Much of my sewing time in November and December was spent creating presents for the people I love. If I didn’t love them, I sure as hell wouldn’t be sewing for them, because as I’ve said before, I’m a selfish sewist at heart.
Through December there was not much I could write about here, in the vain hope that some of my loved ones read this blog. However, it’s now January and the Christmas period is behind us so I can do a quick summary.
Having seen some lovely examples created by others, I had decided that a Skye Wrap from Coolcrafting would be just right for my mother in law. However, I made an early version of it as an emergency gift for my own mum when she fell and broke her wrist early in December. Figuring that coats would be trickier to manage one-handed, I decided to make it for mum as the perfect way to let her know that we love her.
Youngest daughter (and sous-sewist) and I headed off to the Fabrics Galore store in Kingston. We had some lovely tweeds and cotton lawns to choose from, and eventually picked a warm lilac tweed. The lawn we chose (and which I can’t now find on the FG website) feels reminiscent of the Tolkien pictures of the Lonely Mountain in the Hobbit – so, if you like, we can say that was the reason for the choice, as my mum introduced me to Middle Earth in my formative years, and I’m now doing the same with Tilly. In fairness though, I only made that connection after I’d chosen it, and really just liked the print and the way it worked with the tweed.
The longest part of the preparation was hand washing the two fabrics and letting them dry. The rest is very straightforward and so a perfect pattern for a Christmas present. You’ll get much more credit for the effort made than is fair at all.
On that basis, I was confident to make a second wrap for my mother in law as planned – but this time decided to use a green velvet for the lining fabric (again from Fabrics Galore, from their larger Battersea store near my work). I wanted it to be a little warmer for her, and to feel luxurious on the inside. She was very pleased, but as she’s not the type to want a picture on the internet anywhere, you’ll have to take my word for it and that of Rosa (my tailor’s dummy).
I made two lots of pyjamas to send to my lovely nieces in Spain. I followed the same formula as the version I made Tilly (Simplicity 8022 trousers with TATB Stella hoodie -sans sleeves because it’s hot hot hot in Spain). I had to guess at the relative sizes and leg lengths, but they did apparently fit well. At least, they’re pyjamas, so unless they’re proper ankle-flappers, most people don’t worry too much and my niece Lara is more than capable of adjusting them quietly without fuss!
My other sewing activity has perhaps been more unusual – I find it surprising, particularly within a community that loves fabric and is so focused on sustainability, that more people don’t seem to use fabric as wrapping. I’ve worked on a range of different shapes, patterns if you like, over the years for this – but mostly I simply hem or even just overlock large rectangles of my favourite fabric offcuts, and then use them to wrap presents. You can secure the fabric with ribbon quite successfully if the present itself is rigid, but otherwise you can usually use Sellotape if you really need to. I prefer to get creative with the ribbon.
The best part is clearly the fact that there’s no paper (or plasticated paper or glitter or other less sustainable options) to be wasted. A shake out and you can fold your wrap to go back in the drawer and you’re all set for the next birthday etc.
So, do you fabric-wrap? What have you made this Christmas?
Because at this time of year, we all need one of those, right?
I felt very noble this Christmas, sacrificing taking my sewing machine away with us over the break. Aside from a lack of space in the car, I knew I’d spend more time actually interacting with the people I was there to see if I wasn’t able to hear my Janome’s siren call. As I said, noble right?
When I got back however, all bets were off. I wanted a quick and satisfying project – nothing fiddly, something entirely from my stash and which I could make and then wear that day. I may not have dressed until the evening (about 7pm), but it was in my new stripy skirt and I’m very pleased with it. [I also dressed in order to head out with my family to watch the new Little Women film, which was an absolute treat – double win.]
The pattern was New Look K6035, one of those useful, practical sets that give you a lot of value (jacket, skirt, sleeveless top and trousers) if you ever actually use them. I was clearly making the skirt (D) and based on my measurements I cut the largest size (16). I could probably have come down one or two sizes but l wanted to have the excess material to fit with.
The material is a black wool with irregular brown – I don’t know, would you call them stripes? – that has been in my stash for years. I bought it at the first Handmade Fair, which Google tells me was five years ago. Crikey. I certainly have no idea what company I bought from now. It was pretty early in my sewing days certainly and while I loved it, I was always rather scared of cutting it so it remained in the stash.
