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…
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.
My latest Minerva blog post is up for you to read now and it’s a jacket that nearly didn’t make it. I chose the fabric based on the image on screen but when it arrived both the background colour wasn’t what I expected and the design was larger than I thought it would be too. The lesson to learn from this is to order a swatch whenever possible to make sure the fabric is exactly as you expect or want.
That said, the quality of the loop-back jersey I used was absolutely lovely and it made up-eventually-into a really nice Jalie Charlie bomber jacket. I haven’t used Jalie before but I must say I was very impressed with the HUGE size range each pattern comes in, the quality of the instructions and illustrations (in both English and French) and the sizing is spot on.
The next problem I had was matching ribbing to the multi-coloured fabric and also finding a suitable open-ended zip. Eventually I found a gorgeous raspberry pink plain jersey from Sewisfaction instead of ribbing, and I got a zip from MacCulloch & Wallis in London.
Anyway, once I got everything together it all sewed up really well and I was pleased with how all the colours eventually came to form a unified whole. Subtle it isn’t so it definitely needs to be worn with plain garments but it’s a bit of fun and I know I’ll use the pattern again too.
As always, you can find the full rundown of my making experience over on the Minerva blog now, I hope you find it useful.
When Harriet asked me if I’d contribute a blog post for Sew Me Sunshine I was excited and very happy to help. After I’d had a good look at all their lovely fabrics I settled on the pink colour-way of the Gemma viscose/linen mix, it’s such a pretty shade with a magnolia flower print. When the fabric arrived Harriet has included a helpful card with full fabric details including fibre composition details plus width and quantity purchased. There’s a space to note if you pre-wash or not before it goes in the stash or straight to use.
The print is quite wide spaced and one-way [actually there are one set of flowers which run in one direction and another set which go the opposite way] so it’s worth bearing this in mind with pattern placement, and all your pieces should be positioned one way or the other.
I decided to make a Maven patterns French Dart shift dress which I’ve made twice before because it’s a lovely simple shape with no fastenings which makes it quite quick to make, three sleeve options, side seam pockets and an elegant roll collar.
Because of the positioning of the print I opted to have the smaller flowers running down the centre rather than the large blooms which would have resulted in a more wasteful lay plan. As I had enough fabric I opted for the long sleeved version which I’ve made both times previously, the gathers at the cuff are so pretty. I cut the sleeves so that similar flowers are on a level with the dress front.
Because the fabric is quite loosely-woven and a linen mix it tends to fray a bit you’ll need to be aware of this. Making a style with lots of gathers may not be wise because it will start to come apart eventually the more you pull the gathers up-the cuffs on this dress were fine as it’s fairly short. The fabric would look lovely in pleats or folds too.
The fabric sews up beautifully, it isn’t overly drapey but it’s nicely fluid and responds well to pressing although like most linen, and linen/mix, there is noticeable but not excessive creasing-this is one of the features of the fabric and you have to accept that as part of it, it isn’t a fault. You could also use it for loose-fitting shirts or trousers, for example the Zadie jumpsuit from Paper Theory would look gorgeous in it or what about the Tilly and the Buttons Seren dress, nothing too tight-fitting though as it will crease badly or ‘seat’. You can always add a soft cotton lawn lining to a fabric like this which might help, this particular fabric isn’t sheer though so you can’t really see through it.
The structure of the fabric lends itself to the roll-neck collar and this one doesn’t have any interfacing in it, it stands well on its own.
I’m really happy with the finished dress, it’s very feminine and in a very unpredictable British climate I think it will be ideal on cooler warm days (does that make sense!?) I’ll wear it with tights in the autumn. Incidentally, I hand finished the hem so that the stitches are invisible, you could machine it up though.
Thank you Harriet for providing me with the fabric and the opportunity to write about it-it also comes in a pale blue colour-way too which is equally lovely if pink isn’t your thing.
At the beginning of the year Charlotte (@englishgirlathome) and Carmen (@carmencitablog) announced there was to be another Paris Sewcial in May. It was a free-to-attend event, you just needed to get yourself there and book your own accommodation. The previous one was four years ago and at the time I was just getting started on IG and barely knew anyone, although I do remember seeing pictures pop up on my feed. This time a group of us were keen to go together and the super-efficient Claire Sews got us all organised with trains and hotels so we were soon good to go!
Six of us met at London St Pancras early on Friday morning and took the Eurostar direct to Gare du Nord, it was a short 15 minute walk to our hotel near Sacre Coeur and Montmartre from there. Although our rooms were definitely compact and bijoux I was delighted to discover mine had a modest view of the Eiffel Tower! [it was better in reality than it appears in my photo incidentally] I was soundly mocked by my companions but I think they were just jealous of my room with a glimpse.
I was keen not to spend my whole time in Paris inside shops no matter how appealing the fabric was, and it was a first visit for Kara, so we took the opportunity along with Salva to get the hop-on hop-off bus which visited all the major sites in the city. Cue a few photos of Parisian landmarks…
In the evening we were joined by two more companions so the eight of us went to supper at a restaurant nearby and had a very jolly evening.
The grand meet-up commenced at approximately 11am the next day so after a delightful breakfast at a little cafe we arrived to find a huge group of our fellow sewers at the foot of the steps in front of Sacre Coeur. It was SO lovely to see so many people there, Charlotte’s patient partner Phil took a group shot of us all together before we eventually and gradually dispersed to the fabric shops which are very close by.
There are lots of fabrics shops grouped close together in the area and many of them specialise in a method of selling which I hadn’t encountered before. The fabric is grouped in fibre type so linen, silks, woollens, viscoses etc plus cottons were sub-divided into fabric type like denim or double-gauze but everything is cut into 3 metre lengths and folded on end. It sounds complex but it isn’t, you have to not be a neat-freak. It’s called ‘coupons’ and I thought it was a very good way of selling because 3 metres is plenty to make many items of clothing like a dress or a coat perhaps, although admittedly too much for some, you could always share with someone else provided you were agreed on the colour! It means you don’t have to find a member of staff to cut your fabric, they don’t need tables to cut on either. It needs to be kept tidy but I found it an enjoyable and novel way to fabric shop. I bought fabric in Les Coupons de St Pierre, Sacres Coupons and Tissus Molines but there are quite a few others close by too. There are still traditional shops too where the fabric is on the roll and staff will cut your chosen quantity, plus some stores selling haberdashery, trims and buttons etc.
Eventually we were pretty much shopped out and in need of sustenance so the groups dispersed to various restaurants for lunch.
In the afternoon many of us carried on to a pop-up shop where DP studio patterns were selling off ex-sample fabrics and dead stock at very low prices, as well as their own patterns. A few carried on still further to Make my Lemonade and a few other shops but some of us were pretty pooped by now so we headed back to the hotel with our swag.
