29 October 2013

A Brief History of Paper Patterns and Home Dressmaking in the 1930s

Don't you love it when you make a new friend? I mean, not just any friend, but someone who you think is AWESOME. For years, two pals kept pestering me to meet their mutual friend Amber as they thought we'd get along so well. I don't really like being told what to do, but eventually I met Amber and omigawd she's amazing! We've started what I hope will be a tradition of chatting about our plans and schemes over mezze and toxic looking rose martinis, and during one such conversation we decided that Amber should share some of her vast knowledge of fashion history with you, my dear readers. So what follows is a guest post by Amber Jane Butchart, fashion historian and author of Theatre of Fashion, on a very brief history of dressmaking patterns in the 1930s. It draws on research she conducted at the University of the Arts as part of a Research Fellowship looking at home dressmaking and the influence of Hollywood costume on London fashion in the early 1930s. Enjoy!


Despite the growth of the ready to wear trade in the 1930s, paper pattern manufacturers were keen to situate themselves as a fashionable option. Vogue patterns in particular drew on signifiers of high style such as the couturiers of Paris.
"The growth of the paper pattern industry in the second half of the 19th century mirrored the development of the domestic sewing machine and the increase of fashion print media. It was a time of great development, and the fashion industry - always at the forefront of technological and industrial changes - was growing in size and reaching more people than ever before. For women in rural America, keeping up with the latest styles was best achieved at home. In 1851 Isaac M. Singer patented the first ‘rigid arm’ sewing machine (which used a foot treadle instead of a hand crank) and overnight home sewing became much less laborious, encouraging women to engage with the latest trends.

To help with this process, the fantastically-named ‘Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashion’ sold paper patterns to middle class American women from the mid-19th century. But the Emporium was swiftly overtaken by Ebenezer Butterick in the 1860s. A merchant tailor by trade, Butterick experimented with graded shirt patterns and when he moved into children’s clothing the business really took off. He moved to New York and by 1871 he had over 140 operatives throughout the States, with an astonishing average daily output of 23,000 patterns. Butterick used aggressive advertising tactics, investing a lot of money into marketing and targeting working class shoppers as well as the middle classes. His first London branch was opened on Regent Street in 1874.

Film stars were increasingly being used to sell fashion throughout the 1930s as the movie industry expanded and the cinema became a more acceptable pastime for middle class viewers. The association we have today with celebrity and fashion was in its infancy with fan magazines like Film Pictorial above.
The paper pattern industry has been inextricably linked to American democratisation of fashion and entrepreneurialism. Due to this the majority of studies into its history and significance have focused on the American market. There hasn’t been a great deal of research into British home dressmaking, which is a gap for future generations of researchers to fill. In Britain the use of paper patterns grew with expanding magazine circulation. Despite the success of Butterick in the late 19th century, they were most popular during the interwar years as a reader-service given away in magazines. Home dressmaking is anonymous. Unlike ‘designed’ pieces, homemade clothing is rarely reified in museums and likewise it’s rarely discussed in fashion history, where big designer names will always draw crowds for exhibitions or readers for books. It can also be a difficult area of material culture to study; paper patterns are ephemeral, delicate and rarely dated - all challenges for historians and researchers.

This McCall pattern from 1932 perfectly demonstrates the costume designer Adrian’s maxim of ‘above the table dressing’. Famous for creating Joan Crawford’s wide shoulders, Adrian believed that film costume should all be about the close up: ie, the neckline and sleeves were key to the designs.
Contemporary opinions towards home dressmaking in the 1930s were varied. The traditional view is that home dressmaking was a cheap alternative to ready-made which was becoming increasingly available but was still the more expensive option, as was seeing a dressmaker. However, later research shows that this wasn’t always the case. In a groundbreaking book on home dressmaking, one oral history study showed that many practitioners believed that making clothing at home provided a quality of fit and finish that wasn’t available in shop-bought ‘shoddy’ clothing. Also the variations that could be created from paper patterns (at least 2 or 3 different options were given from each pattern) allowed the sewer an individuality of style that wasn’t available with ‘conformist’ ready-made clothes. It is this creativity that people value today, with home dressmaking on the rise for the first time in decades. At a time when fashion is faster than ever before in history, crafting your own wardrobe offers a freedom and an individual take on style that is again becoming highly valued.

