I know, I know. I promised that my next post would be about fabric shopping for the fall and winter sewing in Montreal. And that’s coming next, but I had to stop for a moment after returning from Montreal to catch my breath and realize that today is launch day for my newest book.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that my passions are fashion design, sewing and writing. I’ve been a writer for over thirty years, and recently, I’ve been inspired by my other two passions. That’s how The Year I Made 12 Dresses began. And when that book launched, I thought I was finished with the character Charlotte (Charlie) Hudson, who spent a year clearing out her late mother’s house, learning her mother’s secrets and discovering a love of sewing―12 dresses, to be specific.
Well, I thought I was finished with Charlie, but she wasn’t finished with me. She kept talking in my head until I wrote the prequel―her mother, Kat’s story. So, Kat’s Kosmic Blues began in 1965 and followed Kat from small-town Canada to Toronto, then to New York to study fashion design at the Parsons School. But if you read that book, you’ll know that Kat learned a crucial lesson: If you want to make god laugh, tell her your plans. Charlie learned so much more about her mother.
Now there’s Frannie, Charlie’s great-grandmother.
In The Year I Made 12 Dresses, Charlie thought she’d learned all about her late mother until she discovered that there was much more to her mother, Kat Hudson, than she could ever have imagined. Could there be any more family secrets? Charlie thinks not until she discovers her great-grandmother, Frannie Phillips’s stash of eight couture dresses and a grainy photograph that seems to suggest that Frannie survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Just when Charlie thinks there can be no more skeletons in her family’s closet, she is drawn into Frannie’s incredible life.
So, there are eight couture dresses, Frannie’s passion for becoming a dressmaker, her upper-class British parents who disapprove and a rebellious streak that seems to know no bounds. Well, here’s a bit more. If you love fashion and sewing, I think this might be the next book to put on your reading list!
Of course, if you’re really keen to read it, you can find it on your favourite online bookseller’s site.
I can’t lie. I’m a bit of a nerd. I always have been and always will be. But I’m not apologizing. I love a good book, and good books about sewing and fashion have pride of place on my bookshelves. I was pulling a couple last week when I thought I might share some of my favourite tidbits―for a bit of instruction and a lot of inspiration. Here they are.
Barbara Emodi’s book, Sew…The Garment Making Book of Knowledge (I reviewed it in a previous post and highly recommend it), is required reading for anyone who sews.
Not only is it instructive, but it also contains the wisdom that can be cultivated only in someone who is passionate about this sewing journey and has been on it for decades. Here are my favourite tips from her book.
Here are my favourite bits from her words of wisdom:
“If you wouldn’t buy it, don’t make it.” This is an extraordinarily useful piece of wisdom. Why is it that we look at a pattern sometimes and think, I should make that despite it being utterly useless in our lives? My penchant for making dresses comes to mind.
“Sew for other people only if you decide you want to make them something.” I rarely sew for others, but when I do, it’s because I’ve decided to try something out for my husband or son. In my younger years, I sewed my sister’s wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses (the horror of all that satin I would never have chosen), a prom dress for another sister (miles and miles of stretch fabric to make a Vogue designer dress). You don’t get to make the design and fabric choices, which is where the problem lies.
“Keep trying new things [styles or trends], but don’t let it override your good sense of what does and doesn’t suit your body and your life.” Good sense never goes astray in my life!
Linda Lee’s book, Sewing Knits from Fit to Finish, was my go-to when I returned to sewing and began sewing with the new knits. Here are my favourite bits of wisdom from her book.
“It is important to understand the compatibility of your pattern and fabric. You could make the same pattern in five different fabrics, and it would probably fit five different ways.” Amen to this one. I think that this might be one of the most challenging concepts for new sewers to understand. If a pattern is designed for a fabric with a specific amount of stretch (or non at all), the design itself would have included the amount of ease necessary to accommodate it (ease=the amount of room a garment has in it beyond the body measurements. A very fitted design for knits fabrics might even have negative ease meaning that it stretches over the body rather than skimming it.)
“Knits are best cut out in a single layer of fabric.” Dear god, I know this is true. Why is it that I ignore it so often? I know why. Sheer laziness. These days, I often cut out my knits in a single layer, especially if they’re thin. However, pontes and other stable knits can be treated like wovens and cut out double layered. But I do need to keep repeating this as a kind of mantra. Single layer. Single layer. Single layer.
And finally, Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr’s book, A Stylish Guide to Fashion Sewing, is great fun and loads of inspiration. Speaking of inspiration, here are my favourite “quoted quotes” that they sprinkle throughout the book.
