How to Sew Clothing that Lasts

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How Long Should Clothing Last?) I thought it would be appropriate to share ideas on how to make our clothing last longer.

A lot of you left comments on how to repair the lining, and tricks to sew stronger garments in the future. I was riding my bike to work yesterday and even more ideas starting coming on how to make better, stronger, longer-lasting clothing. Funny how that happens when you have time to think! By the time I got to the office, I had over a dozen ideas. I’d love to hear your suggestions as well!

I’ve divided the ideas into three sections – Before, During, and After – referring to Before you make the garment, During the construction process, and After the garment is sewn.

BEFORE

  • Choose hard-wearing fabrics. Wools, cottons, anything with a tight or dense weave. Denim lasts forever – and looks even better as it gets worn-in.
  • Buy the nicest fabrics you can afford. I find that pure fabrics, 100% wools or 100% cottons, are better than blends. Fabrics blended with spandex can break down over time – but you do get extra stretch and movement!
  • Think about what you’ll be wearing the garment with. A delicate blouse that’s worn under an unlined jacket may get damaged by the seams of the jacket. (Think denim jacket – those seams are rough!) Exposed zippers on a dress or skirt will rub against the lining of your coat.
  • Choose styles with a little more ease. Tighter-fitting garments are way more likely to strain at the seams. (I’ve ripped the lining of every pencil skirt I’ve ever owned!)
  • Build extra ease into garments – if you’re between sizes, go a size up for a little wiggle room. It’s more comfortable and often more flattering to wear your clothes just a little bit loose.
  • Add a little extra to just the lining if you’re concerned about tearing – or build extra wearing ease with pleats. On that note, pleats and gathers will last longer than darts in your lining! Make small pleats instead of darts so you’re poking less holes through your fabric.
  • Adding underlining, interfacing, waist stays – all of these extra features built in to your garments will extend its life.
  • Cut your garments with longer hem allowances. That way if you get taller, or want to pass on the dress to a taller person, it’s easy to let down the hem!
  • Buy an extra button and sew it to the inside of the lining or seam allowance, like you see on men’s dress shirts. That way if you lose a button, you can easily replace the missing one!
  • Consider your lifestyle. If you’re always sitting, choose fuller skirts or looser pants so the seams aren’t always under stress. If you work with, or live with small children, choose fabrics that are easy to care for and will withstand plenty of washings. (Printed fabrics will hide a little dirt = less washings needed!) If you like to have mobility and be able to break into a run at any time, choose stretch fabrics or loose cuts.

DURING

  • Use strong seam finishes. Finish ALL of your seam allowances, even the ones that are hidden or enclosed in lining. (Check out these posts on seam finishes: Bound Edges, Turned-and-Stitched, French Seams.)
  • Add stay tape to outer edges, or anywhere that is under strain. Don’t skip the reinforcing stitching, or leave out the interfacing.
  • Topstitching not only looks cool, but strengthens your seams as well.
  • Regular zippers last longer than invisible zippers, from my experience! More importantly, it’s easier to replace a regular zipper than an invisible one. Removing an invisible zipper is really tricky and usually damages the fabric

AFTER

  • Wear your garments for the right occasions. Don’t wear a necklace with sharp edges over your chiffon blouse! Save the slim skirts for standing events, full skirts for seated events. Always wear heels with your pants if you’ve hemmed them to be worn with your 4″ platforms or they’ll drag on the ground. Be realistic – if you’re a flats girl, hem your pants for flats!
  • Wash your garments with love and care! Take it to the cleaners, that is if you trust your drycleaner! Read this post on Do You Trust Your Drycleaner? for some scary stories.
  • Hand-washing is better than machine washing, hanging to dry is better than using the dryer – and will save you energy, or save you quarters if you have shared laundry! Both methods are kinder to the environment as well.
  • Use the lowest heat possible. That goes for ironing, drying, even the wash cycle! Heat can break down the fibres even if you can’t see any damage.

I liked Irene‘s comment yesterday -“ if everything lasted forever, there would be no room in the closet for new items, and we always need room for the new.” Excellent point! Plus, sometimes you’ve worn an item for so long (and it’s appeared in many family-outing photos!) that it’s had a good life, and you don’t mind saying goodbye. And yet, some pieces of fabric are so beautiful, so classic, that when they finally get made up into garments, you want to love and cherish them forever!

What would you suggest to extend the life of your sewn garments? Anything to add to this list?

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13 Responses to How to Sew Clothing that Lasts

  1. Claire (aka Seemane) September 2, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    I’ve heard that FrayCheck is good for stopping your self-stitched button holes from fraying (hence the name I guess LOL!).

    When stitching along part of a seam that’s likely to get strained I’ve heard that shortening your stitch length on your machine for that part can help strengthen the seam too (you can always lengthen the stitch back to normal length once you’ve gone past the tricky bit!).

    My own tips are for washing :) :-

    I always dry my lightweight tee’s/delicate tops flat (sometimes the weight of the water in the fabric drags it down and disorts the garment at the shoulders/hem if it’s hung up to dry – whether that be pegged or on a hanger.)

