Thursday, October 8, 2015

S M A L L : clothing small people

The theme for this week of Slow Fashion October is SMALL, and while I know Karen and many others are discussing how to craft a small and sustainable adult wardrobe, I want to take a moment to talk about wardrobes for small people.
Tip #1: Baby knits are a great use for leftover yarn! Tip #2: Don't dress your offspring in Mama-baby matchy knits, unless you want everyone to make fun of you. It's really cheesy. Do it anyway and show me a picture.
Children's clothing has a special place in my heart, first and foremost: because it is SO dang cute. Everything is tiny and therefore cuter. It was also the thing, as I mentioned in my introduction, that brought me back to garment making. Children's clothes are a great way to build skill without risking as much in the way of time and materials when the inevitable "mistake" part of learning happens. Children's clothes also feel sort of political to me. As someone who pushes back against the idea of gender binary and needs to raise a child who understands and appreciates the spectrum of genders and gender presentations that our community holds, it seems counter intuitive to resign myself to dressing my own child in the strangely "hyper gendered" clothing offered by major retailers from the beginning. While there are large companies that design and sell unoffensive and mostly gender-neutral clothing (let me just throw this article out there, while we are on the topic of "gender-neutral": why does gender neutral clothing always mean boys clothes for girls?), I am generally disgusted when I walk into large retailers and see such limited options for children: neon pink or navy blue are our two color pallets that are always emblazoned with words that ensure that every literate person will know which of the "two" sexes this baby belongs to (and for the illiterate, we have color coded them in the aforementioned color pallets) and OH MY, how many of them strangely sexualize small children and make them into sexual aggressors or objects. I want more for my kid.
"I wonder what James will be when he grows up: a doctor? a lawyer? a rapist?"
"So many choices! I just hope I can raise my Ella to internalize the way the media polices women's bodies!"

I want clothes that are simple, comfortable, breathable, allow for movement, and will keep a tiny body warm or cool, depending on the weather. I don't want to brand my children with logos or stereotypes. I would also like to clothe my children without child labor or other horrible labor practices. And wouldn't it be great if the clothes I put on my child didn't poison the earth that he will have to live on? Great! No problem! There are a few small companies that make clothing that fit the bill for...... a couple hundred bucks an outfit. Is it worth it? Sure. Is it possible for a middle/low income person to clothe their child every season in these products? No way. I think it is important, to model our ethics to our children. If I teach my child about caring for the earth and valuing human life over consumption, what does it mean if I keep buying him brand new clothes from Target? That he isn't valuable enough for my ethics? That I don't really believe in my ethics? But I also value good food and having a roof over our heads and not working 120 hours per week. The reality is that I don't have the resources to live a life of complete integrity with my choices. I have to make compromises. Sometimes, I compromise out of need and sometimes I compromise out of laziness and sometimes out of desire.  Making things isn't always the answer. Making things can be just as consumption-driven as buying things. It often is for me. Still, making clothes or upcycling clothes can be a part of lessening the burden of consumerism on my clothing. And, I really enjoy it.
My "studio", and by "studio", I mean messiest corner of the hallway

I have been clothing a tiny person for almost a year (*sniff sniff*) now and so while I am no expert and have many years of epic clothing battles ahead of me, I'm sure, I want to share how I have gone about doing just this. What has worked, and what hasn't. What I would do differently.

First, I want to talk about the amount of clothing we have for our son: Too Much.

