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.

Guest Blogger: Our Advice Columnist, Miss GTS

Miss GTS: The official advice columnist for Getting Things Sewn

Miss GTS: The official advice columnist for Getting Things Sewn

If the writer of this blog has been somewhat elusive,

And more than a little aloof and reclusive,

It’s only because she has been on sabbatical

Attempting to superintend projects radical

To transform a house locked in 1958ness

Into an abode that is destined for greatness.

Our fixer-upper.

Our fixer-upper.

 

Warned her sister, “Of tobacco this dwelling does reek,

And I fear that its outlook’s no better than bleak.

I’d love to have you in the neighborhood

But this house’s call for labor would

Give pause to mighty Hercules!

So– I ask you, please,

Consider other properties!”

 

Auditioning condo, flat, and house

Separately and with Jack, her spouse,

Hourly checking Zillow online,

Flying down to Ohio from time to time,

Such possibilities our blogger weighed,

But naught else ever made the grade.

 

Meanwhile, “The Reeker” on the market stayed.

Wallpaper with a cocktail theme on the walls down to the basement rec room.

Wallpaper with a cocktail theme on the walls down to the basement rec room.

 

Her sister said, “I know a builder

Whom this house would not bewilder.

Should he walk through and give opinion

Whether this could be your next dominion?”

 

His verdict? “The Reeker” was ugly, but sound:

Improvements were “doable,” he said, but profound.

The sale was negotiated and house was won,

And that’s when the adventure was really begun.

 

To freshen each surface by cigarettes tainted

With gallons of primer Jack painted–and painted.

If the cigarette smell was bad in the house, it was even worse in the garage.

If the cigarette smell was bad in the house, it was even worse in the garage.

 

Then followed the guy to change locks on the doors

And men armed with sanders to finish the floors.

The chimney was swept and the radon abated,

Termites were found and then exterminated.

The furnace was checked; gas leaks eliminated;

AC was replaced, and walls were insulated.

 

Drained was the yard and then pruned was the tree,

Driveway resurfaced; and from AT&T,

Came service for Internet, phone, and TV.

 

But all this was only the warmup, you see.

 

For after the house was safe and sound

Came the decorating round.

 

Our blogger’s new haunt was the hardware store

Where she gathered and scrutinized paint chips galore.

Hypnotized, online for hours she’d browse

Millions of pictures and stories on Houzz.

 

She tried to continue to blog without failing,

Doing a series on Kenneth King’s Smart Tailoring,

Chronicling her jacket–while just down the hallway

The carpenter’s crowbar made bathroom walls fall away.

The upstairs bathroom, staged for sale.

The upstairs bathroom, staged for sale.

The upstairs bathroom, gutted.

The upstairs bathroom, gutted.

The upstairs bathroom, nearing completion.

The upstairs bathroom, nearing completion.

 

But while plumbers were fighting to vanquish corrosion

She found that her focus was suffering erosion.

 

She had to be ready to issue decisions

And equally ready to offer revisions;

She was on alert for doorbell, phone, and text

And was constantly thinking about what to do next.

She tutored herself how to execute floor plans,

And more plans, and more plans, and more plans–and more plans!

 

The basement remodeled, the first bathroom followed,

And in a new welter of choices she wallowed.

And although home designers are heavily vaunted,

There wasn’t a one who could say what she wanted.

None else could define and refine her dreams

And turn them into living schemes.

The basement rec room when the house was staged for sale.

The basement rec room when the house was staged for sale.

The basement remodel.

The basement remodel.

Basement: Clean and bright.

Basement: Clean and bright.

 

She warmed to her task; she plunged into the deep end

And, bathyscaphe-like, she started to descend

Into memories of objects and places she’d been

That expressed an essential sensation within,

Then translated the feelings to physical objects–

And dozens, and dozens–and dozens of projects!

 

Still a bathroom to go, and the big one–the kitchen–

Were lined up on the runway, and our blogger was itching

To do those jobs justice. But ‘twould court disaster

To think she could serve any more than one master.

 

So she promised her blog she’d be back, with a wink,

And turned her attention to choosing a sink

And countertops and enough appliances

To support all the major domestic sciences.

 

But she also imagined the feeling and mood

She wanted when they were preparing their food,

And the smell of their coffee, in dim morning light,

And the rituals of closing their kitchen each night,

And what colors and patterns ideally expressed

Generosity, civility, and happiness.

