Sewing, What I wear

Kangaroos & Elephants Oh My! – (almost) first me-made dress

Elephants & Kangaroos

In the sewing community May is Me-Made-May – a month of trying to wear more of the things you’ve made, using them to get out of wardrobe ruts, and setting yourself personal challenges around them.

I’ve never officially participated, in part because wearing stuff I’ve made every day is pretty much an obligation of my work, and what I wear cycles in response to what classes I’m teaching at the moment, what patterns I’m working on for Scroop  Patterns, and the weather (which currently includes the first snow of the winter – yay (note sarcasm)).  In bigger part, I’ve always been too busy with either the Sew Weekly, or the Historical Sew Fortnightly. Between sewing-teaching work, history-lecturing work, pattern-making work, running the HSF, and life, I’m one additional thing  away from dropping all my balls – and I’m pretty sure that what I’m juggling is a mix of ostrich eggs in extremely  fragile shells (some of which are well past their best-by date), newborn  dragons (a la McKinley, where dragons are marsupials, so newborns are really squishy) and pressure-sensitive grenades.  If I start dropping things, it’s not going to be pretty…

So…no mental space for setting myself more goals, so no getting to join in the fun and  participating in Me-Made-May.  One year I’ll have the time!

But, as a tiny bit of joining in, I thought you might like to see the  earliest fully me-made item that is still in existence (I think):

Elephants & Kangaroos

The very, very first item that I made, when learning to sew with the mother of a friend when I was 12 or 13, was a quadruple circle skirt gathered into an elasticated waist.  I made it in lavender floral craft cotton.  I can still remember the exact way in which Erin taught us to do rolled hems (the patience she must have had to talk two pre-teens through doing rolled hems on a quadruple circle!), and the gathering.  Sadly, it was not cord gathering, and gathering in 4 full circles with thread may be the reason I hated doing gathering for years!

We followed up the circle skirt with a matching blouse with cut on sleeves (because what every lavender floral quadruple-circle-skirt with an elastic waist needs is a matching blouse of the same fabric).

I have no idea what happened to the blouse, but after I outgrew the skirt it lived on for many years as a cover for banana stalks on the farm.  Bananas will sunburn, so after you cut a stalk, you have to cover it to keep them nice.  A quadruple circle skirt is perfect!

The next few things I made were costumes & dresses for my sisters, and some stuff from patterns  for myself that did not go well.  But I persevered.

A proper Halloween picture: the naiad as a Victorian lady (with a naiad on her cheek), Mum as a 20s lady, Goldie as a jester and me in '18th century'.

A proper Halloween picture: the naiad as a Victorian lady (with a naiad on her cheek), Mum as a 20s lady, Goldie as a jester and me in ’18th century’ – the last two  made by me

Shortly after learning to sew, my grandmother passed away, and I inherited her fabric stash.  I experimented with the less desirable stuff, and then started getting adventurous with the 1960s & 70s fabrics (I was too scared to touch the 40s & 50s stuff – thank goodness!).

And thus, this dress came about:

Elephants & Kangaroos

It’s not the first thing I made and wore, but it is the first everyday non-costume thing I made where  everything about it was me-made – including the pattern.  Frustrated with the poor results  I was getting from commercial patterns, I measured a bunch of things I already had, and drafted this one from scratch.

It’s a very simple pattern – high waisted top with back and front darts, A-line skirt.  And I was a very easy shape to fit at 15 – no bust or hips to speak of.  But I’m still really impressed that I figured that out at 15!

I caused quite a splash at school in it.  Everyone dressed in a specific-to-Hawaii cross between ’90s grunge and a dELIA*s catalogue (remember those?) – lots of blue-grey and khaki, but with surf-brand T-shirts, instead of ones with that monkey’s face on them.  BRIGHT yellow psychedelic kangaroos and elephants kinda stood out.

Elephants & Kangaroos

Elephants & Kangaroos

The sewing is very simple, and far from perfect, but still a very good effort for my age, and for taking the lessons I’d had, and pattern instructions, and the zip-insertion instructions on the zipper packets (remember when they still had instructions?), and turning them into a dress-from-scratch.

Elephants & Kangaroos

It’s sewn with black thread, probably because I didn’t have any yellow to match.  I suspect I didn’t have a long enough zip, so came up with the button and loop solution on my own.

The one major mistake in the sewing that I noticed as soon as I had cut and sewn, and which bugged me then and continues to bug me, was at least a good learning experience:

Elephants & Kangaroos

See the lack of pattern matching at the waist seam?  Drives me CRAZY.  The minute I sewed the waist seam, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought about it when I cut it.  I have been very careful about pattern matching ever since.

