Sewing puffballs in the 80s!

If you’ve ever read the ‘a bit about me’ page here on the blog you’ll see that in the mid 1980s I worked for a bridal and evening wear company in London called David Fielden. I left the London College of Fashion in the summer of 1985 and started working there on my 23rd birthday. Originally I’d wanted to be a costume designer but during my college course I realised that going into bridal or evening wear was a very good alternative. In those days you just sent letters and CVs out to companies you were interested in working for in the hope that they might like the sound of you and be desperate to add you to their payroll! As it happened my letter was passed to Caroline who was the production manager for David in the evening wear workroom and she had done the same course as me a year earlier so she had a fair idea of what I was potentially capable of.

‘trying on’ one of the dresses back in the day…that was fabulous gold-printed panne velvet but it shed everywhere and bits of gold fibre stuck to you! I’ve written on the back that it’s style 668D (the D denoted a dress) in April 1986

They took me on and I was going to be cutting samples rather than sewing which initially I was disappointed about. I soon learned that cutting was a huge responsibility in its own right. I was used to making my own clothes with inexpensive fabrics which I bought in my local market or fabric shops, now I was working with fabulous silk taffeta, dupion, Duchesse and slipper satins, velvet, beaded and embellished brocades, even the lining was always silk habutai, it was all a bit dazzling and quite scary to start with! I was provided with a massive pair of shears which soon gave me a callous on my finger joint, I still have a mark there to this day. We had two huge waist-high cutting tables with all the fabrics stored underneath. The pattern cutter would pass me the initial pattern to cut as a toile so that she and the designer could assess the shape and fit on the stand. When they were happy I would be given the pattern along with all the fabrics and instructions for the new sample. It was part of my job to get everything out of the fabric as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible so I always spent time working this out like pattern Tetris before going near it with the scissors! I kept sketches of the layplan for future reference too. No piece was ever cut on a fold, we always used a whole front or a whole back, sleeves, bodice pieces or skirt panels could be ‘flipped’ though to fit them in. The pattern cutter would make the pieces in card from the paper version and I would draw around them in chalk or marking pencil, the pattern pieces would be held down on the fabric with long heavy weights, this means the pattern lasts much much longer than a paper one would. The card patterns would be grouped in style number order onto large hooks a bit like safety pins, each size was on a different hook. Some styles got informal names which is what we identified them by in the workroom, for example there was the ‘Doris Day’ which was a pretty 50s-style gown with silk satin boned bodice and clouds of diamante-studded ankle length tulle skirts, it came in soft pastel colours, and the ‘Carmen Miranda’ which was a longer length figure-hugging silk bodice overlaid with sequin-embellished lace and extravagantly ruffled silk organza mermaid skirts. This was one of the best selling designs and came in a variety of colours including black and scarlet, or could be ordered in other colours and fabric combinations by special order. Just one outworker made this style because she became so skilled at it, every ruffle was edged using a rolled-hem foot and it was then sandwiched between diagonal skirt panels. Oh and there were net petticoats under all of that too! It was very popular for magazine shoots because of it’s ‘film star’ quality and we were regularly squashing dresses unceremoniously into boxes or into dress bags to be couriered on the back of motor bikes to Fleet Street! Some of those poor dresses really suffered and looked quite tired in the end.

Actress Stephanie Beacham wearing a gown similar to the Carmen Miranda in a women’s magazine
another version of the dress in an ad for a car (?)
Anita Dobson was a huge star in Eastenders on TV at this time
Actress Koo Stark, I remember this being an Ottoman jacket (a type of fabric with heavy ribbing) and separate spotted tulle skirt. The edge of the ruffles were finished with the plastic ‘wire’ stripped out of Rigilene boning and zigzagged onto the edge to make them stand out like this!
This is Kathy, who is Sir Ian Botham’s wife, modelling one of the most popular designs. It’s a pity you can’t see the back as it’s cut away to reveal the small of your back and shoulder blades. There’s a scrap of the fabrics pinned to the picture, it was silk chiffon covered in paillettes over a layer of silk satin and lining, all the edges were finished with bias binding so that the sequins didn’t cut the wearer to ribbons! The skirt is silk organza with a net underskirt.
the same dress worn by Bridget Nielsen, Sylvester Stallone’s then-wife
Same dress again, I think this was editorial in a magazine

Whilst the showroom was in the King’s Road, Chelsea at that time the evening wear workroom was set up across town in Farringdon around the corner from now-trendy Exmouth Market, it was definitely not glamorous and the Woolworth’s pick-n-mix counter was the only interesting eatery back then!!

