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 Pattern-drafting, sewing, Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A screen capture from today on Light in the Box

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

Here are a few that I found interesting this year…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

The “Perfect Shirt” Project Begins

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?

See the yoke and the men’s styling features? Wonderful! And so versatile

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.

Unmistakably 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.  

In the 19th century, these early women’s “shirts” were often referred to as “shirtwaists.” This is the term we now use when referring to shirt-dresses.

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.

I’ll give LB the final word…