tedious and brief

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the birds are upside down

Merchant & Mills - The Dress Shirt #2

There is something intoxicating about buying crafting paraphernalia- the virgin promise of unchartered and as yet unspoiled territory. But as my sister pointed out to me recently, there is a world of difference between a mind stimulated by the rush of acquisition and the mindfulness of being single pointedly absorbed in an activity. And whilst making things with my hands has had a hugely positive affect on my mental well-being, the syringe model bypasses the huge range of emotions that accompany my creative endeavours.

My aspiration is always impossibly high – to attain the perfection that has previously alluded me. And this desire is my downfall, as I inevitably make mistakes in the process of learning new skills and honing my craft. In retrospect, I can survey the back catalogue of my handmade wardrobe and embrace each item – its flaws mapping my journey from novice to competent seamstress. Time has distanced me from the pain triggered by each imperfection and my attention is forward-focused on the ever elusive prize of a make perfectly executed.

Which brings me to my second attempt at The Dress Shirt from Merchant and Mills. My first iteration is on constant rotation and I was keen for the revisit programme with refined techniques. Due care and attention resulted in a finely executed front pleat and I also took my time easing in the bulk around the bib to good effect. Instead of butchering the finish on the inside with my overlocker, I dug out my pinking shears for the bib edging and the side seams are neatly enclosed French style. It was all going so swimmingly until I focused in a little more closely on that subtle fabric motif and noticed that THE FRICKIN BIRDS ARE UPSIDE DOWN.

You think I would learned by now and ditched this quest for perfection. It’s been almost three years since I started this blog and began to document my adventures in stitch. That’s a serious amount of time to be oscillating on the same emotional rollercoaster.  But some of our behaviours and responses are so hardwired, I’m not sure it’s possible to radically change them in one short lifetime. Outwardly I’ve changed dramatically and shed habitual behaviours that were dampening my sprit. However at my core, my default setting remains the same and I propel myself into most days from a starting block of dis-ease.

I’d love to live in a world where people ask ‘How are you?’ and are open to the whole myriad of responses this question could engender. And where replies other than ‘ok’ are welcomed with curiosity rather than recoil.  If happiness is the end goal then I’m always going to suck at this living lark and I’ve come to appreciate that denying the depths of my feelings is akin to annihilation. But bleeding over everyone I meet isn’t the answer either, so sometimes I think it’s useful to employ a bit of shorthand so we all know the score, without having to plummet the depths.

In the past, I’ve referred to the dial of my emotional compass being set at ‘Father John’ – homage to the gig I couldn’t bring myself to attend for fear of actually having to interact with other humans. I’ve also been quite fond of scoring out of ten, which can serve to distance myself and others from the horrors of actually describing how we feel. The birds are upside down is my newfound euphemism of choice and interestingly wearing this dress throws the whole statement on its head, as it all depends on your perspective.

Don’t get me wrong – the reframe was far from instant and a swift boomerang from the brink is never my style. Emotions linger around me like perfume and there’s no fast forward button to escalate the process. But as I tried the dress on for the hundredth time, I looked down at the birds and began to view them through a different lens – as a metaphor for a life lived out of kilter and a celebration of swimming against the tide. When I shift my vantage point and relieve myself of the pressure to conform, the birds that face me are perfectly aligned.

the divorced garden

 

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to my love of words. Of an evening, my mother’s drug of choice was the dictionary and a favourite pursuit opening a page at random and letting her finger fall upon a new discovery. Sharing her enthusiasm, I carried an old shoe polish tin around, waiting for the opportunity to use one of the words nestled within. A daily allowance of 5 words quickly escalated to 10 and whilst I’m sure this pastime did nothing to endear me to my peers, I’m grateful. For these words and an ever-expanding vocabulary, provided an infrastructure on which to hang my wildly oscillating emotions.

On visiting a friend earlier in the year, I was introduced to a descriptor which my childhood self may have struggled to shoehorn into everyday discourse. The ‘divorced garden’ is quite simply a garden which is separated from its house and a concept which set my imagination alight. Whilst walking up a lane to his little plot of wonder, I reflected on an inner conflict which I have only recently been willing to address – a strong streak of hedonistic wilfulness and an increasing desire to feel the ground beneath my feet. I extrapolated that the house was my chaotic mind and the path to its delineated garden, my seemingly never-ending search for solutions to tame it.

