What Works, What Doesn’t: Five Versions of the McCall “Mannish Jacket” from 1941

Readers,

Remember this jacket pattern? Of course you do.

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From 1941, McCall pattern 4065, the “Misses’ Mannish Jacket”

In 2015 I used it for a project following Kenneth King’s “Old School” instructions on his Smart Tailoring DVD.

From 2003 to 2015 I made up this jacket five times.

Don’t ask me why, but I always loved the jaunty pattern illustration.

The actual jackets? I didn’t love them, exactly, although I was proud of the quality of work I did on parts of them.  Only recently (like five minutes ago) did I make this crucial distinction.dark_tweed_jacket_1712-247x460

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If I had seen well-lighted, full-length photos of this first version of the jacket on me I could have perfected the fit.

I made the dark tweed one first, starting it in a Palmer-Pletsch sewing camp in Portland, Oregon in 2003 and finishing it at home with guidance from my sewing teacher, Edith.dark_tweed_jacket_1721-460x363dark_tweed_jacket_1722-460x403

In 2006, in a stunt of sewing bravado, I sewed burgundy plaid, green heather, and red plaid versions. purple_plaid_jacket_1732-244x460

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The only jacket I’ve ever interfaced with fusible canvas. I know Kenneth King isn’t a fan of fusible canvas, but it turned out to work well in this garment.

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I need a little posture-correcting here!

Defiantly shaking my fist at the sewing gods, and with Edith’s encouragement and coaching, I cut the pieces for all three jackets (two requiring meticulous matching) over that Labor Day weekend.  Relaxing, right?

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I have always liked this plaid for its colors and scale.

I just didn’t want to be intimidated by tailoring anymore, so I cut and sewed the three jackets, with different pockets, over the course of several months.

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It’s fun to cut some plaid pieces on the bias. I cut out a hole the shape of the finished flap from stiff paper, and moved the “preview window” around on the yardage. Then I cut the flap pieces.

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It’s nice when you can find the right buttons in the right sizes. These are a souvenir of a visit to Edinburgh.

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Bound buttonholes are not my forte.

 

I had a few tutorials with Edith and also used Jackets for Real People by Patti Palmer and Marta Alto extensively.heather_jacket_1780-460x331

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The bound buttonhole is coming apart. But–I love the subtle coloring of this fabric! I picked it up as a remnant for about $3.00 at the Minnesota Textile Center’s fabulous annual fabric garage sale.

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I’m happy with the shoulders and notched collar job I did. This wool was a breeze to work with.

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Holes in the lining created from carrying tote bags of books to and from the libraries I used to work at. Of all the jackets, I’ve worn this one the most.

I did learn a lot, and achieved a lot, and am still impressed by the ambition of the goal as well as the results.red_plaid_jacket_1808-460x357

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I settled for this style of button but think there are better choices out there. Something subtle and matte.

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Shoulders are okay, but I keep wanting to subtract a little roominess from the upper bodice.

But if the point of sewing clothes is to wear the clothes, then I didn’t succeed as much as I assumed I would.  I didn’t follow through with planning outfits around these jackets, let alone making the jackets the pivotal pieces they deserved to be.

Even though my now four “Misses’ Mannish Jackets” were underemployed in my wardrobe, yet again I turned to this pattern when I wanted to try Kenneth King’s brand new Smart Tailoring DVD last year.blue_tweed_jacket_1818-252x460

I wanted to try all of Kenneth’s techniques–for a notched collar, felt undercollar, mitered sleeves, and a vent–and the Mannish Jacket met all those specs. blue_tweed_jacket_1856-460x384

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This is Kenneth King’s “hidden pocket”: a nice addition to the lining.

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The patch pockets on this 1941 jacket are slightly asymmetrical, which I like.

I did consider many other patterns I’d been dying to try for years–but the prospect of going through the whole muslin, fitting, and pattern-altering rigamarole before getting to the tailoring was just too much. I wanted to finish my jacket before attending Kenneth’s weekend workshop in Cleveland a few months later. (And I did.)

