Tool Time

posted in: Organisation | 30

Did you ever watch hilarious American sit com Home Improvement?

Tool TIme Tim Taylor
Tim Taylor’s Tool Time

I really loved the show – in it Tim Taylor has a programme called Tool Time and he is really pretty useless as a DIYer. Lots of explosions, casual sexism; apart from his exasperated and disapproving wife I also loved his introverted assistant Al, and Wilson the neighbour. But the show’s huge success owes a lot to the notion of Man – interested in sport, fast cars, taking charge, fixing stuff and Power Tools. Women’s sewing equipment is a different matter. We don’t use words like Power Tools, even if we employ electricity.

I do think men and women have a different attitude to tools that may go back to the beginning of time. Women are generally only credited with invented weaving, maybe knitting, whereas men get to claim all the cool stuff – fire, speed, hard metals, killing equipment, etc.

Years ago, when the kids were little and iPhones hadn’t been invented,  I had a real run-of-the-mill camera. I tried to take pictures of the usual things – landscapes, portraits, still life etc. And then I really tried hard to photograph insects and flowers, close up. And after a number of frustrating attempts my (then) husband John told me I needed a special lens – a macro lens – to get the type of close-ups I wanted to achieve. He found it rather sweet that I was struggling with a problem for a while without realising that all I needed was a different piece of equipment! He offered to buy me a new lens but I figured I wasn’t that keen on getting the shots. If it wasn’t technically feasible I would concentrate on all the other things I could do with a camera.

 Stretch is a book by Scott Sonenshein (thanks for bringing it to my attention Steph!).

He writes: “The problem is: We routinely overestimate the importance of acquiring resources but even more significantly underestimate our ability to make more out of those we have.” I am not sure I need to read a whole book about this but I immediately recognised the two personality types – he calls us “stretchers” who make the most of the resources they have against “chasers” who acquire resources systematically.  “Most of our time and energy get spent looking for tools and not actually putting nails into walls,” he argues. This can make us dissatisfied as we feel the need to keep up with the Jones who have more or better stuff. As we get more we lose track of it or it goes to waste.  If we stretch instead we see our limitations as an opportunity – I don’t have any red buttons – can I make a feature of white ones? Or cover some in fabric? Or use nail varnish (no – that one doesn’t work!)

Maybe I am flattering myself with the idea that I am a stretcher.

I bought white silk for a time, painting designs on it rather than buying fresh cloth every time and creating waste. Sometimes making do helps you to think creatively about using one tool for several purposes rather than a specific tool (we have an avocado tool that scoops and slices – but a spoon and knife is just as good). At work I generally adopt the principle that we can do what we need without additional resources eg relying on consultants. We rarely put money aside for any project – our philosophy is just to stretch the resources we already have. In other arenas, without the special tools we can become more innovative and creative. Having less can encourage us to invent or solve problems. If we don’t have too much we find ways to reuse what we have – the slum dwellers of Rio became excellent recyclers of rubbish to make a living.  All this is trite and rather obvious.

So I have been fascinated to consider what this has meant for me as I have been working with my husband to complete my new sewing room. My existing area had been a small corner in the kitchen of our London flat. As we collaborate to create the new area I have watched him in his very well-equipped work shop where he seems to have a tool for every task known to man. He bought a job lot of tools and didn’t even know what all of them were for. Our (builder) friend Symon said one of them is for “cutting letter boxes in any size or shape”. How we laughed. But I really don’t want to criticise at all – I am the beneficiary, and doing the job well gives him pleasure. But I was struck by the difference in attitude we have to equipping ourselves.

Making sewing cupboards
Nick in his workshop – see that tool belt and those dungarees?

So I am interested to hear your views. Do you make do and mend, or are you a top-of-the-range purchaser who likes the very best equipment? Are your skills in advance of your tools, or vice versa? Do you think men behave fundamentally differently in this regard, and if so why? Are you prepared to learn with second hand shabby tools, and then splash out only when you are frustrated by the results. Or do you blame your tools? And those who make a living from sewing – what is your attitude to equipment?




Bootmaking Part 2

Thank you for all your interest in our boot making course at the London College of Fashion. I am attending this course with my husband Nick every Sunday for six weeks. In week one we made the pattern for our boots. (I wore my crochet skirt for the class – I will write this up very soon)

Week two was about choosing and cutting out the leather, the stitching. And gluing! I had no idea how much glueing was involved.

But first off we had to make the pattern for the lining of our boots. You can see the lining pattern below. There were only two pieces which are joined down the CF of the foot and with half a seam across the instep. You can see from the photos how nicely the pattern works. This was cut out in soft, natural pig skin – in the picture I am getting to grips with cutting with a knife. If you want to know more about buying leather, see this review.

Then we selected our boot leather. The leather, like all the materials needed, is provided by the college. However there was a limited range available. On offer was black or brown, also navy and white. No one went for the white. I had intended to make brown boots, but I didn’t like the shade of brown. It wasn’t “black” enough, a bit too reddish for me. Nick really wanted a tan leather, but chose the brown for his shoes and stitched with a black thread. I went with the navy. In my photos of the day the colour came out  as bright blue and as grey! Imagine it, please, as a mid navy. It’s a nice, ordinary colour. I stuck with the brown elastic as I feel it is more interesting than black. I also used dark brown thread. Of course we used our patterns on the leather as economically as possible – which is pretty easy as leather has no woven grain – and drew around them with a silver pen that rubs off with a rag before stitching.

