Sunday, 3 April 2016

Making bespoke fabric in London

A while ago, Tree, the one-woman powerhouse behind the YouTube channel 'Stitchless TV' got in touch to tell me about about a fabric printing factory she'd stumbled upon in North London. She was bubbling with excitement about this place that produced custom fabric by the metre, but didn't seem to be known about by sewists.

Here is the factory, Contrado. It's run by Chris - the man you can see busy in the background - and his wife Fran, who set up a digital photo printing service about 12 years ago and have expanded bit by bit to become a full blown bespoke printing and manufacturing service.

So Tree asked Chris if she could bring along a bunch of sewists to see the factory, and Chris agreed. Chris wanted us to use the fabric printing service so he could so how we interacted with it, and to ask us some questions about how we found the process. Basically, he wanted to step inside the mind of a sewist, which we all know is a deep and complicated place, often found to be repeatedly chanting the mantra "I love fabric. I love fabric. I love fabric."

Chris kindly offered us 3m each of fabric printed with our own designs. So I started designing. I've been collecting print design inspiration on Pinterest for a while and generally obsessing over the hand-themed embroidery/jewellery/stickers in the Buried Diamond Etsy shop, so with these in mind I set about doing really crap drawings of my left hand.

With a bit of help from Adobe Illustrator, I made a few variations of a simple repeat and asked my Facebook friends to help me choose the best one.

With lots of helpful feedback on Facebook, I had another go and made this design, which I really like. Thank you, people of the internet!

Inside Chris and Fran's factory, this is where the fabric magic happens. We were there on a Saturday so it was quiet, but normally there are 50 staff working throughout the building.

The range of fabric that can be printed on at Contrado is quite simply jaw dropping. I think Chris mentioned 70, but 70 is just a number and doesn't truly give you an idea of the wondrous possibilities until you start hearing words like neoprene, organza, polar fleece, chunky rib knit and ripstop nylon and breathable waterproof polyester. A custom printed raincoat has now been added to my list of things to make!

They have an absolutely enormous swatch book, which we all had a good rummage through in the office. Tree is on the right there, talking through options with Momtaz, who runs The Make Escape in Hackney and is an all round wonder woman of psychedelic craft. Momtaz ended up getting a print done on velvet, because she is awesome. Also along for the ride were Kate and Rachel of The Foldline and Barley Massey, the pilot at the helm of sewing and craft studio Fabrications and an upcycler extraordinaire.

For a look at all the fabrics available from Contrado, do browse the fabric library on their website.

With difficult decisions made, we uploaded our designs onto the Contrado design suite, which looks like this. For anyone accustomed to using Spoonflower, it's very similar. I'd say Contrado's is actually a bit simpler and more visually pleasing. There are also some excellent design options, like adding text, or adding a background fill colour. They've basically taken some of the simplest elements of Photoshop and built them into their website.

The only thing to watch out for is that their sizing boxes pop up automatically with a width of 1m. This does not represent the full width of the fabric, which as sewists we are obviously used to working with. You need to check the width of the fabric before you get to this point, so you can manually input it into the box.

We sent our designs through, then wandered through to the factory, where lo and behold, my hand repeat was already being printed! At this stage, it's being printed onto paper, which is later used as a giant transfer to press the design onto fabric.


Here is the first printing room. Kate and Rachel are watching their design get printed directly onto cotton. We are all far too excited at this point, and as you can see Barley in the middle is radiant with joy!

While our fabrics went through the printing process, which ends in this room...

...Chris gave us a tour of his factory. We mentioned Sprout Patterns, the Spoonflower off-shoot, and Chris showed us that people use Contrado's services in exactly the same way. If you look closely at the fabric in front of Chris, you can see that the patterned areas are actually printed in sleeve shapes. I think Kate's look of astonishment here represents the feelings of us all.

Let's stop for a moment to appreciate Momtaz's hair. Oooooooo...

We're in the dedicated sewing room at this point. Contrado is not just a fabric printing factory, they actually produce garments there too. This is the area where they experiment with pattern design and construction of new items. You can see they're working on a floppy brimmed hat. 

They make dresses, vest tops, t-shirts, bomber jackets, leggings and all constructed here in their London factory. I find this truly incredible. At this moment, it looks likely that Britain's biggest steel works are about to be shut down. Manufacturing in the UK has been in decline since the 70s and despite a bit of a buzz about 'made in the UK' in the last few years, it overwhelmingly continues to be outsourced to workers who are paid a lot less in developing countries.

In London right now, land has become a commodity. The government and Mayor of London view land as investment rather than a place where people can live, love and be creative. Yet, right here in our capital Chris and Fran have built a business piece by piece, that now employs a workforce that manufactures custom clothing.

Anyway, back to the sewing room. Look at this machine! It purely exists to sew bias binding! 

And look, they make shoes! Those classic espadrille stitches you can see are done by hand.

