Sunday, 31 March 2013

Beaded dress - progress report

What a difference a year makes! As well as 50 Fabulous Frocks, the Fashion Museum is still showing Glamour, the display of evening dresses which opened last year. Visiting it again, I was convinced that some of the exhibits had been changed, as I had absolutely no recollection of them. However going back to the photographs I took then confirmed that the dresses had always been there. Clearly different things just caught my eye a year ago.

The 'new' exhibits

Interestingly, both of the dresses in question were worn as wedding dresses, although neither of them is white. I’m not sure why this lemon yellow silk satin one didn’t register in my brain, as it is a similar style to the 1950s red cocktail dress which opened the exhibition, and which became one of the inspirations for my Vegas Night dress. I love the shape, the waist detail, and the way that the darts almost meet at the bust. There’s obviously all sorts of interesting detailing going on at the back, but sadly this was the closest I could get to seeing it.

1961 Nettie Vogue dress

Clearly 12 months ago 1920s beaded dresses just weren’t making an impression on me. That has certainly changed.

1926 wedding dress

The gold brocade fabric is beautiful; such a delicate design.

Brocade close-up

And the beading! I especially love the way the size of the pearls tapers down the fringe.

Beading and fringe

More was in store, as there was another 1920s beaded dress to drool over elsewhere in the museum. Sadly there wasn’t much information about this one.

Pink chiffon and silver beads, mid 1920s

It was good to see the detailing around the hips on the 1926 dress, as I want to do something similar on my 1920s beaded dress, but hadn’t found much evidence of such a design feature before. Then I found this sunny example in All The Pretty Dresses (and then spent far too much time drooling over the other pretties which Isabella has posted there).

Hip detail and handkerchief hem

But enough ‘research’, time to actually get on with some dressmaking! I had already decided that I wanted a band of gold-coloured pattern round the hips, and had come up with a design, again based on Egyptian tentmaker motifs.

Several versions of the hip band, the final one is at the bottom

Unlike the panels, this was to be the same colour throughout. The design is far too intricate to cut out from a different coloured fabric and attach as appliqué, so I needed to paint it instead. Not onto the dress directly, but onto a further piece of satin, which I would then attach along the outer edges. I then decided to also do a small motif to put on the dress front, at the neckline.

To paint the designs I needed to block out the areas of the satin which I wanted to remain ivory, and flood the remainder with thin paint. I also wanted to paint a large piece of the satin in the same colour, and use this for binding the neckline and armholes.

Outliner applied to hip bands top left, and extra motif bottom right. Plus plain fabric to paint

This didn’t go entirely smoothly. In some ways I found it far more difficult than painting the motifs on the panels, as I was trying to keep the colour as even as possible. It was important not to go over any areas twice, which would make the colour darker, or let any areas dry out and leave an obvious join to the next area painted. Even though I thought I had applied the outliner with a fairly generous hand, clearly it wasn’t enough, and the paint ran in some places.

Paint run - too big to be covered by beading

I hadn’t made enough of a barrier between the hip bands and the piece of fabric which I was painting for the binding, either. When I came to paint the latter, the colour ran into the former and left a tide mark. Fortunately this should be lost in the seam allowance when I join the two bands together.The solid colour for the binding isn't a uniform as it could be, either.

Two coats of paint at the ends of the hip bands

Worst of all was the extra motif I had designed for the neckline. I painted this first, and had a totally blank moment about how the outliner works. For some reason I thought it was like batik wax, and acted as a barrier on the fabric. In fact it only prevents the paint from spreading out, and if you paint straight over it, it doesn’t stop the paint from soaking into the fabric.The completed motif in the photograph below clearly shows that I worked from left to right, and realised my mistake too late.

Before and after paining

I spent a while pondering how this could be rescued, before deciding that the only thing for it was to start afresh. Fortunately a) I had some spare paint and b) I made my mistake on the small design, not the big one.

On the plus side, the first, botched motif did then give me a trial piece to play with. When I bought the Dylon paints for the dress panels, I also bought their gold paint, thinking that I might use it on my orange dress. However it turned out to be a very pale gold, which gave an almost pearlescent effect, so I instead I used some Deka gold paint which I had already. While the Dylon gold may be a bit feeble when used on its own (there is a sample at the top of the embroidery hoop in the photograph below), when painted over the yellow it gave a lovely, subtle, gilded effect.

All the painting complete

Unfortunately despite my best efforts this doesn't really capture the lustre, so you'll just have to take my word for it! But that, finally, is all the painting done.

