Have you ever wanted to try your hand at making, modifying, or upcycling your own clothes?
Today’s guest, Sonya Philip, is dedicated to encouraging and teaching people how to do just that!
In this episode, Sonya is sharing:
- The benefits of being able to make or modify our own clothes,
- Advice for beginners who want to get started with sewing,
- How the movement to make our own clothes contributes to more conscious participation in fashion,
- What sorts of possibilities there are with making our own clothes, and how this gives us more freedom,
- The connections between sewing skills and body acceptance, and more!
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
Quick Links: Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pandora, or Google Podcasts.
The transcript of this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast is below.
ELIZABETH JOY: You’re listening to the Conscious Style Podcast, where we explore what it will take to build a better, more sustainable, and equitable future for fashion. I’m your host, Elizabeth Joy. Now let’s dive into today’s episode.
Hey there, and welcome or welcome back to the show!
I have a question for you…
Have you ever wanted to make, modify, or upcycle your own clothes?
If you answered yes, this episode will give you some great starter tips and tricks and encouragement on your journey.
If you answered no, you might just be convinced after this conversation.
Today’s guest on the show is Sonya Philip; an artist, designer, author, teacher, and self-proclaimed stitch activist, a term that I absolutely love, who is dedicated to encouraging and teaching people how to sell their own clothes.
In this episode, you are going to hear Sonya talk about he benefits of being able to make or modify our own clothes; advice for beginners who want to get started with sewing; how making our own clothes can contribute to conscious consumption and a more sustainable approach to fashion; what sorts of possibilities there are with making our own clothes and how this can give us more freedom; the connections between sewing skills and body acceptance; and more.
As always, you can read along or read this interview instead of listening to it by checking out the full transcript in the show notes on consciouslifeandstyle.com.
The show notes are also going to be linked in the episode description in your podcast app.
And if you like this show, be sure to hit subscribe or follow if you’re not already subscribed, and leave a rating and short review on Apple Podcasts. This really helps the show reach new audiences.
Okay, now let’s get going with this interview. Sonya is going to start us off here with an introduction of herself and some background on why she decided to create her book The Act of Sewing, which is an in-depth guide to sewing simple garments.
SONYA PHILIP: My name is Sonya Philip, and I am an author, a new author, designer and teacher. I live in San Francisco. I’m the designer behind the pattern company 100 Acts of Sewing.
And I started it as a project almost 10 years ago now, and it involved me sewing 100 dresses in a year and documenting the process.
It was a passion of mine. I’ve tried to take it upon myself to teach other people how to sew, because making my own clothes has really had a very profound impact on my life.
ELIZABETH: I love that. Yeah, you’re really empowering people to be the maker of their own clothes.
So could you tell us a little bit about the benefits of making or modifying our own clothes?
SONYA: Sure. I came to it in kind of a sort of a circuitous path.
I learned to sew in middle school, but it never really took…
I was frustrated by the process — like so many people — that I had ideas in my head, and then I tried to execute them and it never quite turned out right.
I learned how to knit in my 20s. And that really became a sort of surrogate craft and then from there took sewing back up.
And I feel that what sewing does is several things:
Firstly, as you said, you’re empowered as a maker that you can make the choices, either what materials you use, the colors, and the fit.
For me, primarily, it was those things.
But I couldn’t find the clothes that I wanted in sizes that fit me. I would go in and I would only see very few things in my size, and I just would leave stores being really discouraged.
The other thing is that you get to realize the skill and the time that goes into making a garment and that has several effects.
Firstly, you appreciate all of that.
Then also I feel that you’re more compelled to take care of those garments, whether it’s mending or just in the more thoughtful way that you care for it — either washing it less or line drying — that you’re really invested in a garment in a much more kind of primary way than if you were to just buy it.
And I think the same is true that if you were to save up and buy a special garment that was either made for you or, anytime you have an investment, then you’re more compelled to take care of it.
