Sunday, 31 March 2019

One for the DIY enthusiast

I don’t know if it's still the case, but the phrase 'Would suit DIY enthusiast' used to be an estate agent's euphemism to describe a property which was in a terrible state and needed a lot of work. And I recently bought a dress which may just be the clothing equivalent.

I came across it when I was on holiday in Somerset the other week. I had gone to a vintage fair in Wells Town Hall (or, for viewers of Poldark, Warleggan's Bank - the building is used for the exterior shots). Normally when I go to vintage fairs, I don't tend to look at the clothing in any detail: because I prefer to make clothes myself, and because I know that dresses in particular won't fit me as the bodice will be too long. However while browsing, I overheard this conversation behind me:

Woman 1 (who turned out to be the stallholder's mum) - This collar is coming off this one.
Woman 2 (the stallholder) - It just needs a bit of sewing.
Woman 1 - A bit? It's coming apart here, and here . . . and here. Someone will need to know what they’re doing.

Well to paraphrase slightly, you had me at 'needs a bit of sewing'. I turned around to look at the offending item. Yes, it had seen better days, but I absolutely loved the fabric and the basic shape. My guess is that it dates from the early 1960s. I tried it on and, apart from the bodice length, it fitted. The price reflected its sorry state, so I rescued it. This is me wearing the dress, and demonstrating why ready-to-wear clothing and I do not play nicely together.

So. Much. Bunching.

The dress is home-made, and is a curious mix. Some parts are skilfully stitched: for example the seam edges are well finished, and there is a neat stay tape holding the waist seam of the bias-cut bodice front in place.

Stay tape round the waist and sewn-down pleats

Other areas are a mess; sewn with large stitches in white thread. On top of this, there are signs of wear and (literally) tear, which suggest that it was too small for one of its wearers and was altered - badly.  The hem has been let down and finished with bias tape, which is coming adrift in places.

Neat seam finishing, not-so-neat hem tape

The zip only just works, and needs replacing

Coming apart at the waist . . .

. . . and at the side vent . . .

. . . and at the armscye and facing, which is coming away from the dress

The kick pleat at the centre back is torn

And the collar. I have no idea what is going on with the collar.

Collar - front view

Collar - back view

So the plan is to: mend all the tears and unravelled stitching; take out the zip; unpick the waist seam: shorten the bodice and re-attach it to the skirt; and put in a new zip. Oh, and to work out how on earth the collar is meant to lie, and fix it. For the bodice length and the collar, I'm planning to enlist Mum's help and advice.

There is one previous mend which I am leaving well alone. It was only when I looked at the dress closely that I noticed that it had been torn near the hem, and very carefully darned with embroidery floss. That someone had taken the time and effort to do this just made me like the dress even more.

Darning as seen from the back and the front

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Making Grace - part 1, the pattern

This is a whole new area for me, making something from an indie, PDF pattern. I now sew mainly from my collection of vintage patterns and, if I do want to make something more contemporary, I'm fortunate (although my bank manager might use another word) to live within easy walking distance of a fabric shop which stocks all the main pattern brands. However when the Sew Over 50 Challenge was launched, almost all of the eligible patterns were from independents - the choice from the Big-4 was woefully small - so I decided it was time to spread my sewing wings a little.

This proved to be easier said than done. I have never really thought of myself as having a particular 'style', but turns out that I do, and most of the patterns suggested for the challenge are not it! I settled on the Grace Dress from Wardrobe By Me. It has got quite a 1970s vibe going, which ties in with my growing (and slightly worrying) love of 1970s Style patterns. The description on the website recommended using a fabric with a lot of drape, and I realized that the stash fabric which I bought on a whim in January, a soft printed viscose, would be perfect - win!

