Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


#MakeNine2019 – Starfish swimsuit: Model #15 from La Mia Boutique June 2018

It has taken me a long time to get around to making this one. The swimsuit fabric emerged out of the stash no less than three times in the last year in readiness for this project and then somehow I chickened out at the last minute and made something else.

Swimsuit makes are regarded as a zenith in terms of home sewing and I was a little intimidated by the whole idea of this project. Had I bought the right materials? Could I get a good fit? Was my choice of pattern too ambitious? I was inspired and brought to my senses by two bloggers – Elaine at The Demented Fairy and Charlotte at English Girl at Home, who both made new swimsuits this year. I knew I just had to get on with it!

The pattern

I looked at the offerings from various indie companies and from the Big 4, but I didn’t find a swimming costume that really spoke to me. I appreciate that there is a market for conservative swimsuits, but I seem always drawn to costumes that are a little more daring. Perhaps it’s because much of my beach time has been spent in Italy, where beachwear fashions always trump moderation. That said, I needed a design that was not going to suddenly part company with my body with embarrassing consequences; it had to work for swimming, and keeping up with Master Steely on the beach.

My June 2018 copy of La Mia Boutique, and Italian magazine, offered a few different swimsuit options and I opted for this one. Quite practical, and should stay on well. The only question mark was the degree of derriere on show on the model. So I tweaked my pattern to include a little more coverage in that department.

La Mia Boutique June 18 Costume15

La Mia Boutique Swimsuit

The Fabric, lining and elastic

The fabric was picked up from Fabric Land and was labelled as “swim lycra”. It’s thicker than the dance wear fabrics that were on offer. Last year, Fabric Land stocked a few specifically labelled “swim lycras”, but they didn’t come back in this year, and I wished I’d picked up more when they’d been around. The lining and swim elastic came from Fit 2 Sew. I opted for the beige-coloured swim lining.

I decided to fully line the swimsuit. The swim lycra was relatively opaque, but I thought that lining throughout would produce a good finish.

Starfish Swimsuit

The Construction

The instructions in La Mia Boutique aren’t much better than your average Burda magazine and were somewhat confusing. They are in Italian, but even with my knowledge of the language there was some guesswork involved. Who knew that the Italian word “cavallo” could mean so many things; horse (obviously), knight (in a game of chess) but also crotch, astride, across etc? Anyway, I did decide to sew all my seams with the lingerie-style “fold-over and top-stitch” method apart from the side seams. I used green polyester tread for the needle, and woolly nylon for the bobbin thread. The side seam was sewn using the overlocker threaded with woolly nylon. I was amazed when I finally managed to thread the overlocker with the help of a needle threader – it took ages!

I did have some problems with skipped stitches on my sewing machine, but overcame those by sewing through tissue paper. I did hear belatedly that there are “super-stretch” machine needles. Are these what I need? Would like eliminate the skipped stitches?

Starfish Swimsuit

Anyway, I suppose you’re ready now for the dreaded pictures, as I show off my granny knees and the disgraceful state of my garden….. It’s also cold!

Starfish swimsuit - front view

Starfish swimsuit – front view

I’m afraid that I was in such a rush to get these photos over and done with that I forgot to securely tie the neck-tie on the swimsuit. It has resulted in some “side-boob” going on that you may see. Normally, the front is pulled up a bit more than this so this doesn’t happen. I noticed this as I came back in the house and wasn’t going out there for a repeat. No way!

Starfish swimsuit - front view

Starfish swimsuit – front view

Starfish swimsuit - close-up

Starfish swimsuit – close-up with accidental side-boob


Starfish Swimsuit from the back

Starfish Swimsuit from the back (and you can see I was in such a hurry to get this over and done with that I didn’t do the neck tie up properly!)


I have road-tested the swimsuit at the swimming pool, whilst scuba diving and it was comfortable and stayed in place well. Actually, I didn’t even notice it at all, but then I was concentrating hard on my buoyancy (or lack of it) at the time!

I would also thoroughly recommend the pattern I chose. If you are looking for a stylish swimsuit La Mia Boutique is a good place to look and it is possible to get back issues of the magazine (from Edicola Amica or La Mia Boutique). They always have a few swimming costumes in the their June edition.


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Bath Fashion Museum 2019: Collection Stories and Little and Large

I recently visited the Bath Fashion Museum for what is now turning out to be my annual appointment. Each year the musuem launches a new exhibition and of course there is the main section of the Museum featuring the “History of Fashion through 100 Objects”. This year the Collection Stories exhibit focuses on their collection of nineteenth century clothing and accessories. Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition.

