My dear husband is a keen member of the V&A and bought tickets to hear Donatella Versace “in conversation”.  I was really excited, as last time Nick organised one of these with Christopher Raeburn it was fantastic. Again we cycled across the park, and ate duck on rice afterwards. This was a different matter, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the evening.

Donatella 2015 show
Donatella 2015 show

The Museum described the event thus:

 Donatella Versace, Creative Director of the renowned Italian fashion house, celebrates the launch of her new book, Versace, and discusses her life and career.

The talk was illustrated by sumptuous photographs from her new book (signed copies of which were available…).

Donatella arrived only a few minutes late, in a showy but relaxed navy blue skirt and sleeveless top, entered the auditorium and spent a good five minutes kissing people that she knew in the front row, including photographer Bruce Weber. She looked tiny in the lecture theatre, and eventually sat down opposite the interviewer. She stared at him throughout, not turning to look at the audience once, wrapping one leg over and under the other, holding her knees, and writhing a little in her seat. She struck me as an introvert, not comfortable with herself. Rather shy and slightly vulnerable. Unfortunately her English is heavily accented, and she has something of a lisp. Add to that a face-mic that was too close to her swollen lips and for the first few minutes it was impossible to understand a word she was saying.

Much of the initial conversation was about the photographers she had worked with, and the models. Most of whom were “difficult”. Prince was lovely, private and gave lots of money to charity. Madonna. Kate Moss. Supermodels. Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton – most of them were “difficult”. The discussion veered off to cover Donatella’s thoughts was about men and women, power and image. It was fairly interesting, she wasn’t particularly self-aggrandising, but she didn’t really have much to say. It ran along quite well, but mainly because the interviewer Tim Blanks, Editor at large of The Business of Fashion who worked hard to help make it so.

Yet she has taken hold of a company that was floundering after the murder of her brother Gianni, founder of the house, in 1997. Over the past two decades she has turned it round from near bankruptcy to an annual turnover of $500m. She has employed a good team, both to run the business and to design the clothes, and it seems to me that she is a competent and effective leader. Her approach to fashion is to create powerful, strong women, often dressed head to toe in tight black outfits, or flamboyant, colourful dresses fit for red carpet events. There is some superb fashion coming out of the house across all the ages, all types of clothes, different ranges and price points and lots and lots of inspiration. The luxery brand even did a link up with High Street shop H&M.

Unfortunately a long history of extreme plastic surgery and facial alteration has made her look unnatural and freaky, and her face is devoid of natural expression. With her unusual appearance, somewhat determined but flatly expressed opinions, with a fondness for bling and logos,  it would be pretty easy to send it up, and it won’t surprise you that has already been done.

Despite her human faults you could not help feeling warmth and understanding, as well as excitement about her achievements. She lost her younger sister as a child, and her brother was murdered. She was obliged to take on the family business in the midst of her grief, which has been commercially successful. She is personally worth over $2bn She had a serious drug habit for 20 years, and looks old for her age. I felt that she was genuine and had created something very beautiful. She gives money to AIDS charities and she has given clothes to the V&A including this pink one, on display on the night.

Donatella Versace dress at VA
Versace gown, donated to Victoria and Albert Museum

25years ago, in about 1988, I heard Jean Muir speak at the V&A, in the same lecture theatre. She too was rather eccentric with her blueberry lips, skeletal appearance  and verbal tics. It is not uncommon to find the humans behind our favourite books, art or fashion to be flawed and somewhat unusual. Creativity  is a gift that thankfully surpasses the frail individuals that possess it.


Men’s style – Steve McQueen

In order to inspire myself to sew menswear I have been considering who my style icons are. Here are a few men who I think dress well, whatever the period.

  • Arthur Miller
  • Frank Sinatra
  • James Dean
  • Sean Connery
  • Steve McQueen
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Yves St Laurent
  • Robert Redford

Notice most of these are dead, or getting on. My taste is decidedly retro, although I also appreciate David Beckham – I know – he is not everyone’s cup of tea. I am really talking about the style – the way they wear their clothes. I recently wrote about GC Peter Townsend, who was quite good looking, but it was his clothes that I found most interesting.

Anyway of all these names the one that stands out for me is Steve McQueen. Oh yes. Here are four reasons why he would always be the top of my list.

Formal with a twist

A number of roles played by McQueen required a suit and tie. But he always looks like he is not taking it terribly seriously. I enjoyed this blog post which shows him shopping for formal wear (second picture is from the feature in Life magazine that was never published). If you have to wear a suit Steve would suggest casual footwear, a jersey instead of a shirt – anything to show that you are not really serious.



He was amazing in knitwear. Polo/turtle neck jumpers, Aran sweaters, chunky knits and fine. Very snuggly and soft looking, with a tough edge.

