I have been craving a nice blouse for a long time. Something structured yet soft, something pretty yet versatile. When I buy woven tops they always end up being too big and sag down at the bust, giving everyone a nice eyeful of my bra. I’ve bought shirts from places like TM Lewin, but the looser fit styles are too loose and they are more inhabited than worn. The fitted versions are OK but the waist is far too low, meaning I am forever yanking them down to prevent weird gapes.
This is Butterick 5526 which I have made before in stripy Paul Smith fabric.
This is an OK shirt but suffers from the same problems as my RTW versions. It is slightly too big all over and the reason I did not take a picture of myself in it is that I feel the collar is trying to eat me alive, so I look like Harry Hill. However, I like the princess seams and sparkly buttons that I added.
I mulled over the shirt for ages and then thought, what the hell. I traced out the smallest size as, like an idiot, I followed the size guidelines on the envelope the first time. I pinched out about 3cm of length from every piece and shaved off about a centimetre from the collar. Surprise surprise, when I tried this on, it fitted! I do not need to yank it down, nor do I feel I am peering out from behind a massive collar.
I amended the sleeves to be short. I had a ponder about whether to leave it sleeveless, like Lladybird, but she lives in Tennessee. I think they get a lot more sleeveless blouse days than I do, in North London. Short sleeves means I feel a bit more dressed, and they will hopefully behave themselves under a cardigan.
The fabric is a nice poplin from my favourite place in Leeds, B&M Fabrics in Kirkgate Market, and it cost me about £4 a metre. It’s a bit ditzy, a bit pink, a bit 70s, but not too much. It has a slight texture to it, meaning I don’t feel like I’m wearing quilting cotton.
I bought the Emery Dress pattern at the end of last year, having seen all sorts of enviable versions floating around. I really wanted to wear a cute fit and flare dress like this, with a higher neckline, pockets and a nice full skirt.
However, the reality was so horrendous, no photographs exist. Everything went wrong. From accidentally hoovering up one of the bodice pieces, to setting in the sleeves backwards – and then when I tried it on.
I had chosen a very vivid patchwork print lawn and the sleeves, high neck, gathered waist and APPALLING FIT (did I mention the appalling fit?) combined to make something quite ghastly. I looked like Anne Shirley’s fever dream of a puff sleeved dress. I looked like I was wearing Kimmy Schmidt’s formal bunker dress. And around the bodice there was gaping, there were pools and pools of fabric around the middle and yet the sleeves were too tight.
I must have worn the dress for about 30 seconds. It wasn’t much longer than that before I took it apart and used the fabric to make two Geranium dresses for my daughter and niece, because dressing small girls in identical outfits is fun. Certainly more fun than wearing something that looked as if it was sucking me dry from the inside.
The pattern went into the sin bin for months. I didn’t even want to think about it. But then I decided to be a grown up. I referred to my Colette sewing book, I looked at the Emery sew along, and used my new dress form, Monica, to make a couple of muslins.
It seemed that all I needed to do was pinch out the excess fabric and raise the waistline. So, I did! I decided to make the dress without the lining or sleeves, planning to finish it with bias binding. What I wanted was something very lightweight for the summer, which I might also be able to layer over a thin long sleeved t shirt in winter. There are some dire warnings about simply leaving off the sleeves on the sewalong. However, I think that because I had pretty much made the recommended alterations anyway, I pulled it off. I also raised the point of the bust darts so they were pointing at my boobs, rather than off into the middle distance.
Here are the pattern pieces, showing how I folded out the excess.
I had measured this on myself before and double checked it with *another* muslin before starting for real. As you can see there were a couple of cms of extra “ease” across the centre, and another couple of cms at the waist. For next time I will trace and grade this properly. The gathered skirt meant that I didn’t have to adjust this part of the pattern, I just gathered it to fit. I thought of adding a circle skirt but considered that this pattern, with a definite direction, would look odd as a circle skirt. Possibly migraine inducing.
The bias facing around the neck is standing proud. I have left this for the moment, because I kind of like it, but I may fix this in the future.
The fabric was from Olympia again, a sort of William Morris knock off with lots of Art Deco flourishes. I was looking at my WordPress media folder the other day and realised that I have, unconsciously, chosen most of my fabrics according to a palette. This is the kind of thing organised stylish people do so I was quite excited to realise I’ve been doing this anyway. As I suspected when I was looking for paint colours and couldn’t see anything other than variations on eau de nil, I like things on the bluish, greeny, grey spectrum, punctuated with occasional red or orange. I also only really like “green” fragrances, like Chanel No. 19. Must be because, like Anne Shirley, I’m also secretly a dryad. The fabric is a cotton poplin, nice to work with and with a bit more body than quilting cotton imo.
The invisible zip insertion was a bit of a triumph, marred only (when I tried to put it on) by the realisation that I had bought a zip that is slightly too short and I had a struggle getting it over my boobs. I am not replacing the zip. It will never look this good a second time.
I’ve decided shirtdresses are the best thing. They suit just about everyone, they’re satisfying to make, they look smart without trying and they aren’t readily available on the high street.
So I made another one, bringing my total now to 4.
This one is made from the inexplicably discontinued Carline print from Liberty, on a cotton poplin which I bought at Olympia. This was the end of a roll and I very nearly had to have fisticuffs with the old dear next to me. £14 a metre, and only 1.5m to be had.
One of the perks of being small is that you save money on fabric. I was able to make the Edith shirt dress by Maria Denmark, just, out of what I had. The pattern is annoying as it has no seam allowance included, so I had to add that prior to cutting. The first time I made this, I didn’t notice till too late, and had to use tiny tiny seams… Oops.
There were just enough scraps to make some self bias binding for the sleeves. The hem used bought bias and I actually pulled my finger out and blind hemmed it.
On the whole I love my birthday dress. There are some niggles: the side seams pull a bit and I’m not sure why, the interfacing I used is a bit stiff and the buttonholes gape a little when I slouch. I’m going to add another button at the top, because slumping in my seat (which I inevitably do, frequently) results in a nifty view of my bra.
The Carline print brings out the shirtdress in so many people: Idle Fancy, Dolly Clackett and Handmade Jane. I think it looks retro without being costumey and whilst I worried that it would be overwhelming on me, I really don’t think it is (there’s a version with larger roses which might have been).
