Kimono – in praise of the V and A

With a casualness that belongs to another time (was it only a matter of weeks ago?), I went to the V&A. In general I don’t feel like I take enough advantage of the range of available culture that living just outside London offers me. The V&A is different though: it’s my favourite museum by a long mile, its exhibitions are fascinating and beautiful, and being a member means that I can saunter in and skip the long queues that build up. I just love it.

The current (is it current when the whole place is closed?) exhibition celebrates the art, construction and beauty of the kimono. The pieces we saw during our visit demonstrated the simple structure of the garments, set against the breathtaking artistry of the embroidery, intricate resist-dye techniques and weaving. The exhibition moved from the history into recent designer pieces that have been inspired by kimono – from Alexander McQueen to Star Wars.

Soon after our visit, the museum closed and then London closed – and while I’m very lucky in my home and my lovely cohabitants, it’s a very odd feeling. Part of me longs to sew and be creative, but at the same time I don’t. I don’t feel I need that quiet solace that I get from sewing when everything is so … contained.

img_2574It made me think back to that exhibition and draw some probably-stretching-a-point parallels with the life we’re living right now. The simple structure of one place to be in, with no variation and no urgency (or option) to be anywhere else – well maybe that’s the simple structure of the kimono. We can make it beautiful with decoration – but the simple shape is already everything that’s needed. Maybe the need for embroidery comes later.

On that basis my isolation sewing is not going to be very adventurous. I’m planning a Stella hoodie dress from the TATB Stretch book – because I need comfy clothes to lounge around in.

I guess I really ought to say that I’m going to learn to resist dye with rice paste (seriously mind-blowing skills), focus on intricate and detailed embroidery or learn new weaving techniques – but actually I’m going to keep things simple and be calm.

I’m very pleased that I had the chance to see this beautiful exhibition when I did – and when normal 2.0 is installed, I hope I never again take for granted how lucky I am to be able to experience such amazing art.

Sew Over It Francine Jacket – week one

My lovely husband came up trumps with my Christmas present this year, with a three-evening workshop at #Sewoverit to complete the #Francine tailored jacket.

I’d done one of their courses in the past – the #ultimatetrousers pattern, which was the first group sewing course I did, and aside from a workshop at the Sewing Bee live exhibition last year, still the only one. There’s so much you can learn by yourself when sewing – and I must admit that one of the things I like best about this hobby is working by myself to be creative – problem solving when things go wrong and finding my own way through things (obviously with the expertise of the sewing community via the internet to support me).

Undeniably however, there are plenty of times when having an expert to guide you makes a real difference. I’d certainly found that with trousers – having someone to help you fit trousers on yourself is a wonderful help. One of the excellent things about the #sewoverit classes is that they have toiles of their patterns made up in all of the size range – so you can try on the size that best matches your measurements, and then see how you might need to adjust your pattern pieces to fit the quirks of your body shape. Being 5’2”, RTW trousers have NEVER fitted right, so the expertise of the workshop leader (Julie Johnston – more on her in a moment) in helping to identify the ways to make the pattern fit me correctly was a huge help.

The first week of the #Francine workshop similarly involved us trying on the toiles of the jacket and seeing where we might want to adjust things. Being short of leg but kind of average on top (a bit on the short side, but not excessively, not a lot of bust but still in range), I matched the size 12 reasonably well. Julie noted that I might need a slight sway back adjustment, but that would be best done at the end as she wasn’t convinced it would be necessary.

The rest of week one was spent cutting out our pattern pieces and main fabric.

We had all had to source and bring the main fabric and lining, and this was a decision I’d agonised over from Christmas through to the end of February. I have a few pairs of navy/dark blue trousers with no jacket that particularly went with them – so I wanted a fabric that would contrast well with navy, but not necessarily ‘match’. I’d ordered samples from Abakhan, Truro Fabrics, Croft Mill, Minerva Crafts and Dragonfly fabrics and they were all lovely. Even with the sample pieces in my hands however, I found it hard to assess the drape and weight and to really understand how the fabric would work for this pattern – mainly I think because I’ve never attempted anything like a tailored jacket in the past.

