Sewing the precious

img_2385I’m a slow sewist but that doesn’t mean that I have a perfectionist attitude to my sewing: basically I’m just slow. I’ve been sewing for six years now and while I’ve learned a hell of a lot about making garments in that time, this is very much a hobby for me. I’m definitely better than I was, but this is a journey without a destination in mind – so there’s no route map either.

Maybe for those reasons, the Sewcialists’ challenge to ‘sew the precious’ earlier this year really resonated with me. When you know you’re not really ready to sew the good fabrics, you put them aside nervously until you feel ready. And then you don’t ever feel ready.

The fabric was one I bought a year ago – just after my fantastic class at Sewoverit, learning to sew the Francine jacket. I said firmly to my husband then that I would need to sew another jacket immediately, to cement the skills I’d learned. I went off to Fabrics Galore one lunchtime and bought the very last of some lovely black wool – with enough structure to make a jacket work, but still with enough drape to hang nicely.

Clearly, without the discipline (reassurance/confidence etc) of Julie and the rest of the class, my beautiful wool (and the dark red lining I’d also picked up) sat for the rest of the year in my stash. I thought it was time to give it a purpose. Obviously not its original purpose. Because: me.

img_2345After a small item that I wrote was published in the Maker’s Atelier magazine last year, Frances said thank you by letting me choose any of her patterns – and after much indecision (they are all lovely) I was drawn to the Swing Jacket. I loved the simple lines and felt that the styling with a classic pencil skirt would be something I’d definitely wear to work.

The next thing I did was an absolute first for me: I made a toile! Every single book, blog, expert, course or TV show that I’ve watched/read etc has extolled the virtue of making a toile. Testing out a pattern on muslin fabric, practising construction, checking fit, making adjustments – these are all excellent reasons for taking the time and trouble to make a toile. At the same time, in a sustainable sewing world, it feels awfully frivolous to waste enough fabric to make a trial garment. It also feels to me like a waste of time – when I feel like I have never-enough-sewing-time as it is, to spend some of it on a tester garment feels wrong somehow. These are my reasons – laziness and impatience with a side order of planet saving/stinginess. That’s set alongside a body that conforms to most patterns – only really requiring the use of the shortening lines for most pattern adjustments to get a decent fit – so the impetus to toile is reduced again.

img_2055So this time was a first for me. I cut the main pieces in some old heavy black cotton from my stash. I stitched them together by hand – and actually really enjoyed that part of the process. You know when you read instructions, but it isn’t until you’ve made the thing that it makes sense? Well somehow that’s a lot clearer if you’re sewing by hand and not just feeding fabric into a machine.

So having made the toile what were my earth-shattering revelations? Yup, I liked it and would go ahead with my wool. No adjustments required that were obvious. (Let’s come back to this point later.)

So, on with the show. I cut the pieces, and followed the instructions that Frances had helpfully posted on her blog about constructing a lining for the jacket. Having already made it once, it was quite straightforward to make both the woollen and lining versions of the ‘real’ thing. The wool was beautiful to work with – taking an iron in precisely the way that the lining fabric refused to.

In Frances’ post, the suggestion was to leave the unhemmed jacket and lining hanging for a few days – which in my world means until the next weekend at the earliest. It meant the fabric had time to drop – and also gave me time to scowl at it every time I went past my dress form.

And this is the bit where I refer back to what I learned and didn’t learn from my nice toile. A sample piece isn’t a finished garment. It hangs differently and the fabric is (by necessity) a lot – well, cheaper. It wasn’t lined, which again changes the way it fits. Basically it just wasn’t the same.

Now it was nearly done and I’d lived with the nearly-finished coat in my kitchen for a week, I decided that it actually needed to be quite a bit shorter to look right on me. (I know, back to the lengthen(never!)/shorten lines again.) Clearly I was still able to do this because I’d not hemmed the thing yet, but I also ended up cutting off and wasting a quite wide strip of expensive wool fabric, when I was desperately trying to squeeze a pencil skirt out of the remainder.

As well as being a slow sewist, I’m turning into a slow blogger too. I finished the jacket two weeks ago and have worn it to work several times since then. I’ve had complements which is nice – and it does feel like something that is very me. I’m a little irritated that I didn’t trim the excess fabric enough at the front edge hem – it feels bulky there to me, but I’m guessing that not many people would notice though it’s glaring to me. It’s more irritating because I wanted this one to be special, and it’s a note that jars – you know. But I’m not irritated enough to unpick the hem and redo it, so it’ll have to be something I learn to love.

So for the swing jacket – it’s a great, simple and stylish pattern that sews up quickly. If you’re drawn to that kind of shape I’d definitely recommend it. And personally I think the lining really adds something too and is straightforward to make.

For toiles – yep, I’m not yet convinced. In a world short on resources and a life short on time, I think I’ll carry on trying things out carefully, fitting as I go, measuring carefully (me and the garment pieces!) and just going for it. But in future I’ll try and stop saving the precious – it didn’t do Gollum any good after all.

The bigger on the inside skirt

img_1988.jpgBecause 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.img_1979.jpg

 

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.img_1985.jpg

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.

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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 …

Happy New Year!

 

Some thoughts on dressing for work

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.

Lake district - Nina and TamI 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.

img_4894.jpgThis 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).

img_4892.jpgIn 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.

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(c) Marvel 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?