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This Woman Vowed to Sew Her Clothes for a Year (Yep, Even Her Underwear)

Tiffany Lano was inspired by a documentary about the human and environmental costs of fast fashion. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder


“No underwear… nothing, for at least an entire year!” Tiffany Lano exclaims, leaning in with enthusiasm as she explains her “year-of-no-buying” project.

At first glance, the petite, well-dressed woman seems to be your average millennial.

She attends music festivals, loves to travel, frequents local coffee shops, has a French bulldog named Henri (who has an Instagram following of nearly 12,000), and she has a serious thing for clothes.

Except — unlike most young people these days — Lano doesn’t have a thing for shopping for and buying clothes. She has a thing for making them.

‘The True Cost’

Lano never cuts patterns. She traces them and then cuts the copy to preserve the original pattern. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

In November 2016, Lano, 35, watched a documentary film called “The True Cost.”

The film investigates the negative impact the fast-fashion industry is having on our world and the harm it is doing through the exploitation of human labor and a lack of environmental protections.

“I have to stop what I’m doing,” she recalls thinking that night.

By the time the end credits were rolling, Lano had decided she was done buying clothes. But she wasn’t just done with the fast-fashion retailers documented in the film; she was done buying clothes at all.

So she created a challenge for herself: To stop buying and instead sew her own clothes for an entire year.

On the Road

In 2012, Lano, a hairstylist by trade, and her husband, Troy, made the move from Orlando, Florida, to Portland, Oregon. There, they poured their energy into starting a graphic printed T-shirt business.

Eventually, they took the business — and their life together — on the road, living full time in a recreational vehicle as they traveled around and sold T-shirts at music festivals across the country.

After three years of RV living, the couple returned to Orlando in early 2016 and settled down (for the most part). Now, Tiffany Lano works at an organic grocery store owned by close friends, making it easy for the husband-and-wife duo to hit the road again and work the festival circuit for three months each year.

When asked to sum up her career, Lano says coolly, “I’m kind of a hustler,” before cracking a wry smile — because she knows that’s one of those millennial cliches even if it is true.

Learning to Sew

Lano leads a Common Sewing class on patterns in downtown Orlando. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Still, even with the flexibility her combination of side hustles afforded her, Lano missed working with her hands. She needed a new creative outlet, and sewing seemed to be the perfect solution.

But after Lano made the decision to stop buying ready-made clothes from stores, she faced a big dilemma: She didn’t actually know much about sewing.

Growing up, Lano sewed a bit here and there with her dad, but she mostly watched as he worked the machine, piecing together outfits for her high school spirit weeks. “The first time I can remember,” Lano says, “it was ‘hippie day,’ and so we took an old pair of jeans and kind of made bell-bottoms out of them. He showed me what he was doing, but he made them.”

Aside from that, she had a working knowledge left over from her high school home economics class, but it wasn’t much to go on.

At this point, Lano decided, it was sink or swim.

She knew she wasn’t going to return to the fast-fashion world, and she knew her budget wouldn’t allow for a deep dive into the pricy world of sustainable, ethical brands that were dominating the slow-fashion market at the time. So she was going to have to learn to sew.

In late 2016, as a Christmas gift, Troy Lano purchased a certificate for sewing classes with Bonnie Lewis at Common Sewing, an Orlando, Florida,-area workshop where Lewis teaches her students everything from bobbin winding to creating pleats — all while working to remove intimidation from the process.

After a couple of lessons, Lano was hooked. “I was on fire — to sew anything and everything,” she says.

Lano says it was about four months into the year before she was totally comfortable handling fabric and a sewing machine like a pro. “It took me a little bit to not be so fearful of the process of sewing,” she explains. “But once I did it… I was like ‘I can make that, I can figure it out.’”

