Thank you everyone for your kind, supportive messages following the Grenfell Tower fire. It meant a great deal to hear from so many kind people – it has been really hard and upsetting for so many people, but I do believe that things in our industry will improve as a result of this major tragedy. They need to. We don’t have any news of Jessica. I feel bad to speak about knitting – but life goes on – work, family and our creative work.
I so enjoyed making the seamless yoked sweater described in Knitting without tears by Elizabeth Zimmermann. I thought I would try her second seamless pattern – the raglan sleeve. I don’t really go for the raglan as I like a more defined shoulder line. But as the knitted raglan seems to be a variation on the yoke sweater which rather suits me, I decided to give it a go.
I wanted to use my four ply cashmere set which came in lovely shades of beige, soft blue and grey.
In order to ground the jersey and make it work with my dark coloured trousers and skirts I started off by casting on 2×2 rib in deepest charcoal. This shade is my black. Although Zimmermann suggests adding the ribbing or hems at the end I had a clear idea of what I wanted with this sweater. I wanted an ombre effect – shading – from deep to light. Dark grey to light beige, via light blue.
Zimmermann also suggests starting with dpns and using two lengths of circular needle cords I just stick with one, finding that magic loop works well for me.
As with the yoked sweater the three tubes of knitting – one body (200 stitches) and two sleeves (40 stitches, gradually increased to 66) – are joined on the needles, leaving a few stitches (16 in this case) on a thread at the underarm.
You can see in the photo above how I tried to blend the colours by introducing a line or two of the next colour before I progressed to the block of colour. Knitting with four ply and 3.5mm needles is slow progress, but I find the knitting most pleasant. The finer needles are easier to use, more precise and elegant. I like the effects I got with the chunky yarn but it is much harder on the hands.
Eventually I was ready to join the sleeves to the body and I put all the stitches on to the one long circular needle. At this point I came across a knitting pattern for a similar jumper. This is a top down, raglan sleeved jumper in two styles So Faded by Angela Mowry. Although Angela has made her jersey with some fabulous hand dyed yarns I think the basic idea is an ombre sweater. I decided to include a detail from this pattern – ie I purled the very top of the raglan sleeves. My neckline is lower cut and I produced a waist length jersey similar to her cropped version. Although I didn’t set out to copy the Mowry jersey specifically I soon realised that you don’t really need a pattern to make a straightforward jumper like this. Elizabeth Zimmermann empowers you to create your own jumper to your own specifications.
And as well as finishing my jumper I bought some new shoes! These are like trainers but made of leather. They come in navy, but like many commentators I wish that darker trainers had darker soles. But lighter trainers look good with a white sole. I think the cool beige leather is a great colour and picks up the beige at the top of my sweater. I like lighter colours on me, and this is a good summer sweater. Overall a really fun project. The main issue for me was I didn’t know how best to strand or join the yarns over several rows. I just twisted, and swapped colour but it wasn’t very satisfactory.
The sweater also looks nice for work – I haven’t really needed a jacket in this warm weather and a sweater is a good substitute that can be put in my bag if it gets too warm.
Now I have made a couple of yoke jumpers, and this seamless raglan sleeved jersey, from Knitting without Tears I may try the third version of a seamless sweater – the exciting seamless saddle-shouldered sweater – “a little more sophisticated, but worth the effort, really, and great fun to make”, according to Zimmermann. I love the boring black and white photos supplied. They inspire because they are so blank. I am looking at this and seeing red – or stripes or colour blocked sleeves. Or maybe there would be room to do some patterning across the upper chest, or just a plain sweater. It’s so exciting – the endless possibilities implied by this simple photograph.
In the meantime one of my IG friends Lois has asked for a lesson in how to make these jumpers (which are all based on the same principle). I will do a blog post to explain it for her, which may be of interest and useful for others.
You know I work in social housing in London, and that we own lots of homes in the Notting Hill/North Kensington area. Last week there was a terrible fire in a 27 floor tower block – Grenfell Tower – in our heartland.
Everyone in the UK will know about this appalling incident as dozens of people have died and several more have sustained atrocious injuries.
There is no way that tower blocks or any residential building should be unsafe and a major fire risk. We have strict building regulations and fire safety requirements. Every year I get complaints from residents who have to move their bikes from corridors and we even ban pictures on the hallway walls due to the fire risk this theoretically creates. In other words we are vigilant and observant in relation to health and safety issues, especially fire, and we do our utmost to prevent fires because they can be devastating and fatal.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the block go up in flames on the TV. At the same time local Notting Hill Housing residents were emailing and tweeting about the disaster. Once the fire was extinguished – some 24 hours after it started – everyone in the block was homeless and it was clear than many people had perished in their homes. Such was the desperation of one woman, that she dropped her baby from the window of her 10th floor flat; others tried to making parachutes so they could jump to safety. One man lost five members of his close family. Just the saddest, most terrible, devastating incident during my long career in social housing.