Later in the evening many of us travelled across town to a restaurant where a meal and entertainment had been laid on for us. Unfortunately the Parisian liking for late eating didn’t suit everyone after such a long and tiring day and we were all quite keen to head to our beds in the end.
After brunch on Sunday morning a fairly large group went to visit the Yves St Laurent museum at 5, avenue Marceau. As you know I love a good fashion exhibition and this was no exception, the entrance fee is €10 which I thought was pretty reasonable. It isn’t that large but there are quite a number of gowns and outfits on show, as well the studio in which YSL used to work for around 30 years. It was also an opportunity to actually chat with fellow Sewcialists without it being too noisy or fabric purchasing being our primary occupation.
The first salon was dedicated to the famous Mondrian dress with many of its iterations including Barbie and Marge Simpson, and unwearable suggestions for eye makeup.
In the other salons were various YSL outfits from past collections.
The studio in which St Laurent created for over 30 years was a beautiful bright, light-filled space with many artefacts which made it feel as though he had merely stepped out of the room for a moment.
There is, of course, a modest and tasteful book and gift shop at the exit although I resisted the urge to buy anything else.
After leaving the museum we all headed in various directions, avenue Marceau is very near the river with its wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower. We indulged in crepes from a vendor after which we set off for the Musee D’Orsay with a very pleasant stroll along the Left Bank of the Seine-fortunately the very threatening sky never did come to anything.
There was quite a long queue at the D’Orsay but we Brits are good at that and the time passed while we chatted. Inside was crowded so we went straight to the top floor where the Impressionist artists are housed. Amongst the painting we spotted these sewing/crocheting beauties which seem particularly appropriate, plus two favourites of mine.
We finished the day with supper back in the Montmartre area, plus the most beautiful ice cream I have ever eaten. We worked them off by climbing right up the hill to Sacre Coeur!
What did I buy did you say?? I was super-restrained and chose several plains and a classic stripe, plus an unusual print lining and a remnant with a fish design. I spent less than €100 in total which I’m happy with for the quality of fabrics that I bought.
And then it was time to come home again…Carmen joined us for breakfast on our last morning which gave us a chance to thank her (again) for instigating/organising the whole event.
Even on the Eurostar home we still had lots to talk, and laugh, about and we all agreed that there had to be another Paris Sewcial in the future. Thank you again Charlotte and Carmen for having the idea in the first place-it was brilliant and such a delight to meet so many diverse yet like-minded people.
I thought in this blog I’d take a look back at some of the things I’ve been up to over the last twelve months and it’s made me realise what a wonderful varied collection they are. As well as sewing multiple garments from numerous patterns (which I’ll look at in a separate blog) there have been several meet-ups including the Stitchroom Sewcial in June and the now-famous Sewing Weekender in August, plus one I organised myself in November. I’ve visited quite a few exhibitions, some of them more than once, read lots of books and written reviews of several of them in case anyone out there was interested in knowing more if they fancy a visit or a read for themselves. I’ve been back to the Knitting & Stitching show, and The Handmade Fair for the first time too.
In January I made my first coat in decades, the Butterick 6423 and was pretty pleased with the outcome overall.
My first meet-up of the year in February was a return visit to Balenciaga at the V&A organised by Alex (Sewrendipity) where I met a number of lovely fellow dressmakers in the flesh for the first time. It was so nice to go to an exhibition with like-minded people and then we all went for lunch together afterwards-very civilised!
Also in February Gabby Young invited me to become one of the Simple Sew bloggers so I embarked on a year of wrangling their patterns into submission, they are nice designs but aren’t always faultlessly accurate in their drafting or instructions. I took on the role on the understanding that I’d be honest (although never rude) but informative and constructive. I’ll leave you to be the judge of whether I achieved that.
I had the opportunity to visit the Fashion Technology Academy in April which was such an inspiring place. You can study many of the technical aspects of clothing production there and we also had the chance to try out a taster session of TR pattern cutting with the supremely gifted Claudette Joseph while we were there too. If you, or someone you know, wants to go down the technical route into garment manufacture then this place in North London could be a good place to start looking.
Also in April I returned to the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London to attend their fascinating ‘Inside couture’ afternoon. I’ve been once before but it’s so enjoyable, and such a treat to get the your hands on real couture clothes (with white gloves on, natch). I highly recommend a visit if you’re in London but you do need to book for these particular events, the museum itself is open most days.
The first London Stitchers meet-up was held at the beginning of May and although I’m not technically ‘London’, as has become obvious, I go up a lot. These are organised by Ana Cocowawacrafts and Georgia One Stitch Forward and they vary in their locations between north, south and central London. Anyone is welcome and it’s a great way to meet new people and know that you all have at least one shared interest! It’s like speed-dating for dressmakers!!
Me Made May was also happening on Instagram and for the first time in ages I managed to post every single day for a month-long challenge even though I was out of the country for some of it. Lots of garments I shared weren’t new and box-fresh, in fact quite a few of them were old favourites, which is as it should be. We made a trip to Assisi in Italy during this time so that made my backdrops a bit more interesting for a few days!
I tried something a bit different in May by going on a course to learn how to make and print my own etchings. I’d done this once a million years ago when I did my Foundation Course at college and have always found the medium fascinating and beautiful. [Go and check out Rembrandt’s work in particular if you aren’t sure what they are] I’d met a lovely lady called Chrissy Norman on the first Sewing Weekender two years ago and it turns out that not only does she sew and knit, she’s a super-talented printmaker too. She has a separate IG account for her prints and I admired a print she posted on it early in the year. It transpires that she teaches courses a few times a year at Sudbourne Park Printmakers workshops. Long story short, I signed up and joined her in Suffolk in mid-May. It was soooo interesting and fun, plus I made some pretty respectable prints based on a photo I had taken of the Maggi Hambling sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
The summer saw the first of several visits to the Frida Kahlo exhibition and Fashioned from Nature at the V&A museum. I also loved the retrospective of the work of Azzedine Alaia at the Design Museum, I didn’t write a review though because by the time I went there wasn’t much left of the run sadly. It was spectacular though and I’m very glad I made the effort. That same day we went to see the musical Hamilton which was absolutely stupendous, Mr Y normally doesn’t go for that style of music but even he has raved about it ever since-highly recommended!
In June I was one of the lucky attendees of the first Stitchroom Sewcial event organised by Anne ‘New Vintage Sewing’ and Lucy ‘Sew Essential’ at Anne’s workplace in the University of Loughborough. They had excelled themselves with activities for us all to try including visiting the print and weaving workshops, computerised machine embroidery, an individual photoshoot AND time to sew and use the industrial machines Anne has in her classroom. I really hope I’m lucky enough to go again in 2019…
I took a road trip with my ‘local’ sewing friends Alana and Helen to visit Sewisfaction on their first Big Summer Stitch-up which was great fun, even though it was a steaming hot day.
