Sunday, 30 December 2012


As I posted about Farida Fahmy and the Reda Troupe last week, I thought I’d use a (fairly tenuous) link to post about assuit this week.

Detail of an assuit dress

Also known as Assuti cloth or tulle bi telli, it is made in Assuit, in Upper Egypt. It consists of a mesh fabric of cotton or linen, with thin metal strips, 1/16" to 1/8” (1.5mm to 3mm) wide, woven through the mesh to form a pattern. Although the work is done with a long ‘thread’ of metal strip, each ‘stitch’ of metal is made separately, as can be seen in this close-up.

Image copyright Vintage Fashion Guild

In a talk I went to several years ago about the Reda Troupe, Farida Fahmy mentioned that by the 1960s the production of assuit had greatly declined, but when the troupe came under government control, President Nasser ordered that some of the cloth be specially made for their costumes.

Certainly assuit was still being made during the ‘golden era’ of Egyptian film, as can be seen from this 1930(?) photograph. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to identify the film to get an exact date.

Tahia Carioca in a stunning assuit costume

The 1920s seem to have been the high point of assuit in Europe however. In part this was due to the interest in all things Egyptian which followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. However it may also be that the simple, geometric shaped garments of the era were ideally suited to the fabric. Although assuit drapes well, the metal strips make it hard to work with; you would struggle to put darts in an assuit dress, for example.

These magnificent garments were in an exhibition I went to last year in the Palazzo Mocenigo, the Venice costume museum.

Coat and dresses from the Alexandre Vassiliev collection

The wool evening coat and the dress beneath it are both from Cairo, the coat from 1920-23 and the dress 1923-24. The silk evening dress is also from the early 1920s, but is from Istanbul.

The back of the coat, and the silk evening dress

With the amount of metal in them I would expect these garments to be very heavy, but in her book Costume In Detail Nancy Bradfield describes a similar black assuit dress, circa 1924, as weighing only 16 ounces (450 grams).

The textile historian The Dreamstress owns a beautiful, full length 1920s assuit tunic which she has posted about, with fabulous photographs, here.

I am luck enough to own a piece of assuit myself, a 1920s shawl.

Most of my shawl

One thing which immediately makes it different from almost all of the other pieces I’ve mentioned here is that it has figures woven into the design.

One of the many rows of figures

Most assuit designs are entirely geometric, in keeping with Muslim beliefs on human representation in art. However the city of Assuit has a large Coptic Christian population, so some pieces do include figures, and even camels! The shawl did not come with any background information, but this does at least give me a tiny clue to its history.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Meleya Laugh

Lots of different things can provide the inspiration for a dance. Sometimes it’s a piece of music, or a film clip. Sometimes it’s an excuse to make a specific costume. And very, very occasionally, it’s a pair of shoes.

'Interesting' shoes

I came across these in a local store when I was walking to the till with something else. They were on the end of the aisle, and greatly reduced (I can’t think why). My first thought was, “Oh my, they’re hideous”. My second thought was, “But they would be perfect for Meleya Leff”.

So what, exactly, is Meleya Leff?

A meleya is a very large, black shawl, worn over normal clothes. It was used as a modesty garment by women of Cairo and Alexandria. The word leff simply means ‘to wrap’. As far as I am aware, there is no tradition of dancing with a meleya in Egyptian dance. The dance known as Meleya Leff was devised by Mahmoud Reda who, according to his sister-in-law Farida Fahmy, wanted to create a dance associated with the everyday life of Egyptian women. For more information on the dance, click here.

One misconception about Meleya Leff which I think it’s important to clear up; it is not a dance of prostitutes. Think about it: in 1961 the Reda Troupe was placed under the aegis of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and became in effect the national dance company of Egypt. At President Nasser’s command the troupe performed around the world as cultural ambassadors for the country. They were hardly likely to be depicting Alexandrian ladies of easy virtue while doing this.

Original Meleya Leff costume

This is the classic Meleya Leff costume, worn here by Farida Fahmy. It consists of a short dress with an uneven hem, a headscarf trimmed with pom-poms, high-heeled wooden-soled mules known as ‘sheb-sheb’ for the sound they make, a face veil and of course, the meleya itself. Over time the meleya has come to be heavily trimmed with sequins, and the dress has acquired frills at the hem and neckline. The dress can also be one-shouldered.

