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!
It’s been such a tough time for so many and being a part of the wider sewing community has been a very real lifeline for many people. Those of us that enjoy making our own clothes already realise the obvious benefits this can give us; total freedom to choose types, colours and patterns of fabrics as we wish, the ability to emulate high-end or high street fashion at the price-point we can afford and the skill to make clothes fit our own particular body type, to name but a few. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that the wider world, whilst searching for activities to entertain and occupy them during the long weeks and months of lockdown, discovered (or rediscovered) that home sewing can be creative, absorbing and rewarding which is a VERY GOOD THING! Who knew there was a link between doing a creative activity and a more balanced sense of well-being??
To be honest it doesn’t matter what that activity is, or whether you’re really any good at it, the fact that it can take your mind away to other less stressful places for a time is what matters.
But at the start of the year none of that was of much interest to most. I was extremely fortunate in January to go on a cruise to the Caribbean so I made a couple of new things to fills ‘gaps’ but mostly I took old favourites…cue multiple photos of 3 versions of The Maker’s Atelier Holiday shirt on heavy rotation! One new item was the Trend Square dress I made in fabric given to me by Dibs from Selvedges and Bolts the previous year, I got a lot more wear later on in the summer.
Within a couple of weeks of getting back, Judith Staley and I hosted the very first Sew Over 50 meet-up in London. We very much hoped, and expected, that it would be the start of many more such meet-ups between followers of the @SewOver50 account all over the world but it wasn’t to be…not yet anyway.
If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while you’ll know that as well as meeting up for sewcials with fellow sewers I really enjoy my visits to exhibitions and galleries. At the end of February I caught up with Janet Poole who is a fellow Lamazi blogger at the Stitch Festival in London, I had such a lovely day shopping and chatting with her, and her friend Great British Sewing Bee winner Juliet too. We didn’t realise it then but we were very fortunate to be able to attend the event at all and I wouldn’t be surprised if others who went didn’t catch the-virus-that-shall-not-be-named because it was so crowded.
About a week after this I was able to go to the stunning new Kimono show at the V&A and, although we didn’t know it at the time, that was to be the final outing for several months…
So then we entered the first long lockdown and that’s when sewing (and some baking) became my primary occupation. During this time I had some blogging commitments for Simple Sew Patterns and Lamazi fabrics to complete. For my first Lamazi post I made a Trend patterns Bias T-shirt dress which was a tough make, not because the pattern was difficult but because I was making the dress for a wedding that never took place. And worse than that, I was making the Bride’s gown too so I still have an almost-finished dress waiting for the day that the wedding can happen.
I know I’m very blessed in that I have little to actually complain about in my life but that does not mean that these months of lockdown didn’t take their toll mentally so, when the call to help make scrubs came, it was something I could actually do! Eventually I made 10 sets, I believe they were headed to a maternity department in a London hospital.
I continued to keep busy by doing a few refashioning projects because the desire to make new things that weren’t going to be worn outside the house was just too depressing. I love the act of making clothes, the planning, the cutting out, the sewing, because that was taking my mind off what was happening in the real world but how could I justify making new clothes that I had little use for? Even dressmaking was starting to become a negative because I felt guilty about it. By doing some refashioning projects using things I already had, other than new fabric, I made a few items including pyjamas for my final Simple Sew post and another pair using the PJ pattern in the Great British Sewing Bee book written by Alex and Caroline of Selkie patterns and for which I had made a couple of samples. I used 4 old work shirts of my husband’s which were very well worn! I also made (eventually) two pouffes as well which took care of loads of scraps and off-cut furnishing fabrics and were extremely satisfying! I also refashioned a very old and redundant heavyweight cotton curtain into a Dawson coatigan by Thrifty Stitcher.
Early on in lockdown I had the pleasure of talking to Maria Theoharous for her Sew Organised Style podcast on a couple of occasions. I’ve set up a separate page so you can access this to be able to listen to her inspiring SewOver50 guests every week. One of our chats revolved around how we each arrive at our fabric choicesfor specific purposes or projects, I wrote this topic up as a post which you can read here, and I also wrote a further post which came from when I was guest editor on the @SewOver50 account and we talked about our cutting out processes-did we cut and make one thing at a time, or cut several things and have multiple projects on the go? Scissors or rotary cutter? Pins or weights? It was wide ranging and fascinating with so many excellent ideas and practices. I hosted another discussion about a variety of hem finishes later in the year and you can read that one here. Incidentally, by the end of this year @SewOver50 has reached an incredible 25,600 followers!!
