Category Archives: Love of sewing

Sewing, Silence, and Solitude

It was exactly two years ago I first started this post.   It must have been a cold, snowy day – the sort when it is best to stay in and settle down with a sewing project – for me to be prompted to write about this subject.   Then I must have gotten distracted – or maybe I just ran out of things to say – but I never finished writing it.  Now seems like a good time to do so…

A dear friend of mine who spends her sewing hours making beautiful quilts once lamented to me, “It’s a shame sewing is such a solitary activity.”  She certainly has a point.  There is just no way around the fact that most of us spend hours and hours alone with our sewing; it is just the nature of the enterprise, being for the most part not a collaborative effort, but one in which each of us is the main decision-maker and craftswoman.

Sewing takes space, preferably a separate space, removed from the hustle and bustle of a normal household, where that inevitable sewing mess can be tolerated.  Being removed, despite its inherent joys, usually means being alone (except for pet visits – what is it about sewing that is so inviting to pets?)

Despite the hours and hours of time I spend by myself in my sewing room, I never really feel lonely.  Granted, I do listen to the radio or music most of the time, so that the silence is muffled by other voices or melodies.  But I am still definitely alone – with only my thoughts for dialogue.

That self-dialogue can be demanding – solving problems, perpetual decision-making, irritation with oneself when things go awry, and continued re-dedication towards a specific, often time-consuming goal.

I feel so fortunate to have this collection of French Milliner’s Heads, assembled over many years, to keep vigilance over me in my sewing room. What tales they could tell if only they could talk…

Then, of course, it is not just the active process of sewing to consider; hours of thought, effort, and planning often go into your project long before the first stitch is taken.  And did I mention daydreaming?  What dedicated dressmaker does not devote lots of her personal daydreaming thoughts to this outfit, including what shoes will work with it, what handbag to carry, what jewelry will complement it?

And now – here we are in March of 2020.   Strangely, this solitude that is self-imposed, this solitude that we, who choose to be alone and sew, are accustomed to – is suddenly almost universal and mandated.  It is a strange phenomenon.  And also now, in such a visceral way, I do feel lonely – but so grateful to have this exceptional interest and passion which helps me while away the hours.  I am so grateful for the expansive global sewing community which connects with one another across so many online platforms.  But most of all, I am so grateful to have this blog and you, my lovely readers – many of you have become my dear friends, confidantes, advisers, and sewing soulmates.  Many a silent hour in my life is devoted to thinking of you as I plan what to share and write here at Fifty Dresses, always hoping it will be interesting and worthwhile to you.  Thank you, thank you for adding so much focus, joy, fun and friendship to my solitary and silent sewing life, and especially now when the world is so topsy-turvy.

This little lady has the most endearing expression on her well-worn face. Her tiny secret smile seems to be one of gentle reassurance.

I fervently wish you all good health and perseverance at this difficult time as we stitch our way through our shared loneliness to better times, filled with optimism – and lots of places to wear our newly-made pretty frocks.

 

 

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What Do You Think of Sewing Contests?

And – what do you know about them?  One of the more venerable sewing contests is the annual Make It With Wool.  Founded in 1947, it is still going strong and features winners in various categories/age groups.  Prizes for winners and runners’-up include scholarships, sewing machines and fabrics, and of course, national recognition in the field.  Pattern Review sponsors several sewing competitions throughout each year, in addition to a “sewing bee.”   Its followers are legion at this point, and it is always a coup to be a winner, selected by readers’ votes.

But what would you say if I told you that in 1956 the Singer Sewing Machine Company introduced a national sewing contest with prize money totaling $125,000?   The 1st Grand Prize carried the unbelievable reward of $25,000.  In current 2020 American dollars, that is almost $240,000!  Not only that, the 33 regional first prize winners also received a free trip to New York.  Take a look at the following two-page ad which appeared in the February/March 1957 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, announcing the second year of the competition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vogue Pattern Book Magazine of August/September 1957 included this page “as we go to press…”

Vogue Pattern Company was rightly proud of their representation in this contest and in others.

