Tagged: Ruth Singer

Apr 14

How I gave up clothing



Six Items Challenge

My Six Items Challenge


A really big thank-you to all who sponsored me to give up most of my wardrobe for the Six Items Challenge, a ‘fashion fast’ for Lent. You raised a rather wonderful £114.31 for Labour Behind the Label, an organisation working hard to highlight the perils of fast fashion. So thank you. Over on my Instagram feed I’ve posted a few rather monotonous pictures charting what I wore: @Scrapianagram. If you thought about sponsoring me but didn’t get around to it, there’s still time.  And it’s for a tremendous cause. Here’s the link.


What is fast fashion?

The Six Items Challenge is an annual event organised by Labour Behind the Label to highlight the problem of ‘fast fashion‘. And what a problem it is. Our increasing reliance on cheap clothing makes it almost a disposable commodity – we can afford to wear this stuff once and pitch it, not even bothering to to give it a wash. One of the hidden impacts of such cheap clothing is the meagre earnings of many garment workers worldwide, living on so little (£1.50 a day isn’t unusual) that they don’t have sufficient money even to eat properly, let alone clothe themselves – oh, the irony. Organisations such as Labour Behind the Label help garment workers worldwide gain fair conditions and a living wage.


Why did I take on this fashion fast?

Well, it was the least I could do, really. Coping with a pared-down wardrobe from Ash Wednesday till Easter isn’t a major deprivation. It wasn’t as if I was committing to working a 100-hour week. Or earning £1.50 a day. Or starving. I hoped to challenge myself, and to help raise a little awareness, maybe.


How did I feel about this before I began?

Honestly? As a relatively pampered Westerner, I was quite daunted by the prospect of limiting my wardrobe to just six essential pieces, excluding underwear, accessories, sleepwear, performance sportswear etc. It seemed so restrictive. I anticipated feeling hemmed in. I expected to find it difficult, to fantasise about what else I might be wearing. I thought I’d miss my jeans. I imagined I’d run into personal hygiene problems. Yes, the prospect didn’t exactly fill me with joyful anticipation. Who on earth enjoys giving anything up anyway? We all want more, right? Why am I even doing this with problems of my own? Charity begins at home and all that. That’s pretty much how I felt.


So, what was it actually like?

Well, the 6 weeks were full of surprises.

( Read more )


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.


May 14

My first sewing machine #4: Abby Harris

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

Abby Harris of Bubs Bears

I’m delighted to be able to present the story of Abby Harris‘s first sewing machine, another interview in my continuing series. Do check out my previously posted interviews with Ruth Singer and Julia Laing.

I met Abby when we were both running stalls at the It’s Darling! Spring Fair here in Bath. She was selling her lovingly hand-crafted Bubs Bears, which are often upcycled or contain vintage elements (such as some lovely buttons which she bought from yours truly). Leaving a small ecological footprint is clearly important to her. Abby also makes bespoke keepsake teddies, crafted from a customer’s personally significant textiles, such as baby clothes, wedding dress, or the garments of a lost loved-one. Some are patchworked from several special garments. She creates lots of other charming items including peg bags, lavender hearts, bags, cushions, button pins, magnets, hair clips and cards. Abby blogs, can be found on Facebook here and sells on Folksy.

More of Abby's makingsSome of Abby’s charming makings
Recycled sweater bear

Upcycled sweater bear

ScrapianaTell me about your first sewing machine, Abby. Can you remember its make, model and colour?

Abby: My first sewing machine was a Toyota, I don’t remember the model but it was a fairly basic one.

Abby's first sewing machine

Abby's first sewing machine: a Toyota

Scrapiana: Was it gifted or borrowed?

Abby: It was a joint birthday present for my 21st (I think) birthday from my then boyfriend and my parents.

Scrapiana: Nice gift! Do you still have it? If you got rid of it, where did it go?

Abby: I do still have my first machine as I only stopped using it last year after 15 years. At the moment it is on loan to my mother-in-law as hers is broken, but soon I hope to get it back so my eldest daughter can use it as she is showing a keen interest in sewing.

Scrapiana: How lovely that your daughter will be able to use it too! So, what’s your earliest memory of sewing? What did you make, and who taught you?

Abby: I remember doing a bit of sewing at school. I think we made and printed our own t-shirts; mine had yellow footprints on it. Other than that I learned mostly from watching my mum. She studied fashion at college and used to make all our clothes, as well as doing dressmaking and alterations for other people.

Scrapiana: At that time it was quite unusual to have your mother making all your clothes. I imagine she made a great sewing teacher, then. What was your first big sewing project?

Funky floral bear

Abby: My first big project was a dress for my daughter to wear to a wedding. It was a real challenge as it was a silky fabric and had two layers. But it fit her, and she got lots of compliments. I’ve never tried making another though!

Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or particularly badly?

