September 22, 2014

Weaving history

On our first full day in Scotland, we were in Stirling and of course, we visited beautiful Stirling Castle. A favorite of Scottish Kings and Queens for centuries (until they also became Kings of England), this castle is still (and/or again) pretty much intact and in size it's second only to Edinburgh Castle. 
Stirling Castle reached the shape and size it still has today in the reign of James V, the father of Mary Queen of Scots (by the way, while on holiday, I was reading Margaret George's biographical novel about that ill-fated queen. It proved a very good choice because so many of the places we visited had some connection to her reign).

And it's not just a stone shell with a lot of stories connected to it. In recent years, a huge effort has been made to restore the royal apartments to how they may have looked in the mid 16th century, when the child-Queen Mary lived there. This means things are more brightly painted and glossy than we're used to, but that is very likely historically correct. 
I won't go entirely off-topic here and discuss history, the way it is told and perceived or the benefits of or problems with large-scale restoration. I'm not an expert on any of those topics and although I love to talk about such things, I don't expect all of you to enjoy that. This is a sewing blog, after all. However, there was something there which I think will interest you. 

The tapestries. When I walked into this room, the Queen's Inner Hall, I immediately realized these couldn't be period tapestries. The colours were just too clear and bright and vibrant. The gauge also seemed somehow 'off'. And yet, they were definitely real tapestries, not imitations made by painting on coarsely woven canvas, like I've seen in Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (of course, that entire castle is a 19th century phantasy and imitation of the Middle Ages).
The answer came later that day, when we followed the signs to the tapestry workshop (located in an outbuilding). 

There, two weavers were at work. By sheer coincidence, we were perfectly on time for the weaver's talk (which I believe they only do once a day).
She explained the story of the tapestries: As you may know, rooms in Medieval castles were often hung with tapestries for both warmth and decoration. That would certainly have been the case in the royal apartments of Stirling Castle in the 16th century. However, none of the original tapestries remained. And according to old documents, James V had owned a set of tapestries with a unicorn theme. 
When planning the restoration, Historic Scotland decided to re-create a set of tapestries. 
The new tapestries are based on a series which spent most of its history in France (one of only two surviving sets of unicorn tapestries) and is now in New York. It is called "The Hunt of the Unicorn"
The finished tapestries are all copies of those. And I was right to notice the gauge: the original tapestries were woven with threads less than half the thickness that is used now. This had to be done to limit the cost and the duration of the project.
The tapestry they are working on now, the last one of the set, is a bit of a re-invention. Only parts of the original survive but the story is known: It is the crucial moment when the unicorn lays its head in the maiden's lap.

Obviously, tapestry weaving is not a common skill these days. The ladies we met belonged to one of only two studios in the UK which could carry out such work. Just looking at them working, it was clear how much skill, experience, precision and endless patience goes into a project like this. Just imagine: the daily target for the work on this project is about 10 centimeters square. And you can see in my pictures how big these tapestries are. And they are not 'just copying' either. They constantly have to decide on when to change to what colour and invent their own intervals, because of the change in scale.

Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures in the weaver's workshop because I was too busy looking and listening. This is impressive, fascinating stuff.
I can tell you that the tapestry is woven on a big vertical loom, on its side. That way, it won't sag out under its own weight later. This is also how it would have been done by the weavers in the past. What isn't historically correct is that they are weaving the image from the front. However, these weavers were trained like that and it has the added benefit (for the part of the work that's carried out on site in Stirling) of actually giving visitors something to look at while the work is in progress.
The work has been going on for the past 12 years and it should be finished by the end of this year. 

September 21, 2014

I'm back!

I'm back in the Netherlands after two wonderful weeks in Scotland. We were extremely lucky to have great weather for all but two days (in fact, the first week and a bit were so warm and sunny, we thought we would run out of summer clothes. E did. The two souvenir t-shirts he bought have been worn already).
I always thought we would like Scotland as a holiday destination but oh my, 'like' doesn't even begin to describe it. I fully understand it may be a bit harder to love the place when it's shrouded in its more usual garb of fog and rain, but what's not to love about a country where the rich history is served up in thick slices and every turn in the road reveals a whole new, stunning view?