Just before Christmas I bought a couple of metres of this Anna Maria Horner rayon challis from the Oxford Street branch of John Lewis. It wasn’t cheap by any means, but I later consoled myself by finding it at a much, much higher price elsewhere. I liked the echinacea print and the unusual colours.
It sat for a good long while until I matched it up with the Kim pattern from By Hand London, bought at the Knitting and Stitching Show and sold to me by Victoria herself.
Kim has a sweetheart bodice and either a tulip or gathered dirndl skirt. Obviously I went for the gathers as this lightweight, swirly rayon is not a friend to structure.
I made a bodice muslin from leftover liberty lawn, reasoning that (a) I didn’t have enough rayon and (b) if it fitted, I’d use this as lining, and the lawn would give the bodice a little more body. The muslin fitted fine so off I went.
Rayon (viscose) challis is very slippery, drapey and spits out pins. It frays while you’re looking at it and god help you if you try to straighten edges by ripping it – little runs appear on either side.
However, it presses well and the lawn gave that little extra foundation the bodice needed. As the fabric is quite delicate and i was worried about pulling at the seams, i topstitched the bodice. Gathering was a pleasure, I used 2 rows of wide machine stitches rather than hand sewing as the pattern suggested. I also left off the pintucks as they’d be lost with such a bold print.
Wearing this was such fun, with a swooshy skirt and bodice that made it look almost as if I had bosoms. However, wearing it indicated that the fit wasn’t quite right and I’d also caught the zip in the gathers at the back.
Out came the ripper. I needed to shorten the shoulder straps and fix the zip. A lot of unpicking later, I turned the straps inside out to shorten them by a couple of centimetres and then addressed the zip. I undid the gathers at either side and pressed these out, interfaced the wrong side and then put the zip in. This wasn’t in the pattern instructions, no doubt because it’s obvious, but I wished I’d thought of that the first time around. I did attach the lining properly, since I had it all opened out anyway.
And… bing. I’m really pleased I made the effort to fix the fit niggles.
I have so far made 2 versions of this dress, after 2 muslins’ worth of fitting and swearing. This whole experience has been an interesting exercise in just why home sewers need to have an intimate knowledge of their own proportions. I am very short, around five feet tall, and measure 35-24-32. I have narrow shoulders and a low waist, but my upper arms have proper biceps which, on one occasion, actually burst a narrow sleeve just like She Hulk. Grr.
I adored the pattern from the moment I saw it, and bought it with a 15% introductory offer. I liked the clean lines and unusual design and as soon as I’d printed it out and taped it together, I got to work.
I made a bodice muslin from spare Ikea fabric, from the straight size 0 and … err. There was enough room in the bodice to store my lunch and the neckline gaped down to Greenwich. Back I went to the pattern and pulled out as much ease as I could manage. Having adjusted the muslin and being reasonably happy, I got on with my *ahem* fashion fabric, a black sparkly stuff from Croft Mill.
There are no photos of the finished result for 2 reasons. One, the fit was so appalling that I immediately swore never to think of it again, and two, the fabric was so astonishingly itchy I had to remove it very fast. The fabric was impossible to press as well, which made the whole thing even more difficult. Try making self bias binding with fabric that wouldn’t take a crease even if you had a nuclear powered iron.
Despite this, I persisted. I made more adjustments to the pattern and started again. This was in November so I bought Christmas fabric, this green stuff with reindeers on from Plush Addict. The cotton was so, so much easier to manage than whatever the sparkly stuff was made of. I didn’t pattern match as such, but tried to ensure that there was a good distribution of reindeers and that I didn’t, for example, have a reindeer’s arse on my boob or anything.
However, once more the neckline wanted to swallow me up in its gaping maw. What to do? I wanted to wear the dress for my husband’s birthday party, so I bodged it. In a remedy which has been popular around the sewing blogs I’ve read, I extended the front gathers and also gathered the shoulders. This worked nicely for this lightweight, obliging cotton fabric and in the end, the fit was fine.
Glutton for punishment that I am, I went back to the pattern. Finally the sewalong had appeared and I was at last able to attend to the massive shoulders. The pattern adjustment was not too bad and yet another muslin was made. I could hardly believe my eyes when the thing actually fitted. Fitted! Without sneaky gathers or extra darts.
I made up the next version in a wool blend fabric from Croft Mill again.
This was on special offer because of a weaving flaw which I was able to cut around thanks to the relatively small pattern pieces. I made the version 1 bodice but used the fuller skirt from version 2, more because I couldn’t really bear to have made the same dress twice.
Thanks to the pattern adjustment, the shoulders fitted much better.
In my infinite wisdom I trimmed the neckline and cuffs with lace which instantly made me look like a silver service waitress (not that there’s anything wrong with being a waitress, it’s just that I’m not a waitress) and which, irritatingly, would not lie flat on the neckline. I balled the dress up for several months and was annoyed with the whole business.
I found the dress more recently following a wardrobe tidy. I have told myself I’m not making anything till I’ve fixed the minor on other projects. I have a couple of zippers that I need to insert properly, a RTW skirt and trousers to adjust, and this dress.
The first thing I did was remove the lace from the neckline, then replace the bodged bias binding with fresh stuff. It was quite galling to have completed the whole job in half an hour, having left it to fester for so long. The one bummer left is that in all the unpicking, the gathers have loosened a little and there is now some empty real estate around the boobular area which can be remedied by a padded bra.
I’m left with a very sober dress in a nice soft fabric that is ideal for work and a great deal of experience in fitting raglan sleeves to a tiny person! I will make this again, adding inseam pockets to the skirt, at some point. The feedback on the Dahlia pattern has been distinctly mixed, the general feeling being that the amount of fitting involved is unreasonable for a beginner to tackle. If you have narrow shoulders and a proportionately small bosom, I would nod enthusiastic assent. Yes, it is complicated but I’ve seen really great results.
From the bosom down, i.e. the waistband and skirt, the fit was fine. I might even attempt to make just a skirt from it.