As well as Caroline, who is still a friend all these years later, there was a designer (David didn’t design, he had no drawing or making skills, he employed others to do it for him) a highly-skilled pattern cutter, a sample machinist and a sample cutter (me) When I wasn’t cutting and costing samples and special orders, Caroline and I would cut production too which was all sewn by out-workers who came in regularly to drop off the garments they had made and to collect the next batch, they were paid an agreed piece rate per garment. Each one was a highly skilled, and fast, machinist who would make the whole garment from start to finish. They all had different capabilities so some would stick to simpler garments like skirts or bodices whilst others made the fantastic evening gowns and ball dresses which David Fielden had become known for. Some of them worked in their own homes and didn’t make a massive quantity of garments, and a couple had set up their own workrooms where they then employed a few extra machinists so they could make larger quantities, we are still only talking about several dozen garments per week though, not hundreds or thousands.

Twice a year the designer, Charlotte, would go with David and his business partner Walter to various fabric shows such as Premier Vision to select beautiful fabrics for the next collection. A lot of the fabrics such as silk taffeta, dupion or Duchesse satins would come from local London suppliers in very quick time, often the same day if the colour was in stock, but the premium fabrics from France or Italy would be ordered in sample lengths ranging from as little as 3 metres up to 10 or 20 metres in the new seasons colours. If those styles then went into production then larger orders would be placed at a later date.

Each new collection was often an evolution of the previous one with a few of the most popular styles being developed in new colours and fabrics, plus some completely new styles. It was always exciting to have the new fabrics starting to arrive from overseas, there were some exquisitely beautiful embellished laces and tulles, occasionally further down the line one or two would prove problematic because the supplier couldn’t produce them quickly enough, or in the quantities required. Each ‘piece’ of lace often came in a 5m length which didn’t go very far. My least favourite fabrics to cut were slipper satin or chiffon, they moved about like the very devil and often it was best to sandwich them between two sheets of spot and cross paper.

Short dress with a velvet bodice and ‘rolls’ of velvet on the shoulders, hip and hem (I wish I could remember what went inside the rolls, it could have been wadding)
It may not look it but this was the most expensive fabric I ever worked on costing around £125 per metre back then! It was a base fabric of lace which was embellished with sequins. THEN it was covered in another more open lace fabric and over-sprayed with gold so that it left a stencil-type design. It came in just 3m pieces if I remember rightly.

I would cut everything for each garment as required and then make a ‘bundle’ including all trims (covered buttons, zip, piping cord etc) and labels. All the cut pieces were folded neatly and layered up and then the whole bundle was carefully folded in several layers of tissue paper and tied up along with identifying sticky labels for the outworker to use when they returned it to us in plastic cover.

Once the new collection was underway Caroline would sew samples as well to speed the process up. Models would come in periodically for fittings and to assess a design on the body. As well as cutting the new samples I also cut one-offs and special orders which could be interesting. For example, we made the gown that Sarah Brightman wore to the party after the world premier of Phantom of the Opera [we memorably made another dress for her to wear for a Gala at the Royal Albert Hall, she had a fitting at the showroom and declared it should be taken in which we duly did at the workroom. It was delivered back to her but with only hours to spare she realised she now couldn’t inflate her lungs to actually sing in it!! Back to the workroom it came to be let out again!] I cut gowns for Daryl Hannah (star of Splash with Tom Hanks) allegedly for the Oscars but I never saw her in it, and I cut a dress for Aretha Franklin too but I never saw that one photographed either. Sadly we never got to meet any of the celebrity clientele, we would just get a set of measurements and fittings would usually take place at the shop. Some stars would borrow gowns for swish parties and premiers so nothing much changes does it? Vogue magazine especially commissioned a version of one dress for a shoot, it was a black taffeta column gown with a wide pale pink sash as I recall. When it returned to the workroom afterwards the hem was water-marked and full of sand! It had been photographed on a beach!!

