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.

Time trial: Tabitha Drawstring Dress

I’ve wittered on before about being a slow sewist – but in fairness that’s been an assumption on my part until now. I generally sew alone (sewing weekends notwithstanding), so my points of reference tend to be contestants on the Sewing Bee, Next in Fashion, Project Runway etc. So in reality, I had no proof that I was slower than your average dressmaker. Until now.

I was always going to buy Tilly’s new book ‘Make It Simple‘ – I’ve got her other two books, lots of her standalone patterns and I really like her style. Not everything works for me, but her size 4 measurements rarely need much adjustment for my frame, and I end up with garments that I feel fit really well. The premise of the new book being “easy, speedy sewing projects to stitch up in an afternoon” sounded too good to be true.

Back from a lovely holiday in Bruges, I curled up last weekend with the book and picked the Drawstring Dress (based on the Tabitha t-shirt pattern) as my first project. I had some lovely bluey/lilacy t-shirt fabric (no idea of its provenance) that needed a purpose, and everything else was in my stash. I had a lovely Sunday project ahead of me.

So, I decided to do a time trial. Tilly’s optimistic predictions were:

  • Cutting time (including drafting the skirt): 45 minutes
  • Sewing time: 2 hours 20 minutes

Let’s see how we got on …

9:50   Assemble tools, make coffee (an essential part of all sewing) and clear down breakfasty remains adhering to all kitchen surfaces.

img_235010:01 Start tracing pattern pieces in size 4.

10:55 Tracing complete and paper pattern pieces cut out. Skirt piece drafted (some head scratching as ‘place on fold’ instruction in diagram appears to be on wrong side).

10:55 Break to sort laundry and dishwasher. Make second pot of coffee.

11:10 Iron fabric and try to get the piece folded on grain.

11:20 Start cutting out pattern pieces in the fabric.

11:57 All cut out; break for more coffee and crumpet.

img_235112:04 Find eyelet kit and a scrap piece of fabric to test it on – not inserted an eyelet before.

12:08 Finally manage to open the pack (staring at you Hemline packaging).

12:26 Eyelets fitted. Kitchen island slightly dented. Feel I have a (slightly wonky) new superpower involving a crazed woman with a hammer. Another laundry break.

12:32 Cut drawstring from a dark navy piece of ponte di roma jersey that will contrast well with the lilac jersey.

12:40 Break for family stuff – homework, snacks and conversations.

1:05 Stabilize shoulders and stitch together. Take a gamble on neckband – I haven’t got any ribbing in a suitable colour, and I have no patience to wait until I can source some. I cut the piece in the main fabric, on the basis that it’s pretty stretchy.

1:35 Neckband attached – ok, not perfect but quite near – certainly not redoing it. Now for the sleeves.

img_23581:56 Sleeves in: time for lunch.

2:33 Lunch done – onto sewing the side seams.

2:48 Side seams sewn and quick try on confirms it’s all ok and the neckband gamble paid off. Now for the skirt side seams.

3:02 Break for words of encouragement, frustration and weeping (aka helping my youngest with her homework).

3:09 Fractions sorted. Back to attaching the bodice to the skirt.

img_23593:27 Bodice attached but with too wide a seam allowance – so the eyelets are now in the wrong place. Seam rip (bonus of using beautiful new seam ripper, gift from a lovely sewing friend from work) …

3:42 Easily distracted and bored while seam ripping – bit of time out to book tickets for next weekend’s Stitch Festival.

3:56 Back to seam ripping.

4:05 All ripped. Joining bodice to skirt #2 …

4:30 Bodice and skirt joined. Casing for drawstring sewn.

img_23604:35 Drawstring fail. Fabric not thin enough to roll into a tube so now sewing it together and turning it through – dullsville.

5:46 This long to turn through one drawstring! Albeit while helping youngest daughter to focus on her English homework but that didn’t slow me down – it’s just a slow and tedious job.

5:59 Drawstring inserted and eyelets promptly fell out. Think this fabric is just too stretchy? Either way the drawstring seems to be working still. But now I’ve tried it on, and sadly I’m not feeling it. Looks a bit sackish. Maybe I need a bit of distance from it. Now I’m in a bad mood with the whole enterprise.

6:43 Finally hemmed (obviously with the bobbin running out 20 cm before the end, because it’s turning into that kind of project) and on the dress form. Definitely a sack.