One of my stranger tasks this year was to carry out a socially-distanced dress fitting on a doorstep! Before lockdown started I had been commissioned to make a dress for a work colleague of my daughter Katie. Thankfully I’d opted to make a toile of the bodice which I’d fitted just before lockdown kicked off so I managed to get the dress to a good stage of completion. However, I got to a point where I definitely needed her to try it on because even if she couldn’t wear it for the event she had hoped to, it would be nice for her to take delivery and wear it around the house!! So I went to their place of work and handed the dress over at arms length to Tracey to put on in the staff toilet, then she came out onto the porch where Katie, under my direction, pinned the dress for me. I took a few photos for reference too. From that I was able to finish and deliver the dress and my client was delighted with it…phew
One of the regular sewing highlights of the last 4 years for me has been the Sewing Weekender which generally takes place in Cambridge, UK in August. The organisers took the bold decision to put the whole event online instead which meant that many more people could ‘attend’ from all over the world. Myself and Judith Staley were delighted to be asked to contribute a video message each which was very nerve-racking but it turned out alright in the end. I published a transcript of mine here, along with the original video (you’ll notice that I had abandoned my signature pink hair by this time because, quite frankly, what was the point of bothering!) The Online Weekender also raised a significant amount of money which was divided between 4 charities.
As lockdown started to ease in the summer I was able to get out and about a couple of times. I joined an al fresco rag-rugging workshop in Hertfordshire run by Elspeth Jackson of Ragged Life which was so enjoyable, and I visited a couple of exhibitions in London including the Kimono show again, plus Andy Warhol at Tate Modern and Tricia Guild at the Fashion and Textiles museum both on the same day. Since then though things have been shut down then reopened, then shut down again. My heart goes out to everyone who is trying to run a business or an organisation that relies on visitors through their doors to make them viable, their future is very uncertain.
I’ve made a few other garments during the autumn which I’ve been really pleased with including the Prada-inspired shirt dress and a pair of Utility pants by Trend Patterns (not blogged yet) but I feel I’ve run out of steam with my sewing right now and I never thought I’d say that. My own teaching classes restarted for a total of 5 weeks in October but they’ve stopped again. I know some have adapted by using Zoom or other platforms but it just wouldn’t work for me, I feel dressmaking is too hands-on and needs real assistance for tricky bits, holding things up to the camera isn’t good enough sometimes. And being part of a group and all that shared enjoyment is a huge part of it too. I’ve had fairly regular online catch-ups with some of my lovely sewing friends and that has been a joy, albeit not as good as seeing them in the flesh.
Mr Y was the lucky recipient of a few handmade garments too during 2020 when I made him another two Kwik Sew 3422 shirts, and not one but two Thread Theory Finlayson sweatshirts! I’m happy to say he’s delighted with all of them and I’ve got plans for another sweatshirt for him in the new year.
I’m working on my own pattern which I’ve self-drafted so hopefully that will be something positive for the new year but I need occasional assistance from more expert friends and that’s making it a drawn-out process which would have been so much more fun person-to-person.
One final project I was commissioned by a friend to make was a Christmas chasuble for her to wear as she presides over her Christmas services in church. A chasuble is essentially a fancy poncho which the priest wears over their other vestments and Wendy wanted me to create one with a Nativity scene on it. She sourced the base fabric with my advice, and a printed quilting cotton Nativity which was sent from the US. This was square so I carefully cut it into approximate thirds with the central third featuring the stable scene and the star for the front, another third with Bethlehem for the back and the remaining third I cut into two parts to use on the stole, which is the long scarf priests wear around their necks. All of these I attached by appliquéing around the black outlines (I was literally making it up as I went along!) Wendy is delighted with the finished result (thankfully) and I’m sure she will enjoy using them during the Christmas season.
As I finish writing this (2 days before Christmas) we have no idea what lies ahead…some countries seem to be slowly recovering whilst the UK as a whole seems to be sliding further and further into disaster, or maybe not? I should try to think more positively as scientists have worked tirelessly to make a vaccine which will gradually be rolled out. Personally I’m a long way down the list for it but that’s absolutely fine, we must protect the most vulnerable first.
This has probably ended up not being a-not-entirely-coherent post but that’s kind-of appropriate I reckon! Wherever you are and whatever the new year brings for all of us I’d like to thank so many of you for reading my posts, sending me lovely or encouraging messages. Being a part of the online sewing community and Sew Over 50 in particular has been an absolute joy and a lifeline at times. We need to lift each other up more often, call out injustices when we see them but not to the extent that it becomes bullying of individuals, that isn’t right either. 2020 has been a year of huge upheaval, I plan to restart 2021 with fresh sewing plans to help me to feel more positive about it…it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
Considering it’s a raincoat this is a project that came out of a clear blue sky! In other words, I had no plan to make a raincoat until, that is, I spied this gorgeous showerproof Missoni fabric on Dibs’s Selvedges and Bolts website. I’m not normally a sucker for impulse purchases of online fabric but this one with it’s eye-catching colours just had my name on it!