Abby: It was terrible at keeping the correct tension, and kept jamming the fabric up under the foot. In hindsight I should have had it serviced regularly – when it finally got so bad last year that I had to take it in to be looked at, they gave me a good telling off when I admitted it hadn’t even been oiled in 15 years! While it was being serviced they loaned me an old Bernina. When I saw it my first thoughts were “oh my God, I am not going to be able to do my work on that!” It was ancient and I thought it would be awful. But I soon learned that it was the quietest smoothest machine I had ever used. I didn’t want to take it back!

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Abby's borrowed Bernina

Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if  money were no object?

Abby: I bought my new machine last year. My local shop gave me a great discount due to it being the old colour; the new machine with the new colour was about £200 more! It’s a Husqvarna Sapphire 850 and I love it! It has many functions which I’m still yet to learn how to use, but the fact that all I have to do is move my foot up and down and it almost does the rest for me is wonderful.It’s not a beautiful machine to look at, so if I could morph it with a pretty old black antique machine then I’d never want anything different!

Abby's new Husqvarna

Abby's beloved Husqvarna

Scrapiana: I have a strange confession, Abby, which is that I give each of my sewing machines a name (Josephine, Winifred etc), making them almost animate to me. Have you given any of your machines a name? And would you ever speak to your machine? – to encourage or to upbraid it, for example?

Abby: I haven’t named my machine. No, I don’t really speak to my machine. I might declare my love for it… though only when no-one else could hear me!

Scrapiana: Ah, just as I feared… it’s only me, then. Abby, thanks so much for taking the time to answer all my questions! It’s been lovely to hear the sewing-machine journey behind Bub’s Bears. Your business certainly has its heart (lavender-stuffed, of course) in the right place.

Stack of hearts, mid-construction

Stack of hearts await lavender stuffing


Jan 23

My first sewing machine #2: Ruth Singer

I had such a good time writing up my first sewing machine experiences that I felt emboldened to ask some of the sewsters* I most admire to join me and reminisce about theirs. This should become a regular feature here on the Scrapiana blog. First up is, I’m delighted to say, Ruth Singer.

Ruth is a textiles designer and maker, and the author of a couple of sewing books (full details below) plus quite a few projects within other craft books and publications, including this one. A former museum curator (one-time medievalist at the V&A), Ruth’s historical costume interest is revealed by her choice of blog title: Mantua Maker. She now teaches workshops for all ages on everything from beginner’s sewing to advanced fabric manipulation, as well as taking commissions for one-off installations such as the African-inspired headdress pictured towards the end of this post. Do consult Ruth’s website for further details. I should just preface all by saying that Ruth is not related to the Singers of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which is a pity as that would have made a fine story. OK, take it away, Ruth!

Ruth Singer with trusty Husky {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

Most of my teenage sewing was done under the guidance of my step-mum. My dad’s partner was (and still is) a champion dressmaker who taught me dressmaking as a 12-year-old, and I soon graduated to a borrowed family Singer machine [below] on which I did most of my outlandish clothes construction. Once I had got the hang of the basics, I went straight to sewing patterns and whipped up some truly awful garments, gradually moving on to some rather nicer and more flattering things – but still with a few awful things thrown in. With me, it’s the actual clothes that stick in my mind more than the sewing of them. The machine hasn’t been used for years, but is lovingly oiled and cared for, and now back in my possession on long-term loan. I did love it’s little carry box and the test piece of fabric which has probably been with the machine for 40+ years.

singer 221K - 1

My step-mum's Singer {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

The little machine was a real workhorse, small but sturdy. I remember having it set up on my bedroom desk, which was really a large shelf attached to the wall with brackets – fine for writing but not ideal for a sewing machine as it bounced up and down a lot. When I could get away with it, I used the dining table which was much more suitable, although the lighting in that room was not set up for sewing. At least I had young eyes, I suppose. Cutting out was done on my bedroom floor, usually with the ‘assistance’ of at least one cat. Our big cat liked to lie on the fabrics as I was cutting, usually with his tail just where I needed to snip, and he would steal the tape measure.

singer 221K - 2

Small but sturdy {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

I got my own machine after my auntie died when I was 17, so it is tinged with sadness as well as excitement. It was a Singer, probably from the ’70s or early ’80s, and not one repair shop could ever find out anything about it – the model was very obscure and no manual could ever be obtained. A curiosity indeed.  It was a totally utilitarian beige plastic type, not awfully memorable, I have to say. But it worked, reasonably well. I used it for seven or eight years, making masses of clothes. I took it to university with me which caused consternation among my peers. Making your own clothes was seriously eccentric then.

I kept the Singer until I bought a fancier one with the aim of (eventually) becoming a professional stitcher (the machine preceeded the change of career by several years). I made masses of things with that machine, not least many medieval living history costumes, until I moved onto hand stitching for authenticity. So that machine saw miles of heavy wool and fine linen, as well as the fancier things I stitched for parties from hand-painted silk and velvet.  I have almost none of my teenage sewing, mostly because I lost or gained weight and cleared out my wardrobe regularly, disposing of the handmade as well as some amazing vintage stuff I wish I had kept (Horrockses dresses, anyone? I had dozens).

