Posted in Style, Tailoring

My Tailored Blazer Project Continues: Preparing the fabric and interfacing(s)

If like me, you’ve ever dreamed of having that perfectly tailored bespoke suit made precisely for your own body, you’ve probably wondered where you might procure one. Earlier this month, the BBC featured a young London entrepreneur and tailor named Daisy Knatchbull who has opened the very first all-female tailor shop on the storied Saville Row in London. You probably know that Saville Row has, up until now, been exclusively focused on men’s tailoring. But not any longer. The story transported me…

But, did you notice how much such a suit will set you back? Enter an opportunity for all of us who sew. We can create these bespoke suits for ourselves at a fraction of the cost – but a lot of sweat equity it has to be said! And that’s what this project I’m in the middle of is all about. I’m doing my own self-guided course on tailoring.

In the last post, I created and altered the muslin. By the time I was finished with that, I had a well-fitting pattern (I hope) and was ready to finally get that fabric out and begin to cut.

You might remember that the fabric I’ve chosen for this project is a silk and cotton tweed and to say that it frays would be a serious understatement. This is important to know if (a) I want the seam allowances to be accurate, and (b) I want to maintain my sanity. So, as I begin to lay out and cut the fabric, I have to keep this in mind. First, I try not to handle it too much and second, later on, I’ll actually take the time to run a machine stitching line down all important edges. It’s worth the time. But back to the cutting out.

There are a lot of moving pieces in a tailored jacket that has welted flap pockets, side panels and two-piece sleeves. And since this Vogue 9099 pattern is a Claire Schaeffer couture teaching one, it has numerous pieces.

Instead of having to create your own lining and interfacing pattern pieces, they have been provided, so I must separate out the ones that are just for the fabric, the ones that are cut from fabric and interfacing, and the ones (actually there is only one) that are both a fabric and lining pattern. I’ll deal with the lining later – I can only cope with so much fraying fabric at one time. The lining is silk charmeuse and I’m well aware of that baby’s tendency to fray into super-thin silk filaments. Later.

This isn’t the most expensive fabric I’ve ever used (that would have been Italian cotton for a shirt for my husband), but it wasn’t cheap, either. So, I take a moment to ensure that I’m relaxed and calm before I attack it with the shears.

So many pieces!

Once I have that done, I need to cut the interfacing pieces because there will be no sewing of this project until the interior body and collar shaping are done.

I’ve never worked with hair canvas before, but since this one is fairly thin, it’s easy to work with and thankfully does not fray! I’ve chosen this light-weight canvas so that I don’t change the character of the fabric too much. I want shaping, but I want soft shaping.

According to the pattern instructions, there are a few pieces of interfacing that need to be cut from “batiste.” I thought I knew enough about fabrics to know what batiste is, but this didn’t make a whole of sense to me especially when I noted that the batiste was to be used to interface the undercollar and pocket flaps.

So, I go to my favourite textile bible and find out that I am right: batiste is lawn. In fact, “lawn” is called batiste when it is made from cotton and called “handkerchief linen” when made from flax. Bottom line: it’s very thin, and not at all what I would have thought ought to be interfacing for an undercollar – but it might be right for pocket flaps. Nevertheless, I decide that the decision of what to put where could come later. I follow the instructions and cut it out. However, I don’t have batiste lying around, but I do have silk organza which has many of the same characteristics of batiste (sheer and lightweight and able to hold its shape being chief among them), so I decide that silk organza would be an even better alternative. We’ll see.

Hair canvas and silk organza for interfacings.

With the pieces all cut out, it’s time to mark everything – carefully. One thing I do know about making jackets – traditionally-tailored or Chanel-style – the marking needs to be accurate and plentiful.

My favourite kind of marking for tweed uses Japanese cotton basting thread for lines and tailor’s tacks. Remember what I said about fraying? I could have handled this by using couture methods – cutting the seam allowances off the pattern, laying everything out in a single layer, rough-cutting at an inch or more and finally thread-tracing the seam lines. I choose not to do this. I cut the pieces with the regular seam allowance then carefully measure my way around the periphery of every piece adding thread-traced seam allowances. This should keep me on the right track when I get to the side seams which are the most important ones for fitting this jacket for me.

Of course, I have to figure out how to thread-trace the pieces that are cut in a double layer without removing and replacing tissue pattern pieces multiple times. I decide to use the technique demonstrated in the video below for the first step, but I really hate all those tails. That’s why I then do running stitch lines connecting the tails and remove all the annoying little bits of thread. (No, I didn’t do that on the seam lines on the periphery – I measured them all as I did my running stitch. See my little green sewing gauge above.)

It is after this step that I decide to machine stitch around all-important seam allowances (which will give me the right fit in the end) to reduce fraying. It is my sanity saver.

Marking the interfacing is also important and is much easier. I use tracing paper and will use one of those pens whose markings disappear with heat and steam. (I’ve just acquired a couple and am tickled at how well they work – unless, of course, you inadvertently steam away your markings before you need them as I have done several times).

Now that it’s all cut out (except for the lining) it’s time to learn as much as I can about things like “pad-stitching” and other aspects of what goes into the shaping of the interior of the jacket. I’ve started practicing…

What I’m learning is that there are as many “best practices” as there are experts in the field of tailoring. I’m going to try to figure out whose method works best for which aspects of the project – I’m not planning on following the pattern instructions to the letter (sorry Claire Schaeffer!).

