Cracking the underwear code: make your own underwear

Take another step towards autonomy as you make your own underwear.

Take another step towards autonomy as you make your own underwear.

By Luiza Oliveira

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Picture by Luiza Oliveira – Unpicking stitches from my oldie.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found it difficult to find A underwear that combines values about the materials and work ethics + comfort + nice looking.

Usually, the ones I had found, if the company and material were ethical, the look of it was not great … and if the underwear was more to the sexy side … well, it was basically no comfort, let alone the ethics … maybe I should change this article’s title to How to de-construct the patriarchy expressed in our underwear.

Anyway, one day I found a brand that worked with organic cotton, and it looked nice (I was not so sure about the general ethics of the company), but I decided to give it a try. It was a good fit, comfortable, no allergies. With time I realized that the fabric was too thin and the life cycle of it was a bit too short, and shortly after that moment its production was discontinued… and I was orphaned of comfortable-organic underwear again.

I was tired of looking for an underwear that fitted my values and my body, and I was tired of complaining about it too. So I decided to use the permaculture lenses in it, and find the solution within this problem.

I have some sewing skills in my bag and I was willing to find a solution to create my own underwear. And I wish to inspire you to dare to do it yours too.

Don’t be fooled by the appearances of the picture above, I am no seamstress. I learned how to sew observing my grandma Beth, who learned by herself in order to make her own clothes. As a child, her family couldn’t afford to buy clothes and together with her other sisters, she starts sewing when she was six years old.

When I arrived in her life, the family situation was better, she was an amazing seamstress who did amazing garments and created herself a job out of it. Sewing to her was a mixture between a gift and a trauma, and she’d never let me use her sewing machine, saying that my time would be better spent in my studies. But no matter what she said, I just loved to look at her sewing and spend hours next to her, chatting as she worked on her craft.

It was so much precision, creativity, math, laughter, and colors … I loved it all. Back then I didn’t know how much I was learning from her in observing her in her creative process. Lessons that I take in a precious place of my heart until now.

All of that to say that I’ve never taken formal sewing classes, but I had a great role model on how to sew and build everything from scratch (without google and youtube to rely on) and had tons of fun with it. So, if I can do it, so do you.

But what does permaculture have to do with underwear?

Making your own underwear allows you to:

  • Chose your own material and who are producing them (Earth care, People care, and Future care/use and value renewable resources).
  • To create, to play, and chose a sewing template that celebrates your own body and curves that makes you feel comfortable is to be able to celebrate your own diversity and another step in reclaiming your autonomy in knowing what it suits and fits you better (observe & interact / Use and value diversity / find creative solutions / use small and slow solutions).
  • As producing your own food, when you start to produce your own underwear, you reduce waste related to packaging, transportation, storing, selling, and so on (towards zero waste).
  • If you do it with friends and community, this is another way to engage people in this kind of reflection, exercise, demystifying the many aspects of doing your own stuff with good quality (supporting community experiences).

How to create your own underwear from scratch:

List of needed materials:

  • Old underwear that you like the shape of it and that has completed its lifecycle
  • Unpicking needle
  • Fabric scissors
  • Cutting board
  • Measuring tape
  • Paper to draw the pattern on (a paper that is not too rigid or too fragile, besides being big enough. My grandmother used something like old brown bread paper bag kind of paper)
  • Drawing pens
  • A paper or notebook to take notes
  • Sewing pins
  • Sewing machine,
  • Thread, elastic band, and fabric of your choice

For the choice of the fabric, choose a jersey kind of fabric, and sew it before washing it (this will prevent the borders to roll, that would make it harder to sew). When looking for where to buy your materials, try to find a place you trust and share your values. It makes all the difference.

Since I live in Switzerland, I’ve got mine in Au Fil de la Nature. A woman-owned company by Gaëlle, who gives amazing support to her clients and cares for every step of the way, from finding ethical producers and making sure to send the material in the safest way and with the lowest carbon footprint possible.

For the fabric, I used this one.

For the measures, I did an M size model, it took me :

60 cm /24 in of the elastic band

A piece of 30 X 60 cm / 12 X 24 inches of fabric

But again, this was what it took me. I would buy a bit more to give it a try, considering that you might try to do more than one, and maybe have a different silhouette.


