a SewOver50 discussion about fabric choices.

At the beginning of May @sewover50 posed us this question, “How do you assess your fabric purchases? Is cheap fabric inferior, or can you sometimes find a genuine bargain? Does expensive always mean quality…and what does that mean? How do you weigh up long lasting plastic-based fabrics against ‘natural’ fibres that may gradually wear out but where ageing can add to the appeal of the fabric?” The discussion was prompted by follower @kissntuss asking if anyone else had encountered the problem of buying and prewashing fabric, spending time carefully sewing it up only for it to turn into scruffy rag after its first proper laundering?

So, lots to think about there and I waded straight in with this comment, “Ooh this is a mine field! I’ve always said that over time and with experience you learn to judge between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ because, in very general terms, I’ve often found cheap to be of inferior quality whereas ‘inexpensive’ would be a better or good quality fabric at a very reasonable price. Since the boom in home dressmaking over the last few years I think there are now a lot more fabrics which are quite pricey but you’re paying for the design, or the brand, not necessarily the superior quality of the fabric which they are made with. Price is not always a guarantee of quality unfortunately. Personally I would still much rather feel a fabric in my hand to better judge the quality BUT there are some very good fabric websites who sell excellent quality cloth so order a swatch if you aren’t sure. We’ve learned the hard way with our fabric-buying mistakes and I still get it wrong from time to time even after all these years.” These are strictly my own thoughts you understand which I’ve formed over many years of sewing and clothes-making, and learnt through good and bad cloth-buying experiences. I use the terms ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive’ loosely when I’m trying to help others with their fabric choices, there are no hard and fast rules.

Well, it seems many of you broadly agreed with me, at least in part, and had plenty of other brilliant insights to add. I’ll attempt to bring the threads (see what I did there?) of a long discussion together here. You could always go back to the original post too and wade through it if you really want to…

So, is cheap fabric always bad fabric? Of course not necessarily I would say. I’m sure many of us have encountered things like thin polyester/cotton with uneven printing and which is suspiciously stiff even though, as my Grandmother would say, “you could shoot peas through it!” It’s usually got lots of dressing like starch or excess dye in it which will wash out and leave the fabric flimsy with little body or oomph to it, it will literally turn into a droopy rag, possibly twisting and/or shrinking and losing colour with each subsequent wash too. These are to be avoided at all costs except for craft-based projects like bunting perhaps. Cheap jersey can be awful too because it’s thin and spirals badly (you know how cheap RTW T-shirts twist after a wash or two? That. However, ‘cheap’ could also be a bolt-end or remnant length of a good cloth sold at a fraction of its original price. When you’re shopping, using a general rule of thumb of 1) and most importantly, do I really like it? 2) is it truly fit for my intended use? and 3) do I really need it? (Ha!) If I have any doubts about these then I walk away and save my money, even if it’s just a few pounds. 

[I just want to add a story about some fabric I bought a few months ago to make a wedding dress toile. I made a trip to Walthamstow market in east London where I know there are some great fabric shops and the famous #TMOS ‘The Man Outside Sainsbury’s’ market stall. I had tried online to pick up a cheap cloth which was as similar as possible to the actual fabric I’d be using for the dress itself but the descriptions weren’t good enough for me to be confident they were worth buying. Anyway, off I toddled, what often happens at Walthamstow is that shop premises become available on short leases so very unglamorous but stuffed-to-the-rafters fabric shops pop up in them. You can never be sure they will still be there a few weeks later though. They usually sell deadstock or overstock from nearby factories or suppliers and everything is at rock-bottom prices until it’s gone or the lease runs out. I was after a decent weight triple crepe-type cloth, the colour and fibre content was irrelevant because it was for a toile, and I was really hoping to pay around £3-4 or less per metre. I was absolutely thrilled to find a pale mint green cloth of a really good weight for just 75p per metre!! Perfect for my needs so I bought 6m of the green and another 4m of a bright pink for me! My biggest problem then was carrying it because crepe is a really weighty fabric and I had gibbon arms by the time I got it home on the train! ] 

