Sunday, 30 September 2012

Patterns past and present. Part 1

This week I was going to post about Shambellie House, the Scottish National Museum of Costume. However the always excellent Dreamstress posted about printed and unprinted dress patterns, which sent me off to check when printing first appeared in the various vintage patterns I own. Looking at them, I realized that there have been far more changes to patterns than just printing.

The oldest pattern I own is Simplicity 2683. This dressing gown in the style of Dior's 'New Look' is a pattern of my mum's. Unfortunately she threw out most of her old patterns over the years (how I'd love to own the various 1950s ones she had, now only remembered in photographs of her wearing her creations). I suspect that this one escaped because as a dressing gown there was less problem with it becoming dated.

The sole survivor of Mum's 1950s patterns

The pattern gives yardage requirements and cutting layouts for 35", 39", 41" and 54" fabric. Mum however grew up during World War Two when fabric supplies were limited. To this day she ignores cutting layouts and squeezes garments out of ¼ yard less fabric than suggested.

Yardage requirements for a variety of fabric widths

As a result of this, to reduce wasted fabric she had split the large skirt sections into smaller pieces, and made an extra pattern pieces out of scrap paper. One section is made from newspaper; the 1 August 1954 edition of the Empire News (where she worked as a secretary at the time). This is great for dating when Mum made the dressing gown, but leaves me with tantalizing snippets from the time. Who, for example, was featured in the "John Gay's Showdown" column, under the headline, "At fifteen she's got the whole world at her feet"?

One of Mum's extra pattern pieces

This pattern consists of pattern pieces already cut out but unprinted; the darts, tailor tack points, grain line, notches and the letter identifying the piece are all punched out of the piece.

Bodice back

It's not just the pattern pieces which look strange by modern standards; the instructions are only a single sheet of paper, with the cutting layouts taking up most of the first side. Right at the bottom of page two is, 'Copyright, 1948, by Simplicity Patterns Co. Inc', making it far older than I thought. Possibly patterns stayed in production for longer then, particularly for items such as dressing gowns.

Most of the instructions

In my late teens I made a dress from this pattern, shortening the skirt to a more suitable length. Looking at it now, I can't imagine how I got it to fit. The pattern is a size 12, and according to the Standard Body Measurements on the pattern envelope, my 36" bust makes me a size 18. Ouch. On the plus side, I discovered that it's not a dressing gown, it’s a housecoat. If I ever make it up again, I can 'receive guests at home' while wearing it!

Maudella 5151 is high on my 'to make' list (view 2, since you ask). I have the fabric ready, and just lack the time. Maudella Patterns was a British firm, founded in 1937 in Bradford, West Yorkshire. In the 1980s it was taken over by New Look.

Too much information?

The pattern has a lot of information on the envelope front; as well as the usual drawings of the different styles there are also back views, yardage requirements, suggested fabrics and notions (including the intriguingly spelled 'dress zipp'). This may be because a lot of the envelope back is taken up with written cutting instructions which complement the layout diagrams on the (tiny) instruction sheet. There are not separate pieces for each dress and neckline style, as there would be today. Instead there are overlays which are placed over the main, unprinted, pattern piece, matching the punch holes to align them.

Cutting out instructions

Again the instructions are a single sheet of paper, this time little bigger than a sheet of A4. Despite the promise of "Step by step instructions inside", a fair amount of dressmaking knowledge is assumed. I particularly like step 7; "Make a 1" wide belt and add to dress".

Too little information?

The pattern is sized by bust measurement only. As the bust measurements given in the yardage requirements are 34, 36, 38 and 40, I feel relatively slim.

Back to Simplicity. No date on the instructions or envelope, but it proudly announces that it is a 'Printed Pattern'. And my 36" bust has slimmed down to a size 16, so progress all round!

Printed patterns at last!

Still along way to go to the modern pattern, though.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The 'Tarantella' dress

The tarantella dress is finished. Actually, it was finished a few weeks ago, I just haven't had a chance to post about it before now.

After my careful cutting out, I thought that it would be quite easy to sew the dress pieces together, but unfortunately I was wrong. Because the cotton was so fine, and all the pieces were flared, the raw edges stretched very easily. Each seam had to be extensively pinned, matching the stripes as I pinned it.

When I drafted the pattern I changed the dress from front to back opening. I used an invisible zip, as I wanted the back pieces to have a smooth join.

Dress back

I edged the sleeves and the neckline with a band of the wide stripe part of the fabric, ending just before the first narrow green stripe. Initially this caused a few problems, because even with interfacing applied to the bands, the vertical stripes of the main part of the garment showed through. Adding a second layer of interfacing made the bands too rigid, but adding a lining of fine muslin instead made the bands sufficiently opaque while still flexible.

