The 50s “Coat Even A Beginner Can Make” (or a Capote even Truman might wear)


Once in a while I open up a vintage pattern and think “jackpot!”


I have no idea why I was obsessing about blanket coats during the hottest, stickiest stretch of July. Probably the same reason I order sandals from Zappos in February – because they represent the balmy future instead of the dish-doing now.

A lot of blanket coat patterns are too oversized and 80s for my tastes, though I’ll admit even I went through a “cowgirl rides the range” period wearing Ralph Lauren dirndls with chunky sweaters and cowboy boots. Going back there at this age, however, is a little too “Dale Evans” for my lifestyle.

But when I saw this early 50s “Blancoat” pattern, which apparently was a PR boondoggle released by the North Star blanket company, I had to go for it. It’s a coat that’s “so simple, anyone can do it, even if you’ve never sewn before.”

I think you can see where this is going.

I was delighted to open it up and find a typewritten sheet explaining the pattern. It was “the ideal pattern for the busy housewife of today, either novice or experienced sewer, who has so many demands on her time.” That’s me in a nutshell.


You, person who had never sewn before, could make a lined coat from velvet! Silk! Satin! Taffeta! All so easy to work with!

The clincher was that “the public knows Blancoat because of a complete and effective national public relations campaign” which included CBS’s “Morning Show.”

Back in the day, I used to write for the grandbaby of that show, CBS Morning News, in the 80s when it was hosted by an actress who was known for Polaroid commercials. It was a great job, even though the show was terrible. I used to go down to the canteen in the basement of West 57th and see Andy Rooney in the lunch line! And I got to talk to big (though fading) stars like Steve Allen and Helen Hayes. But I quickly learned that the true divas (and holy terrors) were the women who did the cooking and craft segments.

I remember one show, a few months before the whole staff got laid off, that was “guest hosted” by lovable but sardonic actor George Segal. He had to do a cooking segment with an author who called herself “Supermom,” and after a few minutes of her saying “George do this” and “George do that” Segal plunked down his spatula and sputtered, “you’re awfully domineering, Supermom.”

So I had a soft spot for this pattern. It was designed “by the Italian couturier, Vincent Dante…an expert when it comes to styling.” Though I’m pretty good at tracking down obscure designers from the 50s, my guess is that Vinnie was the tailor for the president of the White Star blanket company.

The concept of the pattern, though, is much older. It’s based on the “Capote” blanket coats that trappers used make out of Hudson Bay blankets. They didn’t waste a scrap, making it one of the original “zero waste” designs. You can read about the history of the Capote coat here. And this website shows examples of the coats with sample patterns.   The body of the coat is cut in one big piece, and the sleeves are inserted in slashes.

(Though somehow I can’t picture Truman Capote, the author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and man of style, wearing his namesake coat.)


Wearing History has released a cute 30s version of a blanket coat pattern, which you can find here. It’s not the traditional construction, but it is fun and retro.



Even though I grew up in the “Grand Traverse” of northern Michigan, I live in East Coast preppy-land now, so honestly you’re not going to see me in anything made from a blanket. Not even an attractive negligee like this:


(Note to Vincent Dante, Italian Couturier: use a cool iron on that acetate.)

So I decided to sew together several beach towels to make a retro bathrobe instead.

Karl, my fine fine Bernina 560, was having a lovely time overlocking them with presser foot #2A:


I cut out the massive body pattern piece on the fold, taking up three beach towels:


I was intrigued by the notion that “practically the entire outfit is put together in a matter of minutes, merely by running one long seam through the sewing machine.”

Then I looked at the instructions.


That “one long seam” on the top right – I could see that it had at least one pivot.

That’s when Karl, who was reading over my shoulder, shrieked “Merde! Quelle horreur! Not le PIVOT!”

Those of you who have attached non-traditional collars like this have lived through the pivot. It all looks so easy-peasy in the instructions, but what’s really happening is that one piece of fabric is going one way and the other is going another and they really don’t want to go through the feeddogs together, no matter how much you pin, maneuver, clip, or cajole.

Karl started whimpering, “don’t make me do the pivot.”

I reassured him, “but it’s so easy, just look at these super-helpful explanations on the pattern pieces.”


Karl was not impressed. “It says ‘place sleeves here,’ not ‘prepare to die.'”

But after I had a drink and I gave Karl some oil, we were sufficiently lubricated so we went for the pivot.

I won’t give you the play-by-play of the further shrieking and crying on both of our parts when four seams met at the pivot, but it ended up looking like Mount Vesuvius:


The construction detail was worth it, though:


Eventually we calmed down and cleaned up the seams, then finished the hems with Hug Snug rayon binding:


I covered some snaps with silk:



And called it done.




Just right for my summer walk across the yard to the outdoor shower! (Try to ignore my bad sewing hair…) We live about 25 feet from an historic site that has walking tours, so this is the perfect thing to keep me from accidentally flashing the tourists. After all, there are only so many relics they can stand to view in one day.

Okay, then it was time to put my makes in the back of the Mini to take to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair!


(“Please don’t wrinkle! Please don’t wrinkle! Please don’t wrinkle!”)


Nice score on my Claire McCardell dirndl and sash hack! The “Blancoat” got a blue ribbon, too.

Will I ever attempt a blanket coat again? Well, maybe, but shhhhh…. don’t mention it to Karl!

How’s your sewing going?



(To learn more about how Karl came into my life, click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab.)


Golden Girls Go Zen and “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash”


You know how it goes…I got a little busy with outside things, and maybe I neglected my stash closet just a little too long. Before I knew it, my fabric, patterns, UFOs and other items had started acting out like naughty teenagers.

For example, When I looked up on the top shelf, I caught Yves St. Laurent and Halstonette in flagrante delicto under my dressform, AKA “Debbie Reynolds.” And they don’t get along at all!


You two! Well, something had to be done.

I knew the cause of it all was the evil UFO (unfinished object) from before the holidays, the 50s “Opera Coat” renamed “Bea Arthur’s Spa Robe.” I had to finish it, because all hell was breaking loose in my stash closet.


My fatal mistake had been rushing through and not taking time to fit it. By the time I’d lined it and understitched, it was too late.