Dame Joan Collins with her then-partner Bill Wiggins. The dress was a beautiful rose pink colour, I think it was the teensiest bit snug on her.
Dame Shirley Bassey, that ruched bodice and skirt took so much fabric!
a black and white studio shot of the same style that Joan Collins was wearing, this sample was made in beautiful French printed silk taffeta, there was a large puffed bow on the back.
and another version in shot silk taffeta
I remember cutting this little dress, it was made especially for the photo
I think style was being made when I first went to work at David Fielden.

There were times of stress and all-hands-on-deck but lots of laughs too. I have very positive memories of my 3 years at David Fielden, we were a good team and I learnt so much from my colleagues, they were all brilliant at their jobs with so much experience under their belts already. The company was growing fast during those three years and David took on catwalk shows at London Fashion Week (that was very stressful for everyone because of the workload and short lead times involved!) David and Walter travelled to many overseas shows to exhibit which garnered orders from prestige stores in the US such as Neimann Marcus and Bloomingdales among others, stores in Europe, and Harrods in London. [we could have cried though to see these beautiful dresses being crammed into boxes for despatch]

In the end I left after three years because I got fed up with commuting into London every day, I went to work in the dress fabrics department of our local John Lewis branch so that was more textiles and cloth knowledge to store away in my brain to come in handy another day. I’m sorry the quality of the pictures isn’t great, the cuttings were all torn from magazines and newspapers at the time so they are a little tatty in places.

David Fielden is still in business I believe although the premises have moved to Fulham now, I think they specialise entirely in bridal wear but I’m not sure. The website isn’t particularly up to date but you get an flavour.

This turned into quite a long post (I hope you had a coffee in hand?!) but there’s a few pictures to look at too!! I’ve really enjoyed thinking back to my early working days to tell you all about them and I guess I was very fortunate to work with such a variety of very beautiful fabrics, maybe now you can see why I’m always SO particular about cutting out at the start of any project! So until next time,

Sue

Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The garment underneath is a modern reproduction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, keep washing those hands!

Sue

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

50 fabulous years of Zandra Rhodes at FTM

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.

a close up of the hand-embellishments used to trim hems
you’re greeted by a cavalcade of colourful gowns as you enter the main exhibition space, each outfit has its year of creation in front.
Early outfits already feature Zandra’s signature squiggles.

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.

Vibrant pinks and oranges are recurring colours although more subtle shades and blacks and blues do make regular appearances too
more recent dresses from the 2000s
‘sparkling sequin’ collection from 2008
this dress ‘Renaissance/Gold’ dress from 1981 was modelled by Diana Ross in a photo by Richard Avedon.

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!

Zandra seems entertained by my hair-dye story!
and of course she signed in bright pink marker pen
I can’t match the vibrancy of her shade of pink though
Elizabeth and I really enjoyed our encounter with Zandra and I so admire that even in her late seventies she still fully embraces and inhabits her own look.

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!

Until next time,

Sue

I do love a sparkly dance frock…

It’s funny how sometimes, when life dishes up lemons, it can take quite a while to get that lemonade made.

