I haven’t shared a museum or gallery visit with you in such a long time (for sadly obvious reasons) but, at last, I’ve been to one that is probably worthwhile to write about because you may have time to visit it for yourself if you’re within reach of London!
‘Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960’s counterculture’ is the latest exhibition to open at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London. I went a few days after it opened and there was a lovely ‘buzz’ to it because a good number of people were there (but not too crowded by any means) and a great backing track of familiar Sixties music to accompany it.
Boutiques were an entirely new concept at the start of the Sixties, before then young people were pretty much obliged to dress exactly like their parents and shopping for clothes, if you didn’t sew your own, was a very dull affair in traditional gents outfitters or snooty ladies dress shops. All of that began to change when Mary Quant opened Bazaar, her first London boutique and many others soon began to follow suit (pardon the pun!) Clothes shopping became a fun and sociable activity, trendy boutiques with exciting interiors, pumping music tracks and fast-changing, attractive merchandise became more commonplace.
Both young women and men started to break away from the constraints of very formal fashions prior to the early Sixties and young men in particular embraced much less starchy ‘masculine’ designs with many bright colours and shapes and new fabrics coming into their wardrobes. Women of course were already embracing miniskirts with wild enthusiasm.
Moving on through to the main part of the exhibition, it is set out with examples of garments from a number of the boutiques which were most notable during the Sixties. Often they are in high-cost areas of London such as Chelsea or Knightsbridge, and were owned and run (with varying degrees of financial competence and success) by the wealthy offspring of British landed gentry. The information notes made me laugh because they describe how dark, noisy and shambolic a lot of these shops were, with stock all over the place, inconsistent supply and poor quality of the stock, they weren’t intended to be welcoming if you were the ‘wrong sort’ of shopper! Some were barely shops at all, just a space to hang out with your friends that had a few clothes draped around it (like a teenager’s bedroom…) If Daddy was underwriting the venture it didn’t much matter how successful it was!!
Moving upstairs there are even more examples of the fashions from the decade, it was interesting to see the more fluid shapes here with possibly 1930s and 40s influences, certainly different from Mary Quant’s simple colour-blocked shapes at the same time.
To sum up, this is a show that any generation can enjoy because there are so many great clothes on show. I’m not old enough to remember much of the Sixties but that didn’t matter-I enjoyed overhearing some of the women chatting who clearly were there though! The show is on now until March 13th, booking is recommended although I didn’t and took a chance on the day. FTM is a small independent museum and I always enjoy a visit there, White Cube art gallery is a few minutes walk further down the road plus there is a glass blowing studio nearby which is open to watch the artisans at work so there’s much to enjoy in the area. It’s so close to the river too which is a bonus.
It’s wonderful that museums and galleries are now reopening and they need our support if we can offer it as we emerge from the pandemic. The ones I’ve visited so far have felt safe and not too crowded, numbers are limited and booking is definitely advisable if you’re making a special trip, and the opening days may be more limited too so check their websites.
I’ve been an absolute fraud when it’s come to writing any Sew Over 50 blogs for ages and ages which I feel very guilty about. I’ll hold my hands up and say that the community has been an absolute lifeline during the last awful 18 months that we’ve all been going through-the support, friendship, inspiration, encouragement and camaraderie that I’ve found through the account has been personally so important but my writing and blogging has really tailed off along with my mood in general. Judith and Sandy do an absolutely awe-inspiring job of running the account for us, along with fantastic guest editors to keep us all coming back time after time-thank you thank you THANK YOU!!! The sheer variety of topics covered has been incredible but I thought I’d dip my toe back into the @SewOver50 blogging waters by writing a round-up of the August 2021 challenge #So50SustainableSewing
If you follow Judith’s personal account @judithrosalind you’ll already know she has been increasingly sewing in a more mindful and sustainable way for some time now and has wanted to launch a challenge on the account so that we can all join in with this in some way.
We all know that ’the most sustainable garment is the one already in our wardrobe’ and that is true but it doesn’t allow for the important creative outlets that our sewing and garment making gives us. So, if we are to continue sewing for ourselves or others, how can we approach it?
Judith’s idea for the challenge is a simple one-we use only fabric which is already ‘in the system’, especially if it’s already sitting on our shelves. In other words, we source it in a variety of inventive ways and these fabrics could include…
remnants or scraps
charity or thrift shop finds-fabrics or garments
textile manufacturing waste
fabric swaps in person or online
discarded garments, table cloths, bed linen, curtains etc
This isn’t a definitive list of course and over the whole month of August several guest editors shared their brilliant insights to inspire us.
The month kicked off with Judith making a guest appearance on the Sew Organised Style podcast chatting with Maria Theoharous about her idea and lots of ways for us to get involved. Maria always has Sew Over 50 Thursdays too which feature guests from our community who share their sewing stories, techniques and inspiration so it is definitely worth having a listen while you’re sewing, or walking the dog!.
Throughout August there was a great line-up of guest editors including Jen Hogg @jenerates who is so overflowing with ideas that she had 4 separate posts! Her first post encouraged us to ‘shop our stash’ if you have one…I know I do! Like her, some of my fabrics are relatively recent purchases, occasionally on impulse although not always by any means, whilst others are fabrics I’ve acquired over a long period of time and from various different sources. Jen sees it as part of her creative process, to have the choice amongst her stash, to inspire her ideas for making. Jen is a multi-talented woman who not only sews but knits, embroiders, makes jewellery, works leather….in the UK you are probably familiar with her from being a contestant on the Great British Sewing Bee, plus you can also listen to her chatting on Sew Organised Style too!
Next was Sue Stoney @suestoney in Australia who shared her love of collecting all sorts of vintage items for later use including beautiful table linen and haberdashery. Many of us probably have buttons, zips, hooks and eyes, threads, elastic (doesn’t last indefinitely though so check it hasn’t perished before you sew it into something you don’t want to fall down around your ankles!) which came to us via our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, neighbours etc etc. I know I love to rummage amongst the hundreds of buttons I have to something special and individual, and I can’t recall the last time I actually bought hooks and eyes or press studs!
Whilst the challenge is intended to encourage us to get creative and inventive for the pleasure of it alone there were also prizes to be awarded so the post on August 8th shared the generous sponsors for these. They included @criswoodsews whose zero-waste Parasol dress pattern has proved extremely popular especially during this challenge. @lizhaywood3754 is also an advocate for zero-waste sewing and has published two books on the topic. @thatwendyward has a recently published book on sewing more sustainably (she chats with Maria about it on the podcast too!) Wendy has long been mindful on the topic after years of working in the RTW industry, as well as producing her own patterns, teaching and writing several other sewing books all of which feature older models! There were also prizes from small businesses @greyfriarsandgrace who create paper patterns which guide the user to sew clothes using recycled textiles, and @craftandthrift who sell thrifted fabrics and kits.
Jen returned with her second post sharing her use of ‘found’ fabrics, including a beautiful blouse made from a sheer vintage embroidered table cloth. Found fabrics can make you a lot more creative because you feel less constrained by what to make with them, do you find the cost of brand new fabric can stifle your creative instincts because of the fear of making costly errors?