Once I had it in my hot little hands I had to come up with a design for a jacket. My starting point was a vintage pattern for a kagoule-type top which is probably from the late 50s-early 60s but there’s no date on it sadly. As was typical of patterns from that period it’s a single size, medium, which I already knew was OK because I’d used it once before about 4-5 years back. I also have a cheap-as-chips packamac which is a nice style but turned out to leak like a sieve! I would use this as my sample to follow how components like the zip and a storm flap on the front go together for example. There were a few other patterns which gave me some ideas including The Maker’s Atelier Utility Coat and from these various sources I sketched a few drawings to come up with a design I liked.
As the fabric was expensive I only bought two metres so I had to progress carefully for each step. I made a new pattern for most pieces because the new version would be mid-thigh length and have a full length front zip opening to be covered by a storm flap, plus I repositioned the shoulder seam forwards to minimise possible leakage through the seams. I altered the side seam shaping a little by curving them out slightly, to give a bit more room for bulky jumpers/sweatshirts. I reused the original hood and sleeve patterns, plus I settled on two pleated patch pockets with separate flaps on top. To reinforce the shoulder area I made an inner lining pattern which acts as an internal yoke.
I read up a few general tips for sewing shower proof fabric before I started-I didn’t need it to be waterproof so I didn’t tape each seam but I did lengthen the stitch slightly, to reduce the number of puncture holes through the fabric which could potentially let water in. I also used a fine Microtex needle to reduce any friction there might be whilst sewing too. This fabric is different to other woven fabrics because of it’s special coating so any mistakes which have to be unpicked would leave holes. It’s possible to press it carefully but not too hot or you could melt it. Use a pressing cloth over the top and warm the iron up incrementally on a scrap piece until you’re happy with the temperature.
It took me a little while to source the hardwear I needed, many suppliers of zips had the length but not the colour, or the colour and not the length! Eventually I bought two open-ended zips of different colours from Jaycott’s. I couldn’t seem to find any suitable coloured round elastic online so eventually I settled on narrow grosgrain ribbon from VV Rouleaux for the hood and back waist detail instead, plus I sourced some small spring cord-lock toggles to secure the ends where needed. I found the lining for the hood and the shoulder yoke amongst fabrics I already had.
I sewed the jacket up in ‘bite-size’ chunks of time rather than pushing on through-mostly because I was often waiting for something to arrive in the post before I could do the next part. As I wasn’t following a particular set of making instructions I was winging it to a large extent, the order of making was often influenced by another section of the garment having to take a priority at certain points.
It would have been better if the sleeves could have been just 4-5cms longer-I’m not sure why they seem short because I’m sure they weren’t on the original sweatshirt-perhaps the big difference in fabric types was a factor? Anyway, no matter, I added a small section of elastication to the top of the cuff to bring it in slightly to help prevent drips seeping back up my arms if possible! I should add that normally I would pattern-match the print but I didn’t see any need to do that for this jacket.
Because this is very much a ‘make it up as I go along’ garment I used some of the ribbon to neaten the neck/hood seam and jolly nice it looks actually!
For an unplanned garment I’m very pleased with the outcome, I love the colours and I hope it will be useful, it folds up pretty small so I can shove it in a bag if I’m going out and don’t want, or need, to take a heavier coat. It’s very much one of a kind! In normal times I wouldn’t have been sourcing everything online, I enjoy browsing in real shops for haberdashery and trims, but not just at the moment.
Over on the @SewOver50 account recently I shared a few of my favourite ways to finish hems or raw edges, although course it is absolutely NOT a definitive list by any means. I thought I would expand a little here on the blog using more photos of projects I’ve made in recent years. They are in no particular order either and if I wrote a blog post about the whole garment then I’ve linked it so you can read more if you want to.
Obviously there are the usual hand-finished hems using slip hemming stitch or herringbone stitch for example, which I use a lot too, but I thought I’d share a few alternatives which you might not know, or haven’t used for a while.
I’m beginning here with a faced hem…
The next one is an interesting hem finish which is very useful especially if you want a quality finish on evening or bridal wear. It uses something called ‘crin’, crinoline or horsehair braid (it doesn’t involve actual horsehair any longer though!) I’ve used it here on an organza skirt for the Dior New Look-inspired evening dress I made 4 years ago. As well as a crisp finish I wanted the hem to have distinct body and wave to it so this was the ideal technique. Crin comes in various widths, this was 5cms, lots of colours too because it’s more commonly used these days to trim hats and fascinators.
If you’re making a wedding dress for example and mounting all the skirt pieces onto another fabric, when you use crin on the hem (or bias binding for that matter) by hand-sewing the hem all your stitches will be invisible because you can catch them just through the mounting fabric. This is a couture technique so if you look at red carpet dresses with no visible stitching at the hem this will be how they achieved it. You can apply it as appropriate to any garment that you’ve mounted to another fabric though.
The next couple of photos are where I’ve used bias binding to neaten a hem. I find this a really useful technique if you need the maximum amount of hem because you can sew a very small seam allowance. It’s good if you’re letting down hems to gain length too, on trousers or children’s clothing for example.
