Dressed for the Occasion

Normcore has a lot to answer for.  For at least a decade, this relaxed, dressed-down style has had us in its grip.  Its combination of preppy, peppy vigour with the essential comfort factor has made it almost irresistible.  What could be easier in the morning than to combine a pair of chinos with grey marl and gold sneakers?

Easy, for sure but when you walk out of your house and find that everyone else in the street had the same idea, then perhaps its a signal to change tack.

My wake-up call came recently and it came in the shape of a Vilshenko cape.  This garment is the opposite of ‘normcore’ in its purest form.  Where chinos and sweatshirt telegraph simplicity and practicality, an embroidered cape signals gratuitous joy in every stitch.  It won’t protect you from a snowstorm.  You can’t wear it to cook or do anything practical really.  It doesn’t have pockets.  

What it does have is instant impact.  Whenever I wear it I am suddenly conscious of eyes on me – even more so when I pair it with a Maison Michel fedora.  It never fails to attract comment and the very best kind of comment: those that remark on personal style rather than an overt enquiry about where something came from.

Clothes like this promote a different bearing.  Bette Davis and Joan Crawford knew the power of a pair of sharp shoulders to draw up the posture and streamline the silhouette.  They showed us the transformational power of a hat – even a simple beret: witness Bette in full Orry Kelly splendour, peeling off her gloves on arrival at Cascades in Now Voyager.  It is an unforgettable sight.

So goodbye normcore.  It was comfortable while it lasted and my feet are certainly grateful but now I need something more inspirational.  Let’s hope it doesn’t snow this year.

The coat off his back: why I love Wool Week

It is Wool Week and it seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the artisans and the animals that give us beautiful natural yarn for knitting and weaving.  The fact is, this is the thing above all that enticed me to try knitting: seeing how the animal’s fleece goes from farm to garment and beauty of the natural processes involved in that transformation.  One of the many attractions of knitting is the direct connection between making and wearing a garment.  I certainly feel a sense of pride in wearing anything I’ve made that far outweighs the (secret) knowledge I have of the imperfections in it.  Imagine, though, the pride you might feel in mastering the whole production process yourself. 

This summer, on holiday on Dartmoor, I was lucky enough to witness our neighbouring farmer penning her angora goats for shearing. The little flock of goats live a charmed life on Dartmoor, farmed solely for their mohair. As you would expect, their hair is rather special – their ivory corkscrew curls are super-soft and produce a beautifully soft yarn that Susan, their owner dyes and spins herself.

I was fascinated to see that she uses a traditional spindle – the kind that I remember from fairytale books – and even more delighted to be given the opportunity to try spinning myself.

It is harder than it looks and requires a level of physical co-ordination that you might expect from drumming: each arm and one leg all employed in different motions. The right hand feeds the fleece through thumb and forefinger into the left hand that holds spun yarn taught, while the right foot pedals at a constant speed to keep the spinning wheel in regular motion. As the yarn is produced, it winds onto a bobbin.

The way it works is that the spinning wheel creates energy that is transmitted to the yarn.  Whichever direction the wheel spins will determine the natural lean of the yarn, so in order to avoid that translating into a wonky garment, you can combine yarns with opposite ‘leans’ to give a single straight strand which then becomes a ply yarn. 

The real skill though lies in creating colour combinations in the yarn itself.  Susan showed me how she builds different colours into the yarn, using lighter colours or metallics to lift the darker ones.  It was clear to see her enthusiasm for this and her joy in the colour combinations. 

The final stage is creating the product – a woven rug, a knitted cushion cover or hat.  These products are very special: a unique and  hand-made product that has been created from inception to completion by a single artisan.  From caring for the lush fleece of her goats to creating the hat that will protect your own locks from winter weather, Susan has the process covered.

 I couldn’t resist buying one of her beautiful hats, especially having met the ladies and gents who had generously donated their luscious locks, and I wove the thread that I had spun myself through it as a reminder of a really fascinating and eye-opening afternoon.

