Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

The Perfect Shirt: Why it isn’t a blouse

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

The good news: today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The bad news: covid-19. The less said about the latter the better. So, I’m moving toward my holy grail: the perfect shirt. I have the perfect fabric and I’ve created a pattern for a shirt that fits me perfectly. What more could I want? Isn’t it time to make that final shirt? Not quite. I have one more avenue of research to pursue. I’m making one final test shirt with the pattern edited to accommodate a finer, drapier, dare I say blousier fabric. This is in case I think my first-pass perfection isn’t quite perfect. So, is it still a shirt?

I need to back up in my research a bit. What are the characteristics of a shirt that makes it a shirt? The word shirt is used as a catch-all to describe any kind of garment one wears on top. However, this isn’t precise enough. A T-shirt, while being a kind of shirt, isn’t really a shirt. It’s, well, a T-shirt. A halter top can be described generically as a shirt, but it’s, well, a halter-top!

So back to my definition of the perfect “shirt.”

My first test shirt reviewed.
  • First, there is the design. Shirts, by definition, have a crisp, tailored style with buttons down the front. They have collars, although the style of the collar can vary. They are traditionally closely tailored (which as far as I’m concerned is a characteristic of a “perfect” shirt) but they can also be over-sized. I have room in my wardrobe for these over-sized shirts, but they’re not “perfect” shirts for me.
  • Second, there is the fabric as I discussed previously. In general terms, “shirts” are made from woven fabrics. That being said, we now find shirts made from stable knits. These are garments that are shaped like what we know as a shirt, but the fabric stretches. They’re often a bit like a hybrid between a T-shirt and a shirt.

What, then is a blouse? A blouse is a type of upper-body garment that can be rendered in a variety of styles (even styled like a shirt) but is fabricated from a softer, drapier fabric that is more forgiving to the body. It has the added characteristic of being able to “blouse” over a waistline if you choose to wear it like that. In fact, the dictionary defines a blouse as a “loose-fitting garment resembling a shirt that is usually worn by women…”

Before I settle on a final design for the pattern, I need to make a few edits and create one final test. Here are the changes I make to the pattern to turn it into more of a blouse:

  • I omit the waist darts. Taking these out is taking a chance. However, I’ll mark them and put them in at the time of the final fitting if it doesn’t work.
  • I manipulate the yoke out and into shoulder darts. Yokes scream “shirt” and are a men’s design detail that one generally does not find in a blouse that doesn’t need that extra support (unless it’s used as a design feature).
  • I should probably lengthen it an inch or two but in the end, decide to leave the length as is.

I also need different fabric. I fell I love with a gauzy cotton embroidered with turtles. Yes, turtles! I rarely wear patterns of any kind – they are so not me – but this one looked like it could make a cool, airy summer blouse/shirt.

So, I ordered it, washed and dried it (after doing a 4-inch square test piece), ironed it and laid it out. I even decided to ensure that there is one turtle at the to of each sleeve placket. Cute, no?

Without a yoke or waist darts, the sewing is quick and easy. I finish it in no time. There is just one problem. I have two sets of buttons I could use but neither one really does it for me.

neither of these buttons is really right.

So, I decide we should take a nice spring walk downtown to the fabric district where my favourite button store is located. There is only one problem: everything is closed. Can you say covid-19?

Oh well, I’m not going to be wearing it any time soon, so I’ll wait rather than using second best.

If you look closely, you can see that I’m wearing it with pins! Buttons to come.

My conclusion is that I now have a great pattern for a silk blouse but I’m going to stick with the yoke for the final perfect shirt – and probably the waist darts. I can’t wait to get to the final shirt. I just love the fabric!

Posted in fabrics, sewing, Shirt-making

The Perfect Fabric for the Perfect Shirt (the “perfect shirt” project continues)

What is the perfect fabric for the perfect shirt? That is the question. Late last year when I was searching for the perfect fabric for my husband’s shirt, the answer was “expensive”! I think my hand shook when I cut into that $80-a-metre Italian cotton shirting fabric that he had chosen for his perfect shirt. But, I wonder, is it possible to find the perfect fabric for my perfect shirt without breaking the bank? Yes, I believe it is.

Let’s start at the beginning. One of the things that makes a shirt a shirt (and not a T-shirt, sweater or blouse for example) is the kind of fabric it’s made from. When I think of men’s shirts, my mind goes immediately to plain, striped and checked cottons…

Propercloth.com sells beautiful and very expensive shirtings. Can you see the $145-a-yard pricing?

…but these days even men’s shirt-makers are branching out into wilder territory. Have you seen Robert Graham or Ted Baker shirts lately?

Then there’s the actual type of fabric. The web site Real Men Real Style is a great reference for shirting weaves. There are Oxford, poplin, twill, broadcloth and end-on-end the main (read about it here) – all 100% cotton and then there are the more modern blends of cotton with polyester (not as nice but fewer wrinkles) and cotton with a hint of stretch which sounds so much nicer. There is even linen.

Of course, shirts can also be made of flannel (no, everyone in Canada does not wear flannel shirts. My husband wouldn’t be caught dead in one).

[Bob & Doug MacKenzie aka Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas of Second City comedy fame notwithstanding, most Canadians do not wear flannel shirts!}

The theme throughout is that shirts are made from woven fabrics that have some body and a stiffer hand than, say, silk charmeuse. This crispness is part of what makes a shirt, well, a shirt. Even a woman’s shirt that is shaped and curved should have a degree of crispness or veers into blouse territory! So where does that leave me?