If you have fine fabric why not consider using your overlocker if you have one on the rolled hem setting? Refer to your manual for specific instructions how to adjust your machine and make samples first to ensure it’s going to be satisfactory for your particular fabric. You’ll frequently see it used on chiffon or georgette but I’ve used it successfully here on fine cotton lawn, jersey and a stretch velour. If you don’t have an overlocker you can probably achieve a similar finish on your sewing using a rolled hem foot ideally and a small zigzag stitch-as always I would urge you to experiment to see what is possible. Some of the simplest machines can still give you an interesting variety of finishes.
I find the next couture/tailoring technique very useful on sleeves as well as coat, jacket or dress hems. I’ve used it here on my Tilly and the Buttons tester-made Eden. I wasn’t taught this method as such, I discovered it for myself whilst doing alterations taking up sleeves for people. I haven’t ever encountered it in pattern making instructions but I think it’s an excellent way of stabilising the cuffs of coats and jackets.
For this next finish I’ve used a triple straight stitch to create the effect of top stitching on the hem, and several seams, of this Simple Sew Zoe hack I made last summer.
If you have the foot attachment and stitch capability for your sewing machine you can always try blind-hemming. I must admit I don’t use it that often, and only then on completely straight hems. There is a bit of a knack to it and I tend to only use it on a busy print which will disguise any botched bits (yes really!) or if I’m tight for time compared with any other method. It’s not quite the same quality of finish you will see on RTW clothes though which uses a specific machine to blind stitch the hem.
I think it’s worth mentioning that I like to use bias binding to neaten necklines (and armholes) too. I particularly like this as a way of avoiding using a neck or armhole facing which can be notorious for constantly rolling into view or flapping about annoyingly. The version you can see in the following two applications is a strip which I’ve folded in half lengthways first, the raw edges are matched and sewn. The seam is trimmed slightly and snipped if necessary, then turned so that the edge is enclosed and finally topstitched close to the folded edge to secure. In both the following examples I have sewn the binding on the wrong side of the fabric so that the binding turns to the outside to be visible and decorative but you could just as easily sew it to the right side so that it turns to the inside of the finished garment.
I’ve have included another variation of binding on a hem to show you how it can be combined with other techniques to achieve a quality finish. I used it here on a sheer organza which was mounted onto a backing fabric of slipper satin. This meant that when I turned the hem up the hand-stitching was invisible from the outside because the stitches only went through the mounting fabric.
The next technique is more usually the choice of the pattern designer than the dressmaker, although if you know a little about pattern cutting you might be able to do it for yourself. This is an example of a deep grown-on faced hem on the Trend Patterns Square dress which I’ve made twice. It works brilliantly on this dress because the hem edges are straight (square!) plus it gives real weight to the hem which is another satisfying detail.
Pin hemming is a technique I’ve used for decades on fine fabrics. You can replicate it using a rolled hem foot attachment on your machine although it can be trial and error which size works best for you with variable results. I have two different sizes of foot, 2mm and 4mm and I can’t get on with either, I’ve since been told that 3mm is the optimum size for most fabrics but I’m not prepared to risk another mistake when I know I can achieve a good quality result this way instead.
Simply put, I turn over the raw edge by approximately 5mm and stitch very close to the folded edge. Carefully trim the excess close to the stitching line and give it a light press. Then turn again and stitch a second time on top of the first row of stitching. This particular example is from the Trend Bias T-shirt dress I made a few months ago.
If you read about my pattern hack of the Simple Sew Cocoon dress you will see how this variation of hemming came about. I added a large chunk of fabric to give extra length to a dress that would have been too short without it. This method is probably best on a straight hem, you could use it on sleeves too.
This next one is a very much trial and error. I used an edging stitch on my Pfaff sewing machine to hem this Broderie Anglaise blouse which I made recently.
I’ve used a variation of a faced hem recently when, instead of bias binding, I used straight strips of fabric to turn up a straight hem on a dirndl skirt. There will be a blog of this particular garment coming soon…
To finish with is a very simple method of rolling a fairly narrow hem. Overlock the edge first using three (or even two) threads then carefully turn it once and then again so that the overlocking is enclosed inside. If the fabric is quite ‘bouncy’ and won’t stay in position you could press the edge over once first and then roll it the second time. Whilst the result is wider than pin hemming it is narrower, and possibly quicker and more accurate, than a simple turned hem.
This last suggestion is from a project which will be blogged very soon. I cut 6cms wide bias strips which I used to create a self-neatening hem on a pair of pyjama shorts.
