further thoughts on a slow wedding dress

Our wedding was on 1st August, and by early February this year, I had some sense of what I wanted the overall shape of my dress to be. I bought this pattern from Etsy (it came all the way from Las Vegas!):

McCall's 7081: a vintage 1963 evening gown dress patternMcCall’s 7081 is a 1963 cocktail dress pattern, and I chose it because of the unusual bust seam lines and boat neck on the front bodice, and the v-neck on the back. The only size I could find was a bust 34, and I spent the next few months working on muslins, trying to refine the fit for my slightly smaller bust, and much narrower back. I invested in a dress form (something I’d wanted for a long time – this project was the excuse I needed!), and with Hanna’s help, adjusted it and added padding around the bust to approximate my dimensions. Although this bodice looks uncomplicated (its sleek simplicity was what had most appealed to me), the front curved seams proved deceptively tricky to alter, and in the end I left them alone, and achieved a better fit by, essentially, removing fabric at the side and back centre seams.

This was the first time I had incorporated muslins into a dressmaking project, and this part of the process was certainly slow, and at times frustrating. It goes without saying that for such a project as this, muslins were entirely necessary, and I would never have cut into costly silk without being fairly sure about the final result. In the end though, I did enjoy this particularly slow stage of the project – rather like when honing a long piece of writing, the repeated, careful revising  eventually left me with a sense of satisfaction and pride, in knowing that I had produced a thing well-crafted.

By late June, I hadn’t yet decided how one or more pieces of the antique lace would be incorporated. I knew that the lace was definitely going to be part of the skirt, and on the back of the skirt (a full-length circle skirt), where it would be most striking. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I finally chose to use just one piece: a tambour net flounce, over 3 metres long, dating from the 1880s, which is coincidentally the same decade in which the church where we were married was built.

IMG_1843I think many people would be shocked that I was still making some quite crucial decisions about my dress with just over a month to go until our wedding day. The timescales prescribed by the wedding industry are often terrifyingly long – it’s not unusual to make practical arrangements and lay down substantial deposits years ahead, and in my experience of others’ weddings, dresses are sourced months, if not also years, in advance. Hanna and I often talk about the disturbing aspects of contemporary wedding culture, in which people are lead to believe that their wedding has to be a day on which everything is ‘perfect’. Women in particular are put under the pressure of ‘perfection’, and not least when it comes to wedding dresses – as the world of bridal magazines would have it, it’s acceptable to spend thousands of pounds on your ‘dream’ wedding dress, a garment which will be worn only once (and is probably made entirely from synthetic fibres, in a factory in China – but that’s a post for another day…).

So in a context in which brides-to-be are expected to plan every little detail of ‘their’ day very far in advance, my wedding dress was in many ways last-minute. As I said in my last post, some people were clearly surprised and concerned that my dress wasn’t finished when I mentioned I was working on it in July. The dress was completed three days before our wedding, without any rush – just the satisfying pleasure of a project thoroughly executed, in the finest of materials (and without an eye-watering price tag). I was delighted with the finished dress, but much of my joy in wearing it came from the slow experience of making it, and the memories of that experience.DSC_0258IMG_2140

Refashioning a bridesmaid’s dress: 1981-2015

If you are thinking how unfortunate 80s wedding dresses were, remember that this was ten days after Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married - it could have been so much worse!
August 1981. L-R: my uncle Derek, my dad, my mum, my mum’s friend Sheila, and my godmother, Marge.

At my parents’ wedding in August 1981, the dresses worn by my mother and her two bridesmaids were handmade (to the same pattern) by my mother’s friend Marge, the bridesmaid on the right in the photo above. When I was born, a few years later, Marge became my godmother, and she’s always been family to me. She’s also been a great inspiration to my crafting, because as long as I’ve known her she has been highly skilled at making: she can do expert patchwork, embroidery, knitting, crochet, and dressmaking, and makes beautiful things for herself and for her lucky friends and relatives.

