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What the Watteau?! (Part 1)

Afternoon all! It’s been a while I know. But I’m back, and with something a little different for a Sunday afternoon – a brief dabble into garment history. Now, there is a dress at the end of this journey, so feel free to sit this part out if textile history’s not your jam… but for the rest of you fabric fiends – let’s get nerdy…

This story begins a long time ago (ahem, last summer) with an airline losing my bag. Or rather, not losing it, just not quite managing to get it on the same plane as me. Easily done airline, no hard feelings. To take the edge off the 4-5 hour delay, we headed into Bristol and found ourselves wandering the charming streets of Clifton Village – fancy.

Somewhere between the artisanal pottery and avant-garde stationer we came across a little arcade full of vintage shops, wherein I spied a gorgeous 1950’s cocktail dress. From the front it had a standard 50s fit-and-flare silhouette, but at the back was this magical cape type thing. Extra fabric that cascaded down and blended with the hemline of the skirt. The shoplady was not ok with me taking a photo, so I mentally filed it under “work out how to do that” and moved on to browse the vegan bookstore/café next door.

Back home, I began a little interweb research and eventually hit upon something that vaguely resembled what I was going for, albeit a tad too vintage. Behold, the alluringly named “sack-back gown”:

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Apparently (thanks Wikipedia) the sack-back gown was all the rage in the 1700s: “This style of gown had fabric at the back arranged in box pleats which fell loose from the shoulder to the floor with a slight train.” This style of dress was popularly portrayed by 18th Century painter Antoine Watteau and so the pleated cape part became simply known as a “Watteau”.

paintingThe Watteau, a must-have style for those tricky ballroom/barndance occasions

Ok, still with me? Now, for some reason, the Watteau made a comeback as a design feature in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not totally sure why (if you are, leave a comment, I’d love to be more informed), but my best guess is that it was part of the whole post-war, post-rationing, let’s celebrate the fact that fabric is available again thing. Because nothing says uber-opulent celebration of fabric like sticking an unnecessary, heavily pleated cape on the back of a full-skirted dress, right? Right. Anyway, the results were, in my humble opinion, pretty freaking great:

Collage modern(For those of you who really want to disappear down a Watteau rabbithole, check out the nerdtastic Pinterest board I made for that purpose. You’re welcome)

Fair to say then, I became pretty obsessed with the idea of a watteau back dress. And yes, life and other projects got in the way, but this plan stayed simmering at the back of my mind, until finally a fabric-buying-spree spurred me into action… I think I’ve mentioned before that the “problem” with buying the local waxprint fabric is that it tends to be sold in massive 5m quantities (for making matching skirt/top/headdress/babycarrier combos). And yes sure you can always use the extra to make furnishings and gifts… but as I sat looking at the lengths and lengths of newly purchased gorgeousness, it occurred to me that maybe the time had come to put that excess yardage to a different use. Maybe it was time to BRING.WATTEAU.BACK.

Tune in for part 2 to see how it turns out…

Siobhan xx

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Hello Bear Hannah

Like many others, I look forward to Fiona (Diary of a Chainstitcher)’s monthly Indie Pattern Update to browse and review what’s new in the sewing pattern world. Having built myself a decent collection of patterns over the last few years, I try to be discerning, resisting the urge to buy unless a pattern truly offers something new in terms of design, technique etc.

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(if you don’t follow Fiona already, you really should)

The Victory Patterns Hannah dress jumped out at me from the April review for all these reasons. I’ve been wanting to try the « arty sack dress » vibe for a while. Being at the curvier end of the pool I usually stick to waisted-only shapes, but frankly life is too short to worry about whether people are assuming you’re preggo or no, especially in a climate that averages mid-30s temperatures every single day. Gimme all the breeziest items possible thanks. Furthermore, Hannah is not just any sack dress, oh no. She has all these beautiful design details too. That curved hem with a nod to men’s shirting and that genius origami back that swoops down into deep pockets. SWOON, done deal, proceed to checkout.

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The foldover back means the pattern is a bit of a fabric gobbler, needing over 3m. Looking at my limited Bangui stash I knew I’d need to make Versiaon 2, which combines fabrics for a contrast block effect. I picked out a gorgeous Art Gallery Fabrics cotton I’d been hoarding, and some leftover grey cotton chambray (previously seen here) for the foldover back/pockets. The main fabric is called “Hello Bear Summit Twilight” and I bought it because it reminded me of Rwanda’s rolling hills, the mille collines I miss so much.

