Sunday, November 29, 2020

Weekend Review: The Last Collection

The Last Collection / Jeanne Mackin
New York, NY : Berkley, 2019
340 p.

Another novel with fashion at its heart, this one was a clear winner for me. Lily Sutter is a young widow, and a teacher who leaves her post when her brother Charlie writes that he needs her in Paris. She's also an artist, and her eager rediscovery of Paris in 1938 is full of colour and painting and fashion...alongside the looming threat of war. 

She arrives in Paris to find that her charming brother wants to offer her a dress by Chanel, but she prefers the more artistic flair of Schiaparelli. Charlie's married girlfriend Ania, a rich society wife, follows Lily's lead and starts wearing the upstart designer's clothing, putting Lily in the middle of a rivalry between Chanel and Schiaparelli. This rivalry is not only about their differing views of the role of fashion, but is exacerbated by their views on prewar politics. 

I'm not always impressed by books that take real life people as characters; I find it akin to stealing someone's life in many cases. But here the two designers, while important to the story, don't seem to act outside of their historically known characters. And the author focuses much more on Lily's journey and how these two people are important to her story than on trying to recreate the internal lives of these real people. And I found that it worked because of this focus.

The emotional arc of the story is all Lily -- the early loss of her husband, her relationship to her brother, the role she plays when she gets a job at Schiaparelli's salon and also interacts with Chanel, and her own burgeoning love affair that is complicated by the presence of Nazis in France. The war is a key part of the book, but I still wouldn't call this a War Story. It's a different angle on this time in history, as Lily, an American, sees things from the outside. 

I really enjoyed the solid historical context of this story, as well as the accomplished writing. Mackin tells this story without sentimentalizing or exaggerating historical facts. She also represents the nuance in the decisions that both designers made at the start of the war, and the unexpected effects of their decisions on others -- for example, that Chanel closed up overnight to remove to a hotel with her German officer lover for the duration of the war, which immediately put 200 employees out of work at a difficult time. That was one aspect I hadn't immediately considered, being more focused on Chanel's association with the Germans in the war. 

The strength of the book lies in the focus on Lily's storyline; it has the emotional weight and complexity to stand on its own. The author could have invented designers or even had Lily working at something else and it still would have worked without the 'celebrity' aspect. Although I must say I really liked that part of things. Lily, as an artist, sees in colour and feeling, and her impressions of the fashions and the fabrics were satisfying to read. She refers to colours as leitmotifs in both designers' lives (Schiaparelli is synonymous with Shocking Pink while Chanel is known for her Little Black Dress, for example), and the real collections of both designers in these years are discussed and described. Lily also ties colour to emotion, reflecting her own interactions with Paris and her new life. There is a lot of engaging description of outfits, designs and even Lily's own paintings, with colour and line at the forefront. 

While there are many serious and difficult moments in this book, it ends with a satisfying resolution that won't leave you depressed for days -- it's not that kind of WWII novel. It's a smart, fashionable story with a strong emotional heart. If you have someone in your life who enjoys well structured historical fiction and loves fashion and/or art, I'd highly recommend this as a perfect holiday gift. 


Friday, November 27, 2020

Shirt No. 1, a Boxy Basic

Two things, well three really, came together into today's project. First, the Sewcialists are hosting a mini-challenge right now focusing on easy tees, the #SewcialistsTNTee. Second, I checked out CreativeBug via a local library, and found that the 100 Acts of Sewing Shirt No. 1 was a featured class and pattern. Lastly, I had a small piece of wool blend suiting that I thrifted ages ago that jumped out at me as the perfect fit for this pattern -- I've been wanting to use it for ages but could never find the right small yardage pattern, until now.

This is a simple boxy top, but I've always liked the way it fits on the versions I've seen people make, so when I saw it on CreativeBug I knew I'd have to give it a try. I traced off size M, grading to L at the hips. It is just one piece, the same for front and back. I laid it out on my small 1 metre of fabric, and then second guessed myself and took 1/2" wedge out of the centre front and back as I often do with wide necklines. This had the advantage of giving me the literal extra 1/2" I needed at the sleeve edges so that I could fit this into my fabric. 

