What Learning How to Sew Taught Me

It all started with not being able to sew a button. Within 6 weeks of graduating college, I moved back to the Midwest, got married, went on a honeymoon, became a homeowner, and started a new job. Amidst the exciting and tumultuous transitions, I learned a lot about myself and what it means to be a "real person" (aka a grown up). But one seemingly trivial thing I learned stuck with me, nagging me over the next year.

I realized that I didn't know how to sew a button on.

Preparing to sew in a new zipper to an upcycled wedding dress.

Preparing to sew in a new zipper to an upcycled wedding dress.

While I'd learned how to hand stitch in Girl Scouts as an adolescent, I never learned how to properly sew a button on. As a result, over the years I discarded or donated a number of items with buttons that had fallen off — mainly because they were shoddily constructed in the first place — rather than fix them myself. In fact, most fast fashion clothing isn't made to withstand more than a few wears and washes, encouraging consumers to succumb to the vicious cycle of buy-wear-wash-discard.

It turns out that I wasn't alone in my lack of sewing skills. My generation – the fabled tech-obsessed, selfie-taking millennials – has opted to code apps rather than cut fabric. A limited number of millennials knows how to mend an item. Even fewer know how to actually use a sewing machine.

At the same time I was learning how to sew, I began a journey of buying nothing new. 

It started as a self-challenge to starve myself of over-consumption and over-spending, especially on new clothing. But over time, it became a new way of living and learning.

International Ladies Garment Workers Union tag on a vintage dress.

International Ladies Garment Workers Union tag on a vintage dress.

I was so committed to the challenge that I even wrote a post for ForbesWoman about it, linking it to the broader "New Domesticity" movement of Pinterest-obsessed, organic-loving, kind-of crunchy women returning to simpler, more handmade pursuits like crocheting and canning. And while I dabbled in canning and DIY beauty products, what most captured my attention was learning how to sew, or as Kristin Glenn calls it, “Engineering with creativity."

In the 2.5 years since I wrote the ForbesWoman post, I've practiced my sewing on dozens upon dozens of garments. I even started a small upcycled fashion business to sell many of the one-of-a-kind versions (you can check out the latest on Poshmark here). I shared stories and data on the fashion industry, raising awareness on the perils of "race to the bottom" fashion industry. I connected with other like-minded upcyclers committed to the herculean task of transforming apparel manufacturing processes. But I've experienced more than the (small but mighty) impact on the fast fashion machine.

I've grown in confidence, creativity, and entrepreneurialism by learning how to sew.

I've gained confidence in seeing the tangible fruits of my upcycling labor, of taking the before and after photos and proving to myself again and again that brand new doesn't always equal better.

I've honed my creativity in envisioning what could be based on what current is, and by letting my creative juices flow while rhythmically ripping seams or sewing them back together.

And I've tested the waters of (social) entrepreneurialism by launching and operating a micro-business to sell the dresses I upcycle, while donating a portion of the profits to high-impact nonprofit organizations that help women in the developing world start their own micro-enterprises or support their or their children's education.

By upcycling, I'm learning that intentionally living with less is one step—and one stitch—to a simpler, more meaningful life in which there is a story sewn in the fabric of daily life—and in the items in my closet.