Fabric Lessons

Choosing the right fabric to work with is at times a minefield. All amateur dressmakers will be familiar with the trauma of using fabric completely unsuited to the task in hand. And not only is fabric hunting tricky, as I live in Brussels, on top of being a fabric dunce, when it comes to heading to one of the many fabric vendors in my adopted city there is the added element of having to ask all my silly questions in French. There is often a lot of specialist vocabulary associated with sewing and pattern cutting that must be learned, and if we have to learn these terms and words in our native tongue then we’ll certainly have to learn them in a second language!

So I’ve broken down the fabric fundamentals of woven fabrics as I understand them: woven fabrics are made from a variety of different fibres from either plant, animal or chemical sources (synthetics). The most common
fibres are silk (FR : soi), rayon (rayonne), polyester (polyester), cotton (coton), wool (laine), nylon (nylon), and linen (lin). So this information tells us what a fabric is made from, in other words its fibre content. Then we have to think about how it is made: what type of weave has been used? A plain weave, a twill weave (sergé) weave or a satin weave?

Here are some examples of fabrics I’ve worked with or plan to work with and their corresponding French translation in italics, as well as the fibre they are typically made from in brackets (of course, in the fabric shop you’ll encounter many different fabric compositions known as blends (mélanges) made from two or more different fibres, for example 70% cotton and 30% polyester).

Twill weaves:
Denim (cotton) du denim
Tweed (wool) du tweed  

Plain weaves:
Lawn (cotton) du linon
Batiste (cotton) de la batiste
Voile (cotton) de la voile
Shirting (cotton) du shirting
Poplin (cotton) de la popeline

Something I found hard to get my head around in the beginning was how two pieces of fabric that were both described as ‘light cottons’ for example could feel and act so differently.
This is of course down to different weights and textures and drapes. It is worth putting some time in exploring how different fabrics feel and behave. Like most things with dressmaking the best way to learn is to try things out and see what works!

Here are some fabrics I bought today at Le Chien Vert and their composition information. It was fun to go to the fabric shop after having done a bit of research as I felt more confident that I knew what I was looking for and what kinds of things to avoid.
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Starting from the back of the chair:

A pink lightweight cotton-silk blend that I plan to use as a lining.
A tan lightweight cotton that I also plan to use as a lining.
A yellow lightweight cotton that is also destined to be a lining.
A salmon pink cotton poplin, with a raised textured ridge effect.
A mustard yellow cotton poplin.

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But perhaps I shouldn’t get too obsessed with the fact I’m not an expert in fabric theory.
That said, this book will remain on my Christmas list.

P.S. In a future post I’ll put together some English-French translations of other useful terms and phrases that commonly appear in patterns. Then I’ll work on my Dutch* sewing vocabulary! So far all I know is that the verb to sew is naaien and that fabric shop translates as stoffenwinkel.

*For those not in the know, in a nutshell Belgium is made up of three administrative regions, in the south there is Wallonia, which is made up of a predominantly French speaking community and a smaller German speaking one, and in the north there is Dutch speaking Flanders. The third region is the Brussels Capital Region which geographically speaking is a bilingual (French-Dutch) enclave situated in Flanders. There is a lot of debate surrounding the ‘language question’ and as such it is one of the main sources of fodder for the Belgian media. Yes, it is confusing!

Pleased with myself in polka dots

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I’ve decided that this is by far my most successful project to date! The satisfaction I felt when I finished this dress and it looked like I wanted it to look was great.

The fabric came from a craft fair that was held in the Heysel exhibition hall a few months ago. The stand I bought it from was run by a fabric shop in a small village in Flanders called Duffel. It was pretty cheap so cycling there to check out their stock is high on my to do list!

I drafted the pattern myself from scratch. I decided to make a new set of basic blocks and I used Winifred Aldrich’s method in the third edition of her book ‘Metric Pattern Cutting’. I first made the close fitting bodice block (page 18-19) and then followed her method on page 34 for making a close fitting  two piece dress block. This was toile number 1. Next I adapted the skirt block to an A-line style. In the back skirt I removed one dart using the pivot method and moved the other to be in line with the back bodice dart and made it slightly bigger (3cm wide and 14cm deep). In the front bodice piece I moved the shoulder dart to the waist. This was toile number 2 which I wasn’t enamored with.

In the end I decided to draft a simple circle skirt style for the skirt part of the dress, using the finished waist measurement of the bodice instead of my natural waist measurement. I made some further fitting changes to the bodice before I was completely happy with finished toile number 3.

The sewing came together fine and this was my first attempt at making my own continuous bias binding to finish the neckline and armholes. I used the famous Colette continuous bias tape method. I HIGHLY recommend this!

And some other Colette blog posts that I can’t express my love for enough are the invisible zipper photo tutorial and the invisible zipper video. The zip in this dress went in quite well, and while I’ve definitely got a way to go before I can do it with my eyes closed, I can feel that I’m getting better when I look back at the shoddy zip insertions on previous projects.

I’ve worn the dress loads so far and it is really comfortable. It gapes slightly at the armholes but I’m just so happy with this dress that I don’t really mind! I never ever thought I’d be able to make something like this and I don’t mind saying that I’m pretty chuffed that I drafted the pattern myself. Next time I make it up I’ll consider lining it too and maybe adding short raglan sleeves.

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spotty dress cake

Me wearing the dress and eating some lovely cake!

Scandinavia dreaming

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Here is a photo of my friend John’s girlfriend Ylva’s sewing machine. It was taken about a year ago in Malmo, Sweden. One of my favourite colours is this type of deep orange.

The Mathilde blouse: sewing game changer

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I discovered Tilly’s brilliant blog after watching the ‘Great British Sewing Bee’ and soon after bought both her wonderful patterns Mathilde and Miette.

What can I say…I enjoyed making the Mathilde blouse a lot! I didn’t leave my house for about four days! It was a huge learning curve for me and in many ways a ‘game changer’. I think I can break down my sewing journey into pre-Mathilde and post-Mathilde. I really took my time with this project and tried to overcome bad sewing habits like being too eager to complete a project to the detriment of the final garment’s finish.

Tilly’s instructions can’t be faulted one bit and they really give you confidence. The cut of the pattern itself is just lovely too. I made mine in a quite thick blue cotton and I used an orange linen for the yoke and the cuffs. The buttons I used were in my sewing box for ages and I can no longer recall where they came from!

The main things I learned were:

– never underestimate the importance of pressing seams. The finish of a garment is improved ten-fold when everything is properly pressed.

– interfacing is your friend and is really not that scary!

– to be more creative when thinking about future projects: after all I can now do cuffs, tucks, and gathered puff sleeves!

– French seams are brilliant and really make for a tidier finish.

I enjoyed this project so much that I then adapted the pattern to make it into a shift dress. I took out the tucks and changed the button centre back opening for an invisible zip and I used some green linen. It’s the first time I’ve used linen for a dress like this and it certainly is not a myth that it is a fabric that crumples easily. I’m pretty happy with the dress and it feels lovely on but next time I’ll make it in a different fabric and maybe add a lining too.

Here are some pictures of the Mathilde blouse as it is meant to be, and I’ll add some of my dress version soon!

Thanks, Tilly!

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Sewing spaces

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Having a place where you can sew and pattern cut is a luxury and most sewers have to work with what they’ve got. Kitchen tables double up as cutting tables; bedroom floors are littered with pins.

I was getting a bit sick of getting a sore back drafting patterns on my bedroom floor so when I found this tutorial I knew immediately that I had to make it.

I added wheels to mine though so it would be easier to move around. Here are some pictures of it in my old bedroom where it really dominated the room!

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