Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Ikea Flat-Pack Top


I've had this beautiful Robert Kaufman swiss dot fabric sitting in my fabric drawers for nearly two years. I'd draped it across myself in all kinds of light, trying to work out whether it was so sheer that it required a lining and that dilemma had prevented me from ever cutting in to it. From time to time I conducted little experiments, such as standing in front of sunlit windows and saying to family members: can you see my hand/waist/outstretched arm through this? To which they would always reply: Yes. The fabric would then be folded back into the drawer, feeling increasingly like Eeyore's burst balloon, which he repeatedly puts in and out of a jam jar for his own entertainment (for the uninitiated, it's a Winnie the Pooh story). It seemed unlikely that the fabric would ever actually be used for anything other than being taken in and out of drawer.  


But somehow, here it is as a finished top! My experiments never reached a point where someone said: Florence, that fabric is sufficiently opaque that you will never find yourself unwittingly having a Princess-Diana's-see-through-skirt-moment, but I did find myself wanting to make a top this summer that I wasn't entirely sure would work, so I decided to take a double-risk of failure by using it, in favour of ruining a fabric that was both nice and definitely not transparent (I don't like lining tops on the basis that it makes them feel somehow more formal to wear). My double-risk paid off: the top worked AND I realised it doesn't need a lining at all, although it definitely would if it were being made into a skirt. 

My daughter - who still seems to want to spend time with me despite being part of the is-this-transparent experiments and other daily strangenesses - took these photos for me the first time I wore it when we were out walking Nell together. Photos taken outside never seem to show the same level of detail on clothing, but there was a risk that it would never get photographed and shared here if left to my own devices (several pieces of clothing have gone undocumented this summer due to my inability to actually take some photos of them). 


The top is based on one that I bought from Joules several years ago. I followed my own tutorial for shirring the top panel and thanked myself for writing it up back in 2010, as I couldn't quite remember how to do it several years later (nb. if you're wondering, shirring requires you to put elastic in the bobbin case to create a panel that is both stretchy and appealingly tactile with rows of tight gathers). I spent a frustrating hour feeling like I'd lost all ability to do anything other than hand-sewing in the intervening years, as my machine sewed row after row of unusable 'shirring' on practice fabric. It was only when I googled it, that I realised that my latest machine requires a 'creative bobbin case' to sew with elastic, a requirement that seems curiously stifling of creativity...


Rather than buy an expensive new bobbin case, I fetched my old workhorse (that post has links to all kinds of other things in it - I just disappeared down a memory rabbit hole reading it) from my daughter's desk and was reminded what a total dreamboat of a machine it is. It can do nothing more complex than a zig-zag stitch, but it is pure heaven. My latest machine has fancy things, such as an automatic presser foot that snaps down the moment I press the pedal and rises the moment I take my foot off it; it cuts my thread; it backstitches automatically to make securing stitches...and so many other good things. But when I returned to my old machine, I realised that a machine that can do so much has an almost imperceptible, but ultimately negative, effect of leaving me feeling disconnected from my work. All those fleeting moments where I sit, redundant, waiting for the machine to carry out an automated task accumulate to leave me feeling detached, slightly impatient, less well-skilled and ultimately less enthusiastic. I realised that my switch to hand-sewing came around the time that I bought my first Big Girl machine, which had lots of bells and whistles. At the time it seemed a natural shift (or a shift because I didn't actually end up loving that particular machine at all, unlike my new one, which is far more intuitive and well-behaved)...but now I wonder how much of it was just a case of falling out of love with the process of machine sewing once I felt less involved. So, having got the machine out only for the shirring, I shunned both my newer sewing machine and my overlocker and sewed the entire shirt on my old machine and it was a total joy. It whirrs and hums with a delicious authenticity and sound of true industry. Avoiding the overlocker meant switching over to using french seams, but that didn't feel a troublesome thing. 

My new machine only made a reappearance when it came to the final stage of sewing buttonholes, which it does really beautifully. 


