Thursday, 22 February 2018

Put together a professional sewing kit for under £50

Sewing can seem like an expensive or gadget-heavy hobby, especially when a visit to the haberdashery section in a department store or craft shop reveals racks and racks of tools, threads, fastenings and other bits and bobs. If you want to take up sewing to care for your clothes and live a more sustainable lifestyle, buying a lot of new items (often encased in plastic packaging) might seem counter-intuiative and off-putting. 

We’ve all heard the saying “A bad workman blames their tools” but when you are sewing a variety of fabrics, quality tools make all the difference. Novelty sewing kits look really cute but they won’t always contain the best tools for the job, and the cheap haberdashery basics available from supermarkets or corner shops will be fine for sewing on a button but won’t last if you’re planning to sew on a regular basis. Poor quality pins and needles can snag your clothes, and blunt scissors make cutting fabric more difficult than it needs to be. 

Of course, it’s possible to put together a cheaper sewing kit than the one I’ve assembled, but all the tools on my “must have” list are items I use every day as a professional costume maker: they are practical, durable and help to make sewing jobs a pleasure rather than a chore. It’s tempting to buy everything you might possibly need when you start a new hobby, but investing in a few key tools to start with and adding to your kit as the need arises is a more cost-effective in the long run, and means you don’t end up with a lot of excess clutter if you’re short on space. (Prices for the items on this list are approximate, and I haven't factored in shipping costs if you buy online.) 

Here are the eight items I wouldn’t want to be without:

Fabric cutting scissors

I am left-handed but learned to cut with right-handed scissors, so they are useable, but the shaped handle (like this pair of orange Fiskars scissors) gets uncomfortable if I am cutting out for a long time. The Fiskars soft-touch multi purpose scissors have a soft grip and a spring mechanism, so they are great for ambidextrous stitchers and anyone with joint problems. Specialist left-handed scissors are also available from craft suppliers, but you’ll have less choice and they may be pricier. I've seen Fiskars scissors available for between £13 and £18, so it's a good idea to shop around.

Embroidery scissors 

I use a small, sharp pair of scissors for snipping threads, and for unpicking; I find the tiny pointed blades are more accurate than the hook of a seam ripper. My 4 inch Kai embroidery scissors are my favourite all-purpose pair, but if you’re attached to your seam ripper, the classic "Stork" embroidery scissors are a good buy. Kai scissors are around £13-£14, Stork scissors are between £6 and £8.

Tape Measure

This is something you don’t need to spend a lot of money on, but as a left-hander I prefer one with measurements on both sides, otherwise I often find myself measuring in the “wrong” direction, or upside down! Extendable tape measures are fine for taking body measurements that don’t need to be perfectly accurate, but I find the flat metal end of a wider tape measure more useful when I’m measuring and marking an alteration.A decent tape measure will probably cost £2-£3.


Hand-sewing needles are a real personal preference; I prefer using a long, thin needle unless I’m sewing something very thick, but that won’t suit everyone. John James make professional quality needles, but sell them in sensible amounts for home sewing too. If you’re just getting to grips with hand sewing, I would recommend getting an assorted pack, then buying a specific size if you end up having a favourite. "Pebble" packs, where the needles come in a handy little container, are £1.45, needles in ordinary packaging are around £1.


These should be a straightforward item to get hold of, but if you’ve had to throw away half a pack because they had blunt ends, or had them bend out of shape or snap in half, you’ll know all pins are not made alike! Prym make a variety of pins in different lengths and widths; long thin pins for delicate dressmaking, and shorter, wider pins for tougher fabrics. A 25g box of Prym pins is just under £2.50

Safety Pins

Really useful for fitting garments on yourself; your carefully pinned alteration won’t come undone as you take that piece of clothing off! Again, you want a sturdy pin with a sharp point that won’t damage delicate fabrics, in a variety of sizes for different garments and alterations. A pack of good quality safety pins will be around £1.75

