Category Archives: The Power of Sewing

When Zadig met Apollon: Designin’ December and the MAGAM sewalong

When Sarah Liz announced that the theme for December’s MAGAM (Make a Garment a Month) sewalong was going to be a joint challenge with Linda’s Designin’ December, I felt torn. I really wanted to take part for so many reasons: the idea is fantastic, both hosts are lovely, and I love how these challenges push me to think creatively about gaps in my wardrobe, BUT… it’s December. You know, the month I spend running around in manner of over-achieving headless chicken, baking, buying gifts, writing cards, sewing nativity costumes, wrapping gifts… not to mention preparing for my son’s birthday, which is 2 days before Christmas and always needs extra thought to make sure his celebration isn’t eclipsed by Christmas. Not much time for selfish sewing.

Oh but come on!!! Designin’ December?! You know where this is going, don’t you? I made something. A great thing. This thing:

So, the idea of Designin’ December is that you find a look from the catwalks and recreate it. If there’s one thing I learnt from my Sewing the Scene coat (apart from the importance of not losing pattern pieces at a rate of knots) it was that I need the make to be something I’ll actually wear (I STILL haven’t worn my Deneuve coat, despite the weather being perfect for it!) so I wasn’t sure I would find something. For a brief moment I flirted with the idea of combining this challenge with my red velvet dress for the Little Red Dress Project, since velvet has been big this season and I was sure to find something on the catwalks that I’d like, but it kind of felt like a cop out to basically lump three challenges together (whether or not I finish my red dress in time for the pre-Christmas reveal is anyone’s guess, by the way). So I looked at too many images of the Autumn/Winter collections, and got no real ideas. Focus, Helen. What do you like to wear?

I went back to the winter collection of one of my favourite fashion houses, Zadig & Voltaire, and noticed they released a lot of sweater dresses this year. I was particularly drawn to the shape of this one:

Photo credit: www.vogue.com

And when I realised it looked very much like the dress version of my trusty Apollon sweatshirt… well that was that.

Yellow isn’t my thing, nor are geometric lines, and nor is ostentatious wearing of a brand name (though I did wonder what would happen if I followed Zadig & Voltaire’s lead and emblazoned the first word of our logo across the front – can you imagine the awkward situations if I’d strutted around with “VALENTINE” written across my chest?!), but the whole point of this challenge is that you adapt it to suit your style. And when I found this glorious grey marl sweater knit on the Califabrics website, practically begging me to be made into a sweater dress, I decided to just go for it.

Let me take a moment to wax lyrical about this fabric. It’s cotton, which is a BIG WIN in my book – I hate synthetic fabrics, I just end up sweating and feeling unpleasant (plus I found out recently that polyester contributes to the pollution in our oceans, as the fibres can get down drains and into the open waters! Eek!) and when it arrived I actually did a little “yippee” noise! It’s so soft and snuggly, and I confess to having instantly gone back on their website to order it in the other colourway

The construction held no surprises. It’s the first time I’ve made Apollon in anything other than sweatshirt fabric, but it came together really well. At first I thought I might widen the neckline a little to be more like the Zadig & Voltaire one, but I love the neckline as it is and so I reined myself in. Again, learn from the Deneuve coat! I also debated about sizing up, to get the “oversized” look of the Z&V version, so I tried on one of my older Apollon sweatshirt dresses and actually it’s pretty oversized already. Add that to the fact that the sweater knit is less chunky than sweatshirting, and the oversizing pretty much did itself. So, note to self: if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. I also decided against lengthening the arms à la Zadig & Voltaire, as I’d have gone crazy pushing those sleeves up every time I wanted to wash my hands or pick something up or just, you know, do anything. So basically, all this to say I sewed up my Apollon without any modifications, and as a result…

Even bare legs in winter can’t stop me smiling at this one

I have a garment I will WEAR TO DEATH.

Seriously, I love it.

