Posted in Couture Sewing, Fashion Design, Little Black Dress, Style, Style Influencers

In search of the perfect LBD: My new project begins

I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a cliché that seems to transcend time. They say every woman needs the perfect “little black dress” – LBD for short – and I agree, but the search for that perfection seems to go on and on. Enter the sewing talent that we possess!

Over the years I’ve had any number of what would be labeled “little black dresses.” They have all been eminently useful in their own ways.

In recent years my LBD wearing is frequently confined to travel: we often take cruises on those kind of high-end cruise lines where those informal nights really require cocktail dressing. That means that a LBD that is also packable is a must. On a recent cruise down the west coast of South America, my Joseph Ribkoff black dresses were a godsend. Both the short cocktail dress and the gown (it’s actually a strapless worn a plethora of different jackets to change it ups) in the photos above are Ribkoff’s I wore on our recent cruise down the west coast of South America on Silversea’s Silver Muse.

And yet I still search for the holy grail of LBD’s. So, what are my criteria for LBD perfection?

  1. First and foremost, it should be black! While this seems like a no-brainer, we are forever bombarded by asinine pronouncements from the style police that “red is the new black” or recently “white is the new black.” Okay, I know what they’re getting at, but black is the only thing that is black. If you want a LRD or a LWD, that’s great, but I’m talking about a LBD and it naturally has to be black.
  2. Second, the perfect LBD needs to fit perfectly. The beauty of the Rikoff dresses is in the fabrics – they are knits and are a bit forgiving. This means that even a not-so-perfect fit is perfect enough. What I’m searching for is a LBD that doesn’t have to be a knit to fit perfectly. It is made for me. It follows the curves of my body and no one else’s.
  3. My perfect LBD is a sheath. I often see LBD’s that are any number of silhouettes, but somewhere in my mind’s eye, I see a real LBD as a sheath. And since that’s the silhouette that suits me best and I love the most, that’s what it has to be.
  4. My perfect LBD is simple. It is simple enough that if I choose to wear different jackets or jewelry with it, that works and changes the look. The perfect LBD is versatile in my view. I need to be able to dress it up or dress it down. Which brings me back to silhouette: many of the complicated silhouettes on offer these days – flounces, ruffles, big skirts, peplums, “statement sleeves” – all of these distract from the simplicity of the perfect LBD. I’m going for clean lines.

I don’t know yet if my perfect LBD is sleeveless, has long sleeves or short sleeves or anything else in between. I’m not sure yet if the neckline is round, square or boat-shaped. I’m unsure of the fabric – this will be dictated by many of the design factors. But I do expect perfection to be lined in silk – silk charmeuse if I have my way and since I’m making it, I think I do. But anything can change at this stage.

So, how do I find the perfect dress? As I do in my other life, I begin with research. First, I want to understand the history of this oh-so-indispensable article of clothing and find inspiration from that.

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The October 1926 Vogue magazine sketch of Chanel’snew LBD

Coco Chanel is often touted as the creator of the LBD – or at least the notion of what a LBD means. In October, 1926 Vogue magazine published a picture of a simple, elegant sheath in black crêpe de chine that was shown with a simple string of pearls. It seemed to start a kind of trend – or what today we might call a meme. It is true that in the early part of the twentieth century and before that, women wore black to indicate that they were in mourning. Remember Queen Victoria? After Prince Albert, the love of her life died at a fairly early age, she wore black for the rest of her life. Anyway, black transformed from the colour of death to the colour of simple elegance. Chanel wanted a piece of clothing that could be available to everyone. And Chanel’s idea influenced many a designer from that day until now.

Hepburn_little_black_dressMy second icon of the LBD that I look to for inspiration is Audrey Hepburn. She wore them, but she didn’t design them. She had a long working relationship with Givenchy who designed many of her LBD’s including the most incredible one – at least for me – the gown she wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s although to be sure, there were other LBD’s even in that film. I especially love the lines of that dress.

In a continuing search for inspiration, last week I visited the Dior exhibit currently stationed in the Royal Ontario Museum. A mere 10-minute walk from my home in Toronto, the ROM provides a wonderful way to spend a winter afternoon – and that’s just what I did.

I’m not a big fan of Dior’s “New Look” which was featured prominently – it was a 1947, post-war look that Chanel dispatched unceremoniously in 1954 with her LBJ style – but I do find close examination of designer fashions, especially historical ones, to be educational and inspiring.

