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