At the end of July and beginning of August I posted two blogs which seemed to light the blue touch paper that rapidly became Sew Over 50. When I wrote them I thought no one would read them, much less agree with me, so I was stunned by the response to say the least. My now-friend Judith was amongst those who read them and was feeling the same way so she went one step further and created a new Instagram account called @SewOver50 and everything went a bit nuts from there on. As I write this post the account has gained over 5,300 followers since mid-August which is phenomenal. It’s become a place of inspiration and encouragement for thousands of women (and the occasional man) who sew but felt they, we, are being overlooked or dismissed by the burgeoning home-dressmaking market because of our age.
One thing that some people misunderstood about the whole idea wasn’t that we wanted to be separate from any other age group, like some kind of exclusive club, not at all, we just felt that some people-magazines, pattern companies-were overlooking the opportunity to tap into a market and a group who had cash to spend, had styling ideas, skills and experience to share, originality, fun, empathy, quirkiness, style. For a lot of the people who started following the account they had very little experience of using social media to broaden their horizons in sewing terms, and for connecting with like-minded people around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, as well as Europe. Suddenly there was an identifiable hashtag to follow which took you straight to the heart of this community. In fact it isn’t only sewing that members are supportive with, many face health challenges, a changing body with the menopause, dealing with elderly parents or caring for grandchildren so there have already been lots of conversations that have strayed away from sewing completely, and that’s OK too.
It’s been gratifying to see that a number of sources are making a big effort to be more diverse in who they feature in articles or as models. There is still a long way to go though because we’re conscious it might appear that it’s mostly white middle-aged women who sew, but we know this isn’t the case because there are many women of colour who sew too, maybe they don’t engage as much with Instagram or other social media though? I don’t know the answer to this one except to say that all are welcome because that’s the whole point. It makes me very happy when much younger dressmakers comment to me that they also follow us to get inspiration and advice, which is also the reason that I follow younger sewers myself!
Onwards, there was another amazing Sewing Weekender in August which was quickly followed by SewPhotoHop on Instagram in September organised by Rachel ‘House of Pinheiro‘. I didn’t keep up with this one so much and dipped in and out a bit [the same happened with Sewvember as well] but it’s a good way to find new people to follow and be inspired by if all this is new to you. I’ve just remembered there was MIYMarch (Make it Yourself) but that passed me by completely this year.
In September I became a Minerva Crafts blogger so I’m provided with fabric by them to make up into my own choice of garment and then write a comprehensive review for their own website. I’m enjoying this and it’s another string to my bow.
October saw me return to Birmingham for the SewBrum event which is magnificently organised by Charlotte ‘English Girl at Home’. It’s a chance for dressmakers from all over the place to come together in Birmingham, shop for fabric, visit Guthrie & Ghani and generally hang out together.
I was really chuffed to be invited by Amy Thomas, editor of Love Sewing magazine to contribute an article about the Fashioned from Nature exhibition to the magazine in November. It was a really big deal for me to write something specifically to appear in print. I’ve been lucky enough to write pattern reviews for Love Sewing and Sew Now in the past but this was a new departure. I’d love to do more like this in the future. There’s definitely a little something coming up early in the new year but I can’t talk about that yet…..
I organised my own meet-up at Walthamstow Market in east London in mid-November which fortunately was a beautiful day as it was well attended and we nearly all went for lunch afterwards, to continue chatting! It was the first meet-up for quite a number of the attendees but I think everyone enjoyed themselves and were delighted to get the chance to chat together in real life and not just in a comments box!
There was a lovely pre-Christmas sewing day in Cambridge called SewCam organised by Jen Walker ‘The Gingerthread Girl’ which was a delightful antidote to festive fever, and a final London Stitcher’s meet up the following weekend to round everything off nicely!
When I look back at everything in this way it makes me so happy to realise the sheer quantity of wonderful opportunities that my love of dressmaking has brought me this year in particular. I continue to teach my lovely group of ladies locally-they think all this Instagram nonsense is ridiculous in a good way! I’ve met so many awesome and inspiring women in real life for the first time and I’ve deepened some of the friendships that started last year, or longer, ago. Many people think that ‘friends’ on Insta aren’t real but that just isn’t true. Of course there are those people you should give a wide berth to and we are continually plagued by nut-jobs who think women who sew will be interested in their guns, or love of God, or whatever but if we all continue to report them then so much the better.
Wherever you are in your sewing ‘journey’ I hope you find it relaxing, fulfilling, inspiring, empowering, distracting, whatever you need it to be. I’ll never stop learning and being creative is so good for us ( we knew this all along but science is finally realising it too!)
I’ve already got some ideas for next year but, to be honest, much of 2018 just unfolded one thing at a time without too much planning in advance. I’d like to expand my own skills in 2019 and not necessarily in dressmaking terms, I have always enjoyed art so perhaps I should get my pencils and paints back out again.
There’s always an element of me hoping you enjoy what I write and find the reviews helpful or informative although, in truth, I’d write them anyway as a record. Thank you for joining me on the journey and Happy New Year, and here’s to lots more sewing adventures, maybe we’ll meet ‘in real life’ in 2019?!
So, does ageism exist in modern dressmaking both as a pastime and an industry as it’s developing at the moment? Obviously I hope the answer to my question is “no” but I have my doubts that’s the case.
Why am I even asking? I’m asking because, after I published my last blog about ‘big 4 patterns’ and indie patterns, one point I raised for discussion was that I’d noticed certain pattern designers were ignoring my photos when I’d tagged their product in them. It seems this resonated with others too, and all of us appear to be in the over 45-50 in age group. I’m also well aware by saying this that there will be those who think I’m being paranoid, have an over-inflated sense of my own importance or just suffering from FOMO! (fear of missing out, if you haven’t heard that before) simply for writing this.
Firstly, a very quick lesson in Instagram if you don’t use the platform-those of us who use Instagram regularly know that if we share photos of garments we’ve made it’s completely normal to say which pattern it is and also where we bought the fabric from for example, by ‘tagging’ those companies in the picture. Doing this means that others who see your post know what the products are if they’re are interested in buying them. Within the Instagram sewing community it’s a normal part of what we all enjoy. Tagging also alerts those companies or individuals to a post containing one of their products which they wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s nice to get a ‘like’ from these companies or individuals, more as an acknowledgement than anything else, a comment is even better and a repost on their own feed is the ultimate in flattering acknowledgment of your make.
Eventually it’s possible to strike up ‘conversations’ with some of these companies, much in the same way we do between ourselves in response to photos we like or find interesting or intriguing for example. [Weird guys with guns looking for lurve and usually involving God are a whole other matter and to be avoided and blocked at all costs] We use their product and mention it so it’s free advertising for them, we get the satisfaction of knowing they’ve seen what we’ve made.
