20 January 2013

the little black jacket

This Christmas, I was given a long-awaited and much-lusted-after copy of Claire Shaeffer's Couture Sewing Techniques. Learning the 'couture' way is the obsession, or at least passion, for many of us home sewers and bloggers. Couture is a far-off, entrancing place burried in history and tradition where much skill and knowledge is hidden away in the atelier. The best couture is understated perfection: the fit, the silhouette, the drape all show that one has good taste and an excellent couturier. I don't know about you, but couture is not about the status and prestige for me. It's all about clothes made by someone who has an immense amount of skill and who really understands how to make clothes and make them look great. But of course, the closest most of us will get to couture is Vogue and the V&A museum. So, confronting my coutureless future life, I have decided even if you can't become rich enough to step foot inside Chanel, in time you can become skilled enough to make perfect and beautiful clothes. Therefore one of my projects for this year (I am giving myself an ample timescale, because you can't hurry perfection) will be to make every woman's Mecca: Chanel's little black jacket.

Where to start with the Holy Grail of couture? Well, here is some sewing erotica, a (very condensed) video of the making of a Chanel jacket.

I've been scrolling through the photos from Lagerfeld's The Little Black Jacket exhibition for inspiration. I started to look at the fit of each jacket and noticed that they were all quite different, which is exactly what you would expect of couture. Every jacket has been made to the client's preference and to flatter their shape. Little details like the height of the neck, the sleeve length or the placement of the pockets vary from jacket to jacket, yet on first inspection, the jackets are all the same. 

This is where I indulge my wannabe detective skills (all those hours watching Scandinavian crime drama finally find a use)! In terms of illustrating the silhouette, this is my favourite picture. It is slim, elegant, slightly boyish and boxy, halfway between a cardigan and a jacket. Notice that there is no obvious waistline. With the buttons undone, you can see in the video above that the jacket is a tube (who knew a tube could be so flattering?!). Done up, as above, it is a lightly tapered tube. Here are some details that seem to define the Chanel jacket:

Pattern pieces
  • the front is made of four pieces. It has a large centre front piece and a narrow side front piece. Other Chanel jackets have a princess seam running from the shoulder about an inch from the finished neckline in a straight line to the hem
  • the back is constructed of four pieces in similar fashion to the front

  • when buttoned up, the jacket neckline sits exactly around the base of the neck

  • there are always 5 buttons, equidistant from each other from the neckline to about 3-4 inches above the hem
  • the third button is about half an inch lower than the bust line (the widest part of the bust, usually where your nips are!)
  • the waistline is between the 4th and 5th buttons (if the top button is no. 1), slightly more towards the 4th button
  • the buttons are 1/2 to 3/4 inch from the centre front

  • sleeves are constructed of two pieces, like most tailored jackets
  • the vent is about 3 inches, with two buttons about 1 3/4 inches apart
  • the sleeves fall anywhere from just shy of the prominent part of the wristbone (note that they do not fall half way down the back of the hand like most tailored jackets) to mid forearm

the sleeve has been constructed and pressed so that the back is slight longer than the front

Bottom hem
  • the bottom hem sits at about the mid hip line (halfway between the waist and widest part of the hip); it just grazes the hipbone
  • not a detail you can see, but one that is known the world over: about half an inch above the hem on the inside is sewn a light chain the length of the hem which balances the way the jacket hangs

  • there are 4 pockets arranged in two rows. The bottom pockets are slightly taller and wider than the top ones
  • the pockets are slightly rectangular (i.e. not too far off square) with rounded edges at the bottom
  • the button is centred on the pocket and sits half on, half off the braid. The buttonhole is vertical, the top of the hole falling just short of the braid
  • the lower pockets are set just above the braid and the upper pockets just under half an inch above the top of the lower pocket. The top of the upper pocket sits about 1 inch under the underbust line
  • both sets of pockets are aligned about 2 1/2 inches from the centre front

That was a lot of pernickety detail, I know! But once you start looking carefully at the proportions of the garment you realise all those details which make the Chanel jacket instantly recognisable and make it look like a real Chanel.

Alix x

10 January 2013

Working with silk

Here are some tips for working with that tricky fabric, silk:

  • If you've gone to the expense of buying silk, there's no point (no pun intended!) using a blunt needle. You should use a new needle for every sewing project (although let's be honest, most of us don't bother. But I treat silk projects as a special guests who deserve special treatment). When working with silk changing your needle is especially important, so don't forget to do it! Use smaller sizes such as an 80/11 or a 75/9 needle. The sharper and thinner the needle the better. If you can find them, use speciality sharp needles for silk.

