The Refashioners 2017…suits you!

In 2016 I took part in Portia Lawrie’s Refashioners competition for the first time when I made a jacket from two pairs of Mr Y’s old jeans, you can read about that one here. I was jolly pleased with it and wear it a lot and obviously I didn’t win although I did get a mention in despatches so I was chuffed with that.

For Refashioners 2017 Portia announced it would be SUITS! Eek, I thought, I’m not sure about that…anyway, nothing daunted, I started thinking about what I might be able to do if I tracked down the right suit. I knew I didn’t want anything too dark or work-a-day so I hoped to find something in a check perhaps. Funnily enough it didn’t really occur to me that it could be something like linen or suede, or a woman’s suit so when the inspirational Blog Tour throughout September started and it featured some of alternative fabrics I did think “oh, why didn’t I do that?” Hey ho…

When it came to inspiration however there was only one person whose tailoring I was interested in and that was Alexander McQueen. The retrospective of his work ‘Savage Beauty’ at London’s V&A museum in 2015 was absolutely mind-blowing-I went 8 times! [I bought annual membership to the museum so that I could go as often as I wanted, it’s fair to say I got full value for my money. I’ve kept up that membership ever since and use it regularly] Whilst I’ve no hope of ever acquiring or wearing McQueen (apart from my treasured silk scarf which Mr Y bought for me at the end of the exhibition) I greatly admire his meticulous tailoring, originality, attention to detail and craftsmanship which has been ably continued since his death by Sarah Burton. [I didn’t blog about Savage Beauty at the time but I wrote one about a fascinating parallel exhibition that was at Tate Britain, you can read that here]

Portia had set up a Pinterest page of inspiration too so I had a look there as well as internet searches of my own and the book which accompanied the exhibition and is full of wonderful images. So many clever ideas but there would be serious fabric constraints as I only wanted to use one suit, once I’d tracked it down, which meant some things like dresses with elaborate details would be impossible. If I was going to invest quite a lot of time into this it needed to fit me and I’m not a stick insect so I have to be realistic!

McQ embroidered shoulder
McQ black gold blazer

I collected ideas and images although some of them were unlikely contenders, for reasons of practicality, quantity of fabric and my own skill level. [I went on a tailoring course at Morley college in London last year and picked up loads of useful skills and the confidence to tackle this head-on, have a look at their prospectus because they offer some great courses] I liked the idea of combining different fabrics and techniques, particularly over or near the shoulders.

I scoured all our local charity shops but didn’t find anything I liked, Mr Y and my Dad didn’t have anything in their wardrobes either. Then, when we were visiting Salisbury in Wiltshire at the end of August, we tried a couple of shops when I spied a black and white checked jacket. It seemed to have trousers with it which didn’t match but these were Prince of Wales check! Looking further along the rail we discovered the right jacket for the trousers was on another hanger-yippee, success! a matching suit in the perfect fabric. It was £25 which was a bit more than I had hoped to pay but the money would go to a good cause so it was a win/win situation really. Even better was the fact it was 100% pure wool and it was a Daks suit from Simpsons of Piccadilly which would have been pretty expensive originally-I definitely lucked out with this one. At £25 though it did mean I would only use one suit rather than buy possibly 2 to mix together. No matter.

So now that I had the suit I needed to come up with a design. I also set myself the rule that I wouldn’t buy anything else so everything had to come from supplies I already had in my workroom. I tried to be a bit ambitious-and different from last year-and initially came up with a few dress designs where I thought I might be able to utilise the trouser legs to make panels and a feature-zip detail.

Before I went too much further though I needed to disassemble the suit to see exactly how much fabric I had. I got out the snips and unpicker and set to (not without trepidation because it was a lovely suit)

The beauty of pure wool is that it presses like a dream and so almost every original crease in the suit disappeared once I’d broken it down into all the parts. Needless to say there was less fabric than I’d hoped for my big plans so I had to modify them a lot. Out went the dress and in came [another] jacket. I’d been looking through my not inconsiderable pattern stash for inspiration and I’d found a dress pattern from 1973 which was amongst a huge number gifted to me last year by a friend. They had belonged to her Mum who was a fabulous dressmaker at Cresta Silks in her youth. Even though it was a dress I was attracted to its striking style lines with a long bust dart that ran parallel to a diagonal under-bust seam, and because it had a centre front seam I thought it was easily adaptable to a jacket. One of the features of McQueen’s work is his unusual seaming and style-lines so I decided to make a toile and see how it went.

