Monday, 30 June 2014

The Politics of Fashion

Gah! My entry for the Politics of Fashion challenge still isn’t finished! However as a) the next challenge, Shape and Support, is due on Tuesday and b) I need to concentrate on dance costume projects for a few weeks so will have to add this challenge to the PHD pile, I thought I’d post about it now.

There’s also the small matter that the lovely Gina of Beauty From Ashes very kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award some weeks ago, and I haven’t had time to blog about that either. I will write it up soon, I promise!

Anyway, back to the challenge. The requirement was to:
“Craft something that demonstrates the interactions between dress and political history.”

Now lots of different things inspire me to create. Some are more or less direct recreations of an item, while for others the inspiration takes a less obvious route. Sometimes the response is immediate, and other times the inspiration can rattle round in my head for a while before I decide how to use it. My contribution to this challenge has rattled around for longer than most: it is inspired by an exhibition I saw almost 31 years ago, which must be some sort of record!

The exhibition formed part of the Edinburgh Festival in summer 1983, and was called “Vienna 1900”. It was about the Vienna Secession; the breakaway art movement formed in 1897 by a number of Austrian artists, who objected to what they saw as the conservative attitudes of the Austrian art establishment. Six years later two of the Secession artists, Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann, founded the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) with the goal of reforming the applied arts.

The Wiener Werkstätte logo

The idea of an upstart new movement rebelling against the narrow ideals of a long-established empire (in this case the Hapsbergs) stuck in my mind, but I never really pursued it. Then when browsing on Pinterest (again) for something else, I found this.

Printed silk and velvet dress, Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill, Vienna, 1911

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna holds the photographic archive of Wiener Werkstätte, including a number of designs by Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill. He had studied under Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, and joined the Wiener Werkstätte in 1907, where he served as first artistic director of the fashion department. As well as photographs of dresses on mannequins, the archive contains a number of drawings, plus photographs of the dresses being worn. These show that the clothes were designed to be worn without corsets.

Drawings and photographs of two ensembles (dogs optional)

I loved these three dresses, with their Klimt-like decoration.

Three dresses with embroidered panels, Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill

However, although I suffer from a bad case of DATDATOMP syndrome (Deluded About The Do-ability And Timescales Of Major Projects), even I could tell that recreating one of these would be a ridiculously large undertaking.

Then I found this 1911 dress, which seemed much simpler (deceptively so, as it turns out). A high-waisted dress in silk, velvet and organza, with the fabric roses which Wimmer-Wisgrill seems to have used a lot.

Dress, Eduard Josef Wimmer-Wisgrill, Vienna, 1911

I considered using a regency dress pattern such as the Sense and Sensibility one, but decided that it would be easier just to make my own from scratch. The skirt was just two rectangular panels. For the bodice I used my basic bodice block, raised the waistline, moved the darts down to the bottom of the bodice and gathered along the bottom to fit. (There was a slight hiccup when I didn’t enlarge the neckline from the original jewel neckline on the front-opening block, and tried to pull the toile over my head, but we don’t talk about that!)

The toile that was never going to work

It is apparent from the photograph that the organza panels are attached to the velvet skirt all the way round, and do not hang free. The edges are covered with braid. I had hoped to be able to machine sew the braid in place, but sadly this didn’t work at all, so hand sewing it was. I cut each skirt piece larger than I needed, pinned them and the braid into place, and then sewed round the inner edge of the braid. Then I cut the organza to just inside the braid, and sewed the outer edge down.

Braid and organza pinned to the velvet

Cutting away the excess organza and sewing the braid

The bodice was a bit more complicated. On the photograph there doesn’t seem to be a join between the organza on the body section and the organza on the sleeve. Because the section where there should be a seam is quite small, I decided that I could cut the organza bodice front and sleeves in one piece, and only have a seam joining the back to the sleeve.

The patterns for the bodice organza sections

Because the neckline is so wide, and I was using a slightly stretchy and totally non-period velvet, I added a facing of a firm cotton to keep the neckline in place.

The completed bodice, front view

Actually getting the organza and velvet to lie flat together took several re-dos, and is a large part of why the project is taking so long. However the actual dress is done now, and 'all' that remains is to attach the belt, make the last of the roses, attach the roses and the leaves, and sew on hooks and eyes for the side fastening. That will have to wait, probably for a couple of months now, but I will post pictures of the finished dress. For now, here is progress so far.

