Victorian seaside adventure!

Some things start unexpectedly…. last January I picked some lovely silk that just screamed Victorian Seaside Bustle frock… And so for the summer I put a few days aside to make it – and to nip somewhere on the coast for … Continue reading

The Buttercup Ball and the 1895 evening gown

  A long overdue post on a rather splendid ball we attended in London, in December. The Buttercup Ball was organized by Stuart Marsden ( the dance master for our  Victorian ball  last year – and this year’s edition too!) … Continue reading

That Bespoke Thang…


Over the last 20 years of sewing for other people this is one of the more often-asked  questions – “Why is bespoke more expensive than ready to wear, off-the-peg garments?”  And this request accounts for about 80% of the email I am getting nowadays too:
“I saw your off the peg riding habit/gown/corset and I love it –  I would like it made bespoke for me, in a different fabric and colour and with more decoration – will the price be the same?”



The reason for the difference in price is simple – as already stated in one of my previous blogs,  ( A Queen on a budget, please), nowadays ordering bespoke is very rare thing. People are used to all the cheap, ready made clothing they see in the shops, and  even with specialised items such as corsetry and historical  clothing,  a lot of people do not realise the difference between the ‘off-the-peg’ and ‘bespoke’, especially when made by he same person or company.

So,to make things simpler let us have a look at what you are actually paying for – at least  as far as my own merchandise is concerned..

  Off the Peg items:

* Fabric

* Labour –   a generically sized pattern is used to cut out the fabric, followed by assembly and decoration: the price will depend upon the complexity of the garment and time needed to execute it

*Notions – decorations, buttons, thread, embroidery, etc

*Packing/postage/delivery if required

*My professional expertise, knowledge and experience!


 Bespoke items.

  • Fabric


  •  Labour –
    • initial measuring  session with a client
    • drafting their specific pattern
    • making up a mock-up ( toile)
    • fitting the mock up on the client (with second client visit)
    • cutting out fabric based on final pattern from re-fitted toile
    •  assembling  the garment proper,
    •  fitting session with a client – these stages may be repeated several times depending upon how many items are to be made or how complex the garments may be)
    •  final assembly of the garment(s)
    •  adding decoration, finishing touches, etc
    • pick up session  with finished garments – although rarely needed, there is usually time assigned for any last minute corrections, as well. In my case you are likely to get a free photoshoot  with TimeLight  Photographic too, if you wish 😉
    • after-care –  small repairs or minor adjustments are generally provided for free; bigger ones may be provided at a reduced hourly rate. People usually come back to resize a garment if they have lost or gained significant weight,  or to add more decoration, reapply a hem guard if the  original one is worn out, etc.
  • time  (apart from actual making of the garment)-
    • fitting sessions, measuring sessions have to be scheduled in.
    • consultation, either in person, on the phone or by email, giving advice on style,  fabric choices, historical accuracy, etc.  For a relatively simple garments emails and message exchange may take several hours to write, research, etc. In the most extreme case I received over 250 emails from one person in one week about her commission…
    • research. Lots of research.
    • sourcing the fabrics, embellishments and other providers for items we do not supply direct (blackwork, embroidery, shoes, etc)
    • writing up contracts, quotes and invoices
    • chasing up clients  to settle on fitting dates, etc. Fortunately, a good contract means we don’t have to chase folks for the payment! (more on contracts for businesses running a business – contracts)


  • notions – decorations, buttons, thread, etc

    packing/postage/delivery if needed


    my professional expertise, knowledge and experience.


  • stress!  I am an introvert and dealing with people, however lovely, and no matter how enjoyable it is for me, (and make no mistake, I love my work and so far all of my bespoke clients have been amazing – to such an extent that we often develop friendly relations afterwards and stay in touch socially), this stress still takes its toll. After a few ours of fittings I feel as if I have run a marathon and all I want to do is sleep:-)


See the difference?  A riding habit that looks the same  will take 3 times as long  if made bespoke – and that is usually  true for every other item.

Above – a bespoke habit  worth over £1000 in quality cloth, fittings, handmade and hand applied braiding and an off the peg habit from our online shop – £370


Another thing to consider is  the fact that I make off-the-peg garments largely to satisfy my own insane desire to create pretty things – I make them in the size I want, in a fabric I like and have available currently and in a style I feel inclined to – I don’t have to  consult a client on what they would like. If I change my mind half way through – that is fine. If I feel tired and don’t fancy pushing myself to finish by a certain deadline – that is fine too. Full creative freedom.

Bespoke work is much more complex, since I have to adhere to the client’s ideas, body type, etc, so it provides quite a different feeling. Taking someone else’s ideas and making a fully functional garment, looking the way they want it too look, and fitting them well is immensely satisfying. All the hours of research, fittings, handstitching etc are worth it not only in terms of the financial reward-  the look on the client’s faces when they see themselves in the mirror wearing  their new clothing for the first time is a great reward too – and, I won’t lie, I love  to see my work worn and admired. The last session when a final outfit is tried on is always stressful – no matter how experienced you are, you are always worried that maybe this button is a tad too tight, or maybe the skirt is 0.5″ too big. Paltry things, easy to sort out within minutes, but irrationally, I still always worry!

But when it all comes together – well, the moment is magic. And  I don’t charge for that! 😉

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-56



Georgian Adventures in Stamford 2015

Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 2


There is a Georgian Festival in Stamford every other year – and this year we were contracted for a couple of jobs there ( thanks to Black Knight Historical).

The festivities lasted 3 full days with lots of lectures, meetings, Georgian market  and  living history – but our adventure started on Friday night –  at the Georgian ball!

We arrived in plenty of time , and were led to a proper  theatre style dressing room – and it turned out we were sharing it with Dr. Lucy Worsley, who dropped in for a moment of respite between her  talks, book signing and other public duties. We have met before as worked for the Worsley/Starkey documentary in Hampton court the year before, so it wasn’t too awkward. Still,  not often do we get to share a dressing room with a celebrity – and I felt a bit overdressed on the occasion 🙂


although, as you can see, we clearly had the same colour scheme  in mind 🙂

At the ball we danced, we chatted – and then provided some entertaining background during the buffet break as the folks were queuing for  some lovely food –  there was chatting, playing cards and some sketching  taking place….