Short jackets (Harringtons and bombers)

Although Steve looks amazing in a three piece suit, he made the cropped jacket his own. It is a relaxed look that exposes the groin and buttocks to full view, an effect that is emphasised by wearing light coloured jeans with a darker jacket.

Shorts and sports

I looked for pictures of Steve McQueen in short trousers. There are a number of images of him, but mainly on the beach. He wears his shorts short, and revealing. Not for streetwear. And jeans.

Steve died, in 1980, from the complications associated with cancer. He smoked heavily all his life and was exposed to asbestos. He liked guns, camping, motorbikes and fast cars. He was confident that women found him very attractive. He was simply a great dresser. I hope some of the outfits I will create for Gus (including jeans, shirt, bomber jacket, corduroy, poloneck knitwear and tailored jacket with a twist) might enable Gus to put together some cool and stylish outfits. I do think the footwear helps – brown desert boots, white sneakers, lace up outdoor boots and slip ons help create the relaxed, sexy and cool image that McQueen is known for.

MANSWAP #2 – Polo (turtle) neck Pullover Pattern

Gus wrote a post about his first hand knitted jumper. That turned out to be my most popular blog post ever, and I didn’t even write one word of it! Thank you everyone who made a comment – I know the warm feedback will encourage Gus to write again, as we go on.

Anyway my MANSWAP plan includes two jumpers.

Gus has requested is a polo neck (also known as a turtle neck in the US) to keep his long neck warm.  I asked for suggestions of a polo/turtle necked pullover with set in sleeves not raglans. I thought maybe cables and rubbing. Thank you SO MUCH for your suggestions of knitting patterns –  lots that did not fulfill the brief exactly, but are nice jerseys in any event.

Here are some of the proposals you kindly put forward. There are some brilliant looks here. I have shown them to Gus. I have also started a Pinterest page for him if you want to see what I have saved.

I absolutely love these suggestions. In terms of meeting the brief I think Stephanie’s Vika (lots of you suggested Jared Flood of Brooklyn tweed, who designed this one) and Verona’s vintage gave us what I really wanted. So what is Gus’s opinion as in this matter the customer is always right? Gus admitted he didn’t really know what he was looking at in terms of specification. He tried to imagine wearing the item, but found it hard to get past some of the model pictures. He turned down an illustrated pattern because it was not a photograph. He evaluated some of the patterns in terms of did the model look like him or not. So he turned down a) and related to b), even though he definitely didn’t want a cabled cardi with a shawl collar. I must admit the vintage sweater really appealed to me, mainly because it is body hugging, has the slim sleeves that I think Gus likes. I thought the subtle stripes at the extremities. I think I could knit this nicely for Gus’s “carrot” shape. On the other hand although many of the Brooklyn Tweed outfits are modelled by beardy young model-boys but maybe a bit too “flappy” for Gus (his words).

I have got an image that Gus is comfortable with. It is a 1952 vintage pattern, and I was just about to buy it as a pdf, when I discovered it is free to down load here. It appears to be a very simple pattern and I think it would suit Gus (obviously very boring to knit but what else is Netflix for?). I do need a little help please. What sort of yarn would this use? The original pattern specifies 23oz of “AMERICAN THREAD COMPANY “DAWN” KNITTING WORSTED” in “Nylon or Wool”. It seems worsted is an American type of yarn. The guage is 5 and a half stitch per inch.  Is it double knit or finer? And are the needle sizes ie “3” and “5” correct in terms of modern needle sizes? These very simple jersey shapes and patterns seem to be too boring for the modern knitter, but I really think this may well be the kind of jersey that men prefer to wear. I am not sure what sort of yarn to use, but I would like to use a deep grey-blue – airforce blue. Again, any suggestions would be warmly welcomed.

Men's beige turtleneck
Men’s beige turtleneck

Purl Alpaca – Cyrene Jacket

I loved my first Purl Alpaca jersey (sorry for going on about it but I wear it all the time – soft, light, warm and such a gorgeous colour) so much that I decided to make another Kari-Helene design. At the Knitting and Stitching show I was able to try on several items and ended up purchasing (at a slight exhibition discount) the Cyrene jacket kit.

I want to make it in the featured colour – brownish grey “Rain”. Or taupe as I like to call it. After a French mole. This ashen-brown is the underlying colour of my hair at its darkest, although it is getting very grey these days. I am thinking of making a pair of taupe corduroy trousers to go with it. My friend Deon-Nadine wrote (on Instagram)

“I know you like vibrant colours but I love the depth and warmth of this colour @fabrickated. Lovely!”

