Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

The Shrug: Could it be the most useful piece of clothing ever?

I think that the shrug might just be the most useful piece of clothing a woman could own. They are so small, so light, so packable. Well, most of them are. The shrug. Sometimes referred to as a bolero. But are they the same thing? I’ll get to that, but let me begin by introducing you to the shrug.

I’d like you to meet a few shrugs I’ve known and loved in my life.

[FYI: I used McCall’s 7289, which now seems to be out of print ―for good reason in my view―for the white and black shrug shown on the veranda of a cruise ship suite, but it was so humongous and funky, I had to make a significant number of changes to the pattern.]


So, how exactly do you define a shrug?

Well, the English language is a funny bird, isn’t it? The Merriam-Webster dictionary says to shrug means “to raise or draw in the shoulders especially to express aloofness, indifference, or uncertainty.”[1] And a shrug is the act of shrugging.

Ah, the English language. A shrug is also a piece of clothing. No wonder so many people have difficulty learning the language!

Wikipedia, the arbiter of all things, says, “A shrug is a cropped, cardigan-like garment with short or long sleeves cut in one with the body, typically knitted, for women.”[2] Hmm…that doesn’t seem quite right. It seems too narrow. In fact, many online definitions on supposed style sites suggest that they are knitted garments, and when they are embellished, they are boleros. However, that doesn’t make sense to me, given the origin of the bolero and shrug.

If we look at the evolution of fashion historically, it seems that the bolero jacket evolved from a military garment called a Zouave jacket, a garment that is not, in any way, knitted. It was widely used in uniforms during the nineteenth century and even earlier, especially during the American Civil War.

A Civil-War era Zouave jacket

If you think about the fashions in Gone with the Wind, for example, and consider the jackets often worn over those voluminous dresses, you are seeing the evolution of the Zouave jacket into what we now refer to as a bolero, which has Spanish origins. Think bullfighter. So, the two similar garments come together to give us what we see today as bolero jackets. But are these shrugs?

I’ve concluded that I have to have my own definition that arises from all of this, so here’s what I’m going with.

A shrug is a short, cropped jacket that is worn open over the bodice of a dress, top or T-shirt.

A shrug sweater is a knitted shrug.

A bolero jacket is a shrug that may or may not be slightly longer but that always has a closure at the front.

How’s that? Anyway, those are my definitions and I’m sticking with them. Now that we have that out of the way, why would you even need one (or a dozen) shrugs? Here are my reasons:

  • Shrugs flatter every body type.
  • A shrug can change the look of any dress, top or T-shirt.
  • You can wear a shrug to a soccer game or a black-tie event.
  • A shrug can make one dress or top endlessly versatile.
  • Taking three little, tiny shrugs on vacation can make one dress have four looks! (Includes the look without a shrug.)
The transformative nature of a shrug.

It also seems that people have been sewing shrugs for decades. One of the vintage patterns I was drawn to and had to own is McCall’s 5337 from 1960. I haven’t made this one yet, but I will.

And here are a few more from the 1940s and 1950s.

Lest you think that shrug/bloero patterns are only an historical artifact, there are oodles of current patterns for these nifty little items. Here are a few to consider:

Recently, I had a piece of leftover ottoman ribbed bamboo fabric that I knew I should use. I paid twenty or twenty-five dollars a metre for it, so I had to use it. But what could I make? What did I have enough of it to make was the more important question.

Last year I made a knit jacket from McCall’s 7254. It has a view that when you leave off the collar and front, you’re left with a tiny shrug. It was perfect, and I managed to squeeze out enough fabric to make it. Of course, it was dead simple to make. In fact, it took so little time, I was disappointed, given my penchant for slow sewing! There was only so slowly I could go.

Now, I have a new shrug to pair with a simple white T-shirt in the spring, or perhaps even over a little dress. Although the process was quick, during it, I also discovered something interesting.

One indie pattern company that seemed to have several interesting designs for shrugs and bolero jackets was Lekala. The next time I post, I’ll tell you about my experience of falling down that particular rabbit hole.

Do you own shrugs?

FYI

I found lots of free shrug/bolero patterns online―many were hopeless.  Here are three that might work:

http://so-sew-easy.com/free-shrug-pattern-simple/#_a5y_p=3122814

https://www.sewmag.co.uk/free-sewing-patterns/floral-bolero-jackethttps://www.moodfabrics.com/blog/the-gordonia-hoodie-free-sewing-pattern/


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shrug

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrug_(clothing)

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

The Battle of the Indie Patterns―Part 2: In which I find two I don’t hate as much as usual

I ended my last post with a brief mention of some of the things I hate about indie patterns. So far, I’ve noted my annoyance with the gargantuan size of the pattern “envelopes” (really just cellophane thingies) and the heavyish paper on which they are printed. I also mentioned that I am generally unimpressed with the companies’ lack of design innovation. Just for fun, I surfed through a couple of the websites of indie pattern companies that are purported to be among the best. Here are some examples of the kind of design I think isn’t worth anyone’s money (unless, perhaps, this is the first time you’ve ever sewn a garment―in that case, these are for you).

