Deep Purple or a Whiter shade?

posted in: Colour Analysis | 3

I am a little bit in love with purple. It’s made from blue and red and is a good colour for most people. But the absence of yellow means it is not a great colour for people with warmer complexions as it may drain their colour. While the people with cool complexions and hair should avoid orange (unless they are deep), the same goes for warms – avoid purple unless you have deep colouring. I personally dislike it as a decorating colour, but I have got a marvellous velvet chaise longue.

Purple velvet chaise longue from Liberty
Liberty cushion and Velvet Chaise Longue

It’s seen a creative, innovative and confident colour, and is associated with quality, authenticity and successes. However it is also has associations with ageing, and perhaps with nutty women with more than three cats.

five women dressed in purple
Beverly Hills luncheon

What do you wear with purple? Firstly if it is deep then treat like navy – wear with white, red, light cool yellow, mid green, grey and silver. A muted purple will tone nicely with similar muted tones of purple and pink. Bright purple works well with the stronger bright greys, navys and black, one other bright shade plus a neutral, and looks sensational with red too. The recent purple outfit that most struck me was Carla Bruni’s purple Dior coat, here worn with a very nice grey trouser suit (is the jacket a little tight?) and flat shoes. She also wore the coat over black trousers, and a purple dress.

Carla Bruni in Purple Dior coat
Carla Bruni in Dior

There is a purple for everyone. Just choose a purple which flatters your own natural colouring.

Deep or Light?

deep and light purple swatches
Deep or Light purple

Cool or warm?

Cool or warm purple?
Cool or warm purple?

Bright or Deep?

Bright and muted purple swatches
Bright or muted purple?

I already featured Esme’s purple dress, made up in a nice bright purple that we also got in Simply Fabrics. I used my tried and tested pattern Butterick 4386, and this weekend she kindly modelled it in person. She was too tired to stand up!

Esme in Butterick 4386
Esme in Butterick 4386




Children’s clothes – is it time to go non-gender specific?

Just before Christmas giant retailer Marks and Spencer announced that its toys from now on would be gender neutral. As the company stated on Twitter,  following a campaign by Labour MP Stella Creasy – “Hi Stella, we’ve listened to customer feedback and by spring next year all of our toys will be gender neutral. Thanks.”  The branding has changed and it is now possible to buy a girl’s item for a boy or vice versa without it actually being labelled, but my hunch is that as most small children can’t read the labels this is more aimed at parents. The girly toys will still be bought for girls and the cars, trains, fire truck items will still be bought by boys. The “Tiara slides” or “Emily Button cross stitch set” don’t really need the word “girl” on them, do they?

Girls toys from M&S
Emily Button stitching set

But what about the clothes? Look at the M&S website (or any large apparel company) and you will see the merchendise is immediately divided into men and women’s wear, and boys and girls. Why? I personally feel that babies would look nicer in non-gender specific clothes. The colour coding of little babies strikes me as not just silly but also not very stylish. Everyone wants to know the sex of your baby – even the in-utero kid has its testicles identified – but is it really essential for babies to be dressed in blue or pink? And then, at around three months the boys go into dungarees or tiny jeans, and the girls get dresses.


Or maybe jeans with pink ponies on them? This is not a post against girls wearing dresses, (or boys either, as it happens). What I am really saying is that there is no need for this to be taken to extremes. It would be nice to have a wide selection of clothes for the under twos (and maybe up to the teenage years) which would be just as suitable for either sex. I am sad that little boys are pushed into navy, dark green and grey when they look adorable in purple, pink and turquoise. I am irritated that little girl’s trousers are not simple and plain but covered is sickly logos. Why can’t the T-shirts and jumpers just be in a range of nice colours without a truck or little Kitty on the front?

The reasons why I object are

  • Colour coded children are treated as a specific sex – oh isn’t she pretty? He’s big, isn’t he? (first few months)
  • most children’s items are only in two colours (pink or blue)
  • comfort in wear is sacrificed so the child looks cute (this goes for structured trousers such as jeans as much as it goes for frilly dresses)
  • children soon learn to react strongly against the “wrong” clothes – (“eeerrrg – those are boys shoes”, etc)
  • it encourages children to seek gender-specific items themselves as opposed to choosing clothes with appropriate functions eg waterproof, warm, clean, comfortable
  • for parents with boys and girls it makes hand-me-downs more difficult and adds to the expense (pink potties for heaven’s sake!)
  • in many cultures men wear full garments that are gendered but include “non-trousers”