I decided to make a Meleya Leff dress with a festive theme, to wear at our class Christmas party. The pattern was made by taking a leotard pattern, adapting it to be one-shouldered with a strap, and extending the line down from the hip to the required skirt length. I found a sparkly green knit fabric which was perfect for the dress, but it was very thin, so the dress is made with a black jersey lining. While the jersey part fitted perfectly, I put darts into the green dress to get a better fit. The flounces are made from the green fabric, folded double.

Completed, but plain, dress

Making a Meleya Leff dress is one occasion where taste and restraint very definitely go out the window. So I hit the Christmas decorations section of my local pound shop, and went wild (well, wild to the tune of about £6!). Tinsel, baubles, decorative trim, gold plastic clip-on poinsettias ….. and some battery-operated fairy lights.

Mmmm, tasteful

As usual, I made the headdress by sewing the headscarf of black sparkly material onto a rigid hairband. My pound shop haul included some trim which consisted of small white pom-poms attached to a sting of silver beads, so I bunched this up and sewed it onto the hairband as well. Finally, I cut small holes along the front edge of the headscarf, and poked the fairy lights through the holes. The switch was hidden under my hair, so for my grand finale I put my hand to the back of my neck, flicked the switch, and hey presto!

All lit up

Sewing on tinsel is surprisingly awkward to do, but eventually I got it stitched around the edge of the bottom ruffles. Then I sewed the sequin trim down the front of the dress, shaping it in a bit at the waist, and round the top of the skirt ruffle. I had a few sequins left, so I added them to my bauble earrings. The ensemble was finished off with a couple of poinsettias clipped to the bottom of the shoulder strap.

The complete costume

To my great joy, the dress got a second outing. Last week at work we had a ‘Wear your Christmas jumper to the office’ charity fundraiser. I don’t have a Christmas jumper, but I do now have a Christmas dress. I left the shoes and the headdress at home, and added a long-sleeved top underneath, for warmth as much as decency. Also, I must admit that I put the dress on once I’d arrived; I wasn’t prepared to risk getting a flat tyre on the day I was travelling dressed as a Christmas tree! Still, given that my usual office wear is black, black, black or black, with occasional forays into grey or navy, I think it’s fair to say that I caused a bit of a stir.

Not my normal work look

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Vegas Night dress, the details

By Wednesday night all I had done was make up the bodice lining, which also functioned as a final toile to check the fit. I still had a lot to do, especially as I had work Christmas lunch and a class party/rehearsal to go to before Saturday. Fortunately I had some spare leave to take.

One thing I hadn’t done by then was draft the neckline properly. The dress was always going to have a back zip opening; I just made the toile front opening so that I could get it on and off easily. I decided that I wanted a wide neckline and a crossover front, so drew a rough outline on the toile, and drafted a proper bodice front and facings from this.

The neckline sketched out on the toile

When I cut out the bodice front pieces out I matched the pattern roughly, but didn’t worry about an exact match.

Cutting out

With hindsight I wonder if more of a mismatch would have been better, as the crossover is a bit lost.

The disappearing crossover front

I made up the bodice, tacked the overlapping fronts together, and sewed a wide stripe of black satin on for waistband. The lining waistband was made differently, by sewing seven shaped pieces together. This was because I wanted to bone the lining, and sewing boning channels onto flat-pressed seams would give a smoother look than sewing them over darts. However for the satin I was happy to just put darts in.

This was the point when the dress began to come together.

Raw edges and tailor tacks still in, but starting to look like a dress

I didn’t bother to draft a pattern for the skirt. Rather than a smooth skirt made from shaped pieces, like the red dress, I wanted to make the skirt as wide as possible, with deep pleats to fit it to the waistband, like the mint green dress. I decided on the length, added a bit extra for luck, and cut out four rectangular panels using the full width of the fabric. Then I laid these on top of one another and carefully folded the whole lot in half, top to bottom.