The influence of Hollywood is clear in this McCall pattern from 1932. The same year, ‘Letty Lynton’ was released, starring Joan Crawford swathed in organdie ruffles (left hand picture). The dress caused a sensation and was referenced in fashion magazines for years to come.
If you're interested in reading more on this subject, take a look at The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Homedressmaking, edited by Barbara Burman."

25 October 2013

Sew Over It Sewing Patterns

There's a new line of sewing patterns in town! The Clapham sewing cafe Sew Over It have begun publishing patterns that they teach with in their classes. Aren't they cute?

Open up the sturdy card envelope and you'll find a traditional tissue pattern with a little instructions booklet, with steps delicately illustrated by hand. The patterns come in seven sizes. Magically, one of the sizes conforms to my proportions exactly! Even my own sewing patterns don't do that (contrary to the myth that indie sewing pattern designers release patterns that fit their own body shape, when I publish a pattern I draft it from scratch to a set of measurements based on proportions more common than my own). So anyway, not having to combine three pattern sizes is really exciting for me!

The question is which one to make first... I was originally most excited by the tea dress, but now I'm thinking about trying a little black jersey wrap dress. The short one on the left is seriously sexy, non? Get your hands on your own Sew Over It patterns here.

22 October 2013

What's On My Sewing Table...

Run a Google Image search on "Wiksten Tova" and you'll be greeted with squillions of absolutely beauuuuutiful homemade blouses. I want in. To celebrate their website makeover, Backstitch sent me the pattern to play with, so on breaks between writing I'm making it up in a super soft ikat cotton that I bought aaaages ago from John Lewis.

It's my first time using a Wiksten pattern and there are a few points of interest worth mentioning. The first thing that struck me was how stylish the pattern looks. While the format is simple - black and white A4 paper print outs - the minimalism and DIY vibe is rather appealing. The instructions are illustrated with black and white photos and hand drawings. It kinda got me thinking that converting my own patterns from print-at-home to ready-printed doesn't necessarily have to be a major, costly operation. (Although if I do go down that route, knowing my perfectionist tendencies I probably will turn it into a major, costly operation.) The pattern comes in two versions - sizes XS to M or sizes L to XL. I usually straddle three pattern sizes, so was relieved to discover that with just an inch or so of grading I could get away with using one size. And one final thing to note if you're using a Wiksten pattern - the seam allowance is 3/8", which is fine with me as it saves both fabric and trimming seams, but worth remembering before you start stitching.

I'm really enjoying making the Tova blouse so far and am already dreaming of another version in a snuggly Nani Iro double knit.

If you fancy getting your own copy of the pattern, or anything else from the shiny new Backstitch website, then I bring good tidings! Alice from Backstitch is offering you 10% off all products from today until Thursday 24th October (midnight GMT) - just use the code WLTIL at checkout. What's more, anyone who places an order with Backstitch in the month of October gets entered into a Grand Prize Draw, with the chance to win money off your order and generous discounts. For all the details of how to enter, check out the Backstitch blog.

What's on your sewing table please?

[Soundtrack: 'Motoring Home' by Sweet Baboo]

18 October 2013

Your Miette Skirts: Part 2

Some more gorgeous Miette skirts, handmade by you! Check out these lovelies...

Anna always makes such beautiful things and these Miettes are no exception. She told me about the denim version before making it again in red linen:
"This skirt was as much a pleasure to sew as it is to wear. It's really comfortable but cute, and because I skipped the pockets, I can wear it with the bow on the front or in the back, so it's quite versatile. I chose to make it in denim because it looks good with everything in my wardrobe. The simple construction and the great instructions make it a great project for a beginner or instant gratification for a more advanced sewist. I cannot recommend it more. In fact, I made another one for myself (with pockets) in red linen, and I love it even more!"

