“With Glamour . . . “

Every once in a while unexpected opportunities come along which beg one’s participation. Such was the case on Tuesday evening, November 18. Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware has been hosting a number of costume designers in a lecture series, as a complement to their “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit, on display through January 4, 2015. When I read that Janie Bryant, costume designer for Mad Men, would be one of the featured speakers, I quickly made my reservation.

Janie Bryant - W-thur

Off I went in the frigid cold on Tuesday evening for my 45-minute trek to Winterthur from my home in Pennsylvania. I took with me my copy of Janie’s 2010 book, The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men. Taking it off the shelf was like reacquainting myself with an old friend (well, not so old, but it had been a while since I had read it!). Perhaps, I thought, I might get a chance to have her autograph it.

Janie Bryant Fashion File In many ways, I credit the costumes of Mad Men as inspiring my return to fashion sewing. It is no secret that the widespread, renewed interest in Mid-Century fashion and design has been a direct result, at least in part, of this television series.   The first season was set in 1960, so the elegance and glamour of the 1950s was still very much in evidence. In fact, Janie said she started her research by exploring the late ‘50s’ designs, and used the end of that decade to set the tone for the introduction and development of each of the main characters. In addition, Janie had been fortunate to learn to sew at an early age, making her first dress at age 8. And – she grew up in Tennessee in a family where a true appreciation of fashion, beauty, and ladylikeness was generations long. She brought this sensibility with her as a foundation and inspiration for her position with Mad Men.

Janie covered many topics in her hour+ presentation, but the following made a particular impression on me:

1) I was intrigued with her disclosure that she actually used some vintage clothing from her family for some of the Show’s costumes. Betty’s aprons – many aprons! – had belonged to her grandmother! Little details, such as Roger’s monogrammed cuffs, were based on her observations of family members as she was growing up. And did you know that Don Draper’s belt buckle has the initials DD engraved upon it? As Janie said, no one will probably ever see it, but in a very subtle way, it helps to define and enhance his enigmatic character. Sometimes it is the little things in one’s style (and sewing!) that make all the difference.

2) The importance of color in costumes cannot be underrated. For example, the soft color palette (pale blues, pinks, beiges) for the character of Betty helps to reinforce her icy persona, while the deep jewel tones for Joan’s costumes emphasized the power of her femininity.   By extension, the power of color in clothing for the rest of us is also a key element in dressing well and in having our clothes work for us, not against us.

3) Several times, Janie mentioned that costumes are so vital in helping to “design” the character. For example, Peggy’s chaste, somewhat prudish demeanor was enhanced by costuming which was reminiscent of schoolgirl dress (bows tucked under collars, pleated skirts, lots of plaid). The power of clothing is such that one can change his or her outward persona by altering one’s style of clothing. The flip side of this is that, often, as one grows and becomes more confident, clothing choices become more sophisticated and worldly.

4) Janie said that it is much easier for her to design costumes for characters than it is to dress herself! She admitted to “outfit anxiety” at times, which is probably multiplied for her because of her career and the personal expectations which accompany it. (Hm-m-m-m, I think that’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having!) She has obviously given this idea much thought, and this where I would highly recommend her book. A quick look at some of the chapter headings will tell you some of what you can learn from her observations, her experience, and her expertise: “You as a Leading Lady”, “Defining Your Silhouette and Secrets for Dressing Your Shape”, “The Dressing Room”, “Dressing Chic for Every Occasion”, “The Importance of Being Accessorized”.

5) Which brings me to probably the most important take-away from the evening, at least for me. Without equivocation, Janie wants women to appreciate their own femininity – and their curves! – and strive to feel beautiful in the clothing and accessories they choose and wear.

What a fun evening this was – and a great opportunity for me to meet someone I have long admired. Janie is delightful, funny, kind and engaged, as well as absolutely lovely! I felt very fortunate to have a few moments with her after the lecture when I asked if she uses vintage patterns in her research and design work. “I have bins and bins of them!” she said. She was, indeed, happy to sign my book for me, and in a lovely, stylish flourish, she wrote:

“To Karen, With Glamour & Love XXX Janie Bryant”


Filed under Book reviews, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized

Time for Wool and Something Marfy

It seems like we just welcomed in Autumn – and although the calendar says it will still be Autumn for a few more weeks, the chill in the air tells me that Winter is bearing down on the northeastern United States. Winter means many wonderful things, including WOOL season.