The dress, mostly minus roses

Close-up of the sleeve decoration

The small print:
The Challenge: The Politics of Fashion
Fabric: Velvet, organza and satin for the roses and leaves – all synthetic
Pattern: My own
Year: 1911
Notions: Braid for trim, hooks and eyes for fasten
How historically accurate is it? It is based on an actual dress of 1911, but the man-made fabrics let it down, so I'd say 50%
Hours to complete: A lot, and not yet finished
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: Velvet £11.49, organza £4.40, braid £3.60, satin remnants £5.12 (with a lot left) everything else from stash, so £24.61
How politics relate to this item: The dress is linked to the Vienna Secession, which was a movement created in protest at the restrictions on art in the Austro-Hungarian empire

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Fixing the 'feedsack'

It’s been a busy week. Among other things, I’ve helped a friend set up an exhibition of her paintings, attended the exhibition preview, and gone on a day trip to London with other friends to see King Lear at the National Theatre. None of which has left much time for sewing, so my Politics of Fashion entry still isn’t finished.

I needed something to wear for the preview though, so this seemed like a good reason to unearth and fix Vogue 2787, aka The Feed Sack Dress.

When it last featured in this blog, I definitely wasn’t feeling the love for the feedsack. The buttons were dreadful, and the dress just hung on me like a, well, sack. So I’d gone for my tried and trusted approach of hiding it in the wardrobe for a few months, and then looking at it afresh. I’d also come across a handy hint from The Dreamstress, which explained part of the sackiness. Plus, I now have a more accurate dressform to work on.

Things did not start well. I’d found some Prym self-cover buttons (in fact, I bought up most of the shop’s stock of Prym buttons in every possible size, just in case). Unfortunately when I came to cover them, I couldn’t find the leftover fabric. This was especially annoying because I knew that it was a large piece; I’d used it as the backdrop when photographing my straw bag.

That's a lot of spare fabric!

Clearly because I knew that I was going to redo the buttons, I’d put the fabric in a Safe Place. In fact, a place so safe that even I don’t know where it is! Given that in the meantime I have relocated my entire studio, and the fabric still hasn’t turned up, it’s clearly somewhere very safe indeed. Not even the lose-something-else-and-find-the-first-thing-when-looking-for-the-second-thing method worked. So I resigned myself to buying some new buttons, and found these in my local market. I think that they actually look more period-appropriate than the original buttons.

The new, improved, buttons

(Note: even though buying and using a replacement for a lost item is usually a banker for the original item turning up, the fabric remains hidden/lost/stolen by a burglar with an interest in remnants of floral cotton.)

Buttons fixed, I turned to the shapelessness issue. When The Dreamstress posted about her entry for the ‘Celebrate’ challenge last year, she mentioned that,
“Invisible zippers are too stiff to work successfully as side zips (drape an invisible zip and a regular zip over a finger and you’ll see what I mean).”

Light blue invisible zip and darker blue normal zip, draped over my embroidery stand

I had indeed used an invisible zip as a side zip (this was before I was converted to the period fastening method of placket and press studs), so this went some way to explaining why the pinned together mock-up fitted so much better than finished dress. Out came the invisible zip and in went a visible one. Because I had to shorten the bodice, the side seam is very curvy indeed, which was going to make machine sewing the zip extremely tricky. This seemed a good time to try out another technique I’ve been meaning to have a go at for ages; a hand-picked zip. The end result isn’t the neatest, but I’m pleased with it.

Showing the very curvy side seams

Despite all this, the dress retained a certain level of sackiness around the hips. Putting it on Nancy revealed the cause, which I'd been unable to see when wearing the dress. I’d made my usual skirt alteration for my sway back, but hadn’t taken into account that this dress is far less fitted than the patterns I’ve altered previously, and as a result it didn’t need the alteration at all. Once I’d returned the centre back seam to its original location, the dress looked much better.

I haven't posted a picture of the altered dress, because I suspect that to anyone else it wouldn't look that different from the original version. But a mere nine months later, I finally have a dress I’m happy with.Yay!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Coming up roses

I had expected to be posting about my entry for the Politics of Fashion today, but then Life had other ideas, and generally got in the way. So instead I’m posting about one specific part of the project, and sharing some of the lovely images I came across in the process of my ‘research’ (aka spending ages on Pinterest and trying not to drool on the keyboard!)