Notting Hill had three flats in the block, purchased specifically to house homeless families temporarily. We have heard from four individuals who survived. The others eight are missing.
I also have a friend, who used to work at Notting Hill, and previously at Servite Housing. Her 12 year old niece was lost in the fire, although her Mum was at work and her father managed to escape. Supported by many friends and family she is still searching, praying, holding vigils and hoping that Jessica will yet be found.
We are a close community and many of my staff live in the area or have friends and family there. Many others are also affected. 20 or so of our resident families, along with many others, were evacuated from the area due to concerns about the stability of the building adding more uncertainty, grief and dislocation to an already deeply hurt community. We have offered 27 homes that are available now for people to move into but it is too early for many who have lost so much. They will want to remain in the community halls, sleeping communally, until they know more about what has happened to their families. It is shocking and just desperate, and our teams are affected and reeling too. Like the fire service, the police, the Red Cross, the churches and the community they are doing all they can to mitigate the disaster. It has taken its toll on us all.
I am angry that we, I, my association and the council did not do better for these poor people. They took the flats, made them home, and then died in their beds, or as they tried to escape the black smoke and fierce flames.
I am angry that our building standards, fire safety approaches and technical specifications failed to keep people safe – these were avoidable deaths. I am involved, as a Board member of the National House Building Council in the raising of building standards in the UK. At work I meet the fire service regularly and take a strong interest in doing all we can to prevent fires and keep our homes and residents safe. The standards we offer in rented homes, especially to more vulnerable and low income families need to be higher than those we set for ourselves. So we have carbon monoxide alarms, regular fire drills, widespread information, checks and more checks. Yet we failed to protect those families.
I want us to reconsider how we build and repair our high rise properties. I want us to see higher standards for building and maintenance and I want the fire service and other local authorities to have skilled staff to lead, fight for excellence and to protect the public. I want us to learn from these needless deaths and to get it right for those we house and care for.
We have 4000 homes in the Notting Hill area which means 4000 families who saw the disaster, heard the cries for help, smelt the horrible stink of the billowing black smoke, who were frightened, traumatised and saddened beyond words. Many people, including the tenants – often poor and dispossessed themselves, many of them fasting as part of Ramadan – have moved heaven and earth to help their friends and neighbours, giving time, money, food and clothing to help those burnt out of house and home. My daughter Esme who works for the Council has been involved in helping the affected children and their families.
My teams of staff were superb. They have worked long days to help all those who have been evacuated. They have used their spare time to volunteer, to distribute food, to help organise and to support those who are now without anything at all. It has been hard on them. Working in conditions like this – with hundreds sleeping in makeshift beds on the floor of churches and community centres – is most unusual for us in an advanced economy. We all feel responsible for what has happened. All of us feel a terrible sense of guilt. But this does not mean anyone is specifically to blame – much as it is human nature to blame someone for causing these deaths. The inquiry will determine this, as will the police investigation, but I think we have all tried our very best, but we let our residents down. I will carry this one with me for the rest of my life.
I am still thinking about adopting a work “uniform” – moving away from my 1960s skirt suits – to a more androgynous look, based on trousers.
I have therefore been wondering what it means to wear the pants, and about the meaning of women wearing trousers historically. I don’t know if you follow American Age Fashion but Lynn Mally has a great interest in women (in the US) wearing the pants. I love her posts, but often find the material she presents to be very US focused (unsurprisingly – the clue is in the name of her blog). I was wondering about the early adoption of trousers for women here in the UK.
Through my friend Alison Inman OBE, my attention was drawn to a recent radio programme about the history of women in trousers. I am not sure this is accessible outside the UK or for very long, so I will share a couple of the ideas therein.
The radio programme brought the Pit Brow Lassies to my attention. Banned (eventually) from working underground (although some dressed and acted as men to retain their jobs) these women worked on the surface in the Wigan area of Lancashire, shovelling and sorting the coal during the 19th century. Their job was to identify and discard the stones and other waste from the coal supply. They wore men’s trousers, held in at the waist with a belt. They would generally wear a long or short apron over the top and wooden soled clogs on their feet, and a scarf on their hair. Picture postcards were sold of the colliery women such was the novelty of women in trousers. One woman in the programme was reported as saying that she would flash her trousers to passing men for a small fee. Presumably the ability to see her outline much more clearly, in the days when skirts were voluminous and very long, was sufficient thrill for the voyeur.
Over the years the trousers made of cotton or corduroy would be patched and repatched with a wide variety of fabrics. Over a short time the coal dust would land on the fabric and turn it all blackish brown. Apparently each pit had its own “uniform” and women could be identified through their clothes. I am assuming the Worsley pit women (below) are carrying woolen shawls, as well as baskets and flasks. It seems likely they have trousers on underneath their aprons.
A picture from 1890 shows women in Wigan wearing tight headscarves in an attempt to keep their hair clean. It appears they wore shawls or heavier scarves over the top for warmth in cooler weather. I love the classic football team pose!