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

Returning to my own comments I mentioned ‘inexpensive’ cloth which, by my own definition, I would say is fabric that is of a good or excellent quality which normally sells for quite a high price but is now being sold for a lot less than usual. Ex-designer fabrics, dead-stock and factory end of lines are a few examples of this and there are more and more websites and shops starting to source these because they are a brilliant way of stopping wasted fabric going into landfill. And don’t forget those remnant bins, there might be gold dust in there but always double-check there are no nasty surprises like faults, flaws, dye or print discrepancies, and unfold the piece to make sure it’s roughly the size it says it is without terrible wonky ends, it isn’t a bargain if it turns out to be unusable.

In the UK there are areas of the country which have had a proud textiles- making heritage over the centuries and it is still possible in some of these places to buy quality cloth directly from the mills, or from shops and markets. For example, Harris Tweed is still made in the Isle of Harris, Scotland (Vivienne Westwood has been a devoted user of their cloth for decades now) A number of followers commented that in their areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire they were able to buy beautiful quality cloth often as remnants or from mill shops. Most of us don’t have this opportunity and whilst in an ideal world we would all love to be able to feel the quality and suitability of the cloth in our hands before buying, for many online shopping is the only realistic option [and if you’re reading this during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic then it’s the only option for pretty much everybody at present] @frugalisama said “there’s nowt like fettling fabric”, that’s basically stroking fabric to the uninitiated! Visiting bricks-and-mortar stores does offer the chance of personal interaction with others though, I can never resist poking my nose in at other customers deliberations and choices so I regularly have some lovely conversations about one of my favourite topics with complete strangers!

For me, the difficulty with buying online is relying completely on there being accurate descriptions of factors like the weight, handle, suitability for purpose and a true indication of colours and scale of print. 

Some websites (and obviously there are thousands and I only have experience of a few) are very diligent and give a lot of good information and are happy to send swatches whenever possible. Small companies can offer a very personal service and it’s nice to support them too, getting to know what fabrics they offer which makes them stand out from the big hitters. 

But even with lots of information it’s still all too easy to make duff choices, on more than one occasion I’ve ended up with fabric which was much thinner or thicker than I had hoped or wanted for a particular project, or the print has been a much bigger scale than I thought it was from a photograph. I find a 100m reel of Gutermann thread a really helpful reference point in a photo because we almost all know exactly what size they are, or a ruler in the photo is also helpful. My idea of what is suitable for a skirt or trousers for example might be very different from someone else’s because years of experience and attendant disasters has taught me the hard way. There’s very little you can do to speed up this process of learning although a comprehensive book like Fabric Savvy by Sandra Betzina could very useful-it’s a treasure trove of information of many, many different types of fabrics, their uses, fibre content, sewing and handling tips. There is a whole world of wonderful fabrics out there to discover and it’s a pity to limit ourselves to a very small pool. Cotton is not just cotton for example, it’s poplin, lawn, voile, calico, muslin, denim, corduroy, canvas, Ankara, towelling, sateen, chintz, jersey, the list goes on and that’s just one fibre. Shopping with someone who knows their fabrics is not only fun but educational too.

So does the cost of the fabric have a bearing on the quality and your likelihood to buy it? @jenerates, amongst several others, made the point that if she spends more on the cloth it means she takes her time and more care with the making of each garment. She is also much more inclined to care for the garment more diligently, to make it last longer. Some fabric is pricey because it’s expertly made from top quality materials with designer names attached, and often these fabrics might be made from natural fibres which at the top end can be very pricey. Silk has always been seen as a luxury fabric for good reason, but then so can an Italian-made synthetic-based fabric too, it is still superb quality just not a natural fibre. But being a good quality natural fibre is absolutely no guarantee of it’s longevity or durability, quite the reverse sometimes. 