Now we had the leather and the linings we went to the sewing room to learn how to use the machines. These are like an ordinary industrial sewing machine but there is a large well underneath so that it is possible to manipulate a shoe or boot.  We practised for an hour or so first – with paper – making straight lines and lots of curves. And then with small pieces of leather off cuts. Finally we sewed in our zips or elastic, which are glued first with rubber glue (which thankfully rubs off when you get it all over the place) and then the front and back seams. Finally the toe area is stuck on and sewn to the vamp. As the leather is quite thick the lower edge of the vamp (where the toe cap is joined) is run through a machine which thins it down a little bit, and then the shine is scraped off the leather with the knife so that the other piece of leather can be first glued and then sewn to it.

When putting in a zip (plastic, YKK) or elastic into the side of the shoe we stitch close to edge in as even way as we can. The depth of the seam is slightly optional, and obviously decorative. The seams joining the top cap to the rest of the boot are overlaid on each other. On his toe cap Nick has two layers of sewing.

Conversely when joining the pieces of the leather together (like a regular seam) to make the shape of the boot, we have left 2mm seam allowances on the joins. So it is important to sew these carefully and evenly. The main issue is to try to get them to lie flat and not rub the foot. Once they are flattened we taped the seams, again to try to keep them flat and to ensure that they don’t irritate. Obviously the lining is important too.

Bootmaking step by step
A sense of victory!

We used a machine to press flatten the seams, and then followed up with a gentle hammering. Nick has the hammering tool in his hand below.

Once the boots were sewn up we completed the linings and put them into the boots, ready for next week.

Nick with six boots and a little pounder

Overall, another marvellous class.

I was fairly comfortable with the pattern cutting. The cutting out is usually done with a knife, but I prefer scissors. Unfortunately the shears are not very good. The sewing was OK for me too. Nick found it a bit more challenging as he has less sewing experience.

Our teacher told us to get an early night next Saturday and stay off the alcohol (easy for me!). I think the course is going to move away from the pattern cutting and sewing and get more challenging. Stay tuned ladies and gentlemen!

The Carolyn Crocheted skirt

Inspired by Carolyn I decided to make a crocheted skirt.

I loved her image and the gorgeous oranges and greens she used. I copied her design although with a few variations.

  • DIfferent colours – I used small left over pieces of yarn, mainly in pink and blue, with dark green as the background colour. I used quite a lot of the green, maybe four or five balls. This yarn was kindly given to me by Jo.
  • My “granny squares” (I cringe at this description  (4/8/12 squares? Crocheted Catherine wheels?) are smaller than Carolyns
  • My dimensions were 9 x 16 rather than her 6 x13 sqaures. My skirt is also a little longer

What I learned

  • Crocheting is a nice change from knitting. I like the deft way my hook weaves in and out, front and back – this makes me feel quite expert while I am actually a complete beginner.
  • It can be a bit fiddly, especially the colour change and changing rounds
  • Two techniques I found helpful were to finish each colour and then start anew. The chain of three to get to the next layer didn’t really work for me. The other is change back to front between layers.
  • I also found blocking the squares to be very helpful. I pinned the corners out and pressed the square flat – I created a 6cm x 6cm template but didn’t find it necessary. I just pinned the squares to my ironing board, steam pressed them and let them cool.
    Granny squares blocking
    Blocking the squares
  • The pressing revealed the lacy look. As these squares are beautiful on both sides I started to think of items that could show case them better than a one sided item, and have decided to try a scarf. The yarn and the tension could make this a bit too stiff so I will increase the crochet hook size and go for a thinner yarn. However Ceci warned me that the lacy effect means they can get hooked onto passing door knobs etc, and may need mending
  • With three colours in one small square there are lots of ends. I tried hard to work these in as I went but I didn’t really crack it
  • It is fairly slow progress but I found this the ideal hobby for travelling on public transport and fitting in to odd downtime slots. It is easy to pick up and put down and each square is very small and unobtrusive
  • Carry small scissors. I had large ones in my bag and got in trouble going through security at the Mayor’s office. The scissors were confiscated and I forgot to pick them up involving time and work to get them back.
  • I love the way the colours work. This is the biggest joy. I made them randomly,  as the mood took me. Then arranging them into a pattern was fun. I could do stripes, blocks or variation. In the end I did horizontal colour stripes (pink and blue) and put one lighter next to one darker to create a sort of checker board look. My final arrangement is a bit like a Welsh blanket. The possibilities are endless here and this factor will bring me back to the technique.

In the midst of my creative efforts my dear Daughter in Law (who works for Burberry) sent me these amazing images. Look at those cool grannies!! Crochet plus knitting! Cables, embroidery, and cricket jumper ribbing. Of course too out there for many of us, but massively inspirational.

I may be a granny, but I am so up to the minute, darling!

Here is what it looks like as I am starting to join the squares together.

