Posted in Fashion, sewing

Sewing with knits: Moving into the 21st century

Sometimes I think I’m the only person on the planet who remembers wearing (and sewing with) crimplene. Yes, that’s how you spell crimplene. Trademarked in the 1950’s (long before I started wearing the stuff), this was a fabric that really came into its own in the late 1960’s, remained a mainstay of fashion and sewing for a few years, then disappeared into the mists of sewing history.

According to most online sources, crimplene was the trade name of both the yarn and the fabric made from it. Polyester in origin, this was a go-to fabric for all kinds of projects and will go down in my own fashion sewing history as the first knit I ever sewed with. It occasionally appeared as a woven fabric, but most of it was a textured double knit that we used for shift dresses, pant suits (yes, matching tunic tops and pants which, BTW might make a great come-back for the over-50 set with the right silhouette in my view), men’s leisure suits (please god no more leisure-suit come-backs), and even shirtwaists. I loved it.

purple crimplene
This great 60’s dress was for sale recently online – although I suspect that it was from the early 70’s. See that texture? Crimplene!

 

Crimplene had all the characteristics that we were looking for at the time:

  • It was forgiving (unlike many of the woven fabrics of the day).
  • It was totally unwrinkleable (likely not a real word, but you know what I mean).
  • It was machine washable, dryable and unshrinkable (which accounts for why I never learned to prepare fabric before sewing since crimplene needed no prep).
  • It came in every colour and texture you could imagine (and couldn’t fade even if you left it in the sun for years).
  • It was indestructible (and crimplene clothing is probably still stacked in our land-fills to this day).
  • And it never frayed (so those of us on the fast fashion sewing track which we have finally recovered from never had to finish a seam allowance *shudder*).

So, when I returned to sewing in the twenty-first century I wanted to learn the techniques for modern knits, of course. I decided to enroll in another Craftsy course (actually it was the first one I ever stumbled upon) on sewing with knits, took out the walking foot that came with my new digital sewing machine and figured out how to install it on the machine. I have to admit I had never seen such a contraption before – never even heard of it. But once I learned how to use that sucker, I cannot live without it.

As I made my way through the course, I found myself two lots of knit fabric whose weight I really liked and proceeded to make some modern knit tops. What I noticed, although it didn’t really strike me at the time I bought the fabric, was the extent to which it resembled – you guessed it – crimplene. Fashioned from cotton blends in this century, both lengths of fabric I chose were eerily like the crimplene I had known and loved in the last century.

See that texture? (Front on left; back on right) Not crimplene, but twenty-first century cotton knit!

Sometimes I wonder if our sewing DNA is a kind of blueprint for what we’ll evolve to as we age – but perhaps like a fine wine, we do get better with age. I’d like to think I’m a bit more discerning and that this discernment has evolved along with the increasing size of my pocket book that was thin, indeed, back in my undergrad years at university.

Anyway, as I examine closely the fabric of the cross-over top I made during that Craftsy course, I can see definite remnants of my former penchant for crimplene. Now I’m longing to have a length of that old stuff to see if it really is as terrible and unbreathable as I think it was.

This new century has taught me that knits should probably not be indestructible, nor should they be designed only for fast sewing. They should take beautiful seam finishes, and should feel divine when worn. Feeling and looking divine: that’s what I’m after!

 [If you need more about crimplene, here is a great post on a Sixties Style Blog that you’ll just love – and lots of photos! A Brief History of Crimplene http://stylesixties.blogspot.ca/2013/04/a-brief-history-of-crimplene.html]

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Posted in sewing, Style

Facing my doppelgänger: The dress form customization continues

wire mannequinsA few years ago I read an article reporting on a study whose results suggested that we are now experiencing a veritable epidemic of body image and consequent eating disorders among older women. The seriousness of it seemed a bit worrying, but the underlying message that it was shocking was a bit beyond the pale.

Imagine the shock! Women in their 70’s and 80’s concerned about their bodies! Concerned about how they look! OMG of course they care! I’m not quite to that age yet, but age does creep up even faster the older we get – or so it seems anyway. The truth is that, of course, excessive concern about body image and self-esteem that combine to result in disordered anything, is a problem. The fact that women continue to want to look good is to be expected. Then we (I) face reality: my body staring back at me in the form of that mannequin I’m hell bent on customizing.

