Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Grand Day Out

Last Monday would have been my tenth wedding anniversary. Left to my own devices, I would just have sat and moped. Fortunately my lovely friend Meroe had no intention of letting me do that, so instead we went to Manchester for the day, did some sewing-related shopping, visited Platt Hall Gallery of Costume, and went out for a meal in the evening.

Fabric, fashion and food: what more could a girl want?

First stop was Ark Traders on Pin Mill Brow. (Pointless snippet for vintage fashion trivia fans nerds: Pin Mill Brow was where Horrockses Fashions built their main clothing factory, Ivy Works, in 1946.) It’s a fairly unprepossessing building from the outside, and not a lot fancier inside, but it’s an absolute treasure trove of all things haberdashery-related. There’s an impressive range of sequins, fancy braids of various designs and widths, sew-on beaded motifs, embroidery silks . . . and a few totally random things like high-visibility vests, pill boxes and jar openers!

I bought bits and pieces for a number of upcoming HSF challenges, and also decided on the spot that as I am accompanying the Ya Raqs girls to an event in July I need a new dance costume; and shopped accordingly. Meroe also has plans for a couple of new costumes. Of course, we 'helped' each other, picking up things which we thought the other would find useful!

Haberdashed-out, we needed some fabric to sew all these lovely shiny things onto. For this we headed over to Rusholme. Famous for its ‘Curry Mile’, Rusholme has a large south Asian population, and as well as restaurants there are lots of clothing and fabric shops.

Anand Fashions (219-221 Wilmslow Road) sells saris and suits, but also has rolls of plain fabric in a wide range of colours for a mere £1 per yard. Fortunately we had each brought with us the main trim for our planned costumes, and matched fabrics to that.

In search of something a bit fancier for hip scarves, we went to Farooq Fabrics at 175 Wilmslow Road. Most of the fabric sold here is for shalwar kameez so you have to buy a set of three pieces; one for the trousers (shalwar), one for the top (kameez) and a lighter fabric for a head covering. However the sets we chose only cost £14 and £16, and we can easily make use of the other fabrics.

My hip scarf fabric

By then it was time for some lunch, and after that we headed further along Wilmslow Road to the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall. In the words of Sarah of Mode Historique:
“Manchester, however, has Platt Hall and that’s the whole reason to come here. If you’re a historical costumer, you should make your way here at some point in your lifetime.”

Platt Hall

Platt Hall and the surrounding park was originally an estate belonging to the Platt family. In 1625 it passed to the Worsley family, who built the Georgian hall in 1746. By the early twentieth century Manchester had expanded and the estate was surrounded by housing, causing the then owner to put it on the market. The estate was bought by the city authorities and converted into a public park, which was opened in May 1910. The hall was initially used as a tea room.

Platt Hall serving refreshments, from Rusholme and Victoria Park Archive

The Gallery of Costume displays clothing from the 17th century up to the present day. Many of the items on display are high fashion, but the collection also includes the dress of working people. It is also home to the Cunnington Collection, but that is a subject for a whole separate post.

Only a small selection of the museum’s collection can be displayed at one time, and naturally most of the displays are in glass cases, so apologies for the poor quality of these images.

Girl's embroidered linen jacket, 1610-20

Woman's bodice, 1650-60

Image showing how the bodice would have originally looked

Man's waistcoat and shoes, 1780-1800

Display case, eighteenth century

Display case, 1910s

Sequinned evening jacket, 1925-30

1951 Lachasse cotton suit, image © Manchester City Galleries

The museum also holds regular exhibitions, and is currently showing an Ossie Clark retrospective.

Think pink

Evening dresses

After all that, there was just time for a quick look in the shop. I spotted a Shire Publications book which I hadn’t come across before; 1950s American Fashion by Jonathan Walford (author of Forties Fashion: From Siren Suits to the New Look). I really like Shire books; they pack a lot of information into a small format, and they are always well illustrated. I also bought a mug. I sew powered by copious amounts of tea, so how much better will I work when I’m drinking my tea out of a generously-sized mug with pictures of a Dior dress on it?!

