Every project has to begin somewhere. When you think of vacationing in the Caribbean and what you’ll be wearing, you might very well begin with an image of a beach and a palm tree and a cool cocktail. You might be wearing a dreamy, floaty swim cover-up, or a fluttery tank top and shorts, or even a sun dress. Well, I’ll get there eventually, but let’s face it – my cruise collection really is for a cruise. And a luxury cruise at that. What this means is a major requirement for cocktail attire, so that’s where I’m starting. My perfect LBCD.
I spent a lot of time last year on my Little Black Dress project, during which I completed four test garments using three commercial patterns and ending up with my own design. But during that process I did find a silhouette that I thought I might translate into one of my own pieces.
For this collection, I’m inspired by Jackie O. and Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean. Much of what that conjures up for me relates to daytime sand, sun, surf and shopping in Monte Carlo. But for evening, I need to look no further than their iconic cocktail style to be inspired to create a dress that will be the centerpiece of this evening cruise collection.
It will be a simple, boat-necked, princess-seamed black dress that fits to perfection and can be changed up by accessories and all manner of little jackets. That way, a cruiser like me need only take one or two cocktail dresses and never look the same twice.
The fabric is black with textural striped detail and lovely drape which lends itself to the long, lean line of this princess-seamed dress. Although this fabric feels wonderful on its own (and is washable and packable to boot), I am lining it for a more sophisticated feel – and it finishes off the neckline and armholes beautifully.
It is so simple: boat-neck, sleeveless, lined, invisible back zipper, centre-back slit. Perfect fit. That’s it.
Next I’ll need to draft a few jackets to accompany it!
Perhaps in a coordinating fabric? We’ll see.
[BTW: No final views of the pieces in action – i.e. on me – until we hit the Caribbean!]
There was a time in my creative life when I always, ALWAYS began any project with a design. In the beginning (all those years ago in home ec sewing classes) that always meant a commercial pattern. I’d go to the fabric store and sit for what seemed like hours pouring over those gargantuan catalogues. (I have not looked in a pattern book for about 20 years: if I want a commercial pattern, I’d rather let my fingers do the clicking online.) And it does have to be said that there was a lot to like back then.
I’d select my pattern number, search for it and my size in the big drawer, then, and only then, would I head toward the bolts of fabric to select something appropriate. (There was so much crimplene, woven cotton and corduroy!) I loved the process of finding just the right piece so that, even though I hadn’t actually designed the piece from scratch, there would be enough of me in it to call it an original: the colour, the drape, the way the contrasting colours were applied. But I never once, at least as far as I can remember, ever started just with a piece of fabric. Times have changed.
These days, I do occasionally find a piece of fabric that I know I just must do something with. But in all honesty, I still find that I do have a picture in my head of what it will be, even if that picture changes as I move through the project. I never, NEVER buy fabric without any idea of what I’ll do with it. I do not hoard or in any other way stash fabric. Oh, there goes my rant again.
So, back to my fabric selection for my cruise wear. Last time we talked, I was showing you my inspiration board. That inspiration board is leading me to the actual designs and to the fabric choices.
My “muses” for the collection
What comes to mind when you think about Jackie O. or Audrey Hepburn on the Mediterranean?
For me, they conjure up visions of airy cottons, pristine white T’s, striped French-sailor jerseys and big sunglasses. They make me think about sun, sand (okay, it’s hard to call it sand on the beaches of Cannes and Nice, more like pebbles), yachts, the ocean and cold glasses of Sancerre.
This is my inspiration…my stepping off point…my stimulus. The rest of the elements, however, really happen organically. Colours, textures, line…all of these come together not in a linear way; rather they feed into one another.
A cruise collection colour scheme
If I am being quite honest about my sartorial choices in general, I have to tell you that I live in a limited colour palette. I love neutrals: grey, black, white, taupe. But I do have a bit of colour: red, fuchsia, burgundy, occasionally blue. And that’s about it. These are the colours that flatter me and the colours that I think look best in the kind of tailored style that has been my hallmark for decades. I also eschew prints for the most part. I find wild prints distract from the clean lines I prefer and to tell you the truth, I usually look like I’m wearing upholstery when I try on any kind of print. Oh, I do love to see prints on others – especially ones with a dark background, but they’re not for me. It’s who I am. That being said, perhaps there might be room for a bit of whimsy in my wardrobe? Who am I kidding?