Herringbone fabricIn the end, I took a walk up to the main branch of Fabrics Galore in Battersea one lunch break, and found myself the fabric of my dreams. It is dark grey wool coating fabric, in a herringbone design with flecks of blue. I have tried and failed to photograph this accurately, so you’ll just have to trust me on it. [What is it about photographing fabric that is so frustrating – is it just the quality of a mobile phone camera, or settings that try to adjust the colours? It’s much darker than the image here.] I thought I’d buy 2.5 metres so that I could also make a skirt in the same fabric, but found when I got to the till that it was the end of the roll – and that in fact, while they had exactly the right amount in theory, the end had been cut on a slant – so my 1.6m on one side was actually 1.5m on the other. I crossed my fingers and bought the fabric, along with a beautiful green lining fabric.

IMG_5512Inevitably, that 10cm difference on one side made working out a lay plan for the pattern an intricate game of tetris, but with Julie’s help I finally managed it. The challenging bit was in laying out the collar piece so that the herringbone would be aligned on both sides – something that’s not a problem if you don’t have a fabric with a pattern, but involves a bit of head-scratching if you do. It’s fair to say that it ended up a very efficient use of the fabric, and my scraps in the herringbone were minimal.

The three-hour class went by in a flash. While we worked on cutting out our pieces, it was lovely to talk to the other sewists present – it’s not often that you get to commune with fellow sewing people in the flesh, and everyone was interesting and shared the same passion for garment making. We also got to eat cake, drink tea and stroke the wonderful array of fabrics and haberdashery in the Sew Over It store. What’s not to love?

I don’t know if Julie runs all the Sew Over It courses, but her calm and practical approach is very reassuring. She knows the patterns inside out, and her explanations don’t just tell you what to do but also help to contextualise the instructions – so you’re not just learning what to do, but also why. It makes such a difference when you’re branching outside your comfort zone, like this class. She’s exceedingly patient, and you get the feeling that she’s rarely unable to answer a question from her class participants. I’d highly recommend her classes, and I’m sure that Lisa and the team at Sew Over It value her highly.

list of piecesBefore we found ourselves back out in Islington to make our way home, we had clear instructions from Julie about our homework. This involved finishing cutting out all the pieces (the first time I’ve had a pattern with 20 separate paper pattern pieces resulting in (I think) 51 different pieces to be cut out in the three fabrics), including the interfacing pieces. We had to apply the 23 pieces of interfacing to the main fabric, and join up the main straight seams of the jacket.

The advice was that this was about 4 hours of work. Ha! Maybe for efficient sewists, but not for me.

It was unfortunate that I had a long booked holiday with my book club to Berlin at the weekend (for the record, I belong to the best book club in the world, which involves an annual city break with a loose book tie-in to justify the trip), so my available sewing time was limited. The class was on Wednesday, I didn’t get started on Thursday and was away Friday to Sunday. Monday night we had commitments so it was Tuesday night when I finished work that I was finally able to make a start. “It’ll be fine” I told myself – I could start around 6:30 and figured I would be finished around 10:30.

Interfaced pieceWe had been advised to purchase some woven tailoring interfacing at Sew Over It, rather than the slightly crunchy cheaper products I’ve bought in the past. Damn it but now I’m spoiled for life! I found the tailoring interfacing so much more accurate to cut, and I love the way that it joined with the fabric to make it thicker without changing its drape and movement. It combined well with my fabric, and the iron-application was satisfying and quite therapeutic.

Once more that evening I was reminded that I am not a speedy sewist. As I’ve said before, I don’t consider that a bad thing – I enjoy taking my time with the process, and particularly with a jacket like this, I wanted to make sure I worked carefully and accurately. Obviously I also had to eat dinner, at least listen to the Sewing Bee and interact with my family, so it was 11:30pm by the time I made it to bed. My homework was not quite complete, but it was close and I was VERY excited to be going back for week 2.

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More soon ….