Last year I took part in Portia Lawrie’s Refashioners competition for the first time when I made a jacket from two pairs of Mr Y’s old jeans, you can read about that one here. I was jolly pleased with it and wear it a lot and obviously I didn’t win although I did get a mention in despatches so I was chuffed with that.
For this year’s Refashioners Portia announced it would be SUITS! Eek, I thought, I’m not sure about that…anyway, nothing daunted, I started thinking about what I might be able to do if I tracked down the right suit. I knew I didn’t want anything too dark or work-a-day so I hoped to find something in a check perhaps. Funnily enough it didn’t really occur to me that it could be something like linen or suede, or a woman’s suit so when the inspirational Blog Tour throughout September started and it featured some of alternative fabrics I did think “oh, why didn’t I do that?” Hey ho…
When it came to inspiration however there was only one person whose tailoring I was interested in and that was Alexander McQueen. The retrospective of his work ‘Savage Beauty’ at London’s V&A museum in 2015 was absolutely mind-blowing-I went 8 times! [I bought annual membership to the museum so that I could go as often as I wanted, it’s fair to say I got full value for my money. I’ve kept up that membership ever since and use it regularly] Whilst I’ve no hope of ever acquiring or wearing McQueen (apart from my treasured silk scarf which Mr Y bought for me at the end of the exhibition) I greatly admire his meticulous tailoring, originality, attention to detail and craftsmanship which has been ably continued since his death by Sarah Burton. [I didn’t blog about Savage Beauty at the time but I wrote one about a fascinating parallel exhibition that was at Tate Britain, you can read that here]
Portia had set up a Pinterest page of inspiration too so I had a look there as well as internet searches of my own and the book which accompanied the exhibition and is full of wonderful images. So many clever ideas but there would be serious fabric constraints as I only wanted to use one suit, once I’d tracked it down, which meant some things like dresses with elaborate details would be impossible. If I was going to invest quite a lot of time into this it needed to fit me and I’m not a stick insect so I have to be realistic!
I collected ideas and images although some of them were unlikely contenders, for reasons of practicality, quantity of fabric and my own skill level. [I went on a tailoring course at Morley college in London last year and picked up loads of useful skills and the confidence to tackle this head-on, have a look at their prospectus because they offer some great courses] I liked the idea of combining different fabrics and techniques, particularly over or near the shoulders.
I scoured all our local charity shops but didn’t find anything I liked, Mr Y and my Dad didn’t have anything in their wardrobes either. Then, when we were visiting Salisbury in Wiltshire at the end of August, we tried a couple of shops when I spied a black and white checked jacket. It seemed to have trousers with it which didn’t match but these were Prince of Wales check! Looking further along the rail we discovered the right jacket for the trousers was on another hanger-yippee, success! a matching suit in the perfect fabric. It was £25 which was a bit more than I had hoped to pay but the money would go to a good cause so it was a win/win situation really. Even better was the fact it was 100% pure wool and it was a Daks suit from Simpsons of Piccadilly which would have been pretty expensive originally-I definitely lucked out with this one. At £25 though it did mean I would only use one suit rather than buy possibly 2 to mix together. No matter.
So now that I had the suit I needed to come up with a design. I also set myself the rule that I wouldn’t buy anything else so everything had to come from supplies I already had in my workroom. I tried to be a bit ambitious-and different from last year-and initially came up with a few dress designs where I thought I might be able to utilise the trouser legs to make panels and a feature-zip detail.
Before I went too much further though I needed to disassemble the suit to see exactly how much fabric I had. I got out the snips and unpicker and set to (not without trepidation because it was a lovely suit)
The beauty of pure wool is that it presses like a dream and so almost every original crease in the suit disappeared once I’d broken it down into all the parts. Needless to say there was less fabric than I’d hoped for my big plans so I had to modify them a lot. Out went the dress and in came [another] jacket. I’d been looking through my not inconsiderable pattern stash for inspiration and I’d found a dress pattern from 1973 which was amongst a huge number gifted to me last year by a friend. They had belonged to her Mum who was a fabulous dressmaker at Cresta Silks in her youth. Even though it was a dress I was attracted to its striking style lines with a long bust dart that ran parallel to a diagonal under-bust seam, and because it had a centre front seam I thought it was easily adaptable to a jacket. One of the features of McQueen’s work is his unusual seaming and style-lines so I decided to make a toile and see how it went.
The original collar opened at the back for the zip so I made a new pattern so that it opened at the front instead. I also had to change the front and back ‘skirts’ by dividing them evenly in half because the pieces would be too large for the fabric quantity I had. I also wanted to be able to cut various pieces on the bias to make it more interesting so they had to be smaller to achieve this.
By using an open-ended zip I minimised the amount of fabric needed for the front opening, there was no need for an overlap and there’d be barely enough anyway. I also knew that if I could use the original sleeves I would be be able to use all other available fabric for my design.
Amazingly I was happy with the toile and decided to press ahead with the design as it was. I could get the new front panels out of the original, and even managed to include the breast pocket and all the under-linings. However I couldn’t work out a way of satisfactorily utilising the pockets and flaps so they got left out. In the end I couldn’t use the back as per the toile, which had darts and the pattern piece was too large to fit as it was, so I turned the darts into princess seams instead and then those pieces came out of the original back after all. There was a tiny hole in the back but I repaired it with iron-on interfacing and no one would be any the wiser. I’d wanted all the peplum pieces to be on the bias but in order for them to be a reasonable match some had to be on the straight instead.
