Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Big Stitch - part 3, a finished dress!

After all the hand sewing on the bodice, the skirt of my Big Stitch dress was quick and easy - once I'd got the fabric. The skirt of the original dress was already a bit shorter than I’d normally wear. I knew that I would need to take some off the top to make it bigger at the waist, so it was going to end up shorter still. So I decided to add a plain black band round the bottom.

Black cotton; what could be easier to find?

Quite a lot of things, as it turned out. A hunt through the 'plain cottons' remnant bin in my local fabric shop quickly revealed that not all black cottons are created equal, and it took a while to find anything close to the shade of black used in the skirt. On top of that, the remnant needed to be a similar weight to the skirt fabric in order for the whole thing to drape properly. Finally I found a reasonable match, and it was a big enough piece. Phew.

The pattern was made by tracing round the bottom of a quarter of the skirt, drawing a line 15cm / 6" down from there, marking the extension of the fold and seam lines, and adding seam allowances. The original skirt hem was just an overlocked the raw edge turned under and machine sewn in place, so it was easy to unpick. I made up the band, sewed it on, and hemmed it the same way as the original.

Finally I made a simple tie belt from the leftover yellow fabric, and it was all done.

Transformation complete!

It's not a huge change (I doubt if it would get me very far in the Great British Sewing Bee 'transformation' challenge), but I'm pleased with the end result. It's given me a wearable dress with a bold, non-repeating print; which is something my wardrobe totally lacked.

Before and after

A bonus was the discovery that the new bodice is a perfect match to my yellow shoes. So I decided to dress things up a bit with more period-appropriate jewellery and a hat.

Pearls, and a black straw vintage cocktail hat

I should have added a handbag (and a cocktail!)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Big Stitch - part 2, a whole lot of hand sewing

I had hoped to have a finished dress to post about, but my first Big Stitch project (the black, white and yellow cotton sundress) has involved a lot more hand sewing than I’d expected. As a result, I’ve only got the bodice complete.

I had already decided to discard the original bodice, so the first thing I did was separate it from the skirt. I left the zip attached to the skirt, with the idea that I might be able to sew it into whatever new bodice I added, but I quickly realised that the ‘spare’ part was too long to fit comfortably into anything else. So I unpicked it altogether.

In the meantime I was also considering what pattern to use for the new bodice. I was tempted to go with Butterick 6620 because I love it so much, but I wasn’t sure how the long sleeves would work on something that’s sewn onto a skirt (I know I'm being picky, but I do like to be able to move my arms!) Instead I went with Vogue 8789, which I used for my DIY Horrockses dress.

This has the advantage of having an entirely straight neckline. Only after I’d bought some yellow cotton for the new bodice did I remember that yellow next to the skin isn’t a good look for me. It would need some sort of trimming round the neck to hide the yellowness (of both me and the fabric - that's the effect it has!) I found some chunky cotton lace which I thought would be ideal, but which wouldn’t work around curves.

Raw materials: skirt, zip, yellow and black cotton, and the lace

I decided to sew the lace onto the four bodice pieces by hand, just overcasting along the straight edges. Unfortunately once I started to sew I discovered that it wasn’t all that robustly made, and was coming apart in places. So I had to sew down loose bits and remake some of the joining bars in sewing thread as I went along. Once I’d finally finished this, I decided that a single length of lace looked a bit puny, so had the repeat the whole exercise with a second row. All this took time. A long, long time.

Trim sewn onto a bodice back section

To make the white voile lining, I cut out the bodice pieces, minus the self-facing round the neck. Then I slightly trimmed the neckline and armscyes of the lining pieces. I made up the lining and bodice separately, sewed the two right sides together round the armscyes, and turned the whole thing right way out. I wanted to understitch the lining round the armscye, but this would be nigh-on impossible by machine, so I did it by hand.

The lining sewn in place round the armscye

Next the raw edge of the bodice self-facing was turned under, making the facing the same width as the double lace strip. This meant that when I slip-stitched the facing onto the lining I could catch the whole thing down to the main bodice occasionally, with the stitches being hidden by the edge of the lace.

The right side of the bodice was sewn up completely, the left just at the top. The skirt is wider at the front than the back, and I wanted to replicate this in the bodice. I did this by tapering the centre front seam and altering the side seams so that the raw edges didn’t match. It was only after I’d done all this that I realised it would have been far simpler just to make the substantial front darts slightly less substantial! Oh well, live and learn.

