Posts Tagged ‘sewing’

During a paper I gave at In the Loop 4, I mentioned a blurring of boundaries: when does a garment start, and when does it end? Musings about Taking time, Woolly Comrade Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford’s Slow Wardrobe project, and having conversations with other friends who make clothes to last, have culminated into my own thoughts about a Slow Wardrobe.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

My Brioche Sweater: a recently completed garment. Or is it?

Since I started repairing with purpose, I’m slowly but surely drifting away from the idea that once the last loose end has been woven in, a garment is finished. Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired.

Flanelette Plaid shirt darning by tomofholland

Darning the threadbare yoke seam of a flannelette shirt

A shift of focus from trying to keep things looking new and perfect to favouring the old and imperfect, means I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right. Instead of fixing something that is broken, which implies the item was finished, I now continue working on something that wasn’t complete yet. This idea is perhaps easier to embrace where it concerns clothes I made myself, but I now extend it to the clothes I buy. I frequently purchase secondhand clothes, and they already show signs of wear, and the time to repair something usually comes along sooner.

Tom spinning a yarn

Spinning a yarn

Conversely, making my own clothes has made me question at what point a garment starts. When you buy something, you could be led to believe that your garment’s life starts when you’ve handed over your cash. But this, of course, isn’t true. Somebody somewhere has laid out cloth, cut it up, seamed it, pressed it. Most likely different people were involved in different stages and many things are now mechanised.

When making your own clothes, you get to choose the fabric or yarn, the pattern, the buttons, and put it all together into a garment. You could argue that the item starts its life when you clapped your eyes on that beautiful tweed, or when you dreamt up that Christmas jumper and you started looking for the right yarn. Now that I also spin, even if as yet I haven’t spun enough of one yarn to make a whole jumper, my boundary has shifted even further back: it is possible to make a garment-specific fibre, so really, its life starts there. In fact, we can take it back right to the beginning: wool, linen, silk, and cotton are all fibres that theoretically I could grow or farm myself.

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill spinning a yarn or two

So even if I’m not personally involved in all the process steps from farming to harvesting to processing of fibres, and subsequently turning the resulting cloth or yarn into a garment, I’m aware that all these steps are part of the story. If you want to get an understanding of some of the issues around the fashion industry, then there’s no better way than trying to make something yourself. When you wash your raw fleece, you’ll notice how much water you use. When you spin a yarn, you understand how difficult it can be to get something just right. When you sew a shirt, you get a feel for how complicated sewing can be. Try and imagine any of these processes on an industrial scale, and soon all sorts of questions pop up: how can we grow/farm fibres in huge quantities? What happens with waste water from processing fibres and dyeing it? What happens to by-products and waste from the spinning process? How can somebody sew 50 shirts a day? How are prices of clothing set on the High Street?

These are just a few questions, and answering them is difficult, and fixing things that appear to be a problem is also very complicated. So what can I do about it myself? Talking to people such as Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, or reading John-Paul Flintoff’s book Sew Your Own, made me realise that there will be things I personally cannot influence, but there are other things I can do something about. I can run workshops, I can volunteer, I can decide what goes into my wardrobe, and I can share my experiences in this blog.

A follow-up post is in the making, in which I want to share with you my thoughts about my Slow Wardrobe: what does it mean to me? Sewing and knitting my own clothes, making things that last, repairing things, and thinking about long-term style, not short-term fashion.

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Vintage Buttons

Portraits of Vintage Buttons

With my new-found skills as a tailor, I finally have a good excuse to roam the button section of the haberdashery stall at the Saturday street market in The North Laine in Brighton. Possibly, I may have purchased a few more cards of buttons that I will strictly need in the next few months. Here’s my selection, I think the portraits speak for themselves.























I’m working my way through a number of toiles to make a well-fitting shirt for my partner. I’m sure I’ll be using one of these cards soon – once I worked out how to address the fit issues I’m facing at the moment.