When I was a child, Marge was the one person I knew who did serious dressmaking and she introduced me to the idea that by making your own clothes, you could present yourself exactly how you wanted to. Of course, it took me quite a long time to work out how I did want to present myself, and to realise that making and refashioning were the key to a thoughtful and emotionally satisfying relationship with my own style, but Marge helped me start that journey by patiently making clothes for me when I was a teenager, even sending garments back and forth across the Atlantic for fitting! On a trip to London when I was 15, she let me pick out fabrics in Liberty, and then made them into a tiered skirt in the boho style that was all the rage around the millennium; a garment I adored at the time, and still wear.

is it just me or was the print quality on Liberty fabric much better fifteen years ago?
handmade Liberty boho skirt, c.2000

In 2011, I visited Marge at her home in Vermont, and we had a lot of fun rifling through her amazing collection of vintage and handmade things. One of the items she pulled out from a trunk was the silver bridesmaid’s dress she had made in 1981. I can’t remember now if I asked or if she offered, but I came away with that dress, and an idea in my head for exactly what I would do with it. I knew that Lucy would get married one day, and I loved the thought of refashioning the dress Marge had made with such care for her best friend’s wedding into something I could wear when my own best friend (and number one collaborator in all crafting endeavours) walked down the aisle.

Lucy got married in August this year, and so the dress’s fate was to be remade this summer. After an extensive process of inspiration gathering on Pinterest, I bought a gorgeous 1986 vintage Vogue pattern on Etsy.

Original bridesmaid's dress and Vogue pattern 8671
The original dress on me, and the 1980s Vogue pattern. Yes, I should have ironed the dress before taking this picture.

Like Lucy, I learned to embrace the slow pace and careful attention that are required for sewing with silk. For the first time ever, I made a muslin, though I then discovered that correcting fit issues is rather tricky on a dress which has neither side seams nor centre back seam! Being inexpert at fitting, I caused myself problems later by taking out too much length on the shoulder straps at the muslin stage: I had to sew them into the bodice with a tiny ¼” seam allowance, and you can imagine my consternation when, sitting nervously in church during the wedding ceremony, I looked down and found that a corner of the strap had escaped from the seam altogether!

Apart from the pressure of having limited fabric and a very real and important deadline, I enjoyed making this dress, particularly where it involved learning new techniques – like using silk organza as interlining (finally I understand why Gertie does that so often!) and making bound buttonholes. It was also a pleasure to wear; the silk is of a very pleasing character, closely woven and drapey, but not too fluid – like a very fine cotton lawn but with that characteristic silk-y hand which feels so gorgeous fluttering round one’s knees in a full skirt.

The slow process of its making gave me plenty of time to mull over the new connections the dress was creating between some of the dearest and most important people in my life: my mother, my godmother, my best friend. As Lucy and I were sharing the experience of couture-style sewing for the first time, and living the excitement of the run-up to her wedding, I thought about my mother and Marge as they made their dresses back in 1981; I wondered how they had found sewing with the same silk I had in my hands, and what the run-up to that wedding had been like. Refashioning felt like having a conversation across time – and it also led to some conversations in the present, about which hopefully I’ll share more in another post.

For now, here’s the finished dress. These photos were taken recently – there are hardly any from the wedding itself, when I was too busy having fun! If you do want to see some pictures of the day and its myriad delightful handmade touches, I suggest you pop over to Instagram and browse the #clerkenwed hashtag.

Refashioned grey silk 1980s bridesmaid dress.

Slow Fashion October: Loved

This week’s Slow Fashion October theme of Loved appeals to me for one big reason in particular: earlier this year, I made my own wedding dress. This was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on, and not just because it was for such a happy event. I especially enjoyed designing, planning, and making the dress I wore for our wedding because all of those stages happened over about a year, so it was a sustained, slow process, with intermittent bursts of activity, but plenty of time to think.IMG_1953Among the other factors that contributed to my pleasure were that it was a sociable project – it was fun to chew over design ideas with some of my closest friends – and that I worked with some very special materials, specifically some nineteenth-century lace given to me by a dear family friend, and silk crepe de chine of the very finest quality. Sharing creative ideas with those I love, and receiving a gift of beautiful lace for such a momentous occasion certainly made me feel loved – and of course, being surrounded by so many friends and family members on the day of our wedding, when I wore the dress, was pretty much the ultimate in feeling loved!