So far, so good, but in the last two years or so there seems to be a proliferation of new independent pattern companies and they are all clamouring for our attention and support, it’s becoming a very crowded market.
I won’t lie, it is very satisfying to have your work acknowledged and I’m always happy when it happens for one of my makes because we all like that approval don’t we? I’ve learned, however, that there are some companies who never acknowledge a tag, it isn’t what they do, it can be a bit like that on Twitter too. There’s no point in jumping up and down in front of them like a needy child.
Initially I didn’t really notice with a particular pattern company I’d used because when I shared the first post of my make being modelled by Doris my dress stand it got a ‘like’. In other words, no clues there to what I look like or anything, and I made it in almost identical fabric to the photo to the pattern cover itself, nothing too ‘inappropriate’. I decided I’d share some better photos in nicer surroundings when I was on holiday a couple of weeks later. This time I ‘modelled’ the dress myself and tagged all the usual information, pattern, fabric etc. Eventually I noticed that it hadn’t provoked a response this time…interesting I thought.
Earlier in the summer I made a garment for a student’s Final exhibition and by chance was asked to use a particular pattern by this same company for it. The photo I was eventually able to share was again of a headless dress stand wearing the garment and this got an acknowledgment.
Funny, I thought, so I had a look at their feed for myself. It’s fair to say that it’s all a beautifully curated series of images, there are reposts of other people’s makes too but all very much in line with their chosen ‘company’ image and saying more about the carefully staged photo than the garment itself. Of course any company is perfectly entitled to use only the images it chooses to to promote itself, I understand that.
I’d decided to make a second version of the dress with some lovely printed viscose linen fabric I bought in Sewisfaction, it was ideal for the dress and would be comfortable in the very hot weather we’d been experiencing in the UK. I would test my suspicions by tagging the pattern company in a photo of me wearing it to see what happened! As I expected, nothing happened. I got a lovely comment and a repost from Sewisfaction about the fabric but as far as the pattern went my face clearly doesn’t fit and I’ll draw my own conclusions why.
Ok, so now I definitely sound paranoid right?
This isn’t the only indie company that I’ve had it happen with and I now know, because other sewers have told me, that they feel ignored by some brands too. It’s like there’s an inner sanctum of pattern brands, bloggers with large followings and newly-hatched fabric businesses and it all goes around and around in this special perfect storm of ‘dreamy’ fabric and ‘swoon-worthy’ ruffles (and when did we get so much hyperbole in sewing too!?)
So what next? Well there isn’t much I can actually ‘do’ other than not bother tagging in photos, I guess if a person looking at my feed is interested enough in the garment they can ask me directly what it is and I’ll tell them. Also, I like to write pattern reviews here on the blog and each one can take me hours to put together. Simple Sew provide me with patterns but almost every other review has been of my own volition because I think I’ve got something useful or helpful to say about a pattern, I don’t write “it’s pretty and here are some lovely pictures of me modelling it” because that’s fairly pointless. I would have written a blog about the offending dress but now I shan’t because why would I waste my time when I could be sewing other things instead. [I should have been concerned from the outset because the model on the packet is about 6’ 7” and 6” wide so I’m guessing I’m not their target audience! hasn’t stopped me yet though LOL] At nearly £20 a pop these patterns are at the distinctly pricey end too.
Which brings me to the newly created hashtag ’SewOver50’. Fellow sewer and Instagrammer Judith Staley felt strongly enough to set up a new account @sewover50 in order that anyone can feel more connected with the online sewing community. In the first 3 days the response has been astonishing, and I think Judith has found it a little overwhelming. The sheer volume of women [no men with guns etc etc] has been extraordinary and I think is an indication of the number of people who want their own ’tribe’, where they don’t feel pushed aside by ambitious younger women. We all have a lot to offer this sewing community of ours and it’s worldwide. In the UK we’re pretty good at holding meet ups and I think the same is true in Australia, I’m not so sure about the US though.
Personally, I love being part of a completely mixed group-all ages, all sizes, all ethnicities, and I don’t want that to change. I don’t only want to be part of the ‘over-50’s’, not at all! But I won’t sit back and let us be ignored either and if this blog upsets or provokes a few people then good! Of course it’s vital to be ambitious for your business and have big plans and ideas but I would remind the ones who think it doesn’t matter if they engage, or not, with an older demographic that by choosing not to acknowledge or engage then they are potentially closing off a lucrative income stream. That isn’t a very sound business idea is it?
On a recent Stitcher’s Brew podcast Amy Thomas, editor of Love Sewing magazine here in the UK, said specifically that she wanted to include a really diverse range of readers in the magazine (this must be true because even I’ve been in it!) which is great and the evidence is there in the pages. I hope other magazines are of a similar opinion but as I don’t buy loads of them I can’t comment. Several pattern brands which I’ve mentioned before including Maven and The Maker’s Atelier take a very broad and inclusive look at who buys their products and then feature those makers in their own advertising and so on. Their styles are classic and wearable but fashion forward and designed to be remade many times, not here today, gone tomorrow. Incidentally, I’m not sponsored by either of them, I just admire their aesthetic.
I could go on but I’d prefer that others join in the discussion and open it up. Does ageism exist in dressmaking and if so, do we just accept it, like in so many other areas of life? Will our new Instagram identity bring it to the attention of those perpetuating it and cause them to reflect on the business sense of it? I hope so.
To the women who think that over 50 is a foreign country, god willing it’s where you will be one day, like it or not. We haven’t all sunk into senility yet, we don’t (always) wear elasticated waists, we do wear fashionable clothing and high heels and dye our hair, we listen to modern music and drink too much wine on occasion, we sometimes but not always enjoyed our youth but we wouldn’t necessarily want to go through it all again. Yes we might be old enough to be your mother (or even grandmother) but as I saw someone say the other day “we aren’t dead and we aren’t invisible!” deal with it!!
If you’ve read this far, thank you, and please leave a comment as I’m genuinely interested in what others have to say about this topic and regardless of the age group you’re currently in.
I’ve used a few Zierstoff patterns now including the Gina skirt which I blogged about here, a reversible Sophie bolero and the Sue T-shirt (I think this one is due a revisit soon actually)
The latest ones on my cutting table have been the Juliene top and the Amy top and I love them both!
The Juliene is a very loose fitting casual top with a scoop neckline and asymmetric hem which I made in a very inexpensive loose knit with a hint of glitter which I bought in Fabricland, Salisbury at the end of last summer. [As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts Zierstoff are a PDF pattern company based in Germany and you simply choose your pattern, pay for it, download and print] Juliene uses just 3 pattern pieces [front/back, long sleeve or short sleeve plus a neck band] It’s the sort of top you can whizz up in no time.
