Wardrobe capsules

I’ve talked before about creating a wardrobe where everything goes with everything else.   I did it back in 2008 using the Sewing with a Plan concept, then making sure each time I added a capsule, I added one that went with the rest of the wardrobe.  I can go from a barbecue, to hanging out around the house, to an office situation to a party and always look appropriately-dressed.  It passed with flying colors just this past week by being more than adequate to handle a cruise.  Shell and broomstick skirt, and I was ready to walk in comfy sandals around Nassau or barefoot on the deck.  Straight skirt and shell with contrasting scarf with nice flats and understated jewelry and I was dressed nicely for dinner.  Pants, shell and jacket and I was ready to fly back to cooler New England.

Oh, and using this concept, you can pack for a week in a carry-on.  For the record, I didn’t for the cruise because I deliberately saved room to bring presents back to family.  But when I fly, I oh so prefer to carry on luggage!

Thing is, you can do this even if you don’t sew.  While in the sewing world it’s often called “Sewing with a Plan” or “Sewing with a Purpose”, in the fashion world, it’s called a “Capsule Wardrobe”.   To create one, you kind of have to sit down and think about what it is you regularly do and how you live.   I can guarantee you beyond a shadow of a doubt that my wardrobe won’t work for you.  We live different lives!

Some Basic Wardrobe Capsule Concepts


Separates are your friends.

You want separates. Yes, even if you like the monochrome look from time to time (I do!) make sure that you’re getting separates.  The whole point of a capsule wardrobe is to mix and match.

Pick a color palate and stick to it!

Ideally, you should have two to three basic colors that harmonize and are a bit neutral, then an accent color that goes with at least two of your colors.   I break this rule a bit.  My colors are burgundy, black, forest green, and deep purple.  Obviously the red and purple don’t go so well, but between the black and the print I chose, there’s a lot of anchor between the colors that I don’t mind this minor inconvenience.  It’s a pity I don’t like brown or gold, as it would have made a somewhat more harmonious wardrobe.

Minimize Prints.

I would only have one print in my capsule, and this print should go with all the basic colors.  This is where the seamstress <Hem! Hem!> has it easy.  You buy a print and make a few garments from that.   Boom, you’re all good.  Shopping makes it a bit more difficult.  When I buy ready to wear clothes (one of my sweaters is, as a matter of fact), they’re almost invariably solids.

Keep garments simple.

The design of the garments should be simple.  Solid colors, and design details that aren’t too fussy.  Are jeans a basic part of your lifestyle?  Then my goodness, jeans should definitely be a foundation of your wardrobe capsule!  You should have two or three pair that really fit well and flatter – all of them in a single color.  You can’t go wrong with basic black, but if black ain’t your thang, just pick another color.

If this is beginning to sound boring?  It’s the next step you should be thinking about.

The accent is in the accessories.

There’s a reason French women are so addicted to scarves[1].  I think we’d all agree that French ladies are known for dressing well.  They also generally do not have stuffed closets, but minimal pieces chosen with care.  Black slacks and a white shirt might make you look like a waiter, but add a fabulous scarf with well-chosen jewelry and you just look elegant.   I’m a big fan of scarves myself, just because they’re an inexpensive and versatile way to add color and interest to an outfit.

So, maybe elegant isn’t the look you’re going for.  That’s okay.  It’s not for everyone.  That basic canvas that is your separates can be dressed up or down according to your tastes with lots of funky jewelry, a single small necklace, or choice of hairstyle and bag.

The point of a capsule wardrobe, though, is a plan-ahead thing.  Once you’ve created it, you know instantly whether or not something you see in a store will go with your other clothes.   You never really have to rush to buy clothes for an event.

What’s in a good capsule wardrobe?

Oddly enough, you don’t necessarily need that many pieces.  I have 23 pieces in mine, though you can get by with a lot fewer than that.

At a minimum, you’ll need:

  • 4-6 bottoms (Skirts, pants or whatever mixture suits your fancy) in two main colors.
  • 3-5 tops in two of your main colors, a contrasting color that suits both of them, and possibly an accent print.
  • 1-2 jackets or cardigans that go with all of them.

When choosing tops and bottoms, make sure that a couple of them can be combined to be dressy, even if you don’t usually dress up for much.  It’ll keep you from panic shopping for events.  For me, this was easy.  Black fitted shell, black straight skirt, and voila, I have my Little Black Dress, all ready for my good jewelry and an updo.   It’s good for anything but a wedding or a ball, and I own[2] a formal-length dress.  (Though in my case, for a wedding, I’d just use a matching shell and skirt in a color appropriate to the season that’s not black).

You might find that you very well already have close to a capsule in your closet already, but only need a piece or two to complete it.  If you want to try this out, I’d encourage you to go over your wardrobe, toss what you don’t love and doesn’t fit, but then build your capsule around what you already own and love.

