Essential sewing keeping me clothed and sane


Back to the Future

Kate – wait ’til you see what I found!

Like many of you I learned to sew at my mother’s feet. In those days the choice of fabric and patterns was very limited. I don’t even know if Vogue had made it as 4b0b84485c8d81fc7ad906927far as Northern Ireland in the 1960s – Simplicity was about the height of it. All, or at least a large part, of my childhood wardrobe was ‘home-made’ on a Singer treadle machine and my father often remarked that my mother was married to her sewing machine and not him!

Growing into my teenage years I realised the benefits of having a mother who could sew: while I loved to go shopping with my friends and my wardrobe became increasingly RTW, I also had the advantage of owning unique items. I clearly remember a green striped jumpsuit, a brown pinafore maxi dress , peasant skirts by the bucket load – it was the 70s and I thought I was IT!

What I failed to acknowledge at the time was that my mother was also making clothes for herself. I vaguely remember that these were ‘party clothes’ and I was mightily impressed by a certain ombre pink polyester halter neck maxi dress with really long ties, similar to the pattern below.


Nowadays, my mother doesn’t sew so much but has passed the beacon to me. Now, it is me that she comes to for alterations and fixing instead of the other way around. Recently I have narrowed two pair of trousers legs for her.

At the weekend I entered (voluntarily) the blackhole of my parents’ attic. A treasure trove of memories, useless items, old school books and projects, suitcases and pictures, and racks and racks of clothes. There, the whole history of the late 20th century hanging in garment form resides. I headed straight to an old battered brown leather suitcase and unearthed exactly what I was looking for……..this is the only garment that my mother has kept all those years that she made for herself.


Made in silk dupion, of the richest peacock blue, a tunic and trousers, it completely encapsulates the late 60s/early 70s style. There’s not one sequin missing from the trim and the creases and wrinkles are 50 years old.

Nehru collar, bell-shaped sleeves, hip length tunic with little side splits and trimmed with sequinned braid. The tunic has a long centre back zip, metal of course. Princess seams with additional bust darts for extra shaping. The main body is lined but the sleeves are not and all seams are pinked.

What makes this even more special is the story in the seams – the tunic had to be taken in at the sides for a better fit and the first row of stitches is still visible.


The trousers are narrow legged with a side zip opening. Unlined and with a grosgrain waist. Four darts both front and back.

I’d love to model this outfit for you but the waist measures a tiny 26″ and mine doesn’t.


We looked for the original pattern in the attic but regrettably it remained elusive – we did however uncover hoards of McCalls and Simplicity children’s patterns from 1960-1970: and then the Vogues from 1980 through my teenage years. I can even remember the fabrics that were used for most of them. A quick look through Google images produced the following, which are close to the tunic outfit but not the same.

My father suggested that if we looked through 50 years of photographs we might be able to uncover the original photo of my mother wearing this – I’d love to see the shoes. But time is not what it used to be and 21st century pressures demanded my efforts to be spent elsewhere.


If you know the pattern, please let me know – perhaps a 21st century version (in a larger size) is just what my wardrobe needs.




Don’t bother me – I’m Sewing Princess Seams

This week my little boy turned 18 years old and to congratulate myself for managing to keep him alive and also to legally relinquish my parental duties I bought new shoes and made a new dress.


The shoes are Vivienne Westwood for Melissa: nude (go with anything) with big tartan hearts.


The dress is Vogue 8648 and it’s the one Susan Khaljie uses for her Craftsy class on couture sewing. I had the class playing in the background while I sewed but I didn’t go all the way with the couture techniques – and anyway she just made me feel guilty. I gave in eventually and hand-picked the zip which I’d shifted from the back to the left-hand side. I had to do it this way because the bodice of my dress is a completely different colour from the skirt so at least my threads match now and it was so much easier to match the horizontal seams too.