You can find out more and commission work from Susan at www.dartmoormohair.co.uk and if you live near Dartmoor you may see her at local markets or National Trust events, though perhaps not with her caprine suppliers…..   

Failing that, you can check out Wool Week online at www.campaignforwool.org including their super-cute gallery of sheep photos which is nearly as good as seeing the real thing.

Yarn Therapy II

Four weeks and four classes after my initiation to knitting at Tribe Yarns in Richmond I have completed my first finished garment.  It is a simple woolly hat but I feel immensely proud of it.  I know it intimately, as only the maker can.  I know the stitch where I encountered a fluff ball of unspun yarn, the moss stitch that was actually supposed to be ribbing, the concealed thread that finished the top and bottom, even the moment when Amazon rang the doorbell and my stitch-marker fell out.

I knitted it in the course of a week while listening to an audiobook version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Originally chosen as a suitably seasonal entertainment and a book I’d always meant to read, as the chapters progressed it got me thinking about the relationship between creator and their creation.  Though Frankenstein is ultimately consumed by his obsession, he can never escape his fundamental connection to it, nor his subliminal pride and sympathy with it. My hat is highly unlikely to inflict a similar fate on me but I did experience a powerful attachment and driving force to make the necessary progress over the week, then a boost of elation and pride in seeing my creation come into existence.

Like Frankenstein’s creation it is somewhat primitive and rough round the edges but like the creature too, it has the right instincts.

So this is my Frankenstein hat but, unlike Frankenstein, I suspect I shall be making another.

The three-year cloche

Two summers ago, I spent my August bank holiday weekend making a leopard-print fedora, that I called the ‘three-day fedora’.  This summer I was similarly-employed but on a hat that’s been 3 years in the making.  Sometimes, these things just take longer because they do….

I bought the felt hood in August 2016 at Ultramod, Paris’s dream haberdashery.  I must have been possessed by late-summer colour frenzy because I immediately loved its fuzzy raspberry tone even though I had no idea what I would do with it.

A year later, I pulled it out again and started experimenting with shapes and trims, but now with a darker feel using antique jet fragments.  I could not make a decision so instead I made the leopard fedora.  The raspberry hood kept calling though and I got as far as stiffening the hood and preparing it for blocking before I again, got blocked and there it stayed for months.

Then, on the verge of giving it away, I changed my mind and started trying ribbon trims – teal, folkloric gold, blossom pink – before eventually coming back to black jet.  I had a recent market find: an antique fragment that had the perfect taper.

Once I got started, the hat chose the shape for itself.  While my leopard fedora fell naturally into its dimpled crown, this one stayed resolutely but softly, a cloche.  Sometimes the hat just tells you what to do with it if you let it.

The Most Beautiful Umbrellas in the World

It can take M Heurtault more than 300 hours to make one of his umbrellas or parasols, depending on the style and detailing, which could include antique lace, ostrich feathers, embroidery, jade or horn.

These umbrellas bear no resemblance to those that you might pick up in a convenience store during an unexpected shower. These are hand-crafted accessories, carefully calibrated to bathe the holder in a flattering glow and to sit beautifully balanced in the grip whether sheathed or open.

The silk twill is sourced from the same suppliers as the top fashion labels and treated to be fully waterproof and the whole umbrella is intended to be a life-long artefact not a disposable commodity. The mechanism is firm and sturdy in the hand: these umbrellas are built to stand wind and rain as well as to look stunning.

M Heurtault has been awarded France’s highest honour of artisanship: the Master of Arts, his workshop a Grand Atelier and you have probably seen his work in films and TV.

He sells his beautiful constructions at Galerie Fayet, a jewel of a shop in the picturesque Passage Jouffroy, only a few steps but a world away from the neon of the Boulevard Montmartre. Here in the shop, you enter a world in which a walking cane can hide an epee or a stiletto, or perhaps hold a minature picnic kit.

I found a wonderful umbrella here. It was a simple monochrome striped silk twill, sleek and light as a quill but with a steel frame strong as an exoskeleton. It was an accessory straight out of Cecil Beaton’s conjuring of Ascot races for My Fair Lady.

