Tag Archives: love of sewing

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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Filed under Love of sewing, Uncategorized

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

“To the Most Imaginative Woman in the World”

“You see her leafing through pattern books – picking out a collar here, a cuff there, a new way of pleating a skirt . . . You see her fingering a tiny swatch of fabric, Yet she’s seeing it as a whole dress, or a blouse, or a jacket . . . Who is she – this lady with the limitless imagination? She’s the woman who sews. YOU . . .”

Most imaginative woman - Burlington-2

This is just one of many ads placed by manufacturers of fabric in the April-May 1950 Vogue Pattern Book Magazine. Ordinarily I would not have purchased this issue, as most Vogue patterns available before 1955 were not printed, and I rarely buy a vintage pattern which is not printed! My particular interest in these vintage magazines is the opportunity they provide to identify dates for patterns, fabrics and style trends, making the experience of sewing with vintage patterns (and fabrics) even more enjoyable.  However, when this issue was available in an Etsy store, I succumbed. I was born in May of 1950, and my curiosity just got the better of me.

I find the haughty expression on the cover model somewhat amusing.

An early haughty expression on a  model!

Looking at this issue made me realize how old I am… NO, NO, NO! Just kidding, I think. Actually, what really popped out at me was how exciting it must have been to be a home dressmaker at this point in time, with the home sewing business booming, post-war, and fine fashion – and the desire to look wonderful – such important aspects of a woman’s life.

And then, as I was leafing through the magazine, I found an unexpected surprise. Tucked in between two pages was Vogue Patterns April 15 Collection, an 8-page flyer, available at pattern counters and easily something that could be tossed away. I find it remarkable that this slim printed piece survived.

Most imaginative woman - flyer cover-5

The format is larger than what I am used to seeing in later Vogue pattern flyers from the 1960s and 1970s.  When one looks at the fashions and patterns detailed, it is easy to imagine the woman who picked this up, looking at it again and again.

This is one of the inside pages of the flyer.

This is one of the inside pages of the flyer.

Not only that, also tucked in with this flyer was this page from Harper’s Bazaar, March 1st, 1950.

Most imaginative woman - Harpers Bazaar

How many of you save pictures of dresses/blouses/coats you would like to copy? Pinterest, anyone? I certainly do!

Clearly she had in mind making the dress pictured on the back cover of the flyer:

"Consider them two by two - the pattern and the fabric, and you will always have a happy result." Timeless advice!

“Consider them two by two – the pattern and the fabric, and you will always have a happy result.” Timeless advice!

Some of my favorite pages in this, my “birthday” issue? I was delighted to find an ad for Moygashel linen, for which I have a particular passion:

Most imaginative woman - flyer cover-1

A lover of polka dots makes me partial to this gorgeous blouse:

Most imaginative woman - flyer cover-3

This blouse is very similar to one I made a few years ago.

And how can I resist this stunning “moulded sheath dress with a draped cascade”?

Most imaginative woman - cascade dress-4

I am so struck by the sophistication of the styling of the fashions and illustrations, the emphasis on Designer offerings, and the exciting abundance of piece goods being sold by manufacturer’s name to the home sewing population. Times and fashions change, but I believe we have much in common with these mid-century home dressmakers plotting their wardrobes with creativity and skill – pairing fabric and pattern. We are the women who sew – and are still the ones with the limitless imaginations!

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Filed under Messages from past owners of vintage patterns, Mid-Century style, Moygashel linen, Pattern Art, Polka dots, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s

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

Can a Coat be Glamorous?

And what exactly is glamour? A recent quote by Carolina Herrera – “It’s important for women to feel glamorous and feminine but always themselves” – prompted me to look up the definition of the word “glamour” – and I was surprised by what I found. Here is how Webster’s defines it in its noun form: 1) the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, esp. by a combination of charm and good looks 2) excitement, adventure, and unusual activity, like the glamour of being an explorer 3) magic or enchantment; spell; witchery. And then there is the definition of “glamorous”: 1) full of glamour; fascinatingly attractive; alluring 2) full of excitement, adventure , and unusual activity: to have a glamorous job.

Glamour was the last thing on my mind when I started out on my current coat project. Making a muslin (toile) can be time-consuming and tedious, especially when it shows you that some serious alterations need to be made. Fortunately, my coat muslin revealed only some small changes to the shoulder of my raglan sleeve coat, compensating for my square shoulders. My go-to book to guide me through these complexities is Fitting and Pattern Alteration, by Liechty, Rasband, and Pottberg-Steineckert (recommended to me by Susan Khalje.)

I highly recommend this book.

I highly recommend this book.

One of the things I love about this book is that it covers all sorts of situations. Square shoulders for Raglan sleeves? Not a problem.

The diagrams take the guess work out of alterations to patterns.

The diagrams take the guess work out of alterations to patterns.

Once I had my muslin adjusted, my silk organza interlining marked and cut (to be used as the pattern for the wool), I felt like I was off to the races. Not so fast. A careful steaming of my wool fabric revealed three small “thin” areas (not holes, but thin enough that I would need to work around them). This is not unusual for vintage fabric, and is one of the reasons why a careful pre-steaming or pre-pressing of any fabric is important, but especially so for vintage goods.

I marked these small imperfections with yellow chalk.

I marked these small imperfections with yellow chalk.

And then double-marked the areas with orange post-its when I was arranging the pattern pieces.

And then double-marked the areas with orange post-its when I was arranging the pattern pieces.

After untold hours of basting the layers of silk organza and fashion fabric together, I was finally ready to sew.   And this is when I think it began to get glamorous. The first major details to be completed were the pocket plackets. I thought I might faint when I had to make that first cut into one of the side panels of the coat front. But bravery saw me through!

I have the placket catch-stitched temporarily so it does not get caught on something while I finish the remainder of the coat.

I have the placket catch-stitched temporarily so it does not get caught on something while I finish the remainder of the coat.

Here is the inside of the pocket and placket.

Here is the inside of the pocket and placket.

With the first pocket and pocket placket successfully completed, the second pocket placket was simply fascinating and alluring, my progress encouraged by the charm and good looks of the first one. Definitely glamorous!

Progress - both pockets/plackets finished!

Progress – both pockets/plackets finished!

More seams ensued, each one carefully pinned, sewn, pressed and catch-stitched. Particularly rewarding were the shoulder seams of the raglan sleeves. Properly clipped, pressed and catch-stitched, the seams lie beautifully and look good, too.

The benefits of a silk organza interlining (or underlining) are manifold, but not least of which is a foundation upon which to secure the seams.

The benefits of a silk organza interlining (or underlining) are manifold, not least of which is a foundation upon which to secure the seams.

A view of the back of the coat (in progress.)

A view of the back of the coat (in progress.)

Although I have many more hours to go with the construction of this coat, I can’t help but feel that not only is this coat going to be glamorous, with its elegant gray cashmere, its vintage sensibility and all its hidden, inside secrets used to tame those seams, it is also going to be feminine and definitely me.

Perhaps the next question to ask is “Can sewing be glamorous?” It is “fascinatingly attractive, full of excitement, adventure and unusual activity.” It is magical and enchanting, too. The answer would have to be, “Yes, sewing most definitely can be very glamorous!” Even when we are in our bedroom slippers and blue jeans, covered in threads and pins, if we are sewing, I say we are glamorous.

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Filed under Coats, couture construction, Dressmaker coats, Love of sewing, Mid-Century style, Uncategorized, underlinings, Vintage fabric, vintage Vogue Designer patterns, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, woolens