Many of these women were photographed by Arthur Munday, an upper class Victorian who was fascinated with strong, dirty working class women. Ellen Grounds posed next to Munday in her workwear, apparently to show how “big and strong” she was. He married a maid and had her dress up in many guises as he photographed her. His box of candid shots, left to one of our major museums, contains interesting information on contemporary working class women.
A very thorough piece on Victorian working women is provided by Witness2Fashion.
While working women were wearing men’s clothes in order to enable them to participate in the workforce, upper class women in England were adopting bifurcated garments to allow them to participate in sporting activities. The wonderful outfit below is probably made of velvet, with leg o’ mutton sleeves, a neatly shaped bodice and important buttons. It looks smart, comfortable and stylish. The full bloomers/plus fours are elegant and made mounting a bike both possible and decent.
At the same time the rational dress movement was formed by intellectuals, and involved middle class women refusing to wear corsets and choosing clothes influenced by the Romantic and Arts and Crafts movements.
These photographs come from Letchworth Garden City that used to be run by a friend of mine.
In the end trousers were chosen increasingly not only for their comfort but also for the message they convey. Women are as capable as men. They can compete on a level playing field – especially in relation to work and sport. Why have men in the UK been unable to appropriate the skirt? Probably because they do not want to compete on women’s playing fields – the field of housework, childcare and caring.
I reached the end of Me Made May in state of some dismay; my largely me made wardrobe was bringing me dissatisfaction rather than joy!
I felt it was static, failing to evolve with the rest of the world. For MMM17 I wore things that (photographic evidence being rather reliable) I had also worn for MMMay16. Although this may imply style-satisfaction, or that I am frugal and sensible, I am nothing of the sort. I know what suits me, I understand style and colour but I also hanker after novelty and freshness. Ceci commentated that on a long holiday with a small wardrobe she just got bored with it. There is a reason we feel a strong need to buy/make new clothes.
I had an overwhelming urge to throw it all out and start again.
A few commentators said the same – I am not really sure where this urge comes from. It is more than adverts and consumerism. I think it is part of our human condition that we like to dress up – emulating others we want to be like or look like, or conversely we want to set trends and influence the world. And perhaps a built in aversion to being satisfied.
My objectives were more specific. I outlined a set of requirements for my weekday wardrobe (for weekends anything goes)
- fashionable and stylish
- authoritative enough for a senior manager working in a modern, cosmopolitan setting
- neat and tidy
- rather plain
I have tried to work through what I want and need.
Now you may remember my slight obsession with trainers during MMM, where I noted that on most days I had big, fat trainers on my feet. Thank you for commenting on the appropriateness of my footwear, and all the suggestions on how to choose comfortable but more work appropriate looks. However I have now decided I don’t want to change from walking shoes to workwear, as this involves carting shoes round in bags and having two personas.
I want my whole wardrobe that works with trainers!
Maybe that seems peculiar, but in the same way I once moved from heels to brogues and “masculine” lace ups at work (which was a little radical and usual at the time) I am now going to make the move towards trainers as my new normal, with the brogues (or sandals or even heels once in a while) as the exception.
I have been looking for the perfect trainers – which has been challenging with an hour wasted in Office in Oxford Street trying on just about every style – but not finding what I have in mind. I shall have to learn to make shoes at some point.
In the meantime I have been planning the rest of the look. I am moving away from variety, towards predictability/a uniform. I have chosen a look similar to the one my sons wore for Sixth Form.
- White shirt
- Leather belt
- Small jacket (lightweight and colour for summer; darker shades and heavier fabrics for winter)
I have chosen “male” looks here. I don’t want to dress as if I am a man, but there is something very compelling about the pared down, androgynous look of trousers, jacket and shirt/plain top.
Although I have habitually worn skirts for work and trousers at weekends, I have got to the stage where I want to wear comfortable but semi-formal trousers for work. Below I am wearing some pull ups from Uniqlo (that have elastic at the back!!). Or “WOMEN SMART STYLE ANKLE LENGTH TROUSERS”. I was aiming for this kind of thing with my disastrous Style Arc Talias.
Here are two or three initial attempts at dressing within my new rule. Two of them feature the same pants (the check ones are from Uniqlo), same jacket, and the same shirt with different belts and scarves. The beige jacket is more summery and fresh. However my belts seem to have a mind of their own in these photos! I may have to put belt carriers on these pants to neaten the look.
I feel this outfit meets the requirements of my brief. And Authority is achieved through the business shirt and jacket, the belt/scarf colour makes it feminine and adds a little personality, and the fact the trousers are checked gives a nod towards fashion/style. I may need to play around with the rules a bit more, but I felt good and really “myself” in these outfits. For an important evening meeting I wore my nice, blue brogues and took the look up a notch.
At the moment, being “summer”, I don’t need knitwear although it may be possible to use a tank top/vest, pullover or cardigan instead of a scarf for colour/individuality. I am going to experiment with the rules I have set. I don’t want many items in my wardrobe, so I will be seeing how many looks I can get with a limited selection of garments.
