Shopping for knitting wool (a bad experience)

Last Saturday I shared my thinking and my questions on what sort of yarn and pattern to choose.  And, as ever, you have given me the very best advice, based on experience and offered with the utmost kindness and generosity. Wonderful experienced knitters from all over the world (many who I do not know) took the time to give me very wise, learned, thoughtful proposals on what sort of patterns would work for me, and what are the best yarns to use for comfort and colour work. Wow! It was an amazing and unexpected response and I have learnt a great deal. My thinking has advanced and I will share my plans soon.

You might wonder why I didn’t go to a wool shop and ask for help and advice there.

Well I did.

A customer walks into a major, central London  department store with a large selection of knitting yarns, plus a reputation for fair prices and excellent customer service.

Two women sit at the craft table, knitting complex, colourful lace scarves. They cradle their circular needles, heavily loaded, and continue to knit throughout the encounter. There are no other customers in this part of the shop.

The customer feels excited. She assumes the two knitters include a customer and an advisor, so she waits for a few minutes for the conversation to conclude. Then she spots that both are wearing “Rowan” badges.

Customer: Oh great! Knitters! I hope you will be able to help me. I am a beginner knitter. I have only made one thing so far. A jumper! And now I want to make something colourful, as my jumper is grey!

First sales assistant (FSA): Well the wool is over there –  (waves hand to the wool supply shelves)

Customer: Yes. The thing is I have a few questions I need to discuss first

FSA: OK. What do you want to know?

Customer: Well I want to use lots of colour and I was thinking of something like a Fair Isle.

Second sales assistant (SSA) with raised eyebrows: Fairisle?

Customer: Yes.

SSA: Well you need a pattern. (Hands a weighty Rowan magazine to the customer).

Roan magazine 60
£12.50 Rowan magazine

There are lots of Fair Isle patterns in here. Find one and then you can choose your colours.

Customer: Well I need to ask some questions first, then choose my colours

SSA; No you need to choose your pattern first.

Customer: Actually I was hoping to look at the colours first as that will influence what I might want to make.

SSA: (interrupting) No you need to buy a pattern first.

Customer: Why is that?

SSA: Because there are lots of choice of yarns out there and a limited number of patterns.

Customer(who usually buys fabric before a pattern in her world of dressmaking): Oh. (Takes heavy Rowan magazine and holds it). Also I need to know about ply, and composition. What sort of yarn do I need for Fair Isle?

FSA: Double knit

Customer: Not 4 ply (customer had checked out a 1940s pattern which specifies four ply)?

FSA: No. There are more patterns for double knit.

Customer: Also I don’t want scratchy wool. This is very important to me. Apart from the colour. I want something really soft I can wear against my skin.

FSA: Merino. Look for wool that says Merino. Go and have a look at the wools.

Customer: What about other fibres that are soft?

FSA: Cotton. You can look at cotton.

Customer: For Fairisle?

FSA: Yes. Just go and have a look at the yarns (takes back the Rowan magazine).


Customer walks over the yarn section and starts considering cotton and merino. She spots two things – some yarns seem to be a mixture but this hasn’t been mentioned.  There are also other options – such as silk, mohair, alpaca, bamboo and synthetics. And there are some knitted up samples that can be used to determine feel – this seems more realistic than just touching the ball of wool. The yarns are labelled and by reading and feeling she begins to work things out for herself.

FSA: (walks over still knitting). How are you getting on?

Customer: I quite like this one – Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino. There are lots of tones of colour, which I like.

colourful yarn

FSA: You don’t need lots of tones for Fair Isle. And you can’t use the variegated yarns. You don’t want tones, you want contrast.

Customer: Well I might like a subtle pattern. Customer shows her handpainted silk dress  to show that tones close to each other can work well.

FSA: Very nice.

Customer: Can I mix yarns?

FSA: You can’t mix four ply with double knit.

Customer: No I understand that. I wondered if, assuming it is double knit, and say Merino, can I mix it?

Can this be mixed with Cashmerino please?
Theoretically can this be mixed with Debbie Bliss Cashmerino please?

FSA: Yes. But you should go with the Bliss Baby Cashmerino. It’s soft and it has lots of colours

Customer: Thanks. You have a lot of choice, so I will look around a bit more. The knitted up Baby Bliss isn’t quite as soft as the balls.

FSA: Yes it is. That’s as soft as you will get.

Customer: I will have a look round now. I think I prefer the colours in the cotton. In fact today is a research day. I don’t think I am ready to buy patterns and wool today.

FSA: OK. Wanders off.

The shop that sells yarn has a huge advantage over the online seller in that you can feel the fabric and see the colours. You can put the colours next to each other, and hold them up to your face. The prices may be a little lower on-line but once you have paid for postage it may not make much difference. The really wonderful thing about a bricks and mortar shop is that it is staffed by real people who can communicate. My experience with the Rowan experts was embarrassing. When I got home I looked (online) at the offered Rowan magazine.  While  I liked two of the Fair isle sweaters both were badged as advanced, and one has raglan sleeves that I wouldn’t want. But the idea that I might have been fobbed off with an unsuitable pattern beyond my capabilities and a lot of expensive wool is disappointing.

