My Sewing Roots

I like to think I have a scientific mind but I also know I believe there is a little bit of magic in the world. Likewise, I do believe that certain traits, passions or tendencies can run in families even though these have nothing to do with genetics. My nan got me into crafting from an early age; I remember having a piece of french knitting going on forever (although we called it corking), and I quickly got into counted cross stitch patterns and tapestry, not least because nan always had and still has a tapestry project on the go.

But in fact it’s my grandad’s mum; my great grandmother Florence Wilkins (née Norton) who was the great dressmaker of the family. This is her, with my great grandfather William Henry – judging from the clothes they are at a wedding, it may well have been my grandparents’. They married on leap day in February so that would fit with the fur collared coat!

great grandparents

I love this photo, for a few reasons. I like that the couple are not both looking at the camera; Florence’s attention is slightly to the right of the person taking the photo. William’s expression is fascinating, managing to look serious and yet with a quirk of a smile. But mostly I love how smartly dressed Florence is, with the perfectly fitted fur-collar coat, gloves and handbag just-so on her arm.

Sadly I never knew her, but both nan and mum have painted a picture with their anecdotes. She was a prolific seamstress, making every kind of garment for every member of the family, from pyjamas to wedding dresses. If you showed her a picture in a magazine she could make up an almost identical garment in a few days. Often she would just make things for people as well, and had a great eye for their preferred styles and what would suit them. The room she used for sewing was always draped all around the walls with fabric, work-in-progress and finished pieces. And she frequented the rag market and the other fabric institutions of Birmingham. Nan says she never said “fabric” though, she’d always say “I found a lovely bit of stuff for you today at the market” and before you knew it that had become a skirt or a blouse. Mum remembers her making a bright purple velvet party dress when she was a little girl, and knowing that no one else would be wearing a dress quite like hers!

It was also her profession, but I have no idea how she had time for paying customers amongst all the family sewing she seems to have been doing!

I think my grandparents are secretly a bit moved that I have got into dressmaking, pretty much independently of finding out all of the above. I guess a little bit of Florence lives on in me, although I am 100% sure I will never achieve the level of skill that she had. Truth be told, I am a little bit moved by it too, and I regret that I never had chance to know her and learn from her.

Twinwood 2016

I felt so much more prepared for Twinwood 2016. My vintage existence has developed a lot in the last year and I felt less of an imposter this year. I still have miles to go in the 1940s style stakes, but at least this year I had two outfits I was really happy and comfortable in and passable hairstyling (ok I cheated somewhat on day 2 with a headscarf to hide my lazy bed hair under!)

We’d also learnt from last year and booked Saturday/Sunday rather than Sunday/Monday, with more going on for the first two days and also we had booked 2 nights in a hotel rather than one, meaning I could have a drink both days and we could take it easy checking out on Monday morning. Twinwood is so well established all the local accommodation gets booked out year on year, but we stayed in the Holiday Inn Express in Bedford as we did last year. It’s only a 20 minute taxi ride from the festival and has all we needed.

The weather this year was better than last but we still got two almost identical downpours, one on each day, and as a result a somewhat damp rest of the afternoon and evening. The range of venues at the site and the fact that many are under cover really means the show goes on – only the main arena is really affected, but a lot of people bring fold up chairs, umbrellas and waterproofs and just hunker down!

Highlights include Benoît Viellefon, the Swing Ninjas, the Pasadena Roof Orchestra and the Down for the Count Swing Orchestra. We definitely danced more this year but still not as much as we could have! Here’s a little video I put together:

The market stalls were more numerous this year and I had a detailed browse over all of them. A lot of the clothing was sadly not my size, or I was not prepared to pay the prices asked given the choice in London and now having more confidence in my own sewing skills. I think this was really demonstrated by a repro piece I found at House of Foxy. Browsing the sale rail I was drawn to a familiar fabric….it’s one that’s been in my stash for around a year and a half, and I’ve earmarked it for another 1940s tea dress like the one I made last month and happened to be wearing at the time. The style and cut of the dress was almost identical. I bought that fabric for £3/m and the ticket price of the dress was £50 on sale….’nuff said.