Yes it is an interesting shade that seems to change colour with different light. Reminds me of the Farrow and Ball colours that are going on the walls at Rainshore, as I write.

Rainshore Kitchen (painted)

My Lorelle was knitted with “fine”, whereas Cyrene requires “medium”. If you knit any of the Purl Alpaca patterns, and want to substitute a yarn, this may help:

Our yarn comes in two thicknesses; Fine and Medium. Fine is equivalent to Sports weight (this thickness is in between 4 ply and DK) and Medium is a Worsted weight (this thickness lies between DK and Aran).

For the Cyrene, I knitted it, as proposed, with 4mm needles, and the medium yarn creates a much firmer fabric compared to much looser, softer feel for the Lorelle. I think this texture is right for the garment, but the finer yarn felt alot softer and more “snuggly”. But obviously this one hasn’t been soaked in water or washed yet.

But first I have to finish the jacket!

I found the pattern both curious and challenging. The border (in moss stitch or seed stitch as I think you Americans call it) is knitted first. Then the body of the jacket is created between the edges, in one big piece, knitted on circular needles as there are so many stitches (nearly 300 to start with). I got into trouble fairly early on by making messy corners on the border. Here is a nice version by prolific knitter, Susan Crowe.

I failed to understand how to create the lower curve. This involves “short rows” and something called wrapped turn, just WT on my pattern sheet. That took a little while to understand, with You Tube, and emails to Kari-Helene (“trust the pattern!”) but it was surprisingly successful. I was learning. But there were lots of failings. My mitred corners, for example. But also I didn’t understand that each of the middle rows just needed to pick up the border at the end of a row. Once or twice, or even more often, I had a strange compulsion to pick up stitches at the beginning too. This used up too many of the border stitches. in the end I knew I needed to start again. I looked at the moss stitch borders, counted the stitches and realised it would never be long enough to come right up to the upper chest. Also I felt the jacket it would be better if I had an extra inch or two in the hips. But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy what I had created.

Cyrene Jacket
Cyrene jacket #1

It took alot of resolve.

In fact I had to step away from my work for a whole week to gather the courage to tear this up. Completely. Kari-Helene suggested I could just go back to the border. But I wanted higher quality plus that little bit of extra width in the bum area. So, sitting in the car at 6am on a Saturday morning, I unravelled this jersey right back to nothing. I even undid the loop that you start casting on from, to create a sort of empty Zen headspace.

I was left with a gigantic ball of wool and nothing to be seen on my needles. But, like creating a toile first, I now knew what I was doing. For four and a half hours to Lancashire, several hours sitting with mother, and for four and a half hours on my return journey I reknitted where I had been before. Creating a new jumper that was Small at the base and Extra Small from the waist up, I reknitted the jacket.

By Tuesday night, with a little bit of sneaky knitting at a conference organised by Becci, I had almost reached the armholes!

Cyrene jacket Purl Alpaca
Making progress on the Cyrene jacket #2

I am worried I may not have enough yarn, but I am really enjoying this knitting malarky. I hope it fits…!

Dalston Dolls workshop

I mentioned how I loved the dolls I had made 25 years ago, despite the fact that their skin, hair and clothes have faded over the years, and they sport a stain or two.

So when I saw some lovely handmade dolls from Dalston Dolls on my Instagram I committed to attend a class to make a baby doll – one that resembles my youngest grandchild, Kit.

The deal is that for about £70 you get to make a doll in a day, all materials included (not clothes). The tutor is Mopsa Wolff who will also make you a doll for about £95 (through Etsy). So I guess you are working from 10 till 6pm, to save £25. But look at this way – you create a doll that you have filled with love, and moulded it to look like someone you love, and you have learned how to do it so you can make several more if you want to. So along I went to Fabrications in Hackney, run by the marvellous Barley Massey.

Dalston Dolls Fabrications
Barley and Mopsa

Six adults, one accompanied by her charming little boy, spent the day making dolls. Oskar is only six but he had already got one doll and wanted to help make another – he chose an Native American with long black hair. He was very patient and stuffed his doll very effectively while his Mum did most of the sewing. On the table you can see the stuffing – which is natural Yorkshire wool. My previous dolls have been stuffed, I think with kapok or recycled plastic beakers. Stuffing with natural wool is so much nicer. The wool comes in sheets that are pulled apart and fluffed up to make them soft and smooth for stuffing. We packed the filling into the arms and legs first.

Dalston Dolls
The doll makers

Once the limbs are stuffed they are attached to the body. I used hand stitching throughout, although Mopsa uses the sewing machine which is available throughout. Then the body is stuffed and the small seam allowance across the shoulders and neckline is tacked down. This took us to our lunch break. The class takes place in Fabrications which is in Broadway Market so plenty of choice of delicious food. The second half of the day starts with making the head. We started with a “brain” a wound ball of waste yarn, then covered it with strips of wool. Once it is large enough the head is encased in a cotton bandage. In order the shape the head to make it come to life we bound it tightly with cotton thread, concentrating especially on the ey line and curve at the back of the head. There is a stem on the head to enable it to sit within the body cavity.

