Sunday, 28 November 2021

Holly dress update

It's still all about the leaf-making at Tulip Mansions, but there is some progress to show.

I'll start with how I'm making the second type of leaf design, the ones with the brown and light green highlights. For these, I wanted more control over colour placement than I could get from the variegated green felting wool I used on the first design. So I bought eight individual wools from the many shades available from Molten Designs.

The wools I bought (the conifer shade is less blue in reality)

The centre vein is marked with a thin twist of Lawn, and then the outer side of the curve is covered with a very thin layer of the variegated wool. Over this, I lay strands of Rust, Gooseberry, and Sage, and felt them all in place. (This is based on the original embroidery; in my pictures of the Balmain dress, I couldn't find any leaves with a single curve where the brown embroidery/spangles combination is on the inside of that curve.) The inner side of the curve is covered with Moss, Conifer or Willow wool, or combinations of two or sometimes all three colours, and felted in a more random arrangement. Finally, the centre vein is felted again with a twist of Raven - without the sparkly nylon threads which appear in the first leaves. Once the leaves have been steamed and pressed with the clapper, tiny silver sequins are attached with ordinary sewing thread.

Some of the completed leaves

Once I'd made a reasonable quantity of leaves, I wanted to see what they would look like in situ. So I put the dress on Nancy, and started pinning leaves on more or less at random. One thing which I hadn't considered is that the embroidered leaves frequently overlap one another.

Lots of the embroidered leaves overlap

I think that this would look rather clumsy with the felt leaves. As it is, they look far more solid than the embroidered versions.

Leaves pinned onto the bodice, with gaps for the berries

I sent this picture to my friend F, as a progress report. The dress needs to be complete for 14 December, and having done such sterling work as one half of the Dissertation Police, F has now been reinvented as the Procrastination Police - tasked with ensuring that it is finished rather earlier than 23:59 on 13 December!

F, like me, felt that this degree of leaf coverage over half the skirt, as per the original, would be too much. There is also the small matter of weight to consider. (A big thank you to reader and regular commenter Dos Galgos for pointing this out, I hadn't even thought about weight issues.)

The Balmain original, with its dense foliage

Both F and I came to the conclusion, independently, that some sort of serpentine drift of leaves down the front of the dress and into a pool at the bottom would be a better look. (Also, from a purely practical point of view, it's fewer leaves to make, and less chance of sitting down on a knobbly berry by mistake!)

First attempt at a plan for the skirt

Next to see the progress pictures was Mum, who made another observation that I hadn't considered; namely that the leaves are all much the same size. Again, the overlap of leaves on the original makes the uniformity of leaf size less obvious. Mum suggested that some smaller leaves would add interest.

This was easier said than done, however. The leaves I had made so far are all around 2½" to 3" in a straight line from one vein end to the other. Initially, I tried drawing leaves sized 1½" to 2". These looked fine when drawn on paper, but when I cut them out it was obvious that they would be far too fiddly to make. So I stuck to 2" leaves only. Even then, some of them looked rather scrawny, and had to be fattened out a bit to make useable shapes.

Ideally, the smaller leaves should have thinner central veins to retain the proportions. Making the veins in a layer of green with a layer of black on top didn't really work for that. So instead, I have marked the chalk line with small stitches in soft black basting thread, and only make the veins in black wool.

Thread-marked leaf veins

The black stitching is a bit tricky to find under the felted layers, but it does work. As with the larger leaves, I'm doing the easier blue/green ones first. I haven't added the silver stitching down the centre, yet.

An original leaf flanked by two smaller ones

This dress is, undoubtedly, a long job. But it is being helped, immensely, by all this input from other people. Apart from Mum, I don't know anyone remotely locally who sews. Mr Tulip didn't sew either, but he had picked up enough knowledge over the years to be able to make (mostly!) helpful suggestions, and had a good eye as well, so was often my first port of call. But since he died, I have mainly worked in isolation. I'm really enjoying being a bit more 'out there' with this project.

Sunday, 21 November 2021


Steady progress continues on the holly dress, but on the basis that there's only so many felt holly leaves that anyone wants to see, I needed something else to write about. Fortunately, inspiration came from @bimbleandpimble, who has been hosting #bpSewvember on Instagram this week, including this sewing bingo card.

I got the full set!

Thrifted sewing materials
Because people know that I sew, from time to time I get offered other people's destashes. And when it comes to fabric, I am just a girl who can't say no! On top of that, I've acquired several lengths of vintage fabric as part of mixed auction lots which I bought for something else. Sometimes I even make some of this extra fabric up! My 'going for my jab' outfit is made entirely from fabric cast-offs, while my super-toasty pink Viyella dress is made from an auction acquisition.

Thrifted fabric makes for summer and winter

Sewn at night
I'm a real night owl, and will quite happily work away until about two in the morning if I don't have to get up early the next day.