Next I attached the skirt to the bodice. In keeping with the ethos of the project, I re-used the existing zip. Re-attaching an invisible zip into a made-up garment was another thing which would be awkward by machine, so I hand sewed that as well, with a small back stitch. Finally (for now) I slip-stitched the lining (yet more hand sewing) in place around the waist.

Inside view of the bodice back, showing how the front is wider

Bodice front

Next up, finishing the skirt.

Sunday, 16 July 2017


Although I’ve posted about various places I’ve visited, such as York and Venice, I’ve never got round to writing about the place where I live; the City of Chester*.
(Warning: there’s almost 2,000 years of history to write about, so this is a very picture-heavy post.)

Chester began as a Roman fort, founded in 79 AD. Its name, Castra Deva, meant ‘the fort on the Dee’. In time the original timber fort was replaced with something more substantial, and a settlement grew up around it. The Romans called the settlement Deva, but unlike Londinium the Roman name was lost over time.

There are Roman remains dotted all around the city. The Roman Gardens holds a large collection of them.

Column remains in the Roman Gardens

It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago no-one knew there was an amphitheatre in Chester; it was only discovered in 1929. Now around half of it is visible, although many of the remains are too fragile to be exposed to the elements, so have been covered over. It doesn’t look much from above, but it is thought that it could hold up to 7,000 spectators.

The amphitheatre, seen from the city walls

When I was a member of Ya Raqs we had several opportunities to dance in the amphitheatre. Performing to a huge crowd, in a space originally used so long ago, was a very special experience.

This Is Deva 2011, photograph by Sharon Baskerville

The city walls have been rebuilt many times over the years, but a few Roman sections still remain.

A section of the Roman wall,near the Northgate

At two miles long, the walls provide an almost complete circuit of the medieval city. There were four main gates, all of which were replaced with simple archways once the walls were no longer needed as defence. One of the medieval gates does remain however. The Kaleyard gate was cut to give the monks of what was then the abbey (now the cathedral) access to their vegetable garden (kaleyard), which was outside the walls. Permission to build the gate was only granted on condition that it was locked at 9pm every night. A notice on the gate warns that the gate is still locked at this time.

The Kaleyard Gate, from outside the walls

Chester cathedral

Today the walls provide a route for a traffic-free stroll.

The River Dee, the Old Bridge, and the walls

Looking along the walls to the Phoenix Tower

The Phoenix Tower and walls from below

Also on the walls, over the east gate, is the Eastgate Clock. Built to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it is allegedly the second-most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben.

The Eastgate Clock

Other cities in Britain have walls. Other places in Britain have a Roman amphitheatre. But nowhere else has the Rows. It’s not clear how they came about, but Chester’s unique double-decked shops have existed for 700 years. They are mostly around the Cross, the point where the four main streets join.

Chester Cross, and some of the Rows

At ground level there is one shop, usually with steps down to a floor lower than the street itself. Then there are steps up to a covered walkway (the Row itself), which gives access to another shop. As these shops cannot be seen from ground level, they often advertise their presence with hanging signs. The other side of the walkway has a flat area which was originally filled with market stalls.

Watergate Street Row, south side, showing the low ground floor shops

Watergate Street Row, north side, Booth's Mansion

The Row in front of Booth's Mansion

The city has many fine Tudor and Georgian buildings.

The Falcon, originally built around 1200

The Nine Houses almshouses, built around 1650

The Bear and Billet, built 1664

The Bluecoat charity school and almshouses, built 1717

Abbey Square

Not everything built in black and white is Tudor, however. There are a number of Victorian and Edwardian half-timbered 'revival' buildings as well.

Northgate Street, the date 1897 is just visible above the red sign

The Grosvenor Arcade, now part of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, was built in the early twentieth century. Originally it had a frontage of cream tiles, but this provoked so much complaint that in the end the front was remodelled in a way considered more appropriate for Chester. Now only the interior and ground floor level of the front give an idea of what the original looked like.