My knitting to date has been rather plain – stocking stitch in neutrals or plain deep colours. I yearn to knit cables or in glorious technicolour. But my first attempts at colourwork were not so hot.
Some things went well with my Fara Raglan – I more or less understood the chart approach and I think I selected really nice colours. But unfortunately I struggled with getting the tension loose enough in the colour work rows. The whole thing looks tight and ugly, and although some suggested steaming, and others a tea cosy (!) I would rather relegate it to the stinging criticism of the flames (or just the dustbin).
Nevertheless for someone who is really enthused and excited by colour I knew I would have to confront my difficulties and make something full of colour and vibrancy at some point.
I am attracted to these 1980s Kaffe Fassett patterns – especially the floating circles and the Persian poppy. Although I prefer the smaller floating circles I love the way the colours work with the poppies. I looked at Ravelry and saw hundreds of the poppy – best used perhaps as a cushion cover. For some reason the smaller circles have far fewer examples – I guess they are less showy, but for wearability maybe a little subtlety is good. I prefer it I think as the background is clearly delineated whereas with the poppies it all seems to blend in. Maybe that is the charm.
I really like circles and round shapes, as you may have noticed with my silk painting! I struggle to make things square or rectangular. I have this idea that everyone has a favourite shape. My favourite is the circle, but I also love the square. Triangles don’t really do it for me, rectangles are boring and hexagons do my head in. How about you?
The main reason I love Kaffe Fassett (and he was really big in the 1980s when I started crafting) is that he searches out and celebrates slight mismatches, shading, variation and slightly surprising colour combinations. Of course to some extent these photographs and garments are very dated, but nevertheless I find them inspirational and decided to give his approach a try.
Incidentally someone noted that I seem to have accumulated quite a stash for someone who has only been knitting for a few (its nine actually) months. The thing is I have been buying bargain “sets” from Colourmart – the ends of the roll or bin ends of the yarn world. Less than 50 grams, sometimes a bit knotty, in varied colour batches. Actually I love buying remnants, bits of stuff left over that I can use. I get a real pleasure out of this. So I started knitting a third Heavenly using a mixture of stripes and trying for those little circles of Kaffe. But I found knitting with three colours very challenging, and decided not to go on. I guess I can unravel this, or it joins Fara in the bin.
Below some of my bargain sets in lovely shades.
Right now you may be feeling a little bit sorry for me. Lots of effort, no output!
So it was a great sense of relief that I came across Elizabeth Zimmermann who has taught me so much in a very short time. You can get this book second hand on eBay for about £5. It is the only book you really need. There are four versions of a seamless sweater in here and lots of useful information on how to do colourwork. Finally, with Elizabeth by my side I cracked it.
A few handy hints for successful colourwork (ie if you want a good result without much skill)
- Only do two colours per row
- Use both hands – one colour in each. Luckily I had this (seemingly strange) advice on my blog early on and had been practising my “continental knitting (yarn in left hand) with my first colour work experiments. It worked perfectly.
- Don’t carry the second colour more than five stitches
- Don’t twist at the back (as I did with my first two disastrous experiments)
- Keep your knitting really, really loose
- Choose one or more colours to match your skirt (or trousers)
As a result I made two jumpers, using up my blue and light pink remnants. You can easily see the colour changes on the front of the jumpers as I made no attempt to hide them.
I also used the EZ method of calculating the size of the sweaters. If you are interested the blue one has 180 stitches cast on, the pink 160. They both fit well. On the blue I did hems at the cuffs and hem, but used 1×1 ribbing for the neckline. I used ribbing on the pink one. And I love them. They have a sort of 1960s vibe, reminding me of my childhood and of more innocent, happy times. I used more or less the same pattern for the simple colourwork, although I extemporised more with the blue one but found the neckline a touch high – two versions just show what a difference the colourways make. A two colour jumper would be really nice, but you can easily get four or five colours in.
I am so pleased with these jumpers and will find them easy to incorporate into my weekend, and working wardrobes.
I did the fourth week of MMMay17 but I had some phone problems so I can’t show you the pictures, except one. Here I am with a nice old 1960s Kimono sleeved jacket in the softest lemon wool. All the rest are on Instagram. I am hoping I will be able to post a few more recent pictures soon.
So. For a full month I wore one hand-sewn item and one hand-knitted item each and everyday. I have not yet reached the dizzy heights of making everything I wear. Never made a bra, never made tights, never made knickers. I have made my gym kit, lots of tailored items and coats, but never rainwear. I have made jeans, and men’s wear, and I have created lots of textiles in passing. I am proud of my achievements, but I don’t think I am going for the gold medal of this one. Happy with the bronze.
So what was MMM17 all about for me? This year it was really useful for thinking about handmade knitwear. However I found the exercise a bit of a strain. What it did to me was made me question what I am wearing and do my clothes bring me joy?
I know I can make virtually anything I want – nothing is denied to me as I can sew. And knit! But what do I want?
