Thursday, 14 June 2018

I'm giving sleeves the cold shoulder

It all dropped into place as I was watching the film “Hidden Figures”. As Taraji P Henson’s character, real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, climbs a ladder and raises her arm to begin writing on a huge blackboard, her dress just... stays put. The hem doesn’t lift awkwardly, the fabric of the bodice doesn’t bunch around her shoulders and neck. She looks focussed and poised, her dress an eye-catching flash of bright colour amid a sea of grey as she formulates the safe return of a person from space. 

The success of a dress can hang on its sleeves, and, once again, fast fashion is letting us down. 

As a woman in my mid 30s, the perceived wisdom is that I should be desperate for clothes with sleeves (presumably to cover my unsightly upper arms and armpits in case they are *gasp* sweaty or *double gasp* hairy). In fact the exact opposite has happened, and you will rarely find me sporting a sleeve. While I may not have the perfectly toned arms of an A-List star in a red carpet gown, I see no reason why my completely average arms should be a source of shame. If you are bothered by my (mostly shaved, but sometimes stubbly) armpits, perhaps worry about something else instead of policing women’s bodies? 

But I’m not just going sleeveless as a gesture of defiance against oppressive beauty norms, I’m not wearing sleeves because they just don’t fit properly. If you’re wearing a non-stretchy fitted top or dress, lift your arms above your head. Does the whole garment follow you? Does it stay rucked up when you lower your arms? Doesn’t that annoy you? Sleeves have become a complicated part of a garment, and fast fashion just doesn’t seem to be getting them right. 

I don’t blame pattern cutters; I’ve had trouble with sleeves ever since I drafted my first (terrible) sleeve pattern in my first term at uni. I’ve had years to practice drafting sleeves of every shape and size, and my initial pattern almost always needs tweaking. The difference between my pattern cutting experience and that of someone who sends their patterns off to a factory is that I have to take into consideration any requests from actors or private customers for better freedom of movement, and I usually have the luxury of time (or at least more time than the few seconds a factory worker would be given to sew a sleeve). 

The “factory method” is to machine the armhole with the garment lying flat first, then machine the sleeve seam and side seam all in one. This means there is very little ease in the sleeve head, not so much of a problem for people with a flatter chest, but not ideal for those with a full bust. The method I use for a couture garment is very different; I machine the side seams first, place the garment on the stand and then “balance” my sleeve, pinning it in place to check that it hangs correctly. I don’t always line up my sleeve seam and my side seam; sometimes setting the sleeve seam a bit further forwards can give some extra ease for a larger bust (this ease can help to prevent gaping on a button-down shirt. So can proper button placement, but that’s a rant for another time). I sometimes add a (historically inaccurate) grown-on gusset to certain styles of historical costume (or modern clothing) to allow for more underarm movement, but there are plenty of examples of historical sleeves where this simply wasn’t a problem. 

Up until the 19th Century, men’s shirt patterns were a simple series of squares and rectangles, with a diamond shaped gusset under the arm to allow plenty of movement. The creative pattern cutting of post-war mid-century fashion revisited this idea.  Despite its ubiquity in fashion photography, many women weren’t fans of the ultra-feminine New Look. After experiencing the freedoms afforded by paid work and practical uniforms during the Second World War, they were reluctant to go back to restrictive clothing. 

I found some great examples of the compromises made by enterprising dressmakers in the ladieswear department of the costume house in London where I work. These smart dresses all have cleverly constructed sleeves or underarm gussets to allow for movement in an otherwise fitted and demure dress. Compared to my high-street fitted dress with sleeves, the waist seam on these vintage dresses barely shifts when I raise my arms and I didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable in a 70-year-old dress as I did in a modern one. 

We look at historical clothing in museum collections and marvel at how restrictive it must have been. But unless we are wearing stretch fabrics, our modern clothing isn’t much better. As the cost-cutting measures that enable fast fashion’s artificially low prices restrict the amount of time spent adjusting patterns and stitching garments, we are literally restricting ourselves in poorly thought-out clothes.

In this day and age, we pride ourselves of finding creative solutions to improve efficiency (even when, sometimes, these solutions were there all along). Maybe we need to take a more creative approach to pattern cutting and garment construction to provide the freedom we expect (and need) from modern clothing.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Top to toe alterations: how to hem your clothes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a short woman in possession of several maxi dresses must be in need of a good hemming tutorial!

One of the reasons our clothes might not get worn very often is poor fit, and this can apply vertically as well as horizontally on the body. I’m a little bit shorter than average, and I own several maxi skirts and dresses that are just that little bit too long. I've made the mistake of wearing them thinking they would be fine, and then realised they really wouldn’t be. I’ve tripped on the stairs at work while carrying coffee, nearly got a floaty hem caught in the escalator at a tube station and noticed that the streets of London are much too dirty for nice clothes to trail on the ground!

