How can I stop my clothes looking home made?

posted in: Style advice | 6
Top made from a 50s curtain
1985 Wedding in home made suit

The basics (applicable to shopping for clothes too)

  • Style – choose the right style to flatter or disguise your body shape
  • Colour – choose a colour that complements your colouring

In addition, if you are making your own clothes, you need to consider

  • Fit – make sure the pattern and garment fits your body measurements
  • Fabric – if in doubt, use the fabric proposed by the pattern designer

I firmly believe if you make a well fitting garment in a style and colour that flatters you, in a suitable fabric, then you will stand out from the crowd. If you also construct it beautifully you will be ahead of even the richest or most beautiful celebrities. In this post I am just going to address construction.


The seamstress' best friend
The seamstress’ best friend

In my opinion, if you want your clothes to look great you need to pay attention to the following ten areas

  • Use sharp scissors
  • Cut accurately, on the grain
  • Transfer all the pattern markings
  • Press at every single step
  • Use the correct interfacing
  • Measure everything carefully
  • Follow the instructions – you may learn something new
  • Make your garments symmetrical (check collars, hems, lapels, etc religiously)
  • Trim to reduce bulk
  • Take your time – if it is going wrong sort it out. If you can’t work it out, try sleeping on it. (Not in it).
Measure everything. Twice
Measure everything. Twice

Every “mistake” is a learning experience

Some bloggers pass off their mistakes as “design features”. Mistakes can occasionally be positive. But I think the best thing is to learn from your mistakes. You will not be good at button holes, or zips, or pockets the first few times. It is like learning a language or an instrument – it takes a lot of practice. Mistakes and failures are an inevitable and necessary part of learning.

I would recommend going to a good local authority clothes-making course, with a qualified teacher, where you can make a few garments under supervision until you gain confidence. You will learn such a lot from your teacher and fellow students. There are also some good technique classes where you sew sample pockets, button holes, zips, sleeves, seams etc. It seems a bit dull making samples rather than garments, but it is all about gaining confidence and learning what is possible.

I have made dozens of garments that ended up in landfill, unfinished. I have spent hours making something which I have never worn. I have worn truly horrible garments that I made myself. Like this one for example, taken on holiday in Spain (that’s why I am brown), newly engaged, wearing an all in one jump suit, in a horrible textile. It was the 80s, but there really is no excuse for those shoulder fastenings. And the matching hair band.

Jump suit - own design, 1984
Jump suit – own design, 1984

I have learnt the hard way – believe me.

It did not surprise me that a woman in her 80s was the winner of the Great British Sewing Bee 1. Getting good at this is truly a lifetime’s work.

The 30 minute T-dress

It was time to get my sewing machine serviced so we  took it to World of Sewing in South Croydon on the way to Ben and Mel’s. I didn’t think I could survive for two weeks without a machine, so I bought an overlocker! It was quite expensive but I have wanted one for a very long time, and Jennie in the shop convinced me to take the Juki 1000.

My new overlocker
My new overlocker, with sticky tape still intact!

She showed me how to thread it, let me have a test drive and it’s now happy in its new home. I cut out a skirt and then thought better of trying to put a zip in with an overlocker.

I set myself a challenge. Could I design a dress in half an hour and sew it up in 30 mins?

The answer is yes!

Design and Pattern cutting

The design is very simple. It’s basically a T-shaped garment – many African garments are made on this principle. The front and back are the same, there is minimal shaping on the shoulders, the neck is a “bateau” neckline, the sleeves are just extended shoulders, and the pockets are cut with the garment. Its a full length maxi-dress with a slight flare, and it goes over the head with no closures. The fabric is a bright splashy print of the type I like to paint myself, but this one came from Northern Ireland, after I admired it on Ruth’s Core Couture website. It feels like a viscose to me.

The thirty-minute T-dress
The thirty-minute T-dress


The construction was a bit of a cheat. I overlocked (yes!) the neckline, sleeve edges and hem. I then stitched the shoulders, and turned in the neckline, which I had to hand sew (I don’t think there is any other way is there?). I attached front to back from sleeve edge to hem, going around the pockets (not very successfully). I didn’t finish the sleeve edges or the hem by turning in and hand-stitching, because this would have busted my timing. I put it on, got Nick to photograph it, and walked to Waitrose for some provisions.