As I had a daughter first and ended up with some pink items which  I used on my boys until they were old enough to object (sorry for telling the world about this, George and Gus!). I tried hard to put my children in colourful clothes – searching out anything other than navy or pink in charity shops and jumble sales, and of course making up items in nice fabrics. I also encouraged the children to make their own decisions about clothes and one of my sons, aged around four or five, put on a dress. This item was the sort of dress a boy might choose. It was a grey sweatshirt dress with a Mickey Mouse design, somewhat like an elongated version of the picture below, flared to the knee. I don’t know if he particularly wanted to wear a dress, or if he was attracted to Mickey, or if he wanted to be more like his sister. But he had short hair and wore the dress with typical boys shoes. It looked fine to me, and I “allowed” him to go out in it. We got a fairly strong reaction and I overheard lots of comments like “Is that a boy in a dress?”.

Grey Mickey mouse sweat shirt
Mickey Mouse sweat shirt

If you look around you can find a few items other than boys versus girls clothes. Kit has quite a few sleep suits in coral, purple, turquoise, green and red which would are entirely suitable for either sex. Hurrah! It is neither possible nor desirable to prevent children taking an interest in dolls or trucks, but let’s dress them in what looks beautiful rather than simply labelling them as pink or blue.

Old lady with little baby
Kit in turquoise with Great Grandma

What do you think? Time for a campaign, Stella?

Gold clothes?

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Henry VIII was partial to wearing Cloth of Gold – this was fabric woven from thin strands of gold, and in this lovely portrait by the marvellous Hans Holbein, we see it encrusted with real jewels, fur, velvet, silk and amazing embroidery. As if he was not big enough already Henry, like Royalty in general, wished to show through his clothes not just his outrageous wealth, but also as the biggest and best man in his Kingdom.  Gold, in reflecting light, and being the colour of the sun, was the most glorious shade for the head of the nation and the church. Also, gold was Henry’s colour. His red-gold hair and warm colouring were enhanced by wearing gold.

This association with greatness – in terms of superiority over all others was exploited by many others throughout history. Two that come to mind are Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, both of who deserve to stand out, perhaps, as the most desirable pair of their generation. By draping themselves in gold cloth they managed to indicate their potency, wealth and talent to the world. In these garments the fabric used was not real gold thread, but a modern invention (from around 1920 I believe) known as gold lamé. This is a wrapped warp thread made from a very shiny, tinselly ribbon, woven into silk, wool or rayon.  This fabric was mass produced during the fifties and has been fairly popular for evening wear since then.

Elvis Presley in gold suit
Elvis Presley

Elvis’s suit was made by Nudie Cohn and worn for the first time in 1957. He found the trousers too heavy and said the fit was not too good. Also, as he liked dropping to his knees when performing, the fabric did not wear well. He prefered to wear the jacket with black trousers. In this photograph everything he is wearing is gold including his kid shoes, shirt, belt and bow tie. The outfit is encrusted with Rhinestones – rather than the real gemstones in Henry’s outfit. Nudie Cohn was famous for making the Rhinestone cowboys outfits, as well as Janis Joplin and many others, and this one was reputed to have cost $10,000 (although it actually cost $2,500).

Marilyn Munroe
Marilyn Monroe

This dress, worn by Marilyn in Gentlemen prefer Blondes was designed and made by William Travilla. It was cut from a single circle of gold lamé, pleated with sun-ray pleats. It is apparently strengthened with two flexible iron bas in a a V shape that start at the waist and radiate towards the bust, ensuring that the dress moulds to the body. Marilyn was sewn into it for the film and it appears just for a few moments. It doesn’t have a “zipper”.

If you are a night-club singer, a ballroom dancer or rather eccentric you may already have something in gold lamé. It is a showy and rather uncomfortable fabric. If you suit bright and warm colours you could certainly get away with shiny gold  T-shirt or cardigan if you wanted. Personally I prefer gold (and other metallic) for details instead – shoes, belts, glasses and jewellery. Here the material will be leather or metal and more comfortable and durable as a result. People with muted, deep or light colouring who are neither warm or cool can wear gold or silver as they choose, but probably not on a grand scale.


How many types of skirt do you know?

A skirt is basically a piece of cloth that surrounds the lower body. Because the hips are rather larger than the waist the garment has to be tapered to sit on the waist and not fall down, but has to have sufficient width in the hips to be big enough to wear. The basic idea with a skirt is how the fullness from the hip measurement is supressed to create the waist measurement.

How this is achieved really defines the type of skirt we have. Of course there are many other variations – how long the skirt is for example, and where it ends at the top – above, on or below the waist. But these are secondary details. Let’s have a look at the key styles we encounter when making our own clothes.