I knew enough by that point in my sewing experience to throw all new fabric in the washing machine as soon as I got home. I didn’t know enough to think carefully about washing and drying wool – and at this distance I can’t tell if the felted quality of the fabric now was from my poor washing/drying practices or whether it was always like that. No matter as I actually really like it like this – but I will stick to hand washing from this point in.
Having read the pattern instructions through I largely disregarded them during the actual construction. The pattern starts with sewing up both sides of the skirt, but I wanted to be able to fit it to me so I left the zip side open until the final stages. I didn’t want the belt loops so also missed out that stage intentionally.
And I added a pocket because … pockets.
The skirt has a waistband, and with the thickness of the wool and with the desire to have something slightly softer next to skin, I went through my box of scraps for some cotton that I could use for the inner band. The tardis fabric that I used for PJs for my husband a few years ago was just silly enough to be perfect. It’ll make me think of him when I wear it, and if it could send some of my midriff off into another dimension, that’d be just fine too.
This was my first make since Christmas, when I was given these lovely labels from Nominette. Such a perfect present from my mum and stepdad and I look forward to using lots of them in the year ahead.
I know this is a skirt that will get a lot of use – something I can wear for work or at home and feels right for the cold winter months we’re in right now. I’m definitely about trying to make more ‘regular’ items in the next few months – things which will get daily wear and fit with my existing wardrobe without changes. So I’m pretty happy with this first step, even if I can’t help staring at the white stripe on the bottom of the front and wondering if I should take the hem up further to lose it. I think I’ll live with it for a while and see if it bothers me.
In other news, my sewing buddy joined me in my sewing room for some of my day. She decided to make two egg cosies, inspired by the Cath Kidston ‘Sew!’ book. We did point out that neither she or her two sisters actually liked boiled eggs, and she suggested that perhaps a friend sleeping over might one day say “good morning, might I have an egg for breakfast?” Because clearly all her friends are from the 1950s.
Note to self – we need to wean her off Malory Towers, and soon.
The egg cosies are very sweet and all her own work – even down to drawing her own pattern. I’m now off to order an egg for my breakfast …
I’ve been sewing for the last six years now and I’ve been reflecting recently on how my interests have influenced my children.
If you asked them, the two hobbies that my children would identify as mine would be sewing and running. In fairness, I love one of those and do the other in a failing attempt to keep healthy – but still they are the things I choose to do regularly in my spare time.
I’ve tried to get my girls running, but with minimal success. The least that’s said about Ellie’s nine consecutive Park Run fundraiser the better. They’ve all had a go, but any time I try to encourage themnow to come for a jog around Bushy Park, they say “mum lies” and head straight for the bacon sarnies. (“Mum lies”, in case you’re wondering, relates to the only way I could get Ellie round the Bushy Park Run route, by telling her that the finish was right round the next corner. Repeatedly.)
Sewing however has been welcomed in a much more positive way.
Ellie might not be a runner, but after achieving an A in her GCSE Textiles exam (and making a fabulous 1950s red satin prom dress), she’s taking her Fashion A level next summer and is applying to university to study Costume Design. I’m so jealous – she’s been very clear that I can’t just sneak in at the back of her classes and join in – but I can’t wait to see what she creates.
Last summer Alice, my middle daughter, stitched a patchwork blanket because she was bored during the long holidays. The delicate hand-stitching is fragile but very neat, and she amazed me with her commitment and creativity. She has bursts of sewing (when she’s not immersed in GCSE exam revision, which is her world right now) and other creative projects, and is passionate about photography.
My youngest daughter, Tilly has also been interested in sewing, but in a slightly less self-sufficient way than her older sisters. To date that interest has mostly been expressed by asking for my help to make her doll some clothes (usually when I’m at a key point in a complicated project of my own) or creating cushions for favoured members of the family. That has just all moved up a gear.
Tilly is ten, so my sewing life started when she was four. I’ve made quite a few items of clothingfor her over the years – and thinking about it, a lot of them have been pyjamas. She has relentlessly outgrown all the ‘jams I’ve made her so far though – even the ones with ridiculously big turn ups have now been turned down to the scant minimum hem and yet are flapping mid-calf. She’s going to be tall, this one.
