More Than What Meets the Eye


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.


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?


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

I could always write a standard review.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Mint green may be my new favorite color!

London Miscellany

IMG_9062 (460x171)Readers,

To round off my recent series of London posts, a roundup of news items and observations:

  • I loved The Imperial War Museum’s show “Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style.”
    My souvenir from "Fashion on the Ration:" smart style in London, spring 1941

    My souvenir from “Fashion on the Ration:” smart style in London, spring 1941

    If you’ve wanted to see ingenious examples of making do and mending in Britain during World War II, this is the show for you. Frustratingly, photography was forbidden; otherwise I would have taken dozens of pictures and posted them here.IMG_9067 (460x345) The hour I spent in the show flew by. The companion book is described here.

  • May 31 I went to the Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair.IMG_9073 (258x460) I’d been to this show before; in 2012 I saw at least two vendors with large vintage button selections. This time I didn’t see a single button. Not one! Compare with the Hammersmith Vintage Fashion Fair I attended in January 2014, where I found loads of buttons and bought quite a few. (Well, it’s time I made proper homes for the buttons I have now, anyway.)
  • A couple of the shops I included in my Threads magazine article “Sewing Destination: London, England” (June-July 2012) have experienced changes. Cloth House used to have two addresses on Berwick Street: 47 and 98. The Number 98 location, which had wonderful wools and a big selection of knits, closed in May.
    IMG_8797 (460x345)

    Some buttons at Cloth House that I considered for my 1941 tweed jacket…

    I wondered how all of Number 98’s inventory could possibly fit into Number 47’s space. The answer seems to be that it didn’t.

    ...and some more. I passed them up--but what a wealth of choices!

    …and some more. I passed them up–but what a wealth of choices! Also–a nifty way to store buttons!

    I hope those gorgeous wools reappear someday.

  • The other shop that’s changed is MacCulloch & Wallis, which moved this year from cramped quarters on Dering Street to two spacious floors at 25-26 Poland Street, just one street over from Berwick.
MacCulloch & Wallis, now on Poland Street in Soho.

MacCulloch & Wallis, now on Poland Street in Soho.

MacCulloch & Wallis carries lots of notions. (Just look at its online store to get an idea.) I asked about basting thread for my upcoming tailoring project, and bought two spools of what Gutermann calls “tacking” thread. Is there a difference? IMG_9064 (376x460)

  • If the travel posters in my post about the Fashion and Textile Museum’s “Riviera Style” show interest you,IMG_9070 (345x460) you can see them, and more, here.
  • And if you are in the neighborhood of the Fashion and Textile Museum July 16, you might want to attend a talk and book signing by the Jane Butchart, author of Nautical Chic, “tracing the relationship between maritime dress and the fashionable wardrobe, uncovering stories, tracking the trends, and tracing the evolution of the style back to its roots in our seafaring past.” IMG_9074 (345x460)
  • I visited The Vintage Showroom in Covent Garden. I was very taken by the book Vintage Menswear: A Collection From The Vintage Showroom when it was published in 2012, and ever since wanted to see the store, which was interesting. I thought of The Vintage Showroom when Jack and I visited Cambridge University’s Polar Museum and saw clothing like this:IMG_8739 (208x460)
  •  Another place that was on my list to visit was Pentreath & Hall, in Bloomsbury, a tiny, exquisitely curated shop started by architect and interior designer Ben Pentreath. I got to the shop only minutes before closing, but had time enough to drink in the atmosphere and pick up a couple of promotional postcards as souvenirs.IMG_9071 (460x322)What I most coveted were the silk-covered lampshades, priced at more than £300 apiece.  Perhaps their maker would consent to create a Craftsy class for those of us inspired to make our own? If only.
  • More in my price range was this tote bag recreating Edward Bawden’s delightful cover illustration for John Metcalf’s book London A to Z. I found it in the Victoria & Albert Museum store for £8.50. IMG_9060 (280x460)The illustration appears on both sides of the bag. Would it work to take the bag apart and use the pieces as fronts for a pair of pillows? It’s worth a try.

