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Archive for the ‘sewing’ Category

As part of my mending journey I wanted to go back to basics, and follow some old Dutch lesson plans about teaching young girls the ins and outs of marking household linen, and repairing of clothes and linens. The lesson plan I’m using the most, was originally written in 1888, although my edition is from 1916. Larger homes contained considerable quantities of household linen and undergarments, and in order to be able to return everything to its correct place after laundring, they were usually marked with initials and a number. You can read more about it on the always interesting Textilis blog here, including some beautiful examples.

 

Marking sampler from the Whitelands College Collection

Granted, I do not require my linens and undergarments to be marked for wash day, so I could’ve skipped the chapter on marking and go straight for the chapters on repair, but in order to gain a deeper understanding of the methods employed in this book, I decided to spend some time on marking as well. And it turns out that just reading through the chapter, and actually following the instructions are two rather different experiences.

Vrouwelijke Handwerken Sampler

Making a start with the darning sampler, using scrim, crewel wool, and my notebook

The chapter starts with stating that the marking of linen is such a well-known needlecraft, a chapter on its techniques can almost be considered superfluous to requirements. Nevertheless, an outline of how to approach teaching this in a classroom was considered of interest by the authors.

And so it begins: what fabric to use (a loose-weave linen or canvas that is easily counted), what thread (start off with embroidery wool), how to attach the thread, how to finish it. I availed myself of some scrim (nowadays only really used for cleaning windows I think) and some crewel wool. The first steps are easy: a simple border in cross stitch, by making all the crosses in a straight line. This is worked from left to right.

vrouwelijke handwerken sampler, notebook

Sampler in progress, starting with simple cross stitch borders, before progressing to the letters

However, the next few borders are more complex, and here the advise is to work them from right to left. The lesson plan briefly discusses that sometimes it’s best to complete a cross before moving on to the next one, and at other times, you can work them in two journeys, first working one half of the crosses, then the other half on the way back. The emphasis is on keeping things neat and tidy at the back. This makes sense, as you don’t want to have long floats at the back which might get caught during the laundry process.

I tried out various ways with the more complex borders, exploring in which cases it seemed to be better to complete a whole cross, and in which cases it seemed better, or easier, to do them in two journeys. Unsurprisingly, this is different for each border. The lesson plan refers to another book by the same author, which apparently goes into greater detail on cross stitch, but unfortunately, I don’t own that.

Right side of the sampler

After stitching those more complex borders from right to left, it was time to tackle the letters. The book advises you to slowly work your way up from the easiest letters, with mainly vertical elements (I, H, M, N) to the more complex letters (J, L, T, F, E, P, B, R, K, D) followed by those with strong diagonal elements (A, V, W, X, Y, Z) and the most complex ones of all, those with curves (U, C, G, O, Q, S). As the emphasis is on building up the complexity, they writers strongly advise against simply stitching the letters in alphabetical order.

Reading this all made perfect sense to me. However, it’s a different matter in practice: where one was encouraged to keep the floats as short as possible at the back for the border motifs, mostly trying to keep them to short horizontal or vertical dashes, the way it describes how to stitch the letters, is very different. Suddenly we’re back to stitching from left to right, and for most of the letters, it advises you to work them in two journeys. This gives for different floats at the back: some are diagonal, and sometimes they are rather long as well.

wrong side of vrouwelijke handwerken sampler, showing floats

Wrong side of the sampler, showing floats

So far the “take-away” lesson seems to be: do what you think works best, and keep the floats short at the back. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no one method that will work perfectly every time. That said, I have seen some samplers where the back looks much neater than mine, so clearly there’s is more to learn! When I have found out more, I will share it here with you.

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In my quest to learn the fine points of hand-sewing and using a tailor’s thimble, I spent an amazing afternoon with the Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker.

Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Military Finisher for Gieves & Hawkes, Ms Jules Walker. You can also see Bob the tailor in the background

I learnt so much more during this afternoon than just about hand-sewing techniques in tailoring. Savile Row is a very special community of craftspeople, and there are many specialised jobs. Jules, for instance, is a finisher, specialising in military uniforms. Then there are the cutters and tailors: the cutter is the person who will measure a client, advise on style details, and cut out the cloth accordingly. The tailor is the person who will actually stitch the suit. Depending on the price point, this may involve a lot of hand-stitching. Once the suit has been stitched and the lining has been constructed and basted in place, the garment is passed on to the finisher, who will put in all the finishing touches: make the buttonholes, sew in the lining, etc. As a military finisher, Jules will also make the ranking stripes by hand and sew them on, and any other specialised military uniform embellishments, such as cords and braids. Almost everything Jules does, she does by hand, so she was a perfect teacher for me.

Hand sewing lining into a suit, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Jules demonstrating the felling stitch on a scrap, used for inserting the lining in a suit

It was a bit scary to show my hand-sewing skills as they are to a professional, especially because I have taught myself from books and the internet. The most important thing for me was to know whether I was using my tailor’s thimble correctly, as this seemed such a controversial topic when I posted about it previously. It turned out I had no need to be worried. Unsurprisingly, first and foremost it’s about doing a lot of practice, and finding a way that works for you. I knew this already about knitting, but somehow this hadn’t quite translated into sewing in my head. So I was very pleased to find out I only need a few small tweaks to my technique, and just get stitching.

This meant I could move on to one of my favourite details on hand-made suits: the tailored buttonhole. Jules and one of the tailors were renovating a mess dress, originally bought from Gieves & Hawkes in 1959. The main job was already completed: replacing the grosgrain silk facing of the lapels. This meant that the original buttonholes had to be re-made, which comes with its own challenges, as the fabric has been stitched before, and therefore wasn’t quite so stable as she would’ve liked.

Re-cutting a buttonhole, Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Re-cutting a buttonhole in new facing on an old jacket

I loved seeing all the tools that Jules had gathered. Like all of the best craftspeople I know, she has tried out all sorts of things for all the jobs she needs to do, some more traditional than others, and uses those that works best for her. Using a scalpel to cut a buttonhole was one of those things you wouldn’t expect, but it made so much sense.

Buttonhole stitching by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Jules thumb nail is an important tool in itself: it helps her “break” the fabric at just the right point where she wants the needle to come out

Another surprising tool used by Jules and tailors are their fingernails. Jules uses her thumb nail a lot in order to guide the needle through the fabric, whereas some of the tailors have long nails on their little finger: this helps them unpick stitching quickly! These were the kind of hints and tips you rarely find in a book or on the internet. Hand-sewing can be strain on your hands, so Jules showed me how she sits, and how the fabric will be moved around, rather than her hands, when going around curves etc. Whereas finishers usually sit down to do their job, tailors prefer to stand, and have a higher work surface (see first picture in this post.)

Front of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

The front of the re-stitched buttonhole, fresh off the needle. A certain amount of fraying is unavoidable when renovating

Back of buttonhole re-made by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

And the back of this renovated buttonhole

The real skill of a finisher, however, is not so much the ability to stitch one beautiful thing, but to repeat this feat of perfection over and over and over again. Needless to say, when she was still training, Jules spent a lot of time practicing her stitching. She showed me a number of her buttonhole samplers. They were beautiful objects in themselves, and they gave me a lot of inspiration. Note: if you want to see the below picture in closer detail, simply click on them to see a larger version.

Buttonhole practice (front) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

Practice, practice, practice! Jules’s large sampler is early work, whereas the small sampler is sheer perfection

Buttonhole practice (back) by Military finisher for Gieves and Hawkes Ms Jules Walker

For a Savile Row tailor every little detail counts, including things hidden from sight

I think it’s clear that my job is cut out for me: practice, practice, practice! The most important tip here was: concentrate on technique and consistency first, and speed will follow. With many thanks to Jules for sharing her knowledge so generously; I’ve learnt so much, and I have even more respect for the highly skilled craftspeople on Savile Row than I already had. Now, where is my sampler and buttonhole twist!?!

