Here in the Reskills column of VeganReader, I am advocating that men and women consider learning to sew some of their own clothes. Sewing for yourself or your loved ones is not only a very pleasant way to spend time, it also increases your sense of being an able person – someone who knows how to clothe people, rather than being wholly dependent upon designated, faraway ‘experts’ for this matter of survival.
Today, I’m sharing my latest sewing project with you – a quilted organic vest that is vegan and extremely warm for the chilly fall and winter days that have suddenly arrived here. I’d like to spend a moment addressing an issue that can be really problematic for vegans, whether they are trying to sew or simply purchase warm clothing. I hope to help you learn to dress in a way that is both toasty warm and cruelty free.
As you know, humans living in cold regions historically wore the skins of animals to protect them from the elements. Our species has evolved as though all of us live in some temperate zone at a pleasant 70 degrees year-round, regardless of the fact that humans have become naturalized in nearly every type of climate and terrain the world has to offer. Humans took the fur, feathers and hides of more appropriately-garbed creatures in order to survive in cold places, and eventually, they domesticated sheep in order to have a constant and reliable source of insulating animal wool.
Vegans eschew the practice of wearing animal products. This rules out leather, silk and wool. This choice is made out of compassionate beliefs that do not support a system which takes control of animal lives in order to benefit man. Vegans believe that animals should be free to live out their own lives without needing to show a profit to people. In addition to this, some people cannot wear wool because they are allergic to it.
So, where do these philosophies and allergies leave people who live in places where fall and winter are chilly? Generally, they end up purchasing synthetic fiber warm clothing. Textiles like acrylic, nylon, rayon and polar fleece make up the majority of the materials you will find used in non-wool sweaters, vests, coats, hats, scarves and pants in American department stores. Synthetic textiles tend to make up the majority of most fabric stores’ inventory, too.
What’s Wrong With Synthetic Fabrics?
From an ecological standpoint, the fact that many synthetic fabrics are made of petroleum and plastics does not make them winners. When it comes to personal comfort, synthetic fabrics are really unpleasant to wear. They aren’t nice to touch and they don’t let our skin breathe, often causing excessive perspiration. The rubbery-ness of lycra pants and uncomfortable fuzziness of acrylic sweaters really make my skin crawl and the fact that these types of textiles make up the bulk of what is available in the U.S. is one of the main reasons I decided to learn to sew.
Just as my decision to go vegan 20 years ago taught me that the Earth lavishly provides for everything I could need to eat, without my having to steal from or kill other animals, my quest for a natural fiber wardrobe has shown me that plants can take care of my needs for both coverage and warmth. My new organic vest is a really good example of this.
How I Made This Vegan, Organic Vest
My vest is made of 2 layers of organic cotton sateen with cotton quilt batting between them. I have sewn all of my family’s quits and simple quilting is a super secret you can discover if you are looking for vegan and eco-friendly ways to make warm winter clothing.
Quilting is an ancient art, believed to have originated in China, and it’s simply the practice of putting a layer of warm fiber between two layers of fabric and then stitching through the three layers in order to make them cushion-y and thick.
You can take any button up shirt pattern and make a warm winter vest like this from it. The only alteration you’ll need to make is to make the armholes a little bit bigger/deeper so that shirt or sweater sleeves can fit through them comfortably when you wear the vest. I would also suggest that you make the vest 1 to 2 sizes larger than your normal shirt size so that it can accommodate whatever layers you are wearing underneath it.
Cut each pattern piece in the shirt/vest 3 times – twice out of your fabric and once out of your cotton quilt batting. Most shirts consist of 3 main parts – the back piece and the two front pieces that button together. I created each of the 3 pieces separately, sewing the fabric layers and quilting layer together around the edges. I then quilted each of the 3 main pieces in a simple diamond pattern on my sewing machine (I don’t have a fancy quilting machine) before joining the 3 pieces together into the finished garment.
My shirt pattern came with a rounded collar. I sewed this last, quilted it in smaller diamonds and attached it to the shirt. Finally, I hand sewed the button holes and sewed on some simple wooden buttons I happened to have in my sewing box.