I hope you’ve found my suggestions useful or thought provoking, is there something here which you’ve never encountered before, or that’s made you think how you could use a technique you already know in a different way? The idea is to show you a few ways of finishing hems, or raw edges, in new and interesting ways. I’ve not included the usual hand stitching methods because there’s nothing new to think about, although please let me know if you use these methods in a more unusual application. Just because the pattern instructions tell you to finish the hem a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do it that way…although think it through carefully just in case the really is a reason!
I thought I would share with you the video I made specifically for the recent Sewing Weekender here in the UK for anyone who wasn’t able to, or wasn’t interested in attending. Unlike previous years, when the event takes place over two days in Cambridge, this one was entirely online and so the organisers, Kate and Rachel at The Fold Line and Charlotte @englishgirlathome asked an impressive selection of contributors to make short videos on a variety of topics. I’ve never made a film before so it was a pretty steep learning curve!
The first challenge was going to be filming it, and then it would have to be edited in some way too. I worked out that if I balanced my phone on top of my sewing machine in my workroom it was at the right sort of height with good light. Then I decided I needed a script of sorts to keep me on track and that is what I’ve reproduced here, along with the video itself. I printed it out and stuck the sheets to the window and to the sewing machine like a kind of ramshackle autocue! It turned out the window was too far away though and I looked like I was gazing to the heavens for divine inspiration…how to vloggers do this all the time? Maybe they do just waffle on and nobody minds? hey ho, I knew the things I wanted to say and without some kind of prompt I might forget some of them. Anyway, I managed to film it in bursts although I did have to pause one time to shoo the pigeons off the roof because they were audibly clumping about and I didn’t need that distraction too! I found my laptop has iMovies so I managed to splice the whole thing together using that, the next Jane Campion I am not!! The script below is not word-for-word what I said because I managed to freestyle it a couple of times in an attempt to sound natural but for anyone with hearing difficulties it’s close enough, I’m afraid subtitles were absolutely beyond my rudimentary film-making abilities.
I hope you’ve all been enjoying the Online Sewing Weekender and I want to begin by thanking Kate and Rachel of The Fold line and Charlotte from English Girl at Home for taking the very brave and audacious step of carrying on with the event in spite of the strangeness of the times. It’s so great to imagine all of us sewing away at the same time wherever we are in the world.
As well as my own Instagram account I’ve also been involved with the SewOver50 account since the very beginning and whilst Judith and Sandy manage the account on a day-to-day basis I write the blogs which accompany particular discussions or any challenges which have been running.
When Kate, Rachel and Charlotte invited me to be involved I thought I’d chat a bit about the #so50visible challenge involving indie patterns in particular. It first ran in February last year and then again this March.
The reason SO50 began in the first place was because we felt that our slightly older age group was being overlooked by the burgeoning home sewing industry and we really didn’t want it to become as age-centric as the mainstream fashion industry has always been. Plus many of us bring a wealth of knowledge and experience which we’re only too happy to share with anyone new or maybe returning to dressmaking at home.
Many of you will know that the dress pattern market has been dominated for many decades by the so-called Big 4 but in the last 10 years or so there’s been a boom in independent designers putting out their own patterns.
Followers of SO50 have embraced these indie designers with gusto but we also felt a little bit side-lined by them too. We didn’t often see ourselves being reflected back on the packaging or marketing.
The #so50visible challenge was created to draw some attention to ourselves, to highlight that very few older sewers were featured, and to politely encourage a change of thinking.
We came up with the idea to ask people to only sew a pattern which featured an older model in it’s advertising and promotion.
Judith and I spent an absolute age trawling through the Fold Line database and eventually came up with quite a modest list considering how many patterns are listed! We found a few books with older models too.
Throughout the month long challenge followers were asked to share their makes, it meant many people found new brands of pattern maker which we might not have heard of before. Very often the most popular patterns were stylish, fashion-forward and wearable but the model looked more like us. Many of SewOver50’s followers are still very interested in fashion and style and we still want to look good whilst making our own clothes.
Many of us in our 50s and 60s have more time to sew for pleasure and we might have more cash to spend on patterns and fabric too so it always strikes me that it’s a missed opportunity for indie pattern makers to disregard this huge potential market.
While the first challenge was running we also introduced the #so50thanks hashtag because if anyone’s make was reposted by the designer we thought it was important to appreciate that they had first of all noticed and acknowledged the maker and that they were then happy to share it on their own feed.
It’s a virtuous circle isn’t it? Feature an older model on the pattern and it gets our attention, we buy your product, we share our makes, SewOver50 probably reposts to it’s 20K followers, you get free advertising to an audience with money to spend, and more people will buy the pattern because they can imagine themselves wearing those clothes-simple!
There are a few other companies like Maven and Alice & Co who don’t use models at all, just illustrations or mannequins but they are super-supportive and involved in our community and constantly share and repost. Let’s be honest here, most of us are pleased to get a like or a repost because it gives us a little boost that the designer noticed us, we can all gain ideas and inspiration from others, and we want to see the garments being worn by people who are similar to ourselves in some way. The pattern companies which do notice us have then tended to become very popular with SO50 followers, it’s that virtuous circle again.
