Did you keep any of your old college course work? I am by nature something of a hoarder but even I was surprised when an unpromising cardboard folder came to light recently while we were having a grand clear out. It said “Russia 1980” on the outside so I was excited to think that it contained some memorabilia from my school trip of that year [The trip caused some local controversy at the time because that year the USSR had invaded Afghanistan just a matter of weeks earlier and some people felt we should no longer go. Our Head Mistress, the doughty Miss Pagan, was having none of it so we went regardless! Many countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics later that year in protest…about the invasion, not because my school trip went ahead]
I digress, upon opening the folder I found it contained nothing of that trip at all but it did contain many of the sketches and designs I produced whilst at London College of Fashion between 1983-85 including the final project when I produced two ‘mass market’ bridal outfits. Well what a trip down memory lane they proved to be! It was a period of my life when I was so happy with what I was doing, I’d finally found the right course for me (technical garment construction and not just design) I had a great bunch of college mates, I loved it.
I’m sharing the sketches partly because then I’ve documented everything for my own reference and enjoyment, but also because I hope there might be things of interest to others as well. Fashion-wise the early eighties were a time of puffball skirts and massive ruffles, enormous sleeves and ra-ra skirts, wide collars and even wider shoulder pads! Princess Diana was the style darling of the fashion magazines and whatever she wore became a trend. Last year I shared lots of press clippings and photos from my early working career which you can still read here.
What follows are the design and development sheets for an evening wear module [you can see now why it’s my first love when it comes to making] We had to design variations of similar dresses and gowns to illustrate how a garment could be adapted and simplified to cater for it’s appropriate market.
For my final project I opted to make two bridal outfits, I’m guessing they were mid-range and the jacket and skirt was probably intended as a register office outfit whilst the ‘Laura Ashley” dress and jacket was probably for a simple church wedding or registry office. I had a real client for the suit which was my then-boyfriend’s sister. This was handy because she paid for the fabrics for it, the jacket and skirt were white crepe-back satin and the blouse underneath was a soft green georgette. I think my ‘brand’ was possibly Jacques Verts who specialised in smart workwear for the modern working woman (definitely power shoulder pads with everything) or mother-of-the-bride type outfits with matching everything, dresses, jackets, hats, bags, shoes, the lot.
Laura Ashley were hugely popular in the Eighties with their feminine and floral styles, they also produced a range of dresses for brides and bridesmaids at reasonable prices so that will be why I picked them as my brand for this project.
Well, there we are, another wander back into the past for some Eighties fashion extravagance. You’ll see why I probably won’t embrace the current trend for wide collars because I did them the last time around (although fabulous sleeves will always hold an attraction for me) we were all busy being New Romantics but that Steve Strange eye make-up was difficult to pull off with glasses!
Yours truly has been on several times now to natter about various SO50-focussed blog posts I’ve written including fabric buying choices and batch sewing, as well as the first official meet-up back before the world went wonky! I have to say that Maria makes it so easy to chat, even though she’s on the other side of the world to me! Zoom is a marvellous invention…
I added a specific Sew Organised Style page to my blog recently so that should always link you to their latest episode.
Tune in on Thursdays to hear what the community has been up to or chatting about or sewing…
If you’ve ever read the ‘a bit about me’ page here on the blog you’ll see that in the mid 1980s I worked for a bridal and evening wear company in London called David Fielden. I left the London College of Fashion in the summer of 1985 and started working there on my 23rd birthday. Originally I’d wanted to be a costume designer but during my college course I realised that going into bridal or evening wear was a very good alternative. In those days you just sent letters and CVs out to companies you were interested in working for in the hope that they might like the sound of you and be desperate to add you to their payroll! As it happened my letter was passed to Caroline who was the production manager for David in the evening wear workroom and she had done the same course as me a year earlier so she had a fair idea of what I was potentially capable of.
They took me on and I was going to be cutting samples rather than sewing which initially I was disappointed about. I soon learned that cutting was a huge responsibility in its own right. I was used to making my own clothes with inexpensive fabrics which I bought in my local market or fabric shops, now I was working with fabulous silk taffeta, dupion, Duchesse and slipper satins, velvet, beaded and embellished brocades, even the lining was always silk habutai, it was all a bit dazzling and quite scary to start with! I was provided with a massive pair of shears which soon gave me a callous on my finger joint, I still have a mark there to this day. We had two huge waist-high cutting tables with all the fabrics stored underneath. The pattern cutter would pass me the initial pattern to cut as a toile so that she and the designer could assess the shape and fit on the stand. When they were happy I would be given the pattern along with all the fabrics and instructions for the new sample. It was part of my job to get everything out of the fabric as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible so I always spent time working this out like pattern Tetris before going near it with the scissors! I kept sketches of the layplan for future reference too. No piece was ever cut on a fold, we always used a whole front or a whole back, sleeves, bodice pieces or skirt panels could be ‘flipped’ though to fit them in. The pattern cutter would make the pieces in card from the paper version and I would draw around them in chalk or marking pencil, the pattern pieces would be held down on the fabric with long heavy weights, this means the pattern lasts much much longer than a paper one would. The card patterns would be grouped in style number order onto large hooks a bit like safety pins, each size was on a different hook. Some styles got informal names which is what we identified them by in the workroom, for example there was the ‘Doris Day’ which was a pretty 50s-style gown with silk satin boned bodice and clouds of diamante-studded ankle length tulle skirts, it came in soft pastel colours, and the ‘Carmen Miranda’ which was a longer length figure-hugging silk bodice overlaid with sequin-embellished lace and extravagantly ruffled silk organza mermaid skirts. This was one of the best selling designs and came in a variety of colours including black and scarlet, or could be ordered in other colours and fabric combinations by special order. Just one outworker made this style because she became so skilled at it, every ruffle was edged using a rolled-hem foot and it was then sandwiched between diagonal skirt panels. Oh and there were net petticoats under all of that too! It was very popular for magazine shoots because of it’s ‘film star’ quality and we were regularly squashing dresses unceremoniously into boxes or into dress bags to be couriered on the back of motor bikes to Fleet Street! Some of those poor dresses really suffered and looked quite tired in the end.
Whilst the showroom was in the King’s Road, Chelsea at that time the evening wear workroom was set up across town in Farringdon around the corner from now-trendy Exmouth Market, it was definitely not glamorous and the Woolworth’s pick-n-mix counter was the only interesting eatery back then!!
As well as Caroline, who is still a friend all these years later, there was a designer (David didn’t design, he had no drawing or making skills, he employed others to do it for him) a highly-skilled pattern cutter, a sample machinist and a sample cutter (me) When I wasn’t cutting and costing samples and special orders, Caroline and I would cut production too which was all sewn by out-workers who came in regularly to drop off the garments they had made and to collect the next batch, they were paid an agreed piece rate per garment. Each one was a highly skilled, and fast, machinist who would make the whole garment from start to finish. They all had different capabilities so some would stick to simpler garments like skirts or bodices whilst others made the fantastic evening gowns and ball dresses which David Fielden had become known for. Some of them worked in their own homes and didn’t make a massive quantity of garments, and a couple had set up their own workrooms where they then employed a few extra machinists so they could make larger quantities, we are still only talking about several dozen garments per week though, not hundreds or thousands.