A colour scheme for a cruise collection, though begs for a reflection of sun, sky and water. So, for this collection I’m drawn to blues, greys, white and a bit of black, of course. Because, who can go on a cruise without a little black dress? Hmm?
So, I need a bit of texture, do I?
Any fashion designer will tell you that collections need texture. When I buy ready-to-wear, I don’t really think about texture in that way. How I think of it is how it feels on my skin. And I do think that this kind of feeling is very important. But what about how texture looks? How it enhances the style lines of a design making aspects of it stand out? I have had to think about texture in a different way when creating pieces rather than simply buying them.
I found these wonderful photos of sand textures and was immediately drawn to them…then to the Egyptian-motif print (Yikes a print!) with the texture.
I think I can embrace this black on white print because of its simplicity, although I see it more as a partner piece rather than a complete outfit on its own. And then what about that striped seersucker?
It has texture, print (my kind of print, anyway) and to its credit, is a natural fabric – the best choice for a Caribbean cruise in my view.
Style lines that inspire
So what kind of lines will there be in this collection? Palm trees that sway in the gentle island breeze provide my mind’s eye with both a visual and a feeling. I’d like to capture that in both fabric and in design. But flowy dresses don’t suit me personally (I don’t think I’ve worn a full skirt since I was 11 years old), so even though it might be fun to design a flowy sundress, I’ll pass on that because I’d never wear it. I’ll just have to find a way to capture this feeling with cleaner lines.
Basic design decisions
I’ve decided that the collection will have two foci: one of them will be a day dress of sorts that will be the centre-piece of the daytime wardrobe. A little black cocktail dress will anchor the evening grouping. So, I started a bit of sketching and contemplation of which fabrics go with which designs.
Prepping my fabric
Most of the fabrics I am choosing for this collection are easy care, easy packing. I prepped the materials as I always do by using my 4X4-inch template to cut swatches and throw them in the washing machine.
I then measure them against the template after coming out of the machine and then again measure and examine them after the dryer. That’s when I decide how to prep the whole fabric piece. The black fabric for the cocktail dress which will be the centre of the evening wardrobe is washable, but I’ll plan to line it so, in the end, it will not be a washable dress.
Now that my fabric is prepped and I’ve given some preliminary thought to the design of some pieces, it’s time to get to work tweaking drawings and making patterns.
When I was thirteen years old, I fancied myself something of an artist. It occurred to me that there was no reason why a young teen-aged girl could not be a best-selling writer, or a fashion designer (never mind that I went on to study science and communication in university; I did eventually write books and now…well, here I am!). I was a sewing fanatic and loved the process of putting a piece together. But the design elements! That’s what I really loved.
I used commercial patterns – it’s just what you did – but loved the process of thinking about how I could make them different, could make them mine, by fabric choice, detail tweaks and putting elements of an outfit together in a way that was different from that on the pattern envelope. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and I think that my creative process has been honed through the years, but there is still that young girl in me who wants to create. And my creation process always begins with something that seems awfully non-creative: an organizational system. But stay with me for a minute.
A few years back (actually 15, but who’s counting?) Twyla Tharp wrote an extraordinary book called The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life. If you are unfamiliar with Twyla Tharp you’re likely not much of a dance fan. Since I’m the mother of a ballet dancer, she’s very familiar to me as one of the foremost choreographers in the world. The Broadway hit Moving Out based on Billy Joel’s music was her brainchild. In any event, she has a wonderful chapter in that book called “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” And she means that quite literally.
She says, “Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you buy at Office Depot for transferring files…I write the project name on the box, and as the [project]progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making…that may have inspired me…”
She uses a box. I use notebooks. Some of my notebooks are digital, but my favourites are pen and paper ones. I use them for my writing and I use them for my sewing and design projects. And I gather ideas from everywhere then write them down. And paste in pictures. And tape in fabric swatches. So, for this cruise collection that I introduced you to in my last post, I did all this then finally organized my thoughts around the areas of shapes, colours, textures, inspirational muses and vintage early 1970’s fashion because that’s where my head is these days.
First the muses. For this little collection, I’m inspired by the Mediterranean style of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O. For their days in Nice, Cannes and Antibes, whether strolling the Promenade des Anglaises or sailing the Med on a yacht, they had a kind of je ne sai quois, and yet je sais. At least je sais a feeling and a style. That’s what is underpinning my design thoughts.