The only thing I would normally do but didn’t is to topstitch down the seam allowances on the neckband, cuffs and waistband. I mentioned here that I like to do this so that they don’t ping back up after washing, but with the delicate sweater knit I thought it would be a shame to add in any visible stitching (since all the raw edges are finished with a band, there is otherwise no stitching visible on the right side of the garment).

You can see that the inside seam isn’t stitched down, but it looks so pretty from the outside!

If I have to press my seam allowances after washing, it will be worth it (I’m not sure if it’s clear how significant a statement that is; I rarely press clothes apart from while I’m making them!!)

One thing I didn’t mention in my last post about Apollon is that the waistband is one long piece with a centre back seam, rather than two pieces joined together at the sides.

Thumbs up for the waistband

I quite like this as a construction method: no effort needed to match up the side seams! Though speaking of matching up the side seams, can we just take a moment to admire the cuffs?!

Pause for cuff love

I’ve styled the dress with chunky boots here to emulate as far as possible the styling of the Z&V image, but this is waaay too short for me to wear with bare legs! Not to mention how cold I’d get. But just for fun, I did a tiny homage and put on a beanie hat like the catwalk pics anyway. I even did a little “catwalk strut”, but clearly I need to work on my “effortlessly cool” face.

Yep, if I have to wear a hat, it’s going to be pink!

It’s safe to say I felt a little daft wearing a hat and boots and bare legs outdoors in December, but in real life I’m going to be wearing this with leggings, as styled here:

I absolutely LOVE this sweater dress. It may not be the most haute couture garment from the catwalks this season, but it’s one that suits my style, my wardrobe, and my life. Plus I’d never really thought of sewing a sweatshirt patterns with a sweater knit fabric, so once again the MAGAM sewalong has made me think outside my usual box.

Thanks to both Sarah Liz and Linda for this fun challenge! It was worth getting cold legs for 😉

Pin this look:

The Power of Sewing: On my favourite pattern, body confidence, and design philosophy

I think we’re probably all agreed that sewing is more than just a hobby; it’s a way to express ourselves, to empower ourselves, and to take care of ourselves. There are plenty of hashtags floating around that tell us so: #sewingismysuperpower, #sewingkeepsmesane, #sewingismytherapy and so on, and the sentiment I truly love is in Sarah’s strapline for her blog, that sewing soothes the soul. Ever since Rich and I set up Valentine & Stitch these sentiments have become even more relevant to me, as we embark on a journey that not only soothes my soul, but allows us to connect with many other people on a journey of their own.

If I had to pick one pattern we’ve designed that most reflects both me as a person and the company we’re building, I wouldn’t hesitate: it’s Dune. What started out as an idea for a simple sleeveless summer top just grew (literally) into a dress that makes me feel like a bombshell every time I wear one. What’s that got to do with body confidence and design philosophy more generally, I hear you cry? EVERYTHING. Because despite regularly being told by acquaintances that it’s “alright for me” because I’m slim (don’t even get me started on this…), I have a difficult relationship with my body and sewing is one of the ways in which I give myself confidence. Can you feel a backstory coming on?!

Any excuse to trot this photo out. I still can’t quite believe that’s me!

Let me start with the opening lines of a poem I have long loved: “The Ideal” by James Fenton.

This is where I came from.

I passed this way.

This should not be shameful

Or hard to say.

When I was 12, something pretty awful happened in my life. Despite the beautiful sentiment in Fenton’s poem, I do find it hard to say, so we’ll leave the details out of it, but I dealt with it by “secret eating”. Within a year I had gone from wearing children’s clothes to wearing a women’s size 16. I spent my teenage years feeling alienated in my own body. And that’s not to say that being heavier or curvier is somehow fundamentally less “right”, not at all, it’s just not my natural body shape and on me it was an outward sign of things not being right inside. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I started to take back control of my body – that’s 18 years of feeling like a stranger to myself. Inside me there is still a girl who looks in the mirror and can’t truly see herself.  I dress for that girl, as she was then, young and lonely and insecure, as well as for me, as I am now, age 40 and happy and confident. My clothes need to flatter my figure, show off my good points, and help me forget – or not care? – about the less good points. I found that I was routinely making an array of alterations to even seemingly simple patterns to feel good in them, and so a plan began to form to design my own patterns: simple, thoughtful designs that would be easy to sew and easy to wear. So with a lot of determination, unwavering support from Rich, old-fashioned hard graft from both of us, and more than a few melodramatic declarations that we are Just. Giving. Up. Right. Now. Really (from Rich. OK, OK, from me)… Valentine & Stitch was born…