So I dug it out of the closet and finished the two remaining shoulder seams, while looking longingly at the fab fake fur that I really wanted to be cutting out:


After that, I tried fiddling around with it to make it presentable, and even considered giving it some Issey Miyake pleats and folds to update it. But then, instead of looking like “Grandma Goes Trekking in Thailand” it had that air of “Grandma Goes Off Her Meds,” so I went to plan B.

I ended up crossing it over in front and sewing on a big covered “fur” hook and eye. I was going to do a row of them, but quickly lost interest.


Ohm MG! Right up there with the “Schiaparelli Mom Jeans Vest” from last fall.

By then I was about to call the Ghostbusters to straighten things out in my stash closet, but decided to make a last-ditch effort to improve my sewing karma.

I had been wanting to hack “Claire McCardell’s Gay New Hostess Sash” from this 50s ad for the longest time.

Claire McCardell Modess

You would send in $2 and a boxtop from Modess Sanitary Napkins to get an apron with pockets and double-wrapped sash. It was designed for the woman who did her own cooking but had to look good to entertain, based on McCardell’s “Kitchen Dinner Dress” concept from the 40s.

I found some fun retro quilting fabric, cut a long bias sash, and gathered the apron part using dental floss. You can find my tutorial about that trick here: Gathering with dental floss tutorial. #mintyfresh !


Rock n’ roll, Karl!

I stitched in some pockets, and used the “burrito method” (where you wrap something up like a burrito, then sew it) to attach the sash and avoid most of the dreaded handsewing:


Eek! My apron gave birth on the cutting table! My stash really was possessed.

That “Alien” maneuver seemed to have calmed things down, though, and this “make” turned out A-OK.

FullSizeRender 5

Well then I “needed” more unpossessed stash, so I met up with a bunch of local sewing peeps at the Pattern Review Boston Area Meet-up – this time at Gather Here Stitch Lounge. I hardly ever cross the Charles River to mingle with the hoi polloi and Harvard swells in Cambridge, but I did have fun getting together with these groovy girls:


(That’s Jenny from Cashmerette Patterns and Deepika from Pattern Review. Deepika organizes these lovely shindigs, so keep an eye on Pattern Review for details if you’re in the area.)

I was about to be good and leave empty-handed, until Deepika helpfully pointed out the remnant rack. Come to Mama!


(For some reason that picture’s sideways, so just turn your head a little to the right to get the idea.) I feel another apron coming on!

I also whipped up a 70s retro beach wrap in the false hope that it might actually make summer arrive:


(Since “Debbie Reynolds” is modeling it in front of the fireplace, you can probably guess that it was still 35 degrees and hailing when I finished it.)

I defrosted my hands and typed up a quick tutorial for the beach wrap, which is super easy to make and modify for all sizes. You can find it here on Retro Beach Wrap Tutorial.

It’s a free tutorial that’s part of’s partnership with BERNINA of America, and you can find out all the details by clicking the “Bernina Collaboration” tab.

I have to thank them again for loaning me my fab B560, Karl, who is the only thing in my entire sewing area that hasn’t been acting up in recent weeks.

So now that things have calmed down in my stash closet, it’s time for me to try out a few tips I picked up when I had a recent audience with the King:


I knew my luck had changed for the better when I got to meet the Elvis of haute couture, Kenneth D. King! More details about that will be coming up soon.

Hope your sewing’s going well!

Fabric Hunting in Buenos Aires and Eating Big Hunks of Beef


Sing it with me… “don’t cry for me Argentina!” (I apologize in advance for the earworm.)


Eva Peron (AKA Evita), the working-class first lady who’s been described as Princess Di and Jackie Kennedy rolled into one, used to hang out of that balcony under the flagpole of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. (Or was it Madonna in “Evita?”) It’s the executive mansion and president’s office, right in the middle of the city.

The “Pink House” is plenty pink, but looking at the color of that sky, I thought it must be the inspiration for the light blue and white of Argentina’s flag.

My husband and I, being ancient parents, decided long ago that we don’t want our son looking back on school vacation with visions of Orlando. So we cashed in our miles to leave  chilly New England “spring” behind and step off the plane into the late Argentine summer.


People from the U.S. tend to ignore South America, or think of it as a place where there’s a giant rain forest with deadly snakes, Rio where Carnival is happening 24/7, Mayan ruins with too many steps, and a bunch of drug lords acting like the Godfather. (Which just goes to show how provincial the U.S. can be.) When I was in school, I think we learned about it in geography once, and that was about it.

We tend to be surprised to learn that Buenos Aires, the “Paris of South America,” could look like this:




Most of the city looks very European, but the architecture tends to be super-sized.This building was based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, with hell on the bottom and paradise on the top. IMG_6664

(Hm, hell’s a lot bigger than paradise, isn’t it?)

Though Buenos Aires was once a Spanish colonial backwater, from the 1880s through the 1930s it became a country of immense wealth from meat and grain exports. So the rich families built up the city in a mix of faux Paris, belle epoch, Art Nouveau and Art Deco style. Back then if you had loads of money, in Europe they would say you were “rich as an Argentine.”

Visual art is everywhere – with huge paintings on the sides of buildings:



And unusual mosaics in the old buildings and the subway, which is clean and relatively safe:



This is the floor of the Teatro Colon, the 1908 opera house that hosted the great performers of the 20th century.


And here’s the rest – it rivals the Garnier in Paris and La Scala in Milan.


I really liked the Art Nouveau velvet curtains leading into the orchestra seats:


And the modern textile art on the curtains, a mixture of appliqué and embroidery:


Check out the Art Nouveau detail at the entrance:


And how about this ornate movie house, converted into a bookstore?


The Portenos are sophisticated like Europeans, but not as, um… well I know I have a lot of European readers, so how can I say it – brusque? There’s a certain New World friendliness, and people were extremely helpful to someone like me who’s walking around with no Spanish other than the words I picked up watching “Dora The Explorer” with my son. (Note to Dora – middle-aged women are watching. Teach us how to say “where’s the bathroom?”)

I had read about the fabric shopping in B.A. being so-so, from Melanie of the blog Poppykettle and Sarai from Coletterie.  When I got to the small fabric district in a not-so-great neighborhood, it was filled with small shops, many just too jumbled for me to pick through.


(With as much fleece as JoAnn’s.)

There were a number of shops selling lace and notions made in Argentina, but most were wholesale only.