Now we covered the head with the cotton jersey and to stitch it closely to the head form, across the back and top of the head. All of this is eventually covered by the hair. And then the only really tricky bit – inserting the head into the body cavity and sewing it very neatly in to place. I started by sewing the neck at two places first, then sewing up the shoulders.

After that we created the features using embroidery floss. Mopsa had lots of great white people’s eye colour, but I had to try to mix a dark brown. The lip colours were varied and very nice. Making the features is a bit weird – you use a very long, thick needle and stab the poor dolly through the head. However the lightly defined facial features allow the recipient to project their own feelings onto the doll. Mopsa said many people make the dolls to look like their children, and she finds it funny that often the birth stories come out while people are making their baby dolls.

Making a hand made doll
Attaching the head

Creating the hair takes a further hour. I was able to make a start in the class, but I had to finish it at home. First I learnt to crochet using some natural brown organic wool. You make a little cap that fits over the head. For a little baby doll the crocheted wig is enough. But with the child doll you add hair to the base. I enjoyed this part the most. Once I had put lots of hair on to the doll I unravelled the wool to make it look more like Kit’s hair. I was quite pleased with the effect. I think the boy needs some clothes before he really comes to life.

I enjoyed the class very much indeed, barely taking ten minutes to eat the soup Nick had made for me. I worked hard to ensure I was nearly finished – I am hoping this might be a suitable Christmas present for Kit. I will clothe him too, if I can find the time. The opportunity just to take a day to sew, and spend time with lovely people, and to relax and switch off is great. I made a doll that I am proud of as Mopsa is on hand to make sure all the stages are completed properly.



Centre for Pattern design The CC Fold skirt

I had been fascinated by this pattern for some time. The “deceptively simple” design means that you cannot see the one seam or the zip fastening in the skirt as the folded over wrap covers both. It is apparently based on a Chanel skirt. As someone who is interested in clever cutting and really enjoys wearing skirts this pattern was on my radar for a while.

Centre for Pattern Design CC fold skirt
Centre for Pattern Design CC fold skirt

My friend Ruth gave it to me after she had made a couple of versions for herself. The first one is in jersey with no zip, and the second is a much more tailored one. I love this version, worn with a cute blouse.


This pattern comes in a range of sizes but doesn’t indicate what size is which. Whatever. I measured my hips which are close to the size 12 in this skirt so that is what I cut out. There is one large piece, cut on the fold, and two long bias cut ties. The skirt joins at the front, where the zip is inserted, and the skirt folds over to cover the zip and seam. The skirt is then tied round the waist with the long ties. Ruth altered her own version in a very clever way. The waist bands become a sort of high waisted corset.

I wasn’t sure how the skirt would fit so decided to make a “wearable toile”. When I last visited Woolcrest in Hackney I got a few fabrics for £3 p/m that I thought might be good for toiling jackets and skirts. One of them was a nice, pinky red tartan, made of polyester or viscose, with a soft feel. I decided to use this. As there are no seams to be seen I thought tartan would be ideal for this project. Having lines that help ensure the fabric is on grain and evenly matched is a real boon. And I enjoy wearing tartan – it has more edge than floral but also goes with lots of colours.

Unlike Ruth I kept to the brief, especially with my first version. So my ties are regulation length and shape, and I kept the skirt long, as designed. I actually think it would look even better as a short skirt. It was fairly quick to make. The underfold can be tucked into the waistband tie, and this is what I did. I didn’t use the back facing, but finished the seams and edges, including the hem, with a piece of vintage pink bias binding. It took about 3 hours to make this skirt, just in time to wear for work last week.

The pattern is badged as an “educational” pattern, assuming you know what you are doing. I was OK with that. But I was annoyed that the tie on the front cover is shown as having a wide base, whereas the actual one tapers to quite a sharp point. And the pieces could have been trimmed a tiny bit so that they fit onto the average width of cloth. I minimised the seam allowances at the tip of the tie, without any problem,  and saved quite a lot of fabric as a result. Overall the skirt is frugal on fabric but as the ties are cut on the bias it uses up at least as much again. But a nice skirt and certainly a fun project.

If I was doing SWAP (for me) I think I might have wanted to include it. In fact if it “belongs” anywhere it is probably in last-years-SWAP-that-never-happened – my inspired by Vivienne Westwood collection. 