When I made my color-blocked coat last Winter, I purchased some extra yardage from Britex Fabrics with the thought of making a sheath dress to wear with it on occasion, but not exclusively with it.

Magnificent Obsession My original intent was to make a two-toned dress, with a front and back yoke with short sleeves. The bottom, longer section of the dress would be out of the camel wool, with the yoke and sleeves in navy, zipped up the back.   I did not think much more about it during the Spring and Summer, but a few weeks ago, after seeing a full page Marfy ad in a current Vogue Pattern Magazine, I began to think of an alternative to my plan. This dress was featured in the ad:

Marfy Dress

I not only really liked the dress, but it seemed designed with my two color-blocking fabrics in mind. I also liked its mid-century styling. For a while now I’ve been thinking of trying a Marfy pattern, and, I thought “Why not now?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew that Marfy patterns come without seam allowances (the stitching line is the outside perimeter of each pattern piece), and in only one ordered size. One of the reasons I love vintage patterns so much is that they, too, were produced by particular size. (So that, for those of you who only sew from current multi-sized patterns, if you ordered a size 10, only a 10 was in the envelope.) Most vintage patterns include seam allowances, and the stitching line is marked as well. For those of us who use couture methods for our fashion sewing, having the stitching line marked is incredibly helpful. The stitching line is THE point of reference for alterations, for basting, for sewing. Knowing these two facts about Marfy patterns made me comfortable with the idea of sewing with them, even though they come with no written construction details other than a few notations on the pattern pieces.

What I did not expect was the teeny tiny package in which the pattern arrived. The only identifying mark on the folded up pattern was the pattern number.

Marfy dress I pressed the pattern pieces and got busy making my muslin (toile). From my adjusted muslin, which took the better part of a week to perfect (hopefully perfected, that is), I transferred sewing lines onto white silk organza underlining. (I will go into some of the changes I made in my next post on this dress.) In true couture mode, I then basted the organza onto the fashion fabric. It is always rewarding to sew the first “real” dart or seam! I feel like the dress is practically finished, although reality is sure to set in when all the finishing details start to occupy my time.

The front, showing the seam detail which I like so much.

The front, showing the seam detail which I like so much.

Marfy dress


Incentive to finish this wool dress is fanned by Winter winds to my back , by looming holiday sewing, and the excitement of finishing my first Marfy.  To be continued, hopefully soon!


Filed under Color blocking, couture construction, woolens

A Little Pumpkin Magic

There is something endearing about pumpkins. A native North American squash, the name “pumpkin” was coined by early settlers to this country. I think they knew a good thing when they saw it, as the popularity of all things pumpkin continues to grow. In many ways our Fall is defined by all that this beautiful and delicious vegetable offers us. There are pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin scones, pumpkin spice cakes, pumpkin pasta, traditional pumpkin pie, pumpkin flavored coffee, pumpkin butters, toasted pumpkin seeds – the list goes on and on. There are carving pumpkins, sugar pumpkins, gigantic pumpkins, mini pumpkins, gourds that look like pumpkins, but really aren’t! And then there are pumpkins made out of fabric.

I decided I could not let this October pass by without sewing a little pumpkin fun for my granddaughter Aida. First up would be a bib for this one-and-a-half year old.

Pumpkin magic

My study of the perfect bib for this age resulted in one which I designed to have these details: 1) large size to cover the entire front of a wiggly toddler:

pumpkin magic

2) front made out of terry cloth to quickly absorb sloshy, drippy food, 3) a pocket at the bottom which protrudes just a bit, to catch errant Cheerios and other things that may fall off of little silver spoons and forks:

pumpkin magic

4) a Velcro closure at the back neck to make it easy for MaMa and DaDa, 5) a cotton backing to make it the perfect weight:

pumpkin magic

and 6) a nice plump fabric pumpkin happily sitting in its patch, embellished with rick rack.

pumpkin magic

Next on my list was a snuggly little vest for Aida to wear with her play clothes and add warmth without too much bulk. I paired an orange-flowered fabric with a medium gray-colored calico. The shell of the vest would be out of the gray, the inside of the vest would be out of the orange fabric, and I would make two orange
“pumpkin pockets” for its front, because, well, Aida likes pockets!

