Sunday, 27 December 2020

One day the sun will come out

Still no sewing to report. Antibiotics are making steady progress, but it's very slow. So, in the last days of a year which can't end soon enough for most of us, here are few thoughts instead.

Seven years ago today I was a couple of weeks away from my 50th birthday, still reeling from my husband's fatal illness diagnosis, and wondering what the coming year would bring. Three months later, I was widowed.

If, at either of those points, you had told me that in spring 2020 I would be attending the graduation ceremony for my Masters, I would have thought you were talking complete gibberish. But in March, days before the first lockdown, there I was (and yes, the sun did come out!).


With the 'Dissertation Police'

Going back to university was not something I had ever remotely considered until this course came along, but I was very glad that I did. As well the interest of the course itself, I was extremely fortunate to be part of a cohort with some fantastic young women: despite the fact that I was old enough to be the mother of any one of them, they took me into their group, and I learned so much from them. And despite all the grumblings on this blog about writing my dissertation, on the whole I enjoyed bringing it all together. The interest this sparked in dress and fashion theory continues, as is obvious from the Christmas presents I requested from my parents (plus a hedgehog pincushion and a sewing machine trinket box added by my mum).

Christmas presents

Which brings me back to the quotation at the top of this post. It is taken from the final scene of the film 'Brooklyn', slightly altered by me to fit the theme of something as well as someone. This has become one of my favourite films, and not just for the costumes. Although the character is talking here about starting a new life in a new country, I always feel that it applies just as well to widowhood. When my husband died, after 20 years together I really couldn't imagine any sort of pleasurable life without him, and this feeling persisted for a long time. But going back to studying, possibly because it was so utterly different from anything I had expected to do, provided a framework for something which wasn't just my old life with a Mr Tulip-shaped hole at its centre.

One of the very few positives of this year (and I'm well aware that I have a hugely privileged life compared to a great many others) has been the discovery that, almost without realising it, I have built a new life for myself which is satisfying enough to make me miss it when it's temporarily suspended, and greatly look forward to getting it back.

For anyone mourning losses at the end of this dismal year, I hope that one day the sun does come out for you, too.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Dressed for War - the story of British Vogue's wartime editor

No sewing again this week. Not because I'm busy with Christmas preparations; in fact, quite the reverse. I've come down with several different infections all at once - none of them serious on their own, thankfully, but combined enough to make me feel quite ill. After struggling on for a couple of days, I just had to accept that whatever hasn't been done for Christmas by now just won't get done, and there was nothing for it but to rest, and let my body recover.

What this did do was give me time to read, and to finish a book which I started some time ago, Dressed for War by Julie Summers. This is a biography of Audrey Withers who, despite being editor of the British edition of Vogue throughout the 1940s and 1950s, is now hardly known at all.

Withers was born in 1905. After graduating from Oxford in 1927 she initially worked in a bookshop, before deciding that she really wanted to work in publishing. Her first foray into this world ended when her employer made the decision (entirely legal at the time) that the role needed to be filled by a man, and sacked her. Fortunately, her next job, as a subeditor at Vogue, was much more successful; she spent the rest of her working life there.

Although Dressed for War describes itself as the story of Withers' editorship "From the Blitz to the Swinging Sixties", the vast majority of the book concerns itself with the wartime years. Her predecessor in the role was Betty Penrose, an American, and the picture Summers paints of British Vogue (known within the company as Brogue) at the time is one of a publication quite strictly overseen by its U.S. parent. When Withers took over in 1940, the difficulties of communication with the New York office, and the requirement to reflect the very different British wartime experience from that of America, meant that Brogue increasingly needed to find its own voice. Summers deftly weaves together the stories of both this and the practical issues of producing a magazine during wartime.

For me, of course, one of the most interesting of the latter was the bombing of the Vogue Pattern Book premises in April 1941. At the time, Vogue had approximately 800 different patterns in production, and this was a highly profitable element of the overall business. 350,000 patterns were destroyed in the ensuing fire, but fortunately duplicates of the master patterns and some cutting machines had been stored safely outside central London, and production was quickly restarted.

Not all of the destruction which Brogue suffered during the war was caused by bombing raids, however. Britain's supply of wood pulp from Canada, needed for paper manufacture, had been greatly reduced, and there was a drive to not only save paper but also to donate old paper for salvage. As a result, Withers decided that the entire pre-1942 archive of British Vogue should be pulped for the war effort!

