Sunday, 26 May 2019

Swinging London at the Fashion and Textile Museum

You wait ages for a Mary Quant exhibition, and then two come along at once! However whereas the current exhibition at the V&A is solely about the designer, Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution places her in the context of the group of designers known as the Chelsea Set, who aimed to shake up contemporary design in 1950s-60s London.

While the exhibition focusses on Quant and Terence Conran, it includes other designers from the period as well. The first room is devoted to work by print designer Natalie Gibson, who worked with Conran in the early 1960s. This tea towel looked oddly familiar, but I don't think that we actually had one at home; it's just that it's so utterly of its period.

Those colours! That design!

Unlike previous exhibitions I've been to at the venue, this one is not just about clothes and textiles; it includes furniture, lighting and homewares as well.

Conran table and cabinet, dresses 'Bazaar by Mary Quant', lamp by Bernard Schottlander

'Cone' chair by Terence Conran, clothing by Mary Quant

Conran furniture, dresses from 'Mary Quant London', lamp by Bernard Schottlander

I recognized the dress in this display as being made by Horrockses, in a fabric designed by Eduardo Paolozzi.

Both dress (by John Tullis) and fabric date from 1953

By 1960 Quant and her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene were sufficiently well-known to feature in this advertisement for 'Long Life', Britain's first canned beer (no, me neither).

Quant and Plunket Greene - People who set today's trends

Despite Long Life being described in the exhibition as representing "modernity, youth and and the new affluent celebrity lifestyle", the promotional textile seems to regard modernity as 'woman gets beer out of fridge, and man mows lawn'. Hmm!

Close-up of two of the fabric's vignettes

In 1961 Quant began working with the U.S. department store J C Penny, and created ranges for them for 11 years.

Mary Quant clothing for J C Penny

Both Conran and Quant looked to the British mass market in the 1960s, with Mary Quant setting up Ginger Group in 1963 and Terence Conran opening the first Habitat shop a year later.

A selection of Habitat homewares

Conran 'Peacock' chair sold by Habitat c1967, clothing by Mary Quant Ginger group

I have always associated the name Laura Ashley with flowery cotton dresses, so was very surprised by this display of her early work with her husband Bernard.

Clothing and printed fabrics by Bernard and Laura Ashley

Apart from the Ashleys' display, the upstairs part of the exhibition is all about Mary Quant.

Mary Quant coats of various labels from the 1960s, in colour. . .

. . . and in black and white

There is a small section on designers she admired, and others whose aesthetic was in tune with her own.

l-r Jean Muir dress, Chanel suit, coat and dress by Cardin, dress by Courreges

Last but by no means least, there is a section on dress patterns. Quant created her first collection for Butterick in 1964, and worked with them for around a decade. (I actually have the pattern for the green dress, but can't imagine ever making it up, as a strong horizontal line across the hips is not a good look for me!)

Mini-catalogue of patterns from 1967

A selection of Mary Quant patterns for Butterick

Swinging London runs until 2 June, while Mary Quant at the V&A runs until February 2020.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Mother of the Stash*

aka  A Tale of Two Fabrics.

Because there's no way I'm leading with the next photo in this post. . .

The Sewcialists blog is marking May 2019 with a theme month: Sew Brave. The idea is to push out of your comfort zone, and sew something which scares you. So I'm taking this opportunity to . . . . make a cotton dress.

On the face of it, this is hardly the ultimate in derring-do. Cotton is super-easy to work with; that's why The Great British Sewing Bee starts off with 'Cotton Week'. And it's hardly as though I never make cotton dresses; see here, and here, and here, and - well, you get the idea. No, the 'brave' bit is the cotton in question.

In May 1991 Mum and I went to Florence. On the theme of being brave, and for the amusement of my readers, I'll actually share a photo from that trip.

Lots of black, a dodgy perm, and a cardigan at least five sizes too big for me - oh dear!

We found a fabric shop in Florence (of course), and despite barely speaking a word of Italian we managed to buy some material (also of course). We both bought cottons with floral designs; Mum's was an iris print and mine was anemones.

Mum's iris-print cotton

Mum, being sensible, made her fabric up almost as soon as we got home. She made a simple shift dress, to let the fabric take centre-stage. She also recently gifted the dress to me (thanks Mum!).

The iris dress

I on the other hand was not sensible. I kept my fabric until I could find a pattern worthy of it. Of course I never did, and it fell victim to Special Fabric Syndrome: the longer I waited, the more special the pattern needed to be in order to justify using the material.

My anemone-print cotton

In the 28 years that the anemone cotton has been in my stash I have: lived in four different houses; been employed by seven different companies (while doing the same job, long story); had all sorts of changes in my personal life; started a Masters, acquired a collection of vintage patterns and - failed to find a suitable pattern for three metres of 142cm wide cotton.

In a way, it's the Masters that prompted me to finally take action. I was talking to several of my fellow students recently, and realised that none of them was actually born when I bought this! 28 years feels like an abstract thing, but to look at a friend and think, "I've got fabric in my stash that's older than you are", really brings it into focus. There was also the small matter of doing the sums and realizing that I have owned this dress length for more than half of my life!

I'm sticking with a pattern I've used successfully before (because there's brave, and then there's foolhardy), New Look 6299, albeit probably with a little frankenpatterning around the neckline.

The basis for the dress
Wish me luck!