One garment that offered massive chances to use up multiple fabrics was the ubiquitous tiered and ruffled dress-a buffet dress in current parlance! Followers have certainly embraced this style and the account shared just a small selection of them on August 11th.
Next up was Marcia @MarciaLoisRiddington who adores #GrannyChic and is a wonderful exponent of using vintage fabrics to great advantage and her combinations of colours and patterns is absolutely masterful (mistressful?)
Then @irenelundell from Sweden urged us to think about ‘circular’ sewing, buy from charity or thrift shops when you see it because not only does it support a good cause but it gives the textile or garment the chance of a new or extended life.
Tricia @morrissews who followed is a fine exponent of refashion, remake, remodel, recycle and repair…and try as much as possible to not replace. She shared her @Elbe_textiles (another prize sponsor) Sorrento bucket hat which couldn’t be more suitable for using up lots of small fabric scraps to make something really useful and wearable.
Jen’s third post demonstrated the times she’s used multiple garments to make a single new one, such as the three shirt shirt! Casual jackets which are made up of small pattern pieces are also ideal for a patchwork approach, there are even small businesses now making these commercially and every garment is different, some even manage to use 100% recycled components.
She talks too about the 90 minute transformation challenge on GBSB was actually a very liberating experience because there was no time to be overly precious with what they were given to use, it forced her to think outside the box very quickly and not have time for self-doubt.
There was another Jen up next, @jenlegg_teescreatives who told us how she has used textiles belonging to dear and much-missed friend and how, when she wears the jacket she’s sewn, it feels like a hug from her friend Emma. There are many other ways you can honour or remember a friend or loved one in this way too by sewing articles like soft toys, cushions, patchwork quilts or rugs for example using garments that once belonged to them.
Jen Hogg made her final return to tell us about using factory surplus in her making. She’s fortunate to live near a number of textile mills in Scotland and has been working closely with them to find inventive ways of using their ‘waste’ products. By using cashmere off-cuts, including something called ‘slitter’ which is a by-product of making cashmere scarves, so far Jen has knitted or crocheted rugs and blankets, and woven and stitched the strips together to make whole pieces of textile big enough to make into jackets, dresses or coats. Are there any textiles manufacturers or processors near you? Do they sell off any of their excess or by-products? It might be worth investigating. Another way of using up scraps which has been around for many many years is rag rugging (also known as proggy rugging) and @raggedlife has loads of ideas for this technique.
As the month was drawing to a close Raquel in Taipei @raquel_sewing_knitting_in_asia (who is an absolute Queen of refashioning!) showed us how she takes inspiration from high-end fashion and clothing all around her but then recreated the looks using multiple end-of-line garments and thrifted clothes. Not only that, she would wear them a few times but if they aren’t quite right she isn’t afraid to take them apart again and reconfigure them into a new garment more to her liking! Sometimes more than once! I’m always too precious with things I’ve made to do that even if I don’t much like the end result, instead they tend to sit on the naughty step while I sulk about what went wrong with them, I should just tackle it head on and take up that unpicker!
The final guest editor for the sewing sustainably month was Judy @judywillimentross whose speciality is refashioning mens suits into another wearable garment. She buys them in charity shops but one of her own rules is not a purchase a suit which might still be of use to someone less fortunate and not in a position to buy new. [This could also be something to be mindful of when purchasing any very inexpensive garment, should we consider whether it would be of use to another person as it is before we buy it to cut up. Or do we take the view that the money we pay for it is a donation to a charity in need of the cash, especially if it’s going to end up in landfill otherwise?] Judy carefully uses ever-smaller fabric scraps to piece together into patchwork.
So there you have it, loads of creativity to inspire us with our sewing projects in the future. By the time you read this the randomly-chosen winners of prizes will have been announced but the hashtag #so50SustainableSewing will continue to be used so the ideas bank will be constantly refreshed.
I’ve added links throughout so you should be able to see and read for yourselves what the guest editors had to say.
Judith and Sandy constantly add to the saved Highlights on the account too, particularly any one of the many worldwide challenges you might like to participate in, plus using some the dozens of hashtags unique to us will give you unlimited ideas for your own future projects.
For this post I’ve concentrated entirely on the sustainable sewing challenge and so I’ve not added many thoughts of my own. In truth, I wasn’t in the headspace to participate while it was going on but it did cause me to think about some of the projects I’ve completed in recent years which went some way to being ‘sustainable’.There are so many ways we can all do a little, or a lot, to contribute to reducing the problem of waste and over-consumption. We should be mindful that whatever is right and possible for one person though is not necessarily going to be achievable for another. For example, many of us can practice visible mending because we like that it gives longevity to a garment and can look attractive, but others will see it as a reminder of hard times or embarrassment. Our community is nothing if not supportive so we need to be mindful of others at times.
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!
At the beginning of May @sewover50 posed us this question, “How do you assess your fabric purchases? Is cheap fabric inferior, or can you sometimes find a genuine bargain? Does expensive always mean quality…and what does that mean? How do you weigh up long lasting plastic-based fabrics against ‘natural’ fibres that may gradually wear out but where ageing can add to the appeal of the fabric?” The discussion was prompted by follower @kissntuss asking if anyone else had encountered the problem of buying and prewashing fabric, spending time carefully sewing it up only for it to turn into scruffy rag after its first proper laundering?
So, lots to think about there and I waded straight in with this comment, “Ooh this is a mine field! I’ve always said that over time and with experience you learn to judge between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ because, in very general terms, I’ve often found cheap to be of inferior quality whereas ‘inexpensive’ would be a better or good quality fabric at a very reasonable price. Since the boom in home dressmaking over the last few years I think there are now a lot more fabrics which are quite pricey but you’re paying for the design, or the brand, not necessarily the superior quality of the fabric which they are made with. Price is not always a guarantee of quality unfortunately. Personally I would still much rather feel a fabric in my hand to better judge the quality BUT there are some very good fabric websites who sell excellent quality cloth so order a swatch if you aren’t sure. We’ve learned the hard way with our fabric-buying mistakes and I still get it wrong from time to time even after all these years.” These are strictly my own thoughts you understand which I’ve formed over many years of sewing and clothes-making, and learnt through good and bad cloth-buying experiences. I use the terms ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ loosely when I’m trying to help others with their fabric choices, there are no hard and fast rules.
Well, it seems many of you broadly agreed with me, at least in part, and had plenty of other brilliant insights to add. I’ll attempt to bring the threads (see what I did there?) of a long discussion together here. You could always go back to the original post too and wade through it if you really want to…
So, is cheap fabric always bad fabric? Of course not necessarily I would say. I’m sure many of us have encountered things like thin polyester/cotton with uneven printing and which is suspiciously stiff even though, as my Grandmother would say, “you could shoot peas through it!” It’s usually got lots of dressing like starch or excess dye in it which will wash out and leave the fabric flimsy with little body or oomph to it, it will literally turn into a droopy rag, possibly twisting and/or shrinking and losing colour with each subsequent wash too. These are to be avoided at all costs except for craft-based projects like bunting perhaps. Cheap jersey can be awful too because it’s thin and spirals badly (you know how cheap RTW T-shirts twist after a wash or two? That. However, ‘cheap’ could also be a bolt-end or remnant length of a good cloth sold at a fraction of its original price. When you’re shopping, using a general rule of thumb of 1) and most importantly, do I really like it? 2) is it truly fit for my intended use? and 3) do I really need it? (Ha!) If I have any doubts about these then I walk away and save my money, even if it’s just a few pounds.