Close-up of the fabric, more below

Purchasing and downloading the pattern was easy. As this was my first time working with a PDF pattern, I really appreciated the 2" and 5cm squares which Wardrobe By Me include on the first page so that you can check that you are printing to the correct size. I was using the A4 option, which prints onto 36 sheets of paper, put together in a six by six formation. Each sheet is clearly numbered, and the instructions show how they should be arranged. The instructions state that there is no need to trim the sheets, but the print came out with a ⅛" margin on each edge. I'm not sure if this was due to me or the pattern, but I had to snip the corners off each sheet in order to see overlap properly. My rows of six sheets were a bit uneven - but that may just be that I'm overly fussy. It did feel like a lot of work, but perhaps it gets quicker the more of these patterns you do. In the end I simplified matters by not sticking all 36 sheets together: instead I made up three separate sections, based on the pattern pieces.

The pattern comes in 13 sizes, but fortunately there are instructions on how to remove any sizes you don't need. I printed it out with two sizes, and made a bodice toile to find out how much length I needed to take out. I also wanted to check neckline after Butterick top debacle. From the toile I realised that I only needed smaller size, but the two sizes had the same line style, so at times it was hard to tell which one to follow to cut the smaller size. (All the other sizes had different line styles, it was just unfortunate that the two I used were the same.)

Showing the line styles for the two sizes

Unless I missed it, the pattern has no cutting layout, so I was glad that drafting my own patterns has given me the experience of working this out efficiently. Also, it took me a while to find the dimensions of the neck tie and waist drawstring in the instructions; they were tucked away in the sizing chart.

The pocket bag pieces didn’t quite match, so I redrafted one of them to match the other. I must admit that this has made me slightly worried about how well the other pieces will fit together, but time (and sewing) will tell.

As well as taking up the bodice, I also lengthened skirt by 2". The only other change I have made was to change the direction of cutting the collar and cuffs to across grain rather than along it. My fabric has a design of birds sitting on branches, and it would look odd if it were used sideways.

The fabric, apologies for the creases!

The background of the fabric has more of a green tinge than is apparent in the photographs, and birds in the print are a strange mix. A few of them are recognizable species, others - I have no idea!

Some of the birds in detail

Everything is cut out now, so the next stage is sewing.

Sunday, 17 March 2019


I've been on another of my trips to Somerset, and this time I had a day out in Frome (rhymes with 'broom', not with 'home'). It's a lovely town, with lots of old buildings and a street with a stream running down its centre, and last year the Sunday Times 'Best Places to Live in the UK' listed it as best in the South West. Unfortunately the weather was far from lovely, so the photographs I took don't really do the place justice.

One of the things which makes Frome stand out is its independent traders. From March to December there is a monthly market called the Frome Independent, and there are a great many independent shops as well. Many of these are situated on Catherine Hill.

Looking up Catherine Hill . . .

. . . and looking down

One thing which Frome is not, is flat.

Steps up from Catherine Hill

Fortunately there are places to sit down if it all gets too much.

Somewhere to take a rest

I spotted a few lovely hanging signs, such as this:


and this:


and, erm, this.


So, on to the shops themselves. There were too many to describe them all, but are a few of my favourites. I loved the colours in this display, not least those of the birds.

Florist's display in Cheap Street

And I always like to see an independent bookshop.

Bookshop in Cheap Street (and the stream)

Sadly this vintage shop was closed for a refit.

The window display was wonderful

Poot Emporium is a collective which sells vintage and upcycled clothing by a variety of makers.


While Deadly Is The Female sells modern reproduction vintage brands.

Apologies for the reflections

If making your own is more your thing, there are shops which cater for this as well.

Frome Yarn Collective

Unsurprisingly, my favourite shop was this one.

Millie Moon

One half of the shop is used for workshops and classes, while the other is packed with fabrics, haberdashery, indie patterns, and an impressive display of vintage sewing machines.


Patterns and haberdashery

Confession time: I had already bought some cotton velvet from Sew Over The Moon in Glastonbury (because even though I don't need it until later in the year, good quality cotton velvet at a reasonable price was too good an opportunity to pass up) and some retro cotton from Sew Vintage in Wells (because it was half-price, and cute), so I resisted buying any more fabric. I did buy a few bits and pieces though. They were beautifully wrapped up, in sheets of discontinued pattern tissue - a lovely touch. In fact, nothing which I bought in Frome was wrapped in plastic; a detail which pretty much sums up the whole town.