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When I joined Team Wovember, I was introduced to the Wovember readers in a Q&A post, in which I mentioned that the only thing lacking in my wardrobe, was a pair of woollen trousers. I curated all the Wovember Words, and as this took up more time than anticipated – there were so many interesting quotes, I posted one every day – I never got round to the trousers. Or, to be more precise, I never got round to writing about them. As I did make myself a pair, shown here in a completely natural pose:


Woollen Outfit: Woollen Socks, Woollen Trousers, Woollen Jacket, Woollen Jumper, Woollen Gloves, Woollen Hat – I left my Woollen Scarf at home, as quite frankly, it was rather hot!

The gloves and the hat will get their own separate posts in due course, as today I want to tell you all about my trousers. For a long time now, I  wanted to make myself a pair of trousers, and indeed, two winters ago, I bought some lovely charcoal woollen fabric from Dïtto. I bought some calico. I bought a pattern. I bought a zip and buttons and thread. And I traced the pattern in one size too small. And I made a toile from the calico. And I found out I my mistake. I traced again;  I made a second toile. And I found it had the right size, but had an ugly fit.

And that’s when I gave up.

But, the fabric always looked at me reproachfully every time I opened the drawer in which I had hidden it from sight, so WOVEMBER2012 seemed to be the right time to try again. I was lucky that in the meantime I had made friends with Zoe, who knows a thing or two about sewing, and we agreed on a skill-swap: I would teach her how to darn, she would teach me about sewing. She gave me some tips on altering the pattern and this time, the toile fitted very well, and confidently I took my shears to the woollen fabric:


As, however, I’m not a confident sewer, and my Singer treadle sewing machine doesn’t have any seam guides on the cover plate, I basted every single seam before taking it to the sewing machine. It meant that I could pay attention to the needle, rather than the side of the seam, and I didn’t have to worry about navigating over pins: the fabric is quite heavy, so a pin, even if inserted perpendicular to the stitch line, was a slight distraction. It may come as no surprise to you, that I tried to make these trousers to the best of my abilities I currently have.

So, let me take you through my trousers, so to speak!

I hand-picked the fly and zipper for two reasons: 1) I just really love the look of it; 2) I do know how to wield a needle and thread, but I still struggle a bit with making a nicely curved stitch line.


I’m a big fan of tailored button-holes, and I once spent an afternoon perfecting my button-hole stitch, so I finally got to use it on a garment, even if my Singer has a buttonhole attachment that famously makes the most gorgeous buttonholes in the whole wide world. For a sewing machine. The vintage button was sewn on with a “woven shank”, which means that you go around and through the threads of the shank in a figure-of-eight:


I’m particularly proud of my welted pockets. I approached them very carefully, spent a lot of time pressing and basting, because a heavy woollen fabric really needs to be put into place with a lot of pressing, making fiddly folding of strips of fabric a bit of a challenge:


The cuffs also have a special finish. There used to be a time that I thought that spending £250 or more on a pair of designer trousers, was money well spent (oh how I have changed), and when you buy these kind of trousers, their cuffs haven’t been finished yet, so that they can be made to measure. One shop I used to frequent, used a seamstress who always put this sturdy ribbon in. It protects the cuff from fraying, and it also made the trousers fall very nicely over your shoes – grosgrain ribbon is the nearest I could find, although I remember the ribbon in those expensive trousers to be a bit sturdier. If anybody knows what this is called in English, I would love to hear from you. In Dutch, they are called a ‘stootband’ which roughly translates into bumper.


There is one drawback on using my Singer treadle machine. It’s a straight-stitch-only machine. I do have the zigzag attachment (it attaches in a similar fashion as the buttonholer, but instead it makes the fabric zigzag under the needle) and every time I try this out, I have less than satisfactory results. So I blanket stitched all seams by hand. I also sewed down the waistband by hand, as I wanted a very neat finish. Last but not least, I read somewhere (I can’t remember the source), that back-stitching the centre seam makes for a very strong seam, which also has a little bit of give. Which is good, as I wear these trousers on my bicycle, too, so I also back-stitched the centre seam.