Thankfully my internet friends have given me amazing advice and support. I try to do the same for beginner dressmakers – I fan their joy and enthusiasm and try to make things easier for them. Maybe I just need to get a job in a shop. Or knit some Aran tights.




Fashioning a Reign – Viewing Her Maj’s wardrobe

posted in: History of fashion | 13

I wanted to see Fashioning a Reign, an exhibition of the clothes worn by Her Majesty the Queen during her long – 90 year – royal, life. Buckingham Palace is only ten minutes from my home, by bus, and I wanted to see the dresses and hats close up.  But at £20 the tickets seemed steep, even with the slight “over 60s/student discount”.

Buckingham Palace is run day-to-day by Anthony Johnstone-Burt, who introduces himself to visitors on the audio guide. (Included with the ticket, and in several languages). He runs a tight ship. All the staff – from the security team who take you through airport security, to the charming youngsters who see that you don’t accidentally wander off the path on your way out, are excellent. Smiley, engaging, diverse and enthusiastic. The tour includes the state rooms, a selection of priceless art, the royal garden (where the Queen’s garden parties occur), and the exhibition of clothes. And, if you gift aid the entrance fee at the end of your tour, you are entitled to come again, for free, as many times as you like for a year.  There are nice cafes, toilets and opportunities to take photographs once outside. And a shop if you fancy hand towels embroidered with “Buckingham Palace”, or guardsman pyjamas for your kids. At first I thought it was pricey. By the end I thought it was a bargain!

If you love clothes and hats you will not be disappointed. If you have a visitor from abroad, or are local, there is plenty to interest you beyond the exhibition. An absolute hidden gem (despite being so obvious that neither Nick nor I had been to look around before.) There are three exhibitions of the Queen’s clothes in the UK this year – additionally in Edinburgh and Windsor.

So what about the clothes?

The Queen is the most photographed woman in the world and she has a lot of clothes. Often she will have to change two or three times a day to be suitably attired for her engagements. Sometimes she has to conform to other people’s cultures and rules – witness the “modest” dress and turban hat worn in Saudi Arabia, or the black dress and mantilla for an audience with the Pope. Some of her dresses include Australian Wattles, Canadian Maple leaves, and a dress for Africa with elaborate beading at the neckline. The exhibition includes an outfit typical of each decade, with relevant photographs and objects, and they quickly show the impact of age and lifestyle on the queen’s body shape.

The most important dresses on show are the Queen’s wedding and coronation dresses – heavily embellished, light reflecting silk satin – they are no-expense-spared garments designed to make the monarch look as large, important and as fabulous as possible. And they are successful. The photographs below are all from the Royal Collection website, so you can enjoy the photographs even if you cannot make it in person.

The Queen’s Christening gown is now too fragile to display – it was reproduced for the Christening (you can see the room too) of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Made from Honiton lace, and English silks, it was nice to see – as were the dresses and crowns worn by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret when their own father became King.

My main criticism of the exhibition is that the mannequins used were not very flattering. Although the Queen has filled out considerably as she has aged she always looks considerably better than the dresses on display may imply. They appear deflated at bust level, with the darts too low for the form. In real life all the Queen’s clothes are tailor-made and impeccably fitted and generally rather flattering. There are also some nice examples of her military and ceremonial dress. Here are three outfits I loved. The military jackets are designed so the Queen can ride side-saddle. The khaki uniform of the Auxiliary Territorial Service was worn by Princess Elizabeth in 1945 when she learned to drive and carry out vehicle maintenance.

There is a truly great selection of hats – this is a woman who always wears one, not least to ensure the public can pick her out in a crowd. I will do another post on her hats in due course.

All in all a good day out. We had tickets for when it opened (9.15) and stayed until 11.30, but I really rushed the state rooms. A good excuse to go back. If you are thinking of going let me know as I would happily go again.

My next knitting project

I haven’t even finished my first knitting project and I am thinking about the next one. Not a problem – as the thinking and planning time is the most important aspect of a project, in my view. And I need help! Oh yes. Quite a lot of help.

I want to knit another top. Probably another jumper (not ready to move on to a cardigan yet) or perhaps a sleeveless jumper (tank top). I would like to try a new technique and I am keen to add some colour. So I am thinking a kind of fair isle type pattern. I think I am ready to learn how to do the stranding across the back. Maybe it’s a bit ambitious, but I am keen to learn, as you know. Here is a nice old pattern I got in a charity shop.