My next exercise was to find pictures whose shapes I am drawn to with the feeling of my muses in mind. I always surf over to Pinterest to suss out black and white photos that grab my attention. I use black and white so I won’t be distracted by the colours in them. That comes next. As you can see by the photos I was drawn to that there are recurring themes. I will obviously at least be using stripes! I’ll also have to balance angles with a more organic flow. Can I do that? We’ll see.
Then with all of this in mind, I think about the colours that capture the feeling. I’m thinking about the beach and the sea – of course! So, when I look for colour photos to inspire me, I’m drawn to blues, greys, tans. These will figure prominently in the fabric choices.
Then what about textures? Every collection needs a bit of texture. When I return to Pinterest to find textures that attract me, I’m drawn to sand patterns. It will be a terrific challenge to see if I can find fabrics that have textures reminiscent of sand patters, and that all fit together.
Finally, I go to my own captured images of vintage patterns and find so many that reliably inspire the same vibe I get from Audrey and Jackie on the Med. I’m not into retro fashion, so anything I design that is inspired by these will be a modern take. Anyway, it was Voltaire who said, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” So it will be judicious.
Once I have all my inspiration material in notebooks, I extract the most important ones and they make it onto my inspiration board.
Then comes the fabric search. I know that I want a cocktail dress at the centre of the evening wear, and a “day dress” for lack of a better term at the centre of the day-time dressing. I don’t like the notion of a sundress since that’s not really my style. So, we’ll see where that takes us.
After a venture down to Queen Street West here in Toronto, a browse through a fabric store in Halifax when we were in Nova Scotia this summer and a small fabric boutique in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the route home, I have accumulated a few pieces that are further inspiring me. So, now to begin a few sketches of what some of these pieces might look like!
 Twyle Tharp. The creative habit: Learn it and use it for life. 2003. P. 80.
Ever since I began studying and learning about pattern drafting and design, I’ve obsessed about creating a kind of “collection.” This probably stems from my internal, imaginary fashion designer. Many others who also create their own wardrobes seem to refer to “capsule” collections in a similar way. In my mind, these two are related but not quite the same. And since I’m about to embark on yet another long-term project involving just such a goal, I thought I’d begin my process by defining exactly what I’m doing (probably not what an “artist” would do, but I’m my own kind of artist) then moving directly into the creative process that got me going.
First, what is a capsule wardrobe and why is my collection different?
There is a suggestion among many (if not most) people talking and writing about capsule wardrobes that they are predicated on the notion that you’ll be down-sizing – or perhaps right-sizing? – your wardrobe. In other words…
Well, that’s my definition based on what I’ve seen.
According to Wikipedia, that all-knowing online encyclopedia of varying accuracy, the term was actually coined back in the 1970’s by a London boutique owner named Susie Faux. Since I am of a “certain age” I do seem to recall that there was a flurry of interest in wardrobes that were well-thought-out enough to actually have all the pieces work together creating a cohesive style for the wearer. I, however, was young enough at the time to think that more was better when it came to my clothes. I most assuredly do not think that any longer. Thirty to forty items might seem like a lot (and this was the original capsule wardrobe recommendation), but if you go into an average woman’s closet, you’re going to be boggled by the number of pieces she owns. I know I am.
In 2016, the closet organizer company ClosetMaid polled 1000 women in the US and found out that on average they have 103 pieces of clothing in their closets. Presumably, that doesn’t include all those pieces folded in drawers! As an aside, they also found that these women admitted that they actually like only 10% of those clothes. (When I looked this up I was also staggered to learn that “… Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year …” ) So maybe we do need to “capsulize” a bit!
The definition of a capsule wardrobe as it was originally conceived was a group of essential pieces that don’t go out of style, and that form the basis for adding fashion pieces seasonally. And there were rules.
Colour: There needs to be a cohesive colour scheme and the colours chosen should be the most flattering to your complexion and hair.
Shape: The pieces should be chosen from the classic shapes so as to flatter your particular body shape (not really specific to capsules)
Fabrics: The garment should be constructed of high-quality fabrics so that they are amenable to wearing numerous times through the mixing and matching that will go on.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and capsule wardrobes seem to be created for a variety of reasons: the business capsule, the travel capsule (presumably different ones depending on the climate of the destination), the weekend capsule.
One can only conclude that if you have numerous capsules in your wardrobe, you essentially have a whole lot of clothes. So, we’re back to where we started. I think I like Susie’s approach to basics.
