Sewing a Wardrobe: Part 1 (Defeating the Monster in the Closet)

Do you know who I admire? Women who sew things they actually want to wear–even women who just buy things they actually want to wear. This is a feat I have never been able to accomplish.

This lack of buying/sewing sensibility has created one of the on-going struggles of my life which can be summed up as follows: I have nothing to wear!!

No matter when I’m trying to put outfits together, it’s always difficult because I never seem to have really great pieces to work with. Or I have these great little pieces, but nothing to wear them with. Or, I’ve made a dress out of quilting cotton that’s really cute, but not really what I want to wear to work or out with friends.

Fluffy skirts

When I started learning to sew, I was all about making the floofy dresses. I wanted to use the bright, over-sized floral prints with the full skirts and make the sweet little blouses with bows and cutesy collars–all things that aren’t really the sort of clothes I actually enjoy wearing on a daily basis.

Here’s the question: how do I, after years of wearing an odd mish-mash of uncomfortable, unflattering, un-me-like clothes, finally figure out what it is that looks good and feels good and wears well, fashion-be-damned? Well, that’s why I’m starting this little series of posts dedicated to the creation of a decent wardrobe. Since I’m working on hammering out a series of blocks, it seems like a good time step back and re-evaluate how I choose what I want to sew. And maybe in the process I’ll finally learn how to stop making things I know deep down I’m going to hate.

To get started, I sat down to think through my wants, needs, don’ts, do’s, and goals. I looked back at old pictures (having a blog really helps with this), sorted through my closet and drawers, and spent several hours scanning Pinterest and other places on the interwebs. Here’s what I figured out:

  1. I like things that are feminine but not frilly.
  2. Vintage is not my jam. Vintage inspired details are okay, but full-on vintage/retro makes me feel like I’m wearing a costume.
  3. Things that are NO: pencil skirts, trousers, high waists (I’m thinking of my sad Beignet here–which I still haven’t blogged about, for Pete’s sake–not empire waists which I actually sort of love. Because of Jane Austen. Also, I don’t consider things that fit at the waist to be “high waisted.” Probably no one else does either, but just in case. . . )
  4. Nothing that looks even remotely “corporate.” It just makes me feel like I’m pretending to be a grown up. When we all know I’m not.
  5. I like having a little structure to work with. Tailored, but not too “stiff.”
  6. I’m kinda getting over my floral obsession. I’m more into solids and geometric prints right now. Not that I’m never going to work with florals again, just that they won’t be my bread ‘n’ butter like they were in the olden days (2012).
  7. I love the simplicity and ease of tossing on a dress, but I really do need more separates in my life.
  8. Comfort, comfort, comfort! But not too slouchy. Grunge is not for me.
  9. I love me some scarves, tights, boots, Mary Janes, and dangly earrings.
  10. Did I mention that I like to be comfortable? Because I really, really do.

After thinking through all these things, I decided on one main goal: To have a small but functional wardrobe that covers work, play, and sleepy-times.

The key words here are obviously “small” and “functional.” Right now, I’d say I have a lot of clothes. Too many clothes. I have a regular-sized closet, two small dressers, and another dresser in the basement to store seasonal items. I really don’t need that much! But, I struggle to get ready every day because most of these items don’t really go with anything else or they’re too casual for work or too work-like to wear out with friendlies.

The first step towards my goal is one of my favorite things to do: Clean Out the Closet

Before and after. It's like one of those games where you have to spot the differences.

Before and after. It’s like one of those games where you have to spot the differences. Also, that chambray shirt that you probably didn’t even notice isn’t mine. I’m helping a friend with a little mending. Because I’m a giver.

I recommend starting with a clean room. I simply can’t think when surrounded by clutter. Not that my room ever gets that messy. It’s generally only ever 10 minutes away from being “clean”–this includes a quick run over with the vacuum and some light dusting. It’s just how I roll.

I also like to make myself look fairly presentable. It brightens my outlook and prevents me from tossing perfectly good pieces and/or giving up in despair because “nothing looks good.”

I always try to do laundry just before I begin so that I know I’m not missing something that’s been in the bottom of the laundry basket for three weeks.