Dior 1950s silk dress with interchangeable skirts, images © Manchester City Galleries

So finally, here is a picture of my haul for the day. The suit fabric from Farooq is on the right, the fabrics from Anand are in the middle, and all the shiny things are from Ark.

Lots of sewing goodness

So what about the bottle at the top left? That’s pomegranate molasses. It’s a key ingredient in one of my favourite dishes; chicken with pomegranate and walnuts, and I recently ran out of it. Where I live isn’t the most cosmopolitan of places, so getting any more here is unlikely. A quick visit to one of the many Asian supermarkets on Wilmslow Road, and my problem was solved.

As I said; fabric, fashion and food: what more could a girl want? Thanks for a great day, Meroe!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Introducing 'Nancy'

This all began with Vogue 8686. I was, eventually, very happy with the fit, but it took a number of attempts to get it right. Then when I came to photograph the finished dress on the dressform, it looked dreadful. The skirt stuck out at odd angles at the sides, and also managed to droop at the same time. I managed to persuade it to drape more-or-less reasonably for the photographs, but it’s still obvious here that all is not quite right.

Dress hip and dressform hip clearly don't match

The basic problem is that I’m not the same shape as my modern, rigid dressform. I wish that I was, but it isn’t going to happen. I’m short-waisted, so the waist on any dress I make will be higher than the waist on the form. Plus I have a swayback, and high jutting hips. I need a dressform that reflects my shape.

There are various ways of achieving this. The most common one is the ‘duct tape dummy’ method. This involves donning an old T-shirt, and getting a friend to encase you in three layers of duct tape. The T-shirt/duct tape layer is then carefully cut up the centre back and centre front in order to release you (apparently it can get quite warm in there), the two sides are stuck back together with more tape, and the form is then stuffed. Threads magazine has a couple of examples of how to do this here.

One problem with a duct tape dummy is that it is difficult pin fabric to it, the way you can with a modern dress form. One way to get round this is to make a foam form. This is a bit more complicated than the duct tape method, click here for more details.

I’ve been lucky enough however to inherit my Mum’s dressform; a 1950s ‘Adjustoform’ which I hope will solve my fitting problems. It made a brief appearance in last week's post, when I used it to work out the collar shape of my CC41 dress. The form is made from lengths of wire covered in pale blue plastic, and consists of two torso-shaped halves which fasten together at the front and back with press studs on small tabs.

Close-up of fastens

Despite looking like some sort of torture device, it is actually a really clever idea. The vertical wires are straight, and the horizontal wires are wavy, so they can be stretched or compressed. You put the two pieces on, fasten them together, and then get someone to squeeze the wire to your shape. Then you unfasten the form, take it off like a coat, and snap it back together again.

The flexibility of the wire means that it can easily accommodate something like a short waist. Plus, it can be altered for a different body shape such as wearing a corset.

Unlike my modern form, which has push-in metal legs which fall out at the least provocation, this has a lovely wooden base with screw-in legs.

Screw-in legs, and height adjustment

Sadly/fortunately, depending on your point of view, there are no pictures of Mum fitting the form for me. I was in no position to take photographs, and anyway both of us were laughing too much to hold a camera steady! The end result may not be pretty, but it is accurate.

Front view

Side view

The form came with a knitted cover, which provides something to pin into.

Looking slightly less scary with the cover on

I have also got the original box, complete with the endorsement of the British Good Housekeeping Institute. . .

. . . advertising blurb (“A boon for the professional dressmaker”, “It’s your twin self!!”). . .

Box sides

. . . and a rather improbable illustration.

No-one can look that relaxed while encased in blue wire!

