Super Bright Frock

“African*” wax print fabric is becoming very modish of late.
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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.

Bling!
Bling! If you look closely you can see I left the selvedge visible on the bottom, this is apparently a thing one does to show that you bought the real deal and not a knockoff.

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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.

Pleats at the front. These look really impressive but were not difficult at all.
Pleats at the front. These look really impressive but were not difficult at all.

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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.

Take one dress and reach up inside the shoulders, putting one inside the other. Note the inner facings, top and bottom..
Take one dress and reach up inside the shoulders, putting one inside the other..

It worked really well and I didn’t have to hand sew anything! Bonus.

..sew the two shoulder pieces together, ensuring right sides are facing..
..sew the two shoulder pieces together, ensuring right sides are facing..
And back out the other way.
And back out the other way. Kindly ignore the hump, which is down to my incompetence.

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.

Closer look at the hem facing. I'd have hand stitched this invisibly, if  I COULD HAVE BEEN BOTHERED.
Closer look at the hem facing. I’d have hand stitched this invisibly, if I COULD HAVE BEEN BOTHERED.

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.

Eesh.
Eesh.

*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.

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Spring fling

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.

Spring!!!
Spring!!!

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.

Modesty is of course my main virtue. That and enjoying ironing.
Modesty is of course my main virtue. That and enjoying ironing.

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.

No bunching at the back, thank you heavy pleated skirt!
No bunching at the back, thank you heavy pleated skirt!

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.

Burrito inner yoke.
Burrito inner yoke.

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.

Topstitched. Because I have a machine to do sewing, dammit.
Topstitched. Because I have a machine to do sewing, dammit.

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.

Slightly too big - bonus room for cake.
Slightly too big – bonus room for cake.

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.

Is that an Old Fashioned?
Is that an Old Fashioned?

Checky Dress Redux

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?

Just relax..

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.

So Jump Rope Dress 2 beckoned.

Hello!
Hello!

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.

Problem is, she moves whilst a coat hanger does not.
Problem is, she moves whilst a coat hanger does not.

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.

She does wear shoes for school.
She does wear shoes for school.

This time I made sure I bought enough to have some left over for me.

The Shirt Dress of Mood and Mystery

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.

Well howdy there.
Well howdy there.

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.

As long as I keep moving, nobody will notice.
As long as I keep moving, nobody will notice.

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.

Model is wearing the most static tights in the universe.
Model is wearing the most static tights in the universe.

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?

Not shown: the dress shaped blue stain on the wall behind.
Not shown: the dress shaped blue stain on the wall behind.

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.

Argh.
Argh.

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.

Bunchy bunchy bunchy. This is what comes of inflicting gathers on Mystery Fabric.
Bunchy bunchy bunchy. This is what comes of inflicting gathers on Mystery Fabric. Also note needle holes from an earlier transgression.

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.

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I do like wearing navy, which is just as well because I’m going to be navy all over after wearing this all day.

A Checky Shirt

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.

Violet is just too voluminous.
Violet is just too voluminous.

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.

A Checky Shirt!
A Checky Shirt!

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.

Handloom cotton for the facing and inner back yoke.
Handloom cotton for the facing and inner back yoke.

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.

Cut on the cross grain, cowboy style.
Cut on the cross grain, cowboy style.

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.

The shirt in action, after a soaking at Niagara Falls.
The shirt in action, after a soaking at Niagara Falls.

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.

Nova Prospekt dress

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.

Sometimes you just has 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.

We don't go to Ravenholm. We also don't do our zips properly on the inside. Shh.
We don’t go to Ravenholm. We also don’t do our zips properly on the inside. Shh.

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.

 

Prepare for unforseen consequences. Visible lining for instance.
Prepare for unforeseen consequences. Visible lining for instance.

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.  

How much skirt? This much skirt. I challenge you not to swish this skirt.
How much skirt? This much skirt. I challenge you not to swish this skirt.

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.

A moment's quiet reflection for a lapped zipper that doesn't look like a Vortigaunt's bottom.
A moment’s quiet reflection for a lapped zipper that doesn’t look like a Vortigaunt’s bottom.

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.