Stripe edging on the sleeves and neckline

Like most dresses, the neckline at the back was curved, but obviously this wouldn't work with the straight bands I wanted to add. I altered the neckline so that there was a horizontal band front and back. The almost vertical bands on the front were then shaped by the slope of the shoulders to form a wider angle at the back. All the joins in the neckline band were carefully mitred to ensure that the black edges to the stripes matched up. Finally, a lining was added, and several evenings were spent hand sewing the extensive hem.

Neckline band going over the shoulder

The dress got its first wearing when Mr Tulip and I were invited to a friend's 60th birthday party at 'New Hall' in Cambridge. The dress code was 'summery', and the dress fitted the bill perfectly.

Outside New Hall

In the gardens, showing off the matched stripes on the skirt!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Pattern matching

Looking back over the garments I have made for myself recently, it struck me that they have all been made from either plain fabric (the purple dress, the Golden Era costume, the Roman cape - well, almost plain), or a bold pattern which needed careful matching.

I regard pattern matching as one of those things which you don't notice at all if it’s done well, but it's very obvious if it's been done badly, or not done at all. (Although perhaps it's only obvious to dress nerds like me.)

Many of the dresses in the Horrockses exhibition had been carefully pattern matched; to be expected from such an up-market label.

Horrockses dress with pattern matched at front opening

The three patterned dresses I have made recently have all been matched using different techniques.

The blue crepe dress was made a while before I started this blog.

blue crepe dress, back and front

I wanted the pattern of the fabric to match at the front opening, with a row of circles down the centre front and centre back, and the skirt to match the bodice as far as possible. To achieve this I cut out all of the pattern pieces from the fabric folded double, as per the cutting layout, but first pinned the two layers of fabric together in a great many places, to ensure that the cut out pieces matched. Having cut everything out, it struck me that it would almost certainly have been quicker and easier to have cut the pieces out one by one, from a single layer of fabric.

blue dress front close-up

As I've posted previously, the pattern matching on the 'If it can go wrong' dress came about from necessity. Because I made the dress in such a hurry, I didn't take photographs at the time, but have recreated the technique I used on some spare fabric.

For the dress front I drafted a single, full width pattern piece, and marked where I wanted the yoke and the main dress front to join. I then laid this out on a single layer of fabric, and traced the outline of some parts of the fabric design onto the pattern piece, concentrating on the area around the seam line. Fortunately the fabric had a bold design with clear outlines, which made this easy to do. I also marked the cutting line for the main dress piece, 1.5 cm up from the seam line.

tracing the fabric design onto the pattern piece

the dress front pattern piece

I then removed the fabric, laid a fresh layer of tissue over the pattern piece, and traced the outline of the yoke piece, including the cutting line 1.5 cm down from the seam line. Then I traced the fabric design.

tracing the design and pattern piece for the yoke

Once this was done, I cut away the excess tissue at the top of the dress pattern piece This gave me two pattern pieces which could be aligned to the fabric, and when cut out would match at the seam line.

the completed pattern pieces
I then repeated the process for the dress back.

the completed dress

For the tarantella dress, the important thing was to match the stripes up the seams of the flared skirt. Again I cut each piece from a single layer of cloth, and drafted a single, full width pattern piece for the dress centre front. Because I wanted a stripe to run down the centre of the dress, I marked the centre front line on the pattern piece, and drew a line half the width of the stripe either side of the centre front. I then pinned the pattern to the fabric down these lines, before pinning round the edges of the pattern piece as normal.

centre front piece pinned to the stripe, and left front piece

Up each side of the skirt I marked where the stripe met the edge of the pattern piece. Then I laid the edge of the next pattern piece against the first one, and starting from the bottom transferred the stripe markings. I then used these to align the second pattern piece to the fabric stripes.

stripe matching marks

Once one piece was cut out, I flipped the pattern over and cut out the other side.I repeated this process for the remaining pieces until I had all seven dress panels cut out. To my immense relief and joy, not only did the stripes match at the centre back, they matched on the shoulder seams as well.

matching shoulder stripes

All three of these techniques took longer than just cutting out a dress as normal, but I think that the results are worth it. After all, if it was good enough for Horrockses, it's good enough for me!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Off The Peg

"Off The Peg", an exhibition of 1940s and 1950s clothing from Horrockses Fashions Limited, was first staged in the Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2010. Sadly I missed both that, and a subsequent showing in the south-east of England last year. In the meantime I had bought the book, and drooled over the images of the full skirted 1950s cotton dresses for which Horrockses were best known. So when I discovered this was to be the 2012 special exhibition at the Scottish National Museum of Costume in Dumfries, I was determined that it would be third time lucky. Fortunately for me, Mr Tulip was quite happy with the idea of a holiday in the Scottish Borders, and a day trip to Shambellie House.

The exhibition poster. This image was an advertisement which appeared in Vogue, June 1950

The exhibition is attractively laid out in three rooms. The first room contains day wear for both work and leisure, mostly dresses but also a skirt, and two sunsuits with matching jackets.