About to give up, I went into the one store with more of a modern “retail” environment, called “Don Boton” (2611 LaValle St.). And I’ll admit I went a little crazy. Beaded trims:


Ruffled elastic:


Leather and faux leather trims and cords:




Fake fur and feathers, for when I pioneer “Old Babe” burlesque:


And lots of buttons! So this happened:


(I’m going to be consulting Kenneth King’s “Smart Sewing with Fake Fur” DVD to figure out how to sew that retro faux fur. It’s really soft and backed with a knit.)

After that, I needed some refreshment at the legendary Cafe Tortoni, from the 1860s.


When my husband and I were here 30s years ago, there was a much more “lost in time” feeling to Buenos Aires, and a big afternoon cafe society. It’s nice to see that this cafe still exists.

On Sunday, we visited the antiques fair in the old square in the San Telmo district, with a mixed bag of antiques vendors, tango dancers, and fairly touristy “Becky Home-Ecky” handicrafts.



We were about to leave empty-handed, until my Art Deco husband dove headlong into a booth of vintage buttons:


Good going, hon!


We stayed in a classy and modern boutique hotel, Fierro Hotel, in the “Palermo Hollywood” area, a quiet part of town with a number great restaurants within walking distance. Their staff found us an excellent English guide who took us walking around the Recoleta cemetery, which is full of “mini-mansion” marble crypts. IMG_6612IMG_6598

(At 19, the girl above went into a catatonic state and then was mistakenly buried alive. Just in case you’re looking for a subject for a creepy Edwardian novel.)


(I like how that architect made sure he had a wine glass on his Deco crypt.)

Even Eva Peron’s grave:


The Recoleta is quite a sight, and a great way to creep out any 14-year-old you might be traveling with.

Our guide was telling me that the previous Argentine president had forced international companies like Ralph Lauren and Chanel to plow their profits back into Argentina, so they up and left. Which actually benefitted someone like me who was looking for locally-made products to take home. It’s almost impossible to find souvenirs anywhere that aren’t made in China anymore.

At the store called “Ayma” in the Palermo Soho district (1565 Armenia St.), there are weavers in the workshop upstairs, using 18th century looms to make gorgeous, soft fabrics out of Argentine llama, alpaca and merino.


As tempting as the fabrics were, handwovens are very difficult to sew (they tend to unravel – and fast), so I went the lazy route and bought a pre-made wrap in the traditional asymmetrical Argentine style. The fabrics were a little more modern and not as rough-hewn as I’d seen in other shops.


(Believe me, we were enjoying the strong dollar to Argentine peso throughout the trip.)

You can find things made with Argentine leather all over the place, But I liked the goods at the polo/gaucho store Arandu (1920 Ayacucho St. in the Recoleta district).

IMG_6653They carry traditional silver, woven ponchos and sashes, and bags from soft, waterproof “carpincho” leather that looks like a combination of ostrich and nubuck. (They tell you it’s “otter,” but it’s actually from a giant indigenous furry rodent and that’s about all you really want to know.)

As for the huge slabs of beef, they exist in the traditional restaurants, so it’s a good thing that my doctor is an Argentine ex-pat who’ll understand the spike in my cholesterol. But B.A. is full of modern hipster restaurants as well. My foodie husband said he liked most of the meals we had there, which is the equivalent of giving a Michelin star in his world.

And as for my son:

IMG_6453The gelato ruled! Meanwhile, I was checking out the pattern magazines from Argentina and Spain.


There’s one “textile” memory I’ll take with me from this pleasant trip. One night, we were having dinner at a traditional parrilla (a restaurant with the aforementioned slabs of beef cooked on a fire), sitting outside at a sidewalk table. The “Fair Winds” of the city’s name, which I experienced as balmy breezes, were a little more refreshingly cool than usual, so I was offered a thickly-handwoven alpaca blanket that I put on my lap. A minute or two later, it started sprinkling rain, so the staff hustled our table under a canopy. Sitting there in cool, damp air, but feeling the warmth of that soft, natural fiber so skillfully woven, I almost felt like I was holding hands with the artisan who made it.


I most certainly will be back!

Hope your sewing’s going well.


I sewed for the Oscars again, and lived!


If you’ve been reading my blog for the past few years, you know that I am an Oscar widow – meaning that I hand my husband over to the show for several months, and then I get to go!

I’ve worn me-made on the red carpet a couple of times, first this “crushed” boatneck (with a pleat in the neckline) and long skirt:


(I have no idea what happened to the rest of that picture…)

And last year I wore the Madame Gres dress from hell that I wrote about ad nauseum:


But I swore I wouldn’t go down the eveningwear road again without doing a “sit and sew” with Kenneth King or Susan Khalje. You need someone like that to have your back.

However, when Santa brought me these bakelite Art Deco dress clips:


I got to thinking about the gorgeous, houndstoothy black tweed in my stash, waiting around to become the perfect quilted “little black jacket” with three-part sleeves, princess seams and all that jazz. I even had lining and trim.

Yet in my heart of hearts, having made jackets like that before, I knew that going the full Chanel was never, ever going to happen again.

And here’s why:

(Watching this Chanel Haute Couture Video will probably give you anxiety…)

But I needed to use the stash for something, so I started thinking about making a version of this McCardelligan that I’ve made a couple of times from knits. It’s based on an original McCardell jacket in my collection. She often designed similar jackets in wovens, and since the pieces were cut on the bias, the fabric is stretchy under the arms – no gusset needed.


I decided to go for it, because stash-busting is my middle name this year.

I started out cutting out the exterior fashion fabric, joyful that I was cutting out four pieces instead of 13 for a traditional jacket.IMG_5589

I always cut bias pieces in a single layer, and check and double check when pinning and cutting to ensure that they’re going to meet in the center front and center back in a “V”. If both sides end up going in the same direction, the whole thing can twist.

Who else hates thread tracing? That’s the haute couture technique where you baste around the pattern pieces on the seam line to help with construction and fitting.

I decided to fake it with a long machine basting stitch. Because sometimes if you get too bogged down in this stuff, you never get the thing done.


I marked the two darts and started putting the whole thing together.


With only two darts and five seams, it was pretty much smooth sailing. I even had a chain I’d bought, pre-sewn onto a ribbon, that I attached to the hem with a piping foot:


Yee haw! Then all I had to make was…the bias silk lining. Eep!

