a SewOver50 discussion about fabric choices.

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! ] 

Hasan, the famous (if you live near London) Man Outside Sainsbury’s in Walthamstow

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. 

I made this beautiful Maker’s Atelier Holiday shirt in Liberty cotton voile given to me by Pamela and when she saw me wearing it recently she commented that the fabric might not have belonged to her in the first place but to her mother!! Goodness knows how old that could make it but it’s still going strong for me and it’s one of my absolute favourites in warm weather.

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. 

Until next time,

Happy sewing

Sue

Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk

I hadn’t really planned to write anything about the Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A because (obviously) I am not an expert and in no way qualified to authoritatively discuss the historic and cultural influences of Japan and the kimono, but then Covid 19 reared its ugly head and now the museum is closed for the foreseeable future, and at the time of writing this we are confined to our homes. Based on this I have decided to put the photos I took into some sort of album so that anyone who had hoped to go to the show can take a look, along with occasional comments based on the information I gleaned from the show and also from a lovely book “Fashioning Kimono” which I was given by a friend recently. I really hope that the current crisis eventually abates to allow this fascinating and lovely exhibition to reopen its doors to the public.

Because I’m a V&A member I had a ticket to a preview day which I nearly didn’t go to but I’m so glad now that I did. The show is set out largely chronologically, visitors are greeted initially by examples of an early nineteenth century kimono alongside a modern example by a Japanese designer and one with Japanese-influence by John Galliano for Christian Dior.

Kimono (meaning ’thing to wear’) is the national dress of Japan and is worn by both men and women. It is a one-piece front-wrapping garment which has changed little for millennia. Traditionally it is made by using the minimum number of cuts from a bolt of fabric around 12 metres long and 40 centimetres wide so that all the fabric is used. Kimono is now more commonly used as a name which covers several styles which, in Japan, would each have their own name to distinguish them, usually by the style of sleeve they have. The fabrics are made from a variety of fibres, most notably silk of course but also cotton or other plant fibres including ramie and hemp.

Moving into the next room there are numerous examples of exquisite historic kimono, alongside pattern books featuring beautiful line drawings of designs which clients could choose from.

A variety of different techniques were used to decorate the kimono including various methods of dyeing such as variations of tie-dye using shibori embroidery, and a form of warp (or weft) printing which, simply put, is when the warp threads are printed before the fabric is then woven. This gives the finished design an attractive fuzzy-edged quality, you may know it as Ikat. [Please excuse my vague descriptions as I didn’t make any written notes.] The red kimono below is a very fine example of kanoko shibori, a labour-intensive, and very expensive, method of tie-dyeing.

This is a beautiful example of a whole narrative running up and across the kimono.

The next spectacular garment, which is part of the V&A’s permanent collection, was made for and worn by a concubine who would parade in it for all to see. The quality of the embellishment is mind-boggling, there is masses of gold thread, applique, some of the creatures have ‘whiskers’ and ‘hair’. The shoes are modern reproductions of the sort of elevated footwear these women would have worn, one imagines they had attendants accompanying them to prevent a mishap?!

The garment underneath is a modern reproduction.

The exhibition explores the complex relationship between Japan and the West and the influences that had over the fashions of each nation. Once trade routes between Japan and the West started opening up a thirst for the beautiful silk fabrics and kimono-style garments began to develop. From the seventeenth century onwards merchants would take return with these items and they were soon adopted by fashionable high society. Japan responded to this demand by manufacturing textiles and garments specifically for the western export market.

This garment is slightly unusual because the silk fabric was woven in Europe and was then taken to Japan where it was made into this traditional garment, the process was more often the other way around.
This garment was made in Indian woven cotton, a popular fabric in Japan, and was worn as a type of undergarment beneath the richer silk garments, or informally in the home.
This is an example of a Japanese-influenced garment made from Indian manufactured textiles, probably cotton, specifically for the export market. Fashionable European society like to wear them informally at home. There were also padded variations of garments too which were traditionally used for sleeping in in Japan and they became the precursor to the dressing gown as we now know it in the west.
‘Lord and Lady Clapham’ two slightly sinister eighteenth century dolls with real hair wearing Japanese-influenced outfits.
This beautiful mid-nineteenth century ensemble was made from beautiful Japanese silk but in the fashionable mode of the day.
This exquisitely embroidered gauze gown featured in a beautiful Victorian portrait of a woman displayed nearby (I’m really sorry but I didn’t get a good photo of it so you’ll just have to take my word for it)
The colours are still so fresh and vibrant.