Tailors Chalk

This is perfect for marking alterations before you sew; the Hemline chalk is available in yellow and white as well as red and blue, and has a slightly waxy feel to it. It’s great for marking the insides of your clothes, or on fluffy fabric where a softer chalk won’t make a longlasting mark. The Hancocks chalk is loved by tailors because you can mark the right side of a garment with the white chalk and it brushes off easily. I like to keep the edges of my chalk sharp so I can draw a neat line; you can buy a chalk sharpening gadget, but I usually just use the blade on an old pair of scissors. A pack of 2 Hancocks chalks is about £2.50


Not everyone finds they need a thimble for hand sewing, but if you do want to use one it’s important to find the right size! People with medium to large hands will probably find something adequate in most haberdashery suppliers; if you have small hands or narrow fingers your best bet is probably Thread and Trimmings who supply seven different sizes of thimble (compared to the usual three - S,M and L).I’ve also found really comfortable thimbles in antique or bric-a-brac shops. A decent thimble shouldn't cost more than about £2.

Total: around £45.

Other useful tools I’d recommend adding to a sewing kit if you are doing a lot of mending and alterations would be pinking shears, a measuring gauge, a technical drawing set square and a darning mushroom! There are other pieces of kit that come in really useful if you are interested in making clothes from scratch, and I’m planning to cover sewing thread in a separate post, because using the correct thread can make a real difference to the success of a sewing project. Leave a comment or come to find me on social media to chat all things sewing-related, or if you think I’ve left something vital off this list.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

5 reasons why fast fashion (probably) won't fit you

How many times have you picked up a garment from a high-street shop (which wasn’t super stretchy) that fitted you perfectly? It’s a great feeling when it does, but most of the time that’s not what happens. We’re left contorting ourselves in the changing room mirror trying to find the garment’s best angle, wondering what we can wear it with to hide the bit we don’t like or planning to cinch it in with a statement belt. 

It’s not surprising that high street clothes aren’t a perfect fit, when patterns are initially developed for a fit model (who probably has a very different body shape to the majority of people), and then graded up and down to (imperfectly) fit a range of sizes. Our dissatisfaction with these imperfect clothes increases our rate of consumption as we discard all those outfits that never really worked in a fruitless search for that elusive perfect fit. 

Understanding why our clothes might not be ideally suited to our bodies is an important step towards having a more positive self image, and reducing our consumption of clothing that makes us feel unhappy. Here are five things I’ve come to understand about the fashion industry that have helped me change my habits.

There is no standard sizing:
For gender neutral garments like jeans, there are more straightforward sizing options to give shoppers a fighting chance of finding something that fits. Measurements for the waist and inside leg length, as well as a description of the expected fit (skinny, tapered leg etc) help to narrow down your options (although I’d argue that a hip measurement would be helpful too). For women’s clothing sizes - size 10, 12, 14 etc- there are no standard measurements, brands can decide for themselves what measurements they want to allocate to each size. This might be determined by a profile of their average customer, their age and lifestyle, with the concept of “vanity sizing” - giving a garment with larger measurements a smaller-sounding size to encourage customers to buy it - complicating matters further. 

Big brands are likely to use different fit models for different ranges, and send patterns and samples to different factories, increasing the likelihood of discrepancy in sizing. When I was checking labels to find out what my clothes were made from, and where they were made, for my Wardrobe Diary, I noticed that I had clothes in a range of sizes from certain brands, even though my body shape hasn’t noticeably changed for years. Of course, clothing is designed with a specific fit in mind, and there is nothing to stop customers buying a larger size for a looser fit, but it can add to a sense of confusion about sizing, especially if the clothes aren’t shown on a model to give an idea of the intended proportions. 

All bodies are unique:
This excellent interactive size chart, What Size Am I? is a real eye-opener if you always feel disappointed that high street clothes don’t fit quite right. Enter your bust, waist and hip measurements, and you can see how your body shape corresponds to the measurements used by different high street brands for each of their sizes. 