What on earth am I talking about…? well, when I left my job in a secondary school five years ago in a manner not of my choosing I had no idea what could happen next. If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while now you’ll know that I’ve carved out a life that involves sewing for my own pleasure, sewing for others, visiting interesting galleries, museums and exhibitions and, best of all, forming new friendships through those sewing activities. This post is really a result of the last one…

Two years ago Mr Y and I went on a cruise to the Baltic at a time no longer during school holidays, which turned out to be a Strictly Come Dancing-themed cruise. It was during this that I met Theresa Hewlett and without whom no costumes for the TV show would get made. She is the pattern cutter and alterations manager for the show, and designer Vicky Gill’s right hand woman. I didn’t know any of this when we first met on the ship, many of the costumes from the most recent series were on display around the ship and T was there giving us all very insightful guided tours of the dresses with tales of how each garment was constructed. As you can imagine I absolutely lapped it up [you can read my two blog posts from that trip here and here] and I was even more pleased to discover we’d both attended London College of Fashion within a year of each other.

That was that until several months later when I decided to give Twitter a try and somehow came across Theresa, on there, During the duration of the show she regularly tweets updates on progress of the costumes and little behind-the-scenes nuggets (she certainly never gives away big secrets though!)

Joanne Clifton’s show dance dress from the SCD Final 2016

DSI-London are based in Croydon, south of London so I travelled there by train and tram and found them based in a very unassuming building in a quiet residential road. I’d be lying if I told you that inside all was super-glamorous sparkles, feathers and sequins because that wouldn’t be true. Up the stairs you enter the showroom where customers can shop from the RTW items of essential ballroom and Latin dance-wear such as practice clothes, shoes of all styles, spray tan and eyelashes. It is also in this area that fittings on bespoke outfits take place. Later on in my visit I was privileged to sit in on fittings for two custom-made dresses for a young dancer who had flown over especially from Ireland and was flying back again that evening. It was fascinating to watch T tweak and measure and pin (always safety pins, regular pins would fall out straight away-I’m going to remember that one when I’m pinning wedding dress skirts in future!) T’s colleague Nina sits in as well to make notes of the customers requirements and record measurements, photos are often taken too, especially as the client is unlikely to be able to come for many fittings.

just a few of the made-to-measure couture dresses
a selection of styles available
all the fringing…
a man’s ballroom outfit
a ‘body’ so that the shirt doesn’t come untucked
all the colours in all the fabrics (actually this isn’t anywhere near all the fabrics but it’s a start!)
custom-beaded ballroom shoes
choose your stones here
perfect for a wedding too?

T gave me a tour through all the different departments within the company, they don’t only produce the Strictly costumes but also Dancing On Ice, as well as costumes for cruise ships and many other shows around the world. The ready to wear garments for these orders are cut and made in a separate workroom on the same floor. The cutting room for men’s wear is downstairs, as are the bulk of the fabric, haberdashery and trim supplies, and the laundry room.

The designs are created by Vicky Gill (who sadly I didn’t get to meet during my visit) and then T makes the made-to-measure patterns which are in turn are passed to a highly-skilled cutter who cuts all the fabrics and they go on to the machinists who sew the garments together, each person generally makes the whole garment and any alterations go back to that machinist too.

Once the dress is put together a fitting like the one I witnessed takes place to check fit and skirt length. The dress goes back to the machinist for any changes to be carried out and then it goes on to the stoning department for embellishment, which might include feather trim too.

Ash, the king of stoning, was on holiday when I visited so I didn’t meet him either.
there were lots of mannequins with beading in progress-bodies all over the place!
Boas might be trimmed and the feathers glued into very small bunches by hand, ready to be stitched onto bodices and skirts, or the boa is left whole if it’s going on hems, or sleeves and necklines for example.
a design in progress, before its embellishments are added
the colours of stoning on this bodice were simply beautiful

Scattered all around the studio are mannequins in various states of undress and with different quantities of padding. The machinists use these all the time to be able to assess the dress as they progress, for the placement fringing or embellishment for example. [Incidentally, every dress is built on a leotard base so whenever there’s a ‘no knickers under her dress!’ scandal after the TV show it’s nonsense]

This client wants a longer skirt than usual, although this will be shortened a bit at the fitting. The fabric is gorgeous with huge ‘pailettes’

