For most of us, taking some time to unplug might look like cracking open a book or unrolling a yoga mat. For Brooklyn-based jewelry maker, textile designer and sewer Martha Moore Porter, unwinding means sitting down at her sewing machine and whipping up her own clothes.
“I view the entire process of making clothes for myself to be an act of caring for myself: my imagination, my brain, my busy hands,” says Porter. “It’s expressive, but there are rules and there’s always something new to learn.”
As a 2019 New Year’s resolution, Porter pledged to create her own clothes for an entire year. Initially, it was a personal challenge to encourage Porter to use her sewing machine more, but ultimately, it became a challenge to take time for herself, spending hours away from her phone.
A year before, in an earlier iteration of this challenge, Porter pledged to sew at least one garment a month. Some of these pieces were chronicled on her Instagram under her internet pseudonym Buried Diamond. By the end of the year she had far exceeded her expectations and ended up with 40 tops, dresses, skirts and more. Encouraged by her overwhelming success, Porter decided to take the plunge of pledging a yearlong ready-to-wear fast. A #RTWfast simply means that sewists (which, BTW, is a term that refers to someone who sews works of art) will abstain from buying premade clothing for a year. During this time, they can buy fabric and patterns to create clothing of their own and they can wear whatever is already hanging in their closet. But there are no trips to Zara to pick up a dress for that upcoming party or visits to J.Crew to find a blouse for a big interview.
Since January, Porter has made a puffer jacket, button-front jeans, a rainbow of summery dresses and even a hand-beaded collar to wear on top of sweaters and denim jackets. Phew, sounds like a lot of work, right? Well, yeah, that’s the point.
For Porter, the mindfulness required during the sewing process is what allows her to enter a calm, meditative state, the true intention behind self-care. According to Porter, sewing is a cumulative learning experience, as the measuring and math require practice and patience. From learning to read patterns to deciding which fabrics to use for each project, creating a piece of clothing requires experiential knowledge. Porter has been sewing since she was about 10 years old, when she received a sewing machine as a gift. And while she’s become a total pro since then, she’s not afraid to document her sewing fails on Instagram and on the Buried Diamond blog, as it’s all part of the process.
The most creative part, at least for Porter, is when it’s time to pair a pattern with fabric. “You are truly the designer in that moment,” Porter notes. She’s always shopping for materials and has a rather extensive fabric and pattern collection, as she’s been collecting and hoarding them for years—sometimes discovering them via estate sales or in the depths of eBay. In some instances, Porter will see a fabric and know exactly what she wants to do with it; other times, she spends days, weeks or months figuring out what to create with a new floral print or soft pastel silk.
And while some pieces are accompanied with a charming meet-cute story, others are still works in progress. After sharing the fulfilling process of crafting a black cherry dress with a high neck and ruffles down the front, Porter posted about a Laura Ashley dress in a similar prairie style she had made about a year before. When she initially made the dress, Porter loved it, but after a year of consistent sewing she realized that the fabric was all wrong: The vintage cotton broadcloth was too dense, and the dress called for something much lighter like muslin. She ended up turning the Laura Ashley frock into a shirt, which is an easy wardrobe tweak she’s become much more inclined to do during her fast. “After about six months I became much less impulsive with my spending,” she admits.
She loved the process of creating a pink silk zebra-printed blouse, but the skinny black jeans she planned to wear with it? They were decidedly less exciting to sew. T-shirts and jeans might seem simple, but they can be the hardest items to perfect—and they’re also the ones at the top of Porter’s shopping list for 2020.
For someone who is not familiar with textiles or sewing, this can feel like an overwhelming experiment to embark on. But having fun throughout the creation process—regardless of outcome—is a lesson that benefits us all.
Those looking to take up sewing should start with fabrics like woven cotton and linen, and begin with simple patterns such as sleeveless tops, tote bags, pajama pants or the home economics favorite, pillowcases. The internet is a great resource; both successes and blunders can be found under pattern hashtags on Instagram, and the sewist community is avid. Hunting for vintage fabric and patterns can turn into a fun pastime, especially while traveling, but if you don’t already have a collection, Porter likes Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics as well as good ol’ suburban staple Jo-Ann fabrics, which will have all the essentials you’ll need to get started.
Regardless of sewing experience or desire to sew for 365 days, you can dip a toe in the trend by dyeing or embellishing existing pieces you don’t currently love. Tie-dye is probably the most common refreshing process, and conveniently very cool, but Porter encourages playing with Rit dye as well, which is both highly pigmented and inexpensive. Alternatively, stains can be covered with patches and dingy whites can be renewed with dye.
Self-care worthy, sustainably minded and still stylish? Yeah, this is a fashion challenge worth trying—even if it just leads to one upcycled T-shirt.