I did find a number of Dior’s take on the LBD like these ones…

…and find myself inspired by the workmanship and the fabrications. The one on the left is the only one who’s silhouette is right for me, though. So, I’m off to search for the pattern or patterns I’ll try out on my way to finding just the right one. In the meantime, here are some of the other confections I took in last week at the ROM…

…I do find the above gown oddly compelling. I think I could actually wear it…

…and red is a great colour if you don’t want black. In fact, it’s my favourite colour (I don’t think black, grey, white and taupe really count although they are truly my favourite garment colours! It’s all in how you mix them in my view.).

And finally, one extraordinary gown, worn once by a Toronto socialite’s daughter for her debutante afternoon tea dance in the 1950’s. Those were the days *sigh*

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Up next, the pattern options for my own LBD. Stay tuned!

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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/

Posted in Little Black (French) Jacket, Style

Lining my Little French Jacket

chanel 1954
Coco Chanel herself in her soon-to-be-iconic suit in 1954

She was brilliant, wasn’t she? Of course I’m talking about Coco Chanel. When she relaunched her couture house in Paris post World War II – well, she waited until 1954 – she took the fashion world by storm. She upset the status quo. Her new designs were a bit of a slap in the face to Christian Dior whose “New Look” was dominating the runways and influencing the silhouette worn by fashion-conscious women all over the Western world.

Beginning in 1947, Dior had been showing that hour-glass silhouette with the seriously nipped-in waist accentuating the bust above and the hips further emphasized by a wide skirt below.  Over the next few years he would experiment with a variety of hemlines and tweak the silhouette – even paring it down to a more streamlined look for a few seasons. But what remained at all times was a high degree of structure. The photo of a 1947 model wearing Dior’s “New Look” clearly screams structure. Does is look a bit uncomfortable to you? Hmm.

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Dior’s “New Look” from 1947

 

Then came Chanel with her focus on sophisticated comfort. Her 1954 collection was the first to show what has become the iconic LFJ we all covet so much. Oh, she had certainly had similar looks in jersey in her collections in the years before the war, but this new bouclé jacket with its very specific construction was born that year. So, what does this have to do with lining my jacket? More than any other element, the lining technique is what makes this jacket unique, and what gives it its tailored slouchiness.

 

This is not the first time I’ve done this kind of lining. I know that I need to do some serious trial sewing before I get on with it. I do several samples using different types of thread and stitch lengths and keep notes in my trusty sewing journal. Then I’m ready. But first I need to put together the front pieces and back in both my bouclé and my lining before I can begin to quilt.

There are only a few seams, but as much as I adore silk charmeuse, it’s a slippery fellow. I pin very carefully with lots of pins, use a 2.5 mm stitch with silk thread (I tried out various lengths) and, of course, my trusty walking foot is a must with silk.

Then I go over my “rules” that I’ve learned for the quilting process.

  1. Baste the lining wrong sides together to the individual pieces: two front pieces, one back piece. Keep it to a minimum to avoid marking the silk. Since this silk is not printed, it will really show if I don’t pay attention to this. And I should get right at the quilting so that the basting doesn’t have to remain very long.
  2. Plan the quilting lines ensuring that all lines of stitching stay at least 2 inches from any edge or there will be no way to turn edges or hems and finish by hand as one must (I stay 2 ½ inches from the hem).
  3. Baste the quilting lines and stitch alongside them. But I have learned to baste only two at a time to reduce the chance of pulling or bunching between the lines.
  4. Stitch from the outside with silk thread in the bobbin.
  5. Stitch each line in the same direction: top to bottom.
  6. Leave long tails of thread at the beginning: no back-stitching! This can be a habit so I have to pay attention.
  7. Work from the centre out: one on the right of centre, one on the left, then ne on the right and so on.
  8. Pull all of the thread tails in between the bouclé and the lining and tie off.

 

These are the rules and I follow them scrupulously so that I can get to the point where I can make it begin to look like a jacket. I can now sew the shoulder and side seams.

I baste the seams first to check the fit one more time. I find I can err on the side of a slightly larger seam especially at the waist. Remember when I said this was a bit boxier than I liked? Well, I find I can nip it in at the waist just a touch at this point and the fit improves.

So, I complete the seams using a 3.0 mm stitch, remove the basting, steam-press the lines open and trim a bit. The bouclé is starting to fray – which is to be expected – so I have to be gentle and handle it as little as possible until I can get all of the seams encased in the lining permanently. I Press and catch-stitch the hem, and clip and press the neckline which I then catch stitch as well. It’s almost ready to hand-stitch the lining! A jacket is beginning to emerge!

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Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket, Style

My Little French Jacket: Underneath it all

chanel 1960s 2Whenever I see a fantastic jacket of any sort, I always wonder exactly what is underneath that beautifully finished exterior. What does it look like between the lining and the fabric? What precisely is it that keeps those edges straight? How is it that the sleeve cap is so perfect? Oh, I know all about underlining, seam finishing, sleeve setting and all the rest, but putting it all together to achieve a specific finish – well, that’s the thing. And that’s why the stabilizing and other aspects of what goes between what the world will see – the lovely bouclé – and what I will feel – the even lovelier silk charmeuse – is at the heart of my next step.