Seventeenth century gloves

Seventeenth century gloves

Hats and Bonnets

The collection displays straw poke bonnets from the mid-nineteenth century. When they were worn the bonnets were tied with silk ribbons and there were often colourful silk trimmings added to the crown or the rim.

The poke bonnet came into fashion at the beginning of the 19th century. With its wide, rounded front brim which typically juts out beyond the wearer’s face, it complemented the fashionable hairstyles of the day where hair was worn up at the back with loops or ringlets at the sides. The name may refer to the way the brim “pokes” out or may be a reference to how the wearer’s hair can be contained within the bonnet.


Straw bonnet, 1840s

Straw bonnet, 1840s

The most desirable straw came from Tuscany. In fact, this article claims that there are still fifteen Florentine companies manufacturing straw hats to this day. In these hats each braid is plaited into the next so that the fabric of the bonnet appears continuous.

However, towards the end of the 18th century the French Revolution slowed imports, so most of the straw hats were manufacture in Britain. The initial plaiting of the straw was carried out as a cottage industry. The plaited braids were then sewn together. The hats were made up by milliners in cities and towns.

Some of the hats on display had the original label still visible. One of them showed that the hat was made by “Mrs Prout’s Straw and Tuscan Establishment, Totnes”. Just thought I’d add that labels in clothes, by contrast, were not seen until the 1870s

Lace and Whitework

In the early 19th century, collars and cuffs were separate items of dress. They would have been carefully tacked onto dresses and then removed when the dress was washed. The 1820s and 30s saw a fashion for large collars almost like small capes.

The collar below on the right features whitework, rather than lace. The white embroidery on white fabric was quicker to produce than lace and therefore not as costly; it was used almost as a lace substitute in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lace collars

On the right, triple layered cream embroidered net pelerine collar with pendant squared ends, about 1827

Wedding Dresses

This dress made for the wedding of Emily Poor on June 30th 1900 and it was made by a New York dressmaker, O’Donovan. It came to the Museum complete with matching accessories and many items of the bride’s trousseau, including underclothes and nightwear. The dress is made of silk satin, with a separate bodice. There is a high collar and cuffs made from needle lace.

Wedding Dress, 1900

Wedding Dress, 1900


Bride's trousseau, 1900

Bride’s trousseau, 1900

Little and Large

This section of the display featured fashion dolls, also called “poupée de la mode” or moppets from the eighteenth century. These were dolls that replicated the fashions of the time, allowing the buying to view a particular outfit before it was made up into a full-sized dress.

I found a good description of their use in The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson, which I read recently:

I have been assured that these moppets are wearing the very latest in London fashion. I am having both of these copied for you by an excellent dressmaker here in Williamsburg, and I will bring the finished product to you in the spring. It is my heart’s desire to see you wear them in Philadelphia. I am hopeful that you approve of the fabric and colour selection.”

The moppets were wooden dolls with painted faces, and their human hair was done up in elaborate curls. Their dresses were of a gossamer fabric: one was an empire style in blue, the body and train trimmed in elegant silver embroidery; the other, similar in style was a pale cream trimmed with white embroidery and ivory ribbons.”

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

Wax was a popular material in Britain for making dolls in the mid to late 19th century. Many makers were from Italian families who had settled in Britain and adapted the tradition for creating figures for the “presepe” (nativity scenes). The clothes the dolls were dressed in, were often made in Paris.

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashionable accessories completed the look: the doll below in plum coloured satin came with earrings and pearl necklace, ribbons in her hair, shoes that perfectly matched her dress and all the layers of underwear that helped to form the fashionable outline.

Good quality dolls of this type with realistic body shapes designed to show off the latest fashions were popular from the 1860s to the 1880s. They would have been expensive to buy. The various parts – including the porcelain head, arms and legs and kid leather body were often made in Germany and assembled by French doll makers such as Jumeau or Gaultier.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

When the doll was given to the Musuem in 1968, she was so precious and fragile that she travelled in a box and was met by Museum staff from Bath Spa train station.

More "mauve measles"

More “mauve measles”


Plums and purples were a very popular colour in the 1860s – 70s. The first synthetic purple dyestuff, was discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin. William made his discovery whilst experimenting in a makeshift home laboratory. He named his product Mauveine. It was made from aniline, an oily liquid found in coal tar. Unlike previous natural dyes, the new aniline dye was colour fast and could be produced in industrial quantities. It was a huge commercial success and became so popular that the craze for purple was called “the mauve measles” by Punch magazine:

One of the first symptoms by which the malady declares itself consists in the eruption of  a measly rash of ribbons, about the head and neck of the person who has caught it“ [1]

Men’s Hats and Waistcoats

During the 19th century, men who were members of the aristocracy, the armed forces or the Cabinet could attend the royal court by invitation, either to be presented themselves to the king or queen or to attend the presentations of wives and daughters.