Straight skirt

The most basic skirt, and the skirt all skirts start off as, is a straight skirt. Here the skirt is a tube based on the hip measurement plus some “ease” (an inch or two so that you can move in your clothes so they are not skin tight). Then the difference in the measurement between the hip (plus ease) and the waist (plus ease) is divided into darts – usually two in the front and four in the back. A dart is a short triangular tuck that is stitched down.

This “one yard line” skirt is quite interesting as it is just one pattern piece (plus a waistband). There is no side seam. The side shaping is simply suppressed into another dart, giving the skirt ten darts overall (two slanted ones in the front). Often the deepest and most shaped dart – the side one – is extended to the hem so we have three pieces to make up – two backs (with a zip and closure at the centre back). Of course where the closure is, and the waist band treatment are also key variable in a skirt design. But this is a good example of a skirt block turned into a pattern. I used the exact style when I had a piece of nice leather. It was the most economical way to make up a skirt. I stitched one seam and zip to create a tube and then placed the darts at the waist in the most flattering places. It’s a good approach when you barely have enough fabric – or perhaps just the “one yard”. As this skirt ends at about knee or slightly below knee length it has a little feature at the back. This is split to allow ease of walking. It also creates a slight design feature on a very plain skirt.

Vintage straight skirt pattern
Basic straight skirt

Not everyone looks good in this type of skirt. It is most flattering on women with a fairly straight, or semi-straight bodyline, and a flat stomach, and slim legs. It is sometimes known as a pencil skirt. If it is not too tight in the hips, has the right shaping and if it is the right length however it can be worn by curvy types too, but it needs a few careful variations.

A-line skirt

The next skirt to consider is known as the A line. For obvious reasons. This skirt is the same as the straight skirt at the waist but the basic skirt has been divided into front and back and a few inches added to the width of the hem. This line is now connected up the bottom of the side dart to create a slight flare. Around two inches on each side seam at the hem would be ideal. The A line is another classic skirt, never really out of fashion. The length and degree of flare will make a difference to the look (most woven maxi skirts are this shape), but is a skirt that will suit more women than the straight skirt, especially if they are larger in the hips than the shoulders – with a more shaped bodyline. The other great advantage of the A-line is that the shape allows ease of movement and doesn’t need a split or pleat at the back. If you have very slim legs this is not a great look for you as it will make them look slimmer still.

Vintage A line skirt pattern
A line skirt

Flared skirt

This is best illustrated with diagrams from Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting. Here you can see how the basic skirt block is slashed to the base of each dart first. Then the darts are closed, creating flare at the hem. This creates a very nice flat shape across the front and back, with no fullness around the waist, with quite a lot of flare at the hem.

Diagram for creating a flared skirt
Drafting a flared skirt

This skirt normally drapes really nicely when created in a softer fabric, and looks good on “bottom heavy” figures, especially where the upper body is somewhat petite, perhaps with a wide belt. Here is a photograph of Audrey Hepburn in what appears to be a flared skirt, but it maybe constructed differently in her version, for example a gored or circular skirt (see below).

Audrey Hepburn in long flared skirt
Hepburn in a flared skirt

Circular Skirt

Let’s just cover the circular skirt as it is an interesting concept. Imagine a large circle of fabric with the waist measurement (plus ease) as a smaller circle cut from the centre. This gives more flare than the flared skirt and is not a look for everyone. It is quite an extreme look that was popular in the 1950s, often with a loud print or embroidery or applique. Again a relatively small waist is essential. There are many tutorials on how to make a circular skirt on the internet.

Red 1950s circular skirt
1950s circular skirt

Gored skirt

The gored skirt is essentially one where the darts are extended to the hem to create a nicely shaped fit. We can eliminate or move the various darts and side seams to create a four, six or eight gore skirt. You probably don’t want more than eight as each seam will add bulk, but you can be quite creative with the gores (they are a bit like a princess line dress in that the vertical lines allow close fitting and create a vertical line which is flattering on most body shapes).  Width can be added at each gore to create flare. On the other hand a slim skirt can also be created this way. The defining feature is panels and an absence of darts. This style was popular in the eighties, often with flare added below the knee for a dramatic effect. It is a style that, depending on the degree of flare, and length, will suit most figures.

Six gored skirt
Six gored skirt


Pleated skirt

A pleat is a fold in the fabric which takes some of the fullness away above the hips, allowing some width lower down. One of these 1940s versions (3) has a yoke which will be created like the flared skirt. This will make it slimmer across the stomach. Alternatively pleats can be stitched down here. This is an all round knife pleated skirt, but one or more box pleats (where the pleats join together to create a box shape) can be used in an otherwise fairly straight skirt to good effect. And a “kick pleat” at the back of a straight skirt can allow the all important room to walk.