Where, and how, might I use these colors, patterns, and combinations in our house?

Where, and how, might I use these colors, patterns, and combinations in our house?

 

Meanwhile, her blog waited and silently beckoned,

For her to pick up where she’d stopped, and she reckoned

She’d start again “soon,” but–not just this second.

 

I watched all this, Readers, with unblinking gaze–

The heartening progress and dreaded delays.

The kitchen got done; second bathroom did, too.

Before: the kitchen

The kitchen, when the house was staged for sale.

The kitchen, nearing completion.

The kitchen, nearing completion, before the linoleum floor was installed.

Downstairs bathroom, staged for sale.

Downstairs bathroom, staged for sale.

Downstairs bathroom, nearing completion.

Downstairs bathroom, nearing completion.

The dust having settled, now I sought a clue:

I wondered if she would return to her pace

Or suffer from more than a little malaise.

 

So I thought I’d inquire and make my view plain,

And I walked to the door of her sewing domain.

In that doorway I stood with my arms akimbo

And simply asked, “When are you leaving this limbo?

Your mannequin, Ginger, is de-energized,

And if she had a head she’d be rolling her eyes.

Ginger the mannequin has been wearing the same outfit for months!

Ginger the mannequin has been wearing the same outfit for months!

And readers are asking about your demise–

(I suspect that they’re angling to buy your supplies…)

And my job is saying a word to the wise,

But these last twelve long months I’ve had none to advise!”

 

“We’re all in the doldrums, we all seek employment–

And doing our work would restore our enjoyment.”

 

Emboldened, I said, “Please forgive me for prodding,”

(And I’d swear in the corner that Ginger was nodding),

“I refrain from advising without invitation,

But I’d like to help you defeat hesitation.

You’ve been in the thrall of this house long enough:

It’s time that you wrote about sewing your stuff.”

 

“You’re becalmed at the moment; it’s hard to get traction

When you are inactive instead of in action.

The bulk of your work on the house is now finished;

Its gravitational pull is diminished.

The blog’s pull is weak now–but starting to strengthen;

Your concentration’s beginning to lengthen.

I sense your momentum may be in the wings

If you just give your flywheel a few good, strong spins.”

 

At this point, dear Readers, did I descry

A glimmer return to our blogger’s eye?

 

“Your blog’s a UFO, that’s all,

And I should hope that you would recall

My prudent counsel to get things sewn

Is to do it yourself–but not do it alone.”

 

“Engage the right expert to see your way through,

And as I’ve said before, the right expert is you.

This blog’s entirely your invention–

You know your goal and your intention.”

 

“For months I’ve seen you lay the groundwork

For lovelier and even more profound work.

You sewed living room drapes, for heaven’s sake,

And shirts for Jack that take the cake!

Curtain rings, brackets, and finials being painted for the living room drapery project.

Curtain rings, brackets, and finials being painted for the living room drapery project.

Testing out spacing pleats for the living room draperies.

Testing out spacing pleats for the living room draperies.

You finally came round to fitting and altering

Without histrionics, or fainting, or faltering.

What’s more, you’ve been sewing many a muslin–

The number must be approaching a dozlen!”

 

“Well, that all is quite true,” said our writer, blinking,

And I believe I divined that the old girl was thinking.

 

“So you are getting things sewn, but not all the way,

What I tell you’s the truth, or I’ll eat my beret:

You’re a writer who sews, and you don’t fully digest

Until you’ve attempted a jokey or wry jest

And through your efforts to others explain

To inform or at least to entertain.”

 

“Writing’s your real game, so spring off that bench

And stitch up that lounge robe or jacket or trench,

Then proceed to report upon how it all ended,

Reaping double rewards from your efforts expended.”

 

I rested my case with a voice magisterial:

“Sewing bloggers,” said I, “never lack for material;

I know you’ve the house–and Italian, now, too–

But you’re never alone–we are here to help you.”

This past January Jack and I started studying Italian together at Ohio State University.

This past January Jack and I started studying Italian together at Ohio State University.

 

Our writer looked hopeful; I gave her a fist bump.

 

And if Ginger had arms she’d have given a fist pump.

She told me her old clothes were itchy and riling,

That she was impatient for new clothes and styling–

 

And if she had a head, I believe she’d be smiling.

The muslin of this McCall's "Misses' Lounging Robe" from 1951

The muslin of this McCall’s “Misses’ Lounging Robe” from 1951

And here is the illustration.

