Sunday 26 December 2021

Maison Lesage

Merry Christmas to those readers who celebrate! I hope that you're enjoying the holiday weekend and that, in a phrase from my Scottish childhood, 'Santa was good to you'. This week I'm posting about one of my presents from my mum: this book.

Maison Lesage: Haute Couture Embroidery, by Patrick Mauriès

Although I've always described the inspiration for the holly dress as being by Pierre Balmain, its distinguishing feature - the stunning design of berries and frosted leaves - was actually created by the Paris embroidery house Lesage.

Too good not to include yet again

The book tells the story of the firm; from its creation in 1924, through its association with many of the leading couture houses of the twentieth century, to its current position as one of Chanel's Métiers d'Art ateliers. It is extensively illustrated, with pictures of completed garments and many full-page, wonderfully detailed close-up photographs of different embroideries.

Underside of an embroidery sample in progress

Vionnet, 1929

Vionnet, 1938

Schiaparelli, 1939

Balmain, 1956-57

My dream job! Embroiderers in the atelier, 2018

I hadn’t realised just how much of Lesage's work I have come across over the years, without realising it. First up, this 1925 dress by Vionnet, which appears in Patterns of Fashion, volume 2.

Janet Arnold's illustration

The centre front embroidery

I have seen this Schiaparelli coat in the V&A on my many, many visits there.

Schiaparelli evening coat, 1937 (image © Victorian and Albert Museum, London)

Also in the V&A, the Balenciaga exhibition in 2017 included not only clothing but also several samples of embroidery and beading from the Lesage workshop.

Lesage samples for Balenciaga

Beading sample on dip-dyed organza, 1967

The same beading on an evening coat, 1967

Sample for an embroidered silk cocktail dress, 1960

When another example of the embroidered cocktail dress appeared on the Kerry Taylor Auctions Instagram account earlier in the year, not only did I recognise it at once, but I even twigged that the embroidery was slightly different! How nerdy is that?

Close-up of the Kerry Taylor dress

V&A on the left, Kerry Taylor on the right

I've seen numerous Schiaparelli pieces with Lesage embroidery at Kerry Taylor viewings over the years (I'm really hoping that I can attend in person again next year) but sadly, I didn't get to see this one. Possibly my favourite piece of Lesage work - after the holly dress, of course!

Zodiac jacket, 1938-39

And to finish on the holly dress, another present. This was from my friend F, who is an absolute fiend at searching out the perfect vintage gift. These tights would be the ideal match for the dress, and the fact that they are by Pierre Balmain is almost too good to be true!

Holly detail tights to go with my dress!

Sunday 19 December 2021

and . . . All done!

You know what? For once I'm not going to lead into this. I'm just putting it right there, at the top of the post.

Looking ever-so-slightly different

No, there hasn't been a sudden extreme snowfall in my back yard. And also no, I haven't vastly improved my hair and makeup skills in the last few weeks, either. All will be explained shortly.

I actually finished the dress in the very early hours of Monday morning (night owl tendencies right there), almost 36 hours before it was needed. Possibly some sort of record.

Love the glinting sequins in this shot

As ever, I hadn't kept a tally, but I reckon that I spent about 200 hours working on this dress in total. That's a lot of hours for one dress. But it all comes down to why I sew. As I've mentioned several times before on this blog, I don't sew because I need more clothes (although being able to create garments which fit is a huge benefit), I do it because I enjoy sewing. I enjoy creating, I enjoy the tactile qualities of working with cloth and thread and, especially over the last two very trying years, being absorbed in a sewing project does wonders for my mental health. But in order to experience these benefits without ending up with a bulging wardrobe, it's necessary for at least some of my projects to be long and labour-intensive ones.

This is where most of those 200 hours went

In some ways, having the blog makes this more difficult. Because I'm posting every week, it's hard to overcome the feeling that there needs to be a steady stream of shiny new toys to maintain interest, rather than progress reports on the same, long, project. But on the other hand, sewing does take time, and perhaps I should be reflecting that. I'd be interested to hear what readers think - let me know in the comments.