Vintage pleated skirt pattern
Pleated skirt

Gathered skirt

A gathered skirt is simply one where the fullness at the waist is gathered up rather than being tailored with darts. It is a very basic design and probably the most “primitive” sytle as the fullness stays in the skirt and falls  just where it happens to fall. This sort of skirt doesn’t need a pattern and is often the first skirt a beginner will make. Many “national” costumes feature one. The gathering can be into a waist band, or created by simply using elastic in a casing – many pyjamas use this basic idea. In my view the “dirndl” skirt doesn’t really suit anyone, except little girls and Bavarian beer sellers. The fullness just sits on the body and makes the lower half look huge. This may have been the idea with some of the 1950s patterns, but generally it is not a great shape for most women.

Vintage gathered skirt pattern
Gathered skirt

The pegged or tulip skirt

This is an unusual design in that the skirt is narrowed towards the hem, often with some exaggeration in the fullness over the hips. In extreme versions it will hobble the legs so is best made rather short, or with a deep split at the back. It is a skirt that suits women with slim legs. Less exaggerated versions can be attractive – just a loss of one inch at the hem can balance out fuller hips.

Pattern for a dress with pegged skirt
Pegged skirt (part of dress)

The puff ball (bubble hem/balloon)

This is a very full gathered or flared skirt pulled in at or below the knee to create an unusual look.

Pattern for puff ball dress
Puff ball skirt (part of a dress)

I hope this is useful when you are designing or choosing a skirt. The shapes you choose will enhance or disguise your shape so it makes sense to think about it. But maybe we might try a different style or shape for a change. What skirt styles do you like wearing and making?



What is cool?

posted in: Style advice | 4


“Obama is cool”

“Oh no! Not with Dad jeans and trainers!”

“Individuality with confidence”.

Yes I think that is it. Individuality with confidence. Cool implies trend-setting, creating a style or view or product that others want to copy. But actually being cool involves not copying or taking something manufactured by others. So for me, making your own clothes, choosing what really suits you emotionally as well as physically, is the epitomey of cool. Just making up the latest pattern from an “Indie” (ie independent, but Indie sounds cooler) brand doesn’t strike me as a cool thing to do. Wearing vintage jewellry, or a your Granny’s coat, or making your own handbag strike me as cool. Customisation, being a bit different, chosing something because it has a story – that is cool.

Complete originality, stunningly novel, artistic groundbreaking like that demonstrated by Picasso or Chanel will not strike all of us, on a day to day basis. But slavishly copying a style or a fashion is not cool. I find it sad to see people trying to buy a “look”. Even if, in a million years, you would never think of making a shoe hat, or a bull’s head from bicycle handles, all of us can can find our  own personality and style.

Women’s magazines and websites often do these “Get the Look” features, where a desirable style is analysed and suggestions are made how it can be aquired on the high street, so you too can dress exactly like a “celebrity”. Now I don’t know who Olivia Palermo is, but if I saw someone walking along with a brown jacket, red hat and a fluffy dog I would not think Wow! And even if I did it would not occur to me to  go out and buy a pair of thigh boots, jeggings and maroon trilby and accessorise with a mobile phone, stuffed pockets and sunglasses (is it snowing?) No. It’s not a look that I would desire. And I wouldn’t call it cool either.

Get the Look!
Get the Look!

Good dancers are cool. Being a good cook without making too much fuss. Little kids. People who are self-deprecating, and funny with it. And while Mr Obama is physically attractive he is somehow uncool. Mrs O, on the other hand,  is not as beautiful. But she combines confidence with originality. And she can dance! And finally here is someone else I think is very cool indeed.

Cool bearded model


Colour for Men

There are three sorts of men. Those that don’t do colour at all. Those that do it too much, and badly. And the ones who know how to use colour and wear it well.

When I met my husband I found him a stylish dresser. He always looked very smart and appropriately dressed. When I got to know him a little better I had a look inside his wardrobe and found something rather surprising. It was very neat and orderly. But it was made up of three colours – black, white and blue. And as black and white aren’t really colours that meant he was restricting himself to blue! He had some brown shoes and belts, and a few some colourful ties. But even his casual wardrobe was denim jeans, a black jumper, a black jacket, over a blue, or grey or white T shirt or casual shirt. Blue – with black, white and grey – becomes the safe option for all seasons.

badly done and well done - but grey and blue is boring
badly done and well done – but grey and blue is boring

Many men are the same, unless their wife does the shopping for them.