Granny square crochet sewing up
Sewing the squares into fabric

As it is coming together I realise that Carolyn’s approach of knitting a ribbed yoke/waist band is still a bit bulky and I do like my skirts to have sufficient shaping, given my relatively curvy shape. So I have stalled.

Given this is pure wool I have considered shrinking the top and stretching the hem, to create a slight A line, but I should have thought of that at the design stage. If I had been really clever I might have designed a yoked skirt and created a different design for the yoke – maybe striped instead of granny squares. Or even more interesting would have been to create different sized squares using a smaller crochet hook or finer yarns. My other notion is to dart the side seams to provide waist shaping, and put in a zip. I am not sure if this would work. Would it need a waist band? If so does it need to be interfaced or made in a different way? I wonder if anyone has made a crocheted granny square garment? They often seem to be based on rectangles rather than shaped.

Please let me have your thoughts on how to make a skirt and I will report back next week. Thank you!

Boot making at the London College of Fashion – part 1

You may remember I have been dying to do a shoe making course for ages. And lots of readers have been cheering for the shoe making, especially Aida who has made some super shoes herself. But I had not found a suitable opportunity. Then I discovered a short course to make a pair of boots over six Sundays, and Nick and I signed up. This takes place at the London College of Fashion.

The first class involved designing our boots and making a pattern.

We were told that we could make black, brown or tan boots, for men (flat) or for women (high heel boots), with elastic or zips. A little bit limited but for a first attempt at footwear I guess it is best to focus on techniques without too much freedom.

I must admit when I realised that we would be making high heeled boots I was a bit fed up as I hardly ever wear high heels. But then I thought –  if it is all about the learning then learning how to make heeled boots is quite an exciting prospect, even if I rarely wear them.  During our lunch hour I found a roughly acceptable design on the internet and while I started with an unusual shape for the elastic insert I changed this later on in my design. Also my boots will be dark brown rather than black. Nick is of course making men’s boots and is quite happy with the limitations imposed (although he had lace ups in mind before we arrived). I could have had knee (or even over the knee) boots, and had a flat version been possible I should have gone for that. But with the heels I thought a shorter boot to wear with trousers was more suitable.

The first thing we did was use masking tape to cover a last in our size. This is then marked up in various ways and removed carefully after cutitng along the centre front and back lines.

Once the sticky tape was carefully cut off and stuck down onto paper we had to press it down firmly, given it was quite contoured. As a relatively experienced patten cutter I was interested in this technique, one I have seen in Pattern Magic. When we made our bodices with cling film Pia showed us how to use the darts to flatten the pattern. In this case there were no darts – just squishing the 3D masking tape onto a 2D surface. Once the masking tape pattern is complete we drew around the inside and outside pattern and made a new line between the two – the mean of the two lines effectively. There is an extra piece of pattern at the instep (on the inside) and this is left but the shorter outline is also indicated for the outside. You can just see this on the base of my basic “block” pattern, known in shoe making as the Mean Forme. You may be able to see what look like balance marks or notches – at the Vamp Point (where a court shoe would dip down to), the instep (where our lacing would start), a back height mark and also marks for the widest part of the shoe.

Finally we turned the mean forme (block) into a pattern for our boots. The Standard Last Length is determined by your shoe size, and we used aliquot parts to determine some of the dimensions. We also took lots of measurements including of the foot and leg itself. In the photograph you can see Nick creating his pattern. Can you see the toe cap? And the side zip?

creating a boot pattern from the Mean Forme
Nick with his boot pattern

Finally we separated the pattern pieces, added seam allowances (although there is a different terminology required which I may recall after six weeks, but cannot at the moment). The leather will be joined in various ways as it is not really possible to get the shoes out of one huge piece of leather. Half a cow’s worth of leather will only make four pairs of boots so it fairly demanding on the raw materials.

Next week we will cut out our leather and start sewing it up.

So far so good. It is such an exciting process – closely related to what I already know but also totally foreign. I am finding a bit easier than the complete beginners (although I have never made shoes of any description before), but there are only four students so we are getting lots of advice and support.


Elizabeth Zimmermann’s New Zealand sweater

I have really fallen for the New Zealand sweater, which I wrote about here. 

I have now made up two of these delightfully simple but fantastically elegant tops. Not so my teeth, smeared in raspberry flesh. (One day I will learn how to use Photoshop).

I have already posted about the green one. When I was making that one up I put pictures on Instagram and several people urged me to make a sleeveless version.

I like a sleeveless jumper. I am not sure about you but I have found that the flesh on my arms has held out a bit longer than other areas so I don’t mind flashing them. The little cap sleeves are cute, and with a high round neck we have a little top that is not too revealing. I knitted this in cashmere DK – from a range of small remnants, more or less matching; a reduced cost “set” from Colourmart. But it might be ideal in cotton or linen or silk. I also had an idea of buying white yarn and then dying it before knitting knitting it, or knitting it in white and then dying it to create an ombre effect. This would be a very exciting project for me and a little top in silk would be a nice summer project.

To make the short sleeve T shirt I used only 130 stitches cast on in the round, and I finished it at the waist so it is a neat little summer top that can go under a jacket or even over a shirt for an extra layer of warmth in autumn. In linen, silk or cotton it might make a top cool enough for people in the Southern Hemisphere.