And here is the illustration.

A Perfect Vintage Jacket

Readers,

Last week I brought home a very special souvenir of Jack’s and my visit to Portland, Oregon: a vintage jacket with a mysterious past. GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2941 (460x432)It came from a lovely little shop, Living Threads Vintage, on Taylor Street opposite the Multnomah County central library.

I was actually on my way to the Button Emporium next door, which an antique dealer had recommended to me, but I couldn’t resist stopping to examine the dress hanging on a mannequin outside Living Threads. IMG_9753 (345x460)

And the next thing I knew, I was chatting with Christine Taylor,IMG_9752 (345x460) co-owner with her husband, Travis, while browsing a rack of jackets.

In short order I was telling myself there would be no harm in trying on this very interesting jacket made from Pendleton wool.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2943 (460x307)This jacket intrigued me–and Christine, too–and we both wondered who made it, when, and for whom. It was beautifully made and in perfect condition.

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2900 (436x460)

The seaming and darting are so beautiful.

The front facing is finished so elegantly.

The front facing is finished elegantly.

Was this jacket custom-made by a dressmaker or tailor for a specific customer?

Or could this have been sewn as a sample for a clothing line, never manufactured, instead ending up languishing in an archive for decades? We may never know.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2894 (313x460)

The buttons were fantastic.  I admired the bold and yet restrained combination of buttons, fabric, and garment style. They seemed to be made for each other.  GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2907 (460x381)

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2955 (460x307) I would love to work out such wonderful combinations using the buttons I’ve bought at vintage fashion fairs and shops in the UK and Europe. It’s so inspiring to learn from real-life examples.

We wondered when this jacket was made. Could it have been the late ’50s, when more patterns were appearing without the cinched waist?

Another great in my pattern pantheon.

From 1959, this has a big collar and an unbelted version. I made the leopard-collar version a couple of years ago.

The fabric suggested 1940s or 1950s to me. This Pendleton wool was the color–no, colors–of stone-ground cornmeal, with beautiful variegations of grays or browns.

My trusty 3 in 1 Color Tool suggests that this yellow has been lightened with white and shaded with gray.

My trusty 3 in 1 Color Tool suggests that this yellow has been lightened with white and shaded with gray.

The tag read “Extra Small.” The fit was nearly perfect on me–a rare occurrence.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2954 (307x460)

I love a big collar–and this one could be worn a couple of ways: wider and flatter,GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2918 (312x460) or higher and closer to the face. Interesting.GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2891 (303x460)

Christine liked this intriguing Pendleton jacket on me, too. Still, I wanted another opinion, and I knew where to find it: at the Heathman Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk away. That’s where most of Jack’s fellow Peace Corps members and their wives were staying for our biannual reunion.

I told Christine I’d be back shortly with my friend Rosa to make a final decision. At the hotel, I managed to snag not one but three judges–Rosa, Dora, and Kathryn–who eagerly returned with me to see the shop and the mystery jacket.

Even though I modeled the jacket for my review community over a summery white t-shirt and seersucker pants, the vote was a unanimous and enthusiastic YES. Okay, so there was a little extra room in the shoulders; I could live with that, we agreed.

The inside is perfect. This seems never to have been worn.

The inside is perfect. This seems never to have been worn.

Back home, I pondered what garments I could pair with this jacket to create outfits. Tops, skirts and pants should be simple, I thought, to support this jacket in its starring role.

I scooped up some hats, gloves, and an alligator bag and made the two-minute journey to my sister’s photo studio, where I experimented in front of the camera.

First, with a beret in a hard-to-pin-down mushroom brown color that went with the shading in the fabric:

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2959 (207x460)

The sleeves are longer than three-quarters length, but short enough to call for longer gloves. I wouldn’t mind laying in a supply of long vintage gloves. It’s interesting to me that although the collar points down, I perceive the collar as bringing the eye up, which is a big plus. I can’t explain why, but the shape and color of the beret look right to me as part of this ensemble.

Next, a kind of Loden green felt hat, maybe a cousin of a Homburg. (I bought this Eric Javits hat in 1990, I think.)

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2970 (244x460)

Carrying my pretend purse. I will never make a living as a mime.

The color of the hat is nice with the jacket, but the shape is not. There’s no relationship with the jacket.

How about with this burgundy rabbit-felt hat by Ignatius Creegan? I love this hat.