I won’t pretend that every seam has perfectly matching checks but given the fabric constraints I’m really pleased with the outcome. I carefully made the jacket up, a very enjoyable process, and because it was being fully lined I didn’t need to neaten any of the seams inside, they could just be pressed open. I remembered my tutor Daniel at Morley saying “steam is your friend” and wasn’t afraid to use it often, in conjunction with my tailor’s ham and a pressing cloth.
The trickiest part of the construction was making the original sleeves a little shorter for my arms and to fit into the new armholes. I roughly measured the sleeve head and compared it to the armhole. There was a fair difference so I needed to reduce the sleeve width by sewing up some of the under-arm seams to about elbow level (they are two-part sleeves) I tacked one sleeve in and tried it out. It looked pretty satisfactory without any further adjustment so I did the same to the other one as well. I tried to ensure that the checks matched as best I could too. Again I tried the jacket on to make sure I could move my arms and that I was happy with their length. After I’d machined them both in I reused the pieces of canvas and domette which I’d taken out of the original sleeve heads. These are part of tailoring construction which help give a good rounded shape to the sleeve head and are basted in place by hand onto the jacket seam allowance itself. I also planned to reuse the original shoulder pads later on.
Once the sleeves were in I could think more about the decoration I wanted to add. One of the recurring features I like about McQueen’s tailoring is his use of lace appliqué and embroidery. Amongst my stash of fabrics I have some beautiful black Guipure lace which was left over originally from the bridal shop where I used to work creating and making the most beautiful wedding and evening gowns. I’d used some of it on my elder daughter’s Prom dress 10 years ago but there’s still some left over so I had a little play. I put the jacket on Doris and draped pieces of lace over the shoulders to see what looked best. Part of the beauty of Guipure is that you can trim it into shape without it fraying or falling to bits so once I’d positioned it where I wanted I could trim it to neaten the shape. I love the swirls!
Looking at these photos you can see the other decorative technique I decided to use, embroidery.
I’d seen a very recent McQueen design which had red lacing on and I wanted to incorporate something similar probably in the form of hand embroidery instead, particularly because the fabric has a fine red stripe running through it.
I had a few practices first at simple running stitch, sashiko-style, and I tried a sort-of feather stitch but it looked pretty rubbish and uneven as I couldn’t get it right or consistent so I tried a couple of stitches of the many that my 25-year-old Elna 7000 machine offers.
I liked the feather stitch but decided it would be over-doing it so in the end I settled on the saddle stitch which would normally be used to top stitch but I was going to run it along some of the red stripes in the fabric for emphasis. [If you’re not sure which stitch this is on your machine it’s the one where the picture looks like 3 rows of stitches side by side. It’s actually 3 stitches on top of one another when it sews thus making an effective top stitch]
I decided to follow a few of the red stripes on the front and back, the front ones all run vertically and the back ones are just on one side in a cross formation. I considered putting them elsewhere too but decided there was enough.
Once I’d finished all the decoration I put the shoulder pads and the ‘plastron’ back in (this is a piece of heavy canvas which is part of the underlinings of tailored jackets and which helps give it a smooth line over the chest) The plastron needed to be trimmed slightly to fit inside since it had come from a man’s jacket. Finally I’d managed to salvage just enough fabric in one long strip to make a very narrow facing inside the zip. I turned up the hem first basting it in position and then herringbone stitching it by hand.
I’d found some black lining fabric in my stash so cut out the jacket lining (excluding sleeves because they had their own original lining in) and sewed it together. Red lining would have been nice but I didn’t have anything suitable and I’d have broken my own rules to buy some. Because the facing strip was so narrow I wanted to smarten up it up a bit so I dug out some black braid which I stitched down the edge of it-it looks much better now if the jacket is open.
Next I hand stitched all the linings in position at the hem and around the armholes so that everything was enclosed. The final thing I decided to do was change a couple of the cuff buttons so I swapped one on each wrist to red ones.
And that’s all there is to it…..
I’m afraid I’ll never make much of a model and the backdrop was a choice of either a brick wall or a flower bed! The photos aren’t by Testino (Katie actually) but I hope you’ll get an idea of how the jacket looks, it’s a distinctive but wearable one-off.
I’m so chuffed with my finished jacket and, better than that, I really enjoyed the planning and making very much. I felt I got back in touch with lots of the skills I’ve acquired over many years of sewing, some of which helped me to plan it carefully within the constraints set both by Portia and the ones I set myself, and others meant I could stretch my making skills further than they tend to get stretched these days which is no bad thing.
Initially I wasn’t sure if this would be a refashioning challenge I could rise to but I’ve surprised myself with the outcome. I’ve now got a jacket which I’ll be really happy to wear and I shall enjoy telling anyone who cares to listen exactly how it came about. I don’t know the story of the suit before I bought it but I feel like I’ve given it a new narrative now by reinventing it in a new form….and that might even be something McQueen himself would have applauded.
As ever many pictures are my own but the rest are sourced from the internet.
Have you made a suit refashion this year? I’d love to hear about it, or tell me your thoughts about mine…(risky hehe)