Of course, the body is three-dimensional, so even if your measurement corresponds to the measurement given by a brand on their sizing chart, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good fit. If your proportions are different to those of the fit model, that can cause fit issues. My 35 inch bust measurement could easily apply to someone with a larger rib cage and smaller breasts. It could encompassa range of bra sizes from an A to an E cup, which can make a huge difference to the fit of clothes.

When standard size patterns are “graded” (converted into a range of different sizes by increasing or decreasing the proportions of the original pattern, usually designed for a size 12), this is usually done in uniform increments, which is not the way the human body develops! Anyone with a longer or shorter than average torso, a fuller bust or wider hips, can find their body shape at odds with conventional sizing. 

Clothes are designed to optimise manufacturing efficiency, not fit:
If you study a beautifully proportioned 1950s suit, a chic 1940s tea dress or a drapey 1930s gown, you’ll see that the construction of these garments is pretty complicated. Intricately shaped pattern pieces, carefully positioned darts and hidden padding or boning all contribute to a perfect fit. These features correspond to a unique body shape, and garments with many different pattern pieces and lots of detailing are time-consuming, and therefore expensive, to make. Simple, boxy shapes that need minimal machining make a more efficient use of fabric, and a loose-fitting garment is less likely to be rejected in a fitting room if it isn’t an exact fit.

People in the public eye get a helping hand:
Whether we’re looking at a celebrity at a red carpet event or the host of a TV show, if they are looking flawlessly dressed it’s probably because they have had behind-the-scenes help from more than just a stylist. As well as having clothing selected for them to ensure that they look perfect, whatever the occasion, anyone with a role in front of the camera is probably having their outfits altered by skilled seamstresses like my friend and former colleague  who runs Grace Lane Studio. Brands want their clothes to be seen in the best light for any sort of advertising campaign, and altering the garment itself is less noticeable in a world which is becoming ever more savvy to airbrushing or digital manipulation. 

It was never intended to.
From the simple shape of a 1960s A-Line mini dress to the snug embrace of a body-con “bandage” dress, the styles that have transferred most efficiently from high fashion to fast fashion rely on a cut that skims over the exact shape of the body, or a fabric that stretches and moulds to the body. Our most comfortable mass-produced purchases are probably either loose or stretchy (or both) because it’s impossible for fast fashion to perfectly fit every one of its millions of customers.

I’m not suggesting that we should all ditch factory-made clothing entirely and only wear couture or clothes we’ve made ourselves; factories have the advantages of economies of scale, bringing prices down to an affordable level, and specialist hardware, software and expertise that have been used to create clothing we’d struggle to duplicate at home. We do need to remember, though, that we can’t expect perfection from fast fashion, and it would be great to start normalising altering clothes to get the exact fit or style we want.

I’m going to put some tips and ideas up on the blog in the near future, so keep checking back, but if you know you’re unlikely to do the alterations yourself it’s worth doing some quick calculations to see how paying for alterations could actually save you money when you’re shopping on the high street. If you buy a pair of trousers for £30, but only wear them three times because you’re unhappy with the fit, they have cost you £10 per wear. If you spend an extra £30 on getting them professionally altered to fit perfectly, and you wear them thirty times (the ethical fashion community’s baseline for a garment to be worth buying), they have only cost you £2 per wear! Saving money in the long run and saving the planet seems like a win-win to me.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Invisible mending for smart clothes: quick fixes to stop a small problem becoming a big project!

It’s probably happened to all of us. We’re happily going about our business, in a seemingly well-fitting piece of clothing. Then we bend down suddenly or hop up to perch on a high chair and hear that telltale krrrrrrrk of ripping fabric, or feel a breath of chilly air on a previously well-covered part of our persons. If our clothes are particularly sneaky, we won’t notice at all until someone points it out to us. If we’re dressed smartly, we’ll probably sidle around with a jumper tied around our middles until we can scurry home to change. What happens to these clothes now? Can they be saved, or do we have to send them to textile recycling?