[1] And I blame many of the French teachers at a job I once held for passing this addiction on to me by bringing me back lovely scarves from Paris and Lyon.

[2] Thanks, MOM!

Knitting with a Plan

There are times when I am very glad I learned to knit.

This week has been fantastic from a professional point of view, but teaching a week’s worth of all-day classes is exhausting.  I don’t know how full time teachers pull it off and not burn out.  That’s some high-energy stuff if you want to keep your students involved and engaged, and do a good job.

A seamless yoke sweater


So, the knitting.  Knitting is how I relax when I’m too brain-fried even to write a blog entry. It’s soothing with enough repetitive motion to calm me down while I watch Torchwood.

Last summer I sewed a series of garments in a plan called a SWAP. (Sewing with a Plan).  Basically the idea is that everything is supposed to mix and match well with everything else.   I had garments in black, burgundy and a floral/Japanese print.  This winter I added a capsule to it in dark forest green.  So, I have this great, basic interchangable wardrobe.

In cotton.

For the most part that’s fine. Between the fact I made shells and jackets, this means it carries me through a lot of seasons.  What it doesn’t help a lot with is those cold months of a New England winter.   Luckily,  I knit.  Getting good sweaters is no more difficult than following the Seamless Yoke pattern that Elizabeth Zimmerman explained in Knitting Without Tears and adding whatever colorway and yoke design takes my fancy.  I’ve done pirates, Heathen symbols, abstract symbols and Autobots in the yoke and turned out some warm, unique garments.

What I don’t have (yet), are several sweaters in my SWAP color palette.  Oh, I’ve got a gray, purple and burgundy one that goes okay with my black and burgundy pants and skirts.  I have a gray and purple one that goes okay with the black, but nothing else.  This sweater I just made will go with all the skirts and pants I’ve sewn quite well.   I need to sit down and plan two or three more over the course of the winter.

The thing is, these babies are warm, warm, warm.  Stranded knitting (that’s how you get the colorwork — strands of yarn carried behind the main fabric) of various sorts is definitely popular in the colder countries for a reason.  You basically have two layers of yarn for a much warmer garment.  Nordic sweaters look the way they do at least in part for practicality.  If you’re lucky enough to own a real one, you know what I mean.  So, they’re not something I wear year-round, but only when it gets really cold.

Pleasure and Profit

I’m finishing up a pair of burgundy pants.  Since I already have a pair of black dress pants that fit well and go well with the new wardrobe I made, these pants will be the end of Stage One of my Sewing with a Plan experiment.

I was talking to someone who said that sewing isn’t cheaper than going to Wal-mart.

Now, I do shop at stores like that often, and sometimes do find deals there!  But the money-saving wardrobe aspects really depends on a lot of factors.  Because I’m a reasonably experienced seamstress (hem! hem!), it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to get something off the rack that will fit nearly as well as something I’ve made myself.  I can’t buy something in Wal-mart with a custom fit.  It’s simply not available.  But even throwing fit aside, can I find clothes at Wal-mart “just as cheap”?

Eh, sometimes I can. And when I do, I buy them.  I’d be highly unlikely to make myself sweat pants, a sports bra, or a t-shirt I was intending to work out in.  While I learned to sew to save money, it was more for historical costuming (which is gut-wrenchingly expensive if you cannot sew) than it was for a personal wardrobe.

I wouldn’t recommend sewing as a money-saving technique, necessarily, unless you really like it.  I do, which is what makes it worthwhile.  Yes, I get a garment whose material price is cheaper than what I’m likely to pay in a store,  I get the hours of pleasure making it, and the additional kick out of wearing something I made myself.  I don’t think I’ll ever get over that!  Opening my closet and seeing the garments I made for myself hanging all neatly organized gives me a wonderful sense of satisfaction.  But even the process of sewing, the smell of the fabric when I’m pressing down a seam, the sense of wonder of turning a 2D piece of fabric into a 3D creation, the puzzle-solving satisfaction of putting together a pair of pants with pockets, the way that the machine loops the thread to make a stitch in a way that seems like magic, all of that is all just fun to me.

But if I didn’t enjoy sewing, I don’t think it would be worthwhile at all.   All those hours of aggravation would not be worth the money I’d saved doing it, even if I did force myself to develop the skill necessary to sew well enough to be saving money.  I think that’d be too much like work and I could earn more money in other, more pleasant ways.  Ultimately, sewing is just a hobby I have that pays for itself, that’s all.

Sewing With a Plan in Review

I do still have the pants to make, but I’m not feeling urgent about it. I’m pondering exactly what pants I want.

I’m really glad I did this whole wardrobe sewing thing, I can tell you. I’m wearing the print skirt, burgundy shell and black sash right now. Put ’em on because I was sick of working in my writin’ chair and went to Border’s today to get some work done[1]. I was worried how happy I’d be with all of this, and concerned because of the time and effort. But you know? It has turned out quite well.