BP 1940s Fairisle
1940s four ply “Swedish sweater”

The two issues I have are fit, and fabric. There is so much information out there about knitting but I don’t really know where to start, or if it is reliable. When I consult the internet for sewing information I can judge the quality of the information. With knitting I am so inexperienced – I haven’t even made one garment yet.

The world appears to be absolutely full of both patterns (selling dreams, according to Bunny) and yarns. I do not know where to start in making a selection.

Let me explain my worries and issues, and what I would like some suggestions on. .


When I selected my first jumper project I didn’t think too much about fit. I just wanted something I could pull on over my head and I assumed, with it being a knit, that it would mould to the body so long as it wasn’t too baggy. But my first jumper is a tube. Readers suggested I might want a more fitted shape. And of course I am attracted to those 1940s patterns that show off the waist. But there are several alarm bells here for me.

  • Getting a close fit will be much more difficult in terms of knitting
  • I would have to get a pattern made for my size – these vintage patterns seem to be one sized and I haven’t got enough experience to grade up or down (is that even a word in knitting?)
  • Vintage patterns were knitted in vintage yarns eg 3 ply which doesn’t seem to be a standard product anymore. One web site suggests using 4 ply and smaller needles – most of her patterns are 34 bust and she says that the 4ply should produce closer to a 36″ bust (which I definitely don’t want).
  • I have no idea if modern yarns will work for vintage patterns, and if they do how to convert them so that they perform in a similar way in terms of size
  • With Fair Isle I get the impression that the garment is basically double thickness due to carrying the other yarn across the back of the garment. I imagine this affects flexibility and stretch. Does this affect fit too?
  • So far I don’t have the confidence even to lengthen a knitted garment in the torso or sleeve, although I am pretty sure it just involves knitting extra rows in a place where there is no pattern or shaping – using my sewing experience. How do I cope with making a garment to fit?


If I make a well fitted garment, by definition I will be wearing it next to the skin, therefore I need it to be soft and comfortable. This is probably my biggest issue. As a child I resolutely refused to wear anything made out of wool – knitted or sewn. The thought of a scratchy collar on a tweedy coat is one of my absolute nightmare childhood experiences (I know, compared to most people’s childhood, that is nothing). Instead of a coat we settled on a wind-jammer (which had some sort of polyester wadding in it) , and instead of woollies I would wear velour type tops, or acrylic (the only side effect being electrified hair). The jersey below was white with light blue stripes. I think the windjammer was light blue too. The alice band was red.

These days I wouldn’t buy an acrylic pullover (sweaty, cheap looking), so I generally buy cashmere jumpers for comfort, beauty, durability and colour.

  • What sort of fibre has the right combination of strength, flexibility and softness? I used alpaca for “my first jumper” and it is quite soft, although I have been warned it will pill? What about cotton, silk, merino or alpaca for a fair-isle? Is it possible to knit with cashmere – if so any suggestions of what type and from where?
  • Would you consider synthetics eg microfiber? Probably the ideal is a mix?
  • If I choose say a four ply merino yarn, for example, do I have to stick to the same brand for all my colours (rather limiting) or can I combine with other four plys? Or just merino four plys? Is this all about washing the garment or is the standard “four ply” or “double knit” rather vague?
  • If we need to stick to one brand and type there cannot be much subtlely to the design as there is “red”, “pink”, “blue” etc when I might actually like three or four shades of a similar colour – when I made an embroidered blouse I was able to buy around seven shades of the same bluish pink.
    Folkwear embroidery Fabrickated
    McCalls 1385 Embroidered yokes

    That’s what I would like, ideally.

  • The yarns that come in lots of colours (probably ideally suited for colour work rather than knitting entire garments) seem to be at the scratchy/hardwearing end of the softness spectrum.

I will carry on doing my own research, but (as ever) I would appreciate your feedback. I will also look in the shops this weekend.

I am now on You Tube!!

Just as an experiment I made a five minute video. It’s on the same topic as last Monday, (ie How important is fashion for dressmakers?) and will not be of great interest to regular readers who have been there, done that, and left a comment – for which I am very grateful. After hearing Stephanie on her blog (recorded in the car in two languages with musical accompaniment) and watching a couple of films Megan put up I was tempted to have a go a making a video. Mainly to see if I could. And having made the video I am now critiquing it, and would appreciate any feedback you would like to offer too.

My first attempt has shown me making a film is a lot harder than it looks.

Inevitably I tried to replicate my blogging – so it’s all talk. It might have been better as a Podcast, and maybe that is what I will conclude at the end of my experiment. If it’s a film it has to be visual.

I am sure, like me, you use Youtube and other sites to learn from the “How To” videos. I have watched one excellent Sandra Betzina fly insertion video a dozen times. Love her voice, the crisp, clear instructions and the quality of the filming. But I watch instructional videos – I don’t think I have the patience or expertise to make them. The key thing with a film must be “show – don’t tell”, right?