In my view capsule wardrobes are one type of beast, a collection a bit different. Although it has to be said that they have a number of characteristics in common: colours scheme, shapes and fabric choices among them.
My “collection” will be a group of garments that I am designing around a common theme and aesthetic for a specific season. In the case of my first such grouping, it will be what I’m calling a cruise collection. But my cruise collection does not conform exactly to the cruise collections as articulated by the real fashion industry.
The web site The Business of Fashion (and a fascinating one it is) defines a cruise collection this way:
“Cruise Collections, or resort or holiday collections as they are otherwise known, launch between the two main ready-to-wear seasons; Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Originally, they were created with the jet set in mind and catered for a client who needed a wardrobe for their mid-season travels to climates different to their own. Now, they have been adopted by many of the big brands as an opportunity to inject an entirely new must-have mid-season collection into market.”
It is the last sentence of their definition that truly embodies what they are these days – a mid-season collection. My cruise collection, on the other hand, really is going to be for a client (me) who needs a wardrobe for my mid-season travel to a climate different from my own. It will actually be for a cruise. In the winter. In the Caribbean.
My husband and I have been on lots of cruises (if you don’t believe me, just visit our travel blog at www.thediscerningtravelers.com). We’ve traveled through the Mediterranean several times, both eastern and western; we’ve done the South Pacific; we’ve done China and Japan; we’ve done the Panama Canal along with Ecuador, Peru and Chile; we’ve done a Cunard trans-Atlantic and we’ve been on numerous Caribbean cruises. And I’ve always gone on these cruises with a well-selected wardrobe of ready-to-wear that works for travel.
This year I want to take along a little collection that I’ve designed and made for the purpose.
My project begins with a design inspiration exercise. I’m going to share with you a sneak peek of where I’m headed with this project. Stand by for the next post on my creative process and getting to an inspiration board, fabric choices and potential designs.
I have made garments following every instruction on a commercial pattern down to the smallest detail. I have made garments using a commercial pattern but using my own approach to process. I have tweaked commercial patterns. I have used commercial patterns for the foundation for personal designs. I have designed patterns from scratch using only my own drawings. But I have never done this before. I have never actually copied a ready-to-wear garment.
In my “other” life, I’ve spent a lot of my time writing, teaching and thinking about ethics. And the very notion of copying something that someone else created has never really sat well with me. Stealing intellectual property comes immediately to mind. That being said, most design these days, barring the most outrageous (and even some of them) is in some way derivative of something else. Sometimes it is simply reminiscent of another era, but often the designers seem to have a type of groupthink in a season where shapes and colours all seem to have come from a single mind. So, is there really anything that is truly original in fashion design these days?
I had that conversation with myself when I was thinking about a fairly practical issue. How could I get myself another version of a sleeveless T-shirt that I absolutely loved when the original producer was no longer making this design? The only answer would be to copy it.
Years ago, I bought a Landsend T-shirt that turned out to be one of my very favourites. You know the type of garment I’m talking about. It’s the one that you didn’t see coming. It’s the non-descript little piece that you find yourself turning to every time the weather/season/event begs for one. Yes, you have others in your closet, but this one feels terrific, fits well and just makes you feel good. You should have bought three, but who knew that you’d love it so much. So, the day comes when you look at it and think, “I can’t really be seen in public in this anymore. It’s too worn/old/holey…” Pick one, or in my case too faded. It was a black cotton jersey which, as we all know, fades miserably over time.
So, I went online to see if Landsend had them and of course, they no longer existed. So, the question was, could I recreate it and perhaps tweak the design a bit to make it even better. Well, as much as I hated the thought of cutting the thing apart, I knew I’d never wear it n public again, so I took out my trusty sheers and got to work.
Making the pattern would be quite easy, I thought, but what would I actually make it out of? I knew I didn’t want a fade-prone black jersey again. And I know how much I love bamboo jersey. So, I wondered if I had enough of the black-striped grey that I’d used on another faux-wrap top. And I did! My newly updated faux-wrap sleeveless T design was coming together. Of course, the bamboo jersey has more stretch than the cotton jersey, so I figured that I’d probably have to tweak it a bit smaller – I was right.
Once I had all the pieces for the T cut apart, I trimmed them, pressed them and laid them out on pattern paper. I traced the pieces, added seam allowance and notches, trued the seams, decided where the shirring on the faux wrap should be (it had always been lower on the seam than I thought it should be), labeled everything and got ready to cut out the fabric.
