Posted in Stylish Books

Favourite tips (and inspiration) from favourite sewing books

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!
The dress my sister wanted for her high school prom. Not my choice, but I made it for her!

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!)


Why, oh why, do I keep making dresses??

Posted in sewing patterns, Style

Finding the perfect summer dress: a wild-goose chase?

It’s almost the middle of July, and in my little corner of the world, it’s high summer. At least it usually is. The past week has been cool and drizzly except for the few days of scorching heat. It’s this scorching heat that we typically get this time of year―day after day. So, over the past few years since we moved from the cool-summer Atlantic coast where I always needed a sweater or light jacket close by, I’ve had to adapt my wardrobe to deal with more consistent heat. I’ve found myself searching for perfect summer dresses that I can wear during the day in an urban, big-city place. When you consider my personal aesthetic, that’s no easy task.

Let’s just look at the dresses being touted as the best dresses of the season for this summer in the northern hemisphere.

When I did a Pinterest search, this is the representation of what I found.

Then, that arbiter of all things fashion, Vogue magazine, offers the following monstrosities (sorry if you like them, but they just make me gag).

Then, horrors of all horrors are these gems that Vogue considers appropriate attire for grown women in 2021.

As an aside: These styles got me thinking about Dr. Jean Kilbourne, an American professor who has spent years researching how women are depicted in advertising and how infantilization is a problem (all ads created by men). Well, I won’t go all professorial on you, but I cannot imagine choosing to look infantile. If you haven’t seen her video lectures Killing Us Softly, I highly recommend them. They’re a real eye-opener. As cool as thee dresses might be (and by cool, I don’t mean cool), they send out a message of the little girl who at best needs to be protected (from something, I’m not sure what) or, at worst, is as dumb as a bag of hammers. *sigh* Rant over.

Perhaps I can just be polite and say that they are simply not my style. So, where does that put someone whose personal style is more streamlined and tailored? Well, thank you for asking. It puts me (and maybe you) right there in front of your sewing machine. Thank goodness for our sewing skills!

Over the past few years, I’ve searched for styles and fabrics that represent who I am and have come up with several approaches that work for me. And maybe they’ll work for you.

I started with a little black dress that’s not appropriate for daytime wear (and isn’t cool enough anyway, given that it’s lined!), but it’s a style I can work with.

Then, I designed a shirt-style dress for a cruise that works well for summer in the city. I selected seersucker for it for obvious reasons―it’s light and cool. And, if you’ve ever read anything on my blog before, you know I’m not a print fan (*gags slightly*), but I can do a stripe. It’s my kind of print.

Remember the QR code dress from a month or so ago? It’s a style I’ll certainly make again but in a different fabric. And, no, I haven’t worn it yet. ☹

Finally, my current project. I’m drawn to dresses that are just a bit more than bags, even for hot summer days. So, a simple T-shirt dress with a half-belt tie immediately appealed to me. I bought some striped ottoman fabric (my print!) and embarked on this one, New Look 6650.

I’m not a fan of midi dresses these days. I guess it’s because I lived through it the first time around, and I don’t see the point of a longer dress in the summer. Probably even more important, though, is that I still have good legs and find the hemline just above the knees to be more flattering for me (and for most other women, in my view.) But I do like those short sleeves rather than the elbow-length ones. I also made the hem deeper since that tends to make a light dress hang better.

The fabric is a bit heavier and a bit less stretchy than the pattern is created for (it’s made for drapey jersey), so I cut it just a tad bigger.

I haven’t had a chance to wear it yet (remember the cool drizzle I mentioned earlier), but I will. My husband and I are headed out of the city for the first time in almost a year to a country inn and spa next week. I think I might just take it with me. It might be just the thing for dinner on the patio!