The dress I am making is trimmed with small fabric roses. Not embroidered roses like these.

Liberty 'Aesthetic' dress, August Auctions

And not a single, large, dramatic rose like this.

Nordic Museums, 1914

Or this (not actually a rose, but you get the idea).

Couldn't find any details for this one

Or multiple, large, dramatic roses like these.

Les Modes (Paris) 1910, Robe de Diner by Zimmermann

What I am after is more something like the roses on this.

Paul Poiret, 1910

Rose detail

Three dimensional fabric flowers were clearly very popular in the early twentieth century. I can’t quite make out how the flowers on this dress are constructed, but it’s clear that they stand out slightly from the dress itself.

Another purple and cream dress with no information!

Quite often the flowers are created from ribbons, a technique still used today.

Lucile, 1912, Whitaker Auction

Bodice detail

Skirt detail

However I have no idea how these roses were created, with their turned back petals.

Edwardian dress, detail

Fabric flowers were still appearing in the 1920s, as seen on this example from All The Pretty Dresses.

1920s dress, detail

And they weren’t confined to dresses either. This evening bag is high on my Want To Make list.

Evening bag, early to mid-20th century, found by The Dreamstress

Eventually I decided that I really needed to turn my attention to how to actually make fabric roses, and found several tutorials online. First up was Julie Bowersett’s blog, From These Hands. As the instructions were from vintage flower making books written around the turn of the twentieth century, this looked hopeful.

The flowers are made from squares of fabric folded in half diagonally, then gathered round the edges to form petals, which are then stitched together. I must admit that I made this up quite quickly, and the satin I need to use for the dress probably wasn’t the best fabric to start with. The end result is pretty (a combination of flash photography and shiny fabric really doesn’t do it justice), but looser than the style I’m after.

Petals gathered and ungathered, and the rose in progress

The completed rose

Next I found A Gilded Life. The roses in this tutorial are made by rolling and twisting a strip of fabric which has been folded lengthways. The problem with this is that the raw edges of the strip will sometimes show, which is fine for a modern look and/or fabrics which don’t fray much, but not for a period look in satin.

Finally I came across Stacy Vaughn’s blog. This tutorial was similar to the one on A Gilded Life, but the fabric strips were sewn into tubes first. No raw edges! And her example was made from satin! I wasn’t sure if I should press the tube once it had been turned right side out, but there was no mention of doing so. In the end I found that it was best not to press it, as the slight indentation at the seam added more depth to the ‘petals’. I used a strip 4.5cm / 1¾“ wide by75cm / 29½“ long, with a 3mm / ⅛” seam, and the end result was just what I was after.

Fabric strip, and the rose in progress

The completed rose

The tube method creates a flatter, more compact rose

Now all I have to do is make 5 more the same!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

On your marks, get set, sew!

I’ve had this project in mind for a couple of months now, but it’s been on the back burner while I worked on Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges and other things. However as series two of The Great British Sewing Bee is currently being repeated on BBC2 (and yes, I am watching it again!), it seemed a good time to do it.

If you’re not familiar with it, The Great British Sewing Bee is a television competition to find Britain’s best amateur sewer. Each week there are three challenges; challenge one - make a garment from a pattern provided by the judges (the same pattern for each contestant) to fit a mannequin, challenge two - alter a high street purchase (the same garment for each contestant for five of the eight challenges), and challenge three - make a garment to fit a live model, using a pattern of the contestant’s choice.

Most of the techniques covered each week have been reasonably familiar to me, even if I’ve not tried them myself, but there is one thing which mystifies me completely. How do the contestants get their garments made in such a short time?

Seriously. Three hours to make a patterned, box-pleated skirt, with the pattern matching perfectly over the pleats, four hours to make a blouse from a 1930s-style pattern, six and a half hours to make a pair of velvet trousers.

Then The Dreamstress posted about a fabulous 1950s dress she’d made, including various alterations, with the comment, “A few hours of cutting and fitting and sewing later...”. (I do like the explanation of how she ended up with the fabric; it sounds oddly familiar!)

All of this made me suspect that I sew very, very slowly. So, I decided to do some research, and time exactly how long it takes me to make a dress.

