Sunday, 8 September 2019

Focus on - CoPA

My deadline for my Masters dissertation is rapidly approaching, leaving very little time for sewing or indeed blogging. Many of the books and other resources which I have used for my research have been very academic and some have been, to be honest, painfully dull. Others have been a joy – indeed part of the reason why my studies have taken so long has been the discovery that I’m incapable of skim-reading: if I find something interesting then I have to read it from start to finish. So for the next few weeks I’m going to cheat a bit on the blog and share a few of the things which I’ve come across which I think might appeal to a general readership with an interest in vintage dressmaking and/or women’s history.

Working hard

I have already blogged about one of the books I've used - the excellent A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery, which I reviewed here. So now I'm moving on to the Commercial Pattern Archive, otherwise known as CoPA, of which Spanabel Emery was formerly the curator. The always fascinating Witness2Fashion has recently blogged about CoPA and how she has used it for her research, you can read her post here.

The archive is based at the University of Rhode Island, and it is possible to visit it by appointment. However for most people the main resource will be its amazing online database of patterns, over 61,000 at the last count, drawn from collections in the United States, Canada and Britain. You have to register to be able to access it, but the process is easy and free. Once you have registered, you can log in and search the database, either just by entering the pattern number or by selecting from a number of criteria such as year, pattern brand and type of garment. If the pattern you are looking for is on the database, the search will return information including the year, price, and size of the pattern held, as well as the envelope illustration and the schematic of the pattern pieces taken from either the envelope back or the instruction sheet.

Because the website states that the images may only be used for private research and study and not reproduced, I have created a mock-up of the information which CoPA would show if it held one of the patterns from my collection, Style 2596.

Style 2596 as it would appear in the CoPA database

The archive doesn't include the pattern instructions, but if you are interested in a simple pattern and/or a confident sewist, it would be possible to enlarge the schematic and create a pattern from it - and yes, this is on my (very long) list of Things I Want To Do Once The Dissertation Is Completed.

Because until recently pattern companies seemed to have some sort of phobia about putting dates on patterns, I've used CoPA a lot to date patterns in my collection. Even if the exact pattern isn't in there, it's often possible to work the date out. For example, once you know that DuBarry 2478 and 2518 both date from 1940, then it's a safe bet that a DuBarry pattern number 2500 with a 1940s-style illustration is from the same year. I've also used it to find a pattern illustration if the original envelope is missing or torn. Unsurprisingly the archive contains lots of patterns from the Big 4, plus a good number from smaller brands such as Hollywood and DuBarry, as well as names I'd never heard of such as Green Pepper, Of My Hands and Vanata.

My only, very minor, quibble is that the illustrations from the patterns are very tightly cropped to show the figures only, and no other information. Obviously this makes sense, in that it makes the actual figures larger and therefore easier to view. Occasionally however it would be useful to see more of the envelope. This Butterick pattern in my collection has a three-digit number, unlike any other other Butterick pattern I've seen.

Mystery pattern

The only things I have to date it with are the logo and the price. The logo has changed a lot over the years.

Butterick logos from 1937 to 1987

Based on patterns I have been able to date, I think that my mystery nightdress dates from the early 1950s.

From a wider perspective, it's fascinating to track trends in both fashions and pattern art through the archive. Naturally most of the patterns in my collection are from Britain, and it's interesting for example to see how much later colour printing was introduced here than in the United States. Occasionally though the differences go further than that, such as with Vogue 8753.

My British copy, identifiable by the currency

The illustration on CoPA wasn't just in colour, it was entirely different. It dates from 1940, but I found a version online with a copyright date of 1951 printed on the bottom.

This illustration, minus the back view, appears on CoPA

I would love to know why the British version was changed, replacing the telephone with a pipe, removing the tie, and adding a rather bold spotty contrast fabric. Also to my eyes the trousers look ever-so-slightly baggier. All input and suggestions gratefully received, as ever.

Long may the wonders of CoPA continue to educate and intrigue me!

Finally, much as I like the opening image of elegance and calm poise, I'll finish with a photograph which is a more realistic depiction of life in Tulip Mansions at present.

It's as if the photographer is in my house!

Sunday, 1 September 2019

An August alteration

(OK, I know that it's now September, but I did finish this in August. Honest.)

Sadly, much as I like New Look 6723, it does not like me. I think that something went very wrong when I did my usual bodice-shortening alterations on the pattern, and as a result the bodice has never felt remotely comfortable to wear for more than a short time. The princess seams ended up improbably far apart, and the armscyes are way too high. Put it this way - I recently altered a shop-bought dress to fit me by taking the shoulder seams up by 1¼", and the armscyes on that are still a better fit than the ones on this dress.