I work quite close to a collection of shops which specialise in this stuff, and one lunch time recently I succumbed to some quite extraordinarily bright and detailed fabric. The area is around Commercial Street, on the way down to hipster central, Brick Lane. If I put on my posh Mac Hipster Red lipstick before visiting the area, my unkempt appearance transforms into artful dishevelledness and suddenly I get handed flyers for some scabrous “vintage” pop up shop or festering cafe.
Bright, right? I have about 6 metres of this. A word of warning, when you buy wax print, it usually comes with a few stickers on it as a guarantee of authenticity. It is a good idea to remove these before pre-washing as removing the many little bits of paper and glue from the fabric *after* washing is absolutely no fun at all. That’s a free bit of advice from me, to you. I’d also note that this isn’t true wax print, this is from their Java range and the process is somewhat different.
This stuff is Vlisco, from their middle range, and cost about £30 for the 6 metres. It’s nice stuff too, with a slight sheen, and very pleasant to work with.
One of the Mormon women who sew uniforms for their clutch of children recommended the Oliver + S Birthday Party dress as a nice pinny pattern and whilst I might yet make a school pinny from it, I thought the complicated pattern and eye watering colours would go down a treat on the girl.
This is rated as three scissors, like the School Days coat. It *was* a challenge, I think, but a pleasant one. I went against the instructions for one major bit – the shoulder straps. The instructions have you blind stitching the lining by hand and I was about to do this, but them remembered something I’d seen on the Great British Sewing Bee. When they made waistcoats, they sort of turned the shoulders inside out and machined them, giving a clean finish with no hand sewing. Once I’d figured out that the key, really, is ensuring you have the right sides together, I had a go.
It worked really well and I didn’t have to hand sew anything! Bonus.
The thing that really got my brain was trying to pattern match. I ended up matching panels rather than the whole thing, partly because I didn’t want to waste so much fabric, and partly becauseMy…eyyeeeesss… I thought it would be more fun. Of course I am a numpty as the left and right patterns are going in the same direction. I should have cut them out separately.
Up the back I put some turquoise buttons. It’s a bit annoying because she won’t be able to do these up herself. I think if I did make this into a school dress, I might replace the buttons with a zip. Overall, I would quite like to attend the kind of birthday party that looked like this. I am sure there would be something interesting in the lemonade.
*Africa, as my South African husband likes to remind people, is not a country. It is not a desert containing a few acacia trees. It is a socking great big continent containing lots of different environments and people.
I attended the Knitting and Stitching Show in Olympia the other week. I thought it would be fun, and that I’d possibly pick up a bargain or three.
I attended early on Thursday morning, I was so glad I did!
I ambled gently around the stalls, making notes here and there, and decided to just pop to the loo before making some carefully considered purchases within the sensible budget I’d set.
When I emerged, it was as if two dozen coaches of determined stitches had disgorged themselves in the hall. An army of crafters were determinedly hedgehogging about, having fisticuffs over the last length of novelty quilting cotton and so forth. If you ever plan to go, go early. And, an aside, I think of women like these when I hear that women over a certain age can’t or won’t use technology. There was an excited throng around every demonstration of an absurdly complex machine, technique or new gadget – and not a booth babe in sight.
Whilst I don’t think I seized any bargains as such, I think I broke even, by saving on p&p costs and the like. I also met 2 of By Hand London and bought the Kim dress pattern. I stopped short of asking them to autograph it. I managed to grab the last 1.5 m of Liberty Carline poplin, and 2.5m of this lovely springlike, sprigged stuff.
Back home I started work on another (I blame Idle Fancy for all these) McCalls 6696 shirt dress, in the blossom print which I’d seen online in various places, and found it here for £6 a metre which I didn’t think was bad going.
I chose the pleated, full skirted version and used the elbow sleeves again rather than the short ones suggested – this is a London spring we’re talking about. I’m not worried about showing my arms, in fact I’m happy to flex my biceps for anyone who asks, but I’ve plenty of sleeveless dresses already. I was slightly worried I’d look like one of those women who sews apron fronted modest dresses for apostolic communities, but I figured if that happened, I’d just undo an extra button.
I’ve read a lot about the back gathers bunching out – apparently it’s an issue in the smaller sizes. My previous version bunched out so much that I almost despaired, but fixed it with a pleat rather than gathers. However, with this version I pleated the lower half only and left the top gathers.
I hoped that the weight of the skirt would pull the bunching down, this being the wide pleated skirt rather than the pencil version before.
Doing the pleats did my head right in as I had not (of course) bothered to translate the markings properly, had lost the instructions and was purely relying on little snips to line everything up. It took ages to work it out. Lesson learned: mark things up properly.
As before, whilst 6696 demands inordinate amounts of slip stitching, this brings me out in a rash so I avoided it completely.
I used the burrito method learned from the Negroni, a technique which also lends itself to making the gusset of knickers, if you’re interested in making your own knickers.
Take the yoke piece and pin it to the long back seam, right sides together, and have it hang down the back of the bodice. Then bundle up the rest of the bodice, loop the yoke piece around the whole shebang, pin the shoulder seams, and stitch. Once unravelled you should have a clean finish inside with no hand stitching. This takes a little spatial awareness and I’d strongly advise doing a trial run with pins or basting to make sure everything is the right way round.
I topstitched the waistband, placket and collar stand. Next time I’m going to try this tutorial for a different way to do collars, as I think it’ll suit my slapdash nature.
The sleeve and skirt hems are just machined.
I had to leave off the pockets, though it pained me to do so, as I only had 2.5m of fabric. I’m amazed I squeezed so much dress out of that – this cotton is very narrow. No chance of pattern matching, though the sprigs are all facing the same way.
Two drawbacks – I think it’s a teeny bit too big, but then again, I’m quite small, and is it too fancy for the office?
Next time, I will remove the fullness from the back completely and remove about a half inch from the waist and bodice. There is a risk that too much foofiness (foofyness?) is overwhelming in a smaller size.
For now, I am going to don a thermal vest and go and hang out around some blossom bedecked trees in the park. Or, possibly, grab a cig, cocktail and Jon Hamm and pretend I’m Betty off of Mad Men.
