Thursday, 28 June 2012

Counting threads

Last Friday I went to along with Katy, Claire and Rachel to meet Pat Bravo, designer and owner of Art Gallery Fabrics. I've only recently become aware of Art Gallery and hearing Pat talk about the organic process that led up to the birth of the company was fascinating. The number of ranges released in a relatively short space of time, as well as the designers they've brought in with them (Bari J and a soon to be released collection from illustrator, Sarah Watson) suggest it's a fast moving snowball that's getting bigger by the minute.

Katy had told me a month or so ago that she thought Art Gallery Fabrics' quilting cottons may be suitable for dressmaking and she'd be interested to know what I thought. One shouldn't doubt Katy as she really does know fabric inside out...but I did, because I loathe using quilting fabric for dressmaking. But I was wrong and I'll admit that (lines directly stolen from Dirty Dancing - if you can't place them, it's the bit at the end when Baby's father eventually realises that Johnnie was perfect husband material afterall, and now used on my blog at the bit where I have the epiphany that certain quilting cottons can make excellent dressmaking material). Here's why: Art Gallery Fabrics use a 200 thread-count base cloth across all their ranges, meaning that instead of a material with a visible, coarse weave, you just see a smooth, high-quality finish.

I thought I'd try to demonstrate the difference as I know if I hadn't seen it for myself I may still be feeling doubtful. In the picture above, the sample on the left is a quilting cotton from a popular range of solids and on the right is an Art Gallery Fabrics' solid quilting cotton. You can see that the fabric on the left is very clearly what we've come to view as a standard quilting cotton: a coarse, visibly open weave with a low thread count. Even when I'm not considering fabrics for dressmaking, I've often harrumphed about not having a love for quilting cottons - I've never understood why all these amazing prints that are available must be printed onto such a utilitarian, untactile base cloth. I think that most quilters have an innate love of texture and touch, as well as colour and pattern and the current range of base cloths available often feels like an insult to this. I think that manufacturers have fallen back on the argument that quilting cottons need to be hard-wearing, slow to fray, and easy to cut and sew, but Art Gallery Fabric base cloth fulfils all of that criteria and so, I hope, will set a precedent for a better quality of quilting cotton within the industry. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every designer range was available in a form that made it just as suitable for dressmaking as quilting? And that made quilts feel more luxurious?

But back to discussing their use as dressmaking fabrics. When we met with Pat (and Art Gallery Fabrics' UK distributor, Hantex) there were many samples of the cottons made up as dresses, which completely sold me on the idea that these really were suitable for garment construction. The drape is good and very slightly less starchy and crisp than the wonderful 200 thread-count cotton produced by Cloud 9 for their Premium Cottons range. It's a perfect option for more structured dresses, as well as being perfect for dresses you don't feel inclined to line.

In terms of prints, I'm increasingly as picky about what I'll use for dressmaking as I would be if I were shopping for clothing, as things that are overly patterned just don't get worn: I like very reserved, minimal prints and, apart from the solids, very few of the prints in the current ranges fit my personal taste, other than perhaps the one below (although that's not to say that I wouldn't love them in quilt-form or as dresses worn by someone with a more flamboyant style).

However, there are exciting things to come that I really do love.

The fabric above is from the forthcoming range 'Indie' (which I believe Claire may be stocking at Patch Fabrics in the future) and instantly made me think of a Diane Von Furstenberg print (my sister's wardrobe is filled with these, so they feel familiar and instantly recognisable).

And above are some of the voiles. I have completely fallen for the blue one on the left. These voiles are almost identical to those produced by Free Spirit (who manufacture Anna Maria Horner's voiles) - so wonderfully soft, and excellent quality with a lovely drape. From memory, I think the voiles will be available from August or September.

I think Art Gallery are fairly widely available overseas, but if you're searching for them in England, then The Village Haberdashery currently stocks the entire Rhapsodia range.

That was the day that inspired me to begin on some English Paper Piecing as it involved nearly five hours of train journeys. It's odd how it's caused me to set off an entirely different sort of journey in sewing terms. It was wonderful to meet up with lovelies who I'd previously only known online, see strokable fabrics and drink a new flavour of Teapigs (Super Fruit, in case you're wondering - I never drink fruit teas, but this was something entirely different and very delicious indeed).