Wearing the finished skirt really reminded me of a kilt-like skirt I got in the Margaret Howell sale a few years ago. It’s been put away for a while but I will get it out soon. I had my portrait painted in this skirt. Polly Nuttall, the artist, did a series on “senior women”. We invited her to be the artist in residence at Notting Hill Housing. It was a great initiative, where she shared her work, skills and techniques with our staff and contributed to a very special project involving Housing Officers and their tenants. Anyway the Margaret Howell skirt I is glorious and I love it. It has red, navy and dark green in, against a natural white background. I am wearing it with a navy cashmere sweater in the painting. The belt is worn over the high waist and the skirt is basically made in the same way as the CC Fold Skirt.



MANSWAP #1 The Jacket pattern

Before the SWAP rules were announced I had a rough idea of a capsule wardrobe for Gus, consisting of 11 items:

  1. Shirt
  2. Long sleeved T shirt
  3. High waisted jeans
  4. Corduroys
  5. Smart shorts
  6. Casual trousers
  7. Tailored jacket
  8. Bomber jacket
  9. Alpaca “Lore” jumper
  10. Polo neck jumper
  11. Coat

Since the rules were published I have had to rethink my plans a little, mainly because no more than eight patterns are allowed. The obvious thing to do is make shorts (6) and trousers (7) from the same pattern, which I think I will do. The long sleeved T (3) and the bomber jacket (9) could share the same pattern. I may drop the T and do two shirts – one with long sleeves and the other short. Also I am tempted, if I get a good fit on the tailored jacket, to do it twice – once in a wool and once in linen so that Gus’s wardrobe has both a winter (7 plus 3 and 4) and a summer set (to go with 5 and 6). This would mean leaving out (11) the coat.

I have also been thinking a bit more about patterns, especially the jacket. Thank you for your advice on sweater patterns – I will come back to the pullover in a later post.

The jacket

So back to the jacket.  I had another go at the 1940s jacket, and I think I made good progress with altering the paper pattern. Then I thought about another toile, and doing the sleeves later, and trying to get some canvas and shoulder pads that were  just right for a 1940s jacket and I felt a bit fed up. The wise words of caution of Ceci and Lynn Mally came to me as I was working away. And mostly what Cherry said:

I too am a lifetime sewer who enjoys a challenge. I also have two sons and the elder is built just like Gus, although a little older. I have also made vintage costumes for the stage.I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but based on my experience this is what will happen:
You will eventually get to a toile which looks something like a fit, although Gus will still be pushing for more modern lines. You will go ahead and buy expensive tweed, sew it up to your best standards, pad-stitching and all the rest. Gus will allow a photo shoot and it will look great, in a vintage sort of way. After that you will never see him wear it again. If challenged he will say “it feels weird” or “I never go anywhere I can wear it”.
If you feel like making a vintage jacket, all power to you. But accept it is for you!

I realised that Gus had not really signed off the pattern. Despite expressing enthusiasm for the vintage project his desire to have a different shape may be worth responding to. During the second fitting he requested narrower lapels, two buttons, and no pockets. But I had no idea what sort of jacket patterns he really wanted. Is he sophisticated enough to really understand the options? When I make for myself I more or less know what I can have, and roughly how to make it. I often get what you might call “indirect” inspiration – in the case of Hila it was the graphic design of a penguin book. Other times it is more direct – say the copying of the Sache silk design from a Schiaparelli dress, and combining it with the Dogstar Napoleon Six design. Other times I directly copy an existing garment.

I have learned that making for someone else is a challenging area. You can either do more or less exactly what they tell you – ie copy this, or you can use your skill and judgement to create something they  might have never thought of. I prefer doing the second as it is much more exciting and uses more skills. But you run the risk of creating something inappropriate that wont be worn or loved.

When we designed our new holiday home our architect took our ideas and changed them quite a lot. She didn’t want us to do the design – she wanted us to say what we wanted and how we lived. She did the designing. She said “My job is to give you what you didn’t know you could have”. I loved this.

So I having chosen items for Gus, and apparently getting his sign off, I now feel a bit flat. Have I got the designs right? How much leeway can I have? Gus is fairly tolerant, but I would like to create a wardrobe he loves as much as I do with my SWAP set. So I am thinking again about more modern patterns.

Karen suggested MakeMyPattern which is a brilliant site. Joost has digitised some basic Winifred Aldrich men’s patterns and included an algorithm to size them correctly. How brilliant is that? I have decided to give it a go with a pair of trousers. MMP also has a shirt, and tie, but no jacket yet.