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In my last blog post I spoke about my intention to learn how to use a thimble. I have mentioned before that I enjoy hand-finishing my sewing projects, such as hand-worked buttonholes, inserting a lining, and even whip stitching seams to stop the edges from ravelling. This is in part because I use an old Singer 201k treadle sewing machine that can only do straight stitches, but it is also because I enjoy the act of hand-stitching.

woollen trousers, hand-picked fly

Woollen trousers with prick-stitched fly and hand-worked buttonhole

Sewing is much quicker than knitting, and many sewers that I know are amazed about the amount of hand-stitching I do, because “it takes forever!” However, compared to knitting, all this hand-stitching is done in a jiffy! Slowly but surely working my way towards having only hand-made clothes, leading to more hand-stitching, has increased my interest in tailoring, and the accompagnying hand-stitching. And even if I might never become an expert in tailoring, I can take away those bits that will work for me. So far, I’ve not used a thimble, but the drawback is that my fingertips are shredded to bits by the sewing needle, so it’s time to learn from tailors, and use a thimble.

Thimbles, needles, beeswax

Thimbles, needles, and beeswax: the traditional tailor’s tools. Shown here are two plain closed-top dressmaker’s thimbles, one closed-top souvenir thimble from Belfast, one open-topped tailor’s thimble, and at the far right, a leather quilter’s thimble

Thimbles come in many shapes, forms, and materials. The traditional tailor’s thimble is made from metal, and has an open top. Dressmakers’ thimbles normally have a closed top. I have not been able to find out why there is a difference, but I think it might have to do with the sewing technique used. The tailor’s thimble goes on your middle finger, the needle is held between thumb and forefinger, and put into the fabric. The needle is then pushed through the fabric with your thimble-covered nail. In order to do this comfortably, your middle finger is actually curled up, sitting right behind the needle. Have a look at these videos by an expert tailor. Keeping your middle finger bent is the most difficult thing when learning to use a thimble the tailor’s way, so an old apprentice trick is to put a tie on your thimble to keep your finger in the right position.

thimble padssashiko thimble

Thimble pads, popular with quilters, and a sashiko thimble

I’m keen to learn to use a tailor’s thimble, but there are many other thimbles to choose from, such as a leather thimble, shown in one of the pictures above, “thimble pads” which are small stickers to stick to your finger, and sashiko thimbles, which are shoved right down your middle finger. The metal plate at the bottom protects the palm, as traditional sashiko uses a long needle which is threaded through the fabric multiple times before pushing it through with your hand, which isn’t much different from a sailor’s or sailmaker’s sewing palm.

the history of needlework tools and accessories book

The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories, by Sylvia Groves

I will finish this blog post with some background information on thimbles, from Sylvia Groves’s The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories (Country Life Books, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Feltham, second impression 1968): the word thimble is derived from the Old English thymel, meaning a thumb stall. It was originally a small bell-shaped cap of leather, made to be worn on the thumb in sewing. She goes on to say that “Although this type of primitive protection continued in use in remote and isolated districts until quite recent times, the metal thimble displaced it in more civilised countries at a very early period.” With this being my only book in my library on needlework tools and accessories, what follows is from a very European-centric viewpoint, showing exactly which countries the author deemed civilised.

Thimbles of bronze have been found on the sites of Greek and Roman cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed in 79 CE. They can be divided into two two types: one heavy, cast, and with the indentations irregularly placed; the other finely made from sheet metal, with indentations more neatly arranged and occasionally having an open top. A cast bronze ring, about a quarter of an inch deep, with three rows of indentations arrachged diamond-wise, served a similar purpose.

thimbles from the history of needlework tools and accessories

A fine collection of thimbles, finger protectors, and thimble cases (click on the picture for a larger image)

There are very few thimbles to found that can be confidently dated to befor the 16th century. Thimbles can be made from all sorts of metal, but in general, thimbles from the 17th and 18th century were often made of brass or steel, or sometimes a combination of the two. An open-topped steel thimble might be lined with brass. Alternatively, a silver thumble with a steel top might be obtained; the top stamped with indentations, was soldered on, and the silver might be engraved, or of open filligree. These thimbles were never intended to withstand the wear and tear of daylong sewing, but were reserved for fine needlework and social occasions.

