Sewing, sustainability and my business

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Choose carefully: look good

Wear wisely: feel good

Recycle: be generous

These words were on the introductory label of the recent V&A exhibition, Fashioned from Nature, and they’ve stuck with me since I saw it a few weeks’ ago. If you didn’t see the show, it was a brilliant exploration of the ways in which the fashion industry for centuries has been inspired by and destructively exploited the natural world. It featured pieces of extraordinary and troubling beauty: an evening dress decorated with thousands of iridescent beetle wings; an exquisite white swan-feathered shawl; the tiniest of birds hung as pendants from earrings. Of course, this being human history it wasn’t just nature who suffered, but frequently the men, women and children involved in the manufacturing processes too.

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Upstairs things were less bleak; the exhibition moved into a display of contemporary fashion by designers whose creations embrace sustainability. Here there were dresses made entirely from recycled bottles or offcuts from other production lines; there were the vegan leathers used by Stella McCartney (her Desert Island Discs episode is well worth a listen if you’re interested in her ethical fashion practices) and garments from designers such as Vivienne Westwood emblazoned with environmental slogans. There were even some displays from closer to home – Rosie Martin’s book No Patterns Needed and Wool and the Gang knitting kits!

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It can be sometimes all-too-easy to feel a complacence around the concept of fast fashion if you are a home sew-er. It’s absolutely true that we’ve cut out a frequently-horrific section of the clothing supply chain and that our garments are more likely to be repeatedly worn, mended and to last. We should feel proud of that. But thoughtful and sustainable consumption of the fabrics and other supplies we use should still be a long-term goal. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad here by the way; this is coming from someone who adores acquiring clothes (often made, sometimes bought) and expanding her fabric stash!

Anyway, the exhibition got me thinking about the sustainability of my business and sewing practice as a whole, and I thought it might be interesting to share some of the ways in which I do try and keep waste to a minimum as a business owner.

As a pattern designer, I sometimes use a lot of fabric in the process of experimenting with and finessing a design. I can end up with myriad half-made mock-ups that don’t ever see the light as wearable garments. I currently put all fabric scraps and unwearable mock-ups into fabric recycling bins. (I’ve heard H&M take scraps too although I’ve yet to try this.) Any wearable versions I discard go to charity shops or charity recycling bins. I also try to use unbleached/un-dyed cottons for toiles as natural fibres will break down more quickly than synthetic.

Each element of my physical patterns is printed here in the UK. My envelopes are printed here in London, so travel the shortest distance to reach me. My instruction booklets come from a company with this statement on their website:

ISO 14001 certification means we are minimising any harmful effects on the environment caused by the printing process, and continually look to improve our environmental performance in all aspects of our day-to-day business. We ONLY print on paper and card sourced from forests that are 100% sustainable. We were also one of the first UK printers to make the switch to environmentally friendly vegetable-based eco inks, without compromising on our superb print quality.

For my wholesale orders, I reuse cardboard boxes and packaging materials from other orders as much as possible. Whatever cardboard or paper isn’t used, I recycle. The envelopes I put my patterns in are also FSC.

I work predominantly from home, where we use a fully-green energy supplier.

When it comes to the actual patterns, I try to minimise the amount of paper used by utilising the tightest possible layouts. For the pdfs, my instruction booklets tell you which pages to print out for different options, so you shouldn’t end up with any unnecessary pages. Similarly, all my pdfs are layered, so you can save on ink by only printing the size(s) you require.

The fabric requirements I provide are always based on again the tightest possible lay plans, with usually no more than a 10 cm excess allowance. I know how frustrating it is as a maker if you end up with too much fabric left over (which somehow is never quite enough to use for anything else!).

I know this isn’t enough. Over time I’d like to ensure my entire printed pattern supply chain is sustainably sourced, that I use eco-packaging and move towards only buying organic and ethically created fabrics. Small steps towards big change. But we all have to start somewhere and I will say again that we, as makers, are part of the solution, more than the problem. Have you any good tips for improving the sustainability of your sewing (or business?!)? If so, please share and we can all support each other in this goal! x

 

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Nikko and Cleo – autumn staples

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Don’t you just love it when two me-mades are a match made in me-made heaven? I actually sewed up my Cleo eons ago during the big blog drought, and then whipped up this True Bias Nikko top last week, and they’ve been nigh on inseparable ever since. Whilst this is undoubtedly not my most flattering get-up, I love the child of the seventies vibe of the outfit and colours.