I’ll share that with you next.

Posted in Couture Sewing, Style, Tailoring

My Tailored Blazer Project: Fitting the Muslin

I don’t know about you, but I just love making test garments. Whether you call it a muslin, a toile or a calico, it all means the same thing: a garment made for fitting and testing out sewing and tailoring techniques before cutting into your fashion fabric.

The idea of a wearable muslin is a bit of an oddity to me because if I can’t mark on the fabric, cut it apart to use as a precisely-fitted pattern, and make as many mistakes as needed to get it right, there’s not much point in it, si there? Anyway, I love making them and am often sad when it comes time to cut the ugly little thing apart. So, now it’s time to get on with the muslin for my tailored blazer.

Of course, there are times when I don’t make a muslin. That would be when I make a loosely-fitted T-shirt or something. But, if there is even the slightest possibility that it won’t fit almost out of the commercial package, I make a test garment. And, of course, whenever I draft the pattern myself, I create a muslin the first time around. It’s the only way to test the fit and the techniques.

In the past, I’ve even had to do a second muslin from time to time. The last time I used a Claire Schaeffer pattern was the last time I did this.

This pattern was the last Claire Schaeffer one I made. Quite a different technique from this tailored one.

But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well – and precisely.

I always begin with a bit of tissue fitting. I think you can see a lot of issues with tissue-fitting, but in the end, it has serious limitations. No one is making a tailored jacket out of any kind of fabric that resembles pattern paper (at least not in my atelier!) so it’s very difficult to work out solutions for fit issues even after you see them. That’s why I begin by washing, drying, and ironing my muslin to make it drape a bit better, then I cut it out very carefully. Just because it’s plain, old cotton doesn’t mean that I can treat it with anything less than the highest respect. After all, it will tell me a lot about my pattern, the fit and my personal sewing skills for this project.

Before I cut out a muslin, however, I always decide how much of the inner construction I’m going to actually do. Will I put on facings? Will I use the welts? Will I install pockets? Most of these pieces are not necessary for s simple fit garment, but they are crucial if I am using the muslin to perfect techniques. In this case, I haven’t done a welt pocket in so many years, I feel I need a refresher, so I cut out the welts and flaps. If the first one is perfect (ha-ha!), I won’t need to do a second. I think I’ll plan to do two practice welt pockets. (As I mentioned in my last post, I will omit the breast flap pocket because I think it’s unflattering.)

As for the large front facing, this is a puzzle at first. Claire Schaeffer’s instructions suggest that she has provided a front facing “guide,” which looks to me like a front facing, and a very large rectangular piece to be cut of fabric to shape into a front facing. Well, perhaps I’ll do that when I get there, but for the purposes of the muslin, I will be cutting the “front facing guide” out and use it as my test facing. You might want to consider this, too, if you’re doing this pattern. I will also put together test lapels so I’ll be needing the undercollar and upper collar pieces.

After the pieces are cut out, I come to the part I really love the most about this process – the marking. Seriously! First, I get out my large pieces of waxed tracing paper I bought from Susan Khalje’s website a few years ago and use a tracing wheel to mark the underside of each piece first. Then I remove the pattern piece, turn the piece over and mark the second piece using the bottom marks as a guide.

Once these markings are complete, I do need to do some machine thread-tracing so that I have some marks on the outside of the muslin jacket as well. I’ll need the waistline, the centre front marking, the grain marking and the markings for button placement.

Thread markings I can see on both sides.

It’s finally time to sew it together. I usually use red thread for the first go at it. If I need to make changes, I’ll use blue thread. Some people suggest that you don’t iron darts, seams etc. as you go, but I feel that I can’t really see how it will look if I do it. It does, however, mean that if I have to alter anything, not only do I have to pull out the original stitches, but then I have to iron it again. But I don’t mind.

As you can see from the first fitting, I had some alterations to make.

The sleeves were too big (this was expected – these Vogue patterns seem to think everyone is built like a Sumo wrestler) and they were too long (we’re not all built like orangutans!). You can see that I cut the upper sleeve at the marking for shortening (which I had transferred onto the muslin itself) and sewed it again. I also shortened the placket slightly. The pattern suggests four buttons at the sleeve vent. I think four buttons is too much. I bought four for each sleeve, but I’ll use only three each.

I also have to shorten the shoulder length. So, I had to take the sleeve partially out and then replace it after measuring the pattern to be sure I wouldn’t have to take any ease out. I didn’t, which was a good thing because I didn’t have to re-draw the entire sleeve head pattern.

I also did both flap welt pockets for practice. I followed the instructions Claire Schaeffer created for the Vogue pattern for the first one, but then I found a few tricks Pam Howard provided in her Craftsy class that really helped me get the second one right. I think I’m going to have to be flexible about using only the pattern instructions. I’ll be referring to my tailoring book and to he video classes I own.

I’m now happy with the fit, so the next step is to cut apart the lovely little ugly jacket and transfer all the alterations to the pattern.  Then…cutting out the fabric, canvas interfacing, organza interfacing and silk lining!

FYI’s

[No endorsements or kick-backs, just information in case you’d like to learn more about the things I use in my atelier.]

I use Japanese cotton basting thread I bought from Susan Khalje’s shop: https://susankhalje.com/collections/store/products/japanese-cotton-basting-thread

And here’s where you can find that waxed tracing paper: https://susankhalje.com/collections/store/products/waxed-tracing-paper

I had no problems with having these delivered from her shop in the US to my home in Canada.

