Vintage Love

There are times when my museum training gets me into trouble in vintage and secondhand shops; I forget that I’ve gone in for a bargain and, instead, start gathering pieces with the zeal of a curator crafting their next exhibition. There was the cream bridesmaid dress in bias-cut silk, for instance, which is still waiting in my wardrobe for the right occasion to be worn. And last week, in Covent Garden, I found a pair of vintage Levi’s 501s.

Why should I care so much about vintage Levi’s when I could go into the shop and buy new ones instead? Well, for starters, they’re half the price and double the quality. Levi’s used to be made in the US; the fabric is stronger, the colour is better and the sewing lines are much cleaner. Then I could go on about reusing clothes and boycotting fast fashion. These jeans were in such good condition that they looked and felt like they had hardly been worn. And this might have been because they were a ridiculously small size.

And that’s the mistake I made. I saw my size on the label, bought the jeans and only when I got home did I listen to all the YouTube thrifters who warn you that vintage Levi’s are much smaller than they are today. I pulled them on, held my breath, thought – mistakenly – that they would stretch. Within hours my organs were aching.

I had 2 choices: pass them on to the next secondhand shop and buy myself a modern pair of 501s or make a few alterations. I was seriously torn; I didn’t want to hack at a good pair of jeans but I couldn’t bear to part with them either. In the end the Levi’s website decided for me: 501s in my size and preferred colour were out of stock, so I took up my scissors.

You have 2 options when making jeans bigger: either cut the outside seams all the way from top to bottom and add a strip of fabric on both sides, or open the outside seams just to your hips and sew a triangular insert instead. I liked the way the jeans fitted on my legs, so I decided just to widen the waistband. I used denim to fit in with the overall structure of the garment but I chose some gold-painted fabric to make the inserts look more like intentional decoration.

Incidentally, I know where I’m going to wear that silk bridesmaid dress. I’ll pair it with a faux fur coat and head to the supermarket with my groceries list.

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A tailored boiler-suit

boilersuit2I’m loving the dungarees/boiler-suit trend. Anything 90s is fantastic because of the playful, androgynous style. But if you’re going to wear a boiler-suit, you need to make sure it fits properly, and the best way to do that is to sew it yourself.

When I started sewing, I learned very quickly what was unique about my body and how best to style it. We’ve all complained, or heard someone else complain (probably me!), about the uniformity of high street fashion. A lot of body dissatisfaction arises when people think they’re not the right shape for the clothes that are on offer. Some of us even try to change our bodies to adapt to trends when, surely, we should be changing the clothes to fit our bodies? Sure, not everybody has the time or inclination to sew their own wardrobe, but it’s important to know your own body and to know how best to dress it. Here’s what I know about my body, and how I had to modify my boiler-suit sewing pattern to make the most of it.

Firstly, I have a longer torso than average, about 2 inches – that’s a lot when you’re making an all-in-one! Without that extra 2 inches, I was going to experience some serious discomfort when I sat down or raised my arms above my head.

Secondly, my hips are the widest part of my body and my shoulders are narrower than average – technically, a boiler-suit is the last thing I should be wearing! I accommodated this by adding the extra 2 inches to the bottom half of the suit so that there was plenty of room for my hips but no extra fabric around my bust.

Lastly, I raised the waistline because that gives the effect of elongating the widest part of my body, rather than drawing attention to it.

But I didn’t find out those three things until after I had cut the fabric. So I created a separate waistband, in which I inserted elastic, and sewed that between the top and bottom half of the suit.


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Pearl Choker

Karl Lagerfeld: creative director at Chanel and Fendi, photographer, artist, interior designer and all-round polymath. I wanted to do something to celebrate Lagerfeld’s incredible career and I decided on a pearl choker.

‘Pearl is always right,’ said Chanel. Not only did Lagerfeld design the Chanel logo, he made pearls a staple of the brand and he kept the spirit of Coco Chanel alive in the company’s marketing. He was hugely talented but also chameleon-like, sensitive enough to work for each brand’s interests rather than making them uniform.

I used 2 embroidery needles and white polyester sewing thread. You can also use metal or plastic beading wire but make sure to choose a narrow enough diameter because some of the beads have thread passed through them twice.

  1. Start with a vertical pearl, pass both threads through it in opposite directions and knot the ends.
  2. Add a knot or small bead to each thread.
  3. Add a horizontal pearl to each thread and add another knot or small bead.
  4. Pass both threads through the next bead, in opposite directions, so that it becomes the next vertical pearl.
  5. Once the choker was long enough, I finished with a vertical pearl and knotted the threads together.
  6. I sewed ribbon to each end of the choker, but you could also use split rings and a lobster-claw clasp. Or something more creative!
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An observation on underwear

Nancy King knickers

Ask any 20-something year old woman in the UK what her favourite knickers are and she’ll say, ‘Marks and Spencers.’ Then she’ll laugh and add, ‘You know, the comfy, gym-knicker kind.’