I made the Cleo with denim from Goldhawk Road that developed these odd pale ripples, almost like marble veins, during its pre-wash. I kinda like them. The rib knit is from Sew Me Sunshine and it is not a friendly fabric to sew. Even with my walking foot the ribs stretched out along every seam, making for example the shoulders far longer than they should be. Owing to the additional stretch factor in the rib I ended up taking the top in drastically along the sides although trying to leave the armscyes untouched; the stretching of the rib along the shoulders combined with the taking in at the sides has resulted in a less than perfect fit. I’d made three Nikkos from bamboo jersey back in the spring for skiing and they each fit like a glove so the fitting issues here were slightly frustrating.

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The cuffs also stretched out so they have an almost frill-like appearance which is actually rather appealing. Anyhow, I realised that on the whole the slightly poor fit doesn’t bother me. I just don’t have the time in this life to be pernickety over every single make. I love the colours in this top; they make me happy. It’s comfortable, I wear it. Perhaps sometimes that’s enough?

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Nina x

Appearing on The Sewing Quarter – me, on TV!

If there were ever a tale of feel the (realistically totally stupid) fear and do it anyway, this is it. Last Wednesday morning I appeared on live national television and contrary to the fears of my preceding month I did not majorly mess up and cause the world to cave in on me and my business. In fact, I had a ball.

When the folks at The Sewing Quarter first got in touch with a suggestion that I come on air and demo a couple of my patterns, which they would simultaneously sell, I was pretty excited. A big order, an opportunity to reach new customers and to boost the brand – it was all good! Sign me up!

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The pattern order waiting to be boxed up…

I merrily sent off ten boxes of patterns and then the dread set in. It was television. It would be live. It was in Birmingham.*

(* I have absolutely nothing against Birmingham; I think it’s great. It’s just not anywhere near London, which meant I had to go up the night before and stay over, alone in a hotel room with only my deeply panicky thoughts and 30 minutes of free wifi.)

I should say now that I am not a shy person. I have given large team briefings, presentations at conferences; I used to host a weekly pub quiz. I have taught classes and made a speech at my friend’s wedding. BUT all of these were things I had essentially prepared for. I didn’t know how to prepare for this – I didn’t know how much demonstration I would be able to fit into the time prepared, I didn’t know what kind of machine I would be using or who the presenter would be. Um, yes, you’re right, I could have asked in advance – but I didn’t. I was too scared of seeming scared.

I watched episodes with Becca from Sew Over It and Sarah from Crafty Sew and So and felt a little sick. They were SO calm! They didn’t make any mistakes! They didn’t laugh inanely or knock anything over or break the sewing machine or accidentally hit the presenter (all things I considered it quite probable I would do).

But come Tuesday I took the train to Birmingham. I checked into a Travelodge, had the same ‘gosh, aren’t these people SO nice and friendly’ thought I have every time I stay somewhere outside of London, and managed to lose myself, quite literally, in the Bullring. I then realised that travelling for your own business isn’t exactly like all the business travelling I’ve done in the past, in that if I had a nice meal and a glass of wine I wasn’t going to be able to expense it to anyone but myself, so I ate a takeaway in my hotel room. I also did a sizeable shop in Sainsburys because whatever else might go wrong in my world on Wednesday morning at least I wouldn’t go hungry on top of it all.

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The contents of my backpack by the time I settled in for the night. I’d bought four pairs of tights, ‘just in case’. And four triple chocolate cookies, for the same reason.

I had to be at the Sewing Quarter offices for a 6.30am meeting, and basically that’s when it all started to get better.  They were all so lovely! And relaxed. I was told I would be fine so many times I started to believe it. If you watched my Instagram stories then you’ll know I was still pretty much quivering with fear before going on but I can honestly say the team there couldn’t have done more to put me at my ease. I’m just a really wimpy wimp.

I was on in the hour from 9–10am talking about and demonstrating the Carnaby Dress, and then again from 11–12 doing the same for the Piccadilly Pyjamas. They were without doubt the fastest hours of my life. Once it got going I honestly forgot I had a microphone, that I’d never sewn standing up before, or that there were even cameras, really. There was just me, Vicks the presenter, and a few people somewhere out in the ether who might be interested in how to sew an all-in-one facing.