Posted in fabrics, Fashion, Style, Tailoring

The Great Tailored Blazer Project: My fabulous fabric (and other things I need)

What better day to talk about great fabrics for my tailoring project than the first day of autumn? Although, in years past, whenever I thought about tailored jackets I also thought about matching pants or skirts (can you say suit?), these days the thought of a tailored jacket is more likely to have me thinking about jeans and great sneakers. That’s more my style these days. Anyway, my last post saw me rationalizing why I need to do this project and how I will begin to learn about the tailoring process. I have my pattern (along with all 12 pages of instructions it included). So, now I’m ready to talk fabrics.

I love fabrics. In fact, one of my favourite sewing-related books is The Fashion Designer’s Textile Directory.

One of my sewing bibles.

Call me a sewing nerd if you like, but I love to read about sewing and know a bit more about what I’m doing than simply how to do it. I need to know why. When I considered choosing my fabric for this project, I knew that I wanted it to be a bit tweedier, or bouclé-ish than flat or worsted wool that you see in men’s suits. I knew it would need some texture and I didn’t want another black jacket. I am the first person to say that a black jacket is golden – and is, in fact, the urban Toronto uniform from Labour Day until the long weekend in May – but god knows I have enough black. First, what else should I consider other than colour?

Well, I have another new book. This one’s on tailoring and it arrived yesterday. What could be more perfect for me right now than The Classic Guide to Sewing the Perfect Jacket?

It has 400 well-shot photos that I’m sure I’ll refer to as I move through the project. Today, I was focusing on what the authors had to say about choosing fabrics to tailor, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience. Well, that would be me.

This book identifies five characteristics to consider when selecting tailoring fabrics.

Interestingly, among them is, in fact, colour! Yes, colour is important because, and I actually knew this going in, medium or darker colours hide inner construction better than light-coloured ones. Also, just think about how a white fabric might look after all the handling you have to do when you tailor a jacket.

The book also says that I should consider fibre content. This should have been obvious to me, as well. Natural fibres can be shaped far more easily than synthetics. Since tailoring requires lots of pressing and manipulating into shapes, this is important.

The next important characteristic is the fabric’s weight. It also makes a lot of sense when you think about it. A fabric that is too light will get over-pressed very quickly. On the other hand, I’ll never be able to get a crisp corner (or anything else crisp) with a really heavy fabric.

Next is texture. I learned this when I made my first Little French Jacket. Those jackets are lined by machine-quilting the lining to the fabric. The stitches are, therefore, visible on the outside. However, with enough texture, the stitching is all but invisible. Just take a look at an authentic Chanel jacket in a consignment store sometime. They are machine-quilted. So, in this kind of tailoring I’m doing now, there will be some little hand-stitches that might otherwise show on a smooth fabric. Textured it is, then.

Finally, there is a question of the weave. A medium weave is easily pressed and will hold its shape. I would have to fight with a tight weave, while a loose weave will stretch.

Well, four out of five ain’t bad! My fabric choice may have a weave issue, but I’ll deal with it. I’ve used loose-ish weaves before.

I think it’s fair to say that most people choose a fashion fabric first, then they choose the lining. I did this a bit backwards since I had a piece of silk charmeuse I loved that I bought when we were on vacation (pre-COVID) earlier this year. I loved the muted pastels even though I rarely wear them. I also love the feel of authentic silk charmeuse against my body, so I always thought it would make a great lining. I then had to find a fabric that would sort of “go” with it.

Beautiful silk charmeuse!

I found the fabric on Queen Street West here in Toronto at a little fabric store I mentioned n an earlier post. It’s a silk-cotton blend in a peachy tweed weave the incorporates yellow, green and cream. I loved the fabric and I’m going to make it work.

Then, what about what goes inside the jacket…the tailoring stuff?

I needed hair canvas (more about this in a later post). Two weeks ago, my husband and I had a weekday, weekend away in Niagara-on-the-Lake (here’s a video we made if you need a bit of armchair travel in these peculiar times). On the way, I stopped in Fabricland (Canada’s answer to Joann’s but up a notch or two) in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. I asked a lovely saleswoman if they had any hair canvas. She thought for a moment then managed to find a bolt stuffed away under the cutting counter.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve worked here twelve years and this is the first time I’ve ever sold any of this.” This was corroborated by another sales clerk who had never sold any either. So, it was a good day for them. At $22 a metre, it wasn’t cheap (and it’s only 20 inches wide).

I also found the stay tape I’ll need for the interior edges and some buttons that will work.

I’m excited to get on with cutting the pieces all out. There are so many of them I’ll need a database to keep track! Talk soon.

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style, Stylish Books, Tailoring

The Great Tailored Blazer Project Begins: Why create a blazer?

As far as I’m concerned, there is no single piece of clothing in the world that immediately transforms not only how you look, but how you feel about yourself than a tailored jacket – a blazer to be precise.

There was a time in my life when I had a closet full of them – and matching skirts or trousers – and I wore them every day. I’m sure that there are many women out there who can identify with this.

And even if you didn’t wear a suit jacket to work, I’m sure you recognized at one time or another that putting a blazer on over even a T-shirt changes everything.