One of the things I don’t like about online fabric shopping is the lack of the touch factor. I’ve ordered several shirting pieces online but doing so doesn’t really let me feel the fabric. A great cotton shirting should feel silky to the touch and is probably going to set me back more than $15 a metre. In fact, I see lots of shirt fabrics online for well over $100 a metre as you can see above. I’m not going that high for this project.

I could take a walk downtown to Queen Street West here in Toronto, home to my favourite independent fabric stores, but that’s usually a walking destination for better weather (but before tourist season. God help me if I find myself on Queen West at the height of tourist season in the summer!). Lucky for me though, I’ve just returned from a winter getaway in Florida.

Before we left on this holiday, I did a little bit of online research and found that there was an interesting fabric store in Sarasota that just happened to be on the route we would be taking from Naples to downtown Sarasota. So, we plugged it into our GPS and set out.

We were almost into Sarasota. I was the passenger for this segment so I was looking feverishly at the GPS map and the surrounding roads. We were getting close but the area didn’t look at all like a place you’d find a fabric store. Finally, we were right on the place and I spotted the sign. Pennie Fabrics. An unprepossessing house-plus-garage kind of arrangement, the store looked a bit odd. But we turned quickly and pulled into the small parking lot.

I gingerly opened the door to find myself in a room crammed with bolts of fabric. The proprietor who introduced himself as Nasir bade me welcome with a smile. “Please come in. Look around. There’s lots to see,” he said as he gestured around the store. And was he right!

The place was, indeed, a repurposed bungalow with every room crammed with bolts of fabrics – silks, jerseys, tweeds, cottons, knits, and yes, some shirting.

As I made my way from room to room (including the garage which doubled for a fabric room as well) touching as many of the fabrics as I could, I fell in love with two pieces.

The first one is a swath of printed silk charmeuse. The muted pastel pink and mint green are not colours that usually attract me but there was just something about this one. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with it, but I had to have a piece. I will use it for the lining of a tailored jacket, one of my planned projects for later this year. Now all I need is the outer fabric! It will be fun to move from lining to the outer fabric rather than the other way around as I usually do when creating a lined jacket.

Then I found it. The perfect piece of shirting. Many shirtings scream “menswear” to me. Now, I have no problem with wearing menswear as a style, however, for this one I wanted it to be menswear with a feminine edge. You might not agree but when I saw this fabric it said that to me. And the feel! Such a silky, fin cotton. And just look at those selvages! I have to use them but I’m not sure a tailored shirt is the place. We’ll see.

While we were at Pennie Fabrics, women started arriving for a sewing class that’s held in the light-filled back room evidently on a regular basis. A kind of local community of women, the group was gathering that day to celebrate the results of a recent challenge. They had been challenged to each use the same fabric to create different garments. They arrived that day wearing their creations. One of the most striking was this one. And she even agreed to pose for me while Nasir held up a length of the fabric behind her. What a wonderful find this was! You really must visit this store if you’re anywhere near Sarasota, Florida!

So, I’m home now and have cut my four-inch square and put it in the washing machine for its test today. I will wash and iron the fabric to prep it (probably won’t put this one in the dryer) but I have one more piece to make from my newly-created pattern before I cut out the perfect shirt. It’s yet another test. Soon to come…

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style, Stylish Books

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Begins

There’s not a single style manual on the planet that doesn’t suggest to all of us that among the essential wardrobe staples we should have in our closets is the button-up shirt (as opposed to the button-down shirt which I’ve discussed before!).

American “style expert” Lloyd Boston lists “the white shirt” number one in his book The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You. He specifically suggests that this fashion must-have should be white. And I’m sure that we all have a few white button-up shirts in our fashion arsenal, but I think it’s safe to say that we also need other colours.

Dearer to our hearts perhaps (at least for those of us who create some of our own fashion pieces) Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr authors of the recent book A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing include the shirt among their 30 timeless garments and they include both styling tips and sewing tips. They also don’t confine this classic to white and consider that we ought to have a few in different colours in our wardrobes.

Why is the shirt such a universally appealing wardrobe piece? I think because it is endlessly versatile.

A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt. And throughout the twentieth century, a variety of iconic women made the shirt an icon all on its own.

Who wouldn’t swoon over Lauren Bacall in Key Largo in her ever-present button-up?

See the yoke and the men’s styling features? Wonderful! And so versatile

Or the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn? Sexy and buttoned-up all at the same time!

More recently, remember Uma  Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Even if you didn’t see the movie, I’m sure you saw the stills where she is smouldering in her white button-up with French cuffs.

Then, if you still think a button-up shirt is too prissy for you, may I reintroduce you to Marilyn? You can never see a classic shirt the same way again once you’ve seen one on Marilyn.

Unmistakably Marilyn!

There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on precisely when women started wearing button-up shirts. Some sources suggest it was in the 1950s when women in movies would wear their partner’s shirt (i.e. a men’s shirt) after the suggestion that they had just had sex. But that can’t be right because women in the armed services wore shirts long before that and we’ve seen photos of women in the late 1800s wearing what appear to be collared shirts with ankle-grazing skirts.  

In the 19th century, these early women’s “shirts” were often referred to as “shirtwaists.” This is the term we now use when referring to shirt-dresses.

The problem with many of the shirts on offer to women in ready-to-wear these days is that they don’t fit very well. The darts are often in the wrong places. The fit over the bust is often a problem in general. Enter the gape! They are often too wide across the shoulders and nip in too much at the waist. Or they look like bags all over. A smart button-up shirt ought to fit perfectly, n’est ce pas?

