The Handmade-Minimalist Wardrobe

As soon as the first of September’s evenings creep in, bringing with them their faint chill, lingering clouds and waning daylight, I am ready to call it quits on my garden chores and bring my neglected needlework out from hiding. In just the past 2 weeks I have gone from a couple of casual craftivities to half a dozen WIPs with more projects piling up in the wings. I’ve accepted this ritual as simply another one of those beautiful transitions that comes with fall.

Perhaps this notion goes hand in hand with my annual wardrobe metamorphosis from sun-loving summer dresses and gardening duds to cozy sweaters with fleece-lined leggings and thick wool socks. Certainly, the more time I devote to knitting and crochet, the more I look forward to my cold-season gear. There’s nothing quite like donning a handmade shawl hot off the needles to embrace the worst of autumn’s weather (pretty AND practical!). But there also is something to be said for coming back to the familiar comfort of beloved, well-worn garments.

Handmade seasonal comforts. 2019.

Handmade seasonal comforts. 2019.

In truth, I used to downright dread updating my wardrobe (at the change of the seasons or otherwise). I hated going to the mall, awkwardly trying on clothing in the fitting room, never finding exactly what I wanted, settling for less, and then leaving in a dismal mood, but not before taking a good gouge at my bank account when I rang up my purchase at the till. I’m sure there must have been a few fashion victories over my shopping history, but its difficult to remember them just now!

A more awful feeling followed in the months after the shopping excursion, when after just a few wears and washes my new clothes would suddenly seem to give up all hope and lose their shape. I despise the thought of throwing anything away (I paid for that! Also…the environment!) and so my discontinued items would inevitably end up stashed in the back of the closet or in my ‘to alter’ sewing pile (hah, yeah right!) and the cycle would continue.

These experiences left me so disenchanted with buying clothes that I started learning heavily on my thrift-savvy mother to update my wardrobe (you rock, mom!), but it also gave me the inspiration I needed to take on more advanced and diverse needlework projects.

Then I heard about Project 333.

#Project333challenge.  Instagram, 2019.

#Project333challenge. Instagram, 2019.

Project 333 was spurred by the minimalist movement, tackling fast-fashion and promoting sustainable wardrobe maintenance. To take on the challenge, you begin by simply whittling down your entire wardrobe to 33 items. That’s it. Shirts, pants, accessories, shoes, and outerwear (not including undergarments, athletic clothes or PJs). Then you box up all of your clothing that didn’t make the cut and put it into storage for 3 months. You can go back and retrieve any of your old items as you please, with the caveat that you must swap out for one of the other items that you elected to keep before. At the end of the 3-month waiting period, anything you didn’t use is donated, recycled, or otherwise extracted from your life. This all sounded very intriguing to me as someone who would regularly find themselves standing in front of a stuffed closet and overflowing drawers with “nothing to wear”. How could one make do with just 33 items of clothing?

It just makes a lot more sense to have 33 high-quality basic items that you can wear together in different combinations rather than having hundreds of shotty one-offs. Your sturdy pair of jeans? You can wear them with every top you own. That simple neutral camisole? It works by itself on a hot day, but if its cooler you can layer it with your favourite sweater. Great, basics. How about that sexy sheer wrap with the plunging neckline? Mayyyybe not so great for the office. Or the over-the-top pair of sequin bell-bottoms you splurged on for that 70’s party last year? Now we’re getting into low-function territory.

Whether or not you have a bunch of zaney items or just a mountain of boring t-shirts that you won in radio contests, the problem remains the same. A good chunk of your clothing isn’t being worn regularly, so is isn’t serving a function. These items will all eventually end up meeting the same fate; the back of the closet, the thrift store donation bin, or worse, the trash. Why do we keep perpetuating this cycle of waste?

Project 333. 2017.

Project 333. 2017.

50 item wardrobe. 2017.

50 item wardrobe. 2017.

In 2017, I took on a slightly modified version of the challenge and hacked my wardrobe down from 200+ to just 50 items (arguing that as an Albertan, I probably needed a few more transitional articles to get by the extreme ends of the seasons…let’s just call it Project 503-for-AB then…). I boxed my undesirables up in the basement and banished them from my life for the next 3 months.

The only word to describe the experience was cathartic.

No more sheepishly looking over those I’ll-wear-them-when-I’m-skinnier-jeans. No more trying to pick from the least deformed of my stretched out tank tops. No more spending ages in front of my closet trying to figure out what to wear! My wardrobe was all there to see and select from in one tidy, comprehensive layout.