After the break ( and after eating rather a lot of left over cake) there was more dancing and frivolities – until it was time to drive back home….

Saturday was a day off,  and Sunday we were taking part in the fashion show, so with a day off in between, I decided to make myself a new outfit – just  because I have always wanted a jacket, and because i had the fabric for ages!

I made the skirt in a lovely quilted cotton, with a fringe, and   then worked the rest of the day on a 1790 pierrot jacket.

I quickly drafted the pattern and then fitted it – mock up first and then playing with the real thing, in silk and linen

IMG_2462Sunday morning saw the jacket finished – but i had a few hours left before we had to make a move. so time to make a new hat! a gigantic one! Not the best of my creations, admittedly, but it  did the job.




Then it was packing the gear and setting off.

The fashion show went down a treat – there was a huge variety of costumes, from different decades and different walks of life, and the commentary was super as well…  a few behind the scenes shots..


men looking splendid….



I was modelling a 1790 redingote, and Eleanor was wearing her lovely francaise ( more on making it and more pictures  in the Georgian Ball post.


Amy fro the Period Costume Shop in a stunning polonaise  ( love the fabric!), me in the redingote and Kelly in her anglaise!


some unspeakable and unmentionable things happened too….

 After the show, I could change into my new bits and have a stroll around Stamford – and take a few pictures

But I was not exactly happy – I felt the wig did not work very well with the colours of the walking outfit. So when we got back home, I changed  wigs and we went on to snatch some autumnal pictures at the local Nature Reserve…. much  happier with these!


Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 36Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 17Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 15Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 4

Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 9


we even had a go at some heavy machinery….

Georgian Butterscotch - September 27, 2015 - 26


all together, a cracking weekend  was had!


photography –  Lucas from Timelight Photographic

costuming – Prior Attire ( the  walking outfit is now available for sale – here)

shoes – American Duchess, naturellment!

Running a Costuming Business, part 3:The Art of Objectivity



A short follow up on my earlier posts, ( part 1 and 2), dealing with running a creative business – not only a costuming one I suppose, but applying to many art- and craft-related business as well.

This point has come up recently, but in quite a few places, and so I though it was worth discussing it here. I have mentioned ‘constant learning’ and pointed out how important it is if you want your  business to succeed, but  I neglected to mention one important thing:


…and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, mistakes are  your friend.  They show  you clearly in which areas you need to improve, they make you aware that there is yet more research to do/ techniques to study, and  as a result, you get better! The thing is, everybody makes mistakes- but not everybody learns from them.

I am often asked by  folks for an opinion on their creations – and they all ask me for an honest opinion. And an honest opinion I give, highlighting both the points of excellency, and  stating what areas could do with some improvement (as a college teacher I have had decades of practice on how to do this, at least now it comes  handy for my own business too!); and guessed what?  A few folks are happy,  a few take the comments on board and apply in their future work, a few listen, thank me and ignore whatever was suggested – and that is all fine. However, quite a significant  percentage are angry and actually resort to abuse,  (“how dare you criticise my gown! I spent months working on it!” ; “You are just  jealous, you must hate my work –  all my friends are saying this piece is perfect!”; and even “go fuck yourself, you ‘know- it-all’,  my work is faultless; afraid of competition, huh?”).  They do make for an interesting read sometimes, and sometimes they leave me puzzled – so after some thinking and a few discussions with friends,  I realised  an important thing:

Very few people are able to view their work objectively.

It works in both directions. Some  people create amazing things  but in their own eyes they are nothing special, just ‘something I made’ . The are the perfectionists, never satisfied with the end result, and sometimes suffering from ‘impostor syndrome’. As a result they do put their own work down, and either under-price it or, if making things for themselves, they get disappointed with the lack of perfection. Usually  they just need a bit of a boost, usually from another person whose opinion they feel they can trust, to start looking at their creations in a different light. Sometimes their sense of underachievement may come from comparing their own work to other artists to whom they look up – and that issue can be dealt with as well.

If you think you might be one of these folks, there are a few things you may do, to try to look at your own work in a more realistic light:

  • Read up on the Impostor Syndrome and ways to overcome it; (a good start here)
  • Set yourself realistic goals. Aim high, yes – but in small steps rather than one huge leap.  Take small steps, each bringing you closer to your ideal.
  • Identify the issues that you think your work has, write them down and then discuss  – ideally with a specialist in the area, an outsider who will be objective, but if you have friends who are able to tell you what they really think, that can work, too. Seek out a few good, informed opinions – if none of them perceive the same issues as yourself, there is a high probability that the issue is really only in your own head! If they agree and state that there is something upon which you can improve, don’t despair. Simply note the advice and plan for how to deal with it. This is one of your targets, and gives you something tangible to work on, whilst on your way to ‘perfection’.
  •  Talking about perfection – well, it means something different to  everybody.  I  usually assume absolute perfection is unattainable, but one can damn well try to get as close as possible! Do not over-obsess though – that one, tiny, skipped stitch you found on the inside or that one buttonhole 0.2mm out of alignment?  It will most likely not be noticed by 99.9% of the population…
  • Know your limits: everybody has different strengths and different weaknesses – use your strengths to your advantage.  You can make a great piece of clothing with a commercial pattern, but when trying to pattern things yourself you end up in a mess?- either take lessons or a course in patterning, or just concentrate on doing what you are good at! Or, if you cannot follow a pattern at all and get lost in calculations, but can free-hand them with ease and the end result is amazing – well, ditch the patterns! There are may ways leading to the same result, all of them equally good.