From this point on the exhibition demonstrates the two-way process of influences between Japan and the west. Japan had developed a huge export market of textiles and apparel specifically for the west, and western styles of attire and textile design can be seen entering Japanese design, away from the previous traditional norms.

The print on this mens kimono is interesting because it features motifs of the Russo-Japanese war 1904-1905
a mantle designed by Paul Poiret in about 1913. The early twentieth century saw many fashion designers including Paul Poiret and Callot Seours being heavily influenced by Japanese style. This was in part because it offered a new freedom to the women who had been restricted by corsets and other encumbrances for centuries.
This early twentieth-century robe was created using beautiful embroidered cloth made for the export market. It’s a ‘modernised’ version of traditional floral designs.
Even Cartier got involved, this is a pair of stunning Japanese-influenced diamond brooches, and two smaller ones.
A late nineteenth century kimono which is a mix of traditional floral design overlaid with a geometric design. If you look closely at the centre back seam you can see how the pieces of the garment were embroidered separately and then sewn together because they aren’t quite a perfect match.
This beautiful design is from the early twentieth century for a young girl.
The influence of Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh can clearly be seen in this robe from around 1912-1926
These kimono, and those in the photo below are largely from the early twentieth century and demonstrate a variety of printing techniques

The final space is the most spectacular simply because of the dazzling array of beautiful garments and the high-ceilinged space they are displayed in.

The daily wearing of kimono gradually fell out of fashion for most Japanese people during the last century when western styles of dressing were adopted. There has been a move back to them for significant events including marriage, or certain birthdays.
Two modern kimono belonging to a young woman and a seven-year-old child
There are a mixture of ensembles from both Japanese and western designers, including Alexander McQueen and John Galliano.
a 21st century wedding ensemble made from exquisite jacquard-woven silk cloth but very much in the ancient traditional style
This fabulous garment is also for a wedding, the embroidery is absolutely breathtaking.
a close-up of the embroidery, cranes are auspicious and a symbol of longevity.
the neon colours of the right-hand kimono are very striking, the print features various undersea creatures such as jellyfish but also, at the bottom left, a aircraft which has crashed into the sea!
How is this for awesome pattern matching?
This ensemble is from 2009
the short coat to the left is by Nigerian-born and London-based designer Duro Olowo from his Autumn/Winter 2015 collection and it mixes both Japanese and Nigerian influences.
Kimono-inspired garments from Star Wars films, the outfit on the left was worn by Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi.
This section of the exhibition looks at the influences of Japanese attire in films and also music videos.
On the left is a very luxe housecoat that belonged to Freddie Mercury and the red outfit was designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier for Madonna.
Icelandic singer Bjork photographed in this Alexander McQueen-designed outfit
It can only be John Galliano for Christian Dior!
pose like the model??
hand-painted and appliquéd lace with scattered bugle beads
This final spectacular garment was made especially for the exhibition

In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed a brief skip through an exhibition which had so much to offer. It’s visually stunning and has many thoughtful, and helpful, explanations of the links between Japanese and Western fashion and style. I am indebted to the book “Fashioning Kimono” for a few technical explanations which I’ve transcribed in my own words here but I do not seek to go in depth, I hope you understand.

It would be such a pity if more people can’t, eventually, get to see this lovely show but only time will tell how the current world situation works out. I have recently found this YouTube series of short films with the V&A curator guiding you around the show so you might enjoy watching it.

In the meantime, keep washing those hands!

Sue

Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A

The last few weeks on the blog have been very much about Sew Over 50 which has all been very exciting but that has meant that I haven’t had as much time to write about the other things which interest me a lot.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m really interested in the history of fashion and so visiting exhibitions of clothing from across the decades, or even centuries, is something I love to do. Living where I do I’m fortunate to be well placed to get into central London in less than an hour making most galleries and museums very accessible.