We think there’s a small element of change happening but there’s a long way to go, though there are more companies than just the ones I’ve had time to mention here and there’s always room for more.
I’m always happy to share the knowledge and experience I have from many years of sewing, and I know of many others who are too. It’s fantastic to be a part of this worldwide sewing community and it’s diversity is vital so if we can encourage a few more indie brands to look beyond the young, slim, white stereotype then that can only be a positive thing right?
Enticing us to spend our grey pounds (or dollars) is a good reason to check out what the followers of SewOver50 are up to especially as there are now almost 20,000 of us! And I will often write honest reviews of patterns or fabric over on my blog which you might find interesting too, I like to think I’m a critical friend. I would encourage anyone to look at the #sewover50 hashtag because there are now tens of thousands of images to inspire you.
Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the Sewing Weekender wherever you are, and I hope whatever you’re sewing is going well, with any luck we will have opportunities to meet again in real life before too long, I do hope so. I love going to meet-ups and being able to chat with fellow sewers, and filming myself like this is a first for me so I hope it’s made a bit of sense!
Thank you again to Kate, Rachel and Charlotte,
Bye bye etc etc…
I spent both days of the Weekender on a video call with two of my sewing buddies Melissa Fehr and Elizabeth Connolly, I met them both originally at the first Weekender and we’ve all been fortunate enough to go to every one since, we weren’t going to let a pandemic stop us this time! I made another Camber which was one of the projects I cut out on my recent batch cutting splurge and I added a machine embroidery stitch from my Pfaff Quilt Ambition 2.0.
If you’ve ever read any of my previous blog posts you’ll know I really enjoy going to meet-ups so not being able to do this for the last few months has been sad to say the least, with luck it won’t be too much longer though. To my mind, this year Charlotte, Kate and Rachel have successfully created the next best thing because everyone could sew whenever and wherever they were in the world. Some did as I did and had group chats going on, two sewers I know set up their machines on trestle tables in the garden (suitably distanced of course!) others were solo but had all the video content to keep them company or by using the #sewingweekender hashtag, some didn’t/couldn’t really join in with sewing on the day for one reason or another but took part in the giant Zoom at the end of Saturday, or early afternoon on Sunday. The Zoom was fantastic because it made me realise just how many people from all over the world had been participating including the US, Canada, Germany, Norway, Israel and Australia, and hearing so many shout-outs for SewOver50 from them was even better! Everyone, whatever their situation or circumstances, had the opportunity to buy a ticket-which was essentially a charitable donation anyway-it will be interesting to see if this is a format that could be repeated in the future to make the event inclusive worldwide. Were you ‘there’? what did you make of the concept, and was it preferable in some way to the real life event for you, or not as good? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts
I had a client recently who I did a few alterations for initially but then she asked me if it was possible to replicate a favourite dress she had. It was a tiered sundress in plain cotton with a shirred back panel.
Of course, said I.
It was very straightforward to measure the skirt panels, there were three tiers of almost identical length, each layer was more full than the last, plus a small ruffle on the hem. Next I took accurate measurements of the bodice front and drew a ‘plan’ plus the shirred back. I haven’t made anything using shirring in years and it was going to be guesswork a bit but I found a really helpful tutorial by Seamwork magazine on You Tube which gave a few good tips.
Once I’d got all my notes and diagrams I could calculate how much fabric my client would need, I also gave her advice on what sort of fabric to choose. She was going on holiday in less than six weeks so a speedy decision was needed. I saw three fabrics in our local John Lewis branch which I felt met our requirements so she hot-footed it into there and bought all that was left of a 100% cotton poplin in navy.
As the skirt is a series of rectangles I made that up first. I used the longest straight stitch for the gathering which I divided into manageable length sections-don’t be tempted to sew the whole of a very long strip of fabric in one go, break it down into manageable sections because if one of your threads snaps you’re back to square one.
I decided to toile the bodice front so that I could be certain it was correct as I knew there was no option to buy more fabric if I got it wrong…and I’d got it a bit wrong! The cups were much too shallow and didn’t come far enough up my client’s bust and a lot of her bra [which she wanted to be able to wear underneath] was showing. Back to the drawing board. The shirring element however was fine. I didn’t know exactly how much I might need so I used the full width of the fabric and sewed lots of rows of shirring until my reel of elastic ran out! [If you’re using an actual pattern then it will hopefully give you more guidance than this!]
Wind the shirring elastic carefully BY HAND onto a bobbin, use regular thread on the top. You could draw on your parallel lines first if you wish or you could trust your own skills and use the edge of the presser foot to guide each new row. The shirring doesn’t look like it’s gathered up enough but a good going over it with plenty of steam causes it to shrink up beautifully.
