My latest blog post for Minerva is now live – hop over to their blogger network for musings on yoga, shit town and sewing.
A joyous start to the making year as I edge towards my daily uniform of choice – new blog post over on the Minerva Crafts Blogger Network.
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.
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.
Those of you who have been following my adventures in stitch, will be aware of my deep seated desire to make loungewear I would happily answer the door in. And whilst I have no desire to be anything other than a 6 ‘o’ clock pyjama wearing semi-hermit, I’m keen to expand my choice of evening attire.
There have been some tentative forays with varying degrees of success:
- my first wearable toile of the Grainline Studio Linden Sweatshirt
- a his and hers single jersey pairing of the Ottobre Design New Boheme Jersey Tunic (Woman Autumn/Winter 5/2014) with another Linden
- and an attempt at sports luxe with a free sweatshirt pattern from Simply Sewing magazine.
It’s only when I booked on a couple of workshops with the queen of knits herself, that I felt the door to this secret club swing open for me. The Roewood from A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts and T-shirt from The Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking are not my usual style of skin tight top and a-line shape silhouette. But I signed up regardless, as I was keen to glean any wisdoms I could from someone who held the key to my slouchwear aspirations. And I’m happy to say, with my knit game strengthened and both items in regular circulation, the investment more than paid off.
On reflection, one of my main stumbling blocks was treating knits in the same way as I do a wovens and by that I mean shoddily and with a distinct lack of respect. I live in a tiny one bedroomed flat and my living room is my every room. I’ve got by cutting denim and craft cottons on my carpeted floor but I’ve finally woken up to the fact I’m going to have to find an alternative surface for knits.
I’ve also grappled with curling edges in an attempt to find those elusive selvedges – spray starching and ironing them out of shape. I recently learnt that most knits are constructed in the round and that when cut and glued, the selvedges might not even be true. Finding the grain line is as easy as following a couple of ribs in the fabric and pinning them straight. And my enduring struggle to find the right side of the fabric has disappeared in the knowledge that the selvedge rolls to the wrong side and a cut edge rolls to the right.
With my new found confidence, I finally felt equipped to cut into this medium weight french terry I picked up from Dots n Stripes a few months ago. I was fortunate enough to meet the shop owner at a stitch show in Manchester and she kindly helped me choose a navy single jersey for the contrast sleeves and bands. Both materials are cotton in composition with an elastane content of 5 and 8% respectively.
For my first Linden I cut on a on 10 based on my waist and hip measurement and this was way too big, so I sized down to a 4 grading out to a 6 at the hip. This time I cut on a straight 4 and the only alteration to the pattern was to take 5cm off the length at the shorten/lengthen lines. And you know what, I can’t quite believe I’m writing this but it came together LIKE A DREAM. So much so that I’m now in an obsessive loop, contemplating which knit project I’m going to dive into next.
I cut the material out on a table, not the floor and I can’t emphasise enough how key this was to my success. I also used my now beloved walking foot and machine basted every seam before overlocking. I couldn’t bear to bring a knife anywhere near the neckline, so to finish this seam I used the mock overlock stretch stitch H on my Janome Sewist and – after seeking Wendy’s advice – top stitched around with a regular straight stitch. The result has surpassed all expectations and I now own half of the slouchwear outfit of my dreams. Coming up with the goods for the bottom half will be no easy challenge but I’m in this comfort seeking game for the long haul.
I remember asking my mother for a scrap book in which to put pictures of the royal family when I was a small thing. To which she replied ‘Why would you want to do that?’ I wonder if that’s when the seed of knowledge germinated – that being in the public eye does not in itself demand respect and adulation. We live in an age where a modicum of celebrity is now attainable for the many rather than the few – get yourself savvy with social media, your head around hashtags and algorithms and you can amass a hefty virtual entourage.
‘To affect the quality of the day, is the highest of arts’ (Henry David Thoreau) is one of my favourite quotes. It encapsulates a desire that in some small way we might make a difference. Having won a scholarship to a school of excellence and chasing grades in a PAC-MAN hell of my own creation, my future was pregnant with promise. But a linear trajectory, peppered with conventional markers of success was not to be my path. And whilst it’s taken years to marry what I could have been with what I’ve become, I’m grateful for the journey and the wisdoms afforded by fucking up on a royal scale.
Instagram is my social portal of choice and through it I’ve had the good fortune to connect with people across the globe. I’m definitely not impervious to a subtly filtered square of aspirational living, however my antenna has become finely tuned to the substance beneath a veneer. I’m drawn to regular people, quietly sewing their values and sharing with a community of like-minded people. Through this web of interconnectedness I came across Wendy Ward – a craftswoman and champion of everyday wear – and I found my muse.