If in doubt, stick your leg to one side and drop your hip.

That girl I just told you about always dreamed of wearing swishy dresses. But they would just hang off her hips and make her look as wide as her hips all the way to the floor. So when we were designing Dune, and the original plan was to make a knee-length version, on a whim I said to Rich “let’s try it as a maxi dress instead!” The directive (am I the only one who hears that word and thinks of WALL-E?!): keep the design philosophy of the Dune top (fitted at the bust, skimming over the tummy, kicking out at the hem) to create a dress that skims gently over all the areas I (and many women) feel self-conscious about, and then swooshes and swirls around at the ankles. For the first time in my life, I am wearing maxi dresses, and it makes me feel like I’m walking on air.

Swish! Swoosh!

Every time I wear a Dune dress, I feel amazing. If you follow me on Instagram you may remember I had a bit of a saga planning my outfit for the GBSB live event (in a nutshell: made a dress a week in advance. Felt serene and mildly smug. Tried dress on again three days beforehand. Realised dress looked sack-like. Panicked. Needed seasonally-appropriate feel-good dress. Made new Dune at the eleventh hour). By the skin of my teeth I was ready to go, and from the moment I met Sarah on the train until the moment I said a reluctant goodbye, I felt fabulous. The power of a TNT pattern, right?

Having fun at the GBSB live.

What a great day that was… you can’t see much of my dress in the end as I was wearing my blue maxi Edie over it in all the pics, but the highlight wasn’t the dress, it was meeting all these lovely ladies in real life. You might recognise some familiar faces! But I’m including the next photo to show you a glimpse of my younger self. Mark from Girl Charlee took this photo for his Instagram stories as my dress is made from Girl Charlee fabric: look how much less comfortable I am when I don’t know where to put my arms or how to tilt my head…

Unfamiliar camera pointing at me! No-one telling me where to put my hands or where to look! PANIC STATIONS!!

I don’t think we ever really shed our past selves, and maybe that’s a good thing. My younger self reminds me every day how lucky I am to have the life I have now.

And because you can never have too many “instant boost” dresses, I made a second autumnal Dune from a plain navy fabric… with both of these two I extended the hem length to the next size up, so that they can be worn with a small heel if I want to. And here are both of my new Dune dresses, with me safely back in my “hand on hip” comfort zone in my favourite corner of our garden:

I thought the navy one would look quite casual as it’s a plain cotton jersey (also from Girl Charlee), but actually with a pair of pumps (as opposed to the barefoot prancing around for the photos of the floral version!) it looks smart enough to wear to a more formal occasion! And with flat sandals next summer it’ll be great for everyday wear too. And did I mention I feel amazing in it?!

So that’s the story of my love affair with Dune, the importance of sewing in my positive self image, the awkward girl I still carry around inside me, and our priorities when we design our patterns. I have long felt that teaching me to sew was one of the greatest gifts my mum gave me, as in doing so she gave me the ability to empower myself, to make my own rules about what to wear, and to feel fabulous.

The final stanza of Fenton’s poem opens with this line: “This is my past, which I shall not discard”. We are all made up of our past as well as our present selves, and every day that I achieve a positive self image I feel I am not only making the best of who I am but also honouring who I have been.

What about you, what does sewing bring to your life? Do you have a pattern that makes you feel like a superstar every time you wear it?