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This fabric, which I bought at a Textile Center of Minnesota sale, may well date to the 1950s. It likely came from somebody’s stash. The button dates to the 1940s, according to the owner of Taylors Buttons in London.

So that’s how Mannish Jacket 5 came to be: I sewed it as a learning exercise. And the fabric?  I chose that only because I was willing to sacrifice it, if the jacket was a dud. So, looking back, I see just how much learning technique took precedence over making myself something I wanted to wear.

In fact, just now I’m realizing that each of these Mannish Jackets may have been taken on a little too self-consciously as An Exercise in Sewing Self-Improvement.

I suspect this because, when I see these jackets hanging in my closet I hear myself saying:

  • “I put a lot of work into that.”
  • “I did a good job [matching the plaid/sewing the pockets/choosing the buttons].”
  • “I learned a lot.”
  • “I wish I hadn’t padded the shoulders so much.”
  • “Are they too long for me?”
  • “My bound buttonholes are too flimsy!”
  • “I do love the fabric.”
  • “If I just sew the right coordinates, I’ll wear them.”

In other words, I still see them as projects more than as garments.

I don’t notice myself saying:

  • “I love these jackets!”
  • “When can I wear them again?”
  • “What can I sew now to make new outfits?”

Don’t get me wrong: the Mannish Jacket series wasn’t a waste of time. I did learn a lot–and not just how to sew a notched collar without flinching.  But there will be no Mannish Jacket number 6.

What I had only vaguely felt–a sense that, however hard I had worked on these garments, they still fell short, without my knowing precisely why–became clear to me when I saw the stark reality in properly lighted photos.

These jackets were wearing me more than I was wearing them.  The shoulders? Wider than I’d realized before, and not in a flattering way.

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I am very dissatisfied with the prominent sleeve caps; they interrupt a clean, straight shoulder line. It doesn’t help that the shoulders are too extended for me. This is the same pattern I used for the preceding four jackets, yet this one turned out so different.

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This is too big! So exasperating. Also, I wonder whether I made the best interfacing choices. They are so hard to get right.

The length?  Disproportionate on me. The back? Too roomy.  This is the 1941 version of–yes, a boyfriend jacket! Of course!

I could alter the pattern pieces for future jackets, narrowing the back and shoulder and taking three or four inches from the 26 1/2″ finished length.  I could make a better-fitting Mannish Jacket. However, I think I’d be removing much of what makes the 1941 design distinctive. I also think my appetite for this style has been satisfied.

Instead, I’ll reassign Jacket 5 from bench-sitting as a garment to active duty as a tailoring resource.  And jackets 1 through 4 can serve occasionally as light coats flung over sweaters or flannel shirts and jeans to wear on crisp, dry, fall days.

There are critical points on the way to getting things sewn, where, if I do make the extra effort to identify the lessons, I can reap the full benefit.

As I look back at what my Mannish Jackets could teach me, some lessons are:

  • Photos of myself in muslins and garments give me much better data to work with than squinting in a mirror or getting feedback from well-intentioned helpers.
  • If the point of sewing most garments is to wear them in outfits, I should pay a lot more attention to the outfit level of planning.
  • Planning outfits is a skill in itself. If I plan outfits before I sew the garments, I’m more likely to enjoy really successful outcomes.  If I sew the garment and then only hope I can incorporate it into an outfit, then I’m more likely to be disappointed.
  • It’s okay to sew something as a rehearsal for the next iteration–as long as I’m aware that what I’m producing is just a practice piece. If it does become part of my wardrobe, that’s a bonus.

Lessons learned.  Now to incorporate them into new practices and put myself on an even more rewarding path.

(Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for all photos.)

 

More Than What Meets the Eye

Readers,

One morning late last week I piled five jackets, a blouse, and my mannequin Ginger into my nifty red folding utility wagon.  After a two-minute commute I arrived at my sister Cynthia’s studio for our photo shoot.

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Trying to look “natural”.

Almost as an afterthought I brought my latest creation: mint-green flannel pajamas.

I wasn’t sure at first that I’d even write about these pajamas.  They were so ordinary.  What could I possibly say about them?