The 'new' front of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre

The original tiled decoration

Glazed figurative corbels, and the world's least sympathetic wiring placement

Bringing things right up-to-date is Chester's newest building; Storyhouse. Opened a couple of months ago, this arts centre contains a theatre, library, cinema and café, in a building which incorporates the old Art Deco Odeon cinema.


Even this long post has felt like a whistle-stop tour; I have missed so much out. So I'll finish with a shameless plug for my for friend Clare Dudman's fascinating book Real Chester, which is crammed full of stories and personal observations about the city.

* - It may not feel like a city. In fact it may often feel like a large village (especially if, like me, you live close enough to the centre to walk everywhere), but Chester is very clear on the fact that it is a city. When an article about the soap Hollyoaks in the Daily Mail last year made reference to "the fictional town of Chester", the word "town" almost caused more outrage than the word "fictional".

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Giving up on green?

Sometimes you just have to admit defeat. After a cooling-off period in the back of the wardrobe I took a fresh look at Simplicity 1587, aka the Dress of Extreme Frumpiness. Sadly the dress-improving fairy had not paid a visit in the meantime. I rarely regard something as beyond saving, but in this case . . .

Then we actually had some hot weather, so I decided to wear the Blackbird Dress (New Look 6723). And discovered something which I somehow hadn't noticed last year - namely that the bodice centre front is weirdly wide, so the princess seams are nowhere close to where they should be, and the fit is just generally off.

This left me a) with a lack of green dresses in my wardrobe and b) in need of a simple sewing project. So when I found some mid-weight green and white cotton at 70% off in my local fabric shop, I decided to remake a favourite pattern; New Look 6093. What could possibly go wrong?


I made this three (blimey! that long?) years ago in a fine cotton poplin in yellows, browns and greens. I liked the end result so much that I made it again in a blue poplin of a similar weight -  and forgot to blog about it. Both dresses have had a lot of wear since, and the only problem with them is that the neckline is rather lower than I usually wear. So this time I raised it. Only by 1½cm / ⅝", but I'm far more comfortable with the end result.

For now unfortunately that's about the only thing I'm comfortable with. The skirt panels are cut on the bias (see view B of the pattern envelope above), and in the slightly stiffer cotton they just don't hang that well. In fact, the whole dress feels a bit stiff. I'm hopeful that once it has been through the wash a few times it will look better, but at present it's a(nother) one to just wear around the house. Which is a shame, as it goes perfectly with my green shoes and hat.

Slightly sticky-out skirt . . .

The jury is also out on the sleeves. I think that they are slightly too long, but at least that is easily fixed.

. . . and slightly too long sleeves

But I'm beginning to wonder what it is with me and green. That's three dresses with various issues, and the 'Meh' skirt also has green in it. Perhaps I should just never make anything green again!

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The poppies project

It's been a while now since the last items for the University of Chester chapel were finished, but the sewing group has a new project!

Next year will be the centenary of the end of World War One, and the project is to commemorate the 77 staff and students who died in the war, and whose names are listed on the memorial in the chapel. We intend to do this by making 77 poppies, which will be set into a display in the chapel.

The project is being coordinated by Pat Ransome of the Chester Alumni Association. To give us an idea of the end result, Pat cut out 77 poppy templates from red card, and we tried laying them out. It quickly became obvious that the original idea of arranging them into a cross would create something far too large. The current plan is to place them in a replica of the 'campaign chest' which every soldier had to hold his possessions. The chest will measure 24" by 24", and with a certain amount of overlapping, the 77 poppies will fit into this.

The templates laid out in a 24" square (marked onto the fabric)

So far we have four completed poppies, but we have until mid-January 2018 to complete the other 73.

The first four poppies

The only limit is that finished poppy should be 8-10cm in diameter. The poppies can be made in any medium: embroidery, knitting, tatting etc. In fact, the more diverse the techniques the better, as we are keen to remember the 77 as individuals. To this end, the Alumni Association has been researching the names on the memorial, and has even managed to contact the descendants of three of the men listed.

One thing which intrigues me is that the poster shows the memorial with the original 78 names. The story goes that at a reunion of former students in the 1920s Mr R. N. Bullock turned up, saw his name on the memorial, and confirmed that he was very much alive! We haven't yet decided how, or if, we will commemorate this detail.

The original memorial

How it appears now, with the name removed (far right column)

The next meeting will be held on Friday 21 July 21, 12-2pm in CSH111.