On the basis that a dressform needs a name (especially if it’s your twin self), I have christened her ‘Nancy’. Mostly, after my Granny T, but also with a nod to Nancy Bradfield, whose Costume in Detail first introduced me to historical costuming.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Black and White

The latest Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Black and White. The challenge (unsurprisingly) is to make something in black, or in white, or in black and white, but I have interpreted this quite loosely and made something from a fabric with a black background. The inspiration is from a black and white photograph though, and also from a black and white logo.

I decided to make a 1940s dress from a pretty cotton I had found, which has pink and cream flowers on the aforementioned background. Both the print and the repeat are quite small, which is appropriate for the period, as large patterns and repeats were more wasteful of fabric. Mum (my primary source for all things dressmaking related from the 1940s onwards) thought that a black-based fabric was unlikely for the 1940s, but I did manage to find a couple of examples of similar fabrics in books.

I have posted before about rationing in Britain in the 1940s. Rationing ensured that limited resources were shared equally, but did nothing to address quality. An expensive dress which would last for several years required the same number of coupons as a cheap dress which would last a fraction of that time, so rationing was less of a problem for the better off.

Initially the British Board of Trade tackled the problem by setting specifications for the quality of the fabric manufactured for making civilian clothing. The system of making clothes from these textiles and controlling the prices they were sold for was known as ‘Utility’, and by the end of the war more than three quarters of all clothing produced came under the Utility scheme.

Utility clothing was identified by the ‘CC41’ label, which stood for ‘Controlled Commodity 1941’.

The (black and white) CC41 logo

Running alongside the Utility scheme were the Austerity regulations, which were designed to save on both cloth and labour. Among other things, these regulations limited the number of pockets and buttons a garment could have, the number, style and size of pleats on dresses and skirts, and the width of men’s trousers.

Marks and Spencer Utility dress, © M&S Company Archive

In 1942 the Board of Trade commissioned a number of British designers to create suits, coats and dresses which used Utility cloth and met all the Austerity regulations. In addition, there were yardage requirements for each garment; for a dress the limit was 2 yards (1.8 metres). One of the designers was Digby Morton, who incorporated the CC41 logo on the buttons of this suit.

1942 Digby Morton suit (detail) © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Those who were handy with a needle could save precious coupons by making their own clothes. 36” / 91.5cm wide fabric required three coupons per yard for wool and two per yard for cotton; quite a saving on the eleven or seven coupons required for dresses of the same fabrics. My mum and Granny T were at a double advantage here. As well as being able to sew, they lived in a railway town not far from Manchester, and stalls in the local market sold remnants from the cotton mills of Lancashire. As far as Mum can recall, remnants were off-ration. This seems quite likely; second-hand clothing was not rationed because it would be too complicated to administer, and I can imagine remnants being the same.

Discussing all of this with Mum inspired me to see if I could make a dress which met all the restrictions of CC41 clothing. First of all, I had to find out what the regulations were. This was easier said than done; I could find lots of snippets, but not the full set. Eventually I found a blog (update - sadly now defunct) which not only listed all the regulations direct from the relevant Act of Parliament but also detailed the writer’s attempt to clothe herself for 12 months on the equivalent of a year’s coupons.

The starting point for my dress was this photograph of Mum and her friends J, M and K.

Mum (second from left, with her hair in a victory roll) and friends

In case you were wondering, yes Mum’s and M’s dresses are made out of the same fabric. These are their school dresses. Shortages meant that school uniform policies had to be relaxed during the war, and for the older girls the only restriction was that they should wear a green dress. So when some green material appeared in a local shop, they both quickly bought some.

Mum’s dress reminded me of this one, in the Snibston Museum Fashion Gallery (update - the museum is now closed).

1942 cotton dress

This is a manufactured dress, but in terms of collar shape and only buttoning down to waist seam the design is similar to Mum's dress. I assumed that there is also a side opening, like Vogue 8686.

