can depend on them.

Beth dyefeltsool.com

What a lovely thought!
I think many of us have such attachments to our clothing especially when we put in the hours to make it and it holds treasured memories.
When I started sewing I really didn’t care what I used because I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t want to wreck anything really snazzy. Fortunately my Nana and my Great Grandma were major sewing fiends and had huge stashes that they would let me rifle through. As I built skills and didn’t mess up as horribly or as much, then, I started looking at quality materials to make sure that after I had put so much time, effort and love into the piece, and then gathered the memories through wearing it, it wouldn’t die so fast.
That’s why now I’ve started dyeing my own fabrics. I want to make something out of material I love and that is as natural as possible. Silk and all natural dye material – it doesn’t get much better, in my opinion, to make a perfect piece that WILL last!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

What a beautiful comment, and one I really identify with. I also have a very strong link between clothing and memory. I can almost always remember what I was wearing better than almost any other detail. I have so many memories — good and bad — that I associate with items of clothing.

Lindsay howsheflowers.wordpress.com

I love this idea that our clothing can provide snapshots of our life. Certainly clothing can provide important historical insights and are treated as artifacts– why not transfer that to the personal as well!? I know I would love to have some clothing of my mom’s or grandmother’s when they are gone. I ascribe personal significance even to some fabrics that my mom bought when she was a young seamstress. Unfortunately the dress I made from one such fabric was not made very well, but due to its sentimental value I plan to take the time to fix it as best I can. Lovely thought on a lovely post!

christine christinehaynes.blogspot.com

Great post Sarai! Yes, I absolutely think about quantity, quality, longevity, trendiness, and all those things when I sew for myself. I’m not a sucker for trends or the goofy. I like simple and timeless shapes. But even then you can trip yourself up by adding too much trim or picking out a wacky fabric that you know you won’t want to wear in 10 years. Honestly, the more I travel the more I am effected by this notion of less. I get by with less, people have much smaller spaces than we do in the States, and whenever I come home from traveling, as I just did, I always clean out my house and get rid of things I just don’t need. So making quality, classic, timeless items is best for my state of mind and for the world at large.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

There also seems to be a different appreciation for quality in a lot of larger European cities.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that styles do seem to be a lot more uniform in some places in Europe. It’s always a weird shock coming back to the states and seeing people overall dressed much less tastefully, but also much more diversely.

Dorien

I work in Brussels, and you’re right about the uniform style people have here. Between the ages of 20 and 60 beiges, browns, jeans (seriously, what’s up with that?) are very popular, in summer white capris paired with a poloshirt (preferably with a logo on it), like there’s a shared urge to look as similar to others as possible.
It’s a bit sad, actually.

Nina toftsnummulite.blogspot.com

As a Londoner, I’d say there’s loads of diversity in style here but a lack of appreciation of quality, mostly. You seem some fantastic outfits, though – the Tube always seems to be a good place to spot them. A couple of weeks ago I saw a girl who was dressed like something from a wartime spy movie – side ponytail, beret, green cord trench coat, little brown leather shoulder bag, fancy black stockings, neat lace-up shoes. I so regretted not telling her how wonderful she looked!

Sarai colettepatterns.com

London seemed more like the US to me in terms of fashion… not that people dressed similarly to Americans, but that there was more diversity in style but also a lot of fast fashion.

christine christinehaynes.blogspot.com

Yes! There is more of a “uniform” in larger European cities, which can be weird too. But I guess since for the most part I like that “uniform” it somehow doesn’t bother me too much :)

Though, there are all the fast fashion houses in those cities too, so they are hardly immune from it. I think it’s just being aware of what works for you. For me, excess in anyway makes me very uncomfortable, but for others, it’s the opposite as they seek comfort in being surrounded by things. So if the few things I choose to put in my life don’t last, it’s a bummer!

Nina toftsnummulite.blogspot.com

Yes – I think about longevity with everything I buy, and it matters even more if I’m going to spend time and energy making something. The idea of moving away from the consumer cycle is one I’m passionate about. The other part of making things sustainable, of course, is actually sustaining them – taking care of them and repairing them etc. My enormous modern Reader’s Digest sewing guide has no advice on repairs, while a much smaller 1930s sewing book I have includes a whole chapter on mending different kinds of tears and holes.

Lindsay howsheflowers.wordpress.com

This is a really interesting point. I also have some vintage knitting patterns that are designed to make use of small odds and ends of yarn rather than throw them away, whereas I seldom see that nowadays. I’m still way more likely to fix a handmade (or well made store-bought) item than a fast fashion one, I imagine.