Just before Christmas I took the girl down to Soho early on a Saturday morning (as you do) in order to choose some material for Daddy’s christmas shirt. We were headed for the achingly minimalist, shabby chic Cloth House. So far, the staff have managed to stop me from moving in full time. On the way down, I was caught short. Now, where can one go to the loo early on a Saturday morning in Soho, when some of the people are only just finishing up and going to bed? I used a time honoured technique, perfected in a city where just about every establishment declares that its loos are “for customer use only.” I tucked the girl under my arm and dashed into the nearest open pub, full of bleary eyed people having a fried breakfast. Oh, I’m so sorry, says I, but she (points at child) really needs the loo, can I use yours?
The girl is quite short and can pass for 3 if she doesn’t say anything. Works every time. Nobody wants a toddler widdling themselves on their floor. The only caveat is that one has to brief the child in advance to avoid embarrassing contradictions.
Once relieved, we went to Cloth House and as well as some Indian hand printed cotton for his shirt, we chose some bunny print for myself, and at her Majesty’s insistence, some organic blue gingham.
I’ve waxed lyrical before about blue gingham and my childhood wish for a checky dress. Given she’s got a dry wipe marker stain on the other one, and a penchant for storing revolting stuff in her pockets, it was worth making another. Infant schools don’t seem to give a stuff about wearing summer uniform in winter, and indeed I think she’s started a trend for other girls to wear their checky dresses too. Other mothers have asked me where I got the original frock from and I reply *mumble made it mumble*. She wears a vest underneath (I am from Leeds), tights and a jumper or cardigan. The inside of her school is the approximate temperature of a sauna, so I was never concerned that she might be too cold in it.
This time I used chalk to mark out the placket. Sensible, see? No markers that disappear under the iron this time, oh no. It’s still not perfect, but it looks fine from the outside. The pink buttons were Her Majesty’s choice and this time she opted for snowflakes on the pockets.
The organic gingham is smoother than the other handloom stuff, and as you can see the checks are smaller. I fouled up the collar a bit as I used a 3/8″ seam allowance rather than a 1/2″ – surprising what a big difference that makes. I fixed it, more or less.
This time I made sure I bought enough to have some left over for me.
I was inspired to make a shirt dress by the lovely Idle Fancy blog – I would love to live somewhere warm enough that in December the only addition you might consider adding to your collection of gorgeous floral frocks is a light cardigan – and have had two attempts so far.
The first is the relatively easy (but still not for beginners I think) Traveler Dress from Lisette, which I bought during Simplicity’s last half price sale.
This uses a lightweight seersucker plaid with silvery thread running through the checks, bought for something like £3 a metre from Jersey Vogue Fabrics in Edgware. It must have a fairly high poly content because it has a bit of a sheen to it and was quite hard to press.
I cocked up the collar and the button band I think but overall I really like this. I feel like an extra from an am dram production of Oklahoma (which I have actually been). The waist needs an extra snap on the inside as it gapes a bit.
The main problem I encountered here was fabric. I do like the checks and gold thread, and its floaty nature. I am sure I am going to wear this a lot when the weather gets warmer. However, I found that it was quite fragile and intolerant of unpicking. I had to undo the entire button band, and it did not take kindly to this, not one little bit. It’s now full of tiny rips, presumably the thread is stronger than the fabric. This is unfortunate. I’d love to re-do the button band and collar, which as you can see is slightly bodged, but I think the whole thing would disintegrate if I did.
I used snaps. Again. I love snaps, I do, especially since I invested in a pair of proper pliers. Before, I was just whacking them with a hammer on my doorstep, which got me funny looks from the neighbours and patchy results. They aren’t really any cheaper or easier to apply than buttons, but there’s something about them I love. The way they facilitate quick changes, perhaps?
Onto Shirtdress #2 – the legendary McCalls 6696. This is a “proper” shirt dress with a real collar, waistband and pockets. Initially deterred because my last “proper” collared shirt made me look like Harry Hill, I was persuaded to give this a try by Dolly Clackett’s floral version. I went for the ¾ sleeved option with a pencil skirt because I thought it would suit my… [mysterious noise] Mystery Fabric better.
I bought 3 metres, OK, yards, of Mystery Fabric at Mood in NYC when I was on holiday there in the summer. I am not sure what came over me in the shop, surrounded by fabulous prints of every description, but I went and bought some plain indigo stuff labelled as “sateen” and some teal coloured viscose jersey. I also bought some lovely hand painted buttons which I accidentally threw away, but that memory causes me pain so I won’t discuss that further.
I got the stuff home and pre-washed it. Hmm. This isn’t sateen. I blame the jet lag, and chasing the girl around miles and miles of shelves for not being able to spot this at the time. In fact I have no real idea what it is. It has a sheen to it, but also appears to have paler blue warp threads under the intense indigo colour. Despite the pre-washing, endless amounts of blue dye came off on my hands and once completed, it went on to have 3 more washes before the dye even remotely stopped shedding. It’s a poplin weight I think, and shows up pin holes like anyone’s business – I used Clover clips rather than pins for a lot of this once I realised. Some sort of chambray?
This stuff is like Dorian Gray’s portrait. It reflects everything, every injustice it’s wreaked, every immoral act. Yarg. However, I realise that if this is chambray, it’s going to wear in beautifully. I hope. The instructions were OK I think, but it assumed a lot of prior knowledge. I’d have been mightily baffled if I hadn’t made a “proper” shirt before – this is not the place to start. The instructions also called for a lot of slipstitching.
Really? Given I practically had to use a hammer to get pins into this stuff (it’s like it’s been coated in shellac), I wasn’t going to attempt miles and miles of slipstitching. No, I’m a lazy creature and I like topstitching, so that’s what it got. I just hemmed the sleeves in the end rather than add the weird pointy things. I was worried that adding chevrons to my sleeves would be a bit much like an alien bureaucrat’s costome in an early season of TNG. The process was quite a faff and I just couldn’t see myself in the end result.
The fit at the front is blimmin’ perfect, but at the back… bit bunchy.
I replaced the gathers with a box pleat as I could store my lunch in the sticky out part at the back. The fabric is still a bit stiff despite the 4 pre-washes it’s had. From the front, I look like a member of some sort of strict girls’ brigade, which I would enjoy, and may even found. Or possibly a nurse, if nurses like having their dresses pop undone every time they crouch down (which as it turns out I do quite a lot. Hopefully this is just because the skirt keeps sticking to the tights I’m wearing.