  • Don’t always compare yourself to the top of your profession. Yes, look up to them and learn from them, but also take time to compare yourself to your peers, and also to those who are just starting out.  This is crucial – and works for many walks of life.  I  had a similar experience in Mixed Martial Arts quite recently –   for the last year or so I have been trying to spar with the best fighters, thinking that these guys are the ones to learn from. I was right, but only partially.  I was learning, but couldn’t see it, and the fact that I was having my arse handed to me again, and again, and again, wasn’t particularly motivating. I did some sparring with the beginners, and enjoyed the teaching and coaching part, but it was only when I came across somebody who was my peer, more or less,  when I understood how much I had learnt. These guys were not the cage fighters I usually worked with, but blokes who had been coming for the last year or so – fit, young and looking quite formidable. I sparred with them a few times half a year ago or so  and was just about able to handle it.  So now I expected something similar – but it turned out much better. Suddenly all the moves that I wasn’t able to pull with the ‘pros’ now worked! I seemed faster and more agile – although obviously I wasn’t – they were just a bit slower than my usual sparring partners. My ego soared! At least until the next round when  I was ground to dust by one of our pros…  it is a lengthy example but I hope it shows how working with all, levels, higher and lower can help you understand your own capabilities: Working with the best can provide you with inspiration and will make you learn; working with peers will help you assess your own work better and you learn from each other a lot too; working with beginners will help you realise how far you have come – and will help them to improve as well.



* Take photos of you work and if you are feeling particularly low, have a look at the old ones.  more often than not, you will see how far you have come!

*and a final note – Do not use the Impostor Syndrome as an excuse for sloppy work – if  one sleeve is longer than another, if the collar doesn’t align or the hem buckles it is not you telling yourself you are trying too hard to be too perfect and most people won’t notice it anyway. Grab that seam ripper and set too work, it will be worth it!


Now, let us have a look at the other end of the scale.

Some people are not able to see their own mistakes – and the reasons may be  numerous, ranging from a case of Dunning- Kruger Syndrome  to the fact that your family and friends may be pumping you full lies so that you stay happy. Or maybe  you are starting  on a long road and are so ecstatic about the first step as a whole, that you cannot see the details which could be improved (been there, done that, got the tee shirt. I now cringe when I look at those ‘masterpieces’ I used to be so proud of!)

Bedford Borough-20120731-00662

one of my early corsets…. essentially a tube. but gosh, i was so ecstatic about it!


4 years and about 60 corsets later…. getting better!

Most often, the apparent confidence in one’s own brilliance comes not from an over-abundance of self esteem – but rather a lack of it. Often, people are bought up in the belief that mistakes are bad and to be avoided at all cost – and that admitting to one is just as bad. Years of self delusion, denying all possibility of any fault, usually re-enforced  by the white lies that family and friends ( and often paid so called ‘experts’ and life coaches whose business depends on your thinking you are doing great…)) feed you, and you somehow loose the ability to see your mistakes – and most importantly, to learn from them.

Now, if you are making things for yourself, and love what you doing – that is really all that matters – especially when  you are happy about your results. You are happy and that’s the end of it – enjoy it, and what everybody  else is thinking does not matter at all.

However, if  your professional career depends upon it, and you are making things for other people, this can be detrimental to the development of your business and indeed can stop you from fully realising your creative potential. It will also make you very unhappy – you are producing fantastic things, but nobody wants to buy them – why?  If you want to succeed, you need to understand how to adjust your perception – even though your mind is telling you clearly that there is no fault with the product, it is just that all of those other people are wrong, and being awkward! ;-0).
There are a few techniques that may help:

  •  It is very difficult to judge your own work accurately – so seek the opinions of outsiders, just as mentioned above. Try not to get upset when critical advice is offered, but do take notes and decide which parts need more work. Make sure the ‘experts’ you are asking for advice are indeed knowledgeable folks with experience and not just a friend of a friend who once made a hankie….
  • Assume from the start that what you have just made may have faults. Although lots of art is deeply subjective, at least in costuming things can be made easy – you cannot  ‘objectively’ state how pretty something is, but there are measurable quantities and aspects – below are two of my check-lists, for corsetry and off-the-peg  Victorian dresses. Lists like that are  great, and you will soon find that in time they become mental check-lists, and that you are  noticing a mistake as you work  along and correcting it as you go – much easier than doing so after the garment is finished!


  •  Seam ripper is your best friend –  it is frustrating, dull and infuriating, but it is really worth it to rip and redo a wonky seam!
  • …as is the tape measure. You may not see that the collar is uneven, but you cannot argue with the tape informing you kindly that one edge is half an inch higher than the other….  These may be details – but oh, so often they do make a difference between a mediocre dress and a superb outfit!

Your Best Friend

  • Get some distance – after you make a garment,  put it away overnight, or at least for a few hours and go for a walk, or do something different. Then look at it with fresh eyes and try to asses it as somebody else’s work. I once spent a whole day working on a replica bolero jacket for a museum. I was battling with a lurgy and not feeling great, but decided to soldier through.  I shouldn’t have. I felt better the next day and one look at the garment made me go: “Oh, crap, I need to do the blasted thing again”.   There was nothing inherently wrong with it, but it just did not seem right, I went through my checks with a tape measure etc, and realised what was the problem : the bias bits were not done well enough, the trim was a bit uneven, buttons just a notch out of alignment… I spent the whole day remaking it from scratch. As it turned out, the client liked both –  but I felt better knowing that I had made an item better suited for public viewing
  •  As in the opposite spectrum, perform frequent ‘reality checks’. Seek advice from people you admire, compare your work to your peers’ and study together, help beginners –  a few times, I have realised my own mistakes only after seeing them on a student’s work. And the occasional bitch-and-stitch sessions can be not only educational, but fun 🙂


  • As before, do take pictures. Compare your old work with new pieces; if you are learning and improving, there will  be clear evidence of it, and it will sharpen your ‘mistake hunting’ senses. By the same token, if you look at the skirts you made over the last 3 years and they all feature an uneven hem – well, you know precisely your next personal improvement goal!
  •  Having said all that, don’t go over the top trying to find out the slightest faults in every single item. Improving is one thing – loosing your joy in making things is quite another, and it is never a good thing trying to make a living doing things you don’t enjoy any more…


Funnily enough a friend with a psychology degree once noticed –  The people who claim to suffer from the Impostor Sydrome  usually are suffering from the Dunning- Krugger – and the other way round…. our psyche is tricky, so as you see, it is not easy to be objective in such cases,  but the essencial thing is the realisation that neither syndrom is a reason for shame and in either case you can most likley improve!

