Surveying the situation
Earlier this month, I took a look around my studio. There was a stack of fabric at the end of one of my cutting tables, needing a home. Another two piles sat on the sofa, and another one was shoved at the back of the counter against the wall.
I’ve been a materials collector since I first started sewing as a teenager. I love the thrill of the hunt. The array of possibilities that rapidly tumble through my creative brain as I move my hand across a piece of uncut cloth. The flashes of inspiration as I imagine how someday I will truly be living my best life, and it will be in the perfect garment made out of this thing my hand is on right now.
I exercise restraint in a lot of areas of my life, but fabric shopping is not one of them.
I had outgrown my previous system of clear plastic 53 L bins stacked under my cutting tables. I was at the point where I didn’t even know what I had. I didn’t want to buy more bins to house these additional piles, because I knew the second these pieces went into them it would be out-of-sight-out-of-mind, and I wouldn’t even remember that I had them.
I realized I was intentionally keeping these piles “in sight” because to me, they were the newest, freshest things and I wanted to keep them at the forefront of my mind when I started planning my wardrobe for the new year. But what else was lurking in those bins, that had once been displayed on the table as the previous favorites? What had I given up on, or tucked away, in a past moment of ruthless clutter-busting?
I decided to embark on a pretty big project that’s been hanging over my head for, well, years.
I’ve always thought it would be useful to have some sort of library or reference where I could get a bird’s eye view of everything in my stash at a glance, without having to pull the heavy wools and sweater knits out of their bins, or refold all that fiddly chiffon just to remind myself what I have.
From swatch cards to swatch tags
There are dozens of ways to organize a stash, but I decided on swatch cards because I am a tactile person, I really like to touch and feel and hold each fabric. I knew a photo or digital database wouldn’t do it for me. So I made a template for some swatch cards, and leveraged this wave of energy and inspiration to get started on this mountain of a project.
About 20 fabrics in, I realized this format was not going to work for me. As nice as it was to see the cards stacked neatly in a pile, each swatch was practically buried in a sea of cardstock. There was so much paper surrounding each piece of fabric that it was hard to really touch and feel the fabric, which was supposed to be the whole point. I wanted to see what things looked like in combination with each other, how their drapes compared, how well the colors coordinated, and all this dang paper was in the way, like excessive packaging.
So I scrapped the cards in favor of tags that were one quarter the size. I’d cut my swatches roughly 2”x3”, and staple the small tag with the necessary info onto the back.
This time, it clicked. Something about the informality of tags really jived with my creative brain. A basket of swatches to dig through is much more appealing to me than a drawer or binder of cards to leaf through.
Finding my flow
Having finally found the right format, the project went relatively quickly, and it was actually quite a lot of fun! In pulling out the contents of each bin, I fell in love with so many of these old fabrics all over again, and got to enjoy the thrill of “finding” them for a second time, and reimagining them in new contexts.
I estimate that I am about 80% of the way through swatching my entire stash, and I now have a miniature 6 qt clear plastic bin to house the swatches. I decided to only swatch fabrics that I have at least ½ yard of, and anything smaller goes into a separate scrap bin.
Now when I begin my seasonal wardrobe planning, I can pull out this mini swatch bin and start by shopping my stash, which is essentially a mini fabric store curated to my taste.
Shame as a creative block
Like many sewists, I grapple with a sense of shame over how much fabric I’ve bought and still not used, and this project forced me to confront that a little more.
The days I stop by the fabric store are often my precious alone time, my artist dates. “Try to keep it under $30,” I tell myself, and then there’s always some crazy sale and I walk out having spent $45, feeling smug that I got a whole new wardrobe’s worth of fabric at steep discounts.
I have many memories of lashing the big soft folded piles to my bike’s rear rack with bungee cords and precariously pedaling home, my mind ablaze with potential projects and all the things I want to make.
The capitalist urge to buy-buy-buy, coupled with the sense of scarcity (especially for deadstock fabrics; I might never find this again!) often overtakes me when I’m in a store. Combine that with an imaginative brain that jumps at the opportunity to envision twenty potential designs for each piece, and I often walk out of the fabric store with 80-90% more than I actually need or will use.
I bring this up because this feeling of shame, of not wanting to confront my overconsumption, was something that kept me from doing this project for a long time.
But once I started and found an organizational format that complements my creative process, it actually felt incredibly healing to go through everything I had.
Yes, I have bought a ton of fabric over the years; more than I need or could ever use. And I don’t have to hate myself for it; I can acknowledge that many of those purchases were just my undisciplined creative brain expressing itself in one of the few ways I allowed it at the time.
This project felt like the closing of a chapter for me, and the beginning of a new one. In 2022 I’m going to carve out more time for personal sewing, and my new fabric organization method will make it easier and more inspiring for me to use what I already have. I can’t promise never to fabric shop again, but I will try to pull from what I have more frequently.
Turns out I just had to make that process a little more fun for myself. And that, to me, was well worth the investment of time it took to do this project.
If you’re feeling inspired to start swatching your own stash, I’ve made my card and tag templates available as a free download on my website. I suggest printing them on card stock or thick paper, and using a paper cutter to cut them apart along the guidelines.
Download the Swatch Cards and Swatch Tags templates here.