Now, equipped with my brolly and a rather natty Maison Michel black fedora, I’m ready for whatever weather the English autumn throws at me.


The three-day fedora (almost)


With a long, late summer bank holiday weekend on the horizon, it seemed like a good opportunity for a millinery project to get me in a more autumnal mood.  I had an ocelot-print felt hood and suddenly the time seemed right to turn it into something, but what? My eye has been attracted to high crown hats just lately so I started to think about a fedora-cloche hybrid with a steeply sloping, narrow brim.  I made a few sketches but decided to be guided by the felt itself.  Instead of blocking the hood like a cloche, I would drape and crease the felt and just see what folds it naturally took.

The inside-out felt hood

Day 1: I started by stiffening the felt hood.  I made up a solution of 1 part PVA glue to 4 parts water and then added an equivalent amount of methylated spirits and whisked it up into the foulest cocktail you’ve ever seen.  Then, taking a short, stubby brush, I turned the hood inside out and started working the stiffener into the felt in circular movements, spiralling down from the crown.  Its really important to do this in a well-ventilated place – outdoors if possible – because you’ll be exposed to potent fumes for at least 20 minutes (depending on how many hoods you are working on). Once that was finished, I left the hood to dry and stiffen overnight.



Day 2: The next day I readied my block, covering it with clear plastic to protect the wood but avoid risk of colour transfer from the plastic to the hood. I held the hood over a boiling kettle to soften it enough to turn it back the right way around again.   Then, placing it on the block I was able to start gently moulding the felt.  It seemed to fall naturally enough into the dimpled crown shape of a fedora, and then moving downwards, I turned up the brim on one side and worked it around into a steep slope.  The hat was starting to take shape as a forties-style, draped and 20170827_134956slant-brimmed hat.  As I worked I tried it on every so often to check that the style worked for me, not only in a front-facing view but all the way around. It can be so easy to forget that the side profile of a hat can be even more striking than the front view. Having checked the sides, I decided that the brim needed better definition. Borrowing from cloche technique, I took some cord and cinched it around the circumference where I wanted the crown to meet the brim and where the sweatband would sit inside and the hat band outside.  I nailed it in place and then left the hat to harden into shape, sitting on the block.  This marker line would be a crucial guide for aligning the interior and exterior bands with the position of the hat on my head, especially important when working with an asymmetrical brim.

 Sweatband pinned inside the hat


Day 3: I faced what I knew was going to be a tricky step.  As I suspected, the hat was a little too large.  This was because the high crown had lowered the position where the conical hood would sit on my forehead.  What to do?  True milliners please look away now: as it was not a dramatic mismatch, the unorthodox solution I devised was to sew in a sweatband that fitted my head snuggly and hope that I could make it align with the hat.  It was somewhat of a bodge job but it worked. Pinning the sweatband into place was difficult but once I started stab-stitching it in, things got easier.  I smoothed the band against the felt as I went and made sure I kept the band aligned with the marker line I had created.

Hatband #1

The final stage was to add the exterior hat band.  I experimented with several different colours: mustard is always great with leopard, pale blue was interesting, oxblood was bold, emerald was opulent but limiting.  I settled on a pale primrose that seemed subtle enough to blend with the print but keep some contrast.  I cut the ribbon to the circumference of the hat with an additional 2.5cm overlap and ironed it into a curve before sewing it together.  Then I cut a second, 12cm piece of ribbon to wrap over the join and sewed that into place too.  By tradition, for ladies’ hats the ribbon join is positioned on the right.  I gave the hat a final check on my head before putting in a few tiny invisible stitches to hold the band in place.

Hatband #2



Day 4: A day later, the primrose band just looked wrong. I replaced it with a new hat band in oxblood and now it looked right.