For children, nests of thimbles were made fitting one on top of another and increasing gradually in size, to allow for growth. In the early Victorian era, there arose a fashion of ornamenting the sides of thimbles with representations in relief of famous buildings, bridges, and other well-known landmarks; they were sold as souvenirs to tourists who were increasing in number owing to the developments in railway travelling.

There are a very large number of antique thimbles to be found, made from all sorts of materials. Their shape provides little indication of their date: those made during the last three or four centuries may be either short and flat topped, or long, tapering and domed, according the the fashion at the time or the whim of the maker. Mother-of-pearl thimbles came from France; glass from Bohemia or Venice. Wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria, where they were bought as souvenirs by tourists, but they are by no means common as wood is a soft material unsuitable for practical use in sewing. Complete thimbles without indentations, fashioned from horn, ivory or tortoiseshell, may occasionally be found; they are, in fact, finger guards and were worn on the first fingers of the left hand to protect it from the continual prick of the needle’s point. When these guards were made of metal, part of the top was cut away diagonally, leaving only the rim entire.

Wish me luck in my thimble journey: I think it will take me a while to unlearn my old hand-sewing technique, and learn a new one, but I will persevere and report back, so keep an eye out for my next blog post!

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The last couple of months has been a very productive one. I can’t reveal everything just yet, but it did involve a lot of hand-stitching of fabrics, and re-reading some of my old books on mending and repairing, such as old Dutch lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning.

Merken Stoppen en Mazen, Nuttige Handwerken

The Female Handicrafts for School and Home, and Useful Needlework. Both are lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning

I have written about these books before, but I looked through them again when I was preparing for one of my workshops a little while ago at Hope & Elvis. In particular The Female Handicrafts contains a lot of detail, starting with the very basics.

How to mark household linen

A page from The Female Handicrafts. showing some letters of the alphabet

For instance, the first chapter on marking household linen, starts with the easy letters with lots of vertical elements, such as the letter “I”. It then moves on to those with strong diagonal lines, and finishes on those which have curves. To learn this, it advocates starting with an open-weave plain fabric, such as scrim. Marking your household linen was important, as many people took their washing to the laundry house, and this way you could check whether nothing was missing and that you actually got your own things back.

Darning fabric technique

A page from Useful Needlework

Likewise, Useful Needlework starts with the simple re-inforcing technique of weaving thread through the fabric, again using something like scrim to get a feel for the technique, before moving on to finer work. Needless to say, I’ve stocked up on scrim, and I have my darning threads at the ready!

msm-stoppen-2

Easy start with darning…

darning in pattern, damask darning

…followed by an intermediate step of adding stripes and checks…

msm-stoppen-3

finishing with something altogether more complex

For the aforementioned workshop at Hope & Elvis I got everybody to make a sewing sampler, based on the samplers I’d seen at Goldsmiths earlier this year, as part of  the A Remedy for Rents exhibition.

20151215CHG_3238

Plain sewing samplers from the Whiteland College College

It was my first foray into teaching something sewing-based, and we all made a small sampler using old textiles. The edges were hemmed using four different hemming techniques, then we made three different types of patches. I had selected the different techniques based on practicality, still useful today. They included amongst others: slip stitch hem, herringbone hem, hemming stitch, napery hem stitch, calico or oversewn patch, tailored patch, and flannel patch. For those who wanted more, I also taught how to hand-work a buttonhole. I don’t believe hand-worked buttonholes are any better or stronger than machine-made ones, but I do think they look very nice.

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Hand-worked buttonhole, found on a sampler in the Whitelands College collection

I’ve also spent a lot of time sewing patches onto sturdy linen tea towels (I will share this project in a couple of weeks) and it became apparent pretty soon that I will have to start using a thimble. I enjoy hand-sewing, and whenever I sew, I tend to do a lot of finishing by hand. When sewing woollen trousers, this is quite easily done without a thimble, but it’s a different story with those tea towels. The needles I use are rather fine, so the eye of the needle is almost as sharp as the point! Teaching myself to use a thimble might take some practice and perseverance, but I’ve found an old tailor’s apprentice trick to get me started.