I posted this photo of a buttonhole on Instagram as I wanted to share a tip I'd been given years ago by an elderly lady who was a very experienced dressmaker. She taught me that if you put a pin in front of the bar-tack, you'll never accidentally slice through it with the seam ripper when you're opening the button hole up - it's such a good tip and I think of her every time I use it. A few people on Instagram commented that they weren't able to get a buttonhole they were happy with - I do feel I'm blessed with a good machine in this way, but I've noticed that omitting a few things will cause even a good buttonholing machine to create sights that looks far less lovely. Firstly, interfacing the button placket - it's obvious, but if forgotten is totally ruinous (I know this because for the first time ever I forgot recently. I have no idea where my head was that day, but I ruined this nearly-finished shirt. I still feel cross with myself now); my second suggestion is slightly less obvious (and therefore probably more helpful), but I find that placing a tiny piece of Stitch n' Tear stabiliser beneath each buttonhole while sewing gives a much-improved finish. It offers some stability while the dense stitches are being cast and for me it's an absolute essential. I use this one, made by Madeira, as it's sold locally to me, but I think Vilene's version may be more widely available and is probably just as good. The important thing is just that it just tears away and doesn't require being ironed on in order to provide stability. 




These two photos show the shirring better. I think the fact that I'd shirred the fabric, and in doing so altered its texture, blurred the boundaries of where my work began and ended with this top, for when I walked into the kitchen wearing this top for the first time, Mr Teacakes stopped, looked totally in awe, and said: You're just amazing!!! I can't believe you've sewn all those tiny dots in the fabric!!! It looks incredible!!! (Yes, there were that many exclamation marks in his voice, so I have a duty to overuse them now as I write). 

I did momentarily consider allowing him to continue to think that I had indeed painstakingly implanted each of these little tufts into the fabric myself as I had never seen him look so impressed and it made me quite hungry to gobble up all of his praise, so it was with some reluctance that I climbed down from the Awesomely Talented Wife pedestal he had erected and revealed to him that the fabric had actually just come this way (I feel confused as to whether Mr Kaufman is now inhabiting my place on the pedestal).

Oh, well, it's still a really great top, he said. But the look of awe had left his face. I could have been crushed by the new-found knowledge that to make clothes using fabric created by others is the sewing equivalent of assembling some Ikea flat-pack furniture, but actually I was left humbled and delighted by the idea that he thought I might possess the patience (or possibly the lunacy) to create perfectly placed little tufts all over my shirt. Several minutes later my daughter entered the room and assumed the exact same thing and expressed similar amazement. The moral of the story is that if you really want to impress people, you should create hand-tufted fabric - they will LOVE it! 



The top is billowing slightly in the last photo as Nell took me for a faster-than-I'd-hoped-for walk (as is her mischievous way) and it's a delight to see that even in that scenario the fabric is not showing signs of transparency.

In other news, we have just returned from our annual camping trip with old school friends and their families. Since last year's shocking post (where I unexpectedly discovered that I LOVED camping) I had entered a state of disbelief that it could be so, and had spent several weeks dreading it, seeing the forthcoming trip as a blight on the calendar. It will come as no surprise to anyone other than myself to find that I loved it all over again. It turns out that four days spent doing nothing other than sitting around in chairs, chatting, playing cards or rounders, eating and watching campfires crackle and small children toasting marshmallows rates highly in my list of things I like doing. I think what I also enjoy about camping is that there's so little pressure to actually do anything - the effort it takes to undertake basic things such as showering, cooking, getting a drink, journeying to the loos is so great and so absorbing that one is entirely absolved from all other activity.  It helps that the place we go seems to exist in a strange bubble of glorious sunshine and we had another four balmy days this year. Also, that one of our friends made me my very own tin of fudge to consume in case of inclement weather, knowing that my spirits can be kept afloat by such things in emergencies. It was delicious, even in brilliant sunshine.