Twice a year the designer, Charlotte, would go with David and his business partner Walter to various fabric shows such as Premier Vision to select beautiful fabrics for the next collection. A lot of the fabrics such as silk taffeta, dupion or Duchesse satins would come from local London suppliers in very quick time, often the same day if the colour was in stock, but the premium fabrics from France or Italy would be ordered in sample lengths ranging from as little as 3 metres up to 10 or 20 metres in the new seasons colours. If those styles then went into production then larger orders would be placed at a later date.
Each new collection was often an evolution of the previous one with a few of the most popular styles being developed in new colours and fabrics, plus some completely new styles. It was always exciting to have the new fabrics starting to arrive from overseas, there were some exquisitely beautiful embellished laces and tulles, occasionally further down the line one or two would prove problematic because the supplier couldn’t produce them quickly enough, or in the quantities required. Each ‘piece’ of lace often came in a 5m length which didn’t go very far. My least favourite fabrics to cut were slipper satin or chiffon, they moved about like the very devil and often it was best to sandwich them between two sheets of spot and cross paper.
I would cut everything for each garment as required and then make a ‘bundle’ including all trims (covered buttons, zip, piping cord etc) and labels. All the cut pieces were folded neatly and layered up and then the whole bundle was carefully folded in several layers of tissue paper and tied up along with identifying sticky labels for the outworker to use when they returned it to us in plastic cover.
Once the new collection was underway Caroline would sew samples as well to speed the process up. Models would come in periodically for fittings and to assess a design on the body. As well as cutting the new samples I also cut one-offs and special orders which could be interesting. For example, we made the gown that Sarah Brightman wore to the party after the world premier of Phantom of the Opera [we memorably made another dress for her to wear for a Gala at the Royal Albert Hall, she had a fitting at the showroom and declared it should be taken in which we duly did at the workroom. It was delivered back to her but with only hours to spare she realised she now couldn’t inflate her lungs to actually sing in it!! Back to the workroom it came to be let out again!] I cut gowns for Daryl Hannah (star of Splash with Tom Hanks) allegedly for the Oscars but I never saw her in it, and I cut a dress for Aretha Franklin too but I never saw that one photographed either. Sadly we never got to meet any of the celebrity clientele, we would just get a set of measurements and fittings would usually take place at the shop. Some stars would borrow gowns for swish parties and premiers so nothing much changes does it? Vogue magazine especially commissioned a version of one dress for a shoot, it was a black taffeta column gown with a wide pale pink sash as I recall. When it returned to the workroom afterwards the hem was water-marked and full of sand! It had been photographed on a beach!!
There were times of stress and all-hands-on-deck but lots of laughs too. I have very positive memories of my 3 years at David Fielden, we were a good team and I learnt so much from my colleagues, they were all brilliant at their jobs with so much experience under their belts already. The company was growing fast during those three years and David took on catwalk shows at London Fashion Week (that was very stressful for everyone because of the workload and short lead times involved!) David and Walter travelled to many overseas shows to exhibit which garnered orders from prestige stores in the US such as Neimann Marcus and Bloomingdales among others, stores in Europe, and Harrods in London. [we could have cried though to see these beautiful dresses being crammed into boxes for despatch]
In the end I left after three years because I got fed up with commuting into London every day, I went to work in the dress fabrics department of our local John Lewis branch so that was more textiles and cloth knowledge to store away in my brain to come in handy another day. I’m sorry the quality of the pictures isn’t great, the cuttings were all torn from magazines and newspapers at the time so they are a little tatty in places.
David Fielden is still in business I believe although the premises have moved to Fulham now, I think they specialise entirely in bridal wear but I’m not sure. The website isn’t particularly up to date but you get an flavour.
This turned into quite a long post (I hope you had a coffee in hand?!) but there’s a few pictures to look at too!! I’ve really enjoyed thinking back to my early working days to tell you all about them and I guess I was very fortunate to work with such a variety of very beautiful fabrics, maybe now you can see why I’m always SO particular about cutting out at the start of any project! So until next time,
These have been very strange times of late and many of our regular activities have been curtailed or stopped completely. I’ve carried on sewing because it’s my creative outlet but a few weeks ago I started to feel like I had no clue what particular projects to settle on. Lots of vague ideas would float into my mind but then just as easily float back out again before I got underway with any of them. I had a couple of things which I had to sew for blog posts but beyond those I didn’t have a plan, or a clue!
My friend Melissa @fehrtrade happened to comment in our WhatsApp chat that she had sketched out her summer sewing plans, complete with their fabric needs. Most fabrics were from her stash and a couple of other items needed to be purchased.
This got me thinking, if I actually wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to make then it might give me the impetus to move forwards in a positive direction. So that’s exactly what I did. Some items on the list are patterns I’ve made previously, and love, whilst others were new ones I’ve been wanting to try. Once I’d created a reasonable list I ‘shopped’ from my stash which was good fun, I have some lovely fabrics just waiting for the right project. Whilst I can be something of an impulse purchaser of fabric I’m pretty good at sticking to my own fabric purchasing rules which I listed in the recent @SewOver50 post about fabric-buying which are as follows:
Do I really love this fabric?
Is it suitable for my intended purpose?
Do I really need it?
Price is obviously an important factor too but, for me, it’s loosely covered by these criteria anyway.
I knew with some canny cutting I could get more than one garment out of some of the fabric so eventually I settled on about 8 things from the list. In some cases I had two patterns for one piece of fabric because I couldn’t decide between them.
Once I was ready to cut, initially I picked the patterns I had made before, several times in a couple of cases. Primarily this meant the pattern was already cut out but also I would have things which were reliable because I knew they would fit, I enjoy wearing the style and there’s always room for another version in my wardrobe. Once I’d started cutting I couldn’t stop! I ploughed on for about a day and half until I had a pile of half a dozen items cut out, four of the six were remakes and two were new patterns. I felt very satisfied with this.
So why exactly am I telling you how accomplished I felt!? Because @SewOver50 right-hand woman Sandy messaged me to draw my attention to Lis @ThreadTaylors who had recently posted something similar on her feed whereby she had cut two shirts at the same time for her son and then made them both up too. Now, even though I’ve just told you that I’ve cut lots of things this isn’t my usual practice, I’m normally a ‘one thing at a time’ sewer. When I’m sewing for myself I like to complete the process from cutting to wearing before I move on to the next project, unless something goes disastrously wrong! (it might go on the naughty step for a bit while I sulk!) If I’m making for someone else there are the inevitable delays if there are fittings to schedule but otherwise the same would apply to that as well. Sandy had spotted a topic for discussion here so she invited me to manage a post on @SewOver50 asking if others cut/made in batches, made one thing at a time, or were somewhere in between?