See what I mean about the one-size-fits-all, which means little in the way of fit at all. They remind me of the first pattern I designed using Garment Designer software, which makes me wonder if this is how those indie pattern designers do it―just figure out what a computer program can do and do it. (If you want to read more about my foray into using software to create patterns, here’s a blog piece I wrote a couple of years ago.)

And what about those cutesy names? I’ll take a numbering system any day over the Zadie, Adrienne, Kielo and the Yukons and Hinterlands any day. My particular selections are the Renée and the Esme. Geesh! 

Okay, I’ve gotten that rant off my chest. Let’s get on with the battle and see if I have learned to love anything about them.

First, the Jalie pattern—the Renée pants. I’ve been searching for a dupe for Eileen Fisher stretch-crepe pants forever. This pattern was favourably reviewed by a person whose sewing skills I admire (but my one caveat is that our styles are different). They also looked like they might be the right shape: fitted through the hips and thigh and only a slight cigarette shape, fabricated in a stable knit. I chose a ponte with a whisker pattern that I thought was vertical but turned out to be horizontal—one of the downsides to purchasing online these days! Anyway, I made it work and went ahead with the pattern.  

Jalie boasts about including 28 sizes on one pattern. Well, as far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing to brag about―just another element of indie patterns to make me grit my teeth. Just look at that mess of lines. What a nightmare! I had planned to trace it off, but in the end, it was so mesmerizing, I just said the hell with it and cut out my size from the pattern as presented. It’s not like I’ll be using it for anyone else. Oh, and they have their own sizing, so you have to be very careful of what size you cut.

And, what about their instructions? Well, I don’t suppose I really needed instructions to make a pair of elastic-waist pants so, I did it my way. When I make pants (which I rarely do), I do it the way I was taught years ago since it seems to me to be the best way to fit them as you go. This pattern tells you to put each side together, then put one inside the other and sew the crotch. Perhaps they could tell me how I would test the waist and hip fit before completing the crotch? It can’t be done that way. So, I put the two front legs together at the front crotch seam, do the same with the back, try them on, testing the crotch length, waist and hip, then complete the inseams.

Small design detail: an inset at the front hip. I would use a contrasting fabric if I ever do these again.

Then there is the seam allowance. Can I tell you how much I hate narrow seam allowances?  (Add this to the list of things I hate about indie patterns.) I don’t make my own clothes so that they resemble cheap knitwear from a Sri Lankan sweatshop. My preference would be for them to resemble designer knitwear from a Parisian couturier—well, that may be a stretch, but you know what I mean. They have only a 3/8-inch seam allowance, which is insufficient for any adjustments and a serged finish. I realize that this saves fabric (see my comment about cheap sweatshop clothing), but I always buy extra anyway. Before I make this again, I will trace off the pattern with 5/8-inch seam allowances for sure.

I also used 2-inch elastic, which I won’t do the next time. I’ll use the 1½-inch as recommended (it’s what I had on hand). You can see in the photo below that the wide elastic got wavy since I really needed to have it tighter.

And, by the way, I will make these again. They turned out to be a surprisingly good fit, after all! So, that’s something to love about this indie pattern. Are they a dupe for the Eileen Fisher pants? They are close, so I’ll look for her type of fabric and try them again. I don’t love paying $200 for pull-on pants!

Now, on to the StyleArc Esme “designer” pattern. What in the world makes it a “designer” pattern? The fact that is it resembles any number of other pieces (perhaps a bit like Eileen Fisher, but that’s another story about tent-like fashion I sometimes like!).

Anyway, this one, too, comes in an enormous cellophane bag with an instruction sheet as long as my arm (literally). To their credit, unlike the 28 sizes in one pattern for the Jalie, this one has only eight. I have to admit that I made this one last year for the first time. However, I made it in a scuba fabric (which I never intended to buy) that was mislabeled online at Fabricville, and I could never wear it owing to the way the seams dug into me. This was partly because of those damn 3/8-inch seam allowances. I’ve learned my lesson there. Oh, but the neckline seam allowance is only ¼-inch, so I don’t know how you’re supposed to serge-finish the edges with no fabric there at all. *sigh*

Not as many sizes on this pattern piece!
This instruction/pattern sheet isn’t anywhere close to being fully unfolded!

Since there wasn’t an overwhelming number of size lines in this one (as there were in the Jalie pattern), I did trace it off onto pattern paper and cut it out of an ottoman ribbed bamboo fabric I fell in love with when I last ventured into a real fabric store before all this lock-down stuff.

