Friday, 21 June 2013

A note on 'handmade'

'handmade [ˌhændˈmeɪd]
(Clothing, Personal Arts & Crafts / Crafts) made by hand, not by machine, esp with care or craftsmanship'

Whatever you choose to call it: handmade, bespoke, custom, made to measure etc I would like to reiterate what that term really means. I'm applying this particularly to myself as a costume and  dressmaker, but it applies across the board to all creative disciplines. When something is handmade, we have spent time creating something with our hands, making sure every facet of production from fabric sourcing, pattern drafting, design, fit, hand detailing, finish and final packaging is as perfect and pleasing for our clients as possible. This takes time, because we are not using great big workrooms, or factories, we don't have large pieces of industrial machinery or saws that can cut 100 dresses in 20 seconds, we don't clock in at 9 and leave at 5.

Christian Dior atelier 1952
We get up early, drink endless cups of tea, try things, rip them apart, try them again, worry, take photos, try again, find the most exciting, beautiful and perfect ways of making something come to life and often crawl into bed in the early hours, lying there thinking of a neckline, a collar, a piping detail. We are always listening to our clients' insecurities, desires and twitters of excitement, a silhouette, a line, a colour, an impression, hide this part and accentuate this better part, a little bit up a little bit down. Drawing a design, sampling fabrics, drafting a pattern using rulers, set squares, tripping over rolls of pattern paper, draping fabric on a stand, a pin here a pin there, slice that, move this, trim there, remake it all again into a toile so the client can try and see their garment emerging, fit, adjust the toile, fit again, create in top fabrics, with linings, bonings, underpinnings, tacking lines, careful consideration, every line, every seam thought of, beautiful hand finishing, hours of stitching with just a needle and thread, beads, embroidery, slip stitched hems, checking everything looks just as we and the client want it, pressing, steaming, boxing or bagging, wrapped in tissue or in special garment bags... This is handmade.

It is not and never will be, the cheaper option. Coming to a private dressmaker does not mean that we can create something you have seen in the shops, but for less money. Handmade bespoke garments will never be able to compete with the prices we have come to be used to on the high street. And so they shouldn't, those garments are mass produced, they are not made to fit a real person but fashion's idea of size 8 or a size 12, the imagined silhouette of 36, 24, 36. The construction and detailing have not been overseen by someone who cares about where the garment is going, the designs have been created in order to maximise profit, minimise production time and to copy what has been made by luxury designers, here is no true craftmanship in these pieces.

Christian Dior atelier, contemplating a hem
Prior to WW2, there was an entirely different stance on clothing and dressmaking. People would invest money in a good coat or dress like we now do in an iPhone, or a smart camera, or even a car. The amount of money we now attribute to an entire month's spending on wardrobes of poorly made garments, made from materials that harm the environment using manufacture routes that are not fair trade, to the detriment of the third world countries who sadly so rely on the labour; is the same amount spent then on just one or two pieces. Ladies would peruse magazines with examples of stunning coats, dresses, shirt styles and take these to their private dressmaker who would create their dream wardrobes for them. So specialist, to such a high quality that not only would the garments by far outlast those we waste money on today that break after two wears, but they also don't go out of fashion. They are loved just as much by their owners on the twentieth wear, as on the first. This is the nature of bespoke clothing, it does not follow a fashion cycle faster than a quick wash at the launderette, where by the time you've tumbled your bodycon dress or razor backed tank top, then you're ready to chuck it into the nearest charity shop because suddenly STOP THE PRESS, you've gone off it and everyone's wearing one and 'actually I fancy something new...'

If we treated clothing as an investment, spending that bit more on handmade garments that have timeless character, details we love, practicality, incredible shape or print or detail; if every garment in our wardrobe made us proud to walk down the street, to know that this piece of fabric on our backs made us look incredible, powerful, stylish then we could save money, minimise clothing waste and its effects on the environment, and support the makers who have spent years fine tuning their craft in order to deliver the highest quality of craftmanship and care and make a living keeping a traditional skill alive.


  1. This is a lovely piece of writing. I am 67. I just remember this.I had some clothes specially made for me as a child.
    A pink dress with white polka dots. It was full skirted, puff-sleeved and Peter Pan collared with a self sash. I loved it. I had too a forget-me-not blue linen skirt, with straps, embroidered with white daisies in Satin Stitch with a French Knot centre in bright yellow. They were lovely to stroke. The Navy blue serge skirt my mother had made for me lasted for years as it had such a deep hem!
    I remember going round Marks and Spencers with her and hearing her disdainful comments about racks of mass produced dresses.

  2. This is great stuff... I agree that there are always downsides to trends which are often perceived as a good thing. ie clothes becoming more affordable and available to all.