I have been told by sewers that all that hand-finishing would completely put them off. But I feel differently about this: apart from actually enjoying handstitching, I’m not put off by something taking its time. I’m a handknitter, and I’m used to it. Yes, it did add an additional day before these trousers were ready, but I enjoy getting into the rhythm. I put some music on and soon I’m completely absorbed by the task at hand, making stitch after stitch, feeling at one with the object I’m making.

The woollen trousers are already a faithful addition to my wardrobe. They are comfortable, fit very well, and look rather smart. Although I chose the fabric two winters ago, having helped out with Wovember makes me even more happy that I used wool – and those of you who have followed Wovember know that there are plenty of reasons to use wool for your clothes: it’s natural, bio-degradable, hygroscopic, flame-resistant, breathable, warm, sustainable, versatile. But, ultimately, I’m just happy that all this validates what I already know: the look and feel of wool is unsurpassed.


me posing in my high wool-content outfit on Brighton beach.


My Sanquhar socks.

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As you all know, I’m currently having a lot of fun over at WOVEMBER2012, celebrating wool for what it is. I’m curating the Wovember Words posts – woollen elevenses, if you like. Although WOVEMBER takes up a lot of time, I have found some time to make things with wool. I’m very pleased with all of them, and they will each get a separate in-depth post once WOVEMBER has finished. But as I’m too excited about each of them, I want to share some pictures with you:

First up, I made some Sanquhar gloves in the Prince of Wales pattern:


Of course, my name is knitted in the cuff:

Secondly, I finally managed to sew a pair of trousers! I bought the fabric two winters ago, made two (yes, TWO) toiles, and then wasn’t happy with the fit and didn’t know how to change it. But with a new pattern, and some encouragement from Zoe, I made this pair of trousers, which are perhaps more classic than fashionable in shape. Here some close-ups, as I will reveal the whole pair over at WOVEMBER later. A hand-picked fly with vintage button:


Welted back-pockets:



Last, but not least I’m finishing of this self-lined beany in the most amazing Wensleydale Longwool yarn:


The patterns are typically more often used on ganseys:



Come on over at WOVEMBER, there’s even a competition going on where you can win all sorts of prizes by sending in a woolly picture!

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In my last post I promised I would talk a bit about my Singer 201K Treadle Sewing Machine.

A friend of mine was given this gorgeous Singer treadle sewing machine. One of her friend’s aunties or granny had moved into a nursing home and couldn’t use her machine any longer. My friend never got into sewing, so the sewing machine was languishing in a corner and one day she decided to give it to me, as I had expressed an interest.

Although the machine was still just about in working order, it obviously required a lot of cleaning and lubricating to make it usable again. So I found the Treadle On website, which contains a lot of useful information. Therefore only a small summary here: I took the machine head out of the cabinet and removed an enormous amount lint from all the nooks and crannies. Then I removed all the rust with WD-40 and also attempted to remove most of the grime. I then generously lubricated the machine head with sewing machine oil, and greased all the moving parts of the treadle, including the gears underneath the machine head. After I put everything together again it purred like a kitten.

Here are some pictures of the beautifully embossed cover plates, which give access to the internal workings, so you can lubricate the lot. It also has the Singer emblem underneath the stitch length selector. The serial number plate showing “EC661.971” was still attached, so I managed to work out that my machine was produced in the Clydebank, Scotland, UK factory in 1940!

Despite its age, it still had most, if not all, accessories in a variety of biscuit tins and boxes. We have here from left to right, top to bottom: a lint brush, a collection of bobbins, a darning plate (this covers the walking dogs), a zipper foot, a gathering foot for shirring, an adjustable hemmer, a binder (for applying bias binding to an edge), a ruffler, a foot hemmer for sewing a fine narrow seam, the edge stitcher makes for easy joining of lace and insertions, a little tool for threading the needle, and last but not least, a blind stitcher for “superior invisible hemming”.