Looks alright, but a nightmare to wear

Despite the fact that I only wore it a couple of times each summer, it has survived in my wardrobe because I do really like the fabric, and couldn't bear to get rid of it. I was bemoaning this state of affairs to my friend F at the start of the summer and she suggested that I should ditch the troublesome bodice and turn the rest into a skirt. This seemed like an excellent idea, but nothing actually happened until I read Juliana's Urban Simplicity posts about her Alter It August projects, and decided it was time to crack on.

I unpicked the lining (only the bodice is lined), and took out that pesky zip.Yes I could have just chopped of the top of the zip, but I had a suitable skirt-length replacement in my stash, and I couldn't bring myself to trash a perfectly good zip. Next I unpicked the bottom seam of the tie belt, and used part of it, along with some petersham, to make the waistband. Unfortunately when I attached the skirt to the bodice I had very carefully trimmed and graded the seam, and also pulled out the gathering thread, so couldn't just take the bodice off the skirt again. Instead I had to cut off most of the bodice, leaving a ½" strip attached to the skirt. However I was worried about the side and princess seams coming apart, so rather than just cutting the whole thing off and then attaching the waistband, I only cut a short section at a time. The photo below shows the tortuous process near its end.

Work in progress, with the waistband sewn in place on the right

The stitching to attach the waistband is not my neatest work by a long chalk, but for once I did remember to sew in the hanging loops as I was going along, so took that as a win. I wasn't sure what I would wear the finished skirt with, as I don't have any suitable white blouses, but then I noticed that the leaves on the trees are exactly the same colour as my Butterick 6620 top.

Chartreuse green leaves

I tried wearing the top over the skirt, but I think that I prefer it tucked in with a black belt (although preferably without my net petticoat showing at the front - annoyingly that one was by far the best of the many photographs I took!). Either way, at least I now have a wearable garment from a favourite fabric. Thanks Juliana for giving me the prompt to finally get it done!

Version 1

Version 2

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Lounging around

After last week's grumble, I thought I'd go for something a bit cheerier this time. I recently bought a box of old patterns, and am very slowly sorting through them. At some point I'll post about the whole thing, but as it's the bank holiday weekend in England and Wales, I've picked out a few which seem suitable for relaxing on a summer break.

These men's trousers (well, 'slacks' actually) are described as "for lounging or work". Given how much more formal dress was 70 years ago, I'm surprised that the same trousers could be considered suitable for both activities. Perhaps it depended upon what fabric as used to make them up.

Butterick 5545 - 1950

1950s Butterick patterns often have quite whimsical descriptions on the back of the envelope. For example, this one: "One-piece, button front playsuit that dons a skirt for visits to town". My first though was that I would love to get my hands on some of that red and yellow leafy fabric, but my second thought was that the visits to town would have to be short, as a bathroom break in that outfit would be tricky.

Butterick 8581 - 1958

This Jane Tise pattern is described as a "shirt and sundress", but the illustration suggests that the wearers are taking no chances with the weather - both examples show the dress with the shirt worn underneath.

Butterick 5285 - 1977

Also described as a sundress, and styled far more like one, is this in both regular and maxi lengths.

Simplicity 8876 - 1979

All the patterns came from the same owner, and clearly someone she sewed for really liked sundresses. There is no date on this pattern, but judging from the hair, and the fact that it still has the 'Maudella' name, I'm guessing that it's from the same era as the other two.

New Look Maudella 6090

My absolute favourite pattern of the lot though is this one which, according to the information on the back, consists of a "nightie, brunch coat and lounging outfit". I have no idea what a 'brunch coat' is, or why brunching is an activity which requires its own coat - but the idea of an outfit made specifically for lounging, and lounging only, is oddly appealing!

Butterick 7559 - 1955

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Diversity on the Catwalk

I must admit, I've been putting off writing this post for a while because I wasn't sure what to write. I'm still not sure, so have decided to just go with a mainly descriptive post, with a little bit at the end about my problems with it.

Body Beautiful: Diversity of the Catwalk is a free exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, which looks at how the fashion is attempting to explore more varied ideas of what constitutes beauty. I first came across it in this article, and went to see it when I was in Edinburgh for the Wedding Gown in a Weekend event.

The exhibition poster

The exhibition includes two garments lent by activist Sinéad Burke: a version of the cut-down Burberry trench which she is wearing in the exhibition's publicity materials, and a dress made for her by Christopher Kane.

Clothes lent by Sinéad Burke

The latter is based on a dress from his catwalk collection but altered to keep the proportions (for example, it has fewer buttons on the front) and to fit properly - the skirt is 5cm / 2" longer at the back than the front so that the hem is level. I was fascinated to read in the accompanying notes that it has the zip at one side rather than the centre back because this allows Ms Burke to reach it herself rather than have to rely on help to dress and undress, a detail which was a standard feature of dresses in the 1940s and 1950s is now largely obsolete.

