My daughter had been asking me if I could make her some silky tops to wear to work. Feeling t shirts were a bit too informal for going to court etc she wanted a cool, easy to put on, easy to wash and dry top, in a range of bright colours. It sounded like a fairly easy project. I downloaded and tried the well-loved Sorbetto top (my first experience with downloading a pattern). Despite the generosity of the designer I am afraid I didn’t like it much, and she hated it – way too baggy for a skinny size 6. The thought of a bias top then occurred to me. This would enable the top to be put on over the head, it would cling to the body as if it were a t-shirt, yet it could be made to look quite formal in a woven fabric.
I searched the internet for a simple bias top pattern. As I couldn’t find one (any suggestions?) I decided to draft one. In fact I simply drew a simple sleeveless top, joining the side seams so there was one half piece.
In order to see if the neckline and shoulders were acceptable and to check that it would go over my head I recycled an old linen skirt I had bought from the Shelter charity shop £2 rail. I chose it because it was nearly ankle length, size 18, with a draw-string waist (I know…). But the fabric was a nice tonal linen with a blue weft and greenish warp, made by East (an Indian company – they also make FabIndia products).
I added seam allowance and placed the centre-front on the cross grain (and of course this placed the centre-back on the cross too). The skirt had some decorative seaming in it which I manoeuvred so it produced a nice chevron effect design line across the front of the top. I used the draw-string for a little belt to pull the top in more.
I drafted some sleeves, which I wasn’t sure should be cut on the bias or not. I found it easier to layout the sleeves on the cross. I think it is the mixing of straight and cross grain that is probably more fabric greedy than using a consistent approach.I managed to squeeze the whole top out of a piece of pink and grey wool Linton tweed I had, but there wasn’t enough for any facing. I had a pink chiffon remnant which had already been cut on the cross. I thought this would be a good neutral shade and luxurious enough for my binding, and used this on the cuffs, neckline and hem. I lined the top in light weight pink habotai silk. There wasn’t much fabric left so I used what there was to make a little skirt, hip measurement plus 2in then gathered the waist into a waistband, lined again in the light pink silk. It’s a nice set to wear.
I am keen to progress my bias experiments in due course.
I love to wear a fitted coat. The problem is that if it is too fitted you can only wear it over a lightweight dress. I needed a coat I could wear in winter – over a blouse, cardigan and jacket, and still move my arms. I decided I needed a coat that was closer to a blanket – something that wrapped without constricting, belt-less and unstructured, but warm too. In fact I am wearing it today, for a trip to Birmingham.
My mind turned to the 1950s swing coat – a garment that swings and swaggers – now that fabrics were plentiful again (after the war), and women could swish around town, feeling indulged. I identified a really nice Vogue pattern on the internet and bought it, thinking I wanted a fairly loud wool with impact. I had just over 2m of a lovely Linton tweed, and hoped it might be enough.
In fact the pattern called for three and a half yards. This didn’t initially put me off as a) yardage is always overstated and b) I don’t really suit mid calf length. I consulted Facebook and work friends. I reduced the length by 8 inches. I laid the pattern pieces top to tail. I thought about using a second fabric (which I didn’t have) for the bound button holes, pockets, collar, or even sleeves. Once I had cut out the coat this was what I had left!
In the end I resorted to piecing the facings, slimming down the sleeves slightly, and using the most pathetic scraps for the button holes and pocket welts (which had three joins in them… bulky or what?). I had considered covered buttons (only two, and they are optional), but in the end I found some nice grey plastic ones at Sharon’s on Clitheroe market. I lined it in silk satin, painted in a roughly check pattern, including grey, blue, pink and purple.
I really enjoy wearing it. And with vintage, it usually works multi-generationally. It looks nice on my Mum.
And on my daughter too!
I have had a bad experience with tops.
I remember making a shirt for my City and Guilds exam. It had to be drafted and made up. Drafting the collar was really hard work and I didn’t understand what I was doing. The fitting was really challenging, and took forever.