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The original collar opened at the back for the zip so I made a new pattern so that it opened at the front instead. I also had to change the front and back ‘skirts’ by dividing them evenly in half because the pieces would be too large for the fabric quantity I had. I also wanted to be able to cut various pieces on the bias to make it more interesting so they had to be smaller to achieve this.fullsizeoutput_1ecd

By using an open-ended zip I minimised the amount of fabric needed for the front opening, there was no need for an overlap and there’d be barely enough anyway. I also knew that if I could use the original sleeves I would be be able to use all other available fabric for my design.

Amazingly I was happy with the toile and decided to press ahead with the design as it was. I could get the new front panels out of the original, and even managed to include the breast pocket and all the under-linings. However I couldn’t work out a way of satisfactorily utilising the pockets and flaps so they got left out. In the end I couldn’t use the back as per the toile, which had darts and the pattern piece was too large to fit as it was, so I turned the darts into princess seams instead and then those pieces came out of the original back after all. There was a tiny hole in the back but I repaired it with iron-on interfacing and no one would be any the wiser. I’d wanted all the peplum pieces to be on the bias but in order for them to be a reasonable match some had to be on the straight instead.

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I’d removed the buttons and facing so that it was as flat as possible. it did mean that the original darts would now be part of the new front though.
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Instead of using the paper pattern I laid the first cut piece on top of the opposite side so I that I had perfect placement on the checks. Luckily the buttonhole [which I could do nothing about] got absorbed into the seam allowance and didn’t show in the end.

 I won’t pretend that every seam has perfectly matching checks but given the fabric constraints I’m really pleased with the outcome. I carefully made the jacket up, a very enjoyable process, and because it was being fully lined I didn’t need to neaten any of the seams inside, they could just be pressed open. I remembered my tutor Daniel at Morley saying “steam is your friend” and wasn’t afraid to use it often, in conjunction with my tailor’s ham and a pressing cloth.

The trickiest part of the construction was making the original sleeves a little shorter for my arms and to fit into the new armholes. I roughly measured the sleeve head and compared it to the armhole. There was a fair difference so I needed to reduce the sleeve width by sewing up some of the under-arm seams to about elbow level (they are two-part sleeves) I tacked one sleeve in and tried it out. It looked pretty satisfactory without any further adjustment so I did the same to the other one as well. I tried to ensure that the checks matched as best I could too. Again I tried the jacket on to make sure I could move my arms and that I was happy with their length. After I’d machined them both in I reused the pieces of canvas and domette which I’d taken out of the original sleeve heads. These are part of tailoring construction which help give a good rounded shape to the sleeve head and are basted in place by hand onto the jacket seam allowance itself. I also planned to reuse the original shoulder pads later on.

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sewing the original canvas and domette back into the sleeve head.

Once the sleeves were in I could think more about the decoration I wanted to add. One of the recurring features I like about McQueen’s tailoring is his use of lace appliqué and embroidery. Amongst my stash of fabrics I have some beautiful black Guipure lace which was left over originally from the bridal shop where I used to work creating and making the most beautiful wedding and evening gowns. I’d used some of it on my elder daughter’s Prom dress 10 years ago but there’s still some left over so I had a little play. I put the jacket on Doris and draped pieces of lace over the shoulders to see what looked best. Part of the beauty of Guipure is that you can trim it into shape without it fraying or falling to bits so once I’d positioned it where I wanted I could trim it to neaten the shape. I love the swirls!

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I wanted the front to have a small glimpse to the lace…
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…but the surprise is at the back….
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…with the lace extending up the collar, over the sleeve head and down the back.

Looking at these photos you can see the other decorative technique I decided to use, embroidery.

I’d seen a very recent McQueen design which had red lacing on and I wanted to incorporate something similar probably in the form of hand embroidery instead, particularly because the fabric has a fine red stripe running through it.

McQ embroidered

I had a few practices first at simple running stitch, sashiko-style, and I tried a sort-of feather stitch but it looked pretty rubbish and uneven as I couldn’t get it right or consistent so I tried a couple of stitches of the many that my  25-year-old Elna 7000 machine offers.

I liked the feather stitch but decided it would be over-doing it so in the end I settled on the saddle stitch which would normally be used to top stitch but I was going to run it along some of the red stripes in the fabric for emphasis. [If you’re not sure which stitch this is on your machine it’s the one where the picture looks like 3 rows of stitches side by side. It’s actually 3 stitches on top of one another when it sews thus making an effective top stitch]

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stripes from the inside, including the repair to the hole I mentioned.

I decided to follow a few of the red stripes on the front and back, the front ones all run vertically and the back ones are just on one side in a cross formation. I considered putting them elsewhere too but decided there was enough.

Once I’d finished all the decoration I put the shoulder pads and the ‘plastron’ back in (this is a piece of heavy canvas which is part of the underlinings of tailored jackets and which helps give it a smooth line over the chest) The plastron needed to be trimmed slightly to fit inside since it had come from a man’s jacket. Finally I’d managed to salvage just enough fabric in one long strip to make a very narrow facing inside the zip. I turned up the hem first basting it in position and then herringbone stitching it by hand.