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Butterick describes this as “Misses’ top, shorts, and pants.” The word “pajamas” is not used.

I could always write a standard review.

Yawn.

I won’t keep you in suspense. My review is: They’re just fine. Thanks, Butterick.

And the alterations?  I shortened and/or narrowed:

  • the top front and back pieces
  • the facing
  • the pocket pieces
  • the sleeve and sleeve band pieces
  • the pants leg and pants leg band pieces
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Flat piping inserted between the pocket and the pocket band. Next time I’ll plan a contrast piping.

The pattern shows optional piping.  My flannel was so luxuriously thick, self-fabric piping with a filler cord was out of the question.  I tried using the flannel in a flat piping for the pocket and sleeve band.

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The flat piping inserted between the sleeve and the band added bulk to the seam, so I skipped piping the front edge and collar. But a lighter, more flexible contrast piping would look nice.

That was still pretty thick and stiff inserted into the seam.  So I skipped piping altogether for the front opening, collar, and pants leg bands.

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The ripply collar: a mistake, or a design feature? You choose.

I don’t know how I did it, but I bungled sewing the collar smoothly onto the neckline.  I was in too much of a hurry to get this project done to see whether the problem was at the pattern-drafting stage (Butterick’s fault) or at the pattern piece-cutting stage (my fault).

If I sew these pajamas again I’ll find the source of the rippling problem and fix it before I cut any pieces. This time, though, I’m calling the rippling a “design feature.”

Wow, what a boring review.

But wait! There was something interesting thing about this pajama-sewing project. It really brought home to me that the things I sew are collections of associations I make and stories I tell myself.

Examples:

The fabric. What others see is a nice cotton flannel.  But what I remember is how I found this beefy flannel, in a color I’d never imagined myself in before, priced at $3.00 a yard on the clearance shelf at Sew to Speak‘s new home.  The amount left on the bolt was just what I needed.

I was in a hurry to just choose something and get on with sewing up these pajamas for an upcoming trip, so I took a chance on mint green.

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An ordinary button and an ordinary buttonhole? Hardly.

The buttons.  What others see are ordinary buttons. But what I remember is where I was, and why, when I bought those buttons.

I was at Persiflage, a dealer (no longer there) that sold vintage clothing and trims at Alfie’s Antique Market in London. And I came to Persiflage to deliver a copy of the current Threads magazine (June-July 2012), which contained my article, “Shopping Destination: London, England,” to the shop owner. Only the shop assistant was there, I remember. She received the copy with enthusiastic thanks and assured me the shop owner would be delighted that Persiflage had been included.

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These buttons and fabric were meant for each other!

While in the shop, naturally I had to inspect the jumble of vintage buttons spilling out of a couple dozen little drawers.  I found nothing spectacular. But something drew me to four homely little buttons in a deep mint shade, and they returned to the States with me.

To be honest, later I asked myself why I ever bought them:  I’ve never worn mint green! When would I ever use them? Two and a half years ago, when I was packing up my sewing room for our move to Ohio, I put them with a pile of other buttons to give away–if I could find a taker.

Then I got preoccupied with, oh, about ten thousand other tasks, and forgot about finding foster homes for my orphan buttons.

Then it turned out that those homely, mint-green buttons were exactly what this pajama top called for.pajamas_1900-220x460

The buttonholes.  You could be forgiven for thinking these buttonholes are as ordinary as they come.  But what I see is the Magic Key Buttonhole Worker attachment for my family’s trusty old sewing machine.  And I had always viewed this gadget with suspicion and fear even though it had a reputation for turning out a good result.

But when my sewing machine’s reverse mechanism finally gave up the ghost a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t make buttonholes.  Then I remembered: a block away, at Cynthia’s, was the sewing machine we grew up with and this Magic Key  contraption.  If I was going to finish this pajama top in time I’d have to learn how to use this thing.

And under Cynthia’s tutelage, I did–at least well enough to produce four decent buttonholes!  Having overcome my initial fear with this modest success, now I’m curious to see whether I’d like the keyhole buttonholes this gadget produces.