A selection of day dresses

Sunsuits with matching jackets

There is also some information about the company and its designers, plus a timeline. From this I learned that in 1949 the company purchased levelling machines, to enable skirts to be measured and trimmed in a single action. Given the amount of skirt to be hemmed on some of the dresses, this must have saved a great deal of time!

A typical, full-skirted Horrockses dress, with bolero

The second room focuses on fabric design. Horrockses, Crewdson & Co Ltd was a firm of cotton manufacturers, and established Horrockses Fashions in 1946 to provide a market for its cotton cloth. From the beginning the emphasis was on good quality fabric and custom-designed patterns. The company used fabric designs created by some of the best designers and artists of the day including Eduardo Paolozzi, Graham Sutherland and Alastair Morton, and also employed its own designers.

More dresses. The green dress is an Alastair Morton print, while the fabric of the red dress on the far right was designed by Graham Sutherland

The third room features areas of Horrockses production about which I knew very little; housecoats and evening wear. In my ignorance I have always thought of a housecoat as a form of dressing gown, but in fact it was quite acceptable to receive guests at home wearing one. Certainly the models displayed had a distinctly glamorous look to them, although I couldn't help feeling that the offset pockets of the housecoat on the far right would make it quite a strange garment to wear.

Clamorous housecoats (and strange pockets)

Although Horrockses did make evening dresses from a variety of fabrics, they also worked to establish cotton as a prestigious fabric suitable for evening wear. Sadly the elegant red cotton velvet evening gown with satin trimming on display was never worn outside Horrockses London offices; it was probably made as a one-off piece for one of the company's seasonal fashion shows.

Cotton evening dresses

The garments are not displayed behind glass, so it is possible to get close enough to look at (and, happily, photograph) construction details. When I have looked at 1950 dresses for sale at vintage fairs, I have often been struck by the fact that the construction is complex by today's standards, but the quality of finish is very poor. In contrast, the garments on display here are all finished to a very high standard.

In the case of some of the day dresses, there is also some information about who purchased the dress, and when. Despite the fact that many of the dresses were favourites of their owners, and consequently were worn a lot, they show no signs of wear or fading; testament to the quality of the fabric and the construction. This quality came at a price however; cotton dresses cost between £2 and £4 in 1952, the equivalent of £165 and £219 today.

The Horrockses brand maintained an air of exclusivity, and this was supported with advertising in up-market publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar. The advertisements had limited text, and concentrated on the dress. The exhibition includes some of these advertisements, along with other publicity materials.

Advertisement and publicity photograph

Sadly although a number of them feature in the book, the exhibition does not include any dresses with the bodice cut on the bias, like the one featured in the exhibition poster above. I have always been intrigued about how the bodice was cut and constructed to take the bias cut into account. Vogue pattern 8789 has a bias-cut bodice, so inspired by this wonderful exhibition, I may have to make my own 'Horrockses' to discover this for myself.

Fabulous though it was, there was far more to the museum than just this exhibition, but that will have to be another post.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Inspired by the Golden Era. Part 3 - finishing touches

Another of my 'catching up' posts.

The main parts of the costume were made, now I just needed the final details to complete the Golden Era look.

The veil was made specifically for this costume. Because it is tucked in the belt throughout, it needed to be much longer than a normal veil. It was made from a length of white chiffon with a subtle silver shimmer through it.

When I tried the costume on, there seemed to be a lot of bare skin between the bra and my neck. I needed a necklace, and found one in black metal with swags of beads which was perfect. The only problem was that the chain would get in the way when I tucked the veil ends into the halter neck. One solution was to remove the back part of the necklace, and attach the rest to the halter strap, but then this wouldn't leave enough space for me to get my head through! Instead I sewed the necklace to the strap at one side, and on the other side of the strap I sewed a jump ring to which the necklace could be fastened.

Necklace attached to the bra, with the fasten on the right

I don't usually dance in shoes, but Samia Gamal was famous for doing so, so I bought a pair of black and silver dance shoes, and added some vintage shoe clips which I already had.

Modern shoes with vintage shoe clips

The last thing to consider was my hair. I have quite a long fringe, but all the women in the film clips I watched either had no fringe at all, or a scarily short one like this.

The singer Coca, in the film "A Glass and a Cigarette"

I wanted a period look, but not that much!

The film clips provided a solution. Samia Gamal often had sparkling clips in her hair, so I decided to copy her look. I bought a cheap metal hairband and covered the band part with brown bias tape to match my hair.

The completed hairband

I used this to hold my fringe back, and relied upon the fact that from the distance of a stage, only the silver flowers would show.

Look, no fringe!

Finally, here's a picture of me performing in the show. Thanks to Ann Cook for allowing me to use one of the photographs she took.

The finished costume