So Gloria junior now has a shape to be filled out – my shape to be exact – yet there is much to be done. Here’s where I am to date.

I’ve actually gotten the go ahead from my Craftsy instructor, the incredibly knowledgeable Suzy Furrer, on my moulage on the second go round. She is just still slightly concerned that the high figure point might be a smidge too high, but I can go ahead and draft the sloper – my bodice block (I’ve done this and lowered the HFP 1/8 inch so I’ll see how that goes when I sew it up in royal blue cotton sateen with vents in the off chance I can actually wear it – more on that at another time, though). Before I get to the block, though, I’m using my moulage as the blueprint for my customized dress form (inspired by Mary Funt’s wonderful blog post on custom pattern drafting : https://cloningcouture.com/2016/07/11/custom-pattern-drafting-and-my-version-of-the-six-napoleon-dress/ ).

IMG_0714So, the first thing I did when approval finally came was insert a separating zipper in the back. My husband, my measurement partner, wished I had done it earlier. This way as I move forward with the stuffing, I can open it more easily. Then I had to make Gloria junior smaller to match the smallest part of my own torso – my under-bust. That’s why she now needs to be stuffed up again with the bits in the right place.

Next, I went to good old Fabricland in the basement of Honest Ed’s on Bloor Street West here in Toronto (If you don’t know about Honest Ed’s you’ve really missed out – what a crazy place!). I bought some batting and a number of shoulder pads, as well as the aforementioned cotton sateen that was BTW on sale: marked down from $20.00+ a metre to $7.00 a metre!

The fattest shoulder pads are now ensconced on the shoulders that had to be raised up. I now have a neck problem, though, which I’ll fix with a small round of batting and probably some duct tape. I need to re-establish the high neck point.

The other shoulder pads are now under Junior’s boobs that need more batting and support. The back, however, is nice and tight and exactly as it should look. It’s the front that I’m now working on.

When I have her as stuffed as possible within the confines of the moulage, I’ll need to figure out how to make a nice cover that hides everything underneath and gives me a great surface to contemplate my design and sewing projects. But back to that thing about body image.

If I never wanted to consider what my over-50 body is up to these days, I now have no choice in the matter. It’s a really humbling experience to see your own figure staring back at you, and it isn’t even quite finished i.e. completely stuffed. There is no hiding from what has shifted – what doesn’t exactly look like it did in that bikini on my honeymoon when I was 33.

It’s good to know, however, that I can laugh and accept myself for who I am. Fortunately, I’m of normal weight. That I’d be able to do something about. All that shifting downward? Not so much.

Let’s all remember what Betty Friedan told us at the beginning of the feminist movement: “Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”wine.jpg

Or maybe I’ll use a line a saw on a cocktail napkin as my mantra: “Age gets better with wine.”

Posted in sewing, Style

The search for perfectly fitted clothing begins here: My dressmaker’s mannequin

 

 

wire mannequinsWhy, oh why does my dressmaker’s mannequin not resemble me? The short answer is that I’m too cheap to buy a custom dummy. So I’m left with Gloria Junior (her name) whose under-bust will never be as small as mine unless her waist becomes waspish, and her shoulders will never resemble mine unless they are raised at least an inch. And that’s just the beginning. So, why do I need her, anyway? I sewed my own clothes – and clothes for my sisters and my mother – for years without the aid of a mannequin. So, why now?

I was thinking about this when I was walking down the main drag in Stratford, Ontario about a month and a half ago with my husband, like you do when you’re there for the weekend to see two of their phenomenal plays or musicals that are part of the annual Stratford Festival every year (and, yes, it does sit on the banks of the Avon River with everything named after Stratford-upon-Avon in England, a Shakespeare park and all).

We stopped in front of a window display in one of the numerous boutiques that dot the street front. The mannequins made us laugh, and I started to think about how we rely on mannequins for a sense of the esthetics, and size, of the clothes that we think we’d like to have.

