One by one, the students pulled pieces of clothing out of their bags, displaying the outfits they hoped to salvage: A green skirt. A burnt-orange floral dress. A black-striped tunic. All pocket-less, all designed for beauty over utility.
Then, the worst offense of all: A navy blue skirt with two front pockets. Or so it seemed.
“Oh, it’s got fake pockets!” said Molly Stratton, the 33-year-old class instructor. The two apparent pockets were sewn shut.
“The worst,” said Jesse Meadows, fanning herself in a seat across the room.
“We don’t get to carry things,” said Kristen Menichelli, sitting at the same table.
The five students gathered in this sweltering workshop space in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington last week to fill a void in women’s clothing: pockets. Frustrated by skirts, dresses and pants with no place for carrying anything, they resolved to learn how to sew in pockets themselves.
The lesson was part of a series of classes called “Sew Queer,” which Stratton launched last year in the hopes of helping people in the queer community adjust their clothing to better fit their gender.
A growing number of people nationwide identify as genders other than male or female, but most of the clothing industry continues to design its apparel along a rigid gender binary: men’s or women’s. While some brands and stores have popped up with a focus on gender-neutral or gender-fluid clothing, these options are often expensive, said Stratton, who identifies as non-binary and transmasculine.
Transgender people frequently struggle to find clothes that fit, Stratton said. Men’s suits tend to run too narrow in the hips or tight in the chest for transgender men. Men’s pants might run too long, or men’s shoes too big. The opposite can be true for transgender women shopping in women’s clothing sections. And sending clothes to a tailor can be pricey and out of reach for many in the community.
“A lot of clothes are cut for a specific idea of a body, not for a specific person,” Stratton said.
But Stratton’s class is not just about catering to the transgender or genderqueer community — it’s about giving people the tools they need to tailor their clothing to their body type and lifestyle and not to the ideal of what a man or woman should look like.
These gender differences are deeply entrenched in clothing styles in the West and appear even for children as young as toddlers, said Jo Paoletti, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park whose research focuses on gender differences in American fashion. Paoletti studied children’s winter coats from the early 1950s, for example, and found that the boys’ coats had pockets but the girls’ coats didn’t.
“There are all these expectations that we’re very different creatures,” Paoletti said. “Men are more practical, women are more decorative.”
To Paoletti, a sewing class like Stratton’s harks back to the 1960s, when teenage girls in the baby-boomer generation used the sewing skills they learned in home economics classes to make their own clothes, in the styles they wanted. Today, far fewer girls grow up learning how to use a sewing machine.
For some, the workshop was a way to reclaim a traditionally gendered skill — sewing — and use it to push back against the entrenched gender norms of clothing.
Stratton launched Sew Queer last year after struggling for years to find clothes that fit both his gender and his body type. Growing up in West Virginia, Stratton recalled, he shopped for adult clothing in bargain stores even as a child because he was too big to fit the children’s sizes.
“I wore terrible T-shirts with the logo peeling off because it was what fit,” he said.
Stratton often resorted to buying men’s shirts and shoes because they fit his body better. Then he started realizing that the clothes fit his gender better, too. Last summer, he put all of his women’s clothing in storage, cut his hair short and started asking people to call him by male pronouns.
Stratton also started following queer people on Instagram, including plus-size people who had felt left out of the mainstream clothing industry and developed their own style using clothes they had thrifted.
“Something about that gave me permission to start thinking about it, that I could be mad about clothing,” he said.
He first launched Sew Queer as a series of 10 pop-up classes, on topics including mending and tailoring jeans, many of them held in his home. The classes were so popular that he decided to offer them for a second year. Last week’s class, which cost $30 a student, was the first in this new space in Petworth.
Standing between four long tables, in a workshop space called the Lemon Collective, Stratton wore baggy men’s jean shorts, a black-patterned men’s T-shirt from Forever 21, and a sticker name tag that read “Mr. Molly, he/his.” He gave each student a kit with a pocket template, chalk, a sliding tool, fabric scissors and “your best friend” — a seam ripper. The participants chose from various colored fabrics and used a sewing machine provided by Stratton.
Meadows, 29, carefully cut out a tear-shaped pocket from a floral fabric and pinned it to the open seam of the orange dress she had brought to class. Meadows, who identifies as non-binary but uses both female and gender-neutral pronouns, said that she doesn’t wear dresses anymore but that she wanted to learn how to sew pockets into other clothing items, especially pants.
“I feel like I’ve been lied to my whole life wearing women’s jeans,” Meadows said. “You get a pair of men’s jeans, and your whole hand fits in the pocket. Why? Why are they depriving us of this? It’s a big metaphor for the patriarchy. The pockets.”
Another participant, Katie Morris, 31, said she’s tired of having to carry a purse on her shoulder at parties. “It looks like you have to leave,” she said. At work, she doesn’t want to have to take her purse into a meeting room down the hall just to carry everything she needs.
Nicole Barba, 30, constantly wishes she had more pockets in the clothes she wears for her job at a Montessori school in the District. But she also came to the class because she wants to sew pockets for the children she babysits. When the kids are playing outside and find a feather or a shiny pebble on the ground, Barba said, the boys are much more likely than the girls to have pockets in which to put their new discoveries.
“I want their exploration to not be hindered,” she said. “Girls are supposed to be more docile and not as exploratory as boys. I think that culture is changing now.”
Stratton hopes that eventually classes like his won’t be necessary — that men and women and transgender and non-binary people will be able to find an inclusive range of options in mainstream clothing stores. He said he sees sewing less as a hobby and more as a survival skill.
But for Stratton’s friend Menichelli, a 32-year old woman who attended the class, the process of altering her own clothing is also empowering.
“I can go buy something and have it tailored by somebody, but I know I have the skills to do it myself,” she said. “I can actually take that back.”
Menichelli said she first learned how to sew from her grandmother, a seamstress. “I think my mom kind of rebelled against that and said, ‘I’m not going to do that, that’s too traditional, that’s too feminine,’ in the ’80s and ’90s. But I’m getting back into it.”
Menichelli used her own sewing machine to stitch a succulent-printed piece of fabric to each side of her green skirt. And at the end of class, she tried on the final product. The openings were a bit lower than they should have been, but she didn’t mind.
She slipped her hands in the pockets and twirled around.