Well the followers of @SewOver50 did not disappoint! Like the recent discussion about ‘cheap’ fabric, this was a topic where lots of you shared your thoughts so I was kept very busy reading, and responding, over the course of the next couple of days.
This is a distillation of your comments and we all seem to have a similar practices at one time or another. Many said they were like me in that they prefer to have one project on the go at a time and this was most often because they want to really enjoy the process. We take time to select the pattern, choose the fabric, match the thread and source the trims or haberdashery. Then very often it’s time to make a toile, finesse the fitting of that toile, maybe even make another toile or two before they are completely happy and ready to cut the fashion fabric, interfacings and linings! It’s all part of what makes dressmaking and sewing an enjoyable pastime for many and it’s not something to be rushed. Personally I wouldn’t say I rush but I don’t always take as much time as possibly I should. Many felt this made them more focussed, or if plenty of time wasn’t an option then they could break it down into 10-20 minute chunks which felt manageable and was still making progress.
To list or not to list? Or sketch for that matter? Melissa likes to create a page of sketches which is great because you can see a style to remind yourself what it looks like, especially if you’re likely to forget which style the pattern number or name refers to, or from a magazine like Burdastyle or Knipmode for example. I’ve made a long written list, selected a few items from it and ticked them off as I cut them. I also have a large whiteboard on the wall of my workroom on which I write different lists for the various things I’m up to and in normal times that keeps me on the straight and narrow.
Some people suggested this kept them more focussed and I think I agree with them, I can still slot other items in as required. Personally I’d never want any list to be completely regimented with no flexibility because that would suck all the joy out of sewing for me. There are times when I do have to sew things which I don’t really want to but it’s a necessity and so the pleasurable makes are the ones which I ‘reward’ myself with.
A few people said they didn’t like the idea of lists or batches because they felt it took too much organisation, I probably feel less like that because I have lots of haberdashery, trims, interfacing etc so I don’t need to think too much about “have I got so-and-so” in order to make a start.
If you’re a serial non-finisher then there’s every chance you’ll end up with quite a large UFO pile. I think lockdown and Me Made May (which has just finished) has forced/encouraged quite a lot of people to revisit these projects on the naughty step and to reassess them. There is a distinct feeling of achievement when working through them to either finish a garment, repurpose it, recycle it or take it apart and start again!
The space we need for cutting out was one of the biggest factors for concentrating the cutting to a certain amount of time. If you use the dining table or the floor then there’s every chance you’ll need to move your things for practical reasons, family life/mealtimes for example, the floor is very hard on the knees, pets interrupting are a recurring theme too! All of these may mean you can only use the space in small bursts which limits how much can be cut. For many dressmakers cutting out is a necessary evil which they don’t enjoy so want it over with as quickly as possible. As a former sample cutter I always make sure I cut as accurately and efficiently as possible to ensure the best results. You can read a few of my top tips in this blog. If you really hate cutting out then batching could be a good thing because it gets it out of the way for a while!
In order to be efficient many told me that they will cut several of the same pattern at the same time if they have a favourite. Tops and T-shirts were probably the most popular of these but dresses and trousers/jeans also cropped up too. This can work well when you know a garment fits and you aren’t tweaking and fitting as you go along. Whilst making several versions of a single pattern one follower told me she writes notes onto the pattern each time in a different colour so that she knows what she’s done, and to see its development during the process. If you’re making a number of the same thing it’s efficient to keep the threads the same but personally I like to use a reasonably-matching thread to overlock as often as possible. Others are less precious and will use the same colour for everything because repeatedly changing threads takes time and keeping a range of colours can be costly.
Many of us have spent at least some of lockdown cutting and sewing scrubs, bags and face coverings, some sewed lots of them, others just one or two sets. I’ve no doubt at all though that they were well received but there’s no getting away from the fact that they became very tedious after a while. The repetition was pretty boring, although it could also have the positive byproduct of making us become more efficient sewers, and we all agreed it gave us a new-found respect and admiration for those who had no choice but to sew in factories, often with very little pleasure or decent wages involved. Some of us developed ‘production’ techniques whereby we would complete each operation the same on every garment before moving on, for example, join all the shoulder seams, attach all the neck facings, insert all the sleeves etc etc. This undoubtedly saved a lot of time but it does make you a bit boggle-eyed after a few days! @alexjudgesews did admit though that making scrubs nearly put her off sewing for life! I’ve no intention of getting into the discussion of whether or not any of us should have been sewing scrubs but I do know that I’m really really proud of how the home sewing community rose to the challenge and did it any way.
Many of us gather each prepared project together in some way, ready to begin. I like to use large ziplock-type bags which I can reuse over and over, I’ll put the pattern and cut fabric in although I don’t tend to include inter, threads or trims (many do) I’ll grab those as I go along usually from what I have. One suggested idea I liked was to use baskets to contain everything, that’s certainly more attractive than plastic bags!
A few comments made me chuckle, someone said she batch cuts but then forgets about them, where they are or even what they are! My friend Corrie @ceramic67 told me “I often cut 2 or 3 at the same time, I’m still slow but it makes me feel faster!”
A recurring comment was to spend separate days doing each part of their own creative routine so, a day printing and sticking PDFs then a day tracing them off, a day or more cutting the fabric and then the enjoyment of the sewing uninterrupted. We all have our own version of what works for us and it will vary depending on the types of pattern we like to use.
For lots of us it’s more pleasurable to be free to decide what to make and when to make it, pre-planning is no fun!
Amongst the ‘planners’ some use mood boards with sketches, photos and swatches, others will often create mini-capsules to accompany clothes they already have, or make a new, related, group of clothing. I keep swatches of the fabrics I have in a little book, it’s very low-tech but it’s good to leaf through and reminds me what I have without getting everything out.
So as you’ll see there’s no firm consensus and ultimately we do what works for us and our situation. Maybe you just batch cut small projects like Xmas gifts of pencil cases or wash bags for example, or maybe you only ever one thing at a time and nothing will persuade you to do otherwise! Having more than one item on the go could give you the option to move sideways onto something else if you realise you’ve got to wait for a delivery, or head out for some buttons or something, has anything you read here made you think you’ll try a different method next time?
Whatever works for you, until next time, happy sewing!
At the beginning of May @sewover50 posed us this question, “How do you assess your fabric purchases? Is cheap fabric inferior, or can you sometimes find a genuine bargain? Does expensive always mean quality…and what does that mean? How do you weigh up long lasting plastic-based fabrics against ‘natural’ fibres that may gradually wear out but where ageing can add to the appeal of the fabric?” The discussion was prompted by follower @kissntuss asking if anyone else had encountered the problem of buying and prewashing fabric, spending time carefully sewing it up only for it to turn into scruffy rag after its first proper laundering?