But anyway. A dress which took that long deserves a better record than my usual back-yard-or-indoors-if-wet snaps, and for this I have Ms1940McCall to thank. She regularly works with professional photographers to create stunning pictures of herself wearing her beautiful forties creations and I discovered that one of these photographers, Neil Kendall, is based in Chester.

Now much as I don't like having my photograph taken, when you're a vintage dressmaker and you discover that you live literally a ten-minute walk away from an award-winning vintage photographer well, it seems silly not to take advantage of the situation. In fact, it was Neil's announcement that he was taking booking for shoots on his 'Winter Wonderland' set, complete with hair and makeup by Bethany Jane Davies, that spurred me into finally starting on my version of the holly dress.

I woke up on the morning of the shoot thinking, "What. Have. I. Done?", but I needn't have worried. The whole thing was very relaxed. Although Neil and Bethany frequently work with professional models, they were brilliant at putting a complete novice at ease. Bethany, who has won awards for her Old Hollywood hair and makeup, gave me a look entirely in keeping with the mid-fifties provenance of the dress. While the makeup was definitely not an everyday look, I'll certainly be attempting to recreate the hair. Even a couple of days later, people were telling me they loved the style!

Neil meanwhile is a master of old school lighting to recreate that real vintage feel, and also a master at calming nerves and suggesting poses.

Going for that Picture Post look

Of course, there were some seated shots as well.


Showing the non-leafy side

It was all entirely new to me, totally out of my comfort zone, and huge fun in what has largely been a fun-free year.

Meanwhile, the practicalities. This has brought my number of #UseNine2021 makes to the miserable total of three! Family commitments have limited my sewing time this year, but that's still poor.


I've also only managed to use one of the four fabrics I carried over from last year. The dress actually took 3.5m of the 4.5m remnant, but what's left is too marked and full of weaving faults to be much use, so I'm writing it off, stash-wise.


But - I'm proud of what I achieved with this dress, and I'm thrilled with the pictures, too, so I'll finish with a final one.

Worth all the work

Sunday 12 December 2021


I'm onto the home stretch with the holly dress, and expect to finish it tomorrow. Given that it's needed for Tuesday lunchtime, by most people's standards this would represent cutting it terrifyingly fine. However, as I recently mentioned, by my standards this represents a triumph!

It's beginning to look a lot like - a holly dress

I decided to do the hem before sewing the leaves on, so that if the hem turned out to be really visible, I could hide it with leaves! Up to now, the dress has always been on either me or Nancy with petticoats underneath. But at one point it was on its own, and looked really droopy.

Cue the saddest of sad trombones

Clearly the skirt needs lots of support, so I ordered a second biiiig petticoat from Hell Bunny. The effect is alarmingly reminiscent of the dresses in the original Come Dancing, and the trail of destruction I leave when walking round my workroom in the full get-up is impressive, but it does the job. Almost.


For even more support, I decided to put crin round the hem of the dress. It's not something I've used before, and I don't know if I got it right, but this was my method. First, I marked the fold of the hem in chalk, and basted the crin in place. Because of the curve of the hem, it had to go onto the skirt, not the hem allowance, so I made as small stitches as possible on the right side.

The crin basted in place

Then, I folded the hem allowance over and pinned it to the crin, easing the excess fabric into place. (I had overlocked the raw edge of the hem when I made the dress, to stop it from shedding velvet fluff everywhere.)

Enclosed in the pinned hem

I sewed the hem allowance onto the crin along the top and bottom edges, and then sewed the hem in place, pulling out the basting as I went along. All in all, I sewed round a 3.4 metre hem four times!

The three rows of stitching are just visible

Fortunately, it all worked. The crin adds structure to the bottom of the skirt, and the hem doesn't show at all.