I asked Gus for an image of the jacket he would like and this is what he sent. It is actually a suit and rather more formal than I had envisaged. It has peaked lapels and only one button. I think I know why Gus likes this; the colour, the subtle, smooth look of the fabric, the close-fitting waisted look and the one button which actually emphasises the slim waist line. I am not sure how important the peaked lapels are. It has pockets which he says he doesn’t want (he never cuts them open, preferring instead to stuff things into the trouser pockets). Maybe no pockets is a modern, sleek look – maybe worth a try? It is possible these pockets are fakes – at least the breast pocket.

Reiss jacket in light grey
Reiss jacket

I found a Vogue pattern that might work. However it is much more casual – it is unlined and appears to be made up in searsucker. Which is strobing and hurting my eyes. Also it is more boxy and looks like an American sack suit (compared to the Italian look of the Reiss – an English brand – suit). Can I taper it in a bit to get a closer fit?

Here is a modern tailor-made jacket with the peaked lapels. I have asked my male work colleagues what they think of this look, and I got a mixed reception.

English Cut
English Cut



Doll making

When I was young my parents travelled a fair amount. And they would generally bring me back a present – perhaps bought, last minute, in the airport. And, as often as not, this was a small doll, dressed in the national dress of the country concerned. You know the kind of thing, plastic, often with eyes that shut, clothes stuck on, sometimes impaled on a stand. I loved them. The best was a Japanese girl with the whitest face, a Kimono, and a contrasting nagoya obi belt. You couldn’t cuddle them, and you couldn’t even dress and undress them. They sat on my mantlepiece and I enjoyed looking at them. I have always, since then, really liked dolls. Not so much Barbies, and not so much baby dolls. More representations of grown up children, proudly wearing their national dress. Actually i like vintage toys of all sorts – dolls, automata and tin cars. And I also have a keen interest in folk costume and the enduring styles of various nations – the kilt, basque berets, European embroidered styles, French and Welsh lace, headdresses and hats. Did anyone else develop the same interest in these things? (I just had a look on eBay and I could recreate my long lost collection – there are some “job lots” for around £20.)

Anyway once I had kids of my own I did a little doll making, which I enjoyed immensely.

I joined a class in Battersea called Ethnic Doll Making. This was about 1990 and perhaps there weren’t that many ethnic dolls available in the shops, but it was a well attended class and I made a few dolls over the term.The teacher was very talented and had lots of amazing materials. The doll’s bodies were made out of cotton jersey which she had dyed to replicate a wide range of skin shades. She had paints and stuffing and patterns for clothes, including underwear. I am pleased to say all my dolls got knickers!  The most unusual thing was the faces. These were created in some sort of rubbery material in moulds and the cotton fabric was pulled around the mask. Our teacher had acquired a range of different faces and ages so there you could create just about any look you wanted. I can’t find exactly the right image, but something like this:

Dolls face mould
Dolls face mould

I made a baby doll that looked like Gus, a boy that looked like George and a girl based on my daughter Esme. I carefully matched the fabric colour to their skin shades, I made the hair as  realistic as I could (using a cheap second hand wig that I unravelled), using paints to colour their eyes and mouths as close to their actual shade as I could. It was a bit like how artists do self portraits – it forces you to really look closely at what you (or someone else) really looks like. I think George’s doll had dungarees, but I remember clearly the outfit I made for the Esme doll. I had previously made my daughter a black leotard (for dancing) and a woolen skirt in a light weight Liberty wool. I used the off cuts to create the same outfit for “dolly”. I think the “baby” doll had something knitted, or a very small baby gro.

I am sorry that these three dolls – given to the child they were based on – are now lost.

However although my children’s dolls were “ethnically” true in terms of colouring, the whole point of the ethnic dolls workshop was to create a range of ethnicities. I decided on an African and an Oriental child. We were encouraged to decide exactly where our doll was assumed to come from, and to research the look of the local girls. I found pictures of Kenyan and Japanese children and tried to create the right colouring and facial features. Once the doll was made we needed to create anatomically correct(ish) hair and clothes from the culture.

For my Kenyan doll I made her hair from black wool, winding each section around my needle a bit like a loose French knot. And for clothes I found a book with quarter scale patterns and adapted this to create a “butterfly” dress. This is a T shaped garment, with loose sleeves – a kind of African caftan with an underbust tie to control the fullness. I used a small scrap of African wax fabric that I bought on Brixton market. I was amused by the motif (a hairdryer I think). I also made a shirt for my husband from the same fabric.

With the Japanese doll I found a black hair piece in a charity shop. And a Chinese jacket that I altered to fit my doll.

I had this pair of dolls sitting on the window cill at work for years, but I brought them home for this post. I am thinking of taking them to my new sewing space which we are hoping will be ready by Christmas.

