I grew up believing that no matter how successful, kind or loved I was, if I wasoverweight I wasn’t good enough. This feeling was most acute in my teens when, regardless of my nerdy achievements, constant diets and countless sit-ups, I knew I’d failed.
Of course, I was hardly alone. Being a woman who doesn’t meet the strictest of beauty standards is, quite frankly, a chore. A queue of critics, particularly online, are waiting to provide advice and criticism, and the messages are relentless: that we’re an irresponsible drain on society and must be unhealthy – regardless of what our doctor says; that we’re failing to be sufficiently sexually attractive – regardless of our partners who love us (and the fact that we don’t really care what anonymous men on the internet think of us anyway).
Compounding this is the most basic and fraught issue of clothing. Wearing clothes that make you feel great is a core part of many people’s self-esteem, and you’d have thought that an industry that stops serving its customers as soon as they reach an “average” size would have had to change long ago. Sadly that’s not the case. There are few things as grinding and dispiriting as trudging up and down the high street, reaching to the back of the rack, and attempting to jam yourself into things you don’t even really like. The underlying message is that you’re not normal, even if statistically you might actually be average.
But there’s another option: sewing your own clothes. For many, home sewing still conjures up images of your grandmother doing needlework, but now there’s a new generation of people who sew, encouraged by shows like the Great British Sewing Bee and blogs like Tilly and The Buttons which can teach you to sew clothes in a weekend. I started to learn five years ago, and within a few months I was making skirts and dresses decent enough to leave the house in. I knew I’d end up with some nice clothes from my hobby but I had no idea that it wouldfundamentally change my body image.
It turns out that there are few things as good as sewing for giving you a neutral and objective perspective on bodies and clothes. I learned that the difference between clothing sizes was far smaller than I thought; that it’s no wonder I had trouble fitting clothes – thanks to the system of women’s clothing sizes, which dictate that we all fit a narrow set of bust-waist-hip measurements, like nesting Russian dolls, it’s hard for women of any size to find well-fitting clothes. In the past people either made their own or commissioned others to do it – it’s only in recent times that we’ve expected women to make their bodies fit in preordained sizes.
As my skills grew, I started making clothes that actually fitted me well for the first time in my life, and my body image started shifting in parallel. As I shrugged off set clothes sizes and started making garments that precisely fit my dimensions, the feeling of abnormality and exclusion began to lift.
It turns out, I’d been wrong all along. I didn’t have to dedicate my life to becoming smaller, but just had to learn how to make clothes that fit me as I am now. It turns out that in many ways sewing your own clothes is a radical act; a chance to escape the constraints of the fashion industry, whether in style or size, and an opportunity to express yourself exactly, rather than choosing from someone else’s expressions. Your physical dimensions become simply a numerical input and not a value judgment. And trust me that you’ll never look better than when you’re wearing something you made, in a fabric you love, in a size that fits.
That said, being a curvy woman in the sewing industry is by no means perfect. Many larger women are too intimidated to share their photos on blogs for fear of the trolls they see elsewhere.
That was one reason why, in addition to my personal blog Cashmerette, I set up the Curvy Sewing Collective with a group of other plus-size sewing bloggers. It’s a place to encourage and empower curvy women to learn to sew and to experience the same self-confidence that we’ve found. Tens of thousands of readers and contributors have formed a supportive and encouraging community, and more women have started sewing and blogging as a result.
The collective doesn’t solve all our problems – many sewing patterns still have a limited size range and only have photos of what clothes would look like on thin models. But progress is being made and I’m proud to be part of the movement to help the sewing industry become more inclusive and to lead, rather than reflect, the fashion industry. Learning to sew may be reviving an old skill, but it’s helping bring body positivity to a new generation of women.
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