How to get a new wardrobe without spending a thing

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It's that time of year when none of us can afford to buy new clothes. But, says Lauren Bravo, thanks to the aid of a new book, we can all make our own instead 

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By Lauren Bravo on

One of the most treasured things in my wardrobe is a homemade leaf-print top. The fabric was bought by my late Auntie Elsie from Whiteleys of Bayswater in 1964. I know this because I also have the receipt, which was passed on to me with the fabric when I was 15 and at the start of my adolescent “sewing phase”.

I turned Auntie Elsie’s fabric into the easiest thing I could think of – a top, made like a cushion cover, tied at the bottom with a sash and at the top with a halterneck. It was basic, but it made the beautiful fabric wearable and that was the main thing. Auntie Elsie lived to 102 and the top seems to have inherited her longevity; the print just as lovely now as it was in 1964 and 2003.

My sewing efforts, meanwhile, have slipped. But here I am, 15 year later, back at the pedal, under the guidance of seamstress, milliner and sewing teacher Arianna Cadwallader, who runs classes at her beautiful studio in Chelsea. Along with designer Cathy McKinnon, Cadwallader has just written Sewing Your Perfect Capsule Wardrobe: 5 Key Pieces To Tailor To Your Style, a book of patterns and instructions to help us craft a whole capsule wardrobe – and take a step back from the high street, too.

“Sewing is good for the soul and your style,” says Arianna. “I think we have become slightly immune to how fast fashion is nowadays, with a huge percentage ending up in landfill every year. By making or changing a piece of clothing you have a vested interest in, it can be totally unique.”

If we added up all those hours we’ve spent on fruitless shopping missions... an evening or two at a sewing machine begins to sound like a spa day by comparison  

Popular misconception (in my head at least) tends to have all keen home-stitchers down as twee types, making circle skirts for their next Lindy Hop tournament. But Arianna and Cathy’s book is anything but a retro throwback. Instead, it’s a chic collection of contemporary wardrobe basics – a skirt, a shift dress, a blouse, a pair of trousers and a jersey vest – that can all be tweaked and varied in numerous ways to fit your tastes, body, lifestyle and whims. The trouser pattern becomes culottes, the skirt can be a sleek pencil, a long midi or a mini A-line, and the dress can answer every prayer for sleeves, pockets and wearable necklines you’ve ever sent up to the high-street gods. In short, it’s everything you’ve ever wanted to wear but not quite been able to buy. The only catch is you have to make it first.

“High-street sizes are all over the shop, literally,” says Arianna. “But a few simple sewing techniques can enable you to make and alter pieces you have to fit perfectly.”

For me, fit is the most exciting prospect home sewing can offer. How many of us regularly buy dresses we can barely lift our arms in, trousers that gape at the waist but pinch in the crotch, clothes that we can’t wear without tugging them back into place every few minutes? All, I suspect, because we’ve learnt to blame ourselves, not the shops. If our clothes fit badly, we reason, it must be our arses that are wrong.   

For our tutorial, Arianna’s helping my arse and me conquer one of our personal nemeses: the A-line skirt. I bloody love a neat, sleek mini – they’re the perfect partner for this season’s roll necks, chunky jumpers and voluminous shirts, and a nice alternative to the ubiquitous long midi. But buying them is another matter. Despite having far from Jessica Rabbit proportions, they still tend to be too big around my waist, too tight on my hips and too short on my bum, meaning they ride up, wrinkle and move around as I wear them. A mini that fits perfectly all over and requires no tugging would be a peerless luxury.

And a couple of (OK, four) hours later, that’s exactly what I have! A cheery mustard-coloured wool skirt with concealed zip and professional-looking facing, which fits exactly how I want it to. With a lot of help and encouragement from Arianna, I’m pleased to find that using a sewing machine is like riding a bike. Although in my case, with far less potential for bloodshed.

Sure, you could ASOS Premier a skirt, try it on, pack it up and return it in the time it might take to craft one from scratch. But if we added up all those hours we’ve spent on fruitless shopping missions, wrestling ourselves in and out of things that fit badly and start to lose their appeal even before we’ve got the zip up, an evening or two at a sewing machine begins to sound like a spa day by comparison.    

“Making your own clothes might not always be cost-effective compared with the high street, but what you'll have is something that fits like a dream, which no one else will be wearing, and the wonderful achievement of doing it yourself,” points out Arianna, “plus chances are you'll keep it for longer and take care of it.”

Take care of it? A skirt that fits this well, I will be guarding like haute couture.

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Photo: Getty Images 
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Lauren bravo
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