It was thirty years ago last month that I bought my sewing machine. Certainly the things I’ve sewn on it, including muslins, must number in the many hundreds now. Wearing clothes I’ve made stopped being a novelty long ago (although I always count the bigger successes as minor miracles).

Elasticized waist, capacious pockets--pretty standard.

Elasticized waist, capacious pockets–pretty standard.

But it was these everyday (or everynight?) pajamas that got me thinking how much just one ordinary sewing project can foster a rich network of happy associations.  Think, then, of what a lifetime of sewing projects can yield.

The other day I was flipping through the latest Lands’ End catalogue that had arrived in the day’s mail. When I saw the prices for their pajamas I gloated that mine had cost only a fifth as much.  But then, mine had cost lots more in time to produce. I admit it: I’m a slowpoke.

But in the end, I feel richer making my own clothes, and I don’t mean only, or primarily, in monetary terms, because maybe in that regard I’m only breaking even.

Even when my collar turns out ripply,  I’ve almost certainly enriched my fund of associations, as well as my fund of knowledge, in ways I am still discovering, and benefiting from, thirty years on.

I call that a net gain.

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Mint green may be my new favorite color!

What Problem Does That Solve?

Readers,

Blame my background as a librarian for calling a new form that I’m experimenting with an “Acquisitions Record.”

Out of my 22 years working in libraries I spent four and a half in my system’s Collection Management department, in Acquisitions, selecting adult fiction, large print, and audiobooks. (I also pestered advised my colleague who ordered the cookbooks and sewing books.)

Since my time as a selector I’ve thought about where it might make sense to apply library principles and practices to getting things sewn.  I haven’t actually drawn up a collection management policy, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea. (That’s a topic for another time.)img_0934-460x307

What I did do, on the spur of the moment about a month ago, was record a few facts, reasons, and plans concerning a book I’d bought.  Why did I buy another sewing book, why now, and how was I planning to actually use it? I did have a plan for it–right?

It’s way too easy to acquire sewing stuff, with the best of intentions, and then not to use it to its full potential. And that bothers me.

The Sewing Bible: Curtains--not to be confused with Katrin Cargill's Curtain Bible, of course!

The Sewing Bible: Curtains–not to be confused with Katrin Cargill’s Curtain Bible, of course!

I threw together a table in OneNote and started making columns to collect facts.

  • Date: Aug. 21
  • Type: Book
  • Description: The Sewing Bible: Curtains
  • Price: $4.29; originally $24.99
  • Where purchased: Half Price Booksimg_0936-460x288

Then I created a couple of columns to collect explanations.

  • Reason/What problems this solves: Looks like good instructions and designs for curtains and draperies, different from what I already have.
  • Why now? Kitchen curtain and dining room drapery projects by mid-Oct. before our next houseguest arrives.img_0935-460x361

Then I pushed myself to move to the planning stage:

  • Plans to use it: Read about sheers, tab-top curtains, design, construction.
  • Projects scheduled: Visit Fabric Farms 8/29. See list [of supplies to look for] in Outlook.
  • Projects completed: Aim for mid-Oct.img_0936-2-460x439

That was my first entry.  I was being ambitious: the heat of August persuaded me that October was a long ways off. Nevertheless, asking myself what problems this purchase was meant to solve, and why I was buying now made me think longer, more creatively, and more concretely.

My next sewing-related purchase turned out to be the very next day:

  • Date: Aug. 22
  • Type: Class
  • Description: “Fast-Track Fitting with Joi Mahon” plus Vogue fitting pattern for the class
  • Price: $21.14 (incl. shipping the pattern), usually $44.99
  • Where purchased: Craftsy

And my explanations:

  • Reason/What problems this solves: Different approach from Kenneth King’s in “Smart Fitting” DVDs, and complementary. I don’t want to wait to get help from my old sewing teachers. Also, I can ask Joi questions online as part of the class, and I can’t ask Kenneth.
  • Why now? Sale was one day only. This was on my wish list. I’ve read her fitting book, very impressed with her clear, organized explanations. Returning to sewing in earnest after blog sabbatical; want to crank out garments I love. Fitting is my biggest Achilles’ heel.