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Based on my measurements (and this handy tip on cup sizes from the Victory Patterns blog) I cut a straight size 8 and didn’t make any sizing alterations. The pattern pieces are preeeeetty funny looking when you lay them out, which is all part of the excitement. You really don’t know how it’s all going to come together until close to the end (or at least I didn’t). All that pattern wizardry does mean a veritable shedtonne of markings to transfer – I counted 29 on piece D alone. Since my chambray was prone to fraying I was reluctant to snip in, and since chalk tends to rub off easily, I decided to use tailors’ tacks. This was laborious but effective, best done in front of TV (I am currently dragging myself through Season 8 of the X Files, having decided to rewatch them all before doing the new season… I had forgotten the irritating tedium that is Doggett but am stubbornly persevering).

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With everything cut and marked up I finally got to the sewing and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It’s complicated and exacting enough to be totally absorbing, but the instructions and drafting are so good that it comes together in a really nice satisfying way, with no dramas or frustrations. The moment I sewed the side seams together to form the crossover back I think I let out an audible “ah-haaaah”. So clever.

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Tip: The pockets need to be reinforced to stop them stretching out and sagging. The pattern calls for twill tape, but if you don’t have any (as I didn’t) try using a strip of selvedge instead.

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I made just one design change, which was to do with the placket. I knew (from previous RTW experience) that a high-neck button up placket wouldn’t suit, comfort or personal style wise, but I didn’t want to majorly change the aesthetic by drafting a different neckline. So I created a tunic-style placket instead, using the original pattern piece to keep the proportions more or less the same. I’d be happy to do a little tutorial if anyone’s interested, just leave a comment🙂

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So, finished item. There is a lot to love. The details are wonderful. All the things I liked on paper, I like in person too – curved hem (with a sneaky peak of that lovely facing), crossover back etc. It’s also wonderfully breezy and comfy (although I would probably lower/enlarge the armholes by a ½ inch next time). It is a definite departure in personal style and is going to take some getting used to, but I think I like it!! It’s nice as a comfy day dress and i think heels would help balance the relaxed shape for a dressier look… although I didn’t bring any to the field. Something to experiment with back in Europe!

There’s tonnes of room for creativity with this pattern. I’ve already spotted a super classy LBD version over here, and I’m looking forward to seeing others pop up in the coming months.

Siobhan xx

Chambray A-line Miniskirt

This skirt story actually starts with a blouse.

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A really lovely part of my job is that I get to work with wonderful people from all over the world… And a cool side effect of that is that they occasionally send me beautiful gifts from all over the world! This blouse is one such item, straight from Mexico. It’s feather-light cheesecloth cotton with gorgeous embroidered flowers across the front and back yoke. I received it on a Friday, right in time for a garden party on the Saturday… I just needed a skirt to go with it.

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I had a clear vision for my skirt – short, simple grey chambray, with a centre-front seam and exposed zip at the back (both design features I loved when I made my denim Brumby). The blouse is billowy so I didn’t want anything voluminous – no pleats or gathers this time. So I drafted a super simple A-line pattern, following these instructions. You basically work from your waist and hip measurements and add a couple of darts for shaping. Then just pinch in the darts and retrace to draft the facings.

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When I came to cut out, I decided to use the fringed chambray selvedge along the hem. This hadn’t been my original plan but upon closer inspection it was just too pretty not to use. I ran a line of zigzag stitching around to stop it unraveling too far. I double topstitched the centre-front seam in white and orange to tie in with the colours in the selvedge and to add a tiny, visible-to-probably-only-me detail (love those). I inserted the exposed zip at the back using the Brumby method.

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And that’s it. It probably goes without saying that this was a super speedy half-morning project. But I do love the result. Especially with my Mexico blouse.

Siobhan xx

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Blue Moon Darling Ranges

Having been separated from my sewing machine for a couple of months, I was superkeen to get stuck straight into a project. In fact I think I unpacked everything on the Friday night my trunk arrived and was cutting out a dress on Saturday morning. I felt the urge to make something “proper” with real processes and details to concentrate on and the Darling Ranges dress seemed just the ticket.