Now cutting and sewing silk on the bias is a different animal. It slips! It slides! It shifts! It sucks! (But it feels so good when you stop.)

Once again I laid out the pattern in a single layer, pinned it with loads of pins, and started cutting with my Kai serrated shears, which are the only game in town. (FYI, I’m not a Kai affiliate, just an addict.)

Then I kept the pattern pinned to the silk and faked the thread tracing again, with a narrow zigzag.


So far so good, until I goofed up and, noting that the fabric was burbling up as it got to the feed dogs, I started repinning as I was sewing. Big mistake! That works when I’m sewing things on the grain, but since bias fabric will move all around, I should have left well enough alone.

Fortunately, I had cut large seam allowances, so I literally had some wiggle room. I had to move things around as I sewed the lining together (again with a narrow zigzag, which is forgiving when you’re sewing on the bias).


And in the end it looked okay:


When I put the whole thing together, matching the lining seams to the exterior seams on the “wiggly” side was not happening.


But I was able to shift things around and smooth it out.

I attached the neckline (nervous nervous nervous):


By then I’d realized that I just needed to break down and hand-baste to keep the lining stable.

I had thought that I could do some quilting of the exterior and lining at this point, but since the bias was wonky, I stitched in the ditch by hand a little to tamp down the seams, then edge-stitched by hand around the neck and center fronts.


My clever pre-sewn chain was making the hem too stiff, so I trimmed the ribbon.


When I finally got everything stabilized, I pinned the hem, trying on the jacket several times to make sure that everything was lying flat.


Whew! After that, sewing on the trim was smooth sailing. (Even though I was doing most of it the day of the show!)


At the very last minute, I sewed on some brass hooks and eyes (lacking McCardell’s traditional brass shoe hooks and rings) and added the dress clips. Even the backs of the clips were Art Deco.


Then came the hardest part – pressing the crappy ready-to-wear viscose dress I’d bought to go with it on the hotel ironing board. The dress was a simple sleeveless long dress with a big slit and a sort of 30s godet, so get a good picture in your mind’s eye because that’s where it’s going to stay.IMG_5909




I was so excited about wearing a wool and silk jacket in L.A. in February, because I’m usually freezing on the red carpet and in the theater. This time around, though, it was 80 degrees! My husband was walking about 90 miles an hour and for some weird reason was more interested in getting inside to schmooze with people than to photograph me seven or eight times on the red carpet as I was having a hot flash. I tried to pull a Norma Desmond on him but he was not buying it. Consequently, the red carpet picture was awful.

So I’ll stick with pictures from the Governors’ Ball, which was so chilly that I overheard Charlize Theron, in Dior Haute Couture, complaining about the cold.


Next year I’m sure she’ll be sensible and show up in toasty jacket like me.


I did get a peek at Jennifer Garner (tall, in Versace) and Reese Witherspoon (shorter, in Oscar de la Renta) and really wished I could have gotten up closer to inspect the construction of their dresses. I’m sure they would have thought that it was just super-girly and not weird at all.

jennifer-garner-oscars-red-carpet-2016reese-witherspoon-oscars-red-carpet-2016There weren’t a lot of dresses I was crazy about, though I did like that Kerry Washington took a walk on the wild side in Versace:


And Amy Poehler, in Andrew GN, proved that you don’t have to be undressed to be fierce:


Here’s the most important picture – the desserts!


(A tiramisu push-up, creme brûlée on a stick, and a chocolate Oscar. Chomp!)

Oh no! I bit off Oscar’s legs!


And here, at long last, is my official red carpet portrait:


Okay, it’s a bad wall selfie, because my husband is so FIRED as my photographer. (Oops, just remembered that he’s my ride to the Oscars. Just kidding, hon!) But you get the picture on the jacket.

Of course McCardell, being a minimalist, would have put topstitching on the edges instead of that Chanel-y trim. But it’s really comfy, and now after going to all of that trouble, I have something to wear out to dinner, too.

To misquote Scarlett O’Hara, “as God is my witness, I will never Chanel again!”

How’s your sewing going?


More ideas for “Faking Vintage Looks With Modern Patterns”


The spring patterns are coming out, so it’s time once again to show the new releases, “vintage” or not, that will work for a retro look.

Not like I actually need to buy patterns–I have hundreds of vintage patterns that are making me feel guilty right now. I love finding them. I love looking at them. But when I open their fading, ripping envelopes to gingerly unfold little scraps of unprinted tissue crumbling into dust, I often think “boy, that looks like a project.”


Sometimes it’s fun just to fake it, and the big commercial companies have released some inspiring patterns recently.

First–“Panic At The Disco”

If you’re around my age (and you know who you are), you made this pattern, right? Admit it!


The apron dress was such a huge deal in the early 70s. Of all the patterns, I think I’d make this again to wear with a tee on a hot day. It looks comfy and not too kitschy.

Here’s McCalls 7366, a chic disco jumpsuit:


Fellow disco chicks, you remember wearing jumpsuits, right? And you remember having to pull the entire top off to go to the bathroom at a crowded club, right? If you’re young, go ahead and wear a jumpsuit–you’ll look hot and you’ll never forget it. As for me at this age, ease of peeing takes precedence.


Ditto the Simplicity 8095 jumpsuit that can be wrapped a variety of ways. It reminds me of those 70s knit designs pioneered by Halston and John Kloss. Not an easy look to pull off if you weren’t flat. Cute pattern, though.

(Sorry I’m not putting the links to the patterns in this post. If I did, I’d never make it to the hairdresser at 11:00.)

This surplice dress, McCalls 7350, also reminds me of Halston and is universally flattering:


That would be fun to wear to a formal wedding.

Let’s go back to some earlier eras, shall we?


Eek, not that far back! (Does he look like Borat to you?)


I’ll stick to this doll pattern for pre-20s historic sewing.

For a 30s look, how about this bias-cut “flutter” dress from Vogue (9168), with an underslip and sheer overlay?


I had a boyfriend in college who knew I was into vintage, and he gave me a dress like this from his aunt’s attic. Long story short, I dumped him and gave away the dress. But later I was filled with regret–I should have kept the dress.

The dirndl became very popular in the 30s as well, and you could use this pattern to make a longer vintage version.


Moving on to the 40s, how about this “Agent Carter” look? I like View A, with the trim.


Super cute romper and skirt!