I do like wearing navy, which is just as well because I’m going to be navy all over after wearing this all day.
I bought the Colette Patterns Negroni ages ago, in the first flush of a new hobby. I went a bit mad for Colette for a while, although on reflection I regret buying the A-line Ginger skirt and Violet blouse.
Both are very nice, but suited to a different body shape to mine. The skirt has such a broad waistband that it comes up to my chin and the blouse’s Peter Pan collar is just too voluminous. I think they suit someone taller, with broader shoulders and a thicker waist. It’s experiences like these, though, that help inform you about what you truly like and dislike, and what fits you. I realised that I prefer things to be a bit more swirly below the waist, and because I am so small, I prefer to have less going on around my neck.
At least I can look at my failures, my wadders, and consider that for the most part it wasn’t technical incompetence but personal taste that led to their demise. I hope as I develop my skills I will be able to look at a pattern and know whether it’s going to swallow me up. There’s just not enough real estate on my body for fussy details, big prints and wacky trims – a shame I think. I’d love to be one of those women with purple victory rolls and ample bosoms who pull off cherry print circle skirts like it ain’t no thing.
But after all this navel gazing, my husband observed that I had so far failed to make him anything except some nightwear. Ehh. OK then. It’s hard to sew for other people for lots of reasons, the main one being that they might not like it and/or understand the effort that went into it. But I already had the pattern, so out came Negroni. I had muslined this ages and ages ago, using my seemingly endless supply of leftover curtain fabric, and thought the Medium fitted him OK.
I had some lovely soft Paul Smith pink and blue gingham from Croft Mill, left over from something else – there wasn’t quite enough, so I used the last of the Checky Dress’s handloom gingham for the facing and the back of the collar.
Negroni is a nice introduction to making shirts I think. I made the short sleeved version as my husband barely ever feels the cold. I had to take it in at the side seams quite a bit, as I’d made the Medium, and he’s really a Small. Pearl snaps seemed to be just the thing, although this makes a mockery of the button loop I added in, and he was delighted with the end result. The instructions are nice and clear, even when you get to the bit where you have to roll everything up inside the yoke like a burrito. This is a tricky step for a British person who is not particularly familiar with burritos.
Like me, he is a hamster and loves pockets, so I made sure these were put on correctly, with the flaps cut on the cross grain.
The shirt has gotten a great deal of wear. To his credit, if people compliment the shirt, he says that it was made for him. I think it’s his favourite. I still feel possessive of it though. I get annoyed when he hasn’t washed his neck and has left a mark on the collar, for instance. I actually iron it for him, which I wouldn’t normally do. It looks fairly smart, and he wears it with a lightweight jacket for work.
Negroni has what’s apparently known as a camp collar, which is a more casual style.Nick has a slight frame and large collars tend to drown him. He also gets hot very easily and when he wears a tie he looks as if it’s trying to throttle him. As a result this casual collar, designed to be worn unbuttoned, works really well on him.
After reflecting and considering my mistakes, it’s nice to look upon my triumphs occasionally, if only to remind myself that I do have them. This is one of those. I know it has flaws which at some point I might fix, but I wear this a lot, especially to teach, and I really like it.
I was re-playing Half Life 2 when I cut this dress out, from lovely floppy chambray I’d bought at Cloth House. Specifically I was on the Nova Prospekt level where Gordon Freeman uses an army of alien antlions to storm the prison and, for those who pay attention, begins to discover what the Combine have been up to: [spoiler] taking humans and modifying them either into Overwatch soldiers or cyborg Stalker slaves. It was nice to replay HL2, just over 10 years after it was first released. I only actually played it in 2007, as part of the legendary Orange Box – I had bought it as a gift for my brother, but was so curious about Portal that I bought another copy, played Portal, which then acted as both tutorial and gateway drug to HL2.
I loved the stark look of the game, set in a Brutalist Eastern European environment, further destroyed by the alien Combine, whom Gordon had inadvertently released onto Earth during the events of Half Life. The plot is told via the gameplay rather than tedious unskippable scenes, frequently crossing the borders between game and film. Unfortunately, the world of Half Life and Portal have ruined me for playing anything else. RPGs feel like boring part time jobs, puzzle games are frustratingly pacifist and the least said about MMORPGs the better. I felt a revisit has been overdue for some time and since you can now play many games on Linux via the steam player, I didn’t even have to bother to use Windows any more.
The pattern is Simplicity 1325, bought in a binge in their last half price sale. When I’m teaching, I do have to assume the sort of positions one might use when giving birth, so there’s a lot of bending over, squatting and lying down involved. A voluminous, but not floaty, skirt does a good job of covering up the bits I’d prefer not to display whilst giving freedom of movement. When I wear trousers, there’s always a concern that when I bend over, everyone will get a nice view of either my pants or lower back, or my tummy if I lie down, so a dress of this length is ideal. The pockets are also handy for spare pens, sweets, tissues, phone and random articles.
I feel a dress like this would be ideal for battling malevolent and mysterious alien alliances, guided at all times by a trans dimensional entity with unclear motives. It is possibly the kind of thing Alyx Vance would wear on more formal occasions as it has pockets for her Plot Device (like a sonic screwdriver, it does whatever she requires it to do at any point) and apparently limitless ammunition.
The deep V-neck was quite tricky and the pattern instructions did not make it any easier. I reduced the stitch length to Piddly and went very slowly, reinforcing the V as much as I dared to avoid holes appearing in the future. Rather than self lining, I used some left over Liberty lawn, for a nice contrast and to reduce the weight. It is understitched but still a tad visible. I decided I didn’t mind – I think this is because the two fabrics have different levels of stretch. I’d probably trim down the lining next time in a similar situation.
I have just finished the game – it took longer than the dress. People often clamour for sequels of things that they felt ended before their time. Firefly, for instance. I don’t usually feel like that. After Serenity I thought the characters were pretty much where I wanted them to be and I was happy to leave them there. However, after HL2 Episode 2, the characters are in the middle of something, things are still to be revealed including a tie up with Portal, and something catastrophic has just occurred. I would still like some form of conclusion, even if the actual game were rubbish. The generally agreed theory is that Valve (the game’s publishers) have either moved on, a sequel has been produced that they just weren’t happy with, Valve don’t want to be caught in a treadmill of endless crappy sequels, and they don’t need the cash, having invented a perpetual money machine (Steam).