I let this go to the extent that I photographed it without ironing it first.
I let this go to the extent that I photographed it without ironing it first.

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.

Learning & Revising – Laurel by Colette

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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).

Excellent teaching practice? I don’t think so.

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.

Sleeves duly eeeased. This is the best bit, I'm not showing the dodgy bit.
Sleeves duly eeeased. This is the best bit, I’m not showing the dodgy bit.

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.

I closed the escape route here - Laurel is loose enough on me not to need a zip.
I closed the escape route here – Laurel is loose enough on me not to need a zip.

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.

She's probably dead anyway.
Yeah, get bent, Mrs Inglis. She picked on my younger brothers as well.

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.

Pinafora Lepidoptera

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.

image

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.

I AM BIZNIZZ

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.

Whoops. I forgot that twill has two sides. If she moves around enough and I don't tell anyone, nobody will notice.
Whoops. I forgot that twill has two sides. If she moves around enough and I don’t tell anyone, nobody will notice.

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.

Zsaliya Top for me...
Zsaliya Top for me…

Lining for the girl.
Lining for the girl.

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.

Puckering at the back of Version 1 - any attempt to steam this out makes it worse.
Puckering at the back of Version 1 – any attempt to steam this out makes it worse.
Butterflies in her pockets. To go with the crumbs, rocks and rotten leaves.
Butterflies in her pockets. To go with the crumbs, rocks and rotten leaves.

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..

Girl Colours

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.

Not girl colours apparently.
Not girl colours apparently.

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.

Quilted removable lining. I swore blind I'd never make a quilt after doing this.
Quilted removable lining. I swore blind I’d never make a quilt after doing this.

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.

Hoodie.
Hoodie.

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.

HMS Pinafore

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.

This kind of thing. The reality of hockey is standing freezing in the snow and hoping nobody passes you the ball.
This kind of thing. The reality of hockey is standing freezing in the snow and hoping nobody passes you the ball.

I love the subtext here, the kind of passionate longing apparently prevalent in girls' boarding schools.
I love the subtext here, the kind of passionate longing apparently prevalent in girls’ boarding schools.

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.

Wikipedia tells me that this attire was in fact chosen because it was considered too rude for young ladies to play sports wearing shorts, and the pleated apron fronts and ample skirts were to conceal the physiques of young women. I choose to ignore this annoying and inconvenient truth!

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.

Greasy stain on skirt is either impossible to remove or she keeps adding to it.
Business on the outside..

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.

What's that on the inside???
What’s that on the inside???

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.

Professionalism.
Professionalism.

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.

Technically an alicorn, I guess.
Technically an alicorn, I guess.

A Checky Dress.

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.

DSCF6003

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.

Nameless stain: model's own.
Sparkly buttons and a reasonable stab at a placket.

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.

My machine has about 50 stitches I never use, it seemed rude not to.
My machine has about 50 stitches I never use, it seemed rude not to.

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 looks a weird shape. It's not, it's just my l33t photography skills.
This looks a weird shape. It’s not, it’s just my l33t photography skills.

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.

Non-Uniform

DSCF6003

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.

A Strong Female Character

I am a role model.
 
I am attractive.
…but not too attractive.
 
I am mature.
…but not too old.
 
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.
 
It’s quite tiring really.