Even crazier than this; Contrado don't just manufacture things out of fabric. I asked Chris why there was a corner full of wood and he casually said, "Oh we make deck chairs and canvases." So you can get your custom design printed onto fabric and Chris's team will turn it into a deck chair. RIGHT HERE IN LONDON. Here is Chris in deck chair corner.

They have this awesome ironing board in deck chair corner, which obviously I want.

Chris's factory actually makes things out of almost every material under the sun. They vacuum form phone cases, bowls, trays and Xbox control covers (see below). They make sports bags, pencil cases, lampshades, yoga mats, aprons and they even bind books. RIGHT HERE IN LONDON.

The machinery they have and the breadth of their manufacturing possibilities is unbelievable. I honestly haven't been paid to be a salesperson for any of their products, but I am genuinely astounded by the practical, creative possibilities they have at their fingertips. For instance, if you as an individual wanted to set up a shop that just sold plates, tea towels and table cloths with Ryan Goslings face on, you could.

Anyway, back to the factory to see what's going on with my fabric...

... where my design is being transferred onto polycotton. This process is called sublimation, and the dyes from the paper are being transferred to the fabric at the molecular level as they are pushed together through an enormous rolling heat press.

My mind boggles slightly at the science of this. As far as I understand, the dyes aren't just sitting on the surface of the fabric, they are actually reacting to and combining with the 'poly' part of the polycotton, so that they become part of it. The machine is very hot.

And here is my fabric!

In the normal manufacturing process, once the fabric is printed, the transfer paper is thrown away. However, Tree has experimented with taking this home and pressing it onto fresh, blank fabric using an iron. She has produced really strong, bright prints from using the paper in this way. Chris kindly let us all take our rolls of transfer paper home so we can have a go at this ourselves.

This is the second fabric I got printed. It's a thick, quilted jersey. I'm hoping to turn it into an oversized raglan sweater.

I should've got a picture of me and Barley travelling back to Hackney on the overground with six foot long rolls of paper! But I was too busy concentrating on not taking anyone out with a cardboard tube.

It was an incredible day and wonderful to have my eyes opened to this hidden resource right under my nose. Thanks to Tree for discovering such a gem. I would encourage anyone thinking about custom printing fabric to look at Contrado. They've set up a new website that is dedicated to the fabric printing side of their business. Especially for UK sewists who are often hit with custom charges when buying from Spoonflower, this offers an incredible alternative and actually has so many more fabric possibilities than it's US equivalent.

I haven't blogged for a while (a really long while) as life got very busy, but this got me so excited I had to share, and no doubt I'll be back soon to update you all on what I made with fabric : )

Rosie xx

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Liquorice Linden Sweatshirt

Wow, look at this, a blog post. I haven't been here in such a long time because I'm writing a book, which means I have hardly been doing any selfish sewing, or anything at all really apart from writing a book. If you were to stop me on the street and ask, I would say without hesitation that I haven't done ANY sewing AT ALL since September, when this project began, because I am feeling the totality of deprivation. But when I look at the facts I've actually made four things for myself in the last seven months. Three of those have been from stretchy fabric, which I have only recently discovered the joys of, the number one joy being stretchy things are quick to make. As the world of stretchy garment making has opened up to me, so has the world of buying stretchy fabric, which is wonderful! A whole new world of fabrics through which I cam roam!

A few weeks ago I had to go to Brighton for a funeral. It was a very sad day which I won't go into, but never-the-less four good things happened:

1. I got to see this.

2. I got to meet Wendy Ward from Brighton's super cool sewing studio MIY Workshop. I happened to walk past it and give her door a knock and there she was with her two lovely dogs!

3. I caught up with good friends from way back.

4. I found some really nice fabric in Fabric Land. Here it is:

I have just completed a Linden Sweatshirt with the fabric on the right. I have never seen anything like this fabric before. It looks like a sort of black jersey that has had strings of wool felted onto it. If you look closely (below) you can see that the wrong side of the fabric looks almost like a blurred version of the right side. The wrong side feels a bit like fleece, which is very nice.

The fabric tag on the fabric read simply 'Liquorice Jersey' and the woman in Fabric Land seemed pretty mystified by it too. There was another version that was all purples and greens but I resisted that in the name of making something that I would wear a lot. Cake, rather than icing!

I have made one Linden before, also out of a weird fabric that has a sort of spongey waffle texture. That is the first time I have ever used ribbing and I loved it. (Don't look too closely it's a bit loose and wobbly!)

I decided to make my liquorice version baggier than the first as that's more my style, so I widened the body and deepened the armholes by 3/4 of an inch. I think I'll go a bit wider and deeper next time. I also discovered that this liquorice jersey is actually not very stretchy at all leaving me with a gaping neck hole, so I removed fabric by deeply tapering all four of the raglan seams, which also made the neck hole smaller which coincidentally I was thinking about doing anyway but was too lazy to redraft.