Well, that is it – I believe my first blog ever with more text than pictures, a rarity!  I hope my musings were not too hard a read and that they may help some people. If you have any ideas on other techniques people can use to learn how to assess  their own work (more or less objectively), please share in the comments!


Georgian Ball in Bath, March 2015

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-56


It all started innocently enough – I was approached to create a set of Georgian attire for a ball by  new customers, a lovely couple.

We discussed the designs, fabrics , fitting schedule etc, and it was all going smoothly – and then I just had to ask: what ball is it anyway?

And hearing it is the one in Bath, organized by the Bath Minuet Company, we just had to go along and buy tickets….. after all we did enjoy the Regency Ball there a lot! And Eleanor, our friend jumped at the opportunity and joined in – and commissioned a frock too. So suddenly I ended up with having  2 big commissions plus trying to get some time to make Lucas; kit – and maybe there would be just enough time to get mine sorted too – I had my pink robe anglaise, just in case I wouldn’t, but since I got some lovely brocade last November, I did hope to be able to knock something out for myself too.

Eleanor’s set was done first, as she was available for fittings early… After much deliberation on which fabrics o use, Eleanor decided on a crispy mat silk in slate – we had quite a lot of and it went very well with pink roses and gold braid, and the design was loosely based on the robe francaise worn by Mme de Pompadour.

the foundations were first – stays, and pocket hoops in silk!




then the petticoat, and draping on the francaise –  there was loads of fabric going into it!


playing with the trim…


the gown and basic trim ready, now just the roses and the stomacher


sleeve before pinking – I pined it at the last moment, as although the fabrics didn’t fray much, we wanted the edges sharp for the event:-)


decoration on the petticoat – frills, flounces and roses


and a very important moment – once the roses were out of the box, Merlin jumped in It was the very first time in the last 3 years when he actually willingly went into a box… weird moggy



The original commission that started the whole Georgian frenzy was interesting too – a suit of black satin for the gentleman, with an embroidered waistcoat, and a robe anglaise, with the cut away front ( zone front) for the lady. Plus set of undergarments for both.

I especially enjoyed working on the embroidery – with silver metallic tread and silk..



that frame was an amazing investment. well worth it if you are working on larger pieces


waistcoat ready


the back



and a frilly shirt

The lady’s kit consisted of a chemise, a pair of stays in silk brocade, skirt supports, skirt in silk satin, with a fringe, and a robe anglaise in striped  silk…


the stays ready


detail of the back


working on the anglaise – after a rial run with the trim we decided against it. the fabric did not lend itself well to piking and the thing frayed like hell, leaving bits of thread everywhere, especially on the white satin…


the back

with just  2 days to spare I  was pressed for time to work on Lucas kit – and our initial plan of using gold and red pinstripe silk ( breeches, waistcoat and jacket) were discarded in favour for some lovely silk taffetta I was hoarding for myself – but  it meant the colour could go with an original waistcoat Lucas already had, so less work… plus, how could I refuse my husband….

As much as I would like to spend days embroidering his jacket, making fancy buttons etc, we were pressed for time so drastic measures had to be taken – Lucas decided on a  posh modern trim instead. Looks correct and although makes the kit more of a theatre costume than re-enactment piece, for the ball it worked just fine..



And then with just  8 hours to spare, I had a go at my robe francaise.  I had just enough fabrics to get a francaise and petticoat in it, though not enough for any decoration  and I even had to piece  one sleeve and the flounces. I do love the fabric, and I was very lucky to get it at a reduced price – I payed £40 a metre instead of the usual £75 or so). The ladies at the Sudbury Silk Mill where I got it from said it was because of a fault running through the length, but since I could barely see it, i did not mind at all.


work in progress


And it turned out I had just enough some matching taffeta from my stash to work a trim – paired with a chenille braid:-)



With just a few bits left to be stitched  later on ( buttons) we were ready – and fortunately our wigs, ordered quite late from the States ( from Historical Hairdresser) arrived with a few days to spare!

The day of the ball was full of mishaps…. first  I woke up with laringitis – voice gone completely….. Then,  1 hour into the drive we realised that Lucas’ lovely waistcoat is still at home….. so had to turn back… Then Bath was clogged up with roadworks and traffic jams. Luckily we were just in time to check into the hotel, get dressed and rush to the dance practice…


Eleanor at the dance practice, minding our hats… and boots…


after the practice, waiting for transport… surprisingly enough my redingote worked quite well as an extra layer over the anglaise


Hotel elevators…. barely big enough for 2…


We had a few hours before the ball, so we finished last minute jobs, had a meal and started getting ready. 90 minutes before our carriage was supposed to arrive – and yes, carriage – we booked proper horsey transportation from Courtyard Carriages–   the company called us saying they cannot do it, giving a rather feeble excuse. considering that we booked them  with over a month before, that as a bit of a blow – so folks, if you are ever tempted to book a carriage in bath, Do NOT use them!

Still, we though, we will take a cab.  WE will need a bigger one, to accommodate all the frockage, and so a suitable vehicle was booked, using a dedicated hotel line to a cab company.

But alas – when we got into the lobby, there was not a car to be found…. finally, after 8 calls from us, the hotel etc, and lots of excused on the  side of the cab company, they sent us a car – 50 minutes after the agreed time! needless to say, we were not in the least amused – we basically missed most of the first half of the danceo not remember the name of the company, but if you are in the Travelodge Waterside, do not use the cabs line  there – the hotel staff was very helpful, and it was not their fault, it was purely that the company were managed by an incompetent prat.


Still, an hour late, we made it…..

We had a lovely time dancing, chatting, taking photos, doing more dancing and admiring the dance demonstration from the Minuet company – and so the evening went ahead smoothly ( though on my part rather quietly – still no voice – some may argue it was a blessing, especially considering the mishaps – a lot of very bad language would have otherwise occurred…)

Lucas grabbed some photos too – enjoy!

first, the results of all that stitching….