Once I had it cut out, I had to remind myself how to do the back of the collar. I had to re-read the instructions several times to get it through my head. The instructions are printed on the gargantuan sheet on which the pattern pieces themselves are also printed. This means you have to have a  massive space in which to unfold them. Did I mention I hate this about indie patterns??

As usual for me, the arms are far too wide―even for a dolman-type sleeve. I altered them a bit, but in the end, they were still relatively large.

This top has such a nice neckline―one that particularly appeals to my style. So, I have to say that StyleArc wins the award for the best-design lines I’ve seen in a shapeless, one-size-fits-most kind of top. Will I ever make this one again? Maybe. The next time I’m in lock-down and looking for nothing but comfort in my clothes, which I hope is never again, I’ll revisit this pattern. The Jalie pants fit the way these negative-ease pants should, but they aren’t anything innovative in design, that’s for sure!

The bottom-line for me in this attempt at learning to love indie patterns? My take-away from all this are as follows:

  • If you are a newbie sewist but have already learned a few things about patterns in general, the design lines are simple and that’s a plus. On the downside for new sewers is the fact that you have to be oh-so-careful about things like seam allowances (inconsistent) and cutting the correct size (once you have found it on the damn pattern pieces!). You have to read everything very carefully. You will also want to take the extra step of tracing the pattern out onto more transparent paper so that you have at least a fighting chance of seeing the fabric below (this can be very helpful when doing things like trying to avoid the dreaded target-on-boob faux pas when laying out patterned fabric).
  • If you are an experienced sewist who craves high fashion, you might as well step away right this minute. Apart from Marfy (which I don’t consider indie―I consider them a designer category all on their own). There is nothing of-the-moment or particularly stylish about any of the styles on offer. That being said, StyleArc does have a few terrific designs if you get away from their designs for knits.
  • If you’re looking for athletic-wear patterns, Jalie might be one to try.
  • If you want all your patterns to fit nicely into a pattern box or drawer that accommodates 6 ½ X 8-inch envelopes, you might as well forget about it. To be fair, though, some Vogue patterns these days arrive in larger envelopes than I like. This seems to be a function of which designer it is, but there doesn’t seem to be any functional reason for it.

What are your experiences with indie patterns?

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns

The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 1: In which we take a look at their history

The history of sewing patterns in the 19th and 20th centuries—and even into the 21st—says a lot about what we sew and how we sew it. And, for me, their evolution hasn’t been an entirely happy experience. But, before I get to that, let’s take a look back as I like to do.

Sewing patterns have a long history extending at least as far back as the 16th century, where they originated in tailoring manuals. According to Joy Emery in her book A History of the Paper Pattern Industry, the earliest surviving sewing pattern was published in Spain around 1589 as part of a book. “The book’s purpose was to instruct tailors on methods of cutting out pattern pieces so as to get the most garment from the least amount of fabric,”[1] not unlike the current focus on zero-waste sewing. As the centuries progressed, most pattern-related publications continued to be for tailors rather than home sewers.  

A page spread from the 1589 book “Libro Geometria Practica y Traca”. You can clearly see the attempt to save fabric in the layout!

Before patterns were available to home dressmakers, only the rich could afford to have clothing made-to-measure. Anyone else who sewed did so without the benefit of a pattern, focusing mainly on the functionality of the garments needed simply for life.

Patterns contributed in no small way to the democratization of fashion by allowing anyone who could sew (or learn to sew) to reproduce stylish garments that might even reflect the work of the famous couturiers. Eventually, however, sewing patterns were made available in pamphlets or ladies’ magazines and could now be accessed by larger and larger numbers of people. At this point, it was necessary to copy and enlarge a pattern from a magazine or pamphlet. Everything changed, however, in the late 19th century. 

In 1860, a woman named Ellen Louise Demorest and her husband William launched a new approach to sewing when they began holding home fashion shows and offered for sale the paper patterns Ellen created for the garments. 

The fact that Mme Demorest’s patterns were full-sized was the key marketing feature and the way of the future.

She was followed in quick succession by others whose names are familiar to anyone who sews to this day. (Lest you think I’ve forgotten that home sewers needed sewing machines, Isaac Singer—another familiar name, no?—patented what was called the “rigid arm” sewing machine and the presser foot in 1851 and by 1890, Singer sewing machines made up 90% of the world’s sewing machine sales, paving the way for home seamstresses everywhere.) In any case, those familiar names are these… 

  • Ebenezer Butterick launched the Butterick Publishing company in 1863. His Butterick patterns first started including a folded instruction sheet in the late 1910s—a great innovation, in my view!
  • James McCall, a Scottish tailor, established the McCall pattern company in New York City in 1873 and began the trend for putting full-colour illustrations on the pattern envelopes in 1932. Before that time, all the illustrations were black and white drawings. [If you do a little online digging, you’ll discover that there were other pattern companies who dabbled in coloured images five years before this.]
  • Vogue magazine created a spinoff pattern company that it launched in 1899 to complement their weekly pattern feature. Eventually, in 1914, media mogul Condé Nast bought Vogue then began selling their patterns in department stores two years later.
  • The Simplicity pattern company was formed in 1927 with a focus on easy, lower-priced patterns.

