Last week I saw a woman struggling along Oxford Street. She had three large hastening into another shop to buy some more.
I am ashamed to admit that this was me and as I caught sight of myself in a shop window scurrying along as though my life depended on it, I suddenly heard an inward scream: “STOP!”
Did I really need yet another pair of black trousers? One more white shirt indistinguishable from those I already own? Retail sales figures are supposedly facing a decline, but a glance down Oxford Street, where thousands of women (yes, I was by no means alone) are loaded down with giant Zara and Primark bags, makes this hard to believe. Clothes bingeing is by no means confined to women my age; my teenage daughter is at it, too. Although to some extent I envy the vast piles of clothes that stand about in her room like mountain ranges, there have been many times when I have pitied these garments for being so unloved.
Gerald Ratner, former chief executive of jewellery company Ratners Group, said that some of his earrings were “cheaper than a prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last so long” and I suspect that the same could now be said of some high street clothes. There’s huge wastefulness in buying all these cheap garments. Like a one-night stand or a holiday romance, these impulse purchases are used and then discarded. Or they’re not used at all: Sarah Farquhar of Oxfam tells me that many donated items still have their tags on.
I don’t expect my daughter – or anyone, for that matter – to get sentimental about a pair of New Look trousers, but when I was the same age I had a genuine attachment to most things in my wardrobe. Why? I had made most of them myself.
I grew up in a house where making clothes and wearing hand-knit jumpers was the norm. My grandmother sat knitting every evening and most of our dresses were made by my mother on a manual Singer. Without a doubt, it always made me feel loved to have clothes that were made specially for me. When little girls go off now to Primark and come home with bags full of frocks for a fiver, I can’t imagine that it feels the same to wear them as the things my mother made for me.
In my first year at grammar school, I got down to the serious business of making things to wear. It seems strange now, but it was a compulsory subject and given as much time on the curriculum as Latin or history. No girl left school without first learning how to do a tailor’s tack, a button hole and three types of “ruching”. We were all familiar with threading a sewing machine and could fill a spool without getting the cotton into knots. Inexplicably I developed a passion for it and during the Laura Ashley days of the Seventies I began to turn out flower-sprigged smocks and gathered skirts as professionally made as anything that could be bought in the shops, discovering that this was the only way I could get clothes exactly as I wanted them and also that fitted. The only trousers that I have ever owned that truly fitted were those made by myself.
Whenever there was a special occasion, I preferred to make something than buy anything ready-made. My Oxford University interview was no exception. Rather than brushing up on Jane Austen, I sat at my sewing machine, and even now I’m not sure that they didn’t give me a place on account of my floral dress with self-covered buttons, expert darts and neat gathering. It was definitely superior to my analysis of Wordsworth. My first job interview was the same. I had on a suit with my own label.
When I married, I made a dress for my bridesmaid that was covered with handmade silk roses and my younger sister tells me that, 25 years on, she still has it. Then there was my “going away” outfit, a dress with a puffball skirt (worn again last year when the puffball made a brief reappearance). For me such a dress is so personal that I could never even think of throwing it away.
Sewing had a renewed importance for me when our daughter was born. When she was two months old, I made a little dress specially for her first Christmas, covered with angels. It goes without saying that everything from Mothercare was disposed of without sentimentality as she outgrew it, but the clothes I’d stitched were not. I made all her nursery accessories, including little quilts, a “cot bumper” to protect her from the rails, and curtains with bunny rabbits. By making baby things myself, it felt as if I was surrounding her with my love; how can you compare a handmade bib or a bonnet with something you’ve bought from a high street chain?
The silver lining of our wastefulness, perhaps, is that the charity shops are benefiting. “For the first time in this recession, income has gone up on the sale of clothes,” says Farquhar. Oxfam finds a home for everything that is given, whether on the international market or in recycling. So if our conscience is pricking us, at least a once-worn T-shirt can end up benefiting a charity; albeit as wall insulation.
But isn’t it time for a renaissance in handmade clothes? It’s beyond comprehension that we all flock to the same high street stores and obediently emerge with identikit outfits. Most of the things that have caused a sensation on the catwalks in London and Paris have been original and exciting, eccentric, even, but the only way that most of us can afford anything even resembling them is to buy a sewing machine and get on with making our own couture. For an outlay of less than £100 for a basic Singer, it has to be worth it – and it isn’t exactly difficult to make a straight seam.
The time and energy spent trudging around in shopping precincts buying clothes that will soon be discarded, could be spent making clothes that we like – and are unique. I gave up “junk food” a long time ago, but it’s high time to kick another bad habit: “junk fashion”.