As usual I hacked out about 2 inches from the upper back. This is my non scientific narrow shoulder adjustment and it’s usually the only thing I need to do with a pattern like this. Although I am short, I find I don’t usually need to raise the waistline and I’m fortunate enough to waver between a B and C cup – most mainstream patterns are apparently drafted to a B cup and graded up or down, and indies tend to use a C cup so I’m good either way. The fit is close, let’s say, and there isn’t a huge amount of cake room. But this is a standing up and working dress, not a sitting down eating cake dress. Honest.
The chambray was very obliging and well behaved, although it frayed like buggery. I did slipstitch the bodice lining, which I don’t usually do. Slipstitching (hack, spit!) is not my best thing. However, I think the difference in weight between the shell and lining caused some wonkoidness when I attempted to ditch stitch so I got the needle out. Bah. I also should have staystitched the skirt as this stretched out a little and the side seams do not line up exactly with the bodice.
I did a lapped zipper, my first that wasn’t a complete eyesore. This is partly due I think to buying a decent zip, rather than a crap one. The creases here are due to slapdash ironing.
The hem is currently rolled. This was a mistake of course, the fabric is much too thick, but at the time I felt I couldn’t face handstitching what is almost a full circle skirt. I am still too much in love with my rolled hem foot but I really should say goodbye to it at some point.
The pockets, swirly skirt and deep V neck make this dress practical and fun without being wacky. I would like to make this again in something lightweight. I do think I resemble a kids’ TV presenter in the ensemble especially when worn with the T-shirt included in the pattern as well, using:
Elsa print organic jersey from Spoonflower. For the uninitiated this is the rosemaling design on Elsa’s coronation gown. I managed to get the design lined up nicely front and back, and on the sleeves.
Haha! So far most people don’t get the reference. It’s very popular with the five year olds though. The T-shirt itself was great to make and the higher neckline goes well with this dress.
So how do people learn sewing when they aren’t really taught it at school?
Whilst my mother and grandmother attempted to teach me to sew and knit, I picked up some odd habits from them, like using tailor tacks when chalk would do just as well, and never tracing patterns, meaning that if you’d cut a size too small, you’d wasted your money. I was taught sewing at school, 1,000 years ago, by a vile sociopath called Mrs Inglis. Mrs Inglis barely concealed her horror at my wish to construct a pleated skirt in Home Economics. She would routinely remove the scissors from my hands, stating that I was too cack handed (I’ve never managed to cut myself with scissors – jabbed pins into myself repeatedly, banged fingers with hammers, yes), and openly laughed at my attempt at a screen printed blouse (with a sheep on it).
Fortunately my end results were good enough to prevent despondency. I wore the sheep blouse quite a lot in fact, even at university.
However, apart from the odd curtain over the years, and a dress for a May Ball that I’d rather not discuss right now, I didn’t pick up the craft again until fairly recently.
How to revise what I’d learned a whole millennium ago? A lot of books suggest starting off with cushion covers and the like. Well, stuff that. I could barely comprehend wasting time constructing something that gets sat and farted on. No, I wanted to make a dress.
I’d always wanted to make a simple dress in Liberty print cotton lawn. Lawn is a light weight, silky feeling cotton. I’d been deterred by the cost in Liberty itself – upwards of £22 a metre. However, I found 3 metres for about £30 on Ebay and when it arrived I spent a long time fondling the fabric and worrying about the expensive disaster I was about to wreak.
The pattern I chose was the achingly simple Laurel from Colette. Laurel is a simple shift dress with sleeves, darts at front and back and patch pockets. It’s finished with bias binding rather than a fiddly facing and the end result is a straightforward frock that can go anywhere.
There are only 3 main pieces to the pattern and the only part that posed a challenge was easing in the sleeves, which I did in the round. I made miles and miles of bias binding too, a dull job that paid off in the end as I was able to use it for all sorts of things and it lasted for ages.
Initially I put in a zip but after forgetting to undo it I found I could put the dress on without, so I removed it.
So although the challenge was perhaps slightly greater than that of a cushion, I think the pay off was well worth it. Instead of a cushion, I have a dress – an actual dress, that I can wear, and which Mrs Inglis would probably snigger at but never mind that. Of course it isn’t perfect. I could have done a much better job with the sleeves, I used cheap Coats Moon thread whereas the fabric deserves something of a higher quality, and some of the bias edging is well wonky. But as a revision exercise, and one which I wear often, it was well worth it. It’s good to reflect on what one might do differently next time: French seams, better thread, neater finishing in this case. Would I recommend this to a beginner over a cushion cover? Well, it depends on how that beginner feels about cushions I suppose. The darts and sleeves do pose a challenge, but isn’t that what learning is all about? If you take your time, read the directions carefully, watch some tutorials on the tricky stuff, I see no reason why not. At the end of it, you’ll have picked up some really important basic skills in garment sewing.
The other thing I learned was that people who compliment your hand sewn outfit don’t want you to point out the mistakes. They are unlikely to understand them and it devalues the compliment.
Whilst in Old Navy, I did buy a skirt and pair of trousers as well. However, J doesn’t really have a waist and no matter how tight I winch them, they always work their way down her body. By the end of the day they are halfway down her backside. The skirt is actually a skort, with jersey shorts attached, presumably to eliminate any risk of someone glimpsing her underwear.
Americans are funny about modesty. While we were away, the weather was searingly hot and we kept visiting the water fountains in Central Park. Most of the play areas have some sort of watery bit. J will simply remove her clothes at the first sight of water and go dashing in, delightedly. I figured this kept her clothes dry and I wasn’t organised enough to bring along swimwear.
However, the little nudist got into trouble at the park near Union Square when an officious lady demanded to know if I was American. No, I said, revealing myself as one of those libertine Europeans. She scolded me and said the police could arrest me. I was about to suggest that I took my clothes off too, when she realised that a small interested crowd was developing and things were not going to go her way. She bustled off, but I did wrestle a pair of knickers onto Miss Bare Buttocks later on to avoid that happening again.