Those are the so-called “big-four” that remain (in one form or another) to this day. Recently, however, there have been rumours of their impending demise. I hope not—and in any case, that’s a story for another day (but I will get to it eventually). Oh, and I haven’t forgotten groups like the German company Burdastyle. They, too are a player, albeit a smaller one.

Apart from those main four companies, there have been others through the years. For example, I particularly remember Style patterns from the late 1960s through the 1970s (I even used one for my first wedding dress—again, a story for another day!). There were also DuBarry patterns in the 1930s and ‘40’s, Advance patterns in the1930s, the New York pattern company from 1932 until the 1950s, and the Hollywood Pattern company that used film stars on their pattern envelopes from 1932 until the end of the second world war.  

What happened then? According to some of the sewing bloggers I read, home sewers in the 1970s moved away from garment sewing to quilts-making. Now, as far as I’m concerned, this is a gross oversimplification of the issue—a conclusion for which I’ve seen no concrete evidence. No one has done a study. For example, I, for one, would never have done this since (a) I began sewing in the 1960s because I loved clothes and it was a way to produce nice pieces for less money, and (b) I hate quilts (no offence to anyone who loves them—we’re all different). The reason I stopped sewing in the late 1970s was simple: I had more money. I was still in love with fashion, but I no longer needed to sew my own garments to have stylish clothes. I could afford to buy them. I was also busy—career evolution, husband, son, travel, writing books. I simply bought what I wanted.  

Fast forward to the 21st century. Many of us have returned to sewing, and younger people (not just women) have begun to see that there is satisfaction in creating one’s own wardrobe. So, what do we use for patterns?  

For me, the big four are still the best syles and the best value. Despite the moaning and complaining people do about the cost of patterns, when you think about the design and production work that goes into them and the number of times (infinite) that you can use them, it’s hardly a stretch to pay even $20 for a pattern. However, I realize most of us buy them when they’re on sale. That is where the whole cottage industry of indie pattern makers stepped in.  

When I returned to sewing six or so years ago (I sewed only Halloween costumes and costumes for stage plays for my son in the interim!) I had no idea that so many new pattern makers had emerged. I had also never heard of PDF patterns (dear god, I wish I hadn’t!). So, I began to explore them. Several sewing bloggers sang the praises of brands like Jalie, Deer and Doe, Paper Theory and a whole lot more (I found a really good list of some 32 such companies at https://sewingbeginner.com/pattern-stores/ ).

But, somehow, I couldn’t get around the fact that so many of them were under-designed bags that were “one-size-fits-most.,” which alternatively means “one-size-fits-no-one-very-well.” I will admit that some of them have come a long way in the past few years, but for someone like me, whose style is more tailored and classic, there’s not much on offer. Whenever anyone says an indie pattern fits well, I usually find that it’s not the pattern-drafting that’s so good. It’s a style that need not fit so well. Tents, anyone? 

But, it’s always important to keep an open mind. To that end, I decided to do a battle of the indie pattern companies with two patterns I asked for and received for Christmas—one is from StyleArc, an Australian company whose designs actually have some style to them.

The StyleArc Esme top pattern

The second one is from Montreal-based Jalie, most of whose designs seem to be for athletic wear crafted in knits. Neither of them is a pdf—I’ll do a post on my adventures in pdf patterns in the future. 

First, can we talk about the patterns themselves? Why do they have to be so enormous? I mean, the “envelopes” (which aren’t envelopes; instead, they are cellophane bags) are 12 ½ inches long by 9-10 inches wide. Dear god. Where are you supposed to store them? I guess a filing cabinet built for that purpose. Of course, they have to be that big to hold the gargantuan piece of heavyish paper on which the patterns are printed. I’ve heard sewists complain about tissue pattern paper. However, that tissue paper is acid-free and lasts for decades and can be copied off—which, by the way, is what most people do with these new indie patterns because they are so damn difficult to use directly on fabric. 

Whenever I encounter these indie patterns or *choke* a pdf pattern, I long for the time when all patterns were single-sized and printed on acid-free tissue paper. Single size, you say? Well, in my next post: “The Battle of the Indie Patterns – Part 2: In which I find two I don’t hate as much as usual,” I’ll elaborate on the things I hate about them—multiple sizing among them—and what I have been unexpectedly happy about! Keep sewing!