Luckily, Wendy hails from my hometown of choice which means I don’t have to go to exorbitant lengths to catch a class with her. I’ve already knocked up a Roewood from A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts at Running with Scissors and jumped at a recent opportunity to road test her T-Shirt in The Beginner’s Guide to Dressmaking at Sew In the City. One of the great things about going along to a workshop, is a lot of the prep work has already been done for you. The t-shirt comes in three sizes and Wendy brought along various samples for us to try. We then chalked around pre-cut cardboard templates of the requisite size and in no time at all were ready to hone our sewing with knits skills.
A variety of fabric choices were laid out for our perusal – a black single jersey, grey marled sweatshirt, spotty double knit and a black and white striped ponte. I opted for the latter, as I’d steered away for too long – it was time to face my stripe matching fear head on. And I wasn’t entirely unprepared, I’d come armed with some Clover Fork Pins which I’d seen other bloggers utilise to line up their stripes. I also made things a tad easier by using black jersey for the sleeve bands and set to work lining the t-shirt template up with stripe markers at key points. For ease of execution, I unfolded the template to chalk around a full bodice and cut on a single layer rather than on the fold.
I pinned at every other stripe and then under Wendy’s guidance, basted a side seam on the longest straight stitch with the tension lowered to 2. A bit of shifting took place so out came the unpicker and in came the walking foot. After a tempestuous start to my relationship with this attachment – remedied by attaching a little shoe on its base – we have become firm friends. My striped side seams and chevroned shoulders more than passed muster, so I notched the tension up to 3 and proceeded to use stretch stitch H for a permanent seam. Strangely, the walking foot had the effect of stretching this stitch out and after a bit of tinkering, we switched to a suitable alternative.
Wendy’s approach is to dispense with unnecessary fripperies, empowering you with accessible and straightforward instructions. Whilst I’m very partial to whipping out my overlocker, it’s reassuring to know that knit garments can be constructed from start to finish with the minimum of equipment and fuss. And it was relatively stress free to finish the seams without a knife and the potential for butchery therein. For the neckline we turned under 1.5cm, pinned and tacked in a contrasting thread, pressed and finally stitched with a three-step zigzag stitch D. The hem was similarly treated with a 2cm allowance.
And there you have it – a stripe matched t-shirt of my very own in just over four hours, with plenty of time to fangirl it up in between. We all left with a copy of Wendy’s first book, replete with full-sized patterns to trace off and modify at leisure. I’ve already seen two garments which I’m eager to fashion – that stop the press fish tail skirt and those embodiment of slouchwear trousers. They’ll keep me busy until Wendy’s third book hits the shelves in the new year, which I hear will be accompanied by further workshops. So get yourself signed up for Sew in the City updates and maybe I’ll have the good fortune of meeting more of my IG pals IRL.
The month of May is significant for the social sewer- our feeds bursting with inspiration thanks to #memademay – the community building brainchild of @sozoblog. And for me this year, it marked a pivotal point in my approach to sewing, as I ground to a complete halt in both productivity and passion.
I’d planned to make a start on Simplicity 8298 with some craft cottons I’d sourced on a hurried scout around Manchester’s Abakhan. I left triumphant with 2.3 metres each of some beautiful bolt ends from the remnant bins and wadding for a mere £35 all in. Unfortunately I had all the gear and no bloody idea. When I actually got around to doing some research, I discovered I needed shed more threads – quilting is a fabric thief.
I raced on to the next project – making the requisite pattern adjustments to accommodate my gargantuan hips in this accidental tunic. Three toiles later, I felt I had something to work with and took scissors to cloth – a particularly winsome piece of vintage barkcloth I’d been saving for the occasion. I spent a long time considering how to work with the pattern repeat and it was all going swimmingly until I broke off for a mid-cut tidy. I mistook the left dress front for scraps and tore it into strips. I could say more but it’s just too painful.
I spent the rest of the month, licking my wounds and contemplating what and how I wanted to sew in the future. And I can honestly say that in the process, I realised that these two undoings may serve to be my greatest teachers. I was so disheartened all I could do was ruminate – I felt I had nothing to say and no motivation to create. But it’s often during the least productive times when you undergo the greatest growth – as you recoil from the external, you enrich the internal and lay down the seeds for change.
I considered the trajectory of my love affair to date and thought about its long term survival. I looked towards those I admired and observed how they meaningfully incorporated creativity into their lives. And I asked myself why I started to sew in the first place and how this activity could best serve me. I could continue picking the prettiest threads and teaming them with the fruits of my beloved independent designers, churning out additions to my handmade wardrobe ad infinitum. But sewing for the sake of it was leaving me hollow.
