Customised cloth – surface decoration

posted in: WIP (work in progress) | 3

One reason some of us like making our own clothes is that it allows us to be ourselves. We get the fit, the colour and the style that we like best, and clothes that suit how we look. For me, the shops just don’t cater for what I want. I find shopping boring (retail is more purgatory than therapy, if you ask me). My idea of therapy is sewing something lovely.

As part of my course – City and Guilds 780 – I was introduced to the idea of surface decoration by Mrs Tregelles. Various techniques were used to change the colour or texture of our raw material. This included:

  • Machine embroidery
  • applique and patchwork
  • smocking
  • painting on fabric
  • dying and printing
  • pin tucks and decorative darts
  • bleaching
  • beading
  • layering and distressing fabric
  • quilting

All these techniques allow us to produce what didn’t exist before. They also slow down the process of making a garment considerably. But we end up with something special – a work of art, perhaps? This was the best part of the course for me as it introduced yet another layer of personalisation. I could get exactly the colour/pattern/scale that I desired, creating a textile that I would subsequently make into a garment.

I have been impressed by Marilla producing her entirely hand sewn jeans. This slowing down is meditative and so much more enjoyable than searching crowded high streets, struggling into ill-fitting garments, and the ultimate dissatisfaction and disappointment that result from shopping. To me making your own clothes, especially clothes that take time, is like cooking your own food. Of course you can buy a cheap loaf anywhere. Or artisan bread, which costs a lot more. But there is nothing nicer than bread you make yourself (ahem, my husband does the bread-making in our house). You soon get used to the flavour of the real thing. And, for me, it’s the same with clothes. I love tailoring as it takes ages, and as you shape your garment you put some of yourself into it, in the same way as when you cook for people you love.

When I was introduced to machine embroidery – being required to produce an embroidered waistcoat in 1985 – my first thought was “what a naff project”! However on a small piece of grey flannel I started to experiment, not with embroidery stitches that your machine can manage, but a simple zig-zag stitch. I bought some wonderful, lustrous machine embroidery threads in blues, greens, turquoise (to look like the sea), and covered my little top in colour. To replicate the waves I added a bulkier light grey thread, some silver too, and then added some orangey-brown shades of a swimmer’s body. In the end I was so happy with the idea of an embroidered waistcoat that I made another one for my daughter, taking the colours from a dress I made, and putting them into a black, cashmere waist coat. I think it has some thick yarns couched on, and hand-made frogging. I don’t have a photo of the first item, but I do have Esme in her dress.

Esme wearing ablackdress and embroidered waistcoat c1990
Esme wearing a black dress and embroidered waistcoat c1990

I also got to like smocking which I had associated with hippy clothes, rural smocks and small toffee nosed children. For my lingerie project at college I produced a little dress for Esme (who was about 18 months at the time), with matching drawers (or knickers). This was made from very light white cheesecloth – a crepey cotton. I then used a range of blue embroidery threads from deep to palest blue and smocked  the bodice and sleeves. I edged the  knickers with the lightest narrow cotton lace. Esme wore this lovely outfit for my father’s 70th birthday (March 1988). Here she is, investigating the olives.

Child in hand made smocked dress
Esme in hand-smocked dress

So this summer I decided to have a go at smocking again. This is the pattern I had in mind.

Paper pattern for a smocked blouse from 1940s
1940s smocked blouse pattern

It’s a 1940s pattern I got for 99p on the internet. During the second world war, when materials were short, surface decoration techniques, such as  smocking could transform an old sheet into a baby’s dress or a splendid blouse. And even after the war was over  clothes were expensive and still rationed.  Making do and mending was the name of the game, due to necessity for hard-pressed Britons. Families had far fewer clothes in those days and stitching, knitting, mending and embroidery were essential skills. Making your own outfits was the norm for most working class women. Today we have the opposite problem – far too many clothes (which compete with our living space) and hardly any skill or time to make our own outfits.

Marking up the blouse front prior to smocking. With homemade bread.
Marking up the blouse front prior to smocking. With homemade bread.



3 Responses

  1. Esme

    Can’t wait to see the result of your smocking. I think it’s really unique, certainly don’t see much of it about and wonder how smocking can be updated to integrate into adult outfits – the shirt above is a great example.

  2. foamofdays

    Can’t agree more on clothes shopping, I hate it! This smoked blouse pattern looks very complicated to me.. Looking forward to seeing your version of it.. I agree, it is very unique!

  3. Tim Morton

    Your last comments about post war clothing skills reminded me of mum’s anger at The New Look that needed much more fabric, at much higher cost to hardpressed family budgets, she was never that big on fashion, but made all her own dresses and blouses into her seventies.

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