Then the problem will be an entirely different one – they will have a range of lovely sweaters, slacks and polo shirts in an array of rainbow shades. They hang around at barbecues with their peach “vintage” T shirt, or their khaki cargo pants with a purple polo shirt. They go to the National Trust in their  red corduroy  slacks with a checked or striped shirt. These poor men fall into the second group, along with the loud types who think that life is a beach party. Their favourite garments will be Hawaiian shirts, surfing shorts and and hi-top trainers in neon shades.

Tats and matching cat
Tats and matching cat

And the third type of man is fairly rare. These men have an instinctive sense of style and an a knowledge of what suits them. They like colour and know how to use it. This man with his warm muted colouring looks co-ordinated and nice without being over the top. He can wear these shoes, trousers and belt with any number of shirts, jumpers or T shirts and always look pulled together and sharp. The colour is quite nice on him, although I think it may look better if it was a bit deeper or softer.

Colourful shirt
Colourful shirt

Another way to wear colour is to add one bright item to a fairly sober outfit – here Marks and Spencer combine an acid yellow with a dark charcoal outfit.

Yellow jumper, grey outfit
Yellow jumper, grey outfit

If have to wear a suit for work then a colourful tie is useful, but these days men often prefer to leave off their ties. If so wearing a blue, grey or black suit with a colourful or even patterned shirt is an option. In colder weather a colourful jumper over your shirt, or a polo neck can be nice with a suit. There is always the colourful socks option. Noticeable socks work well if you are long in the leg – but if you are short keep the colours of the lower leg sympathetic with each other. Here is one of my fellow CEOs who likes his socks bright.

Nick Horne, Knightstone Housing
Nick Horne, Knightstone Housing

Colour analysis determines the underlying shades in your skin, hair and eyes and ensures that the colours you choose flatter your natural colouring. Once you know that say deep, or cool, colours will suit you best you can introduce more colour into your wardrobe. In a world of dull, grey men (especially if you are white, grey haired and plain) you will have a real problem standing out in business. Wearing a tie, shirt or jacket that makes you look fresh and lively will help you stand out from the crowd. Alex, one of our Board members, looks really nice in his mid-blue suit and his light turquoise tie – just a little bit different from run-of-the-mill, and a look that suits him perfectly.

Man in blue suit and light green tie
Board member Alex

Kimono sleeve – a yellow dress

posted in: Finished projects | 7
Vintage women's dress pattern from 1970s
Old Pattern 9248

This old pattern, with its “seamed to slim” promise was probably linked to a newspaper or magazine in the early 1960s. The number seems to suggest that the company had already produced 9247 patterns before this one came out, but I doubt it. I am intrigued by the lack of marketing, but it is possible that the periodical featured a model wearing a made-up version, and the pattern was then produced as cheaply as possible. It may have been given away free, or possibly the reader sent in a postal order for 2/6 and the pattern was posted out. My Grandpa ran mail order ads at this time for slippers and made a small fortune as the readers of the People or the News of the World bought the cosy “Raymar” brand from the comfort of their own armchair. I also had a job when I was about 18 working for an insurance company (for 50p an hour) where I cut out the name and address section and the Direct Debit details and, with a glue stick, attached them to cards and copied out the details on to the envelope and bank mandate. Soul destroying work. I thought mail order would die a death, but the internet has revived the experience of receiving a package with a degree of anticipation. I know I love getting the odd eBay package in the post – it feels a bit like a present.

And Seamed-to-Slim? All I can think is that the lines of the dress – with its fairly strong centre front feature – are obviously vertical and do have a tendency to draw the eye up and down, giving an impression of “slimness”.  The drawing assumes a striped fabric and there is a nice contrast between yoke and dress. The horizontal lines, especially the yoke and waist line are at the slimmest points. But I am not sure if this is a pattern that would have anyone looking particularly skinny?

I picked this pattern up on Clitheroe market for a small donation to charity. I liked two features – the flared skirt and the way pattern of the fabric goes across the body above the bust-line, and down on the sleeves. The type of sleeve used in this pattern – common in the 1950s and 1960s  and pretty rare today – is known as a Kimono sleeve, and here is an idealised pattern piece.

Bodice with Kimono sleeve
Bodice with Kimono sleeve

The sleeve is cut with the bodice, with the seam going down the centre of the shoulder and arm. I think it looks very flattering on the shoulder. There is some slight restriction in movement so normally both bodice and sleeve are cut somewhat generously. One of my blouses has a short kimono sleeve and I find this makes it really fast to make up and easy to finish.

white linen three button blouse
white linen three button blouse

I find the name Kimono something of a misnomer as a kimono does not have this sort of sleeve. Here is one from the wonderful collection at the Victoria and Albert museum. The seaming is evident not just where the sleeves join but down the centre back too. As you probably know the Japanese silks were woven on narrow looms.