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-23

Kelly and Glen in their finery

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-58

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-60


then Eleanor…

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-53


Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-21 Lucas…

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-46

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-66


and me:-)

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-40 Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-26 Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-34


And a few group shots too…

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-45

here discussing programme for our Victorian ball with our dance master – Stuart Marsden


Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-51

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-54

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-63


and a few of the dance demo

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-5 Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-1



and some outtakes….

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-33

my usual face…

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-13

Georgian Ball - Bath March 2015-49


all together, it was a success and we will gladly come back again:-)

The next day saw us at the Assembly Rooms, meeting with Stuart and the  caterers and discussing our Victorian ball in May –  so looking forward to  it too!







12th Century Dress – the Bliaut


Mention a medieval dress to someone and the odds are the image they have in mind is a loose frock with long sleeves. Type ‘medieval’ into Google, eBay or etsy – and modern L.A.R.P and hand-fasting gowns of that description appear – with most of them sporting the iconic long, trailing sleeves.   The proper medieval dress of that description was called a ‘bliaut’ (and was apparently worn by both sexes, though later male bliauts tend to be shorter), and its variants were fashionable across Europe for about 100 years. The earlier examples of the dress of that type seem to be a continuation of the fashions of 11th century – loose gowns often with girdles and long sleeves getting bigger, longer and more elaborate; but it is the second part of the 12th century that celebrated the bliaut at is best  – here the look is far more slender, with a slim waist emphasised by the more fitted style of the dress, careful girdle arrangement and, of course those sleeves.


Figure of Grammatica , from the Hortus Deliciarum, c. 1180

The most iconic look is represented by the famous statues in Chartres cathedral


Figures from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), centre portal of the west facade of Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France,

So what makes the Bliaut proper? Look out for these features:

  • Excessively long sleeves – fitted to a degree above the elbow, and opening wider below – and sometimes simply elongated cuffs. The lowest part of the sleeve is often square
  • Image

    sleeve shape.Chartres1,

  • Tight fit on the torso – often showing wrinkles – most likely caused by side lacing
  • Girdle – often wrapped twice around the body, with the ends hanging in front (though single girdles or no girdles are also seen)
  • Neck openings – can be round, keyhole, or V shaped, often decorated with embroidery, woven braids of applied silk bands in contrasting colour
  • Image

    Terence’s Comedies, St. Albans Abbey, mid 12th century, Folio 10 recto

  •  Sometimes the long sleeves are knotted for practical as well as aesthetic reasons

example of knotted sleeves.Angers – BM – ms. 0243 F077v (fin XII) 2

Moe examples of bliaut and other fashions of 12/13thcentury – here – 11-13century fashions

There have been several theories concerning the construction of the bliaut. Some claimed that the dress is loose, but that the middle part is a corset, or a stomacher worn on top of the dress and secured by the double girdle. Some believed that the waist part was cut separately and the bodice part and the skirts were gathered and sewn on to it. Personally, I find the theory that it is the side lacing, (a new technique that appeared on the scene at that time), which makes the dress fitted and accounts for the wrinkles on the torso. It also makes sense from a costume evolution point of view – the basic, almost rectangular cut of the previous centuries is still used here with just slight adaptation – whereas a corset of any kind, as well as a stomacher, or cutting the bodice horizontally would be completely out of place, several centuries ahead of its time and too huge a jump to consider seriously. In my opinion it also points naturally towards the development of ‘cotte and surcoat’ –  remove the sleeves and unlace the sides and the garment looks disturbingly like later surcoats – though in this case male fashions and heraldic surcoats were probably a bigger influence.

The pleated nature of the fabric often seen on the sculptures is another enigma – most likely it represents very voluminous but light fabric, like silk, rather than fabric that has been pleated to a waistband, etc.  To what degree the statues and other representations in medieval art are artistic licence will probably remain a secret forever, so going with the cut, techniques and construction that were known at the time is a much safer bet.

If you wish to have a closer look at the variety of bliauts represented in art across Europe and the construction theories, have a look at this site – very useful!

The pattern.


I have used a pattern consisting largely of simple geometrical shapes – front and back are rectangles, often cut on the fold, or with a vertical CF and CB seam, with the waist cut out more to fit, thus softening the lines. Armhole lines sometimes seem to have been slightly softened too – they were probably the newest development in tailoring at the time! The gores are triangles. The sleeve pattern is the most innovative as it incorporates both concave and convex lines, softening the harsh geometrical look.

The dress can be of equal length, reaching the ground all around, or trained. If you can, make the gores as wide as possible – the bigger the hem circumference, the better the folds of the dress look. With the modern, wider fabrics it is also possible to cheat a bit and save time by cutting the front and back with wide skirts, incorporating the side gores, with only the front and back gores – a technique I used once. It did work, though it is incorrect for the period as the fabric widths were so much narrower.

The fabrics – Wool would be the most common, and certainly my favourite, though silk might be the option for the most affluent personages– and more frequently worn by the Franks in the Outremer – silk was cheaper there and more suitable for the climate. It is also through the returning Crusaders that northern European countries would have access to silk – in England at that time it was as a luxury almost unheard of, worn only by the wealthiest magnates of the realm – and usually even they could only afford it as decorative strips edging their bliauts. Silk garments were almost exclusively for royalty.

Lining – it is argued whether all the dresses were lined, and it is likely that some weren’t. For me, lining the bliaut is always a good idea, especially if it is trained. It looks better, lasts longer and wears better – the wool doesn’t cling if you happen to wear a woollen kirtle underneath. Linen is best, though silk can be used as well – probably in contrasting colours for the sleeves.  For economy reasons, if lining with silk, only the sleeves would be lined with the expensive fabric, the rest of the lining would be cheaper linen, as it wouldn’t be displayed.