DSI often has dresses come back to them for alterations, fashions change, children grow, bodies alter. New skirts can be added, sleeves removed or added, stoning added to. It’s worth mentioning that the dresses (apart from ones with feathers on) can go in the washing machine, a fact I found amazing! In another part of the building there is a laundry with dresses drip-drying on a rail. Everything is sewn together on industrial zigzag machines along with rolled hem machines and overlockers. Theresa told me it’s very challenging at times to keep the machines working happily because they have to sew through so many layers of difficult fabrics at once, frequently including feathers and crin, and sometimes stoning if an alteration has to be carried out after completion. (they use heavy duty domestic machines to carry out repairs or alterations at the TV studios whilst the program is going out)

Many of the dresses from the TV show are hired by other productions of SCD around the world, they are all for sale on the company website so you could buy yourself a little piece of Strictly. DSI-London sell a wide range of specialist fabrics and trims too so if you ever need/want to have a go at making costumes or dancewear then have a look at their website.

T at work! would you look at all those zips too!

I so enjoyed my visit to DSI-London and thank you so much to Theresa and all the staff who were so friendly and made me very welcome. I absolutely loved being back in a workroom environment again, it’s been a very long time since I was part of a creative team like this and it made me realise how much I miss it-everyone has a part to play in the making of these garments whether it’s wedding dresses in my case, or dance dresses. Obviously it isn’t glamorous in the slightest, it’s hard work in a hot room, and the pressure is immense when there’s a live TV programme at the end of every week for three months…and then Dancing on Ice after that.

It’s possible to for you to visit DSI-London too as they offer tours around the premises at different times of the year, have a look at their website to see when they are next taking place. I know they have proved popular though so there may be a bit of a wait.

It won’t too long now until the new series of Strictly starts again and the relatively peaceful atmosphere of the workrooms will be replaced with frenetic activity, I’ll be thinking of the people I met during my visit as they produce dozens of beautiful garments every week to dazzle us on our TVs on Saturday evenings during the autumn. And if you want regular updates on costume progress during the week, follow Theresa on Twitter.

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.
Madame de Pompadour
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

Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A

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

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

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

Bar suit February 1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Sue

Simple Sew Kaftan top & dress

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Summer is (allegedly) on it’s way at last and so my sewing thoughts turn to summery frocks. On that optimistic basis I decided on the Kaftan top and dress as my next Simple Sew blogger review and this time we have Doughty’s Online as one of our generous fabric sponsors too. I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with them but when I checked out their website I was very impressed with their wide selection of fabrics available. I chose this beautiful digitally-printed cotton lawn by Lady McElroy fabrics in a design called ‘Scottish Emblem’ and it’s lovely quality, similar to Liberty Tana lawn I’d say.

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Before I cut into the lawn I decided to make the top version in some georgette that was languishing in my stash. I’d bought it ages ago in the Birmingham Rag Market without a project in mind, I wrote post about that visit which you can read here.

I’ve made my last few Simple Sew makes in size 14 based on my measurements and this one was no different. Georgette is quite wiggly so my advice is to take your time laying it up, tear the cut ends to get a really straight edge and use the edges of the table to give you a visual ‘marker’ to lay the fabric up as straight as possible. You can even layer it between spot-and-cross paper but that’s longwinded and uses up your paper. Georgette is also sheer and frays quite badly so I used French seams throughout. The pattern calls for bias binding on the neckline and sleeves but that would be too heavy on georgette so I simply pin-hemmed them instead.

This revealed a bit of an issue with the depth of the V!

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Crumbs! I’ll need a vest under this!

It all went a bit pair-shaped at this point because I got in a right two-and-eight with the buttonholes and the casing for the waist. I wasn’t happy with the position I sewed the buttonholes (according to the pattern) although in the end after a lot of messing about I left them where they were and made the casing wider around them but narrower for the rest. I found the instructions a bit confusing so I urge you to take each stage carefully and take into consideration how wide your ribbon/cord/elastic is when making the buttonhole openings and make the channel only as wide or narrow as you need it to be, not necessarily the width marked on the pattern.

