For a period of time, crafting — namely knitting, crocheting and sewing — were fashionable hobbies among the urban set, transformed from housewife-y, repressive tasks to an empowering, DIY approach to fashion (and perhaps earning a little cash with a savvy Etsy store). These days, crafting seems to have fallen out of style. (When was the last time you saw someone knitting on the train?) Making scarves, wrap skirts and iPhone cases out of old sweater sleeves can only be enjoyable for so long before you’re both bored and overstocked with garments created to keep your neck, butt and cellphone warm.
On the other hand, making your own clothes is an especially useful skill at the moment. Contradictory though it may seem, summer is the best time to make stuff: You have more idle time, either stuck as a passenger in weekend traffic or in front of a rerun-filled TV after work, hiding in out in your AC to beat the heat. You also have more of an overall opportunity to wear the stuff you make (even knit).
I spent one summer teaching crochet at a yarn shop near my parents’ place in New Hampshire and saw cold, hard evidence to support my theories about summer makers: June-August was the store’s busiest season (this despite being in a place with freezing winters, one bar and a college population who loved stupid ski hats). Here are the top three means of making your own stuff and how they can fit into your summer plans and beyond:
While knitting is obviously associated with cold weather, that’s only because people associate knit materials with bulk. At its core, knitting is really weaving and creating fabric. If you look closely at the weave of your average T-shirt, it’s just an extremely tight knit, like the hat your grandma made on a near-microscopic level. There are also advantages to using a thicker yarn, namely that it takes less time and material to make an item than if you’re using a very thin thread.
A hat made out of superbulky yarn for a baby, for example, can take almost no time at all, but a sweater for an adult made out of a fine cotton yarn — something you’d wear in summer, for example — is more of an investment of both money (more materials are required) and time. That said, stuff that’s knit with finer yarns looks less homemade, which is what makes learning how to knit summer-weight garments worth it.
Overall Pros: Knit garments sit well on a person, and there are tons of great patterns out there for stuff you’d actually want to make. If you have a long train commute, like the feel of cashmere without J. Crew’s current price points and have several friends who keep breeding like bunnies, knitting is a great skill to learn.
Overall Cons: In my personal opinion (I’m a crochetist by trade), knitting is harder than other crafts, if only because learning to fix your mistakes is a crucial-yet-tricky skill to learn. Knitting is done in rows, so if you make a mistake a few rows back, you have to rip everything up, then figure out how to reset all of your stitches, then figure out how to correct the error, etc., etc. At least if you mess up a hem while sewing, it’s easy to do over, but if your needles happen to fall out of your knitting project while it sits in your bag, you have bigger problems. Overall, knitting projects can be more high maintenance.
What You Need: Needles and yarn, obviously, but it’s best to start with a specific, easy project, and begin your needle and yarn collection there. Most every yarn store provides classes, and there are also craft schools here and there, like Make Workshop in Manhattan (which, full disclosure, is where I learned to knit many years ago and have taught crochet myself and is owned/operated by my friend, Diana Rupp). Most yarn companies put out their own books of patterns to go with their materials, and some of the finest are made by Noro (Japanese, colorful) and Rowan (British, classic). While some of her patterns can be tricky to follow, Elizabeth Zimmerman is one of the best knitwear designers there ever was, and her book Knitting Without Tears is a good place to start (although it’s always best to learn knitting from a person instead of a book).
Who to Read: At a certain point, you're going to want to join ravelry.com, which is the social network of the yarn arts, offering you access to forums, patterns (both free and not) and everything you need for a virtual knitting circle. Craftsy.com and Creativebug.com also have a social element, but they're more like virtual classrooms, offering online knitting courses (as well as courses in sewing, crochet, etc.) and a network of other knitters, patterns, etc. Craftstylish.com also allows networking, but nonmembers have access to a lot of good how-to posts involving all crafts.
How t0 Start: While it's always best to start with something super simple, like a scarf, this summer T-shirt from Vogue Knitting isn't quite "beginner" but is definitely seasonally appropriate. This lovely tank by Teva Durham has a beautiful drape, but the pattern'll cost you. Once you join Ravelry or Craftsy, free patterns will become easier to access.
Next to sewing, crochet is the best of the summer crafts because it results in a looser fabric. Where knitting is weaving, crochet is really more like making knots (which is why people often confuse it with macramé, i.e., those hemp ‘70s-style knotted nets your grandma and/or old-school therapist used to hang potted plants in — and let me tell you, crochet professionals cannot get enough of your macrame jokes, keep ‘em comin’). That makes for less bulky, more open-weaved sweaters and shawls that look less that fabric and more like lace.
Crochet is also a popular method for making bikinis, although it’s important to keep in mind that most of these bikinis are not intended to ever actually get wet; if they’re made out of cotton, water will cause them to swell on contact with water, like those capsule dinosaurs you get out of vending machines outside of the supermarket, and float right off your body. Crochet works more easily into a spiral, so, while your classic pom-pom’d ski hat is knit, your average ear-flapped beanie is crocheted, as are most skull caps and cloche-style hats. From the nation of Islam to the Gatsby enthusiast, crochet has everyone covered.
The most popular current crochet creations are arugami, the Japanese “art” of tiny, cutesy animals, foods, cars, whatever, as long as it’s little, yarn and crocheted. That also makes crochet a good summer hobby, at least if you have those breeder friends and/or an animé collection because small items don’t take a lot of time to make.