IMG_2009I’m going to write more about this dress in later posts, but for now I have just a few thoughts on the ‘slow’ nature of its making. As I’ve already said, this project was about a year in the planning, and although I’ve been making my own clothes for years, this was obviously a more serious sewing project than most! After eight months or so of reading up on couture sewing techniques and antique lace, and quietly musing over possible styles, I finally decided on an overall shape, sourced the pattern I would use for the bodice, and set about drafting and redrafting muslins, and cleaning the lace.  I bought the fabric on the last (and memorably sweltering) day of June: seven metres of silk crepe de chine from a trade supplier in east London, and probably the most beautiful stuff I have ever worked with. (While I was there, someone from Alexander McQueen came to collect an order – I knew I was buying pretty much the best!) Cutting and basting the pieces started in early July, and the dress was finished on 29th July, three days before our wedding. In that final month, I worked steadily – by which I mean a day or so at weekends, and an evening here and there in the week – but I didn’t really feel rushed, much to the evident concern of non-sewing friends, who couldn’t believe that the dress would be finished in time.IMG_1997At all stages, this was a satisfyingly slow project – I can vividly recall the quiet, focussed feeling of making sure that everything was done properly, and thoroughly: basting a piece here, and a piece there, while listening to the radio (the gentle lull of Test Match Special came into its own here, as it so often does with sewing!). Following tips I picked up from Claire Shaeffer’s books in particular, I was very conscientious about working on top of an old white sheet at all times, and wrapping the dress pieces in the sheet when I stopped sewing. I had never been quite so careful or methodical with a dressmaking project before – and I was intensely struck by how this enforced slowness was liberating, not confining. More thoughts, and picture of the finished dress, to follow…

further thoughts on Slow Fashion October

Hello! Lucy here – Hanna’s co-writer on this blog, or, as a dear mutual friend once suggested, either her witch or her familiar…

While reflecting on what Slow Fashion October might mean for me, I have found myself returning repeatedly to the word ‘slow’, and its various implications. I sew and knit, but I have never participated in Me-Made-May, mainly because I inevitably recoiled from that sense of pressure – to make pledges, to take photographs, to make and finish garments quickly in order to have enough suitable things to wear, and to wear things for the sake of the pledge, rather than for any of the other reasons one might decide to dress in any particular way, ‘me-made’ or not, during the month of May. Slow Fashion October appeals much more to my nature, and is a far more realistic fit with how I think about my wardrobe as a mixture of me-made, thrifted, and other garments, and with how my sewing and knitting projects are a welcome ‘slow’ aspect of my life.

In our professional lives as academic researchers, Hanna and I are both fairly used to progress and achievements happening slowly, over months and years. ‘Slow’ goes without saying in that context – and can be a challenging, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming feeling. I want to think more about the relationship between these two spheres – crafting, and writing – but for now, I’ll stick with how I hope Slow Fashion October will work for me. In both academic research and crafting, it’s very easy to feel guilty about ‘slow’ progress, unfinished projects, things not yet achieved. I want to use this month to focus on a more positive relationship with sewing and knitting projects that have slowed down to a complete halt, and to pick them up not in a rush to meet a deadline, or out of a sense of guilt, but with a focus on the good things about the ‘slow’ nature of craft.

So, during my Slow Fashion October, I will attempt to finish a couple of projects. One is Ysolda’s Blank Canvas sweater, which I started in March 2014, when Hanna and I were away on our annual writing retreat. I have the sleeves and most of the body, so just need to join them and finish the shoulders and neck. Another is a pinafore dress, New Look 6726, in a black and green large houndstooth woven wool blend. The fabric was a gift from my sister, and I cut out the pieces for the dress in October 2014 (see below). Finally, I have a Marks & Spencer size 18 skirt, in green needlecord, which I bought for £3 in a Norfolk charity shop earlier this year. It has pockets and a buttoned panel closure down the front, is completely unworn, and crying out to be remade into a skirt that fits me.