As a first time parent, everyone warns you that you will go through approximately 10 zillion outfits per day, so you better get used to laundry. As a first time parent nursing a major love of baby clothes, I sewed, knit, thrifted, inhereted, and shopped with relish. I admit that I bought things from Baby Gap (my major retailer soft spot), Target, and Old Navy. Mostly, though, his clothes came as hand-me-downs from friends (I am VERY lucky to have a friend with similar baby-clothes-snobbery who had a son exactly one year before me) and consignment stores. I knit a lot of his winter stuff, and this spring I delved into figuring out what I could sew for an infant. The first thing I learned about clothing my kid was: he doesn't actually need so many clothes. He typically went through 2-3 outfits per day, including PJs. I don't hate washing clothes, but I sure do hate putting them away. I realized that my son had so many clothes that many of them were never worn. I never put him in the stuff I didn't like (but felt obligated to keep) and I found myself "saving" the clothes I LOVED for "special occasions"... like leaving the house... which we pretty much never did. This meant that he wore a lot of clothes that I didn't hate but didn't love and I had to put SO MANY clothes away ALL THE TIME. I am realizing that I would way rather wash the same 10 beloved outfits twice a week than wash 40 outfits every week and a half.

Second, I want to talk about practicality. We know that warmth is especially important to children yet, so many winter clothes are made out of thin jersey cotton and don't keep children warm at all. I am ALL ABOUT WOOL for kids. And, yes, I handwash it. My hand knits maybe got washed once or twice this past year (not including spot treating spit up), which was way less than anything else needed to get washed. Wool just doesn't need to be washed that often and, when it does, it usually means throwing it in some cool soapy water and then taking five minutes to strain the excess water out and block it overnight. No big whoop. While I am no purist, I do believe that children should be surrounded by natural materials when possible and this goes for clothing too. Not only do they perform well and offer the most comfort, I think it also teaches children to expect and value natural materials, which will carry over into adulthood. Studies show that part of the reason McDonald's is so successful in gaining life-long customers is that it evokes nostalgia, comfort. We smell McDonald's and it smells like being a kid again. And we want to share it with our kids. Taking this same psychology, let's apply this to how we provide for our children. What will feel comforting and nostalgic? Pilled polyester PJs and wandering the isles of Old Navy? Or cotton and wool and eagerly anticipating the last stitches of this winter's sweater? (Or, arguing with your mom about why she just won't buy you the cool PJs from Old Navy already! haha)

Odette Hoodie... turns out he hates hoods....

Practicality also means that I just never put my son in the 10 short sleeved shirts I had for him over the winter and I didn't put him in that really cute sweater I knit a couple years ago and ONLY fit him from June-August. I held onto them because I loved them (or kept believing that I would Really Need Them), but they just sat in his drawers. It may be precious, but I'm not going to put anything uncomfortable on my baby (that goes for scratchy, tight, cumbersome... whatever). Kid's gotta move.
A particularly bad hair phase. A particularly good shirt.

Practicality means affordable. I admit that, as a new parent who likes clothes, I spent more money than necessary. It's actually just not sustainable and it is going to have to shift in the coming months/years. Ideally, I would create a wardrobe out of all used clothing, with special items handmade or, occasionally, bought from small producers. While there is legitimate debate about whether our used clothing system is sustainable, I do believe used clothing is THE way to clothe children. Children grow fast and most kids do not go through well-made clothing in one season. Buying used, or trading among parents keeps us from having to find new materials and pay more labor. It saves time and money. Melanie (Gosh, I am really repping her blog in this post) talks about how she recycles adult clothes into children's clothes in this post. I often find I can get nice fabric from giant ugly dresses or sweaters at Goodwill. Knitting for babies is easy with random skeins leftover from bigger projects. As he grows, this will become less and less possible and I will have to do some better budgeting.

So, without further ado, I will skip over the piles of laundry, and get straight to the handmade:

What Worked For Us:

Vests are great because sweaters kind of engulf small babies, making it hard for them to move. Vests keep the core warm without restricting the arms or covering hands.
Pattern credit from left to right: felipe vest, pepple vest, magic troll vest

Some examples of "didn't work": The vest of the left, Harold, is SO sweet, but didn't actually keep his tummy warm, so I only put it on him once. The vest on the right was my first attempt at lining a handknit and I LOVED it. He had so many other clothes that by the time I tried it on him, he had outgrown it.