Page 3 – A Defence

Someone remarked that the kind of breasts on display would not be ‘normal’ and that they would be silicone enhanced.
That reminded me of something I knew about Page 3 that perhaps others did not.
I’m no fan of The Sun. I will not buy it and I do not read it. However, I am aware that the woman on Page 3 will not, apart from certain exceptions, have breast implants. The policy has been for the start of the feature, nearly 40 years ago, that the model will be ‘wholesome’ and natural looking. Indeed, when I twitched Page 1 aside, what we saw was a pleasant image of an attractive, curvy young woman with fairly large and normal looking breasts. The makeup and hair were natural and there was little evidence of airbrushing.
The much vilified ‘news in briefs’ section, to which I will return, was tiny – postage stamp sized – and down in the bottom left corner of the photo. The whole offending feature, which has received a huge amount of campaigning flak over the years, took up less than a third of the page.
We were all, I think, surprised at what we saw. We were expecting an airbrushed, plasticised glamour shot of a trussed up model, pouting provocatively at us from this newspaper. It’s interesting how ‘Lads’ Mags’ have created an aesthetic expectation in most people so that when you talk of topless photos, you have a specific image in mind.
Back home, I looked over the Sun’s Page 3 archive. The images in fact stood out as being far more normal looking than any of the other celebrity or glamour photos in the newspaper, and indeed features in other tabloids like the Daily Mail website’s Sidebar of Shame. On the Sun’s home page there was a photo shoot of some odd creature known as Amy Childs, and she *did* have hard silicone hemispheres plonked on her chest, with copious amounts of fake hair to go with her fake breasts. This shoot *did* have the harsh light and airbrushing we would expect. Except Ms Childs is not really a glamour model and the photos were not a feature in themselves. She posed for them in order to advertise her new lingerie range.
I began thinking about why the No More Page 3 campaign has got so much attention when in fact it features some of the least objectionable and ugly images of topless women I’ve seen for some time. 
The arguments are that it creates an oppressive culture of sexism; that it is in poor taste and that it encourages men to see women as sex objects. The campaign sees Page 3 as a totem of women’s poor status in the UK and feels, by a campaign of letter writing, that it will shame the Sun’s editors into removing it and then, somehow, everything will be better. Our pay will go up, sexual harassment will cease and everyone who wants it can work part time from home. Recently Murdoch has been making noises about replacing it.
Apart from the manifest idiocy of believing that getting people who do not and will not read the paper under any circumstances to write to the editor of the best selling paper in the UK and ask him/her to remove one of their longest running and popular features, there is a vast middle here that has not been distributed.
Page 3 is a symptom and not a cause of sexism. That it is sexist is up for debate. I think it’s subjective, but I will say that the fact that many men and women like looking at breasts relates to a highly primal and normal drive in humans. Breasts nurture and nourish us (or they ought to, more often than they do). They allure and seduce us (if we are that way inclined).
Those who object to Page 3 are using it as a shibboleth of all that is misogynistic, sexist and wrong.
 
But it is none of these things. Their objections are a mishmash of anti-porn activism, snobbery and prudishness.
 
The anti-porn people want to ban all porn. They are those who would impose a compulsory porn filter on the UK’s internet – a plan which has recently morphed into demanding that anyone with children must tick a box agreeing to have filters installed, with penalties to be imposed on those who simply fib in order to have their browsing unhindered.
 
I don’t care if my daughter sees porn, I really don’t. The reason is that I understand the internet, I know how it works and I know how to control it. She will know how to avoid it if she wishes.
 
I have also seen enough porn to know that it can span a massive range from high art to extreme exploitation and everything in between. Like cockroaches, those that do exploit individuals to make nasty porn hate any form of sunlight. Banning and restricting them will only allow them to flourish. This is a world in which genuine imagination, tenderness and beauty cohabit with tedious repetitive plastic humping and it is a world with value. It does not in itself corrupt.
 
It is also a world that can be entirely avoided if an individual so wishes. It is not compulsory.
 
However, at least an anti-porn activist has a stance that is logically consistent and defensible. They wish to control who has sex with whom and for what reasons. Sex for money (or other forms of material reward) is anathema. Good luck with that.
 
The snobbishness has struck me as irrational. They want the end of Page 3, but claim to be “sex positive” and pro porn. It’s as if pornography for the upper classes – tasteful monochrome Testino images of nudes, Mapplethorpe coffee table books or vintage Tom of Finland* prints are acceptable, yet accessible muck for the working classes is simply de trop. A catwalk show for a milliner featuring chilly looking models completely nude apart from the hat is applauded as high art: Sandra from Dagenham, in a pair of lacy pants, is not.
 
Tellingly, people who make this argument use derogatory terms about “Sandra from Dagenham” as if Sandra is not an agent of her own destiny. Sandra is apparently a victim and driven to this job by oppression and society. And, to cap it all, is from Dagenham! Imagine that. The hypothetical models are always from provincial towns in Essex – anyone from Essex will confirm they are as sick of these stereotypes as the models themselves. If Page 3 featured “Alexandra from Hampstead”, would that be better?
 