I needed a new dress to go with some jewellery (I know, I know; you’ve heard some excuses in your time, but this one takes the biscuit). Some years ago Mr Tulip bought me a lovely pair of earrings, made from three different colours of amber set in silver. Then I found an almost-matching necklace.

What started it all

However I only have one dress with greens and browns in it, and it’s a winter dress. Something more summery was needed. New Look 6093 is a pattern I’ve had in my stash for a while, and it has an ideal neckline to show off a necklace. Then I found the perfect cotton poplin in my local fabric shop; the colours are just right.

I chose view A

Close-up of the fabric

The centre panel of the dress front, the two bodice pieces, and the main part of the back are all cut on the straight grain. Then there are four side panels cut on the cross, meaning that the side seams are mostly sewn on the bias.

Front and back views

The dress fastens with a zip at the centre back. The bodice pieces are gathered at the bust, and the sleeves have a side ruching detail.

For the first challenge in the Sewing Bee, the contestants are given a pattern which will fit the mannequin without any alterations. Therefore I didn't include the time taken to alter the pattern to fit me. Cutting out, marking and pressing were all timed, though, along with the actual sewing.

The fabric was 148cm wide, which made the cutting layout quite simple.

All the pieces laid out and ready to cut

Cutting out - 50 minutes, total - 50 minutes

The two bodice pieces are stay-stitched, then gathered along the lower part of the curve and stitched to the centre front piece. I managed to catch part of the centre piece in my sewing, so had to unpick and redo a section. The seams are then top stitched.

Completed front bodice

The lower part of the centre panel is stay-stitched, and the front side panels attached. Next the back pieces are stay-stitched, the centre back seam sewn up to where the zip ends, and the back side panels attached.

Completed dress front

The shoulder seams are sewn, the facing pieces interfaced, the facing constructed, and attached to the dress. Unfortunately I was so busy sewing that I forgot to note how long each of these stages took.

Initial construction - 2 hours 15 minutes, total - 3 hours 5 minutes

The instructions are for a lapped zip, but I ignored them (something which is frowned upon by the Sewing Bee judges!) and the end result is not the neatest, so no photo here!

Zip - 35 minutes, total - 3 hours 40 minutes

Next should be the side seams and then insert the sleeves, but I ignored that as well. The sleeves are ruched by attaching a length of stretched elastic, which I did do. I then did my usual thing of setting the sleeves into the flat dress piece.

The sleeve set in

Sleeves - 30 minutes, total - 4 hours 10 minutes.

I tried the dress on after I'd sewn the side seams, and found that it was a bit tight at the top of the hips. Redoing the side seams fixed the problem, but added extra time.

Side seams - 20 minutes, total - 4 hours 30 minutes

For the sleeve and skirt hems I used my preferred method of overlocking the raw edge first, then pressing the hem and hand sewing it with herringbone stitch.

Overlocking hems - 5 minutes, total - 4 hours 35 minutes

When it came to marking the hem, Nancy showed just what I'd been missing by using my other, standard dress form. Sad to report, but the hem at the back, where the skirt has to accommodate my sway back/large derriere (delete as appropriate) is less than half the depth of the seam at the front. Another New Look pattern on my to-do list has a large contrast band around the bottom of the skirt; before I make it up I'll have to redraft the skirt pieces to allow for the longer back.

Marking and pressing the hem - 20 minutes, total 4 - hours 55 minutes

I must confess that I didn't time the hand hemming exactly. This was because I sewed it while over at my parents' house for Sunday lunch, and a fair amount of chatting was going on at the time. I did time a short section however, and used that to work out the likely time if I'd been concentrating on the job in hand.

Hemming the sleeves and skirt - 1 hour 10 minutes, total - 6 hours 5 minutes

A final 5 minutes to attach a hook and a hand-sewn loop at the top of the zip brings the grand total to a whopping 6 hours 10 minutes. For a fairly simple dress. Ouch.

I am pleased with the end result, though. The bias panels make the skirt hang really nicely, the bodice construction works well, and the ruched sleeves are an unusual and faintly retro touch. I think that the choice of fabric helps though; if the dress were made up in a plain fabric the construction details of the skirt would be more obvious, and probably not that flattering on me.