So, lots to think about there and I waded straight in with this comment, “Ooh this is a mine field! I’ve always said that over time and with experience you learn to judge between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ because, in very general terms, I’ve often found cheap to be of inferior quality whereas ‘inexpensive’ would be a better or good quality fabric at a very reasonable price. Since the boom in home dressmaking over the last few years I think there are now a lot more fabrics which are quite pricey but you’re paying for the design, or the brand, not necessarily the superior quality of the fabric which they are made with. Price is not always a guarantee of quality unfortunately. Personally I would still much rather feel a fabric in my hand to better judge the quality BUT there are some very good fabric websites who sell excellent quality cloth so order a swatch if you aren’t sure. We’ve learned the hard way with our fabric-buying mistakes and I still get it wrong from time to time even after all these years.” These are strictly my own thoughts you understand which I’ve formed over many years of sewing and clothes-making, and learnt through good and bad cloth-buying experiences. I use the terms ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ loosely when I’m trying to help others with their fabric choices, there are no hard and fast rules.
Well, it seems many of you broadly agreed with me, at least in part, and had plenty of other brilliant insights to add. I’ll attempt to bring the threads (see what I did there?) of a long discussion together here. You could always go back to the original post too and wade through it if you really want to…
So, is cheap fabric always bad fabric? Of course not necessarily I would say. I’m sure many of us have encountered things like thin polyester/cotton with uneven printing and which is suspiciously stiff even though, as my Grandmother would say, “you could shoot peas through it!” It’s usually got lots of dressing like starch or excess dye in it which will wash out and leave the fabric flimsy with little body or oomph to it, it will literally turn into a droopy rag, possibly twisting and/or shrinking and losing colour with each subsequent wash too. These are to be avoided at all costs except for craft-based projects like bunting perhaps. Cheap jersey can be awful too because it’s thin and spirals badly (you know how cheap RTW T-shirts twist after a wash or two? That. However, ‘cheap’ could also be a bolt-end or remnant length of a good cloth sold at a fraction of its original price. When you’re shopping, using a general rule of thumb of 1) and most importantly, do I really like it? 2) is it truly fit for my intended use? and 3) do I really need it? (Ha!) If I have any doubts about these then I walk away and save my money, even if it’s just a few pounds.
[I just want to add a story about some fabric I bought a few months ago to make a wedding dress toile. I made a trip to Walthamstow market in east London where I know there are some great fabric shops and the famous #TMOS ‘The Man Outside Sainsbury’s’ market stall. I had tried online to pick up a cheap cloth which was as similar as possible to the actual fabric I’d be using for the dress itself but the descriptions weren’t good enough for me to be confident they were worth buying. Anyway, off I toddled, what often happens at Walthamstow is that shop premises become available on short leases so very unglamorous but stuffed-to-the-rafters fabric shops pop up in them. You can never be sure they will still be there a few weeks later though. They usually sell deadstock or overstock from nearby factories or suppliers and everything is at rock-bottom prices until it’s gone or the lease runs out. I was after a decent weight triple crepe-type cloth, the colour and fibre content was irrelevant because it was for a toile, and I was really hoping to pay around £3-4 or less per metre. I was absolutely thrilled to find a pale mint green cloth of a really good weight for just 75p per metre!! Perfect for my needs so I bought 6m of the green and another 4m of a bright pink for me! My biggest problem then was carrying it because crepe is a really weighty fabric and I had gibbon arms by the time I got it home on the train! ]
Returning to my own comments I mentioned ‘inexpensive’ cloth which, by my own definition, I would say is fabric that is of a good or excellent quality which normally sells for quite a high price but is now being sold for a lot less than usual. Ex-designer fabrics, dead-stock and factory end of lines are a few examples of this and there are more and more websites and shops starting to source these because they are a brilliant way of stopping wasted fabric going into landfill. And don’t forget those remnant bins, there might be gold dust in there but always double-check there are no nasty surprises like faults, flaws, dye or print discrepancies, and unfold the piece to make sure it’s roughly the size it says it is without terrible wonky ends, it isn’t a bargain if it turns out to be unusable.
In the UK there are areas of the country which have had a proud textiles- making heritage over the centuries and it is still possible in some of these places to buy quality cloth directly from the mills, or from shops and markets. For example, Harris Tweed is still made in the Isle of Harris, Scotland (Vivienne Westwood has been a devoted user of their cloth for decades now) A number of followers commented that in their areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire they were able to buy beautiful quality cloth often as remnants or from mill shops. Most of us don’t have this opportunity and whilst in an ideal world we would all love to be able to feel the quality and suitability of the cloth in our hands before buying, for many online shopping is the only realistic option [and if you’re reading this during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic then it’s the only option for pretty much everybody at present] @frugalisama said “there’s nowt like fettling fabric”, that’s basically stroking fabric to the uninitiated! Visiting bricks-and-mortar stores does offer the chance of personal interaction with others though, I can never resist poking my nose in at other customers deliberations and choices so I regularly have some lovely conversations about one of my favourite topics with complete strangers!
For me, the difficulty with buying online is relying completely on there being accurate descriptions of factors like the weight, handle, suitability for purpose and a true indication of colours and scale of print.
Some websites (and obviously there are thousands and I only have experience of a few) are very diligent and give a lot of good information and are happy to send swatches whenever possible. Small companies can offer a very personal service and it’s nice to support them too, getting to know what fabrics they offer which makes them stand out from the big hitters.
But even with lots of information it’s still all too easy to make duff choices, on more than one occasion I’ve ended up with fabric which was much thinner or thicker than I had hoped or wanted for a particular project, or the print has been a much bigger scale than I thought it was from a photograph. I find a 100m reel of Gutermann thread a really helpful reference point in a photo because we almost all know exactly what size they are, or a ruler in the photo is also helpful. My idea of what is suitable for a skirt or trousers for example might be very different from someone else’s because years of experience and attendant disasters has taught me the hard way. There’s very little you can do to speed up this process of learning although a comprehensive book like Fabric Savvy by Sandra Betzina could very useful-it’s a treasure trove of information of many, many different types of fabrics, their uses, fibre content, sewing and handling tips. There is a whole world of wonderful fabrics out there to discover and it’s a pity to limit ourselves to a very small pool. Cotton is not just cotton for example, it’s poplin, lawn, voile, calico, muslin, denim, corduroy, canvas, Ankara, towelling, sateen, chintz, jersey, the list goes on and that’s just one fibre. Shopping with someone who knows their fabrics is not only fun but educational too.
So does the cost of the fabric have a bearing on the quality and your likelihood to buy it? @jenerates, amongst several others, made the point that if she spends more on the cloth it means she takes her time and more care with the making of each garment. She is also much more inclined to care for the garment more diligently, to make it last longer. Some fabric is pricey because it’s expertly made from top quality materials with designer names attached, and often these fabrics might be made from natural fibres which at the top end can be very pricey. Silk has always been seen as a luxury fabric for good reason, but then so can an Italian-made synthetic-based fabric too, it is still superb quality just not a natural fibre. But being a good quality natural fibre is absolutely no guarantee of it’s longevity or durability, quite the reverse sometimes.