I felt very elegant and blended in well with the Arabic ladies of Edgware Road with their full length dresses, and with the colourful youth celebrating the stunning weather. No one batted an eye at my unfinished hem (the shame of it!). I promise I will hem it properly very soon.

Curvy Pencil Prototypes

Since producing the Curvy Pencil pattern and toile I have made up two skirts – one with and one without pockets. The skirt fits nicely, the curved side seam is flattering and the faced waist band looks good with a belt. Thanks for the scarf Bianca!

Yes, a skirt that fits!
Yes, a skirt that fits!

I made both skirts from 95% cotton/5% Lycra, and I have another one cut out in turquoise too.

Beige Curvy Pencil prototype
Beige Curvy Pencil prototype

I included an exaggerated back split, to make it a tiny bit edgy.

Deep split at CB
Deep split at CB

I wore it for work on Friday, and wished I had a pocket for my phone. So on Saturday I made pockets for the pink edition.

The pink fabric was the sole surviving remnant,of about 60cms and some jagged bits, from a piece of fabric which had already produced a pair of trousers and a dress. The back piece of the pocket matches the skirt, but I had to use a bit of silk on the fronts. Although I love, and really need, pockets I don’t think this skirt is entirely successful. So much depends on the line of the skirt and the pockets interrupt it. There maybe a way of developing front hip or even back pockets. And, while it is hard to see in the bright sunshine, the front darts are now longer and more slanted.  I intend to try a high waist version. I am also thinking about different lengths – a mini and mid-calf – for other figure types. Any views?

And now with pockets!
And now with pockets!


Sporty Shorties #4 ElasticKated!

posted in: Finished projects | 1

I am getting there! In my quest to produce the perfect pair of running shorts I have introduced new materials, experimented with several types of elastic and a range of different finishes. I am slowly perfecting  my pattern and techniques, but the key is Elastication!

Pattern cutting and design

I reverted to a narrower, sporty look, although  having the more flared shorts have promise as a cycling skirt. I adapted Venus’s Grannie Pannie pattern rather a lot (sorry Venus!) to ensure the knickers worked effectively as a lining to the running shorts. This meant adding a further four inches to the waist measurement – three at the side seam, and one at the centre back. I also added a little to the rise so that the shorts would come up to the true waist.

Fabrics and materials

For this prototype I used some of my printed cloth, prepared for my inspired-by-Preen evening class project. The fabric is a light weight polyester jersey without Lycra. I decided to use a different fabric for the lining as the outer layer felt a bit too synthetic, even slightly ‘greasy’. I searched for a stretch fabric with little aerating holes, and found both nylon and cotton at MacCulloch and Wallis. But you don’t really want nylon knickers do you?

I bought a range of elastic finishes for underwear too, and have spent a few hours trying to find the best finish for the legs of the knicker linings.

Elasticating the legs and waist

The key to our running shorts being both comfortable and effective is the meeting of fabric and elastication.

To cut a long story short the best finish for my lining was a small zig zag on the raw edge with shiring elastic in the lower bobbin. This was a quick, simple, economic solution as some of the nicer, lighter elastics were  nearly £4 a metre. Not necessary! The minimalist finish is also, in my view, the best. Anything else was adding bulk and not even gathering the leg hole seams effectively. Don’t you love it when the simplest, cheapest solution is also the best?


In addition I have now used three different waist band treatments, two of them fiddly and not that great. By lining the shorts first, this time, I have been able to also incorporate a chanel for the waist elastic. This allows the construction process to be simplified and speeded up. The shorts also hang better.

Elastic casing made from lining
Elastic casing made from lining

For the waist band I used a fairly expensive elastic which I got on a card from John Lewis. This is elastic which has a firm nylon thread in to prevent it from rolling around in the waist band. It is also very lightweight and allows overstitching of the waistband to make it appear more ‘professional’ and stable. I don’t think it adds a lot to the function or the design, so let’s say this is optional.

Waistband eleactic
Waistband elastic

I am now satisfied with both the design and construction methods I have used. These shorts are very comfortable – more so than the off-the-peg pairs I have. Mainly because the fit is better, the cotton lining is nice, and of course I love the colours. I have one more version to do, and will write about these in due course. I am intending to enter a pair and a top for the Sporty Summer Sewathon so I have some decisions to make.