Elephants & Kangaroos

The dress is fabulously obnoxious, and it made me happy then, and makes me happy now.  It got a lot of wear in its time – it may even have come to university with me, though I can’t remember exactly.  Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a single photo of me wearing it.  I can still get in to it, but it would be a stretch to say it fits.  It would work really well if I ever needed a breast-compressing underdress for a very androgynous look!

I still have enough of the fabric left over to make another one (with proper pattern matching, natch) but I’m not sure I’m brave enough anymore.

Do you remember the first thing you made?  Anyone else still have some of their very early me-made items?


  1. Tracy Ragland says

    I was in an experimental 9th grade science class that allowed us to choose our own projects. Science, per se, wasn’t necessarily part of the project. For one of my projects, I chose to make a blouse, creating my own pattern. I made a peasant blouse from unbleached muslin and decorated it with off-white on off-white floral embroidery. I got an A, but learned nothing about science.

  2. I love that fabric so, so much! My first dress made from scratch came a bit younger but I was wardrobe building from 10 – I am so impressed by the patience of the older women in our lives that they let us get on with it and get the confidence to build skills so young. We owe them a lot!

  3. It’s funny how I completely overlooked the elephant in dead center and kept thinking “where are the elephants?” 😀
    That button-and-loop solution was very clever of the 15-year-old you.

    I was the sort of Sewasaurus Rex that jumps headfirst into projects; my first pillowcase was a patchworked and quilted one, and I didn’t start sewing with it. That sort. So I thought the first dress I’ve ever sewn was the graduation ball dress that got a mention in the HSF Facebook group recently: the one I sewed with basting thread and had to wear with safety pins.
    I think there was an inappropriate weight/thickness of zipper involved, too, sadly.

    Now I realise the first dress I’ve ever sewn was actually, about a year before that, the “bliaut” I sewed for a school-related party/event. It was supposed to be a costume party. So of course I made a historical costume, with whatever happened to be in the stash, which was modern crinkly fabric, and there wasn’t enough of it, so the results are… odd (the top is kind of oversized, and the skirt is a lot narrower than was the intent). And machine-sewn. It was just meant to be a quick costume for a costume party. It ended up being worn for two (if not three – I hope it wasn’t three!) years at a historical event in my hometown; I seem to remember now, the first time around, I wanted to just wear it there for fun, and someone took hold of me and made me walk in the procession. Next to the mayor. Because it was the first year that event was happening, so I guess there was a lack of locals in costumes. I think I was rather glad when they did not ask me to do it again. (Although I would have liked it, in a better costume. But the somewhat better one still remains unfinished, because I fell head over heels for Regency-ish styles in the meantime.)

  4. “I still have enough fabric to make another one… but I’m not sure I’m brave enough anymore”

    I know that sentiment… i made a blazer and pants at age 17 for a friend of mine for a high school dance. I remember all the adults around me amazed, one even calling me a prodigy (granted, these weren’t adults who sewed so they had no idea how easy or difficult it was). I didn’t draft the pattern, but followed the instructions on a Big4.

    I hear a lot of beginner sewists now afraid to make larger projects, and I’ve also become a lot more risk averse. And while I wouldn’t go back to the 17 year old skill level, I’d definitely take my ignorance is bliss attitude any day 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your first makes with us. It’s always pretty special to see these things

  5. MayravB says

    I think the first real garment I made was a sleeveless tunic top with a v-neck and a wide, shirred waistband. It was copied off of a blouse that I had bought in…maybe 2006? Anyway, instead of the loosely woven cotton of the original, I went for a cute, cartoon-y Canadiana quilting cotton. Little beavers, polar bears, moose, trees-with-owls, little glaciers, marshes, and mountains, all on pale blue. The contrast waistband and armhole binding was Walmart crafting cotton. Unfortunately, I forgot to add sufficient seam allowance! The whole thing was rather compressive. It was also a lesson: I didn’t wear sleeveless tops and was too shy to wear anything so ostentatious! I’ve never actually worn it, although I think/hope it still lives at the top of my closet, to be dug out and photographed one day. I still have some scraps of the fabric–I still really like it! Just not as the exterior fabric in a garment.