The Organic Fabrics I Used
Organic fabrics remain few and far between, despite how much so many of us would love to sew with them exclusively. My solution was to purchase an organic, cotton, sateen bed sheet from Coyuchi – a noteworthy company that vends organic bedding and baby garments.
Expensive? Kind of, but I look at it this way. I not only made a whole vest out of a single sheet, but I have fabric left over that I will definitely be putting to use for other projects. The sheet cost about $50. I would certainly pay that much for a store-bought organic vest that will last me for decades and I certainly couldn’t find one with this kind of handmade quality.
And if I think beyond my own clothing budget to the fact that Coyuchi’s organic bed sheets not only protect my health but the health of the people who grow and weave the cotton, that price tag takes on an even more appealing shine. It takes so much work to farm cotton, harvest it, make it into thread and then cloth. If I can make a truly warm basic piece for my winter wardrobe out of this and even have remnants left over for future projects, I think I’m coming out of the deal rather well. Do you agree?
The organic cotton sateen has the sheen to it you may associate with quilted vests and jackets, but it comes from natural cotton – not viscose or nylon or some other uncomfortable synthetic fiber. The finished garment has a subtle, handsome glow to it.
The Design Of My Vest
In addition to making the plain vest out of a single brown organic sheet from Coyuchi, I used the organic gift bags my purchase came in to create a beautiful design on the vest. I had purchased a couple of items when I visited a Coyuchi outlet and one came with a celadon and white bag and the other came with a raspberry and white bag.
From these small pieces of fabric, I created my own added design element for the vest. I sewed together three stripes of the fabric, applied them to the outside front pieces of the vest (before I had attached them to the batting or backing) and then I appliqued two additional pieces onto this: the bear and the mountain. This mountain shape is a Pan-Indian symbol and bears are very important animals to me. I call this design “Bears Go To Mountains”. Once I had done the applique work, which simply means sewing around the raw edges of the bear and the mountain so that they don’t fray, I was ready to layer the fabrics and batting for the three main pieces, stitch them together, quilt them and then assemble the vest.
That Sounds Like A Lot Of Work
This project took me two evenings of sewing. My husband, who wields a rotary cutter like no one else in the world, assisted me. We had a very sociable, happy time together making this warm winter garment for me. Just 2 evenings of enjoyment have resulted in a vest that I will be wearing for years to come.
You Can Sew A Vest Like This
While I wouldn’t recommend this as your very first sewing project, I believe that anyone with a bit of sewing experience could easily make a vest like this. There is nothing complicated about it and chances are, you can make it from a shirt pattern you already have on hand if you have some sewing patterns at home. If not, you could buy a pattern specifically meant for a vest, or just buy any simple button-up shirt pattern and make the 2 adjustments I’ve outlined above.
I cannot believe how wonderfully warm this vest is over a long sleeved shirt or sweater. It provides an added layer of insulation over the chest while leaving the arms very free to move about. I think this is a really perfect fall garment and will be great under a coat when the snow starts falling.
You could make your vest even warmer by finding a source for organic cotton flannel, organic cotton corduroy or organic cotton velvet. All of these fabrics would be warmer than simple sateen, and could certainly produce a very fine garment.
What I Love Most About This Vest
- It’s organic
- It’s made out of a bed sheet – how creative is that?
- I got to create my own design for it that has a special meaning to me
- It’s vegan and cruelty-free
- It’s really warm
Sewing for yourself or your dear ones says a lot about the importance you give to human health, comfort and happiness. When you find a way to sew organic garments, you are making an even more powerful declaration of care for yourself, your family, farmers and the planet. This is a wonderful, positive thing to do and it’s my hope that we will be seeing more organic fabric choices in the coming years.
I hope you have enjoyed this article about my latest sewing project and that it has inspired you to sew something great. My next goal is to sew organic winter coats for my family. I’m assembling my materials right now. This is going to be a really big, exciting project. Please check back soon!