It’s the dog days of summer here in Toronto. The humidity is high and the temperatures soaring. I’ve just returned from a two-week road trip to the east coast where it was cooler for at least part of the trip. It was a great trip, but now it’s back to writing (a new book is underway) and designing. In the meantime, I’ve just finished a few pieces that once again forced me to move from a commercial pattern to a personal design. It all started – as it does – with a sketch, and a piece of fabric.
I really like the look of knit tops that have some kind of waist definition – it elevates them just a bit, n’est-ce pas? So, I started toying with the idea of a belted T, but let’s face it, who wants a belt around the waist in the height of summer on what is supposed to be a comfortable piece of clothing? And there are lots of design alternatives.
There are half belt ties. There are darts (but not so much in knits). There is side-seam and centre-back-seam waist shaping. Then there are faux ties. This idea I like.
So, I made a sketch of a top that would not require a constricting belt, but would still provide some kind of drape and definition at the waist…
…and contemplated the fabric I had picked up. The fabric is cotton jersey with a foil design, so it occurred to me that it could be a bit dressy. Then when I happened upon Butterick’s pattern #6628 and saw the rendering of it’s view A, I thought I could skip the pattern design part of my process and move right on to cutting and sewing. Well, not so fast.
First, though, I didn’t love the neckline, so that would have to change. I widened it slightly and went ahead with the pattern pretty much as is. The outcome was okay, but it didn’t have the kind of sleek style I love. Those sleeves were a bit annoying, but at least since they aren’t full-length, they don’t drag in your dinner! The real problem, however, is the drape of the fabric. It doesn’t have much.
But it is comfortable for summer wear and it does fit.
So, I reworked the pattern, made a trip down to Queen Street West here in Toronto and picked up a piece of bamboo jersey with more drape and a lovely hand. I’ve written about bamboo fabric before, so if you’ve been reading along, you know that I prefer higher-quality fabrics and a luxurious feel. This piece of bamboo has it all.
Then I went back to my original sketch and created a new pattern that is very similar to the Butterick design, but has a wider neckline and sleek sleeves. As I usually do with this kind of fabric, I cut it out single-layer, and it came together nicely.
Bamboo is a wonderful breathable fabric, and I wore this with white jeans out to dinner while we were away. (For the life of me I cannot understand why I didn’t ask my husband to take a photo of me wearing it, but that will have to wait. Trust me it fits really well!).
As much as I hate to admit it, the time for thinking about a fall collection is upon me and as I get back to recording my escapades, I’ll be sharing my design inspiration in the next week or two. *Sigh* summer will come to an end soon – but let’s not wish it away just yet (here in the northern hemisphere!).
There was a time in my creative life when I always, ALWAYS began any project with a design. In the beginning (all those years ago in home ec sewing classes) that always meant a commercial pattern. I’d go to the fabric store and sit for what seemed like hours pouring over those gargantuan catalogues. (I have not looked in a pattern book for about 20 years: if I want a commercial pattern, I’d rather let my fingers do the clicking online.) And it does have to be said that there was a lot to like back then.
I’d select my pattern number, search for it and my size in the big drawer, then, and only then, would I head toward the bolts of fabric to select something appropriate. (There was so much crimplene, woven cotton and corduroy!) I loved the process of finding just the right piece so that, even though I hadn’t actually designed the piece from scratch, there would be enough of me in it to call it an original: the colour, the drape, the way the contrasting colours were applied. But I never once, at least as far as I can remember, ever started just with a piece of fabric. Times have changed.
These days, I do occasionally find a piece of fabric that I know I just must do something with. But in all honesty, I still find that I do have a picture in my head of what it will be, even if that picture changes as I move through the project. I never, NEVER buy fabric without any idea of what I’ll do with it. I do not hoard or in any other way stash fabric. Oh, there goes my rant again.
So, back to my fabric selection for my cruise wear. Last time we talked, I was showing you my inspiration board. That inspiration board is leading me to the actual designs and to the fabric choices.
My “muses” for the collection
What comes to mind when you think about Jackie O. or Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean?