I used an inexpensive white poly-cotton. Everything thing that could go wrong with a make went wrong – iron-on interfacing that bubbled; uneven buttonholes; the curved hem didn’t sew up properly and the double yoke was wonky. I tried to machine sew the buttons – broke the needle, then broke the buttons. Not sure if this is what actually happened – its nearly three decades ago – or if this is simply a recurring nightmare. But I think I have had an aversion to making a shirt ever since.
So when it dawned on me that tops were required for the SWAP I realised I would have to re approach the topic and give it a go. And I am so pleased I did!
My first attempt was a very simple one – to make a shell top. During the sixties these tops were very common, usually with a zip down the back to give a clean finish on the front. Many of my suit patterns feature them and I think they look really neat, with or without a sleeve. Unlike a t-shirt they do need a bust dart, and during the sixties there were a number of ways they found to shape the bust – princess lines, Dior darts, curved darts, double darts, deep side seam darts, gathering at the neck etc. As I have a fairly full bust but a slim rib cage I wanted to create a flattering shape. One of my patterns, Simplicity 6527, features a shell top with two darts that I thought might give sufficient shaping for me. In fact I had enough fabric to make up the skirt too, so I now have a top and full length skirt which is a little dressy but might work well for a summer evening event.
I had bought some fairly crisp pink silk with a slight stretch in it, from Simply Fabrics, from their Roland Mouret shelf, attracted by the colour but originally with no plan, beyond “blouse”. But I was put off as it was a little bit scratchy. A shell top with a soft silk lining turned out to be a good solution, creating comfort in wear but enough structure so that the top has a bit of body to it. I used a plain un-dyed habotai silk to line it as the fabric is slightly translucent and the whiteness helped bring the colour out. I used my usual technique of lining a sleeveless dress or top – finishing the inside shoulder lining by hand, at the end. I was worried it might show a little but my sewing was good enough on this occasion to avoid it. Had it shown, I would have coloured it to match the outer fabric with my fabric paints.
Will the shell top come back into fashion, or has it been superseded by jersey?
I buy quite a lot of white fabric, mainly because I enjoy printing and painting on fabric to create unique textiles.
The fabric I used to make my white blouse for the SWAP was in fact what I had left when I had made the YSL dress, featured at the start of my blog. It came from an expensive shop in central London and is top quality French linen. I bought it specifically because it is a nice optical white; not at all creamy. The shop don’t like to sell in less than 25cms, ie you can’t have 1.3m, and anyway when I made the YSL dress I had no idea how much I would need. So I bought much more than required, and had enough left over to make a blouse.
This top was a lovely straightforward make. I ironed out the crumpled, yellowed, unprinted pattern (just four pieces, as it has short kimono sleeves, and a shawl collar). I lengthened the body by an inch above the waist, cut it out and I marked the dart, button, button-hole, and stitching marks with a turquoise washable felt tip one Saturday afternoon. I sewed it up during the evening and found it a perfect fit – iIespecially liked the wide, released back darts, making a nice tidy back when tucked in, or left out. The collar has a cut-out “V”so appears notched, although it is a shawl collar. I added an additional button hole to the front as the blouse was a little longer than designed and found perfect notched buttons at Sharon’s on Clitheroe market. The fabric was very nice to sew and the pattern was a good fit. The button holer on my machine worked perfectly and I think I managed, at one stroke, to create both a blouse that I will enjoy wearing and to overcome my blouse trauma. Phew!