Brogue's wartime content was not just patterns, fashion and making-do, however. Withers hired Lee Miller as a war correspondent, and Miller's work, and the relationship between the two women, is covered in depth.

Summers is clear about the amount of help and information she received from the Condé Nast archivists, both in London and New York, and my one criticism of the book would be that she may on occasion have accepted information at face value without digging any deeper. Nast, for example, stated that it was he who introduced different sizes in dress patterns and that prior to this none of his rivals, including Butterick offered anything other than a size 36. Nast was born in 1873, was educated to university level, and then spent 10 years working for Collier's Weekly before moving to a publication called Home Pattern. By my reckoning, this would have been 1903 at the earliest. According to A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, Butterick introduced sized patterns for women and girls in 1866, and the Commercial Pattern Archive includes a Butterick pattern from 1872 in a size 31. This is hardly a critical detail, but enough to make me wonder about other claims.

As I mentioned earlier, Audrey Withers is now little known, unlike some other female journalists of the time such as Alison Settle. However, reading this book I discovered that she had actually played an important part in forming my own fashion choices. At some point in the latter part of the 1970s, my mum acquired a copy of In Vogue: Six Decades of Fashion by Georgina Howell. I used to love looking through it, but my favourite image of the entire, substantial, volume was this one.

Fashion is Indestructible by Cecil Beaton, 1941

To me, this was the epitome of pared-back, drop-dead elegance, and still is. The building is Temple Church, destroyed in the same bombing raid that wiped out Vogue's patterns. The suit is by Digby Morton, one of the British designers who would later be part of the 'Utility' clothing scheme. And the model is not actually a model at all but Elizabeth Cowell, one of the BBC's first television announcers (click here to hear a snippet of her incredibly refined voice). Most importantly, Summers has discovered that the idea for the shoot came from Withers herself. In a further link, Georgina Howell came to work for Vogue by winning their annual talent contest, which Withers had introduced. My love of 1940s styles can be traced back to this one photograph, and therefore, it turns out, to Audrey Withers.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Sew Christmas Tree

I posted last year about my 'sewist' Christmas tree; with a few sewing-related felt ornaments from the V&A shop amid the baubles, and a sewing bear 'fairy' on top. This year I decided to go one better, and make the entire tree sewing-related.

Tree detail

First up, I improved upon the gold tinsel covering the base by making a proper tree skirt. I used the misprinted fabric left over from Style 2833 (the blotchy base colour didn't matter for this), and some gold trim from my stash.

The completed tree and skirt

Next came the baubles. My local fabric shop was selling some small and mini plain wooden reels, and these were the perfect starting point. Then I remembered that I had a box of mini spools of metallic machine embroidery threads, which I had bought ages ago and never used: I'd fallen for the pretty colours and somehow overlooked the small detail that I never do machine embroidery!

The bauble raw materials

At 40m per spool that was a lot of thread to rewind, but the end result was just what I'd hoped for. I added loops of gold thread to the larger reels, and arranged the mini ones in groups of three.

So sparkly!

The element that I am most pleased with, however, is my sewing machine tree ornament. I worked out the position of the embroidery, and completed it on the black felt before I cut it, as it was much easier to work on the full sheet. I drew the design onto stitch-n-tear and worked it in double running stitch, with French knots for the berries. Next, I cut out two pieces in the shape of the basic outline, which included the cotton reel, balance wheel and base. These three were then cut out again from separate pieces of felt (the balance wheel is grey felt painted silver) and applied to the front shape. The 'needle' is a length of wire, bent into loops at both ends, with the loops sewn onto the back shape so that the wire cannot come loose. Finally I sewed the two pieces together, with a teeny, tiny pinch of stuffing to give the section under the holly leaves a slight curve.

If Santa Claus made sewing machines!

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Milly and the stash

As I mentioned last week, there has been an addition to the 'bought' column of the stashometer – and it's all the fault of Brexit!

The whole thing actually began way back on my birthday in January, when my friend F gave me a beautiful coat that she'd found in a charity shop.

I took this picture for a flatlay challenge

Neither of us could tell if it was true vintage. It certainly has lots of details which I associate with vintage clothing.

The snap fasteners on the ribbon band

The complex construction of the sleeves

The lovely pocket design

But on the other hand, the raw edge of the collar has a more modern feel.