    I also use washing powder/detergent designed for colours – to reduce colour loss and fading.
    I wash similar colours together – so no red socks in with my whites LOL!
    I also dry all coloured clothes inside out when they are air dried outside – so the sun cannot bleach them out over time.

    I also make sure all buttons/zippers etc. are done up before washing – or they can catch and tear as they spin around the machine.

    I don’t use fabric softeners EVER! They can deteriorate elastane/Lycra fibres over time.

  2. Irene September 2, 2011 at 7:22 am #

    Though it should be self evident – hanging things carefully in the closet does prevent various clothing mishaps. Make sure that the item is centred on the hanger, and that there is enough space for things to hang freely. Crammed closets (or piles on chairs – because no-one actually throws their clothes on the floor, right?) are accidents just waiting to happen. Though my children are of the opinion that I’m a little obsessive about this, I do believe that a little in the way of prevention saves a river of tears later.

  3. Krista September 2, 2011 at 8:03 am #

    I’ve really enjoyed both today’s post and yesterday’s. No one seems to have mentioned though about the thread used for the fabric. I’ve always heard that the thread should not be stronger than the fabric – if there has to be a seam failure (particularly because of strain) it’s better that the thread break, not the fabric to rip, because it’s much easier to fix. Of course I’m not an expert in thread – I pretty much use Gutermann polyester for everything (clothing, quilting, home dec, tent repair, whatever)

    Krista

  4. Corinne September 2, 2011 at 8:21 am #

    To expand on Irene’s suggestion, good hangers are essential. No flimsy wire for those lovely clothes. Heavy coats and outerwear, blazers, and suit coats need a good wooden hanger or one of the newer molded plastic hangers, with shoulders and a velvety flocked surface. The hanger will maintain the shoulder line and will not collapse from the weight of the piece. A good hanger will reduce those dreaded “hanging wrinkles” as well. There are two thoughts for pant/trouser hangers. One with a secure cross-bar (the flocked ones work well) keep the pants in place with creases in folded correctly, the other have clips to hang the trousers from the waist or the hem if you choose. Skirt hangers follow a similar style. Fine blouses and t-shirts do well on a padded hanger as well. Maintaining the shape of the garment with the proper hanger will reduced the stress on the shoulder and prolong the use of the garment. If your are ambitious, you can purchase the universal plastic hangers, very inexpensive and sew shoulder padding and/or cross-bar padding from fabric scraps and a little quilt batting. I frequently have enough fabric near the selvage that I would normally discard and wrap a hanger with that. Bonus. the hanger matches the dress!

  5. Seraphinalina September 2, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    So many great tips. I didn’t know about seam finishing when I started out and I remember washing dresses and it looked like a rats nest of threads on the inside. I’ve certainly learned a lot since then.

    I try to go for gentle washing and a few lined tops I have I dry clean at home. I am trying to pick fabrics that are easier to care for. I know I am not likely to take anything to a dry cleaner and I’d rather wear things I make than look at them for fear of wearing.

  6. arlene f September 2, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    I think that most of the wear and tear on my clothes comes from my washer & dryer. I tend to be kind of rough….mostly denims & cottons.
    My more delicate items sometimes get caught in with the rough stuff….not good for getting clothes to last longer…
    My wardrobe has been in a slump for the past 10 years and I am just now working on getting it into better shape…more stylish….
    I am trying really hard to be more diligent with my laundry techniques…
    hugs

  7. Amanda S. September 2, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Great post! I find that the older I get the kinder I am to my laundry, not sure why. If you keep a basket in your closet specifically for hand washing, it’s easy to keep track of those items and they don’t accidentally end up in the washer.

  8. Sophia September 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! Lots of great information.

    I have found with most of my wool skirts that if I treat them well, they can be worn time and time again before needing to be cleaned. This has definitely helped prolong their lives.

  9. Angela September 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    Thanks for the tips! I LOVE the fabric in the washer picture. Any chance you can still find this anywhere? Thanks

    • Tasia September 6, 2011 at 9:22 am #

      @Angela: Hi Angela! I’ve seen it at Dressew in downtown Vancouver, the last time I was there they still had some. I haven’t seen it for sale online anywhere, sadly. Sorry this isn’t very helpful unless you live in the Vancouver area! (Anyone else seen this fabric anywhere?)

  10. LinB September 9, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    And when that beloved garment has finally become too shabby for wear, so threadbare that you are embarrassed to wish in on the deserving poor, remember to scavenge any hardware (buttons, zippers, buckles) to use in another garment. You might sew a small, stuffed Christmas ornament with part of the fabric. Or, cut it into strips for rag yarn; or into pieces for a quilt — or to give to a friend who quilts.

  11. Jodie November 8, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    Great post! The longer I sew the more I’m looking for ways to make my clothes better/stronger/more wearable. This post has found me at a great point in my sewing obsession. I’ll take this advice and be kinder to my clothes.

    Thanks!

  12. Sarah August 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    For fitted skirts or dresses I always like to sew the lining slightly smaller than the outer. That way if the seams give because I’ve been a little too energetic when wearing it, it’ll be the lining seams that go rather than the main seams. I work on the theory that if I need to make repairs, far better to the lining, which only I will see, than to the outer, which everyone will see.

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