Florence x

Monday, 25 June 2012

Obsessive compulsive stitching

Ever since I made this hexagon bathmat for my mother a few years ago I've been wanting to give English paper piecing another try. Last week included a day with over five hours of train travel, so it seemed the perfect time to dabble once more with this surprisingly portable sewing activity. In retrospect 'dabble' may be the wrong word...

Sewing on the train

...I have quickly become obsessed with English paper piecing. I love everything about it: I love that you can use tiny fiddly pieces; that you can put everything you need to do it in a handbag; that it feels completely different to other sewing as you can put seams together that you may not contemplate with a sewing machine; I love that mistakes are easily picked apart; that it cannot be rushed because English paper piecing is like driving a Morris Minor behind a tractor in the countryside on a sunny afternoon (meaning that whatever happens it's not going to go quickly without the sides falling off, so you should just enjoy the lack of speed); I love that you can see it growing one cell at a time; that it really, truly has my care in the stitches, because every single one has been made by me; and that it's incredibly sociable and calms my restless fingers that would normally start to feel empty and under utilised were I to just sit and watch a film with nothing to sew; that because I'm not sure you'd go through this laborious process for anyone other than someone I love, it's fine to sew around my cats and get their naughty little hairs caught up in my stitches.

This is the very first star that I made. It had several mistakes in it. I love ladder stitch because it is perfect for creating invisible on the outside of a project, but I'd forgotten that this wouldn't be the best stitch to use for EPP, not least because there's no need to stitch on the outside of your work here and also because a whip stitch holds the seams much tighter in this instance. So I re-did it. I also pieced the star points one by one, which left a tiny hole in the centre. It was only when I asked on Twitter again that Ruth was able to tell me that I should stitch the diamonds into two pairs of three and then sew the two halves I'd created together along an easy straight central line - so simple, but it was a total revelation to me at the time. Which brings me onto the other thing that I've loved about this project. I feel completely enlivened by learning something from scratch again and how wonderful it is to do this surrounded by a community full of knowledge and kindness. When I said on Twitter that I'd chosen this pattern, but couldn't find any printable template shapes for it, Katy quickly introduced me to Ruth and half an hour later Ruth had emailed me the pattern pieces along with some helpful pointers. At various intervals, Ruth and Katy (both English paper piecing experts) have again steered me in the right direction and passed on the kind of tips that I think of as 'grandmother tips' - things that make your work more enjoyable, more perfect in its finish and remove the stress of discovery by trial and error - the kind of things where your grandmother would have said 'if you just try it this way you'll find it so much easier' and you'd see, as her soft, loose-skinned fingertips crossed your fabric to demonstrate, that she was right. (I am absolutely positive that neither Katy or Ruth has the aforementioned loose-skinned fingers, despite being in possession of grandmotherly tips).

Anyway, what will this quilt be like? It's changing constantly in my head, but the section I'm working on using the Connecting Threads pattern will form a small part at the centre of the quilt and from there a series of borders I'm planning in my head will hexagon their way around it. And it will all be in Liberty Tana Lawn, which thrills me as it's my favourite fabric and is what I've always dreamt of making an entire quilt from.

I have now made all the stars and am in the process of joining them to hexagons. I have always loathed our bedroom carpet, which is one of the few things in our house that is yet to be changed (it was actually the thing that I promised myself we'd do first when we moved in). Anyway, I am discovering there's a lot to love about having a carpet which you loathe. When I'm drafting dressmaking patterns I always pin my papers directly to the floor, and I've found again here, that it's a wonderful design board for spearing my paper pieced stars and hexagons to, as you can see in the photograph above.

Above is a photograph of a small section that's been completed. Ruth is currently working on the same pattern (but her pieces are twice as big as mine, so it looks a little different), and you might be interested to see her progress here. Oh, and if don't already do any of this, but feel enthusiastic to try, you could join Katy in a sew-along for her Hexy MF quilt (yes, that's a take on the Prince song - she always comes up with the best names) which is all English paper pieced. Katy wrote about this sew along a few weeks ago and I was desperate to sew with her, but decided against it in the end as I didn't think I'd find time to actually finish such a big project which was entirely sewn by hand. When I embarked on this last week, for the first few hours I was thinking it may be a cushion and I'd see where I got to with it...I hadn't realised that I would become so addicted that a quilt would suddenly feel so entirely possible. So while I'm not sewing along with the Hexy MF, I wish I was (although I'm quite enjoying free-styling my own quilt pattern now) and would implore you to do so, as even if you're having doubts about the size of the project, once you've started, you'll almost certainly wish for it to be endless.