Not so vintage, but again interesting construction

There was a brand label in the coat, but no information on size, fabric composition or where it was made. This lack of information swung the pendulum back to 'true vintage' in my mind because I didn’t think this was legal any more.

Name label only

Milly of New York, now just called 'Milly' is in fact a modern brand, founded in 2000. Its strong vintage look is so convincing, however, that when I first looked up the name in January, I found at least one reference suggesting that it was a defunct brand from the 1950s/60s which had been resurrected by Michelle Smith. Tucked in a lining side seam I found a label marked "Milly sample", which explained the lack of proper labelling.

Anyway, true vintage or not, I decided that I wanted to make a late 50s/early 1960s dress to go with the coat. This pattern fitted the bill perfectly.

Vogue 9741, 1959

The only problem was that I wanted a fabric with some sort of stripe in it, to make the most of the design. I also wanted something with a brown background. Nothing suitable presented itself, so the idea got pushed to the back of the queue.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when Charlotte, who make the most stunning vintage garments and blogs at Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage, posted a series of reviews of various print-on-demand fabric services, including Spoonflower. I have looked at the Spoonflower website a few times, but never actually ordered anything. However, Charlotte mentioned that their EU orders are now printed in Germany, which means no customs duty to pay.

At the time I read the post, the chances of this still being the case after 31 December seemed slim (and at the time of writing, they seem slimmer still), so I decided that if I did want to buy anything from Spoonflower, I should do so sooner rather than later. Then I remembered my abandoned search for a brown-ish, stripey-ish fabric, and this seemed a good starting point.

Success! I found the perfect design, and courtesy of Charlotte's helpful recommendations decided to go for the petal signature cotton. Delivery was super-speedy; my order arrived within a fortnight of being placed.

Brown - check, stripes - check, period-appropriate design - bonus!

Because I am so used to fabric being cut from a bolt, it was a bit of a surprise to find that 'printed to order' means exactly that – there was a strip of plain white cotton at the start and end of the length. On the plus side, the order details were printed on one end - always handy if your purchase-to-use gap is as long as mine usually is! If I ever want more of this fabric, I know exactly what to search for.

The end of the printed section

I did have a momentary panic when I saw the fabric's alarmingly wide unprinted selvedges. However, Spoonflower's website does state the printed rather than the fabric width for each fabric type, and when I checked the yardage requirements it was obvious that I had factored this in when I ordered (and had promptly forgotten I'd done so - sigh).

That's a lot of white

There is no way that this dress will be made before the end of the year, so the fabric will be carried over to 2021, but despite it making a blemish on the stashometer's record, I'm very glad that I got it.

Still in credit, just not quite so much

Monday, 30 November 2020

Style 2833

After the complexity of October's Autumn Roses dress and hat, I fancied a simple project this month. Style 2833, made up from a craft cotton remnant from my stash, seemed to fit the bill.

Another 1979 Style pattern

The fact that I am posting about the completed dress on a Monday rather than a Sunday, and on the very last day of the month would suggest that it wasn't that simple after all. Actually it was; it just took me ages to get round to starting - I seemed to have a bit of a sewing slump.

The pattern called for 2.8m of 115cm wide fabric, without nap. My fabric had a barely noticeable directional print, but there was 3m of it, so I was sure it would be fine. When I actually took the fabric out to make a start, however, I discovered two things. One: it was only 110cm wide, and 3cm of that was unprinted selvedges. Two: the last 50cm had a printing error - which may of course explain why it was a remnant!

The printing error (middle and right) shows more on the wrong side of the fabric

So, it was back to pattern tetris yet again. The fault was that the fabric had been printed with too much dye rather than too little, so I reasoned that if necessary, I could always cut the pocket bags and yoke facing from the misprinted part. In fact, I managed to cut all the pieces from the section that was printed correctly, and with everything running in the right direction. Win!

There were a few things which were odd about the pattern. First of all, the ongoing interfacing question. There is interfacing in the cuffs but, as with Style 2630, no interfacing in the yoke. Meanwhile, Style 2912, which has a similar stand neckline to this dress, does use interfacing. I decided to compromise and use a very fine iron-on interfacing for both cuffs and yoke. The angled darts on the sleeve head are unlike anything I've seen in a pattern, but I did like the end result.

The sleeve head darts

Because the yoke is shaped round the neck, it is in two parts with a seam along the shoulder. Although the instructions didn't call for it, I decided to hand stitch the yoke and facing together 'in the ditch' along this seam, to stop the seam allowances from bunching up.