There are several ways you can alter the hem on your clothes, depending on whether you have a sewing machine, an overlocker or just your hands. I’ve had several hems to alter recently, so here are some examples of various techniques.

A herringbone hem, by hand

The hem on this vintage dress has been finished off with a lace trim, and secured using a blind hemming machine. Unless you work in an industrial sewing facility you are unlikely to have access to a blind hemming machine, but it’s easy enough to replicate a similar stitch by hand.

For this stitch, you sew “backwards” (i.e. towards the hand you sew with). I am left handed, so apologies to right-handed people if this is confusing, but this might be a nice opportunity for my fellow lefties to benefit! To start, secure your thread to the hem allowance, then make a tiny stitch into the fabric just above the hem allowance, with your needle pointing “forwards”. Bring your thread back towards your sewing hand, and make another small stitch in your hem allowance. The thread will form a crisscrossing pattern over the edge of your hem allowance, while the only thing visible on the right side of the garment will be the tiny stitches you have made in the fabric.

The only disadvantage to this stitch is that it can cause the appearance of a ridge or line on the garment if it is made of quite a thick fabric, and some shoes could get snagged on the stitches! To avoid this, you can do the same stitch between your hem allowance and the fabric of the garment, like I have done here with this lovely pair of wide-leg trousers that were much too long! Fold down the top centimetre of the hem allowance towards you, then herringbone in the same way.

A topstitched hem, using a sewing machine

This ripped hem was the result of my trip on the stairs, and the point where I could no longer ignore the fact that this skirt was a bit too long! The skirt had ripped just above where the original hem allowance finished, so I cut this off all the way round the skirt, then replicated the original hem.

I pressed a 1cm hem allowance all the way round the skirt, then folded this up on itself again and pressed the new hem edge, so the raw edge of the hem allowance would be hidden.

I machined the hem from the right side of the skirt (known as “topstitching”) using the measurement gauge on my sewing machine to make sure I was catching the seam allowance on the wrong side.

A babylock hem, using an overlocker

An overlocker (or serger) is a specialist sewing machine that uses three or four threads to finish off a fabric edge, or stitch two edges together. It has a built-in blade that trims away excess fabric as you sew, so it’s not suitable for every job, but is great if you want to work with stretch fabrics or give homemade garments a professional looking finish. As well as seams, overlockers are useful for edges; this fine “babylock” edge can be used on a lot of floaty fabrics.

It’s a surprisingly robust finish; this skirt didn’t tear when I caught it in an escalator, but it did give me enough of a fright to resolve to sort out the hem! When I put it on I could see that the front and back of the skirt had “dropped” - this is quite common on circle skirts where the part of the skirt hanging from the waistband on the bias stretches a bit (or a lot!)

I levelled the hem on my dressmaking stand, then cut off the excess fabric, leaving a few millimetres for the blade on my overlocker to trim off, to get the neatest possible edge. It took a few minutes to change the settings on my overlocker, and then the job was done in no time at all!

I know it’s tempting to reach for the iron-on hemming tape, but I hope this tutorial will encourage at least some of you to pick up a needle and thread instead and give your garments a professional finish.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Wardrobe Diary: turning my teenage fashion choices into family heirlooms

What’s the oldest item of clothing in your wardrobe? Do you have hand-me-downs from siblings, parents, grandparents? We often see jewellery as heirlooms to be handed down through generations, but clothes are more ephemeral, and in recent years, more disposable. 

I’ve been taking part in the Slow Fashion Challenge over on Instagram, and several of the prompts have made me think about the clothes that I have hung on to despite numerous wardrobe clearances, and why I have kept certain outfits despite the fact that I am probably not going to wear them again. 

I’ve never been very good at keeping a diary, but while I’ve been searching through my wardrobe for garments to illustrate prompts like “throwback” and “hand-me-down” I’ve realised that my wardrobe acts as a sort of diary. The trends I’ve tried out, the special occasions and impulse buys that have marked my eclectic clothes-buying habits over the years might only be represented by a couple of items of clothing lurking at the back of my closet (ok, fine, I have a separate wardrobe for my “museum”, please don’t judge me) but they are a great reminder of certain times in my life. 

The burgundy velvet jacket I bought in Rokit in Brighton in the mid Nineties reminds me of the tentative steps towards independence I was taking as a teenager: figuring out how to make my monthly clothing allowance and meagre pub-kitchen-pot-scrubbing wages go further by shopping in the Lanes rather than the Churchill Square shopping centre. Spending a Saturday free from the watchful eyes of parents, rummaging for bargains and defiantly making purchases that I secretly hoped would shock when I brought them home. I’m sure my parents found my goth phase pretty funny, but they kept up impressive poker faces, and even my most outlandish ensembles were met with a mild “you look nice”. 

