Thursday, 30 January 2014

Roots sewing series sewalong: a shweshwe dress

Sewing along with Elegance & Elephants' Roots series. If you're ready for a loooooong post, here's my contribution:

When I lived in South Africa I would occasionally go to fancy events where people would arrive dressed in stunningly beautiful heritage outfits. There were glamorous dresses in colourful African fabrics, glittering salwar kameez and saris... and then there was me, all dressed up in... a dress. A boring old dress. And once again I'd find myself wishing that I had my own national costume to wear, the way I would if I were Spanish, Mexican or Scottish. Sadly, there is no Jewish traditional dress, nor is there an Australian one (unless it's thongs and a singlet, or one of those hats with corks bobbing off its brim to keep the flies away).

But as a first-generation Australian, my roots are, in any case, elsewhere. My ancestors came from many different countries, moving around Europe and Eastern Europe negotiating antisemitism, shifting borders and changing opportunities. My mother was born in Germany, my father in South Africa. They passed on to me a sense of rootlessness, a complete indifference to Australian Rules football and a tragic absence of traditional dress. SO unfair.

My itinerant ancestry aside, South Africa, my father's homeland, is a place I feel strongly connected to - so much so that I spent seven years living there in my twenties. And while I will probably never wear one of those super-glamorous African outfits, I have a long relationship with shweshwe, the indigo fabric that was brought to South Africa by missionaries in the 1800s and is now part of traditional culture and ceremonies there. Traditional shweshwe dresses are typically made with a combination of a few different patterned fabrics and are quite ornate, with lots of details such as decorative yokes, embellished pockets, ric-rac and sometimes even embroidery.

Image source:

It's surprisingly hard to find images of traditional shweshwe dresses, but if you're interested, the blog She Wears Shwe Shwe is a great resource. And a history of the fabric can be found here.

The shweshwe can also be bought in printed skirt panels, and many dresses incorporate these. Indigo is the traditional colour but it has for many years been available in brown and red as well, and can now be found in purple, orange, pink and green for less traditional uses.

As children, my sister and I wore home-made skirts made from this pretty patterned cotton fabric, which my mother bought when visiting Cape Town. And now I have my own small, precious collection, brought over in bits and pieces by my dad, who has really stepped out of his comfort zone by doing my fabric shopping for me. My favourite brand is the iconic Three Cats, once produced in England but now made in South Africa.

Me aged about 6 wearing a Three Cats skirt.

I adore the Three Cats logo printed on the reverse of the shweshwe and the smell of the starch used to stiffen the fabric - this was once done to protect it from insects on the long journey by ship from England to South Africa, but is now done purely for the sake of tradition. The fabric is stiff when you buy it, but gets softer and softer with washing.

So my 'roots' outfit for my daughter represents one branch of my family tree - the one with the strongest personal significance, and the most positive memories. Like the shweshwe dresses of adult South African women, and like my childhood skirts, R's dress is modest, much longer than I would usually make for her. It incorporates two fabrics: white-spotted indigo 'Three Cats' shweshwe, and indigo red-and-white printed Kwa Mtapuna shweshwe, supposedly 'double sided' (I say supposedly because the print on the reverse is far less bright than the one on the front). For the pattern I used the beautiful dress 'T' from 'Girly Style Wardrobe', the construction of which was like a puzzle I had to unravel, given the almost complete absence of instructions. But hey, I did it!

For the back closure I used an invisible zip (not sure what the Japanese language instructions were indicating, but I've become used to inserting this kind of zip now). The little belt around the waist is held in place by three thread chain loops and I used this great tutorial from Oliver + S to make them. I was surprised how easy it was!

Inside the bodice a Three Cats logo is hiding...