Ready to move into Rainshore
Ready to move into Rainshore

Have our bodies changed shape in the last century?

posted in: Designing, History of fashion | 17

Ever since Terri the Tailor drew my attention to it, I have been wondering about the changing shape, through history, of the male physique. There are two things at stake here. Firstly there is the actual changing body shape due to changes in diet and lifestyle. Secondly there is the change in the “ideal” male body – the sort of body which is seen as desirable throughout modern culture, which to some extent men will aspire to. They may seek to change their body shape through dieting, weight lifting, surgery etc. Contemporary fashions will flatter and emphasise the contemporary, desirable shape.

In terms of the underlying raw material young men today have longer legs than previous generations, mainly because of our improved diet. During their childhood the legs grow faster than the upper body and if food is scarce or poor quality then the legs will not make it up later. 100 years ago men were significantly shorter than they are today, lighter (by about two stone/30lbs/13kgs), and died younger.
Class differences were very obvious in terms of physique, height, weight, child mortality and age at death. When working class men were required to fight in the Boer war doctors found they were in very poor physical shape (this led to many of the social reforms that the Liberal Party introduced).  Most were anaemic and suffering vitamin deficiency. They would have had weaker bones and poor dental health. Although medical advances have helped fight disease, diet and lifestyle are thought to be mainly responsible for changes in the shape and health of our bodies. The average man was only 5′ 3″ in 1900 (women were 5′ 1″), but poorer people until the 1930s were two or three inches shorter. They were three stone lighter than they are today, even taking account of the increases in height.
1870s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s, 1990s to present



Babies were born small and during this period, there was unlikely to be any ante-natal care and babies would often be fed diluted cows milk. As a consequence in the 1920s the average young woman would have measurements of  31″ bust, 20″ waist and 32″ hips, mainly due to poor nutrition. Basic food was generally prepared, and sometimes grown, at home. Certainly most people lead a much more active life in terms of their work, house work, leisure activities and getting about. PE was compulsory in the schools. Housework was gruelling – washing by hand, lighting and cleaning out fires, heating water etc – these tasks took hours of heavy physical labour.


Despite the war years the “scientific” approach to nutrition that lay behind universal rationing ensured that working class people ate butter, and the rich corned beef, for the first time. Milk was introduced in schools where all children drank it, contributing to the strengthening of the national bones and the lengthening of legs. The overall improvement in nutrition increased women’s bodies by about one inch, compared to the 1920s, with an average 33 inch bust. Due to the shortage of petrol and cars many people did lots of walking, helping everyone stay fit and relatively slim.

The very feminine shapes adopted by women after the war – the new look, delicate hosiery, “bullet” bras, – all contributed to the curvy, feminine silhouette and well-defined waist. And the ideal man had a reasonable physique, but looking at these pictures of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Gregory Peck we can see that they all have a rather natural “well-built” look.

Gable, Wayne and Peck
Gable, Wayne and Peck


Women and Men were still relatively slim in the 1960s, and some of the most iconic women – such as Twiggy – had an almost child like figure. The reaction against masculinity and the consumer society meant that middle class men started to adopt a more feminine look with long hair, soft and slighter figures and a somewhat “unhealthy” look from today’s standpoint. Everyone was getting taller and men were now, on average, 7″ taller than they were at the turn of the century. The average woman’s “vital statistics” were 34-24-35. Life started to become much more sedentary – car use, the TV and the explosion in the availability of convenience food – much of it sweetened and enriched with fat.

Jagger, Plant and Lennon
Jagger, Plant and Lennon


The female figure continued to expand with the average statistics now being 35-24-37. Women were becoming “bottom heavy” with the hips being, on average two inches larger than the bust.

Our life became more sedentary over the last century in terms of changes in the nature of work, and leisure time moved from children playing outdoor games to a focus on TV and computer games. During the 1980s exercise classes became fashionable and people like Jane Fonda fought ageing through vigorous exercise and men got into body-building in a big way.

Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damm
Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damm


By now not only had the hips expanded the average woman’s waist was 4″ bigger than it had been in the 1980s. Although we consume fewer calories than 60 years ago we lead far less active lifestyles. There is now widespread concern about childhood obesity and the impact of sedentary lifestyles of the body. Health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension all lead to premature death. Today 63 per cent of men are either overweight or obese.


While obesity and high levels of chronic ill-health conditions caused or encouraged by our unhealthy lifestyles and toxic environments are the norm,  the ideal body is probably a one that is young, fit and healthy. David Beckham has nearly universal appeal as he is tall, lean, muscular and strong without being overdeveloped. His body is not intimidating, despite his sporting prowess and his image as a family man in touch with his feminine side is important. The “metro-sexual” physique is not that different from the type of body young women also aspire to today. Slim, but not anorexic, toned, healthy and fit.