Field Trip: “Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900,” Fashion and Textile Museum, London


I am no swimmer.  Growing up, I never advanced beyond the shallow end of the pool. As an adult I summoned the courage–twice!–to take beginner swimming classes but chickened out after the first session both times.

She looks so relaxed on this diving board far above the crowd--and yet it looks like she's dipping her toes in the water.

She looks so relaxed on this diving board far above the crowd–and yet it looks like she’s dipping her toes in the water.

So when I saw that what would be showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum during my recent stay in London would be a century’s worth of swimsuits and resort wear, I can’t say I was very excited. I wouldn’t be going in order  to pick up ideas for sewing a vintage swimsuit and resort wear wardrobe for myself, that was for sure.IMG_8801 (460x376)

But the reason I had steeled myself to try learning to swim was because swimming always looked so natural and fun in a way that other healthful social activities–say, jogging–never could.

And the settings for swimming, whether or not you actually take a dip, can be so glamorous and evocative.IMG_8806 (345x460) A lot of swimwear probably never has been in a pool or the sea. Its main purpose, like all fashion, I suppose, has been to create certain feelings and associations in its wearers and their observers–feelings and associations that have exerted a powerful pull even on a swimming-averse person like me. IMG_8807 (345x460)

Plodding the length of the Portobello Road market in a pouring rain to visit some favorite button vendors (for naught, it turned out) one recent Friday morning decided me to escape overcast and chilly London for the sun and warmth of Riviera Style that afternoon.IMG_8811 (460x354)The exhibit begins by immersing the viewer in the carefree worlds conjured up by travel posters dating from between the wars and the 1950s. Then the swimwear and resort wear are arranged chronologically.

The first section, “Bathing Beauties,” covers 1895 to 1919.IMG_8803 (460x356)

We’ve all seen quaint swimming costumes in still pictures or silent films, but to see them up close was even more  interesting. I wondered,

  • Was this unattractively clingy when wet?IMG_8818 (211x460)
  • This must have been scratchy!

    Wool. Imagine!

    Wool. Imagine!

  • What did they wear underneath? A corset?

    IMG_8816 (297x460)

    This beats even my junior high school gymsuit for unflattering lines.

This is in such great condition. Was it ever used for its intended purpose?IMG_8804 (203x460)This last outfit had such nice details I took some closeups. IMG_8812 (367x460)IMG_8805 (345x460)Minus the bloomers, this looks like a nice dress–although, on second thought at the time it would have been indecent to wear in public.

No, even for strolling on the beach, the proper family circa 1910 would be decked out like this:

Think of the ironing!

Think of the ironing!

If you did venture into the water you might protect your voluminous hairstyle with this rubber swim cap, dated 1900-1920. IMG_8820 (345x460)Next followed “Cling, Bag, Stretch” covering 1920 to 1939. The lights were low and I couldn’t get so close to the clothes, unfortunately. IMG_8826 (460x345)From the brochure for the show, I learned, “Up until the 1930s men were required by law to cover their torsos, but swimsuits with cut-out sections (for men and women) tested the boundaries.” Now I understand this style suit for men.

IMG_8855 (460x363)

IMG_8856 (460x439)

Who would have worn a swimsuit with a motif like this? Someone with a sense of humor, I’m guessing.

As sunbathing grew in popularity among the wealthy in the 1920s, I learned, so did sunglasses.

As sunbathing grew in popularity among the wealthy in the 1920s, I learned, so did sunglasses.

IMG_8859 (315x460)

The wide-legged white linen trousers are from the 1930s, and the outfit emulates Coco Chanel. Not practical, but chic.

In the next section, “Mould & Control,”covering 1940 to 1959, I began recognizing colors and styles I grew up around. IMG_8828 (460x368)Bright colors, happy, naive prints:IMG_8829 (327x460)

My sisters and I grew up with dresses in patterns and colors like this.