What really makes me happy is that I have a wardrobe instead of a lot of clothes that don’t really relate or go together. Barring being invited to a fancy dress ball, I’ve pretty much got clothes that work just about anywhere depending on how I dress the outfits up or down with accessories. I could go to a barbecue in what I’m wearing right now, or mix-n-match for a nice evening out.

What’s also really nice is that I have a really clear idea of what I can add over time so that everything is still nice and pulled together. I know what colors of yarn to buy for sweaters because I have the swatch card in my wallet. If I wanna buy a piece of clothing[2] same/same. Having the base wardrobe? It’s hard to explain how nice this is.

The next time I get a hare across my ass to do a lot of sewing, I have the basics that I can build on.  If I wanna add a really nice lined wool charcoal gray skirt? I know that I have pieces it’ll work with. Will I be adding nicer, tailored clothes in time?  Of course.  It’s just that I had almost no money and nothing to work with to begin with. Now I have plenty of “nice” clothes where I can afford to take the time and money to make the lined wool pants[3], make the really good jackets and silk blouses and so on.

I like to dress well and frankly haven’t done it since my son was born. I was a stay at home mom at first, and felt like I didn’t have a good excuse to “dress”, nor did I have the sewing skills to create a really nice wardrobe cheaply. Then I went through a galloping eccentric stage which I certainly don’t regret. Now, as a writer, I sometimes feel I have even less excuse to “dress” than I did. I’ve spent most of the last year in sweats or broomstick skirts unless I was teaching. But hey… I can sew, like it and can make a good wardrobe really cheaply, so why the heck not?

[1] God, I love being a writer

[2] Unlikely. I really enjoy sewing, and half the fun of my clothes is the kick I get out wearing something I made myself.

[3] Hey, I live in Northern New England!

Talk About a Random Post

I’ve been appallingly bad about working out in the past couple of weeks.

Which, of course, is idiotic, because I got a job where I have to get up at 0 dark thirty to open the gym for a couple of hours once a week so I can use the facilities without having to have the expense of a membership.  I get paid a little, which is nice, so I come out ahead of the game.

If I use the facilities!

I swam a mile today.  I just haven’t felt like pumping iron, so I’m just gonna swim most days.  I know, not perfect.  Screw perfect.  Swimming a mile a day is hardly bad for health and fitness!  I’ll be eager to start pumping some iron soon enough, I’m sure.

I’ve also been reluctant to work out according to my usual schedule because my son is home with me.  Why I feel guilty about leaving a thirteen year old for an hour while I go work out is dorky.  I used to love to have the house to myself at that age.  Not doing anything wrong, mind, just liked the sense of freedom and privacy.

Like my own mother, I tend to leave chores for my son when I leave the house (empty the dishwasher, put a load of clothes on to dry, etc.) I’m glad to have ’em taken care of, so am kind of effusive in my praise, because… Well, it really is a help, and it means he is a contributing member of the household.  I want him to know I see it that way.  When I was his age, I know my mom was glad someone else was doing the laundry in the summer.

I think a lot of problems with teenagers is that they feel unappreciated and useless.   Chores often feel like busywork to a kid rather than a necessary (and valued!) contribution.   Frankly?  I’m grateful to be free of dealing with the laundry for the summer, and I let my son know that.  I like it that I don’t have to cope with the dishwasher, and I let him know that, too.

I’m gonna get some work out of the way, and then reward myself with the final jacket in my sewing session.  I wore the burgundy jacket, burgundy shell and black skirt working at the front desk at the gym yesterday morning.  That combo works and looks quite nice.  I was so pleased with it that one of the trainers made a joke about me getting on my “million dollar smile” for the patrons.  He’s a chipper, friendly type of guy and I think he enjoys opening with perky morning people.

I know I do.

Fine, I Caved

I just can’t stand it.  I’m looking at the pics of myself and realizing why I hadn’t made clothes for myself using a commercial pattern since I learned pattern drafting!

I’m not entirely happy with the fit of the shell or the torso of the dresses I’m making,  Not surprising. My cup size is somewhere around an E, if I got a proper bra that actually fit right, and patterns are drafted for a B-cup.

Also, large size patterns are merely graded up from smaller size. This can cause all sorts of fit problems in the ribcage, torso and across the shoulders.  While the jacket I’m making, being a kimono style jacket, isn’t meant to be fitted, loose and gappy looks terrible in a simple sheath dress.  (The simpler a garment is, the more proper fit matters).

