Winter warming strategies


The weathermen have been banging on about this cold snap for ages, and now it’s definitely arrived. It’s freezing. In anticipation of the ICY BLAST, as they kept calling it on the BBC , I finally got around to sewing new buttons on my new/old red coat.

My camera does not like this shade of red at all.

They’re from Taylors Buttons in Soho. This place is amazing. It’s more of an office than a shop – you have to ring a bell to get in. A nice lady opens the door, and you go into a small room filled with thousands and thousands of buttons. No computer, no card machine, just old dusty cardboard boxes lining the walls with buttons spilling out everywhere. It’s like visiting a haberdashery shop in the 50s – I loved it.

I did contemplate going for silver buttons but was a bit worried about looking like one of those soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace. These red ones are the perfect colour.

As another arctic-chill coping strategy I’ve made myself a new cowl, or a Simon as we used to call it in my knitting group, for obvious reasons:

Geddit? This pun doesn’t work quite as well if you call them ‘snoods’.

I used to be a champion knitter until I discovered the siren call of sewing. Now my left-over balls of yarn are just gathering dust in the spare room. My friend Lizzy just has to look at some wool and needles to instantly whip up an amazing creation, but I think I’ve lost my knitting mojo. This Simon is my attempt at kick-starting it again.

The problem with these things is how wide to make them. Really loopy ones look good but are completely useless for keeping your neck warm. Small ones are more insulating, but bear an unfortunate resemblance to a surgical neck brace. I’m hoping this one falls somewhere in between.

You barely need a pattern for something like this but you can get one on Ravelry anyway, which is what I did because I’m lazy.

Snoods/cowls/Simons are incredibly comforting to wear – let’s face it, they’re basically adult security blankets. They make you realise how perfect life must be for tortoises. Almost any problem can be solved can withdrawing your head into a woolly shell and refusing to come out until a solution is reached.

I’m not coming out until there are chocolate digestives

p.s. Today I went to the Peter Jensen fabric sample sale, and it was BRILLIANT. There were hardly any prints, sadly, but the quality of the fabrics was amazing. I went slightly overboard, will take some pics of my haul later.

Friday Fabric Fun: Peter Jensen sample sale and stretch denim

Attention, London-based sewing types! I have some Friday fabric news for you. Ready?

Designer Peter Jensen is having a fabric sample sale (this link now works properly, sorry!) next Saturday, the 27th October, at 10am. This is rather exciting. He’s known for his unusual prints, like this umbrella fabric:

Photo via Style Bubble

Or this bird print, which you might have known I’d be a fan of:

Or this slightly over-the-top-but-amazing-with-it alpine cabin print:

Now of course there’s no guarantee that they’ll be selling any of this stuff – it may just be a load of old calico they need to shift. But I’m definitely going to go down and find out! Is anyone else interested? Slightly concerned that it will just be a horde of 20 year old fashion students with sharp elbows, so would be nice to have some fellow home sewists along.

On the same topic (sort of), I have a fabric dilemma. Where you can buy interesting stretch trouser-weight fabrics, online or in London?

I’m not saying I would wear these, necessarily, but I’d at least like to have the ability to make them

Coloured and patterned jeans have been all over the shops for ages now. But fabric stores don’t seem to have caught up yet. Everywhere I’ve been just has a small, sad selection of cheap-looking stretch denim in dubious shades of blue.

I’ve got the pattern already – Burda 7863, inspired by Handmade by Carolyn. And I’ve got some practice/wearable muslin fabric from Tissu. But I need more! Any suggestions? (I did find this Ebay shop but that’s about it).

Our summer of balcony gardening

Autumn is definitely here. I know this from the many alarming creaks and groans coming from the boiler now it’s finally switched back on. I even got the hot water bottle out the other night. So it seems like a good time to post these photos of the balcony garden we grew this summer.

So my two big New Year’s resolutions this year were:

  1. Learn to dance and get more exercis
  2. Grow some vegetables on our balcony

It’s best to draw a discreet veil over No. 1 – I’ve been taking ballet classes since January, but I’d wouldn’t really describe anything I do there as ‘dancing’. But resolution No. 2 was a huge success, mainly because of a lovely lady called Naomi who runs this awesome gardening blog.

She is a gardening genius who I met via her blog, and she offered to give me some advice on how to grow stuff on our balcony, in exchange for using the photos in her upcoming book.

This was what we started with:

Nothing natural except for all the dirt on my bike.

And this is where we ended up!

Green everywhere!

Naomi was a huge help, giving us seeds, soil, and lots of useful advice. Not to mention taking all these awesome photos.

These tomatoes grew to about 6 foot before we chopped off the top, and were incredibly nice (they’re called Gardener’s Delight). We also grew tumbling bushes in hanging baskets which yielded hundreds of tomatoes, but the vine type were definitely the tastiest.