I think I learned my strongest lesson ever about a blazer-style jacket many years ago when I was working in communications for a large organ transplant program. It was a summer day, and I was probably wearing a dress of some sort or another (I used to wear dresses for other things than cocktails). I got a phone call late in the morning from the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a Canadian). They would be arriving in a couple of hours to interview me for the evening news. The truth is that the CBC was notorious at the time for always wanting you to come to their studios if they wanted to interview you and this isn’t always convenient. There even used to be a saying among communications professionals that went this way: “The CBC was unlikely to ever come out for anything short of the second coming.” Well, this wasn’t the second coming, but it was an occasion when I knew I’d need a jacket. I ran home at lunchtime (luckily, I lived a five-minute walk from my office) and got myself a blazer. Never again was I without a jacket in my office to throw over whatever I was wearing for purposes of a television interview. But things have changed.

I have noticed that the “uniform” these days for women who are on-camera personalities, especially in the US, is what I would have labelled a cocktail dress in years gone by. To prove a point – that they don’t have to look like men to compete with them, I guess – women have forgotten the power of the jacket. These days, I can still expect to see Lisa LaFlamme on CTV news in Canada in the evening wearing some version of a suit jacket and she looks so professional.

So, I love a blazer. I think you get that. And since I have never done traditional tailoring, and it’s been over 35 years since I even created a jacket with a lapel collar for myself, I thought I’d love to take on a new challenge. Enter the new project. I am going to learn traditional and modern tailoring techniques and create for myself a perfectly-fitted blazer-style jacket. As usual, though, before I begin, I need to do a bit of research. For example, where did the name “blazer” come from and when did women start wearing tailored jackets?

According to Michael Andrews Bespoke, in a fascinating piece about the history of women in suits, “The first notable appearance of a woman making a man’s suit her own was in 1870 when actress Sarah Bernhardt began wearing her “boy’s clothes” in public.”[1] As you might expect, at that time, a woman wearing what was traditionally considered to be men’s clothing was nothing short of scandalous.

Sarah Bernhardt in a suit

In the late nineteenth century, women began to wear what could be considered early suit jackets. If you haven’t yet read historian Linda Przybyszewski’s fascinating book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, and you are interested in style, stop reading immediately and go order a copy — then come back! In her book she provides some very interesting views on how style developed including references to early suit jackets on women.

Coco Chanel first began creating two-piece suits for women in the 1920s and is credited with giving the suit a boost. Chanel’s suits gave the first-wave feminists of the early twentieth century their own look, but the hallmark of the Chanel suit was its softness, its minimal tailoring. In 1966, Yves St. Laurent offered women a look that, as far as I’m concerned, cannot be beaten if we want to look elegant, sophisticated and powerful. Enter “Le Smoking.”

Over the years, women have adopted many styles of suit jackets. As I look back on the last American election and take a close look at Hilary Clinton’s “pantsuits” I wonder what went wrong with that particular image. I think it might have been three things: colour, fit and proportion. She just looked unkempt and odd in my view. Did this make a difference to her political aspirations? Or should it have? Probably not, but I’m not a political writer – this is about style, design and creation!

It seems that suit jackets have been in women’s style arsenal for a very long time. So, what’s the difference between a suit jacket and a blazer?

In an interesting piece by The Gentlemanual, the difference is this: “Dressier than sports jackets but not as formal as a suit, the blazer serves as a nice middle ground piece that elevates outfits nicely without going overboard.”[2] At least this is how they describe a blazer for men, and I think we can adopt this understanding for women. As I have always thought, a blazer elevates any outfit.

The term “blazer” itself has an interesting history. According to Lanieri Italia, the blazer originated as follows:

The term was first used around 1825 to define the red blazers used by the members of the Lady Margaret Boat Club, the rowing Club at St. John’s College in Cambridge. Their jackets were called blazer (from the word “blaze”) because of the bright red fabric used to tailor them, but the term was thereafter used for jackets in any colour.[3]

And, of course, a blazer is fundamentally a stand-alone piece whereas a suit jacket comes with a matching pair of trousers, a skirt or even a dress. In general, as well, a blazer is either single-breasted with two pockets or double-breasted with six buttons (and they have patch pockets according to tradition).

So, I plan to create a perfectly-fitting blazer using some traditional (and perhaps a few modern) tailoring techniques. My blazer will be two-buttoned, single-breasted because that’s the most flattering style for my figure. It will also have welt pockets rather than patch pockets for three reasons: First, patch pockets are what I generally put on Chanel-inspired, soft jackets. The second reason is that I haven’t made a welt pocket in decades so I want to re-learn this skill. Third, because the commercial pattern I’ve chosen has welt pockets. Oh, yes, the pattern in question:

This is Claire Schaeffer’s couture blazer pattern. What this means is that she has personally written for Vogue patterns the instructions – all 12 pages of them. Yes, 12 pages!

I’ve done some couture sewing in the past, so a lot of the approach is familiar (and I used Claire Schaeffer’s Little French jacket pattern Vogue 8804 for my last LFJ), but OMG, just wait!

I’ll tell you more about it when I get to cutting out the muslin. But, up next, the all-important and oh-so-fun and creative part: finding the perfect fabric and lining. Stay tuned!


