Posted in fabrics, Style, Stylish Travel

In praise of luxurious fabrics: Alpaca

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My favourite shot of our tour up into the Andes. All the places alpacas love!

What’s in your closet? In terms of fabrics, I mean. Do you have more natural fibres represented, or are you a synthetics lover? Do you even know the precise fabric content of every piece of clothing? If you fabricate your own clothes, do you always ask about the fibre content if it isn’t clearly indicated on the bolt? I’ve always been interested in fabrics and never buy a piece of clothing without checking the label. Of course, one reason to check is to see how to care for it. Dry clean only? Hand wash? Machine wash and dry? It makes quite a difference. But for me there’s much more to it than that.

When it comes to sewing my own clothes, I am always working at improving my ability to figure out which fabrics work well with which designs. Does it drape? Wrinkle? Stretch? Should it drape, wrinkle or stretch? But there’s another important factor: I’m interested in how a fabric feels next to my skin; this has always been important to me, but even more so as I get older. From a style perspective, feeling good in one’s clothes is almost as important as a flattering colour or a perfect fit in my view. When I’m uncomfortable, I fidget with my clothes, and I wager that you do, too. That’s why when I have an opportunity to examine a new-to-me kind of fabric, I’m there: feeling, scrunching, gently pulling. You know, just what you do.

It’s not that long ago that learned about cupro (I know, I’m late to the party), and most recently I made it a point to learn about alpaca. My husband and I have just returned home from a trip that took us through the Panama Canal and down the west coast of South America, spending a week or more in Peru and ending up with eight days in Chile. Before we left, I had already done some research on alpaca because I knew that in all the world, Peru is the hot-spot for alpaca fibre and clothing.

For years I have coveted alpaca outerwear…

[A Max Mara alpaca coat on the left; a Sentaler – a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge – on the right]

The drape and softness of alpaca and alpaca-blend fabrics make for some of the most luxurious coats on the planet as far as I’m concerned. And there’s that warmth-without-weight that is so welcome in those cold Toronto winters.

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A close-up of a Robert Allen blend of 80% alpaca and 20% wool

In the case of fabrics for coats, alpaca is almost always blended with virgin wool (100% alpaca fabric is very expensive – see below!). Where I’ve often seen 100% alpaca is in knitwear, and when we headed to Peru, it was knitwear that was on my mind. I wasn’t disappointed.

While we were in Lima, we had the pleasure of having a private guide (if you want to read about our experience more fully, you can click here and you’ll find yourself smack in the middle of the travel blog I keep with my husband). One of the great advantages of private guides is that the tour you get is a bespoke one based on your interests and desires. One of my desires was to see if I could find an alpaca scarf and/or sweater in a high-end shop. The reason I stipulated high-end is that there is alpaca of a wide variety of qualities on offer in Peru. You can buy a sweater from a kiosk on the street (or the cruise ship pier) where, at best, you might find a design that will forever remind you of your Peruvian adventure (while you scratch yourself vigorously), or you can plan to pay more and find a baby alpaca sweater, hat or scarf that is a dream to wear forever. I am firmly in the latter camp.

Anyway, on that day in Lima, our guide deposited us at the end of the day at Kuna, one of best known alpaca purveyors in Peru, Chile and beyond – they have an online shop that I had spent some time perusing long before I ended up in Lima. That day, however, as nice as the shop was, I didn’t find the right piece in the right size.

I did find a wonderful baby alpaca scarf (60% baby alpaca, 30% pima cotton, 10% nylon), though, at a converted mansion filled to the brim with artisanal, hand-woven baby alpaca among many other beautiful things.

 

But we still had almost two weeks in Peru and Chile and I knew there would be other opportunities. Then I found myself in Arequipa.

Some 7700 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains, Arequipa is a city that you can reach only after a two-hour drive inland from the coast through the Atacama Desert. Our first stop was Sol Mundo.

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We visited a few alpacas and lamas, the origin of the fibres, then we learned about the sorting and combing process. Like sheep, alpacas are sheared yearly and their wool obviously replenishes itself – a renewable resource if ever there was one! Baby alpaca wool is the finest of all, so soft to the touch.

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Here I am feeling the raw alpaca wool! So soft…

 

Then we found ourselves in their shop. What a beautiful feeling to be surrounded by garments crafted of some of the finest alpaca wool in the world. I was on the hunt for a cardigan (I know, that makes me sound old, but cardigans are the next best thing to soft, tailored jackets. Just ask Chanel!).

I was trying on my usual plain black and navy in the midst of a riot of colours when my husband, one of the best shopping companions in the world – I think I could make a lot of money pimping him out as a shopping companion/consultant – beckoned my over to the opposite side of the shop. He had found what he thought was the perfect compromise for me – a compromise between my penchant for plain neutrals and the riotous colours on offer. He was right.

