Sunday, 17 July 2016

The triangle; a summoning symbol

The last five designs in 'No Patterns Needed' are all defined by the triangle. When I suggested to Laurence King's commissioning editor that I create sewing tutorials based on the simplest geometric shapes, I already had ideas for designs that employed rectangles and circles, but the triangle was just a notion... a looming gap of actual plans. I said I would do it though, so it had to be done!

The triangle is an exciting shape. It seems intrinsically bound up with the two other shapes in the book. Cut a square or rectangle in half and you create a triangle. Divide a circle into segments and they are triangle shaped. The triangle has the stability of the rectangle – it can rest on a flat side – and some of the dynamic properties of the circle – it points upwards and appears to be able to take off like a spacecraft.

Triangles seem to embody enormous structural strength. Buildings made with triangles have been known to survive earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes. The geodesic dome is a half spherical structure made entirely of triangles that has been adopted to build anything from Olympic stadiums to off-the-grid personal dwellings designed to endure nuclear apocalypse.

Here's a picture I took of Yeo Valley, the organic dairy farm, that houses some of its cows and equipment in these impressive triangle based domes near where I grew up. I can't help feeling they look a bit like they landed in Somerset from a galaxy far, far away.

The greatest structures on earth to embrace the triangle must surely be the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Dominating the landscape, these massive stone monoliths have survived the weathers of four and a half thousand years.

We know that the pyramids are surviving artefacts of an extremely complex society. Yet despite our knowledge, they are still steeped in mystery, representing a gap in total comprehension. We don't fully know how they were constructed and we doubt theories about the reason for their existence. That gap is filled with human projections. They are giant batteries that charged an ancient electric city. They are windows to space and were used to guide in alien spacecraft. They contain codes that fortell the destruction of planet earth.

Though ancient, the pyramids seem to conjure up the spectre of the futuristic and otherworldly. Rather than a structure in and of themselves, they are described as a conduit, a gateway to step through, a window through which information can be received. This idea of absence seems ingrained within the triangle.

 From love triangles to the holy trinity, this pointy shape is often used to denote a space or situation that humans cannot master. The Bermuda triangle is thought to be a hole into which matter can literally disappear, never to be seen again.

Triangles are employed in mystical symbolism, representing gateways to higher spiritual understanding or the irresistible door to other worlds or dimensions. 

Due to my own lack of practical ideas for triangle based garment designs, a lot of the fashion inspiration I collected focussed on the triangle. While some of it contained physical triangular shaped sections of fabric, like this incredible Christopher Kane dress from his Resort 2015 collection...

... a lot of it contained triangular holes, in the form of triangular neck lines...

... or cut away windows...

...or at least the illusion of negative space.

I couldn't help but consider the sewing triangle par excellence – the dart. Darts are essentially triangular shaped chunks of fabric that are removed from a garment to make it fit the body. I started to think of darts as arrows that point towards the most sticky-out bits of the body. The dart is an extremely useful triangle when it comes to turning flat shapes into 3D ones.

I sketched out a lot of ideas for garments that had triangles as a key principle. I really enjoyed working with the strength and power of this commanding shape.

Some of the designs employed the positive power of the triangle, building clothes from triangular pieces of fabric and using it’s angular lines to create designs that verge on the futuristic.

Here, Kristina wears a version of the 'Four Slice Sweater,' which has become hands down my favourite design in the book.

Kristina wears the 'Four Slice Sweater.' Photo by Victoria Siddle

Other designs use the triangle as an absence, employing it to create negative space. 

Mairead wears the 'Deep V Tunic.' Photo by Victoria Siddle

The 'Triple Triangle Dress' is the most involved tutorial in the book, employing three kinds of triangle - triangular shaped pieces of fabric, darts and a cut away at the waist - hence the name.

Karishma wears the 'Triple Triangle Dress.' Photo by Victoria Siddle

For me, the triangle contains some unknown alchemy. I spoke it's name, and it appeared. By focussing on it's powers, it enabled me to build the structures of five pieces of clothing. Thank you magic triangle.

We are all magi when we sew clothes. We start with nothing, and from our imagination and our labour we build something practical - or impractical - that we step into and adopt as part of our everyday. I hope that my book encourages people to enjoy this humble magic.

Will we ever understand the ancient, otherworldly triangle, standing strong but pointing outwards to realms unknown? Perhaps not, but we can wear it!