I said to my husband that I felt I may not want to do anything else ever again, and that I'd love nothing more than to sit on the sofa and stitch hexagons together until the children break up for their summer holidays. Well,  that sounds like a great idea, why on earth don't you then? he asked in his lovely, generous way. Having someone who will indulge your obsessions actually makes it easier to rein yourself in and get on with other things that need doing, but it's nice to know he'd understand if I did decide to do that.

Florence x

Saturday, 23 June 2012

On fabric

Several weeks ago, Dorte sent me a package of swatches sharing her new arrivals at Dragonfly Fabrics and I thought I'd show you a few of my favourites. Above are two of the wispy floral cottons. I've tried to photograph these to give some impression of just how light and ethereal they are - they would be perfect for an airy summer smock top and the weight of the fabric is complemented perfectly by the slightly faded charm of the prints. They have an elegant, yet relaxed feel to them and you could sew up a top that would instantly look like it was a well-worn favourite (for me that's a positive - when it comes to summery smock tops, I love them to look a little lived in).

Next is this bourette silk blend - it's a brighter colour than I'd wear myself, but I adore the quality of the actual fabric and can really imagine it made up in a chic summer jacket - it is the perfect weight for such a garment and the weave is luxurious.

I picked out these two checks as being something that I could imagine made up as children's summer shorts. My photos don't perhaps show it, but they have a slightly puffy, textured feel to them (there's a word for it, but it's currently escaping me, so lets go with bulbous! Actually, I've just checked Dorte's description and she refers to them as being 'lightly crushed') that makes them feel more unusual than standard cotton.

Above are Joel Dewberry's take on voiles (I say his take on voiles, because in my mind, when it comes to designer fabric, they'll always be primarily Anna Maria Horner's voiles that other designers are reinterpreting: it was actually she who specified the exact softness, drape and feel of the voile substrate that Free Spirit eventually produced). These are also produced by Free Spirit, so are printed on an identical voile base cloth to that of the originals (Dorte has three different ranges - you may remember that I made my Maybe Sixpence top from one of them).

Finally, I've saved the most unusual and possibly the most stunning for last:

You may or may not know of Richard Weston, a professor of architecture, who began scanning images of the insides of rocks and crystals and then printing magnifications of these to fabric. A collection of his beautiful silk scarves was stocked by Liberty last year. Anyway, the fabric above isn't silk and it isn't one of Professor Weston's designs, but the moment I saw it, it did make me think of them and marvel at what an amazing fabric Dorte had sourced. It's a thin gauzy-feeling rayon. I can imagine the Wiksten Tank pattern looking amazing made up in this, but I don't think it's beyond the bounds of reason to think it could be made into a quilt either. It's has stunning petrol puddles of colour in it, and if you love bright colours around your home, I can imagine this being a centre piece to a room. Actually, I can even imagine having a section framed on the wall too. I think the true colour is somewhere between my photo of it (above) and Dragonfly Fabrics' photo below, because of how fine the fabric is in isolation it doesn't actually look quite so terrifyingly bright as it does on the bolt below.

In other fabric news, Annie from the Village Haberdashery contacted me yesterday to let me know that she had some new Nani Iro fabrics in. Nani Iro actually has many of the same qualities as the fabric I talked about above in that it feels a little more like art-on-fabric than other dressmaking fabrics might. I made a dress for my daughter from a Nani Iro print a few years ago (which you can read more about here) using the fabric below.