So start to finish for me was just under 8 hours. Slow sewing indeed. However let’s do the sums properly – excluding all moments of error, distraction, refreshments, laundry and tracing the initial pattern pieces (as I wouldn’t need to do that again). My back-of-an-envelope calculations put my final tally at about 4.5 hours – assuming that next time around I wouldn’t re-trace my fabric, I’d join the bodice accurately, and I’d manage to use fabric for the drawstring that would actually form a tube.

img_2431Sooo – rather higher than the 3 hours and 5 minutes estimate from Tilly – but as we can see, when bearing in mind the reality of my life, expertise and general approach to sewing I should sensibly double all future estimates! And you know, that’s really fine – sewing isn’t something I do in batch (as a rule – the six pairs of PJ trousers I recently made for a girls’ trip away with my old university friends was a definite exception) or to a schedule. I sew because I love sewing. My output may not be great, but I enjoy every (OK, almost all of the) minute(s).

In terms of this pattern – well I’m still not sure. When I put it on later for these photos, I didn’t feel half as negative about it as I did at the end of its construction. I think mostly I needed to reposition it in my mind – not a dress for work, it turns out, but one that I could wear to kick about in at home, at the weekend or in the holidays. It’s a nice relaxed outfit – and in a different fabric might feel a bit dressier.

Will I make it again? I’m not sure right now – at a guess, no, because there are So Many Other Patterns (new patented acronym #SMOP: you’re welcome). But when we have slightly sunnier weather and I’m likely to leave the house without wearing all of my warmest clothes, let’s see how wearable this one is.

I do know, at any rate, that if I do it’ll take me about four and a half hours….

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Sewing gifts

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.img_1810

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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.

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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?

Psst – sewing – pass it on

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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 them now 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.

IMG_7340 copyEllie 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.

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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 clothing for 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.

img_1791The 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.

img_1759The 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.

img_1761.jpgWe 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.

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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.

Slow (very slow), unselfish sewing

Maya wrap dress

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.GrD3p7gRTQmp7SZ3YRXuuA

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. ynR4xWBORHGRceCIibY0kQ

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!

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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 #Lakeside17001_Lakeside08-1000x1426 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. Picture1

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.

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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. kqSGp6abTCa45v2W%Lw

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!

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?

Stevie and the Japanese procession

It started with some inspirational fabric and a plan for some holiday sewing.

The fabric was an awesome cotton print, gifted by a wonderful friend who bought it some time ago in Japan. Said friend has been sewing for as long as I’ve known her (30+ years) and has forgotten more than I will ever know about this craft. She’s also kind and generous – she made my wedding dress 20 years ago because I asked her to ….  (I know, I know … in my defence I had no idea what I was asking at the time and now I do I’ve sincerely apologised but am also still delighted with the beautiful dress she made me), so gifting sweet fabric is definitely in keeping with her personality.

IMG_2913The material was a cotton print, but with none of the stiffness you usually get when you buy printed cotton. And what a print! My favourite shade of teal – a really warm, deep shade – with a procession of beautiful ladies dressed in kimonos, carrying parasols and wearing geta (Japanese footwear, somewhere between a clog and a flipflop).

I was given the fabric last summer, but it took a while to decide on the right pattern for it. The ladies process along one edge of the fabric as a border print, so it needed to be a design without darts or pleats, so their walk could be unimpeded. I’d kind of dismissed Stevie when the dress was launched last year by Tilly and the Buttons, but when I went to the Sewing Weekender it seemed that so many of the people I met were wearing/making/both a Stevie dress or top – and they looked lovely, not all hospital-gown-ish as I’d feared. Final encouragement from a sewing-friend-at-work (thank you Vanessa) and I decided that Stevie would be right for this fabric.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who spends more time planning the sewing projects/kit to take on holiday than actually packing real clothes. I planned, resourced and packed for three projects during our 10 days away, but Stevie was the only one that experienced the country air. It was probably something to do with needing a simple, well-structured make (after my wonderful but intense tailoring experience), sewing in the presence of a puppy (who was brilliantly behaved but I was reasonably paranoid about her eating haberdashery that she shouldn’t), and actually spending lovely relaxing time with my extended family, that made this one The One.