And then here is the feature article on those winners in the following issue (October/November, 1957):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Judging was based on “fashion points of appearance, fit and selection of design, colour and fabric, plus construction points of quality and accuracy of cutting, sewing and finishing.”  Isn’t this what most of us strive to attain in our own sewing?

By the next year, 1958, the contest included a new category, called the Young Homemaker Division, for young women between the ages of 18 – 25.  $9,000 of prize money was awarded to the top four winners.  What beautiful dresses and ensembles they created!

I suspect these young women continued to sew throughout their lives.

Also that year, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs sponsored their own sewing contest.  The theme of the contest was “the ideal costume for a clubwoman’s wardrobe.”  Points of consideration in the judging were: “fashion-rightness,” “versatility and appropriateness for club occasions,” “becomingness to the wearer,” “over-all fashion effect,” and “workmanship.”  24 of the state finalists submitted entries consisting of a dress with its own jacket or coat.  That is still to this day a winning combination, classic and chic.

The prize money was certainly less impressive in this contest, at $250, $150 and $100 for the first-, second-, and third-place winners, but imagine the prestige of winning for “your” club, at a time when there were 1,485 clubs represented in the contest!

By 1963, Singer Sewing Company had started the Young Stylemaker Contest for girls aged 10 – 21.  The caption on the following article tells it all:

Included in the trip to Paris for the two winners was a tour of the famous Parisian couture houses.  Can you imagine having such an opportunity at that point in your life?

This contest had expanded its scope by 1965, ferrying fifteen finalists to Rome via a chartered jet for a 5-day stay before the final judging of the Stylemaker Contest.  Notes by the contestants included the charming observation “how very chic the Italian women are.”

By 1969, this contest had drawn more than 93,000 participants!  As part of their prize, the three winners each were given an all-expense paid, one-week trip for two to London, Paris or Rome.  The purpose of the Stylemaker Contest was to “encourage young and creative talents in Fashion sewing.”

By 1971, it appears that changes were in the air for the Stylemaker Contest.  Whittled down to two winning divisions, only the overall winner received a trip to London, Paris or Rome for two, although both final winners also received cash prizes of $800 and $600 respectively.  The “heyday” period of home fashion sewing was sadly beginning to draw to a close.

Needless to say, fashion sewing contests no longer command such notable and generous prize money or trips.  Those were heady times in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, likely never to be experienced again.  However, I would like to think a new sewing heyday is upon us – or perhaps we are it.  What place do contests have in our current global community of sewing?

I rarely enter sewing contests, not for any reason other than the fact that I have so many projects in my queue that the last thing I need to put my attention on is something that is not top priority for me.  But that doesn’t mean I will never enter a contest.  I actually think I probably should at some point. So – again, what do you think of them?   Sewing is creative, so obviously contests today still value and encourage creativity.  Surely emphasis is still placed on fashion appropriateness, workmanship, style, a flattering assessment, fabric and color selection. It is precisely these goals which make fashion sewing so exciting, at least for me, and I suspect for most of us.

Let’s learn a little from the past and make it new again.

 

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Filed under Fashion history, Love of sewing, Mid-Century style, Sewing Contests, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s

An Early Lesson in the Connoisseurship of Fabric

Like so many children who grew up in the 1950s, I wore, for the most part, clothes made by my mother. For the first ten years of my life, my family lived in Asheville, North Carolina.  Although decades have passed since last I lived there, it is those early homemade clothes that infuse my memory of those years and that place. I had an early interest in fabric and sewing and loved to help pick out selections from which my mother would make dresses and play clothes for my older sister and me.

We lived on a very steep road, dotted with houses on either side of it.  Two houses away from ours lived an older couple, whose names I cannot remember.  The wife worked in the fabric department at Ivey’s, a large store in the city of Asheville. She knew that my mother sewed, and one day she told my mother that the sewing department was getting ready to dispose of some of its older fabrics, which would be free for the taking by employees. She wanted my mother to have a couple of these pieces, completely free of cost. My mother was quite excited, and she told my sister and me that perhaps it would be something she could use to make us new dresses.