For me, they conjure up visions of airy cottons, pristine white T’s, striped French-sailor jerseys and big sunglasses. They make me think about sun, sand (okay, it’s hard to call it sand on the beaches of Cannes and Nice, more like pebbles), yachts, the ocean and cold glasses of Sancerre.
This is my inspiration…my stepping off point…my stimulus. The rest of the elements, however, really happen organically. Colours, textures, line…all of these come together not in a linear way; rather they feed into one another.
A cruise collection colour scheme
If I am being quite honest about my sartorial choices in general, I have to tell you that I live in a limited colour palette. I love neutrals: grey, black, white, taupe. But I do have a bit of colour: red, fuchsia, burgundy, occasionally blue. And that’s about it. These are the colours that flatter me and the colours that I think look best in the kind of tailored style that has been my hallmark for decades. I also eschew prints for the most part. I find wild prints distract from the clean lines I prefer and to tell you the truth, I usually look like I’m wearing upholstery when I try on any kind of print. Oh, I do love to see prints on others – especially ones with a dark background, but they’re not for me. It’s who I am. That being said, perhaps there might be room for a bit of whimsy in my wardrobe? Who am I kidding?
A colour scheme for a cruise collection, though begs for a reflection of sun, sky and water. So, for this collection I’m drawn to blues, greys, white and a bit of black, of course. Because, who can go on a cruise without a little black dress? Hmm?
So, I need a bit of texture, do I?
Any fashion designer will tell you that collections need texture. When I buy ready-to-wear, I don’t really think about texture in that way. How I think of it is how it feels on my skin. And I do think that this kind of feeling is very important. But what about how texture looks? How it enhances the style lines of a design making aspects of it stand out? I have had to think about texture in a different way when creating pieces rather than simply buying them.
I found these wonderful photos of sand textures and was immediately drawn to them…then to the Egyptian-motif print (Yikes a print!) with the texture.
I think I can embrace this black on white print because of its simplicity, although I see it more as a partner piece rather than a complete outfit on its own. And then what about that striped seersucker?
It has texture, print (my kind of print, anyway) and to its credit, is a natural fabric – the best choice for a Caribbean cruise in my view.
Style lines that inspire
So what kind of lines will there be in this collection? Palm trees that sway in the gentle island breeze provide my mind’s eye with both a visual and a feeling. I’d like to capture that in both fabric and in design. But flowy dresses don’t suit me personally (I don’t think I’ve worn a full skirt since I was 11 years old), so even though it might be fun to design a flowy sundress, I’ll pass on that because I’d never wear it. I’ll just have to find a way to capture this feeling with cleaner lines.
Basic design decisions
I’ve decided that the collection will have two foci: one of them will be a day dress of sorts that will be the centre-piece of the daytime wardrobe. A little black cocktail dress will anchor the evening grouping. So, I started a bit of sketching and contemplation of which fabrics go with which designs.
Prepping my fabric
Most of the fabrics I am choosing for this collection are easy care, easy packing. I prepped the materials as I always do by using my 4X4-inch template to cut swatches and throw them in the washing machine.
I then measure them against the template after coming out of the machine and then again measure and examine them after the dryer. That’s when I decide how to prep the whole fabric piece. The black fabric for the cocktail dress which will be the centre of the evening wardrobe is washable, but I’ll plan to line it so, in the end, it will not be a washable dress.
Now that my fabric is prepped and I’ve given some preliminary thought to the design of some pieces, it’s time to get to work tweaking drawings and making patterns.
A few years ago, my husband and I were on a kick to figure out what the concept of “luxury” means to people these days, and by extension, what it means when we say something is “luxurious.” We were sailing on one of those all-suite, 6-star, “luxury” cruise ships with a group of people who would, by all accounts, have more than a passing acquaintance with luxury. So, one evening while all dolled up for a formal evening, with all manner of creative tuxedo and evening gown dressing on display, while sipping cocktails at one of the chi-chi bars on board, we posed the question to the group. “What does luxury mean to you?” The answers were perhaps not what one might expect – although on deeper reflection, they are precisely what one ought to have expected.
