Tagged: David & Charles

Jul 01

Book review: Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer


Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer

Fabric Manipulation by Ruth Singer published by David & Charles


The subject of Ruth Singer‘s third book, Fabric Manipulation, is something I first encountered twenty years ago on a City & Guilds Soft Furnishings course. We were assigned the task of making a cushion cover using a fabric manipulation technique. And from the tutor’s first mention of the term, I had to giggle. Would we be coercing cloth, getting heavy with hessian, maybe intimidating interlinings?

Fabric manipulation is, of course, nothing to do with Machiavellian behaviour with textiles but about handling 2-D cloth with dexterity, arranging it into folds, tucks etc to achieve (usually) 3-D textural effects. You could call it sculpting with fabric. If you sew, you have fabric-manipulated without necessarily being aware of it: gathering a curtain heading, pleating a skirt, or creating a dart, for example. Fabric manipulation techniques crop up all the time in dressmaking, tailoring, millinery, soft furnishings, upholstery, dollmaking, soft sculpture, embroidery, quilting, and patchwork. And every area of sewing-related activity and design can benefit from further exploration of these dimensional techniques.

Singer’s books are always strong on both the design and the technical sides so I was really looking forward to seeing how she tackled this. And I wasn’t disappointed.  She had quite a hard act to follow. My fabric manipulation bible  for years has been The Art of Manipulating Fabric by Colette Wolff, published in 1996 by Krause. Wolff’s book is astonishingly comprehensive, if a little dry; it literally lacks colour, with all the pictures in black-and-white, and all the techniques worked in plain-vanilla calico. But everything is there. Ruth’s book, by contrast, is colourful, appealing, and much more approachable. The book is divided into three sections:-

  • Pleat & Fold
  • Stitch & Gather
  • Apply & Layer

Each technique is clearly explained with supporting colour drawings and photographs. You can really see what might be achieved with the method she’s showing you. This is particularly useful for the less advanced stitcher. American lattice smocking, for example, looks really sumptuous worked on velvet and not half as interesting in Wolff’s unbleached calico version. English smocking is shown with eye-popping pink stitching on grey linen. And box pleats really come into their own; I learned my box pleats in the traditional context of lined corner pleats on the skirts of loose covers (gah!), but by choosing bias-cut silk organza, Ruth takes them to another place as ethereal sculptural necklace (see below). I love her application for Suffolk puffs: an upcycled lampshade which looks like the puffs just happened to alight there, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull. 

Ruth is a natural tutor and encourages her reader to experiment. Certainly a little magic happens when you start to pleat, fold and gather. And one thing can lead to another. What if I made this bigger? Or cut here? Or made that square instead of round? Or used thicker fabric? Or thinner? Or pinked that edge first? Ruth encourages this process, coaxing the reader to broaden their horizons. Seeing a variety of colours, textures and weights of fabric used in the samples in this book seeds inspiration. There are nine projects included, but these present ideas rather than being fully instructional; they are jumping-off points. I find this refreshing when so many craft books are simply prescriptive and project-based.



Box pleat necklace


Informed by the beautiful textiles and historical methods encountered in her previous day-job as a V&A curator education officer*, Ruth clearly relishes her subject.  She collects antique and vintage examples of dresses, quilts etc and scours old sewing books for ideas. Re-using the old is literally encouraged too as Ruth is an environmentally conscious designer-maker who happily upcycles; one of her previous books, Sew Eco, explored the subject in some detail, and I’d highly recommend both these books to any self-respecting upcycler wanting to up their game. Try making the ripple brooch (shown below) which works wonderfully with felted sweaters. I can’t wait to have a go at the stuffed bobble technique using viscose velvet: the lightweight stuff, often with a little bit of stretch, which crops us as dresses and skirts in charity shops.



Rippled brooch


Fabric Manipulation offers unusual applications and delicious presentation. It will be valuable to anyone wanting to broaden their sewing repertoire, in whatever discipline.  What I’ve always appreciated about Ruth’s approach is that she is not ‘Sewing-lite’. Her offerings are well-written, beautifully illustrated, informed and intelligent. It’s a real irony that a book filled with so many stuffed techniques is so free of fluff and padding; she’s done her homework, alright, hasn’t cut corners, and knows her stuff (and stuffing) inside out. With 150 techniques included in the book, if you tried just one a week it would take you the better part of three years to begin to exhaust the possibilites. That’s real value for money. Please get hold of a copy and explore your manipulative side.