In fact, as a fully enfranchised member of a democratic society, Sandra can do as she wishes. Glamour modelling is a job after all: not a job for everyone certainly but a job nonetheless. Shutting down something which can be either launchpad to a decent career, or a way of getting pocket money whilst at university, is a little vindictive. Sandra may not really want to get a job as a broadsheet journalist, an academic, or a minimum wage position at a trendy third wave coffee shop. Sandra may have considered her options and decided glamour modelling offers good money with no heavy lifting.
 
It may even be that Sandra, denied the income from being a regular on Page 3, ends up feeling that she must have surgery in order to get other glamour modelling gigs and turns into another silicone clone on the pages of Nuts. They criticise the ‘news in briefs’ (a tiny callout allegedly quoting the model’s views on a newsworthy topic) as mocking the model. It isn’t – it’s mocking those who said that Page 3 was objectifying women. I have it on fairly good authority that the News in Briefs is *actually* chosen by the model – a dainty middle finger extended to those who would protect her from her own motivations.
 
Then there are the prudes. Ah, the prudes. The ones who would like the existence of the female nipple swept neatly under the carpet where it belongs.
 
But ultimately, is Page 3 sexist?
 
I would say it is *sufficiently* sexist but not *necessarily* sexist. That people like looking at attractive topless women is not a surprise and in a mature society, is not problematic. Page 3 is also not a *cause* of sexism. It merely reflects a cultural norm that it’s acceptable to show bared breasts in a newspaper but not an erect penis.
 
I also feel that were the Page 3 letter writers to be successful, they would not stop there. Next would be the lads’ mags, and next the top shelf, and then… who knows. 
 
I am with Orwell on this. Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell [or show] people what they don’t want to hear [or see]. To me censorship is far more offensive and dangerous than any pornography I have ever seen. And my word I have seen a lot – all legal, I must add.
 
And finally, on the Sun itself, I would be quite happy if every page of that rag were replaced with a topless image of a woman rather than the objectionable rubbish it usually publishes.
 

Dear Feminism

Dear Feminism

This is a difficult letter to write. It’s been great, it really has, but I think we need to spend some time away from each other.

Remember in the beginning, those heady days when we’d just discovered each other? We’d spend hours in the university library reading Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, as if we were the first in the world. It was very special. We battled together over FGM and domestic violence, and I thought we were a brilliant team.

But in the last few years, I don’t know, I think we’ve both changed a great deal. And we’ve grown apart.

I think it started back when I had a baby and you started telling me how to give birth and how I should feed and look after that baby. You began to sound confused. I *shouldn’t* have had a c-section and I *should* have bottle fed, because that was more feminist? It sounded a bit strange at the time that buying formula milk from a multinational company was more liberating to me than feeding the baby with my own milk. Anyway, I put that down to the upheaval that any major life change causes. We were still happy together.

Then you started pulling me in different directions again. I *should* go back to work, I shouldn’t. I should nurture ambitions to run a merchant bank, and to own a small cupcake and bunting shop as a “mumterpreneur”, all at once? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Things crystallised a little during the slut shaming furore of a couple of years ago. Women, annoyed at being called sluts because of how they dressed marched in protest at the suggestion that by their dress and behaviour they invited sexual assault. Fair enough. I think we agreed that anyone who claims such a thing has a very limited understanding of the nature of most sexual assaults.

Recently, though… I don’t know.

You tell me I’m strong and that I can fight for myself. But when someone threatens me with assault online your reaction is that the forum used should be banned, or heavily restricted. My instinct is that toxic comments will die out when women in public life reach a critical mass and it simply isn’t possible to tweet rape threats to them all without getting RSI, but you say I’m too delicate and your responses deter other women from putting their heads over the parapet.

You tell me that I constantly have the risk of sexual assault hanging over my head. You regularly assume that this has happened to me – that I’ve been groped or propositioned on the Tube and it’s part of a woman’s experience. Well, I haven’t. You alienated me then. You said it was so ubiquitous, I found myself wondering why not me? Am I too ugly even for an anonymous grope? Too unapproachable to pester on public transport?