So new pyjamas have been promised for some time, but this time we sewed them together. No, that’s not right either – for the pyjama trousers, she sewed and I helped.
The pattern for the trousers is the Simplicity 1722; one I’ve used for Tilly and others on countless occasions before. It is made with one pattern piece, and really couldn’t be simpler. One overlocked seam on each leg; the front-to-back crotch seam; elastic in a channel at the waist and hems on each leg. It was the perfect first project for someone who wanted to make something real that she could properly wear.
The fabric is a Spoonflower jersey that came to me at the Sewing Weekender, when I took the New Craft House knicker workshop. Spoonflower sponsored the workshop (thank you!) and gave participants a 1.5m piece of their jersey that we could choose from a range of prints. I knew Tilly would love this one (Whale’s Song by Katherine Quinn) and it was just wide enough to fit the age ten leg size on the cross grain. (You really couldn’t have gone on grain and had the whales swimming up and down the leg – that would have been very odd). The colours in the print are lovely and I don’t think it’s really faded in the wash – but even if it did, I think this print wouldn’t be hurt by a little fading. My previous orders from Spoonflower faded quite a lot and it put me off a bit – but whether it’s a better colour process they’re using now, or the jersey fabric, or the print itself – this time it’s all good.
We only had one seamripper moment with the trousers. When sewing the channel for the waist elastic, the machine ate some of the surrounding leg fabric on the first pass, but that was quickly sorted. By bedtime she had a new pair of PJ bottoms to leap around in and was feeling very proud.
I was feeling pretty proud too. It was such a nice experience to be teaching my daughter, who was at the right point to want to learn. I wasn’t distracted by another project that this was interrupting and it was a pleasure to be able to help her achieve something she really wanted to do and to make something she’ll get lots of use from. She was more than confident using both my sewing machine and the overlocker – and if the seams of one of the legs are a bit wigglier than is traditional – well who on earth is going to notice that? In sewing, in my experience, it’s all about having a go and learning by doing. She’s starting about 30 years earlier than I did, and I hope she ends up enjoying this hobby as much as I do.
The following weekend I managed to scale down the hoodie pattern from the Tilly and the Buttons Stretch book to fit a 10 year old frame. Using the smallest pattern size, it was a reasonably easy job to take out a couple of inches of length in the body and the arms. The pale green ponte fabric was one I had in my stash, and works perfectly to co-ordinate with the main pattern.
I managed to piece together enough of the whale fabric to line the hood, which she loves – and fortunately no one looks too closely at the inside of a hood, so the fact that some of them are upside down by necessity is not very obvious. The hoodie was a bit more complicated, so I was allowed to lead on the sewing this time. She did sew some of the seams, but was happy to let me back to my overlocker.
I’m proud of all my girls. If they had to choose one of my hobbies to join me in, I’m sure I should wish it was running for their cardiovascular health – but for the enjoyment of a creative shared experience, I’m really glad that they’ve all spent some time listening to the siren song of the fabric, and joined me in my happy place.
What a fantastic close to the summer: a weekend of making, while chatting to fellow sewing obsessives about fabric, patterns, sustainability, design, the sewing bee, wedding dresses and everything in between.
After The Fear of last year’s weekend, realising late in the day that actually sewing in a room full of other people might be quite intimidating for an introvert, this year was a dream. I knew for certain this year what I knew only in theory last year – that sewing people are the very nicest bunch you could hope to meet, that no one else is looking at your wonky seams and that the warm enthusiasm of being around people that understand us is incredibly liberating!
I was lucky enough to be part of the knicker workshop on Saturday morning, to make some Very Big Pants. Led by the lovely Hannah and Rosie from New Craft House, the workshop used the Madalynne Sinplicity 8228 pattern combining jersey and stretch lace. They look enormous, but in truth they’re really comfy.
Anyone interested in this pattern, please ignore the fabric requirements listed on the pack. Half a metre of jersey? One and a quarter metres of 8 inch stretch lace? I gathered the list together on Friday evening wondering how on earth we might need that quantity. In truth, you could probably make at least four pairs with the resources we brought, so I’ve plenty over for extras.
Hannah and Rosie were great – leading the workshop by sharing their skills and their enthusiasm. As the workshop was sponsored by Spoonflower, we were also each given a metre of their lovely jersey for taking part. The only downside really was that the workshop was in the fabric swap room – so my good intentions to donate and not to snaffle were undermined by my lack of willpower. With the lovely gift from Spoonflower, I certainly didn’t much reduce my stash this weekend.
