Things I still can’t make

One thing I really like about sewing my own clothes is that it has almost completely replaced clothes shopping. I like looking, but I’m so glad I’ve not had to see the inside of a fitting room for a couple of years now. It also gives me a new appreciation for what’s involved in making some of the things I do see in shops (both real and online). But while there’s a lot of things that provoke the ‘I can make that’ response there are still some things that I wouldn’t know where to start on.

Take this amazing Pucci dress for example (not that I could ever have actually bought anything from Pucci, but it’s fun to browse). The embroidery is what makes it and it’s clearly been done around the design of the dress. I used to do a bit of embroidery but I’m not kidding myself I could produce anything like this.

Source: via Catherine on Pinterest

Then there’s this Alexander McQueen dress which is all about the fabric. (This is another designer whose work I can only admire from afar). This dress is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is usually out on display somewhere around the building. I usually go and have a quick drool over it when I’m at the V&A! The design of the dress is fascinating, but the fabric is the real star. If you look carefully you can see there is more than one type of fabric in the dress. There’s a glossy silk which makes up the body of the dress and a more chiffony one forming the side drapes. The prints are the same on both. If you can’t have your own fabric printed it’s hard enough to find one perfect fabric, never mind two.

Image copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Then there’s a whole category of knitted things that you’d probably need an industrial knitting machine to produce. This dress is another Alexander McQueen, from this season’s collection. The design is knitted into the fabric. Amazing stuff. You might be able to do something like it with a home knitting machine, perhaps, but I don’t know how fine a knit they can produce.

I have heard that fashion designers are increasingly concentrating on difficult-to-reproduce techniques because the high street copies designs so quickly these days. Whatever the reason, it produces plenty of eye-candy. And plenty of sewing techniques to aspire to. I think if I could pick one it would be the ability to produce patterned knitted fabric.

Cotton or polyester thread?

I’m trying to use up some of my thread stash. I used to be obsessive about matching thread colour to fabric, so every new project required taking a little fabric swatch into John Lewis and carefully selecting the most appropriate shade of Coats and Clark thread. I’ve just checked the Coats and Clark website and am faintly surprised to discover there are only 69 shades available. It seems like a lot more when you’re faced with them in the shop.

Obviously this behaviour resulted in my accumulating a large shoebox full of spools of thread. Then I tried sewing a large-scale black and white print. What thread to use? Clearly no match was possible, so a decision had to be made. I plumped for white. I now realise that black would probably have been better – always go darker rather than lighter if you can’t match – but the white worked fine. So now I’m working my way through the shoebox using whatever’s about the right colour for each project. I haven’t bought sewing machine thread other than black, white, or red for ages.

For the current project I need grey and found that the only grey thread I had left was 100% cotton. For some reason I used to think you should only sew cotton fabric with cotton thread and bought a lot of the stuff. But then I switched to polyester thread when I realised how much stronger it is. Now I’m paranoid about using up the cotton – it’s so weak! What if all my seams break? None of the dresses I sewed with the cotton thread actually came to pieces, but I still worry. The overlocker’s threaded in black (polyester) not grey, but hey. I’m going to overlock all those seams.

Anyone know where the ‘only sew cotton with cotton’ thing comes from? Or had a disaster sewing with polyester?


Fashion has yet to invent a hat that doesn’t look like a flowerpot on me. But on Friday it was snowing as I walked to work, and I ended up having to dry my hair with paper towels in the Ladies. I don’t do umbrellas; I always lose them. So without further ado, here’s my new flowerpot:

It started out as half a metre of black wool jersey I’ve been keeping in my stash for nearly a year. Most of the piece became a long-sleeved t-shirt but as usual it turned out I’d bought too much yardage. I always intended to make a hat out of the leftovers, but didn’t get any further at the time than finding a suitable hat tutorial on the Internet. By the time I finally made the hat I’d lost the link to the tutorial.

However I acquired an overlocker this year, a device which I find induces a spirit of complete recklessness in sewing. It’s something to do with its whirling blades of doom. I made the hat according to what I could remember of the tutorial. I sewed the jersey into a tube of about the right circumference to fit round my head and then sewed a straight seam along the top. The next step I find almost impossible to describe or draw. I wish I could find that tutorial and link to it! You flatten out the fabric along the top seam, letting the sides fold underneath, so you have a right-angle at each end of the top seam. Then you sew two seams at right angles to the original seam, cutting off the corners. I’m not sure what was supposed to come after that, but I chopped off the other end of the tube, folded it in two, and overlocked it back onto the cut edge to make a ear-warming band.