I want to create a really small, orderly wardrobe that is
- fashionable and stylish
- crisp and clean
- authoritative enough for work
- rather plain
That should be easy!
Fashion and style
MMMay17 revealed my current wardrobe is looking dated. I want a more modern look. This is important to me.
Before I sewed I would not worry about passing on last seasons’ outfits (darling!); these days I feel a real wrench taking my hand made wardrobe to the charity shop. So I wear things which are quite nice but I don’t love (Marie Kondo has alot to answer for).
Maybe I am shallow but I love novelty, style, new ideas, new colour combinations and ideas – fashion in other words. Just one year ago I wouldn’t have worn trainers for work, but now (in London) this look is stylish and normal. A few years ago I wouldn’t have worn a trouser suit as they looked old-fashioned and dowdy, but now they look great. Overall, especially for work, business casual has become the norm and formal, corporate wear has negative connotations. If you want to look young and engaged you need to pay some attention to changing trends – I am beginning to worry I don’t have enough culottes or cold shouldered blouses in my wardrobe! But seriously dated dressing is aging.
I do have a silver leather skirt!! And a shorts suit!! These items are a bit unusual and I wore them in May and I like them. But I wish the silver skirt was shorter and the shorts a little tighter. In the 1930s women were forever altering their clothes to give them a “new lease of life”, “making do and mending” “retrimming” their hats and crocheting a new lace collar for their sole afternoon dress. I do appreciate the thinking here, but it is not me. Instinctively I am a chucker, a thrower, someone who gets rid of things when they no longer suit me. I really want a clear out.
Crisp and clean
Which brings me to my second point. In wearing “Me Made” I noticed that a number of my items were tatty. Is that because they were often worn, or badly made? Not finished properly, or just inferior to RTW? All the lovely, natural fibres I go for in my dressmaking may not be as durable as I think. Two of my unlined cotton skirts have not held up to wear and tear. I really don’t want to give them up (they are made of nice, thick, stretch cotton from Roland Mouret), but I am a bit ashamed of the finish.
For years I laughed at people who wore leggings, T shirts, shorts with elasticated waists and trainers – and never went to the gym! I previously opposed the sloppy idea of a dress down Friday. To be honest at one stage I would have said wearing a cardigan to work was a definate no no.
I kept my shorts and trainers for gym, and wore proper skirts, jackets, tights and formal shoes for work although I did have an anorak (rather than a proper coat), and often chose a long sleeved T rather than a shirt, to avoid ironing.
Now that standards at work are unravelling, and business casual is the norm (ties are beginning to look a bit odd in my office) I find myself caught up in the desire for comfort. If I haven’t an external meeting on a Friday I do sometimes wear my jeans. (For years I didn’t even wear jeans). And in terms of “active wear” the penny has finally dropped. These garments are ideal for less active wear too. Even inactive wear (lolling around on a sofa) feels better in stretchy, soft stuff. Gym wear is of course specifically designed and constructed so it doesn’t chafe, restrict or constrict. Anything made of stretchy jersey is supremely comfortable. So it makes perfect sense to wear clothes that stretch when you do, don’t dig in, and give you a sense of well being. I mentioned that at weekends I often wear leggings and long sleeved Ts from Uniqlo, and in summer I am wearing gym shorts, sports bra and top – cotton or wool, depending on the weather. I seem to have gone super-casual, all of a sudden.
So I need to think about work – comfort but with sufficient authority. I am inspire by these looks.
Earlier in my career having authority meant – for women – wearing a white shirt and a navy suit, with a knee length skirt, dark tights and court shoes. For men too – a navy suit, white shirt, silk tie, dark socks and black leather shoes. Once a week I may still have to dress like this – a board or City meeting for example. But most of the time I want to look stylish, crisp and comfortable but still have the edge in terms of authority. I could not chair a meeting in gym gear. But I believe there is an answer. My Business Casual post covered some of the ground.
Like many dressmakers I have a penchant for the colourful, the patterned, the shiny and the novel. What I find myself wearing most often is of course – the neutrals – especially navy and grey, using scarves, belts, tights and jewellery to introduce colour and individuality. I want a wardrobe that is essentially plain. If we are going for comfort then we have to find the authority elsewhere and neutrals and deeper colour do this.
I will be thinking about a modern, fashionable capsule wardrobe over the next couple of weeks, before I readjust my sewing/knitting/shopping plans.
In the meantime – do you feel your look is a bit dated? Do you yearn for comfort? What about plain and simple shapes and colour schemes? Do you have the answer?
I used to wash anything that had touched skin after one wear (eg socks, underwear and blouses/T-shirts/woolies). Everything my kids and grandkids wore went straight off their backs into the laundry basket. Skirts and jackets I would take the cleaners after 6-12 wears I guess. But for a number of reasons I have cut right down.