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I think I can say at this point that I’m a fan of Megan Nielsen patterns. Her designs flatter a range of body shapes and the patterns are well drafted with simple, clear instructions that are not overly hand-holdy. They come in pretty packaging too which never hurts. On this design I love the flattering v neck, the waist tie that allows for more or less shaping (bigger or smaller lunches) and of course pockets forever.

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This dress look me a leisurely weekend from start to finish (read: a happy sewing pace which allows for attentive podcast listening and long lunch breaks). I didn’t make any major changes to the pattern. I graded between sizes based on my measurements and lowered the bust dart apex once I tried the bodice on. I also decided I wanted the sleeves a little looser, so sewed a narrower seam and left off the elastic.

The fabric is Atelier Brunette cotton batiste, ordered from Tissu & Co back in June. This is my second time sewing with AB cotton and it is just dreamy. So easy to work with and so light and airy to wear. Love. This design is called “Blue Moon” and I used 2m for the dress. The design was small and random enough that I didn’t bother about pattern matching, I just made sure all my moons were running in the same direction.

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I like how it turned out. A pretty, breezy little day dress.

Siobhan xx

Life Update – Relocated (again)

Bonjour readers, how’s things?

Yes, for anyone who noticed, it has indeed been a little while. There have been changes afoot over here, as February marked the end of my year in Kigali. It was really sad to leave beautiful Rwanda; I’d made such a happy life there and met such wonderful people. But I got to enjoy two whirlwind weeks back in Europe, full of catchups with friends and family, before heading to my home for the next year – Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.

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So far Bangui has exceeded expectations (largely formed via Google searches… not recommended) by a mile. The town centre is small but bustling and vibrant. Places to eat are simple but with tasty food and friendly atmospheres. There’s a 33m pool right by the river which is an unexpected bonus. And of course the work is great. I’m working on a service that helps families find and contact lost loved ones. It is an absolute privilege and I love it.

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(This guy was chilling in our garden yesterday like it was nbd)

So yeah, so far so good, with the major exception that I was parted from my beloved Janome for almost two months (weep)! I packed her up in a trunk in Kigali back in February and sent her ahead. Customs and bureaucracy and whatnot conspired to keep us apart but finally the trunk was delivered to my new home and I got to ceremoniously unpack.

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(this was me unpacking the Janome… and Marmite)

I brought a very limited range of clothes to CAR. I knew that there was the possibility of having to leave quickly and I didn’t want to bring anything I was sentimentally attached to… Unfortunately given that most of what I wear was made either by me or my Granny, this didn’t leave a whole lot. I arrived with a few pairs of cotton trousers and linen shirts (all RTW – thanks uniqlo), plus two handmade skirts and one handmade dress. Needless to say the rotation felt monotonous within the first week, especially in contrast to the beauuuutiful outfits worn every day by my Central African colleagues. Those are some classy styling ladies.

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I brought a few pieces of fabric out with me, including this amazing Michael Miller flamingo borderprint which I managed to get on a sneaky speedvisit to the Village Haberdashery between London catchups. It is destined to be a dress for a friend’s wedding in June. Obviously I also need to make time soon to find some local fabric sellers. I’ve seen some wild and fabulous prints around town (commemorative Pope visit dress anyone?) and I want in on that action.

Siobhan xx

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Tapestry Anémone Skirt

In the spirit of New Year I had a bit of a tidy up and reorganisation of my sewing room. Part of this involved picking out three patterns I was going to make next and stacking them up with their respective fabrics and notions. It helped me both rationalise my stash, review my pattern collection and kickstart me back into sewing after a bit of a hiatus. I’m fairly hopeless at the NY resolution thing, but I think this 3-pattern queue practice is something I’m going to try and keep up this year. #cluttergoals

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This skirt was on top of the list. I was inspired by the RTW trend of woven mini skirts that was around during the last couple of years. Skirts in this category typically have a complex woven texture, sometimes described as “aztec” (hello cultural appropriation), and a simple shape that gently flares out from the waist.

I bought my fabric on Etsy. It looks to now be out of stock (sorry!) but they have some other similar pieces. I love the colour combination – turquoise, navy, peach and little flecks of coral that pop a lot more in real life. I ordered some navy anti-static polyester at the same time, to use as lining. Whist I definitely don’t need extra layers out here, I think this is a skirt that would work well with tights back in Europe’s cooler climbs.