The December/January 1953-54 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine had this clever feature, Resort Fabric Story (“taste the pleasures”), showing some of the fabric choices for the upcoming Spring and Summer. Perhaps my mother was hoping for something similar to a few of these prints.

We anxiously waited for the day when we could go to our neighbor’s house and pick up our promising parcel.  Then – finally – Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away called to say she had the fabric for us.  I remember well my feelings of anticipation and excitement as the three of us practically skipped down our road to her house.

Her living room was dark, despite the large picture window framing one side of it.  None of the furniture looked like it would be comfortable to sit on.  I was struck by the appearance of one rocking chair, the wooden arms of which were in the shape of swans’ heads.  Everywhere were china figurines and plastic flowers in vases.  The room smelled like last night’s supper.  On the sofa, which she called a davenport, was a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

Our neighbor ceremoniously announced that this was the fabric, and she motioned to my mother to open the package.  It contained two pieces of cloth.  One was a non-descript dark tan, heavy and dull, certainly nothing that could be used for dresses.  The other piece was a very large floral print in pink, drab olive green, and smudgy brown – yards and yards of it.  It was hideous.  My mother very graciously thanked her and told her what lovely pieces they were, and off we went with our weighty cargo.

This ad in the February/March 1955 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine features Bates “disciplined” fabric. “It’s like magic how beautifully your sewing dreams materialize with Bates Disciplined fabric,” proclaims the caption.  Obviously, what we received from our neighbor was more nightmare than magical dreams!

When, on our trudge back home up our mountain road, I asked my mother if she liked the fabric, she only said that it was very kind of Mrs. Neighbor-two-doors-away to give us these pieces.  I wanted to say that I really didn’t like either piece very much, but I kept quiet.  I could see my mother was disappointed, and it made me feel so badly.  What good was something that was free, if you did not like it, I wondered? I also wondered what my mother would do with it.

It did not take long to get the answer to that question.  My mother had grown up during the Great Depression, when no one wasted anything, ever.  Nor would this dubious gift go to waste.  Out of the heavy tan fabric, she made shorts for us.  I so disliked  wearing them as they were scratchy and stiff.  I must have thankfully grown out of them quickly, as I don’t recall wearing them very often.

I was more worried about my mother’s plans for the pink floral fabric.  Looking back now, I think it must have been very poor quality cotton or heavy rayon.  My mother made a play dress out of it for me, with matching bloomers. It, too, was scratchy, and although I would not have known the concept of drape at my young age, I noticed that it did not move with me, but rather hung as a tent from my shoulders.  I remember unhappily wearing this outfit, but at age four or five, I did not have much say in the matter.   It was so unlike the other cute play clothes and pretty dresses made by my mother; I suspect she thought so, too.

Occasionally I think back on those days so long ago, and I recognize how much they shaped me as a dressmaker.  My love for, and my insistence upon using beautiful, fine quality fabrics – once I began sewing for myself – certainly were born during those years.  I learned the value in seeking out fabrics worthy of my time and effort, those which would give me enjoyment in their wearing, and which would impart a sense of refinement and style in their tactile and visual qualities.

I love this ad on the inside back cover of the October/November 1953 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine, with its declaration that “fine fabrics are the foundation of fashion.”

Sometimes the best lessons, and the ones remembered so well, are those illustrating the worst example of something.  I did not know it at the time, but that brown paper package, with its ugly fabric inside, gave me an unexpected and invaluable life-long lesson in the connoisseurship of beautiful fabric.

 

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Filed under Love of sewing, Quotes about sewing, Uncategorized, Vintage fabric

My Sewing Fairy Godmother

Time away from home – as in a vacation and/or a trip with a specific purpose – can hold many possibilities and promises, including treasured time with family and friends, new adventures, a change in routine, and, of course, exposure to new and different places, people, and history. For me, and for many of you, it also means a forced hiatus from sewing, which is a change in routine that is not always welcome.