Posted in fabrics, Fashion, sewing, sewing patterns, Style

In search of a wearable print: Sewing prints and looking like a sofa

Prints have been on my mind lately. Suddenly it’s summer here, and everywhere I look, I see prints in the windows. Just two blocks from where I live, the Gucci shop has a window display full of them. Dior’s windows are the same.

Here’s a new Gucci[1] print for the season. I can truly not think of a single person I’d like to see wearing this dress, especially not me. (And with a price tag of $6500, I could buy an awful lot of Eileen Fisher black tunics!).

And then there’s this Dior.[2]

Seriously, doesn’t this just say grama’s living room sofa to you? It does to me. (Dior doesn’t put their prices online. Wonder why. Hmmm.)

The truth is that I don’t see many of the fashion-forward women on the streets around here wearing them (maybe they’re for nightclubbing, although they don’t really scream or even whisper evening attire to me). Here in Toronto, the tendency on the street is more toward neutrals―unrelenting black in the winter and some mixture of beige and beige with a bit of white thrown in for contrast in the summer. Perhaps when the stores open and lockdown is over (maybe in ten days!), the prints will make their way out of window displays and onto the street. I’d enjoy seeing that. What I don’t so much enjoy seeing is prints on me.

Some people can carry them off so well, and I love to see them, especially on young women in summer dresses. But for me? NO.

I’ve tried them in the past. From first-year university to two years ago, every once in a while I’ll think it’s a good idea. Ireally loved that gown on me with all that hair , and the Lopi sweater – that counts, doesnt’ it? (That was my knitting period). And how about that red floral on black at a friend’s birthday party a year or two ago? I did feel a bit like upholstered furniture.

The spring and summer runways this year were full of them. And so many of them are florals, or so it seems to someone as print-challenges as I am. I mean, just take a look at my closet.

My winter closet (on the right) is devoid of all but the tiniest nod to print fabrics (see that Brook’s Brother’s shirt with the white collar? I like to wear it with a plain black cashmere sweater over it so you can see only the white collar and a hint of the print at the bottom. You know what I mean?). Now that I take a close look at my summer closet, I do seem to be getting a bit adventurous with prints, don’t you think? Okay, most of them are stripes (stripes do count), but there are a few others there. Generally, though, if the print is geometric in design, I might try it.

So, I thought I’d give geometric prints another try this year. I began with a vintage pattern for a sheath dress, my absolute favourite silhouette. I’d wanted to try out this pattern, McCall’s 2401 from 1999, and although I love the plain sheath, I thought it might work in a border-pattern rayon knit I happened to have bought recently.

I love the V-neck version and the long sleeves, but I love boat necks even better and had been figuring out my perfect boat neck. Add onto that the fact that I really only wear dresses when we’re on vacation in the winter (at least I expect to be in the Caribbean next winter, the pandemic gods willing) and what I’m left with is selecting the boat neck with the short sleeves and I’m off to the races.

It was interesting to be reminded of aspects of older patterns. The pattern paper is slightly stronger and the design a bit different. Of course, I had to shorten it to a length that flatters me better, but I also noticed something funky about the set-in sleeves. They had too much ease. I didn’t think about this before I cut it out (shame on me, I didn’t make a muslin first), so I had to work very hard to avoid puckers when I set in the sleeves. If course, I used a stable knit and the pattern was designed for a woven fabric. It would likely not have been a problem if I’d used wool crepe since it’s more malleable. Before I make it again I will reduce the ease in the sleeve head in any case.

Of course, the dress was easy to fit and sew, with the border print placed along the hemline and the sleeve hems. But can we talk about the print itself?

Take a look―take a close look. What does this conjure up for you? Well, my husband laughed his head off when he saw it. Then, when our son came for dinner last week, my husband said to him, “Go in and look at your mother’s new sewing project,” which Gloria junior (my mannequin) was proudly sporting. Our son emerged back into the dining room, laughing his head off as well.

“It’s a QR code,” he said through his gales of laughter. My husband completely agreed. Well, I did have to admit the resemblance. They both then wondered what would happen if someone pointed their phone camera or QR code reader at it. Enough already!