The colors and patterns are comfortingly familiar to me.

Swimsuits that look matronly or dowdy today were nevertheless exciting to buy, and possibly wear, in postwar America and Britain.IMG_8827 (460x298) With advances in fabrics suits were getting lighter and were holding their shape better.

This suit bears the logo of the Festival of Britain from 1951.

This suit bears the logo of the Festival of Britain from 1951.

IMG_8841 (388x460)IMG_8837 (311x460)

One consequence of better fitting and performing swimsuits was–swimsuit contests. I had never made the connection before.IMG_8842 (460x316)

A souvenir from your vacation might be a scarf with a resort motif:IMG_8830 (460x421)IMG_8831 (460x375)The next section of the show, entitled “Body Beautiful,” covered 1960 to 1989. IMG_8845 (460x366)I neglected to take a picture of the display as a whole, probably because the only novelties for me were the swimming caps, which reminded me of the one I tried on during my visit to The Alley Vintage and Costume back in March. IMG_8846 (460x323)IMG_8848 (460x403)By now, suffering from swimwear fatigue I gave only a passing glance to the last section of the show, “Second Skin: 1990 Onwards.” IMG_8850 (460x306)“Riviera Style” tells a story of advances in fabrics that stretch and recover beautifully, hold and shape the figure, and even increase speed. These advances responded to–and spurred–new desires, needs, changes, and opportunities in society.

Train travel, air travel, ocean liners, wealthy people’s pastimes, seaside resorts,  government-mandated vacations, movies, television, nylon, lastex, elastane, the Olympics–and much more–have played a bigger role in the existence and looks of swimwear than I had ever imagined before.

But did the show inspire me to give swimming lessons another try?

Come on in--the water's fine!

Come on in–the water’s fine!

‘Fraid not. I’m staying safely poolside.

IMG_8810 (295x460)

“Riviera Style: Resort & Swimwear Since 1900” is showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum through August 30, 2015.

Taylors Buttons, London


When I did the research while living in London for two months in 2011 for my article “Sewing Destination: London, England,” (Threads magazine, June-July 2012), I tried to be as comprehensive as possible. There was no ready-made master list of suppliers, markets, events, tours, and museum and library collections of interest to sewers and fashion lovers to work from. Using my experience as a reference librarian, I just did my best to compile my own list.ThreadsLondon

When I put the finishing touches on my manuscript for Threads I hoped to high heaven I hadn’t made some glaring omission.

On subsequent trips to London in 2012 and 2014 I felt fairly confident that I hadn’t left out any source that was really important. Then last week I visited Taylors Buttons.IMG_9033 (345x460)

How I missed learning about Taylors Buttons diligently searching online and on foot I’ll never know–its website proclaims “Established over 100 Years.” It was only when I was taking the Savile Row tailoring class last year that I heard about it, from our teacher, who also told us about  Kenton Trimmings.

Press the button to sound the buzzer.

Press the button to sound the buzzer.

As you know, I have an affinity for button shops–the older and dustier the selections, the better–so when I browsed the Taylors Buttons “Shop Images” I knew I had to see this place for myself.

Open sesame!

Open sesame!

Last Monday, then, after leaving Kenton Trimmings I made my way to 22 Cleveland Street, London W1.IMG_9034 (460x331)

Even though I had bought buttons for my 1941 McCall “mannish jacket” in Salzburg, I was curious to know whether the proprietor, Maureen Rose, might have another intriguing choice, so I brought a swatch of my green and blue tweed.

The window display hardly prepares the visitor for what lies within.

The window display hardly prepares the visitor for what lies within.