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2977 (270x460)

There’s my purse! Much better!

The combo is promising and worth pursuing. I see burgundy gloves in my future.

Next up: a Harris tweed hat I bought at a vintage stall in East London on a chilly, drizzly Sunday a few years ago. Quite the workhorse, this hat, keeping me warm, dry and moderately fashionable through several winters.

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2986 (238x460)I think this is a nice combination.

That I could wear a plain neutral beret; a luxurious, plush, rich-colored felt cloche; or a rough-textured plaid tweed fedora with this style and color of jacket was quite exciting.

Lastly, I tried a whimsical beret in an eye-popping orange-red.

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_2999 (339x460)

Both items had plenty of personality but seemed willing to work together.

A jacket that can deliver on whimsicality, practicality, and beauty, too? That’s something worth celebrating!

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_3000 (299x460)

Whee!

GTS-Pendleton-jacket_3002 (300x460)

And with this silliness, this photo shoot is now concluded.

After spending decades in storage, it’s time this jacket started doing its job in the world, don’t you think?  I certainly do.

Thanks to Cynthia DeGrand for studio photography.

Class: Tailoring Details with Kenneth D. King

Readers,

That humming sound you hear is coming from my head, which is still spinning from spending last weekend at Janie’s Sewing Corner in Cleveland, Ohio.

Students gather around Kenneth for a closer look.

Students gather around Kenneth for a closer look.

That’s where I joined 31 fellow sewers to see Threads magazine contributing editor, adjunct professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and self-described “couturier to the stars” Kenneth D. King demonstrate tailoring and couture techniques for about 11 packed hours spread over two days.

The class description on Janie’s website read, “Kenneth will teach a workshop on tailoring details, focusing on old-school techniques the first day and more modern techniques the second day.”

Actually, Kenneth led off on Day 1 with his “new school” tailoring innovations–not that it mattered, since nearly all of us had signed up for both days.

I had e-mailed Kenneth earlier in the week:

Hello Kenneth,
I thought I would drop you a line to say how much I look forward to meeting you Saturday and Sunday at Janie’s Sewing Corner.

I also wanted to tell you that I bought Smart Tailoring the day it was announced on the Taunton website, and made a jacket following your “old school” methods. I was going to follow up with a “new school” jacket, but remained confused about the collar-lapel pattern adaptation, so I will learn from you this weekend and then produce a “new school” jacket—the first of many, I think.

I documented the process of making my jacket using Smart Tailoring on my blog, Getting Things Sewn. In this post, http://gettingthingssewn.com/tailoring-with-kenneth-king/ I explain why I took on this project.

Sewing is not easy for me, but I’m capable of good work, especially with expert help. I look forward to getting my questions answered this weekend!

Thank you, Kenneth,
Paula DeGrand

Minutes later Kenneth replied:

Hello, Paula,

Be sure to bring your pattern, and I’ll show how to adapt the under collar to the body for everyone else to learn….
See you this weekend!
Kenneth

Yippee!

So in class I was prepared when Kenneth asked me to retrieve the pattern pieces for the under collar and front of the pattern I was trying to adapt for a “new school” jacket. He pinned the front to his flip chart, and then pinned on the under collar at the notch on the neckline. He pinned the collar to the chart at a second point, showing a gap between the two pattern pieces.

I was watching intently and scribbling notes at the same time and didn’t even think to take a picture. Here are my notes, in their entirety:IMG_9636 (460x192)Okay: “gap…curve…take out there…add back here…make a muslin…my jacket does have a peaked lapel…this adaptation does work for peaked lapels…” I have fragments here, but not a clear picture.

I don’t write fast enough, and I barely grasp patternmaking principles, which are both big impediments in a fast-paced sewing class.

In short,  it is still a mystery to me how to combine the under collar and the front into a single pattern piece to simplify making a notched collar. How to “finesse some of that gap” remains beyond my grasp. I doubt a photo of the flip chart would have provided the solution to my puzzlement. I needed one-on-one instruction, and that wasn’t going to happen with 31 classmates that day.

The undercollar and front are a single piece, removing a seam and therefore bulk. Notice--no seamline between undercollar and front. The line of stitching is holding the stay tape along the roll line.

See this? No seamline between the undercollar and the front, which means one fewer pesky, bulky seam to deal with. This is the result I want to achieve with my own jacket pattern pieces.

When I do adapt my pattern at last, I’ll post a step-by-step process. Promise!

