Vintage Sewing

Embroidery for Christmas

By on December 26, 2015

I embroidered on the gingham apron to make a Christmas present – unfortunately I didn’t realise you were supposed to embroider on the dark patches not the light ones, and there was a fifty/fifty chance of getting it right at random… I got it wrong!
So the pattern doesn’t show up quite as well as it might have done.

Embroidered design
Embroidered design

It’s pretty, though. I adapted the design from one for a ‘corner’ and had to do several sets of frantic last-minute alterations when I realised that the outside didn’t line up with the inside if you just did a straight motif – unfortunately I’d already put in all the central flowers by that point.
I don’t think anyone will notice that it’s off-centre on the apron by a couple of checks as a result…

Front view of apron being worn

I used some gold metallic embroidery floss for the yellow centres of the flowers, which I found quite hard to work with. (I thought the outside ‘lace’ might show up better if I went round the edge with gold, but swiftly abandoned that idea!)

Close-up of flowers
Close-up of flowers

Hmm, it hasn’t come out very well in the photo. The centres as beautifully shiny in real life.

The gold floss is safe to wash at 60 degrees C, according to the label, and as this is an apron it will probably need to get washed. So I decided it would be safer to cover the loose ends of all the threads on the back with a lightweight patch, even though I did fasten them in well. (Well enough that I had considerable difficulty in ripping them out again when I decided to change the design!)

I used a square of old cotton sheet, which was suitably thin and off-white, and hemmed it down all round for strength rather than beauty using off-white thread. Luckily the little hem-stitches don’t really show up amid the busy gingham pattern on the right side. The apron fabric is quite coarse, so very well suited to this type of work.

Patch on wrong side of work to cover the loose ends
Patch on wrong side of work to cover the loose ends
Click for close-ups.
Close-up of hemming
Close-up of hemming

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1910s | 1940s | Accessories


By on November 2, 2013
corner of shawl

It’s getting cold – time to bring the retro-knitted shawls out!

Patons Woolcraft 9th editionI seem to have completed quite a few this year. Here’s an electric blue number knitted in decided non-period wool from my 1915 copy of Patons’ famous Woolcraft booklet, in amongst all the other highly exotic undergarments of the era:

I used a cone of machine-knit acrylic in place of the super-fine Shetland wool recommended in the pattern. The pattern is actually extremely simple, consisting of sets of intersecting ‘fans’ repeated again and again (and again and again and again…): the only difference between rows is that there are three different corner groups, which have to be repeated in a set order, and if you get it wrong you don’t notice until you try to work the next row into it and find that it doesn’t fit. It’s very dispiriting to discover this when each row takes forty-five minutes to complete!
corner of shawl

This is a square shawl measuring thirty-six inches along each side (plus star-border). It was so large that I had to pin it out and steam it on my bed: I don’t have a ‘blocking board’ big enough. But the whole thing weighs only 160 grams (five and a half ounces).
Holding up shawl

It took me a while to work out how to wear a square shawl by looking at the photo in the booklet, but in fact if you fold it right you get a genuine ‘shawl collar’ forming all by itself…

Wearing shawl under cherry tree
click for larger images

Standing under the rose arch
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My second shawl was also worked in crochet, but was a far faster project! So fast in fact that I did two, with slightly different colour schemes to use up the spare wool: spot the difference.

green shawl in garden
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red shawl indoors
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This was a 1940s pattern for a round shawl entitled “Cozy comfort on cool nights”, and it is designed to sit with a yoke section on the shoulders and a looser section in ‘Solomon’s knot’ stitch. It only takes a few days to make out of double-knitting wool, and is a good way to use up scraps.

front view, sky-gazing in garden
click for larger images

My third shawl is a triangle shawl of unknown date, since the website I got the pattern from gives only a diagram from an old magazine:

I’ve called it an ‘Art Deco’ shawl, but in fact I’ve been told it may well be older.
Shawl displayed in garden

I deliberately chose a much larger hook size than would normally be used for working double-knitting wool (itself thicker wool than would have been intended for a pattern of this type) so that, instead of getting multiple squares to be assembled together with their edges matching in a further lace pattern, I got a single large square that would more or less fit across my back.

back view of shawl being worn
click for larger images

This was just as well, since the instructions don’t give any directions as to how you are supposed to make the partial squares to fit along the edges, and I had to guess… and clearly got it wrong, as they ended up distinctly shorter than the full-size motif! Luckily with only two dangling down the front, it doesn’t show.

front/side view of shawl being worn
click for larger images

By using the very large hook size to produce this extra ‘lacy’ effect, I managed to get an entire shawl out of one spare ball of double-knitting wool: very economical.