I love writing and will continue to blog until I run out of excitement and ideas. I started blogging, in part, to learn more about social media and how it works. In the same vein I wanted to try filming and editing, and having done it once I am beginning to think about what it takes to make a short, watchable film.

Tokyo 1964 Olympics
Tokyo 1964 Olympics


  • In 1964 my father came back from Japan with some footage of the Tokyo Olympics, taken on his portable cine camera. It had been developed and edited “professionally” by Percy Olsen – the man who ran the local photography shop. We watched it, with wonder, like we were at the Odeon.
  • My first husband John made films as a student and we recently had the pleasure of finding one his old films. In those days using and editing video was complex, involved expensive equipment and long nights in the editing suite.
  • Today technology is so advanced that I made a film at home at virtually no cost and in about an hour.

I admit I had some help. I used my phone to make the video. You may be able to see my husband’s ghostly shadow as he was walking around while I was doing it. My son George helped me edit it. We used iMovie which is an amazing programme and not too hard to grasp.

I should have probably just deleted the video but I feel proud of it, despite its obvious shortcomings. It’s very underdeveloped but it made me aware of the possibilities and I want to try again. I will listen to any feedback and then have another go. If you can find five minutes to watch it (or even part of it) I would appreciate your thoughts.

  • Is there any point in making videos – or is a blog better?
  • If it’s a visual thing what would you like me to show you (given I don’t think I am good enough to make an instructional video, and there is plenty of that out there already)?
  • Would a film about something (say street fashion, or an exhibition say) with a running commentary be better than seeing me talk?
  • What about a podcast? It would be easier for me to make and it would be closer to the blog format (like an article in a newspaper or magazine)
  • Would you like to see me interviewing people? I used to have quite a few guests on the blog but that was quite hard work
  • What about length? Five minutes seems a bit long to me, but I in terms of topic it only covers half of what I would cover in a blog post.

Anyway here is the link if you would like to watch my “test” video, and I would love to hear your honest feedback.

My First Video: What is Fashion?

Thank you.

Knitting a jumper – diary of a beginner

Purl Alpaca Lorelle
My pattern: Purl Alpaca Lorelle

Doing the knitting

I have finally started to make some progress with my jumper.  My first attempt at cable stitching left me somewhat bemused. Holding the stitch behind or in front, stitching the next stitch and then going back to it made me feel all fingers and thumbs. I fear I twisted some of the stitches, and the tension got lost. It does look a bit amateur. But that is what I am! While I think I got all the stitches in the right place, some are twice the size of the others.

It’s a funny process, knitting, isn’t it? Mainly it is just repetitive hand movements. With the occasional break to avidly study detailed instructions on how to stitch every stitch to create the pattern or shape. This is where counting comes in. I just mark a little stick on a post it note, and cross through the fifth ones, like I am a lifer in captivity. But no – knitting is nice!

But different from my dressmaking. I have to concentrate all the time when sewing, mainly because I have made my own patterns, and have no instructions, or because I am trying something new like boning or translucent fabrics. But with knitting, once you have established what you are doing, you can do it with your eyes shut! Literally. I have found it easy to knit and watch television at the same time. As we are watching Fargo, followed by Stranger Things, actually doing something other than being scared to death is a good thing. My husband doesn’t like the lights on (not spooky enough) but I have found I really can knit without looking.

Maths and measurements

When making the pattern in the jumper (chevrons, outlined with stitches) I really enjoyed the maths of it – how with twelve stitches 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 went into the shaping. It was a lovely palindromic and slightly magical process. It is remarkable how an increase every 8th row for six rounds can shape a sleeve. Knitters will surely know what I mean.

Stephanie had warned me that you need to measure all the time. I was confused by this as we seemed to be working in stitches, not centimetres. To create the body of the jumper I had to knit 74 rows. Of course, I had not read the instructions through from top to bottom, mainly as it appeared to be written in another language or code. If you don’t know what you are doing there seems little point in reading the instructions through. But of course I discovered, on p3 of the instructions, there was a diagram showing the dimensions of the jumper and I saw that the 74 rows, on top of the patterning and everything else (down to the ribbing area, that is not ribbing in this case), should measure 44.5cms – slightly shorter than the smaller version for some reason (not sure why – is it because the sleeves start lower in the progressively larger versions?). And, hey presto it did. Although I am not sure I am measuring it right. Will it be longer when it is lightly steamed at the end (sounds like a delicate vegetable or small portion of invalid-ready fish).

Getting to the sleeves

I managed to knit up the torso section of the jumper, and decreased a few stitches for the underarm, which effectively divides the jumper into two. I then wondered how to proceed. How does one set aside and store knitting?

I used my traditional size 5mm needles to put the knitting to one side.

Then I had to start on the sleeves. How?? The sleeves are tubes too, but much narrower. I couldn’t see how I could use the big 80cm circular knitting needles to create a sleeve with a circumference of just 20cms. Clearly the sleeves wouldn’t fit on the big needles. I asked for advice from Stephanie and Natalie, and from Instagram friends.