To draft the pattern I started with basic bodice block with a dart down to waist (you can just make out the dart on the right side of the Snibston dress). I raised the shoulder seam slightly to accommodate shoulder pads. I then had to draft a grown-on collar. Fortunately my go-to pattern drafting book, Hilary Campbell’s Designing Patterns had the instructions I needed.

Bodice front, with collar added on

Unfortunately getting the shape of the collar at the front was a bit like my approach to parallel parking; I understood the concept perfectly well, but struggled to grasp how it would work in practice! As usual the solution was to make a mock-up. Feeling lazy, I only made one side, photographed it, and manipulated the photograph to get the full effect.

The mock-up. Please ignore the crazy book effect behind!

The skirt was very simple; slightly shaped at the side seams and pleated at the waist, with a pocket in the side without the opening.

The two skirt pieces and the bodice back were cut on the fold, with the fabric only folded to the width needed, not just folded in half. All the other pieces were cut from a single layer of fabric. This took longer to do than a modern cutting layout, but was a far more efficient use of the fabric. I had to piece together two scraps to cut out the second pocket piece, but felt that this would be authentic. I made my own shoulder pads from Vogue 2787, and they turned out far better than the previous set.

I must admit that I cheated a bit and used my overlocker for some of the seams, which a home sewer in the 1940s wouldn’t have been able to do. My excuse is that this dress is for everyday use, so I want it to be robust for laundering.

The completed dress

The eagle-eyed will notice that I cheated a bit taking these photographs as well. The dress is still lacking buttonholes, so to photograph it I sewed the buttons onto the front, and pinned it closed. I’m toying with using pink cotton to attach them properly, so that the only black on the button is the circle.

Collar front

I’m really pleased with the end result, especially the collar - it lies beautifully.

Collar back

So how did I do against the CC41 regulations? Note: in the following table I have only included the regulations which were appropriate to this project.

So, reasonably well. Yay! This is only one dress however. This exercise has increased my respect for the people who designed clothing under these regulations and managed to produce items which were not all drably identical, but attractive and well-designed despite the restrictions. I would happily wear most of the CC41 pieces I have come across.

The small print:
The Challenge: Black and White (although I realise now that it would have been a good entry for the upcoming ‘Politics of Fashion’ challenge, but I’ve got something else planned for that)
Fabric: Cotton
Pattern: My own, drafted from a photograph
Year: 1942-5
Notions: Thread, buttons, press studs (poppers) for side opening, lining fabric and bump to make shoulder pads
How historically accurate is it? The pattern is based on a photograph of a dress of the period, but as detailed above, I used some modern sewing techniques to make it more robust. The fabric colourway is unlikely, but not impossible. 50%?
Hours to complete: As ever, forgot to count
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: Fabric £13.10, buttons £1, everything else from stash, so £14.10

Monday, 5 May 2014

UFOs and PHDs, exhibit B - Tops and Toes

An extra-late post this week. I've been rearranging the house a bit, and relocating all my sewing stuff to a different room. My lovely friend Kebi and her equally lovely husband P offered to come over this afternoon and help me move the heavy furniture, and I wasn't going to turn the offer down! Thank you so much to both of them.

So, as the UFOs and PHDs challenge is still current, it's time to get another project off the pile.

When The Dreamstress published the full set of challenges for the 2014 Historical Sew Fortnightly I (like many other Challengers, I suspect) went through the list and thought about how I could use it to make things which would work together, rather than ending up with lots of unrelated items. Tops and Toes seemed like a good opportunity to embellish some shoes to go with my 'work in progress' 1920s beaded dress.

I wasn't entirely sure what I'd do, but then going through The Stash (Beads & Sequins section) for something entirely unrelated, I came across these, and it struck me that they were the perfect colours to go with the painted panels of the dress.

Navette embroidery stones

Then I remembered these, which I inherited from Granny T's sewing things, and an idea was born.