[I just want to add a story about some fabric I bought a few months ago to make a wedding dress toile. I made a trip to Walthamstow market in east London where I know there are some great fabric shops and the famous #TMOS ‘The Man Outside Sainsbury’s’ market stall. I had tried online to pick up a cheap cloth which was as similar as possible to the actual fabric I’d be using for the dress itself but the descriptions weren’t good enough for me to be confident they were worth buying. Anyway, off I toddled, what often happens at Walthamstow is that shop premises become available on short leases so very unglamorous but stuffed-to-the-rafters fabric shops pop up in them. You can never be sure they will still be there a few weeks later though. They usually sell deadstock or overstock from nearby factories or suppliers and everything is at rock-bottom prices until it’s gone or the lease runs out. I was after a decent weight triple crepe-type cloth, the colour and fibre content was irrelevant because it was for a toile, and I was really hoping to pay around £3-4 or less per metre. I was absolutely thrilled to find a pale mint green cloth of a really good weight for just 75p per metre!! Perfect for my needs so I bought 6m of the green and another 4m of a bright pink for me! My biggest problem then was carrying it because crepe is a really weighty fabric and I had gibbon arms by the time I got it home on the train! ]
Returning to my own comments I mentioned ‘inexpensive’ cloth which, by my own definition, I would say is fabric that is of a good or excellent quality which normally sells for quite a high price but is now being sold for a lot less than usual. Ex-designer fabrics, dead-stock and factory end of lines are a few examples of this and there are more and more websites and shops starting to source these because they are a brilliant way of stopping wasted fabric going into landfill. And don’t forget those remnant bins, there might be gold dust in there but always double-check there are no nasty surprises like faults, flaws, dye or print discrepancies, and unfold the piece to make sure it’s roughly the size it says it is without terrible wonky ends, it isn’t a bargain if it turns out to be unusable.
In the UK there are areas of the country which have had a proud textiles- making heritage over the centuries and it is still possible in some of these places to buy quality cloth directly from the mills, or from shops and markets. For example, Harris Tweed is still made in the Isle of Harris, Scotland (Vivienne Westwood has been a devoted user of their cloth for decades now) A number of followers commented that in their areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire they were able to buy beautiful quality cloth often as remnants or from mill shops. Most of us don’t have this opportunity and whilst in an ideal world we would all love to be able to feel the quality and suitability of the cloth in our hands before buying, for many online shopping is the only realistic option [and if you’re reading this during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic then it’s the only option for pretty much everybody at present] @frugalisama said “there’s nowt like fettling fabric”, that’s basically stroking fabric to the uninitiated! Visiting bricks-and-mortar stores does offer the chance of personal interaction with others though, I can never resist poking my nose in at other customers deliberations and choices so I regularly have some lovely conversations about one of my favourite topics with complete strangers!
For me, the difficulty with buying online is relying completely on there being accurate descriptions of factors like the weight, handle, suitability for purpose and a true indication of colours and scale of print.
Some websites (and obviously there are thousands and I only have experience of a few) are very diligent and give a lot of good information and are happy to send swatches whenever possible. Small companies can offer a very personal service and it’s nice to support them too, getting to know what fabrics they offer which makes them stand out from the big hitters.
But even with lots of information it’s still all too easy to make duff choices, on more than one occasion I’ve ended up with fabric which was much thinner or thicker than I had hoped or wanted for a particular project, or the print has been a much bigger scale than I thought it was from a photograph. I find a 100m reel of Gutermann thread a really helpful reference point in a photo because we almost all know exactly what size they are, or a ruler in the photo is also helpful. My idea of what is suitable for a skirt or trousers for example might be very different from someone else’s because years of experience and attendant disasters has taught me the hard way. There’s very little you can do to speed up this process of learning although a comprehensive book like Fabric Savvy by Sandra Betzina could very useful-it’s a treasure trove of information of many, many different types of fabrics, their uses, fibre content, sewing and handling tips. There is a whole world of wonderful fabrics out there to discover and it’s a pity to limit ourselves to a very small pool. Cotton is not just cotton for example, it’s poplin, lawn, voile, calico, muslin, denim, corduroy, canvas, Ankara, towelling, sateen, chintz, jersey, the list goes on and that’s just one fibre. Shopping with someone who knows their fabrics is not only fun but educational too.
So does the cost of the fabric have a bearing on the quality and your likelihood to buy it? @jenerates, amongst several others, made the point that if she spends more on the cloth it means she takes her time and more care with the making of each garment. She is also much more inclined to care for the garment more diligently, to make it last longer. Some fabric is pricey because it’s expertly made from top quality materials with designer names attached, and often these fabrics might be made from natural fibres which at the top end can be very pricey. Silk has always been seen as a luxury fabric for good reason, but then so can an Italian-made synthetic-based fabric too, it is still superb quality just not a natural fibre. But being a good quality natural fibre is absolutely no guarantee of it’s longevity or durability, quite the reverse sometimes.
I think there are a number of popular fabric brands at present which have beautiful designs printed on them but the base cloth doesn’t always justify the price point. What do we do about this if, after you’ve diligently sewn a garment together, within a few washes it’s like a rag? If it were a garment purchased from a reputable retailer you could probably negotiate a refund or exchange but that’s no good in this instance, I suspect we fume for a while and then put it down to experience if we can’t find a way to fix it. I would be curious to know, has anyone ever gone back to the online supplier and successfully got a refund or exchange?
@paulalovestosew very kindly answered my questions directly because I know she is very happy to use manmade fibres and fabrics. We all have a tendency to believe that natural fibres are always best but what if they don’t work for your lifestyle, or the garment you want to make? Paula, like many of us, has been sewing her clothes for years, she loves to scour remnant bins in fabric stores and, like me, gets enormous pleasure from squeezing as much as possible from the least amount of fabric. If you check out her account you’ll regularly see not only a dress but also golfing attire all made from the same cloth. For her, stretch jerseys are perfect because they are comfortable to wear, never fade or distort in the wash, there are masses of colours and designs available, they roll up without damage in a suitcase and they last for years. Paula knows her own style which suits her perfectly and she always looks immaculate, style doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
What about vintage or recycled cloth? This can be a great way of using unusual designs or fabric types to create totally original clothes although vintage cloth might need a little more aftercare to keep it in good condition though because of the age of the fibres. It can be difficult without a burn test to know exactly what it was in the first place. If it’s been left folded for a long time it might break down in the creases for example, or it might not take well to being exposed to sunlight or sweat after many years but if the alternative is that it doesn’t get used at all then why not turn it into something nice! Charity shops, yard sales, swaps, Ebay and elderly neighbours are just a few of the places you could find some hidden gems. My 93 year old neighbour Pamela has given me some beauties for example and she’s always thrilled to see me in something I’ve made with one of her fabrics.