Anyway, I figured that until she got a bit taller and developed a waist, she could do with another pinafore. She has packed lunches and is not the world’s tidiest eater, so sometimes needs a fresh outfit daily. This time, I used organic cotton twill with a touch of Lycra from the Organic Cotton people again. They really are very good, and the delivery is fast and reliable. An obvious advantage of children’s clothes is that you can easily get at least one outfit from one metre of fabric, which makes an organic cotton twill pinafore relatively affordable – about £8.
One of the skirt panels is the wrong way round. I can’t blame anyone but myself. I would have re-done it, but figured the only person who was likely to notice is me.
This time, the lining is butterfly print viscose. I bought the end of a roll from a small fabric shop in Acton the other week, for £2.50.
I had already made myself a Zsalya top from it, and used the rest here. I added patch pockets, lined with the same stuff.
Did I pleat the skirt? Er, no. I gathered it again. The twill is thick, but fairly drapey and flexible. I didn’t integrate the lining with the zip properly, because it might catch and stick, and J gets very wound up when her zips get stuck. That’s my excuse. The only real change from the first time around, pattern wise, was rounding out the back a bit more as the first version keeps puckering a bit here.
It’s survived so far. Apparently J’s teacher said “wow!” when she saw the insides. That’s good enough for me. The twill is quite sticky and accumulates cat hair and other fluff, but it is soft, stretchy, warm and comfortable. I thought maybe I should fashion a little heart or butterfly from Sugru for the zipper. I am still thinking about that..
I’ve never been one of those Pink Stinks people, as I don’t believe that we help anyone by disparaging ‘girly’ things as weak, inferior or less desirable than ‘boy’ things. It’s far easier to be a boyish girl than a girlish boy. Deep down I think our resistance to the idea of a boy playing with dolls is latent homophobia, this nameless and baseless fear that playing with ‘weak’ girly things will turn young boys gay, as if that were (a) possible and (b) something one would wish to avoid. Of course I hate gender segmentation as much as the next person and ranted at some luckless temp in Hamleys who tried to sell me a pink magic kit.
However, having sweated and bled to create this duffle coat, I was furious when J declared the colours to be not ‘girl colours’ and refused to wear it.
I have a fabric shop fairly close by in Edgware. It’s called Jersey Vogue Fabrics, they last changed the window display about five years ago and it’s constantly rammed with fashion students and what I will call local colour.
This used the Oliver + S School Days duffle coat pattern. Again, printing and taping was a horrible job. Cutting the pieces took hours as I’d decided I’d better match the tartan. I managed to match it.. more or less.
But, undoubtedly, the very most boringest part of the make was quilting the inner gilet thingy.
I used some fleece I had floating around and quilted that, rather than use batting, because I had fleece, I don’t have batting, and that’s that. I figured they’re much the same thing. I just quilted by eye, because I started marking the material and thought I’d go mad very quickly doing that.
The floral stuff on the inside is from B&M Fabrics, a brilliant stall in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market, and it reminded me of some old wallpaper my parents had when I was little. The purply stuff on the outside is Kona again, from Plush Addict.
Once the quilting was done, the rest was easy – although maybe that’s just in contrast. Doing the lining was the best bit, turning it all inside out and realising that it looked like a coat! It does.
I put the sleeves in flat as is my wont these days. I find easing sleeves in the round to be quite annoying and “pinny” and doing them flat gives me a much nicer result. I am sure there is some jolly good reason why I should be doing them the fiddly annoying way, and indeed sometimes the construction of a garment demands it’s done that way, but if I can ever avoid it, I will.
Some of the stitching around the hems and sleeves is a bit uneven, I must admit. Currently the sleeves are so long that I have to roll them up and the uneven stitching does not show! Win.
J on the other hand was annoyed that I had not made it in “girl colours” once it was finished. WAT.
Yes, apparently I should have made it in pink and purple. She *saw* me make it, she knew it was for her, and yet she saved her objections for the finished result! Like a little drunken dictator, she ensures that her subjects can never be sure about anything. Keeps ’em on their toes, you know. I must make sure that she never has control of a secret police force.
On the other hand, being a grown up has advantages, such as making her wear the unsatisfactory coloured coat anyway. Bwahahaha. That’s where she gets it from.
When I was at school, I read a great many school stories, from the 1920s up to the 1950s. Since I had no friends and barely spoke to anyone, when I did, my language was peppered with things like “smashing” and “super!”. (The one fact probably is connected to the other) I really wanted one of those gymslips they wore, with a voluminous pleated skirt, apron front and, most importantly in my view, a coloured sash denoting your house.
The fact that I went to a state secondary school in the late 1980s was the only barrier to my daydreams. In fact I did actually buy a gymslip of sorts from Hobbs a while ago. I wear it to work and I do sometimes pretend I’m bullying off in the final critical match of the season with St Dunstan’s while I’m on the way to the toilet.
Whilst on holiday in New York, I bought a few things from Old Navy, of all places: a pinny, skirt, trousers and a blue polo shirt. As the originals are khaki (no grey available) and they are made from cotton twill, I dyed them with Dylon and they came out almost black, not regulation grey. I figured it’d fade eventually and brazened it out. However, the zip fastening for the pinny is at the back, meaning that she can’t undo it herself and this is a problem for PE.
Finding a pattern for a front fastening pinafore is quite a challenge, and I’m stingy, so I hacked the Jump Rope dress. I left off the sleeves, lowered the front, left off the collar and added a front zip fastening.
I guess I could have finished it with bias binding but decided on a fun lining. I used a fat quarter of quilting cotton that had unicorns on it. The fabric itself is Kona cotton in grey and both were from Plush Addict.
Because I decided this was a wearable muslin, I did not spend as long as I should have ensuring that the zip lined up, or ensuring that the lining was all cut out in the same direction. I had to piece together one of the panels from careless offcuts. You may also notice that the zip is not as perfectly aligned as it could be.
I kept the gathered skirt from the original pattern. I am not completely sure about this and wonder whether pleating would be more sensible – but then I’d have to press pleats and I don’t want to do that.
It was a success. She can undo the zipper easily, and of course when she gets changed for PE everyone is treated to the sight of unicorns.