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basted and herringbone-stitched hem

I’d found some black lining fabric in my stash so cut out the jacket lining (excluding sleeves because they had their own original lining in) and sewed it together. Red lining would have been nice but I didn’t have anything suitable and I’d have broken my own rules to buy some. Because the facing strip was so narrow I wanted to smarten up it up a bit so I dug out some black braid which I stitched down the edge of it-it looks much better now if the jacket is open.

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Inside the jacket facing

Next I hand stitched all the linings in position at the hem and around the armholes so that everything was enclosed. The final thing I decided to do was change a couple of the cuff buttons so I swapped one on each wrist to red ones.

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idiosyncratic buttons!

And that’s all there is to it…..

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I’m afraid I’ll never make much of a model and the backdrop was a choice of either a brick wall or a flower bed! The photos aren’t by Testino (Katie actually) but I hope you’ll get an idea of how the jacket looks, it’s a distinctive but wearable one-off.

I’m so chuffed with my finished jacket and, better than that, I really enjoyed the planning and making very much. I felt I got back in touch with lots of the skills I’ve acquired over many years of sewing, some of which helped me to plan it carefully within the constraints set both by Portia and the ones I set myself, and others meant I could stretch my making skills further than they tend to get stretched these days which is no bad thing.

Initially I wasn’t sure if this would be a refashioning challenge I could rise to but I’ve surprised myself with the outcome. I’ve now got a jacket which I’ll be really happy to wear and I shall enjoy telling anyone who cares to listen exactly how it came about. I don’t know the story of the suit before I bought it but I feel like I’ve given it a new narrative now by reinventing it in a new form….and that might even be something McQueen himself would have applauded.

As ever many pictures are my own but the rest are sourced from the internet.

Have you made a suit refashion this year? I’d love to hear about it, or tell me your thoughts about mine…(risky hehe)

Happy Sewing

Sue

Roses-the latest Alexander McQueen exhibit in London

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.

I adored seeing this dress fairly close up in Savage Beauty but I really wanted to see what happened at the back (I always do when I go to exhibitions!)
Fortunately now I can see exactly what’s happening, it’s beautiful voluptuous folds of rich duchesse satin.

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.

You can see all the teeny tiny pleats which are so precisely worked in order to flow over the torso.
There is a short video to watch nearby which shows in fascinating detail how these shapes were arrived at, they are carefully built up onto supporting boned bodices and underskirts to carry the weight. The red ‘Elizabethan’ collar dress took approximately 3 weeks to construct.
The skill of manipulating the fabric into cohesive, recognisable forms is breathtaking.
On the walls nearby are photos of the gowns at various stages of construction and trying out lots of ideas, also accessorising them in different ways too.

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 appears at first sight to be feathers is in fact finely pleated and shredded silk organza.

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.

We didn’t notice the honeycomb design within the fabric initially, and it’s only as I’ve looked again at this photo that I realised there are bees woven into it too!
Can you see the bees in the weave? And some of the hexagons are in a different weave too! So much attention to detail.
Nearby are the test samples for various forms of the embroidery.
…and by complete chance I’m wearing my bee dress!
the two dresses side by side put me in mind of Swan Lake and Odette/Odile, what do you think?
This is the Queen Bee dress which had extraordinary embroidery, it’s all enclosed within a hooped ‘hive’

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.

I couldn’t resist another selfie with those beautiful dresses (do you like my McQueen-esque boots?)
This is from our visit to the previous show earlier in the summer
McQueeeeeen! I always have great visits with Claire, Kara and Camilla

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!!

Until next time,

Sue

Manolo and McQueen

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…)

don’t forget to look up at the spectacular chandeliers
This painting shows Maria Camargo, the woman generally regarded as the first ‘ballerina’ because she danced so daintily on her toes.
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The Swing by Fragonard. Vivienne Westwood has said that this was a influential painting for her when she was creating her more structured and sumptuous gowns.
We listened to a very enlightening talk about this deceptively simple painting called The Lacemaker. It’s small but beautifully observed.

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.

Inspiration boards including Victorian photographs and fabric samples
A few of the many photographs taken on the house models in the looks at various stages of development.
We were told that some of the jet beads used were salvaged from antique jewellery and repurposed, that’s high-end upcycling!

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.

one of the mood boards accompanying the dress
an original Victorian wedding dress
You can see how the boning sits in pockets semi-exposed just as it did in the Victorian original

In addition to the actual dress there is a full-size and several miniature versions made in printed paper which are like beautiful sculptures.

Fabric to dream of….

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)

Hand-painted leather jacket
happy face…

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.

Until next time,

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