Everything is cut out and marked. Now I have to consider what will support that beautiful exterior. But before I can even get to that in its totality, I have to deal with the buttonholes. And this begins with stabilizing the fabric to support buttons and button holes, a step that I have not had to take previously.

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A close-up of the stitches in the edge stabilizing step in my LFJ #1.

The first thing I have to do is stabilize the front open edge (I’m also going to stabilize the front neck edge while I’m at it.). So, I use the silk organza selvage along the front and attach it as I have learned to do before: a slip stitch along the fold line and a catch-stitch to hold it down. Then I have to underline just the centre front of the jacket – centre front to the princess seam. Chanel-type jackets are meant to be soft and pliable with no firm interlining to stiffen it whatsoever, but when dealing with a buttoned up front, it needs a little something. I am using silk organza because after testing a few interfacings (which is what it’s called in the pattern, but given the construction technique, it’s really more of an interlining or underlining if you prefer) I decide that the silk organza changes the hand and drape of the fabric the least.

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I cut it out roughly and lay it on the wrong side of each of the front pieces. I then baste it on with large diagonal stitch lines (and my Japanese basting thread!) to hold it in place. Then, following the instructions in the pattern (Vogue 8804), I machine quilt it to the boucle using a 35 mm stitch – I’ve already done several test pieces which are essential for me.

I have had to read the instructions for this at least four times, because it didn’t really make a lot of sense to me: normally, those machine quilting lines would be through the silk lining as well. But I do as I’m told here and later realize that it’s because the quilting line would have been too close to the front and the buttonholes. I also cut out little pieces of fusible interfacing and fuse them to the right front under where each buttonhole will be.

As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum previously, this jacket differs from my previous two in that it actually has buttons and buttonholes at the front and sleeve vents. And I’ve decided to do them the Chanel way: hand bound. Dear god! Have I lost my mind? Maybe. Anyway, I’m determined to give it a try. And I have to do it at this stage if I’m going to follow Claire Shaeffer’s instructions with Vogue 8804. The buttonholes are completed first and then a faux welt is done behind them where they will be hand-stitched to the lining.

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My little sample piece for practicing hand sewn buttonholes

I have my supplies at hand: I couldn’t get silk buttonhole thread so I’m using another suggested option, in this case a cotton button thread, beeswax and a gin and tonic. I review the online video I discovered to be the best instruction available – from The Yorkshire Tailor – prepare my samples to replicate exactly the fabric I’ll be doing it on (bouclé, fused interfacing pieces and silk organza underlining) and take a deep breath.

 

 

She makes it look so easy and tidy, right? And the stitches themselves are fairly easy. I’ve waxed my thread exactly as suggested in the video and I’m making my first sample buttonhole. It is hideous and I’m acutely aware that there is an expectation that one needs to complete 30 before really getting them right. Thirty? I do another. And another. And another. They are so hideous that I can’t even bring myself to take photos. This will not be happening. I am not a Chanel worker and this is not a Chanel jacket, after all. It is an homage and I want to be able to wear it. With my hand buttonholes, that would not be possible! But I need another plan of attack for those pesky buttonholes before I commit to completing the lining. (Maybe I’ll practice them over the winter!)

So, I get out my buttonhole attachment for my machine and prepare a few samples that also include the lining. I use silk thread in the bottom on the silk side and start experimenting. I have a lot of difficulty with getting them the right size because of how the fabric feeds (or does not feed) between the two pieces fo the buttonhole foot as it normally does. After removing the bottom plate and just letting it feed over the machine plate, I have a buttonhole I’ll be satisfied with. However, since it is also through the lining, I won’t be doing them until near the very end of the project.

At least I can move on. So I complete the stabilization of the neck and hem edges of the body (I’m completely avoiding the sleeves until I get to that point when I’ll stabilize, construct and quilt all at the same time.) I can sew a few seams and get ready for the fun part: quilting the silk to the bouclé!

Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket, Style

Cutting out & marking my ‘Little French Jacket’ for a perfect fit

-Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.-The more expensive the fabric, I buy, the more trepidation I feel just at that moment when, shears in hand, I hover above the swath of fabric on the table in front of me. I have already prepared the tweed bouclé by steaming it within an inch of its life, and I have carefully laid it out, in a single layer to ensure accuracy. I have carefully measured the grain lines and pinned them precisely where they are supposed to be. But this time around – on this third Little French Jacket – I’m using a slightly different approach to cutting. Rather than simply following a seam allowance, I’m just doing a rough cut. I’ll be marking seam lines and using those for a more accurate fit. And yet, here I sit, shears at the ready, taking a moment to pause and breathe before that first snip. Once that’s underway, I’m committed. Here I go.