I used a white cotton/linen nubbly weave fabric by Linton Tweeds mixed with a petrol blue silky poly with white horses and carriages on it for the bodice. I made the short sleeved version and kept the back neckline low. Always a little self conscious about arms and my scarred back, I do like a cover-up. With the leftover Linton I made a half of a Paco Unique jacket: ie. just the upper part and sleeves only. The fronts are faced with the same fabric as the dress bodice. And I made a belt too.


If you are wondering, “Is cutting out and sewing your own individual and personalised bunting satisfying and worthwhile?” – NO , it’s not! Just buy the fecking stuff.

And while we’re talking about sewing – the dress…….

Princess seam central. Two-piece sleeves (sort of princess seamed), back bodice – princess seams, back skirt (you guessed it) princess seams….Do it all again for the lining….Get the picture? I don’t mind princess seams usually but they can be tricky especially if your fabric doesn’t stretch at all and your cutting out of the slippery, silky poly is rather inaccurate to begin with. Princess seams allow a lovely fit on the bodice which is easy to alter and creates a much softer silhouette than darts. Just watch those notches and make sure they line up, hence the copious amount of concentration.


Slide1What do you think is better  – princess seams or darts?

I’ve actually just realised that I didn’t topstitch my dress as marked on the illustration, so I suppose the sewing police will be round in a moment or two. Better hurry this up…


We went out to dinner to a really posh hotel and brought the son with us – although he has been there loads of times before of course, while his mother and father haven’t so much as set our poverty stricken feet over the threshold.

Not so much as a new dress but a complete outfit – so I did all right out of that celebration, oh and the boy’s not bad either.



Tweedy Jacket Wrinkling Issues

Do me a favour? Try on one of your  RTW or hand sewn jackets and look very carefully at the bit between the lapel and the armhole; just above the breast and below the shoulder. Stand naturally in front of a mirror; button the jacket, unbutton the jacket; put your hand the the pockets, sling a shoulder bag on – just do whatever you normally do.

Does it wrinkle? Does it crease?

Mine do – both in RTW and hand made. And for the life of me I cannot think of a reason or a solution! Well, actually, I think I’m a bit round shouldered and this is creating a hollow at the front and hence the wrinkling. But even on Doris the wrinkling still exists, and she’s perfect!

There seems to be too much fabric – I can pinch the excess.


So I set to try and remove the wrinkles. I inserted the sleeves a million times, each time moving the armscye more  and more forward, thereby removing the excess on the fronts until my sleeves practically emerged from the princess seam and making me look more round shouldered that I actually am! I ripped out the entire insides and took in a bigger seam allowance on the princess seam and all this did was pull the armscye forward.

I narrowed the shoulders but then the sleeves didn’t hang properly. BTW, want to see perfectly hung sleeves?



Slightly forward to mirror the natural shape of the arm and according to my tailoring books – this is what a sleeve should look like.

I thought the armhole was possibly too small but I didn’t want to cut into the jacket in case that didn’t fix the problem.

I tried a couture shrinking technique – tacked in some pleats and steam pressed until the fronts almost turned to felt!


All I achieved with this was to overwork the fabric which will now never recover from its trauma.

In the end I re-sewed everything exactly as it was back in place and left well enough alone. I did make some extra padded floating breast shields and sewed these in but I still have wrinkles and they’re doing my head in.

I’ve tried to disguise one side with a rose which I’m hoping will fray into a delicious melange of tweedy bits.


When the jacket is buttoned and I stand with shoulders back and head erect, the wrinkles disappear. But I have to hold my breath and suck my tummy in and gradually turn blue – so it’s not really a practicable way to solve the problem.

Even Cate Blanchett in Armani has wrinkles. I have an Armani Jacket and yes, there are wrinkles there too but not as much as in my own hand made ones. There are loads of images of women’s jackets without wrinkles but I worked in the print industry for years and I know how much retouching is done before a picture is deemed acceptable to be included in an advert. Is it a feminine issue with tailored jackets? Are we presented with a retouched, perfect image that is, in reality, unobtainable?


