What Our Hands Can Do

Looking over these photos from the Friday after Thanksgiving, I noticed something interesting: Almost everything pictured here is hand-made. The dress I am wearing was made by my mother. The hat and scarf were made by me. Even the bicycle was hand-made by an Italian frame builder for Bella Ciao. This combination was not intentional, but once I noticed it, I found it striking. 

My mother knitted this elaborate wool dress for herself in the early 1980s and wore it all through her 20s and 30s, after which point she gave it to me. The dress suited her much better, but that has not stopped me from wearing it since I were a teenager. It only occurred to me recently how remarkable it is for a dress like this to survive being worn for three decades by two different women - neither of whom are at all gentle with their clothing. And yet here it is, still looking fresh and current. The tailoring, the textural variation, and the attention to detail are incredible by today's standards - and my mother made tons of this stuff when I was a child, while being a busy career woman, too. (I remember seeing her knit while speaking on the phone and reading a book about mathematics at the same time... )

While my own attempts at knitting are fairly pedestrian compared to my mother's past projects, they do have one feature in common: longevity. I knitted this scarf back in grad school, and 8 years later it remains alive and well, while countless store-bought ones have since fallen apart. My friends, for whom I've made clothing as far back as high school, give me the same feedback - some of them still wear the things I made in the mid-'90s. Noticing this was a big reason why I started to knit and sew again this year: I am not that great at it, but the stuff I make lasts and fits me better than store-bought.

Over this past year I have done something a little nuts: I've sold or given away most of my clothing - stuff that I had collected and saved for more than 10 years. When I was younger, I was into edgy fashion and quirky designers, but lately that interest has all but faded - replaced by a curiosity regarding how far I can go making things on my own. Aside from knitting, I have been cutting up some of my remaining old clothing and handsewing "new" clothes out of it. Hopefully I will get a sewing machine for the holidays, which will allow me to take things further. In the past I have dabbled in making my own fountain pens as well. And eventually - maybe, just maybe, I would like to try my hand at building bicycle frames - or at least designing them à la Grant Petersen.

While my framebuilding days are not yet on the horizon, I do have enormous respect for bicycles hand-made by others, and an insatiable curiosity about the process. Whether independent framebuilders such as JP Weigle, Peter Mooney, Royal H. and ANT, or small manufacturers such as Mercian, Rivendell, Velo Orange and even Pashley and Bella Ciao - I am impressed by the sheer amount of work and consideration it takes to get the design, the construction, and the finishing just right. The more I learn about the process, the more overwhelming it seems. In a world of homogenous, mass-produced goods, it is amazing to witness what our minds and our hands are capable of creating.


  1. Excellent post, and I'm just as enthralled with the overwhelming amount of work that goes in to a handmade bicycle. Makes the cost seem well worth the time and effort, eh?


  2. We've been finding much the same thing regarding food - buying quality food (veggies, meat, etc) and making things with them yourself is both empowering and very tasty. I understand not everyone has or would choose to spend an hour and a half cooking a meal every day, but there is so much you can make in 30 minutes or less that is so much better than the 5 minute microwave meal, and you'll feel better after eating it. Most cooking and other food production (fermentations like sauerkraut or pickles and culturing like yogurt or sour cream) is pretty simple, and the results of doing it yourself are often so much better than the pre-made, frozen, overly-processed products most people call food.

    Both my wife and I are really interested in getting more into knitting - she can knit in a straight line, and that's about it - I haven't started learning yet. Hopefully soon we'll find the right person to teach us more :)

    I have to admit, I'm somewhat tempted to find a tiny apartment or house and scale back on everything we own so that both my wife and I could work half-time, and be half-time homesteaders basically - grow food, preserve it, cook a lot, make and repair much of our own clothing, shoes (I've developed a bit of a fascination with shoemaking lately), work on photography, music or art projects, and just spend most of our time centered around home.

    Good luck with the sewing machine, and looking forward to what you make with it if you get one!