So I think that those two kinds of align there.
ELIZABETH: Totally. There are definitely a lot of compelling reasons to make our own clothes. But if this is something that we are new to, it can feel intimidating.
So do you have any advice for us beginners who have little to no experience in sewing? How can we get started?
Unlike a lot of crafts, like knitting or crocheting, the fact that there’s this machine that you have to wrestle with can be a very intimidating thing.
You have a pedal that you push and it goes, and who knows what’s happening!
I would say that there are lots of websites, there are books, YouTube [videos], as well as various platforms that have craft classes.
So really finding out how you like to learn!
I know that stores and other places are just starting to offer in-person classes again. That’s a really good way of learning how to improve your skills using a machine.
Hand-sewing is something that I’ve started seeing people gaining more of an interest in. It’s much slower and approachable because all you really need is the fabric, the needle, and the thread.
And one sort of shining purveyor or exemplar of that is Natalie Chanin, through Alabama Chanin. And she primarily works with jersey, which is knit or t-shirt material.
And the benefit of that is that when you cut it, it doesn’t fray the same way that woven fabrics do. So it’s a little bit simpler.
And she has lots of different styles and pieces from extremely embellished where it has embroidery and sequins and other things, to just very simple, sort of tailored looks.
And looking on social media through various pattern makers. There are lots of indie pattern makers, independent pattern makers, as opposed to just the larger companies that that was what really made up sewing patterns.
So nowadays, there are many independent pattern makers, and you can pick and choose based on what you like. Is it just a very simple style? More complex or tailored or vintage?
And so it’s a really great time now.
There’s been a lot of interest, not just since the pandemic, many people were getting out their sewing machines to make masks and now they’re thinking like ‘okay, now what to do?’ Not to mention people just being at home.
And I also think that people are more interested in knowing where their clothing comes from or learning how to rework or mend things.
And those two, like refashioning, I think is really kind of a shortcut. You’re not having to go immediately from taking a cloth and making it into this three-dimensional object.
So, if you have a piece of clothing that is just lingering in your closet, you never wear it, because it’s just not right, then taking that and experimenting with it to try and make something that you will use it.
That could be if the sleeves weren’t ever right, shortening the sleeves, or if it’s too long, shortening it. Take a dress, turn it into just a top. Those are all things that they’re relatively easy to do.
And you can slowly gain confidence to then maybe take the next step to actually sewing straight from pattern and going from scratch.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that’s a great tip. I love that!
And I’ve seen more and more people do that, especially on TikTok and Instagram.
I think it’s called thrift flips. They’ll find something from a thrift store and refashion it to make it into something different.
And it’s really inspiring to see that because we have so much fabric, so many clothes. So that’s a really great sustainable way of getting involved as well.
And fabric-wise, you know, vintage tablecloths or old duvet covers… that’s all usually ample yardage, or you can stitch things together.
So exactly, as you said that there is so much material out there that is not being used and would just go to a landfill. So being able to divert it is a really important thing to do.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, great ideas for beginners and more advanced sewers alike.
So, I’m very curious about how your own sewing journey and your creative process has evolved since you first started sewing until now. I mean, now you wrote a book about it!
So has there been any major shifts in mindset or just your approach to sewing over the years?
SONYA: Well, I just came back from teaching a class, my first in-person class in over two years. So coming back to that, and seeing people who are beginners and comparing myself to that [has been interesting].
I think my process has always been through anything I do, it’s really motivated from curiosity: can I do things with answering these questions.
And I think with sewing, it’s, it’s a very rules-based craft, that there are these parameters that are there in place.
For example, they say right sides together, because, if you put the right sides of fabric together, and then you so then when you turn it inside out, all those seams are going to be on the inside.
And so, there are these rules there that are for a reason.
I used to sort of chafe with that and push against them. But I’m also really an experiential learner. So I have to do things in order to realize like: “oh, okay, that’s there for a reason”.
