When Bloomberg News reported the $400 yoga legging trend, my stomach convulsed into spontaneous nauli. Disgusted by this—and my reliance upon these clothes as an instructor—I developed a plan. I would learn to sew my own yoga pants. With my head full of dreams, I decided to skip beginner patterns and committed to a more outrageous venture: By September, I would recreate my favorite Lululemons. Purchased in 2007, these pants still performed gravity-defying properties on my aging backside.
For encouragement, I called my resourceful mother in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“You’ll hate what you make,” Mom said. “Trust me. It’s cheaper to buy what you want.”
I suspected she was right, but still, thanks for the encouragement Mom. She’d engineered my childhood wardrobe, from Little House dresses to Brownie uniform, until I reached high school and begged her to stop. I can still see her, pins in her mouth, draping patterns on my elongating pre-teen body. For two decades, I’ve lived in big cities, losing daily physical contact with my mother. Now I secretly wondered if my mission wasn’t just about the garment industry. Maybe it was a homage to home and to Mom.
I researched classes. With my deadline, I didn’t have time to slug through a progression of pillows and totes. But I did need a refresher and started at Esaie Couture Design, in Brooklyn. For $60, a four-hour tutorial provided threading and stitch techniques. With limited space between machines, I bumped elbows with a massive marine. A handsome man between deployments, he said he needed stress relief. “My grandma was Lebanese,” he said, lowering his presser foot. “She could sew with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.” When he clipped the threads on the finished product, a gift for his stepdaughter, the marine beamed. “It’s a skirt!” he squealed.
Having re-mastered basic skills, I located a patient teacher, Rachel Blackmon, through my Inwood community Facebook page. We agreed on lessons for $40 an hour, staying within a budget of about $200.
When I met Blackmon in her sunlit apartment, I knew I found my guide. Dressed in a floral skirt of her own invention, she offered red wine while her son played in the bedroom. Like me, she competed in 4-H in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Unlike me, she continued through high school and her recent job transition, from middle school teacher to CEO of Rachel’s House of Craft.
“What’s more fulfilling?” Blackmon asked me. “Buying or making? There’s something about creating with the hands that rekindles home.”
Blackmon invited me to touch several samples of knit, one of her favorite fabrics. On her dining room table, she pinned and traced my Lulus onto pattern paper, a maneuver that resembled dissection. Before our next lesson, she recommended two places to purchase fabric: a Mom & Pop in the Bronx and Mood Fabric in the Garment District. As a die-hard Project Runway fan, my ears heard only Mood, the source of sewing porn.
Entering, I imagined the voice of Tim Gunn, warning me to “make it work.” With three levels, Mood was the Capitol. Jo-Ann Fabric was merely a colony.
Impervious to pain, I danced through aisles of notions and faux fur until I was stopped by Jonae, an “ex-con design student” with torn jeans and an Afro.
She led me into a Brothers Grimm forest of knits. My hands reached for a grayish-black material, then to a bolt of stretchy denim. “You’re not allowed to make jeggings,” she gasped. Overwhelmed, I grabbed my first choice, a gray-black ponte. A blend of rayon, polyester, and Spandex, the ponte shared qualities with my olive capris. Jonae cut a yard-and-a-half for $12. “No more murder pants for you,” she said, referring to the 2011 bludgeoning death of a Lululemon sales clerk by a fellow employee.
Jonae was a poem.
After I washed and dried the fabric, I went back to Blackmon who spread it onto her table. “I have a philosophy,” Blackmon said, smoothing wrinkles. “Sometimes we avoid what is most healing to us. It reminds you you’re a physical being with an end. We avoid the things that self-sustain because they connect us to our mortality.”
For the next three Wednesdays, Blackmon coached as I cut, ironed, and basted parts together. Then came my first fitting: a moment of truth. The pants were going to be beautiful. All we had to do was rip basted seams and re-sew with permanent stitches. Confident, I agreed to finish my project using the $10-per-hour unsupervised option. I stitched. Blackmon did laundry. When Blackmon checked on my progress, she turned pale. I had sewn the outer seams together without incorporating the gusset. In a matter of minutes, my promising pants had turned into a long-waisted pair of bootie lederhosen.
“You’re going to have to cut the seams, which means we now have less fabric,” she said. “This ponte may stretch enough to fit you. But you may need to give them to someone who is smaller than you.” I walked home close to tears.
For the final lesson, Blackmon gave me healthy discounts. We would be done in an hour, she said. We were so close.
Four hours and several thread balls later, I did indeed have a pair of pants. I tried them on in her bedroom. Fantastic! But I had mixed feelings. More flattering than the Lulus, they were also more expensive at more than $300 in cloth and instruction.
“This project was difficult,” Blackmon said. “There was an impenetrable quality to the fabric. We solved the problem by changing needles, from ballpoint to a sharp universal. Every fabric has its surprises.”
I wasn’t convinced.
“If you make them again, it would be easier,” Blackmon coaxed. “You were learning a lot at once. I suggest you take a break from knits and go with wovens because you can take out the stitches without ruining the fabric.”
We agreed to leave the pattern at her apartment. I would tackle the pants again, once I’d mastered easier projects. In the meantime, I wore my pants to Jivamukti. They held up in hanuman. They also rocked in CrossFit. Stoked, I walked into Lululemon on 14th Street.
“What do you think of my Lulus?” I asked, glowing. “Is there anyone I can talk to about the care and fit of a pair of pants?” A friendly clerk pointed to the manager. The manager directed me to media relations online. I tried the same dialogue at Athleta and Old Navy. I got the same results.
When I sent emails to the media departments of Gap Inc., which owns Athleta and Old
Navy, I heard nothing. When I wrote to Lululemon, I received this from a p.r. person: “Thanks for your email and for thinking of Lululemon for this opportunity. We'd like to respectfully decline . . .”
While I didn’t really expect anyone from Lululemon to comment, I hadn’t realized the expanse between production and point of sale. Making my own Lulus was ambitious, but it wasn’t frivolous. As my digital world sped up, DIY would keep me human—bridging the crucial space between people and products. And next time, they’d be much less expensive.