[1] A brief history of women’s suits. https://www.michaelandrews.com/journal/history-womens-suits

[2] https://www.ties.com/blog/whats-the-difference-sports-jacket-vs-blazer-vs-suit-jacket

[3] https://www.lanieri.com/blog/en/whats-the-difference-between-a-jacket-and-a-blazer/

Posted in Shirt-making, Style

The great shirt-making project is finally over

It’s hard to imagine how innocent and naïve we were back on January 1, 2020. Just imagine having plans for this year! Well, that hasn’t gone quite as we expected, has it? As I write this, I should be finishing up a few last-minute additions to the European travel capsule wardrobe I’d been planning to design and create. However, when we arrived home from Florida the first week in March, everything changed.

We thought long and hard, but in the end, decided to cancel our big Northern European and Scandinavian trip that was scheduled to begin in about two weeks. And I had to make some changes to my sewing and design projects for the year.

Apart from the travel collection project, I had two other big projects I hoped to accomplish this year – first, the great shirt-making project wherein I wanted to improve my design and construction skills for both my own shirts and for menswear shirts. The second is a tailoring project (yet to come). So, how did I do with the shirtmaking?

I started by examining all the reasons why button-front shirts are essential parts of my wardrobe and then began to search for the perfect commercial pattern. I acquired several but settled on McCall’s 7575 to create what I called my “Frankenstyle” shirt – the test shirt to be made from left-over fabrics. Through the process, I learned a couple of new things, primarily how to design and sew a beautiful sleeve placket. These plackets are rarely included in commercial patterns, so you often have to design the pattern for yourself. There is lots of online help. Now I was on to something!

Shirt fabrics are another thing I learned about this year. I have now used cotton-polyester shirtings, pure cottons, pure Italian cottons and even cotton-lycra sateen (the blue fabric in the Frankenstyle shirt was cotton with a touch of lycra in a sateen finish). My favourite fabric to work with this year was a piece I picked up while on our driving trip through Florida (pre-COVID, I must point out). It was pure heaven to work with.

After the test shirt (which is on fall-winter rotation), and the final design that fit well, I loosened up the design a bit and created a less-fitted version from embroidered cotton. I have to say that this is the one I’ve worn the most at this point.

Then it was on to the men’s shirt. I made a bespoke shirt for my husband last year to dip my toe into the menswear pond. Then my son gave me a book on tailoring menswear for Christmas. A hint, perhaps?

A Christmas present from my son…

Anyway, after fitting a fitted shirt for my husband last year, I created a new basic pattern for him for a loose style with an inverted back pleat. After all, when you buy shirting at the end-o-the-season Fabricville sale (3 metres for the price of one), you have to do something with it.

My husband prefers a button-down collar so I have to redesign the collar to accommodate it. Not every collar works this way.

Of course, with the leftover, I made myself a summer shirt to wear with white jeans or shorts n the hottest of Toronto summer days. This is where I learned that the right buttons can transform a shirt from ordinary to special. In fact, I’m considering changing some of the buttons n some of my RTW shirts!

It was then time to ask my son – who is picky about his clothes, especially the fit – if he would be interested in me creating the perfect pattern for him. He was, as it turned out. So, I went back to my husband’s pattern and the very first test shirt I’d created, to use it as the muslin. I fitted it to Ian (the son) and cut it apart, using the muslin as the pattern. Ian is a 30-something former professional ballet dancer who now teaches, so his build is different from that of his dad. It wasn’t as much of a challenge to fit the same pattern as I expected it to be, though.

I made his test shirt from the second piece of sale shirting I had bought (I have yet to make something from the leftover).

It fits well except that the neckline turned out too big. I researched how to alter the neckline without changing the cross-back which was perfect, and that’s where I am now. I will create a tiny muslin of the collar and the top of the shirt to perfect the fit then finalize the pattern. I just need to find the perfect fabric. That’s proving to be a challenge.

Now that September is just about upon us, it’s time to regroup and begin another big project. I’m about to embark on learning tailoring. Come along with me if you like!

Posted in fabrics, sewing, Style

The Joy of Sleeves: Especially when you find the best length for you

Could there be any more distinguishing feature of just about any kind of top than its sleeves? Think about it. When you go shopping for ready-to-wear for the upper half of your body, unless you’re just browsing aimlessly, you probably have a general idea of one aspect of the top you’re seeking – the sleeves, in particular, their length.

Sleeve Length

Let’s face it: you can cut your sleeve at any place along the full length of your arm, but you might not like how it looks – or works. In the worlds of style and fashion, there are some specific lengths that have been discovered to be most flattering.

From sizechart.com

If you’re shopping for a winter coat, clearly, you’d be a fool not to look for long sleeves (notwithstanding fashion designers’ attempts to get us to think that three-quarter sleeves with gloves would be a reasonable substitute). If you’re looking for a cool, summer top, you probably aren’t looking for long sleeves, however, you might not be sure whether you want cap sleeves, short sleeves (and what length) or elbow-length. And it’s exactly the same when we create our own clothes. I think sleeve length, in particular, is one of the most crucial parts of a flattering and useful piece of clothing. And not every length works best for everyone, although a commercial pattern with a short sleeve view will be very specific. Be brave! Be adventurous! Throw caution to the wind! Cut the sleeves whatever length you want! Back up a bit with me: I’m interested in sleeves.

Sleeve functionality

Let’s start small. Sleeves are arm coverings. Let’s face it: sleeves are largely functional. Unless you live close to the equator, you likely feel the need for an arm covering from time to time. Of course, you could throw a wrap around you but think about it. Isn’t a sleeve a lot more functional? Consider getting into and out of your car with your keys, wallet, umbrella, child who has to be wrestled out of one of those booster seat contraptions – oh, and let’s not forget that you have to put on your mask in 2020. Oops, you forgot? Get back in the car, put everything down and start again. Then consider having to keep a wrap around you at the same time.