The finished dress

So, I finally have something I can wear with my amber jewellery. Time to clear the decks ready for my entry for the next Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge; The Politics of Fashion. I'm really looking forward to this one!

Sunday, 1 June 2014


The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Art. Quite simply, the challenge is to make something inspired by a work of art. You can see the completed challenges here and here.

I didn’t take part in this challenge, mainly because I don’t have the skills to make either of the dresses which the challenge brought to mind. The second dress I would like to make simply because I like it, but the first dress I would like to recreate in order to Right A Great Wrong.

It’s a long(ish) story: The first house I bought was in Port Sunlight village, on the Wirral. Port Sunlight is a model village, built in the late nineteenth century by William Hesketh Lever to house the workers at his Sunlight soap factory. Like most model villages, Port Sunlight had a number of facilities for the education and leisure of its inhabitants. As well as a church and a school there was an open air swimming pool, a library, a theatre, a temperance hotel and a hospital. The village even has its own art gallery; the Lady Lever, opened in 1922.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery

Having an art gallery right on your doorstep means that you are never short of the means to while away an afternoon, and I was a frequent visitor when I lived there. It helped that the gallery leans heavily towards late Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, which I have always liked.

While I wandered happily around works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt there was one painting which always drove me to distraction; The Black Brunswicker by Millais.

The Black Brunswicker, John Everett Millais, 1860

Painted in 1860, it portrays an imaginary scene on the eve of the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The young cavalry officer of the title (the Black Brunswickers were a troop raised by the Duke of Brunswick) is departing to the battle while his lover, or possibly wife - her left hand is tantalisingly partly concealed - tries to prevent him from leaving. Her pet dog also begs the (probably doomed; the Black Brunswickers suffered heavy losses in the battle) officer to stay.

Although the dog is a typically Victorian sentimental touch, it wasn’t that which bothered me. It wasn’t even the fact that the dress is far more 1860 than 1815. It was the skirt. What is going on with that skirt?

From the vertical lines it’s obvious that the skirt consists of several pieces of fabric sewn together. So far, so normal. There are also heavy horizontal fold marks across the fabric. This seems oddly out of place in the situation; surely the young woman’s lady’s maid would have ironed such a grand dress before her mistress wore it? However the thing which really made me wince (and still does) is the fact that the folds do not line up across the seams. Even if the dress had been kept folded up, and was worn without pressing it first, the folds should go straight across the skirt. But they don't.

I've highlighted the worst offenders

It’s not as though Millais couldn’t paint satin. In Lorenzo and Isabella, painted in 1848-9, Isabella’s satin sleeve is beautifully depicted, right down to the narrow hem.

Lorenzo and Isabella (detail)

So what went wrong eleven years later?

Some years ago, I went to a lecture on costume in pre-Raphaelite painting. Chatting to the lecturer afterwards, I mentioned The Black Bruswicker and its troublesome skirt. She replied that she’d never noticed this (clearly not a dressmaker!), but now that I had pointed it out, it was obvious. She did however have a theory. By 1860 Millais was married, and his wife Effie made a number of costumes for his paintings. The lecturer thought that Millais may have bought the finely detailed bodice of the dress as a prop, and that Effie had quickly sewn together the skirt from a length of folded fabric.

Bodice detail

So, if I ever get to know enough about mid-Victorian costume to recreate it, high on my to-do list will be a Black Brunswicker dress with a decent skirt!

No such problems with my second dress, which is also in a Millais painting. There are no annoying folds, and the style is firmly of the date when was painted; 1879.

Louise Jopling, John Everett Millais, 1879

Louise Jopling was a remarkable woman; a painter, writer and suffragette, who supported herself and her family through her painting when her first marriage collapsed. Millais was godfather to her son Lindsay, and painted this portrait as a present for his godson.

Louise Jopling

Millais’ early paintings show incredible attention to detail, in the pre-Raphaelite tradition.

Ivy detail from A Huguenot, 1851-2

By 1879 however he had a far looser style. The embroidered flowers on the dress are represented with just a few brush strokes, and it’s impossible to discern how the black and red ruffle at the neckline is constructed.

Bodice detail

Making this dress would involve a lot of guesswork. But it's still a gorgeous dress.

Finally an image, also by Millais, which I rediscovered while researching this post. Who hasn’t felt like this at the end of a long day’s sewing?

Mariana, 1850-51