Stephanie said “your pattern should have some instructions” (no) but said she would use four double-pointed needles, converting to small circular needles when the sleeve was big enough. She also warned me about ladders – “gaps where you move from one needle to the next”.

I was quite enjoying the circular needles so searched for ones with a smaller circumference (there are some with 30cms). Unfortunately the size I want (5mm) doesn’t seem to come with less than 80cms of cable between. On YouTube I discovered “Magic Loop” – always a sucker for anything magic (unicorns, for example) I gave it a try. My serious knitter friends Nat and Steph had never tried it, so I was full of trepidation, but it worked for me.

Magic Loop knitting
Doing the Magic Loop (in bed)

I was delighted as I had already spent enough on equipment that I may never use again, and I could avoid the ladder problem by dividing the knitting at different places so as not to stretch the stitches too much. I know I don’t have the most beautiful and consistent tension throughout but this is my learning jumper.

In other news

Nick makes sour dough bread, which we love. Here is a nice one that came out of the oven on Saturday. And then Esme came round with a bunch of sweet peas she had grown on her balcony. And some potatoes. Which were delicious.





If you sew your own wardrobe how important is fashion?

I have wondered about fashion for quite some time.

Many people sew because they don’t want to wear what is fashionable at the moment, choosing instead things that suit them. Things they like.

While I wholeheartedly agree that sewing gives us more choices and flexibility, I have to admit I am fascinated by fashion. Always have been, always will be.  I read papers and magazines, I visit websites and shops and I take a very keen interest in what is fashionable right now. Not necessarily in order to follow it slavishly – for what is sadder than a fashion victim? – but to be inspired by it and to be in tune with the trends. Does that make me terribly superficial?

Ab Fab
Fashion Victim Edina

Yes, but.

The thing is we are all influenced by fashion to a greater or lesser extent. The way we speak, where we holiday, what we enjoy eating, what books we are reading, for example, are all influenced by fashions, fads and trends. We seem to have a real instinct for following the crowd. Very few of us are such determined individualists that we dress completely outside fashion, and eat only what we were fed as children (tinned spaghetti anyone?). Even nun’s habits change with the times (well some of them).

If you are like me you ask your your kids, young colleagues and friends what books are good, what films are worth watching – if you try something new, or are influenced by others – chances are you are following fashion. Everything from music to what we plant in the garden, best sellers to film genres, paint colours to coffee shop design, is affected by fashion and most people who claim to be impervious to trends are fibbing or deluded. In fact those that opt out completely are often believed to be (and may well be) mentally ill. If we don’t broadly conform to fashion then we will stand out – causing either ostracisation, or (if we are trend setting fashion leaders) others to copy us and follow our lead. Those that refuse to update their look soon look dated, and aged.

So of course what we make for ourselves is influenced by fashion – both directly and indirectly. Directly of course in the shape of pants or the length of skirts. Some Indie pattern makers become fashionable and people rush out and start making a specific dress or top. But also indirectly – we read blogs, or we see the latest patterns, we look at Instagram or Facebook, and we copy others or take some of their ideas that we like and think are nice. Of course in today’s globalised and connected world there are so many versions to choose from, but at another level we all want to look alike.

Take something like the “mom” jeans. These are denim jeans that are based on the high-waisted, full leg look that was fashionable in the 1980/1990s. Ten years later and men and women alike had ditched this look for skinny jeans instead – lower cut and with very slim legs. Anyone who was still wearing the high-waisted ones looked hilariously dated – hence the description Mom jeans – so terrible only your out of the loop, suburban mother would be seen dead in them. Then in 2015 the Mom jeans came back into fashion – this time ironically. We are so cool we can now wear the dreaded baggy pants and still look amazing…

So why do the modern Moms look so stylish and modern? Firstly we had grown very tired of the skinny jean and welcomed a change. When we saw the new shape (which was actually a moderated version of the 1990s style – a closer fit through the leg, rolled hems, no belts, much softer fabrics (often with Lycra), subtly distressed rather than crudely bleached, and with up to the minute footwear – brogues, high, strappy sandals or flatforms. So if you are hanging on to certain clothes that you expect will come back into fashion, believe me they never do. The old styles influence and inform, but they are subtly new at the same time. The name Mom jeans is an in joke, not a proposal to raid her closet.

Here is a question for you home dressmakers – do you find that commercial patterns are stylish and fashionable enough? I don’t. Here is a modern London-based company I really like – Finery. I would be happy to dress in their clothes which suit a casual business wardrobe. I don’t think it would be that easy to make a set of clothes like this using commercial patterns. I looked at what Vogue has produced this season as “new patterns” and the aesthetic is less fresh, aimed at an older age group, and just boring. The independent challengers – when they are good – may have one or two items that look stylish and youthful. The rest are derivative or recycled vintage looks without the irony.