Someone asked you to make them something
Mostly, I sew for myself these days. In the past, though, I was wardrobe mistress of a Middle Eastern dance troupe, and made a lot of the costumes when we were first setting up.

Apart from Meroe's costume (second left), I made most of this

I also made a 'medieval' (using the word very loosely) costume for a friend's stage performance.

The 'medieval-lite' dress

But the scariest thing I've ever done for someone else was altering a wedding dress. It worked perfectly, and she was really happy with it, but never again. I always maintain that you haven't known terror until you've taken a pair of shears to someone else's dream bridal gown just weeks before the wedding!

Chopping off part of the train to make the sleeves - not scary at all!

Sewn for a full day
I’m lucky enough to be in the position where I can do this if I want to, and quite often I do. Not that this stops a later item on the list from happening, though.

Have a dedicated pair of fabric scissors
Of course! And one of the big advantages of being left-handed is that, so long as you don't have any other lefties in the house, they are safe from abuse.

I never have to worry about this!

Won thread chicken
Is there anything more satisfying to a sewist? The last time I did it, with the blue of the two-tone Vogue dress, I was so thrilled that I nearly took a photo of the tiny length of thread left on the bobbin (and yes, thank you, I do know this is very sad).

Met an online sewing friend in person
OK, this one was accidental. But going round the Jazz Age exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum was greatly enhanced by unexpectedly meeting Cate of Vintage Gal on the way in.

Currently have a work in progress
It's rare when I don't have a work in progress, the current one being the holly dress. I know I said I wouldn't post any more leaf pictures this week, but here's a sneak peek of the second leaf design.

The leaves with rust and light green accents, and spangles

Cut out on the floor
I'm very fortunate to not only have a dedicated sewing space, but for it to be big enough to take a large cutting out table. But some things are just too big, even for that. Circle skirts for dancing are a case in point - a full length circular skirt, cut as two semi-circular parts, has massive pattern pieces.

Circle skirts - a lot of fabric (and hemming)

There's also my habit of attempting to make things from far less fabric than the pattern calls for. Sometimes, you do have to lay out all the pattern pieces and check everything will fit before you can take scissors to cloth, and on the floor is the only way to do this.

Worked on an event outfit up to the day of the event
More often than I care to admit! Finishing 45 minutes before I needed to leave the house has been my record - so far.

The 'Vegas Night' dress is the current record holder

Mind you, Mum recently confessed that once she was still sewing buttons on a coat minutes before she had to go out in it to catch a train, so it appears to run in the family.

Declared "I could make this" in a store
Well, I only declared it to myself, as I was on my own at the time, but the pom-pom skirt definitely falls into this category.

The skirt in question

Injured self while sewing
Is there anyone who sews a lot who couldn't tick this particular box? Pins, needles, scissors, rotary cutters (and now, felting needles) - sewing is full of sharp and/or pointy things; and I have had mishaps with all of them. And irons.

This seems a good time to remind readers why you should never hold a pin between your teeth.

Which also brings me on to my most embarrassing injury ever. I can't remember what I was sewing, but I couldn't get the needle through the fabric. So I held the needle between my teeth and pulled - and a large chunk of one of my front teeth came out! Fortunately, my dentist was able to fill it seamlessly, but the look on her face as I answered the question, "How did it happen?" was enough to ensure that I never did it again.

Luckily for me, you can't see the join

I now keep a small pair of pliers in my workbox - just in case.

How many of these could other people tick? Enquiring minds need to know!

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Making the leaves

I've been making felt holly leaves this week. Not as many as I would like, as I haven't had a lot of free time, but I am getting faster as I refine the process.

For now, I am just making the plain blue-grey leaves, I'm leaving the more complex style with rust and light green highlights and spangles until I have more experience.

Sticking to the green and silver leaves for now

I started off with two lots of merino felting wool from Molten Designs - black blended with sparkly nylon threads, and a variegated green.

The raw materials

The green is lengths of different coloured wools stranded together.

Cross-section of the green wool, and more accurate colours

I have no idea if the method I'm using to make the leaves is in any way correct, but it works for me. First, I lay one of my leaf patterns onto the plain green felt.

The patterns are taken from the drawing on the toile

Then, holding it in place in the centre and lifting each end one at a time, I mark the central vein line in chalk.

The vein marked in chalk pencil . . .

I twist strands of the pale green wool together with my fingers to make a very loose yarn, and use a single felting needle to secure this over the chalk line. This gives me a marker to work from.

. . . and then felted

Then, I tease out strands of the other greens, and lay them over the felt. I found this duck-egg blue felting wool in my local fabric shop, it's ideal for adding that cooler tinge to the green.

Ready to build up the leaf

Laying out the wool fibres . . .

I use the paper pattern to check that the entire shape is covered.