Then it was on to the leaves. I remembered to take Nancy's cover off, so nothing could get pinned to it, and pinned the leaves on by eye. Those on the bodice are quite widely spaced, to allow more room for berries, but on the skirt they are closer together.

The final arrangement

The 'drift' of leaves comes down from the left side of the bodice.

Showing how the leaves extend from the bodice

I used Microsoft 'Paint' to check the effect of red berries - hardly high-tech, but it worked.

The pops of red make such a difference

And then, it was lots and lots and lots more hand sewing, as I attached the leaves. I sewed down the centre vein in black, catching down the black felting wool at the ends to stop it from coming loose, and then sewed down the leaf points in green.

Finally, they were all done.

All the leaves in place

Now I am attaching the berries, which are tiny pom-poms cut from a bobble trim and sewn on individually with red thread. Once those are done, it's just a case of catching down the neck and armhole facings (and cleaning off dislodged wisps of felting wool, of which there are plenty) and I have a dress! Woot!

Berry time - the end is in sight

Sunday 5 December 2021

Vogue patterns from 1928

The good news is that I have made as many leaves as I think I need for the dress. The bad news is that I've decided to make a few more!

It struck me that if any of the leaves get damaged and have to be replaced, the chances of me being able to make something similar after a gap of several weeks or months are slim. So it makes sense to make a few extra now for possible future use - just like the spare buttons you get on clothes. (As an aside, I almost never buy RTW clothing nowadays, so does this even still happen - or is the assumption that if a button comes off, you'll just throw the garment away?)

Anyway, as I am still making leaves, I needed something else to post about. So here is the dressmaking content of one of my earliest copies of Vogue, from May 1928.

Garden parties and summer functions are the theme of this issue

As far as I can tell, even the issues of Vogue which did not have a Pattern Book supplement attached still contained some information about the latest patterns. It makes sense, as according to this book, the patterns formed an important part of Vogue's overall income. In total, five and a half pages were given over to patterns (click on any image to enlarge it).

Styles in lace and chiffon

Flared skirts in taffeta and silk crêpe

It's not totally clear to me what the four pieces of the ensemble are

Sports costume, separates and frocks

Evening and day wear with feature hemlines

Styles for teens

There is also a full page advertisement, listing all the pattern stockists in the UK, as well as South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland. But not, curiously, France. There was a French edition of Vogue at the time, I wonder if it had its own arrangements for patterns?

Details of Vogue's pattern service

Vogue clearly made no secret of the fact that their patterns were more expensive than other brands, but part of the appeal was that the designs followed the very latest fashions. So I compared some of the photographs elsewhere in the issue with the patterns featured.

More young styles, this time in cotton and linen

Hats made from a combination of felt and straw appear to have been popular at the time, several appear in this issue. This look resembles some of the features of the 'four-piece ensembles' above.

Crêpe de chine dress by Tora

Chiffon dress by Martial et Armand

Fashionable uneven hem on this chiffon dress

Straight to the hips and then flared, by Worth

Something which does not appear to have a pattern equivalent is this tulle frock from Chanel. Described as "the successful black dress of the season", apparently, it was "such a favourite that one frequently sees four or five women wearing it at one smart party". The horror!

The 'It' dress of 1928

If some of the finer details of dressmaking were beyond the reader, help was at hand.

All the tricky bits done for you

There are also a couple of advertisements for fabrics.

Washable silks for an active lifestyle

Also washable, but not silk

'Delysia' was an early 'art silk' (i.e. artificial silk, aka synthetic fabric) made by Courtaulds. If, like me, you are a fan of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day then you will know that it's also the name of one of the characters. Although it's a real girl's name, meaning 'delight', it also seems the perfect name for someone who is not quite who she appears to be.

Finally, and nothing at all to do with sewing, I came across this advertisement. Almost 100 years later, it has assumed a new relevance.

Wash your hands for protection