Fitting and pattern alteration have always seemed beyond my abilities. Could this Craftsy class change my attitude?

On to the ambitious planning:

  • Plans to use it: Aggressively use to fit my patterns, then try fitting a blouse for Cynthia.
  • Projects scheduled: E-mail Cynthia to set date to measure me per Joi’s class. Possible blog series. 1959 Vogue belted jacket pattern: read instructions Aug. 23.
  • Projects completed: [left blank]

Even though my simple little acquisitions record was barely 24 hours old, it had already begun to work some magic. I wasn’t just recording a past expenditure. I was thinking more systematically and strategically before my purchase.

That’s especially important for me when I buy Craftsy classes. They don’t occupy physical space, and it’s easy for me to forget that they’re resources like my books and tools–and maybe better, because Craftsy instructors respond to students’ questions.

In the last month I’ve made six entries in my acquisitions record: for a book, two online classes, a fabric remnant, and two patterns.  I have found that’s it’s been fun to track what things are coming into this sewing room and what potential they offer:

  • methods I can understand for fitting patterns better even before I sew the muslin
  • methods for altering ready-to-wear to perfect the fit
  • curtains to grace our new kitchen and dining room
  • flannel pajamas with flair
  • a steady supply of custom-fit aprons

    Got the cotton duck, got the apron pattern--now on to getting those aprons sewn for our new kitchen.

    Got the cotton duck, got the apron pattern–now on to getting those aprons sewn for our new kitchen.

That tantalizing potential is there, for sure.  And, I know, it certainly is easy to get over-ambitious creating projects and deadlines without the necessary follow-through: call me Exhibit A.

But I think this simple form is going to help move me in the right direction to get things sewn.  It’s a good starting point.

And when I get a better idea–I’ll just create another form.

Field Trip: “Dressing Downton,” Taft Museum, Cincinnati

Readers,

Last month I got to see three dozen costumes from Downton Abbey up close in the show “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times” at the beautiful Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In front of Cincinnati's Taft Museum.

In front of Cincinnati’s Taft Museum.

At the invitation of a friend of my sister Cynthia’s who is a member of the museum, I joined Cynthia and our sister Donna on a day trip for lunch, the show, and a little spin around some of Cincinnati’s  notable neighborhoods.  It was a lot of fun.

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. (Sorry, I missed photographing the details of this outfit.)

Worn by Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

As a Downton Abbey devotee I came pretty late to the party. Season 1 began broadcasting in the US  in 2011 just a few weeks before Jack and left the country for two months (in London, it so happened) and I just was not tuned into the excitement.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: "Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.' Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. "Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail." Season 1, 1913.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham: “Light cream linen suit with straw Panama hat.’ Season 1, 1913-1914. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. “Silk day dress and coat with black frogging and large brimmed silk hat with net overlay, flowers, and ribbon detail.” Season 1, 1913.

On that sojourn, even when I was researching “Sewing Destination: London, England” for Threads magazine and saw Downton Abbey costumes at Angels the Costumiers that were headed for filming, I took only a cursory glance.

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew's first meeting at Crawley House."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Riding habit and hat. Worn during Lady Mary and Matthew’s first meeting at Crawley House.”

It was only in season 4 that I got swept up in the tsunami of Downton Abbey, and that was because watching it became a social occasion.

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. "Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary's return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles." Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. "Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London."

Lady Mary Crawley. Season 2, 1916-1918. “Two-piece wool ensemble with velvet collar and cuffs, felt hat with silk ribbon, and velvet handbag with metal clasp. First worn on Mary’s return trip from London after meeting Sir Richard Charles.” Lady Edith Crawley, Seasons 3-4, 1920-1921. “Black grosgrain coat with silk embroidery, original to the period. First worn on a trip to London.”