To calculate the width of each panel at the top, I measured the bottom of the black satin waistband, and divided by four, to get the width of each panel. Then I multiplied this figure by three, to allow for the pleats. Finally I added three centimetres for seam allowances, and divided the total by two. This was the measurement from the fold line at the top of the panels to the cutting line. I drew a line from this point to the bottom of the folded panel, and cut out through all eight layers of fabric.

The skirt was pleated to the bodice with inverted pleats at the centre front and back and the side seams.

Side pleats and a lined sleeve

On the back there were also inverted pleats at the bottom of the waistband dart. On the front the final pair of inverted pleats matched the bodice pleats for the bust.

Matching pleats on bodice and skirt

By this stage time was really getting short, so now we reach the ‘almost’ finished bit. There are a few things I need to go back and redo. The bodice lining is very roughly tacked in. Even worse the hem is, whisper it, machine sewed. Oh the shame of it! I deliberately made the skirt rather too long, so that I can re-hem it. The fabric is almost plain white on the wrong side, and as I have a bit of it left over I want to do a proper faced hem, so that if the underside of the skirt shows mid-swish (and with a full skirt and a net petticoat, there’s a lot of swishing) it will look pretty.

That’s a lot of hand sewing though; the hem is over four metres long. Fortunately I can sew and watch TV at the same time, and because I’ve been so busy recently I’ve got most of series two of “The Hour” to watch. I’ve had a sneak preview of some of the outfits on this blog, and can’t wait to get started.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Finished! (well, almost)

Time I needed to set off for our girls' night out - 6:30pm.

Time I put the last stitch into the dress - 5:45pm.

45 minutes to spare? Ample. (Believe me, for some projects in the past it has been less!)

One thing I haven't had time to do however is write a proper post; so for now here is a picture of the completed* article, and I'll write a full post tomorrow.

All ready for the Vegas Night

* - give or take a few, minor, details

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Petticoat tales

Full-skirted dresses

Full skirts like these need a net petticoat to hold them out properly, and I’ve been busy making one.

Rather than just use black net, I thought that it would be fun to make it in a bright colour to go with the dress fabric, so I chose a hot pink instead. As time is short, I’ve been working on it in my lunch break in work. This did make me regret my colour choice slightly, as I now everyone thinks that I’m making a tutu for a hen night! In this weather? No!

Anyway, here are some details of how I made it. I worked out the length I wanted, and divided it by three. This gave me the length of each tier. In my case the length I wanted was 66cm, divided by three this was 22cm. I added three cm to this for the seam allowances, which gave me a total of 25cm.

The top tier was made from one piece the full width of the net, the middle tier from two pieces and the bottom tier from four pieces. This was seven pieces in all, so the amount of net I needed was seven times 25cm, 1.75m.

I cut out the seven pieces I needed. The top tier I left as a single flat piece. For the middle tier I sewed two pieces together along the short edges to make a wide tube. For the bottom tier I sewed four pieces together along the short edges to make a very wide tube.

At this point I remembered a warning from my mum, who wore these petticoats in the fifties; namely that the raw edges of the net, “ruin your nylons”. Bearing this in mind, I covered all of the seams, and the short edges of the top tier, in bias binding.

Seam edge neatened with bias binding

For the seams I then sewed the folded edge of the binding flat against the fabric.

Bound edge sewn flat onto the net

Next I sewed the short, bound edges of the top tier together with a few stitches at the bottom.

I set my sewing machine to a long stitch length, and sewed along the top of the middle and bottom tiers, then pulled up the stitching to gather it. Then I sewed the bottom tier to the middle tier, and the middle tier to the top tier.

The gathered net was covered with more bias binding, this time full width.

Then I checked the length of the petticoat, and trimmed the raw edges at the top and bottom to make it the correct length.

I machine-gathered the top of the top tier to my waist measurement, and added a narrow waistband of folded bias binding. Then I sewed on a press-stud to fasten it.

Top tier, waistband and fastening

Finally I finished the raw bottom edge with yet more bias binding (I used an incredible 18m in total), and that was the petticoat made.

The completed petticoat

As the dress isn’t made yet, I used my Tarantella dress to see the effect.