A vintage sleeve pattern – you could add a different style and/or length to any bodice.

Well, for my money, I’d prefer to have sleeves attached to my bodice. So, apart from strapless and one-shoulder evening gowns (oh, yes, I love strapless and one-shoulder evening gowns, or at least I used to) and summer tank tops (which I’m wearing less and less as I get older), the sleeve consideration is a big one when I’m shopping ready-to-wear or sewing for myself. And since I do sew, I can decide what sleeve would be best.

A blast from the past – the one-shoulder dress! Who needs sleeves when you’re in the Caribbean on a cruise?

Over the past few years, we’ve been subjected to all kinds of impractical sleeves. That’s the kindest way I can put it. If I’m being honest, I really think that hideous sleeves are being hoisted on us by designers every time we turn around.

Need I say more about the hideous-sleeve trend?

Don’t they know that a well-proportioned, simple sleeve will serve us best in the long-term? *sigh* Well, I just make my tops these days. So, when I got into my most recent one (and the last summer one for this year, I hope), the sleeves became an instant quandary.

Finding a Flattering Length

Not every sleeve length is as flattering as the next one – and not every sleeve length works for every woman. It’s a matter of proportion. And there are so many choices.

This reared its head recently – you may remember this recent shirt project. The pattern, Butterick 6324 offers a sleeve length that’s somewhere between an elbow length and a short sleeve. I opted to cut it according to the pattern and roll twice. Much better on me.

I’ve also found that I like a three-quarter sleeve on me when it works for functionality. There’s something very flattering about this length on most women. In fact, whenever I’m wearing a long-sleeved, collared shirt, I like the look of a turned-back sleeve even better than the sleeve left long. I even like this look on a man. It’s just my personal aesthetic.

I had a length of rayon knit that is very soft and has a lovely drape. I’d been looking forward to working with it since I’ve recently been making shirts which is great but different. When I started this most recent one, I had already made the pattern with long sleeves, so I knew that I liked it in general.

This time, I wanted short sleeves. And I know from having created my own bodice and sleeve sloper, that I have a few lengths that work for me. The short-sleeve length included in most commercial patterns is not it.

The good news is that my most flattering length is usually shorter than the one provided, so, I can always cut it as designed, then I can shorten to the perfect length. I’ve also taken to shortening RTW short sleeves lately.

The difference between lengths is often subtle, but when you find the right length, I think it can make all the difference. when you sew your own tops, you can experiment. I do every time I make something.

Sewing Sleeves In

And of course, sleeves have to be set in well. My personal sleeve-setting journey started back in sewing classes in junior high school where I learned to properly set-in a sleeve. As a result, that’s the method I’ve adhered to for all my sewing life – until recently.

Although I did sew with “knits” when I was very young, those knits were not like the knits of today. They were, in fact, more like stable knits of today. Remember crimplene? (If not, I wrote about it back a while ago). I mention this because you can use the traditional set-in sleeve method with these kinds of fabrics. Anyone who sews with today’s jerseys etc. with a stretch factor of something like 35% knows that this is next to impossible. So, I’ve had to learn to sew in sleeves (they are not really “set-in” in the true sense) before sewing up the side seams. And I’ve had to force myself to use this method when sewing shirts. Of course, sleeves in shirts are quite different from sleeves in jackets. A sleeve head in a jacket is so important. In a shirt, not so much.

Anyway, here we are in August and I’m just finishing up summer sewing. I think it might be time to move onto fall planning – I just hope the fall isn’t as unpredictable as the spring and summer of 2020 have been! (And I don’t mean the weather!)

Posted in sewing, Stylish Books

The Year I Made 12 Dresses: The almost-but-not-quite-true story

I’ve been sewing since I was thirteen-years-old. This you might have suspected. But you probably didn’t know that I’ve also been writing since about the same time. That’s a lot of years of sewing and writing! I started my writing career as a nonfiction, health and medical writer. Eventually, I wrote a dozen books, lots of articles and recently have dabbled in fiction – women’s and historical fiction. But today is a first.

Today marks the first time in my life that my sewing and design passion has meshed with my regular life as a writer. For the past year, I’ve been working away at a story that started off as something quite different than what it ended up becoming.

I usually write satirical, humorous lit-for-intelligent-chicks and historical fiction these days. And this book started out to be one of the former. When I started writing, though, Charlie (my main character – Charlotte to those who don’t know her so well) and her sewing machine took over, and I found myself on a journey that took her (and me) to places I hadn’t expected.

Anyway, it’s dedicated to all the amazing women I’ve met both in real life and online. There are so few novels that really are about sewing, I thought I’d share it with you in the hope that some of you might enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

THE YEAR I MADE 12 DRESSES

A struggling writer, an enigmatic shop clerk, an old sewing machine and an inspirational journey of discovery – where every dress is more than it appears to be.

After her mother’s unexpected death, struggling writer Charlotte (Charlie) Hudson moves into her family house after her older, mostly absent sister Evelyn instructs her to empty the family home of objects and memories to ready it for sale.

When Charlie stumbles on a dusty old sewing machine hidden away among the clutter of detritus in the basement, she has no idea of the journey it will take her on, or of the secrets it might reveal about her mother, her family and herself. If only she will let it.