Meanwhile, the stashometer - it's really Not Going Well

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Unexpected elegance from the 1970s

Usually when I post about exhibitions taking place in my 'local' museums I am referring to one of the venues which make up National Museums Liverpool, such as the Walker or Lady Lever art galleries. But today I'm delighted to be writing about somewhere truly local to me: the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.

According to this recent article in The Guardian, 1970s fashion is currently having a bit of a moment. In which case, the Grosvenor is clearly right on trend with its current exhibition, Unexpected Elegance: Female Fashion from the 1970s. Although only small, it covers a range of dresses from locally-made to designer, and from everyday to special occasion wear.

Image © West Cheshire Museums

All of the exhibits are behind glass, so apologies for the reflections in some of the images.

Part of the display

The exhibition aims to challenge the widely-held idea of the 1970s as 'the decade that taste forgot'. It covers the entire period, with dresses dating from 1970 to 1978, arranged in date order.

Dresses from 1970 and c.1972

The blue dress on the left dates from 1970, and was made by students at Bangor University in North Wales. The cut of the dress and the overprinting of the blue cotton/linen mix fabric were designed to work together, and the dress was sold commercially.

Printed cotton/linen shirt dress

The photo-realistic print of this c.1972 polyester dress looks like something you could buy in a fabric shop now. The ruffles and smocking detail look far more of the 1970s however.

Polyester dress by Eastex

The next dress is a wedding dress, made-to-measure by a semi-professional dressmaker in Liverpool in 1972. Because it was for a winter wedding, a warm fabric was needed. The choice was unusual for a wedding dress, but very 1970s - corduroy!

Empire line wedding dress

Covering those buttons with such a bulky fabric must have been tricky

From dressmaker-made to me-made. The red cotton mini-dress which features on the museum website was made by the donor from a commercial pattern c.1972-3. It may have taken her that long to do all the intricate smocking on the bodice. I would love to see the pattern it was made from.*

So much work, and a fabulous collar

There's no mistaking the provenance of the next dress. I hadn't realised that Ossie Clark was born not far from here, in Warrington.

Ossie Clark dress, viscose fabric designed by Celia Birtwell

The dress was bought from Biba, c.1974

Next are two more designer dresses. This plain A-line wool mix shift dress with neat top-stitching details is labelled "Givenchy / Nouvelle Boutique / Made in France / Paris", and comes from the company's ready-to-wear label. The panel at the waist is printed faux leopard skin.

Givenchy ready-to-wear dress, c.1975

The flowing blue cotton tunic dress is in contrast to the fitted lines of the Givenchy, although both dresses are simple and plain. It is by Zandra Rhodes, and its only decoration is the printed pattern around the bottom of the skirt.

Different styles from 1975 and 1976

Abstract design in brown and pink

The caftan beside it is a similar shape, but longer and with long sleeves.

Made in Shropshire and bought in North Wales, c.1977

The caftan is also made of cotton, printed with a design of Persian hunting scenes. I must admit, that when I first looked at it I thought that the figure on the top right was hunting with an enormous flower as some sort of lance!

An unusual choice of weapon

On closer inspection, I realized that actually he was holding an arrow, and the flower was separate (and out of proportion to the figure below). What I still can't work out though is why the zip is sewn in place with matching thread, while the neckline is sewn with white thread.


The label has been removed from the final dress, so there is very little information about it other than that it dates from c.1978. It is made from man-made chiffon, with a nylon underdress, and has a bias-cut skirt. The collar is very 1970s, but there is something of 1940s film noir about the overall look.

So much synthetic, but fabulous with it

Close-up of the bodice

Unexpected Elegance runs until 7 July, in the Costume Gallery. Admission is free.

* - Update, 16 August 2021
I found it! While browsing Style patterns on ebay I came across this, and recognized it at once. (Can we just gloss over the fact that I frequently can't remember what I went into the next room for, but show me the pattern for a dress that I saw well over two years ago and I can instantly link the two!)

Bingo! Style 3837, 1972