My Juliene looks a bit shabby at the edges now as I’ve worn it so much but I think that’s the sign of a successful make.
The Amy is a similar silhouette in that it’s very loose fitting with a dropped ‘armhole’ seam but it has extra long sleeves which pool in folds around your wrists, there’s a horizontal seam across the back, a high/low hemline and casual roll neck collar. The sizing is suitable for teens age 13 up to UK ladies size 18 although the generous nature of the shape would mean it will probably fit more than that. Mine is a UK 12 with plenty of room. I made my first version in a strange-shaped scrap of a black and white spotted knit fabric that I’ve had lurking in the pile for a while. Because of it’s wonkiness, which wasn’t helped by a printing flaw, it took me a little while and some head-scratching to cut out but I managed it!
I made this first one exactly as the pattern with no changes and overall I was very happy with it. The slouchy sizing is about right but, for me, the bicep is a bit too tight.
I bought some lovely aubergine jersey with a hint of sparkle from Escape & Create in St Ives, Cambs when I visited them as part of Alex Sewrendipity’s fabric store guide back in November, I had the Amy specifically in mind for it. This time I increased the depth of the collar by about 8cms, lengthened the body and added to the width of the sleeves to loosen them a little on my chunky arms!
I’m really happy with this one too and get loads of wear out of it, the fabric washes and tumble dries really well too.
My final version (so far) is made in very fluid black sparkly jersey which I picked up at the autumn Knitting & Stitching show. I had another pattern in mind for it originally but changed my mind. This time I decided to lengthen the pattern a lot to dress length so I think I added about 35-40cms, plus some extra to the collar again.
I don’t think it was a total success because in my head it was fabulous and stylish but seeing myself in it was a whole other matter! I don’t think I got the length right for me, it needs to be worn with high heels to carry it off properly and I just don’t wear them much these days. I tried a belt but that wasn’t flattering. I’ve only worn it once on New Year’s Eve so I think I’ll have to take a bit off the bottom so that it’s nearer knee length. Oh well, some you win, some you lose.
My Amys have certainly been one of my favourite tops this winter because I can layer them up with a long-sleeved T underneath. I think I’ll make a short-sleeved version of Juliene for the summer too. I’ll probably carry on for evermore making adaptations to these styles because they are so wearable and comfortable. There’s an element of me which thinks that Zierstoff doesn’t have the degree of finesse that other PDF patterns have. I might be wrong but I think they are all drafted on a computer rather than by actual pattern cutting so there are the occasional clunky joins or edges but then they are a lot cheaper than most so it’s swings and roundabouts. For the price I think they are perfectly serviceable, and the video tutorials seem pretty thorough.
As before, I was provided with the patterns but all opinions expressed are entirely my own. If you want to try a Zierstoff pattern for yourself use my 20% off voucher code Susan Young Sewing at the checkout, it’s valid once so you could buy a couple to make it worthwhile.
2017 turned out to be a very busy sewing year for me. Not only did I make a loads of projects for myself and occasionally others but I wrote two articles for sewing magazines, and did a multitude of alterations (some very complex and time-consuming) to numerous wedding dresses, along with more mundane hems and sleeve-shortenings too.
This is a quick dash through many of the things I got up to although I’m not sure everything got photographed at the time. I’ve included a lot of links too if I’ve written blogs on some of the things I mention.
In February while I was having a week’s holiday in the Lake District I managed to squeeze in a visit to Abakhan fabrics in Manchester and bought fabric by weight for the first time in my life. I also went to a meet up organised by the lovely Emily of Self Assembly Required in a pub at King’s Cross station! I met loads of fellow-sewers there as well as picking up some new patterns and fabrics from the swap including the Holiday Top by The Maker’s Atelier which I’ve made twice over the summer.
Another February highlight was seeing the latest Burberry collection alongside the fabulous capes, each one of which was a stunning one-off! I wonder if there’ll be a similar show this season?
March saw the Moneta party (dress pattern by Colette) so I made my first which I altered to include full-length sleeves, a roll collar and a fake exposed zip (I made a short-sleeved one later in the summer too) I wore it when I went to the spring Knitting and Stitching show where once again I met up with a few fellow-sewers organised by Gabby Young (no relation!) from Gabberdashery vlog.
Collette patterns, ‘Moneta’
One of the new people I met was Juliene from Zierstoff Patterns who gave me the opportunity to try out several of their patterns during the course of the rest of the year.
Another new departure was a fundraising initiative with my weekly sewing group. We all spent an afternoon making little ‘pillowcase’ dresses which would eventually be sent off to a girl’s school in Africa.
Moving rapidly into April I visited the wonderful ‘Five Centuries of House Style’ exhibition at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, made another Holiday top utilising a few fancy stitches on my sewing machine, as well as a Sophie bolero by Zierstoff. Also during April I was approached to teach some dressmaking classes at a local craft shop so I made some sample garments for that including a dirndl skirt and a jersey tube skirt. I made the first of 3 Imogen tops using Sew Me Something’s pattern too, more about those later.
In May I went on my travels with my good friend Sue when we walked a section of the Camino di Santiago in France which was a fantastic empowering experience.
In June Mr Y and I went on a cruise to the Baltic and it happened to be a Strictly Come Dancing cruise! The company that make all the costumes, DSI-London, were on board along with many of the dresses so I was in seventh heaven being able to see them close up. I had to write 2 blogs about that just to be able to include all the pictures! you can read them here and here.
By July I was teaching in Hertford and one of the garments was a ‘no-pattern’ kimono which was popular and also the ‘pillowcase’ dress (nothing to do with pillowcases other than a child’s version could be made from one) It’s basically two rectangles of fabric sewn up each side, hemmed at the bottom and a channel at the top with ribbon through it.
Also in July I made my first visit to the fabulous Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A in London which was wonderful. I’ve actually been 3 times now, each time taking a different friend, I’ve had excellent value from my V&A membership and I’d urge anyone local enough and interested in the decorative arts to think about joining.
I had hoped to go to the second Sewing Weekender in August but I hadn’t been lucky enough to get a ticket….or so I thought! About 10 days before the event I got an email from Rachel at The Foldline telling me that sadly someone had had to drop out and would I like her ticket? Silly question! So off I went to Cambridge and had a wonderful time amongst so many fabulous sewing people, friends old and new. It was my birthday too! I made a simple top while I was there this time, one I’d made before so it was quick, meaning I’d have plenty of time for chatting…and taking on Elizabeth for a Ninja sewing challenge!
We each got given a copy of the same pattern and some stretch fabric off the swap table and away we went, with one hour to get it done. The results were ‘mixed’ shall we say, Elizabeth left out a section and didn’t notice until it was too late and I only cut one piece where I should have cut two so I had to go back and cut that. It was a lot of fun though, even if we looked like stuffed sofas!