London’s blockbuster fashion exhibition this spring is Dior: Designer of Dreams which opened at the beginning of February in the V&A in South Kensington and it is such a beautiful show with literally hundreds of outfits on display. It’s being staged in their newest space, the Sainsbury Wing, which is underground but doesn’t feel remotely subterranean when you’re in it. Each room is different and begins with the single most famous outfit of all, the Bar suit from the first ‘New Look’ collection of February 1947. Nearby are other interpretations of it by the designers who followed Dior himself as head of the house which he created.

Bar suit February 1947

The show is thematic rather than chronological which personally I think makes it more coherent, not less. Whilst each designer has brought their own aesthetic to the label there is an element of timelessness about many of the creations. [It’s quite a fun game to see if you can work out which era a gown comes from, I was wrong a number of times, sometimes I went modern and they were from the 50’s and other times the opposite was true] The show takes you through a series of rooms which contain gowns of every shape and hue. Early on you come across the gown created for Princess Margaret for her 21st birthday ball in 1951. She and her mother continued to be Dior fans even after Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, she herself has only ever worn British designers since.

The rooms are cleverly arranged because you move from one to the next and they all feel quite spacious and different to the previous one, some have dark backgrounds whilst others are light and airy. Some gowns are behind glass but many are not so you can get a good view of the exquisite workmanship and skills that have gone into each of them.

When he was alive Christian Dior made full use of the allure of Hollywood film stars to promote his collections and he dressed many leading ladies including Rita Hayworth and Jane Russell, their shapely figures were perfect for showing off his womanly designs. In fact Coco Chanel was very critical of his New Look because she saw it as a step backwards for women in terms of having to wear restrictive garments like corsets again, this coming after the relative freedom she had created with her boyish shapes in the pre-war years.

The pastel colours in the next room are beautifully lit and there are gowns by many of the designers who have come after Christian himself including the 21 year old prodigy Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri. I loved this room…

Moving on from this room to the next there is a marked contrast with the gowns or ensembles being influenced by or referencing travel around the world. Several of John Galliano’s most fantastical creations are here alongside more wearable dresses by the other designers.

At various points there are also smaller cabinets and display cases containing other items of interest including beautiful perfume bottles, and photographs from Christian Dior’s beloved garden.

It might not look like it but this is dress is only about 30cms high
a perfect miniature dress embellished with flowers
A Raf Simons gown in front of a Christian Dior original
the setting in this room is stunning with thousands of papercut flowers and petals cascading from the ceiling
Lily of the Valley were one of Christian Dior’s favourite flowers and they featured regularly in his collections.

I actually wish that perfume had been wafted into this room to enhance the beautiful ambience…a hint of Miss Dior perhaps (named for his sister Catherine) or the scent of lily of the valley from Diorissimo?

The talents of all the Creative Directors are show-cased in the next room starting with Yves Saint Laurent’s brief tenure (he left to do his National Service in the army) Marc Bohan who served for the longest time and is still alive at the age of 93. After him came Italian Gianfranco Ferre followed by the notorious and flamboyant Gibraltarian John Galliano. When his reign ended abruptly under a cloud he was eventually followed by Belgian Raf Simons, and finally the first woman to hold the role, Italian Maria Grazia Chiuri.

Raf Simons
I love this pleated skirt by Raf Simons
This could only be John Galliano in his pomp
Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘Tarot’ coat looks as if it has been made from pieces of Medieval ecclesiastical embroidery

The next room is of particular interest to keen dressmakers because it is entirely filled with toiles of gowns, jackets and ensembles. It’s snowy whiteness is a stark contrast to all the bright colours and embellishment in the previous rooms and it heightens the drama of the superlative cutting and construction skills of the all-too-often unsung atelier staff or ‘petit mains’ as they are usually known. These are where the ideas are tried out, where the unusual cut of a sleeve is experimented with, or a dart on a collar attempted. It doesn’t waste costly and precious fabric and it helps visualise unusual proportions or new concepts. These toiles are about way more than just checking the fit on a garment.