This is actually fun, I think as I snip away ensuring a minimum of an inch (which I am eyeballing), all around the perimeter of the muslin pattern that I have already fitted and prepared. Once I have all of the pieces cut out, I am ready to thread trace all of the important markings.

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Japanese cotton basting thread – photo from SusanKhalje.com

I’m using a product that is new to me. When I viewed Susan Khalje’s couture dress class (I am working on the dress too, but that’s a whole different story!), she introduced me to the concept of Japanese cotton basting thread. She sang its praises so much that I had to have it. I also had to have her large sheets of waxed tracing paper that I used to mark the muslin pieces, so I ordered them all together.

 

It’s interesting stuff. I have these skeins in four different pastel shades and have selected the pink for my thread tracing. The instructions are to tie a ligature around the skein and cut it in one place. Then I am to take individual threads that will evidently come straight out, not disturbing the remaining thread. And it will be in the perfect length for basting they say. Well, it actually works. So I begin.

First I trace all of the seam lines. At the corner of each intersecting line, I use Clair Schaeffer’s method for taking the corner, knowing that I’ll be able to snip those corner threads to remove them in due course. And I know that I have a precise corner point.

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I also use thread markings for the notches, circles, quilting lines on the front (as I mentioned earlier when I examined the pattern, I’ll make up my own mind about where to put the back quilting lines when I get there).

I have cut this out in one layer, but since I made up only a one-sided muslin pattern (that may not have been the best idea I’ve ever had), I do my marking and thread tracing as I go. In other words, I cut out one centre front piece, mark it and then take the muslin pattern piece off and cut out another one and so on. I have been very carefully marking the wrong side of the fabric with a piece of patterned tape held securely with a safety pin. The fabric is essentially the same on both sides, but it would be awful to find I’ve prepared two right front sides rather than a front and a left because I mixed up the right and wrong sides!

fringeIt’s important at this juncture to say that I am also being careful not to cut through any of the selvages. I am preserving them because they are fringed. I don’t know yet how I’ll trim this jacket — that’s a design decision for later. But I do know that I might want this fringe at a later date.

When all that marking is done, I move on to cutting out and marking the lining.

I love silk charmeuse against the body – but I’m not as big a fan of it on the cutting table. Usually, one would cut this in a single layer, but I am finding that using muslin as a pattern rather than any kind of paper pattern makes cutting this out double-layered so much easier. So that’s what I do. Again, I’m rough cutting because I’ll mark the stitching lines to use. I am using white waxed tracing paper and the same method I used with the muslin to mark the wrong side of the charmeuse.

I also need to cut out a piece of interfacing – it’s really underlining in my view, though, regardless of what it’s called on the pattern – for the front of the jacket to support the buttons and buttonholes. In my previous jackets, there was no such layer since they had open fronts.

I test a few fabrics and realize that the only option that will give me the look and feel I want is, indeed, the silk organza – only pure silk will do.

And so, now I’m ready to test stitches, cut out little pieces of iron-on interfacing to place behind the buttonholes, and start sewing. A jacket is on the horizon!

Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket, Style

Planning Another Little French Jacket (and planning to learn a few new couture techniques…)

I suppose that when I embarked on learning how to recreate a Little French Jacket, Chanel-style, just over a year ago, I thought that it might diminish my obsession with this iconic Chanel piece. Well, since then I have completed two of the little beauties, and am obsessed with making a third. But this time, I plan on learning some new things. Before I get to that, I want to revisit what I love about them so much in case I miss something new that needs to be added to my “need-to-learn” list.

Vintage inspiration:

 

As I begin this process, I return to a few of the resources I started with so long ago.

One of the first places I need to revisit is a video of the way these jackets are made…

“Secrets of the Little Black Jacket”

 

Okay, that’s fantastic information, but as I said I discovered that before my first one. Now, I’ve found an “Inside Chanel” newer one that give me at least two new insights…

 

 

I had never considered that making the waist slightly higher will give that closer fit, but I take note of that this time around. And the notion of a sleeve cigarette is new to me, but would solve the slight droop in the shoulder that I am prone to in unstructured pieces since I have sloped shoulders. So this video is a new resources. But I will use others.