Any ideas?




Sweet Home Alabama

Every summer when the exam marking is finished and payment is received, I treat myself. This year I bought Alabama Studio Sewing and Design book and I may just have found my spiritual sewing home, albeit 2 to 3 years after everyone else. DSCN4383Between the book, blogs and Flickr – I have been scouring every source for images, techniques and ideas of this gloriously homemade rustic look. I appreciate that Alabama Chanin may not be everyone’s idea of chic but personally I think it is fabulous: the clean simple lines of the clothes are highlighted with the the sewing techniques and applique methods, the beaded embellishments are staggeringly beautiful and this is coming from someone who does not like bling! I could wax lyrical for hours about Alabama Chanin……it’s obsessive.

a5 images-1 images

I’ve always enjoyed hand sewing as part of a project – pad stitching a tailored jacket collar or adding trim to a Chanel style jacket, fell stitching lining to a coat- but to construct an entire garment without the machine, that’s new and slightly daunting.






White on White

I had some ivory jersey 100% cotton and some pure white jersey cotton with lycra lying in the box and used these as a test of AC: to see if I could do it; to see if I liked it; to see how long it would take; to see if it fell apart after one wear.

The book comes with traceable patterns for a long dress and skirt that is simply cropped off at various lengths to make a fitted top, a tunic, a short dress and skirt, a mid dress and skirt – ingenious. There’s also patterns for a T-shirt, a bolero and dimensions for hat, poncho, shawl and gloves – entire wardrobe, head to toe.


I choose the fitted top as my test. I do not have stencils, fabric dye, buttonhole threads and all the other accoutrements that are required to produce a genuine Alabama Chanin creation, so I just went with what I had to hand.









Having traced the pattern and cut out two layers of the ivory and the white, I took a felt tip pen and drew some random circles on the top (ivory) pieces.


I found some thick but cheap beige polyester thread in the notions drawer and started sewing.

I attempted various embroidery stitches, applique methods, adding sequins and glittery things – in fact, my fitted top is really a sampler of various AC techniques.


Reverse applique with sequiny things


Scrapy French knots (otherwise known as tangled knots) – I invented a new embroidery stitch! After a few washes the felt tip pen circles disappeared.


More tangled knots and some couching


Shiny things and stars and a fossilised fern leaf!


Neck binding


All the tops, skirts and dresses have four panels – two for the front and two for the back: no darts or closures, just shaping from the pattern and a good fit.


Felled seams on the outside, no hem treatment and all four panels are different and unique

And I love it! I love wearing it and I loved making it.

I love the fit and the surprising robustness; I love the white on white. It’s the perfect sewing project because it’s portable, just thread up a few needles and sit in the garden or on the beach slowly sewing in the sun or lounging on the sofa with one eye on a movie. My embroidery is atrocious and my running stitch leaves a lot to be desired – but practice makes perfect, right?

So I moved on to the bolero.


Two layers but plainer


Sleeve detail


Floating seams on the outside

Check out these creations: Julie, Annekata, Dr. Fun, Carolyn

And take a look at the Flickr site, there is such a wealth of talent out there that I feel positively intimidated (in a good way).

There are You Tube videos, full selection here

A Craftsy class (recently added to my wish list)

How can you not love a designer who wears her own creations?

How can you not love a designer who wears her own creations?


Sway back adjustment needed


The double layer of cotton jersey is comfy and helps hold in the wibbly- wobbly bits too


From a distance the white on white and crappy embroidery is very subtle


With bolero


OK OK, the circle placement on the front could have been better…..


And not a sewing machine in sight. I’m hooked. I may not sew any other way ever again…………….

Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to photograph this fitted top and bolero in the dappled sunshine under our tree, so let me leave you with the view from my sewing room window this morning – while many of you are moaning and wilting in the heat, spare a thought for those of us who live in Ireland.


My forlorn deckchair with a puddle in the seat where most of the fitted top sewing was done! Irish summers! I ask you