Monday, 25 March 2013


This fortnight’s challenge in the Historical Sew Fortnightly is Stripes. I haven’t taken part in this challenge, but you can see the other entries here.

I do have some news on the stripy front however. Ever since I visited the Off The Peg exhibition of Horrockses Fashions last autumn, I have wanted to make my own Horrockses-esqe, bias-cut bodice dress from Vogue pattern 8789.

Horrockses advertisement

Vogue 8789, view A

On our recent holiday I came across Over The Moon in Glastonbury, a lovely shop selling vintage items, gifts, haberdashery and best of all, fabric. (Actually the fabric is right at the back of the shop, but glancing through the window in passing, it was still the first thing I saw!) I found this pretty mauve striped cotton, which will be ideal.


Not that I think I’m going to need a cotton summer dress, or my Victorian sunbonnet, for some time. It may be officially spring, but this is what our garden currently looks like.


Sunday, 24 March 2013

Fifty Fabulous Frocks

The Fashion Museum (formerly the Museum of Costume) in Bath is 50 years old this year, and is marking the occasion with a special exhibition of 50 of its most glamorous dresses*, dating from 1660 to 2012.

(* Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is a smattering of menswear in there too, but to simplify things I shall just use the word ‘dresses’ throughout.)

The exhibition starts with a bang, or more accurately a pop, as the first exhibit is a champagne bottle costume, worn to a fancy dress party in 1902.

'Champagne' dress

Click here for a photograph of the dress being worn, complete with a pouffy champagne cork hat.

The dresses are grouped together in two large displays, and one smaller one. As is obvious from this photograph, all the displays are behind glass, so apologies for the quality of some of the images.

The first display

This arrangement of the dresses allows you to see the back of most of them (yea!).

Mid-1860s silk day dress, front and back

It wasn’t clear to me how the order of the display was decided upon, as it is neither chronological or colour based. As a result you get a bold navy and red 2009 Erdem dress next to an early 1800s plain white muslin beaded dress by an unknown maker (my favourite of the entire exhibition).


Two centuries earlier

The arrangement does create some interesting juxtapositions. The flashes of yellow in a 1950s Victor Stiebel silk ballgown are echoed in the yellow and grey stripes of the 1999 Vivienne Westwood evening dress displayed beside it.

Two treatments of yellow and grey

A 1960s Gerald McCann suit and the 1660 silver tissue dress are linked by a similar palette.

Two two-piece costumes

Although very different, the 1938 Schiaparelli ensemble and the 1780s man’s Court coat both feature exquisite embroidery on velvet jackets.

Embroidered velvet

Photograph brightened to show the embroidery

Not all of the dresses in the exhibition are ‘fabulous’ by way of decoration or the name of the designer; some have been included precisely because they are incomplete, examples of what ordinary people wore, or simply intriguing.

Some are undoubtedly very grand indeed.

1760s embroidered Court mantua, with matching shoes

This late 1860s striped silk day dress by an unknown maker has an unfinished neckline. Either the trimmings were removed to be reused, or the dress was never completed.

No fastens or trimming on the neckline

This Worth dress belonging to Mary Chamberlain Carnegie is from the mid 1890s, when ‘dresses’ consisted of two parts. The skirt has been lost or possibly cut up to be reused; only the bodice survives.

Wonder what the skirt looked like?

Each polka dot of this 1940s housecoat by an unknown maker has been carefully outlined in stab stitching, quilting the rayon fabric, the interlining and the cotton gingham lining together, a major undertaking.

The simple appearance belies the work that went into this

The provenance of this printed hessian tunic dress, c. 1910 is a mystery. Undoubted a stage costume, the designer and the production it was made for are both unknown.

Possibly influenced by the Ballets Russes?

Many of the dresses are displayed on ordinary dress forms such as those in the two photographs above. However in a nice touch the exhibition does make use of vintage mannequins, such as this one.

1934 silk net Vionnet evening dress on a period mannequin

Slightly oddly, the 1780s man’s Court coat is displayed on a mannequin, but with no other clothing. I can’t help feeling that this would have looked better on a dress form, as the combination of the beautiful workmanship and pink plastic legs is very odd. Fortunately there are too many reflections in the photograph I took for it to be of any use other than for reference, so I shall spare the mannequin's blushes and not post it!

As this is a fiftieth anniversary celebration, it is only right that the exhibition should end with gold. Sadly my photographs of the final exhibit, a 1925 gold lace and cloth of gold dress by Paul Poiret, are not good enough to post. Instead I’ll finish with some pictures of dress number 49; a late 1820s gold embroidered dress by an unknown maker.