The unbuilding preparatory phase

  1. Find in your own drawer (or in your underwear storage place), the one underwear that fits your body, and you are prepared to let it go. I took an old one that had completed its life cycle (aka with a few holes in it). I find it easier to start with something that you are familiar with before playing with the design. The nice thing about unpicking your old underwear is that you learn to observe it deeply and learn how it was made, even if you don’t have anyone next to you to tell you how it was built.
  2. Observe all the seams in it, and take notes about its construction. What were the last parts that were put together? What was the first part that was sewed together? Does it seem to have any hidden stitches? How does the gusset build in it?
  3. Take some pictures of the whole piece before unbuilding it, and take pictures of pieces and corners that it might look tricky to remember how it was done. The idea is to gain your own autonomy in the process and be able to make a template for yourself that you can reproduce as many times you want. The more time you observe the first one, the easier and faster are going to be to make the next ones.
  4. Start to unpick the stitches and observe the kind of stitch that was chosen for it.
  5. Once all the pieces are unpicked and separated, observe its lines, its curves.
  6. Make sure to understand how the hem was made and include extra fabric in the template if needed.

Creating the template itself and cutting it out

  1. Without stretching or letting the fabric too loose, pin the pieces of fabric (of the old underwear) over the paper and draw the template on the paper.
  2. Once you finished drawing it, put the pieces of fabric away.
  3. Cut the paper template.
  4. Place, pin the paper template over the new fabric that you choose. Remember to not stretch or let the fabric under too loose either.
  5. Cut the fabric accordingly.
  6. Understand what is the front, what is the back, what is suppose to be up and down. Write a letter or words on the template to help you remember how to connect the pieces later on.
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Photo by Luiza Oliveira – paper template pined on the fabric recently cut.

Building the new one

  1. Take your notes and first, look at what it is the front and the back of the fabric itself, and play with the parts, try to reconstruct the underwear using the pins.
  2. In your sewing machine, choose a stretch stitch of some kind and the right needle for it. If you don’t know what I am talking about, take a look at this video.
  3. First, try the stitch of your choice in a piece of fabric that you are not going to use to make sure that you are happy with the configuration of it. Make sure to adjust the pressure of the sewing foot very softly to not overstretch the material while sewing it.
  4. And start to sew your underwear.

In my case the order was:

  • To sew the upper hem of the gusset
  • To sew the base of the gusset together with the back and the front part. In a way that once you sew the baseline, you are going fold the gusset over the stitches and you won’t see or be bothered by them.
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Picture by Luiza Oliveira — preparing to sew the base of the gusset.
  • Pin the single hems of the thigs (I personally prefer to always to pin it first, but feel free to do how you are used to), I don’t use elastics in this part because I don’t like to feel my thigs being squeezed.
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Picture by Luiza Oliveira – the hems pinned.
  • Pin the elastic on the waistline. Depending on the elastic that you buy, you can sew directing on top of it, and sometimes you need to fold it on top of the fabric.
  • A trick here, you are going to see that the diameter of the elastic is a bit smaller than the diameter of the fabric. In order to pin the elastic to the fabric without creating weaves, you need to stretch both together a little bit, and when you sew them together keep some tension on your hand to eliminate the waves while you sew them. In my case, I used the back of a chair to help me with that. If this technique sounds too complicated, you can also try this one from this video.
  • Make sure to put the inside part of the elastic to the inside side of the underwear. Usually, the outside side of the elastic is a bit decorative, and the inside is softer. In my first one, I didn’t notice that I had sewed it in the other way round … ops! Learn from my mistake.
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Picture by Luiza Oliveira – Pining the elastic to the waistline, on the back chair style.

And voilà, this is how it came out:

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Picture by Luiza Oliveira – The first one finished.

Maybe it is not perfect to other people’s eyes, but I loved it! The fabric is so comfortable, the elastic has the right tension (not too tight or too loose) and I am so happy with the result!

For the first time in my life, I own an underwear that I know the ethics and values behind its materials used because I picked them. In which I am happy with the quality and the texture of the fabric (I am picky). And that I am happy with its shape, it suits my curves, making me comfortable all day long.

It might sound silly, but I’ve never had this experience with my underwear before. So, I highly recommend you to try to do yours!

As building a compost, sowing seeds, harvesting food, fermenting goodies, and cooking a delicious meal, sewing gives me the same pleasure, of building something from scratch with my own hands. Especially something that makes me feel comfortable and good in my skin.

When doing your own template, you might find it in your processes new steps, and different shapes. Play and have fun with them.

If you don’t feel so comfortable in sewing or using your sewing machine, invite a friend who sews to do it with you.

I’ve definitely had a lot of fun in doing it, and I will definitely do some more.

Ps: If you try it to do it yours, let me know. I would love to hear about your experience. You can write to me in the comments below, or send me an e-mail on luiza@linvisible.ch

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