Finally, if you find yourself with a free day near London, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time in years recently and found it to be pretty close to perfection in terms of a lovely day out and relatively inexpensive too (£18 for the three of us, which seems wonderful value compared to most London attractions that charge an entry fee). The gardens and temperate greenhouses were all amazing, but it was The Hive that stole our hearts.


From the outside, it's hard to see a uniform structure, but viewed from beneath, looking up (as in the first photo), a beautiful order becomes clear. The design is based on a beehive and when you enter the top level and stand inside the hive, it's quite an incredible experience. There is a confusing hum of musical instruments and vibrations that seems un-pin-downable in terms of what the noises are and where it's coming from. It pulses through you and somehow left us all feeling completely calm and rooted. My daughter, son and I sat on the floor in there for at least fifteen minutes and we noticed that others seemed drawn to spend a long time there too. Some people even sat and meditated. The audio is linked to two real hives (I think one elsewhere at Kew and one in Nottingham, if I'm remembering it correctly) and the intensity of music and noise that you hear is entirely determined by the vibrations and activity in the real hives. It feels like a truly special place, although so strange that a written description could never accurately convey quite what it's like. If you get the chance, do go and visit.

Also, randomly, we took the train out to Kew Bridge and en route came across The Natural Kitchen on the upper concourse at Waterloo station, where we bought one of their gluten-free salted caramel brownies. I've never tasted anything like it (and I say that living close to a little coffee shop that makes what I'd previously thought made the best ones imaginable - brownies seem to be the one gluten-free food where there's no compromise in taste), so I would encourage you to make that a part of your Kew experience too if you have a sweet tooth! This post makes it sound like I've been doing very little else other than eating sugar, but until last week, I'd actually had a few months of not having any.

I hope you've had a happy August,
Florence x

* When I went to get a link for the Robert Kaufman swiss dot just now, I found that I'd already shared a photo of an is-this-fabric-sheer test on the internet too! So strange when you search for something and are met with a link to one of your own forgotten posts!

19 comments:

  1. I have a shirt length of the same fabric from two years ago, awaiting transformation. it is sheer for a standard shirt, I had a lined yoke in mind but I love the effect of the shirring. Hand tufting, now that would be a labour of love!

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    1. A lined yoke would be a good idea - I think over the chesticles is the one place that reinforcement is needed. Did your lovely Wiksten Tova's have a lined yoke? Maybe that would work (although shirring somehow seems a lot simpler than I seem to remember setting in that yoke may have been)?

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  2. Hahaha, homemade Swiss dot would be an achievement indeed! I'd say drafting your own top was pretty impressive - it's lovely. About that "ruined" blouse... please tell me you didn't throw it away?! Surely it can be saved - how about a covered placket made with velvet ribbon? Think of it as a constraint to inspire extra creativity! Thanks for the Waterloo Station tip - A has relatives in SW London so we do find ourselves in need of nourishment at Waterloo from time to time, after being fed microwave veg lasagne... x

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    1. I feel like one day I might find you hiding in my sewing room bin, demanding that I take things out and reuse them, Nina ;)

      Don't worry, I haven't thrown it away, but I do fear it may sit in the Crisis Basket for a good many years before I get around to rectifying matters - you know when you need some time away from something to gather enough strength to face tackling it again? In reality it would probably be a relatively simple job, but it's one that I need to mentally build up to...maybe next summer!

      It sounds like microwaved veg lasagne is probably your very favourite dish! Do you remember when ready meals first became a thing? That and vegetarian cannelloni make me think of the first ones available...they were nice at first, but I quickly began to tire of them after the 90 millionth lasagne!

      I think one of their brownies would definitely be a good addition to your day - they're not actually healthy at all, but the rest of the choices feel super-healthy (my daughter sampled some of them and said they were delicious too). x

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  3. I just wanted to tell you I find you very funny -- I love your writing! And your top looks amazing, and I wish I could visit The Hive but I'm in New York. Anyway, thanks!

