Tagged: dressmaking

Oct 16

Red Dress – 1946



1940s jumper dress pattern c/o seller BessyAndMaive on Etsy


My mother was making me a dress. All through the month of November I would come home from school and find her in the kitchen, surrounded by cut-up velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern. She worked at an old treadle machine pushed up against the window to get the light, and also to let her look out, past the stubble fields and bare vegetable garden, to see who went by on the road. There was seldom anybody to see.

The red velvet material was hard to work with, it pulled and the style my mother had chosen was not easy either. She was not really a good sewer. She liked to make things; that is different. Whenever she could she tried to skip basting and pressing and she took no pride in the finer points of tailoring, the finishing of buttonholes and the overcasting of seams as, for instance, my aunt and grandmother did. Unlike them she started off with an inspiration, a brave and dazzling idea; from that moment on, her pleasure ran downhill.

 from Red Dress–1946 by Alice Munro


Red Dress–1946 comes from Alice Munro‘s first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades published in 1968. By chance, I was already reading this before the announcement last week that Munro had won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature; I had no idea that she was even tipped, but she’s a delightful choice.

Munro was an author my mother enjoyed; they were contemporaries, growing up in very similar North American cultural spaces, and some of the stories in this collection centre on girls in small towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading Munro seems to bring my mother (rather long gone now) back into reassuring proximity.

This story is one of my favourites, not just because it features sewing (informed by some understanding of the process) but for the way it reveals character so economically through it. It also nails how mortification and extreme fear of social embarrassment are the air an adolescent breathes. If you want to read some Munro – and like sewing – I’d recommend that you head straight for this delicious little volume.

The 1940s jumper pattern from which the image comes is available to buy over to BessyAndMaive‘s Etsy shop.




Oct 01

Jacqmar calling




The distinctive Jacqmar mark


When this vibrant blouse was brought to the M Shed’s World War 2 day last Saturday, it created a frisson of excitement. Apparently upcycled from a Jacqmar propaganda scarf by the owner’s mother (a primary school teacher in London during the war), the blouse is an eye-popping reminder for us too young to have experienced the war IRL that it wasn’t lived in black-and-white.



Economic cutting


The 1942 line drawing by Jacqmar’s company designer Arnold Lever contains a selection of  topical references. Here’s much more about it and them c/o Meg Andrews, a specialist in antique costume and textiles.



Back view


The blouse is threadbare here and there, but still very bright and beautiful. It’s noticeable that the green binding is much finer and more flexible than the run-of-the-mill stiff stuff on offer to us nowadays. And it’s still doing the job, though a little worn here and there. The red buttons are not original to the WW2 item.



Binding finish


I’m a little puzzled by this piece. Jacqmar propaganda scarves were expensive items when new, so turning one into a blouse would have been a very bold project, in more ways than one. Admittedly, in this form it would have been wearable for a young teacher during her working day, whereas a head-scarf would not. But have I made a false assumption that this was made from a headscarf? It looked to me as if the pieces could just come (if carefully cut) from the square yard of fabric provided by a scarf. But did Jacqmar produce garments too? Or was the fabric ever sold by the metre? My hunch is that this was a homemade item; look at the stitching visible beyond the binding – not a professional finish. And the fact that contrast binding was used, not self, would indicate a paucity of fabric which as being negotiated with the greatest care, so the upcycled scarf theory still holds water. 



The odd hole here and there…


I bet this made a real impact on pupils when the young teacher wore it. Do you know of someone who made items from bright scarves during the war? Maybe you’ve inherited a Jacqmar propaganda scarf? Or another item of clothing made by Jacqmar? Perhaps you recognise the vintage blouse pattern this was cut from? If you have any insight at all to offer, I’d be delighted if you’d share it with me below. And if you happen to be in Bristol and have a story about World War 2, or an artefact you’d be willing to loan for an exhibition next year, do get in touch with the M Shed. Thanks.

PS Since writing this post I’ve discovered that famed scarf producer Jacqmar did indeed turn out fabrics. In fact, they were doing this before they began to make scarves: the scarves being, ironically, a thrifty way to use up precious silk scraps. There’s a nice story about Arnold Lever’s patriotic fabric over here, used to create a VE party dress.



Mar 28

Slow Art Day

Anyone fancy soaking up some costume artistry? Gazing long and lovingly at some historic fashion, in particular? I’ve volunteered to co-ordinate a small group of enthusiasts to visit the Fashion Museum here in Bath for a great little initiative called Slow Art Day on the morning of Saturday 16th April.


1760s court dress in the Bath Fashion Museum

Founder of the event, Phil Terry, set out to break the common cycle of exhibition overload, whereby an average visitor (spending an average 8 seconds looking at an average exhibit) emerges from a museum tired not inspired. By slowing things down, he reasoned, one can learn the secret understood by experts, curators, artists and educators everywhere: that looking slowly can transform your experience.

Well, I’ve spoken to the publicist at the Fashion Museum, and she’s keen on the concept. All I need to find is a few costume/needlework/dressmaking/sewing/clothes-wearing enthusiasts to pad out a little group. All welcome! You don’t need any expertise at all, just an interest. We’ll be looking at a handful of items (5-10) over a couple of hours, allocating 5-10 minutes per item, hence the ‘slow’ tag. We don’t need to go around in a group; in fact, it makes sense not to as we’d clog the museum. But we’ll gather somewhere close by afterward (probably the nice cafe within the museum) for a light lunch and to compare notes on what we’ve seen. Hopefully, we’ll all emerge with new insights.

The downside, if there is one, is that we all pay for our own entry tickets and lunch (now you see why the publicist was keen!). But the big upside is a gathering of like minds and the glorious sense of confounding our hurly-burly culture for a couple of hours.

Looking at the Slow Art Day site, I note that this may be the only Slow Art event happening in the UK. What began in New York in April 2009 with just 4 people staring hard at items in the MoMA appears to be growing into a global phenomenon. It seems perfectly fitting – given the laid-back, leisurely reputation of Bath – that we should spearhead this initiative here and show the UK how to decelerate effectively to a dawdle. If you’re reading this from somewhere else in the UK (or indeed the world) and can’t or won’t get to Bath, please consider hosting your own Slow Art Day event. It’s really very simple to do.

If you feel inclined to drag your feet with me at the Fashion Museum, do get in touch by leaving a comment below, emailing me (eirlysATscrapianaDOTcom) or just sign up direct here. You’d be very welcome to suggest items for the group’s scrutiny, otherwise I’ll scour the museum’s collection and send out a little list the week before. Hope to see you on 16th!

Photo by kind permission of Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and the Fashion Museum, Bath & NE Somerset Council

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