What do you think? (You can try the QR code and see where it takes you!)

So, it’s a pattern. Will I wear it? It is a flattering style on me, and I do love the neckline and the sleeve length. I will certainly make this dress again (in a plain fabric), but wear it? Perhaps I’ll roll it up in a ball and tuck it in my suitcase next February when I get on the plane bound for Barbados. I’ll take a few pics of it in action if I dare to appear in public in it!


[1] https://www.gucci.com/ca/en/pr/women/ready-to-wear-for-women/dresses-for-women/long-dresses-midi-dresses-for-women/one-of-a-kind-ken-scott-silk-dress-p-643432ZAGH35334

[2] https://www.dior.com/en_int/products/couture-121R45A7664_X1884-short-dress-beige-linen-with-dior-jardin-motif

Posted in sewing

The down-sized sewist: Finding the right sewing space

For some people who sew, their sewing space is sacrosanct―a place where they enter, close the door behind them and lose themselves in a physical space that they claim for only one function―sewing. Others consider that to be a luxury. Those are the people who don’t have the space to set aside a room, or even part of a room, solely for sewing. Then there are the rest of us.

This last group is the group that genuinely doesn’t need a separate space for our sewing. The sewing is what we escape into―not the physical space. The process of sewing and all that it entails is all the space we need. Sometimes we arrive at this realization out of necessity, sometimes by choice. Mine was a bit of both, and I hope that this might be interesting for any of you who don’t have dedicated space for your sewing (I might have a few tips). I also hope it might help those of you who are at a point in your lives where you might be considering downsizing your living space (or right-sizing as my husband and I like to think of it), and you fear that you won’t be able to make the smaller space work for your sewing projects. This concern about a smaller space was my consideration a few years back when we sold our spacious house on the ocean for a downtown condo which we absolutely love. The question was, however, could I happily sew in a more restricted space?

You’ve seen them. All those sewing rooms that people splash across Instagram. They resemble sewing studios where sewing is taught.

Here are a few sewing rooms that somewhatsimple.com thinks are terrific.[1]

You might think so, too, but I couldn’t work in any of them. These rooms all have one thing in common: they are too busy, too fussy―in my mind, too messy. Although they look tidy, I could never sew in a space with all my fabrics, notions and accessories on full view any more than I could write in an office with pens and papers and books all in full view, or cook in a kitchen with open shelving where pots, pans and crockery are on full view―even if they all have lovely holders. Maybe that makes me odd, but I suspect there are others out there like me.

Here’s what I like in a work or play space:

  • It should look sleek.
  • It should encourage me to clean up completely at the end of each session―not just the end of each project (or, god forbid, never).
  • It should have an appropriate storage receptacle for everything.
  • When stored, all receptacles should be out of sight.
  • When I begin each day, it should be with a clean slate.

When we moved from a house with four-plus bedrooms (the plus room was what I had turned into a meditation/yoga space) and a music room and a family room to a downtown condo with two bedrooms, one of which would be an office/guestroom, I knew I would have to be innovative.

My overriding theme is to ensure multi-use of the space I have. For example, our kitchen (which, by the way, does, in fact, always look like this when no one is cooking in it at the time) has a huge island. (Great for entertaining, great for sewing!)

Since it’s at counter-level, it is ideal for cutting out fabric. I can lay out two meters at a time and not hurt my back when doing it. See below?

We had custom storage built into our office space, resulting in my ability to have shelves (with doors) that house everything I need for sewing in clearly labelled plastic boxes. If I’m drafting patterns or marking fabric, I have a single plastic box with everything I need in it. I simply pull it off the shelf and, when I’m finished, put everything back in its box and back in the cupboard.

Below, you can see my shelving and that empty space? It for the bin that holds everything that goes along with a current project. If I’m not working on an actual sewing project, it has its space on the shelf…then I close the door!