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Eternally rolls the wheel of being

The middle section of 'No Patterns Needed' is devoted to the circle. Each of the designs is built from sections of or full circles, and harnesses the organic power of this free wheeling shape.

Whereas the rectangle has flat sides and four corners, meaning you can trust it to rest solidly in one place, the circle is built to move, tumbling away on its eternal curved edge. For this reason I think of motion as an intrinsic part of the circle, and I tried to capture that in my garment designs.

As part of my research into the essence of the circle, I read a book called 'Reinventing The Wheel' by Jessica Helfand. It is a fascinating catalogue of paper wheel charts that the author has collected at flea markets and second hand shops. She explores the historic significance of the circle, beginning:

"The circle has no beginning and no ending... It represents the image of the cosmos, the cycles of the seasons, the life of man and the orbits of planets around the sun."

The circle does conjure the awesome power of the giant turning sphere we live on, as well as the uncountable and unknown stars and planets that dwell in our solar system and beyond. The entire disk of the Milky Way rotates at about 168 miles per second. Black holes revolve, after forming in the gravitational collapse of massive spinning stars.

Planets, moons, black holes, galaxies. Round and round they spin on an awesome scale, pushing at the boundaries of our comprehension.

There's something wild about the circle. When I close my eyes and think of its power, I think of illustrations from geography text books that show how waves are formed and why they keep on crashing. Energy transferred from the wind to the sea causes particles to rotate, literally spinning waves forward. 

The ocean is never still. The source of its movement: circles.

This endless tumbling power is both scary and exhilarating.

Its energy cannot be contained. Perhaps it can only be hinted at in art and poetry.

The circle can't even be fully captured numerically. As Jessica Helfland says, it " eludes mathematical exactness." However, it is our desire to apply logic to the circle - to slice it up into segments, to add dials and use it to map time and the tides.

Indeed, as wild and free as the circle is, mankind has also put it to use, employing it to drive vehicles and machinery, and using it to chart the movement of our planet around the sun, or the position of the north pole.

As with my rectangle designs, I sketched a lot of ideas for garments before moving on to toileing. Ripples, ruffles, folds, undulation. These were all key words that felt essentially circular and that I wanted to incorporate into the garments. 

I drew inspiration from garments that contained definite circular lines like this Coperni Femme shirt...

...Matilda Norberg's incredible knitwear...

and classic 1960s Pierre Cardin capes.

Inspired also by the wild energy of the planets turning, waves crashing, the freedom of rolling down a grassy hill with your arms held tight to your sides on a sunny day, my key goal was that the garments would allow the wearer to feel the awesome power of the circle. 

 On a human level, this seems well captured by Lynda Carter spinning round and round and round until she transforms into Wonder Woman...

...or by this woman spinning on a unicycle in a skirt that's on fire (!!!). If that is not letting go, I don't know what is.

Built from criss crossing fibres that draw stability from a grid pattern, fabric can also be cut and draped to express the power, freedom and movement contained in circles.

Here's a closer look at some of the designs that made it into the book.

The Segment Dress - modelled here by Courtney Mason - uses a section of a circle to create a fun, flared, freeing dress.

The ruffle dress - modelled by Linda - using multiple full circles to create undulating folds.

The spot pocket skirt - modelled here by Melody - unashamedly displaying it's allegiance to the circle, and also structurally embracing the flowing volume created by our corner-free shape.

Free, untameable, in constant motion, the circle allows us to enjoy the exhilarating power of movement and the freedom that lies within fabric.

Next up: the triangle!

Monday, 20 June 2016

The rectangle - our starting block

The first 5 designs in 'No Patterns Needed' all spring from the humble rectangle.

5 garment designs based on rectangles (from 'No Patterns Needed' by Rosie Martin)
The 5 rectangle designs from 'No Patterns Needed.' Photography by Victoria Siddle.

The rectangle is a reassuringly familiar shape. We humans love to make things with the rectangle. The laptop I'm typing on is rectangular in shape, and it rests on a rectangular table, which sits in a rectangular shaped room. The four corners are comfortingly regular, the parallel sides reassuringly stable.

In a way, all sewing projects begin with a rectangle - the length of fabric that we watch in anticipation as it is separated from the roll. We treat this rectangle as a blank page. The flat piece of fabric is our canvas, so tantalisingly full of potential. What will we write?
To me, the garment that uses the rectangle in it's purist form is the Japanese kimono. Every piece of fabric the Kimono is built from is rectangular, and it doesn't seek to alter that form. Kimonos are one standard size, and they are brought into harmony with the body through the use of a sash or obi - fabric is gathered and folded and held into place under the obi.

