It’s A Blue That Reminds Me Of Nairobi

This week, for the first time in my life, I experienced the Oscars in real time. Oscar ceremonies are something we Brits normally wake up to. It all happens when we’re asleep.

But stranded in a New York hotel room, I was able to watch live as actors and actresses negotiated the red carpet with microphones thrust in their faces. (Admittedly, microphones thrust in their faces in a highly organised and scheduled manner!) I’m not gonna lie, it was fascinating. I finally understood why the whole of America gets behind this most Californian ceremony. It’s fun!

Still, I became jaded by questions about what the women were wearing. Actresses at the top of their game suddenly became monotone and glazed of eye. They’d reel off pre-rehearsed details of which designer had lent them what. I could smell the boredom through the screen.

Then, a young woman strolled onto the red carpet in a blue dress with a plunging neckline. She faced the inevitable questions about her designer choices. Lupita Nyong’o didn’t miss a beat. ‘The blue reminds me of Nairobi,’ she told Ryan Seacrest. I could have reached through the screen and kissed her.

This was a testament to the real power of clothing. It’s not about price tags. It’s not about designer labels. It’s about heart and heritage. On one of the most nerve-wracking nights of her life, Lupita needed to be reminded of who she was and what she stood for. Which meant she wore a blue dress. Simple. All her outfit missed was the perfect accessory. She’d find it in a few hours.

I’ve blogged here about the power of colour and Lupita is already gaining attention for rocking the style boat. What about you? If you were on the red carpet, what would be the best dress to sum up the essence of you? And did you fall hard for Lupita, too?

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The Pink Suit, Nicole Mary Kelby – the review that isn’t a review

The Pink Suit

I’ve been trying to keep my powder dry about this book, but I can’t stay silent any longer. Virago publishes The Pink Suit in June (May for US readers here), but I strongly suggest you pre order now. In 2014, a novel about a seamstress becomes the lead title of a feminist list. Let’s all pause to let out a cheer right now, shall we?

Okay, so this is what you need to know about Nicole Mary Kelby‘s novel. It’s inspired by an iconic pink Chanel-style boucle suit that was made for the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. It follows the life, love and dreams of Irish immigrant, Kate, as she works on this suit. Both women’s stories become entwined on a fateful day when the suit becomes spattered in blood. But this book is about so much more…

If you’re a person who has ever dared to dream, someone who’s felt scared yet thrilled by love, or a mere mortal whose soul has flown with the handling of thread and the touch of fabric, you are going to relish this story. If you’re also looking for details of 1960s New York, you’ve come to the right place. And if you want some cherry on your icing on your cake, I should probably mention the staggering couture detail around the making of this suit. Salivating? You should be. I promise, you will learn dressmaking details that you never knew before. Dare I suggest, you’ll become a better Sewist for reading this novel.

I’m currently in New York, a stone’s throw from Seventh Avenue, described in evocative detail as it stood 50+ years ago:

As Kate walked down Seventh, trucks jumped the curb and parked on the sidewalk; vans cut in and out of the skittish traffic. All around her, men were running with racks of dresses on hangers or pushing handcarts overflowing with fabric or trim or both. The windows on the second floors of the buildings were flung open, and the furious music of sewing machines mixed with the melodies of gossip from those mice, those back-room girls, the sweatshop girls.

I took a stroll down Seventh Avenue, to see how it compared.

Seventh AvenuePretty different, huh? But a few blocks down, I indeed ran into a man pushing a trolley of dresses. And look at that sign, pointing out the nearest Irish pub. Manhattan is littered with Irish pubs, the legacy of immigrants, just like Kate. The Pink Suit was allowing me to discover the history of New York.

And then I went shopping. Pink seemed to be the theme of the day.

Pink FabricThis is Paron Fabrics, which is a great street for fabric shops open on a Sunday – W39th street. It’s Goldhawk Road with bagels.

Paron FabricsSo, I haven’t finished reading The Pink Suit yet, which means I can’t properly call this a review. I have 100 cherished pages to go. I might have to eke them out. Do you think you’ll be reading this book? I recommend you save it for those special moments. Believe me, stories like this don’t come along very often.

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We’re All Winners Here

Beetle lining

Out of nearly 200 entries, the winner of the red beetle silk is Polly Pierce! I shall be in touch for an address, my friend.

Shawl Knitting Collage

I’m a winner, too – my hot mess of wool is turning into a Trousseau shawl. A true delight of meditative knitting. It’s keeping me sane whilst I wait for my Coco pattern to arrive. I love the dress versions that are cropping up on the Interwebs.

Finally, it may be cold and grey as I glance out of my window, but if you’re looking for bikini inspiration and a celebration of one gorgeous body, check out this blog post here. I have read Frocks and Frou Frou since we began blogging together at The Guardian. I love her very much indeed and now I covet her bikini.

Would you dare to bare for a blog post? Yup, if I looked like Frocks and Frou Frou. She’s definitely a winner.

