Sustainable Fashion: What it takes to make a dress

Do you know where your clothes are coming from? When you see a statement piece in your favourite magazine, do you wonder what country it came from? When you shop at your favourite store, hunting for that heart-rate increasing bargain, do you ask yourself “Who made my clothes”? Our shopping experience nowadays does not go beyond the store walls; we are concentrated on complying with the latest trends and making the biggest savings. In fact, as consumers we are completely removed from the supply chain and the people involved in making our clothes. We have lost the feeling for what a garment should cost, as we are not aware of the amount of work, time, skills and effort that goes into our daily garments.

 So – What does it take to make a piece of clothing?

There are two major parts to the process, and the following outline will focus on the second part. First, farmers will grow and collect cotton that is then spun into yarn, dyed, and woven into textiles. Secondly tailors – in big factories and with the help of machines – will cut the designs and sew them into garments. This article will focus on the crucial steps involved in designing and making a garment – at home. Different designers and fashion houses will have different techniques and methods – and the process looks very different in the setting of big factories, but in one way or another each of these basic steps will appear in the process.

Step 1: Designing and Measuring

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Designers first will have to go through a creative process to finalise their design idea. This process includes various stages from finding inspiration to understanding comfort, material characteristics and fit. Once the design is finalised, measurements based on size guides (or actual body measurements of individuals when made to measure) will be applied and decided on.

Step 2: Creating a pattern

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At home you will either have a printed outline available, or – as seen in the picture – a pattern is drawn on a template. I learned dress-making from two tailors in Bali, who “have to create their own patterns here in the jungle”, whereas back home in Europe we have magazines for readily available dress patterns.

Step 3: Cutting

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This is one of the most crucial steps of dress-making, as the cut can make or break a design. Not just because you might accidentally cut the wrong part off – which has happened more often than I’d like to admit – but because it will determine the overall fit and flow of the material.

Step 4: Sewing

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Now the real work begins, where all the different pieces are sewn together. This requires extreme skill and concentration to ensure a neat finish and proper design of the garment. It requires a substantial amount of brain power since the garment first has to be imagined whole and then traced back step by step to understand the order of stitches. Usually this step also requires an overlock machine to  enclose the edges of the material and avoid unraveling of the yarn, but for homemade dresses the zick zack of a good old sewing machine does a great job.

Step 5: Trying on and Alterations

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Once all the parts are sewn together, the dress is tried on and inspected for fit and flow. If something is off, too wide or too narrow, it is altered in a painfully detailed way that requires a healthy portion of patience. The first draft of the dress is ready.

Step 6: Start again

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As with every product design, the first draft is a reference point. You learn from the design and process, and you improve on it next time until you have reached the quality standards you are looking for.

The entire process of making this dress, from getting the design down to sewing the last hem took three afternoons, adding up to 12 hours. Even thought time will be reduced for the next sample, one dress will still take around 6-8 hours to complete. I admit, this is the work of a beginner, and a more experienced tailor might cut the time in half, leaving it at 4 hours. On top of that, big companies also benefit from economies of scale and bulk buying, which can bring down their costs significantly. However, after now being aware of the steps involved and the time it takes to actually make a dress – How do you feel about today’s retail prices?

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