I think there are a number of popular fabric brands at present which have beautiful designs printed on them but the base cloth doesn’t always justify the price point. What do we do about this if, after you’ve diligently sewn a garment together, within a few washes it’s like a rag? If it were a garment purchased from a reputable retailer you could probably negotiate a refund or exchange but that’s no good in this instance, I suspect we fume for a while and then put it down to experience if we can’t find a way to fix it. I would be curious to know, has anyone ever gone back to the online supplier and successfully got a refund or exchange?

@paulalovestosew very kindly answered my questions directly because I know she is very happy to use manmade fibres and fabrics. We all have a tendency to believe that natural fibres are always best but what if they don’t work for your lifestyle, or the garment you want to make? Paula, like many of us, has been sewing her clothes for years, she loves to scour remnant bins in fabric stores and, like me, gets enormous pleasure from squeezing as much as possible from the least amount of fabric. If you check out her account you’ll regularly see not only a dress but also golfing attire all made from the same cloth. For her, stretch jerseys are perfect because they are comfortable to wear, never fade or distort in the wash, there are masses of colours and designs available, they roll up without damage in a suitcase and they last for years. Paula knows her own style which suits her perfectly and she always looks immaculate, style doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

What about vintage or recycled cloth? This can be a great way of using unusual designs or fabric types to create totally original clothes although vintage cloth might need a little more aftercare to keep it in good condition though because of the age of the fibres. It can be difficult without a burn test to know exactly what it was in the first place. If it’s been left folded for a long time it might break down in the creases for example, or it might not take well to being exposed to sunlight or sweat after many years but if the alternative is that it doesn’t get used at all then why not turn it into something nice! Charity shops, yard sales, swaps, Ebay and elderly neighbours are just a few of the places you could find some hidden gems. My 93 year old neighbour Pamela has given me some beauties for example and she’s always thrilled to see me in something I’ve made with one of her fabrics. 

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

Many people try to take into consideration how ethical a fabric is; is its production harmful to humans or the environment through the use of chemicals, dyes, dangerous processes, or is it dangerously straining or poisoning the local water supply? can it be successfully recycled? Will it wear well or will it need to be replaced more often, can it be laundered easily or should it be dry cleaned? There are so many considerations that there is unlikely to be one definitive answer, we must each make our own judgments according to our beliefs and moral framework. Buying organic or other ethically-certified fabrics is a good start but they do often, quite rightly, come with a higher price. You may be interested in reading my post on this topic, Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition at the V&A in London two years ago.

At the risk of being controversial, I do think there’s sometimes an element of fabric snobbery at play by which I mean natural fibres good, synthetic fibres bad. By all means buy and sew with what you prefer but there is a place for manmade fabrics which isn’t that easily replaced. If you sew swimwear or activity clothing which require technical fabrics then they are highly likely to be chemical-based. Yes, I know there are now bamboo and a couple of other alternatives but they are extremely difficult to source for home sewing at present unless you know where to look, and they certainly aren’t cheap either. If you’re interested in learning a lot more about how textiles have always been a part of our daily lives I recommend reading The Golden Thread-how fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair. It’s a fascinating insight into textiles and materials of all kinds, my only quibble is that there are no illustrations or photographs in it all which seems an extremely strange choice given that the subject matter is so visual.

Gosh, this has turned into a long post, I hope you had a coffee to sustain you? Realistically there is no right or wrong answer, it’s what works for you, your lifestyle, your budget, your capabilities and that is different for everyone. Maybe a good idea is to buy the best you can afford if your budget allows but the pricier the fabric is the more I would say it matters to make a toile first. Cheap and cheerful is perfectly good if you’re just starting out in dressmaking, and always make a toile in as similar a fabric-type as possible to the finished article. You will make mistakes and poor choices-much like life!-but you’ve got @Sewover50 as a goldmine of support and information to help along the way, I’m a huge advocate of sharing my sewing failures as well as the successes. 