So where did inspiration come from? As I looked at the finished article, a remembered image started to re-surface and a quick rifle through some of my files uncovered it: a picture from Vogue Paris, perhaps 2 years old, featuring a leopard print coat with a stunning pastel blue Stephen Jones hat.  Subconsciously, I think this image was guiding me all the time, I just never realised it until the hat emerged.

The Jazz Age – birth of fashion?

Centrepiece of the London Fashion and Textile Museum’s current Jazz Age exhibition

The fashion industry is in turmoil.  The internet and social media have transformed the traditional show schedule to the point where designers divide between those showing collections ready to buy and those showing to the traditional schedules, six months in advance. It can feel at times as if the poor consumer is existing in a vortex of trends, spinning faster than we can respond.  Where did it all start?


London’s Fashion and Textile Museum might just have the answer.  Their current Jazz  Age exhibition focuses on exactly the point at which Coco Chanel was transforming Paris Ready-to-wear; Hollywood was starting to exploit the commercial possibilities of fashion in films and London was injecting glamour into the traditional migration between city and countryside.


First Hollywood. The film industry was undergoing its own disruption as talkies replaced silent movies and some of the greatest screen stars emerged: Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  Hollywood engaged its own designers – Travis Banton, John Orry Kelly and Gilbert Adrian to craft the images of its stars (and the story of  Adrian’s collaboration with Joan Crawford in creating the sharp shouldered silhouette has become Hollywood legend).  The crucial aspect of the Hollywood business model was that they actively encouraged copying, even franchising out designs for others to reproduce and including ‘fashion shows’ within films. The longest shadow of that age is perhaps cast by Marlene Dietrich in the film Morocco (1930) in which she sported full white tie evening dress – tail coat, topper and even the cigarette.  The image remains iconic to this day and has inspired countless designers including YSL’s Le Smoking and John Galliano’s collections for Dior in SS2004 and for his own label in AW 05-06.  1920s-tweeds

Back in the twenties, Hollywood commercialism was in stark contrast to Paris, where the divide between socialite and celebrity culture remained strong and haute couture designers strove to maintain their position as the fashion industry’s elite.  This made them no less prey to the emergence of trend-driven design.  Despite an unhappy period designing for Hollywood, Coco Chanel was influenced by trends closer to home, contributing to the ‘folkloric’ trend of the 20s through her interest in Eastern European and Russian embroidery during her liaison with Archduke Dimitri.

flapper-dressesAt the same time London’s reputation for eccentric practicality was emerging from the transformation of the country house weekend into a strange hybrid of a day spent at country sports and an evening of high glamour.  Driving this trend was the tendency for aristocrats, deprived of their heirs by World War One, to sell to the newly rich. These new owners sought to maintain tradition at the same time as establishing their own social schedule and the 1920s house party was  born, bringing with it trends of practical country tweeds (adopted by Chanel herself during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster) combined with evening black tie glamour. The whole scene was parodied perfectly by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. 

What was the legacy of these convergent transatlantic disruptions?  Fashion magazines and illustration emerged as a powerful carrier for trends, supported by Hollywood’s push to commercialise looks premiered on the silver screen and a move towards more home sewing and home-made fashion.


Rhapsody in Red, illustration by Gordon Conway for Britannia and Eve magazine, December 1929


So we may think the fashion industry is undergoing unprecedented disruption today but it is probably nothing it has not experienced before and from which it has emerged stronger.  Bring it on and in the meantime, let’s just revel in a jazz age moment at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum.  See it in London before 15 January 2017 or online here www.ftmlondon.org.

Thanks to the ever-inspiring Amber Butchart and Adrian Tinniswood for the insight delivered by their lectures for FTM on Fashion in Film and Life in the 1920s Country House based on their recently-published books of the same names – both are wonderful reads and the former in particular a fantastic feast for the eyes.

The top tips every milliner should know


London Hat Week, founded by the redoubtable Georgina Abbott and Rebecca Weaver goes from strength to strength.  This year it delivered a cornucopia of instruction and advice to the budding milliner.  Workshops covered trimmings of all kinds, base construction as well as specialist courses and a tempting suppliers’ fair with some very tempting offers.