The one thing I had to really think about was how I was going to finish the neckline and armholes. The original had binding. I wasn’t keen on that. I wanted a softer finish. So, I found that simply doing a double-turned and stitched hem was the answer.
I’m delighted at how it turned out.
The question is: is this really a copy or is it my own new design inspired by the original? The fabric choice is very different, so the T fits better. The designed was tweaked. Is it mine or is it theirs? In the end, does it matter? As far as I’m concerned, Coco Chanel can have the last word… Imitation is the highest form of flattery. I hope the original designer of this T is flattered. It’s meant sincerely.
A few years ago, my husband and I were on a kick to figure out what the concept of “luxury” means to people these days, and by extension, what it means when we say something is “luxurious.” We were sailing on one of those all-suite, 6-star, “luxury” cruise ships with a group of people who would, by all accounts, have more than a passing acquaintance with luxury. So, one evening while all dolled up for a formal evening, with all manner of creative tuxedo and evening gown dressing on display, while sipping cocktails at one of the chi-chi bars on board, we posed the question to the group. “What does luxury mean to you?” The answers were perhaps not what one might expect – although on deeper reflection, they are precisely what one ought to have expected.
One of the evening gown-clad women took a sip of her champagne and thought about this for a moment. They were all taking this turn in the conversation seriously. “Well,” she said finally, “Having someone make my bed with fresh sheets every day would be so luxurious.” Interesting. I guess we thought they might think about cars or first-class air travel…but I’ll get back to those in a minute.
The second woman said this: “It would be such a luxury if I had someone to wash my hair for me. I love that feeling,” she said. And I thought to myself, she’s right. What feels better than that massaging shampoo at the hairdresser? I was beginning to see a trend in their answers to the question.
It seems that in the twenty-first century, luxury is, at least in part, based on how something makes you feel. And I suppose that the fabulous car or first-class air travel isn’t luxurious in and of itself. It is only luxurious because of how it makes you feel. Then I thought, that’s exactly how I define luxurious fabrics. They are fabrics that have a kind of sensuous feel that make you feel divine when you wear them. When I wrote about alpaca before, I may not have articulated this in precisely this way, but it’s underlying all of my sentiment about alpaca, cashmere, silk…and now bamboo.
I bought a couple of T-shirts in the past few years from a company called LNBF (Leave Nothing But Footprints), a Canadian design group that bases its design philosophy on sustainable, natural, environmentally-friendly fabrics. It was the first time I had worn bamboo which is one of their mainstays. Well, sustainable it may be, and natural mostly, but environmentally-friendly? That’s actually debatable depending on the processes used to create it, but I’m going to focus on the fact that, in my view, it deserves to be in the category of luxurious fabrics, not based on its cost, but on how it makes you (me) feel. But it is worth considering its environmental footprint.
As Yvette Hymann, writing on the blog Good on You wrote back in 2016, bamboo is having its moment, and that moment seems to have legs since people are still embracing it in 2018. But there are questions about it. She says the following:
…there are a few things to consider…although bamboo is fast growing and requires no pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it is being grown sustainably. The majority of bamboo is grown in China, and there is no information regarding how intensively bamboo is being harvested, or what sort of land clearing might be underway in order to make way for the bamboo. Also, although bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, there is no guarantee that they are not being used to maximise outputs… 
Bamboo fibres that are woven or knit into fabrics that we use to make our luxurious T-shirts, are almost always “rayon” which is categorized as a semi-synthetic fibre. It would be extremely rare for the bamboo fabric you have to be created from a mechanical process, so you know it’s been chemically processed. When the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did a bit of an exposé on bamboo-clothing manufacturers’ claims a few years ago, they found that,
“…Bamboo is soaked in sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, and carbon disulfide and turned into a mush from which fibres are extracted. A diluted sulfuric acid solution is used in that part of the process.”
The truth is that there is hardly a fabric around today that doesn’t have some kind of environmental baggage. That goes for natural fibres such as cotton and silk, as well as manufactured fibres that are often oil-based – such as polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic and olefin. Once we have that figured out and we at least understand that apart from going naked, we might simply consider the sheer volume of clothing we make and own – and the amount of fabric sewers hoard. I have to be honest, though, I am not among those hoarders, so I’ve take a step.