Ruth Singer’s third book, Fabric Manipulation: 150 Creative Sewing Techniques is published by David & Charles, price £19.99. You can obtain a signed copy here direct from the author. A second volume is in the pipeline.

You can meet Ruth in person at the Knitting & Stitching Show in October and the Selvedge Christmas Fair in November


*Sorry, Ruth! My reporting skills are rusty.


Jun 06

My first sewing machine #5: Ginny Farquhar

Ginny Farquhar

Ginny Farquhar, aka Sweet Myrtle

Ginny Farquhar is half of the collaborative sewing team Alice & Ginny. She has co-authored a couple of charming sewing books, Sew Fabulous Fabric (2008) and Home Sweet Sewn (2009), both published by David & Charles. Ginny and Alice, who first met while at secondary school, are both after my own heart, being passionate thrifters, recyclers and textile upcyclers. They also offer sewing workshops (details below). Ginny blogs and tweets as Sweet Myrtle, and it was on Twitter that I first became aware of her. I can’t wait to delve into Ginny’s sewing-machine history, so let’s begin.

Ginny's brooches

Upcycled brooches. See Ginny's shop for details.

Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Ginny. What was its make, model and
colour? Did it have any distinguishing features?

Ginny: Strangely, I remember the actual day in 1984 when I got my very first sewing machine though not the actual choosing or purchasing of it. My mother had driven me into town and with us we had £160 to spend. This amount was the life insurance money that my dad had saved from my birth and which he gave to me when I became 16. I believe my sisters had saved theirs but I decided that I wanted to use it to buy my very own sewing machine as I had been using the family machine up to that point; my grandmother’s classic old hand wheeled Singer.

We stopped at the post office first and I remember being mortified as my mum in her vague Wendy Craig way (remember Butterflies), joined the queue at the front! Sadly I don’t remember anything else about the day other than my teenage embarrassment of my mother!

Peony wreath

Peony wreath, featured in Home Sweet Sewn Photo: Sian Irvine

The machine I chose was a Frister and Rossman Beaver 3. On reflection it was an unattractive creamy colour and it had a brown vinyl dust cover which slipped over it completely except for the small metal spool pin which poked out the top in a rather pleasing fashion. I was as delighted with it. It was pretty sturdy except for the wee table attachment whose saving grave was a one drop down metal leg which created a little more stability and stopped it wobbling.

Scrapiana: Do you still have it?

Ginny: Sadly I no longer have the machine as I passed it on to as friend when I upgraded on my 30th birthday. My friend had been itching to start sewing and I am so pleased that my machine helped her on her journey. Years later she has joined an embroidery group in St Ives and passed the Beaver onto her daughter who used it through her art and fashion studies. I am unsure if it is still going now but delighted that it has been in continual use since 1984.

Scrapiana: How lovely to have helped two stitchers with one cast-off machine! Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?

GinnyI cannot remember being taught to sew prior to secondary school needlework lessons, though I probably picked up a lot from my elder sisters whilst making clothes for our Pippa dolls and creating costumes from clothes and fabrics in our dressing up box. I took O-level ‘Dress’ at school so learned good sewing and dressmaking skills there. The teacher was strict and the approach was traditional and formal, but it was taught well and I am extremely grateful to her (can’t remember her name now) as it was a very good grounding in the subject.


Handmade ochre necklace: paper, wool felt & bead

Scrapiana: Pippa dolls! Happy memories! I still have my bungled attempts at making clothes for my Pippa: fiddly work as she was so small. What’s your earliest memory of using your first machine? What did you make? Do you still have any of your early creations?

Ginny: When I first got the Beaver it was in my final year of school so I must have used it to complete my O-level Dress pieces; a brown wool skirt and a very attractive (note the sarcasm) peachy asymmetrical blouse. I also used it to make a dress for my school  leavers do, which by today’s prom standard was nothing but a simple dress, although I do remember attaching the bodice to the skirt late in the evening at the dining room table, only to discover the next morning that I had attached the skirt with the seams on the outside!

At college I was into tie-dyeing sheets and whizzing them up into wrap skirts. I also used it to stitch detail onto paper fish for a mermaid costume I made whilst on my art foundation course. Thinking about it this machine had such heavy usage through its life with me as during my costume course and freelance costume making days it must have stitched through many different fabrics and created many costumes; the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe  for the D’Oyly Carte Opera company to a rubber condom costume for a female comedians sketch show in the 90’s.  I have also just realised that part of my wedding dress was stitched on the Beaver!

