Book Review: Liberty: British Colour Pattern

Finally, Liberty: British Colour Pattern is available in the US! (Although not *immediately* available; Amazon is showing out-of-stock.)

picture via Liberty blog
picture via Liberty blog

I begged for a copy for Christmas and was duly gratified, but I held off blogging it until it was easier to get. (Of course if you’re in the UK/ROW, you can order it here.)

It’s truly a gorgeous book and includes plenty of pictures of similarly-gorgeous Liberty fabrics:

picture via the Liberty blog
picture via the Liberty blog

In my fevered Liberty dreams, they put out a book such as the “Swatch-Clopedia” that Swatch reseller Squiggly does — every fabric Liberty ever made, listed in all colorways. I don’t care if it cost $300, I would buy it.* And I would certainly buy a “Liberty Annual” … a magalog that listed all the fabrics produced in a year, in all colorways. Liberty fabrics marketing department, are you listening?

This book doesn’t really need a review. If you love Liberty fabrics, you will love this book. If you don’t love Liberty fabrics yet, this book will probably tip you over into loving Liberty fabrics. Either way, you should probably wishlist it now.

*especially if it were arranged by year, with an index by name, and indexes by designer, fiber, weave, and pattern type (small florals, large florals, novelty, geometrics …). Hey, a girl can dream!

Book Review: The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski

The Lost Art of Dress


So Basic Books sent me The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish months ago, and I read it immediately and thought it was awesome. And now it’s actually out in the world where you can read it, so I figured: review time!

The Lost Art of Dress is a history of (and paean to) the women who invented the field of home economics, and who taught hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of women how to dress beautifully, healthfully, economically, and practically during most of the twentieth century, only falling out of favor during the youthquake movement of the 1960s. Przybyszewski calls them the “Dress Doctors” and outlines how they used principles from art to guide women’s dress choices.

It’s a fascinating read, and whether or not you agree with the premise of the book (that women today are largely not stylish because they have abandoned these classic principles of color harmony, symmetry, and graceful line) it’s certain that you’ll enjoy the vast amount of largely forgotten and entirely charming advice the Dress Doctors gave their “patients.” For instance, women were advised that, when traveling, they should remain efficient and anonymous by choosing “no emotional colors, no revelatory designs, or fabrics, no temperamental hats or shoes.”

The most satisfying theme threaded through The Lost Art of Dress has got to be its debunking of the modern cult of youth fashion. Given that designers were only recently shamed into not letting children under sixteen walk their runways, it can be astonishing to remember that, pre-1960, all the good clothes were intended for mature audiences only. “The French say that all perfectly dressed women are over forty,” reported Women’s Home Companion in 1937. “That is because they know that a smart appearance is the result of study and experience.” Przybyszewski may hammer this point a little too hard for anyone under 30, but those of us past that don’t-trust-anyone-over age will nod and grimace by turns as we read advice on how to wear crepey textures in order to flatter crepey skin.

Przybyszewski does not shy away from strong statements, whether quotes from the Dress Doctors (who pointed out that if you wear fancy clothes for mundane errands, it’s likely those who see you will assume you have “no other place to wear fine clothes”) or her own observations that “the only creature that should be wearing bright yellow-green is a small poisonous tree frog living in the Amazon” and that “if you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet.”

If you love the styles of the first half of the last century and wonder why they were so lovely (and why so many modern clothes are not), you should read this book. If you are interested in the history of popular fashion as worn by ordinary people, you should read this book. And if you’re interested in some practical dress advice from the good Doctors, you’ll find that here, too.

Highly recommended!

A Very Dangerous and Worthwhile Book: Cool Tools

Trust me, you really want this book:
Cool Tools cover
It’s Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, and it’s the book version of the Cool Tools blog, spearheaded by Kevin Kelly (who is all cool, all the time).