6m of wool or top fabric ( more if you plan a trained gown or very long sleeves)

6m of lining

Silk or linen thread

Optional: silk for decorative bands, wool for decorative woven braids and girdle


  1. Cut all your pieces in your top fabric and lining.

front piece cut -here using a modern method, cut together with the side gores


front and back gores – back gore is longer as the skirts will be trained


the sleeve

  1.  Sew the top fabric first – assemble the front part first (the front gore and the side gores if you are sticking to the period correct pattern), then do the same for the back – i you are having side gores at the back sew them in as well, if not, it is only the back gore.
  2.  Sew the front and back pieces at the shoulders  Press the seams open. Couch them down if not using lining or if the fabric frays a lot.

gores sewn in, fronts and back sewn, shoulder seam sewn – sides still left open

  1. Sew the sleeves right sides together.


4. Turn the sleeves on the right side. find the centre top of the sleeve and place it, right sides together matching the shoulder seam.  Pin the fabric of the gown around the sleeve and sew. Repeat on the other side.

5.You now have the entire gown assembled– but the sides are open from the armpit. Try it on, and see if the sleeve fit is correct, but also mark the length of the side opening – it should be just at the seam where the gore starts, but if your figure is fuller you may need to adjust a bit.

6. Take the gown off and sew the side pieces together. Press the seams open.

  1.  Repeat the same steps with the lining.
  2.  Hem the top fabric – at the sleeves, side opening and neck.
  3.  If you plan to decorate the sleeve edges, neck hem etc with embroidered bands,  bands of silk or  other trims, do it now – any stitches going through the fabric will not be visible

the detail of the front – lining stitched, hiding the stitches from sewing on the handmade braid

  1.  Insert the lining – stitch it to the neck and sides first, then the sleeves , using slipstitch.

silk lining of the sleeves sewn to the top fabric

  1. Hang the gown on a dummy or on a hanger.   If possible, leave overnight, especially if working in wool – the fabric will stretch a little bit. Next day, check that the hem is even, adjust if necessary and hem the top fabric.  Do not stitch the lining in yet.
  2.  Again, hang the dress. Pin the top layer and lining together, matching the seams. Trim the lining if necessary, then fold the seam allowance under and pin it to the dress hem.  Stitch together  In this way you should not end up with the lining being too short or not too long. Whatever you do, do not bag line the dress.


  1.  Next step – the eyelets!  Mark the eyelets on the fabric around the side openings. Pierce it with an awl, then work an eyelet using a linen or silk thread. Repeat for all the eyelets on both sides


  1.  Your dress is ready  All you need to do is to lace the sides with a line or silk ribbon, or a hand plaited lace.


But – it is not the end. The dress on its own is only half the success – you will need a bit more to look and feel the part.

 Girdle –  the simplest way is to make one from a length of silk, or wool. You can also buy or weave one yourself, from line, wool, or silk yarn – the knotted ends visible on the girdles from the Chartres are most likely loose ends left unwoven. Make sure it is long enough if you plan to wrap it twice about your torso.


The bliaut is not worn on its own. Like all the other clothes in medieval times, it was worn on linen chemise/kirtle/underdress, with optional woolen kirtle worn on top of the linen layer – ideal solution for colder months. The cut of the chemise/kirtle didn’t differ much from the earlier garments (discussed in details in article on the Anglo Saxon garments) – simple garments with gored skirts and tight sleeves – indeed the sleeves were sometimes so tight they had to be closed with stitching on the wearer – an option for the ladies who could afford maids. In the warmer climates it is possible that a silk bliaut would be worn just on a linen chemise


a kirtle, Carmina burana

The sleeves and neck of the underdress could also be decorated with woven braids or embroidery


wool kirtle with sleeve and neck embroidery

The hair.

The hair is a bit tricky. The fashionable style was simple two braids, often decorated with ribbons. Simple – if you have the hair for it. My hair, although long, is nowhere near that long, and plaited into two braids looks pathetic – no volume to it at all. The period solution would be to use horse hair to supplement your own tresses but in absence of horse hair, we can use modern extensions


If you hair is short, simply plait the extensions and clip then onto your own hair. If your hair is long enough to plait as well, follow the steps below.

  1. Divide the hair into two.
  2. Take the extension ( they usually come in fort of one long skein of hair), fold it in half and  start plaiting with your own hair – 2 strands of extension and your hair as the third strand.



  1. Plait  a few strands to secure them, then re-arrange the strands – you will need to divide the extensions so that the third strand is formed. If your hair is long enough, simply continue plaiting till the end of both real hair and extensions. Dividing the extensions tend to be rather messy, especially if you are using artificial fibre, but it can be done in such a way that it is difficult to spot where the real hair ends.



  1.  You now have a finished plait. You can leave the ends loose, or secure them with ribbons. there are mentions of metal fillets used to secure the braids ends, and you can just see the contraption on the Chartres figures, but I haven’t found anything like that around – if you know where I can get them, please do let me know!
  2.  You can now leave the braid as it is, decorate it with long silk ribbons, simply crossing the ribbon over along the length of the braid


There is an alternative method, where you can use only two strands of hair and weave the ribbon around them – but with the extensions it doesn’t look too good as the ribbons slide a lot!


If you are a young unmarried woman, you can wear your hair in braids without any other covering – though chaplets of flowers will look nice on them.  Otherwise, you will need a veil and a fillet.

Veils at that point slowly started to depart from the big rectangular kerchiefs worn earlier, and were simple affairs of smaller rectangles or much more graceful oval ones. They were made mostly of linen, though silk was used as well, if the family could afford it. Veils were secured by a fillet – a hand of woven braid for common women , or a circlet of metal – in case of the noble ladies,  the metal diadem was shaped, with a slightly flared outer ridge, and often encrusted with jewels.

Mine was made to order, and is a simple brass hoop, slightly flared – and quite heavy – it definitely leaves a nice dent on my skin after the whole day of wearing it!