Here is my list of resources and what I’ll take from each one:craftsy class

  1. The Craftsy course on “The Iconic Tweed Jacket.” This is where I actually started. The course is clear, easy to follow and the instructor is precise. This was my complete guide the first time I embarked on this journey and I’ll refer back to it. However, I have since learned that it is “Little French Jacket light” in a way. That being said, it was mandatory for me to do it this way first. And I think the product was pretty good. My first jacket, below, was from Vogue 7975, collarless, open front, of a wonderful bouclé tweed lined with silk charmeuse. It is less trimmed than I had intended (see my post regarding the machinations I went through to come to this conclusion), because it just didn’t look right to me. The truth is that I absolutely love this jacket and have worn it with a dress, jeans and everything in between. And it feels divine. vogue chanel patternMy second LFJ was made from the same pattern, although I drafted my own full-length sleeves. Made of a true bouclé fabric, it is lined with a printed lining that did not comply with my own rule: line only with silk. I fell in love with the pattern on the lining fabric so ignored the fact that it is a polyester blend. I do love the jacket, but because it is not pure silk inside, the feel of it on the body doesn’t even come close to my first one. It doesn’t breathe, so can only be worn in the winter. But I did layer the trim and liked the effect. Lesson here: I will use only silk – and my preference is silk charmeuse – for lining, regardless of how much I love a patterned non-silk.
  2. My second resource this time will be Claire Schaeffer’s book The Couture Cardigan Jacket with its included DVD. She presents a terrific amount of information on authentic Chanel jackets and her technique is a step beyond what was taught in the Craftsy course. I’ll use her approach to cutting and marking in particular. I will work only with seam lines, never seam allowance edges for a perfect fit, and I will thread-trace each and every fabric piece. Yikes, I think I’m tired already!IMG_1137
  3. The third resource I’m using is Susan Khalje’s Craftsy course on the Couture Dress. Yes, I’m working on the muslin of this dress project as we speak, but it is her approach especially to muslin production that I will use in this new LFJ project.
  4. My own past blog posts will also be a resource for me. When I started this blog, I did it as a kind of reference for myself. And if anyone else found it entertaining or useful along the way, well, that’s the advantage of a blog over a journal!
  5. And finally, the pattern I’ve selected this time is Claire Schaeffer’s Vogue 8804 which is actually designed for the Chanel-esque process: couture hand sewing, machine quilting etc. What’ interesting about this pattern is the instructions. They are exceptionally detailed and full of her actual tips and tricks.

Vogue 8804 pattern front

I want to learn a few new tricks – and have a jacket that is a bit different from the previous ones. Here are some of the new things I will incorporate:

  • Three-piece, rather than two-piece sleeves.
  • A button-front
  • Hand-worked buttonholes
  • Thread tracing the muslin
  • Thread tracing all fabric pieces.

 

Okay, here I go!

Posted in Fashion, Fashion Design, Style, Style Influencers

Inspiration for designing my wardrobe

ideaI love the idea of having a collection of clothes designed and fitted specifically for me – clothes that suit my lifestyle and my aesthetic, and fit me to perfection. The only way that this is happening is if I do it myself. First and foremost, though, I know that everything starts with an idea. And in spite of the fact that I think I know what I want, when it comes to putting pencil to paper and creating that first series of sketches, I’m not so sure that what comes out in the end will be any different than what hangs on the ready-to-wear racks. Or maybe it will. I just need to give some thought to how this creative process plays out.

Some years ago I developed and taught an undergraduate university course in creativity as applied to corporate communications. It was such fun and my students absolutely loved it. We spent a summer school semester exploring how that creative process works and what it means to be a creative person. I created for them a complete workbook for the course (maybe I should publish it!) which guided all of us through various ways of looking at creativity and processes for tapping into our potential. Here is what the introduction to the workbook said:

“You should have figured out by now that before you can “create” anything – whether it is a brochure, an academic paper, or a new recipe for frittata — something happens in your mind first. So, you need to start thinking about what Freud said: “Insanity is continuing to do the same things and expecting different results.” Put those two ideas together and you may begin to understand that you first have to change the way you think about things if you expect to come up with new, imaginative and creative approaches to anything – whether it is solving a client’s PR problem, writing a song or choreographing a new dance.”

And in the margin I had placed the following quote from Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way (a book I highly recommend):the artists way cover

No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too silly to work on your creativity.

…so now it seems that I need to take my own advice. I started by considering how some of my favourite designers (Diane Von Furstenberg, Eileen Fisher, Karl Lagerfeld, Erdem & Smythe – an eclectic collection to be sure!), might approach the process. My research led me to the following conclusions:

  1. Fashion designers are inspired continually by the world around them.
  2. There is nothing magical about their creative processes.