Many people try to take into consideration how ethical a fabric is; is its production harmful to humans or the environment through the use of chemicals, dyes, dangerous processes, or is it dangerously straining or poisoning the local water supply? can it be successfully recycled? Will it wear well or will it need to be replaced more often, can it be laundered easily or should it be dry cleaned? There are so many considerations that there is unlikely to be one definitive answer, we must each make our own judgments according to our beliefs and moral framework. Buying organic or other ethically-certified fabrics is a good start but they do often, quite rightly, come with a higher price. You may be interested in reading my post on this topic, Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition at the V&A in London two years ago.
At the risk of being controversial, I do think there’s sometimes an element of fabric snobbery at play by which I mean natural fibres good, synthetic fibres bad. By all means buy and sew with what you prefer but there is a place for manmade fabrics which isn’t that easily replaced. If you sew swimwear or activity clothing which require technical fabrics then they are highly likely to be chemical-based. Yes, I know there are now bamboo and a couple of other alternatives but they are extremely difficult to source for home sewing at present unless you know where to look, and they certainly aren’t cheap either. If you’re interested in learning a lot more about how textiles have always been a part of our daily lives I recommend reading The Golden Thread-how fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair. It’s a fascinating insight into textiles and materials of all kinds, my only quibble is that there are no illustrations or photographs in it all which seems an extremely strange choice given that the subject matter is so visual.
Gosh, this has turned into a long post, I hope you had a coffee to sustain you? Realistically there is no right or wrong answer, it’s what works for you, your lifestyle, your budget, your capabilities and that is different for everyone. Maybe a good idea is to buy the best you can afford if your budget allows but the pricier the fabric is the more I would say it matters to make a toile first. Cheap and cheerful is perfectly good if you’re just starting out in dressmaking, and always make a toile in as similar a fabric-type as possible to the finished article. You will make mistakes and poor choices-much like life!-but you’ve got @Sewover50 as a goldmine of support and information to help along the way, I’m a huge advocate of sharing my sewing failures as well as the successes.
As I’ve said throughout, there is no absolute right or wrong answer to these questions, we make our fabric choices based on any number of personal, and wider reaching factors. I’d really like to conclude with Fiona’s comment, she sees her handmade wardrobe as “my memory album on a rail”, definitely something worth cherishing.
I hadn’t really planned to write anything about the Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition at the V&A because (obviously) I am not an expert and in no way qualified to authoritatively discuss the historic and cultural influences of Japan and the kimono, but then Covid 19 reared its ugly head and now the museum is closed for the foreseeable future, and at the time of writing this we are confined to our homes. Based on this I have decided to put the photos I took into some sort of album so that anyone who had hoped to go to the show can take a look, along with occasional comments based on the information I gleaned from the show and also from a lovely book “Fashioning Kimono” which I was given by a friend recently. I really hope that the current crisis eventually abates to allow this fascinating and lovely exhibition to reopen its doors to the public.
Because I’m a V&A member I had a ticket to a preview day which I nearly didn’t go to but I’m so glad now that I did. The show is set out largely chronologically, visitors are greeted initially by examples of an early nineteenth century kimono alongside a modern example by a Japanese designer and one with Japanese-influence by John Galliano for Christian Dior.
Kimono (meaning ’thing to wear’) is the national dress of Japan and is worn by both men and women. It is a one-piece front-wrapping garment which has changed little for millennia. Traditionally it is made by using the minimum number of cuts from a bolt of fabric around 12 metres long and 40 centimetres wide so that all the fabric is used. Kimono is now more commonly used as a name which covers several styles which, in Japan, would each have their own name to distinguish them, usually by the style of sleeve they have. The fabrics are made from a variety of fibres, most notably silk of course but also cotton or other plant fibres including ramie and hemp.
Moving into the next room there are numerous examples of exquisite historic kimono, alongside pattern books featuring beautiful line drawings of designs which clients could choose from.
A variety of different techniques were used to decorate the kimono including various methods of dyeing such as variations of tie-dye using shibori embroidery, and a form of warp (or weft) printing which, simply put, is when the warp threads are printed before the fabric is then woven. This gives the finished design an attractive fuzzy-edged quality, you may know it as Ikat. [Please excuse my vague descriptions as I didn’t make any written notes.] The red kimono below is a very fine example of kanoko shibori, a labour-intensive, and very expensive, method of tie-dyeing.
The next spectacular garment, which is part of the V&A’s permanent collection, was made for and worn by a concubine who would parade in it for all to see. The quality of the embellishment is mind-boggling, there is masses of gold thread, applique, some of the creatures have ‘whiskers’ and ‘hair’. The shoes are modern reproductions of the sort of elevated footwear these women would have worn, one imagines they had attendants accompanying them to prevent a mishap?!
The exhibition explores the complex relationship between Japan and the West and the influences that had over the fashions of each nation. Once trade routes between Japan and the West started opening up a thirst for the beautiful silk fabrics and kimono-style garments began to develop. From the seventeenth century onwards merchants would take return with these items and they were soon adopted by fashionable high society. Japan responded to this demand by manufacturing textiles and garments specifically for the western export market.
From this point on the exhibition demonstrates the two-way process of influences between Japan and the west. Japan had developed a huge export market of textiles and apparel specifically for the west, and western styles of attire and textile design can be seen entering Japanese design, away from the previous traditional norms.
The final space is the most spectacular simply because of the dazzling array of beautiful garments and the high-ceilinged space they are displayed in.
In conclusion, I hope you enjoyed a brief skip through an exhibition which had so much to offer. It’s visually stunning and has many thoughtful, and helpful, explanations of the links between Japanese and Western fashion and style. I am indebted to the book “Fashioning Kimono” for a few technical explanations which I’ve transcribed in my own words here but I do not seek to go in depth, I hope you understand.
It would be such a pity if more people can’t, eventually, get to see this lovely show but only time will tell how the current world situation works out. I have recently found this YouTube series of short films with the V&A curator guiding you around the show so you might enjoy watching it.
This isn’t so much a blog as a photo album. I know lots of you appreciate seeing images from the beautiful exhibitions that I often go to so I thought I’d share the pictures I took when I visited the Alexander McQueen shop in Old Bond St, London recently.
If you go up to the second floor of the flagship store you will find a stunning collection of brand new as well as archive garments on display. Whilst you’re not allowed to touch, nothing is behind glass and you are free to take your time, wander around between the clothes and see everything close up and great detail.
The overarching theme this time is ‘roses’ and as well as items from the new collection there are several gowns from past ones including the Sarabande collection from 2007, and The Girl Who lived in the Tree from 2008. McQueen used many natural forms and ‘textiles’ within his collections including shells and bones as well as wood and metal, he never shied away from experimentation.
Close by are the most gorgeous, extravagant gowns made from metres and metres of Italian silk taffeta, constructed to specifications which will enhance its qualities of stiffness and pliability. We were told that each gown contains none of the usual stiffeners or interfacings such as crin or horsehair, a small amount of boning is used in the Elizabethan-style collar of the red dress but that’s it.