Moving next through a narrow space displaying hundreds of magazine covers over the decades featuring Dior fashions old and new on one side, and a glass cabinet on the other side containing many shoes, bags, scarves, jewellery and other accessories and miniature versions of gowns and ensembles perfect in every detail like the full-size originals.

And finally you arrive at the best room of all. I had no idea what was coming so to round the corner and emerge into a huge ballroom space with lighting, music and special effects was breathtaking to say the least. There are literally dozens of gowns to look at, including three iterations of the J’Adore gowns worn by Charlize Theron in the perfume adverts.

J’Adore gowns
gowns worn by Lupito Nyong’o and Nicole Kidman.

You need to spend as long as you can in this room to fully experience it, there are places to sit too so you can rest and take it all in.

There’s only one more gown to see before you leave and it’s set between mirrors so you get the sense that there are many dresses, not just one.

The final gown was created by Maria Grazia Chiuri and it harks back to Christian Dior right at the beginning. It is soft and feminine and it references the New Look with its full pleated skirt and elegant lines. It could be from 1947 but it is very much of the now.

I absolutely love this exhibition! I’ve been able to go twice so far, as well as attend a talk between exhibition curator Oriale Cullen and Harper’s Bazaar editor Justine Picardie. As I keep mentioning in other posts, I’ve had such good value from my Membership of the V&A and this year will be no different. In April a retrospective of the work of Mary Quant also opens too. I purchased my own membership and all views expressed here are entirely my own.

You have until July 14th to see this exhibition and if you have any chance of being in London I urge you to try and get a ticket. I believe there are 500 additional tickets available every day but they sell out very quickly, check the website for updates would be my suggestion. I hope I’ve been able to give those of you who can’t get to London a small taste of the show, and for those of you who hope to get here my photos in no way do it justice and you’ve definitely got a lot to look forward to!

Until next time,

Sue

Summing up where sewing has taken me in 2018

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 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…..

My name in print!

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!

Loving all the fabrics in Saeed’s, Walthamstow

Hasan, better known as the Man Outside Sainsbury’s!

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!

getting started at SewCam in December

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?!

Happy sewing,

Sue

a quick review of fashion-related books if you’re looking for present ideas!

It’s occurred to me that I’ve read a number of fashion-related books in the last couple of years which I found really enjoyable but the only two I’ve ever reviewed here was the autobiography of Vivienne Westwood, and a double biography of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano called Gods and Kings. You can still read the original posts here for the Westwood and likewise Gods and Kings although I must have fiddled with them in the past because I don’t think any of the photos now appear with them, sorry about that. I found both books well written, very readable and insightful into the lives and inspirations of all three protagonists. 

I also enjoyed reading “Blow by Blow” which is a biography of the life and influence of stylist and patron of up-and-coming fashion designers, Isabella Blow. Written by her husband Detmar Blow after her sad death in 2007 it gives an insight into her passions and creative joie de vivre which saw her discover, promote and support Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy. Sadly, she and McQueen became somewhat estranged and her death affected him very badly. Philip Treacy, however, still speaks very warmly of her kindness, humour, and possibly her best known public quality, sartorial eccentricity. There was no hat or outfit which she deemed too ridiculous to wear out in public if it promoted her favourite young designers! In spite of coming from a wealthy background she was frequently hard up but was always generous and supportive of her protegees.

Next up is a biography of Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie. Again I found it well-written and readable (always the most important factor as far as I’m concerned, if it’s all as dry as dust and doesn’t bring it’s subject matter alive to me then it’s not going to hold my interest for long, no matter how many interesting photos there are) I discovered that Gabrielle Chanel had a sad childhood about which she was very cagey in later life and an often-colourful love life too. [Amusing fact-I knew that the film version of Dad’s Army from 2016 was factually inaccurate from having read this book! A woman discovered to be the spy at the end of the film was ‘exposed’ because she was wearing Chanel outfits direct form Paris-this was impossible because Chanel closed down her salon for the duration of the war!]

One of my most recent fashion-related reads has been former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman’s diary of the magazine’s centenary year in 2016, ‘Inside Vogue’. As you might expect from a woman with 25 years in the most influential position in British magazine publishing she offers interesting insights into how all the elements for the centenary edition, including the secret photo shoot with the Duchess of Cambridge, gradually came together. All this was happening alongside the regular monthly publications, plus the exhibition to be held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Vogue Festival with a wide variety of speakers and seminars, and a celebratory gala dinner. She finishes the book on the eve of the Brexit referendum vote….  