I have now consulted enough button counter staff to distinguish two styles of button-matching: the swift and exuberant hash-slinging approach and the slow and pensive meditative approach. Both are good.IMG_9021 (460x345)

The button saleslady in Salzburg was a hash-slinger, briskly laying out button matches for my consideration like a short-order cook plating eggs and sausage for a famished breakfast crowd.IMG_9020 (460x345)

By contrast, Maureen pulled buttons like a rare book seller retrieving volumes from high, dusty shelves for my perusal. I would place the buttons on my swatch and then we would scrutinize the combination together as if contemplating the merits of a painting slated for auction.IMG_9019 (460x345)

If I hesitated and said, almost apologetically, “It’s just not…right,” Maureen nodded in agreement and reapplied herself to the task. The right color but wrong size. The right size but wrong finish. All in a day’s work for a purveyor of buttons.

Carded buttons, loose buttons.

Carded buttons, loose buttons.

“How long will you be in town? I could dye buttons to match your fabric.” She told me how many days it would take to complete the order. I would have already flown back to the States. I was afraid to ask about the costs of dyeing plus shipping, too.

Dyeable buttons.

Dyeable buttons.

More dyeable buttons

More dyeable buttons.

At last Maureen said “Well, I’m stumped.” Yet she was not ready to concede defeat. She had a new idea. She walked to a corner where she unearthed another box containing some variegated bluish-green buttons, 36s, the perfect size  for my jacket front.IMG_9018 (460x310)

They also turned out to be a perfect complement to my blue-green tweed. We both knew it. We paused to admire the match.



The boxes read "Buckles bits & bobs", "Funky Buckles."  I think these are dyeable. Wonderful!

The boxes read “Buckles bits & bobs”, “Funky Buckles.” I think these are dyeable. Wonderful!

The problem was, this style came in only the one size. I had wanted a smaller size for the sleeves. I had always seen smaller buttons on sleeve vents and assumed that was a rule. I pondered slip-stitching my sleeve vents closed and foregoing buttons on them altogether.

However, Maureen said that Savile Row tailors who have been her customers have used the same size buttons on sleeves as well as fronts.

“If Savile Row tailors do it, then I can, too,” I declared, and picked out three buttons for the front, one for each sleeve, and two extras.

I especially liked these red buttons--and the oval black ones are great, too.

I especially liked these red buttons–and the oval black ones are great, too.

In the course of our conversation Maureen mentioned that the buttons very likely dated from the 1940s.  “That’s interesting,” I said. “The pattern I used for my jacket is from 1941, and I’m pretty sure my fabric is vintage, too–from the ’50s, if not earlier.”  That the buttons seemed so natural on the tweed was perhaps not such a great coincidence after all.

The building Taylors Buttons is in has a historical designation.

The building Taylors Buttons is in has a historical designation.

As I continued to browse the Taylors Buttons trove Maureen returned to filling an order for covered buttons using a device that might have been a century old. Interrupting her work to take a couple of phone calls, she hung up and commented on fashion designers’ typically short deadlines. “They always want it done yesterday,” she said, matter of factly.

Maureen Rose covers buttons to order using a a sturdy old device. Wish I had one like this!

Maureen Rose covers buttons to order using a a sturdy old device. Wish I had one like this!

When I asked if I could take some pictures to show readers this wonderful place (this is always hard for me to do because I feel I am imposing on people and being presumptuous), Maureen readily agreed. In its quiet way Taylors Buttons is a legendary place. It has been written about before–even though I did manage to miss all the press when I researched my “Sewing Destination” article.

At last I am correcting my glaring omission. Taylors Buttons is a sewing destination of the first rank. It’s one of those places I want to see not only once but many, many times.

On a high shelf, these beauties. 1930s? '40s?

On a high shelf, these beauties. 1930s? ’40s?

Kenton Trimmings, London


Ever since I took the Savile Row tailoring class at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London last year I wanted to check out a tailors’ supplier our teacher, Victoria Townsend, recommended. Frustratingly, I caught a bad cold after the class ended. The two days I had hoped to roam the city were spent in the flat sniffling and feeling sorry for myself.

“Oh well,” I said to myself, “I’ll visit Kenton Trimmings next time.”