I enjoyed Justine Leconte’s tips on how a shirt should fit and found it very useful so I’ll use her approach when I check on the fit of my own perfect shirt…

This is right up my alley, although I often wonder what women whose foundational style is artistic boho think about this. In any case, who am I to argue with the wardrobe police? I agree: everyone looks terrific in a shirt. But it has to be perfect. Enter my new project.

After I finished my husband’s perfectly-fitted (and very expensive) shirt project, it occurred to me that I ought to have a perfectly-fitted pattern that I can use for both a shirt and a blouse. And there is a difference between a shirt and a blouse in my mind. The fashion police suggest that a blouse is a type of shirt (because it blouses?) but a shirt is not always a blouse. A shirt is crisp while a blouse is drapey. At least that’s how I’m going to define them. I plan to start the project by creating the perfect shirt pattern then modifying it for blouses.

So what does my perfect shirt need?

  • It needs to be fitted either with darts or princess lines. I think I’ll start with darts because princess lines are really just a variation on that and I can always manipulate darts into a princess seam if I want to do that in the future.
  • It needs to have a collar. Kind of a no-brainer since this is part of the definition of a shirt. However, there are different kinds of collars and I want this to be a collar with a stand.
  • It needs to have well-fitted sleeves. I find that commercial patterns often have sleeves that are very large around the bicep. They seem to think we are all stevedores or wrestlers.
  • It needs to have nice cuffs with a nice placket. This is a skill I will need to learn more about since I see so many different kinds of plackets around.
  • It needs to have a back yoke. Yokes support the material in the shirt. I can always manipulate this out if I choose a blouse-type approach in the future.
  • It needs to be the right length. I’ll figure that out as I fit the test shirt.
  • I don’t necessarily want the shirt to have any breast pockets, but that’s an option I’ll keep in mind for variations.

Where to begin? I decided to start with an examination of commercial patterns. I own a couple, none of which is perfect.

McCall’s 6649 (copyright marked 2012 and now out of print it seems) seems to tick all the boxes, as does McCall’s 7575 (a 2017 addition). In fact, they are so similar as to make one wonder why they got rid of one and created another one just the same. I also picked up Burda 6908 in the discards box at a Fabricville outpost in Muskoka during our fall road trip. This pattern is dated 2014 and is a bit different from the previous ones in that it is more of a tunic style – no darts, quite long and very balloony. Not quite what I’m looking for in a basic pattern, but I do think I will make it as part fo this project.

So it does seem as if I’m going to have to really work on my own pattern. I’ll start with M7575 and modify it for fit and style. And what about fabric?

Well, these classic shirts are by definition fabricated from wovens, usually 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Obviously, they have to be fairly lightweight – just imagine what these shirts would look like made from canvas. Not the image I’m going for. Eventually, I’d love to have a fine Italian cotton, but for the first go-around, I’m going to see what I have leftover from other projects. Stay tuned for my test shirt – a kind of “Frankenstyle” design while I test out my pattern details.

I’ll give LB the final word…

Posted in Fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

In Love with Knit Jackets (not hand-knit!)

When I was a little girl (so many years ago!) I remember the popularity of “knit” jackets. Jackets that someone actually knit. With a pair of knitting needles. Knit jackets were a ‘thing’ back then.

The ones I remember most, though, seem to be men’s hand-knit jackets (and machine-knit jackets were the same). I remember them as being heavy, chunky, usually with a very large pattern of some sort on them, and they almost always had zippers. How times have changed!

These are the knit jackets I remember! This one is from the 1960s. Hand-knit.

There was a time in my life (back in my twenties if you can believe that) when I, too, succumbed to the lure of the hand-knit sweater. Yes, it was the years of the Lopi sweater craze.

This was the first of many Lopi sweaters that I hand-knit back in the day. Then, as quickly as the desire to make them came over me, it disappeared and I haven’t picked up a set of knitting needles in years. Perhaps that’s because my style changed.

In the years that followed grad school, I was the proud owner of a closet full of suits. Canadian designers Alfred Sung and Simon Chang, along with American designer Calvin Klein, all shared closet space with dozens of pairs of shoes. I loved the tailored style and that has evolved to be the way I prefer to dress.

Simon Chang featured in the Canadian fashion magazine Flare in the 1980s. He was a bit funkier. I think I owned the one in the centre!

But now I find that I have little use for finely tailored jackets. I have a couple that I wear regularly – my black cashmere, silk-lined Brooks Brothers one is a favourite – with jeans or when I have to give a presentation (*sigh* I still find myself behind a podium from time to time). A tailored blazer is a fantastic piece for any wardrobe (and I have a whole design and sewing project on them planned for later this year – stay tuned). The reality, though, is that a softer version of the tailored jacket actually works better for me these days. But does that mean I really want sweaters? I think not!

So, what’s the difference between a sweater and a jacket? They are both designed as garments that are worn on the upper part of the body. Sweaters can be either pull-overs or can open down the front (or even the back for that matter).

Jackets, by definition always have an opening down the front. Given the design freedom we have these days to create anything we desire and call it anything we choose, the traditional main difference between a jacket and a sweater is a function of the materials it is made of. Sweaters are made from knits while jackets are made from wovens. Or, at least they used to be. Enter the “swacket” an odd moniker if ever there was one.