Red Kimono, V&A
Kimono with traditional sleeve

As the Kimono has a particular kind of sleeve I wondered how the name had come to pass. Then I started searching Chinese jackets and of course this is the standard approach used for the padded jacket, but also the more ornate Kimono style long coats and jackets. It’s not unusual for westerners to get people from China and Japan mixed up – but when it persists in language it can cause confusion. A similar type sleeve is known as the Dolman, a name borrowed from the Turkish.

Traditional Chinese T shaped garment
Traditional Chinese T shaped garment


I have a particular interest in the T shaped garment which is used many cultures from Inuit to Ghanaian. So on to my dress.  I made up this pattern in a nice soft, yellow, cotton. I lined it in yellow cotton. It has nice big side pockets. I made the sleeves a little longer than the pattern. It was easy to make and nice to wear. The only thing I dislike is the Centre Front zip.

Kate Davies wearing a yellow 70s dress
Dress in soft yellow cotton

Scottish politics – what do the clothes tell us?

posted in: Colour Analysis, Style advice | 11

Last Friday we heard that the Scottish people had voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Phew! Now the temperature has cooled somewhat I will review the Scottish National Party which recently lost the referendum to become a separate country, from the point of view of the clothes. The party is currently led by Alex Salmond who, on Saturday, announced he would be standing down at the next SNP conference. The Deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon is likely to become the next leader, meaning that in Scotland all three main party leaders – Conservative, Labour and SNP – will be female.

With Nicola Sturgeon I feel it is all about the hair.sturgeon at schoolDuring the 1980s this kind of “punk” hairstyle was very popular (I had one myself), and you can see Nicola’s natural colouring. Deep brown eyes, heavy eye brows, and almost black hair. The deep red school tie actually looks quite nice on her. A strong confident look set off with a genuinely warm smile. She joined the Scottish Nationalist Party when she was 16 and qualified as a solicitor. In the next photograph we have her campaigning for a seat in the Scottish parliament.

Nicola Sturgeon campaigning
Nicola Sturgeon campaigning

Now she sports a grown up hair-style and her thick dark brown hair is flattered by her black and red outfit; the strong red lipstick looks good although it does emphasise her slightly thin upper lip. Her hair looks glossy and thick and possibly needed a more sophisticated hair cut. You can tell she is a serious politician in this photograph, and is able to listen with empathy to her constituents.

In the next photograph we can see that Nicola’s hair is now naturally grey. But instead of working with that, or celebrating it, she has gone for a range of reddish shades from deep red to strawberry blonde to streaky bacon. While the cut is better I feel her eyes and eyebrows demand a cooler palette – if she let the grey show it would soften her dark brown hair considerably and I think it would look great.  In all the modern photographs of her I feel her deep eyes and cool skin tone  fight with her light warm red hair, which is picking up the wood tones in her office rather than coordinating with her pretty face. She has to wear quite a lot of thick foundation, blusher and bronzer to match her hair.

The outfit itself is nice enough – a silvery grey dress and jacket from Austin Reed or similar. Plain, conservative business wear with a pleasant necklace that works well with her eyes. I feel this look would be much improved by a more authentic hair colour.

Nicola Strurgeon in grey suit
Nicola Sturgeon in grey

Alex Salmond is wearing his usual pin-stiped navy suit which fits quite well as looks fine with his equally dark colouring. Here Nicola is wearing with the same red and black look she favoured earlier on. She has fixed her hair and tackled the eyebrows and has been running, to tone up. She looks more packaged now and it seems to me that the image makers have made her more “feminine” to work as a balance and contrast to her boss. They are now being promoted as a double act – a complementary pair – male/female, old/young, left/right, adversarial/consiliatory.

With Alex Sammond earlier this year
With Alex Sammond earlier this year

Sitting with the Scottish Cabinet we can see that Nicola has very nice legs which she sets off with high heels. Her purple outfit is a bit Mother of the Bride. The men in the cabinet seem to have been instructed to wear striped ties in as many colours as they can find. Maybe an aide bought a job lot at the Charity shop in order to break up the charcoal suits and grey hair. Or perhaps they all play cricket? It is a picture of the deepest Conservatism. Not a kilt, tartan tie, or a thistle in sight. An Aran sweater? A Harris tweed jacket? A woolen scarf made locally? I wonder why? What are they trying to say in this image? What kind of nationalism is it, if you strip out any nationalist emblems from your outfit and conform to the standard set by an English parish council?