It’s pretty important to set aside lots of time. I don’t really have to worry about being interrupted since I’m neither a wife nor a mother, but it’s not a good idea to try to purge in the thirty minutes before I need to run out the door. I can never make good decisions when I’m in a hurry. Plus, my process is. . . thorough.

I am a ruthless (RUTHLESS, I tell you! I have NO RUTH!) declutter-er. I am not sentimental about clothes, or really anything, at all. When I’m being a ruthless closet-cleaner, I sift through everything three times, each time asking a different question.

The first pass is easy. I pull out every piece and ask, “Do I even like this?” If it’s a “no”–or rather, if it’s not a “yes!”–out it goes.

For instance, all these poly blend knit dresses that I hate to wear because 1. I have to wear a cami because of the plunging v-necks and 2. they're so dang hot! I swelter. Absolutely swelter. I did decide to keep that turquoise one though because I like the color.

For instance, all these poly blend knit dresses that I hate to wear because 1. I have to wear a cami because of the plunging v-necks and 2. they’re so dang hot! I swelter. Absolutely swelter. I did decide to keep that turquoise one though because I like the color.

The second time around, I actually try the survivors on and ask, “Does this fit?” If not, I toss. (Having a full-length mirror really helps with this step, by the way.) This one is a little trickier because you may be in the process of losing/gaining weight and you need to be prepared for that change. For instance, I had a denim skirt that I loved that became too tight. But I held onto it in the case that I lost my extra weight, which I did after about a year. In this case, I was actually working on becoming healthier and I knew I was already beginning to drop some extra pounds. On the other hand, if you have a pair of jeans that you haven’t been able to wear for the last five years but you keep hanging on to them “just in case,” I think it’s time to let those jeans go. Embrace the now, my friends! In the end, it’s your closet; you make the rules. But if you’re keeping full wardrobes for every size you might become, don’t complain to me that you have no space! (Also, during this phase, check for missing buttons, stains, drooping hems, etc. Figure out what you can fix and what you can’t and proceed accordingly.)

Now, let’s pause here, my fellow sewists, and discuss the boring task of altering clothing. If you have a piece that survived the first cut (so, you probably like it and would like to keep it) that you can easily alter to fit, do it. This is part of the joy of being able to sew; we have the ability to bend our clothes to our will (sometimes)! If you’re looking at the piece, knowing you could let it out or take it in to fix it and you’re still thinking “Meh–I don’t wanna…” then your first pass was not ruthless enough. Obviously, you don’t love this piece enough to keep it. You should probably go back and start over with step one to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

At this point, if I have things to mend or alter, I take a tip from my costume shop experience and attach a note to the hanger so I know what I need to fix. Eventually, I’ll take those pieces and store them with my sewing paraphernalia rather than in my closet. Once they’re fixed, they’ll come back. For now, though, I keep them around to help out with my next step.

These tags were being thrown out at work, so I saved them thinking I'd be able to use them for something like this.

These tags were being thrown out at work, so I saved them thinking I’d be able to use them for something like this. I definitely did NOT sit down and meticulously cut little hearts out of card stock just in case I needed to clean out my closet and write a post about it. No, really. I didn’t. I’m not that crazy. 

For the third time through my clothes, I ask the really hard question, the question that I’ve never bothered to ask until I started this project: “Does this piece have any friends?”  As I said earlier, I’m not so great at being sensible with what clothes I add to my closet, so I had a lot of trouble finding answers to this question. Essentially what I was asking is, “Can I make an outfit with this?” And by “outfit,” I mean the whole shebang–shoes, clothes, accessories. I found quite a few single pieces in my closet that I simply had nothing to pair with them.

Like this skirt--I've had it for at least 5 or 6 years and I've worn it ONCE. The problem? I can't figure out what to wear with it. Also, it doesn't really look good on me. Too floofy for my short waist.

Like this skirt–I’ve had it for at least 5 or 6 years and I’ve worn it ONCE. The problem? I can’t figure out what to wear with it. Also, it doesn’t really look good on me. Too floofy for my short waist.