Nani Iro prints often have border variations, meaning that you can have fun with choosing where to place them when it comes to making up a garment. The gauze is easy to sew with (although it needs handling carefully until you've sewn it as it can fray a little). It has an unexpected feel to it that may surprise you on first touch if you haven't used double gauze before, but it's a feel that you soon become used to and the double layer of bonded gauze is an asset in that it won't require lining. Annie is stocking a mixture of gauze and jersey knits (I haven't sewn with the knits, but Nani Iro fabrics are renowned for being excellent quality, so I think it's safe to assume they're lovely) in beautiful, soft colours, so do go and take a look. If you click through to each individual print there's a second photo, which shows the distribution of the pattern when the fabric is seen as a larger panel.

Finally, onto quilting weight fabrics. Liberty surprised me last week when they very kindly offered to send me some pieces from their forthcoming quilt-weight cotton range to make something with. I'll hopefully sew with them in the next few weeks, but I thought that you might like to see a photo of them now as I know there's a lot of excited anticipation about this range. I met with Katy, Claire and Rachel yesterday in Colchester for a day with Art Gallery Fabrics (more on that in another post) and Claire, who runs Patch Fabrics, sweetly put her box of all 55 Liberty print samples into her bag knowing I'd love to see the whole range. I think that the range is split into five distinct colourways -I should actually have more clarity about this as Katy did very patiently try to explain the colour breakdown to me twice, but it obviously failed to permeate the deeper membranes inside my head as I was multi-tasking at the time (i.e. looking at the fabric swatches, breathing, speaking occasionally and other complex tasks that required computing space in my head). When my own fabric cuts had arrived, the ones that had appealed most were the ones on a more deeply saturated dark blue or red base, and seeing the collection as a whole was interesting as this continued throughout (if you'd like to see a little more, Katy made a completely stunning cushion using many of the prints from these colourways last week. You can also read about the day that she went up to visit Liberty to find out about the processes involved in developing the range, which is completely fascinating).

Florence x

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Making a dressmaking croquis

I recently decided to make a dress design croquis, after reading about it several months ago in the The Colette Sewing Handbook. For those who aren't familiar with the term, croquis is French for 'sketch', and in dressmaking terms this refers to a sketch of a woman, onto which you may draw your own garment designs. It helps your designs to retain a sense of proportion and shape. Too often my sketch books were filled with designs like the one below, which, while they captured the essence of what I had in my head, gave no clue as to how it may look on a real person without strangely rounded, hunched shoulders!

For a croquis to be most useful to a home seamstress, then it's ideal to base it on our very own bodies. This will give the most incite into what will and won't work and allows you to plan your designs to flatter your own proportions. While the process can be taken from a photo of yourself wearing knickers and bra, I opted for pulling on some close fitting leggings and a figure hugging vest top instead. I then set up my camera to take a few pictures of myself. It's never the most flattering thing to stand soldier-like for a photograph, but I can see that for a croquis to be usable, it's the best option. Once the photos were taken and printed out, I then pulled the glass on my daughter's desk half-way off, so that it hung in mid-air and I placed her bedside lamp beneath, to allow the light to shine up through the glass, providing an impromptu lightbox through which to trace over my photograph.

Finally, I scanned my traced images into the computer (I took photos from the side, as well as the front), created a page with a repeat of my image going across it and printed out a stack of copies. And then, because I am a geek and my daughter has filled our home with professional stationery supplies, I laminated the front cover I'd designed and bound the pages into a book, which I've rather grandly entitled Dressmaking Design Sketchbook.

Before I embarked on this process, I'd suspected that designing on a croquis may be helpful, but it's actually surpassed my expectations in its usefulness. Having a book of blank body canvases has found me regularly picking up the book to draw off designs from my head at times when I wouldn't otherwise have bothered committing them to paper or dreaming up new things when I've had a spare five minutes.

It's also given me a really clear idea of how to embrace my proportions. Ever since Anne Shirley lusted after a dress with puffed sleeves in Anne of Green Gables I've harboured a love of this sweet gathering at the sleeve cap. But oddly, it's never made me feel fantastic to wear them, no matter how much I love the feature. When I drew a puffed sleeve (right), next to a close fitting sleeve cap (left) on the croquis below, it was really clear that it's because this feature doesn't work with the proportions of my body as a whole.

In my book, I've created croquis that I draw directly onto, but I can see that when designing dresses it may be better to overlay the croquis with another sheet of paper and design over the silhouette of the croquis, to avoid having visible thigh lines on the dress design, as below.