I think this is a sweater that would be great for little kids and huge men too. Here is Wyeth in his. It seems that his wife Betsy has use a piece of I-cord to trim the yoke, and I believe she has used Quaker stitch for the cuffs. I would like to have a go at both techniques. Wyeth refers to this jersey as “like armour”.

Andrew Wyeth in New Zealand sweater

As well as knitting nice new things I have been tidying up at home and finally uncovered my two unfinished knitting projects.

When I first conquered knitting a jersey I admitted I had tried to make a garment twice before. Once to make an owl sweater by Kate Davies, and a second time to make a cardigan by Lisa Richardson in Kidsilk Haze (!). I couldn’t do the shaping on the owls jersey and as for the cardigan – you can see how I got hopelessly lost in the pattern and my front and sleeve are all wrong (probably the back too!).

Both these projects had saddened me as I had got lost and gone wrong and didn’t have the knowledge or experience or energy to sort them out. So, with a sense of shame (for the cost of the materials, for the embarrassment of failure) I did what I do with my UFOs – I squirreled them away in a dark cupboard. I am pretty sure I started the cardigan in 2012. The Owls jersey before that – so probably before Ted was born and he is six next month.

So this weekend, after unpacking and photographing them, I unravelled them so I can repurpose the yarn.

The Owls sweater was knitted in soft roving British yarn made from a  blend of 80% merino wool and 20% kid mohair – Rowan Cocoon in a very light grey. I showed this yarn to my husband, who assumed it was cashmere (know nothing, men, eh?). He loved it which helped me decide I will finally make a sweater for him (I made a sweater for my son Gus and knitting for tall men is a labour of love).

I thought I might turn him into a great artist if I knitted him one like Andrews! If not an artist, I might encourage his carpentry efforts which are getting more professional and splendid by the cupboard. Nick likes to wear a warm sweater when he is working in his shed as it can be a bit cool in there. He often expresses frustration at the lack of length of his RTW jumpers, including the sleeves, and believes that wool always shrinks (hmm.) He let me measure him this weekend. For future reference I found he would need a width of 42″, length from back neck of 27″, length from underarm to hem of 18″ and a sleeve of 24″. The nice thing about this rather chunky yarn is that it can be knitted on 6-7mm needles which would mean I could create the comparatively huge amount of fabric relatively quickly. However I will need to buy quite a lot more yarn, and it  won’t be exactly the same shade, I don’t personally think this matters much. (Actually when trying the jumper on he wanted a further four and a half inches of length! This means the back neck length goes to 31.5″, underarm to hem increases to 22.5″. The sleeve will be tried on later).

Anyway I have been thinking of another Knit A Long as I can explain this pattern to you with ease. You will find it in Knit One Knit All, but the book is rather expensive and I would not recommend it. Too many of the items in there are clever without being very nice, in my opinion. If you like rustic 1980s styling then you may love it, and there are some cool slipper and glove patterns, but the tops are ugly is you ask me. Also I have made a few modifications to the NZ that I could share with you as we go along. At the moment I have an issue with how best to do the short rows that create the very nice shaping across the yoke. I can’t help create a sort of lacey effect. I quite like it but I am not sure it is what everyone wants.

So I am going to do a third one, and then if there is any interest I could organise another knit along (the last one was lots of fun and soon I will show you the second round of results), maybe in November so one of these could be a Christmas present for a loved one?


Finally knitting a skirt – or rather crocheting one

Alongside my desire to make a cardigan I have wanted to make a skirt for a while.

Mrs Zimmerman’s skirt pattern

Here is Elizabeth Zimmerman’s take on it.

i make very few skirts, as not having the figure to wear them without embarrassment, I am not too interested. But they are really very simple, being just a tube made on a circular needle, straight or flaring as you wish. (Knitting without tears)

Most pics of the lady are of head and shoulders. Shall we presume she wore trousers? Or maybe skirts, just not knitted ones. Here she is in a nice dress with Swedish botanical prints or similar.

Elizabeth Zimmermann
Zimmerman in a frock

Her method is simple. Measure your generous waist (a) and hip (b) measurement and multiply by gauge. Cast on the stitches corresponding to a), then at 3.5″ down start to increase to the number of stitches required by b). Continuing straight or flaring until you get a skirt that is about 3″ shorter than you want. Let it settle on a hanger for a week to see if it stretches out to the length you want. Otherwise knit a few more rounds, then do the hem finish that we used for the Elizabeth Zimmermann jerseys. She doesn’t bother with explaining how the waist-line is finished, but we can guess that it is folded down and some elastic is threaded through.

It doesn’t sound very appealing does it? Maybe in a very chunky yarn, or something stretchy? Or with a good bit of texture such as cables down the CF? Anyway it’s a simple process if you want to knit a skirt and don’t mind it clinging around your hips and thighs.

Mr Fassett’s skirt pattern

Kaffe Fassett includes a skirt pattern in Glorious Knitting.