As I’ve said throughout, there is no absolute right or wrong answer to these questions, we make our fabric choices based on any number of personal, and wider reaching factors. I’d really like to conclude with Fiona’s comment, she sees her handmade wardrobe as “my memory album on a rail”, definitely something worth cherishing. 

Until next time,

Happy sewing

Sue

Kimono:Kyoto to Catwalk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The garment underneath is a modern reproduction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, keep washing those hands!

Sue

Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A

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

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

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

Bar suit February 1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Sue

Summing up where sewing has taken me in 2018

I thought in this blog I’d take a look back at some of the things I’ve been up to over the last twelve months and it’s made me realise what a wonderful varied collection they are. As well as sewing multiple garments from numerous patterns (which I’ll look at in a separate blog) there have been several meet-ups including the Stitchroom Sewcial in June and the now-famous Sewing Weekender in August, plus one I organised myself in November. I’ve visited quite a few exhibitions, some of them more than once, read lots of books and written reviews of several of them in case anyone out there was interested in knowing more if they fancy a visit or a read for themselves. I’ve been back to the Knitting & Stitching show, and The Handmade Fair for the first time too.

In January I made my first coat in decades, the Butterick 6423 and was pretty pleased with the outcome overall.

My first meet-up of the year in February was a return visit to Balenciaga at the V&A organised by Alex (Sewrendipity) where I met a number of lovely fellow dressmakers in the flesh for the first time. It was so nice to go to an exhibition with like-minded people and then we all went for lunch together afterwards-very civilised!

Also in February Gabby Young invited me to become one of the Simple Sew bloggers so I embarked on a year of wrangling their patterns into submission, they are nice designs but aren’t always faultlessly accurate in their drafting or instructions. I took on the role on the understanding that I’d be honest (although never rude) but informative and constructive. I’ll leave you to be the judge of whether I achieved that.

I had the opportunity to visit the Fashion Technology Academy in April which was such an inspiring place. You can study many of the technical aspects of clothing production there and we also had the chance to try out a taster session of TR pattern cutting with the supremely gifted Claudette Joseph while we were there too. If you, or someone you know, wants to go down the technical route into garment manufacture then this place in North London could be a good place to start looking.

Also in April I returned to the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London to attend their fascinating ‘Inside couture’ afternoon. I’ve been once before but it’s so enjoyable, and such a treat to get the your hands on real couture clothes (with white gloves on, natch). I highly recommend a visit if you’re in London but you do need to book for these particular events, the museum itself is open most days.

The first London Stitchers meet-up was held at the beginning of May and although I’m not technically ‘London’, as has become obvious, I go up a lot. These are organised by Ana Cocowawacrafts and Georgia One Stitch Forward and they vary in their locations between north, south and central London. Anyone is welcome and it’s a great way to meet new people and know that you all have at least one shared interest! It’s like speed-dating for dressmakers!!

Me Made May was also happening on Instagram and for the first time in ages I managed to post every single day for a month-long challenge even though I was out of the country for some of it. Lots of garments I shared weren’t new and box-fresh, in fact quite a few of them were old favourites, which is as it should be. We made a trip to Assisi in Italy during this time so that made my backdrops a bit more interesting for a few days!

I tried something a bit different in May by going on a course to learn how to make and print my own etchings. I’d done this once a million years ago when I did my Foundation Course at college and have always found the medium fascinating and beautiful. [Go and check out Rembrandt’s work in particular if you aren’t sure what they are] I’d met a lovely lady called Chrissy Norman on the first Sewing Weekender two years ago and it turns out that not only does she sew and knit, she’s a super-talented printmaker too. She has a separate IG account for her prints and I admired a print she posted on it early in the year. It transpires that she teaches courses a few times a year at Sudbourne Park Printmakers workshops. Long story short, I signed up and joined her in Suffolk in mid-May. It was soooo interesting and fun, plus I made some pretty respectable prints based on a photo I had taken of the Maggi Hambling sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

The summer saw the first of several visits to the Frida Kahlo exhibition and Fashioned from Nature at the V&A museum. I also loved the retrospective of the work of Azzedine Alaia at the Design Museum, I didn’t write a review though because by the time I went there wasn’t much left of the run sadly. It was spectacular though and I’m very glad I made the effort. That same day we went to see the musical Hamilton which was absolutely stupendous, Mr Y normally doesn’t go for that style of music but even he has raved about it ever since-highly recommended!