I spent Septembermaking the top and trousers that I’d be modelling in Love Sewing magazine! This was certainly one of my sewing highlights in 2017, although there have been lots really.I made a third Imogen blouse from fabric I got off The Foldline’s swap table at the first Great British Sewing Bee.
Another favourite top this year was the Merchant & Mills Camber Set which I also got from the King’s Cross meet up in the spring. It’s been a really useful pattern and I love the neat way the binding and the neck yoke finish off the neck edges, it’s a really clever piece of construction.
I also made this top with 1 metre of fabric generously given to us in the Weekender goody bag by Stoff&Stil, it’s Burda 6914 which I’ve used 3 times now although this is the first time as a top. I really like the pleated neckline with a bias binding finish. There was just enough fabric to add slim ruffles to the sleeves which I neatened using the rolled hem finish on my overlocker.
I spent a lot of time during August and September making my entry to The Refashioners 2017, an Alexander McQueen-inspired jacket which I was extremely proud of when I finished it.
Into October and more fabric got purchased at the Autumn Knitting and Stitching Show at Ally Pally (oops) I made my first pair of jeans this month but I can’t talk about them yet as they were a pattern test which still hasn’t been released-I’m really happy with them though so I’ll publish the blog as soon as it’s released into the wide world. (I think the designer needs to get on with it otherwise the whole world will think that Ginger jeans are the only pattern available!)
After literally months of dithering I finally bought a new mannequin, or ‘Doris’ as she’s known to me. Old Doris was falling to bits and only held together by the t-shirt that covered her, I’d had her for well over 30 years so I reckon I’d had good value out of her. I chose the ‘Catwalk’ model from Adjustoform which I bought from Sew Essential and I’ve been very pleased with it.
Also in October I went up to Birmingham for the SewBrum meet up organised by EnglishGirlatHome, Charlotte where I had a really fun day (apart from the sweary drunk woman on the train coming home!) catching up with chums and visiting Guthrie & Ghani for the first time. I took part in the fantastic raffle while I was there but was unsuccessful….or so I thought (again) About 6 weeks after the event I got a message from Charlotte asking if anyone had told me I’d won a brand new mannequin in the raffle!!! So now I have New Outdoor Doris who lives in Threadquarters and Indoor Doris who lives…indoors, and I use her to take photos on.
November saw another new departure for me when I volunteered to write some reviews of fabric shops in my area. This was for Alex of Sewrendipity as part of her plan to create an unbiased worldwide database of fabric retailers, available to everyone to use. It meant I visited some new places as well as some old favourites.
I made another entry for our annual church Christmas Tree festival. It was a refashion/upcycle of the fabric I used for the previous year and sadly it was Old Doris’s last outing before she heads for the tip! The net petticoat was a tube of fabric with the baubles and lights inside it.
I had also volunteered as a pattern reviewer for Jennifer Lauren Vintage so I made a really nice Mayberry dress and wrote a blog for that very recently. One other new pattern I tried out but haven’t blogged yet was the French dart shift by Maven Patterns. It’s a lovely flattering shift dress with a funnel neck and a variety of sleeve styles and no zip. I made it in a navy fabric of unknown origin and wore it on Christmas Day.
The biggest deal of the year in some ways was in December when I finally, finally, decided to buy a new sewing machine! This was such a big deal because I’ve had my beloved Elna 7000 for probably 27 years and it’s still going strong (only the occasional hiccough) and I have a strong emotional attachment to it. Thing is, technology moves on and whilst that really isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for me there are processes and functions that I would like in order to keep (even after all these years) on top of my sewing. In early November I went to a fun jeans refashioning workshop hosted by Portia Lawrie and Elisalex (By Hand London) and we were provided with gorgeous Pfaff sewing machines to use.
Anyway, I was thinking about it long and hard for a while because it’s an awful lot of money when I came upon a Black Friday (not even a real thing) deal where this model was virtually half-price. Sooooo, after a visit to Sew Essential a new Pfaff Quilt Ambition 2.0 has come home to live with me and we’re getting to know one another…
So that just about sums up my sewing year. It’s been a lot of fun at times, and hot and frustrating at others (sweltering under mountainous wedding dresses in the height of the summer is no fun) I’ve met some lovely new people and been reacquainted with lovely ‘old’ ones too! I’m looking forward to another busy year of sewing, blogging, teaching, chatting, tea drinking and generally feeling connected to sewers all over the world. It really feels like dressmaking is an activity that is worthwhile again and not just some strange little hobby that old biddies do, besides, it’s surprising what you could learn from an old biddy, she may just have made the same sewing mistakes as you have but 30 or 40 years earlier!
In late 2017 I responded to an invitation/request on Instagram by Sewrendipity for bloggers to contribute to a project she wants to put together to collate information about fabric shops in as many areas or cities of as many countries as people care to add. If you don’t know Alex she was a contestant in Series 3 of the Great British Sewing Bee, and she’s passionate about sewing and dressmaking.
It can be really difficult to know where fabric shops are around your area and even if you do know they’re there, are they worth visiting? I live just north of London so it’s not that difficult to go in to places like Liberty, The Cloth House, MacCullough & Wallis, Walthamstow market, Goldhawk Road and any number of other retailers. Googling doesn’t always shed much light on what you’re looking for so Alex’s idea of creating, over time, a go-to place for this information could be a big leap forward! It’s now live and you can now check it out here.
I don’t always want to go into London so I like to use shops and retailers that are in my own area. This isn’t an exhaustive list for my part of Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire by any means but it’s a few to give you an idea. I’ve been to some of them but not all so I’ll give more details for some than others but I hope overall it’s helpful. If you’ve got any other suggestions do let me know, you could add them in the comments at the end if you like. The list is in no particular order so don’t assume I’m putting them in order of my preference because I’m not. Please bear in mind I wrote this original post in late 2017 so not all the information will still be up to date. Please check the website for each shop for current information.
Escape and Create, St Ives, Cambs
This shop for dressmakers and crafters which had opened just one week before my visit in 2017.
Owner Julie Miles made me very welcome and was more than happy to share her vision for the shop, she has great plans and it will be lovely to see them unfolding over the coming months.
So far she has a small-ish but rapidly growing selection of printed and plain cottons, the Christmas fabrics were just being put out while I was there! There are some nice jerseys, fleece and plush fabrics too, and a selection of fat quarters as well. They don’t currently sell specific soft furnishing fabrics although they probably will eventually, they do offer furnishing-related courses though including lampshade-making, and roman blind and curtain making. The fabrics are beautifully displayed on ‘industrial-style’ metal and wood racking against an exposed brick wall, the effect is very striking and classy (when I saw a photo of it posted on Instagram before my visit I thought it was the newly refurbished Liberty fabric department!) fabrics are priced per metre. They don’t sell yarn or wool though.