(Though, let me tell you, my granddaughter wouldn’t wear it, because, as she said of the Liberty dirndl I made her, “It doesn’t have a princess on it.”)

Loads of 50s-style patterns out there, and I know people love that “I Love Lucy” #pinup look, I do. But I remember when crinolines were the itchy things we wore to school, and aprons were a symbol of pre-feminist drudgery. So I’m pretty picky.

Nevertheless, here are a few that caught my eye.


The striped one on the right has a timeless 40s into 50s “Peggy Guggenheim in Venice” look that’s still workable today.


I’d use this to make a 50s Norell Mermaid/Chanteuse type dress. (Though I would underline it with power mesh, like I did last winter when I was struggling through the WORST winter in Boston history and trying to make the dress from HELL by Madame Gres and…) Oops, had a flashback. I like Mimi G’s designs. They’re more “retail”-looking than a lot of the commercial patterns.

Two companies are doing versions of the “Walk-Away” dress/cobblers’ apron that are cute:



(Mother/daughter patterns from McCall’s Archive Collection, M7354.)

Here’s a classic 50s/60s shirtwaist dress that comes in a range of sizes and skirt/sleeve options–very Grace Kelly meets Betty Draper:


(Butterick 6333)


A fun “wiggle” skirt with a high waist, also Butterick (6326).

And a classic tunic pattern, a style that really hasn’t changed much since the 60s:


(McCalls 7360)



(It’s not super-retro, but it does make me want to go find a baby to snuggle. Must be the toxic chemical hair product on his widdle head.) But don’t make these unless you sew really fast, because the kid will grow faster. As the nurse said to me when she looked at the 9 1/2 pound baby I’d just popped out, “I guess you can return those newborn-sized onesies.”

Lots of fun patterns to choose from ! What’s on your sewing agenda for the next season?


The Tale of making a 40s Swishy Skirt (yesss!) and a Golden Girls Spa Robe (noooo!)…and fabric shopping in Paris


Who else is thrilled that the holidays are over? Despite being covered with tinsel for weeks, I’ve managed to get some sewing done.

Before Christmas, I thought I’d try this vintage pattern I’d been hoarding for several years.

Duster Pattern

I think these were called “Dusters” or “Opera Coats” back in the day. I wanted to see if it would work as an evening wrap, since I’m always freezing at fancy events. Plus my upper arms are no longer ready for prime time, if you know what I mean.

And I had some nice stash that I had no idea how to use–gold viscose/wool suiting (I am not the gold suit type) and some gorgeous Carolina Herrera panel silk that has been making me feel guilty for years.


The tissue fit was huge, so off I went! (Because I could always take it in, right?)

Tailors’ tacks for some big release darts at the neckline:


The gold was supposed to be the exterior until:


Does this look like Bea Arthur waiting for a facial to you too? Jeez, another classic design that’s peaked and pitched into Art Teacher Chic territory. (Just like the Schiaparelli Mom Jeans Vest) So maybe the blue would be better as the outside?

But rather than take the time to fit it better, I just plunged into making the lining which was now the outside. Clearly I just wanted to get that stash out of there.


I was proud of myself!


My Bernina 560, Karl, whispered to me, “you took the time to understitch, but not the time to fit? Is that wise?” (He was doing such a beautiful job that I just lost my head.)

Then, it looked like this for awhile…(bagging the lining was very confusing).


So I know you’re waiting for the big reveal, but when I got most of it done, it was screaming “summer drinks with hippy friends in the Vineyard” more than “winter evening at the ballet.” So it’s in the closet waiting for two shoulder seams and for me to give a hoot.

But that fabric’s out of my stash…time to get more!


Back to Paris. Did we go to the Grand Palais to catch the Chanel couture show? Mais non, when you travel with a 14-year-old, you’re going to the amusement park they put in there during the holidays.


Of course I felt so sad after the terrible things that happened in Paris. But having been nine months pregnant in Washington DC when the Pentagon was hit on 9/11, and having lived in Boston during the marathon bombing (fortunately we were out of town when it happened), I know how important it is for visitors to come back. It’s a painful time, and it helps to have friends in your midst. Even if it’s just people who love your city.

While I was in France, I started reading Elsa Schiaparelli’s biography. Her atelier was in Paris at the start of WWII.


(I was looking for divine inspiration about what to do with those vintage Bakelite dress clips my husband found for me.)

I remembered an article Schiaparelli wrote for Vogue in the 40s, about the first days of the French occupation. She, Lucien Lelong and other couturiers decamped from Paris to Biarritz with what little they had; their staff of petites mains got there however they could, and then they attempted to keep the French fashion business alive in spite of being under the thumb of the Nazis. In a plot as riveting as Casablanca, Schiap was able to escape via the Azores to get to the U.S. for a tour to promote French fashion. But soon the boats to the U.S. stopped, and most of the couturiers were forced out of business for the rest of the war.

I really admired how those couturiers and their staff fought to keep their culture from getting trampled by the Nazis, even over something that could be considered frivolous, like fashion. So though I’m usually a big scaredy-cat, I realized that it was important not to be afraid to go back to Paris, despite what had happened.

The ladies at Janssens et Janssens were as nice as ever, and the fabrics were as beautiful (and expensive) as ever:


It was quiet in there right before Christmas, so they were very kind to give me a deal on some beautiful silks and wools on the “coupon” (remnant) table.


Then I made my annual Pointless Pilgrimage of Fashion. In the past I’ve stood outside of what was Madame Vionnet’s atelier, and done a selfie on the Chanel staircase.

This time, I went to the address in the Place des Vosges where Claire McCardell, Joset Walker, and Mildred Orrick (all friends and fellow designers) spent their year abroad in the 20s, as flapper girls, while they were studying at what is now Parsons School of Design.


We went to the Musee D’Orsay, where I stumbled on this stunning view:


Yep, everything in Paris was still there.



And when I got to the Tuileries, I spotted one of my favorite things:


(A buff naked guy.)

When I got home, I decided to make another of the Claire McCardell 40s dirndls that I wrote about here. It’s so swishy! It’s not like those 80s skirts. It flows when you walk.

I’d bought some gorgeous lightweight silk lame’ at Janssens that the saleslady said was Lanvin. So I put in some pockets, gathered yards and yards of it at the waist, and attached it to wide, ventilated corset elastic. (Sure you laugh, but you don’t need Spanx!)