Comfortable, colourful, ready for a run?
Comfortable, colourful, ready for a run?


Developing the Curvy Pencil skirt!

posted in: WIP (work in progress) | 5

As someone who wants to wear a pencil skirt but has struggled to buy one that fits and flatters my curves, I have been working on a new pattern. But first let’s consider the problem.

Most manufactured skirts assume a difference of 10 inches or less between waist and hip. The following chart appeared in the Daily Mail.

standard measurements

If you want to buy something that fits from the high street, good luck! Anna has produced an application that gives you a better chance of finding something. See her blog post here.

For me the difference between my waist and hips is around 13 inches, the same as Marilyn Monroe, as it happens. When I put on a high street skirt, or RTW trousers, the three-inch deviation from the norm appears as an ugly gaping space at the waist line. With a flared or A line skirt you can buy according to your waist size – the problem resolves itself if the skirt is loose on the hip. With a more fitted skirt, or jeans, they are cut to fit on the hips. You therefore get extra ease you don’t want in the waist, and it has nowhere to go. Not only extremely uncomfortable, but also very unattractive.

The waist gapes
The waist gapes

However few hour-glass or pear-shaped women want to wear a flared skirt all the time, and it isn’t even our most flattering look. A voluminous skirt (while comfortable, and attractive on the waist) can make our hips look larger. Many of us with hips more than 10 inches bigger than their waists, yearn to wear a flattering, straighter skirt.

Key features required:

  • no flare
  • tapered to the hem
  • knee-length or a little longer
  • no waist band to cut us in two
  • comfort in wear
  • easy to stride around in
  • celebrate the curves without clinging to the thighs or behind

Having drafted the pattern (front with two darts, centre back zip, faced at the waist, tapered at the hem, curved side seams), I tested it out in calico.

Making up the toile
Making up the toile

I tend not to make traditional toiles for my normal dressmaking, preferring to “prove” the pattern in more appropriate fabric, and to create a garment that I can wear. However when I am testing a pattern I have designed and cut myself, a calico toile provides a very useful tool. It is easy and stable to sew, the grain is visible, it is easy to mark with felt tip or a sharp pencil, and it is cheap, at around £2 a metre. When I make a toile I include the salient features – zips, facings, etc, so that the fitting is as realistic as possible.

Black interfacing. And slippers
Black interfacing. And slippers

Even with the slippers, and a 5am selfie in the hallway mirror, you can see that the shape is rather promising. A smooth curve is much more flattering than a straight line.

I drew the side seams with my curved ruler and  I really cannot improve on it. At the first fitting therefore I only had one question – how high it should fit? Some people like to wear their skirts on the waist – ie an inch or so above the navel. This is normally the slimmest part of a woman’s body. But if there is some ease in it, it will tend to slip down a bit towards the hip. As a consequence many skirts actually settle an inch or so below the navel (as the selfie shows).

To make my skirt sit on the true waist I reduced the waist marginally (at the CB and side seams). The curved CB seam means the zip must be inserted on a slight bias. On the plus side a tapered CB seam flatters a slim waist.


Preen – the experiments continue


Front of Preen inspired shorts
Front of Preen inspired shorts

My Preen Inspired shorts are finished! The style is not inspired by Preen – I don’t think they do a range of running shorts, although the duo design for Debenhams. And my fabric design is somewhat constrained by the cottage-industry approach of my production line. But I am thrilled to bits to be able to run around with my own peony photos on my pants. The colours are really vibrant.

Back of Preen inspired shorts
Back of Preen inspired shorts

The shorts are lovely. But another of my experiments was not so nice. I used polycotton and the heat transfer inks which had been so successful with my Sewathon T-shirt. For this I had used a polyester jersey and had had stunning results. The colours were bright and the colour effects were better than I had hoped for.

100 per cent synthetic
100 per cent synthetic

I thought the polyester-cotton blend would be equally wonderful, but sadly not. I prepared the paper by producing a two-inch square grid, then coloured in each square with watered down transfer inks. I used the heat press to apply the ink to the polycotton. Unfortunately the brush strokes were evident, but not in a good way, and the colours were more muted. A disappointing result on the same night England lost to Uruguay.