Overall Pros: In my experience, crocheting moves faster than knitting and is much easier to correct since you’re working with one open stitch at a time, not a row of them being held onto by a needle. That also means that crochet projects are less fragile, so you can throw them in your bag with ease and not have to worry about your stitching coming free and your work being lost. It’s easier for hats and three-dimensional objects because of its natural spiral motion (if you’ve ever seen a knitter finishing a hat with those double-pointed needles that make it look like a gift for pinhead, you know that knitting in a circle is a lot more complicated). I also think crochet is better than knitting if you’re constantly turning out baby products because you can make blankets out of squares, hats are a breeze and hand-knit baby sweaters, while beautiful, will only be worn by the baby in question twice, during which they will be puked on twice as much.
Overall Cons: Because it’s knots, not weave, crochet doesn’t sit as well on the body. There are also far fewer crochet pattern books out there than there are knitting books, and a lot of the ones that do exist have stuff that nobody under the age of 60 would want to wear. Their stuff is boxy, macramé-y and often made of squares, so that everything looks like the blanket on the back of Roseanne’s couch. Luckily, crochet is easy to make up as you go along, so pattern books aren’t as necessary.
What You Need: Hooks and yarn, but again, start with one project in mind, and get a class if you can. While there are fewer crochet books out there, that doesn’t mean that aren’t great ones in circulation, like Kid’s Crochet by Kelli Ronci, which is a good beginner book, and Loop-D-Loop Crochet by famed knitwear designer Teva Durham (full disclosure, I made one of the samples in this book, and full warning, one of the mesh skirts in this book is worn by a model who is not wearing underwear).
Who to Read: On top of networking/teaching sites like Ravelry, Creativebug and
Craftsy, there's also Kim Werker's site. Kim used to run the crochet blog crochetme.com, then both she and the blog became part of Interweave, which is one of the bigger craft publishing companies. Kim no longer works with crochetme.com or edits Interweave Crochet Magazine, but she still does stuff on her own site and has two great pattern books out there (namely the Crochet Me book, which has patterns that are actually, gasp, somewhat stylish). You can also check out Cal Patch's blog, which links out to some great fiber and Etsy stores as well.
How to Start: There are loads of free arugami patterns out there since they're still fairly popular. As for things to wear instead of coo over, there's this tunic, which is from a japanese pattern, and this top, which is blessedly free and in English. Vogue Knitting has some great stuff from a crochet issue, but it's not online. Also, there's this hat for an Amish horse, but that's neither here nor there.
Sewing is currently the most popular of crafts, probably because it’s the most utilitarian. While it does save a little money to make your own knitwear, knitting and crocheting take a lot more time than sewing, and you can save even more money by making your own shirts, skirts, etc. Basic designs — shifts, tank tops and skirts — can take very little time to make, and if you stick with basic cottons, materials can be extremely cheap. Even a no-frills sewing machine won’t set you back much more than $100.
Summer is the best time for sewing because the stuff that’s most wearable in warm weather, from sundresses to swingy tops, is the easiest to make and is made most easily with the cheapest, thinnest available fabric (as opposed to wools, silk, etc.). Also, sewing allows you to make the largest variety of stuff, from garments to quilts to bags, pillowcases, you name it.
It’s also the easiest craft to teach yourself. After inheriting my grandmother’s ancient sewing machine, I got some old sheets and patterns at a thrift store and just sort of experimented until I figured it out, all at very little expense. Granted, not everybody inherits a machine, but old Singers hold up surprisingly well. I still use my grandma’s singer from the ‘40s, and while it’s been tuned up once or twice, that sucker can sew denim like a champ.
Overall Pros: Definitely the most useful of the skills and especially useful if you have an atypical body shape, be you heavier in the hips or taller in the legs, and have to alter all the clothes you buy or can’t find anything flattering to buy, period. It’s also good to know how to hem and let out your store-bought clothes, since tailors are rarely perfect or cheap, and repair thrift and vintage clothes, or at least experiment with them to create new designs. Also, while the knit baby sweater can feel like a waste of time and money, a hand-sewn dress or shirt for a baby takes nowhere near as much effort with twice the reward since it’ll probably be much easier to wash.
Overall Cons: Ripping out a hem is one thing, but there’s a reason that everyone with a sewing machine lives by the adage, “measure twice, cut once,” because once you cut your fabric, that’s that the piece you’re stuck with it. There’s also the investment in a machine, because no-frills is one thing, but it is worth putting a little more money into something that has a few frills and is sturdier overall.
What You Need: While you can just hand-sew, you’ll probably lose interest in the craft after the first six months it takes you to hand-stitch a dress, so a machine is a must. Make Workshop offers sewing classes, and Diana Rupp has written a how-to sewing book, Sew Everything Workshop, that I can say objectively is quite helpful. Because sewing is slightly more intuitive, it’s easier to go from learning the basics to messing with thrift clothes and experimenting with stitches and fit to finding patterns you like and digging in, and Wendy Mullin (of Built by Wendy) has a book of cute designs, Built By Wendy Dresses.
Who to Read: The same social network suspects.
How to Start: On Cal Patch's blog, she's currently doing a step-by-step series on how to make an A-line skirt, which is perfect for this time of year (and her fabric choices are always on-point). There's also ThreadBanger, which offers this video tutorial on spiked and patterned pants (more an alteration how-to than a pattern for pants from scratch, but still). And Built By Wendy has pattern packs available through Simplicity patterns, like this shirt/dress combo.