  3. Velouria, Any meal my wife makes by hand is better by far than any package she opens up, or any resturant we eat at. Funky hand made guitars are better than factory perfect guitars. It is a deliberate choice to like hand made stuff, because hand made is sometimes "off" to the eye. Often hand made is cost prohibitive, but when I am choosing a purchase, if it is an option, I will start by considering the best, which is usually hand made. Dave, who can't post his URL, blogger refuses

  4. My sister and many of my friends have gotten into cooking lately, but I never really enjoyed it compared to things like making clothes and home renovation. I think that's because I have not found a way to cook without it absolutely taking over my day. Everything becomes about the meals, everything smells like food. I know that others are able to integrate it into their day better, but not me. On the other hand, I can knit, read documents for work, have telephone meetings, and update this blog all at the same time : )

  5. You must check out the Artisan's Asylum http://artisansasylum.com/. Sewing, bike building, TIG welding, woodworking, and other creative pursuits all in one space. Well 2 spaces, but I've only been in the Joy Street location.

  6. I'm big into handmade too. I built up my bicycle myself, doing all the construction and cosmetic work, and I haven't bought any clothing (other than socks and shoes) in about 2 years. THIS [http://madebyjulianne.com/?attachment_id=2042] is one of my favorite pictures of myself, for the same handmade reasons you have. I made my bicycle, my bag, my dress, and my undergarments (hell, I even modified the shoes). I get tired of my clothes sometimes, and my friends are always happy to inherit my handmade clothing, which lasts forever.

    I'm with you about the food. I bake bread, but other than that I'd rather eat hummus for every meal than cook! Aren't we lucky to have boyfriends do prepare meals for us?

  7. I am a lurker (and a knitter) who was moved to comment by the handknits. All of them are gorgeous but that dress is truly amazing.

    I also love the observation about the durability of handmade items - while I may spend more on yarn, needles and time to make something than to pop into a store and buy it, I know that I will have a finished object that will last for a long time (and is tailored to my exact specifications to boot!)

  8. The dress is gorgeous.

    I try to wear something handmade every day, even if it's only a pair of socks.
    Handmade things do tend to last. Like Julianne said, I tend to get tired of my clothes before they wear out. I can always find someone to pass things on to.

    I love cooking, but I don't like how much time it takes to prepare a full meal every weeknight, so I cook in batches on the weekend. Soups, stews, casseroles, lasagna, calzones...foods that reheat well and can be frozen in individual portions.

  9. I will say it again, that dress is amazing. And I love how it has stood the test of time. And you will be wearing that scarf and hat forever. They are classics!

    It is funny cause when I wear something I made the last thing I want someone to say is "Did you make that?" I don't want it to be too obvious that it is home-made. Like a bad home-ec project. ;)

    Sometimes I knit something and so much time goes into it and then I put on the finished piece and it is a moment of MEH. But that doesn't stop me cause when it does work out, it is an incredible feeling.

  10. ha, your comment about cutting up your old clothing to make "new" clothing reminds me of the classic children's story, "something from nothing", one of my kids' favorite stories.

  11. somervillain - That's reassuring : ) I was beginning to feel like Little Edie Beal making all this weird stuff without a sewing machine.

  12. I love handmade because the maker always seems to put a little of themselves into the product they are making. Trout fishing with bamboo fly rod handmade by an artisan starting out with a culm of bamboo is very special to me. If taken care of, it will last long after I am gone to be used and appreciated by others. In a way I do not own it I am just a caretaker who is allowed to use it.

  13. Please take a gander at this blogger (Greg). He seems to share some of your sensibilities. He started blogging while taking Doug Fattic's one week immersion "introduction to frame making" class. Since then, I think he is on his second frame made at his home. He really is talented for a stone rookie.


  14. I have a couple of sweaters I made for myself in the 90s. They still look pretty good, if kind of dated in style. Also, somewhere floating around my family is a sweater my Grandfather made for me back in 1976 or so. It's been worn by just about every kid in our extended family since.

    I also used to sew my own clothes, but that's gotten harder as my current place doesn't have a spot where I can leave my sewing machine set up permanently. I should really get back to doing that. I try and buy as much of my clothes from Etsy as I can though, so even if I didn't sew my clothes myself, at least someone made them by hand.