My sewing machine sits on a fold-away sewing table at one end of our large main bedroom. My husband actually loves it when it’s in residence, and Gloria Junior (my mannequin!) is wearing a new outfit. But sometimes, I spend weeks on pattern-drafting projects, so that’s when I put it all away in a storage room.

My serger sits right inside a closet door next to my sewing machine with a pull-out shelf holding interfacing, muslin fabric and a box containing my machine feet.  

As for slopers and fabrics? They have a special closet space next to my computer in my office where I write.

And fabric? Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I absolutely hate the idea of “stashing” fabric. Whenever my small pile grows to more than a few lengths in it, I have to figure out what to make with them immediately. The idea of having fabric stashed around―even if it’s as tidy as in the sample photos above―gives me palpitations. I believe that fabric is meant to be used, not stacked neatly to look at. But that’s just me.

I’ve done pattern-drafting with this arrangement, made Chanel-style jackets, learned traditional tailoring, sewed up dresses and tops. You name it, and I can do it in my right-sized sewing space.

So, if you have limited space, get some of those plastic boxes (they are cheap) and a marking pen and start organizing everything into groups. (P.S. the ironing board? I put it up when I need to use it, then put it away at the end of each session. When I tell her to, Alexa turns it on and off for me while I’m sitting at the machine.)

Before you know it, you’ll have a hidden sewing space that you recreate quickly every time you want to lose yourself in sewing.


[1] https://www.somewhatsimple.com/sewing-room-ideas/

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 Style, Tailoring

My Tailored Blazer Begins to Take Shape: Putting the body of the jacket together

Jackets come in all kinds of shapes. There are fitted jackets, semi-fitted jackets, boxy jackets, relaxed jackets, tent-like jackets and the list goes on.

Tailored jackets come in a slightly more restricted list of shapes. For example, it seems that a tailored jacket by definition has to be a bit fitted, so that leaves out relaxed or tent-like, and I venture to say, relaxed. But what about boxy?

When I embarked on my fit of making Little French Jackets inspired by Chanel, they tended toward the boxier style.

When I think about the internal construction of those ones, it makes sense. Although there is some stabilization inside, especially on all the edges, there is little interfacing (if any) and certainly no hair canvas.

It is the technique of machine-quilting the lining directly to the fabric that gives these jackets their soft shaping. Not so with this tailoring stuff.

In my last post, I had finished the internal stabilization (that is, until I get to the sleeves – a topic for another day), so then it was time to begin to put it all together. And the first thing on the agenda is to create those welted flap pockets. So, here goes!

In this pattern, since there are no side seams and the pockets run across the front seam, I had to attach the fronts to the side panels first. Then I began the process of creating those welts. The order of operations, though, is a bit questionable on this pattern.

According to the instructions, I was supposed to do the welts first. However, I did some research, and Pam Howard who does a jacket class on Craftsy, says that it’s better to make the welts first then use them as the guide for the precise length of the opening for the welts. That made a great deal of sense to me.

Once that was done, I created the welts. This is so much easier than it seems at first glance. One of the things I left out of the process was the stays Clair Schaeffer suggests in the vogue pattern instructions. It just seemed like too many layers of material in my view. I know why she suggests them – they do provide further stabilization – but if the pocket opening is less than six inches, it shouldn’t gape. I hope.

Once the welts were in, it was time to install the flap – again an easy process if you get it turned around the right way and stitch it in the right direction! I had to check this more than once to be sure I got it right. Then there were the pockets bags. Dear god!

My pockets are, of course, made from the silk charmeuse that will eventually (sewing gods willing) line the body and sleeves of the completed jacket. Now, I love silk charmeuse, and it is a dream to wear, but when you are working with it, that dream can quickly devolve into a nightmare. As I installed them, they became a terrifying tangle of silk filaments. It finally worked out – at least what I’ll be able to see on the outside looks terrific. Anyway, I basted them shut to keep them from dragging as I work on the rest of the body. Maybe I’ll leave them closed!