And teaching this class, I see people, like: “oh, I have to iron again, there’s so much pressing involved in sewing”. You know if you’re going to fold him over to enclose the raw edge, you have to fold it over once, then press it and fold it over again and press it a second time.
And everything is like, guess what’s next? More pressing!
I swear, you spend probably as much time in front of an iron as you do in front of the sewing machine.
But, this is something that, when I first started to sew, I didn’t want to do that. Now that I am sewing and that that’s what I do now, I realized, okay, yes, this is important if you want everything to be sewn accurately. It’s a very necessary step.
So I think it’s coming to terms with just accepting that, okay, these things, you have to do them.
And with my own journey, it’s been just sort of step by step.
With my pattern line, as I’ve added garments, it’s me learning how to how to do a particular technique and then doing it enough times, so then I can explain it to people in an understandable way.
So, I guess I’m a little bit evangelical in that way that I like to just, share and I’m excited about it. Because as I said, it’s changed my life.
It’s like now, I don’t buy clothes. If I need a raincoat or parka, yes, I’ll buy that.
But I haven’t bought clothes in years and years and years. And not only is it with clothes but with other things, too.
I think: do I need that? Can I borrow it or rent it? And it’s really made me sort of reassess my impact.
It’s interesting that [it started with clothes] and sort of stepping off that retail merry go round really just went and worked its way into all sorts of other aspects of my life.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I can totally see how it would evolve that way.
So clearly, making your own clothes has shifted your perspectives in many different ways.
Something that I was wondering that I wanted to ask you about was if making your own clothes has shifted what you find most important in a garment or perhaps what you value in a piece of clothing?
SONYA: That’s a really interesting question.
I think that my main motivation was trying to make what I couldn’t find. So I was trying to just make up for the lack.
And for me, it’s always been about having loose layers, natural fibers.
Some of that is just living where I live in San Francisco, and being able to layer up or layer down, depending on how the weather progresses in the day.
And I love fabric. That has always been a driver; that’s what brought me back to sewing was just this love of fabric, and the prints, and the colors.
My eyes are always turned by all the different prints and patterns that are out there. And more organic fabric is coming on the scene.
It’s also interesting to see recycled fabric and just seeing that shift, and also sort of a turn towards zero waste.
What that [zero waste] is, is really just instead of putting the pattern piece down on the fabric and just cutting it out, and you’d have all this leftover fabric… there are designers where they think very carefully, and try to maximize every piece of the fabric and put that into their design.
So what I’ve been doing more and more is thinking about, well, what can I do with these small pieces of fabric that I’ve leftover?
And not just think, oh, we just always have more fabric. [But instead thinking about] how to incorporate those into your clothes, either being panels or as cuffs or pockets. Also, because fabric is expensive.
So clearly making your own clothes makes you more aware — or conscious — of the various elements that go into making a garment.
Kind of on that note there, how do you think that the process of making or modifying or refashioning our own clothes can help us perhaps be more conscious consumers or how can it contribute to a more thoughtful, sustainable approach to fashion?
SONYA: Well, I think that first off that there is really just something about making something that’s really practical.
It’s one thing if you make something and it’s just like a piece of art and it just hangs on the wall.
Being able to make it and wear it and really use it and that sort of utilitarian aspect — it really is very satisfying.
Then it really is imbued with this self-esteem that you made it and then it’s just wrapped up in this sort of pride of like — okay, you made it, you have the skills, and look at me!
And people will say, ‘hey, I like that.’ [And you can say] ‘thanks, I made it!’ And you get admiring glances and oohs and ahs.
So I think that when you have that aspect, you have this like a boost of confidence that you’re using your skills and that you have that appreciation.
And what I feel is that — I mean, I’m not a psychologist beyond just very basic classes in college — but I’m sure that there’s some kind of dopamine release and all those things.