Nowadays I wash knickers and tights after one wear. Everything else when it needs it. I use a visual test and a sniff test. If it doesn’t have obvious marks (eg food stains or mud), and if smells good I just fold it up and put it back in the wardrobe. Kids clothes too, get examined and sorted. PJs, school trousers and jumpers can last a week if there are no obvious stains. Adult skirts and jackets now go for ages without laundering. I brush them down, use lint rollers and steam or press them. I hardly use dry cleaners, not least due to the cost – £5-£10 for one item – that may have cost less than that to make or buy.
For decades I have ignored “dry clean only” tags on RTW goods. I prefer my own skill and judgement. Anything made of natural fibres is washable, and with care so is viscose, polyester and elastane. However I dislike hand washing and have found most things can go in the washing machine. The silk, wool and cold cycles on my machine are excellent. According to the Daily Mail the average family spends £320 a year on dry-cleaning, while those who wear suits to work can spend as much as £640 a year. I find this statistic unbelievable although it must be true if it is in the Daily Mail.
From time to time I machine wash woolen jackets and skirts, pressing carefully afterwards to refresh them if they become grubby or smelly. But some have gone on for ages without a wash or dry clean.
Some will find this revelation disgusting.
Others will admit they are equally “lazy”, “tight” or “green”.
I don’t like making work, or wasting money or damaging the environment but I am not at the extreme end of any of these standpoints. I just think excessive cleaning is a bit of a con. Like the idea of daily shampooing of hair, this is based on social anxiety about dirt, grease, animal secretions, slime, mould, decay, dandruff, BO and squalor, rather than any objective filth.
A seamstress has an advantage over a member of the public
- we have knowledge of fibres and fabrics
- we know how our garments are constructed eg with iron-on or sewn in interfacings
- we know how to press, and the impact of water or steam on our fabrics
- (if we have too much washing to do, especially if there are lots of towels and bed linen we know we can take it to the laundrette for a service wash – £30 for a huge bag that will be washed, dried and folded).
This means we don’t have to accept the myth that we will be socially unacceptable if we don’t launder daily.
Until the 1950s washing clothes was a major palaver. I can remember “blue”, green soap, yellowish soap for collars and cuffs, a scrubbing board, a boiler, tongs, a plunger and a kind of big stick, a mangle, a washing line, pegs, peg bags, and a sort of wooden stick to push the washing line up with (was it called a prop?).
Monday was washing day and it took lots of time to get the washing done. Unsurprisingly, apart from sheets, shirts and underwear, not much was washed. The domestic washing machine was invented in 1937 but when I was young (1950s, early 1960s) my mum was still using old-fashioned techniques. When we got a machine it was a top loader and had a rubber lining and a kind of central stick around which the clothes circulated.
A little further back less was washed, and less often. The laundry process took several days. The “Great Wash” took place every few months and may have involved hiring professional washer women to help. According to a book published in 1860 the washers would prewash in cold water, rising until the water runs clear, then soaking for 24 hours, further soaking in warm lye (including ashes and soapy agents), heating the water again and again, beating the washing with sticks and finally rinsing, wringing and drying. The labour was so extensive that many clothes, especially the outer garments, were never washed at all.
Today washing and drying at home is largely mechanised. However I don’t have a tumble dryer. Therefore every item has to be hung up to dry on the rack, or more recently as our flat is a bit damp, on a heated rail. The main reason I cut down the washing is that the drying is trying. If we have the heating on the clothes dry but the evaporation makes the air damp and we need a dehumidifier.
Speaking to my friend Amo about growing up in Nigeria she says they just hung up wet sheets and they were dry and fragrant within a few hours.
The sun would also sterilise linens.I guess the damp climate and cold weather has meant the British have always been a somewhat dirty and smelly race, certainly before soap and hot water were widely available.
I was wondering if women’s easier lives in modern societies were down to time-saving devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. But according to Tim Harford it is the reduction in food preparation and cooking that have changed far more and are actually responsible for women being able to work and feed the family. Again, thinking of life as I have seen it in India and rural Africa much of the women’s time is consumed with procuring raw materials and food preparation, and certainly my own Mum and Grandma spent several hours a day cooking.
As I did it I thought I would capture it. Many thanks to Becky, from our Company Secretary’s team, who gets in early and was always available to take a quick picture first thing. She generally only took one shot – a habit I associate with analogue photography – so it was a bit hit and miss. I seem to have the same cheesy smile in all of them as I stand next to the storage cupboards in our office. Friday I was at our Hammersmith office, and the weekend was spent at Rainshore. Although I don’t really love this process I rather like the scrutiny I can subject myself to.
For work I am wearing RTW trousers, my Burda winter shorts and my Birkin flares. I really enjoy wearing my shorts suit and this was my choice for my most formal day, Wednesday, when I wore a matching 1960s jacket with the shorts. These are made in a boiled wool from Simply Fabrics. On Tuesday and Thursday I have, optimistically, chosen Me-Made summer skirts. The turquoise lace unexpectedly looked great (I think!) with a knitted top. I am not so sure about Thursday which I have mentioned before. Having said that I got a compliment from a very stylish lady who really liked the mixture of reds and pinks I was wearing. One thing I can say for sure is that having such a relatively limited range of outfits to choose from (in terms of a daily Me-Made Knit) forced me to put together a few unusual combinations. That was certainly true on Saturday. I wore my 1970s DVF dress with a hole, and just put my Lorelle (also worn on Wednesday with the shorts suit) on, on top. The sleeveless grey top also works well as a a casual top with my new linen skirt. I finally got my legs out this week as it is warming up. But not reliably.