With the help of an enigmatic fabric-guru named Al, Charlie discovers how little she really knows about anyone – especially herself. Join Charlie and Al on their inspirational journey of discovery where every dress is more than it appears to be.   


To learn more, I invite you to visit the 12 Dresses page at Moonlight Press and watch the trailer video…

12 Dresses is available from all your favourite online book retailers in both paperback and as an eBook for a variety of eReaders.


Posted in sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

What I Made With Three Metres of Striped Shirting

It happens twice a year. Canada’s behemoth, online fabric store has a sale. They clear out seasonal fabrics with a sale that a fabric-lover finds hard to ignore. They offer three metres (one metre is a little over a yard for my US friends) for the price of one. And they won’t sell you any fewer than three metres of these fabrics. This means that several times a year, I find myself with a three-metre length of something, and a sewing project that generally requires two metres or less. So, what to do with all that extra fabric?

Sometimes it just sits there on a shelf for quite a while. Then, when my leftover fabric pieces begin to suggest that I have a “stash” (horrors!), I begin to contemplate what can be made with that rather large remnant winking at me from the shelf. This time, I had a plan.

At the end of last summer’s fabric season, I was seized by the notion that I’d perfect my shirt-making skills over the winter – or at least come close to perfection! So, I bought three lengths of shirt-suitable material at the sale and began my adventure.

The first length was really more of an embroidered double gauze. So, naturally, that wouldn’t work for a man’s shirt. So, I made myself one.

But the second piece I had earmarked for a shirt for my husband. So, after I was able to create a wonderfully well-fitting slim-fit shirt for him, and made it out of expensive Italian cotton, I decided that a regular-style shirt that fit him well would be the kind of pattern I ought to have in my files.

I started off with a commercial pattern – as I often do. After examining several patterns, I chose McCall’s 6613, mostly because it had a buttoned-down collar. My husband much prefers these for everyday and dress-up. Most men’s shirt patterns don’t have these, and the size and shape of a collar that is to be buttoned down have to be quite different. (I learned this from sad experience.) So, if I didn’t have to redraft the collar, that would be a bonus.

View A has a buttoned-down collar. I used this and the single, breast pocket on View C to make View D with redrafted sleeves.

The shirt also had an inverted pleat in the back instead of the usual box pleat. I liked that. Of course, once you consider this detail, even a monkey could just turn that box pleat around and have an inverted pleat. Anyway, I liked it. What I didn’t like about the pattern were the two-piece sleeves and the sleeve placket – there really wasn’t one.

I love a two-or three-piece sleeve for a jacket – this improves the sleeve fit. However, a shirt is a different animal. Shirt sleeves are generally looser-fitting, and a two-piece sleeve is just a style detail. So, I had to redraft the sleeves and draft my own sleeve placket.

In the end, I think it’s these details that make the project.

So…what about the leftover fabric?

I love the idea of a more feminine style in a menswear shirting fabric. Couple that with the extraordinarily hot summer we’re having here in the “big smoke” and that’s a recipe for a new shirt for me.

I made Butterick 6324 two years ago and found it to be a blouse that is more than suitable for hot weather. It’s cropped and kind of fun.

Again, the details: I cut the front placket on the bias and then added those striped buttons. I ordered these from eBay last year and paid about $3.00 for them.  I knew I’d find the perfect project.

So, the devil is in the details… and so is the styling. And about that third 3-metre-piece, I bought last year? Stay tuned! In the meantime, it’s almost time for the next sale! (PS We don’t ever wear our striped shirts at the same time!)

Posted in fabrics, Pattern-drafting, sewing, Style

Love the design, hate the quality: Copying ready-to-wear (Part 2)

I think it’s safe to say that the part I like best about recreating ready-to-wear is the pattern drafting step. When I was in high school, I loved geometry, and what’s more, I was good at it. I also loved analytical trigonometry and got a mark of over 90% in grade twelve. Just as a reminder, trigonometry is “… a branch of mathematics that studies relationships between the sides and angles of triangles…” Flat pattern drafting requires all that on top of the creative aspect. I suppose all those angles and calculations are right up my alley!

In any case, as I move into part 2 of my recreation of a low-quality-but-interesting-design shirt, I am moving from design copying to pattern drafting to fabric cutting and beyond.

When we last talked (okay, I did most of the talking), I had slapped a few grainlines on the pattern pieces, trued up the seams and began to think about the fabric.

The original (cheap) shirt was made from polyester, as is the usual fabrication for Light-in-the-Box online offerings. Although it looks relatively good at the outset, these knit polyester garments quickly develop those little pills that we all hate so much. In truth, taking out that battery-operated lint remover that our son likes to call a “sweater muncher” and applying yourself to the removal of said pills, can be rather meditative. And who doesn’t like the finished product? The problem is that with these cheap fabrics, the pills just keep coming back.

Then add on the problem of breathability, or in the case of the top in question, lack of breathability. What you are left with is an interesting, summer-worthy top that I can’t even consider wearing here in Toronto. It’s been over 27 Celsius (80 for the Fahrenheit people among us) for weeks and is only getting hotter, where it will stay until late September or thereabouts. The goal, then, is to reproduce the design in a better fabric.

Forced into online fabric shopping by the virus-that-shall-not-be-named, earlier in the season, I ordered a length of a linen-blend jersey in a cosmetically-enhancing pale peachy-pink.