I’m redrafting the damn thing and making muslin of the shell before I go any further. I need different bust darts (I’m 40 and commercial patterns are designed for perky breasts which I don’t have any more), less fabric in the ribcage, and added waist darts.  The armholes are way too big and the adjustments I’m making, while okay, don’t look as good as a properly drafted torso for an individual.  They either interfere with the neckline or change the fit over the bust in ways that don’t thrill me.  I’ll use the pattern I bought for a basic neckline, as I like it well enough.  I’m also keeping the skirt, cause that works well enough.  In fact, I’ll likely use it as a template to redraft the dress.  I’ve extrapolated the formula one needs to use for the bias facing, and it’s not really hard.

I have this sinking feeling if I don’t do a muslin of the pants I’m gonna regret it.

I’d meant this to be a quick-n-dirty wardrobe, but if I feel like a slob in the outfit, I’m defeating the purpose.  I’ve already invested way the fuck too much in fabric to do that.  I like the basic garments, yes, but if I’m gonna sew ’em, anyway, a good fit is a better idea.  A basic straight skirt with an elastic waistband is hard to go wrong with, but the torso is another matter entirely.  And dammit, I deserve a sheath dress that fits my curves right.  I like my shape, dammit, and don’t particularly wanna hide it with drapery.  Which is more or less why I learned to sew in the first place.  This is also why I tend to make my clothes rather than buy them.  I rarely find something in a store that’s even as close to as flattering as I can make myself.  This would not be true if I had not learned to draft patterns.

I have a princess seam torso I could use, sure.  But even that needs a lot of tweaking now that I’ve started lifting weights (I haven’t tweaked it in probably three or four years).  My shoulders and back are broader, I’m narrower in the ribs and waist, the broad point in my hips is in a different place and my butt  is rounder, so the curve of my back is a different shape, too.   For that level of fit, I’d wanna make a custom dress form and do a draped muslin from which to make a pattern. Any local seamstresses wanna get together and have a dress form making party?  I know a couple of methods that aren’t too expensive or time-consuming.  Just never had any sewing partners to make one with.

That Lovely Moment of DUH!

I’ve been trying to figure out how to make that delicate tissue paper last through endless pinnings as I make my new wardrobe, as well as how to use the same pattern piece to make a top and a dress.

The DUH! hit me.  I can trace the patterns directly onto the fabric and just cut ’em out that way.  I mean, jaysus, I’ve actually drafted more than one outfit directly onto fabric and not used a paper pattern at all!  I know, you really experienced seamstresses (hem! hem!) can now laugh at me and ask what in hell pattern weights are made for in the first place.  It makes the cutting out process a bit easier, really.  Also, it’s keeping me honest in terms of marking my pattern pieces properly before I cut ’em out.  I’m sometimes lazy about that, and then have to go hunting up the pattern piece to check out dots and darts.  Of course I know better, but you know how it is!  Cutting out is the part of sewing I tend to dislike the most. I’ll procrastinate for weeks on a project rather than cut it out.

I’m going to try to get a top and a skirt done today if I can.  That sounds ambitious, but isn’t.  This stuff is pretty easy to sew.  The shell is just a tank top with bust darts and bias facing, and the skirt is really a tube with an elastic waistband.  The link has a waistband technique I adore because it’s not that stupid casing trick where you get a bunchy, uneven twisted band.  You know, it’s more like what they do for sweatpants and such.  I’ve been using it for years.  In fact, I think that article appears in the only print version of that magazine that I own.

I’m finding Excel a great boon in keeping track of this project.  I’ve got a spreadsheet that figures yardage for the total project, yardage per garment, how many garments I’ve sewn and of what sort and how many I have left to go.

Wardrobe SWAP

A storyboard for sewing a wardrobeWell, I’ve ordered the fabric for my new wardrobe. This is a bit of a leap, as I’ve never really committed to this much sewing before. But I really, really need a decent wardrobe, don’t have much money and with this, I’ll get a bunch of interchangable outfits for less than I’d get in a department store. I need stuff that’ll look good for teaching computer classes and all of ’em will be acceptable when I throw the jacket on.

The sash can be a sash or a scarf, so it coordinates pretty well.

This project is based on the Stage One of Sewing with a Plan, but I’ve adapted it a bit to suit my needs and desires… and the pattern I had lying around!

Basically, if there are two of a garment, I’ll only be sewing them in the solid colors. If there are three of a garment, I’ll being sewing it in the solids and the print. The one thing I don’t like about this pattern is that it doesn’t have pockets. Guess what I’m gonna add?

When winter comes along, I’ll be keeping this color scheme in mind when I’m choosing the yarns for my sweaters, and am going to be on the lookout for a decent pattern with longer sleeves for a blouse that’d go with these.

This becomes a basic “go anywhere” wardrobe. I need a suit? Skirt, shell and jacket. Hanging out? Shell and pants or a belt and shift if it’s hot. Nice dress? I can wear the jacket with a shift of the same color and dress it up or down with accessories. Since everything goes with everything else, I won’t get too bored with the looks.

Not bad for less than $150!