According to these pictures you would think I did nothing but knit over the weekend (a blue jumper, according to Elizabeth Zimmermann, and a green Sloper using up Jo’s yarn). Actually we had the grandbabies to stay and it was full on. We had a great adventure. We enjoyed the Cotswold Farm park although it was fairly chilly. Even better was fishing for trout at Bibury. This was very rewarding as the fish are farmed and really easy to catch. You have to hit them on the head (sorry!) to kill them, but we felt it was important for the kids to understand a bit more about food. We enjoyed eating them a few hours later. I think the gutting was pretty interesting, but you can see the disgust on the kids’ faces. On Sunday Nick made a big batch of sourdough and Ted made a teddy bear and kit a dragon. With raisin eyes. So all in all a lovely, outdoorsy spring weekend with lots of laughs and fresh air. My green jacket is RTW from Joules sale. It’s a great colour, isn’t it?
One more week to go on MMM17. I am beginning to clarify what I want. I am yearning for simplicity, less items and less choice. This aspect of the “rules” appealed to me. I am thinking more of a uniform for work, based on comfortable and stylish footwear, and relaxed, comfortable weekend wear with the emphasis on knits. And I need a hair cut.
On the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I had the chance to see the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition at Kensington Palace as a guest of our auditors. This included a talk by Claudia Williams the exhibition’s curator.
Held in the former home of Princess Diana we were treated to an explanation of Diana as a charismatic cultural force, using the clothes she wore to speak volumes. This set of photographs introduces the exhibition and encapsulates the transformation of her appearance, role and character throughout her brief reign as “the People’s Princess”. The dresses wore in these photographs tell the story of Diana, through her clothes. Let’s have a look at what it all means.
Many of the outfits she is wearing in these photographs are brought together in the exhibition. Other reviewers have complained that there are not many dresses on display, and the cost of the exhibition (about £20). But each of these dresses captures a moment in her personal history and evolution and provided me with lots of food for thought.
Take the first photograph – the picture from the Balmoral honeymoon. Even though Diana was young, naive and tall (that is why she is sitting on the fence), she was nevertheless so fresh and beautiful. Her soft, natural colouring, her blooming complexion and elegant limbs made the dullest dress look marvellous. On the stand it was close to horrid. The curator explained at this point, as a teenager in Norfolk Diana had very little experience of high fashion. Her own formal wardrobe consisted of one evening dress, one blouse and a solitary pair of shoes. If she needed anything else she borrowed from her sisters or friends. She initially took advice from her mother about what she might wear in her new role, and her sisters employed a stylist from Vogue, Anna Harvey, to give Diana some help on putting a wardrobe together.
The second photo of Diana in the line up is in a 1985 Victor Edelstein, midnight blue velvet dress. Travolta, egged on by Nancy Reagan, eventually asked Diana to dance, having checked out her ability on the dance floor. In the end they danced for half an hour, including to “You’re the One I Want”. He described this dance as the high point of his life. Edelmann describes a good dress as one that makes the wearer look wonderful rather than attract interest in the dress itself. In some ways the dress itself just sits there. As she dances, even in a still, the skirt swirls out and looks fantastic in motion.
The third photograph is from the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Here is the Catherine Walker dress – on and off. In life, in motion, it is radiant and stunning. Silver pumps, statement earrings, blue eyeliner and the scarf artfully tied at the back. On display it was quiet, eau de nil, flattened and something short of stunning.
Next up is the Elvis Dress. On the stand this dress was sensational. The narrowness of the skirt, achieved with a long back split,and the upright feature collar make the dress appear, on its own, to be about six feet tall. At 5’10” Diana was tall for a woman, with siim hips and impressive shoulders. In light cream, enhanced by pearl encrustations, this is, to my mind, the absolute epitome of a Modern Princess dress. Perfect for Diana’s figure, it looks amazing with and without the short jacket. Everything works wonderfully, esecially with the heavy choker and neat, low heeled evening shoes. And of course a tiara will set off any dress! I was so happy to see this dress close up. Worth going tor this alone although it is in the V&A collection. Here is the story of the dress:
Diana supported many London-based designers, such as Catherine Walker, the couturière from whom Diana ordered this ensemble. Walker first provided clothing for Diana during her first pregnancy in 1981, and continued to do so until Diana’s death in 1997. This outfit, which Diana called her ‘Elvis Dress’, was worn by the Princess to the British Fashion Awards in October 1989 and then on an official visit to Hong Kong.