I’ve spent decades devouring self-help at a gargantuan pace, whilst reserving the right to press pause whenever the going got tough. Or to be more precise every Friday night, most Saturday nights and the occasional Thursday evening. And my panacea of choice, not my mother’s beloved words but wine ubiquitous wine. And why the hell not – life is bat shit crazy hard and respite with a large glass of Malbec was as good as it got … until it wasn’t. A habitual pattern of self-medication with ‘detoxifying’ forays into yoga and running was keeping me stuck in a perpetual loop of mental boom and bust. I finally worked out that part-time healthy living wasn’t going to cut it for me and I needed to approach wellbeing from a holistic perspective.

Dry January turned into sober 2017 and here’s the moment when I emerge triumphant like a phoenix from the ashes of my former self and tell you how wonderful it’s been. Except I won’t because it hasn’t and it would only make you want to stick pins in my eyes. What I am happy to report, is that not drinking has been surprisingly easy and the health benefits innumerable. Where it gets sticky is sitting with the feelings that lead you to drink in the first place and integrating into a society, in which every milestone and celebration seems intrinsically intertwined with social lubrication.

As the year progressed and my growing pains intensified, I found myself drawing inwards and yearning for warmth and comfort. The craft cottons I embraced at the beginning of my sewing journey were leaving me cold and a gaping hole of slouchwear alternatives revealed itself. I needed saving from the pyjama wearing, middle aged woman I was becoming and I knew just the person for the job – Wendy Ward with her portfolio of everyday clothes and no-nonsense approach to sewing with knits.

The Longely Cardigan is the first pattern I’ve sewn from Wendy’s MIY Collection. I was fortunate to win a pdf and initially my heart sank at the prospect of printing and assembling all those pages. However, the download comes with a full size copy shop pattern which I e-mailed over to Plancopy Online and they swiftly posted back for a song. For the fabric, I wanted something soft and luxurious and I splashed out on a couple of metres of Atelier Brunette Dazzle Night French Terry. There’s been quite some hype about this material, which in my opinion is completely justified. If you are a working woman looking for the comfort of sleepwear deceptively disguised as clothing, look no further.

I cut on a size 88-92cm based on my bust size and utilised a small arsenal of knit know-how to good effect. I used a size 14 ballpoint stretch needle, employed my walking foot at all times and notched the differential feed on my overlocker up to 1.5. Machine basting every seam before overlocking worked a treat, unlike using white Knit N Stable on the neckline which was a notable faux pas. In retrospect, I wish I’d trimmed it down to sit within the seam allowance and I ironed on some black knit interfacing to counteract the unsightliness. In an almost perfectly executed make, this was not my finest sewing hour but it did the job.

The instructions are fantastic for anyone harbouring a fear of knits, with lovely hand drawn diagrams and tips on sewing without an overlocker or any fancy equipment. The only tricksy part I encountered was attaching the hem band and this is purely down to my learning style. Sometimes I can find it hard to understand written instructions independent of the action itself. But all became clear as I walked myself through each step of the hem band sandwich. The italicised instruction ‘Make sure there is no gap between the folded edge + edge of the band’ is key, so it’s well worth taking your time here. The only alteration I made was to shorten the arms which were uber long on me. I took 3.5cm off the doubled over cuff and chopped another 6cm off the sleeve – a whopping 9.5 cm reduction in all.

Overlocking a cuff

When it came to attaching the cuffs I found some nifty instructions which resulted in a finish most pleasing to my eye. I was so enamoured with the technique that I’ve attempted to encapsulate it in a diagram.

Sewing up this Longley was an unadulterated joy and marked a gear change in my sewing trajectory. I faced my fears head on and made a garment befitting of my slouchwear fantasies. I’m going to go out on a limb and say my knit wear game is strong and I am itching to get my hands on Wendy’s long awaited third book – A Beginners Guide to Sewing with Knitted Fabrics. I’ve also treated myself to a cardigan creation workshop at Sew in the City next year. The February date is fully booked but there are still tickets available for the March date if you’ve a yen to stitch under the mindful tutelage of the woman herself.