Scottish Cabinet
Scottish Cabinet

In the past airline “British” Caledonian made it clear they were Scottish with their beautiful tartan uniforms. It might be a bit much for day to day campaigning but the only picture I have of Alex in a kilt he seems to be sending it up.

Alex Salmond in a kilt ad stetson
Alex Salmond in a kilt, for the American audience

A tried and tested pattern – Butterick B4386

posted in: Finished projects | 7

I have made this pattern five times, two for me and three for Esme. It’s not a very special pattern. It’s just a one-piece dress.4386

A friend of mine who is a professional dress designer laughed when I used the expression one-piece dress. “Aren’t all dresses one-piece?”, she said. No! A two-piece dress is a skirt and top that work together as a dress. It was a very popular look in the 1960s and I have several patterns thus described. But I was taught that a one piece dress is one made in one-piece for the front with just darts and side seams to shape it. Other styles of dress – say one with a waist seam, or with princess seams – would not qualify. I may have made up this definition, but I am pretty sure one of my slightly elderly dressmaking tutors used this description. She also used to call a suit a “costume”.

So when I returned to sewing in March 2013 I started with a one-piece dress – and this simple, classic Butterick pattern was the one I chose. Almost block like in its simplicity I felt it has what I needed to make a dress I could not buy in the shops. For me a one-piece dress is impossible off the peg because those that fit at the top are impossibly tight at the hips, whereas a dress that fits in the hips is huge around the neck, shoulders and bust.

The first dress I made was this one, view F on the pattern envelope above (the turquoise, bottom right version). It looks a bit battered because it has had a lot of wear. You can see the lining peeking out. I hadn’t really worked out the best way to finish a lined dress at this point.

The silk and cotton one
The pink one

I know when I made it because I dated the lining! This serves to remind me that I have now been sewing (again) for about 18 months and I am improving. My friend Mary thought the lining was by far the nicest part of the dress and suggested I make the dress from the lining fabric in future.

Silk lining painted in pink and yellow dated March 2913
Hand-painted lining

I was pretty pleased with my efforts and put a photograph of me in the dress on Facebook and the company that sold me the cloth, Dragonfly fabrics, asked if they could put it on their website. I was a bit surprised! But it was quite a nice dress for a first attempt.  It is a comfortable and adaptable dress that looks nice with red, yellow and even with thick brown tights and a brown jacket.

Kate Davies in B
B4386 in pink silk and cotton

I then made myself version E, (pea green, bottom left on the pattern envelope). I didn’t fancy the twisted detail at the waist. I used a shiny Indian silk brocade. I have a fatal attraction to shiny – I am not sure its my best look but I keep picking up fabrics that wink at me. I bought the brocade from the same internet  firm I got my lining silk from.  I painted the lining of this one too, and while it feels really nice to wear it is a bit dressy (and shiny) for everyday use, so I don’t wear this one much.

Butterick 4386 in turquoise patterned Indian silk
The shiny one

Esme then said she would like a dress, so I made up Version D, (the red/white/blue patterned one) but without a belt. I used the same pattern, just scaling it down a bit as she is slimmer than I am (but roughly the same shape). I made a really special lining for this one too. It is bright pink and you can just see it peeking out.

Butterick 4386 in brown and pink patterned cotton
The brown one

Esme liked this dress and asked for a similar one for work, with sleeves. I had a nice piece of cotton boucle, which I got from Simply Fabrics. Esme calls this the “little grey dress” but actually the fabric includes beige, navy, cream and white. It’s rather a nice textured cotton and I also used it to make the first toile for my Chanel-style jacket (which turned out so roomy I binned it).

I made version A, but with the pockets from C. This version is a bit raggety and I am rather embarrassed to show it to you. This version includes my first attempt at pockets and they should have been interfaced and lined – this is why they are so droopy. Also they are not even. It took me a while to crack the challenge of  symmetry – now I am religious about measuring everything  very carefully, both in terms of cutting out and placement. I used an ordinary synthetic lining for this dress. Like the other two it is with me for repairs at the moment. I think I need to fix the hem. It is longer at the back than the front, so I will sort that out. And probably the pockets too – they look like they are crying at my pathetic efforts!

Butterick 4386 in grey boucle
The grey one

The final version of this dress I made up for Esme to wear last Christmas (Christmas 2013), using purple fabric from Simply Fabrics and lined with some left over Habotai silk from Goldhawk Rd. I have gone back to style F, the one I started with. This was quick to make and it is reasonable, in terms of construction.