In 1997, Diana sold 79 dresses in a charity auction held by Christie’s, which raised over 3 million pounds for AIDS and cancer charities. This dress was bought by The Franklin Mint, a company which produces memorabilia such as a portrait Diana doll, featuring her wearing this dress, thus making it one of the best-known of Diana’s many outfits.
The next image of Diana is of her in a pink suit. The whole concept of a pink suit is of course fascinating, not least because Jackie Kennedy had already “owned” the look. The juxtaposition of the “pink” with “suit” is almost an oxymoron. A suit is men’s wear, city wear, job wears. Pink is feminine, evening wear, night wear. A woman in a pink suit is not trying to be one of the boys – nor is she ultra feminine with flounces and frills and a romantic look, as favoured by the young Diana. In fact Diana’s own inclination for feminine looks was dropped along with her husband and princessy roles. As she separated from Charles she wanted, or was persuaded, to reinvent herself as the humanitarian leader. And the pink suit signified the transition. This is a business suit, but the wonderful shade of light shell pink makes Diana look completely radiant and happy. This pink lights up her skin and emphasises her natural freshness. The shape of the suit is flattering, modest, tidy and business-like, with sufficient detail to make it special. The lovely 1940s collar and cuffs, the interesting button stand, the prominent, shiny but restrained buttons, plus elegant princess lines giving wonderful shaping around the bust, waist and hips. This suit really did the business.
Finally let’s turn to the last Catherine Walker evening dress, featured at the start. I am a fan of this shape of dress on Diana which make the most of her figure, especially in terms of the neckline. The narrow, but widely placed straps straps amazing with her square shoulders and the bodice creates a slight corset effect. She shows just a hint of a great cleavage and her hips and legs are celebrated. This neckline is chosen again and again for evening wear as it is her very best look – framing her face, and making her figure look stunning. But choosing the most simple shapes, but in this case heavily embellished fabric, Diana shows absolute body and wardrobe confidence. Her shapely calves in shiny tights and subtly shaped gold satin shoes need no handbag, hat, gloves or other fussy royal trimmings. She doesn’t have a court, a crown or even a husband. But she looks radiant and in control.
In our house we have an expression: “If at first you don’t succeed, read the blooming instructions”. And, under certain frustrating circumstances, that “blooming” might be a swear word. Often the brochure supplied with a heating unit, a coffee dispenser (Nick – it’s two pushes of the button), or even with your sewing machine may explain several things you have been struggling with for years.
So when I saw a pattern for a simple pleated skirt in one of the Sew Magazines I had been given by William Gee, I read the instructions, but I didn’t follow them! As a consequence I got something quite different. Not a bad skirt but one that was unnecessarily complex and annoying to put together. I felt I had let the pattern down; although I frequently “wing it” sometimes it is just nice to do as you are told and follow the “blooming” instructions. This is one of the joys of commercial patterns, I find.
Why am I resistant to following the instructions? Another expression comes to mind; “Pride comes before a fall”. I can be overconfident, thinking I can adapt a boring pattern to one that would use the full spread of my fabric, and suit me better. Anyway I wanted to give the pattern, as written, as second chance.
I found a small piece of modern retro fabric that had a pleasing pattern, red on pink, that I figured would be ideal for this skirt. More ideal than the fabric the magazine used (a wide, John Kaldor linen), as it was a narrower width and thus created very little waste, (in fact just enough for another small patchwork sample at my class).
I was able to use the interfacing and lining generously supplied by William Gee. Sure the lining was dark red, and the two pieces were slightly different shades. But so what? No one sees your lining, and anyway I like varied shades.
I was also able to use the iron-on interfacing I got in my goodie box. By interfacing the pleated area I could create a nice crisp outline. Also you can write on interfacing alot easier than on red and pink fabric. I drew the stitch lines for the pleats directly onto the interfacing. I used an invisible zip from my own collection.
I wore the skirt again as part of my Me Made May efforts. I think this was probably the most weird outfit I managed during May. Lots of different shades of pink and red, brown with green and pink, a sort of boy scout vibe and my cozy Cyrene jacket, dark tights and brogue shoes. I don’t think I will be wearing this combination again!
You may also be wondering what else I have made with the contents of my prize box.
I am sharing my good fortune as much as possible, so when Charlotte (my dear stepdaughter) came to stay I gave her the little blue bows so she could make cards for friends having babies. I will show you her work when complete. She also took a bag of assorted buttons to make a picture for her partner, Lee.
The other item I shared with her was the French knitting bobbin. She soon got the hang of that and took it away to potentially make yards of French knitting. Doesn’t the malachite ring that Nick made look great too?
Charlotte soon learned the technique, and she thought the little figure was cute. But what can you do with these cords of knitted yarn?
I had the answer!
One of my Mum’s carers, Kath Robinson, loves making rugs with this technique. She showed me her work recently. Kath and her husband have a caravan and she finds doing the French knitting is a nice way to enjoy the evenings with no TV. I liked the way she used a variegated yarn to sew the long cords together. It was quite an impressive rug, in rather gorgeous shades.
Do you always follow the instructions? And what can one do with French knitting?