More flower brooches

More flower brooches

Scrapiana: Do you regret parting with it?

GinnyI sometimes feel it would have been nice to have kept the machine and been able to pass it on to my daughters though I am happy that  my friend and her daughter have made great use of it and I do believe that a machine is never happy stuck away in a loft!

Scrapiana: Very wise.What machine did you get next? And can you run us through your subsequent machines and their merits?

Sew Fabulous Fabric

Sew Fabulous Fabric

GinnyMy 30th birthday present, partially paid for by my husband, was my current machine, a Pfaff Tipmatic 6122. I especially like it as it has an integral walking foot, is of solid construction and it has stretch stitch options which at time of purchase was a real selling point as during this period I was making a lot of  lycra dance costumes. It has also become my workhorse these past 13 years firstly used for costumes and then for making products for the retail market from recycled and vintage fabrics for the small business called folkydokee handmade that I ran with Alice Butcher for 7 years.  All the projects that were created for our two subsequent craft books, ‘Sew fabulous Fabric’ and ‘Home Sweet Sewn‘ were sewn on either the Pfaff or Alice’s fantastic ‘vintage’ Bernina. I still use the Pfaff and my most recent sewn project is a kimono style top.

Ginny's Pfaff Tipmatic 6122: no pfaffing about with this baby

Scrapiana:  What machine(s) do you have now?

Ginny: In addition to the Pfaff, I own the following machines; a wonderful ‘vintage’ Bernina Minimatic (in a classic red case), inherited from my mother in-law, a domestic Bernina Bernette overlocker, which I have recently dusted off to complete a viscose jersey hem for a friend and a very inexpensive  Singer which has been useful for teaching purposes. My youngest daughter has a half sized Janome in her room and my mother has just passed on her modern basic Singer to us too.

Bernina Minimatic in its classic red case

I also have an industrial Bernina 950, which Alice and I bought when we had our joint studio space and were creating for folkydokee’ and exhibiting at Country Living and House & Garden fairs.  We purchased it from a local guy who dealt in industrials and also hired them out for films. He told us that it had been hired out and used on one of the early Harry Potter films, and this may have been true as it does seem to have a mind of its own! It gets little use these days but they is something comforting about having it, probably as it reminds me of my early working in days in theatre costume departments.

Bernina Bernette overlocker

Scrapiana: What an impressive array! Do you have your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if money were no object?

Ginny: I would be interested to try one of the all-singing, all-dancing modern stitch regulator embroidery machines. Also one which would enable me to design my own embroideries would be good. Having said that though, I do still love the honesty of a basic traditional machine, well made, solid and with great tension.

Small apron, photo by Sian Irvine

Small apron, featured in Home Sweet Sewn Photo: Sian Irvine

Scrapiana:  And finally, are you more likely to *give* your sewing machine a name or *call* it a name? – i.e. curse at it? My machines are named after deceased family matriarchs!

Ginny: I do not name my machines though I do feel it is essential to stroke them from time to time, so that they feel loved and will ultimately behave well for me.

Scrapiana: Thank you for your patience  in answering all these questions, Ginny. We’ve travelled with you all the way from the fairy queen to Harry Potter, so I can honestly say that it’s been magical!

Ginny's Sylko shot - typical of her beautiful photographic eye

Vintage stitch: an example of Ginny's photography

If you’d like the look of Ginny’s brooches and necklaces, do take a moment to look at the tempting selection available to buy on the Sweet Myrtle site. You can also view galleries of her other work there, including her beautiful and rather ethereal photographs.

You can book Ginny (and Alice too) for family, community and adult courses, workshops and demonstrations. One of their most popular, Kick Start to Sewing, happily focuses on using and getting to know your sewing machine and is really useful both for newbies and those wishing to refresh their skills. If you’re within striking distance of Surrey/Hampshire, here are Alice & Ginny’s upcoming workshop dates:-

West End Centre Aldershot – 01252 33004 www.westendcentre.co.uk

Forever Young Sock Puppets Sat 18th June 10.30 – 12.30 £4/ person – family fun workshop

Textile fun Fri 12 August 10.30 – 4.30 ages  8 – 16yrs £25  – a day exploring decorative textile techniques

Farnham Maltings – 01252 745444 www.farnhammaltings.com

Learn to love your sewing machine Sat 11th June  10am – 4pm £45 – a sewing day for beginner sewers

Introduction to dressmaking patterns Sat 9th July 10am – 1pm £20 – a morning introduction to dressmaking

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