Why do you want this book in book-form? Because it contains 1500 personal reviews of cool tools. Not insert-your-favorite-online-store-here type reviews, but the kinds of reviews that only come from repeated, considered use of a tool. And the tools themselves? A cool tool is (as laid out on the very first page):

Anything useful
That increases learning
Empowers individuals
Does work that matters
Is either the best
Or the cheapest
Or is the only thing that works

The definition of “tool” is broad enough to include Goodwill Online Auctions (super-cool), Amazon’s almost-secret 1-800 customer service number, and an encyclopedia of Russian criminal prison tattoos (which I suppose could be a tool given the right chain of horrific circumstances).

I think you, Dear Reader, will want this book because it’s decidedly for makers (it’s not called “Cool Stuff,” after all). Every page will help you be a better maker (or just help you make your life better). What makes it dangerous is that it is also full of ideas … if you do not think of five new projects on every page, you are reading with your eyes closed. (The “Construction Materials” section nearly sent me into a projectgasm. Check out Strong-ties, which Kelly calls “he-man K’NEX”.) And don’t even get me started on the “Organizers” section … and I still found things I didn’t know about in categories (like Sewing) where I think I have a good grasp of the cool tools. (Did you know there is KEVLAR THREAD? Soon, my buttons will be BULLETPROOF.)

Why do you want this book, rather than just browsing through the blog? Because it’s HUGE — roughly 11 x 14. It’s the kind of book that demands that you sit on the sofa with someone else (preferably a kid) and chat about possible projects while you page through it together. (Protip: mark pages with post-its for easy recall later — there’s a good index, but post-its mean you don’t have to remember the name of whatever doohickey caught your fancy.)

So, grab this book when it comes back into stock (supposedly this week or next) and then go to town. (And send me links to your projects!)

Book Review: The Empress of Fashion

I don’t know about all y’all, but for me Christmas isn’t Christmas if I don’t get at least one fantastic book that I burn through like a flash fire. This year, I asked for (Thanks Ro and George!) and got this marvelous book about Diana Vreeland:

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland

Honestly, it was everything I hoped for and more — much more biographical detail than Vreeland put into her own books (Allure and D.V.), much more historical context (I had no idea of the connections between Vreeland and Warhol, for instance), and many, many, many fantastic quotes, including:

I suffered, as only the very young can suffer, the torture of being conspicuous.


When you’ve heard the word, it means so much more than if you’ve only seen it.


You must always give ideas away. Under every idea is a new one waiting to be born.

and especially

Luck is infatuated with the efficient.


Funny girls would rather look interesting than safely pretty. The look they avoid, in fact, is prettiness in the country-club sense.

and — further proof that DV was very wise —

What do I want with a bloody old handbag that one leaves in taxis and so on? It should all go into pockets. Real pockets, like a man has, for goodness’ sake.

Honestly, if you can read all those quotes and NOT want to read this book … well, go back to the beginning and read them again.

Vreeland has always topped my list of “what person in history would you want to have dinner with?” and this book almost makes up for that never happening. Almost. (Where’s my gosh-darn time machine?)

New Book Help?

So … I have a new book coming out next year. It’s called The Hundred Dresses, and it’s about the most iconic dress styles of our age, and how and why to wear them.  What do I mean by “iconic dress styles”? Well, it’s everything from fashion classics like the Fortuny column and the Chanel jersey dress, to folklore styles like the wench and the “Guinevere,” ethnic styles like the flamenco, the cheongsam and the sari, as well as pop-culture icons like the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” dirndl, and modern touchpoints like the J-Lo (yeah, you know the one I’m talking about) and the Mouret Galaxy. Whew!

Here’s a quick excerpt from the current draft — a dress archetype familiar to regular readers of this blog, the Airship Hostess.

The Airship Hostess dress is not for present-day flight attendants or even stewardesses: it is a purely notional dress for an alternate history where giant cruise-ship-like dirigibles float through the skies, doing the New York to still-exotic San Francisco run at a leisurely 135 mph.

The Airship Hostess dress is vaguely 1930s; vaguely 1940s, but with a distinctly official air. There are useful pockets (usually asymmetrical); there are buttons (usually asymmetrical); there’s a long, narrow skirt and a little collar, and definitely something pointy and art-deco-y going on. It’s worn bare-headed, or with a jaunty little hat, and purses or bags are not carried while on duty (that’s what the pockets are for). Dickies and gloves? Optional.