[1] Joy Emery. A History of the Paper Pattern Industry: The Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. [Joy is Professor Emerita of Theatre and the Curator of The Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island in the U.S.]

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style, Stylish Books, Tailoring

Designing and Sewing in 2020: Do I Dare to Look Back?

What a year 2020 has been! Has it been a whole year since we first heard a minor news story about a virus in Wuhan, China? Could it possibly be that we had no idea what the year would bring? Yes, and yes. So, here we are in January 2021, and what have I accomplished this past year? What did I have to miss? What can I pick up for the coming year?

In February, just before all hell broke loose, my husband and I did a driving trip through Florida to visit places we wouldn’t usually go. No offence to anyone from Florida, but we don’t usually spend our winter vacation there, preferring more exotic (to us) locales like Hawaii or Antigua in the Caribbean, a South Pacific cruise―well, you see where that’s going! But we loved finding new places in the great state of Florida. We rented a car at the airport in Fort Lauderdale then hit the road.  We visited Key Largo, Naples, Sarasota, Orlando, St. Augustine and ended up back in our old haunt, Fort Lauderdale.

Along the way, I wore a few of my own DIY wardrobe pieces…well, maybe just one. And I have to say that Key Largo is the only place in the world I’ve ever chosen to go to dinner in shorts! It was that kind of place.

This was Simplicity #8601, the only Simplicity pattern I’ve used since I was in university – and that’s more than a few years ago!

…and I found a fantastic fabric store in Naples where I bought the silk charmeuse for what would become my major project of the year: the great tailored blazer project!

Then we returned to Toronto, where we immediately cancelled our Northern Europe and Scandinavia cruise scheduled for the fall―and I stopped all consideration of the capsule travel wardrobe I planned to design and make for it.

Then we had to hunker down for the duration, and out came what I have begun to refer to as my “Covid collection” sewing. These are those pieces that are comfortable and serve me well when lounging around home!

I also just had to work on my shirt-making skills. I finally now have bespoke shirt patterns for my husband and my son― and me.

These began with commercial patterns but quickly morphed into GG’s own because of all the style changes I made: simple European front plackets, one-piece sleeves, fancier cuff plackets etc. It was interesting to make shirts from the same base for two so different men―my wonderful husband, a retired physician, and our fantastic son, a ballet dancer who now teaches at Canada’s National Ballet School.

My husband prefers a buttoned-down collar, my son does not. It was interesting to learn how to redesign a collar for these purposes and how redesigning a collar can make all the difference in terms of style.

And I worked on perfecting my own personal bespoke shirt pattern…

Of course, then the pièce de resistance was the time I devoted to learning all I could about traditional tailoring. The final product was finished just before Christmas, and I’m so happy about it.

Oh, I nearly forgot (not kidding, I almost published without this) – one of my favourite “makes” of 2020…

Now, what about 2021? I plan to work on fitting pants (dear god, not again?) with a Jalie pattern, a brand I’ve never worked with before (I received the pattern for Christmas).

Then I plan to create a small collection for spring and summer, hoping that I’ll have somewhere to wear it!

And…sometime in 2021, you’ll see another thing I’ve been working on…the prequel to “The Year I Made 12 Dresses.” It all begins in 1965…

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 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, sewing, sewing patterns

When choosing the right fabric makes all the difference

I wonder if you’re ever like me. Do you ever find a piece of fabric that you really, truly love but after you buy it, you can’t seem to find the perfect project for it? Or maybe you have leftover material (from that sale where you buy one metre and get two metres free. Who needs three metres as a general rule?). These are dangerous situations for me to find myself in. The reason is that I then look for a pattern or design that I could use just because I like the fabric. However, not all fabrics work well for all projects.

There was a time in my life when I always started with the pattern and/or design idea then sought out fabric that would work afterwards. Although I realize that fabrics can be the inspiration – the starting point – that doesn’t always work out for me – which is, of course, one of the reasons that I refuse to have a *shudder* stash of fabrics. In fact, I’m beginning to think that I ought to go back to my original approach – design first, fabric later.

Case in point.

I thought it would work really well. The pattern suggested that the T-shirt needed to be made with a moderately stretchy fabric – you know the ones. They have that little ruler on the back of the pattern that says you have to be able to stretch a double crosswise fold of the material from here to there.

Vogue 8536 – published in 2004. Not sure why I still own it!

All I can say is, ignore this direction at your peril! In my defence, I thought it was close enough. And, by the way, while we’re on the subject, if it stretches much further than the “suggestion” put it down and find another pattern. Anyway, I’d made the pattern before from fabric with only a hint more stretch and it worked better at that time.

I didn’t topstitch it the first time. Shouldn’t have done it this time. (PS This top is jet black. Too much light in the photo!)

