Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Just Sew It

Search “toddler peasant dress,” and the first picture that pops up is of argyle fabric, cut in four pieces, laid out in the shape of a outfit. Little Bean Workshop first posted this illustrated tutorial in 2010, but as its current presence atop Google Images indicates, the appetite for straight-seam, no button, easy-on dresses for the under-four set continues unabated. That’s how I found it one evening, when I discovered a rectangle of Indian cotton in my drawer of textile scraps and realized, for the first time in ages, that I just wanted to make something.

Most evenings after my kids are in bed, I work, performing low-originality, high-priority tasks like responding to editors’ notes or inserting images into my blog posts. Sometimes I relax by watching episodes of The Good Wife on Or shopping; when the New Yorker reported a spike in online clothing sales at 9 p.m., they were talking about people like me. But sitting in front of the computer is sitting in front of the computer, and I do that all day. What I wanted was a project — a project that I could complete in the two hours before bed, that would look as good as the $50 miniature dresses in my neighborhood’s boutiques, and that would be not-pink.

I am not alone: Once I started surfing crafty mom blogs, I found that the time limit of the nap, or those golden “free” hours between kid bedtime and your own, created a clarifying challenge. The women posting tutorials and printable patterns wanted fast results; the thrill of turning chaff (old t-shirts, men’s dress shirts, thrifted vintage fabric) into wheat (wearable clothing). They did not want to go to the store to buy a pattern. Sometimes they didn’t even want to download. They wanted to take a pair of outgrown pajama pants and make some that fit. (And take a cute picture of their kid wearing said pants in the morning.) The premium was placed off dressmaker skills and on ingenuity and speed. If you had a hit, like Little Bean and the peasant dress, the comments filled up with pictures of other women’s daughters in the same garment; different fabric, different sleeves, different length, like an endless iterative chain.

It was an old-fashioned sewing circle reworked for the digital, time-shifted world. The sharing — I snapped a few stills for Instagram — provided the necessary hit of adrenalin to sew again.

My mother sewed for me when I was little, embroidering pillowcases; customizing overalls; fashioning knickers for the year I wanted to be Oliver Twist every day. She gave me a sewing machine after I had my son, but I was too tired to use it. Then I had another baby — still too tired — but she was a girl, and the possibilities opened up. I’d struggled through a third of a camp shirt from a pattern (buttonholes!) but then I had to parent, and my aunt had to finish it. (My mom avoids buttonholes too.)

The blogs promised me I could make a dress out of a pillowcase in a half an hour. That seemed possible. The necessary simplicity of clothes shaped for speedy manufacture gave the dresses and tunics mod appeal, once I performed necessary mental editing. Bird applique, no. Ruffled hems, I don’t think so. I cringed every time someone wrote that a skill, like a front pleat, was “easy peasy,” but I kept scrolling. As I clicked back and forth from one set of instructions to another I realized why so many of the pattern links were coming through Pinterest. Whose description of a gathered sleeve made more sense? Which other mother had pared the recipe down to its essence? It was a lot like reading the comments on Epicurious, but with visuals added. I needed to make a typological comparison. In the realm of children’s clothing, it is not the decorative touches that set something apart, but visual calm.

I got out my fabric and moved my laptop to the floor, following the directions to cut out two large, headless triangles for the dress body, front and back, and two long rectangles for the sleeves. I lined up the flowers down the center, proud of my forethought. And I cut. And I sewed. This first dress took me three nights: one, cutting and pinning; two, sewing the whole thing together; three, threading the elastic through the neckline and fixing the fraying hem (it really did need to be folded over twice, once was just sloppy). But it was indeed cute — really cute — and on day four, my daughter wore it.

That night, I made the same dress again, start to finish, in two hours, out of another piece from the drawer — indigo-dyed fabric, bought for a forgotten pre-baby project, that left blue residue on my fingers. She wore this one two days later, after I washed it (pre-washing the fabric = another step you shouldn’t skip). Third dress, I tried to get fancy with the sleeves and got into trouble, but now I was comfortable enough that I simply cut them off and hemmed those edges down. Done, in less time than it took me to put together a late-night order from the clearance section of Old Navy, and for less money too.

Fourth dress, well, I am three weeks into my sewing spree now, and I think I’m ready to move on to another pattern, maybe something with gathers, or embroidery. Baby steps. I’ve bookmarked a few: the denim jumper on the Purl Bee, the Emerson Tunic Dress on LuvintheMommyhood, the Lovebird tunic on Craftiness Is Not Optional. Several bloggers like to name their dress patterns after runner-up baby names. Portlandia hasn’t yet killed the bird for this demographic.

Sewing, knitting, all sorts of crafting have always been social activities, and it is not news that social media like Pinterest have facilitated their re-adoption. As design blogs that used to post on new products have matured, many have added DIY content. But such sharing has also transformed the making, putting an emphasis on results, speed, and iteration — digital values reflected back on old skills. It’s not a coincidence that a number of tutorials reference the often aspirationally-priced brands Anthropolgie or Crewcuts. My desire to make something was combined with that for instant gratification; I wanted the hit of online shopping without waiting for a package. If “pinning” is a form of having-without-having, online tutorials are something else: having-without-spending, communicating through actions rather than typing, and, ultimately, the satisfaction of creating a garment in less time than it took me to write this.

Originally published in Medium