I did however make a few purchases, just not clothes. The first I have to credit Simon with finding – a 1930s needlework bible, containing chapters on all aspects of home sewing including dressmaking and home repairs, plus a section on how to use your sewing machine which may come in more useful than first thought (more on that later). The book was £5.

I also picked up a selection of vintage buttons for £7, after rummaging through an enormous suitcase full of them. I was immediately drawn to the blue gingham ones and the small fabric covered teal ones scream 1940s like the ones on my tea dress. The mustard yellow ones would look great on a coat.

vintage buttons

Finally my “splurge” purchase, after much deliberation and review of the offerings of several stalls, was a 1950s wicker frame bag. The leather clasp flap needs a little repair but at £45 this seemed to be well priced given the average condition of the bags I looked at. It already got plenty of use on holiday in Cornwall the following week! More about that in another post though.

I really enjoyed watching the Mr & Miss Vintage UK finals this year, which take place in the Colonial Club on Sunday. There are only 5 male finalists compared to 10 female, which I guess speaks to the bias towards female vintage fashion but I don’t think it’s very fair any more – Twinwood is certainly equally well attended by both genders. Anyway it is fair to say I paid a little bit more attention to the ladies many of whom were dressed extremely elegantly in 30s or 40s styles. The eventual winner wasn’t my personal favourite but was certainly a deserving winner.

Will we go again next year? Perhaps, although I feel as though this is a festival that could be best attended every other year. It had certainly grown since last year, as had we, so it was a somewhat different experience, but I could certainly see it becoming less of an excitement if we went year on year. I would definitely recommend it to any lovers of an immersive vintage lifestyle & music experience though!

Birmingham Rag Market – Fabric Haul

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time I’m sure you’ve gathered by now that I love a fabric bargain! Sure, I’ll invest when it merits it but I also believe there’s a lot of great fabric out there that doesn’t cost the earth.

However, despite the fact my family hails from Birmingham and I find myself there several times a year, I’d never before made it to the Rag Market. Although the site has a history of markets dating back to the 1800s, the rag or retail market itself is of fairly recent pedigree, and the current market site opened in 2000 as part of the redevelopment of the Bullring shopping sites.

The market today has indoor and outdoor stalls, which span the range from fabric and haberdashery, to clothing, beauty products, household as well as fresh veg and flowers. My focus was clearly on the fabrics and notions. There are several stalls with richly decorative fabrics suitable for saris and the like, along with highly detailed border notions. A few stalls focused mostly on heavier household fabrics for curtains and upholstery. I also found one knitting stall, but I passed over this as the autumn Knitting & Stitching Show is coming up soon.

Most of my browsing was over about three or four large stalls with a wide range of cottons, viscose, jersey and lace. I didn’t have a specific shopping list but I was interested in finding some cotton jersey and stretch lace to make some wardrobe basics such as knickers and vest tops.

Although the range on offer was great, several of the stalls had the same or similar fabrics. The most notable difference between the stalls was in the stall holders. On a number of them I spent more than a few minutes browsing and handling fabric with no interest from the stall holder, if indeed I could even tell if they were around. For this reason, the stall I ended up buying from was definitely a stand out. The two men running it were engaging and busily serving customers, at the same time chatting with those waiting and keeping track of who wanted what.

This was my haul:

Large blue rose printed cotton – £2/m – 3 metres

As soon as I saw this print it reminded me of the sort of print Collectif or Dolly & Dotty use. I have in mind a 50s style fit-and-flare dress for this.