Starting at the lower edge with 3.75mm circulars, cast on 330 stitches. He creates a hem by doing 13 rounds of stocking stitch, then a purl round. He goes up to 4.5mm circulars working 220 rounds, change to 3mm needles and decrease every 10th stitch (300 stitches). Then Mrs Z’s “brutal decrease” K1 K2tog to the end, leaving us with 200 stitches. Finally its 24 rounds of K1P1 ribbing. The top is turned down and elastic threaded through, and the hem is turned up.


But not that nice. The Kaffe Fassett skirt certainly includes some pretty colours but the idea of having gathered knitting around my waist is enough to make me come out in a sweat. It is hard to see but the bright pink, grey, red and blue is the bulky waistband.

The other skirt pattern I had considered is in one of my old Vogue pattern books. 

Carolyn Smith’s skirt pattern

But I have to say to Vogue, Elizabeth and Kaffe – Australian blogger Carolyn Smith has come up with a skirt that I prefer! It’s colourful, yes, retro, yes, involves crocheting and knitting, yes. Looks cool. I especially love Carolyn’s colour scheme – she who suits the richest, warmest colours. The length is nice and there is no horrible gathering around the waist, She has made a small yoke with 1×1 ribbing and used elastic to keep it up. All the details of how to make this skirt are on her blog Handmade by Carolyn.

Handmade by Carolyn Granny Square skirt
Handmade by Carolyn Granny Square skirt

I will be using up small pieces of left over yarn, so my colours maybe a bit more mixed up than hers, which works well as a patten. I will be using dark green DK to pull it all together – yarn kindly donated by my friend Jo.

The other reason I chose this project is that it involves crocheting. I did learn the basics from Mopsa when making the wig for my Dalston Dolls.

But just because I am a Granny doesn’t mean I knew how to make a Granny Square!

Although Carolyn provides very accurate and always helpful information in her blog about how to do things I tried following the recipe and made a bit of a mess of it. In part because the Americans and the British call the stitches different names. In the end I reached out to my friend, tenant activist and Board member Linde Carr. On the way back from a meeting I thrust some yarn and a crochet hook into Linde’s hand – before the train even arrived. She also showed me a baby blanket she was crocheting and how the pattern is made up. Looked very complicated, but there is always more to learn.

My first attempts were a bit poor as I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I changed down to a smaller crochet hook. While the squares are smaller, and more will be needed – 144 compared to Carolyn’s 78 – I think it will look nice. If I can find the time. Each square takes about 20 mins. 48 hours just to make the squares. That’s a lot of box sets. Thankfully Game of Thrones, Narcos, Orzak, Happy Valley, Narcos, and Dr Foster can sustain me for a while. And a couple of marvellous podcasts – Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and This is Criminal.

Why I gave up alcohol

posted in: Uncategorized | 60

A brave friend of mine recently blogged about why she didn’t have children. Or rather how she deals with people who challenge her very personal decision.

It got me thinking about how anyone who stands against the norm is often questioned and regarded as a bit odd. To be honest I have quite a few friends who find the fact that I make or knit my own clothes something of a surprise. Why ever would you do that? they wonder. But they rarely feel uncomfortable or threatened.

On the other hand when I decided to give up booze for good I got a whole range of surprising reactions.

I don’t know how to describe being alcohol-free or a non-drinker without it sounding judgmental. Teetotal, on the wagon, don’t drink, abstemious, stopped drinking last year, prefer not to …. it all sounds defensive and somewhat peculiar. One can make excuses or come out. I have said general things like “no thanks, big meeting tomorrow!” or “I’m driving”, and have even tried holding a glass of wine which I never touch.  In the end I have decided to come out and tell people that I am over it, which may seem a bit strong and unnecessarily final and definitive, but my friends have adapted and stopped offering me drinks.

So I thought I would set out my reasons in a short blog post and invite your responses. I know this is seriously off-topic for me, which I don’t do it very often, but it might strike a chord with anyone who is “different” for whatever reason.

  • I was never a big drinker, so that’s the first one out of the window. Many assume abstinence is what you do when you are an alcoholic. In fact you are, according to Alcoholics Anonymous, still an alcoholic even when you haven’t partaken for years.
  • I like alcohol. I enjoy the taste of wine, especially with food. I prefer red to white, and I am not keen on fizzy drinks including champagne, never took to gin, vodka or whisky, but I have nothing against the stuff per se.
  • I am not refraining from drink for religious reasons.

I don’t fear or hate alcohol. My kids and my Mum all like to have a drink, but as these photographs demonstrate we are not a very boozy family. We will offer you alcohol when you come round to visit us. But when we make a tea or pour a glass of water for ourselves we get an aghast reaction.

“Aren’t you drinking? What? Good God – why ever not? Go on! Have one! It will do you good! ”

I stopped drinking for six good reasons.


I adopt a healthy lifestyle. I want to live into old age and to be fit in my 80s. This is a strong motivator for me. I go to the gym and eat healthy food.  Not drinking alcohol supports these choices, not drinking helps me stay slim. After a boozy night I would experience a strong desire for sweet or fried things. Crisps and salty nuts are the perfect accompaniment with a glass of wine, but pair less well with tea, juice or water. I have no idea if this is psychological or physiological. But I find it much easier to stick to a healthy diet if I avoid wine altogether.

I may be prejudiced and judgemental but drinkers sometimes have a puffy, reddened and lined appearance. Those that don’t drink often have better skin.