“Dressing well is a form of good manners” ~Tom Ford
“It’s not about the dress you wear. It’s about the life you lead in the dress.” ~Diana Freeland
I find a good book endlessly inspirational and frequently extraordinarily instructive. Happy reading! (and sewing!)
Anyone who has read my blog more than a few times will know that I spend some of my life designing and sewing and a lot of my life writing. I’ve been writing books for over 30 years. I started as a health and business writer (you can even see some of my nonfiction books if you visit my web site patriciajparsons.com), but I’ve been writing fiction in recent years, mostly women’s fiction.
Last year, my book The Year I Made 12 Dresses introduced my readers to Charlotte (“Charlie”) Hudson.
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 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.
When that year was over, Charlie thought she knew all her mother’s secrets. She was wrong.
Today, I’m delighted to be launching my newest book, Kat’s Kosmic Blues. Kat is Charlie’s mother, and this is her story. It all starts in 1965 (and there may be sewing and fashion design involved!).
Please click on the video below and join me for the launch. I’ll introduce you to Kat and her story and to me―Kat’s creator.
And when you’ve done that, maybe you’d like to join us sewing nerds on Facebook where fashion sewing book lovers meet to share stories aboue their projects and their reading.
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.
…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…
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.” As you might expect, at that time, a woman wearing what was traditionally considered to be men’s clothing was nothing short of scandalous.
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.” 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.
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!
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.
I just realized that I totally missed my four-year anniversary of starting this blog. It was last week—April 16 to be exact. I started this online journal with the idea that I could document the journey through my interests that I now had time to pursue. When I look back on that first post, I realize that despite the fact that I had planned on a variety of topic areas, I seem to have veered in one direction.
I had thought that anyone who stumbled over this online space might be a bit like me:
Be woman of a ‘certain’ age (it can be whatever you want it to be),
With an interest in fashion but mostly in style,
And interests in other things other than fashion & style – things like travel, wine & reading,
And above all, past caring what everyone else thinks.
That hasn’t changed – or at least I haven’t changed but I now realize that I welcome both men and women of all ages who share an interest in the things I’m interested in, or just find me entertaining (I love that!). This makes the experience of writing for you all that richer.
I also realize that although I planned to write more widely on subjects such as “fashion journalism, what I’m learning about style throughout my life, fashion and style-related books I love, my pet peeves about fashion, how travel is a style statement…” I also said that I’d write about my Coco Chanel obsession and my journey to recreate her Little French Jacket introduced in 1954. I’ve done that and so much more.
First, I want to talk about Little French Jackets. When I started sharing my interests with you, I had no idea that there were so many others who had already gone on this journey to create their own homage to Coco. I found their work inspiring and instructional. I’ve since created three of these jackets (I had planned on one but they are addictive) and I realize that my posts just might be inspirational or instructional to others. These projects led me to several other long-term ones like my little black dress project and my cruise collection project…
This means that this looks like a sewing blog. I enjoy sharing my sewing, but I also enjoy sharing my research that I always do before and during a project. For example, who isn’t interested in how the little black dress evolved over the years, or the history of mannequins. You’ve probably also noticed that I tend to tell you my story rather than giving instructions. I’m a story-teller (in my other life I write books) not a sewing teacher.
I have also written about fashion journalism (and my peeves about it) as well as about what I call stylish books – and I plan to do more of that in the future. There are so many good ones.
But these days I tend to focus on my design and sewing projects. I wanted to learn fashion design and have made my way through a variety of online classes to learn flat pattern making. This led me to create my own bodice sloper and a number of my own patterns. I also dipped my foot into computer assisted design but I have to admit I find Garment Designer, the program I chose to begin with, to be a bit limiting. Maybe next year I’ll ask for Wild Ginger for Christmas!
I have a few more projects up my sleeve. I’m learning tailoring as we speak and if this pandemic ever gets over and my favourite Toronto fabric stores ever open up again, I’ll get right on it. I also want to deconstruct my husband’s old tuxedo – I made him keep it when he bought a replacement a year or two ago – and then reconstruct it to fit me.
I’ve also been working on a sewing notebook/journal thing that I’ll share in a month or two.
In the meantime, my main focus right now is using up leftover fabric. It’s quite gratifying to be able to use it up since I do not have a “stash” *shudder* of fabric but I do tend to buy more than I need for any given project and have substantial pieces leftover. I sometimes lay out a few pieces and use this as a way to inspire interesting designs.