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One of the Stratford mannequins

Of course, that also got me thinking about how mannequin use came to be – so I’ll share my history lesson! 

Referred to by many as “glorified coat hangers”  mannequins seem to me to have been, and continue to be, so much more than that. According to an article published by The Smithsonian, when archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tut’s ancient Egyptian tomb in 1923 he discovered “an armless, legless, wooden torso, made exactly to the pharaoh’s measurements, standing next to the chest that held the ruler’s clothing…” Since King Tut’s demise dates from around 1350 B.C., it seems clear that mannequins have been around for a very long time – this might well have been the very first, or at least the earliest on that we know about.

Fast forward to eighteenth-century France and the court of Marie Antoinette who, it seems, sent fully-clothed mannequins regularly to her sisters in the way we might send a copy of vogue magazine to someone who didn’t have access to current fashion news. These mannequins had arms, legs, heads – the whole body, but it wasn’t long after that when they mannequins began to appear headless, armless, legless, fashioned wire, wicker and leather. As one writer put it, “with as much personality as a doorknob.”

mannequin by pierre imans 1911
French mannequin, 1911

It was in the late 1800’s during the Industrial Revolution when expanses of glass fronts on stores became a kind of runway for the mannequin – shop owners needed a way to display their wares. The mannequin had now regained her head, arms and legs.

 

In a fascinating history of mannequins, writer Leighann Morris sees the evolution of the mannequin in the twentieth century as a kind of history of fashion itself – the shapes have resembled Barbie dolls, Twiggy, androgyny, fetishism – whatever has been in fashion at a point in history. And then there is the whole visible nipple debate which isn’t over yet! (As a sewer, visible nipples at least provide a sense of where one should measure the figure breadth!).

But these have been the mannequins designed for displaying clothing – store fixtures for the retail trade. What about mannequins that we know and love as the dressmaker’s dummy? Well, they have evolved alongside.

What’s interesting is that in spite of the fact that women’s heights, weights and body types vary more today than ever before, commercial dress-maker’s dress forms all seem to be very similar. It is true, though, that you can have a custom-designed dress form made just for you – a clone of your body – as it is at this moment in time, it has to be said.

LBJ finished on gloria
Gloria junior wearing my Little French Jacket. Although making a not-too-fitted jacket doesn’t seem to need a precise form, it would be nice if the boobs were in the right place!

I did a lot of online research before I bought Gloria junior. In fact, I set a maximum budget of around $300.00 so I knew I was looking for an adjustable. She has those dials that get her bust, waist, hip and back length to my size, but there is just so much more that goes on in between.

 

First, there is the issue of that relatively small underbust that I have. Then there is the neck – hers is fixed in position. Then there is that fact that most women are concave under the collar bone, but sadly she is not.

Why do I need her anyway?

First, I do think that being able to fit and pin without having to be a contortionist makes life easier – and probably results in fewer unnecessary puckers. Second, I think being able to stand back and really look at how everything fits and drapes without just having the mirror to help improves fit.

Then, I really just like the idea of pinning my projects on a form as I go. It makes me feel just a bit more professional – a bit of a fashion fantasy, I’m afraid.

Anyway, my Craftsy course on drafting a moulage and bodice sloper is my first step to that custom-fitted mannequin.

I’ve drafted, cut and sewn my first one. Of course, as expected, there are a few issues that were not unexpected. I’m about to cut my second one this afternoon. I hope I have the stamina to do as many drafts as needed to get it right!

 Sources:

The madness of mannequins. https://mannequinmadness.wordpress.com/the-history-of-mannequin/

Leighann Morris. The complete history of mannequins: Garbos, Twiggies, Barbies and beyond. http://www.hopesandfears.com/hopes/city/fashion/213389-history-of-mannequins

How to Buy a Dress Form. http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/08/how-to-buy-a-dress-form/

Photo credits:

http://www.hopesandfears.com/hopes/city/fashion/213389-history-of-mannequins

 

Posted in Little Black (French) Jacket, Style

LBJ*: Sewing Like a Chanel Seamstress**…Quilting the Jacket

[*Little Black Jacket sometimes referred to as the LFJ or Little French Jacket]

In 1954 Coco Chanel made a return to the Paris couturier scene after something of a hiatus during and immediately after the second World War. The House of Chanel had been closed for fifteen years, but now it was time to return. During her absence, Paris style had been dominated by the likes of Christian Dior whose “New Look” had created those hour-glass shapes that constricted women’s shapes nodding more to form than function – no one could truly be comfortable with a corset and bustier! Re-enter Chanel.

new_look_tailleur_bar_vzg_03
Dior’s “New Look” silhouette required lots of undergarments!