There is also the famous button hole attachment, to make perfect machined button holes on this straight stitch machine. Instead of the needle going left and right for zigzagging, this clever contraption moves the fabric to left and right! Although it sounds like this would never work, it actually makes the most beautiful button holes ever, as you have full control over everything. You can adjust: button hole length, spacing of the stitches, the width of the bight (this is the width of the stitch used for the button hole), and the width of the cutting space. Gorgeous!

And as you cannot zigzag with a straight stitch machine, there is also the following attachment: a zigzagger. The round inserts determine the zigzag stitch: normal zigzag, arrow head, groups of three zigs and three zags, and a scallopped stitch. Like the button holer, there is a lever that cups around the screw for securing the needle in the shaft, and that’s how it drives the mechanics inside the attachments. You can see the lever in situ in the picture above.

The stitch length selector also controls the direction of sewing. Unlike what I previously thought, you always spin the flywheel in the same direction (when I start treadling, I give it a swing with my hand, from the top of the wheel towards me). So if you need to reverse, you switch the stitch length selector lever from bottom to top. The length of the stitches can be selected by unscrewing the small screw and moving it up our down. This controls how far down or up you can push the lever. You can kind of see how this works in the picture below. The engineering is all very clever!

Luckily my machine also still had all the instruction manuals, otherwise I wouldn’t have known how anything works, or indeed, what they even are!

Without these, I would never have been able to thread the machine and work out how to service it. The machine is built in such a way that you can easily service it yourself, and the instructions show you how to take the machine head apart and put it back together again. I doubt you would ever see that in modern sewing machine manuals! Despite this it has taken me up to last week before I understood exactly how to set up the tension dial again, after I had taken it apart for cleaning and lubricating.

So, this is my Singer 201K Treadle Sewing Machine. It is easy to operate, and it makes the most beautiful soft noise when you use it. It gives you superior control over the sewing speed, something I always struggled with with electric sewing machines. And although I have many knitting projects in the pipeline, I hope to be able to make a pair of woollen charcoal trousers for the coming winter, which I think will go very well with the fire engine red Cornish guernsey that’s on the needles right now.


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Two months ago, one of my sheets ripped due to old age. And a month later, another sheet ripped. Pants! I had bought them at the same time, so they grew old together.

But my woes were not over yet, as a few of my older boxer shorts also ripped during this period! But, as the saying goes: if life deals you lemons, make lemonade. So I decided to make myself some new boxer shorts. I used an old pair of boxer shorts to make a pattern.

I made a front piece and a back piece. These is a very simple pattern, so I just used one piece for both left and right sides.

I then cut squares out of the sheets, making sure they would be large enough for the pieces plus a margin for the seams and a casing for an elastic band. I made sure to cut these from the edge of the sheets, where the fabric hadn’t worn yet. Then I could cut the pieces. Luckily the fabric was woven, not printed, and right side and wrong side were identical.

I sewed the boxer shorts on my gorgeous Singer 201K treadle sewing machine (on which I shall write another post in the near future). I started with sewing the short inside leg seams of the back pieces and the front pieces. Then I made the hem at the bottom of the legs. Next was the side seam, with my attempt at a small split. Or at least, that’s how I call them – after trying to find instructions on t’interweb I only found references to splits in seams due to wear and tear and how to fix those, so perhaps they are called something different in the sewing world? My two sewing reference books don’t have anything on that either!

Then I had to employ some fabric origami to make the fly. I just fiddled around a bit until it looked like a boxer short fly, referring to the old pair of shorts. First I sewed the long seam from the back to the crotch and then up to the fly, then graded the seam allowance and made a flat-felled seam. I sewed up the fly along with the flat-felled seam. Last but not least, I made a casing for the elastic band. I hadn’t taken the correct measurements, so the elastic was two inches too short for each boxer short, so I had to sew down the ends in the casing, two inches apart. I cunningly did this on either side of the fly, so it looks intentional.

I now have five new pairs of boxer shorts. Perhaps not entirely made according to the text book, but that’s okay. I think they look good at first glance, and only my partner will get to see them in close-up…

PS, if anybody knows where I can find instructions on how to make those split seams, I’d be ever so grateful!

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