There are things I will blog about later and in more detail but I thought I'd share  some little tips now:

First of all: If, like me, you like history and enjoy exploring castles, ruins and country houses it's always worth checking (even before you travel) if there are any package deals available which will save on your admission fees.
In the UK, the vast majority of historic sites is cared for and run by large charities and as a member you don't have to pay admission. On previous holidays in England, we've had short-term memberships of the National Trust and English Heritage, depending on the sites we wanted to visit. 

This time, Historic Scotland was the obvious choice, since the castles at both Stirling and Edinburgh (both major tourist destinations we were planning to visit anyway) are in their care. They offer an 'Explorer pass' for tourists and/or occasional visitors but we opted for the full membership.

That way, we also got to see other sites, like the amazingly located Kilchurn castle (this is actually and unmanned property so you don't have to pay admission but there are many other castles where being a member will save you money).

Oh, and even if you don't want to join, it's worth taking a look at their free app. It helps you find historic sites near you and you get the latest news about those. 

Like events. I didn't expect much from those but we were very impressed with the, rather modest, 'meet the redcoats' event at the grim little tower house of Corgarff. This was not some silliness for children but a very interesting display by nice, knowledgable and skilled reenactors (costume post in the coming week).

Secondly: It's hard to visit Scotland and not see or do anything related to whiskey. E likes whiskey, so I had in fact planned on visiting a couple of distilleries.
I can recommend it though. Although the vast majority is now owned by big companies, plenty of them are still at their historic sites and there is still clear craft and skill involved in the production of this stuff. And that is something we can all relate to.
In a lot of hotels and guesthouses (especially in the Speyside region) you can pick up booklets with lists of distilleries which are open to visitors (including opening hours and cost of a tour). At some large ones, tours are free but if you're not obsessed with whiskey, a tour at a small facility is much more fun. 

This is the Dalwhinnie distillery, located in the middle of nowhere (Ok, next to a very small village) on a kind of plateau in the Highlands. If you go there, you can sign up for another club called 'friends of Malt Whiskey' (which is free). This basically means you can do the tour at the other distilleries which are owned but the same company for free. We did this and ended up visiting several. 
Out of those, I would recommend Royal Lochnagar. A small distillery next door to Balmoral palace with the most enthusiastic, nice and knowledgable tour guide of all. Of course, there are more guides than just the one we met, but they limit the amount of tours each guide does per day to three to allow them to be spontaneous and personalize the tours. Which has to be a good thing.

Other than visiting castles and whiskey distilleries, we've also had a great day climbing with a guide, we hiked and explored nice towns. We will definitely go to Scotland again. We realized, while on the way, that we could even travel to all the same places again and yet see all different things. And then there are still so many places we haven't visited...

September 2, 2014

New territory

I suppose you are all familiar with Spoonflower. What's not to love about a company which allows you to upload your own designs and have them printed on fabric? With a minimum amount of ehh... a swatch? And allows designers to sell their prints so you can also take your pick of original creations from talented individuals (often not professional print designers) from all over the world?

Ever since I first heard about it(which was not very long after the launch of the site), I have been kind of following Spoonflower. Since then, the range of fabric you can choose from has increased massively, now also including things like sportswear fabrics (Melissa has really gone to town with that, creating coordinating prints in one yard of fabric for her work-out patterns) and organic cotton. And early complaints about the quality of the printed fabric seem to have vanished. 
I've voted regularly in the weekly contests, always enjoying the mass of creativity exhibited there. However, I have never actually participated, or even ordered fabric myself.
Some other European sewers don't seem to mind, but I've always found the shipping costs from the US a bit too steep. Which I don't think is Spoonflower's fault at all. It's just a long way to ship things. Now, if they could only open up a European branch.... A girl can dream, right?
Another reason is that I'm not really a print person. I mostly sew with solids, stripes and other woven designs and often feel a bit odd if I wear something with a really clear print. But still, when I've found a proper job, I'd love to try and order something nice and custom-printed...

But creativity isn't limited by constraints of distance or money... And I thought it would be good to practice my self-taught Illustrator skills a bit more. So, I've decided to enter those Spoonflower weekly contests of which I like the theme.