In June I was one of the lucky attendees of the first Stitchroom Sewcial event organised by Anne ‘New Vintage Sewing’ and Lucy ‘Sew Essential’ at Anne’s workplace in the University of Loughborough. They had excelled themselves with activities for us all to try including visiting the print and weaving workshops, computerised machine embroidery, an individual photoshoot AND time to sew and use the industrial machines Anne has in her classroom. I really hope I’m lucky enough to go again in 2019…

I took a road trip with my ‘local’ sewing friends Alana and Helen to visit Sewisfaction on their first Big Summer Stitch-up which was great fun, even though it was a steaming hot day.

At the end of July and beginning of August I posted two blogs which seemed to light the blue touch paper that rapidly became Sew Over 50. When I wrote them I thought no one would read them, much less agree with me, so I was stunned by the response to say the least. My now-friend Judith was amongst those who read them and was feeling the same way so she went one step further and created a new Instagram account called @SewOver50 and everything went a bit nuts from there on. As I write this post the account has gained over 5,300 followers since mid-August which is phenomenal. It’s become a place of inspiration and encouragement for thousands of women (and the occasional man) who sew but felt they, we, are being overlooked or dismissed by the burgeoning home-dressmaking market because of our age.

One thing that some people misunderstood about the whole idea wasn’t that we wanted to be separate from any other age group, like some kind of exclusive club, not at all, we just felt that some people-magazines, pattern companies-were overlooking the opportunity to tap into a market and a group who had cash to spend, had styling ideas, skills and experience to share, originality, fun, empathy, quirkiness, style. For a lot of the people who started following the account they had very little experience of using social media to broaden their horizons in sewing terms, and for connecting with like-minded people around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, as well as Europe. Suddenly there was an identifiable hashtag to follow which took you straight to the heart of this community. In fact it isn’t only sewing that members are supportive with, many face health challenges, a changing body with the menopause, dealing with elderly parents or caring for grandchildren so there have already been lots of conversations that have strayed away from sewing completely, and that’s OK too.

It’s been gratifying to see that a number of sources are making a big effort to be more diverse in who they feature in articles or as models. There is still a long way to go though because we’re conscious it might appear that it’s mostly white middle-aged women who sew, but we know this isn’t the case because there are many women of colour who sew too, maybe they don’t engage as much with Instagram or other social media though? I don’t know the answer to this one except to say that all are welcome because that’s the whole point. It makes me very happy when much younger dressmakers comment to me that they also follow us to get inspiration and advice, which is also the reason that follow younger sewers myself!

Onwards, there was another amazing Sewing Weekender in August which was quickly followed by SewPhotoHop on Instagram in September organised by Rachel ‘House of Pinheiro‘. I didn’t keep up with this one so much and dipped in and out a bit [the same happened with Sewvember as well] but it’s a good way to find new people to follow and be inspired by if all this is new to you. I’ve just remembered there was MIYMarch (Make it Yourself) but that passed me by completely this year.

In September I became a Minerva Crafts blogger so I’m provided with fabric by them to make up into my own choice of garment and then write a comprehensive review for their own website. I’m enjoying this and it’s another string to my bow.

October saw me return to Birmingham for the SewBrum event which is magnificently organised by Charlotte ‘English Girl at Home’. It’s a chance for dressmakers from all over the place to come together in Birmingham, shop for fabric, visit Guthrie & Ghani and generally hang out together.