I only had to start wearing uniform at secondary school (age 11+). Up to the sixth form (16-18) I wore a grey skirt, blue shirt (not a blouse), tie and acrylic V-necked jumper. We had to ask permission to take off our jumpers on hot days. At the start of the summer term, in May, boys were permitted to leave off their ties, and girls got to wear a gingham blouse with a rever collar. I loved my blouse. I wore it constantly, even on holidays. I craved the gingham and plaid dresses worn by the girls on Neighbours and Home and Away (Australian soap operas), and daydreamed about this one day becoming an option at school. Sadly it wasn’t to be and even when I started sixth form, and switched from grey to blue, the gingham blouse remained the only summer option.
So of course, J’s first handmade school frock had to be a gingham dress.
I chose handloom gingham from The Organic Textile Company for this. I was taken by the photos of Ganesh, who weaves and grows the cotton. In particular, his family, including his children, can wander about the fields without risking long term health problems caused by the remorseless application of pesticides regular cotton requires. I chose a digital pattern – the Jump Rope Dress from Oliver + S. The worst part, without a doubt, was taping together the pattern pieces after printing.
The second worst part was the placket, or the bit that holds the buttons on. This involved a lot of fabric origami, folding and snipping and sewing. I’ve made a placket before and that time, I used disappearing fabric marker, the kind that vanishes when you iron it. Since there’s a lot of ironing involved in making a placket, I realised that this was quite a stupid idea. So for this one I marked the folds by stitching along the lines, which was much more effective but the stitching was a sod to remove and indeed, you can see that I gave up trying to.
The clear sparkly buttons were from John Lewis. My husband had conniptions about both the buttons and the little embroidered hearts, saying that they would not be up to regulations. I reasoned that if the school tolerated Hello Kitty appliques on uniform, they could live with sparkly buttons.
There are only two belt loops. The pattern asks for four, but making them was quite boring and I thought I’d chance my arm with just two. I have recently found a tutorial for simpler belt loops from Coletterie, which I’ll try next time. The sash has, so far, returned from school with the rest of the dress.
This is her favourite dress and she will wear it for formal occasions if not persuaded otherwise. The material is thick, but light, and has washed really well. It’s soft and comfortable. Most gingham dresses I’ve seen have a collar with facing, and this always turns out to the front without painstaking ironing. Almost nobody, not even I, can be bothered with pressing fiddly collars – the Jump Rope dress has no such annoyances. Indeed, by my standards, it doesn’t need pressing at all. J’s only real objection was that she felt the blue was too dark and the checks too big at first. She was worried she’d get into trouble. However, this is a reception class at a local state infant school and nobody is about to check her gingham with a ruler and a Pantone chart.
I remember feeling very depressed just after I received the letter stating that my daughter had been allocated a place at our chosen school. She was getting dressed in a floral pinny that she was outgrowing, and I realised that there was no point in buying another one, as she’d be at school five days a week, and spend the majority of her time in grey pinafores and navy blue sweatshirts.
My mood was not lightened in the least by the school wear on display at my local supermarket. It’s cheap, yes, but that comes at a cost. It was also scratchy and made from unpleasant fabric. I came over all Highgate Mums at the thought of my little treasure wearing it, tempered with the knowledge that it was almost certainly made by a woman with children of her own, who was barely paid enough to feed them. Lucy Siegle in “To Die For” details many highly depressing examples of cost cutting in garment manufacture. Once a company has cut the costs of fabric to the bone, the next thing to be reduced is the wages.
Whilst sewing is increasing as a hobby, I was more interested in using the skills I’d learned from my mother for a utilitarian purpose: something beyond party frocks or scatter cushions. This is, after all, what women used to do before the industrial revolution, and outsourcing, made clothing so cheap that it can be treated as disposable. Time was when clothing was so precious that a garment was endlessly repaired and altered. Antique clothing is rare because it was worn and used until it literally disintegrated. When we look at old images of, say Victorians, we forget that just about every item of clothing they wore would have been hand stitched – often by the wearer’s mother, sister, daughter, or themselves.
Do people make their own school uniforms, I wondered. Do they?
Google informed me that the answer is “a few, not many” and most seem to be Mormon women in Utah with dozens of children. Well, if they can find the time, I probably could.
I decided that I needed to meet a few requirements. The clothes need to be:
* Normal looking (the most important factor for all concerned. I don’t want to be embarrassed, nor an embarrassment.
* Pleasant to wear
* Appropriate to the conditions (most schoolwear is quite thin and not very warm in winter, and all that non breathable polyester must be uncomfortable in the summer)
* Easy for me to take care of. I don’t mind a little light ironing but if I can get away without bothering, I will.
* Accessible. A 5 year old is wearing this stuff and she has to be able to get it on and off herself.
Is this something I think everyone should attempt? Not really. I don’t have much cash but I do have a little time, and I learned to sew a long time ago. I have all the kit, acquired over the years, and a space to do it in. Take away one of those factors, and I’d have probably found a different solution. But I hope this series of posts is informative.
I am independent.
…but just vulnerable enough so my core demographic continues to engage with my character.
My garments cover an agreed portion of my body.
…one which has been determined by focus groups and polls to be inoffensive to those who find my body offensive.
My breasts are visible but not evident.
…it was decided that I needed something to make me stand out. I suggested a handlebar moustache but that was vetoed.
I have fun and adventure!
…whilst still being very responsible.
I run my own successful business!
…all by myself.
I am brainy and a nerd! I love reading books!
…and yet I have plenty of time to play with the boys.
Because I am a strong female character.
Indeed sometimes I even wear glasses. To show how clever I am. Just sometimes.
I am skilled in the use of all weapons, real and fictional.
…but I’m also gentle and love animals.
I’m bisexual! I’m mixed race!
…but don’t worry, I’m a sort of safe mocha latte.
I have a cool disability.
…though you’ll never see me struggle to get on a bus or in and out of public lavatories.
My designers have a lot of boxes to tick, you see.
They needed a strong female character.
So they made me.
I am all things to all people.
Because there’s only one of me.
I suggested getting a couple more
…but the designers said the game/film/TV show wouldn’t be marketable to boys if they did that.
So there I am.
A strong female character.
Just the one.