So, why did I even try? This was leftover fabric from a recent dress project that I did for Fabricville’s blog. I have not, however, been able to access that blog yet to post it so I haven’t been able to write about it here. I will in due course.

The dress in question.

Anyway, I had a whole lot of leftover fabric and since it’s a very stable knit I’d already worked with, I thought I was safe. To say the project is hideous would be an understatement. Just look at how awful the topstitching is around the neck.

It has nothing to do with tension and everything to do with the weave of the fabric. Since I had yet more left over, I tried again.

This time I used a pattern dated 2012 that I found in a discard bin when we were on a road trip last year.

Vogue 9004. This is the one I decided to make since I didn’t have enough fabric for the one with sleeves.

It’s actually designed for woven fabric, not stretch, but before you begin to think I’m truly daft and never learn from experience, I did mention I’d worked with it before and to tell you the truth, it’s so stable that it might as well be a woven.

I liked the way the design lines permit so much tweaking. And did it ever need tweaking although I cut the same size as I usually do.

After much fine-tuning, I have a summer top that, because the fabric content includes some natural fibre (why is that so hard to get sometimes?), I have a new summer top.

Although I could certainly get along this year without any new summer clothes, isn’t it nice to have something new to wear for a new season? With all this COVID-related isolation, I haven’t been able to enjoy a shopping experience thus it’s back to shopping my closet as they say– with a few pieces from my own sewing machine added in for good measure.  

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Style

COVID Couture: Designs for Lockdown Life

At this very moment, I should be writing about a project I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I should be sharing with you the colour palette and design inspiration for my Fall 2020 European Travel Capsule – a plan I have for a tightly edited group of travel-worthy clothing (including both ready-to-wear and my own design-sew plans) for an upcoming adventure to Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Sadly, however, the moment we arrived home from our winter getaway, we saw the handwriting on the wall and cancelled the fall holiday. I’m not going to be needing that capsule this year. Maybe next year. So, where did that leave my project plans?

[Yes, that’s Ines de la Fressange, my inspiration for the European capsule!]

Well, I could begin my tailoring adventure. There are two problems with the timing of this project: first, I don’t want to buy the fabric for my new blazer without actually seeing and feeling it so that’s out of the question at the moment (truthfully though, I might relent here at some point in the next two months if things don’t change); second, I have absolutely no place to wear a bespoke blazer at this time.

Taking into consideration the events that fill my days at present and the places I’m going (or to be more accurate places I’m not going) I need to rethink the whole design and sew aspect of my life. That’s where COVID Couture comes in. Let me start by reminding myself of what, exactly the term couture means.

Although the term might conjure images of models sauntering down runways in the latest Dior, Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana, it really is simpler than that. The term couture should not be confused with haute couture, the word that you would, in fact, use to describe the aforementioned Dior etc. Couture is a French word that translates into English as “sewing” in its most literal sense. Haute couture translates literally as “high sewing” and that’s what they do in those fashion houses (although the term haute couture can be legally applied to only a handful of houses that have achieved that designation).

The online dictionary defines the word couture as “…the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements…fashionable made-to-measure clothes…” Okay, that’s what I do. I design and create made-to-measure clothes for myself. And the fact that we are in the middle of a COVID pandemic and require different kinds of clothes at this point in our lives, any clothes I make for use in the short term are, by definition, COVID couture. So, here’s how I’m going to define COVID Couture:

…the design and creation of fashionable, made-to-measure clothing that makes the wearer feel comfortable, relaxed and calm while still being presentable enough for a Zoom meeting…

Enter the perfect fabric. It so happened that I had bought two lengths of complementary striped bamboo knit with a brushed back. What could be more comfortable and relaxing than the softest bamboo fabric you could imagine? I wish you could reach out and feel this fabric. Then all I needed were two or three patterns to choose from.

I first created a tunic with a wide cowl neckline from Kwik Sew 4189. I liked the cowl neckline and the tunic length.


The fabric is quite fine and very stretchy so I had to first, cut it out in a single layer, and second, be very careful about not stretching it even more as I sewed. I ended up stabilizing the side seams with Knit-n-Stable™ tape which was a great decision. Putting it in the hemline might not have been such a good idea as you can see from the photos – it remains a bit wavy. In my defence, the stretchy fabric with a bias hemline is a recipe for waves under any circumstances!

I used the two different stripes for what I think is an interesting effect. The piece is beyond comfortable to wear, but now that the spring has arrived, the cowl neckline doesn’t seem right to me.

So, I looked to another pattern for a piece I can wear under a little jacket on cool spring days and at home.

I had picked up McCalls 7975 a few months ago because I liked the front twist and the sleeve variations. I thought it had possibilities. Again, I had to cut it out in a single layer which wasn’t really a stretch (sorry about the pun) in this pattern since the whole front is one piece anyway.

Leftover fabric!