Because the first bodice didn’t give enough coverage I redrafted it but that was worse (I didn’t even try it on my client as I could see it was all wrong) On to Plan C…I decided I would try modelling the pattern on my mannequin so I pinned some very narrow black ribbon to the mannequin using the style lines I required. You only need to do this on one half if it’s going to be symmetrical, make sure you start at the centre front working round to wherever the pieces finish, in my case this was just to the side seams.
I joined this new bodice to the skirt and the shirred back and carried out another fitting on my client. Fortunately this time it was fine and I set to to finish the dress just in time for her to take it on holiday!
I made the straps wider than the originals and they are stitched to the correct length on each shoulder for my client-we all have one shoulder higher or lower than the other so don’t automatically make them identical lengths, pin and check before sewing them in position. If one strap always falls off your shoulder this will be the reason why!
This was a rather convoluted way to make a shirred sundress because my client wanted a replica of a favourite but if you like the idea of it the why not take a look at Cocowawa’s Raspberry dress pattern which has a fully-elasticated bodice instead?
My client wanted fabric as similar as possible to her original but you could easily use cotton lawn, seersucker, chambray, soft linen, lightweight jersey, voile, muslin….the list goes on, just keep it soft and not too thick or it could get very bulky. You could also make it just as a skirt and leave the bodice section off if you wanted, that’s definitely a 70s hippie vibe going on right there, add ribbons, ric-rac, bobble trim, sequins etc etc…
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.
If you’ve recently read my post looking at ways in which the Sew Over 50 community can keep ourselves in the public eye (should we wish to of course) you’ll know that I was talking, in part, about pattern testing for pattern designers. This seems to have generated a lot of comments and opinions so I thought I’d look at some of the issues here rather than a long trail of comments on the Instagram account (although you can always read them there too of course)
I deliberately chose not to address the biggest elephant in the room in the previous post because it would distract too much from the overall point of the post. That elephant is ‘why is it unpaid?’
Firstly, in the interests of balance, in a very few cases it isn’t always unpaid, because there is at least one pattern designer who gives a modest amount towards fabric and time for testing when the patterns are getting closer to being released. In my experience they have been pretty well tested in-house before they are sent out to testers for what they hope will be final checking, typos, errors, sizing and fit issues etc. I’m not willing to name this company because I’ve no wish to cast the ones who cannot, or do not, pay in a bad light by comparison, or give anyone the opportunity to start mud-slinging.
This leaves the companies who cannot, or do not, offer to pay for testing. I can only speak for my own experiences of testing here, you may have had other experiences yourself-positive or negative.
Let’s be quite clear, obviously nobody makes us do this and if you are unhappy or don’t agree with it being unpaid, don’t do it! Many indie pattern companies are quite literally one-woman-bands, often with other jobs the rest of the time, and to pay testers is impossible. At least they wish to have a testing process because if they didn’t we might find half-baked products released onto the market for which we’ve paid good money. I’m sure we’ve all used that type of pattern too, which has been rushed out with little or no quality or typo-checking and testing first, it’s infuriating. Yes, of course in an ideal world we would all be paid for doing this but the simple truth is that that isn’t possible in most cases. It’s a terrible business model to rely on unpaid labour but what is the solution? I agree that more of the larger indie companies should definitely be giving better ‘rewards’ because if they can finance fancy promotions and campaigns and websites and several staff then they can give some small remuneration-they wouldn’t expect a photographer or professional model to do it for nothing and they probably work for considerably fewer hours than it takes the maker at home to construct complex garments. Or maybe the ‘working for free’ culture goes further up the chain than we realise?
So, if you offer to do this and are asked to test, what next? The time it takes and the quantity of fabric needed will vary hugely and personally I prefer to know in advance what sort of garment it’s going to be, some designers give a clear descriptions of what it is so you can choose not to participate if you don’t like the sound of it, others play their cards close to their chests and don’t want to give too much away, which makes it a bit more difficult to decide. Again, the comments on IG vary from people finding it an enjoyable, interesting, at times challenging but rewarding (though not financially) experience. Usually the very least reward you can expect from the designer for your time and fabric is a copy of the finished pattern. Some offer discounts for future purchases (is that a ‘reward’?) it depends on their size and set-up to be honest.
One comment on IG spoke of her positive experience with testing for one designer who, whilst not paying, was very happy and appreciative of the results and shared the testers images upon the pattern’s release. Her experience with another pattern company however left a nasty taste because after release the designer only shared images of young, skinny testers thus ignoring this commenter’s time and contributions to the process, let alone her age or body type! If you want a very specific group of people to test for whatever reason then make sure that’s who your testers are. Don’t encourage anyone and everyone, allow them to help but then cut them out afterwards. I wish I knew who the company was so I can avoid them!