I was wandering around Saks, bored, and saw a similar skirt:IMG_5524

For $700! (Note: Mine is not size zero.)


Plus I can both sit and eat in my version, and it feels great to wear! Here’s a video to show just how swishy it is:

Not exactly Ginger Rogers, but it was “backwards and in heels.”

Hope your sewing’s going well in the new year!

My Passion for Wide Elastic and Dental Floss! And Edith Rears Her Ugly Head


Karl and I have been putting in overtime around here…because after you make a 20s Schiaparelli that turns into a fugly Mom Jeans vest, you’d better get back on the horse right away.

First thing we came up with was a new version of the asymmetrical sweaterknit wrap I designed last year. I wanted another one, because during Boston’s epic winter (2 yards/meters of snow!) we were all bundled up in our massive puffer coats, then we’d go inside and either freeze or roast. So I kept the wrap in my bag and used it all the time in theaters and restaurants.


This new version uses French seams to finish the innards, and foldover elastic to bind the edges. The pattern and tutorial are free free free on the website


Yeah, I’m getting my Judy Jetson on.

It’s part of Jet Set Sewing’s partnership with BERNINA of America. Details are above in the Bernina Collaboration tab. I can’t thank them enough for helping with all the vintage reconstructions going on around here.

And speaking of which, isn’t there a little part of all of us that wants to be a Hitchcock blonde? Even though she’s put in danger, hacked up, or obsessed about by Jimmy Stewart (and Hitch himself)?


Edith Head did the costumes for most of the Hitchcock movies, including the ones that fashion people obsess about, such as “Rear Window,” “The Birds,” and “Vertigo.”

The Birds

(That’s the “Nile Green” suit from The Birds, from last year’s Hollywood Costume exhibit.)

Edith Head released a series of patterns during that era from Advanced, all very Hitchcock in nature. You can hear my travails of making a bolero from one of the patterns in this post: “Long Live Edith Head”


All’s well that ends well.

As a little pick me up, I decided to do a quick make of this “turban” in another of the Edith Head patterns:


What could be so hard about making a hat? It’ll be fun!

(Does anyone else hear ominous music playing in the background? Like the theme from “Psycho” where the violins go EE EE EE!?)

Just two pieces for the exterior, cut on the grain.


I made it from some leftover jacket fabric–a stable knit–and it was a quick go. The main part of the hat is gathered with some release darts of various shapes and sizes, then is attached to a round crown.

But you know that part of a Hitchcock movie when Mr. Everyman’s just going through his day, and then everything gets weird?


When I went to cut the lining, out of leftover silk crepe de chine, it was (EE EE EE!) on the bias!


(If you’ve ever cut and sewn silk on the bias, then you know that deep foreboding you have when every move you make could lead to a massive wadder…)

I knew I would need industrial-grade shears, just in case Norman Bates was coming to hack away at the silk with a kitchen knife.



(Kai Serrated Shears. The best ever for silk. Just go get some.)


Asymmetrical wobbly darts! EE EE EE!

Honestly, I’d rather go up to the top of that clocktower with Jimmy Stewart:




Sometimes sewing is so suspenseful.

Well, what do you think? Tippi Hedron, or Eleanor Roosevelt? I’m still on the fence:

IMG_4849FullSizeRender 3

So then I moved on to a skirt I’d been thinking about making, based on 40s Claire McCardell dirndl skirt I have in my collection. The dirndl was her first runaway design hit in the 30s, based on traditional dress that she saw in Austria. During that era, she’d bought a funky farmhouse across the river from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where people from Broadway, fashion and journalism were hanging out on weekends. Their houses were rustic and freezing, so she created warm, comfortable eveningwear, made out of wool jersey or tartan. She also pioneered stretch waistbands on skirts during World War Two rationing, using chest bandages.

So I put together a big skirt with a couple of deep McCardell pockets:


(Neither one of them was upside down this time!)

Then I decided to use a gathering technique I’d read about somewhere (the source of which, sadly, my brain refuses to cough up…):


You zigzag over a string of dental floss (unflavored, unless you want to smell minty) then pull it up. I was skeptical, but…


Goal! I sewed it with a zigzag onto a band of 3″ wide knit elastic, which comes under the heading of “where have I been” because it’s so soft and stretchy. I had already sewn the elastic into a circle and then enjoyed annoying my teenager by snapping it at him before I attached it. Once I had it sewn on, I took out the dental floss so the waistband would stretch.


Well, that’s pretty sweet! But do I really want to, um, reveal that I’ve gone “fully elasticized?”

Thanks to a nine-foot by 13″ remnant of raw silk hiding in my stash, no one will every know!

McCardell Dirndl with Obi Belt

Bring on the holidays; I’m ready to eat!

How’s your sewing going?

Epic Sewing Fail! Anyone want a 1925 Schiaparelli meets Portlandia “Mom Jeans” Vest?


Every now and then, we all have a make that’s better in theory than practice, right? So let’s just put this one in the UFO closet of shame without showing it on my middle-aged middle.

My intentions were good…I had a 1925 pattern, loosely-based on a Schiaparelli design, that I’d been dying to try.


I say “loosely-based” because back in the 20s, most Paris-designed patterns and garments released in the U.S. were watered down versions of the originals. They were either licensed copies dumbed down for manufacturing in the States, or out and out thefts of the designs. The U.S. garment companies would hire young fashion school “sketchers” to memorize the designs at the Paris fashion shows, who would make quick sketches of the designs afterwards, and then put them on the fast boat back to the States to be knocked off. A number of famous designers from that era (Elizabeth Hawes is one example) got their start as sketchers.

Elsa Schiaparelli is perhaps best remembered for her surrealist designs, sometimes created with artist Salvador Dali. For example, the hat that looks a shoe:


(Details here from Metropolitan Museum’s Online Collection)

And her famous “Lobster Dress” (which was included in that tart Wallis Simpson’s trousseau):


(More info here from the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

This “cracked egg” design in the pattern was avant-garde and beautiful in it’s time:


(More about this much-better version at

But jeez, I should have known it was a little too ubiquitous now. And, having grown up in the north woods knitting and crocheting with “chunky” yarn in the 70s, I was not ready to rock that look post-millennium in this preppy East Coast metropolis. (One journey through the zeitgeist of pullover granny-square vests is more than enough for one lifetime.)