Once I was happy with this first version I went ahead and cut out the full-length one in my lovely cotton lawn. It has a large repeat which is a one way design although not with an obvious up or down-in other words, everything must be cut going the same way but it didn’t matter which way that is. Just before I cut it I noticed when I placed the CB bodice on the fold that the neck edge isn’t quite ’true’ which would result in a slight point in the centre of the neck. It isn’t difficult to correct this.

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If you don’t have a Patternmaster use something with a right-angle corner like this envelope to straighten up the line.

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the new line is where you need to cut.

One other change I made before I cut was to raise up the V so it wouldn’t be as revealing as the georgette one!

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Stick an extra piece of paper behind matching the CF line with a new line on the paper behind. Stick it down with tape.

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Decide how much you want to raise the V and draw in a new line so that it blends smoothly with the original.

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There’s a seam in the centre front so mark the seam allowance with a notch

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The back goes on the fold and the front can go against the selvedge, the same way up in this case.

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Because the fabric is a one-way design I needed to cut each skirt piece one above the other instead of interlocking them. Instead of simply folding the fabric in half and wasting two strips down each edge I folded it like this and then there’s useable piece left for something else!

It was just a case of putting everything together like before, the difference this time is that I added self-fabric bias binding to the neck, I also stay-stitched the neck edges to prevent them stretching before I sewed the bias on. First join the shoulder seams then…

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I cut a strip of bias binding which I folded and pressed in half lengthways first. For this method place the it with cut edges matching on the WRONG SIDE of the fabric, sew on with a 5mm seam allowance.

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Trim the seam down to 2-3mm

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Press the seam towards the bias, the second row of stitching you can see is the stay-stitching.

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Turn the bias to the RIGHT SIDE and stitch carefully and neatly close to the edge like this. Now you can join the CF seam together. I learned that this technique is called French binding which I never knew before-every day is a day in school!

Before I joined the under arm seams I added some lovely pom-poms which I’d bought in Liberty especially.IMG_5381

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I sewed it on using a zigzag stitch because it’s difficult to get close as the pom-poms get in the way. You could probably use a straight stitch and a zip foot here too.

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I cut the pom-poms carefully so that there wouldn’t be one caught in the seam.

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The reverse of the pom-poms

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I added a fancy leaf design stitch on my Pfaff to edge it with.

I tried the bodice on and decided that the neck needed the pom-pom trim too, I wasn’t originally going to put it here but the neckline looked a bit plain against my pasty white skin!

 

I pinned it on in two different ways and eventually settled on just around the V

Because I’d bought a very narrow cord to put around the waist I made very small horizontal round-ended buttonholes instead of the larger vertical ones indicated on the pattern. Attach the skirt and make the casing for the cord according to the instructions and you’re almost there.

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I pulled the cord through using a useful old-fashioned tool called a bodkin. Clamp the cord (or elastic) between the ‘teeth’ at the end and slide the small metal loop up towards the teeth until it’s tight and the cord can’t come loose. Then you just push the cord through the channel.

I opted to leave a knee-high split in one of the side seams. The sun came out so Doris posed outside!

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The jazzy orange cord came from McCullough & Wallis in London.

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I eventually finished the georgette version too, I used a shoelace from an old pair of my husband’s shoes in the casing because it was a perfect colour-match! I cut off the ends and embellished them with a few colourful buttons.

 

 

 

I hemmed this one by using the rolled hem setting on my overlocker. It definitely needs a vest under it though!IMG_5569

The kaftan will be a lovely cover-up on holiday in the summer and as I chose the cotton lawn it will be decent enough to go out in public and not just by the pool on hot days too! It would work well in a drapey viscose or look glamorous in a slinky crepe de chine, or a lightweight jersey like interlock. The short version would look nice in a Broderie Anglaise or Swiss Dot too. Instead of the pom-poms you could embellish it using Indian or Chinese-type braid, ribbon or even beading, you could put elastic through the casing too instead of cord or ribbon.

Thank you especially to our new fabric partners Doughty’s Online for supplying my choice of cotton lawn, it’s been lovely to work with and I’m looking forward to being able to wear it…soon, I hope!

Happy Sewing,

Sue