Hand sewing and thread

Well how is that for a title? Hand sewing and thread. Not very thrilling. But – actually – it is!

Do you have any of these? Sold as a mending aid, my mother swears by them. I use mine from time to time. In fact I have three. One is cotton, the other two polyester multi-purpose thread. As you can see some colours are used more than others, and also that they soon look like a brown mess as all I tend to extract the cooler-brighter colours (which I use more than the warmer and more muted shades). But for people who just do hand mending these items are a boon because they include all the colours you are likely to need (or close enough) for fixing the boy’s shorts, or attaching a lace collar, repairing a zip or hem on your jeans. The pre-cut length is maybe a tiny bit short for some jobs but it is convenient for many. Economical too. The all purpose thread is good for everything but there is also a thread plait available with button hole weight thread, which may be useful for attaching buttons as well as button holes and a little bit of top stitching.


I even have a little mending kit that has one of these in it, a few needles and pins, a safety pin and some tiny scissors. And a tape measure.  I often carry it around in my handbag and find I use the tape measure and the scissors quite often. My mother, who was growing up in the 1930 and 1940s, also had a similar product for fixing her stockings, that were originally made of wool or silk (before Nylon was invented). She still has these in her sewing kit although the only stockings she wears these days are compression knee socks. But the colour is accurate!

However if you do a lot of sewing these plaits have their limitations. At a hat making weekend I realised you do lots of hand sewing, and you want a good colour match, but you don’t necessarily know in advance what trimmings or gros grain ribbon you will use. You need different – millinery straws – long, fine needles. And in terms of thread  I was introduced to the modern, souped up version, by another student. As I am going to do a course in millinery next term I decided to splash out on the Ferrari of rainbow thread.

i absolutely love this product. It cost £42.66 which works out just over £1 per reel, so pretty good value. Of course I will use some threads more than others, but I can replace them as they run out with the same or different colours.

I love the presentation too – the folding box that fits into your bag, the squishy black foam that holds the reels out for you to peruse and it make me feel the like the sewing version of a district nurse, door to door sales person or visiting chiropodist. Everything to hand for the professional seamstress or milliner!

And the rainbow ordering is so compelling. I love to put colours next to each other in the “right” order. It is quite an art. Like perfect balance in matters of proportion, our eyes always enjoy the natural order of colour. I had to buy these felt tips in Aldi, for obvious reasons. I hope to use these for my sketching workshop!

Rainbow felt tips
Fine liner felt tips


A sadly brief history of hatwearing in 20th Century Britain

Stitched up Samantha asked – How do you wear a hat without looking and feeling silly? It’s an interesting question! At one time everyone in the UK wore a hat, at least when they were out. Why has the hat fallen out of use? Today I am going to have a quick look at the history of the hat as it was actually worn in Great Britain (rather than by fashion models and film stars). Most of these photographs were taken close to where I live now and I recognise some of the settings.

Modern history of the hat

1900-1914 The Art Nouveau S-shaped fashion required a large hat to top off the look. These images were taken in London in 1905-06. These wonderful hats got larger and larger until, in 1911 they came out as far as the shoulder. The cyclist is having a little trouble with her hat – hat pins from this period are often very beautiful as well as functional in keeping the hat attached to the up-dos of the day. I love these evocative photographs and practical but elegant outfits.

First world war

The war altered fashion in the sense that it changed the political and economic role of women. Hairstyles became simpler as did the hats. Too much ostentation was frowned upon. Practical outfits became more fashionable. The skirts were much shorter, showing the ankle and some leg, and women even wore trousers for work. Many outfits were just men’s wear with a slight twist – the police officers wear ties and jackets, but with skirts instead of trousers. The hats are similar to men’s. The picture of men queueing to join the forces shows how at this time all men wore hats – the different styles denoting different class backgrounds. As you can see, the relatively well to do women going to see a film at the end of the war are all wearing hats. The older lady is wearing a very dated outfit, whereas the younger women all wear large brimmed everyday hats. One younger woman is experimenting with a short brimmed hat that is about to become fashionable.


In the 1920s the youthful look became fashionable. The smaller cloche (bell shaped) hat now had its day, as the crown grew to cap the head entirely. For the first time women began to dress in more “masculine” shapes, wearing their hair short and choosing hats with very small brims. I really love these 1920s cloche hats and would happily wear one today. The rule in the 1920s was never to leave the house without the head covered, and these low fitting hats required the wearer to look out from under the brim, appearing rather haughty and independent.


In 1936 people did their Christmas shopping in hats. All the ladies and children are wearing hats. Brims are back to reveal longer, curly hair, and to create a slightly masculine look of a fedora, with a tailored suit or coat.

