texts & textiles

Founder & Maker Elizabeth de Cleyre: The Non-Resume Version

I learned how to sew from my mother, who learned to sew from her mother. A nurse by training, my mother switched careers to quilt, work in a fabric shop, and teach sewing. When I was ten, she often brought me to the fabric store, and while she worked, I pored over pattern books and contemplated which elaborate buttons I’d like to buy. Sometimes she let me cut fabric, reshelve and straighten bolts, or run the register. She also encouraged me to roam around downtown Portsmouth by myself, so I popped into local shops and returned to the store to interrupt her classes and ask for money. We laugh about it now—about the audacity of a ten-year-old child working in a fabric store, roaming around unaccompanied, and spending beyond her means—but the experience instilled a certain work ethic, an understanding of fabric and garment construction, and a sense of freedom that remain with me today (that, and my expensive taste).

At home, my mother and I constructed quilts together, and I loved pinning together bits of printed cottons and pressing the finished seams with an iron. Apparently I insisted on only wearing dresses as a child, some of which my mother made for me, and when I graduated into pants, she sewed one-of-a-kind, elastic-waist ones in wild prints. I wore a school uniform for nine years, which consisted of white button downs with Peter Pan collars, and plaid skirts or jumpers. “Gym day” consisted of a white polo tee and maroon sweatpants. This gave me insight into the upsides and downsides of uniforms; how they allow you to focus on something other than what you're wearing, but can also severely limit your sense of expression. The goal of the uniform was to make it seem as though we were all equal, but there were subtle and insidious ways people asserted their wealth (or lack of it) and reinforced gender stereotypes. Like how girls were given the opportunity to wear pants, but the ones who chose to do so were seen as “weird.” From an early age, I was hyper-attuned to the ways clothing could shape or subvert identities.

When I was twelve, my parents divorced, and splitting my time between two houses and two closets lead me to cultivate a wardrobe that easily traveled. In my early twenties, I lived in California, Virginia, Maine and New Hampshire, and taught English and traveled extensively in India, Thailand, and Tibet. In each place, I took into account both practical matters (like social customs, jobs, and the weather) and personal preferences to craft wardrobes that best reflected my life at the time. Moving and traveling allowed me to create “capsule wardrobes” well before the term became popular on style blogs.

In high school, I took formal lessons in garment construction and quilting, and often went vintage shopping and altered items to fit me. After graduating with an MFA in creative writing in 2015, I returned to sewing as an alternative creative output to writing. Now, making my own clothes has taught me the importance of supporting small designers who practice ethical manufacturing techniques. When it takes you hours to make a pair of pants that don't fit, you come to appreciate the care and skill that goes into a pair of American-made jeans with denim from a now-defunct American mill.

That said, I recognize that the world of slow fashion can seem daunting to those who are new to it; there's so much information out there, and some of it can be unnecessarily self-righteous, dogmatic, or preachy. I aim to empower clients to learn more about garment construction and manufacturing so that we can all make informed decisions on how to integrate well-made items into our wardrobes, and make the most of what we already own.