. . . and checking coverage

And then I felt in the fibres using a felting 'pen', which contains three felting needles.

Partway through felting, and the pen

I continue adding wool until I'm happy with the end result. Then I make another twist, this time from the black wool, and felt it over the green 'yarn' at the centre of the leaf. The embroidered leaves do not have a central vein, but the direction of the stitches creates a similar effect. I found that the black has to be added last, as it gets lost under the other felting otherwise.

Felting complete

I pin the pattern back on, and cut round the shape using my curved blade scissors (possibly the hardest-working tool in my workbox, they were vital for both my Autumn Roses hat and my lace-trimmed slip).

Ready to cut out

The silver stitching along the centre line is done in metallic stranded thread from DMC.

Adding the metallic thread

There's a lot of bits of wool fleece involved, and I've taken to wearing my hatting apron, so that my clothes don't get covered in fluff. To bed in any loose fibres on the leaf, the final step is to steam it and press it with my tailor's clapper.

As is obvious from the pictures above, at first I only had a big enough felting surface to make one leaf at a time. Which was OK, but slow. But then I bought a felting mat from The Crafty Kit Company, and moved to mass (well, six at a time) production.

My felting mat - I actually work with a sheet of felt over it

I had found the sparkly black wool quite tricky to work with, as the nylon threads were difficult to felt. So, I bought some plain black from Molten Designs and blended it with the original, and the increased wool content fixed the problem.

Now with slightly less sparkly veins

Six leaves made at once, just waiting for silver thread

Combined with a red pompom berry, I think the end result works quite well.

Completed leaves

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Trimming the dress

I've posted before about the double-edged sword that is being able to sew; namely that it gives you Ideas, some of which are brighter than others.

For example, most people would look at a densely embroidered vintage couture dress and think, "It's beautiful, but a) it's tiny and b) it costs a fortune", and leave it at that. I thought, "It’s beautiful, tiny and very expensive - but I wonder if I could make something along the same lines?" And so it goes.

Which is why it's time to reveal the purpose of the black velvet dress - six years after I first saw it, I'm finally having a go at making my version of the Pierre Balmain holly dress. This is probably my most ambitious/daftest (delete as appropriate) project yet.

This may not be a good idea! Image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

By dint of piecing together various close-ups from the original Kerry Taylor Auctions listing (yes, I had kept all images for reference, just in case) I worked out that there are approximately 200 berries on the dress and 300 leaves, all hand-embroidered by Maison Lesage. Unusually for a couture dress, it doesn't appear to have been lined, so it's possible to see the wrong side of the embroidery, and the stitching holding the red velvet berries in place.

Interior view, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

My version will have rather fewer berries and leaves, and they won't be hand-embroidered (I may be wildly over-ambitious, but I'm not that wildly over-ambitious). The berries will be made from some bobble trim which I bought for this purpose from Barnett Lawson's old London shop years ago, and have dismantled to leave just the red bobbles on a single cord.

Stored on card to stop it from tangling

After considering various options, I decided to make the leaves out of felt. However, just leaf shapes cut from plain felt would look too much like Fuzzy Felt Christmas, so I am going to needle-felt the leaves with other colours to add some depth.

First, I needed to get an idea of the leaf size. Working from this image of the bodice, which also appears on the back of the printed catalogue, I drew leaves freehand onto my toile using a Frixion pen. This meant that I could iron out any bits I wasn't happy with, and try again.

Bodice front, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

I roughly copied the original's layout of approximately six leaves between waist and neckline. The resulting leaves were bigger than I expected.

Drawing (and removing) the design

It took 33 leaves to cover the front of the bodice toile. I traced them all off onto tissue paper, and will re-use the shapes over the dress. Using a leaf pattern as a guide, I needle-felted some green wool rovings into black felt. Then I pinned the tissue pattern onto the embellished felt, and cut it out.

The needle-felted felt

The leaf cut out

I wasn't sure whether to use green or black felt as the base, so I tried both, and pinned examples onto the faulty back piece which I cut out originally. Green gives a sharper line, but think that I may include some black, to add variation to the design.

Two black felt leaves, and a green felt one in the middle

This close-up of the embroidery shows that there are two different styles of leaf. One is all sewn all the same green thread with a blue-grey tinge, with a dull metallic thread added near the centre. The other style is sewn in what, in some lights, appears to be a slightly warmer green, and on one side of the leaves there are stitches in light green and rust, and tiny spangles.

Embroidery close-up, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

I have been experimenting with different colours of wool roving added to the green, and also metallic threads and shredded sari waste. I don't feel the need to stick rigidly to the Lesage colour scheme, but I do think it's a useful reminder that I don't need a huge range of variations. I've still to decide on the amount of embroidery to add, and how to attach the leaves to the dress. So, lots to think about!

Leafy experiments