Obviously not all of us will have the time or resources to take on testing, the timescales are often tight (2-3 weeks max usually) so if it doesn’t work at the time then turn it down. It isn’t only the making that has to be done, you’ll need to give proper feedback which can take time. The flip side of the coin would be a small designer waiting on information from a tester only to be told, “nah, sorry, didn’t get it done”
I took exception however to one comment that because I, and others like me, were able to give my time, skills and fabric usually with no expectation of reward that I was somehow ‘privileged’. Couldn’t the same accusation then be applied to anyone who ever did anything for another person voluntarily? The person who pushes the book trolley around the hospital wards? The grandparent who goes into the classroom to listen to children read? Charity shops up and down the land would close if they didn’t have enough volunteers to help run them, the world would be an infinitely sadder place if we only ever did things for monetary reward. Yes of course it would be nice to be rewarded-I’d certainly like to get paid more of the time for my sewing, it is definitely undervalued although more often in my experience by the general public than by those who know what’s involved. I’m not putting anyone out of a paid job by helping test patterns, and if it was being paid then I would expect to be paid! If I am willing to offer my experience and skills to someone for little or nothing then that’s my choice.
Pattern designers do also take a chance with who they use to test. If they don’t have any kind of system whereby they can ask or check what skill level someone has then the results that come back may not be useable for them. If it’s a simple pattern then beginner skills might be perfect but I would hope they never dismiss experienced sewers just because it’s a simple pattern because they are more likely to spot errors or offer a better technique or method.
A growing area of change is that many designers are expanding the size ranges they offer so they will (or at least should!) be looking for sewers right across the range to help test the patterns. Is this something you’d consider doing, particularly if sizing has been an issue for you in the past?
@GroovyGreyLook asked if there were consistent standards for testing across the industry and I doubt very much if there is. Designers will set their own criteria which will be hugely variable depending on their own experience I’d say. The ones who have long-term and industry experience will know what they’re doing (although their instruction writing may not be great) whilst newcomers who’ve done a short pattern cutting course for example won’t have encountered so many potential pitfalls yet.
To sum up, yes of course pattern testing should attract some sort of financial reward but the fact remains that the vast majority of designers could never ever manage to do this, they are simply too small. Many of us choose to test because it’s an enjoyable and constructive way to use our skills for the benefit of someone else. It can be frustrating at times because the quality of pattern can be hugely variable and pattern designers will also have the right to pick whomsoever they like to do the testing and if they don’t choose a broad enough pool of people then that’s up to them, there is a vast resource of knowledgable people available.
I must stress that these thoughts are mine and are responses to the comments that have been left on the Instagram posts. I think the question of pattern testing will continue to go around and around but if the discussion leads more of those who are able to pay, even a small amount, to start to do so then that will have been positive. It’s no use getting shouty at people who are working quietly away in a small room doing something they love and hope to share, that’s not helping and it’s tantamount to bullying too. By all means leave your responses so that it can be a discussion but if I feel they are rude or shouty I reserve the right to ignore or delete them.
In my previous post I talked about my visit to the Fashion Technology Academy for their first ‘Behind the Seams’ blogger event and in this one I’m talking about the other part of our visit which was a taster session of TR (Transformational Reconstruction) pattern cutting with the brilliant Claudette Joseph.
TR is a technique that has been developed by Shingo Sato, a Japanese designer who at one time worked for the late Azzedine Alaia. He creates fantastical garments that are both extraordinary and beautiful tromp l’oeil. When I was at college this technique didn’t really exist, the only way to create similar garments with such dramatic elements was to ‘model’ it on the stand in fabric and then create flat patterns from that. Shingo has developed a way to make these patterns now using a 2D method and he travels the world teaching it at very in-demand workshops.
Claudette Joseph is a 5 times Master and the leading UK exponent of the technique so have a 2 hour session from her was a real privilege.
First of all she explained more about the technique and then she showed us some of her amazing samples, these are just a few of them and they are mind-blowing!
and a few more….
It doesn’t just have to be bodices either, these sleeves are typical too…
Claudette patiently showed us how to create a beautiful spiral-pleated effect on half a front bodice.
I enjoyed this part of our visit so much, it really got my creative juices flowing. It’s a technique that you have to concentrate fully on as there’s plenty of room for error, we all felt doubtful as we went along and were convinced it was all going wrong! In truth, you are only likely to see examples of TR on high end couture and bespoke garments, probably evening or wedding gowns in particular, but simplified versions of it would look beautiful on more affordable garments.
After I got home I cut my pattern in fabric and put it together to see how it might look.
I want to thank Claudette for her patience and for sharing her knowledge with us, I’d definitely like to do one of her 2 day workshops sometime later in the year. If you’re intrigued to try TR then you can check the website for details of future workshops.
Our day finally ended with us very generously being given 4m of fabric to take away, as well as a box of Moon threads from William Gee-thank you.
We all had a brilliant day and if you’re looking for somewhere to study the fashion industry this could be a great alternative to college or Uni.