Now that all that is off my chest, can I tell you how luxurious I find knit bamboo jersey to be? It is comfortable – oh so comfortable – it breathes and it just feels so sumptuous against the skin.
[Pattern envelope and drawings from McCall’s site]
When I found Butterick 6517, I knew I had a contender for the two yards of pin-striped grey bamboo I found on Queens St. West in Toronto on my last fabric hunt. I love the wrap styling of this top because it’s so flattering when it fits well.
I found that I had to cut it out single-layer to ensure stability and avoid stretching it. It’s a small price to pay for a good fit in the end. I did find that the wrap over was a bit droopy, but since I’m a baster, I basted the front seams before finalizing them and was able to perfect the fit. I also find these days that what some of the pattern designers are calling ¾ sleeves are, in fact, bracelet length. I am 5 feet 7 inches tall with normal length arms and I find their ¾ length dowdy. So, I shorten them on every occasion – unless I really do want bracelet length (which is rare).
I did the seam finishing with my serger (the piece of equipment I vowed I’d never use – I really do have to tell you about this long-standing prejudice of mine which has all but evaporated recently) and did some top-stitching. Then, voila! I have a top that I’d love to wear but the summer here in Toronto has been so stifling, it will have to wait until the fall!
Karl Lagerfeld, late of the House of Chanel, once said, “One is never over-dressed or underdressed with a little black dress.” Amen to that. And amen to my LBD project. It is finally over.
After four muslins of four different dresses, much machinating over which one to choose, I have finally finished one.
Based on my own design, it’s a simple sheath – my favourite silhouette – with neckline darts that extend down to the hem giving it a kind of princess-seam-from-the-neckline look. It has short sleeves which are the only part of the garment that’s lined (the fabric didn’t scream for lining but the next one will be lined as a quality dress should be), a simple neckline to permit all manner of necklaces and scarves, a back vent and an invisible zipper. That’s about it. Simple.
Now that the dress is finished, of course, had to go shopping for some fabric for my next project. While perusing the extraordinary selection at King Textiles on Spadina in Toronto, I naturally stumbled on the perfect fabric for my next LBD. So…it’s not up next, but it’s coming!
How is it possible to work closely with someone for years, enjoy their company, respect their knowledge and experience and appreciate their collegiality yet not really know something this important about them? I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Barbara Emodi for years in my “other” life and wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear that she’d written a book. However, I expected that the book would be about political communication, a topic about which she’s something of an expert. Turns out I didn’t know her at all!
Expert though she may be in political communication and university teaching (which is where she and I intersected happily for some years), it seems that she’s equally expert in sewing. How did I not know this? Let me back up a bit.
About three years ago, after I had returned to sewing and had taken early retirement from my university career, I happened to be reading an article in an old Threads magazine on the topic of fitting. It was a terrific article, and as someone who also writes books and magazine articles from time to time, I glanced at the by-line, like you do. Many people don’t ever do this, but if you’re also a writer, you know what I mean. The author’s name was Barbara Emodi. Hmm…I thought, not a very common name in my view. So, I did a bit of exploring and found that Barbara had this whole other life all the time we were working together. It must be a testament to our single-minded focus on our work that we never discussed this mutual interest. It seemed that alongside of Barbara’s stellar work with me in my university department, she was writing magazine articles, teaching sewing, developing a seriously popular (and very entertaining/educational) blog, and generally becoming an internationally-renowned sewing expert. And she has written a book – about sewing.
Sew…The Garment-Making Book of Knowledge: Real-Life Lessons from a Serial Sewist is a seriously good book. With Barbara’s signature wry style, she presents a book that purports to be the sewing advice and lore you would received from your mother or grand-mother… well, it is if your mother or grand-mother happened to be a sewing expert with wildly well-developed communication and writing skills.
She begins the book with a rumination about “what sewing can do for you.” Her discussion goes beyond the usual – sewing is a creative outlet – to take in notions of improving your resourcefulness and making you see things about yourself and your life more clearly. You should really read it yourself. But suffice it to say that few sewing writers address this fundamental aspect of sewing – and she does it in such a clear and accessible way. The book doesn’t simply impart knowledge; it also makes you think. How often does that happen?