The women in the Airship Hostess dresses are the heroines of screwball comedies: they’re heiresses running away from their inheritances, grifters on the make (with hearts of gold), dames both dizzy and hard-bitten. They have secrets; they have repartee; they do their safety briefing before takeoff as a patter song. They always fall in love on their voyages, either with the poor boy in steerage (who is a prince in disguise) or with the older, world-weary war correspondent, or (occasionally) with the semi-sloshed and semi-louche lounge piano player.

Even though modern airships are limited to thrill rides and hovering over major sporting events (yawn) the Airship Hostess dress is not. It’s amazing how competent a trim, tailored, functional dress — one that isn’t trying to be a man’s suit — can make you feel. The Airship Hostess is prepared for any disaster on the ground or in the skies (short of a full-on Hindenberg), and you can be too.

So here’s where I could use your help — I need a subtitle, and I need it *now*. The usual publishing practice of just adding “… and how they CHANGED the WORLD” as a subtitle isn’t really working for this one, sadly. Any suggestions? I will pick my favorite from any comments left on this post today, and send the winner a copy of my last book (signed, if you like!) and also a random piece of fabric or pattern from my stash! (How’s that for incentive?)

I’m also looking for some “who wore it best” type links to pictures of famousish people wearing the archetypes. I’ve set up a Pinterest Board and tried to put up pictures of all the types … if you know where to find a picture of, say, Cameron Diaz wearing the Airship Hostess (oh, if only she WOULD) or Zooey Deschanel wearing a “Face” dress … or Drew Barrymore wearing the Flower Child Bride … and so on, Pinterest lets you leave comments on the pins. Which would be awesome.

What else can I tell you? It’s being published by Bloomsbury (they’re wonderful). It’s illustrated — every dress! — by Donna Mehalko, who is super-wonderful. It will be out in 2013 sometime, available wherever books are sold.

Long-Overdue Q&A with Sarai Mitnick!

I know you all know Sarai Mitnick, of Colette Patterns … her new book (The Colette Sewing Handbook) has been out for a while (go check it out, if you didn't already get it for Christmas) and it is fantastic. I learned three new great ideas (including keeping a "someday" notebook for imagined projects) just from flipping through it, and it really rewards sitting down with it and a stack of sticky notes to mark things you want to try. 🙂

My favorite thing about Sarai's book is her emphasis on sewing as an experience, rather than just as a slower method of acquiring new clothes. I have a hard time explaining why I sew to people if I don't start with saying that I enjoy the process as much as the outcome. (If I became fabulously wealthy overnight, for instance, I would probably sew MORE, not less.)


Sarai graciously agreed (quite some time ago) to do a Q&A for me, and finally, here it is!

Q. What do you usually suggest as a first project for people learning to sew?

A. I think it's important to choose something that you have a good chance of (1) successfully finishing and (2) actually wanting to wear.

For those reasons, it's a good idea to start with simple, tailored shapes. That means nothing too flowy, no weird lines or corners, just a straightforward design without too many pieces. Patterns with fewer pieces are just faster to sew, and it's nice for a beginner to have that gratification sooner rather than risk frustration with long sewing marathons.

Skirts are a really excellent place to start when it comes to garment sewing, since they don't usually require as much fitting as something with a bodice. The bust and shoulders are usually the area that can be most challenging to get a good fit on, but with a skirt you just have to worry about the waist and maybe the hips, depending on the shape you choose.

As for making something you'll actually want to wear, a lot of classes start with the wrap skirt, which is easy to sew but isn't something that would really fit in my wardrobe, personally. But there are plenty of other really easy skirt shapes that would. I'd say to choose one of those, then pick a really cute or pretty fabric to make it in.

I'd also advise not to fear the zipper! So many people get hung up on zippers, and yeah, they can be fiddly and annoying sometimes. But most clothing does need a closure of some kind, and the more you practice with them the better you get. Look up tutorials, learn different ways of doing it, practice, make friends with your seam ripper, and go forth fearlessly!