As I moved forward with putting together the rest of the body of the jacket, I again parted ways with the “couture” instructions in the pattern. Claire Schaeffer puts the front facing on first, in preparation for her method of dealing with the eventual turn-of-the-cloth issue in the collar. All the research I’d done suggested that most people who do this tailoring, use the following order of operations which makes sense to me:

  1. Side seams (and princess seams if any)
  2. Shoulder seams
  3. Undercollar
  4. Alter undercollar for turn-of-the-cloth (I’ll get to that eventually)
  5. Front and back facings (if there is a back facing. This pattern doesn’t have one, but if I make it again, I’m going to draft one) along with the upper collar.

The Clair Schaeffer directions require you to install the front facing before the shoulder seams. I know why she does this, but I didn’t like it so I did it the way everyone else seems to do it. Because I did it my way (as Frank Sinatra would say), I did have to install the upper back and centre-back vent and hemline interfacings at this stage.

I used my own adaptation to deal with the interfacing at the shoulder seams, cutting the front interfacing seam allowance off and then overlapping the back across the front for support.

This is a riff on what CS tells you to do in the pattern. Her instructions would have left me with too many layers – again (see above). Naughty, naughty.

Anyway, I now have something that is beginning to resemble the bodice of a jacket. My next challenge is revisiting my collar and lapel skills which I left behind me thirty-five years ago!

Posted in sewing, Style

And now for something completely different… a new Facebook Group

Please indulge me: This is just a brief diversion from my on-going tailored blazer project so that I can share some news with you.

I’ve been a member of several sewing-related Facebook groups for a few years now, and I have largely enjoyed my browsing and interacting – as limited as it has been. However, I’ve felt recently that I’d love to be able to share a bit more of my own interests in the hope of finding like-minded people out there who are passionate about the same things I am – namely fashion sewing (and styling those new me-made pieces) and books. I’m talking about books related to sewing (instructional or other), fashion, style whether they are nonfiction (like your favourite, go-to sewing manual) or a novel like The Devil Wears Prada or The Year I Made 12 Dresses (I had to put that one in there, didn’t I? So, shoot me.) Enter the new Facebook group.

I’ve never been the administrator of a Facebook group before, but I know a thing or two about organizing things. I’ve created a new group that I’d love to have you join if it’s something you think you might enjoy – and enjoyment is the number one objective. We can further discuss the things I post on this blog. You can share your newest fashion sewing projects or how you’re styling an old piece you might have made some time ago. We can share brief reviews of sewing and fashion-related books. We can recommend to one another books we enjoy. I would welcome any kind of sewing resource you might want to share with others – a video, a blog (even your own if it relates to the things this group is about. Maybe we can even find a bit of inspiration among the posts.

It’s my intention that this group be for every sewer (sewist) who loves fashion sewing, loves reading, and is just a bit of a nerd like me.

The purpose of this group is to find like-minded sewers (sewists) who want to share their journey in fashion garment sewing and books about sewing: instructional books, books that spark creativity, fiction that inspires sewing and fashion design.

The group is not for selling. But if you’ve written a book about sewing, fashion design, pattern-making or creativity, we can talk. I’d love to be able to support you and share your work, but I need to see what it’s all about first. There are other things the group is not designed for like quilting, bag-making, kid’s clothing, dog clothing, mask-making, etc.; political or religious stuff, rants. There are a few more listed on the site.

Anyway, enough about anything not related to my current tailoring project. Just thought some of you might like to know…now I’m back to my daily writing on my new book and a relaxing hour or two working on pad-stitching the undercollar of my new blazer. Later this week, I’ll share with you the next installment of the blazer project: shaping the body. Wish me luck!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Bernhardt in a suit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Posted in Shirt-making, Style

The great shirt-making project is finally over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Christmas present from my son…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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