Looks like a Care Home curtain
Looks like a Care Home curtain

I also made some T-shirts with iron on transfers that I printed at Mary Ward Centre. Here I used the same set of photos of pixellated peonies but ran them off on the photocopier. The printing ink and a layer of shiny adhesive is also applied, this time to cotton fabric. It’s not the best effect ever, with a little bit of puckering and a high gloss finish. I wore one for yoga with my purple leggings and it looked nice and performed well.

Centring the transfer on the T shirt
Centring the transfer on the T shirt
After cooling, carefully remove the backing
After cooling, carefully remove the backing
T shirts with iron on pixelated peonies
T-shirts with iron on pixellated peonies

My shorts pattern is developing well (this is the third iteration) – I have one or two developments left to work through!


What NOT to wear for an interview

posted in: Style advice | 4

I heard a funny but true story yesterday.

A very senior female recruiter was holding an evening event for the company’s most important clients. Her young researchers were on hand to mingle and ensure all the clients were being attended to. Across the room she spotted two of them chatting to each other. Horrified at the  short, sexy dress one of them was wearing, the headhunter told the researcher to go home and change. Turns out she was not a young researcher but a famous, moderately successful boss. Red faces all round.

Karren Brady - too sexy for work?
Karren Brady – too sexy for work?

Inappropriate Attire

In fact a skin-tight, short dress is not a good business look. It rides up, is far too revealing, and flatters very few. Other inappropriate outfits would include:

  • too casual a look
  • sportswear
  • holes, burns, stains, ladders, missing buttons
  • too much make up or perfume
  • obvious piercing or tattoos
  • noisy, jangly jewellery (cuff links, bangles)
  • bare legs
  • comedy socks or ties

The Traditional look

But what about this crowd?

Trad business attire
Trad business attire

They look OK, at first glance, but none of them look great.  In choosing the safest option they have  eradicated every last bit of individuality. While the models have been selected for their gender and ethnic variety, their clothes are virtually identical. Here is the formula:

  • black or dark grey/navy suit
  • white or very light pastel shirt
  • blue stripy tie (men)
  • flat black leather shoes
  • short or swept back hair

No colour, no jewellery, no accessories, no personality; a desperate desire to fit in and appear inoffensive. It’s like a school uniform without the retro appeal.

Why dressing right is so important

When I am not sewing for fun, I run a business with 1000 employees. I meet and interview people frequently, and while I would never send anyone home for failing to conform to my standards, I think there is a formula which works. At an interview you need to do two things at once a) fit in and b) make an impression. Most people do one rather than the other and you really do need to do both.

Firstly consider the culture of the firm you are meeting as there are different standards of dress in different countries, and industries. Clearly a bank and an software company will have different dress codes. So the advice here can only be general. Your appearance must convey the message that you will fit in – a team player,  who will do what is required, seamlessly join an existing group of people and have no problem working alongside them. When you come into the room you should look like you belong. I would err on the side of formal and smart (go to the hairdressers the day before) and dress for the level above the role you are applying for. It is better to overdo it a little, rather than the other way around.

But secondly consider how you can make an impact. If I am seeing  a dozen people how will I remember you? Looking great gives you confidence, instills confidence in the interviewer and helps you stand out from the crowd.

In my opinion you need to reference the traditional look, but also subtly subvert it. Make sure one element of your outfit is individual and chosen to enhance how you look or who you are. The dress below conforms to the navy and white formal work outfit rule but also looks completely fresh and stylish (probably best to avoid the hat). It’s Vogue 1629, from 1966 .

1966 Molyneux coat dress. Maybe without the hat?
1966 Molyneux coat dress. Maybe without the hat?


  • wear a dark business suit but wear a blouse in a strong colour that matches and enhances your eyes eg. emerald or bright blue blouse instead of white shirt (brighter colouring)
  • consider a patterned or statement blouse and take your jacket off
  • wear a patterned dress and coordinating jacket instead of a suit
  • wear a dress and coat or even a coat dress for a change
  • take a nice coloured handbag rather than a brief case
  • wear a scarf or piece of jewellery that tells a story about you
Neutral outfit, bright accessories
Neutral outfit, bright accessories


