Posted in fashion history, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi talk about buttons…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Posted in Couture Sewing, Little Black (French) Jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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