  15. What a lovely dress Velouria! I love handmade things, particularly if they are connected to my family somehow. My mother is rather too 'English' to be effusive with her affection, however, even now I'm 45 and have been knitting myself for over three decades, every now and then a little parcel of warm, woolly love arrives in the post. I love cooking Mum's recipes or stacking garden compost the way Dad showed me when I was 8. I think in these days of mass-production, and families often living away from their roots, it's a way of confirming who you are as a person and where you came from. It is so easy to be diminished to an impersonal number today.

    Over the next few months I'm going to be looking at local food producers/growers that are within range of the bicycle. How great to know where your 'nosh' comes from? It supports local business, is more sustainable, and, once again, having a sense of the people behind the product enriches life from a human aspect.

    I think it makes me more mindful of my belongings and my choices. It also increases my appreciation of just how lucky I am when, for instance, I serve cheese and crackers on the bread-board my uncle carved for my parents wedding present 50 years ago (when he was a knobby-kneed apprentice). I'd love to one day have a custom frame built, until then I guess I just have to keep tweeking the faithful Surly (such a patient fellow).

  16. love the dress.

    I love handmade. I wish I were better and making things myself. Luckily my husband is.half our furniture is hand made by him.

  17. Loved this post. Once upon a time I made nearly all of my clothes (including undergarments) and hope to go back to that again soon. I do have a book on making shoes but never got around to trying it. Someday I will. I have three sewing machines and am also a knitter. I too am fascinated by hand-built bikes and would love to buy one someday, just on principle because hand-built things are fascinating. The thing that "non-crafters" don't seem to understand when they ask "why would you spend your time doing that when you can buy one so cheaply at Target?" is not only that the finished product is higher quality (and that I have control over each individual component of construction) but that the process of making things is in itself pleasurable -- the feel of the materials under your fingers is deeply satisfying. That's the best part of knitting, in fact. I look forward to future posts when you turn your hand to framebuilding!

  18. It's so nice to know that many of you knit and sew as well. Would anybody happen to know a good place to buy wool jersey fabric? (Jersey as in the lightweight, knit and flowy material, not as in "bike jersey".)

  19. Denver Fabrics has some on sale right now. It's 97% wool % lycra, but with that much wool it sounds nice.

    I wish that I could get to my sewing machines! My craft room has been taken over by my husbands office. I can't get to my loom either! At least the spinning wheel lives in the living room, and I can get to my knitting.

    Speaking of which, with all the knitting and sewing and the natural flow of related crafting, we should see you spinning and weaving here within the next year or so, right? :)

  20. I love making things. I get caught up with some enthusiasm to make a table, or a weird lamp or whatever and pretty soon I've made 6 of them and never need to do it again. Then I move on to something else. People used to make so much more of their own things or have them made by people they knew and lived around. That seems like a pretty special thing.

    Sometimes it doesn't come out right the first time or two but the cost of failure is usually pretty low and the next one is always better. I'll spare you a list of all the stuff I like to build, not because I don't want to be seen as bragging but because I don't want to reveal myself as the guy who spends 20 hours making a folding pocketknife that is 99% as good as the ones you can buy for $15 at the hardware store. My friend Shawn(a turkey farmer and fellow builder of lots of crap)describes my house as where "PeeWee's Playhouse" meets "The New Yankee Workshop".

    About 6 of my friends and I share our equipment and help each other out with our projects.We've got tools we have no business having and encourage each other to do stuff we would never dream of doing otherwise. Some of us have built our own houses, hotrods, lots and lots of bikes and motorcycles, an airplane, 20 houses worth of furniture and on and on. Once you start making stuff it frees you from some of the dumb things we find ourselves doing and believing. You spend alot less time on the couch too. You do tend to bleed more though.