The make came together very easily and it would be a great pattern for a sewist at any stage/experience. The instructions are very detailed, with clear photos and hints to guide you through it. Because of the pattern placement I had to be a little creative with piecing – using the crossgrain so that the print went around the hem and not up my side. I cut a straight size 4, which fitted well – as I had expected having made several TATB patterns. img_0333Their block is a good match for my measurements and TATB patterns tend to fit me well. I liked the way that the facing was sewn down (similar to the Bettine pattern) as part of the design, as I don’t like facings that move around when I’m wearing the garment.

The cotton cut easily and was a dream to sew up being stable but still with some drape to it. It took the iron and the interfacing well. I don’t know where in Japan Lisa bought it from, but the same fabric seems to be sold here and I’d highly recommend it. With the print ladies walking around the hem, I had some lovely fabric bits that I couldn’t use elsewhere as they’d have looked odd. kLswTM9mQxKa3qVZaIu6qwOne lady became the pocket and one looks out from the facing on the inside when you undo the bow at the back – one of those secret details you can put into your own makes, and which make me smile.

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Notes for me for future occasions when I make this pattern (and I think there will be a few – it’s a very simple, practical and quick make) – I did a tiny hem but still probably will choose to wear this with capri leggings or jeans rather than with bare legs. On that basis, the pattern might work better for me if extended by an inch or two – not exactly a common pattern adjustment I make and is definitely about what I feel comfortable wearing and not an issue with the pattern. Let’s see, maybe I’ll be brave enough to wear it as is? Also the bow at the back is fine with the ties made from the main fabric but a complementary-coloured ribbon might be nicer and feel more elegant.

Thank you to the lovely friends who made this possible but also to my long-suffering and understanding family – who seem to get that sewing is an important way for me to relax and recharge, and don’t mind giving me the time and space to do so. You’re all diamonds. X

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Make Nine 2019

As will be obvious to everyone connected to me in any way, much of my life and almost all of my actual sewing is largely unplanned. The moment I commit to a project, it turns it to a task rather than a joy – so staying in the unplanned zone keeps things interesting.

On the other hand, planning is akin to procrastination – so the more I think about a project, plan for it and buy fabric/notions and tools, the better. I can spend hours reading sewing blogs (thank you to everyone who writes one, you feed my obsession in a cost-effective way) and greedily browsing on-line fabric stores. This explains the ever-expanding stash of fabric that I own and the many patterns and magazines that are gathering dust.

I think I’m ready to commit though. I have been looking at the other #Makenine posts, instagram pictures and Facebook threads for Rochelle’s 2019 challenge, and feel inspired to gather nine of the projects I’m mulling for this year – and see whether I make any or all of them by the end of December!

1. Sew Over It – Francine Jacket

This one might be regarded as a bit of a cheat – or at least a bit of a cert. My lovely husband bought me the Sew Over It class to make the Francine jacket as my Christmas present, so by mid-March this one should be complete. Famous last words, perhaps …

2. Helen’s Closet – Blackwood Cardigan

In my last post, I mentioned the navy cardigan I’d been intending to make when I came across the black and white lace ponte. Well, somewhere in my stash that navy jersey should still be lurking, and I definitely need a warm layer in navy to complement several pairs of trousers that look odd with a black top. I like the look of the Blackwood, so this one is definitely on the cards.

3. Victory Patterns – Madeleine Skirt

Ssshhh. I ordered this pattern today, and sent it to Patternsy for printing, so again I feel I’ve committed to this project in a real way. As well as the workshop above, my husband also bought me some – well I don’t know if it’s a heavy chambray or a light denim, but it’s a fabric that I think will work really well with this skirt. I’m not sure if I can pull off the ‘suspenders’ bit (braces in the UK surely?), but I think they’re optional extras. I love the pocket detailing, and a swirly skirt definitely works in my world.

4. Itch to Stitch – Brasov Wrap Top

Again perhaps a cheat. I have actually cut out and started to sew this top, but I’m not in love with it so it’s just lurking there in the pile and has become a task. I’m adding it to my make nine list in the hope that it restarts my mojo for the project. The problem is not one with the pattern which is lovely, but with the fabric which has already faded after its initial wash and I suspect will be disappointing ultimately.

5. Sew Over It – Cowl Dress

I believe I downloaded this dress as a freebie last year, when I joined the Sew Over It pattern insiders. It only goes to show that I shouldn’t do that kind of thing – it’s a lovely dress, but because I didn’t get it for a specific purpose, it’s been lurking as a file on my computer ever since. Here’s hoping that this year it will get its outing. Thinking about it, I’ve got a party in a fortnight that I might need to wear this dress to. Hmmm, motivation!