Because I was using leftover material, I knew I wouldn’t have enough of either stripe to do the whole thing but not to worry: I simply put the variation on the back. I do like how it turned out.

This time, I stabilized only the shoulder seams. And rather than serge the hem before turning it, I turned it twice and this seemed to give the hem more stability. Overall, the fit is generous – I had to take in the side seams twice and probably could have done more. That being said, this is another wonderfully comfortable piece that I will certainly wear on Zoom for my next board meeting.

I also took another piece of bamboo knit – this time French terry – and made myself a new bathrobe. I think this qualifies as COVID Couture as well!

Okay, time to get serious – I only need so many comfy tops and robes (what I really need is a silk robe). I’ll have to start thinking about re-entry into a more normal life. Or at least something I can wear to the grocery store on a summery day! Stay safe out there!

Posted in sewing, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

The Perfect Shirt: Why it isn’t a blouse

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

The good news: today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. The bad news: covid-19. The less said about the latter the better. So, I’m moving toward my holy grail: the perfect shirt. I have the perfect fabric and I’ve created a pattern for a shirt that fits me perfectly. What more could I want? Isn’t it time to make that final shirt? Not quite. I have one more avenue of research to pursue. I’m making one final test shirt with the pattern edited to accommodate a finer, drapier, dare I say blousier fabric. This is in case I think my first-pass perfection isn’t quite perfect. So, is it still a shirt?

I need to back up in my research a bit. What are the characteristics of a shirt that makes it a shirt? The word shirt is used as a catch-all to describe any kind of garment one wears on top. However, this isn’t precise enough. A T-shirt, while being a kind of shirt, isn’t really a shirt. It’s, well, a T-shirt. A halter top can be described generically as a shirt, but it’s, well, a halter-top!

So back to my definition of the perfect “shirt.”

My first test shirt reviewed.
  • First, there is the design. Shirts, by definition, have a crisp, tailored style with buttons down the front. They have collars, although the style of the collar can vary. They are traditionally closely tailored (which as far as I’m concerned is a characteristic of a “perfect” shirt) but they can also be over-sized. I have room in my wardrobe for these over-sized shirts, but they’re not “perfect” shirts for me.
  • Second, there is the fabric as I discussed previously. In general terms, “shirts” are made from woven fabrics. That being said, we now find shirts made from stable knits. These are garments that are shaped like what we know as a shirt, but the fabric stretches. They’re often a bit like a hybrid between a T-shirt and a shirt.

What, then is a blouse? A blouse is a type of upper-body garment that can be rendered in a variety of styles (even styled like a shirt) but is fabricated from a softer, drapier fabric that is more forgiving to the body. It has the added characteristic of being able to “blouse” over a waistline if you choose to wear it like that. In fact, the dictionary defines a blouse as a “loose-fitting garment resembling a shirt that is usually worn by women…”

Before I settle on a final design for the pattern, I need to make a few edits and create one final test. Here are the changes I make to the pattern to turn it into more of a blouse:

  • I omit the waist darts. Taking these out is taking a chance. However, I’ll mark them and put them in at the time of the final fitting if it doesn’t work.
  • I manipulate the yoke out and into shoulder darts. Yokes scream “shirt” and are a men’s design detail that one generally does not find in a blouse that doesn’t need that extra support (unless it’s used as a design feature).
  • I should probably lengthen it an inch or two but in the end, decide to leave the length as is.

I also need different fabric. I fell I love with a gauzy cotton embroidered with turtles. Yes, turtles! I rarely wear patterns of any kind – they are so not me – but this one looked like it could make a cool, airy summer blouse/shirt.

So, I ordered it, washed and dried it (after doing a 4-inch square test piece), ironed it and laid it out. I even decided to ensure that there is one turtle at the to of each sleeve placket. Cute, no?

Without a yoke or waist darts, the sewing is quick and easy. I finish it in no time. There is just one problem. I have two sets of buttons I could use but neither one really does it for me.

neither of these buttons is really right.

So, I decide we should take a nice spring walk downtown to the fabric district where my favourite button store is located. There is only one problem: everything is closed. Can you say covid-19?

Oh well, I’m not going to be wearing it any time soon, so I’ll wait rather than using second best.

If you look closely, you can see that I’m wearing it with pins! Buttons to come.

My conclusion is that I now have a great pattern for a silk blouse but I’m going to stick with the yoke for the final perfect shirt – and probably the waist darts. I can’t wait to get to the final shirt. I just love the fabric!

Posted in fabrics, sewing patterns, Shirt-making, Style

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Continues: Enter the planning of the “frankenstyle” test shirt

The quest for the perfect shirt has to be taken seriously, one step at a time, perfecting each component: style details, fabric and possibly most important of all, fit. At least that’s how I’m approaching this project.