The first thing I did was machine quilt the gray and orange fabrics together, using washed natural cotton quilt batting between the fabric layers.

pumpkin magic

I used an old McCalls jacket pattern left over from my own children as a guide for the vest, but I had to cut it down quite a bit.

pumpkin magic

I cut out the pattern on the seam lines, as I planned to use a self bias-binding to finish the armholes, neck, front and around the lower edge. Before assembling I finished off those interior seams with Hug Snug seam binding.

The self bias binding and the finished seams are clearly visible here.

The self bias binding and the finished seams are clearly visible here.

I literally cut the pumpkin pockets freehand out of some scraps of the quilted fabric, and bound each one with self bias binding.

pumpkin magic

pumpkin magic

Orange rick rack provided the twisted pumpkin stems, and then I decided to add it around the outer edges of the vest, too.

pumpkin magic

pumpkin magic

Instead of buttons, I applied snaps, thinking they would be easier for a toddler and her parents to fasten.

pumpkin magic I think this vest is perfect for the season, but not too Halloween-y to limit its usage during other cold months to come.

What's inside of this??

What’s inside of this??

Now, this Halloween pumpkin is the one with the real magic to it!


Filed under Sewing for children, Uncategorized

Sewing Ghosts

The ghost of Joan Goetz has been hanging over my shoulder for the last several weeks. She wrote her name on the envelope of vintage Vogue pattern #2718 which has caused me so angst. I can’t help but wonder who this woman was!

Sewing Ghosts

Goetz sounds awfully like Ghost, don’t you think?

I can tell from the changes she made to the pattern that she was much taller than I, with much longer arms! She added 1” to the arm length, while I subtracted 1½”. She also added three inches to the hem length, and I ended up cutting off 3” from the length. However, nowhere on the pattern does she indicate any problems with construction. I, myself, refrained from scribbling “ARG-G-G-H“ on the pattern, although I was certainly thinking it. When last I wrote about this doomed project, I wasn’t sure if I could save it. Thanks to many good suggestions and words of encouragement from my readers, the future for this dress is looking less ghostly and ghastly. Some of you suggested a break from it, working perfectly into my schedule, which included another trip out of state. Others suggested I sew on something else for a while, which I did and will write about soon. The one thing I did not do was set it aside completely. I was afraid if I left it to finish (if even possible) another time, I never would get back to it.

Actually, I have to admit, that the problems I encountered with this pattern were really not the fault of the pattern. It was entirely of my own making. The pattern required a stretch knit fabric. I used a stretch silk woven charmeuse. That would have been fine, except I insisted on underlining it. I cut the underlining on the bias, which I thought would work, but it was a disaster. It caused the bodice to bind crosswise, pull up lengthwise, and it restricted the stretch of the silk, which was necessary for this particular pattern.

This fabric from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics in NYC is a stretch silk charmeuse, with a wonderful drape to it.

This fabric from Mendel Goldberg Fabrics in NYC is a stretch silk charmeuse, with a wonderful drape to it.

With nothing to lose, I started to remove, meticulously, the silk gauze underlining from all the bodice pieces, starting with the back. I was encouraged enough at the improvement that task made, to continue to do the same with front. Then I tackled the sleeves. What a difference it made! The bodice actually started to fit, although it was still tight across the bust. I then reset the sleeves, releasing about 1/4 “ in the front seam on each side. That was all I could steal from my already-trimmed seam allowances.

The reset sleeves and the finished neckline, cut a little wider than the pattern.

The reset sleeves and the finished neckline, cut a little wider than the pattern.

I sewed the skirt yoke without underlining, but I did use an underlining, cut on the straight of grain, for the gathered skirt. Once all assembled, I basted in the zipper to check the fit. Still a little tight over the bust, but otherwise, not bad!!