Now, Lano teaches alongside Lewis at the Common Sewing workshop. Lano sometimes has friends and family ask whether she’ll make them a custom piece, but, like Lewis, Lano is more interested in teaching others how to sew for themselves than she is in sewing for other people or as a profession. “That’s not my passion,” she says. “I’m learning to say no. My passion is saying, ‘You can do this, too.’”

Finances of Fashion

Lano models one of her favorite handmade pieces. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Sewing your own clothes isn’t a get-rich-quick exercise — it’s an investment process.

“It’s actually more expensive to sew your clothes these days,” Lano says, contrasting the process with popping into the mall to grab a $4 T-shirt off the clearance rack. “But they last so much longer.”

Still, Lano believes it’s a hobby (or maybe a lifestyle?) that just about anyone can participate in.

“Sewing does take time, but it’s so doable,” she says.

Even the initial investment, while not inexpensive, isn’t outrageous if you plan to fully embrace sewing. Between the basic model sewing machine Lewis suggests to all her students (and prefers to use herself) and the few truly necessary sewing tools, a beginning sewist can expect to shell out somewhere around $250 to $300.

And that sewing machine Lano picked up on Lewis’ recommendation will never need to be upgraded as long as it’s maintained regularly. It’s a simple, sturdy workhorse that can do just about anything you could ask of it. “I mean, I sewed a pair of jeans on this sewing machine,” Lano points out. (That’s a feat for a simple sewing machine because denim can be a bulky, unwieldy fabric and the thread used to sew jeans together is usually coarse and thick.)

But ultimately, it’s worth the investment when you no longer have to throw holey, worn clothes away after a few washes and wears or take every new piece to a tailor to make sure it fits well.

“A lot of people start sewing because they go to the store and they can’t find what they want to fit their body,” Lano explains.

Lano holds the pattern she used to make the dress she's wearing. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

In the sewing community, there are plenty of resources (including video tutorials and easy pattern amendments) for people who are looking for a customized fit. One patternmaker even did a blog series recently guiding followers through the common fit problems they might encounter, “including a full butt adjustment,” Lano says with a laugh.

Lano tries to purchase ethically sourced fabrics, but finding sustainable textiles at a reasonable price is a different issue — one she hopes to tackle eventually.

For now, she’s taking her foray into ethical fashion one step at a time. “I’m going to start small, and then I’m going to see where it takes me,” she says. “I feel like I’ve got to start somewhere. I can’t dive right into everything.”

The Year of Sewing

Lano credits her mentor, Bonnie Lewis, with helping her succeed in her quest to make her own clothes.  Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

 

Eventually, Lano hopes to start working pieces from ethical, sustainable clothing lines into her wardrobe. “I don’t think that always making all your clothes is necessarily the way to go,” she says. “I just wanted to challenge myself.”

These days, plenty of companies strike a balance between affordability and ethics; it just requires a little research on the part of the consumer. It’s not about garments never being made overseas — it’s about the working conditions, the pay and providing a sustainable economy to the community there.

In December 2017, Lano passed the one-year mark of her challenge — but she doesn’t plan to stop sewing anytime soon.

Over the past year, she’s sewed her own “me-made” pants, tops, pajamas, dresses, jackets, jumpsuits, jeans — pretty much anything she (and various patternmakers) could dream up.

For Lano, it’s been a year of freedom and creation. She says she hasn’t felt pressure to replace specific staples in her previous wardrobe and has instead been letting her closet grow organically, project by project, as she works through her list.

The one time she did feel pressure to learn a new pattern to replace a few, ahem, staple pieces? When she realized she was going to need new underwear at some point. The good news, Lano says, is that underwear is actually really, really easy to sew.

Lano has a few more patterns and pieces to sew on her monthly sewing-goals list. Next up, she’ll sew a swimsuit to wear this summer.

Still, there are some things she hasn’t attempted — and probably won’t. “I sort of knit, but I’m not gonna knit myself socks,” Lano says.

But if socks are where she draws the line, she might just get a free pass on that one.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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