On discovery, the concept of a divorced garden had me reeling with delight – an escape to transport you from the vicissitudes of the everyday. The harsh reality is that for me, approaching life in this way creates a tension between two compartmentalised ways of living. I realised I would never fully reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, if I continued to cling onto my weekly re-tox cycle. Nearing the end of 2017, I’m thinking where the new year might take me and how to approach wellbeing from an integrated perspective. Having a creative outlet has been vital but sometimes the lure of quick hit can lead me on an acquisitive dance as dizzying as a high street splurge. In sewing as in health, I aspire to keep focused on the long game, making the clothes that I want to wear and creating a capsule wardrobe which reflects the tastes and values of who I’m becoming.

the imitation game

One of the reasons I wanted to learn to sew, was the opportunity to celebrate my individuality each morning through my sartorial choices. High street options have always left me cold in both design and quality. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve scoured charity shops for magpie finds, modelling myself on the stylings of Andie and Duckie from my beloved Pretty in Pink. And now, when contemplating new sewing projects, I embrace the challenge of sourcing fabrics to put my own spin on a designer’s vision.

But adulteration for its own sake is not my intent and I’ve recently been seduced by stylistics … just the way they are. Three years into my adventures with stitch is a bit late to get my mits on The Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking and if you’re about to embark on your own sewing journey all I can say is BUY THIS BOOK NOW. Whilst I’m very happy I cut my own teeth in the stable of Yoshiko Tsukiori, I do think I would have garnered basic sewing skills so much quicker, if I’d let Wendy take me by the metaphorical hand.

I’ve been trying to remember when it is I first came across Wendy Ward and I think it’s from her column in Love Sewing magazine. What struck me was how her ethics and values ran through her writing like a piece of rock and of course the fact that she hailed from Sheffield – my hometown of choice.  Later we bumped into each other on Instagram through a mutual appreciation of the aesthetic appeal of a dungaree dress. And then finally I got to meet the queen of knits herself, whilst being guided through the makings of a rouched Roewood from A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts.

What with a bordering on dysmorphic relationship with my bottom half, it’s surprising that I’ve whipped up not one but two of these pencils. And yet, I’m still hankering after that burgundy number on page 15. So when it came to her recent t-shirt workshop at Sew in the City, I took heed and unashamedly recreated her black and white striped boat necked beauty with contrasting solid sleeve bands. It was at that workshop that I came across Wendy’s fishtail skirt and dive-bombed into a love-in with the denim iteration, replete with singular pale blue patch pocket.

I was faced with a dilemma.  One direct copy could be passed of as a sincere form of flattery but surely two was artless and lacking in imagination. However, my emotional attachment to the stylings of those hues of blue was so strong that I gave in to Billy Joel’s plaintive serenade and ignored Wendy’s invitation to make the skirt my own. I could have stepped out of the box when it came to the denim but I didn’t and stayed true with 2 metres of this sumptuous indigo bark weave denim from Fabric Godmother. A quick forage through my minimal stash and I came across a remnant of this indigo denim from Minerva for the patch and I was totally good to go.

The fishtail skirt is my fourth pattern from Wendy’s soon to be trilogy, so by now I was well acquainted with the format of her books. I used the chart on page 80 to find the closest measurements to my waist and hips and decided to trace off a size 4, grading into a 3 from hips to waist. My resulting toile was too roomy at the waist, so as per instructions I increased the right hand seam allowance by another 1.5 cm. Fearful of accommodating the bulk of my thighs, I only transferred the 0.75 reduction to my traced pattern pieces at the waist and curved out to the hip.

When I sewed up the skirt proper, the side seams lacked the subtle curve I hoped for and I realised my adjustments had distorted the smooth a-line of the original. I unpicked both the zip and right hand seams and returned to the drawing board. I extended the original 0.75 reduction on each side seam from hip to hem. The denim, with it’s slight stretch, had a more generous fit around the waist than the stiff tablecloth toile, so I took an additional 0.5cm of each side of the waist – this time being more mindful of creating a smooth curve to the hip.  I then transferred the changes to the front and back panels of the skirt pieces for a final stitch up.

Despite having to tinker a little with the fit to bridge the disparity between my waist and hips, this skirt came together like a dream. Construction of the fishtail is ingenious and Wendy walks you clearly through each step, resulting in the most beautiful finish. Digging out my walking foot make easy work of stitching the upper centre back seam onto the outside of the skirt. And when it comes to the bias finished hem, my suggestion is to get the kettle on, cue up a podcast and settle in for meditative stretch of sewing. Earlier on in my stitch story, I would have baulked at such a lengthy finishing technique but these days I honestly relish the chance to hone my skills and produce a hem worthy of it’s bearer.

I’d like to say I will be flexing my creative muscle a bit further when it comes to my next iteration of a Wendy Ward pattern. But stop the press – have you seen those trousers on page 40 and 41 – could there be a finer interpretation?! I might just have to accept that this looks set to be an enduring imitation game.