Mary made this super chic version in my favourite colour palette - such an incredible fabric! In fact, I think I'm going to have to steal it off her. Don't tell. Mary says:
"It is my FAVORITE skirt pattern! It's easy, comfortable, flattering, and can be perfect for any season. Since I'm generally overly paranoid about wrap skirts/dresses - even though this one provides ample coverage - I put a snap on the open side about half way down. You can't even tell that the snap is there and it puts my mind at ease."

For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, looking for an easy beach cover up, check out these beauties made by Andrea! I love how she's cleverly turned the bow ties into button tabs - I must try this. So cute!

Last but not least, Zoe also made a denim version. I love how she's styled it! She says:
"This pattern came together really quickly. The instructions, and sew along on Tilly's blog, are super clear and straight forward. The only difficult bit was turning that waist tie round the right way due to the thickness of the denim....oooh sore fingers :( I love the fit and the fact the ties make a huge front bow.....surprise! I love this skirt, it's going to get so much wear and I can already see a red one and possibly a navy polka dot one in my wardrobes future (you can never have too many spots)."

Thanks you guys for agreeing to be featured! There are plenty more Miette skirts made by you on the Pinterest gallery.

PS. Thank you soooooo much for your encouraging comments on my previous post. It really means a lot to have your support, and you're really spurring me on towards the finish line :)

15 October 2013

The End is Nigh!

Today I thought I'd share a little progress report on the book, since I know some of you are keen to hear a bit more about what's going on behind the scenes. Plus it's nice for me to reflect on how far I've come to spur me on towards the finishing line :)

Writing a craft book doesn't actually involve that much writing. I mean, it does, but that's the easy part. In addition to the writing, there's also designing, testing, sourcing materials for, making, photographing and formatting all the projects, as well as liaising with all the different people who work on the book, from design and editorial through to sales and publicity. It's a complicated logistical process to get everything done, in the right order, with the right people - in fact, I had to make a ridiculous looking flow chart to get it all straight in my head before scheduling it into a calendar, and even then I need to switch processes round occasionally as different requests come in at unexpected times. Luckily I'm working with a fantastic team of people who I totally trust to make this book amazing.

The photo studio kitty

I've been making really good progress, and am now facing the final stretch. Fingers very tightly crossed - I should have submitted everything in 4 weeks' time. Woop! It's been hard work, but all in all has been going well. The only time I kinda exploded was for a few minutes last week when a couple of other projects I've got going on clashed with a series of book deadlines. It's so important to stay focused to do the things you wanna do - eye of the tiger and all that. I'm absolutely LOVING being a craft author! It is SO fulfilling I sometimes forget to go outside for three days in a row (true story) and a tub of ice cream has been sitting untouched in the freezer for weeks now (I know!!!).

Wish me luck with the final stretch!

[Soundtrack: '(Drawing) Rings Around the World' by Super Furry Animals]

11 October 2013

A Day in the Life of Mr X Stitch

Finally - this month's A Day in the Life interviewee is a man. A man who embroiders atop mountains, no less. Mr X Stitch, aka Jamie Chalmers, is known as the Kingpin of Contemporary Embroidery. Making a living as a stitching blogger, curator and artist, he's basically living the dream. Wanna know which vitamin keeps the kingpin's fingers nimble? Read on, my friend...


"Life as Mr X Stitch is very full. As well as running Mr X Stitch, the world’s best embroidery and needlecraft, I also run Rollin’ News, Europe’s best roller derby news site, so it’s fair to say there’s a lot of variety.

I try to wake before 6am if I can, as it gives me an hour to do some retweeting and processing of emails before I wake my girlfriend with a cup of tea. We have eggs for breakfast most days, scrambled with all kinds of veg in it. It took a while to get used to but it’s lush, and we have a Berocca each day to get the essential 971% of our daily allowance of B2(!) Once Mary has gone off to work as a physiotherapist, I get the house to myself, as I work from home in a nifty home office. We’ve recently moved into the countryside from living in Milton Keynes and are enjoying village life. Honesty boxes filled with fudge for £1.50 a pack are the new rock’n’roll.