It's a quick and clear sewing process; sew up the shoulder seams and side seams, press and hem the sleeve edges and bottom edge. I gave mine a 1/2" hem at both spots. Then I finished the neckline with some prepackaged black bias tape. I am a slow sewer but this only took me just over 2 hours to make from cutting out to wearing. .For me that is a quick project! I did have to take a bit of extra time in the cutting stage, to try to line up the red stripe in my limited yardage, but I think I got pretty close. 

Because this is a wool blend I planned to wear this as a layering piece, and I'm so glad it worked out over my turtleneck and fave Lindy Petal skirt. It also works with my fabulous thrifted necklace, which makes me happy :) 

Next time I think I'll cut large all around to give it more boxiness, and also, instead of taking that centre wedge from the neckline, I'll leave the width and just cut the shoulder seams further in so there is no bra strap viewing. And I may lower the front neckline a bit. 

I do like the shape and fit of this, however, and it's such an easy project that it's worth it. There are also a couple of variations in the pattern, for a button front version and a bias cut bottom section version. I can see trying a wide range of adaptations in this one.

I'm pleased with my fall/winter version of Shirt No. 1, and think I'll be making other summery ones too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Links for the Fashionable Sewist

I've been busy with some holiday sewing so no projects to share this week -- that would spoil the surprise for any of my gift recipients reading this! 

So I thought I'd share some fun links to interesting things I've been watching lately. 

My local Garment Guild is meeting virtually this year, and this month we were really honoured to have the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, join us on our Zoom meeting. She's not only an amazingly accomplished woman and a government official, she loves to sew. It was great talking to her and hearing some of her stories, and seeing some of her favourite fabrics! 

There was a news spot on her a couple of years ago, and I think it shows her passion for sewing clearly. Hope you enjoy it too. 

And just this morning I saw that The Queen's Gambit is now the most watched Netflix scripted show ever. I can see why; it was so good. The storyline, characters, acting, and the set design and costuming were all excellent! Readers here will likely be as interested in the wonderful costuming as much as I was, so be sure to check out this interview with the costume designer Gabriele Binder about her inspiration and intent with the costuming.

Here are two of my favourites among the many spectacular period outfits.

Then check out this amazing virtual exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum featuring closeups of the costuming from both The Queen's Gambit and The Crown. Warning: you'll be there a while!

Hopefully I'll be back with some projects soon. If you're also busy with your holiday sewing...good luck :)

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Weekend Review: The Rarest Blue

The Rarest Blue / Baruch Sterman & Judy Taubes Sterman
Guildford, CT: Lyons Press, c2012
305 p.

This book is a mix of ancient history tracing the path of Murex dyes across the centuries, a scientific treatise of dye and colour perception, and specific tiny points of Jewish law and history. It works, to a point.

It looks at the search for tekhelet, a specific sky blue dye that is required in Jewish law to dye threads to attach to one's prayer shawl. Sterman goes into what the dye was, why it was important to Hasidic Jews, how it was made in ancient days (discovered by the Minoans, traded by Phoenicians, worn by Roman elites, used in Jewish religious tradition), and the effort by Hasidic rabbis over the last two centuries to recover the secrets of how this dye was made. 

The search for how Murex dyeing works was fascinating, even though it's also quite disturbing, being dependent on mutilating live snails and discarding them after the one precious gland is harvested. There was no real discussion about the ethics of this practice or any moves toward a more sustainable method of harvesting the important chemical -- but when religion gets involved in things, other considerations often get tossed out the window. That is my own observation, not something that is discussed in this book.

The history of blue and purple dyes is interesting and exciting; I recall Lydia, the seller of purple, in the bible and how that mention always intrigued me as a child. And of course the history of Minoan and Phoenician culture is always fascinating, at least to me. The details of how the dye is made is both compelling and disgusting -- who knew that the smell was so bad that a woman whose husband became a dyer after they were married was entitled to a divorce if she wanted one! I found these parts great reading and very informative. 

However, there didn't seem to be strong organization in this book, it talks about a lot of different things and sometimes themes and timelines get mixed up, at least for this reader. It also feels like it goes on a little too long; the chapter on the physics of colour perception could have easily been dropped without being missed. 