All-in-all, this means I have a lesson plan of sorts for myself. I’m going to take it all back to the beginning: teach myself how to use a thimble, and then start marking, darning, and patching according to my Dutch books. I hope that this will lead to new inspiration and new off-shoot projects. I will be sharing my pursuits here, and perhaps you’d like to join in! Therefore I will post not only completed work, but also a heads-up post with what I’m planning to concentrate on next. Keep an eye out for the first post in the next one or two weeks.

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I’m very excited to announce a extraordinary Visible Mending Programme collaboration with one of Brighton’s finest vintage clothes shops: Wolf & Gypsy Vintage. I have been shopping at Wolf & Gypsy since they first opened their doors many a moon ago, so it was only a matter of time I’d walk in with some visibly mended clothes. Laura, the owner of Wolf & Gypsy, loved the look of my repaired French workwear so much, that she asked me to create a micro-collection for her. And that’s exactly what I did.

Wolf and Gypsy Window Display

May All Your Dreams Be Indigo, at Wolf & Gypsy Vintage Boutique, Brighton

All four pieces I repaired are of an indigo blue, and I think they were all dyed with a chemical dye rather than actual plant-based indigo. I decided to provide a contrast by using vintage Japanese natural indigo-dyed fabrics; by only using yellow sewing and embroidery threads I highlighted all the hand stitching.

Wolf and Gypsy Trousers VMP Detail

All garments have been repaired visibly, and the Visible Mending Programme logo is handstitched into each garment

Laura carefully hand picks all the garments for her shop, and I have used the same attention to detail in making the repairs. Although the fabric I used for patching is Japanese, I steered clear of employing Japanese embroidery techniques, such as sashiko and boro. Instead, I found my inspiration from my old, and very Western, needlework books.

I’d love to share some before-and-after pictures:

KLM Overalls

Being from The Netherlands, I could only ever repair some overalls originating from my home country. KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij) is the Royal Dutch Airlines.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Overalls Before

A crumpled KLM overalls in dire need of some TLC

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Overalls After

Rejuvinated overalls: new button, fraying cuffs dealt with, small holes turned into eyelets

Overalls repairs: fraying cuffs rebound with fabric, small holes highlighted with eyelet embroidery.

Friendship Sweatshirt

Although there wasn’t any actual damage on this sweatshirt, it did look a bit dull. To remedy this, I added a colourful darn to be worn as a badge of honour. “Friendship” is the unknown-to-me label of this sweatshirt

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Sweatshirt Before

The Friendship sweatshirt is looking for some pizzazz

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Sweatshirt After

A beautiful darn to be worn as a badge of honour

Sweatshirt repair: darn in multiple colours, created with my Speedweve.

French Workwear Trousers

These are very similar to the trousers I walked into the shop with and which led to this gig to start with. I’m happy with the look of the binding around the pockets (see picture above), and a fabric patch which shows fading. Most of all though, I love the tailor’s buttonholes, handstitched in a perlé cotton to make them stand out.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers Before

These French workwear trousers needed a fair bit of attention

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers After Patch Detail

I love the fading on the patch, which I’ve sewn in using the flannel patch method, more commonly used for, you guessed it, flannel!

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Trousers After Buttonhole Detail

I love working proper tailored buttonholes, and this commission was a good excuse to really make ’em stand out!

Trousers repairs: fraying pockets rebound with fabric, fraying buttonholes restitched, hems re-sewn, patches, waistband cord ends replaced.

French Workwear Jacket

Possibly my favourite of the series: the pockets had a lot of tiny holes in them, so these got covered up by pocket-sized patches. One sleeve had a very ugly and stiff iron-on patch. This peeled off easily, and I replaced it with a classic felled patch.