The shop stocks a range of Indie patterns including Tilly and the Buttons, Cashmerette, Closet Case, Fancy Tiger Crafts, Sewaholic and Avid Seamstress at present, and the range will probably expand in the future. They carry a few of the major pattern books too including Burda.
You might be interested to know that Escape and Create offers a 10% discount if you have a valid membership card for the W.I. or Quilter’s Guild.
Escape and Create has a small but useful range of equipment and haberdashery, mostly essentials like needles, pins, unpickers, tailor’s chalk and markers etc. the Gutermann thread hadn’t arrived when I visited but I know it has now.
Upstairs there is a large bright room where all the classes will take place. It’s so spacious that it’s possible for 2 classes to go on at once if needs be. I was there on a sunny day but it would be a bright workspace even on a dull day. There is also more fabric up here but if you go in the next few weeks please be understanding because this is area is a ‘work in progress’.
Escape and Create has a good website https://www.escapeandcreate.co.uk (you can’t buy fabric through it yet but that will be coming) although Julie told me it will be having an update and refresh soon. The website carries a full list of all the classes they offer both in St Ives and several other locations in the area. Sewing machines are provided at St Ives if required or you can bring your own if you prefer. You can also find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
St Ives is a small attractive Cambridgeshire town and it took me an hour to drive from my home. I came a bit unstuck once I got there because parking was a bit tricky (I missed a sign to the public car park so I ended up in the main shopping area which has quaint and narrow streets and not meant for lost drivers like me!) Anyway, there is a public car park behind the shops so make sure you look out for the P sign shortly before you get to main shops. There’s also on-road parking but don’t rely on that on busy days, I had driven past the shop as I came in so at least I knew where I was heading once I’d parked!
Escape and Create is open Monday to Saturday but not Sunday or Thursday afternoon, which is the local half-day closing. Their address is
40a, The Broadway, St Ives, Cambs, PE27 5BN,
phone: 01480 300092,
In my opinion Escape and Create is a lovely, promising sewing shop in a nice location. It’s ‘bedding in’ at the moment so I would say if you want something specific then give them a ring first to check, it’s better to go at this stage with an open mind and just enjoy looking around. They have some lovely things already with more to come and the new shop has loads of potential to develop and I really hope sewers and crafters in the local, and wider, area support them so that they can flourish.
Backstitch at Burwash Manor.
Backstitch is an independent fabric and wool shop based in the village of Barton just outside Cambridge and as such you’ll need a car to get there. There’s plenty of free parking though and, because it’s based in several converted farm buildings, there are a number of other deli, plants and clothes outlets as well as a nice little tea room serving tea, coffee, cakes and light meals.
The shop itself is modestly sized (although it is now double to the size it was a year ago) and it’s light and bright with the fabrics well displayed. They carry a good range of quality modern printed and plain cottons, linens, jerseys, denims, some boiled wool and coat fabrics as well as interfacings and haberdashery. There’s also a small selection of furnishing fabrics.
They sell a large range of various indie pattern brands which are catalogued in a flip file so it makes it simpler to look through them rather than wade through masses of patterns. They sell an extensive range of haberdashery, sewing and crafting equipment too although not sewing machines. They also sell an expanding range of yarn, knitting and crochet patterns and equipment too.
Backstitch offers a variety of classes in dressmaking and crafting which are listed and bookable online via their excellent website http://www.backstitch.co.uk and they also sell their fabric online too.
I like the range of fabric they have on offer because it’s extensive enough without being too sprawling and unfocussed, the designs are well-considered and modern, or traditional with a twist but they have good basics too. One thing I noticed on my recent visit is that they have an impressive range of plain fabrics (not as crazy as that might sound, it can be really hard to find nice quality plain fabric to match a dizzying array of patterned ones!) These come in woven cottons, ponte roma jersey, lovely linens, sweat-shirting and ribbing, and craft felt by the metre.
The downside is that without a car it would be hard to visit….unless you can persuade a friend to drive you! It takes me around 45 minutes to drive there from my home but I generally come away with something nice…
I’ve written a review of them previously when I took a group of my sewing students for a visit last year and you can read about it here
You can find them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest too.
Collette patterns, ‘Moneta’
Crafty Angel, Buntingford
Craft Angel is primarily an online shop at present but the physical shop is open on Saturdays and Sundays 10am-4pm. This is because the owner, Angela, is still a full-time graphic designer who happens to have an absolute passion for fabrics and crafting!
I went for a visit and was given a lovely warm welcome by Angela, she really appreciates the fact that customers make a choice to visit because it isn’t on a high street. Crafty Angel is based on a working farm outside the village of Buntingford in Hertfordshire. I won’t lie, I went a bit adrift when I tried to find it because instead of trusting the map on their website I put the postcode into my Sat Nav and it took me all over the countryside but nowhere near where I wanted to be!! My advice is to stay on the A10 between Buntingford and Royston as instructed and then follow the turn off for Therfield and Sandon from this direction. There are then pink signs up to direct you towards the shop, it’s probably a mile or so and is a bit further than the map on their website makes it look but keep straight until a sharp right-hand bend in the lane and then you should see another pink sign to go straight on up a farm drive. Go to the right past the farm buildings and park in front of the shop.
Hyde Hall Farm
The premises contains the shop and workroom combined with the tables in the centre, and shelves containing the stock are around the edges. Whilst not a huge space it is very pleasant and welcoming, the windows look out onto the yard. There is a kitchen onsite too so hot and cold food and drinks are possible if you’re there for a whole day course, subject to prior arrangement.
Crafty Angel has a modest but well-chosen and attractive range of good quality cottons, jerseys, denim and linens all priced by the half-metre. Have a look at their (not surprisingly) well designed website for full details of the brands they sell. They also stock a variety of Indie dress patterns too and a small range of haberdashery and equipment. Although cushion-cover making has been a class previously they only stock a very limited range of specific furnishing fabrics.
Crafty Angel also has a modest range of qood quality yarn for knitting and crochet, with patterns available for inspiration, and classes too.
Amongst the workshops on offer are dressmaking, free-machine embroidery, applique and even umbrella-making! [I really like the sound of that!] Ange plans to offer more courses over time, you can always contact her to see if it’s possible to tailor-make (sorry) a class to your needs.
I would say it’s best to ring first if you’re making a visit if you want something specific but otherwise it’s a nice place to drop in at a weekend, and Pixel the dog is bound to be delighted to see you too!
This shop was first opened 45 years ago but at the moment it’s future is in the balance because the lady who started it recently passed away and so it is up to her family if it will continue as a fabric shop. Efforts are being made to find a buyer so we’ll have to see. Since the summer of 2018 it is under new ownership, still as a fabric shop, although I haven’t had a chance to visit yet.