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1940s | Accessories

A head-shawl

By on May 14, 2013

Headline News booklet
I came across a charming booklet entitled Headline News via the Vintage Pattern Files website and decided I simply had to try out some of the crochet patterns there; it had to be something that I could actually wear, though, which meant the strictly practical ‘head-shawl’ featured on the right-hand side of the front cover (suitable for ‘motoring or riding your bike’) rather than the exotic ‘fascinator’ on the left, let alone the flower-covered ‘captivator’ illustrated inside!

I’d wanted something like this for some time and had actually planned to make up one of my various hat-and-integral-scarf patterns – I have one with a bunch of bright crochet flowers on that I’ve meant to try for years – but felt that this would work quite well to fulfil the double role of keeping my ears warm and stopping draughts whistling down the open V-neck of my tailored coat.

Unfortunately none of the patterns in this leaflet give any indication as to tension, so it was complete guesswork as to what thickness of wool I ought to be using and what size crochet hook. The yarn being advertised (“Lily’s No.600 Crochet and Knitting Cotton”) was evidently quite chunky as crochet cotton went, so I thought I’d try some of my vintage 4-ply wool on the grounds that this was fairly chunky as vintage yarn went, and picked a 2.5mm hook after experimenting with a 2mm hook and deciding that the resulting crochet didn’t look as ‘open’ as the fabric illustrated. All these first three patterns in the booklet are essentially a basic triangle shape gathered in different ways, and the base of the triangle seemed wide enough to drape around my shoulders adequately, so I reckoned this was probably about the right size.

When I reached the apex of the triangle, however, it became apparent that it was on the contrary very much too small! The neck-cord was supposed to be threaded in a semi-circle at a radius of 12″ from the edge of the shawl, and the entire shawl was less than twelve inches deep – something had evidently gone radically wrong.

Fortunately this was crochet and not knitting, which meant it proved possible to retro-engineer a complete six-inch additional section of shawl (with the aid of some mathematical calculation) and then slip-stitch the upper loops on to the cast-on edge in a fairly stretchy manner without the join’s showing too much…

Join just visible towards upper edge of triangle

I’ve read descriptions of young ladies conversing while ‘knotting a fringe’; I never realised how long it took in real life. No wonder they regarded it on a level with doing tapestry as a means of avoiding idle hands!

Winding wool to size around a card before cutting more lengths to knot as a fringe

The next problem was trying to get the weird cockscomb crest working. I wanted it to match the fringe rather than the body of the shawl, and as I’d used a thinner yarn for this I was back to experimenting with hook size again. I tried a large hook, I tried a small hook, I tried using the wool doubled, and eventually came to the conclusion that folding up a thick strip to get the heavy cartridge-pleated effect visible in the photo wasn’t going to work. I also came to the conclusion that the instructions about how far along the strip to place the folds were simply wrong!

So in the end I winged it to produce a lighter and shorter strip that would stand up better under its own steam – the heavy one simply weighed down the front of the head-shawl and caused it to flop – and decided that the mysterious instruction to ‘gather slightly’ the folds implied gathering each separate fold width-ways across the strip to spread the bows a little at the top, rather than gathering the strip lengthways into the actual folds required. At any rate it seemed to provide the requisite stiffening.

After all this I wasn’t particularly pleased with the finished article, which didn’t look much like the original pattern photo despite all my efforts. However I tried it out in the cold and snow of this past spring, and found it surprisingly effective despite the open mesh; it’s not proof against a direct blast of icy wind, but it does keep your head pretty warm otherwise. And I had been getting very, very tired of reknotting my large polyester headsquare, which persisted in slipping undone and was very unflattering.

The drawstring design of the head-shawl (essentially, you just pull the cord tight around your neck to fasten it on) proved as practical as advertised, although I haven’t used it for riding my bike – and the long ends of the triangle hanging down in front fill in the neck opening of a coat very conveniently. It doesn’t have the same tendency as a neckscarf to come unwound if you turn your head, and I found I didn’t spend so much time hunching rigidly to try to keep the draught out. Meanwhile the ‘crest’ on the front does actually serve a purpose in making the design noticeably more flattering than a basic headscarf – it removes the ‘low forehead’ appearance and is much less reminiscent of a Russian granny!