I think there are a number of popular fabric brands at present which have beautiful designs printed on them but the base cloth doesn’t always justify the price point. What do we do about this if, after you’ve diligently sewn a garment together, within a few washes it’s like a rag? If it were a garment purchased from a reputable retailer you could probably negotiate a refund or exchange but that’s no good in this instance, I suspect we fume for a while and then put it down to experience if we can’t find a way to fix it. I would be curious to know, has anyone ever gone back to the online supplier and successfully got a refund or exchange?
@paulalovestosew very kindly answered my questions directly because I know she is very happy to use manmade fibres and fabrics. We all have a tendency to believe that natural fibres are always best but what if they don’t work for your lifestyle, or the garment you want to make? Paula, like many of us, has been sewing her clothes for years, she loves to scour remnant bins in fabric stores and, like me, gets enormous pleasure from squeezing as much as possible from the least amount of fabric. If you check out her account you’ll regularly see not only a dress but also golfing attire all made from the same cloth. For her, stretch jerseys are perfect because they are comfortable to wear, never fade or distort in the wash, there are masses of colours and designs available, they roll up without damage in a suitcase and they last for years. Paula knows her own style which suits her perfectly and she always looks immaculate, style doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
What about vintage or recycled cloth? This can be a great way of using unusual designs or fabric types to create totally original clothes although vintage cloth might need a little more aftercare to keep it in good condition though because of the age of the fibres. It can be difficult without a burn test to know exactly what it was in the first place. If it’s been left folded for a long time it might break down in the creases for example, or it might not take well to being exposed to sunlight or sweat after many years but if the alternative is that it doesn’t get used at all then why not turn it into something nice! Charity shops, yard sales, swaps, Ebay and elderly neighbours are just a few of the places you could find some hidden gems. My 93 year old neighbour Pamela has given me some beauties for example and she’s always thrilled to see me in something I’ve made with one of her fabrics.
Many people try to take into consideration how ethical a fabric is; is its production harmful to humans or the environment through the use of chemicals, dyes, dangerous processes, or is it dangerously straining or poisoning the local water supply? can it be successfully recycled? Will it wear well or will it need to be replaced more often, can it be laundered easily or should it be dry cleaned? There are so many considerations that there is unlikely to be one definitive answer, we must each make our own judgments according to our beliefs and moral framework. Buying organic or other ethically-certified fabrics is a good start but they do often, quite rightly, come with a higher price. You may be interested in reading my post on this topic, Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition at the V&A in London two years ago.
At the risk of being controversial, I do think there’s sometimes an element of fabric snobbery at play by which I mean natural fibres good, synthetic fibres bad. By all means buy and sew with what you prefer but there is a place for manmade fabrics which isn’t that easily replaced. If you sew swimwear or activity clothing which require technical fabrics then they are highly likely to be chemical-based. Yes, I know there are now bamboo and a couple of other alternatives but they are extremely difficult to source for home sewing at present unless you know where to look, and they certainly aren’t cheap either. If you’re interested in learning a lot more about how textiles have always been a part of our daily lives I recommend reading The Golden Thread-how fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair. It’s a fascinating insight into textiles and materials of all kinds, my only quibble is that there are no illustrations or photographs in it all which seems an extremely strange choice given that the subject matter is so visual.
Gosh, this has turned into a long post, I hope you had a coffee to sustain you? Realistically there is no right or wrong answer, it’s what works for you, your lifestyle, your budget, your capabilities and that is different for everyone. Maybe a good idea is to buy the best you can afford if your budget allows but the pricier the fabric is the more I would say it matters to make a toile first. Cheap and cheerful is perfectly good if you’re just starting out in dressmaking, and always make a toile in as similar a fabric-type as possible to the finished article. You will make mistakes and poor choices-much like life!-but you’ve got @Sewover50 as a goldmine of support and information to help along the way, I’m a huge advocate of sharing my sewing failures as well as the successes.
As I’ve said throughout, there is no absolute right or wrong answer to these questions, we make our fabric choices based on any number of personal, and wider reaching factors. I’d really like to conclude with Fiona’s comment, she sees her handmade wardrobe as “my memory album on a rail”, definitely something worth cherishing.
I hadn’t really planned to write anything about the Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A because (obviously) I am not an expert and in no way qualified to authoritatively discuss the historic and cultural influences of Japan and the kimono, but then Covid 19 reared its ugly head and now the museum is closed for the foreseeable future, and at the time of writing this we are confined to our homes. Based on this I have decided to put the photos I took into some sort of album so that anyone who had hoped to go to the show can take a look, along with occasional comments based on the information I gleaned from the show and also from a lovely book “Fashioning Kimono” which I was given by a friend recently. I really hope that the current crisis eventually abates to allow this fascinating and lovely exhibition to reopen its doors to the public.
Because I’m a V&A member I had a ticket to a preview day which I nearly didn’t go to but I’m so glad now that I did. The show is set out largely chronologically, visitors are greeted initially by examples of an early nineteenth century kimono alongside a modern example by a Japanese designer and one with Japanese-influence by John Galliano for Christian Dior.
Kimono (meaning ’thing to wear’) is the national dress of Japan and is worn by both men and women. It is a one-piece front-wrapping garment which has changed little for millennia. Traditionally it is made by using the minimum number of cuts from a bolt of fabric around 12 metres long and 40 centimetres wide so that all the fabric is used. Kimono is now more commonly used as a name which covers several styles which, in Japan, would each have their own name to distinguish them, usually by the style of sleeve they have. The fabrics are made from a variety of fibres, most notably silk of course but also cotton or other plant fibres including ramie and hemp.
Moving into the next room there are numerous examples of exquisite historic kimono, alongside pattern books featuring beautiful line drawings of designs which clients could choose from.
A variety of different techniques were used to decorate the kimono including various methods of dyeing such as variations of tie-dye using shibori embroidery, and a form of warp (or weft) printing which, simply put, is when the warp threads are printed before the fabric is then woven. This gives the finished design an attractive fuzzy-edged quality, you may know it as Ikat. [Please excuse my vague descriptions as I didn’t make any written notes.] The red kimono below is a very fine example of kanoko shibori, a labour-intensive, and very expensive, method of tie-dyeing.
The next spectacular garment, which is part of the V&A’s permanent collection, was made for and worn by a concubine who would parade in it for all to see. The quality of the embellishment is mind-boggling, there is masses of gold thread, applique, some of the creatures have ‘whiskers’ and ‘hair’. The shoes are modern reproductions of the sort of elevated footwear these women would have worn, one imagines they had attendants accompanying them to prevent a mishap?!
The exhibition explores the complex relationship between Japan and the West and the influences that had over the fashions of each nation. Once trade routes between Japan and the West started opening up a thirst for the beautiful silk fabrics and kimono-style garments began to develop. From the seventeenth century onwards merchants would take return with these items and they were soon adopted by fashionable high society. Japan responded to this demand by manufacturing textiles and garments specifically for the western export market.