These photos are well worth taking the time to look at because it gives you some idea of the working process as well as the starting point for ideas. There are images, for example, from Vita Sackville West’s beautiful gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Sussex (well worth a visit too!)
What I find so memorable about the show space is the sheer amount of visual information and it’s there for all to see, there’s nothing secretive or precious about the process. Although it’s aimed at students primarily anyone with an interest is welcome too, and the assistants are happy to tell you everything they know, and to point out things which may be of interest. I wonder if other designers would be as happy to open up in this way? The Sarabande Foundation was set up by Lee Alexander McQueen as a way of promoting and supporting visionary creative talent which still continues.
So, what loves a rose possibly most of all? Bees of course! Just take a look at this beautiful gown, it’s so simple in its silhouette and yet the details are stunning.
Just a few more photos! There are also examples of dresses nearby made from beautiful needlepoint, and one riffing on a similar theme of deconstructed corsets similar to the previous exhibition.
So to sum up, if you are in London in the Mayfair area I’d urge you to take a visit to the second floor of the McQueen shop. Even if you only have 30 minutes it’s a good way to spend the time and don’t worry, the doorman is friendly, tell him I sent you!!
I thought I’d write a quick review of a newly-opened show at the Fashion & Textiles Museum in London in case you’re thinking of paying a visit to the city.
Zandra Rhodes is something of a one-off in the fashion industry. She has always ploughed her own unique furrow by being primarily a textile designer who then uses her beautiful fabrics to create exotic garments. They are not for the faint-hearted because they are frequently bright colours and intricate patterns but over the decades they have been worn by many high-profile personalities including Princess Anne in her engagement photos, and Princess Diana wore gowns by Zandra Rhodes to many events. Actress Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis were photographed wearing the gowns and, more recently, designers Anna Sui and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino have commissioned her to design original textile prints for their own collections.
I was first aware of Zandra Rhodes while I was still at school when her punk-inspired collection of 1977 hit the headlines. Punk clothing was seen as something a bit scuzzy and tatty but her evening gowns were made in luxurious jersey fabrics adorned with rips and tears that were accessorised with chains and zips. Later on while I was a young student taking a one year art foundation course at college her use of striking colours really caught my eye.
The new exhibition features at least one look from every year of Zandra Rhodes’ fifty year career so there are many beautiful garments to see. One of the striking features of many of them is the embellishments. The signature dipped or pointed hems are frequently finished with tiny seed pearls or sequins, as are necklines or sleeves. A favourite fabric is silk chiffon which is notoriously difficult to work with, satin and velvet appear too.
As I’ve said in other reviews before the FTM isn’t a huge space so you get the chance to see the exhibits at very close hand and often from different angles. I’ve shared lots of my photos here although they aren’t in chronological order.
Because I’d bought a ticket for a meet-and-greet prior to the official opening of the exhibition we also had the chance to chat with Zandra Rhodes and get copies of the new book signed by her.
You might have noticed that I have pink hair (well, a pink fringe at any rate) I always admired Zandra’s pink hair but I always imagined there was someone (who?) or something (what?) that prevented me doing it. Eventually, about 4 years ago, I did it, and I’ve realised it was the subliminal influence of Zandra that had planted the idea. When I finally got the opportunity to chat to her I told her as much, which she seemed chuffed about, and we swapped pink-hair-dyeing tips!
Also, upstairs in the exhibition space, you can see how the printing process works. The designs are screen printed using huge frames and each colour in the design has its own screen. This means that each print run could have quite a few stages to the process depending on the number of colours.
The prints are meticulously placed on the fabric so as to utilise as much as possible and avoid unnecessary wastage too. There is film to watch too so you can see the exactly how carefully the prints are created by Zandra’s team. The finished fabrics are then passed to the atelier team of expert pattern cutters and sample makers who turn them into finished garments for each collection.
If you’re interested in seeing the work of a British fashion icon close up, and in the museum and gallery space which she herself originally founded incidentally, then get along there now. The show is on until January 26th (closed on Mondays) As a bonus, in a separate small gallery space, there is also a Norman Hartnell exhibition too with quite a few of his designs on display. If it’s a grey day in London it’s bound to cheer you up!
When our Great Leader Judith responded to the call by the Sewcialists account on Instagram twelve months ago to set up a new account specifically for sewers over 50 little did we imagine that it would become what it is now. With over thirteen and a half thousand followers, and still increasing all the time, it’s a hub primarily for sewers, dressmakers, sewists, crafters, call them what you will, who are mostly, but not exclusively, over the age of 50 to share what they’ve made. The #sewover50 hashtag has now been used over 31K times! We have made it a supportive, encouraging and educational place where people can feel safe and happy to post their photos and know that there will be other like-minded people who have the same shared interest in sewing looking at them. Our life experiences will have many parallels, dealing with things like menopause and our bodies changing into ones we no longer recognise, caring for elderly parents perhaps, looking after grandchildren or worrying about older offspring trying to make their way in the world. Some of us might be in a ’sweet spot’ before some of these events arrive but whatever brings us to #sewover50 we all want to make the most of our sewing time.
I said ‘mostly over the age of 50’ because there are many younger people following too, they may not share as many images but we know from comments and feedback that they enjoy seeing and being inspired by what other SewOver50ers post.
Rather than simply write another ‘what have we done, what have we achieved’ post I thought I’d turn the questions over to others who have been a part of Sew Over 50 since the early days. With over 13.5k thousand members, and more than 31,000 uses of the hashtag, it was almost impossible to choose from so many amazing people but we narrowed it down to a tiny cross-section and they all generously shared with me what their own feelings about Sew Over 50 are, what it means to them and why they think it’s important.
I started by asking them how @SewOver50 had come to their attention, and I’ve used their own words as often as possible.
Several of us were already following Judith and enjoyed her sewing and interacting with her so it was a simple step to move sideways to the new account from August 18th. Others came to it via the Sewcialists account and some noticed the #sewover50 hashtag starting to appear in accounts of other makers that they followed. It mushroomed at lightening speed. One of the most touching responses I received though was from Tina @bricolagedk1 who told me a very different reason for her joining in. Living in Denmark she was struggling to adjust to a new and altered body-shape after a mastectomy, RTW clothing just wasn’t right any more so she wanted to start sewing her own again after many years but found a lack of patterns and information available. She contacted Judith directly and, when Judith shared the question with everyone this was the response. I’ll let her explain in her own words,
“You posted my request and I got an amazing response. People gave me drafting tips, and told me of helpful sewing tools for hurting hands and weak arms. A couple of post mastectomy sewers also contacted me. Others from the SO50 community gifted me patterns, and translated patterns for me from languages I didn’t understand. They told me of patternmaking books with drafting tips for asymmetric sewing. But most of all, everyone was extremely supportive, and in less than a year I have gone from feeling so alone and insecure about how to sew for my changed body, to being part of a very supportive, helpful and inclusive community.”