  6. The fun thing is when I saw your dress I immediately thought of my first project. I was 10 or 11 and it was a yellow t-shirt with a pair of bike shorts in a very obnoxious pink/purple print. The t-shirt was too thick so I didn’t wear it much, but the shorts got a good use well into my 20’s, the jersey simply expanded and they were soft and comfy to wear as the bottom layer of sportswear in the winter, to get some extra warmth for the thighs. I played an outdoor sport and my shorts were the joke of the team because everyone thought they were so ugly in the changing room, but it also became a typical sport superstition that I should wear them for our games.

  7. The very first thing I sewed was a lunch bag (totally destroyed, it was well-used) and the second was a pair of boxer shorts with glow in the dark bunnies on them. I still had the boxers up until at least a few years ago, I think I’ve destashed them now. I primarily got into sewing because I wanted to make myself costumes. At 14 or so I took on a Star Trek uniform pattern that had been copied from a show-worn item. The instructions are very brief, only one page, and say that it’s intended for advanced sewers. If you aren’t one, find one for assistance. (It’s actually not that bad, it’s mostly straight lines, and aside from a couple tricky points and the insertion of the spandex back, relatively straightforward.) I made my grad dress (photos still exist!) but none of my early makes survive. I wasn’t brave enough to try making my own patterns I started drafting and modifying patterns out of a Japanese sewing book. I found photos of some of these last night. 23 year old me did not appreciate how much fun she could have been having!

    I want to do Me-Made-May some day. More and more I’m getting bored of my wardrobe and just really can’t afford to replace it, so it’s getting more and more past time to start working on modern sewing.

  8. I was so impressed that you planned enough that the elephant was perfectly positioned on the bodice that I didn’t notice the mismatch until you pointed it out!
    I’ve still got my first ‘me-made’ in a box somewhere…a red gingham apron made for Sewing 1 in 4-H when I was 10. Not perfect sewing, I got a Red Ribbon ( kinda like getting a B). The next year, it was a skirt…a plaid skirt…for which I got points deducted for using a difficult fabric (ie, I wasn’t supposed to match plaids in Year 2). Another Red Ribbon. I think I made another skirt that same year…simple, gathered-to-the waistline dirndl, but for some reason I chose to use the plaid a-line for my project. The next year…dresses. And my memory fails me there as to which dress I made when. But by 8th grade I was sewing enough that I made the dress I wore to the first day of school; by high school, I made most of my wardrobe, excepting jeans and t-shirts and an occasional something I fell in love with at Ben Franklin. 4-H dropped off the radar, replaced by high school activities, but I kept sewing my clothes…

  9. Deanna says

    It’s so fun to hear about first projects! The quadruple circle skirt must have been awesomely twirly (before it graduated to banana protection). And the psychedelic kangaroos & elephants look more fun than most anything else you could’ve been wearing. If you don’t think you can handle a full recreation, why not make a fun skirt and pair it with a nice sedate shirt or blouse? 😉

    My first project wasn’t for me, but a little skirt and blouse outfit for my dolly when I was 5 or 6 years old. 🙂 I did a little straight hand sewing, made darts to fit the skirt, and embroidered some flowers to decorate it.

    The first clothing for me was made in a 4-H class (like the poster above) when I was around 9 or 10. I made a simple skirt with an elastic waistband and a blouse that probably had cut-on sleeves (as I don’t remember having to attach any). What I remember most is the neck facing, the little opening with a button in the back, and that even way back then, the difference between my waist and hip measurements was more than the pattern sizing allowed for. I still have the skirt somewhere, but the blouse hasn’t turned up.

  10. Susan robinson says

    What a walk down memory lane! As a group, we weren’t into neutrals, were we?
    We had Home Ec in my junior high school so the first clothes I made were an apron (of course), a skirt (turquoise blue with box pleats) and then a blouse (it was required to be white).

    The first garment I made that I remember making and wearing was a Mary Quant pattern, pink window pane check with white peter pan collar and white cuffs. Very chic. This was in high school.

    I love your dress and I’m glad you wore it pretty much to death.

  11. Hearthrose says

    I remember what I made in 8th grade Home Ec – the required sweatshirt. Only, I was the last girl to the fabric shop, so they didn’t have any more of the proper stretchy neck and wrist area stuff, I had to buy a much lighter grade. (It was aqua and white).

    It was terrible ! The neckline was never remotely a proper shape, it gaped and gaped and gaped some more. But since it was the 80s, I wore it anyway as if it were an off-the-shoulder intentional gape, but mostly because I’m stubborn.

    I do remember hemming a circle skirt (properly, blind-hem lock stitches) by hand at 16. I thought I’d never finish, so I’m very impressed by your quadruple skirt.