Butterick 4386
The purple one

The term TNT (tried and tested) is often used on sewing blogs to refer to the sort pattern that you love so much that you keep going back to it. Sewing your own clothes gives you so many options from the same basic pattern. In fact you could probably survive on one dress pattern your whole life if you found the one you loved and kept varying the fabrics and details you used. Many designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, keep repeating the same styles year after year, with different fabrics and slight style changes.

TNT also implies that the pattern you are using has now been altered so that it fits you perfectly, and can be dashed off quickly without any worries about how it will turn out. I am pleased with the pattern and fit and would happily use this pattern again if I (or Esme) needed a straightforward dress. For me this was really an exercise in getting a really good fit, and I achieved that.

But I am ashamed on my beginner-level sewing abilities evidenced with these items. Thankfully my sewing skills and knowledge are improving. I was very rusty indeed and found I could not remember lots of techniques. 18 months later, sewing steadily for three or four sessions most weeks, I now feel confident to take on much more challenging projects. An architect friend told me he was always dissatisfied with each building he created, always feeling he could have done better. But this feeling is what spurs him on to designing the next one. And in a much more modest way it is the struggle to get closer to perfection that spurs me on with my dressmaking. I want to take the lessons I have learned with each item and do it again, only better.

These are not the best dresses in the world. They are wearable and because the fit is good I think their shoddy construction will suffice. In retrospect, working on one basic item until it is mastered is a good approach. I don’t know if you have watched Uma Thurman in Kill Bill but she took her training very seriously, building her strength and accuracy over a prolonged period, suffering indignity and pain, until she could survive being buried alive.

Hemming a bias skirt

posted in: Tips and Techniques | 4

I am making  a toile for Vogue 1662 a Pierre Cardin suit that I plan to make up. Galina asked me to explain how I did the hem.

What is bias cut?

Most clothes are cut on the straight grain, with the warp (the vertical thread) lined up with the selvedge. Garments are usually cut with this grain running down the garment with the weft (the horizontal thread) running across the body. The warp is usually the stronger thread. The bias is the cross grain – fold a napkin into a triangle and pull and you will experience the stretch that occurs on the bias. A bias cut garment makes use of this stretch to create a different effect – usually a garment that moulds itself onto the curves of the body. Bias cut is pretty rare in ready to wear as it uses more fabric than the straight grain cut, and can be challenging to manufacture.The hem is usually cut straight across the grain meaning it is at its most stretchy exactly where you want it to be nice and straight and parallel with the floor. So hemming these items is challenging.

I did have a nice satin M&S petticoat a few years ago, but jersey has become the dominant (stretchy) fabric. Before jersey was so widespread bias cutting allowed designers to produce close fitting garments without darts, creating a sinuous line. By using luxurious fabrics such as silk-satin they produced the most wonderful evening dresses – many of the 1930s movie stars wore these gorgeous creations.

Myrna Loy in bias cut dress 1930s
1930s bias cut dress

So the quality that is so lovely about the bias cut is also its downfall. The stretchiness means the garment’s grain is also somewhat unstable. Because of this have a preference for making bias items with the seaming at the centre front and centre back. This enables you to cut the pieces as mirror-images of each other and create a chevron effect with the grain. Of course not having side seams means we must sacrifice shaping the skirt or top this way, as we would normally do. But the flexibility of the fabric ensures this does not create an issue. Normally we do not need to create darts either.

Hemming Technique

The Pierre Cardin skirt I made is cut in three main pieces – one front and two backs – in such a way that the grain spirals around the body in one direction.

Diagram of pattern pieces for V1662
Layout for skirt V1662


I followed the instructions which proposed hanging the skirt pieces over night before sewing them up. This allows the fabric to shift about a bit and “relax” into the bias position.

Here are the instructions for completing the hem.

Vogue 1662 Sewing Guide - skirt hem
Vogue 1662 Sewing Guide – skirt hem

As I was making a toile rather than the final item I did not underline it. Nor did I use a bias strip of interfacing. I used up some Crin (“horsehair braid”) that I had picked up in a charity shop. This was not as wide as proposed, but it did the trick (I used the wider piece).

Crin in two thicknesses
Charity shop Crin

I attached it with a slip stitch to the hem line itself,  joined the crin up without an overlap, folded the hem up and stitched it with a herringbone stitch. I almost always use the herringbone stitch for hems as it is more stable than a blind hemming stitch and it finishes the cut edge too. Its not the neatest work ever, but this is the dry run! I know that long bias cut evening dresses, or fuller styles, especially where a shaped hem is a design feature, will be far more difficult than this fairly straight skirt. But it wasn’t hard to get a nice clean hem. Does anyone else have a better way?

Hemmed bias skirt, using horsehair braid
Finished hem