There's something very stark and odd about having an exact replica of your own body, unencumbered by clothing, or even skin tone. It's quite fascinating and the result feels as though you've found yourself unexpectedly modelling in a life-drawing class because what appears on the paper is entirely objective and has little to do with your own subjective idea of how you look.

How do you dream up garments? Do you have a collection of sketches? Do you use a standard croquis or one of your own silhouette? Might you make one yourself?

Florence x

Ps. When I went on my pattern drafting course at the London College of Fashion they suggested we brought very hard HB pencils with us. I felt slightly inadequate as after using one for a day I actually decided that I loathed those pencils: the specified hardness barely showed up and drove me potty. The pencils I use for everything from homework with my children, to drafting patterns, to drawing on my croquis are inexpensive Bic propelling pencils which can be bought in packs of ten in a variety of colours (if you scroll back up you'll see some pictured. I haven't intentionally used one in every colour). They are truly wonderful and all four of us love them. If you want to buy some, we've found them in Sainsburys and WH Smiths - look for Bic Matic 0.7mm HB#2. They have a super rubber on the end of them too.

Monday, 18 June 2012


A few weeks ago I came across Wonder and bought a copy for my husband to read to us. We often have a book each that we read to our children. I especially love when he reads though, as it means I can sew whilst listening. In the years since my own mother read to me and my sister, as I hung upside down for hours over the arm of the sofa with my head pressed against the floor, I'd forgotten quite what a treat it is to be read aloud to, but now it's a part of my life that I think I'll miss dreadfully if it wanes as my children grow up.

The reviews of this book are sensational, but not in a way where there's so much hype that it put me off reading it (such a thing made me foolishly avoid Harry Potter for nearly a decade before discovering that I did enjoy it after all). I felt almost sure that we'd love it. And we did. It's one of those books that's half-children's book, half adults' book: the wisdom and warmth it has to offer spans generations and are appreciated and thought over on different levels. 

It's about a little boy called August with an horrific facial disfigurement and is narrated in short chapters by him and the people around him: those who adore him and look on with apprehension and wonder as he joins a mainstream school for the first time aged 10; and those who fear him and his unusual face and worry that his looks may somehow infect them merely by brushing their hand against his. It is a book that shatters preconceptions in the same way that Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timedid several years earlier, but it's a more joyful, heartwarming book than that. As my husband read aloud, all four of us found that we frequently had tears rolling down our cheeks, but it was invariably uplifting and inspiring in greater measures than it was saddening, with a cast of characters who were endearingly human and (mostly) hugely likable.

Our children are eight and ten and it's a book that at times is narrated by teenage characters, meaning that very occasionally the subject matter or language needed to be edited by my husband as he read, but in most ways, I can't think of a more suitable or appropriate book to read to children. It teaches the value of kindness more succinctly, unpreachingly and generously than any other book I've come across and the words of August's wonderful headmaster, who draws on the quote that 'one should always be kinder than is necessary', have rumbled around my head ever since my husband finished reading the last line of the book. Yes, it's a book about disfigurement, but in many ways, it's primarily an exploration of human nature and, largely, the good in human nature.

Whether you have children or not, I implore you to read this lovely book: it is a simple novel, full of complex, wonderful characters. You may want to sew up a tissue holder beforehand though.

Florence x

Ps. I no longer hang upside down when I'm read to as it would make sewing too problematic.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Figgy's latest patterns

Have you seen the new patterns from Figgy's? They're not actually so very new anymore, but I've been meaning to write about them for a while as they're patterns that have stayed in my head, because they're full of details that look like enormous fun to sew: plaited straps; minimal, crisp layers of ruffles; twists; and many opportunities for piping, all combine to give patterns for garments that look entirely professional in finish.

The styles, as with Figgy's previous collection, look very modern and exactly the type of thing that an older child would wish to wear. There isn't a single pattern in this latest collection that I don't love.

But my overwhelming feeling when looking at much of the collection? That I wish they were adult pieces rather than children's.