From this point on the exhibition demonstrates the two-way process of influences between Japan and the west. Japan had developed a huge export market of textiles and apparel specifically for the west, and western styles of attire and textile design can be seen entering Japanese design, away from the previous traditional norms.
The final space is the most spectacular simply because of the dazzling array of beautiful garments and the high-ceilinged space they are displayed in.
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed a brief skip through an exhibition which had so much to offer. It’s visually stunning and has many thoughtful, and helpful, explanations of the links between Japanese and Western fashion and style. I am indebted to the book “Fashioning Kimono” for a few technical explanations which I’ve transcribed in my own words here but I do not seek to go in depth, I hope you understand.
It would be such a pity if more people can’t, eventually, get to see this lovely show but only time will tell how the current world situation works out. I have recently found this YouTube series of short films with the V&A curator guiding you around the show so you might enjoy watching it.
It’s been almost a month since I was loaned a Pfaff Coverlock 3.0 to try out so thought I would give you a ‘half-term report’ on how I’m getting on with it.
First thing to say is that it’s quite a beast! It’s a very substantial piece of machinery and so is fairly heavy as a result. That being said, this is normally the case with coverstitch machines because they are generally bigger than overlockers so the weight isn’t unusual. It does have a good-sized and comfortable carrying handle though.
Ok, so, the Coverlock 3.0 is a combination machine in that it is both an overlocker and a coverstitch machine. I’m sure you already know that an overlocker will trim and neaten raw edges and often sew the seam as well if you have 4 or 5 thread version. What you may not know is that a coverstitch machine doesn’t trim any edges, it will sew two or sometimes three rows of top-stitching on the outside of a garment whilst covering the edge of the fabric on the inside with loops of thread to ‘cover’ it. It has the advantage of being stretchy too. If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about have a look inside the hem or cuffs of a RTW jersey garment and you should see.
The first thing I had to do was not only rethread the machine as it didn’t arrive pre-threaded but I also needed to change it’s function from coverstitch to overlock. A major part of what I want to assess for you is how quick and straightforward it is to go between the functions. This is partly why I didn’t plunge in with a review as soon as I got it because I didn’t think it would be balanced or fair. Indeed, I will certainly write another review in due course after a decent amount of time and usage has occurred.
Because the machine was merely delivered to me without any demonstrations I’ve needed to use the instruction book a fair bit. If you have difficulty following written instructions and/or diagrams this may not be ideal for you but there is a (silent) DVD included with very clear animations of exactly what you need to do for each of the stitch variations possible. [I didn’t find this straightaway though so I muddled through with the booklet! I’ve also since found a few very helpful You Tube videos which were useful]
I’m not going to lie, it does take a bit of time to make the changes because you’ll need to remove and reinsert the needles to different positions as well as thread the machine in different ways depending on the function. This will eventually take me less time and I’ve added Post-it notes to the relevant pages in the book so that I don’t have to keep searching for the two I’ve favoured most. The machine is capable of up to 23 stitches using 2, 3, 4 or 5 threads and up to 3 needles. So far I’ve only used the 4-thread overlock and the coverstitch but I will endeavour to use more, including the flatlock, and report back.
I decided on making a hacked version of the Tilly and the Buttons Nora top which I’ve made a couple of times before as I didn’t want any nasty complications by attempting an unfamiliar pattern with a new piece of machinery!
The beautiful jersey with an amazing ‘tie-dye’ print is from Lamazi fabrics and was my choice as a July/August maker of the month [it could be you if you tag them on Instagram] I cut the sleeve to approximately 3/4 length and also cut two cuff pieces which were again approximate, initially about 20cms in length and then my wrist measurement at one end and my mid-forearm measurement at the other. I added a couple of centimetres for seam allowance to all sides.
I’d definitely say you need to do a bit of forward planning if you intend to use both the overlock and coverstitch functions on a project because of the swapping between the two. For example, on my Nora I needed to coverstitch just the cuffs and the hem, everything else could be sewn either directly using the 4-thread overlock or on my Quilt Ambition 2.0. I opted to sew the top together first and complete the hems at the end, in the usual way although there may be times when it’s better to hem first, we’ll see.
If you’re merely changing the thread colours it can be done in the same way as regular overlockers by snipping the threads near their spools, tying on the new colour and pulling each of them gently through, plus rethreading the eye of the needles. On one occasion when I altered the function I completely rethreaded but the stitch was much too loose-what had I done? It was all done correctly and yet it was way too loopy. I checked the manual for hints on troubleshooting but it didn’t make much difference. I was starting to pull my hair out when I realised I had threaded the machine without lifting the handle out of the way-the threads MUST go under it or they don’t sit in the tension discs! (Had I watched the helpful YouTube video first I would have known this…) Another thing I learnt the hard way was when the spool holder kept falling off the back of the machine and I was ready to chuck it out of the window I noticed it has to be slid sideways to click securely in position-doh!
The next two projects I made I didn’t use the coverstitch function as both the sweatshirts had cuffs and waistbands but I constructed much of them using the 4-thread overlock stitch. I used fabric provided to me by Minerva and they will appear on their blog in the new year. One of the patterns I used was the gorgeous Maxine sweatshirt given to me by it’s designer, Dhurata Davies. I’m going to make another one soon so I’ll write an individual blog on it then. [I got both tops out of 2.5m of fabric!]
For the final project I want to talk about here I took a different approach. It’s an Amy top by Brilliant Patterns and which I’ve made a couple of times before. I had a 1m remnant of loop-back cotton sweatshirting which I bought from Sew Me Something at a show for £8 and by shortening the sleeves very slightly, cutting the neckband in two parts and joining it I got a WHOLE sweatshirt out of the one metre!!
This time I set the machine up with a wide 2-needle coverstitch and I used my regular sewing machine to sew most of the seams. What I did at each stage of construction was to press the seams flat and top stitch them using the Coverlock. This meant that there would be two rows of top stitching on the outside and the raw edges were covered on the inside. This was generally OK although as I’ve yet to ‘get my eye in’ with lining up the foot against a seam or other visual marker a couple of them do waver more than I would usually like. It turns out there is a large removable flat bed included to increase the working area (it was tucked down inside the box and I’ve only just found it!!) this will support your work while you sew but it does take up a bit more room.
So to sum up (for now) I’ve been impressed with the quality of the stitches I’ve used so far on the Coverlock 3.0 and I will definitely look for opportunities to try others whilst I have it. I’ve yet to be convinced about swapping between the stitch-types but obviously, as I get more familiar with it, I should get faster at changing between them. There are few processes which have to be gone through to make the changes but I’ll probably work out an order or procedure to follow to speed it up. If you are short of space a combination machine might be useful, they aren’t cheap though. You’ll almost certainly use the overlocker stitches more of the time so possibly changing occasionally to coverstitch will be sufficient. I would definitely say you should have a thorough demonstration of the machine so that you know what is involved and what it is capable of. Unlike washer/driers which don’t do either job very well this machine does both functions to a very high standard.