I am pretty thorough with this step. I don’t just look at the clothes, I also sort through shoes, scarves, jackets, jewelry, tights, unmentionables–I examine everything.

I’m going to talk about what I did with all the “lonely and friendless” pieces in my next post on this series. For now, if you’re playing along at home, let’s focus on what to do with your pile of clothes to get rid of. First, things that are nice and intact, plan to donate, sell, or trade. Or, maybe you have some great refashioning ideas. If so, it’s a good time to jot down your ideas on some labels and attach them to the pieces for refashioning. I know it may seem like I’m going overboard on the organization, but imagine that you need something new to wear or you’re in the mood for a simple project but you don’t feel like starting from scratch. All you have to do is look through your “to mend/alter/re-fashion” pile (or rack) and you see exactly what needs to be done already written out for you!

If you have some formal gowns or vintage-looking clothes to donate, consider contacting a local theater or high school with a drama department to see if they’d be interested in using them for costumes. You could also organize a swap with friends. There are dozens of things you can do with your lightly-used clothing. Be creative!

Items that are not in great shape (and you shouldn’t try to donate things in bad condition–obviously) may need to be set aside for harvesting, i.e. removing zippers, buttons, or trims if possible, or cutting up to use the fabric scraps for facings or quilting or makeup bags or whatever other creative pursuit you can think of. Take the scraps and put them in a plastic bag and label the bag with the project(s) you have in mind. I caution you to be careful with what you choose to actually throw in the trash. Be as green and sensible as you can, please!

If you are a more sensitive person than I (and let’s face it, just about everybody is!) and you have a hard time tossing clothes, let me make a suggestion. Be ruthless, like I said, and pack them up and get the bags/boxes out of your room. But instead of immediately getting rid of the clothes, keep them around for awhile, for a few months maybe. You may find that you want to wear something you’d originally meant to toss. In that case, you can add the item back to your closet. Everything else, you can toss with a clear conscience. You may even discover that those pieces you’d felt so attached to a few months ago, you never even think about now that you don’t see them every time you open your closet.

Does anyone really need three denim jackets in her life? Maybe. I am not one of those people. In the end, I decided to keep the two on the left. Also, that black blazer had to go. I just never, ever wear it.

Does anyone really need three denim jackets in her life? Maybe. I am not one of those people. In the end, I decided to keep the two on the left. Also, that black blazer had to go. I just never, ever wear it.

And maybe I should have mentioned this earlier: if you find something in a dark corner of your closet that you borrowed from a friend or sibling or whomever, make plans to return it ASAP. If it’s something that you actually wear a lot, either make a trade with your friend or make a pattern copy with the rub-off method so you can sew your own (take lots of pictures of the details so you have a reference after you return the item, which you’re totally going to do, right??? I’ve just had too many clothes that were “borrowed” and then never returned. It’s a sore subject. . .).

Since my method is a fairly extensive process, it’s easier to spread the job out over a few days or weekends. It’s also a good idea to convince a friend (preferably a well-organized one!) to come help you make good decisions and provide moral support.

I should also mention that this method helps with cleaning out pretty much anything in the house. You just have to change the questions to “Do I want it?” “Does it work?” “Do I ever use it?” I’m telling you, clutter-free is the way to go!

I hope that this (really looooong–sorry!) post has helped someone out there. I love to organize, so it’s actually been pretty fun to write 🙂 Next time, we’ll talk about finding wardrobe gaps and figuring out the best way to fill them. (I’m pretty much an expert on What Not to Do at this point, so that should be fun!)

So, what are your thoughts on closet-cleaning? Do you have any tips to share?


25 thoughts on “Sewing a Wardrobe: Part 1 (Defeating the Monster in the Closet)

    • That is a great rule! In fact, I used to follow it myself. But, I realized I was replacing clothes I didn’t like that didn’t go with anything with more clothes I didn’t like that didn’t go with anything. But once I get a good working wardrobe, I do plan on implementing that rule once again.