I was really chuffed to be invited by Amy Thomas, editor of Love Sewing magazine to contribute an article about the Fashioned from Nature exhibition to the magazine in November. It was a really big deal for me to write something specifically to appear in print. I’ve been lucky enough to write pattern reviews for Love Sewing and Sew Now in the past but this was a new departure. I’d love to do more like this in the future. There’s definitely a little something coming up early in the new year but I can’t talk about that yet…..

My name in print!

I organised my own meet-up at Walthamstow Market in east London in mid-November which fortunately was a beautiful day as it was well attended and we nearly all went for lunch afterwards, to continue chatting! It was the first meet-up for quite a number of the attendees but I think everyone enjoyed themselves and were delighted to get the chance to chat together in real life and not just in a comments box!

Loving all the fabrics in Saeed’s, Walthamstow

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

There was a lovely pre-Christmas sewing day in Cambridge called SewCam organised by Jen Walker ‘The Gingerthread Girl’ which was a delightful antidote to festive fever, and a final London Stitcher’s meet up the following weekend to round everything off nicely!

getting started at SewCam in December

When I look back at everything in this way it makes me so happy to realise the sheer quantity of wonderful opportunities that my love of dressmaking has brought me this year in particular. I continue to teach my lovely group of ladies locally-they think all this Instagram nonsense is ridiculous in a good way! I’ve met so many awesome and inspiring women in real life for the first time and I’ve deepened some of the friendships that started last year, or longer, ago. Many people think that ‘friends’ on Insta aren’t real but that just isn’t true. Of course there are those people you should give a wide berth to and we are continually plagued by nut-jobs who think women who sew will be interested in their guns, or love of God, or whatever but if we all continue to report them then so much the better.

Wherever you are in your sewing ‘journey’ I hope you find it relaxing, fulfilling, inspiring, empowering, distracting, whatever you need it to be. I’ll never stop learning and being creative is so good for us ( we knew this all along but science is finally realising it too!)

I’ve already got some ideas for next year but, to be honest, much of 2018 just unfolded one thing at a time without too much planning in advance. I’d like to expand my own skills in 2019 and not necessarily in dressmaking terms, I have always enjoyed art so perhaps I should get my pencils and paints back out again.

There’s always an element of me hoping you enjoy what I write and find the reviews helpful or informative although, in truth, I’d write them anyway as a record. Thank you for joining me on the journey and Happy New Year, and here’s to lots more sewing adventures, maybe we’ll meet ‘in real life’ in 2019?!

Happy sewing,

Sue

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

A year in sewing 2017

2017 turned out to be a very busy sewing year for me. Not only did I make a loads of projects for myself and occasionally others but I wrote two articles for sewing magazines, and did a multitude of alterations (some very complex and time-consuming) to numerous wedding dresses, along with more mundane hems and sleeve-shortenings too.

This is a quick dash through many of the things I got up to although I’m not sure everything got photographed at the time. I’ve included a lot of links too if I’ve written blogs on some of the things I mention.

January saw a couple of self-drafted sweat shirts, I was particularly pleased with the blue one because I made it from a £3 fleece blanket from Ikea!

There are also 2 Sew Over It Heather dresses, and finally the Grainline Farrow dress, the teal one was the one which featured in the review I wrote for Sew Now magazine.

In February while I was having a week’s holiday in the Lake District I managed to squeeze in a visit to Abakhan fabrics in Manchester and bought fabric by weight for the first time in my life. I also went to a meet up organised by the lovely Emily of Self Assembly Required in a pub at King’s Cross station! I met loads of fellow-sewers there as well as picking up some new patterns and fabrics from the swap including the Holiday Top by The Maker’s Atelier which I’ve made twice over the summer.

Another February highlight was seeing the latest Burberry collection alongside the fabulous capes, each one of which was a stunning one-off! I wonder if there’ll be a similar show this season?

March saw the Moneta party (dress pattern by Colette) so I made my first which I altered to include full-length sleeves, a roll collar and a fake exposed zip (I made a short-sleeved one later in the summer too) I wore it when I went to the spring Knitting and Stitching show where once again I met up with a few fellow-sewers organised by Gabby Young (no relation!) from Gabberdashery vlog.