(See my previous three posts to read about attempting to adapt my pattern.)

On both days Kenneth taught at a steady, swift pace, frequently checking our faces for comprehension. One time I must have been staring back blankly, because he asked again if I was following him, and I said “I’ll have to practice to lock in the knowledge.” It was an honest answer, and it seemed to satisfy him.

When I looked at my notes I was astonished at all the ground Kenneth covered. For example:

  • How to make a muslin framework to suspend canvas inside a jacket front, providing support but avoiding bulky seams
  • How to tape a roll line and machine-stitch it in place through the canvas and fashion fabric

    The stay tape is stitched in place through the canvas and fashion fabric along the roll line.

    The stay tape is stitched in place through the canvas and fashion fabric along the roll line.

  • How to steam, press, and baste in the turn of cloth in a lapel
  • How to stitch a notched collar with a minimum of bulk, avoiding the usual “train wreck” of seams meeting in one place

    A notched collar "new school" style.

    A notched collar “new school” style.

  • How to make mitered cuffs
  • How to make a “hidden pocket” in a jacket front lining
  • How to remove bulk from a pocket flap pattern piece by cleverly relocating the seams
    The "origami" pocket flap means no bulk at the edges because the seam allowances have been shifted out of sight. This is the back.

    The “origami” pocket flap means no bulk at the edges because the seam allowances have been shifted out of sight. This is the back.

    This is the front of the flap. The edges are free of bulk.

    This is the front of the flap. The edges are free of bulk.

  • How to make a bulk-free seams and welt pockets in nonravelly materials like felt or leather
    Sketching a pocket for nonravelly materials like felt and leather.

    Sketching a pocket for nonravelly materials like felt and leather.

    The pocket in felt. Nice.

    The pocket in felt. Nice.

    The pocket bag of the felt pocket.

    The pocket bag of the felt pocket.

  • When a three-piece sleeve is better than a two-piece
  • How to draft a notched lapel from a shawl lapel
  • How to reason out the proportions of a garment in a fashion illustration or photograph from knowing the average neck-to-shoulder seam measurement and knowing that the elbow bends at the natural waist.
  • How to make a surgeon’s style jacket cuff with working buttonholes
    Surgeon's cuff, with working buttonholes.

    Surgeon’s cuff, with working buttonholes.

    The surgeon's cuff, neatly finished inside.

    The surgeon’s cuff, neatly finished inside.

  • How to make bound buttonholes and welt pockets of consistent dimensions and quality

    Kenneth  demonstrated bound buttonholes and neatly finishing the facing. That's silk organza.

    Kenneth demonstrated bound buttonholes and neatly finishing the facing. That’s silk organza.

  • How to smoothly install an invisible zipper
  • How to make fell stitches, tailor bastes, and pad stitches
  • How to stay curves even before cutting out the pattern piece
  • Why cut some seam allowances 1 inch wide and how to press out the ripples along the edges
  • How to make a Hong Kong finish the couture way

Both days Kenneth produced samples from scratch or finished ones he’d started and then passed them around for us to scrutinize and photograph.

Kenneth King demonstrated sewing a notched collar, "new school" style.

Kenneth King demonstrated sewing a notched collar, “new school” style.

What a nice looking felt collar.

What a nice looking felt collar.

He brought several jackets, familiar to users of his DVDs, books, and Threads articles, that we could look at inside and out.

The "new school" jacket that appears in the Smart Tailoring DVD.

The “new school” jacket that appears in the Smart Tailoring DVD.

His tool bag lay open on the table. It was fun to see the tools he had amassed or created over the years and how he used them.

Kenneth King's tool bag.

Kenneth King’s tool bag.

I’d never heard of a Florian pinker. “Pinking shears tend to chew some fabrics,” Kenneth said, as many of us nodded in agreement. When I saw how neatly this gadget trimmed edges, I wanted one for myself.

The Florian pinker

The Florian pinker

IMG_9604 (460x273)

“I’m all about having the right tool for the job,” Kenneth told us, and sometimes that means adapting a tool to improve it. He did not hesitate or apologize when removing a spring mechanism from a zipper foot, pronouncing it useless, and dropping it with a “plunk!” into the wastebasket.