Marianne @foxglovesandthimbles also found us via Sewcialists but she makes an interesting observation about what happened for a while after joining. Initially she wasn’t sure about becoming part of a sub-community because she’s very happy in her own skin but she gave us the benefit of the doubt. However, “during the first weeks of SO50 I struggled with the fact that, due to the call for inclusion, my feed ended up less diverse. Instagram’s algorithm steered me away from my younger sewing friends and all I saw was Sew Over 50 posts. Just as I was about to quit the group it became obvious that using the hashtag had helped a lot of sewists in finding their tribe and gaining confidence. That’s what convinced me to stay and fully support SO50!” The darned algorithm has a lot to answer for and I wonder how many others didn’t stick around?
When I asked what everyone enjoyed about being a part of SO50 I got many and varied answers. Janet @sewdalriada felt that “since participating in SO50 and making new friends my Instagram feed is brighter and livelier and I look forward to the imaginative, creative and often humorous posts popping up each day.” Kate @stitchmeayear loves that we “champion ordinary sewers….real people being proud of what they’ve made which is great.” Words like positivity and humour cropped up often, the overwhelming experience though is supportive, knowledgeable and inspirational. Carolyn @diaryofasewingfanatic says she believes “SO50 came at a great time when sewists were voicing their displeasure at not being seen. This account makes it possible for older sewists to be seen and heard from now on.”
Everyone I spoke to felt that because we are all, for the most part at least, of similar ages and shared life experiences, that we ‘got’ each other, we feel included which was a very positive thing. Kellie @gigi_made_it puts it beautifully, “you have managed to infuse a sense that our lives as creatives matter, that there is value in what we do. Our group exists to support, inform, inspire, encourage and lift each other up, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
I was interested to know about everyone’s sewing ‘career’ and many are like me, a lifetime of sewing and dressmaking, often with a break for career and/or children. Carrie @endlessdznsbycarrie told me she was a long-time sewer but “life pulled her away for a few years. When I returned to sewing in 2007 I took quite a few classes and here I am now-loving it even more!” Raquel @raquel_sewing_knitting_in_asia had a different reason to start, “my sister Bea taught me to sew when I was 16 years old and having boyfriend trouble. She knew that teaching me to sew would be a creative outlet I could use in my life then.” Nicky, however, is a relative newbie “my daughters bought me a beginners dressmaking course two years ago and I have not looked back-I absolutely love it! I am a slow sewer and growing in confidence.” Janet had been a avid dressmaker until the demands of work and family life got in the way but she rediscovered her love of sewing “after a gap of many years, following my husband’s life changing accident. As his primary carer sewing has proved therapeutic by providing a creative outlet and temporary escape and has been a great confidence booster.” Lisa @mabelthemannequin has an equally difficult story when, after a lot of years sewing mostly for others she was diagnosed last year with a systemic illness which robbed her of her sight for a few months, “it was during this time that my husband read an article to me from the internet about Me Made May and we decided it was something for me to aim for when my sight returned. I started sewing for myself again and am absolutely loving it! I am using lots of skills that I had forgotten I had and am far more adventurous in both the things I want to make and wear.”
We all look at SO50 for inspiration so I wondered if anyone used it specifically as a resource for other information? Blanca @blakandblanca says she “asks about patterns, techniques and sources often as a way to support suppliers or businesses that are independent and are promoted by the sewing community.” Janet often saves posts by other members, for example where they’ve shared tips on pattern adjustments. Mary @marythimble says members “are a constant source of inspiration to me, after all, they’re real people! They are all so ready with tips, advice and knowledge, I have learnt so much from so many people. I would never have thought I could make my own jeans, coats or undies before.” Marianne lives in the Netherlands which, like the UK, isn’t often troubled with very hot weather but recently she called upon her sewing friends in warmer climates for advice in suggesting stylish hot weather patterns! Raquel and Tina told me that they had been inspired to try new techniques such as embroidery, fabric dyeing, use vintage patterns and work with sheer fabrics after seeing others do the same.
Interacting with one another seemed to be the main reason many of our members contribute to the account, the feeling of being part of a group. For Mary she “no longer feels that sewing is an isolating hobby. It’s no longer weird to prefer to sew on a Friday night than go out partying. I am understood and accepted for being slightly eccentric!” Carolyn follows several other sewing related groups including #sewincolour #pocwhosews #plussizesewing and #curvysewingcollective. By including these along with the #sewover50 hashtag she finds a much more diverse group of people through her posts. [Incidentally, did you realise that you can write all the hashtags you like to use in ‘notes’ on your phone so that you can then simply copy and paste them into your posts rather than try and remember, and laboriously type, them all out every time. It’s saved in favourites on the account if you want more info]
The original reason the account started in the first place was what we perceived as lack of visibility for older sewers so I asked everyone if they felt it as important for us to be ‘campaigning’ still. There was an overwhelming ‘yes!’ Carolyn puts it so eloquently when she told me “while the sewing community has experienced and continues to experience growing pains while attempting to include ALL sewists under the tent, it’s doing better a far better job than the the knitting community. While change has been incremental so far, you can tell everyone has heard the conversations and is trying hard to apply them. And we all know change takes time…nothing happens overnight. The thing is to ensure that the changes aren’t temporary but they’re binding and will be there going forward.”
Lisa also made a good point when she said “I am 50 but I’m not ready for my shroud just yet! I want to wear fashionable clothes and I want to decide if it is appropriate for me. Seeing models my age, shape and size is important whatever age you are. Things are improving but we must continue.”
Marianne takes a different stance because, for her, “age representation is a non-issue. When I first started sewing I never felt like those artist’s impressions on pattern envelopes, or stick thin Parisian ladies with their hats and gloves, were very useful when it came to judging the bones of a pattern. Line drawings most definitely were! They are still my main source of information and I hardly look at the models.” Tina made the point that she often doesn’t buy a pattern “when the girl modelling them is 30 years younger than me, because I cannot relate my body to the way her body is, and because my body bits are not placed in the same places as hers. So I guess if it looks good on her it will look horrible on my body where 50 years of gravity is a fact!” Blanca reckons it is “so important for people of all ages and sizes to see themselves as valued by the businesses they support. There is certainly a change going on in the pattern world.”
Many of us feel we have formed real bonds with people across the world although admittedly not many of us have been able to meet up in real life but @suestoney covered quite a lot of ground in the UK during her visit earlier in the year, meeting up with several fellow SewOver50ers including Janet and Judith. If you ever meet up with others, especially if it’s in some far-from-home location, make sure to tag us so we can share! We really are a global account and we love to reflect that in our posts. Katrin @sagner_by_katrin feels that although she isn’t aware of other sewers near her in Sweden she says that we’re all “a friendly bunch so I don’t hesitate if I want to ask someone something. Mostly I really enjoyed being inspired by everybody and maybe inspire others too.”
I was interested to hear if anyone felt their own style had changed, or was evolving as a result of being part of SO50. All of us agree that we’re very inspired by what others post and it influences what patterns we might choose to buy and make. I love that Carrie says “so many in the #sewover50 community have inspired me to take my ‘I make what I like-I wear what I like’ creations up a few notches! I no longer consider colours or seasons or even fabrics when creating, I just have fun with it!” Also Tina makes the point that by seeing what looks good on 50+ bodies inspires her to try out new patterns and fabrics.