Christina herrlichkeiten.net

I also think of longivity when sewing or knitting something. For one thing I already get attached to my clothes when I’m making them, so I want to make sure, they will last. And second the things that are so time consuming that I’m not going to make them each season (like a coat or a pair of jeans) simply have to last a couple of seasons. For me, good quality material and the finishing are the two main things I take into consideration (ask me how I’ve learned).

Mary

I’m a very new sewer–still learning by doing–and I do find myself moving toward thinking of clothing as a long-term investment rather than a disposable item. This is one of the major reasons I began sewing garments in the first place, actually. For me this plays out in learning to be patient and finish edges neatly, find the right buttons, etc. But even more than that, I’m learning to mend and refashion clothes that aren’t quite right any more. My first Peony, for example, taught me that, though I adored the pattern, the boat neck didn’t work on me and the print I’d chosen just wasn’t right for a dress. So I made another Peony, altering the neckline to a scoop neck; and I’m planning to take the first version apart and make it into a skirt, where the print can be balanced out by a plain top. Likewise, the first dress I ever made is starting to fall apart at the seams because I really had no idea what I was doing–so I’m going to pick it apart and redo it in a more lasting way.

Mary

As for fashions changing, and “classic” versus “seasonal” styles–I’m starting to realize that everything really does come around. I rewatched “Cruel Intentions” the other day and was struck by how many of the styles and silhouettes had gone out of fashion and then come back in recently. I foresee a hoarding of clothes in my future…

Emily replicatethendeviate.blogspot.com

I’m trying to attain the skills to make clothes that last a long time. :) I find that some of the cheaper fabrics just don’t last (but they’re great for practicing!). If I could stay the same size, I’m sure I’d invest more in sewing for myself. Most of my sewing is for my daughter who is still growing quickly. However, it makes me happy that she can play in all of her clothes and I’m not stressed about her ruining them.

Jen mommymadebyjen.blogspot.com

I, too, have a strong link with clothing and memory. And I save everything I possibly can. Right now when I think of longevity in clothing, I think more about my girls’ clothing. My oldest will be 12 next month and there are many things I’ve made her in the past few years that haven’t been worn to the extent that they can’t be saved. I save almost all of her clothing for my younger daughter, who is 5 1/2. About a year and a half ago I made a tunic and a blouse for my older daughter from a beautiful piece of Liberty lawn. Because I sewed it carefully and wash it with care/air dry it, I know it will still look amazing for my younger daughter when she finally fits in it. The only thing I don’t really save is bathing suits; since the fabric has already been exposed to chlorine, it’s already weak and I’ve found it just won’t last the 6 years in storage to be worn by the younger one.

I’ve even saved some of my favorite items of clothing from my own childhood for my girls – all of it is handmade, either by my mom or my grandma. And all of it seems to have held up better than anything store-bought.

Construction is really important in making clothing that lasts, I find. Right now the dress-up box has a Snow White costume that gets a lot of wear. I made it as a Halloween costume for my oldest, back in 2005. It gets a lot of wear but I don’t know that anyone can tell that it’s almost 7 years old. Because I knew it would get lots of play time, I made sure to reinforce the seams that would get stress, and hand-stitched some parts, because I knew it would stay together longer.

Charlotte

Whenever I consider buying or making something, I go through this weird exercise where I try to imagine someone wearing it in the 20s, then the 30s, 40s, all the way up to last week. If it wouldn’t get too many guffaws across the decades, I go full steam ahead with the best fabric and technique I can muster. If not, it doesn’t necessarily rule out my making or buying it, but I really have to consider how much I love it, and if I wouldn’t mind wearing it in my 20s and 30s and so on.

Tasha @ Stale Bread into French Toast tashamillergriffith.com

Awesome post Sarai! I love the idea that failures are a part of building something that will really last. It’s easy to think of them as such setbacks, especially when you’re trying to make something awesome.

I definitely strive to have my own style. While I may see some more trendy things that I like, I try to incorporate the specific aspects of a design that I am really drawn to, rather than copying a whole piece that will look dated quickly. To me, what makes something timeless is that it reflects what I want to say to the world about myself.