Although this book would be terrific for anyone who is just starting out on their sewing journey, it is also for those of us who have moved beyond the basics. She begins with finding the right pattern and moves on to fitting issues and altering flat patterns. I especially appreciated her discussion of what makes a great pattern to help everyone who has ever struggled with whether or not a particular pattern would work for them. She also talks about choosing and cutting fabric which is of particular interest to me.
One of my other favourite books that I reach for often is The Fashion Designer’s Textile Directory by Gail Baugh because I adore fabric – not hoarding it (that goes against every principle I hold about having enough but not too much of anything) – but understanding it and figuring out how it will behave in specific applications. Barbara’s chapter isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it’s a great place to start.
Sew… is lavishly illustrated and is replete with extraordinarily well-conceived full-colour photos. It’s a wonderful addition to my own library and I think anyone interested in sewing would appreciate its wisdom and insight. And it’s entertaining, too.
In my own inimitable way, I have two minor bones to pick with the book: first, on page 39 she refers to the double-ended, fish-eye dart as a French dart. Nowhere I can find calls this a French dart. A French dart, as defined by Craftsy (and everyone else on the internet), is “…a type of elongated bust dart that start[s] at the side seam, down near the waistline, and end[s] up near the bust point…”
The second issue is on page 185 where it says “…Your machine needs oil.” End of story. In fact, some machines, mine included (Singer Quantum Stylist 9960) has specific instructions NOT to oil. I say follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Both of these are editorial issues, not author issues in my view.
Anyway, you should buy this book for yourself to add to your collection (or put it on your Christmas wish list) and buy a copy for your sewing friend.
All of this as a way to put off just a bit longer my final unveiling of my Little Black Dress and the end of that (very) long project!
And so, my *Little Black Dress project is finally (!) coming to a close. Well, maybe that’s rushing things a bit since I have three really well-fitting muslins for three different dresses all of which would make terrific little black dresses. [I actually did four but eliminated one fairly early on.] And yet, how many classic dresses does one really need? The whole point of the perfect LBD in my view is that it is so versatile it can be dressed up or down, so timeless that it never goes out of style, so comfortable you enjoy wearing it everywhere, and so well-fitting that you need only one. But…well, I’ll start with one.
Before I get to the current process, I just need to mention that my absence from my “atelier” is not because of any loss of interest in creating or writing, rather it’s because I’ve been to Asia. The trip was unimaginably fabulous! There were some style and fabric aspects (I had a custom silk jacket done for me to wear with my LBD and more), but mostly we just visited Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, The Great Wall of China, then Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan. But all of that’s for another blog space entirely. (FYI my husband and I blog about all things travel at www.thediscerningtravelers.com). Anyway, I’m back in the atelier and at the computer, designing, sewing, and writing blogs and books. So, the LBD.
I have decided in a fit of narcissism that I really liked my own design best, at least for the first dress. So, I have gone back to the muslin of LBD #4 to begin the process. Of course, this means that I actually have to create a pattern since it’s not a commercial one. The truth is a LOVE pattern-making.
My process begins with a final fitting to see where the pattern might need tweaking (my darn shoulder slope did need a bit of a tweak), then sitting at the cutting table to cut it apart. I remember the first time I cut apart a muslin (I was making my first Little French Jacket). It almost broke my heart – I had become quite fond of that ugly piece, because it fit me! Anyway, I’m a bit less emotional about the process at this stage of my design/sewing career, but I’m still just as careful. These pieces will be the foundation of my perfectly fitting LBD.
I then take those muslin pieces to the ironing board and go at them with both the iron and a lint brush. Then I’m ready to make the pattern.
I decide not to use couture techniques – rough butting directly from the muslin, thread-tracing seam lines etc. – mainly because of my fabric choice for this first dress. Did I mention the fabric choice dilemma?
I had thought I’d be using a high-end wool-blend fabric, underlining with silk organza and lining with silk charmeuse. However, I haven’t found that perfect fabric yet. I will, but in the meantime, I found a textured crepe knit that will provide me with a dress that can also travel well because, as you’ve probably figured out, I do a lot of that, too.
The fabric, as you can see, doesn’t actually beg for couture techniques. In fact, now that I’ve fallen in love with my serger (more about my former distaste for serged finishes in a future post), I’m going to use it for interior finishing. I know – I should be slapped. Bottom line: I’m making a paper pattern.