I felt ill the next day

I suppose this is the main one. Most of us get a hangover if we have more than one glass – although I know quite a few people who do not suffer from any aftereffects – but feeling unwell later doesn’t seem to be a big deterrent. But not only has my headache/feeling sick feeling intensified as I have aged, in addition I cannot afford to be under the weather at work. I want to feel lively and energetic, not queasy and bad tempered. So it had to stop.


Alcohol helps get a party going – no doubt about it. Reducing inhibitions and loosening the tongue can encourage sociability, laughter and fun. Unfortunately alcohol can loosen the tongue too much. I have, on occasion, said stupid or hurtful things when drunk. Which I regret.

An act of solidarity with my husband

Nick gave up alcohol a few years ago because he felt he had had enough. He was drinking heavily. It had become a habit and he wanted to be free of it. For a while, although he abstained, I would drink at social events, when people came round and at dinner parties.

A friend told me she had learned Hebrew and converted to Judaism on marriage. I thought if she could do that, the least I could do for my husband was to join him on the wagon. Giving up the booze was just a little sacrifice I could make, to stand by his side.


British families spend about £11.40 on alcohol and cigarettes each week. This is down from nearly £20 per week at the beginning of the century, implying I am not alone. In fact 20 per cent of young people are completely alcohol-free.

Social reasons

Like other drugs alcohol is harmful in large quantities. Yet it is such an intrinsic part of our culture that “having a drink” means alcohol.  At work (we sell homes) we always laugh at the cliched images of new home owners drinking champagne before they have even unpacked.

being alcohol free
Cheers, baby

Why is “having a drink” such an unchallenged part of our lives? Let’s “meet in the bar for a drink”, let’s “celebrate your exam success”, let’s go on a pub crawl because you were made redundant. Shall we leave money in our will so everyone can get drunk after the service? Shall we toast the Queen, the Chairman, or the happy couple? Or the sad couple who sit in the pub “drowning their sorrows”? What about the divorced man going on a binge, people boasting about how many drinks they had, or how sick they were, or how they can’t remember what they did last night, or how they ended up in Sudbury? I hear students talking about Jager bombs, young lovers drinking ever more ludicrous cocktails or drinks that involve salt, dares, lime, downing in one, lighting things up and so on.

Khalo on drinking
Frida Khalo

The alcohol craze may be  a bit of a con. We are encouraged to drink to celebrate success, to deal with sadness and to make every social activity to go with a swing. Weddings, funerals, birthdays. retirements, naming boats – whatever it is we have been conditioned to believe it needs alcohol to help it along.

What do you think?




Getting closer to Chanel

Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel is one of my style icons. She always knew how to dress, but never more so than in the period before the Second World War.

If you copy an outfit she put together or designed in this period you can’t really get it wrong. Any of the above looks would be fine today – or anyday. This is one reason why I sought to copy a 1937 Chanel jacket. And I have worn this item almost daily since I finished it!

The jacket got complements. On Instagram it got 288 “likes”! I wore it for a recent interview with Inside Housing. One stylish lady at a conference said: “I love your jacket”. “Thank you!” I replied. “It’s a copy of a 1930s Chanel, and I made it”. She said “You made it – well you would never know!” I guess that is a complement, but it felt odd. A bit like Marijana’s friend’s being told that her homemade butter cookies were “as good as Marks and Spencer!”

Inspired by Chanel I used very plain matt black buttons although I had sought out dark brown or navy. I used fairly big buttons on the cuffs and I have worn them undone and folded back. In all respects this jacket is “me”. At the moment I am loving it with navy and a cheeky little deep pink silk handkerchief. It works really well for me. It is soft and curvy and easy to throw on. It looks nice buttoned too although I prefer an informal look. My main negative feeling arises because it is too pink. It is a nice colour. It suits me. It is lively and perfectly acceptable for work. But people mention the colour.


But when I initially saw the Chanel photograph – posed in her Paris apartment – and planned to copy it, I decided to depart from her design a little, to get it closer to my personal style. My main worry – stylewise – was the collar and rever. So i decided to use a ‘good-enough’ Ungaro pattern (Vogue 1977) I already had, rather than starting from scratch. Comparing the two now, I am a little dissatisfied with its discreet collar; the one Ungaro designed. For me to change it would be quite a lot of work. This isn’t the easiest part of a jacket to draft (it’s probably the hardest, actually) and there was something a bit extreme about the collar that I didn’t, initially, warm to.

Now, when I look at it on the dress-stand the collar and lapel looks a bit mean. The other features where I think Chanel does it better than me (quelle surprise!) are a bit more roominess over the bust and a more impressive cuff. And I am still ambiguous about the pink. So shall I have a second go?

Colour and Fabric

While I was still thinking about lighter pink I took some advice from Instagram and tried my hand at natural dying using beetroot. I won’t elaborate save to say – very messy, not fast. Even with the suggested salt and vinegar additions beetroot makes a lovely colour but it doesn’t last one wash. For now I have given up on very pale pink. I went out and bought some nice beige linen at Simply Fabrics. It’s that kind of indefinable beige that looks good on many people – neither warm nor cool – it tones with my hair. While I did consider a white jacket, these cool beiges will “read” as white against a strong colour and will blend nicely with lighter ones.

