The Ikea Flat-Pack Top
I've had this beautiful Robert Kaufman swiss dot fabric sitting in my fabric drawers for nearly two years. I'd draped it across myself in all kinds of light, trying to work out whether it was so sheer that it required a lining and that dilemma had prevented me from ever cutting in to it. From time to time I conducted little experiments, such as standing in front of sunlit windows and saying to family members: can you see my hand/waist/outstretched arm through this? To which they would always reply: Yes. The fabric would then be folded back into the drawer, feeling increasingly like Eeyore's burst balloon, which he repeatedly puts in and out of a jam jar for his own entertainment (for the uninitiated, it's a Winnie the Pooh story). It seemed unlikely that the fabric would ever actually be used for anything other than being taken in and out of drawer.
But somehow, here it is as a finished top! My experiments never reached a point where someone said: Florence, that fabric is sufficiently opaque that you will never find yourself unwittingly having a Princess-Diana's-see-through-skirt-moment, but I did find myself wanting to make a top this summer that I wasn't entirely sure would work, so I decided to take a double-risk of failure by using it, in favour of ruining a fabric that was both nice and definitely not transparent (I don't like lining tops on the basis that it makes them feel somehow more formal to wear). My double-risk paid off: the top worked AND I realised it doesn't need a lining at all, although it definitely would if it were being made into a skirt.
My daughter - who still seems to want to spend time with me despite being part of the is-this-transparent experiments and other daily strangenesses - took these photos for me the first time I wore it when we were out walking Nell together. Photos taken outside never seem to show the same level of detail on clothing, but there was a risk that it would never get photographed and shared here if left to my own devices (several pieces of clothing have gone undocumented this summer due to my inability to actually take some photos of them).
The top is based on one that I bought from Joules several years ago. I followed my own tutorial for shirring the top panel and thanked myself for writing it up back in 2010, as I couldn't quite remember how to do it several years later (nb. if you're wondering, shirring requires you to put elastic in the bobbin case to create a panel that is both stretchy and appealingly tactile with rows of tight gathers). I spent a frustrating hour feeling like I'd lost all ability to do anything other than hand-sewing in the intervening years, as my machine sewed row after row of unusable 'shirring' on practice fabric. It was only when I googled it, that I realised that my latest machine requires a 'creative bobbin case' to sew with elastic, a requirement that seems curiously stifling of creativity...
Rather than buy an expensive new bobbin case, I fetched my old workhorse (that post has links to all kinds of other things in it - I just disappeared down a memory rabbit hole reading it) from my daughter's desk and was reminded what a total dreamboat of a machine it is. It can do nothing more complex than a zig-zag stitch, but it is pure heaven. My latest machine has fancy things, such as an automatic presser foot that snaps down the moment I press the pedal and rises the moment I take my foot off it; it cuts my thread; it backstitches automatically to make securing stitches...and so many other good things. But when I returned to my old machine, I realised that a machine that can do so much has an almost imperceptible, but ultimately negative, effect of leaving me feeling disconnected from my work. All those fleeting moments where I sit, redundant, waiting for the machine to carry out an automated task accumulate to leave me feeling detached, slightly impatient, less well-skilled and ultimately less enthusiastic. I realised that my switch to hand-sewing came around the time that I bought my first Big Girl machine, which had lots of bells and whistles. At the time it seemed a natural shift (or a shift because I didn't actually end up loving that particular machine at all, unlike my new one, which is far more intuitive and well-behaved)...but now I wonder how much of it was just a case of falling out of love with the process of machine sewing once I felt less involved. So, having got the machine out only for the shirring, I shunned both my newer sewing machine and my overlocker and sewed the entire shirt on my old machine and it was a total joy. It whirrs and hums with a delicious authenticity and sound of true industry. Avoiding the overlocker meant switching over to using french seams, but that didn't feel a troublesome thing.
My new machine only made a reappearance when it came to the final stage of sewing buttonholes, which it does really beautifully.