* - In Britain, the longest-serving Member of Parliament is known as the Father of the House (so far, the position hasn't been held by a female MP), hence this fabric's title of the Mother of the Stash.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Making Grace - part 3, finished (!) and pattern hacks

I finally have a completed dress! Most of the work turned out to be in the bodice, so once I'd made and attached the sleeves, the rest of it was fairly straightforward. I couldn't find any buttons for the cuffs which even remotely matched the greyish green of the fabric, so I went with mother of pearl instead. My hand-stitched buttonholes are getting much neater these days, which I'm chuffed about.

Cuff, button and buttonhole

On the skirt, my first pattern hack concerned the slant pockets. The instructions were to make the pocket, then sew the smaller pocket bag to the skirt along the opening. This would involve sewing two pieces of soft, drapey fabric together on a bias, so was sure to stretch - and then stretch some more in use. So I decided to add a stay tape along the pocket opening. Before sewing the pocket pieces together I laid a piece of cotton tape very slightly over the seam line for attaching the pocket to the skirt, basted it in place along that edge, and machine stitched it to the pocket piece along the other edge of the tape.

The pocket made up - the tape is machined on the left side, basted on the right

Then when I attached the pocket to the skirt, I sewed through the tape and both layers of fabric.

The pocket sewn in place, and the basting removed

Finally I top-stitched along the edge.

The completed pocket*

The instructions suggest that once the drawstring has been fed through the casing, the ends should be knotted to stop it from coming out. Instead I sewed it in place at the centre back through all the layers of the bodice and casing.

The final step was the hem, and this was another hack. The pattern only allows for a 1cm / ⅜" hem. It also uses the same pattern piece for the skirt front and back. Now if, like me, you have a sway back/big bottom and, also like me, prefer your hem to be the same distance off the ground all round, then you'll know that you need to make your skirt longer at the back than the front. And such a narrow hem doesn't leave a lot of room for manoeuvre in that department. For this reason I had added 10cm / 2" to the skirt length when I cut the pieces out. I ended up with a hem which was 1½" deep at the front and ⅜" deep at the back, so was very glad that I'd added the extra.

And here is the finished dress. It's OK, but sadly I can't say that I love it. It's not as bad as the Dress of Frump™, but then nothing is. Somehow it just looks a bit, to use a good Scots word, 'bumphly' - sort of rumpled and untidy.

Finished at last

I think that part of the problem is that the instuctions say to avoid gathering the tops of the pockets, so the front ends up with a lot of fabric bunched up at the centre.

Bumphle in the middle!

If I make the pattern up again (and I may well do so, it's a good basic dress) I think that I would make the skirt front narrower, and possibly shorten the sleeves a smidgeon. Certainly I do like the bodice. When I was taking the photographs I got distracted by a blackbird singing on the roof of the house, and the resulting picture of me looking up shows the collar and neckline off well.

The bodice is fine

Also on the plus side, this has used up a large chunk of the length of printed viscose that I bought in January. I have actually used half as much fabric as I've bought this year! This may not be something to be proud of, but it's better than nothing.

The stashometer - still not good, but getting better

* - The eagle-eyed will have noticed that the birds on the fabric in the three pictures of the pocket have flown round a bit! Somehow I managed to take two shots of one side of the skirt front, and one shot of the other; so for the sake of consistency I flipped the second photograph.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Making Grace - part 2, doing things differently

Aargh! Another week gone by, and still nothing to show for it. Even though the reality is that there are a lot of calls on my time right now, leaving me with very little opportunity to sew, it still feels as though the Grace dress is taking forever to make.

As I explained in my first post (which feels like months ago!), this is my first time using an indie pattern, and some of the techniques are different from what I'm used to. The bodice shape, with its yoke and stand collar, is similar to Butterick 5997, and it's interesting to see how the constructions compare.

First of all, the yoke. The method used by the Butterick pattern is the method I have always used, since I made this blouse, ahem, 40 years ago.

Style 2580, 1979

In this method the outer yoke piece is sewn to the blouse fronts and back, then the inner piece is sewn to the fonts, the seam allowance at the back is pressed under, and the inner yoke is slip-stitched into place along the back seam.

On the Grace pattern however all the yoke seams are machine sewn, with the bodice front and back rolled up into a 'parcel' of the two yoke pieces, and then pulled through the neck. I must admit that I was so dubious about this that I actually had to pin it together and do a trial run before I was convinced that a) I was doing it right and b) it would work!

Yes it looks odd - but it works

The other thing which is different so far is the collar. Usually I would expect to sew the collar front and back together, turn it right side out, and then try to wrangle it to the neckine of the bodice. Instead the pattern instructs you to sew the outer collar piece to the bodice, and then attach the inner piece. Genius - so much easier to handle! The cuffs are made the same way.

The outer collar attached to the bodice

Anyone who has read the comments on last week's post will already know that I wonder who this pattern is aimed at. The instructions run to 17 A4 pages (so I have to have my laptop to hand when I sew, as I can't bring myself to use that much paper), and are far more detailed than those on a Big-4 pattern. This would suggest that the intended audience is fairly new to sewing. However the ⅜" seam allowance, while making curved seams like the collar and sleeves a doddle, doesn't allow much wiggle room for the novice seamstress. But this minor query aside, there's no denying that it is fascinating to be introduced to new construction methods.