Q. I love your approach to wardrobe planning (although I'm more of an impulse-sewer myself). Do you personally start with fabric, or colors, or shapes, or does your inspiration vary?

A. It does vary, but I think I'm pretty color oriented. We do these seasonal "palette challenges" over on my blog, where everyone comes up with their own color palette for the season and sews a little mini-wardrobe based on that palette. That's really helped me get creative with my sewing in the last year. But it all sort of fits together, because sometimes my palette comes from fabrics I own (or want to own).

Erin, even though you're an impulse sewer, one of the things I love about your sewing projects is that you'll often take a pattern and make it in several different fabrics. I do the same thing, when I find a style I love and that works, I stick with it. That's a great way to minimize frustration. I really love making the same dress in different fabrics, and trying out different techniques or details on each one.

Q. What was the hardest thing for you to learn about patternmaking? What do you like best about it?

A. Grading was pretty tricky at first. That is, learning how to create different sizes from a single size. I am the rare person who actually really likes doing math, but wrapping my head around the calculations and finding ways to keep them all straight was definitely a challenge at first. I'd made plenty of patterns before, but it wasn't until I decided to start Colette Patterns that I actually had to learn how to make different sizes! Fortunately, grading is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it.

The thing I like best about patternmaking is seeing the clothes come to life. It's really amazing to see something go from a sketch on paper to a 3D, real life garment. It never ceases to amaze me.

Q. Can you give us any sneak previews of upcoming patterns? e.g. are you working on a ball gown? A jumpsuit? A pair of Katherine-Hepburn pants? 🙂

A. Right now, we're working on a few new designs for spring/summer: two sundresses and a pair of shorts. One of the sundresses we've codenamed Sophia Loren because it just reminds me of something she would have worn in the early 60s. Probably in white and paired with big sunglasses. The other dress has a really cool shape and is going to work splendidly with border prints and eyelets, which I think is pretty exciting.
One last thing — my favorite tip from Sarai's book, on creating a "match point". I've never seen it explained as clearly before (or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, always possible): 
Screen shot 2012-01-13 at 6.06.20 PM

Book Review: Built By Wendy Coats and Jackets

I am simultaneously the best and worst audience for Built by Wendy Coats and Jackets: best, because I have at least three coats cut out or fabric-bought-for, and worst, because I have exactly ZERO coats completed. (There's a plastic bin lurking somewhere around here with a really, really nice corduroy coat cut out in it, but I haven't seen it since my son was born … and he's been in double-digits for a year now.)

It's not because I don't like coats. I LOVE coats. I have lots and lots and lots of coats, but my usual coat M.O. is: buy vintage coat near the end of its life from eBay or Etsy, wear until dead. Repeat. (I also like to buy Lands' End coats in unloved colors on super-clearance, men's coats from Goodwill, and any creaky vintage leather coat in a weird color, like gray or forest green.)

It's always seemed like a stretch to me to SEW a coat, though. That combination of interfacing and lining and thick wool has always been a bit too daunting. 

However, after reading this new Built By Wendy book, I'm starting to have a change of heart. Maybe this is the year I'll sew a coat! (See how I conveniently state this in Spring …)

For one thing, the basic patterns are classic: a short fitted coat, a raglan sleeve coat, and a windbreakery hoodie type coat. And as in her other books, Wendy rings the changes on them in simple and complex ways, showing everything from a minimalist zip front coat that you could easily hide on the rack in Eileen Fisher to a hipster-friendly hooded poncho. (My fave was the "Puff the Magic Jacket" bolero-type jacket which would be magical for sure in black pique over summer sundresses.)

The patterns are included, and range from a 32" to a 41" bust. There are pages and pages of sewing instructions (very clear illustrations!) and lists of necessary notions, explanations of interfacings and linings, and much more. 

Until I make a coat with one of the patterns I won't be able to say for sure, but this book at least makes me WANT to make a coat, which is half the battle. (Have you made a coat with this book yet? If so, let us know in the comments!)