Daily Mail photograph
Daily Mail photograph


While I love all historic hat styles I am particularly taken with the 1940s, when hats were still de rigeur but there was lots of experimentation and fun. There was less conformity in terms of style and people were happy to experiment. Due to the restrictions of wartime hats were a vital method of introducing individuality and style. Not everyone was a dressmaker but most could change the trimming on a hat. And those that could sew were able to make hats from the offcuts and non-rationed materials. In fact hat materials were not rationed. Now people would use feathers, veils and bows to create an individual look.


Here are some images from 1950s Oxford street. At first I thought they were the same group of three with their similar permed hair styles, their shawl collars and handbags. But all we are seeing is a fashion or a uniform way of dressing to shop in cold, damp London. While we often believe that hats were still being worn after the Second World War they were not, in general. Designers worked with milliners to create a look, and the envelop art often suggests a hat, now women were free to please themselves and they did not generally bother with a hat. More women were working and they perhaps had less time to work on their “look”, although a higher disposable income meant they could buy more clothes. During the 1960s the hair became much more a focus of attention with backcombed beehive shapes, and elaborate fuller hair dos, sometimes supported by hairpieces and wigs.

Since then hats are no longer a necessary item for men and women. Now they are either practical or a luxury.  Sam’s concern about looking “faintly ridiculous” arises from the fact that hats are not the norm any more, haven’t been for a generation or more. But the opportunity to wear something beautiful near your face, that complements and brings your outfit together, should be seized. For drama and glamour I don’t think there is anything to beat a hat. Here are a few images from the V&A which often has fabulous exhibitions of vintage hats. Which is your favourite, and would you ever wear one?





18 fun things to do with a group of sewing friends

There is a delightful tradition in the world of sewing blogs that involves meeting up with other bloggers and those who follow blogs – the “meet-up”. My own experience has been so positive I wanted to encourage you, should you have a chance, to attend one. For example London Dressmakers (Barbara) have created an opportunity to make a cling film moulage in London this month.

What is a meet-up? Someone (Karen from Did you make that? is a great and generous organiser) organises an event and provides the logistics, sometimes a venue, sometimes snacks and a activity or two. And then, letting the organiser know, you just turn up. Often the meet-ups are focused on shopping for more fabric, or occasionally to visit an exhibition.

But not everyone wants to buy more stuff. And some people find large groups slightly intimidating. So I have devised a few meet-ups that are perhaps a little more intimate – for three to six people – and could easily be arranged in your local area or at home. These often involve eating and drinking. Here are some suggestions for a theme.

Ideal for smaller groups

  1. Make a cling film pattern
    Megan in cling film
    Megan in cling film
  2. Create a body outline in order to understand proportions
  3. Paint a large piece of silk together, then cut it up and take a piece each. At least one metre each would be good so that you have a chance to make a little top or a scarf. And to share your creations with each other.
  4. Bring a range of fabric samples (ideally the bringer knows the fabric composition) and do the burn test to work out what the fabric is made from. This is good fun and almost like wine tasting.
    Burn testing fabric
    Burn testing fabric
  5. Technique class. One person reads up and practices something such as bound button hole, rolled hem, sashiko embroidery, or bagging out a jacket, and demonstrates it to the group who all make their own sample. It may be good to have two or three sewing machines for this.
  6. Museum or art gallery visit. Combine with a social event to discuss the application or learning
  7. A UFO party. Bring your unfinished sewing or knitting project and get some help on moving it forward. Or someone else who will take away your item and make it their own.
  8. If you have appropriate outdoor space an Indigo dying party would be a lot of fun.
  9. Draft a skirt block together. I did this at work in the lunch hour and it was very successful. I find “teaching” a technique embeds learning as well as helping you to discover more about the vagaries of the female form.
    Skirt block
    Skirt block
  10. Bring a work in progress and fit each other. Megan is planning a complicated bias evening dress and I have offered to help with the fitting. This works well for two but four would also work, and gives the opportunity for more points of view.
  11. Bring a bag of scraps. Each person sews a square or two to the same dimensions, and possibly to the same harmonious colour scheme. Stitch together and give to a friend who is ill or someone who has had a baby.
  12. Improve your ability to sketch outfits. Each draw each other for three to five minutes a time, using a variety of mediums (eg pencil, felt tip, crayons, paint). I want to do this one. Anyone in the London area like to join me? I can’t draw but I would like to be able to express some of my design ideas on paper.
    Fashion illustration
    Learning to draw

Ideal for larger groups

  1. Old sewing book/pattern/fabric swap. Everyone brings at least one of each and goes home with one of each.
  2. Ask an expert to talk to the group eg on historic costume, corset making, machine embroidery. Always offer to pay them for their time
  3. Watch a film or documentary about sewing together and discuss it

Good for beginners/children/young people

  1. Learn to use a sewing machine by making a pillow case
  2. SewChet teaches children to sew – she has lots of great ideas.
  3. So does Ooobop who helped create rara skirts, slogan T shirts and floral headdresses with a group of teenagers at Pencil Atelier.