  • With a navy suit wear a brightly coloured tie (brighter colouring)
  • consider a shirt in a deep colour if your colouring is deep
  • don’t wear a tie, but do wear a silk pocket handkerchief instead
Jon Snow
Jon Snow

Both sexes

  • instead of black or charcoal wear a cream, camel or brown suit (if you have warm colouring), lighter grey or blue-grey (if you have light colouring)
  • wear a jacket and trousers/skirt that relate but don’t match eg dark grey and light grey
Skirt and jacket blend rather than match
Skirt and jacket blend rather than match
  • chose three shades of the same colour eg grey-blue for shirt, trousers/skirt and jacket (works well with muted colouring)
  • wear shoes and a belt which complement rather than match your suit, eg brown or tan accessories with navy or grey
Tan shoes and belt
Light navy suit with tan shoes and belt

 “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”  Judy Garland



Can a pear wear a pencil?

People are contrary. I have dead straight hair but always wanted curls. I look good in a fit and flare dress, but constantly try on pencil skirts in the hope I will find one that suits me.

It’s got to make sense to stick with the shapes that enhance your figure and disguise your less than perfect features. The danger with the pencil skirt is that the straight up and down shape (clue is in the name) suits straight up and down figures. And very slim ones at that. Curvy figures are OK in a pencil if you want the “sexy” Marylin Munroe look where the skirt clings at the back and really emphasises the roundness of your behind. This look requires slim legs and ankles as the narrow hem of the pencil really emphasises the width of the legs.

Nevertheless a straight, slim skirt can look very elegant, and is ideal for workwear. What rounder women with an hourglass or pear shaped body need is a skirt that gives the illusion of slim and straight.

  • Firstly is a skirt that is not obviously flared but is actually wide enough at the hips and then comes more or less straight down with perhaps just 1cm (or even .5cm) at the side seam.
  • Secondly, and most importantly, is where to put the hem. It is essential that the horizontal line (the hem) cuts across the legs at their slimmest point.
Butterick 5032
Butterick 5032

I have made this dress up twice. Its a dress from 1952 that has been reproduced by Butterick, and there are lots of nice versions of it on the internet. I used a light blue fabric I got at Simply Fabrics. It contains cashmere and silk, and has a really nice soft sheen – its has a bit of structure and is warm to wear. I shortened the pattern considerably although the straightness of the shape is emphasised by the length in the picture on the packet. I also took the front bodice in by transferring a little of the fullness to the bust dart. I lengthened the torso slightly, and added a habotai silk lining to the facings.

Butterick 5032
Butterick 5032

It appears to be a slim skirt, but in fact it is pleated at the waist and has plenty of ease at the hips. It appears to be straight, and, for me, it ends at a flattering point.

But, dear reader, I want more. I have been experimenting with making a pencil skirt pattern that will really flatter women whose hips are more than 10 inches bigger than their waist. Marilyn had a 14 inch difference. (For the record – 5 ft. 5.5 inches tall; 35 inch bust; 22 inch waist; and 35 inch hips). I have been innovating with illusion!

  • a skirt with a facing rather than a waist band for comfort
  • a curved side seam that accommodates larger hips and derriere
  • tapering at the knee
  • a split at the back to make walking comfortable
  • the best length
  • the use of different fabrics

I have drafted a pattern, and will report on progress.

Curvy Pencil skirt pattern
Curvy Pencil skirt pattern

Sporty Shorties – Chapter 3

posted in: Finished projects | 1

In search of the perfect pair of running shorts, I have completed the second prototype. My first (pink Lycra) pair had the following problems:

    • wrong fabric
    • wrong type of elastic
    • not quite enough flare
    • integral underwear not quite right either
    • bad waist band design

Fabric and materials

My second attempt tried to rectify these issues.

I searched the internet for all the trade names mentioned eg Supplex, CoolMax, and got quite confused. I tried a number of shops in Berwick Street, proposed by ModJoe, but found nothing suitable. In the end, on a trip to John Lewis, I discovered some nice 95% polyester 5% Spandex fabric from John Kaldor. Its deep royal (purple) and it even has a name: Ritual. It was £13 a metre, which is nearly three times the price of my pink Lycra from Robert, but I got a tag, with composition details and washing instructions. Nice.