You tell me I can dress as provocatively as I wish, and I’m cool with that. But at the same time, feminism, you tell me that if I dress provocatively, have photographs taken for money and get those published in a magazine, I am responsible for “pornification”? That this “pornification” has caused an increase in sexual assaults, is destroying the futures of young girls and boys and sending this country to hell in a handjob? So instead you’ve suggested extreme, swingeing censorship, the like of which we’ve only seen before in repellent dictatorships like Iran or China: it’s for my own good, you say. Men can’t control themselves. That made me wonder if you’d listened to yourself during the slut shaming.

You say I can have sex with whomever I wish. But I am not permitted willingly to have sex with people in return for money. God forbid I should film this sort of business and sell these movies on, independently, to interested third parties. In fact, it’s best that such behaviour is utterly, utterly forbidden under any circumstances because, again, some men are slime and can’t control themselves. In absolutely no way whatsoever would this ban lead to anyone being maltreated or exploited, you tell me. No, you say, it’ll prevent that from happening in the first place – but I know you are ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

So, feminism, you’ve done a lot for me, but we are going to go our separate ways for a bit. I know it’s going to be sad for a while, but you have some growing up and some thinking to do. You need to focus on what’s important. You need to stop ignoring the revolting treatment of women in countries like Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. You need to understand that what makes women free is allowing us to have sex with whom we want, when we want – to dress how we want and have children when we want. That’s not a menu. You can’t pick and choose from it. We need all of it. You may not like some of it, but tough.

See you soon.

Dignity and breastfeeding

I was too annoyed with the pulling of government funding, and my own volunteer training, to pay too much attention to National Breastfeeding Week. I was also in Norway (breastfeeding rates of 90% up to six months) at the time.

However, on my return I was greeted with a toxic article by Sarah Vine in the Times. The paywall dictates that I can’t link to it, cheers Rupert.

There’s always somebody who would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that bottle feeding a baby with formula milk is OK and a perfectly valid lifestyle choice or whatever. Vine, however, claimed that mixing bottle with breast feeding gave her back her “dignity.”

Which got me thinking about dignity, and what truly is or is not dignified.

I know what she means: that she felt that she couldn’t conform to expectations of how a new mother should be. She was tired, sleep deprived and had a baby constantly attached to her breasts. There are solutions to these problems that do not come in a tin, which are available to anyone who cares to find them. (www.kellymom.com)

But I feel her problems were not simply practical. She said she wanted her dignity back.

Her use of this word is interesting. Schopenhauer defined it as the “opinion of others about our worth and the subjective definition of dignity is our fear from this opinion of others.” The latin root is “dignus”, meaning “worthy.” So breastfeeding made her concerned about what other people might think of her: specifically that she was worthless.

It seems odd that using the same body that grew a child to nourish it could be considered worthless. Indeed, it’s even odder to try and claw back that worth by feeding the child formula milk, which after all originates from the milk of a farm animal. Is a cow more worthy to feed a human baby than a human?

Mixing up a formula feed and giving that to a baby in a bottle is something which was sold to us as being modern and, indeed, dignified. It does not seem that way to me. A woman having to pay money for a tin of powder rather than using her own milk is quite the opposite. She has delegated the ability to feed her baby over to a manufacturer, whose interests lie in their profit margin rather than the welfare of a child.

Worth in this case is entirely fiscal: the cost of the tin or carton; the cost of the bottles and teats; sterilisers and the energy needed to boil water and refrigerate.

I see no dignity in the Bangladeshi woman whose baby suffers constant bouts of diarrhea because she was duped into using formula milk she can barely afford and which she must mix up with dirty water. I see no dignity in the woman who was given the brush off by her health visitor or doctor when she came with breastfeeding problems, and told to give “top ups” rather than decent help. I also see no dignity in the celebrity who decreed that breastfeeding was icky in a magazine after being given a crate of designer bottles (thus easily allowing her worth to be calculated).

Perhaps, therefore, breastfeeding is considered undignified because it does not come with a price tag. However, I know exactly what my milk is worth in cash. £20 a scoop.