  21. "Over this past year I have done something a little nuts: I've sold or given away most of my clothing - stuff that I had collected and saved for more than 10 years."
    Velouria, if you ever think about giving away any of your bikes, please keep me in mind.
    (Ahem, just kidding, of course.)
    Some of my most prized possessions are the scarf, socks and hat that my wife made for me.
    There's love in each stitch.

  22. (puts down chisel, nods at Spindizzy)

    Acoustic guitar making is another one of those insanely detailed and complex tasks.

    This is most certainly a group of people who "get it" regarding craftsmanship and the need for artisans.

    The interesting thing about building skill and confidence in any craft is how it frees you up from your inhibitions toward other sorts of craft.
    After a while, you just check to see if you've actually got the time to finish it, because the process itself no longer intimidates you.

    Velouria, your mom is a really skilled knitter. The dress is very well done.
    Can she give you tips on sewing, too?

    Corey K

  23. I heart your red dress. It's so sweet that you have it and your mother's workmanship is gorgeous. I eagerly await your frame-building days. Next year you should ask for a apprenticeship at ANT for your holiday gift :)

    I haven't worn any red in a while but your dress inspired me to drag out my mother's old burgundy velvet YSL suit from the 70s, fits perfectly, is chic and louche at the same time and thus is a total joy.

    My family makes a lot of things -- my husband designs and fabricates for work and can essentially make anything, which has been inspiring for me and lessened my feeling of intimidation about working with my hands outside of the kitchen or garden. Now I will try anything and most things I've wanted to do have been surprisingly easy.

    I agree with Portlandize that especially with food it is so much easier and faster and cheaper and better to cure, ferment, culture etc one's own foods -- I will never buy a pickle again and it is hard to find fault with a steady supply of gravlax and kimchee in one's fridge.

    I do feel lucky to have the time and choice in making things -- wouldn't be so fun if I were obliged to make everything for myself.

  24. Amy - Thanks for the fabric source. Once I get my sewing machine, first order of business will be a wool jersey dress. Though I like the idea of weaving and spinning, I don't see myself doing it - too many other things on my plate. I learned the basics of knitting and sewing when I was very young, so they are deeply ingrained skills for me rather than something new to learn. But maybe someday...

    Spindizzy - an airplane?...

    MT Cyclist - Right : )

  25. Corey - Sadly, my mother doesn't do either knitting or sewing anymore, and claims she has "forgotten too much" to show me the parts of it I never learned. I do know how to sew, just haven't used a machine or patterns for over a decade. But I don't think this stuff can be forgotten once you learn it.

    neighbourtease - The funny thing, is that the more I learn about framebuilding, the more apparent it becomes that I am not ready for it. There are quite a few people around nowadays who take a welding class, call themselves framebuilders and start making frames that feel bizarre to ride. I want to understand more about geometry and tubing choices before I start, and I feel like I am maybe 25% there.

  26. V-- Fabric Planet, my place of employment has wool jersey in a few colors. We also have other stretch wool fabrics, and an amazing jersey selection. The Model jersey is gorgeous, soft, slinky, cozy, and very warm. It is the creme de la creme of jersey and it's my #1 choice for outer and under garments.

    We're a new small business in Venice CA but we ship (cheaply!) throughout the world, and have pretty much the best prices anywhere. We were recently named "Best Fabric of your Life" by LA Weekly!


  27. Did someone say wool jersey?


    It's out of stock at the moment, but they do have merino as well. I HATE spandex in garments that I want to last -- even a tiny bit. It eventually rots and crumbles. So I don't recommend any wool jerseys with spandex.

    I decided last year to stop buying clothes that I could make for myself. I've relented a little -- some great $3 wool sweaters from a thrift store and an Ibex wool french terry dress. I could not find wool french terry ANYWHERE and it's well made and I wear it 3x a week.

    I used to say that you don't save any money sewing. That's true, if you compare the pieces to what you can buy at X-Mart or marked down at TJ Maxx. But if you compare it to what it really is -- custom handmade clothing -- you do save money. You also free yourself from SHOPPING. I hate shopping. It's ridiculously difficult to find wool clothing in the US.