As I wanted to finish them, unfortunately I missed the first talk of the afternoon in our room. Talking to others afterwards, it sounds like a fascinating and thoughtful presentation on sustainability in sewing from Selkie Patterns, and I’ll be reading their post on how I can be better at this. It certainly provoked discussion, which is key to change. I did arrive in time for Tara from Paper Theory talking about her experience of the fashion industry and its horrors (did you know there were sweatshops currently operating in London? Me neither, and it’s hard to get my head round.), her escape from it to home sewing pattern design and her very inclusive approach to designing garments that fit everyone well. Particularly after a weekend of staring enviously at jumpsuits, I’m very tempted by her Zadie pattern.
I spent the rest of the afternoon constructing the Named Sointu tee that I’d brought. After last year I was well aware that I’d be highly distracted, sewing in a much smaller space than usual and probably a bit nervous, so I’d decided on a relatively simple project. The Sointu has four main pieces – front, back, sleeve bands and belt. I prepped last weekend, cutting out the pieces and interfacing the belt and sleeve bands. I decided to put in a facing (also interfaced) rather than a bias bound neckline, and I chose to use a woven rather than a jersey fabric.
My fabric was a satin-backed crepe from Fabrics Galore. It has a lovely drape to it, and feels quite luxurious. I used the crepe side of the fabric throughout except for the sleeve bands where I used the satin side for a bit of gloss. The satin-backed crepe makes it feel like the tee is lined, without any effort whatsoever. #winning
The Sointu really is a very quick sew. Despite mucking up the facing first time around and needing my unpicker almost immediately, the tee was finished (apart from the belt) by the time that we finished for the day. I took it back to my room for a try on and liked it so much even unbelted that I wore it out to dinner – a dinner that involved gin and tonic, wine, fish and chips, and so much laughter and sewing gossip. A lovely evening with brilliant people.
A good night’s sleep and we were back for the second day, kicking off with a sewing celebrity – Juliet Uzor, last year’s Great British Sewing Bee winner. She brought her fabulous makes from the show and talked about pattern hacking as a creative and personal process, as well as providing an overview of sewing with wax fabrics. She was followed by Nina Lee – another maker well known in the community for her sewing patterns, but in her talk she led us through the delights (and the trials) of sewing her own wedding dress – along with clothes for most of the rest of the wedding party by the sounds of things. Really incredible achievements.
The talks, gossip and coffee meant I got less done on day two than I’d anticipated. I finished the Sointu belt – which is a couple of metres long and needed to be turned through, ironed and topstitched – as well as hand sewing in a highly appropriate tag to the tee and stitching down the facings to stop them flapping about.
[Top tip for future sewing weekender attendees – identify and save up some hand sewing items so you can continue with them during the talks – you obviously can’t use a sewing machine during them, but some calm and relaxing hand sewing is ideal.]
All too soon it was time for the group photo, farewells, and packing bags, machines and haberdashery to return home.
So, back to reality tomorrow. Right now I’m sat reflecting on how fortunate I am to have met so many great people, and to be confident that all the future sewing people I meet are likely to be similarly great. It’s such a warm community and this time round I was so much more confident about being accepted and welcome. Enormous thanks to everyone who organised the event (Kate and Rachel from the Foldline, with Charlotte and Barbara) – it’s an enormous achievement and you do it all so serenely! And a particular thanks to Liz (thebakerwhosews) who was kind enough to take me with her and bring me back home. As I say, sewing friends are the best!
Ten days on holiday in the UK meant one thing for my hobby: the chance for some serious sewing time. It would clearly rain solidly for the whole time we were in Wales, so I would have lots of lovely time to sew.
And then what happened? Gorgeous weather throughout, with lots of wonderful time on the beach, glorious days spent outside and very little sewing time. I know, a disaster!
My rain-dancing, negotiations and bargains with the weather gods finally gave me one solid day with my sewing machine and overlocker, while my family drifted off to do other grey-day activities. I spent the time getting to grips with my first Burda pattern.