    As an adult coming back to sewing, the first garment I sewed was a wrap skirt (sensible) in fully-lined heavy linen (um). It was lovely, even if I didn’t know how to fit anything (thus the wrap).

  12. LoriWatk says

    This post made me smile. I rarely tell personal stories, my parents divorce was about as personal as I was willing to get, up until I read this. So please bear with me. (I’m laughing so hard at myself right now I’m about to make a puddle that I’ll have to blame the dog for!) “Jewel, you spilled your water!” LOL! Kidding, I’d never blame the dog, I have a husband I can blame it on.
    When I was little, very little, about 5 maybe 6. I’d say no older then 7 no younger then 5 my neighbor had a very old Singer sewing machine, a trundle. Every time I looked at that machine I would smile. So my neighbor wanted to “give me a lesson” on how to sew on it. Small fingers are good for sewing she told me. So she had a very simple thing that just needed a straight stitch. Nothing difficult, nothing she thought would be hard for me. She was kind, patient and above all very sorry she asked me to sew it. Now the laughing! I started, my feet could barely reach that big peddle, she showed me how with every movement of my foot the needle went up and down. OH BOY! Do you know how fast a small child’s foot can work one of those when they really get going? NO?! Neither did she until the needle, thread, my fingernail and my skin went into the stitches of whatever it was that we were sewing. It went so fast through my finger I didn’t even feel it. To this day my fingerprint has a swirl in it from the needle. It missed my bone (I think) but not by much. I remember looking at my finger all oddly thinking WOW that was sharp! She managed to get my finger out of the stitch. She snipped the thread, got it out of my finger and started crying. I remember that day so much, even now. I remember telling her not to worry I wasn’t hurt. She said I was bleeding, I told her I was sorry for bleeding on her fabric, she cried harder because I was so apologetic. We looked at the needle, it wasn’t broken or anything, just sitting there looking just as sharp as ever. So from before this mishap and now I can’t pass a sewing machine without rubbing my finger and smiling. She did teach me to sew, just not on her machine and I remember a lot of what she taught me. It wasn’t until many years later that I made something for myself.
    So the very first thing I made for myself was a set of embroidered pillowcases that I still have, they look all wore out and old but I still love them. She helped me make lots of things (skirts, shirts, dresses, etc…) but nothing that I truly remember. I started embroidering when I was 10 or 11 and have enjoyed that immensely. She taught me that sometimes the best thing you can have in your sewing box is a toothpick, she taught me to knot thread with one hand, etc… Some of the oldest sewing tips are the best tips but sadly they have been lost on the younger generation. Now, don’t go thinking just because I was taught so young to sew means I’m great at it. NOPE! I struggle (except at embroidery) at almost every thing I stitch. I like to take my time, which doesn’t help much. I can’t use a pattern (oddly the one thing she did not teach me) to save my life. I have to look at it and look at it and then look some more to get it even a little right. I can quilt nicely but not fantastic.
    As a little side thought, I remember (and still do it to this day) a trick she taught me with a comb. You take a comb, dip the teeth in baby powder (lightly or heavy if you prefer) and dot your fabric with the teeth, makes your stitches straighter and evenly spaced. Plus, the powder just brushes off easily. Not recommended for large project but for small ones it wonderful.

    • Mary in Thailand says

      Wow! That is quite the story. I’m sure the other lady has never forgotten it either.
      Thanks for sharing.
      It is counterintuitive to let your little ones sew on expensive machines, but they are easier to handle…and the speed setting should make all the difference. Those old machines though, yikes!

  13. redbarngirl says

    I hand sewed several sets of doll clothes between 8, when I learned that you don’t actually tie the thread onto the needle, and 12, when I taught myself to sew on my grandma’s green 60’s Kenmore. My first machine-sewed project was a “circle” skirt made of a navy, pink, and green plaid, and some sort of solid hot pink fabric. I freehand cut the circles (um, I thought they were circles!) and started sewing. I don’t think I used a ruler once in the process (!) and I zig-zagged the edges since I was too lazy to do a rolled hem. The thread didn’t even come close to matching. Needless to say, it was never worn, but I still have it as a reminder of the things I learned! And I was actually super proud of it even though I knew it had major issues. 🙂

  14. That’s a very impressive effort, especially making the pattern from scratch! Black was a good choice of thread colour in the circumstances, since the black stitching lines work in with the black pattern outlines.

    I think the first thing I ever made was a pair of shorts, when I was about 13 or so. I don’t still have them though.

  15. I loved reading about this, and reading everyone else’s first makes! That kangaroo is SO CLOSE to matching… and yet so far.