I finally gave that Singer away 10 years or so ago, once I had the new one – as moving house every year with two machines was getting a bit silly. I actually can’t remember who had it. My memory says it was my friend Robin who later moved back to New Zealand. I doubt it went with her, but I am sure it went to a good home and is probably still being used today.

I now have a Husqvarna Viking Lily which I bought second-hand from my local craft shop. It was a huge investment at the time, but I do love it. I’ve got a few others, used more for work, but this Husky is all I really need. It’s not pretty, it’s not fancy but it works really well, and hardly ever breaks down. Here’s a quick run-through of the features I love. Adjustable presser foot pressure, allowing easy sewing of thick & thin fabrics. Movable needle which makes zips super easy. I also like the machine blanket or overcast stitch a lot (good for dressmaking) and the 3-step zigzag and stretch stitch settings. I don’t use many of the decorative stitches but it does a satin stitch which I like to use sometimes, and the blind hemming stitch is WONDERFUL. I’m a big fan of feet too – blind hemming foot, rolled hem foot both good, I use the clear foot all the time instead of the solid metal, which makes life so much easier. The Teflon foot is great for leather. I wish I had a walking foot for this one, but I have one for the Berninas instead, which may have to change. I also like the foot with a gap underneath to enable top stitching. I’ve got a ruffler foot which I used a lot when ruffles were a key feature in my designs. There are so many amazingly useful feet; once you start to explore it’s like a whole new world of sewing excitement!

I also have an industrial Bernina which I don’t actually use any more. If I had the space I might because it goes like the clappers and whizzes through miles of straight seams in moments. Maybe that’s my dream machine – a domestic size but that goes fast! And maybe looks like an old black and gold Singer but works like a modern one. I think the key differences I noticed when I upgraded was the silence – the old one was noisy, so my dream machine would be stylish, fast and have a quiet motor.

Ruth's workshop Bernina

My workshop Bernina {Photo Credit: Ruth Singer}

I’m very fond of the old Bernina I use for teaching. It came originally from a London college, but I got it third-hand from an ex-colleague. It’s battered and basic but tough. I like that it is solid metal, like the little one I used as a teenager – not just the solidity but also the curves. Plastic ones are never so attractive.

The last sewing machine in my collection is Little Betty. She featured in my book Sew Eco, though in a purely decorative way. I bought her for 50p in a junk shop, just as a prop, and must admit that I haven’t actually tried sewing on her.

little betty sewing machine - 5.jpg

Little Betty {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

Thank you, Ruth! That’s been a wonderfully comprehensive tour of your sewing-machine experiences. Before I forget, Ruth’s books deserve a particular mention.

Sew It Up, published by Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2008

I have and really love  Sew It Up (published by Kyle Cathie) which can be purchased here. The fabric manipulation and Ruth’s sense of colour really hooked me. I could tell that Ruth really knew what she was talking about too; this wasn’t just a lot of pretty pictures which told you little as a crafter. Far from it. The book was given a different cover and title in the US ( The Sewing Bible ) and can be bought here. Ruth also has another book out, Sew Eco (published by A&C Black in 2010), which focuses more directly on sustainable approaches to sewing.

Sew Eco, published by A&C Black, 2010

Late last year I asked Ruth to be my first guinea-pig for My First Sewing Machine, and was thrilled when she agreed. I was even more excited when she said she could probably dig out her first machine from the family attic and take a photo. A few weeks later, when Ruth showed me a picture of the little 1967 celery-white featherweight 221k Singer, I almost fell off my chair. I was delighted to discover that it was one of my absolute favourite sewing machines of all time, and amused that Ruth hadn’t twigged the significance of the model: the 221ks have almost cult status. They are particularly prized by patchwork-quilters because of their reliable straight stitch and their petite size and minimal weight (cast aluminium) – all perfect qualities for toting along to quilting groups. And the celery-white ones are especially sought after over in the US where they are harder to find (they were all produced in Scotland). What a cool first machine!

It just so happens that Ruth is selling her industrial Bernina machine. If you’d like to check out details, zoom over to her blog now. You’ll have to arrange collection, probably by robust vehicle or van, and it will require two strong people to lift it.

Some of Ruth’s most recent work (including the machine-stitched head-dress shown below) can be seen now at the Figures of Africa exhibition showing at Pickford’s House, Derby – until 13 February 2011.


Headstrong at Pickford's House, Derby {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

If you still have your first sewing machine to hand, do feel free to post a picture of it over on the My First Sewing Machine group page on Flickr.

[*sewster is a long obsolete late medieval Scottish word for a seamstress. If you happen to write limericks, it carries the added charm of rhyming with  ‘boaster’, ‘coaster’ ‘poster’ ‘roaster’ and ‘toaster’ – or even ‘Towcester’. I’ve adopted it in preference to the written ‘sewer’ which can so easily be confused for the liquid waste conduit.]

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