In truth, the shop had a lot of stock but much of it wouldn’t appeal to a modern dressmaker. It was geared more towards quilting, patchwork and crafting and so there is an abundance of printed cottons better suited for these. They also have jerseys (mixed quality, some reasonable, some less so) and fleece (some quite nice ones for children) There are currently some tweeds and brushed cottons which would be good for autumn/winter projects, they sell lining too. There are plain and printed poly/cottons and a few satin and moire-type fabrics used for bridalwear. There are some printed viscoses in jazzy designs too, along with interfacings and quilting supplies.
There is a varied selection of haberdashery and equipment in the shop including zips, Gutermann thread, ribbons, trims, buttons etc, and they sell big-brand patterns but not Indie ones. They don’t sell sewing machines.
They have quite a large selection of wool and knitting patterns but these tend towards the more ‘traditional’ shall we say.
The thing with Fashion N Fabrics is that it’s got stuck and not moved with the times or the newer generation of sewers so it feels very muddled, cluttered and quite dated which is a real shame because it could be trading on its 45 year history and attracting younger sewers and riding the crest of the ‘Sewing Bee’ wave. All the staff are knowledgable and obviously keen for the shop to continue, and I know they’ve been having a sort-out recently and unearthed long-forgotten gems!
There is a website but it isn’t much use because it’s really only a collection of pictures and some background on the shop, with the address and phone number etc. They’ve only been accepting credit cards in the last year or so too!
I hope this doesn’t sound like a hatchet job because it really isn’t meant to be but in order for me to include it here I need to be truthful about what to expect from it at the moment. Definitely go for a visit if you’re in the area, it’s in a part of St Albans called Marshallswick on Beech Rd, there is free parking on the road and in front of the shop. There’ll be a bus route nearby too although I don’t know what number it would be, sorry.
You can find the shop at 24, Beech Rd, St Albans, AL3 5AS
Telephone: 01727 865038
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm, except Thursday 9am-1pm (although this may not be correct because I don’t think the website has been updated for quite a while, best to ring first)
Finally, my local shop is a branch of John Lewis, Welwyn. It’s a pretty good-sized department with a wide selection of fabrics including the usual printed cottons, viscose, jerseys and linings as well as woollens (suiting, coating etc) evening and bridal fabrics including sequins and lace. They offer a wide range of trims, haberdashery, threads, zips etc and equipment although this does feel reduced from what it used to be, annoyingly you can’t buy ribbon by the metre, just on rolls. Most lace and trims are still by the metre though. They have a range of sewing machines mainly Janome, Brother and their own brand [I think each branch might have different models in stock though so definitely check with the store if you’re making a special visit to view or buy] The regular department staff are very helpful and knowledgeable but because it’s a department store you can’t always guarantee that the sales assistant is a regular who knows what they’re talking about, or being asked about! the range of patterns is very limited now to just Vogue and New Look, they also have a few Tilly and the Buttons but not the full range. They sell Adjust-o-form mannequins too.
There’s some free parking on the street outside or a number of town centre car parks, and there is also a mainline railway station [Welwyn Garden City not Welwyn North] and a number of bus routes come into the town centre too.
Address: Bridge Road, Welwyn G.C. Herts, AL8 6TP
Telephone: 01707 323456
Their opening hours are currently Monday to Saturday 9am-7pm except Thursday 9am-8pm and Sunday 11am-5pm (10.30am for browsing)
The website is www.johnlewisplc.com you can find a map with directions on there. There is also a branch in Cambridge which stocks fabrics.
So that’s my list of fabric retailers that I’ve actually visited in my area. In addition to this there is a stall in Hitchin market who have a range of fabrics including the usual printed cottons and poly/cottons plus furnishing fabrics and oilcloth. He often has a number of bolt-ends or sample lengths which he’s bought from clothing manufacturers and I’ve found a few gems amongst them in the past. He’s definitely there on Saturdays and possibly Tuesday and Thursday but because it’s an outdoor market this might vary. By the way, he can be a bit grumpy but he’s ok if you smile! There are various car parks in the area as well as some street parking. The town has a railway station (10-15 minute walk into town) and is well-served by buses. There is also a good haberdashery stall run by Kim Keeping and from September 7th 2018 she will have a shop premises nearby in 34, Bucklesbury.
There is also a stall in Stevenage Indoor Market but I haven’t visited it personally. It isn’t open every day though [Wed-Sat only] I’m told it stocks a good range of specialist dance, stretch and lycra-type fabrics.
Among other shops in Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire that I haven’t visited but have been told about are Needlecraft in Hemel Hempstead. It has a comprehensive website which seems up to date and interactive so I might try and get over there sometime.
In Hertford is the Hertford Craft Centre which has a website but it doesn’t look like the information is very up to date. I know the opening hours are a bit hit-and-miss, supposedly you ring a bell and someone comes to let you in. However a friend tried to visit recently but waited in vain to be let in, disappointing as she’d made a special trip based on website info.
There is a shop in Ely to called Sew Much to Do (great name!) which again I haven’t had a chance to visit. It doesn’t have it’s own website though, the website address directs you to a Facebook page. They are on Instagram though https://www.intagram.com/sewmuchtodoely
[Right off territory is Anglian Fashion Fabrics in Norwich which I visited recently-great shop, definitely worth seeking out if you’re in the area!]
You might be aware of other shops or retailers in this area of the country, we aren’t hugely well served for fabric shops without going into London I don’t think. The retailers I’ve talked about are ones I’ve shopped in or know about already, let me know if there’s a good one near you so we can all share the information, or if you think I’ve misrepresented a shop I’ve mentioned above. I’ve tried to be fair and honest but as I’ve not been paid to do these reviews so I want to speak as I find. I know trading is incredibly hard though so I don’t want to be overly harsh, the shop I was working at in Hertford ‘The Creative Sanctuary’ sadly closed at the end of September 2017 so we all need to try and support bricks-and-mortar stores as much as we can. That said, they have to sell what customers want and give excellent customer service otherwise we won’t go back or spread positive vibes about them.
Since September 2019 a new fabric and knitting shop ‘Stitch and Knit’ has opened in Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire. It stocks a range of fabrics suitable for quilting, patchwork, dressmaking and crafting along with haberdashery and Simplicity and Burda patterns. There are also yarns and patterns suitable for knitting and crochet, plus trims and embellishments. There will be classes suitable for children and adults in sewing, crafting, knitting and crochet. The website is under construction and the contact details are 91, Station Close, Brookmans Park, Herts, AL9 7QT, telephone 01707 518966
Plenty there to keep you busy! New places to visit, or ones to revisit maybe. Let me, or Alex, know if there are others you think could be added, I bet there are. You might fancy compiling a list for where you live for others to use too.