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Thwarted At Every Turn

Ruined WoolSo, this happened. I’m not sure who I’m more cross with. Myself, for leaving my knitting in paw’s reach, or Ella for succumbing to temptation. That is going to take some serious de-knotting. Maybe I’ll tackle in front of the telly tonight as the second series of The Great British Sewing Bee launches. Huzzah!

Then there are my adventures in sock making. I decided to use this (fantastic) free e-booklet to learn something new. So far, so good. I have successfully knitted one sock. Now, we have a problem. I’m not sure I can be bothered to knit the second one. It’s a bit like running laps – been there, done that.

But if I ever want to set up as a children’s entertainer, I’m sorted. What do you think my sock puppet is saying? Also, can you see why a friend calls Ella The Dark Lord? Seriously, that face is impossible to read.

Sock Puppet

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Hollyburn Skirt En Rouge

Hollyburn Skirt En Rouge

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

AA Milne, Winnie The Pooh

This Hollyburn skirt was a test of patience. I worked hard and carefully on it, only to discover that the waistband was way too big. I’d been undone by a combination of a loose weave and what I call Reverse Vanity Sizing: I sew on the principle that there are invisible layers of fat hanging around my body. I’ll just add an extra inch to the waistband. Just in case. This has been my undoing countless times. When shall I learn that I’m not as fat as I think I am?!

Having inserted an invisible zip, hand stitched the silk lining and catch stitched the hem, I had to undo all my work and reinsert a new invisible zip. Not before swearing and throwing the skirt in a corner. But how glad I am that I gave myself a week away from sewing and came back to the skirt fresh. I love it!

Hollyburn Skirt In Red

Look at that drape. It’s a triple crepe wool bought from – deep breath – The Man Outside Sainsburys. Should I just ask him to marry me now? I took the last of this bolt (ex Hobbs, if I’m to believe what I’m told) but you can buy triple crepe from Minerva Fabrics here. Do it! It’s gorgeous to work with.

I’m glad I had a second go at my invisible zip. On first insertion I realised too late that it really needed some strips of organza to stabilise it. So on my second go, I did just that.

Invisible Zip Collage

Invisible Zip

Yes, I’m very happy with my second invisible zip. But you’re not looking at that, are you? You’re looking at the lining fabric. White silk with red beetles. Bought from… You know where I bought this from!

Beetle lining

I couldn’t resist. It’s a shame that only myself and my blog readers will ever know that the skirt is lined in red beetle silk, but hey. I only sew to please myself, so ultimately – who cares?

Hollyburn Skirt A Rouge

This skirt was inspired by my black wool crepe skirt, which gets worn to death. As before, I omitted the pockets and added 2.5 inches to the length of variation A. My red version would make a perfect Valentine’s outfit, if I subscribed to Hallmark-themed days. (I don’t. They get in the way of my birthday, which was yesterday. Happy birthday to meeee!!!!!)

I have 0.8 metres left of this red beetle silk. You could use it to line a short skirt, a cropped jacket, you could make yourself some silk knickers or just mush it up against your face. Want it? Leave a comment below before midnight GMT Friday 21 February. This giveaway is open worldwide, as always. Enjoy, my friends!

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Sewing & Knitting In Fiction

Hot Key books

Children’s books are a great cultural barometer, I find. If there’s something in the water, it will probably spill over into a kids’ book. So when I spotted that Hot Key Books had published two books recently, one on a sewing theme and the other about boys and knitting I thought, Hey! This is a big deal! I also thought, Hey! I’m gonna get them to send me copies to review! 

So, I’m going to start with Boys Don’t Knit. Great title, great cover, great premise. A boy gets in trouble and has to choose his punishment. He chooses knitting classes because he fancies the teacher. Written in diary format (Adrian Mole, anyone?) it’s very entertaining, with lots of knitting detail and research. I don’t think I could claim this is true crossover, appealing to adults just as much as children. But I love the concept, and I love that it exists as a book. If you know a 12+ boy or girl who likes the sound of a funny book with a knitting vibe, this is the one for you. I’m not sure I’d have typed that sentence a few years ago.

The Midnight Dress came to me because most of my publishing friends have now cottoned on to the fact that I am also an obsessive seamstress. ‘I’ve read a book you’d love,’ an author told me recently. ‘It’s called The Midnight Dress.’ This is a Young Adult story of Rose and her father, arriving in Queensland. The local dressmaker (and rumoured witch) makes Rose a dress for the Harvest Parade, but only on the condition that Rose will do her a favour in return. It’s a tense, but beautiful narrative:

The thread makes a soft noise in the taffeta. Ah yes, it says, again and again.

This is a beautiful and unusual novel and I LOVE to see the unusual published. I’d happily recommend this one to adult readers, as long as they enjoy a touch of magic realism.

But if you’re looking for a true adult novel on a sewing theme, that will make your toes curl in delight, watch this space. A review soon to come on a very special novel indeed, sneak peek below. Can anyone guess who’s wearing that pink suit on the cover?