In many ways, sewing does the same work as an obi. Rather than using an obi to hold tucks and gathers in place we use stitches. Rather than collecting up excess fabric and binding it, we often remove areas of fabric by cutting them away, in order to force our initial rectangle into something that fits the body.

When I did a draping course I was struck that the first step is to mark out a rectangle in pencil onto your blank fabric. Draping sounds like it's going to very free and loose, but it actual needs the initial stability of rectangle. Just as the sculptor chips away at a block of marble to reveal a beautiful flowing form, the fabric is then folded, snipped and manipulated until the initial rectangle can't be identified.

My book doesn't get as deep as a course in draping, but I was interested in how a few small changes could be made to a rectangle of fabric in order for it to become a wearable garment.

The 1920s seems to be any era when home sewers embraced the power of the rectangle. It was a time when the fashions of the elite were able to be made and worn by everyone, as the designs were simple enough to recreate at home. Straightforward, illustrated sewing instructions seem to have been all the rage. Damn, wishing I could travel back in time to the 1920s a bit now!

I love the simplicity of the sum, five rectangles = one dress.

 The influence of art deco and the political significance of a move away from a 'womanly' figure meant that the simple beauty of geometric shapes were adopted eagerly in women's fashion. 

This lady looks like she is literally wearing a black rectangle that's pegged to her shoulders. And she looks great!

In modern fashion, I looked to garments where just a few tweaks had been made to a rectangle to transform it into a beautiful piece of clothing. Here, four rectangles are stitched together, their sharp corners smoothed into curves at the bottom with the top drawn in to fit the waist. I actually think I found this on a men's fashion website so I guess this is a skirt du garcon, though I would definitely wear it : D
I also looked at garments where the rectangle was given design prominence. I love this top by Calvin Klein where a rectangle forms a sort of bib. I bet that skirt she's wearing is made of just rectangles too. 

This Christopher Kane skirt is also a very clever and joyful celebration of all things rectangle.
Loving Kitty Joseph's use of the rectangle to create some cool colour blocking.

And whoever designed this has just gone and stuck a rectangle right at the front there, like the cherry on a cake. Who says cherries have to be round? Seriously though, this is some really ingenious construction and an admirably bold pledge of allegiance to the rectangle.

I collected all my design inspiration on Pinterest here. I sketched out and experimented with making a lot of rectangle-based designs. A looooooooot. I mean, the possibilities are almost endless. Only two of the designs sketched here made it into the book. I almost want to write a whole book about making clothes with rectangles now.

But here are some of the ones that made it into 'No Patterns Needed.'

The Maxi Split Skirt, made as a midi here and modelled by Kristina, with slightly shiny faux leather highlighting the central rectangle.

The Asymmetric Mini Skirt, modelled by Linda and drawing attention to the beauty of a right angle.

The Deco Drape Dress, a design based on the slash and gather tutorials of the 1920s, made in silk from House of Hackney and modelled here by Mairead.

The Shirt Dress, the most involved of the rectangle tutorials including some tucks, some gathers and some cutting away, made here in this fabric from Spoonflower and modelled by Melody

The rectangle is the starting block in 'No Patterns Needed,' getting us off to a winning start. In the rectangles section we use rectangular pieces of fabric like bricks, to build clothing instead of skyscrapers, or we chip away at our rectangular fabric so that it becomes more fluid or is moulded to fit a body.

In many ways safe - though with almost endless possibilities when it comes to creating clothing - the rectangle is followed by the wild, tumbling circle. I'll be profiling the circle in a blog post in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Shaped like me; body positivity through sewing.

It's one month until my book 'No Patterns Needed' comes out! Yaaaaaay! I can't believe it is finally here. And here's the cover. I love it! It's designed by the wonderful Evelin Kasikov, as in fact is the whole book. When people ask me what the book is about, I usual start by saying "sewing..." then I garble a few more sentences that trail away disappointingly until I find a way of changing the subject! So I'm going to write down here what gave me the idea for the book and explore the chain of thoughts that really kicked things off.

Yes, this is a sewing book. The aim is for it to enable you to make clothing by providing thorough, visual tutorials with no sewing jargon. It's an action-based book that can be dipped into project-by-project in bite-sized chunks. The ethos behind it is; learn through doing. And, as the title suggests, all the tutorials show you how to make clothes without sewing patterns, based on simple body measurements or on existing items in your wardrobe.