 

Before the war Chanel had already created the first sportswear that women would wear, constructed from knits & jersey’s that had never been used in women’s wear before. Her absence had seen a resurgence of constriction and she was determined to change that. So, that first season saw the birth of what we now know as the quintessential Chanel jacket.

luxury quote coco

What made it different was the construction: it was fashioned from soft bouclé fabrics and lined with silk charmeuse which is truly the most magnificent feeling against your skin. But more important than even the fabrics was the way she designed the construction. Rather than a jacket with interlining and details that made it crisp and stiff, she decided that the lining was to be quilted to the pieces of the jacket and the lining finished by hand. She was striving for luxurious comfort above all, and a jacket that was as beautiful on the inside as the outside. And the construction of the jacket to this day uses this technique. So, if one is going to pay homage to the Chanel jacket, one needs to employ her approach. Dear god…

IMG_1040
My little pile of pieces!

My last report found me finally at a point where the sewing machine would make and appearance. All of the fabric and lining is now cut, marked, the soft tapes to maintain a bit of definition at the front and hemlines has been hand-stitched in place. Now the jacket pieces need to be constructed.

 

I use a 3.0 mm stitch length as directed by the instructor I’m following and I’m using regular thread (I may regret this) and a walking foot. This is not to be attempted without a walking foot! There are really only a few seams that need to be completed prior to the next big (quilting) step. I am remembering that the seam allowances are a full one inch! Very important to the eventual fit.

I sew the princess seams in the front pieces and the back, and put together the sleeves along the seam, making sure to use ease stitches at the point where the elbow will be. I construct the lining pieces exactly the same way. One of the most important parts of this process, though, is the pressing.

I first press the seams flat, then press them open from the inside using only the point of the iron. Then I turn the piece over and gently press each seam from the outside. The seams took terrific. I don’t trim any seams yet, though. There will be a lot of fraying and I need the depth and stability during the rest of the construction. When I am finished this process I have the following pieces: two front pieces, one back piece and two sleeves – and the same in the lining. They are all in a nice, neat pile. At the end of that lesson the instructor says, “The next step is the quilting. That’s when the fun begins!” And she smiles. Oh. My. Actual. God. The QUILTING!

I cannot remember when I have been as frustrated in a project. The process is thus: With wrong sides together, each piece of lining is machine stitched to its matching jacket piece using a 3.0 mm stitch. Each stitch line is meant to travel down a line of the ‘print’ from about two inches from the top (so that the lining is loose and I will be able to get at the side and shoulder seams in due course. The lines of machine quilting (yes, Chanel jackets are generally machine-quilted) are to be one-and-a-half to two inches apart, all done in the same direction (from the top down) and ending two inches above the hem line. Sounds simple enough. Well…

I make my plan as directed so that I know which lines I’ll follow, pin the seam lines together and use lots of other pins so that the fabrics don’t slide out of place, then begin stitching using that 3.0 mm stitch and silk thread to match the main lines of the jacket pattern – in my case, black. From the right side as directed. Oh my god… the stitches are way more visible on the outside than I want them to be! What to do?

I start unpicking hoping like hell that the stitches don’t make holes in the silk charmeuse. They’re not too bad after I press them out. So I start again. I do another test piece using various threads and stitch lengths. I ask the instructor who agrees that the pattern on the fabric with its white lines crossing black will make it very difficult for this to sink in invisibly. I note that other students are posting with their own similar concerns. No one has a real solution.

IMG_0984
My fabric

 

lornas fabric
My instructor’s fabric – she has definite black lines to follow!