There’s not a single style manual on the planet that doesn’t suggest to all of us that among the essential wardrobe staples we should have in our closets is the button-up shirt (as opposed to the button-down shirt which I’ve discussed before!).
American “style expert” Lloyd Boston lists “the white shirt” number one in his book The Style Checklist: The Ultimate Wardrobe Essentials for You. He specifically suggests that this fashion must-have should be white. And I’m sure that we all have a few white button-up shirts in our fashion arsenal, but I think it’s safe to say that we also need other colours.
Dearer to our hearts perhaps (at least for those of us who create some of our own fashion pieces) Sarah Gunn and Julie Starr authors of the recent book A Stylish Guide to Classic Sewing include the shirt among their 30 timeless garments and they include both styling tips and sewing tips. They also don’t confine this classic to white and consider that we ought to have a few in different colours in our wardrobes.
Why is the shirt such a universally appealing wardrobe piece? I think because it is endlessly versatile.
A shirt can say corporate meeting. It can say casual Saturday. It can say sexy Saturday night. Youthful, put-together, classic, chic, tasteful, refined and classy – these are all words that come to my mind when I think of a classic shirt. And throughout the twentieth century, a variety of iconic women made the shirt an icon all on its own.
Who wouldn’t swoon over Lauren Bacall in Key Largo in her ever-present button-up?
Or the ever-chic Audrey Hepburn? Sexy and buttoned-up all at the same time!
More recently, remember Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction? Even if you didn’t see the movie, I’m sure you saw the stills where she is smouldering in her white button-up with French cuffs.
Then, if you still think a button-up shirt is too prissy for you, may I reintroduce you to Marilyn? You can never see a classic shirt the same way again once you’ve seen one on Marilyn.
There doesn’t seem to be any agreement on precisely when women started wearing button-up shirts. Some sources suggest it was in the 1950s when women in movies would wear their partner’s shirt (i.e. a men’s shirt) after the suggestion that they had just had sex. But that can’t be right because women in the armed services wore shirts long before that and we’ve seen photos of women in the late 1800s wearing what appear to be collared shirts with ankle-grazing skirts.
The problem with many of the shirts on offer to women in ready-to-wear these days is that they don’t fit very well. The darts are often in the wrong places. The fit over the bust is often a problem in general. Enter the gape! They are often too wide across the shoulders and nip in too much at the waist. Or they look like bags all over. A smart button-up shirt ought to fit perfectly, n’est ce pas?
I enjoyed Justine Leconte’s tips on how a shirt should fit and found it very useful so I’ll use her approach when I check on the fit of my own perfect shirt…
This is right up my alley, although I often wonder what women whose foundational style is artistic boho think about this. In any case, who am I to argue with the wardrobe police? I agree: everyone looks terrific in a shirt. But it has to be perfect. Enter my new project.
After I finished my husband’s perfectly-fitted (and very expensive) shirt project, it occurred to me that I ought to have a perfectly-fitted pattern that I can use for both a shirt and a blouse. And there is a difference between a shirt and a blouse in my mind. The fashion police suggest that a blouse is a type of shirt (because it blouses?) but a shirt is not always a blouse. A shirt is crisp while a blouse is drapey. At least that’s how I’m going to define them. I plan to start the project by creating the perfect shirt pattern then modifying it for blouses.
So what does my perfect shirt need?
It needs to be fitted either with darts or princess lines. I think I’ll start with darts because princess lines are really just a variation on that and I can always manipulate darts into a princess seam if I want to do that in the future.
It needs to have a collar. Kind of a no-brainer since this is part of the definition of a shirt. However, there are different kinds of collars and I want this to be a collar with a stand.
It needs to have well-fitted sleeves. I find that commercial patterns often have sleeves that are very large around the bicep. They seem to think we are all stevedores or wrestlers.
It needs to have nice cuffs with a nice placket. This is a skill I will need to learn more about since I see so many different kinds of plackets around.
It needs to have a back yoke. Yokes support the material in the shirt. I can always manipulate this out if I choose a blouse-type approach in the future.
It needs to be the right length. I’ll figure that out as I fit the test shirt.
I don’t necessarily want the shirt to have any breast pockets, but that’s an option I’ll keep in mind for variations.
Where to begin? I decided to start with an examination of commercial patterns. I own a couple, none of which is perfect.