We’ve been buying Marks and Spencers knickers in packs of five since potty training; John Lewis if we’ve got upmarket pretentions. As we reached our teenage years, the little plastic tag on the pack switched from ages (8-9, 11-12) to sizes. As we get older, some of us may ditch the floral patterns in favour of black or nude but, when it comes to comfort, we still look for the same thing.

French women think we’re mad to choose comfiness over sexiness. What is the point of putting underwear on at all, if not for the enticing moment of taking it off? As Bridget Jones rightly points out: wearing the bigger, hold-everything-in, pant vastly increases the likelihood of getting to the intimate moment. And all pants look fantastic when they’re in a heap at the bottom of a bed.

We wear the Marks and Spencers gym knickers for nostalgic reasons. Whether we were on the hockey field at school or just reading about it in Enid Blyton books, massive pants remind of us of a noble, by-gone England.

Plus they’re cheap and can survive the washing machine.


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Outer Child – Making Teddybears

clone tag: 6359999614990745609‘Uncanny’ is best translated as strange or mysterious, difficult or impossible to explain. As children, we have a natural affinity for teddybears and, even though they are in no way human-looking, we imbue them, in our childish imagination, with personalities. As we grow into adults we stop playing with our teddybears, but one or two of them stay with us, moving from house to house, from bedroom perhaps to study, as our lives go on. Julia Cameron tells us to keep a totem in our workspaces – a stuffed animal or a wind-up toy – to fuel our childish creativity.

When my first niece was born, I made her a teddybear. I had never made a teddybear before and the process was genuinely unsettling. I cut the pieces out of fur and stitched them together,  then I used screws and cardboard discs to attach the limbs to the body. And, all the time, I was thinking, ‘This looks nothing like a teddybear, this is never going to work!’ It is so strange how something that isn’t real, still has such a specific look and shape that anything that differs, ever so slightly, seems completely wrong. Even when I stuffed the head, body and limbs I was thinking, ‘This still doesn’t look right,’ and it wasn’t until eyes, ears and nose were in place that the teddybear looked as it should.


I’ve made three teddybears so far – as soon as people hear you’re making them, the orders come in. And, with each new teddy, I’ve gotten faster at the making but, still, there’s that uncanny moment when I wonder, ‘Is this right?’IMG_20170612_163059

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Downsizing Cords

A while back I posted about upsizing jeans, adding an inch on either side to make them bigger. Last weekend, I altered a pair of my husband’s corduroys to make them smaller.

My husband decided to clear out his wardrobe. I have written on this blog, many times, about the importance of a cleared-out wardrobe; how cathartic it can be, how important it is not to hold onto things if you never wear them. But my husband was so ruthless with his clothes that he made me look like a hoarder. He was so thorough that I worried he wouldn’t have anything left to wear. So I tried to show some restraint myself, and only saved one thing from the charity shop bag: a pair of navy corduroy trousers.

Of course, they were far too big and Sunday afternoon was spent making them fit. First, I had to think about how I wanted them to fit. Corduroy is a thick, heavy, material and works best, I think, with more masculine cuts – so I decided to keep the legs straight rather than narrow-fitting. Secondly, I had to decide where I wanted them to sit on my waist. I know that high-waisted is fashionable at the moment but I don’t think it suits me and I don’t find it particularly comfortable, so I decided that they would sit on my hips. That meant that the crotch was going to be quite low because I didn’t want to make the alterations too complicated, but that was in keeping with the masculine style that I was going for.

cutting away the excessThe first thing I did was unpick the waistband at the back and sides, keeping it attached at the front because I didn’t want to make any changes to the flies. I unpicked the hems on the trouser legs too. Then I used safety pins to take the trousers in an inch on both sides from the top of the trousers all the way down the leg to the bottom. I tried them on a few times, altering the safety pins slightly to give the trousers a bit of a curve around my hips. Then I ran two rows of stitches down the legs to make sure that the new seam would be secure.

I don’t have an overlocker and the material was too thick to french seam, so I used pinking shears to cut away the excess fabric to avoid it fraying. I re-hemmed the trouser legs. When I reattached the waistband, I made a new seam in the centre back so that I could take out the excess fabric.

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Caring for Clothes #1 – Coat Hangers

Jackets are my favourite item of clothing. One day, I hope to amass a collection of jackets from all my favourite designers – Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen… But, until I have the disposable income, I’m happy to make jackets for myself.

Recently, I made a Bouclé jacket à la Chanel. I found some really fun fabric and, inspired by more recent Karl Lagerfeld designs, I made this:

Boucle jacket

I have quite narrow shoulders and I noticed that the sleeves on my jackets were being pushed out of shape by too-wide coat hangers. I was so pleased with my new Bouclé jacket that I didn’t want to ruin it by putting it on a dodgy coat hanger, so I decided to make my own.

A quick search online showed me that nobody else had experienced the same problem. Or, if they had, they hadn’t blogged about it. So I decided to experiment. I took a metal coat hanger and bent in the sides, making it fit my narrow shoulders.