The rest of the exhibition is split into five sections, looking at disability, race, LGBTQI+, size and age. Each section consists of a display of information and statistics, a large illustration as a backdrop, and clothing related to the section.

Disability

Race

LGBTQIA+

As a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman, I really don't feel qualified to comment on representation in any of these categories, but the last two were a different matter.

Size

The large image behind the mannequins is a photograph of model Paloma Elsesser. She is 1.71m / 5' 7½" tall, and a UK size 16 - which is the average size in this country, hence the T shirt in the display with '16' on it. The bustier on the far left was worn by model Denise Bidot when she walked for the Chromat Spring Summer 2015 collection - the first time a plus-size model had opened a straight-size show at New York Fashion Week. According to a video shown alongside this section, she was astonished and thrilled that as a curve model and 'only' 1.8m tall she was selected for such a job. She had good reason to be; according to the accompanying notes for this section, in the Spring 2019 season shows there were only 54 curve models out of the 7,431 castings across the four fashion cities, and this fell to 50 in the Autumn 2019 shows.

Finally, there was the 'Age' section. This managed to make curve models look almost mainstream: less than 1% of the castings in the Autumn 2019 shows, a mere 36, were models aged 50 and above (and we have already established that three of those were Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn in New York). The exhibition freely admitted that age lags behind race, gender and size in terms of catwalk representation.

Age

The image would have almost been funny, if it weren't such a stark illustration of what the fashion industry sees as 'old'. Apparently demonstrating that 'feminine beauty is ageless' it consisted of four supermodels from the 1990s whose ages at the time the photograph was taken were, by my calculations, as follows: Nadja Auermann - 44, Yasmin Le Bon - 51, Stella Tennant - 45 and Eva Herzigova - 42. The accompanying clothes are from brands which were quoted as designing for a range of ages up to 70, albeit while mostly using models at least 20 years younger - with the honourable exception of Simone Rocha; the designer of the black outfit on the right.

I'm well aware that all of this is just restating arguments I've made several times on this blog this year. I'm also aware that I was in a bit of a grumpy mood the day I went round this exhibition, so may not have given it the benefit of the doubt; and of course, none of this is the fault of the exhibition itself. The fact is that the fashion industry is just not in the business of representing reality. But the thing which I found depressing was that 'diversity' seemed to be expressed within such narrow parameters. It was as if you could be disabled so long as you were also thin, a larger size so long as your body shape met certain acceptable proportions, old but not too old etc. I think that for me part of the problem is that the fashion industry is on the whole so far removed from reality that it is easy to accept that the whole thing is artifice. Once a degree of reality in introduced in one area (along with, it must be said, more than a hint of self-congratulation in some cases) then it just serves to magnify how unreal and unattainable the rest of it is. But I would be very interested to hear what other people think.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

From the archives

I have done absolutely no sewing this week. Not a stitch. No dramatic reason, just Life getting in the way. Now I do try to post something every week (see here for why I do, this is still a commitment I take seriously), so this left me with a dilemma of what to write about. Then when I was looking through a drawer for something, I found the box which contains this.

Drawstring bag with beaded tassel

I made this over 15 years ago, long before I started blogging. But it's one of the makes that I'm most proud of, so I decided that it deserved its moment in the spotlight.

It was made for my wedding in 2004. We sort-of-eloped to Venice, and I didn't want a wedding dress, so instead I based my outfit on the colours of Venetian buildings - all pinks and browns. My beaded top was bought, but I made a plain silk skirt to go with it, and decided to make a bag from the leftover fabric. The size was determined by what had to fit into it, namely the essentials of sunglasses, hankie and migraine tablets. Practicalities like cash and the keys to the apartment were left to Mr Tulip! The main section of the bag was interlined with heavy interfacing to keep the cylinder shape. The sections at either end were not interlined, to allow the drawstrings to work and for the bottom to be gathered to a point and finished with a tassel of glass beads.

Drawstring

Tassel

Staying with the Venice theme, the decoration was based on the ornate mosaic floor of St Mark's basilica.

Antonio Visentini's drawing of the floor of St Mark's

The overall design for the bag was taken from a small section directly below the plain square in the illustration above.

Close-up of Visentini's drawing

Photograph of the floor - found on Pinterest

The circles and diamonds were cut out from a selection of small silk samples and the squares from metallic gauzes, all of which I had in my stash. The cream outlines of the various sections were made from silk ribbon, gathered and pleated to shape and stitched down along both edges. Split stitch in variagated pink silk thread was added along the middle of the ribbon to emphasize the interlaced effect, and beads added in the centres of the circles at each point of the diamonds.

Ribbon detail

The sections around each square were filled with embroidered silk gauze. For two of the squares, the patterns were based on examples in the mosaic floor - they are the two sections on the right in the photograph above. I used very fine silk threads from Mulberry Silks and widened the colour range from pinks and browns, but tried to keep it within a muted Venetian palette.