McCall’s 6649 (copyright marked 2012 and now out of print it seems) seems to tick all the boxes, as does McCall’s 7575 (a 2017 addition). In fact, they are so similar as to make one wonder why they got rid of one and created another one just the same. I also picked up Burda 6908 in the discards box at a Fabricville outpost in Muskoka during our fall road trip. This pattern is dated 2014 and is a bit different from the previous ones in that it is more of a tunic style – no darts, quite long and very balloony. Not quite what I’m looking for in a basic pattern, but I do think I will make it as part fo this project.
So it does seem as if I’m going to have to really work on my own pattern. I’ll start with M7575 and modify it for fit and style. And what about fabric?
Well, these classic shirts are by definition fabricated from wovens, usually 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Obviously, they have to be fairly lightweight – just imagine what these shirts would look like made from canvas. Not the image I’m going for. Eventually, I’d love to have a fine Italian cotton, but for the first go-around, I’m going to see what I have leftover from other projects. Stay tuned for my test shirt – a kind of “Frankenstyle” design while I test out my pattern details.
We are now deeply ensconced in the dead of winter here in Toronto. Up until recently, the winter has been pleasant enough: dry weather, sun, no snow, cold but bearable. That all changed within the past week, and now it is truly a Canadian winter.
I can see snow on the sidewalks below our windows and everyone on the street, rushing back and forth in the requisite winter uniform of black – with the odd bit of fur and faux fur embellishing the ensemble – is clutching hats and scarves better to stave off the minus 20-degree Celsius wind chill. And here am I submerged in finishing my cruise collection. The gauzy, Indian cotton that is currently draped over Gloria junior is taking me away to images of sandy beaches and palm trees. But I’m taking a bit of a break just this minute because I have a new design toy and a couple of books that are distracting me.
I don’t know how you do it these days, but when it comes to Christmas shopping, members of my immediate family (meaning husband and son) do enjoy a bit of real-life shopping, but nothing beats the convenience of the online, world-wide mall. Of course, I refer to Amazon. So, about eight weeks before Christmas, I make the annual proclamation to everyone: “Clean up your Amazon wish list!” And they do, removing odd things that seemed like a good idea when they were clicked into the cart in July, but now don’t seem to be priorities. Because everyone in our family knows, if it is on that list, it’s fair game for under the Christmas tree (except for the vacuum attachment kit that had been on my husband’s list for four years – he always wondered why no one had given it to him as a gift. A vacuum attachment kit? Really? Well, he got it this year!).
Picking things off that list often results in my husband and son proclaiming, “Well, I didn’t really know what it was, but…” as they hand me a sewing or pattern-making gizmo or gadget that had been lurking on my own wish list. And occasionally a send along a link to a product that I think would be terrific. This year it was a link to Cochenille’s Garment Designer, a software program that I had uncovered after a lot of online research.
I had considered others: Adobe Illustrator for one. Right off the bat it’s a bit of a non-starter since it’s so expensive, and I’m not entirely sure that computer-assisted design is the way for me to go yet. Then there is Wild Ginger which looks interesting and I might get there. But Garment Designer had a bunch of online instructional videos that allowed me to tour the program. That sold me on it. I thought I could easily learn it.
I am just beginning to explore it and what it can accomplish. I’ve gone as far as creating four draft garments – simple ones to start – based on my personal sloper measurements. I haven’t had time to sew up any muslins yet, but it’s not far off and I’ll share that journey on this blog.
My son gave me another book in the series Fashion Patternmaking Techniques. This one is “Haute Couture.”
Last year he gave me volume 2: “How to make shirts, undergarments, dresses, waistcoats and jackets.” Both of these volumes are incredibly entertaining and inspirational. I like to flip through them, zero in on a design that catches my eye, then study the pattern.
I have learned so much just from browsing. These are winners for sure – and there are more volumes for future Christmas lists!
My husband’s list included a number of items from Lee Valley. Lee Valley is a Canadian, family-owned business that sells high quality woodworking and gardening supplies – and lots of other interesting items for your kitchen and other things. He happened to mention that he had seen a sewing-related item that I might like. So, when I ordered his presents, I also ordered one for myself. It is called the Pro Seam Ripper Kit. I am nothing if not becoming a pro at seam ripping! Oh, I think they mean the kit was a pro one!
Anyway, here it is.
What’s so fabulous about it is the quality of the surgical-grade steel that is used in the blades. A slight flick and the thread is neatly sliced. Just watch your fingers! It has two different blades and handles: one is a regular seam ripper with a slightly bulbous point that does not rip through fabric. The other, called a stitch picker, has a very pointy point to get under even the tiniest of stitches. That one is slightly lethal: I use the regular one more. Anyway, it is a fabulous kit that comes in its own hard plastic case with replacement blades. I only hope I won’t need to replace the blades any time soon: that would mean there had been a whole lot of seam ripping.