The completed yoke, shoulder seam and sleeve

As with Style 2912, I can get my hands through the cuffs without unbuttoning them, so I cheated and just sewed the buttons on through both layers of cuff.

Cuff cheat!

The one thing I haven't done yet is the neck fastening. The pattern calls for a small button and loop just below the yoke, but this looks a bit meagre to me. For the photographs I used a brooch, and liked the effect. I think that either some sort of clasp or frog fasten would work, or I will reinforce the neck facings to that I can just use the brooch all the time.

The unfinished front

I like the finished dress, but it is undeniably one of the most, if not the most, late-70s/early-80s dresses I have ever made. So inspired by the Style Pattern Book I decided to ham it up a bit in the photos with appropriate hair – all curls and combs!

80s hair - go big or go home!

It's got pockets!

My careful cutting out means that only 2.5m are taken off the stashometer, and I know for a fact that the year's total is going to look less rosy shortly - full confession coming soon!

Looking good - but about to take a turn for the worse

Sunday, 29 November 2020

It's that time again . . .


The time when I realise that it's the last Sunday of the month, and I've got an almost-but-not-completely-finished dress for the Vintage Sew A Dress A Month. Proper post about my November dress coming tomorrow - hopefully the weather might even improve enough to get some decent pictures!

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Bestway patterns - again

Thanks to a particularly long-lasting migraine and other health issues, I have done absolutely no sewing this week. So today's post is mostly a 'pretty pictures' one.

I recently acquired this eight-page "Special Fashion Supplement". There is no indication of what it is a supplement to, but as the address for orders is "21, Whitefriars St., London, E.C.4", it was obviously an Amalgamated Press publication. My guess is that it was Good Needlework because, according to the (very) small print on page seven, this monthly magazine carried a "full list of London and provincial paper pattern agents" in every issue. There is no date anywhere, but summer is mentioned several times. Although the styles have a 1940s look, it must have been before clothes rationing was introduced as there are no references to coupons.

The 'bargain pattern' has several different views

Some clues to the date appear on page two. The Amalgamated Press had clearly done a deal with Advance Patterns, and four of their patterns were listed in the supplement. Judging from the entries on the Commercial Pattern Archive, these patterns were issued in either 1938 or 1939.

Page 2 - Advance patterns

The fourth Advance pattern

Bestway patterns were in the 11,000 to 12,000 range in February 1938, and 16,402 is the highest number in this supplement so, even allowing for the huge number of patterns which Bestway produced, I'm tending towards 1939.

Pages 4 and 5 - the Advance pattern is star of the show

The international cachet of the Advance patterns had its price. Most of the Bestway patterns featured cost 1/- (£3.39 today), and the 'bargain pattern' on the front page was just 4½d (£1.27), while the Advance patterns cost 1/6 (£5.08). But, as the supplement points out, these patterns are from "AMERICA".

All of the patterns have a main illustration plus a line drawing of the back view, and smaller drawings of any other views. There is also some indication of the yardage required, although I can't work out which size this relates to.

Pages 2 and 3 - lots of different views

Most of the dresses are fitted but 16,319 is loose-fitting and shaped with a belt. Described as "Blessedly easy to make", I wonder if it was maternity wear in disguise, or just a simple pattern for beginners?

16,319 is on the right, with a sketch of the unbelted version

Some of the descriptions give an idea of the age range the dress is intended for, with phrases such as "young look" and "youthful charm". My particular favourite might not pass advertising standards today: apparently you will "acquire slenderness" in the dress on the left - not just the appearance of slenderness, but the real thing!

Vertical lines make the pounds just drop away!

Meanwhile pattern 15,900 has "ageless charm" and is "particularly becoming to a mature figure".

15,900 is second from the left

An entire double-page spread is devoted to patterns for "Larger Figures". While the models are drawn to look vaguely older, there is not a wrinkle on any of them.

Pages 6 and 7

Most Bestway patterns were available in 32, 34,36, 38 and 40-inch bust sizes, while matrons' patterns were in 36, 38, 40, 44 and 48-inch busts (so if you were a 42 or 46-inch bust, you had to be good at altering patterns). 15,809, described as "for all ages in all sizes" was also available in 32 and 34-inch sizes. Unlike those on earlier pages, none of these patterns come with any collar or sleeve variations.