Thus, after returning earlier this week from 30 days away, I felt a great sense of calm and happiness when I went into my sewing room after such a long absence. It took a few days to start a new project, but now I am cranking away at Fall fashion sewing, littering the floor with scraps and threads and pins. My room, which I had left neat and tidy and clean is now scattered with patterns and muslin and fabrics – in other words, it is back to normal.

I have come to know, however, that references to, and examples of, sewing and fashion seem to show up in the most unusual places – even on vacation (or “work” trips) when you least expect it. It is like my “Sewing Fairy Godmother” is looking after me with these charming and fascinating bits of whimsy to keep my focus sharp and my sewing homesickness at bay.

Consider that these two charming dress forms, both size 4, adorned one of the rooms in the spacious and lovely house located high (very high) in the massive and stunning peaks of Colorado (USA) where we just spent the past month.

One form was set in each corner of the room.

 

To make this even more meaningful for me, the forms were the perfect size for our 4-year-old granddaughter who was with us for part of our stay. Wouldn’t one of these be a nice addition to my sewing room!

 

Other fashion vignettes were found throughout the house, such as these glove forms tucked into a corner cupboard.

Do you see the needle and thread hanging on the hand at the right?

And among the art books on display was this volume which I read cover-to-cover, only wishing there had been more photos of my favorite best-dressed women throughout the ages (such as Babe Paley, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Coco Chanel, Mona von Bismarck) – and where was Bunny Mellon? Despite its shortcomings, I found it a fascinating synopsis of fashion and its leading ladies from 1940- 2002.

“The Best of the Best Dressed List” is the focus of this book, with a foreword by Eleanor Lambert who started the International Best Dressed List in 1940.

So when else has my Sewing Fairy Godmother been looking out for me? She must be tenacious, as it took almost two years for her to prove her existence to me. It all started over two years ago, when in a weak moment I agreed, after much consideration, to be President of my Garden Club from June of 2015 – June of 2017. My biggest concern was that my duties in this role would greatly impact, negatively, the hours I could devote to my sewing. And, this turned out to be correct. I had many frustrating hours when I was in meetings, planning for meetings, hosting meetings, running meetings, doing all sorts of unimaginable things for the Club, all of which meant I was not sewing for big chunks of time. However, I persevered, tried to keep a positive attitude about it all, and do a good job.

Then – I had a Eureka moment when I was on a “business” trip for the club early this past May, attending the Annual Meeting of the Garden Club of America. Among the perks of this Annual Meeting is a wonderful multi-vendor boutique, which is set up in the host hotel. One of the vendors specialized in French fashion jewelry. Although her jewelry was lovely, it was one of her props that caught my eye – a wooden sign, with the phrase “COUTURE MODE” spelled out in stylized block letters.

When I approached her about it, she told me she had purchased it in Paris several years ago and it was “not really for sale” – but she would think about it. She gave me her card and told me to stay in touch. Well, did I ever! By the beginning of June, she had agreed to sell me the sign. It now hangs in my sewing room, where I enjoy it daily.

A focal point of my sewing room – I love this sign!

If not for being Garden Club President, I never would have been at that meeting, and I never would have found this sign. So, thank you Sewing Fairy Godmother, for knowing better than I, that opportunities and inspiration are sometimes long in the making or found in unexpected places.

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Filed under Dressmaker forms, Fashion commentary, Love of sewing, Uncategorized

Life Throws a Curveball

Knowing that all of us who sew and love to do so, often have so many interruptions in our lives that keep us from our fabric and thread, our patterns and plans, I have always hestitated to whine too much about that usurped time.  After all, none of us is immune from laundry, cooking, housekeeping, vacations, births, deaths of family and friends, the flu, a broken sewing machine, holidays, weddings, trips, family illness – the list goes on and on.  But one thing I never expected has made its way into my life here in Autumn, my favorite of all the seasons.

I have broken my left hand.  A terrible fall, outside here at my home on Sunday, October 9th, caused injury to four of my fingers – and a broken rib, too.  One of the fingers was severely dislocated, one was chipped at the center joint, and two were broken and required surgery to repair the breaks.