Mystery decorations from Granny T

For the shoes themselves, I went online. I knew exactly what I wanted; cream satin, with a strap, round-toed and low heeled, preferably with a Louis or spool heel. I found several possible pairs, and eventually settled on these from Perfect Bridal in the UK. The lace was a bonus; I figured that it would be easier to sew onto that than onto plain satin.

The shoes, from every possible angle

I must admit, these have been far and away my most expensive purchase for the Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges (although to be fair, a lot of my entries have been made using stash stuff). I could have bought something similar far more cheaply from China. However experience has proved that once you factor in shipping costs, plus a hefty import duty, those Chinese 'bargains' online aren't such a great saving. Plus I knew that buying in the UK I would get the shoes within a couple of days. (Not that important, as it turned out, but never mind.)

Then it was back to the stash to look for other beads and sequins for the decoration. This was when I discovered that I had no flat round sequins other than hologram ones. While the 1920s saw a huge variety of sequins in every shape and colour (see Jazz Age Fashion by Virginia and Daisy Bates for some fabulous close-up images of 1920s embellished dresses), hologram sequins were a definite no-no for the period. A trip to my local store turned up not only flat, round, gold sequins, but also some unusual matte gold cupped sequins.

Beads, sequins and stones

I played around pinning the navettes and various combinations of sequins onto a board to get some ideas.

The first experiments

Then it struck me that I needed to know what sort of area I had to work with. I made a template by pinning a piece of net over the section of the shoe upper that I was going to decorate, and then cutting round the edge.

The net pinned on - side view

View from underneath

The completed template

While working away on all of this, I tried to ignore that fact that I had never actually seen any beaded 1920s shoes in any of my research. Shoes made from luxury fabrics, yes.

Brocade shoes

Shoes with embroidery, yes.

Embroidered evening shoes 1925-7, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shoes with contrast leather and fancy cut-outs, yes.

Ignazio Pluchino ca. 1925, © Museum of London

But beaded shoes, no. Then American Duchess came to my rescue like a particularly well-shod Fairy Godmother. In a post on her blog, she mentioned that her fabulous collection of Pinterest boards includes shoes boards, so off I went to have a look. There on the 1920s board I found these lovelies.

Beaded evening shoes ca. 1925

Beading close-up

Thanks Lauren!

Armed with proof, I tried out a couple of arrangements of the stones and sequins.

Slightly different arrangements

I traced off the shape, and manipulated the images to see what each half would look like complete.

The right side at the top, the left side at the bottom

I set up my embroidery hoop again with a layer of net over a layer of organza, and set to work. As usual, I worked on both motifs simultaneously, so that the second one didn't end up looking much better than the first. It was tricky, keeping each motif symmetrical, and both motifs the same. Then I abandoned this plan, and did the beading edge of one motif in its entirety, as I wanted to check if it would actually work. It made the motif look a lot less flat and solid, so I did the other one as well.

Beaded and unbeaded motifs

Once all the beading was complete, I trimmed away most of the organza, then turned the raw edge under and stitched it down, as it frayed like mad. I pinned the net over the shoe, then stitched the net to the lace of the shoe under the beaded edge, and finally cut the excess net away (Carrickmacross scissors to the fore again), and there I have it, beaded 1920s shoes!

I must admit, I'm not entirely convinced by the end result. They look very shiny indeed. As the dress is nowhere near finished, I shall put the shoes away for a while, and review them later in the year. If I'm still not happy, they may be a candidate for the 'Re-do' challenge!

The small print:
The Challenge: UFOs and PHDs / Tops and Toes
Fabric: None, unless you count the satin and lace of the shoes
Pattern: My own
Year: 1920s
Notions: Navette embroidery stones, sequins, beads
How historically accurate is it? Probably not very, say 40%.
Hours to complete: Including all the experimenting, probably about 20 hours.
When I started it and when I finished it: Started 23 March, finished 4 May
First worn: This evening, to take photographs
Total cost: Do I have to? Deep breath. Shoes £80. Sequins £2.50. Everything else from stash.