In the last decades of the  12th century a barbette started to be worn – a strap of linen worn under the veil, passing under the chin and pinned on the top of the head –  an example can be seen on the effigy of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine


.Eleanor of Aquitaine, effigy

Barbettes were useful as it was easier to pin the veil on and they framed the face nicely – they were in use for the next century or so finally disappearing in the 14th century, though chin straps resembling barbettes were seen with the 15th century hennins. They really herald a new style for the 13th century – with the hair gathered in a bun at the nape of the neck.

All you need now is a woolen hose and shoes – latchet style with pointed toe, often with straps , and if it is cold, a mantle or a cloak  semi circular or circular, wool, lined with either linen, or wool)





bliaut in wool, lined with linen, neck decorated with embroidery on linen, handwoven woolen girdle



Bliaut in silk, with silk bands decoration


an Outremer princess – bliaut in silk, with contrasting bands of silk used as decoration and girdle, worn on a chemise only, in Jordan


bliaut renedered in silk satin as a wedding dress.

There you have it, a nice and cosy woollen garment, or a lighter one in silk – whether for re-creating  Outremer fashions of for contemporary weddings  bliaut remains the iconic medieval dress. Elegant, graceful and stylish, it was ‘resurrected’ a few more times in the centuries to follow – in the late 14th/early 15th houppelandes and then in the Victorian times, when the Pre-Raphaelite movement reached back to the medieval times for inspiration ( the Accolade, lady of Shallot – and the Japanese gown from 1895 –,


1895 silk gown, kyoto, Kyoto


grey houppelande with open sleeves reminiscent of the 12th century fashions

Nowadays the style became popular with the fantasy movies like the Lord of the rings – the flowing, gentle lines work perfectly as the attire of the timelessly elegant elves.


Kyoto Costume Institute,

Gutkowska – Rychlewska Maria, Historia ubiorów, Ossolineum, 1968

Francois Boucher,  A History of Costume in the West,


The Bliaut throughout 12th Century Europe,



Anglo Saxon kit





Early medieval styles and clothing is very often thought to be dull, coarse and unattractive – a sort of a potato sack with a girdle.  The stereotype might not be far from the truth as far as the lowest classes are concerned, however, once in the realm of middle and upper classes of society, one can discover an astonishing wealth of fabrics, colours and details. True, the basic cut remained more or less the same, but the ornamental details and the richness of materials more than made up for it.


New Minster Charter 966


Austrian National Library, Cod. Ser. N. 2701-2702, Fol. 252v,

In this article I will concentrate on a wealthy 9th century Anglo-Saxon woman and man – the outfits presented here were made for Black Knight Historical for Living History presentations. The cut of the clothes is pretty simple, but that was not what presented the challenge here: it was doing the research to get the clothes right in the first place! For that, I found the Anglo Saxon England website extremely useful and the study of the extant garments neatly presented by Mark Carlson was of enormous help as well!

Let us start with the male garments.

Throughout the early and middle medieval periods fashions changed very slowly. The most important aspect of everyday life was usually practicality, and so the basic clothes of that period are simple, practical and durable.  The rudimentary attire of a man a commoner or a noble man would consist of the following layers.

Loincloth – a piece of fabric worn with hose or under trousers, usually depicted on the representatives of the poorer strata of the society

Braies : simple 2 legged trousers. Made in wool or linen – with the advance of Hose (single legged, tailored to fit the leg tightly and attached by a drawstring to the braires),  braires replace the loincloth and are worn underneath. With the advance of Norman fashions later on, they can become very voluminous indeed!


The early braies and late the hose was often secured at the lower leg with winingas – long strips of cloth binding the calves – often with a criss-cross binding of a woven braid on top of the woolen winingas. Winingas were wound spirally up the leg and then secured by tucking the end under, or by a metal tag hook


hooked tag, 7-11th cent, uk detector finds database, ref.number 12751

Undertunic ( smoc or serc) a linen  A line garment with light cuffs and often split hem at the sides – a predecessor of a shirt!,

Tunic, or overtunic (cyrtel) a linen or more often, a woolen garment on top of the undertunic. Tunics were of varied length, from mid calf to over the knee, and long sleeved.  Often the length of tunics worn one over the other could differ– and the top one could be just a bit shorter to show off the contrasting colour or hem decoration of the undertunic. Their cut was simple- early ones were simply made up of rectangular pieces, split at the sides – later on gores were used to give the tunic skirts more volume. They were not always made of one length of fabric- many finds show that they were often cut from much smaller pieces obviously depending on cloth available ( )


Often, the neck, hem and sleeves were decorated either with a woven braid or with embroidery – worked either directly on the garment or on a linen/silk/woollen band of a contrasting colour and then applied to the garment itself.


Junius Manuscript, late 10th to early 11th cent., p 53

The tunics were usually belted with a simple braid or with leather belts.

A mantle or a cloak was worn over the whole attire – a large variety of styles seem to be in evidence, from a simple rectangular piece of thick woolen fabric, to semi or circular ones, often decorated with braid and pinned with a brooch.

The outfit would be complimented with shoes or boots and a woolen cap.

The set my client has decided on was 2 tunics and a rectangular cloak. He already owned braies and winingas and a linen undertunic, but wanted a slightly longer woolen tunic and a shorter one to go on top – and the cloak to compliment the image and to keep him warm in winter.

The tunics were cut in the same way, with only the length being different – the overtunic has shorter sleeves too to show off the embroidery on the longer one.

The pattern I used was based on the one from Mark Carlson site – I decided on two side gores with no front gores however:


skjoldehamn tunic pattern


 The materials:

2 m of honey mustard wool

2 metres of herringbone weave wool

2 metres of thick pale red wool for the cloak

8 metres of hand-woven braid to decorate the cloak

0.5 m of linen for the neck and cuffs embroidery

Silk yarn for embroidery


Cut out the body of the tunic first, making sure there is enough space for movement.  Cut out the sleeves, underarm gussets and side gores.

Sew the gussets to the sleeves first. Sew the shoulders together and then stitch the sleeves to the  body – mark the middle line of each sleeve, and pin it to the shoulder seam- to make sure it is symmetrical.  Sew the gores to the front of the tunic then fold the tunic at the shoulder seams and run one long seam from the cuff to the hem, stitching the sleeve, front and back and gore to back pieces in one go. Repeat on the other side.