*a word about mixed feeding. A lot of women do this. Some manage to do it for a long period. However, it usually leads to a dwindling supply and the end of breastfeeding. If that’s what’s intended, fine. But it stretches the definition of “breastfeeding” and, to me anyway, seems like an awful lot of work.

Le Manoir (for Mary W, Mrs H and Dave)

This post was written for Ms Mary W.

I recently bought a Trunki in the form of a Gruffalo. A Trunki is a small wheeled suitcase with handles and a long strap designed so that small children can use it as a seat, or be pulled along by a willing parent.

The Trunki is so roomy that I decided to pack it for our night away at LMQS. When we arrived I realised that this may have been a mistake because someone came to greet us in the car park and help us with our luggage. I honestly believe that he had never, ever taken a Gruffalo Trunki upstairs and placed it on a luggage stand before.

This gentleman was a good example of the staff at LMQS. He did not look down his nose at the Gruffalo Trunki. He would have been a heel to do so, the Gruffalo Trunki is adorable. I’ve stayed in nice hotels before and been on some cushy cruises, but I’ve often been left with the impression that the staff are being nice mainly to garnish tips. They would not have found the Gruffalo Trunki to be charming. Certainly some cruise lines present passengers with a sort of munged American notion of “posh”, high class service and seem to think that it involves a certain level of toadying. LMQS does not toad. It’s confident that it’s good enough at what it does not to require any toads.

Our Hydrangea room was beautiful, decorated with its namesake flowers, and greeted us with Madeira wine, a goody bag and pink champagne. Warned ahead of my nut allergy, the staff had reorganised our treats to include nut free fudge and fresh fruit.

We walked around the grounds and had a stab at playing croquet before our afternoon tea. Over 12 acres of land is being cultivated, not as tennis courts, a spa, car parks and swimming pools, but kitchen gardens and orchards. Nothing is anally manicured; it’s clear that these grounds work for a living. There’s clover, daisies and bald patches on the lawns and the topiary is not symmetrical. But the clover and daisies are speckled with many different species of bees and the hedges look tidily organic, not prissily trimmed.

Our afternoon tea was taken on the lawn with sandwiches, cake and cream scones. One of the cakes had nuts in and was swiftly replaced with an equivalent… and another scone to make up for the inconvenience. We were getting increasingly glad that we’d opted to have dinner at 8.30 for 9.

After tea we had a bath in a bath so enormous it was bigger than our bathroom, entertained by readings from a book of the Buddha’s teachings and pink champagne.

We then went down for dinner, and had a G&T on the lawn beforehand. We then moved to the lounge as it was getting a bit cold and had olives and popcorn. A couple opposite us scorned the popcorn, which was their loss as Nicholas took it after they’d gone in for dinner.

Dinner was simply lovely, an exercise in focused flavours, astoundingly good ingredients and simple presentation. LMQS is all about food and service, nothing else. I could tell that each individual item in each dish had been worked on and fine tuned for ages to ensure that it worked perfectly with its fellows. We had gazpacho in a shot glass with a tomato, basil and olive foccacia, crab ravioli with artichokes and a lemongrass bisque (veggie option for N), sea bass with salsify and wasabi buerre blanc, assiette of lamb with peas and broad beans, and a theme on strawberries: a layered dessert of frozen strawberry puree, strawberry jelly, strawberry ice cream, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. I had Old Harbour beer to wash it down, followed by mint tea made with fresh mint from the garden.

We collapsed at about midnight.

The next morning we had breakfast in the conservatory: a dozen types of fresh fruit, cheeses, meats, pastries and cereals if desired. It seemed designed for the slightly hung over.

We checked out with our flowers, goody bag and the rest of our champagne. Although the hotel must have been nearly full, we saw only 5 or 6 other guests at the most at any one time. The service and layout has been designed so that you never feel that you’re staying in a busy, bustling hotel: rather that you’re at the relaxed country house of a fabulously wealthy uncle.

I smelt amazing after washing with the Marseilles soap in the shower but all that unfortunately dissipated in the swimming pool later on with baby J. That particular soap is now in my bathroom, fragrancing the whole house.

A commonplace book on the internet.