Both views of the pattern show the dress with a purchased belt. I tried three different black belts, of varying widths, and did not like the effect of any of them. All made the dress look like it was cut in half. I took a few scraps of my fabric and tied them around the waist on my dress form. From this I could tell a self-belt would look so much better, but all I had left were scraps. Hopefully no one will notice that this sash is pieced together in four places!

the pieced sash.  I'm glad this fabric design is so busy, otherwise the multiple seams in this sash would definitely show.

The pieced sash. I’m glad the fabric design is so busy, otherwise the multiple seams in this sash would definitely show.

The finale details of this dress (snaps at the sleeve vents and a good press, for starters) are finally complete.  I think I can finally say that I have saved this dress from a ghostly demise.

Sewing ghosts

The dress on the form does not show the slight tightness across the bust.

Sewing ghosts

A back view. Notice the asymmetrical skirt yoke, which I think is a nice detail.

Sewing ghosts

I do love this fabric!

And here is something fun - a dressy handbag to wear with this dress ( a recent find from one of my travels).

And here is something fun – a dressy handbag to wear with this dress ( a recent find from one of my travels).

A nice complement to the dress...

A nice complement to the dress…

Finally, some photos of me wearing the "ghost" dress!

Finally, some photos of me wearing the “ghost” dress!

Sewing ghosts


sewing ghosts

sewing ghosts

Finishing this dress successfully definitely warrants a smile!

Will I ever make this pattern again? No.   Have I learned from this project? Yes. Will I enjoy wearing this dress? I think so. And right now, that’s good enough.


Filed under 1980's dress patterns, piping, sewing in silk, vintage Vogue Designer patterns

Panic and Patterns

Being away, as “on vacation” (or “on holiday” as many express it), can take its toll on sewing projects. If I have to leave a project in mid-stream, it seems to take even longer to get back to it and pick up where I left off. A recent trip to the western state of Wyoming necessitated that I abandon my current “Fall” dress at precisely the time of year when I need to complete it! And now I’ve run into some complications with it.

I guess you could say that panic has set in. Here is what the dress bodice looks like on my dress form:

Panic and patterns

I am using vintage Vogue pattern 2718 for this dress.

The fit seems okay. The neckline will need a little adjustment, but nothing out of the ordinary. The sleeves look good, and I am pleased with the piping so far. So what is the problem? When I try the bodice on, it looks awful. It pulls across the bust, it doesn’t want to move with me at all, and the front seems too short-waisted even though it measures perfectly for me when on the form. Worse still, this fabric is too dear (as in expensive) to put it aside or to think about abandoning this dress.

I think I know what is wrong, and it will take a great deal of effort to try to correct it – and hopefully it will be correctable! I insisted on using an underlining on this stretch silk fabric. I thought I could accommodate the stretch by cutting the underlining on the bias. Guess what? It doesn’t work. The bias pulls from underneath, restricting the stretch of the silk. What this means is that I am going to have to remove the underlining. It is not going to be fun to remove black underlining from black fabric, sewn together with black thread, is it?

I have consoled myself with the thought that I can salvage this project by making a skirt instead of a dress, which may be what I end up doing. Needless to say, I am fighting my discouragement, and trying to stay focused so I can finish this and move on to something more fun.

While traveling is not conducive to sewing, it doesn’t put a damper on looking at more patterns and fabrics online! Sometimes I go weeks without finding a pattern and then I’ll find several all bunched together in the space of a few days. You might be guessing that such was the case during the last few weeks. So while I am struggling with vintage Vogue 2718 right now, I look at my new acquisitions to give me encouragement for the future. Here are some of my “new” finds:

I was delighted to find this DvF pattern in my size, at a reasonable cost!  This one should see some fabric next Spring or Summer.

I was delighted to find this DvF pattern in my size, at a reasonable cost! This one should see some fabric next Spring or Summer.


This one was too good to pass up, although I don’t have any plans for it right now. This looks like a dress, but it is really a skirt and top, paired with the jacket.


What can I say? I love coats.


I have been on the search for this pattern for a long time. I hope I’ll have some reason to make this dress sometime soon…


The sleeves on the blue version of this blouse are so pretty!

In addition to these new patterns, I just ordered two Marfy patterns, which should either add to my current sewing anxiety or help alleviate it. I hope it is the latter!