One of the evening gown-clad women took a sip of her champagne and thought about this for a moment. They were all taking this turn in the conversation seriously. “Well,” she said finally, “Having someone make my bed with fresh sheets every day would be so luxurious.” Interesting. I guess we thought they might think about cars or first-class air travel…but I’ll get back to those in a minute.
The second woman said this: “It would be such a luxury if I had someone to wash my hair for me. I love that feeling,” she said. And I thought to myself, she’s right. What feels better than that massaging shampoo at the hairdresser? I was beginning to see a trend in their answers to the question.
It seems that in the twenty-first century, luxury is, at least in part, based on how something makes you feel. And I suppose that the fabulous car or first-class air travel isn’t luxurious in and of itself. It is only luxurious because of how it makes you feel. Then I thought, that’s exactly how I define luxurious fabrics. They are fabrics that have a kind of sensuous feel that make you feel divine when you wear them. When I wrote about alpaca before, I may not have articulated this in precisely this way, but it’s underlying all of my sentiment about alpaca, cashmere, silk…and now bamboo.
I bought a couple of T-shirts in the past few years from a company called LNBF (Leave Nothing But Footprints), a Canadian design group that bases its design philosophy on sustainable, natural, environmentally-friendly fabrics. It was the first time I had worn bamboo which is one of their mainstays. Well, sustainable it may be, and natural mostly, but environmentally-friendly? That’s actually debatable depending on the processes used to create it, but I’m going to focus on the fact that, in my view, it deserves to be in the category of luxurious fabrics, not based on its cost, but on how it makes you (me) feel. But it is worth considering its environmental footprint.
As Yvette Hymann, writing on the blog Good on You wrote back in 2016, bamboo is having its moment, and that moment seems to have legs since people are still embracing it in 2018. But there are questions about it. She says the following:
…there are a few things to consider…although bamboo is fast growing and requires no pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it is being grown sustainably. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there is no information regarding how intensively bamboo is being harvested, or what sort of land clearing might be underway in order to make way for the bamboo. Also, although bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, there is no guarantee that they are not being used to maximise outputs… 
Bamboo fibres that are woven or knit into fabrics that we use to make our luxurious T-shirts, are almost always “rayon” which is categorized as a semi-synthetic fibre. It would be extremely rare for the bamboo fabric you have to be created from a mechanical process, so you know it’s been chemically processed. When the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did a bit of an exposé on bamboo-clothing manufacturers’ claims a few years ago, they found that,
“…Bamboo is soaked in sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, and carbon disulfide and turned into a mush from which fibres are extracted. A diluted sulfuric acid solution is used in that part of the process.”
The truth is that there is hardly a fabric around today that doesn’t have some kind of environmental baggage. That goes for natural fibres such as cotton and silk, as well as manufactured fibres that are often oil-based – such as polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic and olefin. Once we have that figured out and we at least understand that apart from going naked, we might simply consider the sheer volume of clothing we make and own – and the amount of fabric sewers hoard. I have to be honest, though, I am not among those hoarders, so I’ve take a step.
Now that all that is off my chest, can I tell you how luxurious I find knit bamboo jersey to be? It is comfortable – oh so comfortable – it breathes and it just feels so sumptuous against the skin.
[Pattern envelope and drawings from McCall’s site]
When I found Butterick 6517, I knew I had a contender for the two yards of pin-striped grey bamboo I found on Queens St. West in Toronto on my last fabric hunt. I love the wrap styling of this top because it’s so flattering when it fits well.
I found that I had to cut it out single-layer to ensure stability and avoid stretching it. It’s a small price to pay for a good fit in the end. I did find that the wrap over was a bit droopy, but since I’m a baster, I basted the front seams before finalizing them and was able to perfect the fit. I also find these days that what some of the pattern designers are calling ¾ sleeves are, in fact, bracelet length. I am 5 feet 7 inches tall with normal length arms and I find their ¾ length dowdy. So, I shorten them on every occasion – unless I really do want bracelet length (which is rare).
I did the seam finishing with my serger (the piece of equipment I vowed I’d never use – I really do have to tell you about this long-standing prejudice of mine which has all but evaporated recently) and did some top-stitching. Then, voila! I have a top that I’d love to wear but the summer here in Toronto has been so stifling, it will have to wait until the fall!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.