By the last season, when I was now Cynthia’s neighbor rather than 764 miles away in Minnesota, I was recording the show for us to watch the following day. An hour’s show could take 90 minutes to watch, as I frequently paused and replayed scenes so we could divine the meanings of each raised eyebrow and turned head.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I like the velvet collar and cuffs and matching them to the hat.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don't match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

I noticed that the buttons and buckle don’t match the fabric or each other. I like the rows of top stitching on the belt.

Plus, who wouldn’t confess to waiting impatiently every week to hear what Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would say next?

And who would refuse to admit that the scenery and the cars, the rooms and all their accoutrements, and those costumes weren’t fabulous enticements to keep watching?

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. "Black cotton maid's dress with white lace trim and cotton apron" Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: "Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew's dinner at Downton."

Anna Smith, Ethel Parks, Gwen Dawson, and Jane Moorsum, Maids. Season 1, 1912-1919. “Black cotton maid’s dress with white lace trim and cotton apron” Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913: “Silk evening dress with net overlay and black and silver starbursts. Worn at dinner for Matthew’s dinner at Downton.”

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Did anybody really live like that?

Apparently, yes. Some of the garments in this show, or parts of them, are original to the period.

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. "Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross's performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London." Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. "Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an 'at home' party in London."

Jack Ross, American jazz musician and singer. Season 4, 1922. “Formal evening suit. Worn during Jack Ross’s performance at the Lotus Jazz Club in London.” Lady Rose MacClare. Season 4, 1922-1923. “Silk velvet evening dress, original to the period, decorated with glass beads and sequins. Worn at supper and at an ‘at home’ party in London.”

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Still, I found it just barely credible that people, if only a relative few, had such amazingly intricate handmade clothes.

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. "Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton."

Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper. Season 1, 1912-1914. “Black silk and wool dress with cream lace trim. Worn while working at Downton.”

Yes, I know a little about bespoke suits and all, having had a backstage peek at some of Savile Row’s tailoring workrooms. But a hand-stitched custom suit could be worn for many years and even be handed down to an heir.  That clothing seems like a sensible investment, with the cost spread out over many wearings.

Left: (No information--sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. "Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton."

Left: (Missed getting the information–sorry!) Right: Sir Richard Carlisle, Season 2, 1917-1920. “Three-piece wool herringbone suit and wool coat. Worn while walking and during a shooting party at Downton.”

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James "Jimmy" Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. "Wool and cotton footman's livery. Worn while working at Downton."

Thomas Barrow, William Mason, James “Jimmy” Kent, and Alfred Nugent, Footmen. Season 1-4, 1912-1923. “Wool and cotton footman’s livery. Worn while working at Downton.”

But who would dare to be seen in some of these stunning gowns more than once?  Maybe nobody; I don’t know.

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. "Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven." Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic." Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. "Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic."

Left: Martha Levinson, Season 3, 1920. “Evening dress of devore (burnout) silk velvet in layers. Worn at the indoor picnic, which Mrs. Levinson suggests when disaster strikes the kitchen oven.” Center: Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Olive salon evening dress with black chiffon overdress, partially original to the period. Worn at the indoor picnic.” Right: Lady Edith Crawley. Season 3, 1920. “Silk evening dress. Worn at the indoor picnic.”

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So, after the stunning gown was worn once, then what?

I’m just curious.

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. "Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court."

Left: Madeleine Allsopp, Season 4, 1923. “Silk satin gown with attached beaded panels. Worn by Madeleine Allsopp, when she and Rose are presented at Court.”

I’m sure a lot is known–and volumes and volumes have been written–on the whole cycle of creating and wearing fashion over the generations. And I will bet that 95 percent of that writing centers on the designers, models, and the clientele.

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Martha Levinson. (Sorry, I missed photographing the museum label.)

Sorry, but as a maker, I want to know much more about the makers of the original garments and of these gorgeous facsimiles.img_0438-264x460

Who was "S. Hawes"?

Who was “S. Hawes”?

Just the other day I started reading Kevin McCloud’s Principles of Home: Making a Place to Live. I really like Kevin McCloud’s books on color and on lighting, which combine concepts and practical applications so beautifully.