One of the new people I met was Juliene from Zierstoff Patterns who gave me the opportunity to try out several of their patterns during the course of the rest of the year.

Another new departure was a fundraising initiative with my weekly sewing group. We all spent an afternoon making little ‘pillowcase’ dresses which would eventually be sent off to a girl’s school in Africa.

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our very own Sewing Bee!

Moving rapidly into April I visited the wonderful ‘Five Centuries of House Style’ exhibition at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, made another Holiday top utilising a few fancy stitches on my sewing machine, as well as a Sophie bolero by Zierstoff. IMG_1725Also during April I was approached to teach some dressmaking classes at a local craft shop so I made some sample garments for that including a dirndl skirt and a jersey tube skirt.IMG_1803 I made the first of 3 Imogen tops using Sew Me Something’s pattern too, more about those later.

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Imogen blouse and Gina by Zierstoff skirt

In May I went on my travels with my good friend Sue when we walked a section of the Camino di Santiago in France which was a fantastic empowering experience.

In June Mr Y and I went on a cruise to the Baltic and it happened to be a Strictly Come Dancing cruise! The company that make all the costumes, DSI-London, were on board along with many of the dresses so I was in seventh heaven being able to see them close up. I had to write 2 blogs about that just to be able to include all the pictures! you can read them here and here.

By July I was teaching in Hertford and one of the garments was a ‘no-pattern’ kimono which was popular and also the ‘pillowcase’ dress (nothing to do with pillowcases other than a child’s version could be made from one) It’s basically two rectangles of fabric sewn up each side, hemmed at the bottom and a channel at the top with ribbon through it.

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Also in July I made my first visit to the fabulous Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A in London which was wonderful. I’ve actually been 3 times now, each time taking a different friend, I’ve had excellent value from my V&A membership and I’d urge anyone local enough and interested in the decorative arts to think about joining.

I had hoped to go to the second Sewing Weekender in August but I hadn’t been lucky enough to get a ticket….or so I thought! About 10 days before the event I got an email from Rachel at The Foldline telling me that sadly someone had had to drop out and would I like her ticket? Silly question! So off I went to Cambridge and had a wonderful time amongst so many fabulous sewing people, friends old and new. It was my birthday too! I made a simple top while I was there this time, one I’d made before so it was quick, meaning I’d have plenty of time for chatting…and taking on Elizabeth for a Ninja sewing challenge!

We each got given a copy of the same pattern and some stretch fabric off the swap table and away we went, with one hour to get it done. The results were ‘mixed’ shall we say, Elizabeth left out a section and didn’t notice until it was too late and I only cut one piece where I should have cut two so I had to go back and cut that. It was a lot of fun though, even if we looked like stuffed sofas!

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Sewing Weekender 2017 Alumni, photo by The Foldline.

I spent September making the top and trousers that I’d be modelling in Love Sewing magazine! This was certainly one of my sewing highlights in 2017, although there have been lots really.Love Sewing page 328_09_17_LS_Reader42916I made a third Imogen blouse from fabric I got off The Foldline’s swap table at the first Great British Sewing Bee.

Another favourite top this year was the Merchant & Mills Camber Set which I also got from the King’s Cross meet up in the spring. It’s been a really useful pattern and I love the neat way the binding and the neck yoke finish off the neck edges, it’s a really clever piece of construction.

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neat bias binding on the Camber Set top-my scissors necklace came from the V&A

I also made this top with 1 metre of fabric generously given to us in the Weekender goody bag by Stoff&Stil, it’s Burda 6914 which I’ve used 3 times now although this is the first time as a top. I really like the pleated neckline with a bias binding finish. There was just enough fabric to add slim ruffles to the sleeves which I neatened using the rolled hem finish on my overlocker.

I spent a lot of time during August and September making my entry to The Refashioners 2017, an Alexander McQueen-inspired jacket which I was extremely proud of when I finished it.