  1. Good for you! Looks like you did an awesome job editing your closet! When I’ve gone through my closet, I ask myself, when did I last wear it and if it wasn’t in the past year, I give serious consideration to either 1. figuring out a way to repurpose it (could it be a made into a bag, a different type of top/skirt/jacket, etc.) 2. donating it to Goodwill.

  2. Your post pretty much sums up what I’ve been doing and thinking about for the past few days. My malfunctioning wardrobe is due to pregnancy but it wasn’t great to begin with. I think we have similar wardrobes issues 🙂 I actually made a list today of things I’m still able to wear and turns out I have lots of knit cardigans, knit dresses and pants but no tops or shirts. I should really fix that 🙂 so I’m very much looking forward to your post about filling the gaps because that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few weeks 🙂

  3. I’ve just gone through my wardrobe, but not as extensively as this. I might have to try it! I too struggle with the separates and I have this feeling many are friendless but I haven’t got to the stage of actually looking and noticing what outfits I have in there. A job for tonight maybe…

  4. Pingback: The One with All the Outfit planning | Love - Teach - Sew

  5. Great post, Jenny! I have identified already (through MMM) that I am really attracted by a pretty fabric, without giving any thought to what I’ll wear it with. I think I rely too much on jeans and the theory that “any colour goes with denim” but actually that’s not always the case, particuarly when you develop a fondness for coloured denim… Danielle from One Small Stitch has a great theory. When she buys fabric is has to go with 3 things that are already in her wardrobe. I like that idea! Looking forward to your next post in the series!

    • That is a great theory–it actually ties in with a later post in this little series 🙂 I’d really like to find that post by Danielle and read it–it sounds interesting.

  6. Ooh, this is so helpful! I really need to use your approach to go through my closet. I go through it fairly often, but not with such a methodical approach. I realized recently that whenever I’m getting dressed, I find myself digging through my laundry basket for clothes rather than my wardrobe. I’m wearing the same clothes over and over so frequently that they don’t even make it back on the hanger! Unfortunately, that means there are a lot of things hanging around that I don’t even wear. I have the rule that if I was on the fence about something on a previous clean-out, and STILL haven’t worn it, it’s got to go.

    • I’ve come to the conclusion that wearing the same thing (or rather, the same type of thing) every day is not bad. I think we’ve been brainwashed by the Style network to think that if our wardrobe is not full of variety that we are boring people. Not true!

      The bright side is that at least you know you own pieces you love to wear!

      • That’s so true! I’m trying to replace or duplicate a few of the things that I really love to wear as they’re getting pretty shabby. But the hard work of figuring out what I like is already done! I just need to draft a pattern based off a favorite RTW top that [sob] I stained terribly.

  7. great post! i actually did sit there for a moment and play the “spot the differences between these 2 photos” game, ha ha! i’ve started to enforce a new rule that i don’t buy anything new unless i can say that i LOVE it (and that it fits in the budget). i almost faltered recently because there was a dress on sale and the price was soo good, but i had to remind myself to forget about the price and ask myself if i LOVE it. turned out i didn’t really even half-love it, so i didn’t buy it! i just go buy more fabric instead =D but that’s another story – must buy fabric that i LOVE, so i don’t accumulate a huge stash i never use…

    • That’s a good rule! It takes a lot of discipline–more than I have, unfortunately. I am getting better with not buying crazy fabrics–so that’s something 🙂

  8. As much as I hate cleaning out the closet, it feels so good after, doesn’t it? Clutter-free space = clutter-free mind, yes?

    I started this thing in my closet when I moved apartments back in April, where I turned all the hangers facing the wrong way, and whenever I use something, I turn it back to the “normal” position. It’s only been a few months, but I’m surprised and how many summer dresses I haven’t worn, which means it’s probably time for me to part with them.

    I love the list of how you want to tackle your wardrobe. You’re inspiring me to do the same! 🙂

    • Oh, man–I LOVE cleaning out the closet! It’s like stress therapy for me.

      I’ve heard of the hanger trick before; it seems like a great way to keep track. There ought to be a similar trick for clothes that you keep in drawers. Like maybe you fold them inside out and then turn them right side out once you’ve worn them. Or something like that. . .

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