Amina Ahmad & Anna Swan

Some girls' Friday tradition consists of going to the mall, rummaging through racks of clothes for hours, desperately seeking a mix of good pricing and quality, and emerging with a few good finds. Sound familiar? Well other girls manage to escape that trial and wind up with one-of-a-kind clothing - because they make their clothes themselves.

Environmental science and policy major Amina Ahmad is one such girl.  She has a store on www.Etsy.com where she sells some of her creations, but a lot of the clothes she makes still wind up in her own closet.

Ahmad isn’t professionally trained - she learned to sew from her mother, whose parents owned a curtain-making shop.  But she’s able to make the most of basic materials in order to dress herself in a way that helps the environment and her wallet.

“I use whatever I can find. Like the bag that I have now, I got the fabric from IKEA… they have leftover sofa covers and stuff,” Ahmad said. “They’re really cheap and you get a ton of fabric out of it.”  Her purchases of both fabric and already-made clothes boil down to a simple practice: “If I see something on sale, I’m getting it.”


One of Ahmad's bags.

Though she’s reached the point where she can make money from the clothes that she sews, Ahmad said that some of her creations are still based on trial-and-error, and many times she simply remakes or alters already-existing articles of clothing.  Her favorite homemade outfit is actually a dress that she created from a Pakistani outfit belonging to her grandmother - she had been wanting to use the unique fabric for a while.

Ahmad understands that the idea of making one’s own clothes may be daunting, but said that getting started is fairly simple.  She pointed out that a lot of girls already cut their T-shirts to fit differently.

“I don’t hesitate to buy something that’s a size too big - I’ll just cut it make it fit,” she said.  “The best advice is to just cut and sew until you do something wrong - you’ll figure it out eventually.”

Experimenting with self-made clothing ensures that you’ll know your outfits very well. “If something rips or tears or something, you know how to fix it, because you made it,” she said.  “You’re like, ‘Oh, okay, that seam is torn; I just can re-sew it, it’s not a big deal.’” And if even you mess up, you’ve just got some extra fabric that may come in handy later.

Anna Swan, a recent Yale graduate and lab coordinator in the UMD psychology department’s Comprehensive Assessment and Intervention Program, also had an informal introduction to sewing: She picked it up in high school at a theater’s costume shop.  Sewing her own clothes later gave her something productive to do during her free time.

“What a nice present to yourself!” she said.  “Whether we agree with it or not, clothes play a role in how we present ourselves and are perceived by others.  Making your own clothes gives you more creative control over how you signal your personality to others.”

She agreed that the process is rather experimental.  “In my experience, the end product always looks different than the original sketch - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,” she said.  “If it’s your first time making something, you might feel more comfortable using a pattern.  Eventually, though, I would recommend designing your own clothes - it’s very gratifying.”

The designing and learning process has turned out well for Ahmad, who has participated in a number of craft shows and created a business for herself in Cats and Crafts, an online store run through Etsy.com.  The store’s accompanying blog links to Etsy, features some of her patterns and serves as a laid-back way to communicate with customers and others interested and sewing and knitting.

“This past summer, I couldn’t find a job,” she said.  “I always wanted to start a little business and I figured out how you do it on Etsy.  It just kind went from there and I started making things I could sell and trying to go to craft shows.”

The top-selling C&C item right now, Ahmad said, is a coffee- and tea-dyed T-shirt with a fabric-embroidered peace symbol on the front.  Customers are also big fans of her bags, which come in all shapes and sizes.  And while she’s not a big name in the fashion world, Ahmad said that she thinks that people are starting to learn the name of her store and appreciate her particular shop items.


Ahmad's top-selling peace sign T-shirt.

Though Swan said she doesn’t have the time or organized design style to make money from her sewing, she has received positive attention from those who learn about her hobby.  “Fifty years ago, making your own clothes was par for the course,” she said, “but now it’s viewed as rather unusual and consequently exciting.”

Ahmad agreed, laughing when remembering a professor referencing “the olden times when people made their own clothes,” but said that she hopes the art makes a comeback.

“I don’t want to be preachy - it’s definitely better for the earth, though.  It’s better in an environmental sense because you’re consuming less,” she said.  “You can’t really get away from mass production, but it’s nice to attempt it.”