Blue rose print cotton

Grey/Pink busy rose printed cotton – £2/m – 2 metres

Another vintage repro style print, this one says skirt to me more than dress, because the print is quite busy. Or maybe a structured bodice top…not sure yet!

grey rose print cotton

Black & White musical note printed cotton – £2/m – 2 metres

This one is destined to become a tote bag for my flute/music stand/music pack when I go back to orchestra in September.

musical note cottonBlack cotton jersey 60″ wide – £2.50/m – 2 metres

At 60″ wide I’ve got loads of this fabric, I’ll be using it to make a load of French knickers and maybe one or two vest tops.

black cotton jersey

Black stretch lace 60″ wide – £2.50/m – 1 metre

Just 1 metre of this 60″ wide stretch lace as I’ll be using it as decorative trim or panels with the above.

black stretch lace

All in all I’d thoroughly recommend the Rag Market, I’ll certainly make it a regular pilgrimage. Now that I have an idea what there is I might go with more of a shopping list next time – for example I didn’t get any trims or notions, although I did see big reels of cotton for only a few pounds. And if you’re after very decorative trims or fabrics for Asian-style clothing, there’s definitely some bargains there.

The easiest way to get to the market is from the main Bullring plaza, follow the street behind the bull statue (which divides the two halves of the shopping centre, lots of restaurants on it) towards St Martin’s church spire which you’ll see sticking up. Then head down the steps to the right hand side and you’ll see the market straight ahead.

Savage Beauty – Alexander McQueen @ V&A

Earlier this month I got around to seeing the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A. I always liked his out-there designs and I had been in two minds whether to go to this show, but having read some very good reviews I decided it was worth it.

The online advance ticket store appears to be sold out until almost the end of the run (2nd August), but there are at least 200 tickets available daily on the desk at the V&A. We turned up at about 2pm on a wet Sunday afternoon and after just a few minutes queuing got tickets for the 3.15pm slot. The entries are timed, but you have unlimited time to spend in the show, I think it’s just to try and regulate the flow of people a bit.

I’m using the word “show” quite deliberately. Exhibitions to me are inherently static things, and this is a piece of art theatre. Right from the entry room, through the several themed rooms introducing McQueen the designer, McQueen the style and the recurring themes of his collections, into the finale showpieces, the whole thing is an immersive experience of sound and video in addition to the couture pieces on show.

I certainly learnt a few things about McQueen that I didn’t know before, but mostly it was an opportunity to appreciate and marvel at the fashion he created. I was particularly taken by the jackets in one of the early rooms looking at his key design features, and by the dresses in the Highland Rape collection. The fabrics from the last complete collection, Plato’s Atlantis, were amazing as well. I resisted buying a £350 scarf from the shop in one of those prints…

Photo credit: V&A

Quite rightly, photography is banned so there’s no clues here – go and see for yourself!

 

#TheWardrobeChallenge

Ok, so over the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over some ideas, and I’ve now decided to set myself a challenge.

1) To make a garment a month from now on, until I run out of ideas/budget/wardrobe space

2) To not buy any new high street clothes unless it’s unavoidable (eg. bridesmaid dress which I don’t have the skills to make)

3) To gradually sell off pieces from my existing wardrobe that I replace or no longer wear

For quite some time now I have struggled to buy high street. Either I don’t like the fit, the style, the quality or the material, or all of the above, and that stays my hand at the till. The only new clothes in my wardrobe have been bought for me (Christmas, birthday) and although I do love and wear them, that doesn’t change my outlook.

Aside from the serious manufacturing practice ethics in play, I am also a great advocate of reuse and recycle. I genuinely love vintage fashion but even if I didn’t, I think I would be an advocate of vintage and second-hand shopping (whether that’s Brick Lane or eBay). We waste far too much as consumers and I very much disagree with “fast fashion”.

So it’s either make or buy second-hand from now on!

All of these ideals and ideas have culminated in my challenge above. I know it’s possible, but it will take determination.

I’m going to be blogging my challenge and posting youtube videos of my makes, but I’ll start out with a couple of intro posts. The next one will be on my new sewing machine, an investment that should enable me to make clothes with more finesse than my clunky Brother machine would have, and the follow-up will be a capsule summary of my current vintage / handmade wardrobe.

Wish me luck!