I feel that that outweighs whatever rush you get from shopping and buying new things. There’s a trade-off there. And it seems to last.
It is not just when you’re shopping, or you’re doing these things that you buy something and then you get it and that sort of excitement is once you first buy it, and when it comes home, you’re like — ‘okay, well, where am I going to put it?‘
But making something it never changes. Even when you take it off, you wash it, you do all these things, it’s still something you made.
Someone once told me, and I just thought it was brilliant, that it’s almost like a time-release.
Like those little pills, and they say like, oh, it’s time-release… I’ve never understood how that works.
But all of your skills have been somehow sewn into or woven into this garment, and then it’s just released over time.
It’s not just a one-time thing. So you gain so much more from it — the gains are long-term.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think that it seems like making or modifying our own clothes allows us to develop this deeper, longer-term relationship with our garments.
I kind of think of fast fashion as one date, and slow fashion is this long-term relationship, this committed relationship.
ELIZABETH: I think that shift in how we view our clothing is so powerful.
SONYA: Yeah there is a great… it was first a website or it was a project it was by a woman named Kate Fletcher is called Craft of Use.
And it’s a book as well now, but she identified several — I forgotten exactly the term that she called it but they’re “use values” and she had these categories, and some of them were why.
She would take photographs of people wearing these meaningful garments, and then tell stories.
When I first discovered it several years ago, it was one of these like, okay, I can spend all day reading these — they’re fascinating!
It was either that this was passed down to them used to be their mothers, or it was, this was something that they bought while they were on a trip somewhere, or that this was something they made.
So it was basically categorizing these things — like it was either provenance or sentimental — and why we hang on to things and what gives the clothes their value over and above covering us and keeping us from elements.
And I really like that idea of fast fashion being just one date.
It’s just you don’t have any emotional attachment, and therefore you’ve hardly spent anything on it and whoever’s made it has hardly been paid anything.
I feel hopeful that there’s now more attention and transparency into what goes into the costs behind fast fashion.
The real costs rather than just like, oh, it’s so cheap.
So I really think that sewing clothes helps you realize that too.
Like buying the material and taking the time. And then and you think that none of it is mechanized; that everybody is still there.
I mean, yes, it is mechanized in that there’s a sewing machine, but they’re always hands pushing that fabric through the sewing machine. So someone is making it.
And as I said, just gaining that appreciation and knowing like, okay, someone else has to do this.
ELIZABETH: Exactly. You start to see what it really to produce even a simple shirt. It gives so much more awareness and connection to that garment-making process.
Another benefit of sewing that you talked about in your book was that learning these sewing skills lets us create or modify garments to fit our bodies how we want them to.
So could you talk to us about the possibilities of making adjustments to our garments, or designing garments in the way that we want? And then what sort of freedom or empowerment might that give us?
I think that if you are falling outside of trends for whatever reason, it can sometimes feel like you’re trapped on a desert island.
That if everybody’s wearing it, for example everything in the store is really, really long to the ankles, and say, you’re short person, and you can’t wear this style without dragging everything on the ground…
It can feel that your needs are not being met.
What I’ve also come to find is that at a certain age, you kind of get to know what you like, what you like to wear, and what might work at that point in time.
And so, so many other women that I would talk to — and men included — just wanted to develop a uniform.
So there’s this idea of a uniform, and really, if you’re able to find those pieces to make the uniform or make them, then it just makes getting dressed so much easier.
And it doesn’t mean that oh, you’re just wearing the same thing.
It could be just shirts, but they’re all in different colors and fabrics, but it’s a similar cut, and that’s just always what you reach for or it could be a combination.
Like with me, then it’s a cardigan and dress, some pants or tunic, and that’s what I reach for.
And [having a uniform] makes getting dressed very simple because I’m just sort of mixing and matching and pulling things in and out.
I doesn’t mean that you can’t follow trends, but it’s just that you’re sort of insulating yourself against them in some ways.