Embroidered dress

Close-up of the bodice

Gold metal strip embroidery on the hem

Monday, 18 March 2013

Peasants and Pioneers

This is a very late entry to the latest Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge; Peasants and Pioneers. It goes back to an idea I had last summer. I was working in the garden on a hot and sunny day, and feeling that the hat I was wearing was not really suitable for the job. It fell off every time I leaned down, and it wasn’t doing much to keep the sun off my neck and shoulders. I decided that what I really needed was a sunbonnet of the sort that Victorian women working outdoors used to wear, like this.

Bonnet 1850-1890 © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Then it rained for the rest of the summer, and I thought no more about it.

Until the 1920s, when Coco Chanel popularised the idea that a suntan meant that you had just come back from a holiday somewhere hot and exotic, a tanned complexion was to be avoided. It showed that you were poor, and did manual labour, outdoors. Not that the thousands of women who did work outdoors just accepted their tanned lot. Their bonnets were designed to protect them from the worst of the sun, with large brims to protect the eyes and face, and a ‘skirt’ at the bottom to cover the back of the neck. There were numerous variations, but the basic idea remained the same.

"Canal Life" by Herbert Johnson, Illustrated London News 1874

When we were on holiday the other week we went to the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury. This is a wonderful place, centred on the magnificent fourteenth century Abbey Barn, which is one of only four surviving barns which belonged to Glastonbury Abbey.

The Abbey Barn

Browsing in the shop I came across a pattern for making a bonnet, based on an original which was worn in Glastonbury in 1870 by Mrs Sarah Cox, the wife of a stonemason. It struck me that this would be ideal for the “Peasants and Pioneers” challenge. Then when we got home I read the Dreamstress’ post on hand sewing, and decided that I would make the bonnet entirely by hand, and try to get to grips with using a thimble at the same time.

The pattern calls for plain fabric, so the original must have looked more like this than the V&A example above.

Victorian Sunbonnet © "Windows on Warwickshire"

The pattern gave a cutting layout, and instructions for how to make the bonnet up. The main headpiece is a large rectangle of fabric, across which creases are ironed at various intervals.

The headpiece with the creases marked

Lines of stitching below each of these creases form the frills and channels, which are then corded with string.

The headpiece with the channels sewn

I don’t know if string is historically accurate, or used in the instructions because it is easier to find than piping cord. Either way, it’s a good excuse to include a picture of my string box, which is also from Somerset.

So cute

The back of the bonnet has three vertical cording channels.

Headpiece, back and skirt with all the cording complete

The headpiece is pinned to the back at the centre and the ends, and the backmost string is then pulled up to gather the headpiece. Then the other strings are then pulled up to shape the bonnet. This is where I was glad I had stitched the cording channels with the running stitch/back stitch combination which the Dreamstress talked about; the fabric is so tightly gathered that a plain running stitch would have pulled apart.

The skirt and ties are rectangles with narrow hems. The bottom of the bonnet is gathered to fit the neck, and the skirt is gathered and attached to the bonnet. Finally the ties are attached inside.

Front view of the completed bonnet

So, was it a success? I can't fault the pattern itself. The instructions seemed a bit confusing when I first read through them, but once I was actually following them, they were perfectly clear.

Looking at the side view, I think that I should have pulled the cords at the back up a bit more - they are a bit baggy. From a purely practical point of view, I would have preferred a deeper brim. I have a little of the fabric left, so I might experiment with making an extra corded strip to attach underneath the front rows of cording. However it certainly looks the part.

Side view ...

... and back view

This is the first time I have made something entirely by hand since I was a student without access to a sewing machine. A friend of mine has an allotment, and says that growing even some of your own food really makes you aware of what life must have been like when, if your crops failed, there was no greengrocer or supermarket to go to instead. At a time when so much clothing in the UK seems to be ridiculously cheap and almost throwaway, sewing this bonnet has made me think more about the time when your clothing represented a considerable outlay of both money and time, and was to be preserved as long as possible.

The Small Print

The Challenge: Peasants and Pioneers

Fabric: 1 metre-ish remnant of putty-coloured cotton twill, from my stash

Pattern: Glastonbury Bonnet from Somerset Rural Life Museum

Year: 1870

Notions: Thread, string

How historically accurate is it? Apart from possibly the string, I think it’s fairly accurate

Hours to complete: Forgot to count, but hopefully I’m well on the way to the 24 hours of hand sewing which the Dreamstress reckons is the time needed to get used to using a thimble

First worn: Just now, to take photos. I am planning to try it out when gardening later in the year (perhaps I should mention that most of our garden isn’t overlooked!)