I happened upon a video – a TED talk – that designer Isaac Mizrahi gave a few years back where he describes his own process. One of the ways he is inspired is what I call creative cross-training. He doesn’t’ call it that, but I always called it that for my students and myself. Here’s what he said…

For me, creative cross training means pursuing different creative pursuits and allowing them to feed one another. Just last year I wrote a guest blog post called Finding Writing Inspiration in Creative Cross-Training for a writer friend (I think I might just have outed myself in my other life and persona!). As I describe in the post, I stumbled on the idea when I signed up for a sketching course many years ago with the idea that I could improve my observational skills. I hoped that these would contribute to my writing. Well, they did, but I also discovered that I was actually finding not only improved observational skills, but also inspirational ideas. So, Isaac performs and designs and does other creative things. I write (various things), design, sew and do a bit of sketching. So, back to how other designers get their ideas.

As I surfed through various articles about where individual designers find inspiration, a number of themes emerged. Here is a list of places that were mentioned again and again…

  • books
  • movies
  • on the street
  • observing people
  • doing research
  • just sketching
  • listening to music
  • reliving lost personal memories
  • travel
  • architecture
  • interior design
  • nature
  • history
  • art
  • historical figures

…and for me, I’m inspired by my own lifestyle. In fact, the first completely-me-created design that I have been writing about for the past few posts, seemed to be completely the result of wanting a nice piece that would withstand a day of walking in the heat of summer in the city.

As of today, I have cut out and begun sewing the final garment. But here’s a bit of a refresher about how it evolved…

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I’m going to start being more observant and keep journals for design the way I have been doing for years for my writing. I’m excited to see where it takes me!

Here are some of the online places I visited for my research.

 

The Secret Journey of a Fashion Piece — Part 1: Creativity & Design https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/secret-journey-fashion-piece-part-1-creativity-design

Isaac Mizrahi: Fashion & Creativity. TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_mizrahi_on_fashion_and_creativity#t-832215 a bit about creative cross-training…although he doesn’t call it that. A bit about how fashion designers have to be a bit bored.

Where Some Designers Get Their Ideas. Time online. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1534892,00.html

33 Things That Inspired Fashion Designers and Their Collections http://www.instyle.com/awards-events/fashion-week/new-york/fall-2017-designer-inspiration

Posted in sewing, Style

Commercial or self-drafted pattern duel: We have a winner!

I can’t remember exactly when it was I decided that I wanted – no, needed – to learn to draft my own patterns. In my past sewing experiences, I confined my own designing to making changes in commercial patterns. You know: you change a sleeve, or tweak a collar, you make creative fabric selection, or ditch a zipper. In the end you believe it is truly yours. Well, that’s okay, but it does limit creative expression, and when I found myself continually having to tweak commercial patterns for fit, that’s when I realized I really needed to create my own patterns. So I started the courses to learn.

After a year of following several courses, creating a personal bodice sloper from a personal moulage, then learned a thing or two about operations necessary for creating patterns from that sloper, I finally created my first pattern. By the end of my last post I had completed the final muslin for my first totally self-designed pattern, and was ready to embark on creating a muslin for the commercial pattern that was also in contention for a particularly nice piece of shirting fabric. Here’s how that process went.

When I first clapped eyes on McCall’s 7546 earlier this spring, it was the sash that drew me to it. I like the idea of tailored shirts with body-conscious shaping. My own design this spring incorporates that idea, but does it differently.

First, my own design has princess seams.

first pattern

Although 7546 looks as if it has princess seams, it really has slashed darts from the armholes that end some distance above the hem in both front and back.

line art

The sashes are also different. The one I designed is sewn into the side seams leaving the back unencumbered. The McCall’s pattern has a wider sash that originates in the back seam resulting in a bit of a bulge – at least it was in unbleached cotton. I could only hope that it would be smoother in a smooth shirting fabric.

The necklines are also quite different as you can see. My own design has a mandarin collar – a design I love. The commercial pattern has an open collar with a collar stand. And of course, the sleeves in the dueling designs are so very different: my own is sleeveless, while the McCall’s has full-length sleeves with a cuff – one version with a so-called cold shoulder, the other without.

chicos cold shoulder
My ready-to-wear cold-shoulder…

It was not in any way the cold-shoulder sleeves that attracted me to this pattern. This design feature is certainly ubiquitous in spring/summer 2017 ready-to-wear, and I have to say its popularity puzzles me a bit. Maybe it’s the Toronto weather: too cold in winter for cold-shoulders, too hot in summer for any sleeves at all. Anyway, I did buy one this year, but I’m not really sure where I’ll wear it other than on a cruise through the Panama Canal this fall. I never wear prints, and on pain of death avoid the “boho” look. Wonder what got into me? Anyway, I decided that I’d make up one of those sleeves when I created the muslin. Hmm. That was interesting.