Thank you to Pfaff for giving me the opportunity to try out their machine and if you have any questions about my experience so far then do ask.
It’s funny how sometimes, when life dishes up lemons, it can take quite a while to get that lemonade made.
What on earth am I talking about…? well, when I left my job in a secondary school five years ago in a manner not of my choosing I had no idea what could happen next. If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while now you’ll know that I’ve carved out a life that involves sewing for my own pleasure, sewing for others, visiting interesting galleries, museums and exhibitions and, best of all, forming new friendships through those sewing activities. This post is really a result of the last one…
Two years ago Mr Y and I went on a cruise to the Baltic at a time no longer during school holidays, which turned out to be a Strictly Come Dancing-themed cruise. It was during this that I met Theresa Hewlett and without whom no costumes for the TV show would get made. She is the pattern cutter and alterations manager for the show, and designer Vicky Gill’s right hand woman. I didn’t know any of this when we first met on the ship, many of the costumes from the most recent series were on display around the ship and T was there giving us all very insightful guided tours of the dresses with tales of how each garment was constructed. As you can imagine I absolutely lapped it up [you can read my two blog posts from that trip here and here] and I was even more pleased to discover we’d both attended London College of Fashion within a year of each other.
That was that until several months later when I decided to give Twitter a try and somehow came across Theresa, on there, During the duration of the show she regularly tweets updates on progress of the costumes and little behind-the-scenes nuggets (she certainly never gives away big secrets though!)
DSI-London are based in Croydon, south of London so I travelled there by train and tram and found them based in a very unassuming building in a quiet residential road. I’d be lying if I told you that inside all was super-glamorous sparkles, feathers and sequins because that wouldn’t be true. Up the stairs you enter the showroom where customers can shop from the RTW items of essential ballroom and Latin dance-wear such as practice clothes, shoes of all styles, spray tan and eyelashes. It is also in this area that fittings on bespoke outfits take place. Later on in my visit I was privileged to sit in on fittings for two custom-made dresses for a young dancer who had flown over especially from Ireland and was flying back again that evening. It was fascinating to watch T tweak and measure and pin (always safety pins, regular pins would fall out straight away-I’m going to remember that one when I’m pinning wedding dress skirts in future!) T’s colleague Nina sits in as well to make notes of the customers requirements and record measurements, photos are often taken too, especially as the client is unlikely to be able to come for many fittings.
T gave me a tour through all the different departments within the company, they don’t only produce the Strictly costumes but also Dancing On Ice, as well as costumes for cruise ships and many other shows around the world. The ready to wear garments for these orders are cut and made in a separate workroom on the same floor. The cutting room for men’s wear is downstairs, as are the bulk of the fabric, haberdashery and trim supplies, and the laundry room.
The designs are created by Vicky Gill (who sadly I didn’t get to meet during my visit) and then T makes the made-to-measure patterns which are in turn are passed to a highly-skilled cutter who cuts all the fabrics and they go on to the machinists who sew the garments together, each person generally makes the whole garment and any alterations go back to that machinist too.
Once the dress is put together a fitting like the one I witnessed takes place to check fit and skirt length. The dress goes back to the machinist for any changes to be carried out and then it goes on to the stoning department for embellishment, which might include feather trim too.
Scattered all around the studio are mannequins in various states of undress and with different quantities of padding. The machinists use these all the time to be able to assess the dress as they progress, for the placement fringing or embellishment for example. [Incidentally, every dress is built on a leotard base so whenever there’s a ‘no knickers under her dress!’ scandal after the TV show it’s nonsense]
DSI often has dresses come back to them for alterations, fashions change, children grow, bodies alter. New skirts can be added, sleeves removed or added, stoning added to. It’s worth mentioning that the dresses (apart from ones with feathers on) can go in the washing machine, a fact I found amazing! In another part of the building there is a laundry with dresses drip-drying on a rail. Everything is sewn together on industrial zigzag machines along with rolled hem machines and overlockers. Theresa told me it’s very challenging at times to keep the machines working happily because they have to sew through so many layers of difficult fabrics at once, frequently including feathers and crin, and sometimes stoning if an alteration has to be carried out after completion. (they use heavy duty domestic machines to carry out repairs or alterations at the TV studios whilst the program is going out)
Many of the dresses from the TV show are hired by other productions of SCD around the world, they are all for sale on the company website so you could buy yourself a little piece of Strictly. DSI-London sell a wide range of specialist fabrics and trims too so if you ever need/want to have a go at making costumes or dancewear then have a look at their website.
I so enjoyed my visit to DSI-London and thank you so much to Theresa and all the staff who were so friendly and made me very welcome. I absolutely loved being back in a workroom environment again, it’s been a very long time since I was part of a creative team like this and it made me realise how much I miss it-everyone has a part to play in the making of these garments whether it’s wedding dresses in my case, or dance dresses. Obviously it isn’t glamorous in the slightest, it’s hard work in a hot room, and the pressure is immense when there’s a live TV programme at the end of every week for three months…and then Dancing on Ice after that.
It’s possible to for you to visit DSI-London too as they offer tours around the premises at different times of the year, have a look at their website to see when they are next taking place. I know they have proved popular though so there may be a bit of a wait.
It won’t too long now until the new series of Strictly starts again and the relatively peaceful atmosphere of the workrooms will be replaced with frenetic activity, I’ll be thinking of the people I met during my visit as they produce dozens of beautiful garments every week to dazzle us on our TVs on Saturday evenings during the autumn. And if you want regular updates on costume progress during the week, follow Theresa on Twitter.
Just a quick update of two exhibits which are in London at the moment in case you’re planning a visit to the capital.
At the Wallace Collection in Manchester Sq just behind Oxford St there are currently many beautiful examples of the shoes made by Manolo Blahnik over the course of his long career. He is a frequent visitor to the museum and over the years has used many of the rooms and their paintings and artefacts for inspiration. It’s easy to see this as you move around the upper rooms in this building which hosted many fashionable parties in its elegant salons. The shoes are displayed within beautiful glass domes and they have been placed in specific rooms and settings by Blahnik himself.
Even if you’re at the Wallace Collection primarily for the shoes don’t neglect the rooms themselves because there’s lots of varied and beautiful art to display including several Rembrandts, Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits, and The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (more of a smirk really…)
So, lots and lots of shoes, some-most-were very impractical, bought by women who don’t have to walk far or travel on public transport…This exhibition is on until September 1st and is free to enter which has to be a very good reason to go.
Also free is the exhibit on the second floor of the Alexander McQueen store in New Bond St, it’s intended for students but as a keen dressmaker I think that counts too.
We had attempted to visit here several weeks ago but it was closed because they were filming so do be aware there’s a possibility it might not be open for some reason. Check the shop opening hours too.