    My first make was a skirt – it was in quilting cotton that I fell in love with, navy blue with deep purple stripes and metallic gold paisley designs on it. My mother tried to talk me out of it but I just loved it and so she eventually caved. My mum sewed a lot of our clothes when we were children (we were poor) but to be honest she’s not really a skilled seamstress. She also has no idea about adjusting patterns, to this day. And even as a teen I had a bigger bosom than her, so the few tops and dresses we tried together were disasters. But this skirt! I think she gave me guidance but it was simple enough that I could mostly sew it by myself.

    I think it was just a long 1/4 circle skirt attached to a waistband, although it may have been gored. And I know the zip was a disaster. But I LOVED it and I still remember the heady feeling of wearing something that I had made and designed and loved. To be honest it was probably the only item of clothing that felt like my own that I had until I was in my 20s (being poor and feeling like you’re too fat to wear nice things will do that. I still feel so fiercely about being able to plan and create my own wardrobe now because of this).

    I made it when I was in primary school I think, or maybe year 8, and it probably only fit for a couple of years. I kept it for ages and ages and finally got rid of it about a decade ago and now I dearly wish I still had it. I don’t think I even have a photo of it! But I can picture the print so clearly.

    • What a neat story!

      I think I’m also really clothes focused because they were always so hard to come by, growing up poor. So its so exciting to be able to have exactly what you want/need all the time. It’s probably also why I enjoy the bargain of a good op-shop or fabric find so much too!

      • Deanna says

        It’s kind of funny this aspect came up. My family wasn’t poor by the time I was growing up, we just weren’t particularly well off. A lot of my clothes were hand-me-downs from family friends who had children older than me. I always loved it when I had new things to wear (new to me, at least). And one of the mothers sewed some beautiful things that I sometimes had to wait for several years to fit into, so that taught me some patience. 🙂 I think it’s one of the reasons I like such a wide variety of styles – I grew up wearing quite a few things that I really didn’t see around me, and I thought it was fun instead of feeling like I should only wear things that were currently available. I was so disappointed when I found some of my older sisters’ clothes that had been stored away for many years, they looked really fun (and a little outlandish) and I was already too big for them! I think that, and the few older items of clothing my parents had held on to were the beginning of my love of vintage clothing.

        Of course, I could enjoy sort of the opposite situation, too. 🙂 I remember the fun when one of my older sisters took me shopping and bought me a couple of brand-new things that were really stylish! I guess they might’ve been a little too stylish for me at first, because I remember several of my school friends making funny comments the first time they saw them. 😉

  16. Elise says

    Oh man oh man! These are so much fun to read!

  17. The first thing I remember making was a tiered mini-skirt when I was about 8. It was navy and white with little flowers and I loved that thing to death! Probably highly unflattering, but when you’ve made it yourself at that age you really don’t care what other people think anyway.

  18. Laurie H says

    I love these stories!
    I was about 15 when I got frustrated enough with store-bought fit to ask mom to teach me how to use the sewing machine, a very solid Kenmore. She knew only basics about the machine– she’s never sewn more than absolutely necessary– but she got me started and I made a pattern from my favorite pair of pants and tweaked it a bit. I probably chose the grey twill because it was the only bottomweight we had enough of. The pants ended up with a slightly wobbly side zipper (not great on that curve, I know now!) topped with an old army button and a self-made cord loop, though I actually had to use a safety pin to keep the zipper up. I topstitched the pockets on with a zigzag– with mismatched thread from mom’s stash– and the waist had no facing or band. But you know? those pants were so comfortable I wore them anytime I could. And yes, I WAS proud I had made them.
    I’ve continued to learn mostly by trial and error. I am constitutionally incapable of following a pattern exactly– because it would be better if I just changed this, and that too, and what would happen if…. 🙂 There have been plenty of projects that turned out ugly (my color block fleece robe) or were abandoned (the peasant shirt out of thick, stiff moire (what was I thinking!)), but enough turned out usable, like those pants, or even very nice, like the dress I wore as my cousin’s matron of honor (done two days before the wedding, yikes), to keep me trying. I designed my own wedding dress, but knew it would never get done well if I tried to make it, so I worked with a seamstress who managed to make it exactly how I drew it. Thanks to her skills, it won first place in the Fair that year!
    I mostly sew purses now. Each one is a different design, and there’s always something I have to figure out how to do. I guess you could say sewing is still something of an adventure for me!

    I’m heavier now so I don’t fit into those pants, but I still have them, and if I lose enough weight I will wear them again!

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