I haven’t been able to find out who actually first started using this stupid word, but a “swacket” does seem to be a thing now. In 2016 the clothing company Under Armour first marketed something they called a swacket.

Just looks like a jacket with a zipper to me.

It looks just like any other athletic jacket to me. Evidently, it feels soft and lightweight (like a sweater) but looks like a jacket. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a soft, lightweight jacket. What am I missing here? Anyway, I do love a soft, lightweight jacket and that, to me, means a knit jacket – as opposed to a heavy, hand-knit jacket.

I’m talking about a jacket that is sewn together from loomed knit fabric. Obviously, it’s not likely to be made from something flimsy because a jacket by its very nature seems to need some structure. Having said that, remember Coco Chanel, the originator of knitwear for women? Here she is in one that really does look like it might be the jersey fabric that she introduced to women’s fashions around the time of the first World War.

Anyway, since my lifestyle doesn’t require Alfred Sung or Simon Chang in it anymore, knit jackets seem like a no-brainer for me.

Recently I made two – one of which doesn’t really have any sore of tailored look while the other does. They are both incredibly soft and comfortable, just what you want in a knit jacket. I used commercial patterns for both.

The first, quite unstructured piece is fully lined with stretch lining, something I’d never used before. I also added a small chain inside along the hem to help it to hang better.

I used McCall’s pattern #7332 and added flat piping to the angled waist seam. This is really the only design feature of this easy-to-create piece. I found that the open front was a bit of a problem. It just kind of hangs there, which, of course, is a function of the knit fabric itself. So, I surfed over to eBay and found myself a source for interesting closures. Naturally, that source was in China so I waited two months for them to arrive, but arrive they did!

This is such a comfortable piece – feels exactly like a sweater. But I have to say that it has been hanging in my closet for some time now and I haven’t found any occasion to wear it! Enter the second knit jacket.

I really loved the look of McCall’s pattern #7254 with its shawl collar and sleek peplum.

I liked that it’s very fitted and a bit short. I found a piece of shadow-striped ponte and combined that with plain black then added a button from my collection (this one found at a Fabricville store that I only get to visit when we are on a road trip to smaller towns outside the big smoke).

Despite the fact that these knit jackets are intended to be softer than their more tailored cousins, I loved the fact that I interfaced the shawl collar for a crisper look. This piece is still very comfortable and the truth is I’ve worn it a lot. Even on an airplane, it gives me a bit of an elevated look while still wearing comfortable knits.

All in all, I’d have to say that I’d design and make a few more if I had any use for dozens of similar wardrobe pieces. But I don’t, so I’m moving on to my perfect shirt project. Talk soon!

(As an aside, I had to look up the past participle of the verb “to knit” to discover that ‘knit’ is the traditional past tense but ‘knitted’ is also in use these days. Sorry, I’m a grammar nerd!)

Posted in fashion history, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

When a design gives me headaches, I give it…buttons!

Buttons from my collection – individual pieces just waiting for the right place to embellish something.

I’m not a fan of stashes. In fact, I truly believe that “stashing” away fabrics is akin to hoarding. I’m kind of a minimalist that way. (No judgment here – it’s just not my thing. Well, maybe a tiny bit of judgment.)  In fact, the term “stash” actually means something that you put away in a secret place for future use, so this notion of a secret implies that you are trying to hide it from someone. That leads me to wonder who everyone is hiding their stashes of fabric from – themselves? Anyway, I don’t stash fabrics, but I do have a stockpile of buttons. Isn’t that a better word? Let’s start by backing up, shall we?

Buttons are extraordinarily functional little things, aren’t they? If you went into your closet this very minute and began counting the number of buttons adorning your various pieces of clothing, I’ll bet that you’d be astonished by the number. And what would happen to all those shirts and blouses, not to mention blazers and coats if there was no such thing as a button? They’d all have zippers and that would be aesthetically boring in my view. And this brings us to the history of the button.

Buttons were largely decorative when they were first used. The earliest buttons that history offers us date from the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan from the late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age – which would make them some 5000 years old – and were made from some kind of copper alloy. These buttons had to be decorative since the buttonhole as we know it today wasn’t invented until the 13th century.

Buttons as closures really came into their own in the Middle Ages when clothing evolved to become more form-fitting. This required some kind of fastening to keep those breeches and vests closed – and close to the body.

Listen to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi talk about buttons…

…notice he suggests that buttons are a fashion statement? Well, that’s where I come in. As far as I’m concerned, buttons are first and foremost decorative. And they are endlessly variable. They can be made of metal as the earliest ones were, plastic, resin, wood, mother of pearl, glass, crystal, leather, fabric and just about anything you could imagine.

So, when I add some buttons to my collection, I look first to their aesthetic value and second to how utilitarian they might be at some point in the future. I buy buttons regularly whether or not I have a design in mind for them. There are several avenues I use for button collection.

First, of course, there are button shops – or at least portions of shops that are devoted to buttons. Downtown Toronto in the fashion design district, there are a couple of shops that offer this vast array of oddities in the button world (of course, alongside the purely functional ones).

This is a free Pixabay image but it might as well have been taken on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto — my favourite button shop looks exactly like this!

I also keep all those little extra buttons that come along with ready-to-wear clothing. You’d be surprised how that kind of collection can enlarge over the years.

Fishing tackle boxes from Canadian tire make surprisingly good storage containers for keeping buttons organized. Most of these are ones I have collected over the years from those “extras” that come with ready-to-wear pieces.