There was a strict dress code for such occasions. Men attending court wore either their military uniform or a court suit. This included a coat with tails, waistcoat, knee breeches, cream silk stockings, lace cuffs, cravat, a bicorn hat and a sword.

The dress code was based on eighteenth century fashions and had remained unchanged for during most of the 19th century. Precise descriptions of the dress code were published by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. [2]

The waistcoat below was part of such an ensemble. It is embroidered with flowers and leaves and has points at the front as stipulated by the codes of formal court dress.

Court Dress Waistcoat

Court Dress Waistcoat

[1] “The Mauve Measles”, Punch, Saturday, August 20, 1851, p. 81

[2] Dress and Insignia worn at His Majesty’s Court, 1921

70s sweatshirt

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Vintage pattern, modern vibe: McCalls 5975

This strange vintage 70s pattern has been on my to-do list for a long time. The pattern is one of a small-ish collection from McCalls called “Annie Too”, which came out in the late seventies. The “Annie” refers to Orphan Annie from the broadway musical and later the film, released in 1982. The patterns are marketed as “Fun clothes for a grown-up Annie”, and although the idea of dressing as a ten-year-old doesn’t immediately fill me with excitement, the patterns are a good range of casual clothes. The envelope illustrations feature some remarkably long-legged figures with strange rosy-cheeked complexions.

McCalls 5975 pattern

McCalls 5975

The McCalls 5975 sweatshirt comes in three different versions; version A long-sleeved with a hood, version B long-sleeved with a cowl collar and version C elbow-length sleeves with a crew neck. I decided to make a mash-up of versions B and C with the cowl collar, elbow-length sleeves and draw-string waist. The fabric was a mint marl sweatshirt fabric that came from Like Sew Amazing about six months ago.

I bought some cotton drawstring cord off the internet. I didn’t see anything that would match my sweatshirt, so I went for a contrasting navy blue.

70s sweatshirt

The sizing wasn’t quite what I expected for the pattern. It is labelled as “small”, but came up surprisingly large on me and I did quite a bit of shaving seams, both on my traced paper pattern and then, once I could try it on, to get the fit I wanted.

The top came together surprisingly easily and the pattern instructions were very good. I top-stitched all the seams with a long, straight stitch, with polyester thread on top and wooly nylon underneath. The fabric, being sweatshirting, isn’t particularly stretchy so I think this top-stitching should hold up fine.

70s sweatshirt up close

70s sweatshirt up close

I’m looking forward to wearing this for yoga more than anything else. I’ve been wearing hooded tops for yoga and let’s face it, they just don’t work – really annoying when you’re doing down-face dog. Plus, I think the shorter sleeves should work well too, no fabric to flop around.

70s sweatshirt

70s sweatshirt

We had a warm weekend when I first tried this on and so I wasn’t really feeling in the mood for a cosy sweatshirt with an enormous cowl collar. Consequently, my initial reaction to the collar was that it is way too big, but I don’t want my first impression to persuade me to make any rash changes to the neckline. I may decide in the winter months, that such a collar is just what I need! I do think it looks better when I fold it down more, though. Here I’ve worn it both ways for comparison:

70s sweatshirt

Wearing the collar in slightly different ways

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I never thought I’d be mending and recycling…….a wetsuit

For a little while Master Steely has been training to dive. He goes off each week to his pool diving session, either powering up and down the pool with his fins and snorkel or underwater seemingly sitting on the bottom of the pool. I just look from the viewing balcony so I don’t really know what he gets up to. Of course, I soon realised that diving is one of those expensive hobbies and there is such a lot of gear you need to buy (or at least hire).

A few months ago, we bought a second-hand wet suit. It was good quality, but it was a bit of a mess with holes in the knees, so the shop threw in another suit (also badly damaged) too. Well, here was a mending challenge!

Black wetsuit

Here’s what I did: I took the blue / red suit and chopped off the lower legs. I shaped a couple of knee patches from this and fixed them to the black suit using a combination of Black Witch glue, sewing and swearing.

Mended black wetsuit

Mended black wetsuit

The inner seams on the blue suit had all come open. I sewed these up on the inside and the outside.