Casual clothes are easier to repair; a visibly patched pair of jeans will probably look more on-trend than they did when they were brand new, and knitwear or dresses can be embellished with embroidery to disguise holes. Smart clothes can be a different story (especially if there is a dress code to follow), and if clothes have torn in an area you’d rather not draw attention to, your options are either refashioning, or invisible mending. 

This loose-fitting dress apparently wasn’t loose-fitting everywhere, as it split right across my bottom while I was at work! This is a good illustration of why we shouldn’t take fit issues that lead to rips in our clothes too personally; problems with the pattern, manufacture, or faults in the fabric itself are most likely to contribute to a lack of “ease” that allows clothes to move with our bodies. 

Because of the position and size of the tear, I decided to refashion the dress into a top, but I realised I could use the fabric to save a pair of trousers (made by the same brand, from the same fabric) that were destined for a similar fate.

A key part of looking after clothes is actually to look at them; give them a once-over after washing, or while you are putting them away. It’s much easier to reinforce an area that looks a bit threadbare than to repair a big rip or tear. This small ladder in the fabric doesn't look like much of a problem now, but because it’s right on the crotch seam, I wanted to repair it straight away, before it got any worse. 

Using the fabric I cut from the bottom of my tunic dress, I cut a patch to reinforce the trousers from the inside. Using pinking shears means the edges of the patch won’t fray, and I cut the patch on the bias (following a diagonal line across the fabric, rather than the vertical or horizontal lines of the warp and weft threads of a woven fabric) so it will have a bit of “give” in it. If you don’t conveniently have a piece of matching fabric to hand, most fabric shops will sell a 10cm wide piece as a sample, or send you a swatch that is approx 10 by 10cm for around £1.

I pinned the patch on the inside of the trousers, then turned them the right way out to stitch the patch down. This doesn’t require a special technique, just a running stitch around the hole or ladder (I usually do several rows or concentric circles to make sure the patch is secure). I also stitched the loose threads in the ladder down to the patch to stop them from catching on anything or pulling further.

I was in a mending mood, so I also darned the underarm of a black roll-neck sweater (underarms are another area where I prefer an invisible mend). Mending yarns for fine, shop-bought machine knits are available from haberdashery shops in a range of colours. There is a great darning tutorial in the Fashion Revolution zine Loved Clothes Last; it works for visible or invisible darning, just choose the colour of your yarn!

Looking at the photos I’d taken of the tunic dress to show the rip, I realised the style was actually quite unflattering on me. I unpicked the gathered elastic band, and cut a triangular underbust panel from the piece I’d cut from the bottom, to give the top more of a vintage look. I also cut two strips which I made into waist ties so I can cinch the waist in a bit.

I topstitched the new panel onto the dress, catching the waist ties on at the side seams, then folded the top of the pocket panel down and stitched it in place. I finished the top by hemming it; I only used a small hem allowance because I wanted to keep as much length in the top as possible, and I did have to shorten the pocket bags slightly so they wouldn’t hang out from under the hem, but I’ve managed to turn something that was unwearable in its broken state into something I’ll want to wear again.

Hopefully my newly-mended sweater and trousers will remain intact for the foreseeable future: they had both been out of circulation for quite a while because they needed mending and now I just wish I hadn’t put it off for so long; these mends are quick and hassle-free! There’s no sewing machine required, and I was able to work with one eye on the TV.

If you have clothes that aren’t quite up to scratch, why not put aside a couple of minutes this weekend to do a quick repair, and reunite yourself with a favourite piece of clothing.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

I'm only 33% ethical: the first month of my Wardrobe Diary

Since 1st January 2018 I’ve been keeping a Wardrobe Diary, to get a better idea of whether I’m actually wearing all my clothes or whether I could downsize a bit, and to help me plan future purchases. 