But my favourite way to collect buttons these days is from eBay. Yes, I buy lots of buttons online. If I have a specific project that I’m seeking buttons to complete, I don’t mind paying a good sum for them. However, when I’m just collecting, I’m looking for inexpensive, funky, different. And sellers from Asia – largely mainland China and Hong Kong – offer cheap buttons and free shipping, although shipping usually takes two to three months. But these are really interesting design features

Just a small sampling of my EBay buttons. Each set of about 10-50 buttons runs me less than $2.00 (Canadian) and with free shipping that I look for, it’s a bargain! You have to admit they’re inspirational, yes?

 The fact that they are also functional is largely secondary in my “design” experience.” As a result, I tend to pull them out when I’m stumped in the final stages of the design process. And occasionally they offer me both aesthetics and functionality – buttons can cover a multitude of sins. A case in point: my recent fall/winter party top project.

I began with a commercial pattern: Vogue 9270. I love the idea of a fancy tunic-like garment for entertaining at home over the festive season and I thought that this one might fit the bill.

I  had this fabric that I bought at the beginning of the season, inspired by my design board that I created for this season. The fabric has a bit of sparkle and a really drapey quality to it. Of course, this is where it all went so very wrong.

The first change I had to make to the pattern was to widen the neckline. Why in the world do so many pattern designers insist on making necklines that creep up to the high neck points? Wider necklines are more flattering on almost everyone. So, I made that small change in the design and carried on.

The fabric. I wish you could see the tiny sparkles all over it. They’re subtle, but festive.

The fabric was a nightmare to sew. I used a titanium ballpoint needle and still had trouble at the beginning of every seam getting it to feed evenly even with the walking foot. But once I fitted the princess seams and installed the largely unnecessary 20-inch zipper (this baby pulls on over the head), I kind of liked the way the fabric fit from the bust-line up. The seaming down from the bust to the hemline was another story. I could not get it to hang properly. (I refused to even take a photo – it was that bad.)

Of course, it was my own fault since I had chosen a fabric that didn’t have nearly enough body to hand the way it was intended to hang. In addition, just as I had feared from the beginning, the tunic was far too long. Long tunics kind of cut off your legs. Not a good look. I knew that I’d have to do something to salvage it so I began cutting length off the bottom, cut a slit part-way up the centre front. I started experimenting with centre-front knots, centre-front wrap overs, off-centre knots, off-centre wraps, a blouson style. Then I cut a bit more off. I would have to make a decision before I was left with a midriff-baring piece. I finally decided that elastic on the bottom would be useful and installed it.

So, those sleeves look like they should be a nice design feature? Not so much.

That decided I had to tackle those bell sleeves. Why in the world did I think I’d like these? I did not. They were miles too long and they just kind of flapped around like bat wings that would certainly not have been functional in the least for entertaining. So, elastic to the rescue again. So, was this little number finished? No.

I looked carefully at the front “wrap-over” and decided that it looked weird. This is when I pulled out my button collection and began the fun part.

Here are two accent buttons I considered. I finally settled on the black with the gold bar.

After a significant number of failures, I finally settled on a button that would cover the little imperfection in the front and that would be an aesthetic addition to a piece I hope to wear at home over the holidays and on a cruise next year. Since I wear yellow gold jewelry almost exclusively, the black button with the gold bar would work. I think I love it just a little. 

What do you think? It doesn’t look at all like the original but I think I look ready to cook a turkey! Talk soon.

Sources:

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/design/2012/06/button_history_a_visual_tour_of_button_design_through_the_ages_.html

Posted in fabrics, Fashion Design, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

The Festive Season is Coming: Finding the right party look

It feels a lot like winter today here in Toronto. In fact, when I raised the blinds this morning, there was some of that “white” stuff” on the rooftops some stories below. Thankfully, there wasn’t actually any of it on the streets or sidewalks. It’s too early for that! What this always means to me – and in spite of the fact that the calendar says it’s nowhere near winter yet – it’s time to consider what I’ll be wearing to those inevitable Christmas get-togethers whether I like it or not. When I started planning this season’s little collection, I was inspired, at least partially, by a couple of fabrics that I bought on my early fall pilgrimage down to the fabric district along Queen St. West here in the city.

Fabric shopping in that district always has to be planned in my view. First, it has to be just off the high tourist season. Queen Street West is a zoo during tourist season in the summer. Second, I always walk. That’s non-negotiable. But since it’s a good forty-five-minute walk, the day has to be just right. It can’t be raining or, god forbid, snowing. Then, I always take along my fabric-buying assistant (also known as my husband) who is a great scout if I give him a few guidelines suggesting what I might be looking for. On the early September day we chose, the walk was particularly nice and I actually came home with a few pieces of fabric that were inspired by my fall/winter mood board.

I hadn’t been looking for special-occasion fabrics specifically, but that’s what I came home with. I had been thinking about textures and colours for my inspiration…here are two that inspired me this year…

Two of the fabrics I bought as inspired by my original texture samples.

Another texture that inspired me was a pair of SJP shoes that I actually happen to own. There’s just something about a pair of sparkly shoes that dresses up even a pair of skinny jeans…but I digress.

Here are those shoes in action…

I am no slave to fashion trends, always preferring timeless classics (except clearly in shoes), but I do like to be modern. So, I love to see what the industry is suggesting might be the in thing to wear to festive parties this season.

According to Vogue magazine, arbiter of all things fashionable (arguably, I’m sure), “fabulous dresses and practical bags” are the way to go. I suppose in some world this dress might work…

…but in my world of Christmas parties, I can’t quite see this as I prepare the ham for a family Boxing Day dinner, or for drinks with the neighbours in our condo building. Not going to happen. Good Housekeeping (god love them) on the other hand is suggesting dowdy…

…and dowdier.

I find that this length they’re all suggesting this year is one of the most unflattering ones for just about any woman. There is a way to avoid that conundrum, though, wear pants. They are my go-to. And the truth is, these days, anything goes. So, what can we do to dress up a pair of pants (other than adding a pair of sparkly SJP shoes, of course)?

I’m often inspired by old movies with those fabulous costumes. Some months ago, my husband and I happened to watch the1956 film “Written on the Wind” starring the incomparable Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone. Oh the costumes! In one scene the two of them are drinking and arguing, and Dorothy Malone is wearing an Asian-inspired blue silk jacquard jacket, which would probably be called a smoking jacket if it were on a man.

Isn’t this fabulous?

I have no desire to recreate their pieces, but I do think that using them as design inspiration can often meld the old with the contemporary aesthetic. So, I began sketching and my design ended up a bit like this…

So, I began to create the pattern and put together a muslin.

Work was going well, so I bought some velvet to make a contrast collar. I thought that the silver and black fabric would be wonderful. This is where I ran into my first problem. The fabric was all wrong for this design. It was not wrong from an aesthetic point of view, but it was so wrong when it came to fabric properties – especially drape. It had too much. I loved the fact that this was a bit like liquid silver, but the design I envisioned begged for something like silk jacquard, something stiffer. It occurred to me (after discussion with my dear husband and style consultant) that a bomber-style jacket might work.

I scoured the commercial pattern offerings and found Butterick 6181 that also had a version with buttons rather than a zipper which seemed a better party design for me. I did some pattern fitting and found that the design had just a bit too much “blousiness” in both the body and the sleeves. I had to take out 2 inches of volume in the sleeves or I would have drowned in fabric. I also removed some from the body.

I thought I might use the velvet I had bought to make a contrast collar. That was an unmitigated disaster. Note to self: learn how to mix wovens with knits (did I mention that the silver and black fabric is a knit?) so that you can avoid the mess I ended up with. My trusty surgical-steel seam ripper came to the rescue.

My next design decision was about buttons. I had a set of funky silver buttons that I had in mind. However, when I compared them with a self-covered button, it was no contest. The covered buttons were much classier. So, I did something I hadn’t done in some forty years: I did that fiddly button-covering thing.

Finally, I have a party jacket for the season, but I also have a pattern for a more form-fitting one that I will not give up on. I’d love to make that one but I have one question: how many party jackets does a girl need? 

On to the next project…


Sources:

https://www.vogue.com/vogueworld/article/valentino-fall-trend-holiday-dressing-ideas

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/fashion-beauty/g538763/christmas-party-dresses/?slide=1

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

In Search of the Perfect Wrap Top: Fall/Winter 2019

Have you ever found a silhouette that you just love? For me, it’s been the pencil skirt, the skinny pant and the wrap top. I don’t wear skirts all that often (with the exception of my cruise collection 2019 skirt) so searching for a pencil skirt is a bit of a time-waster.  I have actually found my perfect skinny jeans (Paige denim – no, I do not make jeans and will never make my own jeans as long as Paige continues to exist).

But…I have been searching for the perfect wrap top for years and this season wanted to add one or two perfect ones to my wardrobe.

Over the past couple of seasons, I’ve experimented with a couple and my desire to create one in (expensive) silk knit set me off on a quest to ensure the perfect silhouette, the perfect wrap and the perfect fit – before I take the plunge into an as-yet-unpurchased piece of (expensive) silk. But first, where did this little gem of a piece of clothing begin? It’s a fascinating history.

Of course, Diane von Furstenberg has been credited with “inventing” the wrap dress more than 40 years ago back in the 1970s (not all the clothes during that decade were hideous), and we can all be forgiven if we believed, up until this minute, that this is where this silhouette began. It did not. If you look closely, you might even conclude that DVF borrowed the idea from an American designer who preceded her by some 40 years.

Original Charles James wrap dress

According to most online sources, the wrap silhouette can be traced back to American couturier Charles James in the 1930s when his body-hugging designs were just short of scandalous. Of course, he was also known for his extraordinary ball gowns, but it is the wrap silhouette that is the most avant-garde as far as I’m concerned.

Until I began looking into the origins of the wrap design, Charles James hadn’t even registered with me. But there he is. This little video, hosted by none other than Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, provides a terrific overview for those interested in the history of fashion. But CJ’s wrap creation doesn’t really appear here.

However, if you have a few moments and the interest), you’ll notice that buried among all his other voluminous creations, the CJ wrap dress appears (at about 3:27 of the video is you want to skip ahead).

What’ really interesting about the design as far as I’m concerned, is the way it wraps. And not every one of his wrap dresses had the same inner construction. The one featured in the videos above is actually a wrapped skirt.

The above dress opened out

If we move forward into the 1950s, you can see that even the pattern companies were offering home sewers options. The silhouette in general is a very ’50s look the way I see it.

I started my own wrap journey with a faux-wrap tank top that I designed based on a favourite top from, of all places, Landsend. (I wrote about it here.)

It’s kind of cute, but not the real deal. I do like the fact that with a faux-wrap you don’t have to worry about a wardrobe malfunction, though!

Then I moved on to Butterick 6517. (Note the same striped bamboo jersey).

I liked the outcome, although I did think that the wrap-over bit at the front was a tad bulky. So many folds. Nice, but not worthy of (expensive) silk jersey.

I finally hit upon Butterick 6628 and with a few tweaks I’m happy to say that it became the first piece of my 2019-20 F/W wardrobe. You might remember my inspiration board for this season along with its colour palette.

I picked up a drapey synthetic for the purpose of trying out this pattern before the (expensive ) silk knit that I plan. It turned out better than I had expected and this will be the design for the final product when I find the right fabric.

In the meantime, I’ve put this one into the fall/winter rotation and am still searching for the perfect silk knit. On to the next design!

More images of the Charles James wrap dress: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/171965

Posted in fabrics, Pattern-drafting, sewing, Style

Summer sewing: Commercial pattern versus personal pattern

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.

 

belted T
Do you really want a belt around your waist when the temperature is 28 degrees Celsius? I think not. 

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…

Annotation 2019-07-29 105403

…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.

IMG_E9133
Out to dinner on road trip #1 of the summer in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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!).

IMG_2143
They never look quite as good on Gloria Junior. She has no arms! (It’s hard to tell that the neckline is widened, but it is.)

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!).

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

Designing on the fly…or how the first pdf pattern I ever used morphed into a GG Collection original

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a planner. I plan weekly menus before I go to the grocery store. I map out an entire two-week road trip months in advance ensuring that all hotels are booked for the right days and I know the precise driving time between stops. I write outlines for everything I write, and writing is what I do in my other life (in this one, too, you might well respond – I don’t outline blog posts, though, which is probably obvious!).

To be clear, when I started my writing career many years ago, I learned very quickly that to sell a non-fiction book to a publisher, I’d need to learn to write a book proposal which is nothing short of a complete outline among a lot of other stuff. So, I learned the process of book proposal writing well enough to sell seven or eight books that way. So, when it comes to my sewing and design life, I pretty much take that same approach.

Remember my cruise collection? That started with an actual inspiration board, moved on to sketches, then I created original patterns, chose fabrics planned for specific projects (no fabric hoarding here). My Little Black Dress project? It progressed the same way as did my three Little French Jackets. So, I have no reason to think that much of my work will be on the fly. Well, you know what they say: “The best laid plans…” Let me back up a bit.

When I returned to fashion design and sewing a few years ago, much had changed in that world. For years my sewing machine collected dust between jean hemming and costume sewing projects. (I’m happy to say that the costume sewing for children’s theatre actually resulted in a child who grew up to be successful in the performing arts.) Then, the muse struck and I finally had the time to devote to a return to something I had loved as a young adult. But, as I mentioned, there were many new things.

rotary cutter
This is the one I have. I use it infrequently. 

First there was the rotary cutter. When I first saw one, I thought, Doesn’t anyone use shears anymore? I soon learned that, yes, shears are the way to go on most projects for me. I use a rotary cutter mostly for interfacing and muslin cutting. Otherwise, they’re not my thing – dreadful on silk, wool, bouclé etc. Then there were the patterns.

I had never before heard that McCall’s, Vogue, Butterick and Simplicity were now referred to as “the big four” and not in a good way. What was that all about, I thought? This led me to learn about the new “indie” pattern companies. That sounds very democratic, doesn’t it? What I found was an avalanche of half-baked patterns, generally for tent-like bags that would fit everyone and no one – I’ll leave the rest of that rant for another day to equalize out all those rants from sewers who seem to dislike the “big four” with a passion. I happen to think they do very good work. But that’s for another day. Anyway, I finally found a legitimate one or two whose patterns interested me. Style Arc was one.

An Australian company, Style Arc’s sketches were what really drew me in. And I loved the fact that not all of their patterns are for knits which means that they really do have to know how to create something that fits. That being said, I decided to try one that was for a knit first.

Terry tie cardigan
What’s not to love about this sketch? Well, I should have look more closely at the version on the right. 

The other thing that had changed was that not all patterns came in little envelopes anymore. Some of them were pdf downloads. Who knew? Well, just about everyone but me! Everyone has to have a first time, though, don’t they?

Style Arc produces both hard copy patterns and pdf’s. I decided to try my first pdf and my first indie pattern all in one fell swoop.

I used to have a cardigan sweater I loved so much it was actually worn out by the time I finished with it. t hadn’t been expensive, either, but was black (a must for a sweater that will serve me over the long term) and instead of buttons, it had a half-waist tie. It looked terrific with collared shirts, T-shirts, just everything.  It had a lot more style than the average cardigan. So, when I saw Style Arc’s Terry Tie Cardigan pattern, I was in.

stylearc pattern tie front

I downloaded it and printed it out. Then, of course, I proceeded to tape it all together, as one must. Interesting. I cut out the pattern pieces and looked for some fabric.

IMG_1535

Wouldn’t you think that something called “sweater knit” would be great? I did. But…well, stay with me.

There were just so many things wrong with the pattern in my view. It has these shoulder tucks—too many of them and way too small for the fabric I’d chosen. When I went back to Pattern Review to look at other people’s versions, they were all in flimsy jersey, so the tucks worked – but they were hideous. They were shapeless columns of jersey even with the belt tied. If I had looked at them first (lesson learned) I would never have chosen the pattern. But onward…

Okay, the first problem was the tucks, as I mentioned. Then, there was too much overlap at the front – and neither the centre front nor the waistline was marked by the way, a real problem with trying to get it to fit properly. The ties were too close to the centre front resulting in an odd look which was very evident on the ones done by others as I found out. Oh, and the seam allowances: you have to be very careful not to assume that they are standard 5/8 inch. They are not. The sleeves were too long (of course, this is an easy fix, but do women really look like orangutans?), leading me to think the sketch is quite misleading. So, what to do?