There are several strands to being Mr X Stitch, and while I’d love to say that I spend my days stitching in a sun-filled room, it’s more than likely that I’m staring at computer screens and squinting for the first half of the day. I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob, having been to Guatemala and Indonesia and learning about how coffee is grown. I’m also an Aeropress convert and so I run on good quality caffeine until the middle of the afternoon.

There are innumerable factors that affect how the working day progresses, but on the whole I try to process as many little bits and bobs in the morning, to allow time for more profound writing before Mary comes back from work. On Mr X Stitch, there are over a dozen contributing columnists, so before I’ve even starting writing my own posts, there’s usually an amount of admin in keeping on tops of things. The site is over five years old and there’s a lot of updating to be done – it’s the little things like correcting the SEO on images that you uploaded four years ago… Exciting stuff!

Lunch and I are strange bedfellows. If I’m travelling around I’ve trained myself to buy little salad bowls from M&S, as they are filled with superfoody stuff and I feel fancy when I eat them. When I’m at home there’s no knowing what I’ll have. Mary and I both like cooking, so sometimes there are some pretty groovy leftovers to be warmed up the next day.

In the afternoon I’ll try to get some blog posts done. Some things come easily; the stitchgasm posts are short and sweet, whereas the Cutting (& Stitching) Edge posts are more like mini art reviews and take some critical thought. I just tend to do whatever comes next in my list of things to write about, so if something gets too challenging, I stick it in a safe place and come back to it later. Most times I can get a fair few things done, and of late I find I’m doing interviews and writing for magazines, including my monthly X-Rated column for Crafty, so I can usually find something to suit my mood.

If I get really stuck, I’ll pick up one of the various cross stitch projects I’ve got on the go and get my stitch on. The meditative quality of cross stitch is great for helping process your mental workload. I’ll often sit for half an hour with my Moleskine next to me, stitching and writing down the ideas that bubble up from my subconscious. It’s a great way of getting rid of the mental clutter and as a fan of Getting Things Done I value that process. On a good day, I can fill my notebook with things to do and get the head space to get on with them, which is much nicer that whirling around my Inbox getting nowhere.

Mary gets home around five, and I try to make sure that I can stop when she comes back. I’ve spent a long time working too many hours in the day and I’m realising the value in stopping from time to time. I might end up doing other bits of work in the evening, but the pause when we cook dinner and catch up is an important one. In an ideal world I might go for a jog before dinner as a way of compensating for being sat on my butt for most of the day; it’s either a good health choice or a form of punishment, I still can’t quite decide. Evenings are spent trying to design cross stitch patterns, relaxing in front of the TV with a bit of cross stitchery, or getting out and about. I still do the odd bit of skating with a roller derby league or if the weather’s good I’ve even been known to do a spot of impromptu weeding at our allotment.

Making a living from a website is great if you can manage it, but it’s a neat trick to generate enough revenue to pay the bills and not something I’ve completely mastered yet. I’m really proud of how Mr X Stitch has developed into a great resource of embroidered inspiration and ideas, and has enabled me to bring out a book – PUSH Stitchery – as well as get to a position where I can teach cross stitch and do presentations to all kinds of great people. I’ve taught 8 year olds to cross stitch and I’ve taught 80 year olds, and it’s an honour to introduce people to the power of embroidery. I call cross stitch a gateway craft, as it leads you on to harder crafts, and it’s fantastic to see people connect with it. I’ve been stitching for over ten years and I still enjoy it, however there’s an irony to my life in that my love for cross stitch led to the creation of Mr X Stitch, which keeps me so busy that I rarely get time to cross stitch!