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket Before

The jacket sported a really rather ugly iron-on patch and some holes were crudely sewn together

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket After

Luckily the patch came off easily, and a new patch was inserted with felled seams

Wolf and Gypsy Visible Mending Programme Jacket After Detail

Patches on the pockets, and the patches behind holes, which have been delicately outlined with a half-back stitch

Jacket repairs: buttons replaced, various patches, fraying cuffs rebound.

If you find yourself in Brighton during the month of November, then you can avail yourself of one of these fine Visible Mending Programme garments. Each one comes with a special card that details the repair materials and techniques used. I hope four lucky people will enjoy wearing these as much as I enjoyed repairing them!

Wolf and Gypsy May All Your Dreams Be Indigo Banner

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Previously I spoke about the concept of a Slow Wardrobe, and how I’m changing the way I’m looking at the boundaries of where clothes begin and end. I was pretty confident that I knew where I was going, and what I would write in this follow-up post. However, at that time I wasn’t aware of Karen Templer’s Slow Fashion October initiative. She really opened up the topic of Slow Fashion. Some aspects I hadn’t really given a lot of thought before, while other aspects have been shown in a different light. This has left me not quite knowing how to give shape to my Slow Wardrobe — however, that’s something I embrace: I deliberately chose the title Slow Thinking as I’m still shaping my thoughts and I’m in no rush to come up with “the answer” any time soon; in fact, there is no one right answer.

Hand-spun Jacob yarn

Hand-spun yarn from Jacob fleece, acquired through Ravelry

Some of the most pertinent discussions for me revolve around a number of topics, and as I’m still working out where I stand on them, I just list them here (I feel Karen captured some important discussions in the this round-up post. Warning, following this link will send you right down a Slowtober rabbit hole with many avenues to explore):

  1. The “privilege” of repair and wearing repaired clothes, or wearing the same outfit frequently; and what is acceptable where (eg office vs home, uniforms (workman clothes, but also high earners, such as Steve Jobs and many a fashion designer who always wear the same outfit), suits/office wear and gender differences therein)
  2. The notion that one should buy less, but spend more on individual items: does a higher price tag always equate to better quality? But also: not everybody can afford the initial lay-out
  3. The all-or-nothing way of thinking. Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all. There are many entry points to make a difference to suit different budgets (read this post about knitting yarns by Karen to see what I mean, even if most of her examples are US based)
  4. Making your own clothes is another thing that gets mentioned a lot. Again, it is not a solution that can work for everybody: nowadays, making your own clothes comes at a high cost, which you could express in money and time. Some people have neither, others have one but not the other

So with that in mind, I would like to share what certain aspects of a Slow Wardrobe mean to me at the moment. This is mostly about when I want to make something new, but I’m conscious that there’s another side of my wardrobe, which is all the clothes I already have. I tend to wear clothes for many seasons, and they are important, too.

Materials

When I make my own clothes, I have more control over the materials I use for the garments. I can choose to use mill ends, secondhand, repurpose, or buy fully traceable materials. Obviously this depends on what I want to make. For example, when it comes to wool yarn for knitting, I can take it as far back as buying a raw fleece and do ALL the processing myself. Money-wise this is a very cheap option, but it is extremely time consuming. This would be a very different story for eg cotton fabrics; I would not be spinning and weaving cotton to make, for instance, boxershorts, so then I can look around for another solution.

boxershorts from old sheets

Boxershorts made from old sheets

Labour

When I make my own clothes, I know there’s only one person involved in the making of it: me. However, I do realise that any materials I use will have been made by somebody, quite possibly not me. So I can do my best to make sure to use “labour-friendly” materials. In addition, I can take my time, which will allow me to get things just as I want them to be.

hand-made clothes

In a completely natural and unstudied pose, I show off some items that each took me a long time to make: socks, trousers, jumper, and gloves were all time-consuming projects

Style

I will need to have a long-term view when it comes to the style of the garments I’m making. I’m no longer a skinny teenager, and if I want to make clothes to last, then I will need to take into account that my body shape might well change over the years. I can make sure that making size alterations in the future will be easy, and keep styles easy and perhaps a bit on the roomy side. I’d like to make clothes with long-term style in mind, not short-term fashion. Obviously, visibly mended clothes will play a big role in my wardrobe.