I posted this photo of a buttonhole on Instagram as I wanted to share a tip I'd been given years ago by an elderly lady who was a very experienced dressmaker. She taught me that if you put a pin in front of the bar-tack, you'll never accidentally slice through it with the seam ripper when you're opening the button hole up - it's such a good tip and I think of her every time I use it. A few people on Instagram commented that they weren't able to get a buttonhole they were happy with - I do feel I'm blessed with a good machine in this way, but I've noticed that omitting a few things will cause even a good buttonholing machine to create sights that looks far less lovely. Firstly, interfacing the button placket - it's obvious, but if forgotten is totally ruinous (I know this because for the first time ever I forgot recently. I have no idea where my head was that day, but I ruined this nearly-finished shirt. I still feel cross with myself now); my second suggestion is slightly less obvious (and therefore probably more helpful), but I find that placing a tiny piece of Stitch n' Tear stabiliser beneath each buttonhole while sewing gives a much-improved finish. It offers some stability while the dense stitches are being cast and for me it's an absolute essential. I use this one, made by Madeira, as it's sold locally to me, but I think Vilene's version may be more widely available and is probably just as good. The important thing is just that it just tears away and doesn't require being ironed on in order to provide stability.
These two photos show the shirring better. I think the fact that I'd shirred the fabric, and in doing so altered its texture, blurred the boundaries of where my work began and ended with this top, for when I walked into the kitchen wearing this top for the first time, Mr Teacakes stopped, looked totally in awe, and said: You're just amazing!!! I can't believe you've sewn all those tiny dots in the fabric!!! It looks incredible!!! (Yes, there were that many exclamation marks in his voice, so I have a duty to overuse them now as I write).
I did momentarily consider allowing him to continue to think that I had indeed painstakingly implanted each of these little tufts into the fabric myself as I had never seen him look so impressed and it made me quite hungry to gobble up all of his praise, so it was with some reluctance that I climbed down from the Awesomely Talented Wife pedestal he had erected and revealed to him that the fabric had actually just come this way (I feel confused as to whether Mr Kaufman is now inhabiting my place on the pedestal).
Oh, well, it's still a really great top, he said. But the look of awe had left his face. I could have been crushed by the new-found knowledge that to make clothes using fabric created by others is the sewing equivalent of assembling some Ikea flat-pack furniture, but actually I was left humbled and delighted by the idea that he thought I might possess the patience (or possibly the lunacy) to create perfectly placed little tufts all over my shirt. Several minutes later my daughter entered the room and assumed the exact same thing and expressed similar amazement. The moral of the story is that if you really want to impress people, you should create hand-tufted fabric - they will LOVE it!
The top is billowing slightly in the last photo as Nell took me for a faster-than-I'd-hoped-for walk (as is her mischievous way) and it's a delight to see that even in that scenario the fabric is not showing signs of transparency.
In other news, we have just returned from our annual camping trip with old school friends and their families. Since last year's shocking post (where I unexpectedly discovered that I LOVED camping) I had entered a state of disbelief that it could be so, and had spent several weeks dreading it, seeing the forthcoming trip as a blight on the calendar. It will come as no surprise to anyone other than myself to find that I loved it all over again. It turns out that four days spent doing nothing other than sitting around in chairs, chatting, playing cards or rounders, eating and watching campfires crackle and small children toasting marshmallows rates highly in my list of things I like doing. I think what I also enjoy about camping is that there's so little pressure to actually do anything - the effort it takes to undertake basic things such as showering, cooking, getting a drink, journeying to the loos is so great and so absorbing that one is entirely absolved from all other activity. It helps that the place we go seems to exist in a strange bubble of glorious sunshine and we had another four balmy days this year. Also, that one of our friends made me my very own tin of fudge to consume in case of inclement weather, knowing that my spirits can be kept afloat by such things in emergencies. It was delicious, even in brilliant sunshine.
Finally, if you find yourself with a free day near London, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time in years recently and found it to be pretty close to perfection in terms of a lovely day out and relatively inexpensive too (£18 for the three of us, which seems wonderful value compared to most London attractions that charge an entry fee). The gardens and temperate greenhouses were all amazing, but it was The Hive that stole our hearts.
Also, randomly, we took the train out to Kew Bridge and en route came across The Natural Kitchen on the upper concourse at Waterloo station, where we bought one of their gluten-free salted caramel brownies. I've never tasted anything like it (and I say that living close to a little coffee shop that makes what I'd previously thought made the best ones imaginable - brownies seem to be the one gluten-free food where there's no compromise in taste), so I would encourage you to make that a part of your Kew experience too if you have a sweet tooth! This post makes it sound like I've been doing very little else other than eating sugar, but until last week, I'd actually had a few months of not having any.
I hope you've had a happy August,
* When I went to get a link for the Robert Kaufman swiss dot just now, I found that I'd already shared a photo of an is-this-fabric-sheer test on the internet too! So strange when you search for something and are met with a link to one of your own forgotten posts!