Translated into counted thread embroidery

The other 'mosaic' section

For the third section, I wanted to use the pink and white brickwork pattern of the Doge's Palace. This proved easier said than done. In 2004 there was nothing like the online resources now available, and it took some time and a lot of research to find an image clear and detailed enough for me to work out the design.

The Doge's Palace - a photogaph taken long after the event

Replicated in the varigated pink silk thread

The circles were too large to leave undecorated, but I wanted something which would not detract from the silk gauze embroidery. I adapted more elements of the floor design, and created three motifs using thread, sequins and beads, each of which was used twice.

Ring and star design

Interlocking circles

The decorated circles

And here is the finished bag in use on the day. This is me attempting to post our wedding certificate into one of the bocche dei leoni, the lion's mouths which were used for posting anonymous complaints and denunciations in the time of the Venetian state!

The bag turned out perfectly

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Additional information

For a lot of things which are designated as 'collectible', the rule seems to be that the fewer signs of use, the better. Toys which have never been played with, but remain pristine inside their original packaging - that kind of thing. I don't know how much old patterns are deemed collectible, but personally I love to find things which hint at a former owner. These are a few of my patterns which have at least a teensy bit of 'previous' attached.

Even when home dressmaking was far more popular than it is now, not all shops carried all patterns. Some had to be ordered in like this one, with "Mrs Judd to pay" pencilled on it.

Vogue 7678 - ordered by Mrs Judd in 1952

Other stores used a different method, combining a variation on the familiar 'patterns cannot be exchanged' stamp with the order details. This pattern came out in 1963, but appears to have been ordered four years later.

Vogue 5942 - ordered 22/9/67?

Vogue patterns appear to have been the ones most often ordered. I wonder if the higher price meant that fewer people bought them, so it wasn't worth the shops carrying a large stock?

Sometimes the previous owner made a note on the envelope of what they had made from the pattern. This one has an arrow pointing to the white blouse at the bottom left and the note "Made yellow calico blouse".

Vogue Special Design 6081, 1963

I'm not sure whether "Tunic top without the collar white/grey/red" beside view B on this envelope was a note of a) what had been made from it, or b) the project planned for it. But given how often I unearth a pattern from my stash and think, 'I bought that for something, but I can't remember what', perhaps I should adopt this technique!

Style 3595, 1972

Given that this Vogue pattern is for a very loose-fitting smock, all the alterations listed seem a bit excessive:
sleeve longer by 1"
yoke ¾" wider from neck to armpit
armhole 1" deeper
cut a trifle fuller if material allows

However the final note is "buttons to match belt", and as there is obviously no belt on the original, I'm guessing that it was adapted to be something else.

Vogue 9005, 1941

Butterick 6670 was obviously passed on from its original owner to a friend, complete with handy hints about making up pencilled on the front: "I made my dress exactly to pattern, but I hope you will fit yourself as the sleeves are a bit tight round the elbow since it has been washed".

Butterick 6670, 1953

The next two patterns are from the same lot, bought at auction. Clearly the owner liked planning possible alterations to the designs.

Vogue 6333, 1964

Vogue 6701, 1966

Rather simpler is the intended change to this Givency pattern, just rounding the jacket collar. Vogue patterns seem to be the ones most often adapted - possibly they were used by more skilled dressmakers.

Vogue Paris Original 2923, 1973

Extra information doesn't just appear on the front of patterns. The back of this one includes yardage requirements, and a checklist for making the skirt.

Vogue Paris Original 2567, 1980

Lots of notes on the back

My favourite though is probably this one. Although the pattern was issued by Vogue in 1950, the date stamped on it is 14 February 1951.

Vogue Couturier Design 556, 1950/51

On the back is a list of what all the separate components cost.

Cost breakdown (and fabulous hat!)

Material - 6 pounds 14 shillings and 3 pence
Pattern - 7 shillings and 4 pence
Interlining - 5 shillings and 9 pence
Sylko (thread) - 9 pence
Lining - 10 shillings and 6 pence
Buttons - 2 shillings
Pack etc - 2 shillings and 8 pence
Total - 8 pounds 1 shilling and 3 pence

According to this website, 8 pounds 1 shilling and 3 pence was 5 days' wages for a skilled tradesman in 1950, and was worth £251.62 in 2017. However, I can never see something like this without checking that the total is correct, and my reckoning it should be 8 pounds 3 shillings and 3 pence, which adds a whopping £3.12 to the 2017 total!

Either way, I'm intrigued by what 'Pack etc' means. Was the pattern being made up for someone else, and if so, why are there no labour charges added? Sometimes the extra information on patterns just leaves you with more questions than it answers.