Last week, I entered my first design. The theme was "neighbourhood" and designs had to be in black and white and in a hand-drawn style. Which kind of messed with my Illustrator goals. I took pictures of the view from the back balcony of my apartment, printed them, taped them together to form a panorama, put tracing paper over it and traced the outlines of the buildings and the trees, cut that up, scanned the images and then puzzled them together in Photoshop to form a single image of the size needed. And to be honest, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how I could create a proper repeat in such a haphazardly constructed thing, so it doesn't have any. Which is really bad for a print. 

And yet, I'm weirdly proud of it. It's called "the world from my window" and has received 'favorites' and even a very nice comment (I didn't even know you could do either of that on Spoonflower).

My second design, which I submitted today, is for a contest with the theme "library", which doesn't have restrictions about colours or technique. This one was made in Illustrator, using a photograph I took at my local library. And the repeat works.

It may be a more conventional design, but I like it. A real, unmanipulated picture which has become a rather abstract print which almost has the look of a woven design. This is print I could imagine sewing with myself.
And it should be in the contest on Thurday.

P.S. I think this speaks for itself, but I'm mentioning it anyway: This is just my opinion, I'm not in any way 'motivated' to write posts like this by Spoonflower or anything else and obviously, I'm not asking you to vote for me. 

August 31, 2014

New skirt - with no-zip trick!

This is another garment which had to wait till the weekend to get a photoshoot (now with more bookshelves! And granny's sewing machine and some of my vintage magazines. That's what the thick book in my hands is: half a year of Libelle from 1956)  The pictures E takes just always end up looking a lot nicer than the self timer ones.
It's a very simple skirt which I've wanted to make for a while. Fairly full and long and made from a denim-like fabric (coarse cotton thread in off-white and indigo but in a plain rather than a twill weave).
I was afraid that 'just' a half-circle skirt might be a bit boring though. And I knew I wanted pockets, but not the stick-out ones of my pink skirt because with those, you can't really wear anything over your skirt.
After some brainstorming, I came up with something. Something which also eliminated the need for a zipper (I have set so many zippers, I never worry about them but it's just nice to do things differently now and then) and gave the skirt some extra fullness.

The pockets are simple and have nothing to do with the new detail: Something between slash and scoop, made without topstitching. 

The more unusual bit are those two big pleats at the front. With the buttons at the top. 

These pleats can be unbuttoned to allow me to get in and out of the skirt. 

I sewed small snaps on the underlaps to keep those from shifting around.

To make this, you simply cut the front pattern piece for a half circle (or otherwise flared and it would actually work for straight skirts as well) skirt. You don't have to cut in the middle, like in this drawing. Just determine how wide you want the center bit of your skirt to be. I think I cut at two thirds (so, with two thirds of the waistline going to the side piece). Make sure you draw the line down in line with the nature of the skirt though. So straight down for a straight skirt and as a circle section of a skirt which has a shape based on a circle. 

Add the pleat halves to both pattern pieces (you could also add the entire pleat to one of them, but this way the seam will be deep inside the pleat, and mostly stay hidden). I added 8 cm to each piece at the waistline (if you're unsure, just do the math: You need at least enough extra width to make up the difference between you waist and hip measurement. Divide that by four to find how much to add to each pattern piece).
You can experiment with the shape of the pleat. Mine flares out a bit, like in the drawing, but you could keep it straight or even let the wide pleat at the top disappear into nothing at the hemline. The effect will, of course, be quite different. 
I cut these pieces separately and with the skirt length I picked, I had to. If your skirt is shorter and/or narrower you could cut the front as one piece (and if you don't add width at the bottom, I would recommend that because the seam would be really visible). I cut the pieces with the straight grain running the way it would have it were a normal half circle skirt. 
And I made the center panel higher, so I didn't have to add a waistband there. It's a nice look but it kind of screws up your normal waistline calculation. Fortunately, it's really easy to adjust the fit at the waist with this kind of closure. 
Anyway, you should add a waistband (either drawn on or separate) to the center piece and its half of the pleat and of course to the rest of the skirt but not to the half of the pleat connected to the side piece. This way, you reduce bulk. Narrowly hem that section. 
When your skirt is finished, try it on to see what you prefer: Sides over center or center over sides. Make buttonholes in the waistband of the piece you want on top and snaps or smaller buttons and buttonholes to keep the underlying bits in place (if necessary).