The neon pink top that formed part of my work wardrobe when I was a shop assistant at Cyberdog in Camden Market during my first term at uni also reveals another side to my personality. Folk music loving, quiet and contemplative me, who currently loves an early night, was also a big techno and drum n bass fan! I may not be able to party all night (fuelled only by cheese toasties) any more, but my music tastes are as eclectic as my fashion tastes, and probably always will be. 

The piece of clothing that started off my reflections on being a teenager was a blue knitted top. Originally owned by my aunt, who was a teenager in the Fifties, it was passed on to my Mum, who was a teenager in the Sixties, before making its way into a box of dressing up clothes that my sister and I wore as children. I liberated it when I was a teenager and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I love having a piece of vintage clothing that I know the origin story for, but I also love having something that links me to other members of my family. It’s a great reminder that my mum and aunt were also teenage trendsetters, exploring their personal style and trying to provoke a reaction.

I’ve been thinking back to the clothes I wore as a teenager because 90s trends have come back into fashion recently, and I’ve been reflecting on the evolution of my personal style. I definitely went through a phase where my reactions to my teenage fashion statements were “I wore what??” My viewpoint has changed over the years though, and now I’m proud of teenage me, for wearing whatever the heck she wanted, for occasionally inviting ridicule but working a look regardless, and developing shopping habits that have stuck with me to this day.

I might be delving back into this alternative form of wardrobe diary in the future, so stay tuned!

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Fixing fast fashion: adding pockets to your clothes

“I like your dress”

If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last few years, you’ll probably be familiar with this meme. If you’re a person who wears dresses, chances are you will have said exactly the same thing when someone compliments your outfit.

Everyone seems to love pockets, but fast fashion cost-cutting means that they are often left out of dresses, skirts and even some trousers designed for women. Visiting the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A last year, I was struck by how many of the couture evening coats and capes had pockets; private clients must have been requesting pockets for occasionwear as well as more practical everyday clothes. It is frustrating that at a time when we have devices that help us to live our lives on the go, we have nowhere to store these devices about our persons. My smartphone is at the small end of the scale, and I wouldn’t trust it to stay put in some trouser pockets. Rachel Charlton-Dailey points out the disparity between the sensible-sized pockets in clothing designed for men, and the frequently useless or fake pockets in womenswear in her article for the Nopebook,  Pockets Are A Tool Of The Patriarchy.

One solution is to add pockets to our own clothes, the easiest of course being a patch pocket, a square or rectangle stitched onto the garment around three sides. If you prefer a pocket that is less of a design feature, it’s easier than you might think to add a pocket into the side seam of any garment that isn’t skin tight. I’ve chosen this skirt to demonstrate on as I was going to shorten it to mid-calf anyway, so I’ll have enough fabric to make my pocket bags from the piece I cut off the hem. If you want to add pockets to a garment that you aren’t planning to alter, buying a piece of fabric about 30-50cm wide in a similar material to your garment should give you enough to make two pockets. 

To work out the size of my pocket bag I used my hand as a guideline; allowing at least 3-4cms all the way round means I have a decent sized pocket and enough seam allowance. 

I cut out two pairs of pockets (4 separate fabric pieces) and overlocked them together around the bottom and ‘inside’ edge. It’s easy to do this with a regular sewing machine too: sew a line 1cm away from the edge of the fabric, then use a zig-zag stitch on the edge to stop the fabric from fraying.

I am extending my pocket bag up into the waistband to anchor it more securely, but you can cut your pockets without this if you are short on fabric. If you’re doing this, your fabric pieces will look more like a pair of mittens without thumbs, so you can sew all the way around your pocket pieces at this stage, just leaving the opening for your hand.

You will need to unpick a section of the side seam of your garment to insert the pocket; it’s easiest to start at least 3-4cm below the waistband. I unpicked a section that was 15cm long, then backstitched the ends of the original seam so that they wouldn’t unravel any more. I then marked a 15 cm gap on the open edge of my pocket bag and finished off the edge above and below these marks, leaving a 1cm seam allowance around the open edge of my pocket bag.

To attach the pocket, pin the seam line on your garment to the seam line on your pocket bag with the right sides facing each other. Machine stitch all around the opening of the pocket, then finish off the raw edge with a zig-zag stitch.

You can then press the edges of the pocket so they lie flat and don’t show against the edge of the garment. If you are attaching the top of the pocket bag to the waistband, you can do this by hand if you don’t want to open the waistband up. Otherwise, you can pin the top edge of the pocket bag into place and sew from the right side of the garment so your stitch line will be as unobtrusive as possible.