Longevity

 

Looking after my clothes is important. Make sure they are washed and stored appropriately and they can last a long time indeed. There is a lot of information available on how to take of your clothes, and the Love Your Clothes initiative is a good place to start. In my practice, creating and mending textiles are in constant conversation with each other; if my clothes acquire a darn or a patch along the way, then that can only be welcomed!

I’d love to hear what you have to say about this topic, and I hope that you, like me, are planning to join Karen Templer in Slow Fashion October next year. It will be interesting to see how my thinking will have evolved between now and then.

Edited to add: although this post puts the emphasis on adding new clothes to my wardrobe, I feel it’s important that I believe my existing clothes are the starting point of my Slow Wardrobe. Using what I already have is, from a pure sustainability point of view, probably preferable over adding new things, however “slowly” made. What that means for me as a creative person with (wearable) textiles as my main practice I’m not sure yet. 

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When I visited the Fries Museum earlier this year, their textile conservator, Gieneke Arnolli, showed me an old Dutch knitting book that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I felt it would be an indispensable addition to my knitting library, but it took me a while to find a copy of this book.

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen

A Better Course in Knitting – “Het Breien in Betere Banen” by L De Vries-Hamburger

Het Breien in Betere Banen, which I think translates best into A Better Course in Knitting was written by L De Vries-Hamburger and published in 1949 by DA Daamen’s Uitgeversmaatschappij n.v., ‘s-Gravenhage, The Netherlands (you may know ‘s-Gravenhage better as Den Haag.) So far I have not been able to learn much about De Vries-Hamburger. From the introduction I know she taught knitting after the Second World War, and she wrote this book as result of many requests by her students.

The introduction is an essay about her one-woman quest to shift knitting from the realm of domestic craft to that of applied arts, and an attempt at creating a new folk art movement. De Vries-Hamburger recoils at the thought of knitting patterns written out row by row, as this will lead to the mind-numbing copying of someone else’s creative thoughts. She makes this very clear in the opening paragraph:

What is the purpose of this book?

Is it necessary that another new item is added to the reams of existing ones and is the publication justified?

Those that speak thus expect a knitting book, preferably brimful with new patterns.

This book, although it deals with knitting, is not that book.

She feels that every girl and woman is capable of creating unique garments, and following knitting patterns to the letter can never be fully satisfactory. Handicrafts can be much more than that! This book aims to point out possibilities and make knitters more confident in their own abilities.

BreienInBetereBanenSidewaysKnit

left: blouse designed by the wearer and knitter, aged 16; right: both dresses designed and created by the wearer: no. 1 by a girl aged 9, no. 2 by a girl aged 11. De body of dress 1 is knitted in red and white cotton; the other in pale yellow, white, and rust-brown cotton. Skirts and sleeves made from cotton fabric

So, this book then doesn’t give you any knitting patterns, but plenty of hints and tips on how to approach the knitting of garments. De Vries-Hamburger is a fan of knitting from the top, as she feels it’s easier to try on works in progress on and ensure a good fit. When knitting from the top is not desirable for whatever reason, she advocates knitting the ribbing last. The knitting starts with the main part of the body or sleeve. These then get blocked and sewn up, and the ribbing is knitted in the round from the cast-on edge down. This way it’s easier to adjust length, or replace fraying cuffs and welts.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating tweed effects by using two or more colours in a “mistake rib” pattern

This book was written not long after the Second World War, and in one section where this becomes apparent is on how to create colourful fabrics without resorting to stranded colourwork. Yes, stranded colourwork is good way of using up odds and ends, but she points out that by playing around with mistake rib (cast on an ODD number of stitches, then K2, P2 to end (you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl); turn work, and again K2, P2 to end (again you’ll end with 1 knit or 1 purl) and using more than one colour can be even more economical. The purls on top of knits in different colours create pleasing tweed effects. By using double-pointed needles it is possible to knit the right side of the fabric more than once, by sliding it back to the other side of the needle once a row is knitted. This way it’s possible to knit odd numbered repeats. For instance in the little swatch above, in the top section I knitted two rows in white, and one in blue.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Creating dazzling effects with simple stitch patterns on top, and using short-rows for shaping fabrics