I was practically hyperventilating as we climbed the spiral staircase (with anticipation not lack of exercise!) I have been a long time admirer of Lee Alexander McQueen’s work and that of Sarah Burton since his untimely death in 2010 so to be so close to the garments, samples, inspirations and working processes is an extraordinary opportunity. I visited the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in 2015 a ridiculous eight times and I’m not ashamed of it!! Part of what I admire is that McQueen himself was the whole package-he designed incredible garments which pushed boundaries but he could also cut patterns, sew garments by hand or machine, he was a true visionary.
You’re not left to your own devices once in the exhibition space, there is a member of staff to show and explain anything. Maria was there when we visited and she explained that she works in the Atelier most of the time and at others she is at the exhibit to help visitors to understand and appreciate what they are seeing. Whoever is there if you visit make sure you ask questions to get the most from it.
On the rails are examples of vintage garments which were deconstructed to their bare bones, analysing the techniques underneath in order to create new and original garments.
For example the beautiful black embellished jacket and trousers were inspired by several vintage and antique mens frock coats and jackets, the exposed canvas, pad-stitching and quilting were reinterpreted with a modern twist, including beautiful jet-embellished lace applique. [Take a look at my previous post when I refashioned a two piece suit into a McQueen inspired jacket.]
Some of the inspiration for the fabrics came from an antique Jacquard fabric samples book found in a Parisian flea market.
As well as the black suit there is also a completely contrasting dress which has it’s origins in the John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia (in Tate Britain) the pioneering photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian wedding dress and original Victorian corsets which, like the jackets, have been taken apart to analyse their construction.
In addition to the actual dress there is a full-size and several miniature versions made in printed paper which are like beautiful sculptures.
There is also an outfit with a hand-painted leather jacket and asymmetric knitted dress underneath, it turns out that our guide Maria was responsible for painting it (in gouache apparently)
In addition to the new garments there are a few from previous collections including the iconic high-collared corset made in 1997 by Mr Pearl.
If you’re interested in the ‘bones’ of garments and knowing some of the processes which lead to their creation then you’re bound to find this a fascinating exhibit to visit-I felt incredibly privileged to be able to see the garments so close and to have someone like Maria explain firsthand what we were seeing. As I said earlier, the exhibits will change regularly, this one is due to continue for a few more weeks and then a new one will be installed in September, we asked what it might be but Maria was sworn to secrecy!
Overall, two fascinating short term exhibitions which are worth a visit if you get the chance.
Mary Quant is a name which is synonymous with British, and world, fashion in the 1960’s and 70’s. She is credited with pioneering miniskirts (although these were almost certainly originally by high-end French designer Andres Courreges, she popularised it and brought it to the masses) along with youthful Vidal Sassoon ‘5-point’ haircuts, and brightly coloured tights and accessories, all things that were a world away from the stuffy, old-fashioned clothes that young people were wearing up until that point, looking like younger versions of their parents.
She created a new and exciting fashion ‘scene’ that was fun and liberating, and which meant that young women in particular could wear what they wanted. The clothes were affordable and accessible although initially they were only available from her two London stores named Bazaar. She made them in bright colours reminiscent of children’s clothing, and often in ‘easy care’ modern synthetic fabrics such as Courtelle and Crimplene which were being developed following the end of the Second World War. Initially the garments in her shops were made in very small numbers using adapted Butterick home dressmaking patterns but this had to change rapidly with Quant’s increasing success.
A new retrospective of Mary Quant’s work has just opened at London’s V&A museum and it’s a fascinating overview of a twenty-year period of her work. During this time, she embraced a post-war boom in shopping and media marketing which resulted in mass production and export of her clothes all over the world, in a way which challenged the dominance of Parisian couture. She changed fashion with fun, edgy clothing that helped to modernise and redefine and which she promoted with high-energy fashion shows unlike the sedate shows that had gone before. Her clothes were being worn by women of all backgrounds, from celebrities and professionals, to mothers at home with young children. She developed ranges of underwear, hosiery, accessories, shoes and make up, even dolls, which often sold for not much money and so were available to just about anyone. She was at the forefront of mass-production of clothing and her garments were manufactured for over 30 years by Steinbergs in Pontypridd, Wales.
Her designs helped to sustain the British textile industry in the difficult post-war years. In 1967, for example, she used stretch-towelling and velour which allowed freedom of movement and comfort in ‘loungewear’, a mode of dress we just take for granted now and can’t imagine living without.
She also embraced a new type of wool jersey which was bonded to acetate fabric, making it more stable and could be dyed many bright colours and she exploited to the full with her iconic jersey minidresses.
She gained a reputation for reinventing tired products such as raincoats and sewing patterns. Her own initial experiments with PVC rainwear weren’t that successful because the seams were difficult to sew on standard sewing machines and they leaked so Quant quickly realised that she needed to work alongside long-time manufacturers of waterproof clothing to learn from their experience and specialist equipment.
In 1964 she signed a deal with Butterick patterns, the first British designer to do so, and this enabled home dressmakers everywhere to recreate her most popular styles in their own way whether it be in luxury fabrics or on a tighter budget. The first such pattern to be released was the iconic ‘Miss Muffet’ dress, a trademark simple shift with a pretty scalloped collar. There is a lovely original example on display made in 1964 by Sheila Hope in a fine Liberty wool.
Mary Quant also collaborated with chemical and fabric manufacturers Courtaulds and ICI to bring designs of Courtelle and Crimplene fabrics to a younger, trendier audience. Crimplene, which is a polyester-based fabric with easy-care properties, had fallen out of fashion by the 1970s in favour of other better-ventilated and lighter-weight fabrics so she was commissioned by ICI to rescue it’s fading image. It was possible to buy Crimplene in over 500 UK stores at a cost of about £3 per yard (the equivalent of about £23 today)
Many items on display were loaned or donated by ‘ordinary’ members of the public after the V&A put out a request for such items with the hashtag #WeWantQuant. There are interesting photo-montages with people’s memories of owning, wearing or making their own Mary Quant clothing, I particularly liked the quote from Sheila Nicholson, “I horrified my Domestic Science teacher by using a Mary Quant dress pattern for my O-Level!”
Interestingly, Indie pattern design company Alice & Co have collaborated with the V&A to produce a free downloadable dress pattern so you can make your own version of a Mary Quant shift with multiple variations giving lots of options to make your own homage to the MQ mini dress, visit the V&A website for more details, and look on Instagram for lots of tester inspiration too.
There are so many garments in this exhibition which could easily be from today, they still look fresh and wearable. This year jumpsuits and playsuits are very on-trend and there are several examples on show which wouldn’t look out of place now.
I didn’t expect to enjoy this exhibition as much as I did if I’m totally honest, I’m much more fascinated by the techniques, beautiful fabrics and appeal of couture but there was lots to see, along with interesting archive film clips and reminiscences from former Quant colleagues and collaborators. Although Quant herself is still alive she is very elderly now and takes no part in the exhibition. If you decide to take a trip to London any time before February 16th 2020 this would be an excellent way to spend a couple of fashionable hours.