No, it was one of those things where I’d bought this fabric for a wrap, but it wasn’t drapey enough because it had a stable backing, but it would work for a jacket, but there wasn’t enough for sleeves and well…


Plus I don’t get vests! To me they’re a hot flash with frozen elbows.

So anyway, so far so good:


(Some nice seam finishes with a stretch overlock stitch that looks like a blanket stitch, using the Bulky Overlock foot. Karl, my Bernina 560, was on fire, baby!)


A little binding made of ponte, my new favorite thing… (After you stitch in the ditch, you flip it over and trim off the excess.)


But then I tried it on and thought NOOOOOOOO! No No NOOOOO! It was supposed to have buttonholes and cute lobster buttons along the lines of Schiaparelli’s bug buttons:


(More on those buttons from the Met Museum here.)

But at that point I was too over it to dig out the buttonhole foot.

And that was that. Elsa Schiaparelli, I am so sorry. I’ll make this pattern again with lighter fabric and sleeves and then we’ll talk.

But I did have success with a different project a few weeks earlier. In the spring, I’d made what was dubbed a “McCardellgan”: a version of Claire McCardell’s famous cardigan jacket design.


I’d worn the jacket a lot, but thought the design needed tweaking to be more authentic. So I went back to the drawing board and drafted a new pattern from two McCardell jackets in my collection.

The first is this sweater knit jacket, part of a sweet suit that would fit a modern 11-year-old:


And the second is a woven McCardell jacket, cut on the bias with big French darts and tapered sleeves. (No pictures as it’s buried in my closet somewhere…)

The edges of the jacket are finished with expertly-sewn bias binding, and how the 50s garment workers pulled that off on a knit–using straight-stitch machines–is a mystery to me.


In my last post, I talked about how I finished the inside of my new jacket with French seams. I decided to use ponte to make piping on my jacket, to give it some soft structure around the neckline. McCardell often used piping in designs.


I overlapped the fabric a little, so the raw edge of the piping could be turned inside to become facing, and sewed the seam a little bit away from the piping cord. Then I sewed the piping on the front of the jacket, this time with a seam a little closer to the piping cord. It looks smoother that way:


(Bulky Overlock foot 12C again. It’s very useful!)

I flipped the seam allowance of the piping to the inside of the jacket and stitched in the ditch on top, close to the piping.


Then I fell stitched the seam allowance to the inside, making a facing. The raw edge of the ponte doesn’t need to be turned under, which makes the finish less bulky.


I finished the hem and sleeves with binding, with the help of Karl and Wonder Woman.


Then it was picture time! Fellow bloggers, you know that look you get when you ask your Significant Other to take your blog photos for the umpteenth time? Well I got that look from my husband, so I decided to use the self-timer to do it myself.


Oh forget it! I went to my son’s soccer game, then tried it again when I was in a better mood:


Ahhh, another deceptively simple, yet sophisticated, modernist design from Miss McCardell. This jacket is already in heavy rotation, and another is in my “make” queue.

Hope your sewing’s going well, and that you’re avoiding epic fails this season!

(For details about how the nice folks at BERNINA of America are loaning me Karl, the wonder B560, please click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab.)

Why are we sewing? For the clothes or the experience?


Back to school shopping time? I don’t think so.


I just saw an article in the New York Times about how U.S. retailers are in trouble, because Americans are less interested in acquiring “stuff” and more interested in paying for “experiences,” like travel, restaurants, or gym memberships.

Which is so unlike us. Even though we value individual freedom, there’s definitely a herd mentality when it comes to style and shopping in the U.S. Here’s the link to that article: “Stores Suffer From a Shift of Behavior in Buyers”

It’s true for me, though, and I used to love, love, LOVE to shop! But back in the day, shopping was an experience. New clothes would only hit the stores a couple of times a year. They were made of better fabrics. You would buy just a few pieces, so you’d spend a lot of time in the fall dreaming up your school or work wardrobe.

I used to mull over what I would buy, and think about how it would go with what I had in my closet. I’d look through magazines and pattern books to plan what I’d buy and sew. Then I’d go to Goodwill and throw in some vintage, too.


Retail stores were much more pleasant places to go, too, and not jammed with ill-fitting, poorly sewn stuff like they are now. Then came online shopping, which, though it was fun at first, has become overwhelming and weird.

So I’ve embraced the “experience” of sewing instead. Let’s say you take 70+ hours to plan and execute something like a Chanel jacket, for example. When you’re done, let me tell you, you’re really invested in that jacket! It feels luxurious and looks unique. When you wear it, it’s yours alone, and it fits! The whole process is a lot more satisfying than shopping.


(One of the zillions of times I’ve worn that jacket)

And I really enjoy the “experience” of communicating with sewing peeps like you, because it alleviates those moments when modern life is dull and crappy. (Like when I’m procrastinating about the dishes I’ve been abandoned with. Which is now.) Most sewing people are friendly and encouraging online and that’s something every girl needs, right?

I was reminded of the ickiness of shopping when I was looking through U.S. Vogue Magazine’s September issue the other day. It’s not terribly inspiring because nobody in there has a body like mine. (Medium height, short waist, spare tire.)

And even though some of the modern designs are cool, the advertising people have clearly run out of ideas. Most ads can be grouped into the following cliches:

I Love Animals:


“Hello little birds! I plucked your friends to make this puffer dress!”


“I risked ripping my $800 down jacket to rescue this dog. That’s just the kind of person I am.”


“I am your trophy spirit animal. Pull the Beemer around to transport me.”


“I am your spirit animal when you’re skiing in the Italian Alps. Or I’m a muppet. I’m not really sure.”

I’m so angry:


“I’m so angry that I have to hold two bags. Where’s my assistant?”


“I’m so angry that I can’t find my brush. Where’s my assistant?”


“We’re so angry that we’re unpaid intern assistants. And we have to wear Pleather. But we’re too cool to emote.”

I’m so ennervated:


“I’ve been in bed so long, I’ve become one with the sheets.”


“Can you help me?…get out?…of the corner?”


“It’s so boring here at this Swiss boarding school. Let’s throw ourselves off the rocks and end it all.”


“Zut, they found out we were going to throw ourselves off the rocks, and locked us in the library.”


