It’s DIY month here at Sistrhood, so who better to feature in this month’s spotlight than champion of DIY – or MIY – Wendy Ward? As a designer, teacher, writer and maker, her inspirational yet straightforward approach to dressmaking and a ‘make it yourself’ attitude makes sewing your own clothes feel accessible and infinitely less daunting to beginners.
Inspired by her father, a joiner, Ward loved making from a young age; watching him as he mixed concrete, sawed wood, hung wallpaper and painted. This propensity to make outlasted childhood curiosity and she went on to undertake a fashion degree in Manchester.
Ward’s extensive knowledge doesn’t come just from her education, however. It has the weight of a successful career in the fashion industry behind it. She spent seven years working as a designer and product developer for high street brands such as M&S and smaller family run labels before moving into teaching after completing both an MA and a PGCE. After starting out teaching textiles in secondary schools, the restrictions of teaching in a school environment prompted her move into adult education: “I spent my first three years of that travelling by bus to five different centres around Brighton and Hove teaching ten classes a week with all my teaching resources in a shopping trolley!”
Luckily for all of us outside of Brighton and Hove, after a few years of lugging her shopping trolley on and off buses Ward decided to set up shop on her own, and began releasing original patterns under the label MIY Collection. Whilst this would be more than enough for most people, she also began writing for magazines around the same time which lead to the proposal for her first book, The Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking, being commissioned in December 2013.
When I caught up with Wendy to ask her a few questions for this piece, she was already busy working on her next book, A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts, which contains patterns for eight basic skirt styles spanning ten sizes. I asked her what we can expect from the latest title: “Like my last book, it’s aimed at beginners and those who have just started to sew, but it will also be useful to more experienced dressmakers as each of the skirts includes three variations that build on the reader’s skills to add things like pleats and pockets. The book is divided into two sections: the projects and a comprehensive techniques section which explains, through step-by-step illustrated tutorials, all of the techniques required in skirt making.”
Ward’s books demystify dressmaking, giving you the skills and confidence to make clothes you actually want to wear. Too many beginners’ projects are unimaginative and wholly unexciting (how many peg bags does the world really need?) but Ward has pulled on her fashion experience to create contemporary, wearable pieces that will slot right into your wardrobe.
Even as a fashion graduate who is (supposedly) fairly adept with a sewing machine, I still have to psyche myself up before a new project, and end up with beautiful fabric sitting in my sewing box for months on end before I finally dare take the scissors to it. Ward’s practical approach goes a long way to removing that pre-project anxiety but in case you need a little encouragement, I asked her for some advice for those about to tackle their first project: “Don’t spend a fortune on precious fabric to start with or you will be terrified to cut into it. Choose a project that is easy, but is something you really like and will definitely wear or use. Being motivated by the end product is important. There’s no point in making a dress if all you wear is separates. Take a good look in your wardrobe and think about the styles of clothes you enjoy wearing before deciding on your first project. And while you’re there look at prints and colours too. It’s too easy when you first start sewing, to be distracted by fabric and there’s a tendency among beginners to look at fabric as just a thing in itself rather than as something you’re going to wear. That bright pink fabric with cute cats all over it may look amazing in the shop, but do you wear bright pink or cat prints?!”
And with that, she described just about every mistake I’ve ever made so I can attest that it’s truly sound advice.
Not only is making your own clothes an achievement and a new skill gained, it helps you to learn and understand the true value of what you own. That t-shirt or skirt won’t seem so disposable when you know how many hours it could take to make it. Ward herself finds that many of her students begin to question the ethics and pricing of the high street once they see the skill that goes into making a single garment.
We’re so far removed from the production chain that a renewed insight can only be a good thing and Ward hopes that the impact of movements such as Fashion Revolution filters into the fabric industry too. “There’s no point in simply moving over consumption and acceptance of exploitative practices from one industry (garment making) to another (fabric making)”, she said on the subject. “Learning how to sew and make clothes also enables you to make more of the clothes you have. Instead of throwing it away if it doesn’t fit, if it’s damaged or you’re bored of it, you can mend, alter and customise exciting clothes. It really is an empowering thing to do and makes you feel that you can actually make a difference and have some real empathy for the people trapped in exploitative jobs.”
Opting out of the unethical fast fashion chain is certainly reason enough to learn to sew but should you need further convincing, it’s worth noting that with the freedom to make your own clothes, comes the freedom to find and embrace your own style. Outside of the never-ending cycle of trends and micro trends lies the space to discover exactly what works for you without the high street nudging you in a new direction every few weeks.
The benefits to making it yourself are endless and, if you’re inspired to break out your sewing machine, you can share your makes and get involved with the new monthly MIY Makers challenge using hashtag #miymakers. We’ll be following it to see all of your creations.
Keep up with all the latest from Wendy Ward and MIY Collections on Twitter and Instagram and keep your eyes peeled in the direction of Refashioners 2016 to see how Wendy fares in this year’s challenge.