Into October and more fabric got purchased at the Autumn Knitting and Stitching Show at Ally Pally (oops) I made my first pair of jeans this month but I can’t talk about them yet as they were a pattern test which still hasn’t been released-I’m really happy with them though so I’ll publish the blog as soon as it’s released into the wide world. (I think the designer needs to get on with it otherwise the whole world will think that Ginger jeans are the only pattern available!)

After literally months of dithering I finally bought a new mannequin, or ‘Doris’ as she’s known to me. Old Doris was falling to bits and only held together by the t-shirt that covered her, I’d had her for well over 30 years so I reckon I’d had good value out of her. I chose the ‘Catwalk’ model from Adjustoform which I bought from Sew Essential and I’ve been very pleased with it. IMG_4038IMG_4039IMG_4040

Also in October I went up to Birmingham for the SewBrum meet up organised by EnglishGirlatHome, Charlotte where I had a really fun day (apart from the sweary drunk woman on the train coming home!) catching up with chums and visiting Guthrie & Ghani for the first time. I took part in the fantastic raffle while I was there but was unsuccessful….or so I thought (again) About 6 weeks after the event I got a message  from Charlotte asking if anyone had told me I’d won a brand new mannequin in the raffle!!! So now I have New Outdoor Doris who lives in Threadquarters and Indoor Doris who lives…indoors, and I use her to take photos on.

November saw another new departure for me when I volunteered to write some reviews of fabric shops in my area. This was for Alex of Sewrendipity as part of her plan to create an unbiased worldwide database of fabric retailers, available to everyone to use. It meant I visited some new places as well as some old favourites.fullsizeoutput_202f

I made another entry for our annual church Christmas Tree festival. It was a refashion/upcycle of the fabric I used for the previous year and sadly it was Old Doris’s last outing before she heads for the tip! The net petticoat was a tube of fabric with the baubles and lights inside it.

I had also volunteered as a pattern reviewer for Jennifer Lauren Vintage so I made a really nice Mayberry dress and wrote a blog for that very recently. One other new pattern I tried out but haven’t blogged yet was the French dart shift by Maven Patterns. It’s a lovely flattering shift dress with a funnel neck and a variety of sleeve styles and no zip. I made it in a navy fabric of unknown origin and wore it on Christmas Day.IMG_4272IMG_4273

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French dart shift dress by Maven patterns.

The biggest deal of the year in some ways was in December when I finally, finally, decided to buy a new sewing machine! This was such a big deal because I’ve had my beloved Elna 7000 for probably 27 years and it’s still going strong (only the occasional hiccough) and I have a strong emotional attachment to it. Thing is, technology moves on and whilst that really isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for me there are processes and functions that I would like in order to keep (even after all these years) on top of my sewing. In early November I went to a fun jeans refashioning workshop hosted by Portia Lawrie and Elisalex (By Hand London) and we were provided with gorgeous Pfaff sewing machines to use. IMG_4092

Anyway, I was thinking about it long and hard for a while because it’s an awful lot of money when I came upon a Black Friday (not even a real thing) deal where this model was virtually half-price. Sooooo, after a visit to Sew Essential a new Pfaff Quilt Ambition 2.0 has come home to live with me and we’re getting to know one another…

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she’s a beauty!

So that just about sums up my sewing year. It’s been a lot of fun at times, and hot and frustrating at others (sweltering under mountainous wedding dresses in the height of the summer is no fun) I’ve met some lovely new people and been reacquainted with lovely ‘old’ ones too! I’m looking forward to another busy year of sewing, blogging, teaching, chatting, tea drinking and generally feeling connected to sewers all over the world. It really feels like dressmaking is an activity that is worthwhile again and not just some strange little hobby that old biddies do, besides, it’s surprising what you could learn from an old biddy, she may just have made the same sewing mistakes as you have but 30 or 40 years earlier!

Happy Sewing

Sue

 

The Refashioners 2017…suits you!

Last year 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 this year’s Refashioners 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 shoulderMcQ 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