Specifically: high waisted and wool
high waisted pants do the same thing as a vest on top, and keeps legs warm also. Melanie has a great tutorial for making wool longies out of old sweaters (that I pick up at thrift stores for $3). I do something similar, but I eliminated elastic by using the bottom ribbing of the sweaters as my (high) waist. This worked well for an infant, but probably won't for a walking child.

Patterns from left to right: improvised design of my own, High Waisted Baby Overalls

The quintessential onesie is actually not my favorite. The long sleeved ones are nice in the winter, when we want to make sure baby's core is warm, but generally I find them a hassle. My son HATES having things pulled over his head and our diaper changing "routine" (um, battle) could always do with fewer snaps. I made these snap-down tunics (short sleeved and sleeveless) to make dressing a bit easier. Plus: cute. These I improvised out of fabric from my stash (a lot of cotton made in china, at least the stripes are organic?)
please excuse all the wrinkles, they are fresh from the dresser. A good blogger would press before photographing.

How has this informed the way I think about my son's FW2015/16 wardrobe? Well, not much, because I was a crazy pregnant person and hoarded away hand me downs to last until he's 18 months old... maybe 2 years. He still has a LOT of clothes, including more handknits than he needs. I imagine that I will still find holes in his wardrobe and, while I want to say that I will fill them with handmade things from the stash of things I already have, I imagine there will be thrifting, buying new materials, probably even gettin' grabby in the aisles of Target. I'm really going to work on this last one.

But, for the sake of the exercise, here is what I imagine he might need:
Long sleeved shirts: Maybe 5-7? I'd love to find some good patterns for long sleeved shirts, as drafting sleeves on the fly seems a little beyond my skill level at the moment.
Pants:2-3 wool pants and 2-3 lighter weight (cotton, linen, hemp) pants
Handknits: 2 vests and 2-3 sweaters. 1-2 hats (bonnets because if they don't tie on, he pulls them off)
Clockwise from top left: a vest of my own creation in the works, an altered milo vest (cables on the sides, tiny pockets in the front), Simply Pants by Paelas, recycled woolen pants.

So, that is my long rant (could have been longer, I could talk about it all day!) about dressing small people. I would love to hear from other, more seasoned parents on this subject.


-How did stocking a wardrobe change with the toddler years? Am I totally unrealistic about how many clothes my child needs?

-How do you balance your values and your budget? How has this worked over the long haul, with more children, as they continue to grow (and grow and grow...)?

-How do you talk to children about the choices you make? How do you explain and engage the inevitability of falling short of your values and ideals? Of the process of making hard choices? Saying no to something you love vs. sacrificing to have something valuable?

-How do you talk to children about valuing used clothes over new clothes?

-How do you combat the allure of marketing to children/teens? (my parents tried with me and it didn't work until I became Too Cool For School and thought I had discovered it myself)

-Really, how long did your kids let you dress them in handmade things? Just be honest. I can take it. Like, 21, right?


  1. gosh I love this post, and I agree wholeheartedly with all you are saying! YES about the "gender neutral" stuff! Probably you aren't surprised that my younger boys are constantly mistaken for girls. And as babies especially. And do you know, just yesterday someone thought Birdie was a boy, because she was wearing brown woolens that had been Sun's, and he was mistaken for a girl in them! None of it makes sense.
    I love the darling things your little boy wears. I love those snap shirts!!
    I do find that the older kids are less glad about wearing handmade things than the younger ones. However, they do still love hand knitted things, especially sweaters and hats, and pajamas. Also, sweatpants and other comfy pants. :)

    1. I find it fascinating to see the way people make assumptions about the sex of young children! People assumed my son was a boy for the first 5 months, and after that, everyone assumes he is a girl. At first, I thought the switch happened when he got older and I still dressed him in light colors without bold patterns or things with vehicles on them. I think it is actually JUST that he has long eyelashes. So strange!
      People are funny funny.
      I was always mistaken for a boy when I was little (because... bowl cuts... oh, mom...) and I found it VERY offensive. I hope Hosea grows up to present himself as he pleases, and I imagine SOMEDAY I will let him get his haircut ;)