 

 

So, I do it again, using a 4.0 mm stitch and this seems to work better. I only catch the lining up in the stitching twice resulting in having to unpick twice for that reason. I only have one line that seems to have caused a bubble between it and the adjacent one, so only have to unpick for that reason once. I have to do this in several sessions so as not to either tear my hair out or rush through and make a mess.

Finally, it’s done. And it doesn’t look too bad in the end. I have all of the pieces quilted and the next step will be to stitch up the side and shoulder seams and then focus on the lining. That’s for next week! I need a martini now…

 

[**Please don’t take me to task for using the word ‘seamstress.’ I realize that in some people’s worlds this is a sexist term, but I think someone who sews can call herself (or himself) anything she or he wants: seamstress, sewer, sewist, tailor – you pick one, I’ll pick one today and perhaps another tomorrow. Actually at Chanel they are called ‘mains’ which of course is French for ‘hands’]

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

LBJ*: Finally Cutting the Fabric & Lining

 [*Little Black Jacket sometimes referred to as the LFJ or Little French Jacket]

FullSizeRenderWhenever I’ve thought about sewing projects in my past, I’ve always considered cutting out the fabric to be the first job in the process. This project is so different.

I’ve already researched, found mentors and teachers, measured, cut and sewed a toile, made a personalized pattern and found fabric and lining perfect for the project. Now it’s really time to cut. And I have to say I’m just a bit nervous to put my shears to this boucle and silk charmeuse. But I must be brave and cut!

One more thing to do before I lay out the fabric: I have to steam the fabric so that it sort of shrinks now and not after I’ve already cut it out. As I do so, I need to be sure that I don’t let the fabric hang over the side of the counter because it will surely stretch, and after all the time I spent preparing the pattern to actually fit, that would be a big problem.

So now I can lay it out, and as my online instructor says, it is laid out in a manner that no one really wants to hear: in a single layer. This means that after each piece is cut out, a mirror image has to be cut out. It is a time-consuming process, but I do feel that this is the only real way to ensure that the pattern matches.

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So first I lay out the back piece and then the side back right beside it, checking that the seam line (not the sewing line) matches up at important places: corners, notches, hem line. I also loosely lay out the rest of the pieces along the single layer of fabric since I don’t want to find out that I’m short fabric. Lining them up this way also ensure that they are all laid out in the same direction. Although the boucle doesn’t have nap as such, it needs to be treated as if it does – hence the need for extra fabric. I bought extra fabric, and I’m going to need it.

IMG_0608
You can hardly see where on piece ends and the other begins. I think I’m on my way to pattern matching!

 

I will also need to line up the pattern at the shoulder seams as I move the pieces across the fabric. Now I’m finally ready to cut. I take a deep breath and start. Once the fabric is actually cut, I know I’m past the point of no return. I carefully cut each piece out matching as I go. I’m especially concerned that the front pieces match across the opening. Nothing says “amateur” more than mismatched patterns in a sewing project of this nature.

I then have to take each piece and lay it on the fabric to cut its mirror image. It has to be laid out so that you can’t really see each piece like this:

IMG_0612
Can you see the edges where I’ve laid one cut piece onto the single layer of fabric to cut its mirror? Look hard – the edges are there! But I think it’s going to be a good match if all continues to go well.

 

Then it’s time to lay out and cut the silk lining. That’s tricky since the charmeuse is so thin and slippery. Applying the lining in this jacket project is one of the features that makes it different than other jacket construction approaches, and it’s what sets a real Chanel jacket apart from the competition. The lining will be machine quilted to the jacket body and sleeves. This means that the lining needs to be slightly larger than the shell to allow for ‘shrinking’ down of the fabric with the quilting. This means that I have to add about 1/8 to ¼ inch to the pattern pieces everywhere except the hem. It’s not as precise as I would like.