6. Tilly and the Buttons – Stella Hoodie Dress

Idly browsing through sewing blogs last night, I clicked on this one and actually said out-loud “I need this”. As my snoring husband didn’t respond, I then copied the link and sent it to my eldest daughter who I knew was likely to be awake downstairs. She told me to make it, so if I didn’t it would be letting her down wouldn’t it? So I need to buy the Stretch book don’t I? Just so I don’t let her down …? My self-sacrifice is huge.

7. Sew House 7 – Toaster Sweater

This has been on my mental to-make list since it was released. It’s definitely the kind of top I’d get a lot of wear from, so I just need to find the right fabric, the right weekend, and get the pattern and so on. The usual things.

8. Pauline Alice – Lliria Dress

This one’s a maybe. My lovely mum bought me some beautiful cotton lawn for Christmas that deserves a special make. I think the Lliria (how do you even pronounce that?) might be a good option. Once the fabric is washed, and I can get a good sense of its drape, I’ll try an decide it if this is indeed the right pattern for this special project.

9. Named – Kielo Dress

Wow, I got to nine far more quickly than I’d imagined. So, the Kielo dress has been one that has intrigued me for ages – then when I was on the Sewing Weekender, my lovely neighbour snaffled some lovely dark red heavy jersey with the intention of making herself a Kielo. I was enviously stroking it and she realised she had 6 metres of the stuff (some people were very generous with their donations!) so she gave me half. We figured we would share the images of our finished dresses and I’m pretty sure hers was then complete a week later. Mine – well, let’s hope that 2019 ends my procrastination and gets the job done!

Sewing city PJs

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Today’s lesson for the class: you may love the fabric – it may be calling you like a siren – but sometimes you should walk on by.

In life, I do not wear a lot of bright or patterned clothes. When I do, my rule is always: there can only be one. So, à la Highlander, I might wear a silvery print skirt, but with a black top and black shoes. A floral print t-shirt, with plain navy trousers. You get the picture; basically a neutral, quite simple style.

So when I had a moment in Fabrics Galore a couple of years ago, and impulse-bought a mint green cotton fabric with a pink cityscape border print, the fabric was destined to sit in my stash without a purpose. I regularly got it out, lovingly laid it across the floor and sought inspiration. I was thinking a shift dress perhaps? or a skirt?

Then earlier this week, I realised that what it really needed to be was pyjamas. I needed some light summery PJs for a hot holiday ahead of us – and as a woman who prefers neutral colours to wear out-of-the-house, maybe I could make some silly, happy jams?img_2916.jpg

Spoiler alert: they are indeed, pretty silly.

The pyjama trousers are from the Tilly & the Buttons ‘Love at First Stitch‘ book – the Margot pattern. Not my first rodeo with this pattern (I have three others for me, and at least four pairs made for my children and nieces). I made up a size 5 with no adjustments other than switching out the ribbon tie at the waist for some elastic – because my tumble dryer unthreads ribbon waist ties (that are securely knotted together six times) instantly but conversely creates complex and impossible-to-unknot macrame out of my tights.

Just as a side note, and because my husband claims that he reads my blog, Tilly has a new book out, called Stretch, which would make an excellent birthday present for a sewist who has made such good use out of the first Tilly book. Just sayin’.
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The pyjama top is the Grainline Lakeside pyjamas. I made the pattern up last summer (the top and the cute shorts) in a grey floral, and love the tulip shaped back.

It is a pattern that requires someone who enjoys (or can tolerate) making bias binding, which fortunately I don’t mind when I’m in the mood. I was also using a lovely Liberty cotton leftover piece, which took to being bias binding beautifully. 
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What else to say about this make? At the end of the day, nothing can really avoid the fact that I look like a bit of a clown. I could try mix–and-matching using the Highlander rule: trousers with plain t-shirt or top with some plain shorts? But hey, we’re talking pyjamas here, and if you can’t be a bit of a clown while lazing around on a weekend morning at home with your children, when can you?

The learning for me though must be that I am not a person for novelty fabrics. In future I will do my best to admire, send it my love in the store and then walk past without purchasing to the solid colour, jersey section where I will try to feel the same passion about some teal-green ponte. No really, I will. I can do this ….

In other news, one of my besties gifted me yesterday some cotton fabric printed with Japanese ladies in a line along the border. What do you think – a panelled circle skirt?

I know, I’m a lost cause!

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