I’m incredibly grateful that this did not happen to my dominant hand!  I’m also so grateful for excellent medical care, a talented, caring surgeon, and family and friends who are attentive and so helpful.  I have so much for which to be thankful.

However, of course, there is much I am unable to do while I recover, including sewing. All the projects and plans in my queue are now put on hold.  But only on hold. . . so please do not give up on me!  I’ll be back at my fashion sewing and writing about it on Fifty Dresses just as soon as I am able.  In the meantime, I am missing both.  Wishing all of you, my readers, a crisp, colorful and creative Fall!

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Pondering Some of Sewing’s Mysteries and Curious Happenstances

The act of sewing and dressmaking gives one ample time to think, and sometimes when I am squirreled away in my sewing room, I reflect on some of these questions to which there seem to be no exacting answers – such as:

Is it really necessary to buy an extra button? I find that the buttons I sew on rarely come off. It is just the buttons on RTW* that seem to go missing. So – is that extra button really necessary just for the sake of insurance? Is that how so many random single buttons have found their home in one of my button boxes? What does one do with an extra button that is not needed?  *Ready-to-Wear , for my non-American readers!

Why is beautiful fabric so addictive? Why do I suddenly decide I need another cocktail or elegant dress just because I find a gorgeous silk that I can’t resist?

I just could not resist this silk charmeuse on Mendel Goldberg's website. I immediately decided I needed it for a new dress to wear to fancy parties. However, it will have to wait patiently until I can get to it.

I just could not resist this silk charmeuse on Mendel Goldberg’s website. I immediately decided I needed it for a new dress to wear to fancy parties. However, it will have to wait patiently until I can get to it.

What does one do with all those little scraps left over from a sewing project? Should I save them or throw them away? Somehow it seems sacrilegious to get rid of even small pieces of beautiful, fine fabric, but really, how many of these little bundles can I keep on storing?

Here is a little pile left over from my recently completed dress and cocktail jacket. Not much remains - what should I do with it?

Here is a little pile left over from my recently completed dress and cocktail jacket. Not much remains – what should I do with it?

Why is one spool of thread never enough? It seems I am forever going to the local JoAnn’s to pick up one more spool of the Gutermann’s thread I love.

Why don’t manufacturers of fabric advertise in pattern magazines anymore? Today we rarely buy fabric “by brand” whereas “back in the day” one looked for specific brands to buy, based on their reputation for quality. (Pendleton Wool still sells by name, but I rarely see their “fabrics-on-the-bolt” advertised.)

Why does the bobbin always run out of thread at the most inopportune time?

Why does time go so fast when I am sewing?

Where do all those pins go? Those ones that drop on the floor and somehow never get found? (Perhaps they are pinning up all those socks – those ones that go missing in the laundry – onto some invisible lost and found board somewhere?)

How much information should I offer when someone compliments me on what I am wearing? I am always flattered to receive a compliment – and receive it graciously, I think – but usually I do not offer the fact that I have made what I am wearing unless I am asked where I purchased it. What do you do when faced with this situation?

Why do I always misjudge how long something will take to complete? I am an experienced dressmaker at this point, and I NEVER estimate correctly! I should have a better sense of time, don’t you think? I suspect I am unconsciously and deliberately fooling myself, for if I really knew how many hours would be involved in a new project, I might not want to start it.

How many coat patterns does one really need? Oh, this is no mystery – one can never have too many patterns – or coats!

this is my "newest cant pattern, which happens to look a lot like several of my other coat patterns. I wonder how that happened?

This is my “newest” coat pattern, which happens to look a lot like several of my other coat patterns. I wonder how that happened?

What are your sewing mysteries and curiosities? What perplexing questions does your sewing present to you?  What have I forgotten?