 

So many sleeves, so little fabric! I decided that in the interests of making a decision, and the fact that I was unconvinced about the cold-shoulder, I should cut and sew two different sleeves for this test garment.

I first cut and sewed the cold-shoulder with the cuff, then drafted up a three-quarter length sleeve using the armscye of the pattern and my own sleeve sloper – since the sleeve from the pattern seemed a tad wide for my arms in any case. So here’s what I got on the first try.

The cold-shoulder sleeve was hideously large, gaping even more than the photos show. My own ¾ sleeve, on the other hand, wasn’t so bad. But it didn’t seem quite finished. So I unpicked them both and cut the commercial sleeve without the cold shoulder. I also re-drafted my own slightly shorter and a tad wider to accommodate an external facing. Here’s what these two looked like.

 

So here I am, having to make a decision before cutting into the Mood fabric. I really loved my own design – the look and the fit. But I realized that the fabric might not be the best for it. So the winner is: the commercial pattern. But I’m making it with my second three-quarter length sleeve. So, I guess it’s my own design? Not so much.

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I have cut it out and begun to sew, but I’m off to the Toronto garment district this week to find the perfect fabric for my own design!

Posted in Fashion Design, sewing, Style

Dueling patterns: Commercial or my own design?

A couple of months ago I found myself with a free hour to wander by myself up and down the aisles of Mood Fabrics in Los Angeles. I perused all the aisles first, then zeroed in on the two or three that were home to the fabrics I was actually on the hunt for. I am not a fabric hoarder in any way. The mere thought of a so-called “stash” makes me gag. (As I’ve said before, that’s just me – no judgment – I know others feel differently, very differently!). This stems from my and my husband’s inclination for quality over quantity in as many aspects of our lives as we can manage. That means fewer clothes, a little less wine and even fewer pairs of shoes – but every one of better quality than we might otherwise accumulate. This philosophy even governs our travel: we travel less often than many of our friends, but always in style – no economy seats on long flights, that’s for sure! Well, this is how I shop for fabric.

Anyway, as excited as I was about the surfeit of wonderful fabrics – there were dozens of silks, linens and wool bouclés I adored – I stuck to my little pink book where I had specific patterns and their requisite yardages. I only buy when I know I have a project. One such project was a bit hazy, though.

theory blouse
The Theory blouse at Saks, summer 2016 collection that inspired me

I had a picture in my mind of a sleeveless Theory blouse that I had considered last summer at Saks. It was, however, a whopping $385.00 CDN which, even for someone obsessed with quality, is a bit steep for a blouse. So, I reluctantly put it back on the rack, concluding that given what it was and its potential price-per-wearing, it was past my point of diminishing returns. But I never forgot it.

 

With the concept of the blouse still in my head, I searched the shelves for white, textured shirting to see if anything caught my eye. It did. So, against my own rules, I bought it without an actual pattern in mind. When I got home, though, I found what I thought might be the perfect pattern.

McCall’s 7546 isn’t even sleeveless, but it has of-the-moment- bare shoulders at the top of its long sleeves. It does have that tie, even if it is a bit wide and long, sewn as it is into the back seam. So, I prepped the fabric by washing, drying and ironing, then began to think about tissue-fitting and cutting a muslin. But there was something nagging at the back of my mind.

I’m ready to design my own blouse, I was thinking. I had learned to draft a bodice for a blouse, how to draft necklines and collars, how to create button plackets, and I was certain that drafting a tie that was set into the side seams would be a piece of cake. I was ready. So I started sketching.

My own version of the sleeveless, tie-front blouse has that front placket, but it also has princess seams in the front and back and a mandarin collar. I just love a mandarin collar (and have a plan to draft myself a cheongsam someday). Anyway, I thought why not draft the pattern then cut and sew muslins for both of the patterns? Why not make it a bit of a competition (where I get to be the judge and decide which one will have the privilege of being cut from my Mood fabric)?

So, I started drafting a pattern then cut out both patterns in muslin. Then I started sewing.

Of course, with my own pattern, I knew I’d likely need at least two test garments to get it just right. I needed two. The second one fits perfectly, and although the muslin is stiffer than the fashion fabric, the tie isn’t bad. However, I actually think I like it better without the tie at all! I guess that’s part of the design process.

IMG_1061

So, here’s where I am in the duel of the commercial versus self-designed patterns: I have now completed a muslin for my own design and it’s ready to rip apart to make the final pattern. But before I do that, I’m working through the muslin for the McCall’s pattern. I want to see the two of them side-by-side. At this point, I do have a contender in mind for the prize fabric, but I’m not quite there yet.

Next week!