Taken from the 4/2019 edition of Burda Style ‘shirt 108A’ was described as super easy, and in fairness that was a reasonable description. It’s a boxy cut, very loose fitting top with off-shoulder set-in sleeves. I thought it would be a simple but effective style in a drapey fabric – and that making the same top in a range of different fabrics would be a really interesting holiday project.
I took about 10 fabric choices with me but only managed to make up two of them, for the reasons explored above. Curse those weather gods with their glorious sunny days. As designed, the pattern has 3 main pieces – one front, one back and one sleeve piece cut twice. I traced them all as whole pieces rather than on the fold. The finish uses bias binding at the neck, so there’s a separate piece for that which you can also cut out.
As someone more used to sewing indie patterns than even the big four, the brevity of the instructions was quite a jolt. No step by step guidance with photos – not even a line drawing to help you along your way. I read them through, made as much sense of them as I could, and then largely ignored them. There wasn’t much to ignore after all, and if I couldn’t construct such a basic top by now, there wasn’t really much hope for me.
For top #1, I used a drapey hot pink fabric that has been in my stash for approximately forever. I bought it just after I realised that sewing was the Best Thing Ever, and it was cheap and drapey in a great shade from somewhere online. It then sat at the bottom of my sewing stash as I remembered that I don’t usually wear hot pink. Time then for a change.
I started by making a few thousand metres of bias binding. I’m one of those odd people who quite likes making binding, so when I need a little, I tend to make quite a lot and use it for other purposes. I had brought my binding maker with me, but not my cutting board or rotary cutter so my strips weren’t the most accurate, but it all worked OK.
Construction was, as you might imagine, pretty straightforward – shoulders, neckline, sleeves, sides, hem. The sleeves were double-thickness, giving them a nice weight that gave a little shaping that contrasted with the hang of the main body.
Putting it on, I liked it a lot. A simple but effective top, just as I’d hoped. The pink wasn’t too much for me – at least not with jeans. In fact the only thing I decided to change for top #2 was the neckline binding – swapping it out for facings instead. Whilst I dislike flappy facings, I prefer the clean neckline that they give as long as they’re well-stitched down. I traced off the top of the front and back sections with some greaseproof paper (hadn’t brought my dots-and-crosses paper with me) and went ahead with the second top.
This time the fabric I chose was some blue dupion-style silk that I bought in India last year. It was more structured and less drapey than the first top, but after an initial wash had felt like a good option. It all went together very easily, and the facings (my first self-drafted ones) worked perfectly.
So, reflections on this make?
Firstly, it’s a very simple pattern, but an easy and effective top. It’s very wearable, and I’ve demonstrated as a very slow sewist that it’s perfectly possible to make in a half-day. As long as you don’t depend on detailed instructions and you’re happy to wing-it, it’s a great staple to have in your pattern box if you like this kind of shape. And I do (fortunately).
Secondly, I really like making things a couple of times, in quick succession. The learning from the first time around you immediately get to build into the second version – so small things that you might not write down or even think about much are picked up and improved on. As my piano teacher constantly tried to make me understand as a child, practice really does make things better.
Thirdly, it’s really interesting the way that a fabric changes the whole nature of a garment. Obviously we know this instinctively as we choose the right fabric for the pattern we’re obsessing about – but actually making the same top in different fabrics is a really good way to really think about what you’re looking for in future purchases.
Last reflection – I really do need to get better at taking photos. It’s always been the bit about writing a blog that makes me a bit mortified because even my nearest-and-dearest would agree that I rarely take a good photo – but these are really not great! Evidence above suggests that the only things I do are stand with my hands in my pockets or flailed outstretched. All (kind, gentle) advice on this score would be welcome.
The last couple of things I’ve made have not been for me. This is pretty unusual. I’m quite a selfish sewist, and realise that I’m mostly motivated by making something that I will be able to wear. Unfortunately for my patient family, this doesn’t stop me offering to make them things, and then procrastinating my way to completion.
My sister’s birthday was at the end of May. We discussed what she wanted whilst on holiday over Easter, then I ordered the fabric and pattern early in May. She was after a wrap dress, so we looked at lots of different pattern options together, deciding eventually on the new #SewOverIt #Meredith design. She sent me through her measurements on 18th May and I got started.
It was over two months later that I finally finished it. This is not because it is a complicated or multi-multi-step pattern. It was simply because I failed to get a move on.