It's been a wild day in London weather wise and I decided to write this blog post on the back of the adrenalin rush I got from completing my 11 mile cycle journey home from work - including a perilous dash across London Bridge - in really strong winds! The wind is so wild that I had a load of new arrivals in the yard when I opened the back door tonight. They are plants from the upstairs neighbours roof garden that have blown down into our yard. Here's one. I don't think it looks very happy about it's swift relocation.

Here's a sleeve close up so you can see the texture of the fabric as well as the nice chunky ribbing. The ribbing feels like it comes from an army & navy shop, it's so nice and rough and industrial.

I was outside taking these pictures for all of five minutes, the beginning of which were cold, blustery and gloomy, the middle few saw the sun emerge in kind of a scary hyperactive way and then right at this moment it started bucketing down with rain!

I'm glad I have a warm homemade sweater to see me through the atmospheric twists and turns that April may bring. Happy spring everybody.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Lifelong leopard print coat

I bought this vintage coat pattern many moons ago from Etsy. It sat inside my file labelled 'Sewing Patterns' for a few moons more, along with at least three other coat patterns I've acquired.

Then one day the sewing planets seemed to fall into alignmnent; it was as if a light on a switchboard next to this pattern and another next to a rusty leopard print fabric in my stash started flashing at the same time indicating the perfect match. So the plan to make this coat seemed to almost come into being without me and suddenly it was action stations.

As this was my chance to make a coat exactly the way I wanted it, I altered the pattern a little, changing the length and sketching out the position for zipped welt pockets.

This all happened so long ago I don't know where those socks are anymore.

You can see clearly in this photo that the leopard print fabric I'm using is actually corduroy, even though it feels more like a sort of super short fur or brushed suede on the outside.

I love vintage sewing pattern instructions. I find them more condensed but more comprehensive than in most modern big-label sewing patterns.

I transferred my markings for the pockets and followed Gertie's excellent video tutorial explaining how to construct a pocket with an exposed zipper. 

I added a layer of thick white fusible interfacing all over the coat for extra warmth. I also drafted very big pocket bags!

I actually messed up the sizing of the welt through total maths-brain-fail, so transformed it into a sort of double welt opening. My only regret is that I used white fabric as a facing which shows slightly at the edges. Doh!

As my leopard fabric was quite thin, I bought some microfleece from Plush Addict (bright pink - why not?) to act as a super warm interlining. On the coldest of winter days I wanted to feel like I was safely cocooned inside a Season 4 sleeping bag.

All these layers meant the seams were becoming pretty chunky and the furry corduroy had a tendency to melt when ironed at a high temperature, so I decided to double top stitch all my seams to force them to lie flat.

And for a while, that is as far as I got. The seasons changed, the end of the year arrived and I packed up and moved house with the coat unfinished.

Completing the coat was one of my priorities as soon as we landed in our new flat. If you look carefully here you can see the suggestion that I am sewing the lining in amidst unpacked boxes.

Since I knotted off the final painstaking hand stitch, my coat and I have had a whirlwind romance. We have been to the British seaside together in the middle of windy springtime storms.

 We ventured into the sea together, specifically so we could text my Mum and show her that we were in imminent danger of being plucked from the safety of land by lethal currents, though I'm pretty sure had this occurred my coat would have kept me alive. (NB For some reason Blogger is making the sky look really blue in this photo. It is actually a very British wintery grey!)

We have had many a pattern clashing adventure on London's extensive bus network.

We have scaled this city's walls (well, one really small wall that made me feel like I was standing on top of The Shard without a safety harness)

And even stumbled upon one humongous letter of the alphabet, tastefully decorated as if it were the inside of a girl's loo in a nightclub.

I am pretty happy with my coat. It seemed to take an age to make and as usual I tossed aside the notion of a toile long before I even opened the pattern envelope. Looking back, for a project as time consuming and built-to-last as this, making a toile would have been sensible. The darts that extend from the shoulder seam down towards the bust are definitely intended to accommodate a chest much larger than mine and I would have reduced these and moved them further towards the centre if I had experimented with fit first.

I am most happy with the enormous pockets. They are so large I can fit my wallet, keys and phone in one pocket and a book in the other, meaning I am hands free to climb walls/grapple with giant letters of the alphabet.

In fact the pockets are so big each one can comfortably carry a bottle of wine. This is a happy design accident!

I love the pleats at the neck line on the back of the coat.

And I'm pleased with how the collar sits at the front, though it is a bit twisted at the back and I had to hand sew the lower parts of the front lapel down as they were so bulky.

The back yard at my last flat was completely secluded. I guess I'm going to have to get used to taking photos with at least 20 neighbours overlooking my activities, though I am not especially comfortable with that!

Though my coat isn't shop-bought perfect, I foresee us spending many happy rotations of the earth around the sun together. I get so much pleasure from wearing it and am especially satisfied by the extras I added; the microfleece lining and the über deep pockets. I also learned a lot through making it and whenever I next embark on a coat project - hopefully in the far distant future - I will bring these valuable lessons to the project. All-in-all I think that a homemade coat = jacketsfaction guaranteed : )