Filed under 1980's dress patterns, Blouse patterns from the 1950's, Coats, Cocktail dresses, piping, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue Designer patterns, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s, Wrap dresses

Light Load


String is a wonderful thing. I am particularly fond of kitchen string. Usually twisted cotton or a twisted cotton blend, it is useful for many things (such as tying together the newspapers for recycling, playing with the cats, securing open bags of flour and sugar, etc., etc.) It also occasionally makes its way upstairs to my sewing room.
Light Load DSC_1380

“Light load” kitchen string happens to be the perfect weight and diameter for making piping to be used in apparel. And – my current project for Fall features piping as one of the main design details.

The piping is more clearly visible on the green view of this dress.

The piping is more clearly visible on the green view of this dress.

As luck would have it, I had purchased some hand-dyed silk bias ribbon from Britex Fabrics a couple of years ago. One of the colors I had ordered turned out to be a perfect complement to this silk from Mendel Goldberg, which is slowly making its transformation into a dress.

Light Load

After hours and hours of working on the muslin (toile), cutting out the underlining (on the bias to accommodate the stretch of the silk fabric), checking and re-checking (multiple times) to make sure my pattern pieces were laid out properly, and then meticulously basting the gossamer silk gauze underlining and the slippery fashion fabric together, I was ready to do something fun. “What could be easier?” I thought. “The ribbon is already cut on the bias so I’ll just sew up three yards of piping and I’ll be in business.” Except that I kept getting ridges and lumps in my piping as I encased that kitchen string in the silk ribbon. I thought maybe if I stretched it a bit, it might look better, but it really didn’t. I must admit I was discouraged – actually very discouraged. I could not figure out what I was doing wrong, but I knew I needed to take a break from this mess and come back the next day.

Before I left my sewing room, I went to my stack of Threads Magazines to look for a particular issue recently recommended to me for another reason, and in my search found, by chance, the December 1994/January 1995 issue. There on the cover “Techniques for Perfect Piping” was a featured article.

I have many odd issues of Threads Magazine, but earlier in the year I bought the Threads Magazine Archive 1985-2013, available on their website. I can't recommend it highly enough - decades of sewing advice and expertise is readily available at the click of your computer mouse!

I have many odd issues of Threads Magazine, but earlier in the year I bought the Threads Magazine Archive 1985-2013, available for purchase on their website. I can’t recommend it highly enough – decades of sewing advice and expertise is readily available at the click of your computer mouse!

Needless to say, that became my evening reading. One line in this article by Linda Wakefield led me to the solution to my problem: “I also recommend reducing presser foot pressure, if possible, so that the fabric doesn’t twist or ripple as you stitch.” Even though I am unable to change the presser foot tension on my machine, that advice made me think that I needed to stabilize and reinforce the silk bias ribbon somehow to make it feed more evenly through the needle. The next day, back in my sewing room, I got some tissue paper – the kind one uses for wrapping presents – and cut it into strips. I placed a single layer of tissue under the silk ribbon as I stitched – and voila! Perfect piping emerged from my machine.

The tissue is brown (which is just some I happened to have with my gift wrapping supplies.)

The tissue is brown (which is just some I happened to have with my gift wrapping supplies.)


 The tissue paper tears off easily and cleanly from the silk piping.

The tissue paper tears off easily and cleanly from the silk piping.

Further advice in the article gave tips on applying the piping. I decided to try my hand with this added guidance, choosing to start with the sleeves. The pattern calls for piping around the lower edge – a nice short distance and easy to fix if I wasn’t happy with the finished look. What do you think?

Light Load

The sleeve has a side opening - to be secured by snaps.  Here it is just pinned.

The sleeve has a side opening – to be secured by snaps. Here it is just pinned.

There will still, I am sure, be some tedious moments as I continue work on this dress, but my load was definitely made lighter by something as simple as —- tissue paper!