Carolyn knows her own style pretty well but she’s always interested to see the different adaptations of patterns that people create by using colours, prints and patterns that she wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Janet has pushed her style boundaries “for example I’ve made dungarees and shorts, both of which I feel comfortable wearing.” Mary acknowledges “there have been several times I’ve made things based on seeing it on someone else, I always try to acknowledge them as my inspiration when I do.” Although she’s yet to embrace the animal print trend!
Our challenges are something which seem to have divided opinion, some embraced them enthusiastically and others not so much. The initial one sparked a huge amount of interest because it really drew attention to just how few patterns featured an older model, the flatlay challenge was definitely for fun and there were a lot of entries, which may have been because we had so many prizes! There is currently an ongoing challenge to use or reinvent a vintage or vintage-inspired pattern to create a brand new garment. It might require a little more thinking outside the box because the finished garment doesn’t have to be an exact replica of a vintage garment, merely use the pattern as a springboard to creativity. Going forward we want to host more challenges which encourage and inspire everyone, whether they take part or not, so that it makes us really think more about our sewing. We’ve go our thinking caps on but if you have a good idea you’d care to share then do let us know. Blanca made the point that the challenges gave her some guidelines to follow which are what she needs to get properly inspired. “Not so easy for me to sit down and decide what to do with a blank slate. Every challenge was exciting to follow with group members bringing on their fun and beautiful creations. Nothing like checking in on new posts!”
It’s almost impossible to sum up briefly what @sewover50 has become, and what it means to everyone who participates. It means different things to different people but the main things I’ve drawn from everyone’s responses is that above all else it’s inspiring and supportive. For some it has enabled them to come to terms with serious health issues for themselves or loved ones, it has given them a breathing space away from difficulties. Creativity is a form of mindfulness because while you’re sewing for pleasure there’s time to consider what you’re doing, often to the exclusion of everything else. My own feelings are perhaps more complex because I often undertake sewing, mainly alterations, for others and I can’t honestly find much that’s mindful in turning up someone’s trouser hems! However, I then try to ‘reward’ myself with sewing something just for me. I try to ‘give back’ to the sewing community in the form of using my years of experience by helping test patterns for Indie makers. We all agree that though we want to see similar people to ourselves sewing and making, we also want a balance, we want to share and be inspired by our younger sewing friends. In the UK it became something of a dirty word to study ‘textiles’ and the art of clothes making had virtually died out amongst the younger generation. Thankfully, that seems to be in reverse now, partly because of programmes like the Great British Sewing Bee (and its overseas counterparts) because young women in particular, and some young men too, are embracing the creativity and satisfaction we can get from making our own clothes.
At the end of our (Ok, not mine, the technology gremlins showed up with impeccable timing!) recent appearance on That Sewing Blab, the final question Dawn asked to Judith and Sandy was, “if (still waiting…) the big pattern companies come knocking to ask how we would like to be presented in the catalogues and on pattern envelopes, what would we say to them?” Well we would certainly say that putting all the same old pictures from the last year in the front of the catalogue does not constitute any change, it just means that the same photos are not hidden in the catalogue so much. Sandy did some research recently to see if there had been an appreciable change and she worked out that from the hundreds of images she trawled through in the big catalogues that just 1% featured anyone who appeared to be remotely 45+. This is much worse than any other group with the possible exception of people with disabilities. We know change takes time but really?? There’s no excuse in this day and age not to have a good cross-section of ages, sizes, ethnicities, gender/non-binary, everyone. Many of us choose to make our own clothes because we can’t or don’t want to conform to ‘the norm’, there shouldn’t be the same constraints as there are in the RTW fashion industry. #sewover50 is trying to help speed up part of the change.
I am deeply indebted to everyone who so generously sent me their personal stories, and I am extremely grateful that they have allowed me to share them here with you. Without them, and all of you, there would be no point to the account existing. It could have withered on the vine right back at the beginning, or fizzled out after just a few months, but it didn’t, it’s still going strong. This is in no small measure to the time and dedication that Judith and Sandy spend day in, day out, responding and reacting to every post that shares the hashtag. Given that there is no reward for doing so that’s no mean feat, some companies have paid staff to do exactly that and they don’t do it half so well!
If you still haven’t read any of my original posts that kick started all of this then you can read a couple of them here, and here .
I would especially like to thank these wonderful women for their honesty, their kind words and their unending support and enthusiasm, I haven’t been able to use even a fraction of what they shared with me but without them, all of you, Judith, Sandy and I would have nothing to do…other than have more time to sew I suppose…
Maybe you’ve recently found SewOver50, perhaps you’ve just returned to sewing and dressmaking or it’s new hobby for you. Whatever your situation (and you absolutely DON’T have to be over 50 to follow us) you can rest assured that there will lots of people only too willing to offer you help, assistance, friendly supportive comments and inspiration.
I think Mary sums up many (but not all!) of us with her remark, “the not-so-secret-society-of-aging-sewers. I may look half a hundred, but in my head I’m being the rebellious teenage I never was!”
Just a quick update of two exhibits which are in London at the moment in case you’re planning a visit to the capital.
At the Wallace Collection in Manchester Sq just behind Oxford St there are currently many beautiful examples of the shoes made by Manolo Blahnik over the course of his long career. He is a frequent visitor to the museum and over the years has used many of the rooms and their paintings and artefacts for inspiration. It’s easy to see this as you move around the upper rooms in this building which hosted many fashionable parties in its elegant salons. The shoes are displayed within beautiful glass domes and they have been placed in specific rooms and settings by Blahnik himself.
Even if you’re at the Wallace Collection primarily for the shoes don’t neglect the rooms themselves because there’s lots of varied and beautiful art to display including several Rembrandts, Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits, and The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (more of a smirk really…)
So, lots and lots of shoes, some-most-were very impractical, bought by women who don’t have to walk far or travel on public transport…This exhibition is on until September 1st and is free to enter which has to be a very good reason to go.
Also free is the exhibit on the second floor of the Alexander McQueen store in New Bond St, it’s intended for students but as a keen dressmaker I think that counts too.
We had attempted to visit here several weeks ago but it was closed because they were filming so do be aware there’s a possibility it might not be open for some reason. Check the shop opening hours too.
I was practically hyperventilating as we climbed the spiral staircase (with anticipation not lack of exercise!) I have been a long time admirer of Lee Alexander McQueen’s work and that of Sarah Burton since his untimely death in 2010 so to be so close to the garments, samples, inspirations and working processes is an extraordinary opportunity. I visited the Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A in 2015 a ridiculous eight times and I’m not ashamed of it!! Part of what I admire is that McQueen himself was the whole package-he designed incredible garments which pushed boundaries but he could also cut patterns, sew garments by hand or machine, he was a true visionary.
You’re not left to your own devices once in the exhibition space, there is a member of staff to show and explain anything. Maria was there when we visited and she explained that she works in the Atelier most of the time and at others she is at the exhibit to help visitors to understand and appreciate what they are seeing. Whoever is there if you visit make sure you ask questions to get the most from it.