And... you’re done! Sling your phone, keys or bus pass into your new pockets for a low maintenance life on the go. Now, when someone compliments you on your outfit, you’ll be able to say “Thanks! It has pockets!”

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Fashioned From Nature at the V&A

The history of fashion is deeply personal, with cherished garments surviving for centuries to give us a unique glimpse of someone’s style; a real-life manifestation of high-fashion garments that look impossible, or at the very least highly improbable, if you study contemporary cartoons. It is also global, a complex network of threads that have connected continents along trade routes and supply chains for millennia. It is a history of the search for novelty as well as practicality, of brutality as well as beauty.

Fashioned from Nature at the V&A looks at the complexity of the history of fashion through its relationship with the natural world, how inspiration and exploitation have become two sides of the same coin, and how we can break away from the bad practices that make fashion the second most polluting industry in the world.

The exhibition opens with an exploration of the range of materials that people have used for clothing over the centuries. Some materials that we would associate with years past, like flax (traditionally grown in Northern Europe and spun into linen), are enjoying a revival as we start to look for fibres that require less water for growing and processing. Other materials like baleen (from the keratin plates in a whale’s mouth that enable them to sift microscopic plankton from sea water) which was used for corset boning have thankfully been replaced by modern alternatives like flexible steel, although not before whales were hunted almost to extinction.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from presenting the problematic past of some of our favourite fabrics; the history of cotton cannot be separated from the history of slavery in the U.S, with cotton plantations in the southern states reliant on slave labour. Wealthy mill owners in the U.K. also benefited from cheap raw materials from our occupation of India, and the exploitation of poorly-treated factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

We are also shown the ways in which we have plundered the natural world, desperate to capture some of its beauty for ourselves. From the birds of paradise killed and stuffed to adorn accessories, to the wild animals hunted for their fur, and even the silk moth larvae that make one of our favourite luxury fabrics. Iridescent beetle wings decorate diaphanous muslin dresses, they were sought-after and widely used despite their exotic provenance because they were “cheaper and more accessible than an emerald or a ruby” according to a curator from the Natural History Museum in a video that accompanies the exhibition.

The exhibition isn’t all doom and gloom though; there are beautiful examples of how the natural world has inspired more sustainable homages. Exquisite embroidery adorns jackets and waistcoats, and the popularity of bold prints is illustrated by 17th and 18th century textiles, as well as 21st century designer gowns. There are also historical examples of fabrics I’d assumed were modern innovations: I love Pinatex, a faux leather made from pineapple fibre, as a material for shoes, but the exhibition features a dress from the 1830s made from a pineapple fibre that is woven to resemble a fine cotton lawn.

As well as showcasing natural materials and textiles, Fashioned From Nature reveals the unforeseen side-effects of trying to come up with man-made substitutes: the water pollution and chemical poisoning that began on a large scale with the invention of aniline dyes in the 1850s, and continues to this day. It also demonstrates the global nature of the fashion industry by tracking the production of garments from raw materials to shop floor, and the global devastation that the fashion industry can cause, from deforestation to the draining of the Aral Sea.

The exhibition strikes a hopeful note with inspiring examples of fashion innovation that combine great design with thoughtful production. A vast array of fashion textiles, from specially moulded sneaker parts to knitting yarn, can be made from reclaimed fabric waste. Elsewhere, designers are turning other kinds of post-consumer waste into high fashion, a great example being a strikingly chic Salvatore Ferragamo ensemble made a fabric derived from citrus fibre.  Other design collectives are synthesising brand new materials from organic sources, like Bolt Threads bio-engineered “spider silk” and mushroom leather.

Knitting and crochet have always been great ways of producing zero-waste clothing, and designers Katie Jones and Unmade eliminate wasteful overproduction by making their knitwear to order. Fashioned From Nature makes it clear to us that the apparent over abundance of clothing is an illusion that cannot be maintained forever, given the looming spectre of climate change and irreversible environmental degradation. However, the exhibition never suggests that this means we have to give up our love of clothes, or our desire for beautiful things.

My favourite piece in the exhibition was the most beautiful piece of zero-waste clothing I have ever seen. Made during World War Two from strips of salvaged parachute silk, this exquisitely delicate blouse is made from thin strips of fabric, embroidered together to create a fitted shape. Its style is a tantalising mix of a demure shape and daringly sheer fabric, and as I stared at it my imagination ran away with me and I started thinking about the woman who made it. Was she making it for a special occasion, waiting for a sweetheart to return? Was she having to do this painstaking work by poor light in the evenings, tired out from war work? Creating something so soft and light from an object that was part of the destructive machinery of war is the best example I can think of for the transformative power of fashion; we all have to make sure we use this power for good.