If you are interested in dyes and their cultural relevance, this is a good read. Keep in mind that the authors are also head of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, an organization dedicated to selling this rediscovered tekhelet dye and the threads required by this obscure biblical directive, so they might not be as objective about its importance as another person would. But they do know what they're talking about when it comes to how this dye was recovered from the mists of history and put back into production. 

This was an unusual find and one that I learned quite a lot from. Pretty interesting that I was reading this while making my latest super blue dress!

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Factory Dress for the Literary Sewing Circle

Today is the final day of the "official" Literary Sewing Circle for the fall of 2020. However, I know that quite a few people had delays in getting their hands on the book this time around, so please know that you can still read the book, check out all the posts in this series and comment on them anytime, and if you do make a project, feel free to leave a link in the comments of the wrap-up post. If you are reading this far in the future, sharing your thoughts on the book is still very welcome! 

On to my own project for this round, inspired by The Night Watchman. I read this book first in the spring when it was newly released, and then again for the blog series, and I also listened to the audio version (read by the author, Louise Erdrich) while sewing. So I feel like I am really familiar with this novel and all the many characters who I came to really care about. 

I had many ideas for projects, but ended up going with one that mixed together a few elements of the book. I was taken by the idea of the jewel bearing plant, but couldn't find a good gemstone print to work with (my first idea). So I decided I'd make the Factory Dress by Merchant & Mills, as my nod to Pixie's workplace.

I also chose this bright blue linen from my stash; there are many references to blue in this book, from Pixie's blue coat that she's so proud of, to the family name of Juggie and Bernadette Blue. Wood Mountain's borrowed boxing robe is also blue, and Millie's glorious mission dress is a mix of blue, green & gold.

So all together this is a mix of inspirations, and a project I finally chose from among the many, many ideas I was working with. I'd still like to make something inspired by Thomas' wonderful penmanship, too! 

Now for the sewing details. 

This is a loose fitting dress, so I was careful to search for other makes on Instagram to get a feel for the ease and fit in other's projects before deciding on how I wanted to make mine. This helped give me a sense of the size to cut and any adjustments I might need before cutting. I think I've got it just about right for my sensibilities. 

It wasn't a very difficult dress; the construction is quite logical and well laid out, although the collar did give me some issues with a few puckers near the back shoulders. I don't think I clipped the collar seam well enough before adding the facing. I might go back and add a few clips into the final seam and press again to see it that smooths it out a bit. It's a tiny thing but something to note for next time. 

I wasn't sure if I should add the pocket to the bodice as it's not useful, but decided that it added to the style and so was needed visually. I like how it turned out! 

Otherwise a pretty quick sew. Sleeves are attached flat, the skirt is pleated not gathered so is easy to attach, and overall this was a speedy and enjoyable project. Since I used a looser weave linen, I did finish all the edges of all the pieces before construction, and that was probably the lengthiest element of the entire project. I love the clear blue, and think I might try this as a blouse next, as I really like the fit of the bodice. 

I hope you enjoyed The Night Watchman if you were reading along! Keep your eyes on this space for the next round of the Literary Sewing Circle, anticipated to begin in February or early March 2021.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Leopard Print Burda

As I've mentioned before, I am currently taking the Burda Teacher Certification Course. It's been pretty fun and I feel like I'm learning some new tips and tightening up some of my techniques. As part of the class there are four projects to be graded; the latest one is Burda #128 05/2011, a vintage style dress that isn't something that would have caught my eye normally. 

Part of the reason I wouldn't have made this for myself outside of this class is the poofy gathered back. I guess in a lightweight voile or rayon it might look nicer, but I used a cotton sateen from my stash. I hoped it would be lightweight enough for the style, but the back did poof out far more than I liked. 

Since it was an assignment, I made it strictly by the pattern directions, only changing things for sizing purposes (ie: grading from 42 at shoulder/bust and 44 for waist/hip like I usually do with Burda). There were a few issues -- I only had a 14" invisible zip in my stash, not a 16" as called for, so a bit of wiggling is required to get it over my hips. But the zip was a vintage one and an absolute match so I went with it. 