I really like my new skirt. It's fun, it's comfortable and the fairly stiff fabric really shows off the flare.

August 29, 2014

Light and summery... and a bit late

In earlier posts this week, I already mentioned a finished garment which hadn't made it to the blog yet...
Well, here it is: A light summer coat.

Sometimes, the weather is nice but just not nice enough to go outside with bare arms. This thin linen coat should serve in those situations (and hopefully better than the slightly worn-out linen blazer I've been using so far). Unfortunately, by the time I had finished it, it was decidedly autumn-y outside. 
But maybe I'll still get a chance to wear it this year, the past three days have been a bit warmer again.

Either way, I used fabric from my stash: A sort of coarsely woven, natural coloured linen. It raveled like crazy but I actually really like the feel and the texture of this stuff. And it's the kind of odd non-colour that looks really good on me. All the seams are finished with this satin bias tape, which was also still in my stash.

The original idea was to make a fairly classic kind of trench coat. Just with raglan sleeves. The body of the coat is a very slight A-line, it has a double-breasted closure and those raglan sleeves. I paid particular attention to drafting the collar. I didn't want the lapel on the underlying side to be almost invisible when the coat is closed. 
It worked out pretty well.

In the end, I really liked way the coat softly skims the figure and decided to go without a belt. There are no pockets (yet) either. With an unlined coat like this, patch pockets are the only option and like the lines of the coat as it is now and I'm not so sure how well the fairly open weave would take the pulling caused by a pocket in use...

For the pictures, we picked a different location: E suggested to take the small camera with us when we went to the climbing hall. That's the strangely shaped grey structure in the background: Monte Cervino near Rotterdam. Apperently, it's shaped like the tip of the Matterhorn and it can be climbed inside and out. I normally wouldn't have worn heels to go there ;) 

August 27, 2014

Things considered

There is still a new garment I haven't shown you but I thought I would break up the relentless stream of things with some pondering about sewing...
I'm kind of torn about what to make next. 

I got started on this 1930's dress. I measured the bodice pieces and was fairly confident that the stamped numbers may indeed be the bust and waist size of the wearer this pattern is intended for. 

When getting the pattern out of its envelope, I was very impressed to find it in what seemed to be its original factory folds. It seemed pristine apart from a rather obvious repair (yellow tape) of the sleeve/yoke. This pattern belonged to a lady who thought nothing of tearing a pattern sheet to shreds with her tracing wheel (that happened to two or three Gracieuse pattern sheets. The ones from which the most designs were sewn) so it makes me assumed she never used this pattern. Maybe she got it as a free sample, an attempt to convince professional dress makers to use patterns from this company? Of course, I'll never find out.

Anyway, I decided to use a stash fabric: blue mystery fibre stuff, fairly lightweight and drapey. It seemed a good match for the flowing skirt and softly shaped body. It's been in the stash for a while and was bought cheaply. Perfect for a wearable muslin.
It was a bit annoying that there were no straight grain markings on the pattern. It's an unprinted pattern and there were no other markings than the points of darts and pleats and the notches. 

The, extremely limited, instructions tell you to "baste the shoulder pleats, try on and adjust when necessary" and then sew. Which seems like sound advice until you realize you can't actually test the fit until those shoulder pieces are in place, holding up the dress. 

I've started sewing them and I'm not happy. The illustration makes the shoulder pleats look like perfectly even pin tucks but in fact, each one has a different width and lies at a different angle. The ones which are where a shoulder seam would usually be actually contain fairly substantial darts. It's clever, but really difficult to get right in a somewhat shifty fabric. And they were even regularly space to in the pattern itself...

On the seconds one, I missed one notch and didn't find out until I had sewn up the next three pleats at the wrong angle. I'm not really feeling like unpicking and reverse-engineering all that...

In fact, I had just about decided to stop working on this dress but blogging about it kind of makes me feel like I should go on...

There are some other considerations though.
I'm going on holiday next week, and this time it won't be just hiking and other sporty stuff. So, I want to bring some nice things to wear as well. 
However, dresses with big skirts don't make for practical packing (fortunately, we're not flying so I don't have to deal with restrictions on luggage) and bringing things which will need a ironing doesn't seem like a great idea either.
Plus, we are going to Scotland so the weather is a bit of an issue as well. Here in the Netherlands, we've just had a week and a half of autumn (after many weeks of serious summer) but today is looking a bit brighter again. I know Scottish weather to be sort of similar but more extreme. Four seasons in a day. That kind of thing. Not the easiest climate to pack for.
The gathered dress that didn't work out was supposed to be for my 'travel wardrobe'. In its absence, I guess I should try and make another nice dress in jersey. Or a another nice-but-simple dress in a fabric that doesn't require a lot of attention. Or separates. I never quite caught up with my need for nice tops...

Or I should just give up on the wish to overhaul my wardrobe for this particular trip and pack from what I have. It's not like I'm being judged on how I look on holiday...

The thing is, there are a couple of projects clamoring to be made:

This jumpsuit. It's been on my mental to-sew list for at least a year although it has evolved over time. I have the fabric for it: fairly thick black linen with a feint windowpane texture (of course, you might ask if it's wise to sew linen in late August).

This dress. First featured here, it hasn't been far from my mind since. I've got fabric for it. Orange and white stripes. And since last week, I even have the perfect orange buttons. Orange usually looks good on me but I have some doubts about this fabric. However, not enough to make me stop loving it and the idea of making this dress from it.

And this dress. The most recent of these ideas, and always envisioned as a red dress. Every girl should have dress, don't you think? I though my crepe was going to be red (when I used Dylon dye in Tulip Red) and started thinking about designs for it. The crepe came out hot pink and I used it in my bias cut experiments. The wish for a red dress stayed with me and this design came into being when I knew I wasn't going to use that crepe.
There's also fabric for this one. Fairly soft (but still with a bit of body) cotton in that slightly dulled red which does work on me.

These three distract me from more practical sewing plans.
Oh, and there are still my grandmother's blouse and skirt and my aunt's coat and dress to alter...
What's seamstress to do? ;)

August 25, 2014

Freeform retro top

And this is the other project I made using instructions from Studio Faro's blog. It's called 'retro shrug' there, even though it is always pictured as a wrap top. 
Now, this is a design I have certainly seen on the internet before. I've seen pictures of it before (I believe it's out there as repro pattern or something like that) and I've looked at them and tried to figure out how this would work. I didn't manage so I was quite happy to try this tutorial and see how it should be done.

To be honest, this green top is my second version.

This is the first one. When worn tucked in, as suggested in the tutorial, it looks fine. It isn't easy to get it in position though and it doesn't really like to stay in place. 

In its untucked state, the issue is revealed.

Some of the pictures I've seen of tops like this didn't show it tucked in. Instead, it was pinned down at waistline with a brooch and the points fell to the front like those of a vest. 
In my top/shrug, the points fall to the sides (I know it's hard to see. E helped me to re-take the pictures of these tops and even though he did a great job overall, he didn't really mind the light with these). The fit is pretty similar to what you see on Studio Faro's dummy, I followed pattern and instruction exactly and I don't usually think of myself as having a large waist circumference. 

So, I decided to make another version with one crucial change:

I know my sketch isn't easy to read but just consider it an addition to the tutorial: In the original pattern the 'center back seam' was 24 cm. In my new version, it's only 19 cm.

The larger amount of fabric from the back which is now used for the waistline means that the points will fold to the front without trouble and you don't have to tuck the top in. It has a tendency to gape at the neckline, so I've pinned it there with a hidden safety pin.

When I asked E which top he preferred, he said he thought the first one was a nice shrug and the second one a nice top. He didn't even really consider the two as being the same kind of garment. And, in the role they will get in my wardrobe, he's absolutely right. 

P.S. I know styles like this add a lot of bulk around the upper body. I don't mind that. I think it can provide really nice looks when properly styled but I realize it won't be everybody's cup of tea. 
If you're kind of interested in the look but not sure about it, make sure you pick a really soft drapey jersey for it and remember that the look is less overwhelming when you wear this thing as a shrug than as a top. That may also make it a lot easier to give it a place in a wardrobe with less vintage influence than mine.
And if you are unsure about the look and/or fit you want to go for (It's a two seam garment, so the length of that back seam really makes a difference. I actually really like my first try as a shrug, the second one, not so much), start with the shorter back seam. It's easy to close it up further later on if you decide you prefer that than to have to unpick that serged seam.