Before and after

As you can see, the petticoat is slightly too long for this dress. It certainly makes a difference though; so much so that I’m thinking of making up another one in white net before the summer.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Gertie to the rescue

It’s all very well being able to draft pattern pieces with a gusset, but you have to be able to sew them too. The bodice/sleeve piece is split up the centre of the gusset marking, and the gusset set into the gap, raw edge to raw edge. It’s tricky.

Inserting the gusset

So tricky in fact, that my first attempt was a complete disaster. The second attempt was better, but only because I machined the straight parts, and hand-sewed round the curve. This a) was time consuming, and b) did not give much strength at the point of the gusset which is under the most strain.

Fortunately Gertie’s Blog For Better Sewing has an excellent tutorial on how to tackle this particular vintage detail. Gertie sews the gusset into a much narrower area on the main piece, but I decided to stick to Hilary Campbell’s method of drafting and sewing the gusset.

For the dress I’ll use silk organza as the tutorial recommends, but for my test piece I used the frost fleece which I use for making toiles. I cut a rectangle of fleece, marked the gusset sewing line on it, laid it on the right side of the test fabric, and sewed round the cutting line.

'Organza' sewn on

Then I cut up the centre line, and clipped the curve.

Cutting up the gusset line, and clipping the curves

Next I pulled the fleece and seam allowance through to the wrong side of the fabric and pressed it, making sure that the seam didn’t show on the right side.

The facing pulled through to the wrong side

I pinned the gusset under the main piece, matching the raw edges, and top stitched close to the edge of the main piece.

The gusset inserted

The result: a neat gusset, with an extra line of stitching and an organza/fleece facing reinforcing the edge.

The gusset opened out

Once I had this sorted, I could make up a toile from the kimono blocks I had drafted previously.Although the dress will have a zip at the back, I drafted the toile with a single back piece and a front opening, so that I could try it on easily.

The result fitted really well (why am I always surprised that a pattern drafted from my own measurements actually fits?), so I could then start on the alterations needed to make the dress I have in mind.

The first toile, with possible neckline drawn on

Much as I like the fabric, even I have to admit that it’s a bit busy.


To tone it down a bit, and to echo the very fitted waists of my inspiration pieces, I have decided to have a tightly fitting section from the waist to directly under the bust in plain black satin. The line marking where the main bodice should end is just visible on the toile above.

I want the dress to have short sleeves, partly in line with the inspiration dresses and partly for a balanced overall shape. I have a small bust and wide hips, and anything sleeveless, especially with a full skirt, just makes me look more cone-shaped than ever. Just how short I could make the sleeves was limited by the upper edge of the gusset, but I was happy to go with that.

The final consideration was the darts on the bodice front. The two dresses have strongly slanting, almost horizontal darts, but I don’t really like them. For inspiration I turned to my copy of The Golden Age of Couture, and found just what I was looking for: a 1952 Dior day dress where the bust darts are replaced with inverted pleats.

I drafted new pattern pieces, and made a second toile. There was a lot about it that I liked. The high waistband piece only needs a few darts at the bottom edge to make it fit perfectly. The sleeve length is perfect; when my arms are lowered the sleeves end in line with the plain black waistband, which will extend and emphasise the strong horizontal line at that point.

The second toile

The only problem was the bust darts. I had changed them to pleats, but left them in the same place on the bodice. They were too central, and this caused the fabric to pull, creating a third pleat.

Problem area on the bust pleat

Fortunately unpicking the waistband seam and moving the pleats further towards the side seams fixed this.

Although I’m happy that I’ve now got a bodice pattern I can work from, today was a challenging day. In July I hurt my right knee quite badly, and although it has been getting very slowly better, yesterday I stupidly managed to set it back by some way. To my horror I discovered that I couldn’t operate the pedal of my sewing machine with my right foot. In theory this shouldn’t be a problem. I could use my left foot instead, how hard could it be? This was when I discovered that after almost four decades of operating a sewing machine right-footed, I just didn’t have the same motor (no pun intended) skills in my left foot. This led to some ‘interesting’ stitching, and a certain amount of unpicking. It’s 12 days to the big night; this could be a close-run thing. Wonder if the girls fancy helping me sew the hem in the taxi on the way to the venue?