Sewing teacher and seamstress, Amy Harris, is changing the way we perceive and treat our clothing, one stitch at a time
It may come as a surprise to learn that 60 per cent of Brits don't know how to sew - which may not seem like a big deal, but in the era of fast fashion and throwaway culture, it's a much-needed skill we should all learn. Not only is it a therapeutic and a creative hobby, but knowing your way around a needle and thread is one way to live more sustainably and find value in clothing. Button fallen off a dress? Sew it back on. Trousers too long? Hem them. Repairing, adjusting and patching up garments are far better solutions than resorting to chucking an item when it no longer suits us. Amy Harris promotes this resourceful attitude through Sew Darn Good, her website and sewing workshops and here she shares her stitching story.
I have been sewing since I can remember. My gran taught me how to knit when I was really small and I continued doing creative things like that at primary school. By the time I was 13, I decided that I wanted to be a fashion designer and train at the London College of Fashion. At secondary school, I was lucky to have an inspiring textiles teacher who introduced me to upcycling and taught me about some of the negative impacts of the fashion world. She spoke about sustainability, which was quite unusual for that time, and that gave me a really early introduction to this area of fashion. Yet at university, I became disillusioned with the industry. In my final year, I created a sustainable collection, but no one seemed interested, and I couldn’t see a future in a line of work so against my values. This is not to say I was a perfect consumer – I struggled with the lure of fast fashion and it took me a long time for my actions to fall in line with my ethics.
I trained as a design and technology teacher and taught textiles for a few years. The UK education system is putting less and less of a priority on the creative subjects, and I felt discouraged by the focus on data and progress. I wanted to make a bigger impact, and it was this drive that got me back into sewing and when I decided to start Sew Darn Good – where I run workshops and courses, as well as producing made to measure items and running a repairs and alterations service. I wanted to use my skills to encourage people to love what they already have by adjusting or fixing, alongside teaching people to sew and build a stronger connection with their clothes.
I offer everything from one-off embroidery and fabric painting workshops to upcycling sessions and six-week courses in my studio. One of my favourite workshops last year was upcycled wreath making. Students had two hours, bags of scraps and wireframes to make their creations. There was a real buzz as everyone excitedly made their wreaths, desperate to finish on time. I also teach people how to make items of clothing – like pinafores, dungarees or skirts. I get more women than men on the workshops, but I do get males attending, which I really like, as we all associate domestic sewing with women. It’s a mix of ages too, from people in their 20s and 30s, right through to those in their 60s.
The best bit about teaching other people to sew is the moment they finish a project. Most people have not sewn since they were at school, so they’re really proud and surprised by what they have achieved. I still get a thrill when I finish something! Seeing a man in his 30s so chuffed with himself that he has made a zip pencil case is awesome. We’re very flippant about going into a shop, buying something and not thinking about the efforts that have gone into making it – but sewing teaches you that you can do it for yourself.
For our grandparents, it would have been the norm that if you wanted something, you would have to make it – investing time, energy and money. They would have darned holes in socks and replaced buttons. Fast fashion was not available then – you went to a seamstress or tailor, or made your own. Clothing was treasured, and people would have what we now call a ‘capsule wardrobe’ as their full, day-to-day closet. People are not being taught basic sewing skills at school and they’re disconnected with how clothes are produced.
It has become common practice to get rid of clothes with flaws, or that don't quite fit. Sometimes an item is thrown away when it’s only been worn a couple of times and it’s ‘time for something new’ – what a waste of resources and money. If you teach people to sew, it means they have the tools to repair and alter garments, as well as taking better care of their items and they will last longer.
I could write a book on why it’s so important to repair clothing, instead of throwing it away. Put simply, every item of clothing has a huge carbon footprint before you even buy it, so to wear it just once is almost a joke. The more times you wear something, the lower the continued impact. Due to fast fashion, we are now drowning in unwanted clothing – there are even too many pieces for charity shops to handle. Choose what you buy carefully, take care of it and wear it as many times as you can. Repair any wear and tear, and reinvent it if your taste or shape changes.
We need to change our perspective on consumption in general as a society. Our materialistic culture has raised us to find fulfilment is to be found in acquiring stuff. We need to break this addiction to consumption as it is destroying the planet, as well as our mental health. People don’t want to be seen in the same outfit twice and shopping has become a commodity in itself. In my teens I would go to Oxford Street shopping for the day – now I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less. For me, part of my ongoing mission is to get everyone to realise what is going on with materialism and how it’s damaging the Earth.
I am working on creating a service for upcycled wedding dresses. Lots of people cling onto them because they feel sentimental. However, I want to source unwanted dresses then remake them into new and unique pieces with a history, while saving all that precious material and continuing their story.
This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Be Kind