These were the tumbling tomatoes and some parsley (and my messy hair).

Not sure how much of an overlap there is between the sewing blog world and the gardening world, although I know that Emily of The Bottermann Empire has a rather impressive balcony garden. If you are interested, this is what worked for us (on a sheltered SW facing balcony).

  • Vine and bush tomatoes grew like anything
  • Salad leaves, although we did get a pesky bout of manky caterpillars on them
  • Herbs including parsley, mint, thyme, and oregano
  • Jalapeño chillies – not grown from seed, but we got loads of fruit off one plant
  • Rhubarb! That’s what I’m clutching in the second photo down

This is what didn’t work so well:

  • Coriander just grew about 3 inches, flowered and died
  • We had some great purple bean seeds, but the plants didn’t flourish for some reason
  • Peas are really pretty and tasty, but didn’t yield that much in a wine box
  • Tromboncino squash grew like mad but didn’t product many veggies
  • Beetroot were great for leaves, but the roots were a bit small

This is beetroot in an old wine box. I tried loads of places to try and get a couple of these, and eventually struck gold in a local deli. (Top tip – only really posh wine comes in these boxes, so don’t bother asking at Morrisons. Even Majestic turned me away.)

If you’re interested in doing container or urban gardening, I recommend checking out Naomi’s blog Out of My Shed, as well as the small-space gardening blog Vertical Veg. I also bought The Bountiful Container, which was very helpful but not really aimed at the UK which makes all the buying recommendations a bit useless. It’s great for ideas though.

I can honestly say that growing these plants has been one of  the highlight of my year. I can’t believe how rewarding it is coming home from work and checking out which seedlings had grown an extra inch, and whether our tomatoes had started to turn red. I don’t think we’ll be self-sufficient for a while yet (or ever, unless we turn our spare room into a hydroponic growing pod) but just having fresh herbs and salad leaves makes you feel remarkably proud/smug.

Thanks to Naomi for all her help, and these lovely photos!

Why do clothes cost what they do?

Everyone who knits, or sews, or makes jewellery, or maybe, I don’t know, bakes macaroons, at some point is told by a well-meaning friend ‘This is so good you could sell it!’.

Obviously this is meant to be a huge compliment. But if you’ve ever spent 6 months knitting a shawl out of overpriced German yarn that costs £30 a ball, only to be told by a friend that they’d pay ‘at LEAST 25 quid for that!’, the market has long ago moved on from the cost of totally hand-made labour.

There are always threads on Ravelry about this, advising people to pay themselves minimum wage, to price their work fairly, not to be undercut by people selling baby socks for £2 a pair. But the problem is that pricing is not actually a straightforward equation, like ‘time + materials + mark-up = cost’. It’s more of a dark art, shrouded in mystery and illusion and resulting in bog-standard looking handbags that cost £25,000 (this is not a typo).

For example, the designer Olympia Le Tan. She makes these beautiful clutches, embroidered to look like vintage book covers. They open up just like a book too, so you can store your Tom Ford lipstick and possibly a single tissue. Sadly there’s not enough room in there for an actual book.

They’re made in limited editions of 16, and they cost about a grand each. The press around them seems to imply that they’re all hand-stitched by Olympic herself, although information on her website is a bit thin on the ground.

Now these things probably do take hours to make (whoever actually makes them). But the reason they’re so popular is that Olympia has hit on the sweet spot between design, craft, high fashion and literary pretension. Hollywood starlets can carry one of these (which after all cost a lot less than a new Burberry bag) and look intellectual, quirky, and cutting-edge all at the same time. Her background in the fashion world and famous illustrator father obviously help a bit with the PR as well. That all adds up to £££££.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I find the pricing of designer clothing utterly puzzling. At some point a human being has been involved in their construction (as Polka Dot Overload points out in this post), but that’s probably the least important aspect in how much they cost.

If you go to Selfridges and get close to some designer clothes in the flesh, you can see that they use nicer fabrics, and better construction methods, but they aren’t sprinkled with gold-dust or guaranteed to make you look stunning. They’re nicer than high-street clothes, but not 200 times nicer. I guess the idea is that you’re paying more for cutting edge design and fit, rather than quality.

Some labels are clearly taking the piss though. Or to put it more politely, establishing themselves as Veblen goods. I give you the £1,225 Lanvin top:

At least it’s lined.

One nice thing about home-sewing is that you can invest where it shows – in materials and equipment that make your clothes look better, rather than having to spend money on marketing, distribution, and staff Christmas nights out.

What do you reckon? Any insights into clothes pricing? With the price of cotton going up drastically, all fashion retailers are going to be affected, and this may be an issue that becomes more interesting to the general public.

(If you’re interested in this there’s an amusing old thread on  The FashionSpot debating the most overpriced designers.)