 And my little African-European-Jewish-Anglo-Australian daughter loves it.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

KCW Project 1: Nightie in Japanese lawn

I did an audit of my daughter's summer nightwear options and found the following: a size 2 'dora the explorer' nightie which barely covers her undies, a ridiculously tiny singlet-and-shorts set, and a home-sewn nightie which wasn't all that well-made to begin with and is now far too short. An embarrassing and pathetic selection, never mind that it's been too hot in Melbourne recently to wear anything at all (as I write this it's 7pm and still 41 degrees).

So in order to give my poor daughter something decent to wear (and because I wanted to try out this pattern from one of my new books) my first Kids Clothes Week project is a nightie. An old-fashioned long nightie with lots of frills and lace. R likes it so much that she wants to wear it as a dress. In anticipation of this problem I had chosen a very 'nightie-ish' floral fabric... but hey, I don't mind if it makes the odd switch from night to daywear.

Details are:

Pattern: from Girly Style Wardrobe. This pattern has no letter designation, which is weird, but it's the dress (nightie?) on the back cover. It doesn't have much in the way of instructions either, but then, it's not exactly complicated to sew.

Fabric: Japanese cotton lawn from Spotlight. I love using fabric from this range because it's lovely and soft, and if you don't mind the slightly crumpled look you can get away without ironing it. The dress has cotton lace trim on the hem and also on the front and back neckline. Putting it on the back was an accident which resulted in my having to add a label so R would be able to tell front from back. So I cut out the 'made in Japan' part from the fabric selvedge and used that. R can't read, so she's unlikely to comment on the inaccuracy of the label... yet.

It may not be made in Japan, but if the weather ever returns to a more civilised temperature it will make for a very comfortable (and frilly) night's sleep.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Qi pao sewalong

I joined in Yifarn's qi pao (cheongsam) sewalong on Japanese Sewing Books and made R a Chinese dress. Yifarn very generously provided a free pattern and video tutorials for each stage of the sewing process - hard to resist, really!

I went to Spotlight and soon discovered that, free pattern notwithstanding, this little dress was going to cost a fair bit to make. Brocade at $14 a metre, silver bias tape to match, and silver frog closures at a ridiculous $9 each. So I settled for the one brocade that was marked down on the clearance rack ($5 a metre, hooray!) and used black satin bias binding from Darn Cheap where I also found black frogs for just $1.50. That shop has truly lived up to its name this week.

The design is reasonably simple to sew, but I decided - perhaps unwisely - to skip Yifarn's insructions for the 'concealed zip' as i wasn't sure whether she meant normal dress zip or invisible zip. Instead I used an invisible zip and put it in using my usual method, then found that the fabric had puckered on one side, so it was out with the unpicker to remove the zip and start again. That part was seriously unpleasant - the brocade frays and catches horribly, and is terrible when it comes to unpicking stitches. But the end product is festive, colourful and sweet, and fits R beautifully. My one issue with the pattern is that it's rather difficult to get on and off, so if I ever make a qi pao again I will redesign the top section for easy dressing.

Now R is all ready to celebrate the lunar new year in her new dress. Bring on the fireworks and dragon parades!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Skirt, apron and bag for a 2-year-old

My sweet little niece is turning 2 next week, so of course I had to sew something for her.

First, a market skirt. I adore these skirts, and they're so easy to make. This one is seersucker with white drill for the waistband and hem. I got R to model it - she is three and a half years older than my niece so it's rather short on her, but it looks pretty cute all the same!

Second, this very sweet apron-style top from Girls Style Book, in organic cotton from Spotlight. I really love this fabric and am hoping I have enough left to make something else from it. 

Lastly, a matching bucket-style bag, also from Girls Style Book. It has an inner section that can be closed by pulling the cords. I think it's a very sweet bag, even if I did make a stupid mistake putting it together. Can you see what it was?

 The trees on the fabric are upside down. But I'm fairly sure my niece isn't going to complain.

Here is the apron top modelled by R. She was a bit confused about why I was asking her to wear M's clothes... but hey, they fit! I hope they won't be too enormous on little M...