'No Patterns Need' - cover design by Evelin Kasikov; photography by Victoria Siddle; modelled by Linda Peterkopa.

The other key theme of the book is the one that is spelled out visually on the cover - the three simplest geometric shapes; the rectangle; the circle and the triangle. This is the part of the book I have a harder time describing in words. It's actually where the whole idea for this book came from, and that's what I'm going to write a bit about here.
I was teaching a workshop at The Thrifty Stitcher and flipping through a sewing book from Claire-Louise's shelves whilst waiting for students to arrive. It included a page that described different standard body shapes, and the kinds of clothes you should be sewing to flatter your shape. It had an illustration that looked a bit like this.

This kind of body categorisation often crops up on the pages of fashion magazines or even on websites of fashion retailers. It is always accompanied by advice telling you what you should and shouldn't wear to compliment your figure. If I had to fit myself into one of these categories, it would probably be the rectangle, or the 'lean column' as described on this personal styling website called - ironically I feel - the Joy of Clothes. The Joy of Clothes has some scientific advice for me: "You need to create the illusion of curves around hips and bust and of a waist. Highlight your hips and bottom using pockets and pleats." This kind of language really annoys me! It feels as if they're speaking to me about a problem I need to fix, and to which they have the solution. The problem, of course, is my body, but luckily there's a fashion-shaped prescription to ease the burden of my flesh and bone woes!

 I like boxy tops and tight jeans and I can't remember the last time one of my outfits included a pleat. I feel if I follow their guidance I would probably end up in a corset with a dress borrowed from Elizabeth Bennet's wardrobe. I laugh in the face of their advice! To aid my laughing, I enjoy looking at this hilarious illustration by Gemma Correll.

This kind of advice isn't that surprising coming from a fashion retailer, but I found it incongruous in a sewing book. Surely the beauty of sewing is the absolute freedom to make what you want. And a side effect of sewing is a deeper understanding that our bodies cannot be categorised into 'shapes.' In fact, through many a conversation about sewing, I would say that one of the key reasons many women start sewing is because they find their body doesn’t fit the standardized shape that high street clothing pedals. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with a 'standard' body shape, except for shop dummies!

For practical reasons, of course, mass manufactured clothing has to have standard sizing. Katrina from Papercut patterns has written a great article for Seamwork magazine about how sizing of women's clothing has come about. I feel that this standard sizing can easily give fodder to the  narrative that our bodies somehow aren't 'right.' Shop bought jeans always end about 4 inches beyond my ankle. I have to remind myself that this isn't because my legs are 'too short,' but that the trousers are too long. (Luckily, I can just chop the bottoms off).

Many of us know the frustrations of trying premade garments on to find they fit at the hips but not at the waist, or across the chest but not at the shoulders. We often blame our bodies not the clothing. Part of the beauty of sewing is to allow your body to be, and just to make clothes that fit it, rather than attempt to force your body to fit into clothes.

Human bodies are far more diverse than a categorisation into a generic shape allows. All of our bodies have unique proportions, and it is reductive to try to fit them into a box. We all have our own bumps, curves, lengths and angles. Sewing clothing is a great celebration of this fact. I feel that making my own clothes is a great way of saying:

So, back to the book! I was at the gym and all this was swirling about in my head like clothes in a washing machine. In a moment of clarity that only seems to come to me when I've been sweating on the treadmill for 20 minutes, I thought: "It's time to reclaim geometric shapes, not as a symbol of reductive body categorisation, but as a beautiful building block that allows our bodies to be. Not as a stifling box that is lumped onto us, but as a starting point from which clothing can be made to fit all the bodies unique bits. Many homemade garments begin with a simple shape - a rectangle or a circle - and are manipulated to fit the more interesting, varied shape of the human body. Often it doesn't take much - a few gathers here, a couple of darts there - to force a geometric shape into a beautiful garment. Simple shapes become building blocks and we are in control of them, not the other way round.  Designing with just circles, rectangles and circles would be a playful reclamation of geometric shapes." And from this, a book was born.

Over the next few months I designed 15 garments based on either the rectangle, the circle or the triangle, that can be made at home. (More on the design process and an ode to the individual shapes themselves over the next few weeks.)

So, what is my book about? It is about reclaiming our simplest, geometric shapes and shouting out loud, "These shapes will not restrict us, they will give us freedom! We will wear what we want and we will make it ourselves!"

Now, how do I boil this down into a couple of sentences that I can rattle off in a conversation? Any advice gratefully received.