Mended blue wetsuit

Mended blue wetsuit

We now have a completely functioning black suit for Master Steely and I have a good short-legged wetsuit. You do see people wearing this type of suit for swimming. We’ve used them both and I am really pleased with my “shortie”. It is amazing how much warmth this added protection on top of my swimsuit gives me. I have even been into the sea in January wearing this; admittedly I only swam for about 5 minutes! It does make a large portion of chips and a flask of soup taste amazing afterwards!

Marine Lake

Marine Lake at Clevedon

Anyway, all this got me thinking about the sustainability of wetsuits and the fabrics that are used to make them.

Traditionally, wetsuits are made of neoprene. Neoprene was invented by DuPont scientists in 1930. It is a synthetic rubber that are produced by polymerization of chloroprene. It is a very pliable and has good insulating properties.

It is also relatively inert and in addition to its use in water sports clothing, it is used for corrosion-resistant coatings, as a base for adhesives and as the weather stripping for fire doors. It is even used to line landfills.

A few weeks ago, I read this article in The Guardian. Apparently, there are an estimated 380 tonnes of wetsuit waste dumped every year. It seems ironic that a hobby that engages with the ocean environment is at the same time driving the manufacture and the dumping of such un-environmentally friendly waste.

It seems though that change is on the way. There are a few eco-wetsuits on the market. Patagonia and Finisterre manufacture their wetsuits from Yulex, a natural rubber from the guayule shrub. Picture make their wetsuits from eicoprene, a non petroleum-based synthetic foam made from limestone and recycled tyres.

However, a closed circle where a wetsuit is fully recycled once it has reached the end of it life to become a new wetsuit is still some way off. A single suit can use up to 15 different types of neoprene and/or rubber composites. Plus it simply isn’t possible to melt down and re-process the fabric to make new material. The quality of the material produced would be low. A whole new approach is needed to allow for the recycling of entire suits.

I was also happy to find that Finisterre are launching a wetsuit ‘buy back scheme’ this autumn, where old suits can be traded in to be recycled. Good news when I may need to buy another suit for a growing teen.


Colour-blocking experiment: Papercut Palisade Shorts:

I’ve been getting overwhelmed lately with lef-over fabric from previous projects. Of course, there is never enough left-over for a complete new make, but always too much to be wasted. I had two small amounts of medium-weight cotton-linen blend, which were both blue. I thought they made a good combination for a pair of shorts. I bought the Palisade pants from the Papercut Geo collection, when it first came out. I think there are some great designs in this collection, but until now this is the first one that I have tried. The design  has an elasticaed waist and interesting pockets; they cross-over on the side panel to form two deep pockets.

Papercut Palisade Pants

Papercut Palisade Pants


I did worry about the thickness of the my fabric choice for these pockets so, I decided to convert the unseen bits of the pocket to use cotton lawn instead. This makes everything on the side-seams less bulky.

The insides of my pockets

The insides of my pockets

It was quite odd sewing these shorts as I seemed to spend a huge amount of time on the pockets and then the rest of the make, after that, came together very quickly. The waistband was a breeze to sew. The instructions suggest sewing the elastic into one side of the waistband and then you can try on the shorts, and adjust if necessary before sewing the other side of the waistband. The next step is to stitch in the ditch to encase the elastic. The waistband patern piece is also generous in width, making these steps quite easy. Finally, I added some top-stitching on the waistband, to stop the elastic twisting. I also think that this finish looks better too. I rememeber the almighty hassle I had sewing the Ruri sweatpants last year – sewing the waistband was a horror I don’t want to repeat. When I make another pair of those I will certainly make sure to use the method I used here with that pattern.

Waistband and pockets on Palisade shorts

Waistband and pockets on Palisade shorts

I very much enjoyed making these shorts – it was jsut satisfying how it all came together so easily. The pattern has plenty of notches in it, so lining up all the pieces to form those iconic pockets worked a treat.

I’m not so sure about the faux fly. I added it, but I think I may omit it in a future make and then there is my colour-blocking. I think I would have preferred to make the waistband entirely in the nay blue, but I didn’t have enough of this. To me, it looks like I’ve overdone the colour-blocking, I would have preferred a simpler look.

Finally, I will have to get used to wearing shorts. I haven’t worn a pair o shorts since I was a teenager as they aren’t an item of clothing I gravitate towards, but these are comfortable and will be good for the beach. Even if they don’t get used much I will still have tried out this pattern and will feel confident to go ahead with a full-length version. Plus I’ve ued up some odd pieces of fabric.