My SWAP suit
This suit started with one metre of tweedy fabric I got from my favourite fabric shop Simplyfabrics of Brixton. I bought 1m for a generic skirt when I had only made one skirt in 25 years. I didn’t know how much I would need as I had no idea what type of skirt I wanted. I liked the cloth with its off white, grey, dark blue and lighter blue yarns, and a soft cottony-wooly feel. I wanted to make a 60s style skirt. This is a style I particularly favour. I am not keen on the classic pencil skirt, as I have a small waist but big hips. An A-line is more flattering. I like the combination of a slight flare with a relatively short (above the knee) hem to be flattering on someone with curves plus average length legs. But let’s face it, a pure A line is terribly boring and aging. Over the years I have owned some vintage sixties suits and rather than the skirt being an also-ran (like you get today, even with expensive brands), I noted lots of interesting and important design details on the skirt. Gathering plus darting, yokes, panels rather than side seams, in seam pockets – and usually lined. I bought a few sixties suit patterns online, mainly for the skirts. And Vogue 7379 was one of them.
As usual I had to work quite hard to get the skirt into the fabric, top and tailing in order to do so. This left me with insufficient fabric to create either a waist band or pockets. For the pockets I had plenty of left overs and used a light blue silk/cashmere for in seam pockets. But for the waistband I had no suitable woolen fabric. From the same shop I had bought a piece of good quality linen suiting fabric in a fairly lively blue. I was told it was Paul Smith, but who knows. It had a jagged piece cut out of it, and was sold to me for 5 quid. Not knowing initially what this was for (a bit firm for a dress) I cut the waist band from it, and found it a great success.
Of course when I later decided to build on this success and make a jacket I was short of material again. I managed to get the jacket cut out but had to sacrifice the pockets, which I really regret. The collar was made with the right grain only on the underside but it worked out fine. I used a crisp cotton organdie for the interfacing in the collar and front facing. I found some nice shell buttons at McCullogh and Wallis. I often get my buttons there although they can be rather expensive.
I lined both skirt and jacket in silk habotai, on which I had painted a subtle grid pattern in blue-grey.
There is a sequel to this story. I really wanted the pockets and was thrilled to find some more of the blue linen, on the roll, lying alongside all the summer dress weight linens. I bought two metres, thinking of trousers as well as pockets. Then, when I got home, I found there was no pocket pattern. I could draft one, but given the jacket is already lined, it is now a big hassle. Maybe?
Sewing with a Plan!
I have only been sewing again since March 2013, although I used to do a lot when my kids were small. But since then I have relied on the internet for inspiration, advice, tutorials, pattern and fabric purchase, and camaraderie. Early on I found Corecoture and was puzzled by her “SWAP” references. I thought maybe she was exchanging patterns or fabrics with people in other countries. Eventually I worked out the idea was to “sew with a plan”. I discovered that this was more about creating a capsule wardrobe, which had great appeal to me. I like versitilty – a small number of items that work together, creating a tiny element of surprise or creativity for the wearer or viewer. I like packing for holidays – using only carry on luggage. The challenge of a limited palette, or space, or budget, or piece of cloth actually appeals to me.
So I thought, in 2013 – I will do the SWAP challenge next year.
My basic idea was to create a wardrobe for work, for the spring and summer seasons (it’s hardly ever really warm in London). In winter I wear dark brown, grey, navy. For the warmer months I thought about a wardrobe that was basically pink, but balanced by summer navy. Colours that would work with white and light grey neutrals. I wanted to include two skirts suits as this is my main work “uniform”; I find them very flexible. I wanted to include a coat that would go over the suit, and probably a pair of trousers too.
I love tailoring so I really enjoyed making the suits and coat, which I would have made anyway. But the SWAP required tops. Of course we all need tops but I tend to wear RTW t-shirts, jumpers and the occasional shirt. I hadn’t made a top for years – thinking they were either too simple to be worth the effort (T shirts from Primark or Uniglo are cheap and colourful) or time consuming (blouses – with buttonholes, and collars, and cuffs, with their incessant demands to be washed and ironed). But I made three and will do so again. The competition got me into tops and I am glad!
Stop Press: The photographs have now been published. https://www.flickr.com/photos/7370831@N07/collections/72157644459832455/.
There are some great entries this year. I look forward to the discussions and any feedback that is given.