This month, I’ve been working out what sort of information I want to collect and focus on, as well as looking at where my clothes were made and what my ratio of new to secondhand purchases is. I also used the ratings given to clothing brands by Ethical Consumer magazine to assess a week’s worth of outfits and to learn more about the rationale behind these ratings, and what high street brands can do to improve.

At the start of Week 1, I was away on a short holiday, so I’d packed mix-and-match knits and cosy layers so I wouldn’t have to think too much about what I was wearing. I started off recording quite a lot of information, but soon realised that this would be far too time-consuming to do on a daily basis, and I’d need to focus on a particular piece of information each week.

Thinking carefully about what I was wearing every day made me realise I was probably washing outer layers like jumpers far too often, so when I returned from my holiday I planned outfits around clothes I’d already worn that week which weren’t quite ready for a wash. I also made an effort to wear clothes I hadn’t worn for a while, and discovered that a dress I’d ignored for a year was a great addition to my work wardrobe!

For Week 2, I looked at the labels in my clothes to see where they were manufactured, and was quite surprised by the results. I had expected several items from China, India and Bangladesh, but hadn’t expected to find items from Tunisia, Morocco and Romania. The only pieces of clothing made in the UK were either vintage, or made by very new start-ups (or in one case, made by me!). 

I don’t have a problem with fashion being a global industry, and I wouldn’t presume to tell people where they should or shouldn’t work, but I do think that as western consumers we should take a bit more notice when low prices for us come at a huge cost to others. As someone who is paid a good wage and has the freedom to join a union, it is my responsibility to stand with garment workers when they speak out about punishingly long hours or health and safety concerns. Next month, when I look at who made my clothes, I’ll be thinking of ways I can support them.

I kept a record of whether my clothes were new or secondhand for Week 3, trying not to have this in mind when I was planning outfits. I wanted this to be an assessment of an average week, not an attempt to wear as many secondhand clothes as possible (although I might try this as a challenge one week!). The percentage of secondhand clothes I wore was fairly low- only 9 out of 51 items, or 18%. I wonder if this percentage will grow as the weather gets warmer, and I’m not wearing so many base layers (which I don’t buy secondhand)?

As I had been gifted an Ethical Consumer Magazine subscription, which allows me to access their product guides and ratings tables, I used their table of High Street brands to give my outfits an ethical rating for a week. Their ratings system (each brand is given a mark out of 20) takes into account a company’s treatment of workers, animals and the environment, as well as any political affiliations. If you’re interested in finding out more about their ratings system, and the complex international supply chains that they track in order to give an accurate score, I’d highly recommend getting hold of a copy of their September/October 2017 magazine (issue 168). 

I tried to wear mostly brands that were featured on this list for the week, which alerted me to notable exceptions. Brands owned by the former Aurora group - Warehouse, Oasis and Coast, among others - were not featured, nor were River Island or Jaeger. I was dismayed (but perhaps not surprised) by how low a lot of reputable brands scored. It was encouraging to see that ethical initiatives like H&M’s conscious collection merit a higher rating, but it still doesn’t bring them in line with brands that market themselves specifically as ethical. Jersey basics from Thought gain a score of 14.5 out of 20, while a vest top from H&M’s conscious collection would only score 8.5.

My average outfit was only 33% ethical, or scored 6.5 or 7 out of 20. My highest score was given a boost when I wore my Thought leggings; wearing underwear and knitwear from Marks and Spencer contributed to my lowest score.

There are now several resources that help consumers analyse how ethical their wardrobes are: the Not My Style app gives a red, amber or green rating to high street brands, and Fashion Revolution's transparency index rates brands on how much information they reveal about their supply chain. I’m planning to review another week’s worth of outfits according to these different criteria to see what else I can learn.

Other weekly assessments will focus on plastics vs natural fibres, an in-depth look at laundry, and how easy it would be to recycle my wardrobe using current technology, as well as some fun outfit challenges. I’m planning to repeat a 13 week series of weekly observations four times, to see how the changing seasons affect my clothing choices.

If you want to suggest an outfit challenge, leave me a comment or say hi over on Twitter!