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My sister watched from home, which was just as well as we gave her a little wave!

The Carnaby Dress went really smoothly. I then managed to bungle the Piccadilly waistband twice, which was embarrassing, but somehow so far from the horrors I’d imagined that I didn’t even feel that bad.

I felt on such a high when I left that I got on the wrong train from Birmingham and ended up having to get off and turn around ten minutes later.

All in all it was a brilliant experience. A lesson to me in pushing on and giving something my all no matter how intimidating it may seem. Although I admit the joyous after-effects I’m still enjoying wouldn’t have been quite so intoxicating without their hefty dose of relief… Anyway, hopefully there’ll be a next time and at least I’ll know what I’m up against – nothing but my own overblown fears.

x

P.S. if you want to watch the show, it’s available now on YouTube here. My segments start at about 1.02 and then again at 3.03.

McCalls 7745 – more busty fail than fairy tale…

So here’s part 2 in my ‘fabulous McCalls patterns I made for Singapore’ series. First up I made a black jumpsuit that I couldn’t love any more than I do, and second up I’m sharing a dress that I want to love SO much more than I can.

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I mean look, it’s utterly beautiful, right? The fabric is a heavenly viscose from Lamazi Fabrics; I have a pair of Portobello culottes in the black and gold colourway. I love the vivid, punchy hues of the flowers and their wild, irregular scattering. I wanted to make a dress as pretty as the meadow on the fabric, and I sure did. It just doesn’t really fit.

I mean, it seems to fit at first. I spent quite a bit of time on the bodice fitting actually, which makes this tale all the sadder. It’s a wrap dress, it shouldn’t go that wrong. Disclaimer: no, you can’t see any of the problems in the photos because I was doing my best to hide them, and I apologise in advance for writing so much about an issue that I haven’t even illustrated. But what a quick try-on in the mirror at home didn’t prepare me for was the gradual gape that would develop within a short while of wearing out and about. The weight of the gorgoeus ruffles along the front pulls down the neckline – on both sides. The fabric isn’t strong enough to say no, and the muslin I used for the lining (to keep it all blissfully light) simply goes with the (downwards) flow, my careful understitching to no avail.

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The result was, well, slatternly. The contrast between the prettiness of the fabric and the style of the dress makes the immodesty all the more glaring. And you know what I also found interesting – how uncomfortable I found that immodesty on the street in Singapore. In London, people would have stared, some men almost certainly would have commented. But at the same time in London no one actually cares; heck, there are people out and about here wearing outfits too small to qualify as clothes as opposed to accessories, but no one’s bothered. In Singapore, no one stared. No one commented. But I felt more embarrassed because no one else was wearing a garment seemingly as a showcase for their bra, or anything remotely revealing at all. (At least not at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.)

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You can see in this pic how dangerously low the front V has become, and a sly bit of lining already rolling its way to the outside…

This isn’t about women having to cover up; Singapore isn’t draconian in that way. But I did feel a tad disrespectful  – and basically silly, because I was wearing a dress that didn’t fit as it ought. I scuttled back to the hotel as soon as these photos were taken, wearing my backpack on my front and looking properly weird.

I am loathe to extensively unpick because this fabric loooves to fray. I think however that I will shorten the straps, replace the ribbon ties with self fabric ties, and ultimately put some invisible buttons down the front neckline to hold the wrap in place. Rosa shared a gorgeous version she’d made on Instagram which gives me hope that mine too can become a thing of wearable beauty.

All this is going to wait a while though. Partly because I’m still sad I didn’t get to go out on a date night in Singapore feeling like a flower fairy gypsy, but also because it’s now averaging in the early teens back here in the UK and I won’t be wearing anything so dainty again for eons. Maybe I’ll fix it up and perfect it and then pack it away for our honeymoon, although as Scotland is still a possibility for that particular holiday I’m not counting on it… Or perhaps I’ll just hang it back on the dress form and simply admire it all winter!

McCalls 7789 – linen jumpsuit of dreams!