Workshops offered the opportunity to learn from some of British millinery’s greatest – Bridget Bailey, Edwina Ibbotson just two of the stellar names on offer – but for me, the advantages were as much in the hints and tips on offer in the sidelines.  So here, for fellow millinery enthusiasts, is a small digest of the small but important hints and20161008_123544 tips on offer.

Spray starch, ironed into silk organza helps it to hold pleated folds and is a labour-saving way of preparing the fabric.

For light fabrics prone to fraying, metallic binder set in place with some glue helps to ‘finish’ the edges that are unavoidably exposed. Though, equally, never be afraid to try some ‘artistic’ fringing or fraying of edges – sometimes it works beautifully.

For intricate pleating, use bondaweb to hold fabric in place to make it easier to sew into place once you are happy with the effect.

When stiffening felt hoods use a 50-50 solution of stiffener and methylated spirits – the alcohol helps drive the solution into the felt and reduce the risk of creating white marks.  The purple colouring of the methylated spirits is also a useful reminder that you have made up the solution.

20161010_111410When stiffening felt, use a short-haired round brush (a stencilling brush cut down is perfect) to drive the solution into the hat in small areas.  Put a pin in the base of the hood to remind you of the start-finish point as you spiral down from the crown.

When draping felt, let the hood and the steam dictate the folds.  It can be a daunting experience but allow the felt to adopt its natural folds.  Then use dressmaker pins to score it and hold it in place and leave it to harden overnight.


Faced with a choice to two alternative thread colours (for base and trim) 20161011_193953always choose the darker – it will be more invisible.

12cm is the standard cloche depth (measured ear-to-ear over the top of the head) – go deeper or shallower for a more extreme effect.  Remember if you go shallow that you might need to wire the edge to hold the hat on (and then hide the wire under petersham or another trim).

Thread a needle using the end of the thread from the reel not the cut you have just made – your sewing will work with the weave of the thread and it will be less prone to knotting.

Use the thimble on your middle finger to push to needle through stiff fabric.  It leaves the index finger free to direct the needle and will help you stitch faster with practice.

Mark the front and back of a felt hood with soap and/or bright tacking thread – ‘X’ for the front and ‘I’ for the back as the couture milliners used to do.

File down cut edges of felt to even and soften the line with fine sandpaper or a nailfile.

Though London Hat Week is over for this year, Atelier Millinery and many of the other master milliners continue to offer workshops year round so it is always worth checking their websites for details.


A Capeline never fails to flatter


A classic image of the wide-brimmed capeline is Bette Davis in Now Voyager and Bette and her genius costumer designer Orry Kelly, knew their stuff.  I’ve yet to meet the person that isn’t flattered by a wide brim.  Especially when the brim is wired – it means you can play with it, shape and angle it for maximum flattering effects.  Dipping it down over one eye, a la Bette, is a good way to go, as is getting the brim to run parallel with your jaw line, helping accentuate it.  The capeline is a marvel of engineering – practical, ergonomic and beautiful.

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016



The pillbox hat – glamourous minimalism


A black velvet pillbox hat is a classic example of 1960s minimalism.  This one reminded me of the fabulous little pillbox that Audrey Hepburn wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, especially with the addition of some white spot veiling to recall the more flamboyant white feather on the front of Miss Hepburn’s hat.

The film clearly shows the transition from 1950s studied glamour to 1960s spontaneity.  The clean lines of Hepburn’s Givenchy wardrobe and hats have the simplicity of combinations she has come up with on the spot.  They look youthful and fresh compared with the high glamour of Patricia Neal’s Pauline Trigere ensembles that have the feel of an entire top-to-toe ‘look’ crafted by the designer.  Over a decade after the original ‘New Look’ of Christian Dior in 1947, it was time for a fashion re-set and the pillbox was then, and is still, the perfect minimalist touch.  Add a few feathers or a veil and create some drama.

Are you going to London Hat Week?

#LHW London Hat Week 6-12 October 2016