Violet

I never really realized how much I do think about longevity when I make clothes. In fact, I am amused to note that I was not thinking of longevity as such but indeed it is very much about that.
I mostly sew for my grandchildren. Many of the items I have made will be heirlooms or at least I know that they will be remembered even after I am no longer here.
I guess that’s the kind of longevity that I ‘ve been striving for without considering it that.
I am happiest when I have made something that I know my Grand daughter will remember wearing as a little girl and she will remember as well, that her Grandmother made it for her.

francesca

Great, thoughtful post, Sarai. I definitely sew to last. And I grew up in a house with parents who were in their forties when I was born, so they lived thru WWII – and thus knew hardship. So although we were comfortably off, they were never wasteful. I love my older clothes and am extremely attached to them – and I credit their lasting so well to their fabric, construction, and care in washing. I have and wear the classic boat neck blue and white sailor sweater and a Provencal printed skirt with a quilted border my mother bought in St Tropez at least 45 years ago, and they are both in amazing condition. For a long time they were probably washed by hand – and then when washing machines came in, my mother – and I – always washed clothes on the hand or wool wash at very low temps. Also, line drying out of our blazing sun probably extended their life….. I was also lucky enough to find a little fabric shop “tal-bicciet” – literally selling pieces where a little old lady sold lengths of liberty lawn and flannel when I first started sewing – so I still have a couple of things I made in my teens! Love them to bits:)

Ruth

Oh definitely!! I HATE buying things that are poorly made or wear out in a very short time and the same goes for my sewing. If I can’t make something well, that will last and give pleasure for a long time, then I feel I’ve failed in what I’m doing. I’m wasting years of learning how to sew and make clothes if they aren’t well made enough to last. I may not always like what I made, or even wear it if it isn’t right for me after all, but someone else will like it for a long time. I only buy a few things now, but I research everything. If I buy something mail order and it’s shoddy, back it goes! I’m a large woman now and everything has to last longer because it is more expensive to make or buy. I’m proud that a wool shirt I made for my husband thirty years ago is still holding up, a little worse for wear, of course, but not falling apart!

Justine sewcountrychick.com

This is precisely the reason I bristle when my teen wants me to take her to Forever 21. This throwaway mentality in our culture is what made me decide to sew my own wardrobe. But I think my handmade dresses won’t last as long as store bought bevause I often use vintage fabrics and the washing machine can be brutal. I know, I should hand wash!

Mabs

If anyone’s still reading, I have a question follow up to this great post…

Sarai, do you have any advice for sewing sustainably for future.. fatness? hahaha. I’d like to have a baby in a few years and I know it’ll change my body for a long time. Should I be sewing all my cute now things with extra-wide seams? Should I incorporate extra fabric / small pleats into pants and skirts so that I can still wear them when I balloon? Apparently I’m predicting a Charlie and the Chocolate Factor scenario where my ‘mom’ body swells like a blueberry! Advice appreciated.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

This is a great question, although I’m pretty sure some of the moms out there could answer it better than I. Wide seam allowances do seem like a wise bet, as would making things without linings (easier to adjust usually, and you could wear a slip instead).

Maybe I’ll do a separate post and asks the moms out there for advice. :)

Joke

I know I am very late with my comment, but I just wanted to say I totally agree with Mabs and I think a follow up post would be awesome!
I would love to make my own clothes to last, especially now that I want to build a professional wardrobe, but am afraid to invest in it if I know my body may change… My preference for form-fitting clothing won’t help either.
One of the biggest advantages of sewing is that you can have your clothes fitted to your body, but changes of the body wipes that advantage away…
I just figured out my body measurements must have changed over the last two-three years and I no longer fit in a dress I was so proud of sewing… So, I’d love to hear any creative ideas to clothes that can be adjusted a few centimeters up and down :-)

krystina

The comment above about body changes is exactly what has held me back from sewing seriously for myself. I’ve made myself a few skirts, but mostly I just appreciate hand made adult clothing from afar. My body has changed so much over the past six years, I’ve been pregnant three times now, nursed, and gone up and down in weight. Its so hard to be motiviated to take the extra time and effort to make yourself something that will last forever when you know it might not fit three or four months down the line.

I do make my kids’ clothes and take extra care to make sure they last. Kids are so hard on their clothes that a little extra effort helps their clothes really last. And after they hit 2 years old or so, they aren’t growing faster than you can make the clothes! I also take extra care making their clothes in part (and this might be silly in the case of kid clothes) because I want them to have special pieces to pass along to their kids if they so choose. I have things my grandmother and greatgrandmother knit me when I was little, I can think in particular of one red silk sweater that’s gorgeous, and I think pieces like that just can’t be duplicated, they’re so special!

Peggy inmaterial.etsy.com

I’ve returned to sewing my clothes after being disgusted by the declining quality of manufactured clothing – the new “fast fashion” trend – poor construction, horrible fabrics (polyester – yuck), bad design, and the harm all this is doing to our planet. After reading Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline, I am dedicated to returning to my old ways of sewing almost everything I wear. I’m so excited . . . and reading your blog is a source of inspiration.

Sarai colettepatterns.com

Thanks Peggy, I just added that book to my library list.

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