I fear that the fabric may still be a little stiffer than Chanel’s jacket. The original seems to have more drape and maybe a lighter weight, washed linen, lined or underlined with something a bit more substantial. It is hard to know.

So I am going to have a second go at this jacket, but this time trying to make it much closer to the original, which will mean moving the darts. I think one under bust dart will look like Coco’s. The two darts together take up 3.5cms, so rather than making one larger dart I think I will move some of the fullness (about 1cm) to the side seam and just ease it in.

I am also planning on doing a larger, floppier collar and rever, and maybe bringing it up a little bit towards the neckline.

I have had a little go with some not very nice navy patterned fabric. It will be almost impossible for you to see what I have done here, but it looks promising to me. I need to reduce the collar and take it back a little bit more but I feel I am in the right ball park.

Nick and I are doing a course for the next six weekends, so apart from finishing the pattern I don’t think I will be doing much on this second jacket.

In the meantime Mary suggested I might like to join Portia’s Suit refashion. I would have liked to, and I even went to have a look at the Clitheroe charity shops, but the deadline of the end of October is too tight for me. I shall be watching with great interest and I will join in next year.

Altering hand knits – a few suggestions

When we started building our new home in the country I packed away most of my sewing equipment, thinking to myself “I will just do a bit of knitting while I wait for my sewing room to be constructed.”

Knitting has absolutely sustained me, excited and amazed me, during this time. I made a dozen or so items – mainly jumpers – and I have learnt so much.

Each item has been enthralling for me. I used nice patterns – both ancient and modern – to start me off, and then I found an approach, via Elizabeth Zimmermann, which freed me up to personalise my patterns,  and take control of the design process. And although I have yet to make a cardigan, and perhaps a skirt, to tackle cables and lace, I absurdly feel able to do anything on the knitting front now, if I want to. Knowing that it will be an exciting challenge (can’t wait to have a go at steeking…), and that I can make wearable clothes, finding that yarn appears to be reincarnateable, has made learning to knit a complete joy, and one that was unexpected. I was actually so scared of failure that I avoided it for years. Knitting has been, for me, an awesome and magical process. Not only unknitting, but also lengthening, shortening, pulling out and redesigning – it is so much easier than with fabric which once cut never heals.

So I knew what I was doing last August when I packed away my tools and bought a bit of wool and some knitting needles. Knitting appealed for many reasons, but mainly as it was portable and sociable. I also was attracted to the fact that the basic equipment was very inexpensive. I bought my first needles from Sharon on Clitheroe market – £1 a pair with proceeds to Claire House, a children’s hospice. And while nice yarn is expensive I have found good suppliers at reasonable cost. And yarn is never wasted.

Post hoc alterations

One really important thing about knitting, that I did not originally understand, is that alterations are quite possible. In my 12 months of learning to knit I have now shortened and lengthened jerseys and changed necklines, and made the sleeves longer, and released tightness, and various other changes. I could have shortened sleeves too, but haven’t yet. Are they any other alterations that have worked for you? I noticed Karen Templer wanting to make an Aran sweater smaller which she is attempting to do with blocking and heating. Sounds scary to me. I would be interested to know if you have good techniques for making garments smaller or larger or a different shape.

Here is an example.

I knitted the Elizabeth Zimmermann “Seamless saddle-shouldered sweater” from Knitting without tears. But I didn’t really understand how to get the fake seam stitch to do my bidding. So it came out wrong.

EZ SSSS that went wrong

I was going to try again, and then I remembered that all four versions of the Elizabeth Zimmermann seamless sweaters start in the same way – with the three tubes – two arms and a body. So I ripped out the knitting until I got back to three pieces plus one inch of yoke knitting, and then I changed course and made the Seamless Raglan Sweater. Here I am trying it on with the neck hemmed but no finish at the sleeve or waist hem, and the underarm seams incomplete. At this stage I am asking myself is the jersey too small? Not in the body width, or the arms, but it looks too short to my eye. I like shorter sleeves and I don’t want my jerseys too long, but this looks like a boy’s jumper worn by a woman. So what are my options?

I decided to lengthen the sleeves. I did this by knitting fairly long 1×1 ribbed cuffs. I also finished the underarm seams and hemmed at the waist. I am happier with it, but the jury is still out on the body length. There is no embarrassing flash of belly flesh (I am wearing a long sleeved pink Uniqlo top underneath). But maybe I should remove the hem and add a couple of inches of ribbing? Incidentally it is made from left over small balls of grey cashmere and it is lovely and soft and pleasant to wear.

altering a handknitted sweater
Seamless Raglan with longer sleeves

The next item requires your feedback. As we are now in the country more I have been investigating charity shops. There are some good ones in Cirencester, including a hospice shop with a huge tin of buttons, and nice fabric offcuts. Last week I saw a cute child’s hand knit, with navy ribbing, for £2.50 which I thought might do for 6 year old Ted when he stays here. I took it home, and on a whim, tried it on. Of course it looks like a woman wearing a child’s jumper.