I sew for many reasons – most notably the preservation of my sanity. I have what feels to be an inherent need to create – to express myself through words and form. And I feel at my most integrated when I’m able to bridge the gap between how I feel inside and how I present to the outside world. I have no desire to follow fashion and homogeneity on the high street leaves me cold. The idea that someone else should decide what I’m going to wear this season confounds me. And as I feel increasingly at odds with mainstream currents, I’ve come to appreciate the difference I can make with how I choose to invest my time and money.
I first came across Wendy Ward in Love Sewing magazine and through following her on Instagram became aware of her eco credentials. I had already been thinking about the uneasy mismatch of prolific productivity and my leanings towards minimalism. I was ripe for a mentor and who better than a woman whose love for Sheffield courses through her like a seam of rock. When I heard she was guest teaching a workshop in my home town – hosted by Running with Scissors at Hagglers Corner – I jumped in both feet first, without any thought for what we’d actually be sewing.
It was only afterwards, when it fully dawned on me that we would be making the Roewood skirt from A Beginner’s Guide to Making Skirts, did I stop to questions the wisdom of this decision. What was I thinking – it’s a pencil skirt?!! My aversion to this silhouette has been well documented and voiced, inextricably linked to issues with my behind that border on the dysmorphic. In my eagerness to skill up with knits and hang out with a hero, I’d temporarily forgotten all about my body hang ups. In a moment of madness I’d allowed the stylings of that beguiling burgundy rouched number on Pages 6 & 12, to seduce me into believing I could become someone I wasn’t.
The deed was done, so I bit the bullet and bought a metre of this Marl Tweed Ponte Roma Stretch Jersey Knit from Minerva and determined to get over myself. Wendy kicked off the day by getting us to measure ourselves. The key measurement for the Roewood is at the hip for which I hit 108 cm. We used the chart on Page 130 to find our fit and cast our eyes up to the waist measurement to check the disparity. My waist corresponds to a hip measurement two sizes down and having recently made the Roehampton Culottes, I knew I’d be grading down.
We then hopped over to Page 16 to see how our actual hip measurement corresponded with the finished hip measurement. I was surprised to discover this was 101 cm – a full 7 cm below – but all became clear when Wendy reminded us we were working with stretch and for wovens the finished measurement would be higher. Then we selected the relevant cutting plan based on the length and stylings of our skirt of choice and proceeded to chalk around the cardboard templates Wendy had brought along, to save valuable tracing time.
I chalked a 109 cm and then nestled in the 100 cm template to grade down from hip to waist. Pressing down hard with the chalk paid dividends but I’d pack my Prym chalk wheel stick next time to make easy work of this step. I never think to meddle with the tension on my machine, so I welcomed Wendy’s tips of using 4 as a starting point – moving up to 5 in the wake of a visible stitch and down to 3 if you’re getting in a bit of a pucker. And I got to play around with the stretch stitches on my new Janome Sewist 525S, which made for an afternoon of indulgence.
For the side seams which were to be pressed to one side, we used a SS H with a stitch width of 5, which nicely mimicked an overlocked edge. As the waistband would be pressed open, we used a straight SS A and for the hem we switched to a non-stretch Zig Zag D which produced a lovely decorative effect. This was stitched wrong side up with the raw edge just inside the left hand side opening in the presser foot, enclosing the raw edge in the stitch. I basted the waist seam before permanently attaching with SS H, trimming, pressing downwards and top stitching with SS A. I learnt of the redundancy in reversing with stretch stitches due to their inherent motion and to dispense with overlapping stitches on the hem for a clean finish.
Spending the day with Wendy got me firmly back on track with a determination of why and how I want to sew. Of the many lessons reinforced, was the joy I derive from learning new skills and achieving a finish I’m really happy with – not faultless but perfectly considered. I was expertly guided through how to attach elastic in the inside bottom seam of my Roewood for a result which truly exceeded all my expectations. Wendy has done the impossible and designed a pattern to help me integrate my top and bottom halves. This rouched curve hugging number has helped me edge forward into loving the shape I’m in.
If like me, you get the chance to be taught by Wendy, seize it. I’d decamp to Brighton for the privilege if it weren’t for the fact that alarm bells start ringing in my head whenever I leave Sheffield. And if you can’t get to a class, buy one of her books – it’s common knowledge that number three is in the pipeline and it’s all about the knits. I cant wait to get my hands on it … except I can and I will because I’ve taken myself out of the rat race. I’m on sew slow from here on in and I’m in it for the long game.