 

Back to the drawing board I go to try to rescue the project.

  • First, redraw those shoulders without the tucks.
  • Then, move the belt so that it is farther away from the centre front (which I had to find).
  • Then, as I went to sew it, I realized that the belt was going to be butt ugly so I ditched it.
  • Ditched the belt and took in the waist darts, extending them to the hem for a better fit.
  • Put it on Gloria junior, and began to redesign it on the fly.

IMG_0150

Actually, I really enjoyed the “semi-draping” process. I redrew the pattern and it no longer resembles the original in any way.

gg cardigan
It’s not at all what I had originally envisioned, but I’ll love it on cold days next winter. I left all the edges serged only. 

What I learned about myself is that designing on the fly might not be such a bad approach, and that I think I would enjoy learning draping as a design process.

I love it when I learn something from every project!

Posted in Fashion Design, sewing, Style, Stylish Travel

Cruise collection complete: Let the packing begin!

It’s Valentine’s Day and for so many people out there it seems like this is such an important day, although to tell you the truth, I cannot really remember anything special about Valentine’s Days gone by. We used to do something like go out for a lovely dinner, and that was nice, but when you get to a certain point you realize that every day is a day to celebrate love. So that’s what we do. And in so many recent years, we have found ourselves on vacation anyway – which is pretty special in itself. This year, as it happens, we are still a couple of sleeps away from sunshine, palm trees and a cruise ship. But my cruise collection is finished and I’ll be packing it up momentarily. So, here’s the wrap-up.

Since we last “spoke” I actually added a few more pieces – some hits, some misses.

I added a second skirt. It’s based on the original design sans pockets, with a side zipper and a front seam. I went looking for the fabric at King Textiles in the Toronto fabric district because I wanted something particular, and came home with what is supposedly rip-stop, but it has an oddly shiny interior which has design possibilities, but I fear it may stick to me. Never mind: I plan to take it and wear it in the 28-degree Celsius weather and I’ll report back.

I also wanted two more, cool tops. Based on the design of the little black dress that will be the basis for many a cocktail evening coming up, I created a princess-line top from the seersucker that is at the heart of this collection. It fits me well, and is comfortable, but there is something about it…

It has a bit of a funky, broad-front look about it despite my careful selection of the placement of the stripes. We’ll see.

I added a tank made from the patterned (you know I rarely wear patterns) textural material as I work on creating my perfect tank. This one isn’t exactly what I’m going for on a long-term basis – the pattern still needs work – but it’s going to be great on the cruise.

 

I also wanted to make a floaty tunic top from some Indian cotton I bought for the project last summer while we were in Portsmouth, Hew Hampshire. I designed a tunic with short sleeves, and know I will wear it, but it looks more like a bathing suit cover-up than a top that should be worn on the street. It is such a heavenly comfortable fabric, though. Beach walk here it comes.

I started this project back in September. September?! Wow, that’s a long time. I wanted to enjoy the whole process from concept, through design and then execution. And I have done that.

I started by researching a capsule versus a collection. So many people online seem to create, through either shopping ready-to-wear or making it themselves, what they are calling a capsule collection. That wasn’t exactly what I was going for, so I decided to design a collection.

I created a “mood board” for lack of a better term so that I could visualize where I was headed. It was a very creative exercise that I will probably repeat  seasonally. It forced me to really consider my personal aesthetic, which included colours, textures and eventually fabrics I loved.

GG-CC019 Inspiration Board copy

But for a cruise collection that will actually cruise, there is more to it than aesthetics – there is also functionality.

We will be spending almost a week in San Juan, Puerto Rico where we expect the daily temperatures to be around 28 C with a humidex of 31C or so. We do love San Juan. We’ve been there several times, but this is the longest stay for us. We stay in an area called the Condado, named for the miles-long beach it borders. It’s about 5 km from old San Juan in a lovely, upscale residential neighbourhood. We’re staying in a new hotel for us, but the area is familiar. Then we’ll board the Silver Spirit, a 604-passenger Silversea Cruises ship – a bit large for our taste, but Silversea provides a wonderful experience. This will be our fourth Silversea cruise. This one is doing a historical-cultural tour of Cuba and a few other islands, ending in Fort Lauderdale.

 

[Some images from our last visit to San Juan]

Silversea has interesting wardrobe expectations. We will have two formal nights on this one (I will wear a gown and my dear husband will take his tux – not so many opportunities to gear up for a formal occasion these days, so we have to get some mileage out of the wardrobe). Not everyone aboard will go long-dress-and-tuxedo, but they will be dressed up. Even on the informal nights, most will be in cocktail dresses, and I will be wearing the LBD from my collection. There are only three casual nights on this cruise where I’ll be attired in white jeans, beautiful tops and appropriate sandals. This is not a T-shirt and ball-cap kind of cruise. And there are generally no children so that’s great, too, at this point in our lives.

Anyway, the new cruise collection, in concert with my favourite ready-to-wear pieces, is about to get its work-out. There will be photos.

Stay warm!

Silver Spirit here we come!

[photo from http://www.silversea.com]

silver spirit