We can immediately see this as it too short in the body and the arms. I could lengthen the arms and keep it cropped. I would lengthen the body but leave the arms short. Or I could lengthen both. This would involved detaching and unravelling the navy blue ribbing and finding some remnants to fill in the remaining inches. The jersey is seamed but I think I could add the alterations by using a circular needle. Obviously as it is made up of a range of shades this should not be too hard. I would then re-rib the hems.

I am not sure I want to wear these colours and the yarn is not top quality. And I have now got alot of sweaters. And I bought it for Ted. But I quite fancy doing the job. What do you think?

And I forgot to mention that the cupboard behind me is Nick’s new cupboard in my sewing room. This is due to be painted soon. I will share some pictures in a week or two.



Vogue 1977 Late summer jacket – the pocket challenge

As you may remember I am making a linen jacket, based on this wonderful 1937 Chanel jacket, modeled here by Coco herself. I am using a 1990s Vogue pattern by Ungaro – Vogue 1977 – which is not a perfect match (the collar and darting in particular), but it works well enough.

Chanel was a woman who knew how to accessorise.

In the marvellous photos below, taken in her Paris apartment, Coco Chanel wears an interesting hair band. Her widow’s peak is emphasised as her hair is pulled back and decorated with a bowed, black satin ribbon.  Her earrings are round and bold, floral, with a large pearl lighting up the middle. She wears more than one necklace – one that includes pearls, or maybe poppers; another is basically a chain with various attachments. The jacket is embellished with two brooch clips that look like little hands. On her wrists she wears bulky plastic (or maybe ivory) bangles, with a chain bracelet, and cigarette. But the nicest accessory of the lot is unobtrusive and really perfect. Have you spotted it?

It is the handkerchief she has popped into her top right hand jacket pocket. This detail is borrowed from menswear, but in this case is utterly feminine and beguiling. And it draws the eye to the tremendous pockets, which is what this jacket is all about. Despite their origins in work or military wear, on this jacket the four pockets are essentially decorative. The upper pair are slightly slanted upwards giving a sassy look.

I have been staring at these images for a few days now. Just like the Napoleon Six challenge I have been trying to interpret a look from a few photographs. Oh for a technical drawing, even if I can’t have the pattern!

I enjoy interpreting vintage or modern designer photographs, working out how the garment was made. While I have got a basic jacket constructed, the key element of this Coco jacket is the pockets – four patch pockets artfully placed and beautifully attached. They have an unusual, stand out quality to them and I assure you they are not easy to interpret.

The lower pockets are short and rather wide, wrapping around the side body, but standing proud and slightly open at the top. The effect is to create a little width at the hips, making the waist appear smaller. The upper pockets are widely spaced too, almost covering the breast and creeping under the arm. These pockets are soft, not interfaced, probably applied by hand. Pattern cutter Jay helpfully wrote:

I’m seeing the Chanel jacket as fairly unstructured. There’s shaping, but it doesn’t read as having the typical array of inner canvas pieces. My favourite features in it are the pockets (quite soft, bluffed on), the high buttoning with rounded revers and collar, and waist shaping…Bluffed on is just the way of stitching patch pockets from inside the pocket, but now I think about it Chanel probably hand sewed them on – either way without top stitching. Isn’t the top pocket interesting, both for position and shape?

I wish Jay was here to help me with this task, both the pattern cutting and the bluffing (lovely word). And thank you to Annie, and Elle and others who have given me pocket advice. I love the tip from Make it Anywhere – to make sure your pockets match stitch them both together with a basting stitch, turn and press. The pressing marks ensure that you have identical pockets!

Having got the jacket made to the extent of setting the sleeves in (but as yet unhemmed), no shoulder pads, unlined and unbuttoned, I auditioned several pockets.

Firstly I used pattern paper, running back and forth to consult the photos. I tried various sizes, depths, widths and angles. I pinned them on and gazed at my efforts. Eventually I made up pocket toiles in white cotton and pinned these in place. I then, second picture, tried on the jacket with the pinned pocket shapes (and my son’s swimming shorts…). At this stage I was feeling a bit exasperated, mainly because my jacket has a narrower front than the original. As you know my husband is a bit of an expert is wardrobe design! So I got him to consider the proportions and give me a second opinion. The original pockets were discussed at length. Nick even screen shot and magnified the photos and peered at them intently. At this point we admitted  my jacket is rather different to Chanel’s – my buttoning is less high and  I have two prominent darts in the front which I owe to Ungaro. So, inevitably, (like the colour) it is a compromise.

I have decided to have the lower pocket standing away from the jacket, lining it up with the grain of the jacket. Looking at my photograph above I think the pocket may need to be shallower. You can see the sleeves are rather long – deliberately so – I am hoping to unbutton them and fold them back to create the cuff similar to the one you see in the Chanel picture.

Jay and Annie both suggested bluffing my pockets on. This involves machine sewing them on from the inside – it is not a technique I had even heard of before. And while Annie suggests it is easier than it looks and sounds, I went with the hand stitched option. Although the stitches are obvious I like the effect. Now all I have to do is line the jacket and do the buttons/holes. I am thinking dark brown rather than black, and maybe getting some 1937 (or thereabouts) buttons.

Vogue 1977
With pockets (and loose threads) attached

I hope to be wearing this very soon!