It doesn’t have to be that that’s the only thing you can do.
And really what constitutes a trend is just really so arbitrary in some ways.
It seems like shoulder pads are coming back into fashion, which to me seems so strange. But that’s the way things are.
So if you really don’t like shoulder pads, you don’t have to wear them! You can make things with that just need them.
I just also feel that we have so much pressure put upon us to look a certain way.
And this is the expectation of that — if you are a person in this place, and you’re this age, then this is how you’re supposed to look.
And if you don’t fit that mold, for whatever reason, it can be, as I said, it can be sort of lonely or you think I’m not good enough or whatever.
I think that when you make your clothes, you don’t have to participate in that in the same way or you’re not beholden to it. And that is a really, really refreshing thing.
Yeah, you’re not limited to the styles that are currently out there, or what these fashion companies have decided, or these fashion magazines have decided what’s ‘in season’ right now.
Another thing that you touch on in your book is that you’re not limited in terms of sizing either when you’re making your own garments.
And probably anybody who has bought clothes can resonate with the frustration of fit of garments. Between the limited sizing, proportions that are off, or things that just don’t feel good.
Maybe they’re itchy, they’re hitting you weird in your underarm or something like that.
Too often, I think we jumped to this assumption that we somehow need to change our body in some way — some part of our body is too big or too small or whatever — in order to better fit those clothes.
But of course, it’s ridiculous because our garments should be made to fit us and not the other way around.
I mean, we shouldn’t change human bodies to fit pieces of cloth. But it’s really common. I hear it and see it a lot, unfortunately.
SONYA: Absolutely, yeah.
For me, I am a woman of size; I’m fat. And so if I would go into stores at the time, it would be oh, here’s all this modal or synthetic jersey, which I didn’t like. I tend to run hot, and so I wanted something that would breathe.
Or it would be like, we’re gonna have lots of ruffles and bell sleeves, and I was just like, ‘oh, no, thank you.’
It’s not just that, but with people who are tall or people who are petite or have long torsos, or, narrow or broad shoulders.
There are so many areas where you can have as you’re saying, you can have these fit issues.
These [fit issues] can be addressed. Like even they’re simple enough tweaks if you know how to do it, or you can make something for your body.
I have a friend that she hates three-quarter-length sleeves, she just can’t wear them. And so, for her, it would be short sleeves or to the wrist.
If you know how to adjust things, then you can always take care of that.
ELIZABETH: For sure.
Yeah having those skills can really give us this freedom with our clothes and how we choose to express ourselves.
And beyond preference or comfort, you talk in your book about the sort of connection with being able to modify or make our own clothes with that journey of body acceptance. Like as we were talking about before, designing clothes to fit us, not changing our bodies to fit the clothes.
So could you talk about that connection there?
For me, and just what I gleaned from the world was that I needed to be a certain size or however many inches or weight before I could get the pretty clothes.
And so it was always this [message], as you’re saying, like your body is wrong. And so change it in order to have so much more choice and all of these things.
So by not waiting, and by just making clothes for the body that I have now, I am able to have the benefits of enjoying my clothes.
When I get dressed, I can wear things that I want to wear that I feel good in because they make be happy — [for me,] it’s colors and playful.
That might not be true for everybody, someone else might just want something that’s monochrome or earthtones.
But it’s really getting what you want out of your clothes, and not waiting for it. And I feel that it always seemed to be the other way around.
So here it’s flipped it on its head.
It’s also a way of wearing clothes that I like that I feel good in celebrates the body I have. And it’s not hiding it or camouflaging it.
I’s strange, because you have a lot of I feel people in fat activism or body acceptance, where it’s wearing body-conscious clothing, or revealing clothing or whatever.
That is fabulous, but that’s not for everybody. I never really wanted tight-fitting clothing, I always feel very constricted and stuff.
So for me, it’s all about loose and layering stuff that I can move around in — and I think that it’s really just about having options.