Mystery Book

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Trim Seam Allowance

Trimmed Seams CollageYou know when a sewing pattern tells you, ‘Trim seam allowance.’ Seriously – do it. It’s an easy instruction to ignore, but I’m always shocked at how much excess fabric is removed from a make. This is bulk that could seriously interfere with how a waistband hugs or pocket lies flat.

A wise woman told me that sewing is all about the stuff you can’t see. I totally agree with her. Scissors to the ready, peeps!

Now, tell me. Get it off your chest. Is there a sewing instruction that you always ignore? I’ll go first. Suggested placement of pattern pieces on fabric for cutting out? Yeah, that one can take a running jump.

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McCalls 4769 – I Made A Cotton Dress In January

McCalls Dress Collage

Want a fast track to bonding with colleagues? Make a dress out of a ker-razy digital print and wear it to the office. This dress received a lot of attention. I’m hoping for the right reasons!

At stages during construction of the McCalls 4769, I did wonder if I was making the ugliest dress in the world. The fabric is just weird. Strange mustard hues, strange purple hues, strange strangeness. But a very nice cotton that doesn’t crease too much, and is surprisingly cosy once you wear it with a slip and tights. I bought the fabric from Croft Mill. They don’t stock it any more, but if you’re looking for your own crazy fabric from them, check this beauty out! 

I fancied making a dress, but couldn’t cope with toiles, bodice adjustments or linings. I just wanted something easy. Enter the shirt dress! That open collar meant I could sidestep usual issues with my upper chest. I didn’t bother to toile, just cut according to my measurements – and, bingo! The dress actually fits. Bust darts point to my apex, waist fitted but comfortable, arm holes sitting neatly on my shoulders. A miracle of simple sewing!

Or was it…

This pattern, I discovered, is notorious for its insultingly scant collar construction details. I scratched my head, I swore vociferously, I unpicked, I threw, I swore again… Finally, I stumbled upon a blog post tutorial for this very dress written by – who’d a thunk it? – one of my best sewing friends. Thank you, Handmade Jane, for your glorious help.

Bakelite Buttons

I must mention the buttons. Dug out of my stash, they make me swoon with delight. Just perfect for this dress. The bakelite buttons I won a couple of years ago and they’ve been waiting for just the right project. I think I found it.

My one hiccup (other than the collars) was my buttonhole insertion. I sewed them horizontally rather than vertically and only realised my mistake whilst out walking the dog. Doh! The buttonholes should be vertical, you muppet. Which then led to all sorts of existential buttonhole angst. If a buttonhole butterfly flaps its vertical wings in Brazil, does it cause a horizontal buttonhole hurricane in Florida? I mean, WHY do buttonholes need to be vertical on a button band? Aesthetic reasons? Because my buttonholes are performing just fine.


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How To Choose The Right Thread For Sewing

ThreadsChoosing the right colour thread for a sewing project can be tricky. Check out the above! Lots of colours going on in that crazy fabric. I grabbed four spools of thread from my collection.

But here’s a trick I learnt from watching the stall holders on Walthamstow market. Don’t just hold a solid spool against your fabric. Pull out a strand of thread, and watch how the colour disappears – or doesn’t.

See how each of my spools has a single thread lying horizontally across the fabric? Against this swatch, chestnut brown thread was the surprising best choice. You can hardly see the lowest strand.

Choosing the right colour thread is not about gauging the strongest colours in your fabric print. It’s about interpreting colours. In sewing as in life: the obvious is not always the best option. Fascinating, huh?

Anyone else have tips for matching thread to fabric?

Threads ii

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The Power of Power Dressing


Do you believe in the power of power dressing? I do! I’m not the best public speaker (nerves and adrenaline get to me too often) and so my big crutch is the threads I wear.

I had a work presentation this week. On the day, I got up, showered, stood in front of my wardrobe. Stood there a bit longer … and a bit longer … Then I slammed the doors shut. It’s time for the big guns, I thought. Marched myself over to the spare wardrobe where my nice dresses hang. I pulled out the Simplicity 4934 I’d worked on with Sunnygal. The one made from lavender wool bought at Goldhawk Road and carried in my suitcase to San Francisco. The dress with a hand picked zipper, beautifully fitted bodice (all credit to Beth and none to me), silk organza underlining and a subtle Sixties vibe. Then I applied my make-up, pulled on my coat, reached for my bag and set off into central London. I got through the presentation just fine.

Two years ago, how could I possibly have known that a dress worked on in the warmth of a Californian afternoon, would become my armour of choice on a grey, rainy day in London? With a needle and thread, I hadn’t just been making a dress, I’d been giving myself a coping strategy. This is why we sew. Strength and self love go into those stitches, to keep us together when we’re feeling weak and uncertain. I don’t think there’s a designer label, a pill or a big enough slab of chocolate in the world to duplicate that. Do you agree?

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