“Next time” turned out to be this past Monday, when Jack and I were in London finishing up our Germany-England trip. After a coffee and pain au chocolat breakfast at the Paul bakery on Gloucester Road we went our separate ways: Jack, by train to Battle; and me, by Tube to 5 Mozart Street, postcode W10.

Fueled for the morning's excursion: coffee and a pain au chocolat.

Fueling the morning’s excursion: coffee and a pain au chocolat.

The neighborhood surrounding Queen’s Park station was new to me, so it was no surprise that even using my trusty London AZ I got turned around a couple of times .

Would I run into a burning building to save my London streetfinder? I just might.

Would I run into a burning building to save my London streetfinder? I just might.

At last I was on course to my destination. Clutching the AZ I strode down the street with the eagerness of a foxhound that has locked onto a scent.

From Queen's Park station to Mozart Street I got lost for a few minutes, but no matter.

From Queen’s Park station to Mozart Street I got lost for a few minutes, but no matter.

Maybe it was my yellow raincoat and spiffy new purple scarf, or maybe it was my look of determination that attracted the attention of a woman walking in my direction.

As she came within earshot, she shyly said to me, “You look great.” “Thank you!” I said, surprised and a little confused at this rare instance of English effusiveness.

“You remind me of a family member,” she said.

“I hope it’s a happy memory,” I answered. “It is,” she said, and walked away with a little smile.

Whether I reminded her of dotty Great Aunt Edna or the family’s beloved border collie I’ll never know. I left off pondering that question when I arrived at Mozart Street a couple of minutes later.IMG_9017 (460x345)

What I saw was not a commercial street so much as a residential street where a handful of businesses had set up shop. If Victoria hadn’t mentioned Kenton Trimmings, I never would have discovered this place on my own.IMG_9015 (460x345)But the fact that this shop served the tailoring elite was all I needed to know to put this place on my “must see” list.

Mozart Street appears to have mainly houses and flats.

Mozart Street appears to have mainly houses and flats.

I’d brought a swatch of tweed from my Smart Tailoring jacket project in case I found buttons to rival the ones I’d bought in Salzburg.  But buttons are not the main reason, I concluded, I would schlep to Mozart Street.IMG_9009 (460x345)IMG_9010 (345x460)

Kenton Trimmings, LondonNo, the main reason would be the tailoring canvases.

These canvases are destined for some of the finest tailored suits in the world.

These canvases are destined for some of the finest tailored suits in the world.

If only I could have been sure which ones I needed to achieve the right degree of crispness or body for a particular fabric and pattern, I would have stocked up. A curious thing has happened since I did my first Smart Tailoring jacket project: I’m now interested in the supporting roles canvases play, almost as much as the fabric that gets all the attention in the finished garment.

So here I was, in the midst of a sizable array of jacket underpinnings, and all I could do was voice my admiration to Glyn West, who owns the shop along with his sister, and ask about mail order.

Glyn West of Kenton Trimmings

Glyn West of Kenton Trimmings

He cut me a couple of generous-sized samples of popular choices to take home. One was EC3 body canvas, which is  medium weight and pliable.

IMG_9046 (460x419)Another sample was of IL3, a crisp canvas with 40 percent horsehair. I tried crushing it with one hand, and it recovered nicely.IMG_9045 (345x460)

For good measure Mr. West tossed in a curved trouser zipper, the likes of which I’d never seen before.

Have you ever heard of a curved zipper? I hadn't.

Have you ever heard of a curved zipper? I hadn’t.

And when I described trying to use a tailor’s thimble that was too big for me, he brought out this adjustable Japanese version for my consideration. IMG_9040 (345x460)IMG_9041 (345x460)IMG_9042 (460x371)I had never seen a thimble like this. What a clever idea!

For two pounds I had a little souvenir of Kenton Trimmings. It will tide me over till my next visit, when I plan to lay in a goodly supply of canvases.

After all, those jackets and coats I dream of making deserve the very best, don’t they?

Kenton Trimmings: worth a special trip.

Kenton Trimmings: worth a special trip.