Handmade or homemade?
Does the homemade look of the clothes you make ever get you down? Sometimes, even on the rare occasions when I do pretty much everything right, I find it difficult to love a garment I’ve made for the sole reason that the finished product doesn’t look as “good” as what I might buy in a shop. I realize that much of this is down to my own skill and diligence, or lack thereof. Going the extra mile in construction and finishing does a lot to get rid of the homemade look, and there’s certainly no shortage of resources to help the home sewer progress from “Did you make that?” to “Where did you get that?”
But even with a superb skill level, I would never be able to replicate all the features of RTW (ready-to-wear) clothing, because the tools and methods used are so different. I took a London College of Fashion course on Professional Sewing Techniques last summer, and the biggest take-away lesson I absorbed was that most professional results are the result of professional equipment — laser cutting, vacuum presses, industrial steamers — and professional techniques, such as specialization and piecework.
The problem is that my eye is so accustomed to the mechanical perfection of mass-produced clothing — perfectly spaced buttonholes, perfectly even tucks, perfectly parallel rows of topstitching — that anything else, even a meticulously handstitched hem, looks somehow shabby. This is interesting, because RTW clothing is often not particularly well designed or made, which is what drives many people turn to home sewing in the first place. And at the highest level, of course, couture garments involve a huge amount of handstitching.
But still. Handwork so often looks… less nice. A beautifully handknitted sweater can’t have the cobweb-fine texture of a machine-knitted one. Hand-embroidered satin stitches are never quite as neat and even as machine embroidery. And handcrafts distilling centuries of skill and tradition, like Amish quilts or the wall embroideries I saw in Romania, no matter how beautiful and remarkable, don’t look slick or sophisticated. They look imperfect, irregular. Homemade.
I once read a book on the Great Exhibition of 1851 which postulated an interesting theory about why Victorian taste in decorative arts was sometimes so OTT — overornamented, fussy, fiddly and overdone. The author contended that those tastes had been formed in a world where most decorative effects were achieved by hand. Having developed technologies that allowed the same effects to be mass-produced rapidly and in great number, the Victorians went gung ho (“If one carved rose is good, 1000 carved roses are better!”), with often grotesque results. Their tastes had not yet caught up with the times. They didn’t understand that a different mode of production required a different aesthetic.
Now, with the handmade revolution in full swing, I wonder whether a different aesthetic is again in order. Can we train our eyes to appreciate handmade clothing for its own virtues, rather than for how closely it resembles machine-made? Even the craft community’s preference for the term “handmade” over “homemade” implies that homemade = inferior. It’s good to have high standards for the quality of handmade items (see Regretsy and Craftastrophe for a thousand reasons why), but I’m not sure the mass-produced look is the best standard for home sewers to aspire to. For example, I’m fairly sure the universality of stretch fabrics, which make sizing so convenient for mass-producers of clothing, has contributed to a loss of understanding of what constitutes good fit — even among home sewers, who tend on the whole to be keenly aware of actual body size and fitting issues. Nobody expects RTW clothes to fit perfectly. We do expect them to be stitched perfectly. So anyone looking at a garment will tend to notice imperfections in stitching more readily than bad fit.
When you look at a garment you’ve made, do you see handmade or homemade? How do you feel about the fact that your garments don’t resemble RTW?