Patterns in matrons' sizes only

Some of these patterns were also offered in shorter versions. 15,374 was one of them, but for 44-inch bust only. 15,876 and 16,343 were available in 32, 34,36, 38, 40 and 44-inch bust sizes "for figures 4 inches shorter than average". As it is only in this section that shorter patterns are mentioned, this may have been an early attempt at what would eventually become half-sizes.

Patterns with size and height variations

The back page is devoted to separates, and the sole advertisement. Sparva Fabrics was one of the many British textiles firms which closed in the 1970s - at some point I will get round to a blog post about some of them.

Page 8

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Style Pattern Book

I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about Vogue Pattern Book (later renamed Vogue Patterns) magazine, but until recently Style Pattern Book had completely passed me by. Which is odd, really, because in my time using and collecting Style patterns there has been no shortage of hints about its existence.

Pattern envelopes from 1970, 1976, 1978 and 1982

It crops up on instruction sheets, too.

Instruction sheet for Style 2833, 1979

I assume that Style Pattern Book was launched in 1970, as there is no reference to it on a 1969 pattern in my collection. However, the copy I have acquired is the Autumn/Winter 1979/80 issue, so ties in nicely with my interest in all things related to 1979 Style patterns.

Late 1970s Style goodness

Style Pattern Book came out three times a year; Spring, Summer and Autumn/Winter. It cost £0.50 per issue (for context, the 1979 Style pattern I'm currently making up cost £1.35) but a two-year subscription was available for £2 - a saving of £1. This issue consists of 80 pages, plus covers.

Vogue Patterns, as it was called by 1979, came out six times a year. The Autumn 1979 and Winter 1979 issues, which cover the same period as the Style publication, cost £0.75 each and contain 96 and 86 pages respectively. Both issues include a voucher giving the reader 50% off one Vogue pattern of their choice. Vogue patterns at the time cost from £1.10 to £4.95, so if you wanted one from the upper end of the price range, it was worth buying the magazine just for the voucher.

Vogue Patterns, from the same period

A two-year subscription to Vogue Patterns cost £10.75, £1.75 more than 12 issues of the magazine. On the plus side, subscribers also received three 50% off pattern vouchers. Neither the Style subscription nor the magazine itself offered any discounts on patterns.

The biggest difference that I can see between the publications, however, is one of tone. Vogue Patterns is styled very much as a magazine. There are a number of advertisements, many full or double page. Most are sewing-related, but there are also some for hair colour, underwear and, incongruously to modern eyes, cigarettes. There are also articles on dressmaking, and a couple of short non-sewing features. All of the patterns shown, 76 in the Autumn issue and 71 in the Winter issue, are arranged into features and have been photographed on a model especially for the feature.

Vogue Patterns feature on dress patterns

Style Pattern Book is more straightforwardly promotional material, with much less effort and cost involved in its production. It contains far fewer advertisements, all of which relate to dressmaking. The only feature is a two-page spread on fabrics for children's clothes, made up using patterns which appear elsewhere in the issue.

Style Pattern Book feature on autumn fabrics

The layout of the rest of the magazine is similar to a counter catalogue, with a few pages of photographs and then patterns organised into sections.

Large photographs on the first two pages

Contents and cover details, no editorial

Unlike Vogue Patterns, few of the adult photographs seem to have been taken just for the magazine. Most of them appear on the pattern envelope as well. (I don't have enough of the children's and teen patterns to comment on them.)

A page of the magazine, and the matching pattern envelope

A photograph taken just for the magazine?

For a lot of the 93 patterns featured, however, the artwork has obviously just been taken directly from the counter catalogue. From my point of view this is great, as it has provided details of a number of new-to-me 1979 patterns, but I'm struggling to see why many people would pay for information they could get by going into their local fabric shop (far more numerous in those days) and looking at the counter catalogue for free.

Many of the pages look like this

Clearly other people felt the same. By 1982 Style Pattern Book had dropped to two issues a year, and was being heavily promoted on pattern instruction sheets.

Style 3631 instruction sheet, 1982

The prospect of browsing at leisure in the comfort of your home doesn't seem to have been enough to save it, however, as there is no reference to it on this envelope flap from the next year.

Style 4086, 1983

I may not have noticed it at the time, but now that I'm finally aware of its existence, I will definitely be looking out for other issues of Style Pattern Book.