“I’ve had so much peyote that I’m starting to over-accessorize.”

Not sure if we’re gay, but we are trite:


“Let’s play kissy-face and then show off our expensive bags.”


“Does my lipstick need to be touched up, Kate?” “Sorry, I’m not getting paid to turn my head right now.”

IMG_3776“Astor, when we get to Trump Tower, don’t tell my father that we’re sorta gay.” “But what if he hits on me again, Wisteria?”


“Oops, I’m so sorry! This dress is so heavy and my heels are so high!” “I know, and this clutch weighs a ton.”

It’s time to RIVERDANCE!



(My dancer friends think it’s hilarious when models try to be ballerinas.)

From the land of clueless gifts:


“One year old today! Here’s your bag!”


“Lagerfeld wants you to have this $10,000 concept bag. Just watch your fingernails–it’s bubble wrap.”

But there was one ad that tempted me…


Hosanna! Come to mama! (Rats, I just realized that I spent that $200 on my 13-year-old’s school books, supplies, and soccer equipment. And a couple of patterns. And fabric. And some Steam-a-Seam. And some thread. And a zipper. And one of those little rolls of fleece. Because you know when you stop at Joanns just for one thing?)

After combing through the entire magazine, I only found two or three ads showing women who are within 20 years of my age, either way:


I’m down with looking like that in 15 years.

But then I saw…


Jeez, having lunch with Madonna, Donatella?

I know where my fall wardrobe’s coming from–my trusty sewing machine. How about yours?

Hope your sewing is going well!

Never Too Old for a Toga Party (or–Cotton Jersey, never again!)


Can a middle-aged woman pull off a toga? (Figuratively of course, though I went to my share of toga parties in college…)


For Pattern Review’s Historical Fashion contest, I was raring to go with a pattern by a famous 50s designer–fabrics, notions, everything I needed. Then I read the rules…nothing later than 1929! Eeeeek! Darn you contest committee! (Actually, though, not knowing the rules until a few days before the contests start makes them more fun.)

I still wanted to be a part of the contest, because making garments with a history is what I do. But I wasn’t taking it too seriously, what with all of those Regency, Renaissance, Downton Abbey and reenactor sewing people out there. I knew someone would be ripping down the drapes and coming up with an antebellum outfit that would put Scarlet to shame, so my chances of winner were low. I wanted to join the fun, though.

Rooting through my stash, I saw that I had a nice length of lightweight cotton jersey that I’d bought at The Fabric Store in L.A. I’d been wanting to make my own version of the Claire McCardell dress that I’d made for my sister last fall. Here’s my niece modeling the dress:


Though McCardell first introduced a version of the “monastic dress” (loose and belted, like a monk’s robe) in the late 30s, it morphed into a more Grecian toga-like style in the 40s. This design was so popular that I remember women wearing cheap nylon nightgown versions of it (and those pink plastic hair rollers) in the 60s, several years after McCardell’s death. The design is gathered tightly at the neckline, and then either gathered at the waist with a belt, or gathered under the bust with McCardell’s famous “spaghetti strings” that wrap three or four times around to the waist.


But the origins of this design are earlier–the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century–when wearing a toga-style gown was an act liberation for women. In the late 1800s, the “Aesthetic Dress Movement” encouraged women to lose the corsets and dress in a more bohemian way, in loose, simple dresses with a more Renaissance look. Here’s an example from the 1880s, by Liberty and Co., in The Metropolitan Museum’s online collection:


The style caught on in the U.S., as women began performing amateur theatricals with “tableaux vivants” that resembled the artwork on Grecian urns. In the vaudeville halls, Ruth St. Denis was performing dances evoking ancient cultures, though nothing about the dances was particularly culturally accurate. (Apparently she got the idea for one dance when she saw an Egyptian illustration on a pack of cigarettes.)


In Europe, people performed “Eurythmy” in togas (a form of movement to music):


And Isadora Duncan’s performances popularized this free-spirited look throughout the world.


Soon, this style of toga-like design, worn without much in the way of undergarments, showed up in the day and evening clothes of the time, one example being the form-fitting pleated “Delphos” gowns by Fortuny:


The toga look was part of the “Physical Culture” movement in the U.S., which encouraged women to get out of the corset, get out of the house, and exercise for health.


“That’s going to be meee in the backyard!” I shouted. My husband and son looked up briefly, nonplussed, and then went back to their iPads. McCardell herself was a fan of Fortuny, and she owned one of the Delphos dresses, which were so highly pleated they were kept coiled up in what looked like a small hatbox. So I figured  this was the right pattern to mimic the toga style.

Having made this dress before. (here’s the scoop on that) I learned a few things:

1. Don’t put the pocket in upside down:


It’s a big dress. You can get lost! This time I used chalk to mark the pieces so I could keep track of where I was.

2. Do the piping and other details before the dress is assembled to avoid this:


3. Gather and assemble the neckline before doing the side seams, because the dress below it is so big that the fit can be modified during the construction. I was able to use the same size pattern that fits my size Medium sister, though I’m a retail XL, because most of the fit takes place in the underbust gathering.


The most challenging part of remaking this dress was working with lightweight cotton jersey. Those little roll-y edges! I had worked with wool jersey plenty, but if you press those edges before sewing, they’ll stay put for awhile. All I had to do was breathe on the cotton jersey and the edges rolled back up again, making the seams very difficult to sew. (I don’t use a serger.) Grrrr! I finally ended up using Steam-a-Seam to stabilize the seams and hems, because it’s what I had around.


It does give you nice hems on knits!


This dress has a very similar structure to the bodice of Marilyn Monroe’s “Seven Year Itch” dress, designed by William Travilla, which starts with pleats at the neckline and is gathered again under the bust.

Seven Year Itch on Marilyn

The good thing about all of the volume in the gathers, though, is that jersey doesn’t cling to your lumps and bumps.

I made McCardell’s famous “spaghetti strings” using some scraps of vintage fabric to create more than 5 yards/meters of piping:


I stitched it twice, then trimmed close to the stitching:


So comfortable to wear! The volume of the gathers really gives it movement.


Here’s Writer/Actress Mindy Kaling, wearing a similar look in InStyle Magazine a few months ago.


It never goes out of style! Now out to the backyard, to thoroughly embarrass my family with some Isadora Duncan dance moves! Tra la! How’s your sewing going?