If you want to wear, you know, a tight-fitting dress, then you can make that tight-fitting dress. If you want to wear something loose and flowing, you can make something that’s loose and flowing.
Wear it one day of the week, wear it the other, and you have that skill to make those possible and you’re not waiting for it to come in your size.
Even though things have really come a long way in the past 10 to 15 years, it still is it’s like well, we have come a long way but maybe those sizes are available only online, or maybe they have those sizes, but they’re 10% more expensive or something.
We’re not fully there, as far as clothing for everybody.
There are some brands that they seem to be doing a really good job in addressing that. But it’s still this like, well, as I said, it’s not all the sizes all the time.
Yeah we still have a long way to go with size inclusivity in fashion. That definitely could — and should be — a whole other podcast episode to explore that topic.
But for now, so we’ve talked a lot about the why behind your book; the why behind making your own clothes.
So for those of us who are maybe now convinced, or at least a bit curious about dipping our toes into sewing and getting involved with making or modifying garments, can you tell listeners what we can expect to learn in your book? How do you walk people through that sewing process?
SONYA: So the book assumes that you know how to work a machine.
It doesn’t go through the basic, press your foot on the pedal and put the needle down, etc. But what it does go into, it talks about fabric and talks about how to prepare your fabric before you start tracing and cutting the pattern out.
It just gives you basic terminology and defines that and what things are like a seam, seam allowance, and finishing the edges so they don’t fray.
How the book is set up is that the first section is all of that introduction, and as I said, taking you through the terminology and the tools that you would need.
Then there are four patterns. That is a top, a skirt, trousers, and a shirt. And they are arranged in order from easiest to most more complicated.
The idea is that you can just make one, start with the top and get your bearings as it were, following the instructions.
Then the next section shows all kinds of fit adjustments.
So if you wanted to make things longer or shorter; if you needed to adjust the shoulders or increase or decrease the bust measurements; and just different things to do to tweak the patterns to fit however you want them to fit.
Then there are other modifications. That’s when I feel stuff sort of really starts getting fun.
It walks you through basically from like top to bottom, all kinds of things that you can do as far as changing the necklines, changing the sleeves, adding decorative elements such as ruffles, pleats, or pin tucks and then very importantly, pockets!
So it really is all about selecting and choosing, and really designing what it is you want to wear and then having the tools and the know how that is right there.
So you can use it as just a straight this is how you sew these things, or use it as a reference book as like how do I make this? How do I take this shirt and turn it into… like how do I lengthen it and widen it and make into a dress?
That kind of approach really appealed to me because I wanted more of a timeless book, so it’s really in it for the long haul.
So I will put all of the links you mentioned and of course the link to your book in the show notes and in the episode description for listeners to check out.
Before we wrap up this interview, though, I do have one final question for you and that is what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
I think a better future for fashion is one where people are just holding on to their clothes for longer and mending them, appreciating them, refreshing them, and really treating them in the same way that they would treat other kind of precious and well-loved objects.
And that it wouldn’t be something where you would just spend $10 and then wear it a couple of times and then attempt to donate it, but essentially, you’re just throwing it away.
And also just ways of recycling. For me, having fabric recycling I think would be an amazing thing. And using more organic fabrics, and just general all-around sustainability.
Also, I think having people just be more thoughtful about what they’re putting on their bodies.
ELIZABETH: And that’s a wrap for this episode. Be sure to take a look at the episode description in your podcast app for the links referenced in this episode, as well as the various links to learn more about today’s guest.
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ABOUT SONYA PHILIP
Sonya Philip is an artist, designer and teacher. In 2012, she started a project called 100 Acts of Sewing, making dresses while documenting the process. Since then Sonya has made it her mission to convince people to sew their own clothes.
When not covered in bits of thread, she can be found knitting another shawl or cardigan. Sonya lives in San Francisco with her family.