On the rails are examples of vintage garments which were deconstructed to their bare bones, analysing the techniques underneath in order to create new and original garments.
For example the beautiful black embellished jacket and trousers were inspired by several vintage and antique mens frock coats and jackets, the exposed canvas, pad-stitching and quilting were reinterpreted with a modern twist, including beautiful jet-embellished lace applique. [Take a look at my previous post when I refashioned a two piece suit into a McQueen inspired jacket.]
Some of the inspiration for the fabrics came from an antique Jacquard fabric samples book found in a Parisian flea market.
As well as the black suit there is also a completely contrasting dress which has it’s origins in the John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia (in Tate Britain) the pioneering photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian wedding dress and original Victorian corsets which, like the jackets, have been taken apart to analyse their construction.
In addition to the actual dress there is a full-size and several miniature versions made in printed paper which are like beautiful sculptures.
There is also an outfit with a hand-painted leather jacket and asymmetric knitted dress underneath, it turns out that our guide Maria was responsible for painting it (in gouache apparently)
In addition to the new garments there are a few from previous collections including the iconic high-collared corset made in 1997 by Mr Pearl.
If you’re interested in the ‘bones’ of garments and knowing some of the processes which lead to their creation then you’re bound to find this a fascinating exhibit to visit-I felt incredibly privileged to be able to see the garments so close and to have someone like Maria explain firsthand what we were seeing. As I said earlier, the exhibits will change regularly, this one is due to continue for a few more weeks and then a new one will be installed in September, we asked what it might be but Maria was sworn to secrecy!
Overall, two fascinating short term exhibitions which are worth a visit if you get the chance.
At the beginning of the year Charlotte (@englishgirlathome) and Carmen (@carmencitablog) announced there was to be another Paris Sewcial in May. It was a free-to-attend event, you just needed to get yourself there and book your own accommodation. The previous one was four years ago and at the time I was just getting started on IG and barely knew anyone, although I do remember seeing pictures pop up on my feed. This time a group of us were keen to go together and the super-efficient Claire Sews got us all organised with trains and hotels so we were soon good to go!
Six of us met at London St Pancras early on Friday morning and took the Eurostar direct to Gare du Nord, it was a short 15 minute walk to our hotel near Sacre Coeur and Montmartre from there. Although our rooms were definitely compact and bijoux I was delighted to discover mine had a modest view of the Eiffel Tower! [it was better in reality than it appears in my photo incidentally] I was soundly mocked by my companions but I think they were just jealous of my room with a glimpse.
I was keen not to spend my whole time in Paris inside shops no matter how appealing the fabric was, and it was a first visit for Kara, so we took the opportunity along with Salva to get the hop-on hop-off bus which visited all the major sites in the city. Cue a few photos of Parisian landmarks…
In the evening we were joined by two more companions so the eight of us went to supper at a restaurant nearby and had a very jolly evening.
The grand meet-up commenced at approximately 11am the next day so after a delightful breakfast at a little cafe we arrived to find a huge group of our fellow sewers at the foot of the steps in front of Sacre Coeur. It was SO lovely to see so many people there, Charlotte’s patient partner Phil took a group shot of us all together before we eventually and gradually dispersed to the fabric shops which are very close by.
There are lots of fabrics shops grouped close together in the area and many of them specialise in a method of selling which I hadn’t encountered before. The fabric is grouped in fibre type so linen, silks, woollens, viscoses etc plus cottons were sub-divided into fabric type like denim or double-gauze but everything is cut into 3 metre lengths and folded on end. It sounds complex but it isn’t, you have to not be a neat-freak. It’s called ‘coupons’ and I thought it was a very good way of selling because 3 metres is plenty to make many items of clothing like a dress or a coat perhaps, although admittedly too much for some, you could always share with someone else provided you were agreed on the colour! It means you don’t have to find a member of staff to cut your fabric, they don’t need tables to cut on either. It needs to be kept tidy but I found it an enjoyable and novel way to fabric shop. I bought fabric in Les Coupons de St Pierre, Sacres Coupons and Tissus Molines but there are quite a few others close by too. There are still traditional shops too where the fabric is on the roll and staff will cut your chosen quantity, plus some stores selling haberdashery, trims and buttons etc.
Eventually we were pretty much shopped out and in need of sustenance so the groups dispersed to various restaurants for lunch.
In the afternoon many of us carried on to a pop-up shop where DP studio patterns were selling off ex-sample fabrics and dead stock at very low prices, as well as their own patterns. A few carried on still further to Make my Lemonade and a few other shops but some of us were pretty pooped by now so we headed back to the hotel with our swag.
Later in the evening many of us travelled across town to a restaurant where a meal and entertainment had been laid on for us. Unfortunately the Parisian liking for late eating didn’t suit everyone after such a long and tiring day and we were all quite keen to head to our beds in the end.
After brunch on Sunday morning a fairly large group went to visit the Yves St Laurent museum at 5, avenue Marceau. As you know I love a good fashion exhibition and this was no exception, the entrance fee is €10 which I thought was pretty reasonable. It isn’t that large but there are quite a number of gowns and outfits on show, as well the studio in which YSL used to work for around 30 years. It was also an opportunity to actually chat with fellow Sewcialists without it being too noisy or fabric purchasing being our primary occupation.
The first salon was dedicated to the famous Mondrian dress with many of its iterations including Barbie and Marge Simpson, and unwearable suggestions for eye makeup.
In the other salons were various YSL outfits from past collections.
The studio in which St Laurent created for over 30 years was a beautiful bright, light-filled space with many artefacts which made it feel as though he had merely stepped out of the room for a moment.
There is, of course, a modest and tasteful book and gift shop at the exit although I resisted the urge to buy anything else.
After leaving the museum we all headed in various directions, avenue Marceau is very near the river with its wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower. We indulged in crepes from a vendor after which we set off for the Musee D’Orsay with a very pleasant stroll along the Left Bank of the Seine-fortunately the very threatening sky never did come to anything.
There was quite a long queue at the D’Orsay but we Brits are good at that and the time passed while we chatted. Inside was crowded so we went straight to the top floor where the Impressionist artists are housed. Amongst the painting we spotted these sewing/crocheting beauties which seem particularly appropriate, plus two favourites of mine.
We finished the day with supper back in the Montmartre area, plus the most beautiful ice cream I have ever eaten. We worked them off by climbing right up the hill to Sacre Coeur!
What did I buy did you say?? I was super-restrained and chose several plains and a classic stripe, plus an unusual print lining and a remnant with a fish design. I spent less than €100 in total which I’m happy with for the quality of fabrics that I bought.
And then it was time to come home again…Carmen joined us for breakfast on our last morning which gave us a chance to thank her (again) for instigating/organising the whole event.
Even on the Eurostar home we still had lots to talk, and laugh, about and we all agreed that there had to be another Paris Sewcial in the future. Thank you again Charlotte and Carmen for having the idea in the first place-it was brilliant and such a delight to meet so many diverse yet like-minded people.