I follow the instructor’s directions to simply lay each fabric piece as cut on the lining (doubled which is contrary to what I know about working with silk), add a few pins and cut larger. This is treacherous since the silk charmeuse moves around. I become frustrated that I might be cutting off the grain, but persist until I am finished. The next time I do this I’m going to cut out the lining single-layer with the pattern piece on top and a piece of pattern paper underneath. I will then cut through all three layers to keep the silk from slipping. My only salvation here with the cutting lines so imprecise is that the lining will be quilted to the well-cut fabric and I can deal with the seam allowances with accuracy after the jacket body is put together.

Two pieces I don’t cut out yet are the pockets since I’ll have to match the pattern after the front pieces are assembled.

So now that I have the fabric and lining cut out, I’m reminding myself of the long process ahead by watching the video from the Chanel atelier. And I’m thinking about all the marking I have ahead of me before I can get at the sewing machine.

 

Secrets of the Little Black Jacket (At the Chanel atelier)

Posted in Couture Sewing

LBJ*: Finding My Mentors

[*LBJ: Little Black Jacket sometimes known as LFJ or Little French Jacket]

luxury quote coco

I’m beginning to get anxious to really dig into this project: select or create an appropriate pattern, find just the right fabric and lining, start to cut and sew. But I have to hold myself back; I’m not ready yet. If I want to do this right, I’m going to have to figure out where to get some guidance.

Much to my surprise, there’s something of a cottage industry that has developed online of sewing enthusiasts who have already gone on this journey – for better or for worse. I do know that there is a lot to be learned from these experiences, but because the internet and its social media offerings tend to support what author Andrew Keene once called the “cult of the amateur” I have to figure out who the professionals really are. They have the most to teach me.

One of the first online sources I discover with really useful and credible information is called Emma One Sock Designer Fashion Fabrics. Yes, they are retailers, but they have posted a fantastic grouping of online sewing tutorials on topics such as sewing with leather and brocade, making shirts and, yes, working with tweed and boucle to create the Chanel-style cardigan jacket. These lessons are divided up logically providing photos and instruction for everything from selecting a pattern through prepping the fabric, then on to construction and finishing. This site has a particularly good lesson on the various hand-stitching techniques that are used in the finishing of the inside of the jacket. I’ll be referring back to these two pages for sure.

So I absorb all the information this site has to offer me, bookmark it and carry on to see what other sewing experts have to say.

Far less detailed, but with useful tips, is a piece on the Burda pattern site called A Classic French Jacket: 70 Hours to the Dream! This piece does a terrific job of emphasizing fit – and how to get it – and the length of time one might expect to spend creating this piece. Okay, I see that I’m going to have to spend some time on this!

Then I discover that sewing expert Susan Khalje has written an article in an old issue of Threads magazine that provides me with lots of tips and inspiration. The issue is November 2005 and is certainly worth chasing down. I was able to find it on ISSU and have my own copy in my electronic files now. In fact, I also discover that Susan, a contributing editor to Threads magazine, teaches an online course on creating this jacket. So, in my books, this is a truly credible source for information. Her video course, The Classic French Jacket looks extraordinary. For $195.00 (USD) the course provides three years of access to the full-length instructional videos and a custom-designed pattern.  Her face-to-face course offered in Baltimore costs $1600 and includes a shopping trip to New York! Now that would be terrific. Alas, I live in Toronto. But my search isn’t over yet.

Last year I stumbled on a web site called Craftsy which I wasn’t familiar with before. After pushing my way through a plethora of quilting and crafting courses that didn’t really interest me, I discovered a whole series of online/video classes for serious garment sewers. When it was on sale, I was able to purchase the course “The Iconic Tweed Jacket” for about $35.00 (CDN!) which gives me lifetime streaming and downloading access to the series of videos hosted by sewing instructor Lorna Knight. The Craftsy online platform permits me to download the videos for off-line watching, ask the instructor questions (which she actually answers), post photos, read other students’ questions and the answers which are extremely useful. Craftsy sent me the McCall’s pattern that Lorna uses in the course and they provide online material lists. Oh yes, I can also make video notes on my own platform as I watch the videos. I have found my main mentor!

So, off I go to watch the ENTIRE course before I buy any materials or wield the sewing shears. Next up: learning to fit a muslin!

craftsy class
This is the course I’ve enrolled in. Wish me luck! Or just come along with me…