So in fact I ended up wearing it on a more or less daily basis throughout the prolonged wait for Spring: it’s easier (because less bulky) to carry around than a hat and scarf, doesn’t look like a peasant headwrap, and is surprisingly effective as a warm garment. I’ve even been told that it looks appealingly ‘retro’, which is perhaps unsurprising in a 1940s pattern…

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1940s | 1950s | Skirts | Vintage Sewing

Target cardigan and false-fly skirt

By on February 13, 2013

Most recently completed project: my Quick-to-Knit Target cardigan, finished as part of a knit-along starting on January 1st. As you can see from this, it is quite quick to knit – at least by my standards!

Paired here with my 1940s hand-sewn Simplicity 2624 skirt: and when I say hand-sewn, I mean that every single stitch, including the top-stitching, was set by hand. You really get to hate waistbands… so long and so unforgivingly straight….

The cardigan is knitted from a 1950s pattern on Bex’s blog, although there are a few fitting issues.

Fitting issues 🙁

Unusually, the vintage pattern sizes given don’t actually go small enough for me – I didn’t think this would matter, but I and others who went for a size up in the hopes that it would just give a loosely-fitting cardigan found that we didn’t get the result anticipated 🙁

In fact, the cardigan is both too wide and too long

Sag at the back

although as I have a swayback issue anyway (see the skirt) this may not be entirely the fault of the sizing. But the waist of the cardigan is too low for me, while the neck shaping actually starts too high (straining the top button) and there’s a bulge of spare fabric on either side which tends to droop in an unfortunate manner.

Looking at the adjustments between pattern sizes as given on the pattern, I ought to have shortened it by half an inch and decreased the bust by two inches. I already had to un-knit both sleeves from the cap down to decrease their length by an inch each – but again, that’s a problem that everybody seemed to have, many of them more acutely than I. (At least one knitter omitted the 3″ ribbed cuffs altogether in order to get the right sleeve length!)

The skirt suffered from the opposite problem, but that was due to my carelessness; I bought the pattern to fit my waist without noticing that I was a bit more ‘wasp-waisted’ than 1940s patterns allowed for (oddly enough the 1960s patterns, which one thinks of as boyish and shapeless, changed to use a bust-hip-waist ratio that fits mine exactly) and had to steal extra half-moon segments out of the seam allowances at the hips to get it to fit at all. If I had only read the pattern measurements before tracing off the pieces I could easily have made the adjustments at the pattern stage!

However, it fits nicely now and pairs very well with my high-waisted 1930s knitwear patterns (which is what this ‘fitted’ 1950s style is trying hard to revert to, by the looks of it…)

Kicking up a stir

The fold at the front is actually a false fly; the skirt fastens with hooks and eyes up the side. The whole ensemble is very recycled. The cardigan is made from a single large scrap ball of blue acrylic that I saved from being thrown away, eked out with half a dozen small scraps of the shiny garnet red wool, while the skirt was cut out from the panels of a size 20 elasticated blue twill skirt that I got out of the rag heap at the local charity shop. In fact, because the original had more, smaller panels than my new pattern, I had a great deal of difficulty fitting the pattern pieces in and had to piece together the lower corners, godet-fashion 🙂

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1950s | Vintage Sewing

Sometimes we knit retro, too

By on November 11, 2012

Here are two 1950s patterns I’ve knitted up this year: the droplet bolero and the bias-knit sweater.

The bolero was knitted using a re-issued version of the original pattern which had been graded into multiple sizes: normally I would just have knitted the single original size, but here I actually had the luxury of taking it down a size to fit me better.

The droplet pattern is basically a variation on a standard bobble pattern: you cast on five stitches at once at the base of the bobble, then gradually decrease the extras over several rows as you go up to produce a teardrop shape rather than a round one. The front and back have a zigzag droplet yoke – the sleeves have a straight strip of droplets all the way to the cuff.

The last rose of summer

The bias-knit sweater was knitted from a scan of the original pattern: see The Vintage Pattern Files. I didn’t alter the pattern, but I did change the colour scheme quite a few times! If I’d had more wool, I shouldn’t have used quite so many colours… but in fact, the end result was actually an improvement.