  • Use silk thread. At a real push use cotton, but do not even think about using polyester! Silk is particularly sensitive: if you use polyester thread and press your garment, there will be imprints in the silk wherever there is thread behind it. This unfortunately rules out overlocking/ serging. Only silk thread does not leave imprints when pressed.

  • Remember that silk is like paper. Once your needle has gone through it, you leave a permanent hole. Most fabrics will bounce back if you have to bring out the quick-unpick and the needle marks will disappear, but not silk. Check, double check, and triple check that you are sewing the right pieces together with right sides together before you start sewing!

Silk pins have flat heads.

  • The same goes for pins. Remember to only put pins in within the seam allowance so that the holes are hidden within your garment. Silk pins are a great investment: they have very sharp points and thin shafts so make pinning easier. You may choose to baste more of your seams just to be safe and to ensure you machine-stitch it right the first time.
  • If you try to push a pin in and it won't slide in with relative ease, put the pin aside and grab another one. I've noticed that even good quality pins sometimes have some duffers in their ranks which are slightly blunt, and pins do blunt over time too. If you try to force the pin in you will make a ladder along the fabric.
  • Turn the steam setting off on your iron. Just to be sure, I take all the water out of mine before I start working on a silk project. Water drops and steam can leave unsightly marks on silk that will not come out.
  • Silk tends to fray easily, so handle your fabric as little as possible.

A walking foot

  • Silk tends to be slippery. Make sure the table you are working at has plenty of room to the left of the machine for your fabric to lay upon. If you have a quilting extension table, use it. Also, use a walking foot to ensure both pieces of fabric are fed evenly under the needle.

Working with velvet

Oh velvet, *sigh*. I can't get enough of velvet and I'm glad you can't either! Here are some tricks I've learned for working with velvet:

  •  Cut pattern pieces out on a single layer of fabric, not folded. The pile of the velvet can cause the fabric to slip which might result in unevenly sized pieces. When you cut the second piece, remember to flip the pattern piece wrong side up so you get a mirror image of the first piece, rather than a second left/right piece.

  • This is self-evident, but I will say it nonetheless: mark out your pattern pieces on the wrong side of the fabric.

  • Do not press velvet without a pressing cloth! If you press directly onto velvet the pile will be permanently flattened. Use a spare piece of velvet or a fluffy towel as a pressing cloth. Use plenty of steam and press seams open with the nose of the iron rather than the whole plate.

  • If your velvet is creased hang it up in the bathroom after a shower. The steam should help the wrinkles to fall out.

  • Sew with the direction of the pile to avoid puckering. If you have one, use a walking foot. If you don't have one, I recommend getting one. I bought mine for sewing velvet but it has come in handy on so many other projects.

  • Most stretch velvet doesn't fray. If your chosen velvet does not fray, then lucky you! No overlocking, no zigzag stitch, no pinking shears and no French seams.

Holiday snaps & Paris fabric shopping

Long time no blog, friends: I apologise. To start catching you up on the last six months, here are some holiday snaps and some reminiscing about far-flung fabric hunting excursions.

One of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Notre Dame

One of the thousands of 'love locks' on the Pont de l'Archevêché

In the gardens at Versailles

And, of course, the Eiffel Tower
Sewing rules my life. Even on holiday. This is why I was delighted to find an apartment from which you could see the very top of the roof of the Sacré Coeur, because this could mean only one thing: fabric shopping every day. My top picks for shops were:

Sacré Coupons
4 bis rue d'Orsel
'Sacré' [sacred] indeed. One might even say 'Sacré bleu!' This place has a very healthy selection of wool coating and suiting towards the back. All the fabrics are end of bolt pieces folded and (surprisingly neatly) stacked. And this is why I like this shop: unlike the fabric megastores such as Tissus Reines, you can still feel like you are a fearsome fabric warrior hunting for the ultimate bargain. A couple of doors down is a shop specialising in hides with lots of beautiful, saturated colours, but I forgot to take the name of that one!

Dam Boutons
46 rue d'Orsel
I found this shop completely by accident on my final morning in Paris. Oh wow. There must have been over 1000 types of buttons, all arranged by colour: it is a buttons and fastenings Mecca for the OCD among us. They stock some bag fasteners too, such as tuck-tite clips.

Marché Saint-Pierre
2 rue Charles Nodier
The half size mannequins showing off fabrics in carefully crafted mini outfits are worth a visit in themselves. There is a selection of Liberty prints (although current season stuff doesn't seem to make it into their selection quickly) if you feel homesick. But the best bit is the fabrics behind the counters. Fancy lace, beaded fabrics, fringed fabrics, even full-on feathered fabrics. Worth a look if you want to splash the cash on something special, or just plain crazy!

Alix x