I had this project in mind for it, and when it arrived, I was a bit hesitant because of how thin it is compared to its original version, although I realized that if I tweaked the sizing downward, it just might work. This, of course, is my main objection f online fabric shopping. I do it, but I always recognize its limitations. I would always prefer to take a walk downtown to the fabric district than shop online, but I’m happy I have the option of online!

As a result of the fabric’s weight and stretch factor, I decided that it was best to cut it out in a single layer.

I know so many people who sew avoid this like the plague, but it is truly the only way to come close to staying on grain with these kinds of fabrics. And I’m sure we’ve all experienced a cheap T-shirt or two that went all wonky after a wash or two. This is usually because it wasn’t cut on the straight of grain.

After cutting and marking, I had the good sense to stabilize the entire dropped shoulder seam with knit-n-stable tape. I also stabilized the portion of the side seams where the ties would be enclosed.

I whipped on my favourite sewing machine piece – my trusty walking foot – and got started. The original had serge—and-turned hems. I decided to take it up a notch and double turn all the hems. I didn’t go all the way to double-fabric-turned ties, though. In a future project, however, I might go the extra mile.

Well, she’s finished now. It had its first outing yesterday as we wound our way through downtown and the University of Toronto campus on our daily 5-7 km walk.

I think it worked out well – at least well enough that I created a final pattern to keep among my collection of GG originals!

This is the second such piece I’ve recreated, and I’ll probably do it again. How about you? Any design copying in your future? Stay safe!

Posted in Pattern-drafting, sewing, Style

Love the design, hate the quality: Copying ready-to-wear (Part 1)

One of the most attractive aspects of making some of my own clothes has always been the opportunity to copy fabulous couture pieces at a fraction of the cost. This was my thought when I embarked on the creation of my first Little French Jacket (LFJ). I loved being able to select some bouclé fabric and silk charmeuse lining, then create a reasonable facsimile of a Chanel-style jacket that cost so much less than an investment in an original.

I loved this process so much that I did it again.

And even Chanel herself was in favour of people copying her pieces.

That being said, there’s another reason for copying ready-to-wear: creating a similar design that I love in a higher-quality fabric. And finding the right technique for creating the pattern is the first challenge. Let me back up for a minute, thought to let you on a dirty little secret.

I actually enjoy browsing on the Light in the Box (LITB) web site and even making a purchase from time to time. Not familiar with LITB? Oh, let me help you with that.

LITB is a Chinese-based web site that sells all manner of objects including thousands upon thousands of pieces of clothing. Think of it as Asian Amazon on steroids with scads of merchandise pieces of often questionable quality. Headquartered in Beijing, it was formed in 2007 and now has web sites in 26 languages and delivers to over 200 countries. So it’s a major player in online retailing.

A screen capture from today on Light in the Box

When we asked our 30-year-old son if he’d ever heard of it (he hadn’t) he spent a bit of (quality?) time on the site after which he said, “I felt as if I’d fallen down a rabbit hole…” That about covers it. If you’re bored and want to lose a bit of time, scroll on over and see how long it takes for you to be swallowed up! Anyway, if you do that, you’ll see why I noticed a few pieces that looked interesting.

Here are a few that I found interesting this year…

Anyway, last year, I actually ordered a piece. Since the site is Chinese, the sizing is a bit different from what I’m familiar with and, in fact, the sizing varies from one piece to another depending on the manufacturer. You really do have to look at the size chart for every piece. But what rarely varies, is the fact that most of the pieces – especially the ones that are so very cheap, which is most of them – are made from polyester. Now, I respect polyester as much as the next person for the characteristics that make it useful – doesn’t wrinkle, endlessly versatile, can have a nice drapey hand, cheap (I did mention cheap, didn’t I?), blah blah blah. And when it’s mixed with other fibres, it can add some value. However, one of the characteristics it decidedly is not is breathable. And this kind of breathability in my wardrobe is essential in summer clothing. So, when I received the top I’d fallen for, I was not at all surprised by its quality. I was surprised that I could have ordered a smaller size. And I especially loved its clever design. So, I decided I’d make a pattern from it and recreate it in a higher-quality fabric.

First up: what technique would I use to copy the pattern?

Last year when I first copied a favourite ready-to-wear piece, the tank top was past its best-by date so I was able to cut it apart and use the fabric as the basis for the pattern.

This time, despite the fabric, I still liked it and wasn’t prepared to cut it apart. Enter the pin approach.

I saw someone do this on a video somewhere along the line but had never tried it. Now was my chance. I took out my old straight-pins that I rarely ever use these days preferring longer pins with ball heads, some banner paper I use for pattern-making and got started.

I laid the top out flat on the paper and began the somewhat laborious task of putting pins in all around the edge of what would constitute the bodice front. These pins went through the edge of the fabric, through the paper, and into the cardboard cutting mat below. You need to have something for the pins to stick into to stay upright. Once I had that piece “pinned”, I took the pins out and was left with the pinholes that formed the basis of the pattern pieces’ edges (without seam allowances of course).

Then it was a matter of connecting the dots and moving on to the next piece.

Fortunately, I selected a design that has only four pattern pieces. This is what I’d recommend you start with if you descried to do this.

Once I had the pattern pieces, I slapped on a grainline and any markings I thought I’d need on them, trued up the seams and was ready to find some fabric. I decided on a linen-blend jersey that I’ll show you in part 2. Stay well!