Click on pictures for larger images

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1980s | Pants / Trousers | Sewing Machines | Vintage Sewing

Tablecloth Trousers – Simplicity 6443

By on August 9, 2012
These are my trousers, in which I am well pleased

(Click on the smaller images to access fullsize versions)

With everybody else raving about Simplicity 3688, I went to Simplicity 6433 and its ‘Fuss Free Fit’ for my first pair of ‘granny trousers’: it suddenly dawned on me that back in the 1980s trousers actually used to fit me right off the rail in addition to covering my navel (otherwise known as ‘not having my waist coming untucked all the time’!). So when I was trading my mother’s 1940s childhood dress patterns for a vintage style I could actually use, I asked for the cheap-as-chips 1980s trouser pattern to be thrown in… and back in February, I started work on making it up.

I assumed that as a complete trouser novice with very little fitting experience of any kind I was going to need that extra detailed sheet explaining alteration lines and guidance. But to my surprise, once the pattern arrived and I’d taken the stipulated measurements it seemed that I wasn’t going to have to make any changes at all. The only place where mr proportions didn’t already match the design size of the pattern was leg length, where I was a good two inches short – I blame it on the high heels in the photo….

Tailor's tacks and roughly embroidered pattern-piece labelling visible here as I insert a pocket into the right front...
Having learnt to sew largely on vintage unprinted patterns, I found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I was going to transfer the markings from a fully printed pattern onto a working copy without being able simply to draw around the edges! In the end I bought two large and expensive sheets of tracing paper from the local art shop and traced off the seam lines without seam allowance, so that I could just tack my markings round the edge of the pattern pieces: where tucks, darts and so on had to be marked I ended up cutting out holes as in a ‘normal’ unprinted pattern, in order to avoid weakening the tracing paper.

To make a toile I deployed a large circular orange tablecloth, somewhat faded and rather more stained than I had expected. It had been made in two halves sewn together with the selvedges down the middle, and I spent a lot of time unpicking the seam so that I could salvage the selvedges, but only one half was really usable in the end due to the stripes of sunlight-fading and the spill-marks on the other, evidently the side that had faced towards the window. Cutting pieces ‘double’ was impossible due to the difficulty of lining up the grain accurately on this circular material, let alone positioning around the various stains, so I was forced to go the couture route and pin everything multiple times. In fact I actually cut out one back leg on the ‘wrong’ side of the fabric by mistake – you’d never know the difference.

When my toile was finally tacked up I was astonished to find that it did indeed fit perfectly: no ‘smile’, no ‘frown’, no straining over my thighs, no trouble sitting down. Apparently in the 1980s I really was a “perfect 12”! And in fact the colour wasn’t nearly so obtrusive as I was expecting, so I decided simply to go ahead and stitch up the tablecloth trousers as my final project.

Jones CS Family machine (rear view)All the machine-sewing, including the topstitching on the belt carriers and pockets, was done on the 1916 vibrating-shuttle machine my great-grandmother had received as a wedding present (being manufactured in the middle of WW1, it bears the pointed legend “English Made” in the centre of the machine bed, in contrast to its German and American rivals!) Since this doesn’t have a reverse, let alone a zigzag, I had to elaborate on the pattern instructions a bit in order to ensure that all the internal seams had a proper enclosed seam finish, instead of just relying on zigzagging the edges.

All the interior seams have a smooth finish
The outer leg seams are flat-felled (on the inside, due to the constraints of enclosing the pocket edges in the same seam), as is the crotch, and the inner leg uses French seams. The pocket bags were made with very narrow French seams around the curve,and even the fly extensions had to have their raw edges trapped under the zip seams. To finish the hems I used my great-grandmother’s leftover bias binding in order to match the navy blue brass-toothed zip: the latter not a ‘vintage’ design choice, just the only secondhand seven-inch zipper I happened to have!

The button, an almost perfect match for the faded cloth and exactly the right size, came out of my Vast Vintage Box of Buttons.
Hand-cranked topstitching

Vintage packaging - who needs plastic?

This was my first attempt at using genuine buttonhole twist (also ‘vintage’) and also my first attempt at doing a ‘proper’ buttonhole with one square and one round end. From a functional point of view the thick thread created a perfect row of purls to guard the raw edge of the buttonhole, but in spite of all the care I tried to put into it the buttonhole still isn’t even, alas. Exquisite accuracy is just not my strong point.

The only change I made from the toile was to take up my usual swayback adjustment to account for my very arched back: I do wonder if I overdid this slightly as the tops of the pocket facing have a tendency to wrinkle slightly at the sides – but as this was for some reason the only unstayed area around the waistband it’s also possible that they stretched during the months of trying-on and picking up the project by its waistline.