    Inspired by your knit skirts, I got out my crochet hooks and made some cowls and hats. And in a true fit of insanity, I bought one of those cheap knitting machines. I have never in my life finished a knitting project bigger than a hamster blanket. After owning the machine for 4 days, I've already made one skirt. I think it counts as handmade.

  28. Julianne -- I went to Fabric Planet and did not find any wool other than trims. Is it just not listed?

    I have to disagree on the Modal. While it's better than polyester, it is no match for wool.

  29. Check out Sewfisticated Discount Fabrics at Twin Cities Plaza/Rte 28 in Somerville. They have a great selection of fabrics and the best prices around. They apparel and decorator fabrics. If they don't have wool jersey in stock, they can order some. They're my favorite place to shop for fabric. http://www.sewfisticated.com/

  30. Lynne, thank you for that link to the wool jerseys!

  31. I am fascinated that you 'dabble in making your own fountain pens'. Please write an article on that

  32. that is awesome!! I sued to wear a pair of my mom's 70s wooden platforms as a teenager then my body decided to grow a little more and I could no longer fit them -- otherwise I'd be rocking those out =)
    awesome dress, love it

  33. Yeah, an airplane. If you want to peek inside another world where people lose their way and wander waayyy off the path of reason, go to any homebuilt airplane forum and just quietly observe... I know a bunch of people who have homebuilt airplane projects going and 2 that have actually finished and flown theirs. I am frankly intimidated by that particular endeavor but I deeply and passionately want a plane and can see myself slipping helplessly into into an affair with a homebuilt if I can't do it any other way.

    I already have 2 complete biplane kits stored in the ceiling joists of my basement now that belong to my friend Les. Someday I'll probably just start building one of them and work out some sort of payment if he happens to realize one of them is gone. He'll probably never get around to building one of them let alone both.
    If you ever wander down to the Shenandoah Valley you should stop by and I'll show you the museum that is my basement. I might also get my friend Ruhl to take you for a ride in his 1940 Piper Cub over the foothills of the Allegheny mountains where I live and you'll understand about how people get irrational about little oldfashioned airplanes...If bikes are habit forming, planes are heroin rolled in methamphetimin and dipped in chocolate.

  34. Our website basically sucks. If you call Fabric Planet at (310) 310 3049 or email fabricplanet@hotmail.com Jordan will take care of you.

    One of the best things for me about living in LA is the fashion district. If we don't have a particular fabric in our store I can find it for sure in a few square blocks downtown. Oh, and another good thing is not needing wool jersey!

  35. Velouria, you will quickly find out that there are just as strong opinions on types and "newness" of sewing machines (and for pretty much all the same reasons) as there are on vintage bikes, per your most recent post. I know you would do this anyway, but take your time figuring out what you really need on a sewing machine and don't get sucked into the latest bells and whistles just because they're there. By FAR the most sensible resource I have found on this topic is the book The Sewing Machine Guide by John Giordano. It's likely in your library; I know it's on Amazon. The advice he gives in Chapter Two is very akin to the types of advice you give would-be bike owners on this blog, and is worth the price of the whole book.

  36. What a great post. This is definitely a cultural trend -- I'm thinking about the popularity of Barbara Kingsolver's ANIMAL VEGETABLE MIRACLE, and the huge success of places like Etsy, and the interest in hand-made in many aspects of life.

    This past year, I actually made several pieces of furniture -- very simple, straight lines, but if was really fun, and comes out of that same desire for quality you cannot find at Target or other big box stores; and the fun of figuring out how to do something; and the pleasure of the tangible.

    Many cultural critics have asserted that this interest in natural materials, in clothing or home goods, or handmade goods, increases in times of great social change and/or uncertainty. I guess the times we live in qualifies! In any event, I applaud the trend.

    I will always be grateful for learning to sew as a child; it taught me how things get put together, which is a terrific skill to have. I actually pulled out my old sewing machine recently...curtains, this week! I am not at all capable of making clothes without a machine, and am in awe that you do.

    That dress is really wonderful. You are lucky to have it, and we are lucky for your generosity in sharing it, and sharing your thoughts.


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