Oh, yes. I have used it. I just finished the second skirt in the cruise collection and the fabric – well, let’s just say that it was a bit challenging, and not all of the seams came out perfectly on first try. And that invisible zipper? I have never in my life had a problem with one, but this time, I actually sewed one side inside out – twice. The pro seam ripper came in very handy for that one.
Well, now it’s back to the atelier where I am putting the finishing touches on the cruise collection. “Cutting it a bit close, aren’t you?” said my husband a day or two ago. Perhaps!
When I was thirteen years old, I fancied myself something of an artist. It occurred to me that there was no reason why a young teen-aged girl could not be a best-selling writer, or a fashion designer (never mind that I went on to study science and communication in university; I did eventually write books and now…well, here I am!). I was a sewing fanatic and loved the process of putting a piece together. But the design elements! That’s what I really loved.
I used commercial patterns – it’s just what you did – but loved the process of thinking about how I could make them different, could make them mine, by fabric choice, detail tweaks and putting elements of an outfit together in a way that was different from that on the pattern envelope. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and I think that my creative process has been honed through the years, but there is still that young girl in me who wants to create. And my creation process always begins with something that seems awfully non-creative: an organizational system. But stay with me for a minute.
A few years back (actually 15, but who’s counting?) Twyla Tharp wrote an extraordinary book called The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life. If you are unfamiliar with Twyla Tharp you’re likely not much of a dance fan. Since I’m the mother of a ballet dancer, she’s very familiar to me as one of the foremost choreographers in the world. The Broadway hit Moving Out based on Billy Joel’s music was her brainchild. In any event, she has a wonderful chapter in that book called “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” And she means that quite literally.
She says, “Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you buy at Office Depot for transferring files…I write the project name on the box, and as the [project]progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making…that may have inspired me…”
She uses a box. I use notebooks. Some of my notebooks are digital, but my favourites are pen and paper ones. I use them for my writing and I use them for my sewing and design projects. And I gather ideas from everywhere then write them down. And paste in pictures. And tape in fabric swatches. So, for this cruise collection that I introduced you to in my last post, I did all this then finally organized my thoughts around the areas of shapes, colours, textures, inspirational muses and vintage early 1970’s fashion because that’s where my head is these days.
First the muses. For this little collection, I’m inspired by the Mediterranean style of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O. For their days in Nice, Cannes and Antibes, whether strolling the Promenade des Anglaises or sailing the Med on a yacht, they had a kind of je ne sai quois, and yet je sais. At least je sais a feeling and a style. That’s what is underpinning my design thoughts.
My next exercise was to find pictures whose shapes I am drawn to with the feeling of my muses in mind. I always surf over to Pinterest to suss out black and white photos that grab my attention. I use black and white so I won’t be distracted by the colours in them. That comes next. As you can see by the photos I was drawn to that there are recurring themes. I will obviously at least be using stripes! I’ll also have to balance angles with a more organic flow. Can I do that? We’ll see.
Then with all of this in mind, I think about the colours that capture the feeling. I’m thinking about the beach and the sea – of course! So, when I look for colour photos to inspire me, I’m drawn to blues, greys, tans. These will figure prominently in the fabric choices.
Then what about textures? Every collection needs a bit of texture. When I return to Pinterest to find textures that attract me, I’m drawn to sand patterns. It will be a terrific challenge to see if I can find fabrics that have textures reminiscent of sand patters, and that all fit together.
Finally, I go to my own captured images of vintage patterns and find so many that reliably inspire the same vibe I get from Audrey and Jackie on the Med. I’m not into retro fashion, so anything I design that is inspired by these will be a modern take. Anyway, it was Voltaire who said, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” So it will be judicious.
Once I have all my inspiration material in notebooks, I extract the most important ones and they make it onto my inspiration board.
Then comes the fabric search. I know that I want a cocktail dress at the centre of the evening wear, and a “day dress” for lack of a better term at the centre of the day-time dressing. I don’t like the notion of a sundress since that’s not really my style. So, we’ll see where that takes us.
After a venture down to Queen Street West here in Toronto, a browse through a fabric store in Halifax when we were in Nova Scotia this summer and a small fabric boutique in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the route home, I have accumulated a few pieces that are further inspiring me. So, now to begin a few sketches of what some of these pieces might look like!
 Twyle Tharp. The creative habit: Learn it and use it for life. 2003. P. 80.