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    1. What a lovely message - thank you so much for stopping to say that - it means a lot.

      Lucky you being in New York - in my head, with Purl on your doorstep, all other activities would become redundant, so there would be no need for a Hive...I think that may be a slightly unrealistic viewpoint though...;)

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    2. Oh, Purl! Everything is over-the-top beautiful there, everywhere you look there is a gem! But if I want to go yarn shopping, I usually go to Downtown Yarns on Avenue A -- they have quite a nice selection too, and the price range skews a bit lower. A shopping suggestion for you, for the next time you're here!

      I do love New York, but I haven't been on a vacation anywhere in ages and probably haven't been outside of a 10 mile radius in months. I wish I could go to England!

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    3. Me again, I just realized maybe you don't go to Purl for the yarn at all, but for the quilting fabric -- in which case ignore my yarn advice! There aren't very many quilt shops here in the city. They're not fully on my radar although I took my mom to one when she visited because she's a quilter. I recently have developed an interest in learning -- when I told her that, it made her so happy! But I haven't gotten very far. Just a few lessons from her when I've been home to visit, and a half-finished project. (The lessons unfortunately can make us both very cranky if we're not careful...) Your quilting work is way way way way beyond my skill level -- almost super-human!

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  4. I don't think I've laughed out loud at a sewing blog before!
    Hand sewn tufts indeed. Thank you for that!
    Lovely top and interesting info about Kew, too.

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    1. I'm so pleased to have added some merriment to your blog reading today - thank you :)

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  5. I always enjoy your posts and really find your humor very witty! I have asked you before but did not get an answer (perhaps you did write back but never got to see it). Did you study English Literature by any chance? I find your style is very literal....

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    1. Hello again, I'm so sorry you didn't see my reply. I do remember you asking me that question - you can find my answer in the comments, here: http://flossieteacakes.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/josef-frank-celebrating-40-and-mixtapes.html#comment-form Thank you so much for your lovely comments :) Wishing you a lovely evening, Florence x

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  6. I love your top, even if you didn't sew all the tufts yourself! And I love the colour of your sandals, I'm off to see if they do that in the two-strap style as I don't think I could keep yours on my feet. Thank you!

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    1. I don't find these a struggle to keep on at all as the foot bed is so well shaped that it seems to anchor it in place. But if you're in doubt, I also think the Birkenstock Gizeh are a really lovely option and they would probably be easy to keep on (my daughter wears them and says that they're really comfy).

      Let me know what colour you go for in the end! The sizing is a little odd by the way - I'm normally a 36, but I'm a 35 in these (which is an adults' UK 2.5 - there is nothing to make one feel more like Mrs Pepperpot than wearing a size 35! I think the Birkenstock website has a thing where you can place a piece of paper under your foot to measure what size you'd need). x

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  7. It's 5.45 in the morning here in Sydney (Hisself and I are early risers) and it's the first day of Spring. I have just finished a leisurely breakfast while reading your delightful post. What a perfect start to a new day and a new season.

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    1. It's always so lovely to see your name pop up here. Happy first day of Spring to you and hisself ☀️🌼! Starting a new season always feels lovely, doesn't it. I'm so pleased to have been a part of your morning.

      It poured down here today and we noticed that some of the leaves have started to fall, so I'm currently feeling excited about Autumn arriving.

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  8. What a jolly post :) I started smiling with the poll-taking on transparency, and burst out laughing when your husband reacted to the fabric! I love the new top, and cannot get over the size of that beautiful Nell...I remember very clearly when she was a BABY! And now I'm trying to think if I have an appliance that carries on automatically doing a complex task and making me feel redundant...perhaps the dishwasher, but that is a very joyous redundancy!

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  9. I just love your top - I have just been going through a store of fabrics resolving yet again to get some of them made up. I bought a new sewing machine but have hung on to my old Singer and I miss using it too.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x

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