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Colour-in totes

My daughter loves drawing things from her imagination, but she's also fond of colouring in. She often has me print out hideous Barbie pictures from online colouring sites, which she then forces me to colour in with her. Not my favourite activity... but at least it can be done at the table while having a coffee, so I shouldn't complain.

Much more to my taste is this brilliant Ikea fabric, designed to be coloured in. They even sell fabric markers to go with it! The fabric is a sturdy canvas-like cotton, perfect for tote bags (and for dresses, too - Shino of Nutta! posted a gorgeous one just a few days ago). From one metre of this material I made two decent-sized bags as Christmas presents for a friend's kids, plus a little bag for R, as it seemed a bit unfair to make them for the other girls and not for her. And I still have enough left for a fourth bag, so it seems there will be one more victim of colour-in tote mania, yet to be chosen...

To make the totes I copied the dimensions of a smallish reusable shopping bag I had handy, and boxed the corners (if you're looking for a tutorial, Dana's is a good one). The bags are unlined and are very quick to whip up, and their simple design means they should be easy to colour in. Packaged with a set of fabric markers, I think they make a really nice gift. And should R demand that I colour hers in with her, I will be only too happy to oblige. So take that, Barbie!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Balloon shorts and ruffle top - and an ironing board

Happy new year, readers! I managed to fit in a bit of sewing over the Christmas holiday. Emboldened by the success of the ribbon-tie pants (R has worn them a few times without complaint, undeterred by her brother calling them 'Aladdin pants') I thought I'd see if I could get R into some shorts. And since I'm working my way through my new Japanese pattern books, I tried out a new top to go with them.


The 'balloon-shaped' shorts are from Girls Style Book and the fabric is cotton seersucker. I love this fabric, but it might be just a little too similar to next year's checked school dress - so although I bought heaps, it may not get much use. Oh yes, and I managed to sew two left legs and couldn't be bothered to re-sew, so the shorts have an exposed seam on the inside left leg. But it's not all that noticeable - unlike the loose thread hanging down in the photo above right. Why is there always a thread I don't notice until after I've taken the photos?

The top is from Kids Clothes Sewing Lesson Book, and it's basically a peasant-style top with a ruffle around the neck. It's a lovely, roomy, comfortable style and R seems quite pleased with it. The fabric is cheesecloth - I love the colour but shudder to think what's going to happen when I wash it... I'm imagining a little shrunken dolly-version of the top that requires much stretching and ironing to return it to its intended dimensions.

Speaking of ironing, I have a confession to make. My ironing board, which I inherited from my late grandmother some years ago, was, until yesterday, in a disgraceful state. The stained cover had lost its elastic and had been savaged with scissors. It slipped around when I ironed on it, and to make matters worse, the padding underneath was not secured and was too small for the board. I don't know why my grandmother put up with this shocking state of affairs (except for the scissoring - that bit was my contribution) and I don't know why I put up with it for so long. Many times I considered buying a new board, ideally one with a holder for my iron, but didn't want to waste money on something so mundane. So after years of procrastination, I finally took action. Introducing... (drumroll)... my NEW IRONING BOARD COVER!

It's clean! It has elastic! And it hasn't (yet) been attacked by scissors! I even rearranged the padding so it almost fits. And under the many disgusting layers of stained and torn covers that I found beneath the top one (it was like being an archaeologist, uncovering my grandmother's ironing history through the strata of ancient fabrics) I even found a pull-out iron holder. It was hidden under the board, disguised by one of the older covers having been lashed onto it with some kind of nylon rope. Weird. And hard to untangle. But I'm very happy to have found it.

If you feel inspired to renovate your own board (which is not to suggest that anyone else's board is half as disgusting as mine was), there is a simple tutorial here - but I ditched the bias-tape bit and just folded the edges in to make a casing. Worked beautifully. Strangely, my husband and children have barely responded to my new board cover - perhaps they are speechless with admiration?