5 steps to sewing a flexible wardrobe

It may sound daunting to start thinking about your sewing projects in terms of building a flexible wardrobe. I mean you already have to think about good construction, right fabric choice, pattern alterations, fitting and the list goes on. And yet, I know how many of us (hand raised here!) have gotten to the end of a challenge only to have yet another garment that you’re not going to wear. My dear hope is that by the end of The Day and Night Dress Challenge, you would walk into your closet and be able to see, ok, this dress goes with this and this and this too. So let’s break down how you can start building a flexible wardrobe.

Sew a flexible wardrobe

What is a flexible wardrobe?

flexible wardrobe example of a knit dress styled with a chenille motorcycle vest for winter
knit dress + motorcycle vest + tea=my life!

A flexible wardrobe could mean a lot of things to you. It could mean that you have some pieces that you can wear year-round. Maybe it means that you can mix and match everything that you own. Ultimately, in a flexible wardrobe, you have some pieces that you can match with at least one and as many other items as you can. But this doesn’t have to be restrictive or boring. You won’t hear me telling you to get rid of your whole closet or be done with sewing your own clothes when you have 7 interchangeable pieces.

Start with a dress

Today we’re going to start with thinking about 1 type of garment–a dress and how it is that you might pair that garment with other garments. This will help you start thinking about creating your day and night looks for The Day and Night Dress Challenge, but beyond that, I hope it’ll give you a framework for evaluating future sewing projects you might have in mind.

So here are 5 things to think about with dresses when you’re thinking about sewing a flexible wardrobe:

1. Think about your life

What sorts of hats do you wear in your life? Are you a teacher, a Mom, a business person, do you like looking super sharp or are you pro casual all the time?

Give a name to all the styles that make up how you dress in your day. For me, my typical week is a whole lot of Mom Style, Teacher Style, and periodically Church Style. Some others might be Work Style, Going Out Style, Weekend Style. Write down all of your style categories your everyday life fits into.

You could even have subcategories within your style groups: I know my own Soccer Mom Style requires a whole different look than my regular Mom Style and particularly depending on what time of year it is. Which leads me to point 2.

woman wearing orchid sweater dress styled with purple hoodie
A hoodie + a sweater dress is perfect for battling Colorado wind, morning cold and bad hair on soccer Saturdays!

2. Think about the weather

Maybe you live in a climate with really consistent weather. Oh you tropical island people! Probably wherever you live, there’s at least some unpredictability with the weather. Here in Colorado, it’s not uncommon to have a snow day followed by a really mild day or a whole lot of wind on what otherwise would be a pleasant day. How I wear a dress in winter is going to be totally different than how someone in a full-on Canadian winter handles it.

colorblocked wool coat
Boiled wool coat great for a 40 degree day but needs extra layers for crazy winds

Write down any kind of weather challenge. Brainstorm any kind of solution that might help you with that challenge. And then write down garments or accessories that will smack help deal with that.

Here’s a couple examples:

Weather challengepossible solutiongarments/accessories to pair with your dress
fickle Winterlayering on top, under dressesjackets, sweaters, fingerless gloves, scarves, detachable cowls, coats, ALL.THE.LEGGINGS
burning hot sunsleeveless airy dresses, but also, light layers in breathable fabrics to avoid sunburnlinen overshirt, cotton short sleeve bolero

3. Think about your work and hobbies

A flexible wardrobe requires mixing pieces that work for your hobbies. 
 Woman playing violin while wearing orchid sweater dress styled with printed rayon t-shirt
You’ll literally never see me wearing woven tops while playing violin.

Do you have any physical needs in your wardrobe during the day? I know when I was in a classroom, wearing pencil skirts was mighty impractical being up and down and sitting on my knees on the floor for much of the day. In my violin life, knit shirts and dresses keep my upper body free to move while I play.

And most jobs have some sort of norm for how you need to be dressing.

So next, write down any specific ways that your job or anything else you do might affect your wardrobe choices.

4. Color is Queen

Not all colors go with all colors. Putting colors and mixing prints is a skill that takes time to develop. A black dress does NOT go with everything. You know this instinctively, but it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with color. Here are some good basic categories and qualities of color that work well together. It’s good not to mix categories. To give you an example, a muted red is going to look weird with a bright fuschia, but it’ll look great with a grey.

  1. Muted: colors with grey added to them
  2. Pastels or tints: pure colors with white added to them
  3. Analagous: colors next to each other on the color wheel
  4. Monochromatic: various shades of the same color
  5. Jewel Tones: pure saturated colors–think Crayola bright in all their full glory

Color is the most visual and maybe the most interactive component in a flexible wardrobe. I don’t want you to write anything down here yet. You need to look with your eyes! Nancy Zieman said this really profound thing once on a Sewing With Nancy episode:

“Make visual decisions visually”

Nancy Zieman
seriously one of my favorite quotes and one of the 7 pieces of sewing advice that transformed my creativity

First take your dress, and put it against a neutral background–a white board, a wood floor–whatever you have. If you have a dress form, use it!

Place different colors next to it and take note of any that just make it sing. You could use swatches of fabric, actual yardage of fabric, or anything with color like paint chips from the hardware store. Which ones make an impact? Are there any that you want to throw across the room they’re so wrong? I like all of the above for different reasons, but the organza has my heart and imagination.

Now, write down those happy making colors.

If you were using fabric, set aside the winning fabrics. You can even cut a little swatch of the fabric and staple it to a project page if you have a sewing planner.

5. Find a sewing pattern that brings it all together

So far, you know what dress you’re going to pair with a new garment. You’ve thought about your lifestyle needs you have in your wardrobe, the weather challenges you face, and what colors make that dress jump for joy. Your last step in sewing up a flexible wardrobe is to find a pattern that will bring all these elements together. Brainstorm all your ideas for any possible sewing patterns.

If you can’t find a pattern straight off the top of your head, it’s okay to write down an idea for the perfect pattern. You can easily go searching for something like a “cocoon cardigan pattern” or “cropped sweater pattern” later!

Create your own flexible style by combining your favorite garments.  Purple faux leather jacket + printed rayon tee shirt + sweater dress
Who knew this jacket would become probably my favorite outside of this denim jacket?

My faux leather jacket is a good example of ticking all the boxes. I can’t violin in it, but it keeps me warm in fall and spring, I can pair it with most dresses and I feel darn cool in it. Originally it was for cosplay, but it’s easily become a staple in building my own flexible wardrobe.

Keep experimenting!

Wardrobes are things that are ever changing. We grow bigger, we grow smaller, clothes wear out, get dated. As sewists we hold ALL of the style cards, and the more we can think about making pieces that work in harmony with each other, the more of a flexible wardrobe we will create.

flexible wardrobe example with one dress styled 3 ways
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