Anyway, the pattern. It’s a really nicely designed dress with flattering shaping and a straightforward construction.
It’s almost unfair to review the early stages of the process as I did them so long ago that I can barely remember them. However there aren’t too many pieces, and cutting out was quite straightforwards. I’d chosen a quite stretchy jersey for this make, and I think this may have contributed to a feeling that I wasn’t being very accurate in putting it together. It was the Lady McElroy black cobra corsage jersey, with 100% crossways stretch and 50% lengthways stretch – which personally I think was too much. The pattern recommendations are just for ‘light to medium weight knit fabrics with lots of drape’, but I think something with slightly more heft would have been a little better.
My other comment on the fabric would be that it faded quite a lot in its first wash and tumble dry – so the clear instructions on the Fabric Godmother website to line dry rather than tumble dry should not have been ignored. I’m afraid I almost always tumble dry my fabrics (whatever the instructions) because they’re very likely to be accidentally thrown in with the rest of the family wash when the garment is made – so if they’re going to shrink, I prefer that to have happened up front. Hopefully my sister has the same kind of pragmatic attitude – and doesn’t mind a slightly greyer ‘black’ than the one it started out as.
The main construction of the dress came together quickly, so the dress shell lived on my dress-form for most of the two month making period. Another short sewing session focused on the construction of the neckband and waist-ties. Finally I stitched the neckband onto the dress and attached the sleeves.
What I haven’t done (still) is to hem the thing. And this is what I agonised about at the end of the process. On my dress-form, the hemline was reasonably straight. When I put it on, it was wonky as all hell. I know we’re all different measurements but my sister and I are quite similar so I wouldn’t have expected that amount of difference. The length of the top half of the dress (above the waist ties) seemed too long on me, but obviously this would be different on her. What I couldn’t tell, is how the dress would hang – and as she frustratingly lives in another country, it wasn’t a simple matter to just get her to try it on and pin it! Fortunately (and as shown above) the non-hem was just right on her – so the next time we’re in the same country at the same time, I’ll do the final piece of the puzzle. She looks lovely in it, although in Spain at present it’s far too hot for her to wear anything with sleeves!
The other project I worked on in the summer was a gift for a teenage girl (my middle-daughter’s best friend) going into hospital for an operation. My daughter and I wanted to make her something she could wear there, so adapted the #Grainline #Lakeside pyjama top. I’ve made this pattern a few times and liked the way that the tulip style of the top at the back might allow for access from the doctors and nurses while she was there, but in a relatively stylish way.
For anyone ever in the same situation – trying to adapt this top to fasten around the body rather than slide over the head – I’ve tried to draw out the solution we came up with. Forgive the abysmal drawing techniques – what I hope makes sense is that the spaghetti strap is made by a loop that slips over each shoulder, being held in place with a bow tied from the front.
As you’ll see from the photos (modelled by my eldest daughter), it doesn’t sit quite right – and if I were making this again I’d extend the length of the tulip sections so there was more of an overlap – stopping the spaghetti straps from pulling from the middle.
We combined the top with some soft jersey pyjama bottoms (the TATB Margot pattern from Love at First Stitch – possibly my most-used pattern to date) in plain black, with a cuff of the same flamingo fabric.
With a specific deadline, it wasn’t hard to get this one completed – and it didn’t hurt that my lovely family gave me a dedicated sewing day as a birthday present that I could devote to it. We managed to deliver the pyjamas with all our best wishes in time.
It felt good to do some unselfish sewing, and it was interesting reflecting on and analysing my own procrastination. I love the process of sewing, and really enjoyed making all the items above – but the motivation to get everything out and start was the thing I felt was missing. In theory I have a sewing table with everything set up – but in reality, my sewing table becomes a dumping ground for all the detritus of our kitchen, so sewing-in-practice means setting up at the kitchen table. Maybe it’s that (5-10 minute) step that is the barrier? Or maybe I’m just selfish!
Either way, I’m looking forward to a straightforward selfish planning session as I decide on what to sew at the forthcoming #sewingweekender – so looking forward to my second experience of creativity with a crowd of likeminded sewing buddies!
Having had limited time for recent sewing – and time I have had spent making a dress for my sister (so “secrets”), I thought I’d write a different kind of post with some ramblings about dressing for work. I’d be really interested in other people’s views on this.