However, De Vries-Hamburger also likes to play with colour in a more traditional way and has lots of lovely examples of stranded colourwork. She even devotes a whole section on sideways knitting (knitting from side seam to side seam instead of knitting from top to bottom or vice versa,) and how a few simple stranded colourwork rows can look very sophisticated when used this way, such as the blouses shown in the second picture.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Short-row shaping used to great effect in this detail for a gored skirt

I feel that De Vries-Hamburger really understands knitting and the qualities of knitted fabric. She is very clear on why knitting is a unique way of creating fabric, as it is possible to shape it whilst you create it. Compare this to sewing, where one uses a piece of cloth, which needs to be cut to make the shaping. With this in mind, she believes that a knitter should start by asking: what kind of fabric do I need to make this item fit for purpose, and once this is determined, start looking what yarns and stitches will lead to the desired effect. This in contrast to what often happens: a knitter has some pretty yarn and a stitch dictionary, and then tries to find a garment  to which these can be applied.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger

Some of the inspirational images in “Het Breien in Betere Banen”

As has been made clear to the knitter and reader in the introduction, this book does not contain a single knitting pattern. However, it is full of inspirational pictures, which De Vries-Hamburger hopes will be a starting point on an exciting creative journey for the intrepid knitter.

Reading this book, which was written in 1949, I came across many prescient ideas that resonate with latter-day knitters who probably have never heard of De Vries-Hamburger. To name a few: Barbara Walker advocates knitting from the top in order to create well-fitting garments. The inimitable and opinionated Elizabeth Zimmermann also wanted to free knitters from the yoke of the knitting pattern and preferred to give knitters “recipes” in which they can plug in their own ideas. And even finding links to the 21st Century is not difficult: Amy Twigger-Holroyd‘s PhD research on home-made fashion, sustainability, and design is partly based on the believe in the inate creativity of knitters to design and adapt their own clothes – something she calls Folk Fashion.

So, why did I decide to use a herringbone tweed fabric as a backdrop for my pictures?

a better course in knitting - breien in betere banen - de vries-hamburger men's outfit

An inspiring outfit!

I was smitten by the only men’s garment in this book. It is knitted in alternating stripes of brioche rib, and honeycomb brioche (if you want to know more about brioche stitches, then look no further than Nancy Marchant; what she doesn’t know about brioche stitch is not worth knowing.) As you may have gathered, there is no pattern for this jumper, and I have done a lot of swatching to arrive at the right fabric. I also happen to have a length of herringbone tweed I purchased from Jamieson’s of Shetland during Shetland Wool Week last week.

Taking a leaf out of De Vries-Hamburger’s book so to speak, I started with thinking about the fabric I wanted to make for this jumper, and then started to look for an appropriate yarn. I ended up with a very surprising choice: Blacker Swan merino 4-ply. I’m usually not a fan of merino yarns. Yes, they’re soft, and yes, they take dye beautifully, but they seem to lack any character. I also have a notion (unsubstantiated at this point) that the merino fibres finding their way into hand-knitting yarns are often not the best quality that can be offered by merino sheep. I have more than once been disappointed in the amount of pilling that ensues after a few wears. On top of that merino is often treated to be superwash, which to my mind alters the handle of the yarn unfavourably. Blacker Swan seems to be different, and although this may be due to the fact it has some Shetland fibre mixed in, I’m more than willing to give merino a chance once more.

a better course in knitting - het breien in betere banen - brioche stitch swatch

A whole outfit in the making

I’m looking forward to cast on and start knitting, and use my long Christmas break to make a smashing pair of tweed trousers and keep you updated on my progress. And, of course, to let you know how I got on with my renewed interest in merino wool.

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