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Ah, Singapore! It’s been nearly a month since we got back from a fortnight’s holiday there and I’m still missing it. What a month it’s been though: I’ve managed to be ill twice, visit Birmingham, manage a huge order for the business, significantly expand the wholesale side of things, start Invisalign treatment and plan some of the ‘big’ bits of our wedding. Which is why I’m only now going through and sharing and writing about my Singapore-holiday me-mades, starting with quite possibly my favourite make of 2018 thus far: this jumpsuit.

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I’ve been really loving some of McCalls’ recent releases and this was one I simply HAD to have. The jumpsuit features a bodice with straps, curved neckline and front tie-closure (actually the pattern offers straps and a solid bodice OR a tie-front closure on a strapless bodice but it’s easy to mix-and-match), a deep waistband and then the most wonderfully wide trousers I’ve ever worn. The trousers have stitched-down pleats and deep pockets; everything fastens with an invisible centre-back zip. I made a size 10 and it fit me remarkably well; I barely took anything off the back which is my usual adjustment, and as the drafted leg length is ankle-skimming these worked perfectly for me – in heels.

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The fabric is a viscose linen blend from Fabric Godmother. It only came in black, which is rarely my first choice of colour, but obviously works well with totally OTT designs (can you imagine this in a print?!). The stuff has such a lovely hand that I went and bought more to make a chic pair of Portobellos for my mum. It presses well and doesn’t crease anywhere near as much as straight-up linen, which is a huge plus when you’re working with a hotel room iron.

All in all it came together simply and smoothly, which is exactly the sort of first-time make you need 3 days before you’re off on holiday. I know the Big 4 pattern companies come in for a lot of stick these days but they do make some great designs which simply wouldn’t be viable products for a small indie. If I released a wacky wide-legged jumpsuit I doubt I would sell enough to cover the production costs – but hey, maybe I’m playing it too safe??

I wore it on our one ‘big’ night out in Singapore – in fact, the first big night out I’ve ever had in Singapore – and felt like a Crazy Rich Asian! Or at least two of those things. I was cool and yet hot at the same time (#humiditygoals). I mean, I felt seriously sexy and that doesn’t happen to me often in these working-from-home-and-not-getting-out-all-that-much days.

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I can’t even express how much love I have for this garment. It’s actually the first jumpsuit I’ve ever sewn and I’ve already got another (a Kew and Portobello mash-up) now in the works. But next up for the blog is my second McCalls holiday sew and spoiler alert: it’s a bit of a fail…

Until then – have yourselves super duper weeks and enjoy some autumn sunshine!

Nina x

 

 

Back to blogging!

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Hello! It’s been eons, hasn’t it? I haven’t blogged for well over a year and boy, what a year it’s been! I’ve missed this little blog of mine, missed having somewhere to talk about my makes (not that they’ve been many) and life in general, all because life in general has been busy, challenging, exciting and no-real-time-for-me-time-all-consuming. And so I’m happy to be back writing and sharing again!

Life today looks pretty different to when I started this blog. Back when I kicked off Thumblenina I worked in publishing, I lived alone in a sweet little flat in Balham, I sewed just for pleasure and I saw a lovely guy for dates most weekends. Obama was President of the US, David Cameron was our Prime Minister and once in a while someone mentioned this crazy little thing called ‘Brexit’.

Now I run my own sewing pattern business from the flat I share in Clapham with that same lovely guy, and next year I’ll be sewing my own wedding dress.

Just don’t think about the other changes.

So, back to the blog and the here and now. Along with a name change, the blog will see me mix up the content a bit from now on. I’ll still be sharing my sewing projects here – I’m finally getting the chance to sew more for myself these days and have got a raft of recent pattern reviews to get down in writing. I’ll also be documenting other creative adventures – including but not limited to the epic crafty plans I have for our wedding! I’ll be talking art and illustration, calligraphy, design, embroidery …

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One of my recent makes, McCalls 7745

AND I’m going to talk honestly about the realities of being a creative entrepreneur, and try to tell stories and give tips that might help anyone else on (or thinking of) this path. It’s the sort of thing I’ve found hugely reassuring and inspiring over the past 18 months and I’d like to put in my two penn’orth. Thinking about the nature of small business and creativity is unsurprisingly a current preoccupation of mine and so it feels natural to share some of that here too.

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My living room floor as I write this…

Anyhoo I’m really just looking forward to once more having somewhere to empty out the whirligig of my brain! And hopefully a few old Thumblenina friends out there will keep me company as I do 🙂

Nina x