Otherwise, these high-waisted, wide-legged (believe it or not, this was the tapered variant!) trousers are an ideal fit, and highly flattering. The front tucks in place of darts create the appearance of a flat front instead of a bulging abdomen: the shaping above the buttocks gives the illusion of lifting the rump, while the loose cut below conceals the remainder in a straight fall to the back of the knee, to give a ‘Humphrey Bogart effect’ (these trousers would be good for male impersonation!) – they even manage to make you look good when you bend over. My only grouse would be that the pockets came out a little shallower than I like, though they look capacious in the flat… an easy fix to make next time round.

And I’ve been told that there should definitely be a ‘next time’ – really good trouser patterns being like gold dust!

They're tight in the right places and loose in the right places...

...even bending over...

The obligatory silly cat-pic… can you spot the cat in the background of one of the earlier photos? I didn’t when I was taking it!

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1930s | Dresses | Vintage Sewing

The Jessie Matthews dress

By on June 6, 2012
Simplicity 2786 - 1930s dress and bolero pattern

From the moment I saw the pattern cover, that wide-eyed, round-cheeked girl with her tip-tilted nose reminded me of 1930s star Jessie Matthews. So this was dubbed the Jessie Matthews dress… I finished it just in time for a party a few days after Christmas and have worn it quite frequently since – albeit usually sans sash in order to tone it down a bit as a day dress.

I originally acquired the pattern courtesy of Wearing History – Lauren had it for sale in her Etsy shop at a very cheap price because the bolero pieces were missing. As it happened to be my size and style (buttons! and sleeves! high waist and skirt below the knee) and because I didn’t like the bolero design in the first place… I bought it. This was in fact the first thing that I ever ventured to buy over the Internet!

In practice I had to enlarge the skirt at the hips, since the dress was sized for 32-27-35 in place of the 1980s 32-26-36: Thirties fashions were evidently more tubular. I actually discovered later that I’d added my extra width to the mid-back seams instead of the side seams, owing to a trifling miscalculation as to which side of piece H was which… it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.

The other change I made was to extend the darts at the bodice back all the way up to the point, instead of leaving them open at the halfway point, producing a fully fitted shape. This was originally a misinterpretation of the pattern (I’d never encountered half darts before), but I liked the effect and decided to keep it. The collar pieces, on the other hand, I had a lot of trouble with. As you can see they still don’t stay lined up properly at the neck, despite some major alterations (and collar-button-shifting). This may be why the pattern suggests that you should fudge the issue by installing a set of snaps under the buttoned edge.

About half the sewing on this project was done by machine, as opposed to my previous garments which had been made entirely by hand; this was because I acquired a hand-cranked sewing machine (an Alfa 301, more common in Europe than here) and used it to save time on the endless long skirt seams. (One advantage of using a 1930s pattern was that the cutting layout was designed to cater for 36″ widths of fabric like the one I had: however, the economy of fabric use was achieved by splitting the skirt into six separate panels, all of which required sewing and finishing!)

Being used to hand sewing, however, I found it easier to do most of the fine work with my own needle as usual. I wanted the dress to be fully washable, so in the absence of a serger or zigzag stitch every single raw edge in the garment had to be entirely enclosed. That meant mainly French seams, save for the side seam incorporating the zipper, which had to be bound with bias tape, and the matching seam on the other side. In practice it turns out that the red areas in the pattern tend to run even in cold water, so washing has been limited so far to squeezing out the armpits under the tap and/or hanging the dress for a couple of days in the garden to air. I’ve had it suggested that I ought to try rinsing it in vinegar.

In accordance with the pattern directions I finished the cuff edges with self bias strips and a bias facing where the snap fasteners are sewn on at the wrist, and inserted an enclosed zipper placket with an additional underlap to cover the zipper tapes on the inside. Both these operations had to be done twice after I misinterpreted the instructions and tried to be too clever the first time round, but I am very pleased with the result: now that’s a really invisible zip!

The bound buttonholes and bodice facings were also sewn in entirely by hand, although I consciously didn’t even try to stitch down an invisible hem around the bottom of the skirt, simply taking small even hemming stitches and assuming they wouldn’t show amid the strong fabric pattern (they don’t).

What I like best about this dress is actually the tailored one-piece sleeves, which are very economically constructed with a gather at the elbow to allow the arm to bend and set elegantly into the armholes. They fitted perfectly first time and look very smart – but they are really easy to make.

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