I listened to a Women’s Hour podcast this week about the uniforms we wear for work – whether prescribed by the business, professional expectation, a wish to conform or our own self-expression. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot during the course of my career, and more so since taking up sewing as a hobby (obsession) about six years ago.
My first job out of school was for a plumbing firm in my gap year between A levels and university – providing secretarial services with one other woman to a team of male surveyors/sales reps. It was a fun place to work, but these were not enlightened times. The expectation was for ‘office wear’ – not specifically a suit, but skirts and blouses were mandatory. Wearing trousers was not allowed for female members of staff, and when I campaigned for a change on this point (as the only person whose desk was based in a draughty reception area), the managing director did agree to accept women in tailored trousers – but only when the big boss wasn’t visiting. When the big boss arrived unexpectedly one day, I was snuck out of a side door and taken home to change.
I spent the next three years doing a creative arts degree, where the uniform was set by a developing (sometimes, in retrospect, cringeworthy) self-expression but also a wish to conform. Finding ways to be different (which was desirable) but still within a safe parameter of choices (which was essential) was the tension. Think lots of prints, dungarees, and Doc Marten boots with ribbons for laces.
I joined the treadmill of working life after graduating, working in a school, in a housing association, freelancing from home when my children were small, then working in higher education and now back in a secondary school environment. Each of those businesses has had their own written and unwritten rules about work uniform, and everyone working in them has also had their own personal rules about what they want to wear and how they want to express themselves. My profession is human resources, so given my interest in this area it’s hard not to draw some conclusions from what I see.
1. Everyone is judging you on your appearance, all the time
We don’t always like this, but it’s true. Whether they do it consciously or not (and few people directly judge someone on the length of their skirt or the colour of their tie), your personal presentation is the first thing that most people notice about you and it makes a lasting impression that the other person will then confirm or deny as they get to know you.
2. Confidence and comfort have a definite correlation
Everyone who sews (and many people who don’t) knows the value of clothes that fit you really well. I can’t count how many outfits I’ve worn over the years where the trousers were too long, the waistband too tight, the shoes painful or the skirt inclined to ride up or twist. It’s not just that these sartorial choices aren’t comfortable – it’s also that someone who feels constricted or concerned about their clothes is distracted by that fact before they contribute in any other way – and it shows.
Some of this is personal choice – I’m sure I’ve worn plenty of trousers for longer than my waistband would have preferred, because I liked the style and was determined that I wouldn’t buy the next size up. For too long, I had a seriously misaligned idea of what suited me. Again, some of it is expectation – if your natural inclination isn’t to wear a pencil skirt or heels, then a professional or social ‘rule’ that you should is going to put you on the back foot from the start.
This is something I really try to bear in mind in my sewing. I choose jersey fabrics whenever I can, because I immediately feel more comfortable in them – the secret pyjamas phenomenon. I’ve certainly discovered that you can trade ponte di roma fabric for many patterns designed for wovens, without having to make much of an adjustment. The Sew Over It Heather dress and the Tilly and the Buttons Etta dresses are in regular rotation in my work wardrobe, and both are really easy to wear – to dress up with a suit jacket and heels, or to dress down with a long cardigan and flats, depending on the people I’m going to see during that work day. It’s a personal preference for sure, but dresses make me feel put together at work in a way that doesn’t demand too much of my brain early in the morning (I leave the house before 7am, so simple is good).
3. Standing out from the crowd is good (within an acceptable boundary)
One of the points in the podcast was that in a sea of grey suits, you have the ability to stand out in your colour choices. Being memorable can be a very positive thing – but there’s always that degree of risk involved in being different – one that we acknowledge in our teenage years (resisting school uniform with all our might, but socially choosing to wear exactly the same thing as our peers at all other times) and sustains to some extent through our later lives. Choosing to stand out from the crowd needs confidence – so comfort again is key (see last point).
In sewing, I’ve definitely explored the colours I feel happiest wearing. I like bold block colours more than patterns (however much I love the patterned fabric when I shop for it, it’s never the one I reach for when I’m making), and jewel shades rather than pastels. When shopping for RTW over the years, I’ve almost always opted for something that’s black or navy – and while I still probably have more in those shades than any others, I rarely choose black or navy to sew with. Sewing is definitely pushing those boundaries for me – and my pink Etta dress is still something that I wear with a bit of trepidation, but it increasingly feels like me.