Total cost: I had the fabric, thread and string already, so 50 pence for the pattern.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Cobblers' bairns

"Cobblers' bairns are poorest shod", is a saying from Scotland, where I grew up. It means that the children (bairns) of a cobbler always have the worst shoes, because their father is too busy making or repairing shoes for other people to attend to the needs of his own family.

Before we went on holiday, I washed all my work clothes and hung them up to dry, so that they would be ready to put away when we got back home with a new pile of laundry to do.

This is the sight which greeted me when we got back.

Black, navy, grey and ...more black

Oh dear. I know that I tend to wear a lot of black or dark clothes for work, but it's only seeing them all together which makes it obvious just how much black I wear. It's like a 21st century mourning warehouse. And even worse, they are all shop-bought. I spend so much time making dance clothes, or fixing things for other people, or making fancy going-out clothes for myself, that I never get round to making myself any ordinary, everyday clothes.

This really needs to change.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Family stories

It's Mothering Sunday (not quite the same as Mother's Day) here in the UK, and as I seem to have inherited the 'sewing gene' from my mum's side of the family, it seems appropriate to post a bit about where my love of all things needlework-related comes from.

(First of all I should mention that the women in my dad's side of the family tended to be good cooks, a trait I definitely haven't inherited, although a near total lack of circulation in my hands does mean I can make good pastry!)

First of all comes Great-granny T, my mum's dad's mother. Born in 1871, she worked as a lady's maid to the Countess of Kingston.

Great-granny T in 1951

A lady's maid did more than simply dress her mistress. She also had to know the correct and fashionable style of dress for any occasion, and be knowledgeable about hairdressing, millinery, making beauty preparations, laundering and stain removal. Because she accompanied her mistress on her travels, she also had to know how to pack properly. Great-granny T travelled to New York with her employer; that must have been a great adventure for a girl from an ordinary background in the late nineteenth century.

Of course, a lady's maid also had to be an expert at dressmaking, alterations and mending. When I'm engrossed in embroidering or beading a dress or a dance costume, I can sometimes imagine my great-grandmother doing something similar on one of the countess's gowns.

Granny T, my mum's mum, was born in 1900, not far from where I now live. This photograph, taken in 1922, shows her with her sister on the promenade at Blackpool. She died when I was very young so I never got to know her, but from what I do know of her I'm not surprised to see that she's got a book in her lap!

Granny T, on the right, with book

When my granny's own mother died her father remarried. Her stepmother was a milliner, and my granny and her sister not only had to work (for nothing) in her shop during the day, but also spend their evenings trimming hats for sale. This earlier and slightly blurred photograph shows the sisters outside the newly renamed shop, with a window full of late-teens era hats; all beautifully trimmed, of course.

Hats, and sisters

As well as knowing exactly how best to wear any hat, my granny made many of her own and her daughter's clothes, and taught my mum how to sew. During World War II, when clothing and material were rationed, like many women they both became adept at squeezing new garments out of very little fabric.

Mum continued to make many of her own clothes after she had left home, and there are many family photographs of her in her wonderful 1950s creations. The 'shell dress' (the fabric had off-white stripes and a pattern of stylized scallop shells on a grey background) in the picture below was a particular favourite of hers.

Mum in 1951

I have many childhood memories of watching Mum dressmaking, for herself or for me. Over four decades later, I can still clearly remember, in slightly worrying detail, the first time I decided to have a go myself.

Mum was making herself a dress out of a bonded crimpelene, which was plain coffee-coloured on the wrong side and a dark brown paisley pattern on an orange background on the right side (well, it was the late 60s/early 70s). I took a couple of remnants, hacked them into roughly rectangular shapes to make a dress for my doll, and 'sewed' them together. This consisted of one enormous stitch for each shoulder seam, and a few more, equally large, stitches for the side seams. I didn't have the motor skills to keep the thread in the eye of needle, and it kept coming unthreaded. Eventually I decided to knot the thread through the eye, which solved one problem, but unsurprisingly made it far harder to get the needle through the fabric.

Mum must have explained to me about sewing the pieces with the right sides together, as I can still picture what happened when I turned my creation right side out: the fabric was so stiff that formed a cylinder which stood up by itself!

Despite all this, I was very pleased with my efforts. Once it became apparent that I was interested in sewing, Mum taught me everything she knew, and I moved on from slightly more sophisticated dolls' dresses to making clothes for myself. As a student I even made loose covers for the slightly dingy armchair in my furnished flat by following the instructions she gave me on a trip home.

Thanks for everything, Mum!