Also, when the main dress was done, prior to attaching the collar, I tried it on since I felt like the neckline was enormously wide. I was right. Thank goodness for the raglan sleeve -- I took a 1/2" wedge out of each sleeve seam, and another 3/4" wedge out of the centre back seam. Then it seemed to fit around the shoulders nicely. I adjusted the collar pieces accordingly, and then attached it. 

After I took the photos of the dress for class purposes, I attacked it once again to make it wearable for my tastes. This meant removing the giant poof in the back. I unpicked the back waist seam and measured to see how much I'd need to remove; it was nearly 6.5"! So I took a wedge from the centre back seam, 2" on either side of it tapering up to nothing at the top of the seam. Then I pinched out two darts which were each just a smidge over 1" each. I basted these all down & then basted the waist seam too, and tried it on.

I found that the width was okay but I also had to take out some of the length -- good thing it had all been basted! I tore out the waist seam again and pinned a wedge of nearly 1.5" in the centre of the bodice tapering to nothing at the side seams, kind of like a bit of a swayback adjustment. When I basted that and tried it on it seemed just right. So happy! I like the flat back a lot better. 

This dress was made from all stash -- fabric and zip. I was delighted to be able to finally use this firey fabric and also that I had perfect matching burgundy scraps in my stash for the collar, and a pale orangey vintage zip too. I actually like the shape of it and was able to get the fitting right after all that fudging :) 

This has a definite vintage vibe, and I think I kind of like it. I may just finesse that back a bit more and make sure any remaining bulk is completely smoothed out. But I do think it's perfectly wearable now. I enjoyed the challenge of making something I wouldn't normally choose, and making it strictly by pattern directions -- at least in the beginning ;) I have one more pattern to make in this course and then it will be complete!

Even took pictures in this light dress with snow on the ground,
 just for you ;)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Weekend Review: A Red Like No Other


A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World /
ed. by Carmella Padilla & Barbara Anderson
NY: Skira Rizzoli, c2015.
319 p.

Since I'm on the subject of colour this month, I finally brought this book home from the library to read -- I've been meaning to for years! But it's quite large and heavy, a classic art book, so I had put it off again and again ;)

But I'm glad I finally dug in, because it's fascinating, though the content is almost as heavy as the actual physical weight of it. It's a look at Cochineal through the ages, as the sub-subtitle says: an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade. 

It's an exhibition catalogue from an exhibit on the history of cochineal put on by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. And as such, it is packed full of amazing images from the exhibit, ranging over centuries, from prehistoric to modern uses, and examples of natural dyes used to create red tones revealing why cochineal was so prized for its stable reds and variety of shades it could produce. 

Of course, because it's a set of essays by over 40 scholars, there is no real narrative, just a loose arrangement of themes and timelines that combine to give a vast picture of the reach of cochineal in global history. The exhibit was inspired by the museum director reading a book called "A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and a Quest for the Color of Desire" by Amy Butler Greenfield. And if you're looking for more of an exciting narrative about cochineal, this is probably the one to reach for (I have my eye out for it now).

But this art book is full of fascinating historical information, and has exemplary illustrations -- I learned a lot about things I didn't even know I was interested in! One of the first essays was called "Three Reds: Cochineal, Hematite and Cinnabar in the Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican World" and I found it so intriguing. 

The book is broken up into 7 sections, and each is really a book in its own right. The 7 topics are all centred on cochineal -- the colour and the insect that creates it -- in varied time frames. Starting with Pre-Columbian & Early Contact Americas (since the source of cochineal is Mexico and South America), it moves to Global Trade, then Science, Textiles, European Art, the Colonial Hispanic Americas, and finally brings us to the Modern World. There are 4 - 6 essays in each section and the number of pieces contributed really gives a wide view of the topic. 

This is not a book that you're likely to read cover to cover, or in a weekend. But as a beautiful book to look through, dipping into different essays over a couple of weeks and picking up varied facts and enjoying the illustrations in particular, it's a good one. If it wasn't so expensive I'd say it would be a great coffee table book. As it is, I recommend that if you think this sounds good, you give your local library a go. Much more affordable that way!