This beautiful skirt was first previewed in 2011 and I fell in love. It featured in the Preen Spring/Summer 2012 collection. I wanted to buy it and visited their shop in Notting Hill but it was sold out. I found it on a website, but it was sold out. Then it became available again on the Outnet website, to celebrate their fifth anniversary, for £276. .
It may be worth £276, but RTW size “medium” would not fit me – fine on the hips but gaping on the waist. I have a small waist and big hips, which makes off the peg fitted trousers and skirts almost impossible to find. Which is why I make most of my own clothes. Also, if I am honest, while the pencil skirt looks great on women with slim hips and models, it is not the most flattering look women with a more curvaceous shape.
So instead of buying this item I am going to use it as inspiration. The silk fabric is a digital print, using a pixelated picture of a peony. To0 technical to do at home. What I might be able to do is to paint similar colours on silk that I can then make into a different type of garment. Given the structural look, and the geometric shaping, this might work well for a shell top, or perhaps a shift dress.
And if you like Preen, but not the price tag, try Debenhams. They have a low cost Preen range that can often be very attractive, although with the high street prices the fabrics are often polyester rather than silk.
While her iconic wrap dress is particularly famous, she produced several patterns for Vogue and I have a few of them. An interesting write up of her work can be found here, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the wrap dress, which recently featured in the film American Hustler.
Does my collar look a bit big? Obviously this is how it was designed but it did seem a little extreme by today’s tastes. There is always a temptation when making a vintage item to remove the design details that date it. Gertie often notes that 50s dresses can be overly “poofy” – worn today they can make you look just too big in the hips. I have a sixties full length skirt on the go at the moment and I think it is just too gathered to be flattering. Another blog I admire describes how Karen often makes small alterations to her vintage patterns to make them more classic. Again I am sympathetic, and to be honest I have also made this pattern up again with a reduced collar.
But today I am wearing a big collar, feeling a bit like Harry Hill.
Basically I feel that it is the exaggerated details that somehow make the garment special. However this dress is designed as a “below the knee” dress, which I find hard to wear and unflattering. And have you noticed I am wearing thick brown tights and brogues? Hardly 70s styling!
Its like the old saying that if I replace first the handle, then the blade, of my Grandma’s old knife, is it still my Grandma’s old knife?
If you sew vintage do you feel the need to stay true to the design, or are you always going for the most flattering look?
Yves St Laurent’s 1965 Mondrian dress collection features one of the most iconic dresses of all time. Quoted in several books and articles, and on display in museums from time to time, this dress has always been in my consciousness. Of course the dress itself was inspired by an original Mondrian painting that YSL had in his Paris drawing room. The stark black and white lines, with blocks of primary colours, may not have inspired everyone to design a dress, but like many designers inspired by art, YSL built the bold lines and colour blocks into a shift dress that was both shaped to the female form, and decidedly “rectangular” in its appearance.
In order to make a copy I searched the internet for images of the dress, so I could determine its length, proportions etc. I also researched the construction. This was most interesting because YSL apparently built all the shaping into the seams, rather than relying on darts. I tried adapting my own basic shift block to achieve this but failed miserably. In the end I bought Vogue YSL pattern 1557.
The original pattern had to be adapted in order to recreate the shaping and detailing required. I took alot of inspiration from Sarah Sheehan, a Canadian blogger who produces the most interesting research on vintage patterns. In fact Sarah made up V1557 as well as providing the definative analysis which is well worth reading.
The existing pattern gave me the authentic YSL shift shape. I redrew the yoke, transfered the bust dart, and created the vertical and horizonal bars which are seamed into the dress.
The original dress was made in wool jersey (although some versions were in silk) and it may be that the bust dart shaping was shrunk into the garment. I chose linen over using wool as the colours were truer, especially the white, although I used dark navy blue for the stripes as opposed to black. I lined it in white silk and inserted a hand sewn zip in the centre back. This had to be inserted very slightly off the centre back in order not to disrupt the vertical stripe.
Have you ever copied a dress?