In his introduction to Principles of Home McCloud writes,

I think we have lost touch with the made world. We have forgotten how difficult and time-consuming it is to make something; how hard it is to make an elegant table out of a tree or a spoon out of metals dug out of the ground and refined. Our sensibilities to craftsmanship have been eroded by high-quality machine manufacturing; our tactile sense has been debased by artificial materials pretending to be something that they are not. Our attention, meanwhile, has been diverted by the virtual built worlds that exist inside screens. The landscapes of gaming and avatar worlds, for instance, are not complicated by the inconvenient messiness of the real world. In them, stuff, narratives, buildings and people are both perfect and disposable.

The real world is not perfect and it’s not disposable. In the real world, things and people age and decompose. The real, tangible world is much harder to make, more difficult to maintain and unpleasant to recycle. Which may explain why so many people seek solace in virtual worlds, even it it’s just by watching a soap opera on TV.

Uh oh. Could he be referring to Downton Abbey, the greatest soap opera of them all?

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. "Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat."

Lady Mary Crawley, Season 1, 1913-1914. “Dark red silk evening dress, partially original to the period. Worn at dinner on the night of the hunt with Mr. Napier and the Turkish diplomat.”

I am really of two minds about Downton Abbey. It’s fiction, but based on lots of actual practices and set in real places.  The vast wealth, the cultural assumptions and expectations, and the intricate etiquette are so abstract to me. But the material culture–the buildings, the rooms, the furnishings, and the clothes–are quite concrete.

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. "Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton."

Lady Sybil Crawley, Season 3, 1920. “Velvet maternity dress, with gold embroidered borders original to the period. First worn at dinner when Lady Sybil and Tom Branson return to Downton.”

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. "Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith's first wedding."

Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. Season 3, 1920. “Cream dress and coat with embroidered floral borders, made from vintage fabric. Worn at Lady Edith’s first wedding.”

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You would think, then, that I would find the clothes believable. But I walked around the show shaking my head in disbelief. They are so far from what I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never worn a dress weighted with glittering beads, nor have I ever had the ambition to.

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. "Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital."

Cora Crawley, Season 2, 1916-1917. “Dress with original ivory silk center panel beaded with glass diamonds, pearls, and seed beads; and green velvet jacket. Worn at the charity concert for the hospital.”

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However, there was one detail of one costume I found utterly charming: a pocket on a (relatively) utilitarian garment, worn by Edith to do work around the Downton property.

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. "Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith's work on the farm."

Lady Edith Crawley, Season 2, 1917-1918. “Wool cord breeches, brushed cotton blouse, and linen jacket with contrasting velvet trim. Worn during Lady Edith’s work on the farm.”

(You won’t find me gardening or cleaning out the barn in a linen jacket, with or without velvet trim, but indulge me in this one illusion.)

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket.

I love this pocket, for its utility, and simplicity, and originality.  And comforting familiarity.img_0435-451x460

While I can appreciate elaborate clothing, and I was happy to attend the Downton Abbey show to see it up close, I believe it will be Edith’s linen jacket with those wonderful pockets that will leave the deepest impression on me.

Our visit to the exhibition ended with a visit to the room reserved for members, where we discovered to our delight  life-size cardboard cutouts of Lord and Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

My sister Donna plays Lady Grantham; with me as Violet, the dowager duchess; and my sister Cynthia as Lord Grantham.

I’m sure the Dowager would not have been amused.

“Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” is at the Taft Museum through September 25.

Paron Fabrics, NYC: A Scrapbook

Readers,

Thursday evening I found myself saying “Nooooooo…!” to the computer screen as I read the news on Peter Lappin’s blog, Male Pattern Boldness, that Paron Fabrics in New York’s Garment District was closing in just a matter of days.

August 2013

August 2013

Dozens of readers have left comments expressing their sadness at the passing of another source of beautiful, reasonably priced fabrics and nice service.

Since 1940!

Since 1940!

When Paron Fabrics started, this pattern was in the current catalogue.

When Paron Fabrics started, this pattern was in the current catalogue.

