Stitching secrets and May Ball mishaps: Meet the Cambridge students taking on fast fashion
Cambridge SDG is holding free workshops on mending your own clothes – Here’s what two of its volunteers have to say
This term will have some of the most difficult exams of people’s lives so far. But for some people, that’s not even the busiest part. Every time May Week rocks around, the few students with sewing skills are plunged into a silky avalanche of suits needing fixing, dresses needing altering, and costumes needing scavenging from whatever people have in their accommodation.
It’s a well-known fact that the use-once culture prevalent in fast fashion is environmentally toxic and nowhere is this more noticeable than Cambridge’s bizarre obsession with cosplaying the elite society in some dystopian sci-fi every year.
This is what two people trying to change that have to say. We asked Anna and Erin why they do what they do, and to advertise the free altering and repair workshop they’ve got coming up for anyone who needs urgent dress-fixing assistance:
“When I was 14, my dad took me to an afternoon class on how to use a sewing machine – I spent four hours making a single pillowcase (which I thought was an absolute masterpiece), and I was hooked (no pun intended). After that, I learned skills as I needed them from YouTube and books. So far I’ve made two skirts (one of which is horrendous), a tote bag, and the aforementioned high-art pillow. The first time I made a costume by myself was for a cosplay competition before Avengers: Endgame debuted. I won a pair of cinema tickets and a giant bottle of Vodka – not the best prize for a 15-year-old!
“Nowadays, I mostly do small repairs and alterations while at Newnham – Newnhamites pop their clothes in my pidge or hang them on my door and I fix them for a flat fee of a pack of strawberry laces, a payment method which started accidentally when a lovely friend wanted to repay me and was going to Sainsbury’s.
“I’m a huge fan of May Balls. Although I had one bad experience. At one of the garden parties, it rained the entire time with no cover, whilst all the food had been devoured in the first hour. To make it even worse, the security guard thought he was guarding the White House, not a group of damp Cambridge students. I tried going from the garden to the bathroom and was asked ‘And where do you think you’re going?’ I genuinely felt like I was back in primary school begging to go to the bathroom. But the costumes are usually great. One I can still remember was at the Versailles-themed Newnham Garden Party where someone dressed as a Jacobin revolutionary with britches, the hat – everything.
“There are so many May Ball outfits out there that would be perfect if it weren’t for that little rip, or if it was just a smidge shorter, and they then end up unworn. People often think you need loads of sewing knowledge to repair or alter outfits and don’t know where to start. I’m really hoping these workshops can not only save a few May Ball outfits but also get people started in sewing. You only need a few small techniques to make a world of difference in your wardrobe. Having the power to make your clothes work specifically for you is such an empowering feeling in the days of off-the-rack, ‘designed for everyone and no one’ clothes.
“If I had to give some advice, I’d say to just start fixing your clothes. You’ll never feel like you have all the knowledge, so just start. This stopped me from pursuing projects I wanted to do for so long. You learn the skills through doing projects not before projects. Start small on YouTube and just do your best, you’ll almost certainly make it better and you’ll improve as you go. The risks are low as long as you’re not cutting the fabric. Just have a go!
“Also, we’re holding free workshops! They’re short and snappy and we’ll give you all the specific skills you need. If you’re free between the 9th and 13th June, we’d love to see you.
“We’re also trying to put together a list of Cantabrigians who can help out in a fabric-related crisis, at reasonable prices. We were going to call it the Cambridge student-sewers directory, but for obvious reasons, we’ve gone with ‘sewing’ instead. I’ve been told I can link it here, or send one of us an email!”
“I’ve been sewing in Cambridge for eight years, ever since I was an undergraduate. It’s a fun hobby you can do as you watch TV, and my mum has been a seamstress for 40 years now. It also helped me out through my undergrad for a bit of extra money, especially around May Week. I’ve made all kinds of things. Last year, I made the wedding dress my friend got married in, which is definitely one of my proudest moments! I actually made the Solidarity College (early 2020 Senate House Occupation for the new kids here) protest banners from all the offcuts of fabric I’ve collected May Ball gowns I shortened. That was a fun statement.
“I’ve been doing dresses for May Balls for years, and it’s always a weird time of year. Someone once brought me his suit trousers to alter, still wet and muddy from the ball the previous night. You’d be surprised how often people bring me dirty clothes to alter, but that was probably the worst. Also, the morning after Emma May Ball 2017, my girlfriend broke up with me. I had paid for the tickets, and sadly never got my money back.
“I think it’s great for more people to have sewing skills. I don’t have as much time to sew this year as I’m doing my masters now and on a Ball committee so these workshops felt like a great way to help people out. We’re holding five workshops in the next week, so we’d really love to help as many people as possible.
If you’re interested in the workshops, sign up here.
And here’s Anna’s final advice for the people of Cambridge: “Please wash your clothes before you give them to me.”
(Featured Image Credits: Background photo – David McIntosh, Left photo – Anna Ward, in an academic gown they made, Right photo – Erin Jones, wearing her first sewing project, Center photo – Workshop advertisement by SDG student hub and Cambridge Zero)