Filed under 1980's dress patterns, piping, sewing in silk, vintage Vogue Designer patterns

“This is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

Those of you who are sewing bloggers and/or readers of sewing blogs are probably aware of a “survey” of sorts which is quietly and slowing making the rounds of those of us who share this interest. The survey is a simple list of questions which explores the relationship between sewing and one’s blog. I have been enjoying reading other bloggers’ thoughts on this relationship, most recently those of Mel of Poppykettle. Mel is surely world famous by now for her exquisite wedding gown which, of course, she made, as well as the gowns for her attendants. Now, I have never met Mel (although I hope to someday!), but I can tell she is just as charming and fun and genuine as the delightful blog which she writes. Knowing this made it even more flattering for me that she nominated me to expound on these same questions. So, I “accepted” the mission and here goes…

What am I working on?

As the sun-filled days steadily get shorter and shorter here in the northeastern part of the United States, and the morning and evening air begins to shiver a bit, I have mentally packed away my Summer sewing and am switching over to my favorite season of all – Autumn. As much as I love this time of year, I find that my wardrobe generally is sparse for Fall apparel. Last year, I made a Diane von Furstenberg knock-off wrap dress that was – and still is, of course – perfect for Fall.

DSC_1022 So it should come to no one’s surprise that I want to add one or two more Fall-appropriate dresses this year. I have just begun work on the muslin for a silk dress, using a Vogue pattern from the 1980s (which is somewhat of a shock, since I consider that decade, for the most part, a vast fashion desert!) The silk is Italian, purchased from Mendel Goldberg in New York City. This dress should be ideal for Autumn, assuming I finish it before we’ve moved into Winter!

Fabric for my current project.

Fabric for my current project.

Why do I write?

Now that is a good question! Unfortunately for you, my readers, the answer to that has multiple parts, and I hope I won’t bore you! First and foremost, I really, really love to write. I like to put words together. I like to try to make sentences clear but colorful and evocative. (I am not nearly as good at “explaining” procedures or techniques, although I know I need to do so occasionally.)

Second, I love to tell a story. I’m not sure how it happens, but it often seems that my sewing projects have inherent stories to them. Sometimes it’s about the pattern, sometimes it’s about the fabric, sometimes it’s about a long-fulfilled sewing dream of mine (left over from the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s!), sometimes it’s about the accessories, and sometimes it’s a combination of all of these things. Writing and telling stories about my sewing helps to give it another layer of meaning.

Third, writing and sewing are very, very similar. Both involve great expanses of solitary endeavor, engineering (of words or patterns and cloth), creativity, sense of style, striving for excellence of technique, and tenacity. However, both have a friendly and supportive communal aspect to them as well, when shared with others of the same interest. And – both sewing and writing are goal-oriented pursuits, perfect for my personality type!

Finally, I must give credit to my daughter, Susanna, who gave me the inspiration to start a sewing blog. An exceptional writer, Susanna had her own blog for a while, and her encouragement to me made all the difference.

How does my blog differ from others of its genre?

Answering this question reminds me of the beginning sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Except that there is nothing unhappy about sewing blogs! I think my interest in the fashions and vintage patterns of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s helps to differentiate my blog from many others. I really enjoy making connections between mid-century fashions and the fashions of today. The fact that I can make a dress using a 50-year-old pattern (or 50-year-old fabric!) and have it look totally current continues to amaze me – and sharing this excitement hopefully makes my blog just a little bit unique.

How does my writing process work?

I wish I had a magic formula to share! Fortunately, sewing is a slow process, at least for me, so I have lots of time to think about writing while I stitch away. I sometimes make notes to myself (and take photos, of course) while sewing and sometimes I wish I had made notes and taken more photos! I usually try to do a little research on the pattern (or fabric) I am using, to help “tell the story”. I actually often start with a title for my post, which can sometimes take a lot of thought and time. That small detail usually sets the narrative for me, so that I am able to proceed with the story. One thing I try to do is keep my posts to a reasonable length (a guideline I am not following right now…). Because of this, I do a lot of editing during and after the writing process.


Now comes the fun part – and difficult part, too. Fun because I can nominate two fellow sewing bloggers to participate in this same survey, and difficult because there are so many interesting and talented bloggers about whom I would love to learn more. However, two talented dressmakers whose blog posts I never want to miss are my nominees: Janene of ooobop and Brooke of Custom Style. Of course, you, Janene and Brooke, are under no obligation to participate, but I do hope you will accept the “mission”!



Filed under Love of sewing, Uncategorized