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Whilst searching for the perfect pattern – essentially something  which would help me keep those stripes straight – I came across this awesome post by Tasia of Sewaholic, who had the very same project idea as me back in July. She used Deer and Doe Anemone as her pattern of choice – a panelled skirt where each panel flares out slightly, meaning the hemline can be kept straight. Based on the feedback of Tasia and other reviewers I decided to take 2″ off the top and add 2″ to the hem, making it slightly less dramatically highwaisted, and slightly more modest. Having made those adjustments to the paper pattern I cut a straight size 40 and made no other fitting alterations.

I cut out on the flat, using the hemline and notches to make sure the stripes all lines up across the pieces. I managed to squeeze everything out of 1m of fabric, although I did have to stagger the pieces to make them fit.

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I was terrified that the fabric would unravel as soon as cut into it but it was surprisingly nice to work with. Nonetheless I zigzagged all my pieces before starting assembly, just to be sure. The instructions that come with the pattern are pretty sparse and assume some basic knowledge, but would be fine for a confident beginner. The only divergence I made (apart from skipping the peplum) was to machine stitch the hem. This was partly because I wasn’t sure the thick woven fabric would stay cleanly folded up if it was just hand stitched to the hem… but also partly because I hate hand stitching (yes I said it), and the fabric is so busy that the machine stitches disappear anyway.

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The final verdict is two thumbs WAY up. I love this skirt. I love the shape, the fit and I’m super proud of my stripe matching. Having finished it I wore it two days in a row, the ultimate (self) compliment. I’m hoping this is a good omen for 2016 and there’s plenty more successful sewing ahead!

Siobhan xx

P.s. here’s a funny outtake Mauri captured of me enjoying a fleeting cool breeze like a labrador with its head out the car window… It is SO HUMID at the moment people and I am not built for it. Send ice.

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2015 Blogging Amnesty

Happy New Year!

It’s that fun time of year when everyone is looking back over last year’s makes and setting goals for 2016. For my part, 2015 was full of wonderful new experiences. I moved to Rwanda to start a new job, meaning I got to explore local fabric markets, buy beautiful waxprints, and meet fantastic local sewists.

I haven’t actually counted but I’m pretty sure I sewed more this year than ever before. Since I slacked off blogging towards the end of the year, I thought I’d put an amnesty post together with some of the things I made but didn’t get round to sharing.

First up – True Bias Southport Dress in Nani Iro double gauze.

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This was my second go at this pattern (first one here) and I love it. It is the perfect floaty maxi dress for hot weather and I’ve already got a third version in mind. I also love this fabric. I internet stalked it for an embarrassingly long time before taking the plunge. The print is just gorgeous and it’s super soft and comfy to wear. I did have a bit of a mishap with the pattern however. I tried to scoop out the neckline a bit but overdid it and had to take up the straps to compensate. this made the waistline a little more empire-line than intended, but I love it anyway. It definitely gets a lot of wear.

Next – Megan Nielsen Brumby skirt in anchor denim

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This is a great quick little sew with some lovely details. I love the huge pockets and topstitching. I also love the gently curved shape of the waistband. I previously made the Kelly skirt, which has a straight waistband and I can say that the curve makes a huge  difference to the fit. I’ll be using it as a reference point for other patterns in future.

Next – Sew Caroline Out and About Dress in horse print jersey

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This is the first of two makes from right at the beginning of the year. This lightweight jersey fabric is too fine for this dress really (it’s a tweensy bit see-through), but it does make it lovely and cool to wear, even with long sleeves. It also hangs in a draped slinky kind of way, which I tell myself stops it from looking like a giant nightie… right??

And last but not least – Deer and Doe Bruyère shirt in plaid flannel

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I have no idea why I never got round to blogging this. It’s maybe my proudest ever make, as it incorporates lots of first time techniques – flat collar, sleeve plackets, back yoke etc. I’m also ridiculously proud of my plaid matching. I followed Lauren’s awesome tips, cutting the yoke and placket on the bias for contrast and using the notches to carefully match everywhere else. It makes me geekily happy every time I wear it, which is every time I go home to Europe, or to the cooler regions of Rwanda. I love the nipped in shape of this shirt. It’s definitely on the to-make-again list for this year.

And that’s my amnesty done. Ready for a fresh start in 2016. I can’t wait to see what this year brings!

Siobhan xx