Developing the Capsule wardrobe – Hila’s cool bright colour palette

Last week I discussed the Capsule Wardrobe with super blogger and maker Hila.

In the course of describing how to create a SWAP plan I suggested some colour schemes that might work for Hila, and slightly to my surprise (as I included some more conservative choices) she wrote this.

I will try my best to use stash fabric so that will most likely determine the palette I will use. Though if I didn’t have my personal rule on using stash fabric – I’d have loved Emerald green, shocking pink, red and orange.

For my own SWAP I too would prefer to use existing fabric, for obvious reasons (I can barely move for fabric and vintage patterns!). But it is not always possible. SWAP is special. You want it to be your best work, rather than just using up what’s in the cupboard. Previous experience suggests it is best to stick to the SWAP plan with conviction and to find/buy/procure/make the right fabric and colour for each outfit. This might mean you have to actually create the right fabric by printing/dying/recycling/knit/embroidering it.

We need some Kondo-inspired “joy” in our collection. Notice Hila says she loves the colours I suggested – love is more motivating than “I need to use up my stash”.  Please Hila, and everyone else, come up with a plan that excites and stretches you.  Better to create five items you love, than thinking “use the stash/complete the SWAP”.  I know many SWAP participants will focus on using existing patterns and fabrics only, and it is laudable. I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, and that means not compromising too much (when compromise might what you do all day everyday in real life).

I like to have an image or idea to kick me off. As Hila is a keen reader I had the old style Penguin book covers in my mind when I thought about her capsule. Can you see how this image influenced me?

Orange, black and white
Penguin books

“I do love a nice jacket and am thinking of a lightweight mac for one of my “overs”, Hila added.

I think two “overs”, in this case jackets, will give Hila loads of outfit choices. They are also practical in the UK as it is rarely hot enough to do without a jacket. I propose one working jacket – probably in a deep neutral, and a fun jacket or coat in a colour. A nice coat or jacket always looks smart, sassy and confident, and helps us make our way in the world. I recommend putting most SWAP time into the outwear/overs as I think you will get most wear from them.

The Hila colour palette includes dark navy and white as its neutrals. Gus, who has a much lighter palette might choose a light grey and white. Someone with warm colouring might choose tan and cream. I would always include three or four neutrals in a SWAP so you can play it down, extend the wardrobe,  and create an authority look when required. I find neutral clothes have less character and therefore are easier to wear, and go with everything else in your wardrobe.

By mixing navy and white Hila can create a high authority outfit if she needs it on one of her committees, or at work. There is navy trouser suit here (swap the jeans for trousers or a neat tailored navy skirt if jeans are unacceptable in your workplace). The main colours for the wardrobe are orange, shocking pink, yellow and emerald. I thought yellow might be more fun that red, but of course all of this is indicative and Hila can easily swap other bright colours eg. bright blue, vibrant purple, mint.

  1. Jeans (dark navy)
  2. Wide leg trousers (emerald green)
  3. Maxi skirt (yellow or patterned)
  4. Knee length flared or A line skirt (orange)

5. Slim fit shirt (shocking pink)

6. Clingy sweater (I would make (knit) this in orange (inspired by the old Penguin books), white and navy and maybe write HILA on it)

7. Important blouse (white) I love this top (from Finery) but if it is too fussy Hila might just prefer a well tailored white shirt with interesting collar and cuffs

8. Embellished blouse (navy with colourful embroidery, slimmer fit than my image)

9. Dress made with a bright patterned fabric

10  Glamorous jacket (yellow leather moto? Or maybe a bright pink or emerald raincoat? )

11. Practical jacket (navy)

Would this capsule work for Hila? She has lots of cool shoes – tan and white brogues, navy, turquoise, African fabrics, tan sandals, etc.

  • smart navy trouser suit with an important white blouse
  • wear the pink blouse for a change
  • emerald trousers with the embroidered blouse
  • orange full skirt and the orange graphic jumper
  • jeans with the orange jumper and navy jacket
  • pretty dress with navy jacket for a PTA meeting
  • emerald trousers or jeans with orange jumper to dash to shops
  • dress with yellow jacket for a summer wedding
  • yellow skirt with pink blouse and a navy belt
  • embroidered blouse with the jeans and yellow jacket
  • full orange skirt with bright pink blouse and navy jacket for a night out
  • emerald trousers. white blouse and navy jacket to take the children swimming
  • yellow skirt, embroidered blouse, yellow jacket for a music night
  • orange sweater over the dress for a summer barbeque
  • yellow skirt, white blouse, navy jacket, turquoise shoes
  • green trousers, pink shirt, yellow jacket for a gallery opening

Really, by sticking to colours in the same group (cool and bright), and a consistent silhouette,  everything literally goes with everything else.

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