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Fabricated of the softest baby alpaca, the sweater displayed muted shades of grey and black in a print reminiscent of the sweater’s Andean provenance. The fact that it has interesting design details, too, was cause for celebration. There were details of grey, felted baby alpaca down the front button placket, in triangles on the cuffs and as elbow patches. We had a winner! And they threw in a hand-crafted baby alpaca scarf in my choice of colours – of course I chose neutral beige!

I won’t lie: I’m still hankering to find some lengths of alpaca or alpaca-blend fabric to make a coat. Yes, there are online places I can get it (Mood offers a 100% alpaca coating for $99.99 a yard! Also a 65% wool and 35% alpaca blend for $35.00 a yard). But that’s a project for next year. This winter I’m gong to try to take apart my husband’s old tuxedo and refashion it for me. Yeah, really.

Sol Alpaca: https://www.solalpaca.com/store/

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Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket

Finishing my Little French Jacket: Making it my own with buttons and pockets

The day has finally arrived…I have finished my third Little French Jacket and I am now excited to find places to wear it!

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Oh how I loved the alpacas…and their wool! More about that in an upcoming post.

We just returned from a wonderful four-week vacation that saw us taking a ship through the Panama Canal and spending a few weeks tooling along the west coast of South America, spending a week in Peru and just over a week in Chile. That meant that I had to put my couture sewing work on hold for a while, but there are two very good outcomes from this. First, I am very excited to have returned and to see my LFJ with fresh eyes. In addition, I learned all about alpaca wool fabric and sweaters so will share that insight eventually. But now, here’s how I finished that jacket.

When last I posted, I had finished the sleeves along with their trim and hand-finished the silk charmeuse lining. What is left at this stage is the really creative, fun part: making it my own with buttons and pockets.

I ordered a selection of buttons from China (perhaps not the best idea I’ve ever had) but the quality was not exactly as I might have hoped. However, they’ll be great for smaller projects. They were also very late arriving so in my impatience, I headed down to Queen Street West here in Toronto to a favourite spot for button selection (Neveren’s Sewing Supplies) and spent a bit of quality time rummaging through hundreds of styles. I came home with another selection then set about determining the look I was going for.

In the end, I decided that the buttons should make a subtle statement reflecting the gold chain that I would be stitching along the hem line in due course.

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But first, I have to tell you about the debacle of the buttonholes.

Way back at the beginning of this process I made a decision to go with hand-worked buttonholes, a process that I would have to learn since I’ve never done them before. Well, that didn’t work out so well, so I did some tests of machine buttonholes on the fabric and lining and was satisfied. However, when the time came to actually complete those buttonholes, I realized that I had not taken into consideration the bulk of the seam allowance when I did those samples. It simply was not going to work. I was now in a real pickle. It was too late to do the faux-welts on the interior, the technique that Claire Schaeffer recommends in both this pattern (Vogue 8804) Vogue 8804 pattern frontand in her book, so what to do? I was left only one choice: doing hand-worked buttonholes through both the fabric and lining, an approach that you do, indeed sometimes see in couture garments, but that when done by an amateur can look dreadful. I would have to spend some time learning. So, I made up some samples and start the process. It took me two weeks.

According to the Yorkshire Tailor whose video I shared in an earlier post, you have to do about 30 such buttonholes before you get it right. He has a point. For the first six that I did (using waxed button twist) I made a variety of mistakes. On each occasion I corrected that mistake for the next one until I finally thought I had corrected them all. After about a dozen samples, I decided they were all right so I started with the sleeves. They were okay, but not terrific. The truth is, however, that the thread matches so well that you can hardly see the buttonholes at all anyway. Then it was on to the front.

I took a deep breath and began. The scary part is after the initial preparation of the spot by hand-basting around it to ensure stability while sewing when you have to cut the hole open. At that point there is no going back. It’s not like machine button holes where you cut them after they’re completed. No, these ones have to be cut before you begin since the whole point of them is that the edges are completely covered by the stitches thereby avoiding any of those little strings that can be such a problem in machine buttonholes.

When they were finally completed, I sighed a big sigh of relief and sewed on the buttons. I was not 100% happy with them, but 80% was going to have to do for this first attempt. I’ll do them again on another project and look for perfection. When that was done, it was time to place the four pockets.

Some patterns suggest that you do this before the buttons are in place. I figured that if I did it that way I would run the risk of the pockets looking too crowded with the buttons. This way I could actually see the finished product.

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So, I pinned them in place then hand-sewed them to the jacket using double-stranded silk thread for a bit of stability. The final step, of course, is the hem-line chain, a feature of Chanel’s jackets.

Originally inserted as a practical way of weighing down the jacket edges, the chain is now really more of a style statement. However, in the case of this jacket, the extra weight will be welcome. I sew the chain on using short lengths of doubled silk tread with one stitch in each link. These stitches, when done properly, are hidden under the link. I use short lengths in case the chain ever comes loose (which it has done in one of my previous jackets). The short lengths mean that it will only come away for a short distance to be fixed.

The chain is completed, so that can only mean one thing: I finally have a jacket!