Posted in sewing, Style

In praise of (sewing) button-front shirts

If I had to describe my personal fashion style in one word, I’ve always immediately jumped to “tailored.” When I met my husband just over 30 years ago, he commented on the number of suits hanging in my closet (with shoes in labeled shoe boxes lining the upper shelf). In fact, he had the audacity to remark that they all looked the same. The nerve! I of course pointed out that they were indeed all quite different. Several, however, were from the same two designer – Montreal designer Simon Chang and Alfred Sung to be specific – so, I suppose to the style challenged they must indeed have all looked very similar.

As my career evolved, and dress codes changed, sadly I wore fewer and fewer suits. But what never changed was my attraction to sleek lines, button-front, collared shirts, blazers and great shoes. Even today, with my current casual lifestyle, I wear a blazer with jeans and I have a favourite Brooks Brothers cashmere one that is one of those pieces that transcends fashion and trends. It will always be in style!

All of this got me thinking about the sewing patterns and styles that I’m drawn to these days. Why is it that I so often create for myself those soft knit pieces? Of course they, too, have a place in my life, but there is little doubt that they are a bit less complicated to fit and sew. This from the woman who delights in those couture sewing techniques that require so much time and attention. I think I always hesitated to tackle a real “shirt” for example, because I so love. Brooks Brothers shirts where the workmanship is without equal for the price point. Not cheap, but certainly not the most expensive you can buy. I love that attention to quality and my question to myself is would I be able to produce something I’d be prepared to wear. Well, this is my year and I’ve just finished the first of at least two shirt type garments that I have planned.

Before I reveal my latest project, though, I was interested to find out when and where we actually started wearing this particular style that seems to transcend fashion. Where did these collared shirt designs originate and, even more interesting, when did women begin to embrace them – because to be sure, they did begin as men’s fashion. So, I did a bit of digging.

DSC05153First, I need to clarify a bit of terminology. My well-dressed son who loves his Armani tux (which he bought on sale ten years ago and still wears) as much as he loves his jeans and sneakers, loves a button-front shirt. However, he and his friends all call them “button-down” shirts. This had always bugged me since my understanding was that only shirts whose collars actually button down were correctly called this. It turns out that I am, indeed, right. So much for the millennials and their terminology!

It seems that collared shirts have been a part of men’s wardrobes for centuries. In fact, the terms “white collar” and “blue collar” actually do originate in the difference between the colours of the collars worn by men who worked in more clerical, office-type and executive-type positions versus those who toiled as laborers. As you may be aware, before the early 1900’s men’s shirt collars were not, in fact, attached to the shirts at all. It was only after laundry became more accessible and clothing manufacturing became more sophisticated that different fabrics and colours and attached collars became a fashion item for men.[1]

mens collars

The actual button-down collar has an equally interesting history. In 1896 Brooks Brothers started producing soft button-down collar shirts inspired by the shirts worn by polo players at the time. These days we tend to think of the polo shirt as having a collar that flops around, but it seems that polo players back at the end of the nineteenth century didn’t’ like those floppy collars and began buttoning them down. Still these days the buttoned-down collar is considered to be more casual than one that is not: a button-down is likely to be considered to be a sports shirt while the non-buttoned collar may be on a dress shirt – but as you know, everything is changing in our casual world!

So, when did women start wearing this style? Just last week I received a catalogue from Brooks Brothers. It seems that in 1949 they began to notice that the smaller sizes of their famous button front shirts were selling much faster than the larger sizes. When they tracked down the cause of this they found that women were buying them! It was that year they introduced what is now their iconic button-front shirt for women and so many others have followed suit. So, what am I going to make?

IMG_1772
Butterick 6376 and my fabric from Mood Fabrics LA. I’m making view B

I happened on Butterick 6376 before I landed at Mood Fabrics in LA in February. While I was there, I swooned over their array of shirting fabrics and found a winning combination for me: black and white stripes and black contrast. I then scoured the Toronto garment district for buttons when I got home and plunged in.

 

What I liked about this particular pattern was that it’s not a simple white (or even coloured) shirt, rather it’s a tunic with interesting sleeves. I know that in my distant sewing past I constructed a variety of collars, but I could not remember ever making a collar with a stand. It looked a bit daunting, but it turns out it’s so easy.

The fabric was so easy to work with, but I wanted it to look great on the inside so decided to flat fell as many of the seams as it would work for and I do love the interior finish.

I haven’t had a chance to wear it yet – still not quite warm enough – but I do know that I need to make another button-front shirt. I have an idea of what’s next, and this time it includes a design of my own that I’ve been working on and all that entails: making the pattern is up first. I’ll let you know what’s happening next!

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[1] A Brief History of Men’s Dress Shirts. https://www.pacificissue.com/the-blog/a-brief-history-of-mens-dress-shirts