We got more advice on equipment, tools, and supplies:

  • Don’t use a Teflon ironing board cover, which repels moisture rather than allowing steam to move through a garment
  • Collect and use good pieces of pressing equipment–tailors’ hams, a point presser, a clapper, sleeve rolls, a sleeve board
  • Get a really good iron. (Kenneth has a Reliable i600, which has amazing steam–and runs up an equally amazing electric bill.)
  • Have at least one pair of Gingher tailors’ scissors, and ship them back to Gingher to be sharpened.
  • A vacuum table? “Not really. Good for a dry cleaner. Too much for me.”
  • Use a trimmed shaving brush to remove chalk markings.
  • Iron thread for hand sewing, and it won’t twist
  • “Don’t cheap out on needles.”

Then there was the quotable Kenneth:

  • “I wasn’t formally trained except for patternmaking.”
  • “Know the rules.”
  • “Know when to break the rules.”
  • “I’m not wild about wearable art.” In couture, the wearer is more important than the garment; with wearable art the garment is more important than the wearer, he said.
  • “I believe in spending the time you need to get a beautiful result.”
  • “I’m lazy–I don’t want to do any more than I have to.”
  • “You need to put your time in where it shows.”
  • I’m very much about repeatable and reliable.”
  • “I’m known for handouts at FIT.” (And at Janie’s, too: We all got to take home a CD of Kenneth’s ten handouts for the classes.)

    Drafting a notched-collar jacket from a shawl collar pattern. Kenneth makes it look easy.

    Drafting a notched-collar jacket from a shawl collar pattern. Kenneth makes it look easy.

  • “When it’s all said and done, if it gives you a good result, it’s correct.”
  • “There’s this whole thing on directional sewing…” Kenneth disagrees: “I have a life…”
  • “A lot of Bemberg lining you can read a newspaper through, and I hate that.”
  • A tedious or time-consuming task is “a nosebleed.”
  • “I tell my students, ‘I started when I was 4; I’m 57–do the math.”
  • Sewing purists who endlessly debate fine points are “clutching their pearls” or “wrapped around the axle.”
  • Quoting Fred Astaire: “If you make the same mistake long enough, they assume it’s your style.”

Miscellaneous facts:

  • Kenneth takes his own photos for his Threads articles.
  • His next DVD in Threads’ “Smart” series will be about sewing fake fur.
  • He loves Fortuny fabric. (Shocking, I know.)
  • He takes a dim view of mimes.

Kenneth’s recommendations:

  • Better Dressmaking by Ruth Wyeth Spears is “one of those good all-around books from the forties.”
  • Check out the great content on Threads Insider, where Kenneth’s beautiful “bark coat” can be seen.
  • Support your local independent fabric store, which can provide supplies and services that the big chains can’t or won’t.
  • If you have a chance to take a class from Lynda Maynard, do it.

It’s been six days now since Tailoring Details with Kenneth King ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I got out of it.

  • I got to meet and listen to a master. I find being around any kind of mastery has a good effect on me.
  • I saw with my own eyes techniques demonstrated with successful results. (I am a little bit skeptical of most sewing directions–and directions in general.) I’m much more likely to try these techniques now.
  • I made, or renewed, the acquaintance of fellow sewers.
  • I bought myself an impressively large sleeve board.IMG_9632 (460x260)

It would be a shame, though, not to invest a little more effort to yield richer, longer-lasting rewards. Like:

  • Researching irons and buying a much better one
  • Making or buying the right ironing board cover
  • Seeing how far I could get following Kenneth’s handouts for his FIT students
  • Trying Kenneth’s bound buttonhole method
  • Trying his “origami” pocket flap, not only to reduce bulk but as a pattern-drafting exercise
  • Using my Threads and Threads Insider subscriptions more, and more strategically

And, most of all,

  • Continuing to amass experience and knowledge making jackets and coats.

Although I brought my “old school” jacket to class to show Kenneth and to ask questions about it, I may have given him a mistaken impression. If I had listed my specific questions in that e-mail earlier in the week, Kenneth probably would have woven those topics into his talk.

My jacket made following Kenneth's "old school" methods still needs a final press.

My jacket made following Kenneth’s “old school” methods still needs a final press.

Instead, my jacket waited in the wings and never got onstage. And when we wrapped up Sunday afternoon and Kenneth had a plane to catch, I thought it would be insensitive as well as untimely to press him for advice about–pressing, among other things.

But you know what? I’ll just look at my jacket again on my own and figure out what to do next.

Thanks, Janie! I'll be back!

Thanks, Janie! I’ll be back!