If there is one type of information I can recall with mind-numbing precision it’s where and when I bought each fabric in my stash.  As I read about Paron’s folding I thought of the happy hours I had spent browsing its yardage on numerous visits and clearly recalled the three pieces of fabric that came home with me over the years.

The first fabric I bought, back in May, 2003, turned out to be even more special than I ever expected it to be.

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Yesterday, digging around in a file folder of New York trip souvenirs, I found this account of that morning spent shopping the Garment District:

Before lunch I fit in one more store–the Paron Fabrics annex, where every bolt was 50% off the lowest ticketed price.  Somehow, it’s a lot more exciting to see an Italian wool with the original $24/yard price marked down to $12 than to see only “$12/yard.”

Having become very particular, I fingered wools and scrutinized colors waiting to see something sensational, not merely beautiful. A red and gold Italian herringbone wool, reduced to $12/yard, fit the bill. Really wonderful, rich colors. I imagined another 1936 suit made up in this fabric.

The saleswoman easily talked me into buying the rest of the bolt when I’d wanted only 2 1/2 yards. I ended up with 5 1/2 yards, but she charged me for just 5. She said, “You can make a gift of the rest to a friend who sews.”img_0924-2-460x53

I briefly reflected sadly on my dearth of friends who sew but thought I could make a dress, a weskit, or a winter coat with contrast facings. Maybe a hat.

Looking back, I now see how optimistic I was to buy such a distinctive fabric that would call for greater skill than I’d had before to do justice to its beauty. Only two months earlier I had started working with a really good sewing teacher. Edith’s guidance paved the way for me to sew much, much better, and to buy beautiful fabrics with more confidence.

It wasn’t until 2010, however, that I worked up the nerve to cut into the Italian wool.  I challenged myself to sew an entry for the Minnesota Make It With Wool competition.  I did finish the jacket and skirt ensemble in time but didn’t participate in the contest. (It was a couple of hours’ drive from Minneapolis–in December–and the day of the contest there was a blizzard, so I wasn’t sorry I had withdrawn my entry.)

However, my jacket did end up in the Reader’s Closet feature in the August/September 2012 issue of Threads magazine. That was gratifying.img_0930-330x460

And now my jacket takes pride of place on my home page.

My next Paron’s purchase came in July 2010.  It was a Swiss cotton plaid shirting in colors that suggested watermelons and sunny summer skies: pink, green, white, watermelon-seed black, and blue.  img_0931-460x345

It said, “Take me home and make me into a shirt for Jack!”

So I did.img_0914-460x370The last piece of fabric I bought at Paron’s was in late June this year.

Jack and I were visiting friends in Westchester County and took the train down to Manhattan for the day.  From Grand Central Station we made Paron’s our first destination.

This time I wanted us to look at shirtings together, hoping that Jack would find something he’d really like.  And he did.  He unhesitatingly reached for a bold, large-scaled yellow, black and white plaid.img_0916-345x460

I liked it, too.

It was fun to look at the shirtings together, fun to discuss the merits of several, and fun to see Jack pick the one to come home with us.

Most of all it was fun for me to be able to say to Jack, “Pick anything you like, and I will sew you a new shirt!”

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Reading of Paron’s closing made me realize that it had become a not-to-miss place to visit when I was in Manhattan.  In its unassuming way, it had assumed an important place in my life.

When I see Jack in either of these shirts I think back to my happy memories of buying the yardage at Paron’s.

The same goes for my 1936 McCall jacket. I vaguely remembered that I bought more yardage than I needed and that the saleslady was very nice to me. But I had forgotten her generosity and her suggestion. I’m glad I wrote down that story to find again, thirteen years later.

I could so easily lose myself in a nostalgic remembrance of temps perdu, but–

I still have a sizeable piece of that Italian wool waiting to be turned into something wonderful.

img_0929-460x339And now I have a stash of vintage buttons, many on their original cards from at least the 1950s, patiently waiting for me to wake up from my sentimental torpor and put them to work.

img_0927-460x345I can’t go back to Paron’s, and I can’t save it from closing.  But I can build on what Paron’s has given me.

Paron Fabrics: To this sewing friend, you were the gift.  Thank you.