Available with composition and washing instructions
Available with composition and washing instructions

John Lewis also had a large range of elastics, pre-cut, on cards. I doubt this is the most economical way to buy elastic but I bought a few types in order to give them a try and to educate myself about elastics. For this project I used what they call “baby elastic”. Its soft, and narrow, and light yellow.

Design and pattern cutting

Making the shorts more flared was a simple matter of slashing my pattern into four sections and spreading each by 1.5cms. I think that will do the trick.

Adding some additional flare to the shorts
Adding some additional flare to the shorts

Next I tackled the underwear question.

I didn’t have a knicker pattern at home. For my first prototype I traced off the pants inside my InSport shorts but it wasn’t a perfect job as they are all gathered up. Searching  the internet and I found something quite wonderful, designed by Jeanne.

VeraVenus Grannie Pannie pants
VeraVenus Grannie Pannie pants

VeraVenus has produced what she calls Grannie Pannie knickers and I downloaded them at home. Jeanne kindly provided this pattern free of charge to celebrate 100 followers. Thank you for your generosity.

The Grannie knickers serve as a lining for my shorts.

Ready to attach the lining to the shorts
Ready to attach the lining to the shorts

This second pair is a major improvement on my pink pair. I took the waist band very slowly and it works fine. But it is just a bit large, as is the flare. The shorts have a nice relaxed look, but seem to have lost their sportiness. Suitable for warm weather but not quite right for running in.



Running shorts version 2
Running shorts version 2

For the next version:

  • return to a more sporty silhouette (ie streamline)
  • lengthen the inner pants a little so the waistbands meet
  • use a still lighter elastic for the inner pants
  • consider making the waist of both shorts and pants the same length (rather than a smaller one for the inner pants)
  • try a new waistband treatment that is easier and neater
  • pockets would be nice!

Summer Sporty Sewathon – making the top


With a passable pair of purple running shorts, my attention turned to making a matching work-out top.

Design and Pattern cutting

For running and the gym I usually wear a sports bra, cut like a crop top. This is the coolest option, but for this challenge I decided to produce a self-printed T shirt to match my new shorts. I envisaged a top suitable for an outdoor run, but one that would also be fine with a pair of jeans. I used my T shirt block unaltered. This simple design is based on Winifred Aldrich’s jersey block. I also drafted short sleeves to fit. I will alter the pattern now I have made it up to include a bust dart. The fabric is not as stretchy as a T-shirt fabric and I think it would be more flattering with a bit more shape.

Fabric choice

I do textiles at the Mary Ward centre near Holborn. This term we have been using the heat press, to create digital prints, flocked and metallic finishes and heat transfer inks.

The heat transfer dyes I used for this top do not work on natural fabrics (well they do, but they are quite washed out and not stable). To make use of the heat press techniques I acquired a nice remnant of white synthetic fabric from downstairs at Misan in Berwick Street. I prefer natural fabrics for everyday wear but of course sportswear almost requires modern, stretch, synthetic fabrics. Putting my printing experiments together with sportswear made a lot of sense.

I think the fabric is a lightweight polyester jersey.

The heat transfer process

This involves painting special inks, which look fairly indeterminate in the bottle, onto paper, which is then heat pressed onto the synthetic fabric. I painted two sheets of A2 paper with a range of colours – blue, green, purple and pink, using a roller to produce a stripe effect. Once the muddy painting and fabric meet in the heat press, the dirty picture miraculously turns the white cloth into a glorious brightly hued textile. The students whoop in excitement, me included. However I find the heat press quite a scary piece of equipment. The fabric has to be printed between two pieces of teflon, the press is closed and the timer pings after a minute. While the first use of the paper is really intense and deep. I found that it could be used a second time to produce a similar print, but  quite a bit lighter and also very beautiful. For my top I cut the front and back of the Tshirt from the stronger colours, but have the lighter fabric available for another use.


Printed fabric
Printed fabric


I cut out the top trying to get the best bits onto the front and back, using the fabric across the grain for the sleeves. I cut facings for the neck opening.

Cutting out the T-shirt
Cutting out the T-shirt

This T-shirt was simple to construct in the flat, with the side seams added after the sleeves were set in.

Front of running T shirt
Front of running T shirt
and back
and back