The beautiful twisted back piece on the Scirocco dress is ingenious, but my slightly prudish side feels that, even at ten years old, this style looks a little too 'grown-up' for my daughter (and my horribly sensible side starts feeling edgy about sunburn on skin that's not normally on display too). I've kept returning to the photos trying to decide whether it's simply the styling of the photo that makes it appear this way, or whether I really would feel not quite right about my daughter wearing the dress unless covered by a cardigan. I am harbouring wishes that Figgy's may branch out and design a womenswear line alpngside their children's patterns as I think it would be stunning. I know many people felt like this about Oliver + S before Lisel produced the Lisette patterns...

You can find these beautiful patterns at Backstitch.

Florence x

Monday, 11 June 2012

A Maybe Sixpence top

I'd intended to take an entire week off sewing, but actually, there ended up being a few hours here and there during half term where my children were both out with friends and I had a beautiful little parcel of fabric from Dorte of Dragonfly Fabrics sitting on my table tempting me to sew.

I've coveted Anna Maria Horner's Maybe SixPence voile fabric since I first saw it, but especially since seeing it in Night Knitter's Flickr stream (this Tova dress, and later this child's dress are both made in this fabric). When Dorte very kindly invited me to choose something to sew with from her lovely shop, I made a bee-line for this print. It's a while since I've sewn with voile and I'd forgotten quite how deliciously silky it is.

I decided to revisit a pattern I'd used over the two previous summers, the first version being this one above in citrus Four Square (another of Anna Maria's voiles. Dorte stocks it in all four colourways), the second I created a year later in a Liberty print by Lauren Child. I love both of these tops, but suddenly realised that I'd love them even more if the neckline fitted with my favourite cardigans from Gap which I have in an embarrassing number of different colours. So this time, I redrafted the neckline to perfectly mirror that of my cardigan (predictably, I happen to have one that perfectly picks out the pink of the petals on this print).

I also drafting longer sleeves this time, as it feels like it may never stop raining.

I decided to use this fabric on the reverse side - the two sides are almost identical, but the face side is a slightly darker grey and I preferred the slightly faded, paler look of the inner side. I have to say that whenever I intentionally use the wrong side of a fabric it makes me feel as though I am being slightly deviant and when I sew the first seam together, placing the fabrics wrongside-to-wrongside, I feel as though fabric police are about to leap out of a cupboard and rugby tackle me from the sewing machine before I can make crimeful stitches. Luckily no one did do this, but my cat, who knows she's not allowed in the room sat watching me from the doorway with her ears pricked up (she has to sit half a metre inside the doorway to do this, so this is wilful badness on her part) as though she too were on the qui vive for people who might see me.

I love the way that the slight pleat beneath the neck opening means that darts can be dispensed with for this top.

You may have guessed that I love sewing summer tops more than anything else, but I do currently have a dress planned.

I fell in love with this eyelet dress in French Connection a few weeks ago. I am wearing my 'what do you think?' face especially, as I was taking the photo to text over to my sister for a second opinion. You'll notice that I had my sunglasses on my head in this photo - it was taken in the one week of the entire year when England was sunny, but as it now looks set to rain for the entire summer, which makes that price tag for this dress feel unjustifiable, even if I did feel like a doll in a jewelry box* the moment I put it on. I never wear full skirts like this as I've always suspected they may be rather unflattering at my height, but unflattering or not, I could suddenly appreciate what the whole 1950s feel that seems to dominate some dressmaking blogs is all about.  Wearing a flarey-out skirt with a nipped-in bodice makes you feel fantastic.

Yes, my hips suddenly looked twice as big, but the twirl appeal means that this ceases to matter and one actually feels like one looks like a girl** should (yes, I may have thrown a twirl or two in the changing room). It really struck me when I watched Mad Men last year, that our generation of women generally dress in a more low-key way now, with lines that give a slightly more androgenous aesthetic, which, rather than celebrating curves, seeks to streamline them from view. I'm not entirely sure that 60 years on we look better and judging from this report by Eva Wiseman which I read at the weekend, as a generation, we probably don't feel better either. Worrying. So a 1950s style dress will hopefully be my next project...but first I think I may make a quilt (or two).

Florence x

* not normally good things, but in this case, suddenly fabulous.
** There are times when using the word 'woman' would sound more appropriate in the context of a sentence - that one particularly justified it. But am I alone in disliking that word? To me it feels particularly dreary, lentil-ridden, bosomy word to me.
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