The top has little pointy bits where the ends of the seams are, which I quite like. From this angle it doesn’t so much resemble a flowerpot as an attempt at medieval costume.

I am certainly going to wear it. And if anyone knows the tutorial I have lost, do let me know so I can link back to it.

Tension trouble

My sewing machine’s not happy. The tension’s been slightly off for a long time, but recently it’s got a lot worse. For a long time I thought the problem was the needle tension, which I keep having to turn up higher to get even stitches. But this week the bobbin started rattling and sticking. The thread broke. And every so often, the bobbin tension went really tight and everything jammed until the scissors came out.

I guess it really needs a good service. Obviously there comes a point where faithfully cleaning it after every project and changing the needle just isn’t enough!

I think the problem might be something to do with the bobbin holder.

See that tiny little screw at the front? You aren’t supposed to adjust it, but according to the Internet it controls the bobbin thread tension. The machine was behaving so badly on Monday I gave it a tiny tweak to loosen the tension, and that helped. It’s not as good as new but it hasn’t jammed since. I’m hoping this will be enough to keep me sewing through the Christmas break. I will get it serviced after the holidays. Honest.

The Dressmaker’s Dictionary

I’m slightly surprised to realise I’ve never yet blogged about one of my favourite sewing reference books, The Dressmaker’s Dictionary by Ann Ladbury. I was lucky enough to find it in a second-hand bookshop soon after I started sewing and picked it up in the hope of finding instructions on on zip insertion that made a bit more sense than the ones in my sewing manual.

There are no less than eighteen pages about zips, with some excellent advice on how to get good results. Some of it is a little dated. The instructions for invisible zips use a regular zip foot and give the impression that special feet for invisible zips are rare commodities only available with Pfaff machines. But most of it is still relevant and I regularly use her tips for getting a good zip insertion.

Having bought the book to learn about zips, I then discovered the section on fitting. This was a revelation. Up to this point my attempts at fitting had simply been to lengthen patterns at the adjustment lines. The Dressmaker’s Dictionary has pages of diagrams of wrinkles and how to tweak them away. I read that section through several times and learnt a lot.

My first two sewing books were ‘Yeah, I made it myself’ by Eithne Farry and ‘Sew U’ by Wendy Mullin. Both are written in a distinctly chatty, cosy style. By contrast, The Dressmaker’s Dictionary knows the One Right Way To Do Things and intends to reform any slapdash habits the reader may have. A clear personality comes through in the writing: confident, expert, and full of strong opinions. The author tells us firmly that boat necklines are ‘not particularly flattering’, facings should never, ever be interfaced, and understitching is counterproductive. I can’t say I agree with everything in the book (or perhaps my pressing skills are not yet up to making my facings stay put on their own) but she’s always entertaining to read. This is not a dry reference book. In fact it’s great fun to browse through, partly because of the writing style but also because it covers such a huge range of topics. I usually find something new to me when I pick it up.

Sadly it is no longer in print, but second-hand copies seem to be plentiful on UK Amazon. If you see a cheap one, grab it. I strongly recommend it.

P.S. just catching up with comments…thanks for the advice about white fabric! Molly asked what pattern I’m going to use. It’s Vogue 1239 which has become one of my favourite dresses ever. It’s a way down the project list but hopefully come the spring I’ll be tackling it in white.

White fabric blues

Until I started sewing, I don’t think I ever owned a white dress. I think that was mostly due to fear: equal parts of ‘what if I get a dirty mark on it’ and ‘what if my underpinnings show through’. One of the great things about making your own clothes is that you can select white fabrics that you know to be easily machine-washable and totally opaque. Now I have two white dresses, both made out of fabric that is all but bullet-proof.

But I also have a length of white polycotton in stash, waiting to become white dress number three. It’s definitely washable. But while it’s certainly not obviously transparent, it’s not opaque. When I lay it on a light brown background you can easily see the difference between two layers of the fabric and one.

You can even see a difference between two layers and three. The seam allowances on anything I make out of this are going to be very visible.

I wondered if this was just a particularly awkward fabric but I had a quick look at a few others in John Lewis and all the white cotton wovens are like that. I think I’ll probably get away with it for the dress I have planned. For one thing it’s completely lined so I can use an opaque white lining. For another, all the seam allowances are pressed to one side and double-topstitched, so the seam allowances will just add to the emphasis.

Maybe the effect is less obvious on a finished garment? Presumably it makes a difference what seam finish you use. I don’t own any ready-to-wear clothes made out of similar fabric so I haven’t got anything in the house to compare with. If you’re wearing white over the next few weeks and find a crazy woman staring at your garment seams, that’s probably going to be me!