True Story: How Sewing Empowered Me To Shape My Own Body Image

Women’s magazines have a lot to answer for. Endless diet tips, celebrity cellulite circling and horoscope quizzes are pretty inane, but one of their insights is true: for many people, the way you present yourself to the world influences your self esteem. If you’re an average body size or bigger, though, you’re in for trouble. See that beautiful fashion spread in Vogue? You won’t fit in any of that. The Top 10 Trends for summer? Good luck finding a cute crop in your size. We’re constantly taunted with things we can’t have.

I grew up with even fewer shopping choices than there are today, and I had to do the best with what was available to me in the rural part of Scotland where I lived. I spent countless hours struggling to squeeze into things underneath the harsh lights of changing rooms, and ended up walking out with the only elastic-waisted article I could find. It was frustrating because I couldn’t express myself the way that I wanted to, but more than that, it was depressing because I felt that this was the ultimate sign that I wasn’t actually normal. I felt alienated from the other teenage girls around me, and deeply ashamed of the open secret that I couldn’t fit into the clothes that they all could.

And that was how I continued to feel into adulthood, until a chance encounter with a colleague seven years ago. She came to work wearing a kickass, brightly-coloured, striped skirt. I asked her where she got it. When she told me, “IKEA!” I was genuinely confused, and it wasn’t until she explained that she’d made it with fabric from IKEA that I finally understood what was going on. I’d never heard of anyone making their own clothes before, but it planted an idea in my head, and a year or so later I thought I’d give it a try.

I started off making simple skirts and tops, but before long I was making wrap dresses, shirt dresses, swimsuits and even my winter coat. Using sewing patterns made me realize how absurd it is to expect to be able to fit into single-sized clothes in stores. I mean, who really has the exact bust, waist, and hip measurements that a store thinks makes up a certain clothes size, regardless of how big you are? Once upon a time – not too long ago! – women made their own clothes, but now we’re expected to fit in a very narrow set of sizes, and to feel inadequate if we don’t. With a sewing pattern, I can make a size 20 at the bust, a size 14 at the waist, a size 12 at the hips, and make the neckline lower and the hem longer, and it will fit me perfectly. Everything always works.

Once I had the realization that if you make it yourself, any type of clothing can be made in any size, it became apparent that there’s no magic rule that says that when women hit a size 14, they can no longer wear silk dresses, motorbike jackets, swimsuits or even crop tops. All you need is enough fabric, and anything’s possible. In fact, you’ll look better in something custom made for your own size than in anything you could buy in a store.

But most profoundly, sewing changed the way I view my own body. Measuring myself is now a neutral act, which I do just to make sure that I’m making a garment that will fit – not to judge how good I am, or how normal. I feel much more confident wearing clothes that express my own ideas, and that furthermore don’t cut in, pinch or gape. It is fundamentally freeing to make your own clothes: Freeing from the constant self-deprecation when you’re in a changing room willing the size 14s to fit, from having to wear what other people think is suitable for someone of your size, and from the idea that a number dictates your worth as a person.

If you struggle with your body image and finding clothes that express your personal style, give sewing a go. It’s easier than you might imagine – if you get a cheap used sewing machine from Craigslist you could be making a skirt within a weekend. And once you start, it’s addictive, because you start to realize that you can create anything you can dream of. Once you give up struggling to fit into those jeans in an over-lit changing room, believe me, you’ll never go back.

To help curvy women sew, I write on my personal blog, Cashmerette, about sewing patterns that work for me and how I adjust the ones that don’t. I also co-founded the Curvy Sewing Collective, which is dedicated to empowering curvy women to sew their own clothes and features guides for beginners as well as more advanced techniques. You can write me at [email protected] and follow Cashmerette on Twitter and Instagram.