Since the last made-from-scratch pattern design I did, I’ve discovered a new gadget, a tool. I’m sure I’m late to the party but when I discovered the double tracing wheel, I thought: why haven’t I know about this? The truth is that I’ve seen them before on Amazon. You know when you buy something there they give you a list of related items others have bought? I had taken a passing look at it, but I just never figured out what I’d do with one – mainly because they show it flat in a package rather than in action with the wheels actually pointing in the direction they’re meant to go in. Anyway, I thought that this would be perfect for marking the cutting line outside my seam edges.
So, I trace my muslin seam lines onto paper and begin to use the double tracing wheel to mark cutting lines. The problem is that the tracing wheels themselves don’t have a serrated enough edge to transfer to the paper visibly. So, what to do? I pull out my large sheets of waxed tracing paper and mark the cutting line on the back of the pattern. Voila! I just cut the edges from the back-side markings and I have my pattern pieces ready! It has changed my life! No more going around the pattern with my ruler making little marks that I then join up to make a cutting line. Genius!
Now I just need to find a bit of time to cut the darn thing out, mark it and baste it together.
It’s April and spring is upon us in the northern hemisphere – at least that’s what the calendar says. And that usually means I’m heading down to Toronto’s “garment district” to shop for fabrics. It’s a terrific 45-minute walk from where I live and I love walking down a few times a year to find everything I could possibly need for sewing and design plans. My husband is my sidekick on these journeys, providing much-needed extra help with seeking out specific items in these wonderfully jumbled stores. I can set him off to find “black knits” for example while I explore the silks. When he has found the general area in the shop and pulls some bolts, I can saunter over the make a decision. As a side note, he has a terrific eye and is a great second opinion. Anyway, that’s not happening any time soon.
Here in TO, we have been in the grips of a hideous April ice storm for a few days and now it’s raining buckets. The streets are full of ice-pellet slush and the sidewalks a sheet of ice. That won’t last long, but it has curtailed Toronto fabric shopping plans for the week, and for the month for that matter as it turns out. You see, this coming weekend I’m boarding a plane headed for Hong Kong and with any luck, I’ll be browsing silk stalls this time next week. But what does all this have to do with my Little Black Dress Project* you might reasonably ask. Good question.
I was planning to make a final decision on the design of the dress which would have led directly to fabric choice decisions which would have happened on Queen Street West this week. I think I have made a decision about design (and if I’m lucky I might find something inspirational in the way of fabric in Hong Kong or Shanghai, or maybe even Tokyo – all of which are on our upcoming itinerary) and actually making the dress wouldn’t be far behind. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself because I wanted to share my experience with one final design.
I’ve tested and fit three designs –one from each of Vogue, Butterick and McCall’s – so far. The last option is a design of my own. So where would one find inspiration these days for a timeless LBD? Clearly not in this spring’s ready-to-wear offerings, that’s for sure. I really just had to share with you this photo of a dress in a window in Yorkville Village, an upscale, very tony mall-like shopping space in my neighbourhood. It was in the window of TNT, a popular store in Toronto. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
“WTF is that?” I said to my husband.
He was as perplexed as I was. To be honest, the first time I saw it I thought it was one of those art pieces that you see in fashion windows from time to time. It never occurred to me that it was actually for sale and that it was intended for someone to wear. Needless to say, it doesn’t fit in with anything that I might recognize as timeless, flattering clothing for real people. But it was good for a laugh, n’est-ce pas?
So, I went back to my personal guidelines for the perfect LBD to begin my sketch: timeless, chic, sheath-like, open to multiple ways of styling.
Here’s how the sketch began.
I love the idea of neckline darts – they seem to lend themselves to perfect fitting across my concave décolletage. It began with two neckline darts radiating from the centre and two waistline darts. That was okay, but not perfect. So, I extended the neckline darts and manipulated the waistline darts into a princess seam from centre front. I liked it, and after two more fittings, was able to get it to fit me perfectly.
Then what about sleeves? I started with the idea of petal sleeves. Although I liked them, given that they have to be lines, I wasn’t at all certain I liked all those layers of fabric that are necessary. There would be the bodice, two layers of front and two layers of back for a total of five layers at the sleeve head. Hmm…
What to do? Well, back to a simpler sleeve shaped with a curve. That seems to work.
After several (at least three) muslins, I finally settled on a simple design and guess what? I really have to make this one. But then I also have to make contender number two for sure and may be number three.
I think I have to find a lot of places to go to wear these dresses – and I have a lot of fabric to buy! Wish me luck! Cheers – and join me back here when I get home from Asia.