Although all of these activities include learning they have proved to be a lot of fun. My husband says he has never heard me laugh quite as much as when the ladies came around for the cling film wrap. And I now have some lovely friends in London who I know I could rely on if I ever needed help. These friendships make me feel safer and happier and bring people with similar interests together. Have you ever been to a “meet up”? What did it involve and was it fun? Any other ideas of things to do in a group? Any takers for speedy drawing from life?


Six Napoleon dress – making up the dress

This Six Napoleon dress was supposed to be completed and photographed yesterday. But it wasn’t. I am only a few hours away from finishing so I will give you an update on my progress.six-napoleon-challenge-1


This was a difficult pattern cutting challenge. I have explained how I created the pattern for the bodice, and the skirt. However although the dress was difficult to interpret, and there are several versions of this dress out there now due to Marianna’s Six Nap challenge, I am really pleased with my pattern cutting skills which have developed over the last few months. I feel confident enough to tackle much more complex projects. I have certainly got better at really looking at a design and working out how to do it. However I am still pretty impatient/rather lazy. While my bodice pattern is reliable, tested and produced as required by by tutor, with the skirt I rather winged it.

In terms of the paper used for the many iterations this is quite a large amount – a carrier bag (skirt) and a large brown envelope (bodice) contain the final pattern pieces.

Fabrickated pattern cutting
Pattern cutting outputs


I choose, eventually, to make up the dress in white fabric in order that I could paint some colours on it.

I already had some nice white cotton left over from SWAP 2015. It is a fairly robust fabric and I used it to make up the bodice, and lined it with a faded beige lining (because this was what I had). For the layered skirt I wanted a translucent fabric. I had two choices –  soft lightweight cotton muslin, or cheap silk organza. Given we had been warned that 8 metres would be needed I was scared to use anything expensive. In the end I combined a range of fabrics.  When I worked on the colour scheme I found the muslin unsatisfactory.  I also tried to paint the organza – which was even less effective. Finally I decided to paint a layer of silk crepe and use that for underskirt and let it show through the organza.

Outer layer short, full, pleated skirt – white silk organza

Middle layer flared and pleated skirt – white silk organza

Under (simple flared) skirt – white silk crepe

Underlining (attached to underskirt) – white muslin

Lining – white synthetic fabric

There are only three skirt patterns (only!) but five layers, each requiring its own construction and finish.

Customising the fabric

You may remember I decided to paint the fabric to get away from too much white-wedding stuff.  I was inspired by a 1946 Schiaparelli silk dress. My efforts are rather poor but I think I have something of the feel of the dress. I used a brown felt tip pen that is designed for fabric and my fabric paints. I had wanted to collaborate on this with my son Gus but first he was in Sweden and then he was still asleep, so I did my own version. To a large extent the colour on the skirt is covered up by the many layered organza overskirts.  I would like to do this technique again, perhaps on a silk dress or blouse.


Making the bodice was very straightforward – stitch up the panels, line, understitch etc, put in a zip at CB. Unfortunately it was just a little bit too big overall (my dress stand is a little wider than I am), so I had to take in some of the princess seams.

The skirt however was another matter. I got a tiny inkling into what sewing a wedding dress might be like. Lots of slippery fabric, long lengths of everything, huge amount of pins, keeping the design and details in mind even though it was hard to know front from back etc. I used French seams on the overskirts, and lined the underskirt which was also underlined.

Fabrickated making dress
Making up the Napoleon Six dress

The worst thing, by far, were the hems.

I faced the organza layers as they were semi-circular and required deep hems. I did this by cutting 5″ wide bias strips, attaching them at the hem, trimming, turning in and stitching at about 4.5″. I wasn’t very accurate, life is just too short.

Eventually I made up the outer short skirt, then the longer skirt, tacking both to the bodice. Surprisingly I found the pleats worked well and landed at the right place. That was very reassuring. However when I tried it on I wasn’t happy. Somehow with the low waist (at the hipline) the skirt didn’t look balanced at ankle length. it was way too long overall and especially at the godet area. I spent a week thinking and thinking about how to alter it. I considered raising the skirt at the hip line which wasn’t ideal as it had been cut to the exact depth and width of the asymmetric hip line. I knew what I had to do, which was rehem the long middle layer. Arrrgh. At this point Marianna kindly agreed to put back the finishing time until the end of the month. I measured the skirt up from the floor in order to create the right length, re-hemmed it with the bias strips and finally included the painted silk underskirt.

Here it is on the stand before the alterations.

Over the next few days I need to

  • Hem the painted underskirt and attach at the hip line
  • Take in the bodice slightly at the back and side waist
  • Make up the lining and insert it
  • Press
  • Photograph

I may have made a carnival dress! I can’t wait to finish it now and get on with something simpler. Like a bit of knitting!


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