My penultimate book is a ‘bust the budget’ one about milliner Philip Treacy. I went to an evening ‘in conversation’ with him at the V&A (not me, someone else was talking to him, we just listened!!) It was such an enjoyable evening, the audience were held in wrapt attention as he has the most beautiful soft Irish lilt and told such charming and engrossing stories of his life and career that we didn’t want him to stop [I recommend listening to him on Desert Island Discs if you can find it as a podcast, you’ll get a sense of what I mean] I queued 45 minutes to buy the book afterwards and then another 45 minutes to have him sign it for me. It was worth the wait as I now have a personal, and very individual, inscription in the front. It’s a hefty coffee table book that’s for sure but it’s a lovely one to be able to see just how many high-profile clients he has had since being ‘discovered’ by Isabella Blow. These have included Lady Gaga, members of the Royal family and Grace Jones amongst many others.

And finally, the most recently published book I’ve acquired is The Fashion Chronicles written by fashion historian Amber Butchart. This is a nice little book which you can dip in and out of to learn about the people she considers to be amongst the most influential in clothing and fashion throughout history. Some of her choices are quite surprising and definitely no predicable, it’s well written and well illustrated. I’d love there to be a second series of  “A Stitch in Time” as it was as much about social history as the development of clothing in the past but sadly she doesn’t think there will be at the present time. 

So that’s my not very comprehensive review of some books about fashion that I’ve enjoyed and which you might too. The links I’ve provided are generally to Amazon but I’m in no way affiliated to them, nor was I sponsored or paid to write about any of these books so all views expressed are my own.   

So until next time,

Sue

At the risk of boring you….

I’m sorry to harp on about it but this is a really big deal for me.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram and Facebook will have seen that I’ve just had my first ‘serious’ article published in Love Sewing magazine in the UK. I’ve done pattern reviews in magazines a couple of times before, as well as having the occasional photo featured in the ‘readers make’ pages but this is a new departure for me.IMG_8433

Understandably not everyone will want to, or be able to, buy the magazine but I thought those of you that are new to my blog in the last couple of months may be interested to read the original post which the article came about from. You can find it here, along with more photos and information.

If you’re visiting London and have an interest in how our clothing has developed over the centuries, and what the future may hold for the textile and fashion industries then this is a good way to spend a couple of hours. The exhibition is on at the V&A museum until almost the end of January 2019.

Whilst I was paid by Love Sewing to write the article I haven’t been sponsored in any way by the V&A and all views expressed are very much my own.

Anyway, until next time,

Happy sewing

Sue

Fashioned from Nature at the V&A museum

This is one of the most recent exhibitions to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and it’s a very thought-provoking one exploring the relationship between man, fashion and the natural world. It’s divided into the now familiar format of the historic element downstairs with the larger more modern and forward-looking section upstairs.

This works well because there are displays containing beautifully conserved clothing and accessories dating as far back as the 1600s alongside helpful and fascinating short films and information about the origins and manufacture of textiles using both traditional sources such as cotton, flax, silk and wool but also the more unusual such as pineapple fibre.

The items chosen for display demonstrate both the influence of natural subjects in the design-primarily plants and animals, and the effects of textile production on society as a whole. Cotton and wool for example were a huge part of the success of the UK for hundreds of years and made fortunes for a relatively few people but at vast human suffering for many in the form of slavery, overwork, terrible working conditions and resultant illness. Added to this was the decimation of animal and bird populations to supply the demands of the burgeoning fashion industry with feathers, fur, tortoiseshell, whalebone etc and you have a some uncomfortable viewing.

The origins of the RSPB in the UK started towards the end of the 19th Century when Governments around Europe became concerned for the welfare of bird populations brought to the point of extinction in places.

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This albatross was destined to become a muff to keep a fashionable lady’s hands warm.

Ostrich feathers were extremely popular on evening gowns and fans, this little hat is labelled as being the ‘improved starling’ hat with it’s printed feather decoration, the natural beauty of the feathers not being quite good enough presumably?