4. It’s personal
As a woman in my forties, I feel far more confident now about make clothing choices that are about me, not about what the ‘average’ woman might suit or want. I’m not average – and that’s not a humble brag. I’m 5ft 2ins, so shorter than most women, and clothes from the high street (particularly trousers) seem designed for giants when I put them on. My waist is a bigger measurement than it used to be and I don’t really curve in any of the ways I’d choose to – think rectangle rather than hourglass. I never have to do an FBA.
The amazing thing about sewing is that I can reflect all of that in the choices I make in my unachievable quest to be Agent Carter.
The more patterns I follow, the more I understand about adjustments – but also about styles that work for my shape. Somehow in sewing a thing, you get a much more personal response to whether it actually suits you than if you’d bought it. I’m definitely someone who wears what I sew – so if I choose to leave it in the wardrobe, it tells me a lot about the make and I try to understand what my reservations are.
In the workplace, those choices are always personal. The external expectations are commonly quite broad brush, and there’s enormous power in being able to express yourself within it. I’m an HR professional, so setting the written guidelines for this kind of thing often falls to me – and I would usually write (beyond the health and safety requirements of a role) that you should dress to meet the expectations of the people you’ll meet in your working day. On a rare working-from-home day, that might literally mean pyjamas for me. During term time at school I usually wear smart dresses with jackets or tailored cardigans. Often I wear flat shoes – but I always have a pair of heeled shoes under my desk: not because anyone else might require it, but sometimes I appreciate the additional confidence that a few more centimetres of height gives me. Interestingly in school holiday times (I work all year round), most people dress down. I do too, but have quite clear personal boundaries for this. The people I deal with in my role are the same as during term time – I’m not dressing to meet the expectations of pupils really, but of staff. I therefore wouldn’t ever wear shorts or jeans (though colleagues sometimes do), because to my mind it wouldn’t suit my role. As I said, it’s personal choice.
In ‘The Rules of Work‘, a book which is a little cheesy but invaluable for anyone starting their working life, the author Richard Templar argues that you should model your business dress on your manager or their boss. Dress for the job you want next and you’ll subconsciously project yourself as ready for the next level etc. There’s definitely something in this, though I resist the idea that the formula is quite that simple. Certainly over the years I’ve seen promotions awarded to people who have projected confidence and a more business-like manner through their dress – and others who have been judged as overconfident and too focused on the ‘gloss’, so it certainly is never the only factor in these matters.
5. Interview suits
A final thought from me is about dressing for interviews – thinking back across hundreds of interviews that I’ve conducted over the years. This is definitely a time when you should focus on wearing an outfit that is smart and well fitted – as you want everything to be working for you to build your confidence, allow you to relax and to project professionalism.
What you should wear to an interview is absolutely dependent on the organisation that you’re interviewing for, and a bit of research about their corporate style will give you pointers about this, and pitch your outfit as slightly more formal than you think their day to day corporate dress might be. Don’t follow the blind guidance of recruitment agencies who tell you that you must wear a black or blue suit to interviews, and to keep everything else neutral. Think carefully about the person you want to project and what makes you feel good, and build an outfit that reflects that.
One of the organisations that I’ve been proud to have volunteered for over the years (though sadly I rarely get the opportunity now) is Smart Works. This fantastic charity provides women who have a job interview lined up but have been out of work for a while, with a package of new clothes and some interview coaching. The fabulous dressing volunteers work with an Aladdin’s cave of donated suits and business wear, shoes, bags etc to put together an outfit that suits the individual and the kind of organisation they’re interviewing at. The client comes out of their dressing session (and it’s always that way round) to the interview coaching. It’s amazing to witness – they are literally buzzing with it. Having someone who is kind and thoughtful, who understands what will make them look good and feel right, can be transformational. As the interview coach, I’ve had the privilege of being able to build on that and help them take that confidence forwards to good, rounded answers to the questions they’re likely to be asked.
And more than 60% of women who Smart Works help go on to get the job they’re interviewing for.
So, those are my thoughts on dressing for work – do you agree or disagree? What do you wear for work, and how much flexibility do you have in what you choose? Any thoughts on the podcast?