Palsiade Shorts - back view

Palsiade Shorts – back view


The fit could do with a little adjustment. I would like to take a couple of centimetres off the rise, but other than that they seem good. I would thoroughly recommend this pattern – well-drafted with good instructions, and a cool design. What more could I ask for? Even the elastic measurements in the pattern instructions were spot on.

Palisade SHorts - Front view with untucked t-shirt

Palisade Shorts – Front view with untucked t-shirt – hiding the waistband, which I’m not sure about!

Shorts – t-shirt ttucked in


#MakeNine: A serendipitous find

I was just debating with myself (as you do) about what to make next from the #MakeNine list of makes. I feel a bit stuck. The makes I’ve got left have one difficulty or another:

Swimsuit – never made one before

Knitted jumper – still too hot for knitting

Lander trousers – should be sticking to the stash and haven’t got any fabric for this

Drafting a bodice block for a sleeveless top – haven’t got a book or instructions to follow

Pattern Magic make – will use the bodice block I make

Quite by chance I was looking at the books in Oxfam and I came across an old copy of Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting. I immediately snapped it up for £3.99. Not bad!

Metric Pattern Cutting - an old classic

Metric Pattern Cutting – an old classic

Metric Pattern Cutting is an old classic that appears as a recommended textbook for degree courses. Mine is the 1985 edition and it’s a bit dated. The section on drafting with a computer runs to all of two pages! However for creating a well-fitted bodice for a sleeveless top, it will be just fine. The instructions and diagrams look very clear and easy-to-follow.

When I make a new top I always seem to make lots of ad-hoc changes to every pattern, but this will provide me with a new route to getting a decent fit. I’ll have a reference bodice that I can use for comparison and also something I can use as a starting point to which I can add my own design lines.

Lots of detailed instructions on how to alter your blocks for a good fit.

Now I have a proper pattern cutting book. No excuses for not pressing ahead with that bodice block.

Different sleeves

Different sleeves



#MakeNine: Morphing as I go along – The white linen shirt

This blouse has been an interesting make. I identified back in December, as part of my #MakeNine that a basic garment like a white blouse would be an excellent addition to my evolving wardrobe. Plus, I had a beautiful linen crepe that had long been lying idle in my stash, that would be perfect for the job.

I have loads of shirt patterns, but I turned to an edition of the Italian magazine Modellina for my make. I particularly liked the pockets and the relaxed fit which I thought would combine with the linen well. Sure, it wouldn’t look as crisp as the cotton shirt in the photo, because linen drapes in a different way, but I felt that the pattern would still work well with my chosen fabric.

Short-sleeved shirt pattern from Modellina magazine

My original idea was for the short sleeved version above, but as I was cutting out I realised I had enough for long sleeves, so I cut out the sleeves from the long-sleeved version in the magazine. After all, I do not need any more silly bits of fabric that I don’t know how to use in my stash. There’s pretty much nothing left of the fabric at all now.

Long-sleeved shirt from Modellina magazine

I think the body pieces from the short and long-sleeved patterns are also different. The long-sleeved version seems to have some side slits, so my version ended up as a mix of the two designs.

Shirts take a long time to make, it must be said, and this was no exception, particularly as I have struggled with doing things like sewing on buttons in the recent heat. I also sewed the collar more than once, as I wasn’t satisfied with the first one. Overall it wasn’t a particularly difficult make, although obviously being a magazine make the instructions are minimal. One thing that did confuse me were the buttons. There were loads of button and buttonhole markings on the centre front of the pattern and I sewed all fourteen of them! The buttonholes appeared to come in pairs. But the model in the magazine doesn’t have these. Did I sew too many? Were these markings for the two different shirt designs and I incorporated both lots? Who knows – I’m not disappointed with the result so I don’t suppose it matters. It just took me a long time!

White is hard to photograph – not sure I can see the details in this photo!

My major concern with this shirt is that it is WHITE. I have an amazing record when it to spilling food on things (see the silk top made for the Work Christmas party) and I’m not sure how well this one with last in its white incarnation. I made sure I sewed it with white cotton thread, so that when the time comes (and it will) I can dye the shirt and the stitching will dye as well. Always best to be cautious!

Long-sleeved skirt with big pockets and rather a lot of buttons!

Do you ever feel that sometimes you’re wearing someone else’s clothes? Well, that is how I feel when I wear this shirt. Is it the effect of wearing such an expanse of white? Still, I am pleased generally with the way it looks and I need to experiment with styling. Would wide-legged trousers look good with this? What kind of skirt? With such a versatile colour, I expect it will go with most of my wardrobe.

Back view of the long-sleeved white shirt


Smart or casual – which is it?