If I’ve learned anything from the Mr X Stitch experience thus far, it’s that you really must love the work you do, particularly if it’s a craft and you want to make a go of it, because you’re going to be doing it for a long time. I didn’t necessarily think that Mr X Stitch would still be going after five years, but we’re going from strength to strength and it’s great to be a part of the movement that is changing the way people think about craft and helping everyone engage with the power or making."


Thanks for sharing your day with us, Jamie! I'm feeling inspired to bust out that embroidery hoop...

8 October 2013

Resources for Sewing With Knits

Are you scared of sewing with knits? While they do have a reputation for being a little trickier to work with than woven fabrics, they're really not so difficult once you get to know them. A few of you asked me for tips on sewing with knit fabrics when I was making my Breton Tunic Dress. There's so much useful information on the subject already out there, so I thought I'd pull together a little list of resources. Please do share your own recommended resources on sewing with knits in the comments.


There are some brilliant blog posts out there, including:
- Mad Mim's great 'Stretch Yourself' series, which is jam-packed with useful tips and tricks
- Lauren's no nonsense introduction to the topic
Dixie DIY's guide to sewing her ballet dress pattern
Tasia Sewaholic's posts on sewing the Renfrew top
- Steph's posts such as stabilising seams.


Online Sewing Class  Online Sewing Class

Craftsy has some enjoyable video classes, including Beginner Serging if you do have an overlocker/serger (this is the one I've got) or Sewing With Knits if you don't.


As for books, I love Sew U Home Stretch by Wendy Mullin for an introduction to techniques plus some nice staple knit projects to try.

I don't have this one but Rachel reviewed a book called Sew Knits With Confidence, which also sounds interesting.

So that lot should be enough to get you started! What about you - can you recommend any great resources on sewing with knits?

[Soundtrack: 'Are You With Me Now?' by Cate Le Bon]

4 October 2013

Come Sew With Me!

Wanna come sew with me? I'm teaching a couple of dressmaking workshops in London this Autumn. Polka dots optional...

Make a Mathilde Blouse
Sun 27th Oct + Sun 3rd Nov 2013 - Ray Stitch (Islington)
Learn to make this cute, versatile button-back blouse, which can be dressed up with a pencil skirt or dressed down with skinny jeans. I will guide you through each step of construction, including creating beautiful tucks, setting in puffed sleeves, and finishing it all off with elegant French seams. This is an intermediate level class – you should have already made at least one garment, be comfortable with basic sewing construction techniques, and be ready to take your sewing to the next level.

Learn to Sew: Tilly's Bow Belt
Tuesday 19th November 2013 - The Village Haberdashery (West Hampstead)
This class introduces novice stitchers - or those who need a refresher - to the basics of sewing, from threading the machine to stitching curves and corners. After getting to grips with the sewing machine, we will make a gorgeous 1950s inspired bow belt for you to take home.
The Village Haberdashery are currently running an offer where you can save 15% by booking two or more classes - either two different classes or bring a friend on the same class. Use the code STITCH2 when booking.

If you'd like to come along, please follow the links to book via the host sewing schools. These workshops are always a lot of fun - looking forward to seeing you there!

1 October 2013

Scallop Pocket Miette Skirt

Don't you just love a quickie dressmaking project? My third Miette skirt took all of two hours to make - it's so easy! The perfect way to spend a chilly Autumnal evening in my book is to start with some fabric and finish with a skirt. I'd seen so many gorgeous Miette skirts all over the internet recently that I couldn't resist whipping up another one for myself.

I'm definitely on a roll with sewing for my style - this is the kind of skirt I'd wear every day with a jumper or Breton top and various shades of coloured tights (mmm... coloured tights...). This time I hacked the pocket pattern to make a scalloped shape, inspired by this skirt that Casey made ages ago and which I still think about - love it so! I edged the pockets in red topstitching thread to highlight the shape.

Have you made Miette yet? You can buy the pattern here. Do share a picture if it's not already on the Pinterest board!

[Soundtrack: 'You Know I'm No Good' by Amy Winehouse]