When the project wrapped up, I had only swapped out a single sweater from my stowed away stash. Everything else (and I mean everything) was donated to the local Women-in-Need shelter or cut up into housecleaning rags, and I regret NOTHING. Beyond parting ways with a load of unused clothing, I made some major changes in the way I maintain my wearables. Success!

But…

Project 333 doesn’t really come with a set of instructions for a needlecraft habit. What was I supposed to do with all those skills I had honed to whip up any pattern that took my fancy?

I was a little crushed when I came to the realization that the same rules must apply. Just because something is handmade, doesn’t mean it isn’t wasteful. Crafting can be time-consuming, expensive and come with a surprising environmental footprint. And the sad truth about being creative is that sometimes we make just to MAKE, without really needing. Expressing oneself without purpose can be therapeutic (art for art’s sake is a beautiful thing!), but when our body of work takes a toll on the environment, the pocketbook or the soul (or just becomes overwhelmingly useless), its time to reevaluate.

WIP or worn? 2019.

WIP or worn? 2019.

Even as I write this post, I’m mentally going through that list of WIPs I mentioned earlier. Do I really need that new shawl? Well, I do REALLY like it, so I might have to consider gifting or retiring an equivalent item from my stash. Is there anything else I can do without? How has my wardrobe changed or grown since I’ve added more handmade items? Actually, it sounds like might be time for me to take another stab at Project 333 (and maybe actually get down to 33 this time!).

Fortunately, I’ve been finding a lot of positive reinforcement through my research for this blog entry. Self-making-sustainability-heroines like The Fringe Association’s Karen Templar and The Craft Session’s Felicia Semple have written extensively on their beautiful handmade wardrobes. Zoe of So, Zo What do you Know? came up with the Me Made May (MMM) Project in which she encourages makers to  develop better relationships with their handmade projects. Alex of Sewrendipity tells us about her One Year Wardrobe Count Project, in which she tallies every day that she wears her self-made items to get a real sense of what is being used and what is not.

As we approach peak needlecraft season, I would like to challenge myself and other crafters to take the minimalist mindset to heart. If you’ve already done some reducing, that’s great! Now is the perfect time to revisit your wearables and take an inventory of where you’re at. If you’ve never had the opportunity to assess your wardrobe for sustainability before, congratulations! You’re embarking on a process that will not only reduce your fashion footprint, but will revitalize your closet…and hopefully much, much more.

Some tips for managing a handmade-minaminilist wardrobe:

  • The next time you see a ridiculously cute pattern that you simply HAVE to make, ask yourself where this item will fit in your wardrobe. Will you really wear it? Does it pair well with the rest of your clothing? Is it going to be one of your basics, or is it a specialty item? Does it have much allowance for changes in your body or changes in your environment? Will it last?

  • If you’re giving Project 333 or something like it a go (or just playing the one-in-one-out game), consider unraveling/disassembling one of your items that needs to be retired and reusing the material to make an already-matched like-new substitution!

  • If you just want to learn or practice a new technique, try keeping a small ‘draft stash’ of yarns/materials that you can use over and over again.

  • If you are ready to add another item to your wardrobe, be conscious of the lifecycle of your materials. Where did they come from? How were they harvested and by whom? Processed? Dyed? Finished? Distributed? Where will they go and how will they be disposed of when your project somes to the end of it’s useful life? (PS – check out my Sustainable Craft Project series for a closer look at the needlecraft lifecycle, from sheep to sweater!) Sustainable lifecycles also include tools and patterns!

  • Celebrate the gifter in you! If there is no more room in your wardrobe, find out if a friend of family member needs one of your handmade creations. Even better, make it a charity project and knit some baby touques for your local hospital, or start a socks-for-seniors club!

Above all, make planning a part of your creative process.

Keep track of what you’re wearing, what you’re not, what needs mending, and what needs to be retired.  Don’t be a victim of fashion trends; every item of your wardrobe should be timeless, but at the same time, impermanent.

 
One maker’s wardrobe, 2019.

One maker’s wardrobe, 2019.

 

A final note: Remember that your handmade-minimalist wardrobe doesn’t need to be entirely handmade (in many instances this might be impractical), come from exclusively organic, fair-trade materials (it might be more affordable and environmentally beneficial to upcycle old clothes), or restricted to a precise number of items (although less truly is more). The real goal should be to make informed fashion choices.

That goal is shared with our creative endeavours. Make what you can, select your materials thoughtfully, and be conscious of the purpose of your craft. At the very least, committing to a sustainable wardrobe might help to keep your WIP pile in check!

Traci Bee