I cut up an old pair of jogging bottoms and used them as padding, winding them around the coat hanger and stitching them in place.

Then I chose an outer fabric, in cotton, to decorate the coat hanger and wrapped strips of fabric around the hook.

I have made three so far, for my Bouclé jacket, my Musketeer jacket, and a jacket which I bought from Boden.

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angès b. – taking inspiration from the greats

agnes b jacketI once asked my dad what ‘smart casual’ was and he said, without hesitation, ‘agnès b.’

I’ve just bought the book ‘agnès b. styliste’ – a beautiful collection of stories and photographs about this wonderful label and the fabulous woman behind it. I have a black jacket in my wardrobe that’s over twenty years old and faded from all the wear and love it’s had from my mum and me, but it’s the jacket that fits me best and the garment that gives me instant reassurance as soon as I put it on.

There’s no agnès b. in Sydney but, inspired by the book, I decided to make my own ‘snap cardigan’ – a simple, round-neck cardigan with a row of snap-fasteners down the front. Agnès designed this cardigan in the 1970s and it’s still selling today.

I used a cardigan that I already had as a pattern. I cut around the back, front and sleeves with a 2 inch border because I wanted this new cardigan to be less fitted. I considered adding ribbing to the bottom of the cardigan and along the opening, but it made the knitted cotton bag a little. Instead, I added facing made of the same knitted cotton to the bottom and sides to make neat hems, and just used the ribbing at the neckline and cuffs.

Then I had to add the snap fasteners, which turned out to be tricky! By the time I had edged the opening of the cardigan, I had two layers of fabric that the snap fasteners had to pierce through and it hurt my fingers trying to squash the pieces together. In the end, I got the hammer out and gave each fastener a whack, just to make sure they were secure.

I’m pretty pleased with the end result. It’s not as well-made as an agnès b., but it’ll do until my next trip to Europe.

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True to Size

H&M spring

This photo caused great merriment amongst my friends. A few days ago I went into H&M to try on a few things, and this dress look so awful on me that I had to document it.

Obviously, they didn’t have the dress in my size. It looks great in the advertising campaign, and I love the embroidered flowers – what I’m poking fun at is how badly it suited me. But it did get me thinking more about high street dress sizes. I had chosen four things to try on that day and they were all different sizes.

It’s very important to understand your own body shape. None of us are the same, and none of us should feel bad that we don’t fit into the specifications prescribed by fast fashion. I know that I will need to go down a size if I’m trying on a dress that has a fitted bodice and waistline; if the dress is more of a shift, I will go up a size because my hips are slightly bigger. What we choose to wear will also be affected by our mood; there are those days when the only thing to wear is the biggest, baggiest jumper in existence.

Coachella for H&M

I didn’t buy the dress pictured above, but I did buy a black lace dress with a leotard to wear under it.

I had no intention of using the leotard, even when buying the dress. One of the fasteners in the gusset was busted, and I knew that I had a black jersey dress at home that would look better under the lace. But I really like the leotard’s low back and I wanted to find a use for it. It was the perfect thing to go with some jersey fabric that I had bought for a few dollars a while ago, which had been sitting on the top of my enormous pile of fabric, waiting to be used.

I cut a simple, A-line skirt from the fabric and stitched it to the waistline of the leotard. When I was happy with its position, I cut off the bottom of the leotard. I’m pleased that I’ve found a use for the leotard, which I had seen as just something that came with the dress I wanted to buy. I hate throwing anything away, which is why that pile of fabric in my sewing room is so large.

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Bringing back Peddle-Pushers

Spring has arrived and it’s hotting up in Sydney. It’s already 28oC on this glorious Sunday and it’s not yet 9am. I’m looking forward to some warmer weather, but I’m less ecstatic about the high UV warnings. Living in Australia, I battle daily with keeping cool and avoiding skin cancer. With this in mind, I’m bringing back peddle-pushers.

Does anybody even remember peddle-pushers? Very popular in the 90s and early 2000s. I had a trendy older cousin who gave me her cast-offs when I was 10 years old and I can still remember the excitement of trying on those patterned shirts and crop-tops and knee-length trousers. Growing up with brothers, it was wonderful to receive something that wasn’t ripped or that boxy boy-shape. My cousin’s clothes were pretty and fashionable.

When it got too hot last summer, I bought a pair of black beach-trousers to wear to work and sweltered through those recurring heatwaves. My manager looked at me pityingly and said that I could wear shorts, but all my shorts were ripped denim, and far to short to wear to the office. This time around I’m going to be well-prepared.

A few weeks ago I went into Topshop and got yet another pair of black jeans. I now have three pairs: one plain, one embroidered and now one pair chopped. I also took my scissors to a pair of jeans from Brandy Melville which I’ve had for a few years.

I’m leaving a raw hem on the black pair. I’m going to see how they wear for a few weeks, but if the fraying gets out of hand I’ll run a stop-stitch 1cm from the bottom. The blue jeans had a wider leg, so I have been able to re-use the bottom hem which is wide enough to sit just below my knee.

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