Seal populations were hugely reduced by the desire for seal fur to make or line coats, muffs and hats, as were whales for their flexible bones which were used in corsets, amongst other things. And then there’s ivory for buttons, umbrella handles and hair decorations, the list goes on…

New resources such as rubber found uses for footwear and to give elasticity to things like stockings and mens braces.

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These natty rubber-soled boots are actually for a man (Oscar Wilde I’m thinking…)

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Mother of pearl and seashells have long been popular for decorating objects as well as practical items like buttons.

Not everything is doom and gloom in the exhibition, there are some stunning pieces of embroidery and garments which are a visual delight. One of my favourites was an Eighteenth century man’s waistcoat embroidered with Macaque monkeys.

Floral motifs are a perennial favourite both as woven cloth and as embroidered fabric.

I was surprised to discover that using pineapple fibre to make fabric has been around for a couple of hundred years, especially given they were such expensive fruit in their own right.

This evening gown uses pineapple fibre fabric, and the handkerchief is cotton embroidered with pineapple-fibre thread.

Moving upstairs you will discover garments by designers keen to explore and embrace new textiles and technology. Stella McCartney is a well-known exponent of these with her refusal to use any animal-based product and there are some interesting examples of faux leather being made from the waste by-products of the winemaking industry, and ‘leather’ made from a type of mushroom protein! [Incidentally the episode of Desert Island Discs featuring Stella McCartney is very enjoyable and she talks about her use of ethical fabrics and textiles during it] Extraordinary stuff and virtually indistinguishable from real leather. These are ‘designer’ products though so I have no idea of the cost but like any new technology it has to start somewhere and will hopefully filter down eventually to be more affordable.

There were other examples of flora and fauna in the textile design including my favourite Alexander McQueen with a reptile-inspired dress from his Plato’s Atlantis collection.fullsizeoutput_258bfullsizeoutput_258a

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An ‘under the sea’ evening gown by Zac Posen

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Not fur but bugle beads!

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This ‘leopard’ is made entirely from beads by Jean-Paul Gaultier

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Another beautiful evening gown, this time by Giles Deacon, this one features a gorgeous fabric printed with birds eggs

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A heavily embroidered skirt by Christopher Kane with the reproductive parts of plants!

There is plenty of information and several films which go into greater depth about the effects not only of over-consumption of textiles but also the damage it’s production does to the planet and the workers. Denim, and therefore jeans, for example if the most water-wasteful and polluting of any fabric being produced, we have to address this fact and soon. I’ll be honest and say that I was flagging a little by this time, absolutely not through boredom, far from it, but from information overload. If this is your primary interest in visiting this exhibition then go straight upstairs because there’s so much fascinating, often shocking, but ultimately encouraging information to explore.

Also, did you know that Velcro got invented because a Swiss scientist Georges de Mestral noticed while walking in the Jura during the 1940’s that burrs from plants were clinging to his clothes and his dog’s fur so he investigated further and found they were tiny little hooks. Eventually this discovery became the basis for the product we know today!

Up-cycling is another area that’s looked into, reusing textiles be it unwanted clothes or end-of-line products like ribbon to make new products. Refashioning is not new but it fell out of favour, now it’s making a return.

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This outfit is made from maps printed on silk for wartime use but was actually only made in 2017.

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This collar is made from leftover rolls of ribbon.

I could go on, adding more photos of everything but I urge you, if you get the opportunity, to go for yourself and see this exhibition. If you’re interested in fashion and clothing it will really open your eyes to some of the facts about it’s production which you might not be aware of and make you think about how we can improve the situation by our own consumption of goods.

Vivienne Westwood is a leading advocate of choosing fashion wisely, her motto being Buy Less and Buy Well, in other words buy the best you can afford because it’s more likely to have been ethically made from better materials and will last you longer. I know personally I can’t always manage this but by making my own clothes most of the time and wearing them frequently is making a start.

Fashioned from Nature is on at the V&A until next January 27th 2019. I’ve not been sponsored to write this piece, I have my own membership which I use frequently!

Happy sewing, and visiting!

Sue