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Filed under Coats, Love of sewing, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s

The ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G, Part II

One of the most intriguing aspects of couture dressmaking is that the techniques and the sewing procedures have really not changed much in over 60 years, perhaps even longer. There seem to be very few short cuts when it comes to MAKING a quality garment. (And, although sergers are handy and have their place, they are unnecessary – nay, unwelcome, even! – in the world of couture dressmaking.)          Thus we come to our second half of  The ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G

M, of course, is for MUSLIN. Although many of my fellow dressmakers around the world refer to this as a toile, in the States we call our test garment a muslin, after the basic cotton fabric, purchased cheaply, which is used for its construction. Once I started taking classes with Susan Khalje, I learned the true value and versatility of this basic part of dressmaking. Subsequently, my muslins are written upon with abandon, torn apart, discarded when too many fitting issues are revealed, and regarded with a certain restraint, for what they can and cannot do. They CAN help you fit your pattern to your particular shape and needs. They CAN be a test run for the construction of your garment. They CAN suggest to you if the design you have chosen is right for you (although not always). They CAN’T mimic the flow and drape and weight of your fabric. So – as always – one needs to use her sewing brain to compensate for the lack of this important detail – and make a best guess as to how the finished garment will actually fit and look.

How many muslins does one dress need? Sometimes, several!

How many muslins does one dress need? Sometimes, several!

A is for ACCURACY. Accuracy in marking straight-of-grain, seams, notches, darts, buttonholes, buttons, center front and center back, fold lines, pleats, tucks, pockets, etc. etc., is absolutely paramount for a successful garment. This is often time-consuming and tedious work, isn’t it? But have you ever had to go back to your tissue pattern to see exactly where a notch or seam junction are? That’s also time-consuming.   I try to do it right the first time, but sometimes I miss. So – I am always striving to increase my accuracy when it comes to marking my fashion fabric.

Just for example, the most important ingredient in making successful bound buttonholes is precise marking.

Just for example, the most important ingredient in making successful bound buttonholes is precise marking.

K is for KEEP. When you have a workable muslin pattern which has been successfully made into a finished garment, and you have notes and diagrams, and suggestions written on it, KEEP it. You never know when you might want to use it again. I think I have kept all my muslins – in large plastic zip-lock bags for the most part – except for one. I could not wait to get the muslin for what I call my Ghost Dress out of my house! I will never make this pattern again! The moral of the story is, Keep the good, discard the bad…

I also like to keep extra buttons, and at least a little bit of extra fabric and trim (if appropriate) for each of the pieces I complete. One of these days, I’m going to put together a notebook of fabric swatches, so that I can keep a record of all these yard goods which have stolen my heart.

I is for INNER WORKINGS. The inside story of any couture dressmaking is a story of attention to details. Interfacings, inter-or-under-linings, linings, seam finishes, bar tacks, waist stays, boning, pad-stitching, even labels (and the list goes on and on) – give your garment a professional look. Skimp on this part of dressmaking and results will be compromised.

Here is just one page from the 1957 Vogue Dressmaking Book which shows some "inner workings."

Here is just one page from the 1957 Vogue Dressmaking Book which shows some “inner workings.”

N is for NEEDLES. Using the correct needles will go a long way in making your sewing experience a pleasant one. I have only recently started using real basting needles for attaching silk organza underlining to the fashion fabric – and what a difference it makes.

These are excellent basting needles!

These are excellent basting needles!

Of course, everyone knows the importance of changing your machine needles frequently. I even find that my hand sewing needles sometimes need to be “retired” if they start to show signs of losing their sharpness – or get a bend in their spines.

All in all, sewing needles are amazing things! The magic within them has been recognized by artists, poets, and, of course, by dressmakers, for centuries. Samuel Woodworth summed up their charms and inextricable human connection in this charming quote:

The bright little needle – the swift-flying needle, the needle directed by beauty and art.”

G is for GET ON WITH IT. Sometimes the most difficult part of dressmaking is getting started. Starting a new project – especially a complicated one, can be daunting, but the only way to get started is to . . . get on with it.

So, there we have it – the ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G, a simplified synopsis of a very complicated and diverse undertaking. Dressmaking has it all for those of us who love to sew fine fashions – and find joy in the process.

 

 

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Filed under couture construction, Love of sewing, Quotes about sewing, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized