A small, sustainable wardrobe: dressing up

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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As you are probably aware, it’s World Book Day next week. Fliss has been planning her costume for months – literally: since last October. And sometime between then and now, I made the promise to help her make an 1840s dress from scratch.

Now, before you start thinking that I am one of those mums who spends days planning and making her children’s fancy dress costumes, can I assure you that that is most certainly not the case. My children are more likely to be pointed towards the recycling bin and told to sort themselves out than have much input from me. Partly this is because I have had years of dressing up days to contend with, but it’s more down to the fact that dressing up days are, in my opinion, all about giving children the chance to flex their imaginations and creative minds and come up with something all by themselves. I flatly refuse to buy or hire costumes for them – don’t have a look at statistics on the number of costumes that get sent to landfill each November if you’re of a sensitive disposition – because it is the most ridiculously wasteful way to approach the issue. Added to the fact that it doesn’t stretch the children at all, it sets my teeth on edge.

Why, then, did I promise to help Fliss sew an 1840s dress? Well, we started with something reused and upcycled – a charity shop sheet that had already served as a spookily enormous cloak last autumn. But more than that, I was swayed by her utter devotion to the project. She has spent ages poring over Victorian costuming books, fashion plates and illustrations in her own copies of classic novels. She’s begged me to watch the Dressing up as a … videos by Prior Attire, in order to understand all the different layers. And, in truth, it’s an area that I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a while now. There are many incredible creators of authentic (and not-so-authentic) historical dress out there that it’s a rabbit hole easily tumbled down, I can tell you.

Our dress falls very definitely into the not-so-authentic category. For starters, we used a polycotton sheet, because pure cotton sheets are hard to come by in the charity shops around here. We didn’t have the time, inclination or fabric to make copious numbers of petticoats to support her skirts. And of course she doesn’t own a corset – not that she needs one! Instead, we dug out a 1950s style net underskirt that was in the dressing up drawer (full of ghosts of costumes past, and heavily drawn upon) and layered her ballet character skirt on top.

The deal was that I would make the bodice while she made the skirt, and that we had from exactly 10am until 4pm to get it done. (Otherwise I could have spent days on this, and I have other things to do this half term.) This was a fast, furious and not particularly careful sew. I took the speedier, electric machine and she took the 1916 Singer, which she prefers anyway. We simplified the skirt, deciding upon a simple elastic waisted one instead of making cartridge pleats and then fixing it to the bodice – her ‘dress’ is actually a skirt and top. I wanted her to be able to make it quickly and easily and all by herself, which she managed with aplomb.

Thanks to York libraries we had access to a fabulous book, and this is the earliest of all the Victorian projects in it. And while we took shortcuts with the skirts, I am proud to say that I constructed the bodice authentically. The only things I changed were not lining it (to save fabric) and bias binding the neckline (because I ran out of piping). My favourite thing about this dress, apart from how wonderfully Victorian she looks in it, is how Victorian the bodice looks laid open, with all the seams in the right places, and not a dart in sight.

The pattern was surprisingly easy to draft. Because Fliss is still significantly smaller than the adult size given in the book, I scaled it down using not much more than common sense and intuition – not something I’d do were I making her a modern blouse. But that’s the thing about Victorian patterns – to my limited knowledge, anyway. They were made to be taken in and let out, adjusted as they changed owners and body shapes. The seams are left exposed and unfinished for a reason – and you can change the fit of the garment quite easily. I fitted the bodice on Fliss while we worked, pinning it into place and then sewing. The shawl front, which is actually a whole second layer on top of a fitted bodice, is simply attached at the neckline and pleated before the top and bottom edges are finished. The sleeves are set so low that they are actually identical. In modern garments, there’s always a left and a right sleeve, to allow for more fabric (and ease of movement) at the back of each shoulder. Not so in this outfit. And so the sleeves were the easiest I’ve ever set in. Finally, I pinned the back together so that it fitted nicely, folded back the excess fabric and sewed on a row of hooks and eyes. I didn’t trim any fabric, so that she can let it out as she grows. I know I’d want to, if my mum and I had made a Jane Eyre costume together.

Much as I’d like to show you a photo of the full effect, head included, I don’t put pictures of my children online, so you’ll have to make do with some headless Victorians instead. Think of her as the friendly household ghost. I can, however, show you the back of her practice hairdo:

which really completes the look.

Most of the time I groan when the children tell me about yet another dressing up day, but this was even more of a delight to make than I had anticipated. I think we might have sown the seeds of a new passion, for me if not for her. I can see myself making another such outfit, by hand, in natural materials, from the inside out. Practising my skills by cording petticoats before moving on to embroidering a shift, knitting some stockings, and maybe even constructing a pair of stays. Who knows if I’ll ever make the time. I’ll certainly keep reading about it.

And, from the reception that her Jane Eyre dress has had, I expect that Fliss will be wearing it to dress up whenever the occasion allows. Who knows, it might even go into a box when she heads off to university one day. Surely that amount of wear would make it a very sustainable costume. Which makes me very happy indeed.

Madeleine

What have you been sewing lately? Anything fun?

Please forgive the grainy phone photos! I ran out of steam after all that speedy sewing, and was too busy in the garden to take proper photos the following day…

Everything but the knitting

It is still light when I get home from work, and I am feeling a tremendous urge to do everything but the knitting. Remember this shot from a couple of weeks ago? It hasn’t been touched since. Despite several bouts of feeling that I really ought to finish it off, it just isn’t happening. But that’s okay, because everything else is.

It’s half term here next week and I am very much looking forward to a few days off with the children, as well as tackling a few projects around the place. I am desperate – desperate – for some time in the garden. I know it’s early, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am spending so much more time indoors these days, at work. Whatever the reason, that’s where I’ll be spending a whole day, as well as any little snippets of free time I stumble across. Just now, it is in that funny late winter state of being both a terrible mess (think blown down brassica cages and piles of sticks still waiting to be burnt) and beautiful (think bulbs). The crocuses are up and they are just the loveliest little blooms, minding their own business here and there until someone takes the time to crouch down and appreciate their charms. I love them. As well as admiring the flowers, I also want to sort out some chicken-proofing and get on with planting lots and lots of seeds. Having decided against a full vegetable garden in the autumn, I have now done a U-turn and intend to plant a full vegetable garden. Will I curse myself for this in June? Maybe. But I want to get my hands into the dirt, and have endless salad for free. And there are few things more therapeutic than a spot of watering after a long day at work.

In the spirit of getting ready for spring, I am also going to spend a day or so ploughing through the end of all those sewing projects I cut out at Christmas. The last two weekends were completely obliterated by the children’s ballet show, so I’ve got a couple of things that haven’t made it to the machine yet, including a prototype skirt for next year that I’m very keen to start wearing. And I’d also like to do a spot of pre-spring cleaning, while I have the time.

Conscious that I’m quite capable of spending the entire week ticking things off a project list, the children have each been told to choose something that they’d like to do for an entire day with me. In no particular order, the three younger ones have chosen: playing cafe with real food all day (the menu has been in progress ever since), making a mid-Victorian dress so as to dress up as Jane Eyre for World Book Day the following week (I’ve got a book out of the library to help) and doing a spot of twitching in a bird sanctuary (we’ll be choosing the warmest day for this). We’re also going to be seeing Ben, and are looking forward to seeing what he chooses for us all.

Doubtless I will also find time to finish that lovely little baby bonnet, which will be very satisfying indeed. After which, I’m inclined to put away my needles for the time being. I’ve a garden to grow, and plenty of sewing to do in the form of quilt blocks and pattern samples. We’ve been saving avocado pits and skins in the freezer, as well as the elderberry harvest, and are hoping to spin and dye a little fleece on rainy days. Then again, if it snows you’ll probably find me by the fire once more, casting on for something or other. I blame it on the weather.

Madeleine

Have you had half term this week, or are you off next week like us (or not at all, if you live outside the UK)? Done anything fun? We’re open to recommendations!

Habits, old and new

In February, more than any other time of year, I find myself relying on old habits. Good ones, to keep life running smoothly. They might be easy – grabbing a jar of soup from the freezer as I head out the door to work – or require a bit more effort (my Tuesday night swim definitely fell into that category this week), but habits really do work.

Thankfully, new habits are relatively easy to create, one at a time. I tend to throw one in every few weeks, just for fun. This week was the week of starting to eat a salad for lunch every day, on top of my usual mid-morning soup. It’s only been three days and already I’m planning my next batch. And loathe as I am to join in with food trends, I have to admit that jarred salads are pure genius. I’m making them three at a time and the third was as fresh and appealing as the first. I just grab a jar from the fridge as well as the freezer on my way out the door now.

Like all families, we tend to let things slip a bit when life gets busy, and our children asked John and I whether we might revamp our plastic-free efforts a bit. I was all too happy to agree – some plastic has begun to creep back into our shopping – and we had a look through our bin to see what the culprits were. It turned out that it was mainly the odd unusual purchase – and lots of plastic from food that friends gave us when they emptied their fridge before a recent holiday. While there are a few things that we’ve reverted to buying in plastic (for instance our toothy-tab supplier ran out for a while, so we’ve been back on tubes of toothpaste), for the most part habits have kept our bin slim. Neither John or I would think of heading to the shops without our shopping kits in tow, and really, it is no extra effort at all. So we’ve just made a list of plastic-free goods we need to replenish to avoid some packaging we have fallen back into buying, and that’s about all we plan to do for now.

It goes without saying that I do have some bad habits – drinking endless cups of tea is one I’m tackling at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with the odd cup of tea, but from time to time I find myself drinking nothing but the black, caffeinated variety all day, which can’t be good for me. So far, I’ve cut it down to two cups a day, and I’m finding myself ready for bed a little earlier with each missing cup. Seriously, I’m sleeping like a baby at the moment, and this is from someone who normally sleeps well. Who knew it was having such big effect?

Then there are habits that are good for the environment but not always so good for me, like not buying flowers any more. In the summer, this doesn’t matter as I grow my own, but in the winter I rely on the odd flowering pot plant. Well, this week I have been doubly blessed by a bunch of alstroemerias regifted by those same holiday-going friends, and the most gloriously bright bunch of tulips as a thank you from another friend. What a joy it is to have flowers in the house again. They make me smile every time I see them.

What’s more, they’ve got me thinking about my own garden again, and those bulb lasagnas I planted in the autumn. I wonder how they’re doing? I must pop out and check on them, as well as the other things under cover, and give them all a drink. Soon enough it’ll be time to get back into the habit of watering them every few days and pulling weeds when I get in from work. That’s the lovely things about habits in a temperate climate: they shift with the sun. Nothing lasts for ever – not the winter and its challenges, nor the habits we build to survive it – and that’s just the way it should be.

Madeleine

Have you been trying out any new habits recently? I’d love to know – and maybe try them for myself!

Preparing for spring

Over the past few years, I’ve come to make the winter months precious by filling them with winter-only activities. Come spring, I’ll be needed in the garden, and I’d like to immerse myself in a fleece or two on rainy days. That means that there won’t be much – if any – time for knitting. So I’m doing a little pre-spring cleaning, and using up the bits and pieces left over from other makes.

So far, three such projects have graced my needles: a long-awaited (we’re talking years) tea cosy for our house, a pair of colourful wrist warmers and the start of a sweet little bonnet for a soon-to-be-born little person. I started the bonnet on Sunday afternoon while watching a film with the girls and went wrong twice before finally reading the pattern properly. I have to say, I didn’t mind a bit. I was so cosy, wrapped up on the couch in front of the fire, and working on something so small that it was the work of an hour to pull it out and start again. The yarn is leftover from the socks I designed, with the idea that the busy new parents will be able to throw it in the machine when it gets grubby. I’ve been there.

The wrist warmers were a bit of a slog, if I’m honest. Not because they were hard (they aren’t) but because there were three yarns used in every colourwork row, so I had to keep dropping and picking up two of them. They were one of those projects that I had to set an end date for. I’m glad I did, though, because Fliss loves them and I’ve set them aside for next Christmas.

Bringing me the most pleasure, though, is the new tea cosy in my life. This is going to sound ridiculous, but why did I not know how effective these things are? They keep the tea piping hot for ages, even in our somewhat chilly house. I used a pattern from this book, and have plans to make little birds with the last of my leftover scraps. More Christmas presents, you see. The pile on the present shelf is growing, as there have been some little sewing additions too, of late, and it is so satisfying to reach for a gift you made a few months earlier with just that person in mind. Come next Christmas, it really will feel as though the elves had made it all.

With the lengthening days, the urge to read about the natural world has come again, and I found myself scanning the library nature writing section. In the end, I plumped to reread The Shepherd’s Life. We’ll be going to the Lake District in the spring, and journeying through its pages feels almost like setting off on that little jaunt a few weeks early.

I love having so much to look forward to, but instead of thinking I can’t wait, I find that really, I can. I can because I have so much to enjoy doing between now and then. Next up will be another pair of wrist warmers, and a second snood, and perhaps even a second little bonnet to tuck away for another, as-yet-unknown baby. A few little birds might find their way into the children’s rooms. There are winter walks to enjoy, still, before reading about the rest of the year indoors, in the warm. Come the spring, I’ll be out there all the time, with my hands in the cool dark soil. For now, though, I’m preparing for spring in the most pleasurable ways I know.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

How are you preparing for spring? Or is it not on your mind just yet?

Winter Flora publication – and we have a winner!

Thank you so much for your comments on the Introducing Winter Flora post. I’m delighted to announce that the winner of the pattern is Cathy. A copy of the pattern will be landing in your inbox later today.

The pattern is now available in my Ravelry and Etsy shops.

Madeleine

Mrs Darcy Wears the Trousers tutorial part four: adding the waistband and fastenings, and finishing the hems

Welcome to the fourth and final part of the Mrs Darcy Wears the Trousers tutorial. It’s now time to attach the waistband and fastenings, fit the trousers and finish the bottom hems.

First, you are going to prepare the waistband. Taking one piece of the waistband at a time, arrange the interfacing so that it is lying on the bottom half of the main fabric, on the wrong side, within the seam allowance. The interfacing should butt up along the horizontal centre line of the waistband piece. It should be glue (bumpy) side down. Using a pressing cloth to protect your iron, and following the manufacturer’s instructions, iron the interfacing into place.

With right sides together,pin edges U together.

Make sure that the interfacing runs along the bottom of both pieces.  Sew and press seam UU open.

Seam UU is the centre back of the waistband. Then turn edge S down so that it meets edge T, and press the long horizontal fold.

Open out the waistband again. Arrange your trousers, right sides out, so that the back is facing upwards. Lay the waistband along the top of the trousers, right side down, aligning seam UU with seam KK. The raw edge of the waistband (T) should align with the raw edge of the trousers (BG).

Start to pin the waistband to the trousers, working your way around from the centre back (UU). Keep going until you go past piece 5. Open out the pocket (pieces 3 and 4 and keep pinning.

Stop at the point where the pocket fabric meets the trouser fabric of piece 1 (seam NA).

Measure a further 2cm/ 0.75” and cut the waistband here.

Keep the short cut-off piece of waistband for later. Repeat on the other side.

Use your tailors’ chalk or fabric marker to mark the point where the waistband meets piece 1, on both the wrong and right sides of the fabric. This marks your sewing line; the further 2cm/ 0.75” is your seam allowance. Take out the final pin so that you can work with the cut end of the waistband. Snip your length of ribbon in two, and fold half of it to form a loop. Pin the ribbon loop to the right side of the cut waistband. The cut ends of the ribbon should overhang the cut end of the waistband, and it should be a quarter of the way from the top of the waistband (not including seam allowances). In other words, it should be in the centre of the interfacing, but on the right side.

Your ribbon loop will be sewn along the seam line. Make sure that your loop is big enough to accommodate your chosen button. Adjust if necessary. Sew the ribbon into place along the seam line.

Repeat on the other side of the waistband.

Now take one of your discarded lengths of cut-off waistband. (It should be easily long enough to cover the gap between your two cut ends of waistband – check that it is.) Arranging it in the same way as the pinned length of waistband (wrong side up, the raw edge of the waistband (T) aligning with the raw edge of the trousers (BG)), pin the cut end to the cut end of the pinned section of the waistband, wrong sides together. This is what it looks like with the seam allowance turned towards the new piece of waistband…

and here it is with the seam allowance flipped the other way.

Sew along the seam line. Zigzag the raw ends. Press this seam open.

Now pin the new length of waistband along the front of the trousers, until it meets the other cut edge of waistband. Taking care to ensure that it will be the right length to lie flat along the top of the trousers, pin these two ends of the waistband together at the sewing line, and sew. Zigzag the raw ends, press this seam open, and pin it down.

I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo of this until after I’d sewn the waistband to the trousers – so if you’re wondering why you can see those stitches, that’s why! Just ignore them…

Sew the waistband to the top of the trousers all the way along edge T of the waistband. Use the top of the interfacing to guide you.

This is what your waistband will look like when you’ve finished sewing…

and this is what it looks like when you flip it upwards.

Next, you need to hand finish the inside of the waistband. Press seam TH/G up towards inside of the waistband. Press the seam allowance of edge S inwards, wrong sides together. It should look like this before it is folded over:

Pin it down to the inside of the trousers so that all the raw edges of the waistband are contained neatly inside the waistband. It should look like this:

Sew seam SB/G by hand from the inside of the trousers. Make sure that your stitches are invisible from the outside. This is easiest if you sew edge S down to the seam allowances already there, rather than to the outside of the trousers. Here are my trousers with the waistband finished off, and folded as you are supposed to wear them:

Attach the buttons. Try your trousers on. They will look like clown trousers, with an enormous waist! Fold the pockets inside so that edge A roughly meets edge P. Adjust until there is an equal fold on either side of the centre front of the trousers, and they feel comfortable around the waist. See where the end of the loop meets the waistband, and mark with a pin.

 Take them off, and make sure that the pins are both an equal distance from the side seams. Adjust as necessary, then sew on your buttons in the places marked by the pins. (My waistband needs another press…)

Finish the bottom hems. Try your trousers on again. Fold up edges E and I until the trousers are the length you like. (They look really nice about an inch above the ankle.) Mark this length with a few pins. Turn the trousers inside out. Mark your desired length on the inside of the trousers with your tailors’ chalk or fabric marker. Mark another line 5cm/ 2” below this, and trim the excess fabric away. Zigzag the bottom of the trousers again.

Then turn the seam allowance under by 2cm/ 3/4” and press.

Fold it over a further 3cm/ 1 1/4”, press and pin (this should take them to your desired length).

Hand sew seams E and I using ladder stitch. (To do this, you simply catch a couple of threads of the outside of the trousers:

then take a bigger stitch along the inside of the hem:

before picking up a couple of threads from the outside of the trousers again.)

All done!

Wear your new trousers with pride. And rest assured that they are incredibly easy to adjust should you gain or lose weight – you just need to move the buttons…