One that slowed to a complete halt...

Slow Fashion October

October flowers in Cambridge

Slow Fashion October is the idea of Karen Templer at Fringe Association – and what a good one it is! She takes inspiration from Me-Made-May, but observes that – having been created by and for sewers – it isn’t particularly well-timed for knitters. So she proposes October as another me-made month, but with a difference:

“I’d like the scope of this to be broader . I’d like us to be able to celebrate not only our own makes (although definitely that!) but clothes that have been made for us by others; worn over the course of years or decades; handed down or rescued from thrift shops or attics; mended; handcrafted in the small studios of slow fashion designers and/or from ethical fabrics; and so on. I want it to be about responsible and sustainable fashion in all its splendor, in other words. An opportunity to discuss and explore the wide range of topics that are at the core of slow fashion.”

Well, this basically rings all our bells here at Patch Aesthetic, so count us in! We’ll be using Karen’s weekly themes as a jumping off point for musings on everything to do with slow fashion.

October is a great month for this. As Karen points out, it’s peak international fashion season, and a time when even on the high street the culture of consuming clothes is revving up. That back to school feeling and the sinking temperature are almost inseparable from thoughts of a new winter wardrobe, as if we can signal our return to focus and efficiency after the lassitude of summer with a closet full of new coats, boots, and tights. And just over the horizon looms Christmas, with its emphasis on consumption of all kinds, as well as the strange mania that can be induced by clothing catalogues full of sparkly party dresses (oh Boden, how I love hate thee). For me, October and November are two of the busiest months of the year, a whirl of lectures, talks, and teaching, while the approach of December sends me into a spin of making presents.

Before all that takes hold, Slow Fashion October seems to offer a perfect breathing space; the chance to slow right down and put some thought into what I wear/want to wear, and why.

As it happens, I’ve already spent quite a lot of time this year cultivating a more conscious and thoughtful approach to my wardrobe. With the idea that I might participate in Me-Made-May, I decided to spend April doing an audit of my style and my wardrobe using the excellent Colette Patterns Wardrobe Architect series. That gave me a much clearer concept of the ethos, shapes, and colours that were important to me, but I still felt I had too much stuff. So instead of doing Me-Made-May, I spent that month getting rid of vast amounts of clothing (and shoes, accessories, books, household goods etc) using the KonMari Method; I also organised and catalogued my stash of fabric and wool. (I’ll write more about both of those processes another time.) The result is that I am much happier with the volume of my possessions, and have a good idea of what kinds of things I should make.

Tartan silk taffeta + V8280 (Vogue's version of the legendary Galaxy Dress) = a match made in heaven, right?
Bad: Tartan silk taffeta + V8280 (Vogue’s version of the legendary Galaxy Dress, which turns 10 this year).

But of course, as the weather cools and life gets busier, I’m still tempted when I walk past shops and see beautiful coats or brogues – and I have escapist dreams of making my next sewing project a tartan silk taffeta cocktail dress (see above). Slow Fashion October is the reminder I needed to stay true to my goal of having a better relationship with stuff in general and with my wardrobe in particular. It also seemed like a great reason to start that blog that Lucy and I have been talking about for years, and so Patch Aesthetic is here!

My specific resolutions for this month are:

1) not to buy any clothes, yarn or fabric, either new or second-hand;

2) to make a useful outfit (i.e. one that conforms to my self-determined style rules and fills a wardrobe need) from materials I already have (see below);

3) to finish off my KonMari clear out so I have a manageable volume of clothes and accessories, all of which are either useful or beautiful;

4) to use this blog to reflect on fashion, craft and sustainability, and to connect with other crafters on social media.

Readers, what does slow fashion mean to you? Do you have any plans for Slow Fashion October? Let us know in the comments!

Blue-grey feather print jersey + B6086 = a properly useful three season day dress.
Good: blue-grey feather print jersey + B6086.