When last we spoke (okay, I did all the talking) I had taken a trip down memory lane to view the iconic appearances of the button-up shirt on iconic twentieth-century women. From there, I reviewed the finer points of where and how a shirt like this ought to fit. Now it’s time I got started on one of my own.

As I mentioned, I had a look at the commercial patterns I already owned. On final consideration, I decided to use McCall’s 7575 as a starting point.

I begin with design details.

As I look more closely at the pattern, I realize that the first change I have to make is a basic style one: I want a clean front on my perfect shirt pattern. A clean front is more European. This means I have to get rid of the band running down the front and rework the pattern accordingly. I can always add a band for future designs.

Original line art

The next design detail I examine is those breast pockets. Can we talk about pockets for a moment? I’ve noted that many women say they love pockets but what they really mean is that they love pockets in a skirt (and trousers and jackets perhaps). The question I have is this: do they really like pockets in shirts where said pockets are essentially useless and often serve only to increase the visual aspects of one’s chest? I think not. I think that they haven’t thought their general love of pockets through. I’m not a big fan of breast pockets on women’s shirts or blouses in general. I certainly put one on my husband’s perfect shirt because he uses it to stick his glasses in and won’t actually buy a shirt that doesn’t have a left-sided breast pocket (except for the odd dress shirt). But what about me? No. Uh-uh. No breast pockets for me. So, I ditch the breast pocket – at least for this go-around.

Another design detail: Go back up and have a close look at the original line art. It shows a little bias strip as a placket thingy on the sleeves. I feel that this is a bit of a cop-out. There are so many wonderful shapes and types of plackets. I think I’ll change this.

Finally, still with those sleeves, I’m not a big fan of the one-pleat-on-one-side-of-the-placket (and the other one on the other side of the placket) design. This was the approach that I used on my man’s shirt project but it looks a bit odd to me on a women’s shirt. I could use gathering, but I think that style is more for flowing blouse fabrics rather than crisp shirting. Anyway, I prefer pleats – so much cleaner and crisper in general. I will also put both of the pleats on the front of the sleeve.

I think I’ll go with the shape of the collar for this first draft but I’ll revisit it later. And I’m keeping the yoke – for now. It’s a design feature that I like in some, but not all, shirts.

Here’s my cleaned-up line art:

So, now it’s on to the fit issues!

Still with those sleeves. Dear god – why do commercial pattern companies (and the indie pattern-makers are no better) seem to think we all need sleeve bicep measurement that would fit a Sumo wrestler? So, it’s onto the drawing board to recut the sleeve pattern to more suit my style – and size.

With the sleeve pattern recut, I just need to tweak the waist darts and I’m ready to move onto consideration #3: fabric.

Let’s face it, the term “wearable muslin” is a bit of an oxymoron – either it’s a muslin that you’re willing to cut apart and use for the final pattern, or it’s a wearable shirt that you construct from some kind of fabric you’re willing to be seen in in public. That’s my usual approach. So I’m going to call this a “test garment” rather than a toile or muslin. That gets me off the hook in case it is actually wearable. But I’m not willing to spend any money on this kind of test. Enter the remnant box.

I’m not a fabric stasher (*shudder*) but I don’t throw out reasonably-sized pieces of leftover fabric – that is, of course, unless it’s hideous to work with like the scuba fabric top that I never even wrote about in this space. I should since there’s much for me to learn, but I probably won’t because then I’d have to think about it again and that would seriously hurt my head. I digress. I need fabric for my test shirt.

So, as I examine the remnants I have I’m looking for pieces that have some kind of compatible aesthetic and that have compatible fabric content. I have to find a few pieces that are cotton or at the very least cotton with a touch of spandex (I happen to know that I have only one such piece). This is the fun part of the test shirt.

I love the idea of creatively putting the pieces together. This is the perfect opportunity to practice this kind of aesthetic exercise as I look for pieces of fabric for the body, the collar, yoke, undercollar, sleeves, cuffs and placket.

Remember Frankenstein’s monster? This is not to be confused with dear Dr. Frankenstein himself. He created the monster that was composed of pieces of other bodies. So, I plan to create “frankenstyle” garment.

I decide to use the following pieces:

I have a largish piece of cotton sateen that has a touch of lycra for a soupcon of cross-body stretch. It’s little enough that it passes for a non-stretch woven.

Blue cotton sateen from the sloper in progress

I have a very small piece of leftover Italian cotton from my husband’s shirt and since it cost $80 a metre, I kept it anyway. I will use this for small parts.

I also have some black and white-black striped shirting from a previous shirt-type project.

It’s a very interesting exercise to think about which fabric will be the body – front and/or back. Which one the sleeves, which one would look best as the collar? Undercollar?

Old line art!

Well, I figured it out and proceeded to cut and sew. I’ll reveal the final result next time! Now I’m off to warmer climes for a few weeks!