Turn the tunic to the right side, try it on and adjust the length and the width of the neck opening.

Repeat for the other tunic.  Once sewn, I finish all the edges by hand using linen or silk threads, and couch down all the interior seams: it flattens them out and gives even a partially machine-sewn garment an authentic look. All I had to take care off was the embroidery – and that took much longer than the tunics!

As far as the patterns and techniques are concerned, I found Jane Stockton article most helpful – very detailed instructions and a nice selection of patterns.

Start with preparing your fabric. I used two rectangles, one for the neckline and one for the cuffs.  I drew the design on the fabric and attached the fabric to my wooden tapestry frame. Make sure the fabric is taunt and stretches evenly in all directions.  Now for the lengthy process of embroidering. I used lovely silks from Sally Pointer (, divided into two threads strand.  I opted for the chain stitch as being relatively easy on straight lines, curvy lines and it is good for filling in shapes nicely as well. It takes a few trials to get the stitch length sorted out, but after a few minutes of practice, I was ready to embroider in earnest. And embroider I did-  and for quite some time too!

Once you have all the embroidery done, take the pieces from the frame, and cut them to shape – make sure you leave some fabric so that it the raw edges can be folded under and stitched to the tunic without compromising the pattern.


embroidery for the tunic1


Iron the pieces carefully and pin onto the fabric. Stitch the folder edges to the main fabric with small, even stitches.  Once in place, iron again – and you are done!


embroidery attached to the tunic




With the tunics out of the way all that remained was the cloak, and that was pretty straightforward: cut a rectangle of fabric, hem it and it is ready. You can line your cloak, or leave it unlined, and you can put some decorative touches to it embroider the corners or hems, or, as in this case, you can sew a hand-woven braid on top of it.

Braids were woven using either small heddles for simple patterns or  tablets with holes ( pic.13) – three, four six and eight varieties can be bought from at  any re-enactment fair, and the basics of weaving are easy.


heddle weaving





horn tablets for weaving



Female attire.


Similarly to the male garments, women from that period had a lot of choice as far as fabric, colours and decoration was concerned, even though the basic cut remained simple. The layers a wealthy woman would be wearing would be:

Undergown (smoc) – an A line kirtle with tight sleeves, reaching probably all the way to the ground. It was most likely that women would were one in linen (a later chemise or smock) with another one  in wool  over it.   The second layer is often called the overgown as well as the distinctions here seem to be rather blurred. I usually assume that the undergown is the linen or fine wool dress with long narrow sleeves, always reaching to the ground, on top of which you can have the overgown with straight  or flared sleeves.

Overgown proper ( cyrtel) – as mentioned above, a woollen garment with straight sleeves, which In later times started to flare our a bit leading to the long trailing sleeves , particularly evident in the 12th century Norman fashions.


chartres figures

It could have been lined or unlined – the pictorial evidence seem to suggest that both solutions were used, though contrasting lining would present a nice decoration with  the flared sleeves style.


The Encomium Emmae Reginae , Queen Emma

As far as length is concerned, again it would be  ground or ankle length- though it is argued that it was indeed sometimes a bit shorter, probably depending on the amount of fabric available – or maybe to show off the contrasting colour of the undergown. Whatever is the case, my client opted for the slightly shorter version. Gowns and undergowns are often shown hitched up over the belt – a practical solution for such a long and voluminous garment!



On top would go a mantle- a circular affair in wool, with lots of drape, or, again, for the practical reasons, a rectangular cloak like the men’s one would do the job just as well

Headwear – most women would wear a wimple – a rectangular piece of linen, draped around head   and neck, often secured with a fillet- a braid or metal circlet worn on top. Veils were popular among the ecclesiastical community, but with time secular women would wear a veil and a circlet on braided hair as well- again depictures in later centuries and mostly among Norman fashions.


My client opted for a woollen undergown (she already had a linen one) decorated with embroidered bands of silk, a shorter overgown decorated with a woven braid and a rectangular cloak in lovely chequered wool.

I used the following:

3.5 metres of fine, deep aubergine wool

3 metres of red wool

2 metres of chequered wool for the cloak

8 metres of hand-woven braid to decorate the overgown and to serve as a girdle

0.5 m of yellow silk for the neck and cuffs embroidery

Silk yarn for embroidery.

The cut and pattern were almost identical to the men’s tunic, but obviously longer. Also, the overgown sleeves were straight and not narrowing.

For the instructions of how to make the gowns, follow the instructions given in the male attire section – they are the same!



embroidery for the undergown

Here are the two outfits worn by Ian and Kindra at the Norfolk Cathedral Christmas Fair – and don’t they look snug and dashing!





Kindra getting ready – but the image shows the underdress nicely!




Anglo-Saxon embroidery [Accessed 02/03/2011]

Anglo Saxon England: [Accessed 01/03/2011]

Basic tablet weaving: [Accessed 05/03/2011]

Corbis images, documentary [Accessed 05/03/2011]

Carlson, I. M. (1996-). Some Clothing of the Middle Ages Historical Clothing from Archaeological Finds. Retrieved 10/03/2011, from

Jane Stockton,Embroidery for Clothing – Anglo-Saxon, [Accessed 02/03/2011]

Joan Clarke, English Costume through the Ages, The English Universities Press LTD, London, 1966

10th and 11th Century Clothing in England: A Portfolio of Images[Accessed 05/03/2011]



Managing big projects



 Have you ever spent a night diligently sewing away till dawn so that the costume could be worn the next day?  Have you realized a day before the event that there is no way you can hand stitch as much as you wanted and you’d have to cut corners and trust to your sewing machine to speed the process up? Or maybe discovered that you forgot to buy that lining or trim and you need it for tomorrow?  If any of that sounds familiar (and to be honest I do not know of a costumier who would not have been in this kind of situation at least once in their life…), then read on – this article is aimed at the time-management issue that most of us struggle with.


sewing the night away…

 I have spent many a night stitching well into the small hours when costuming was a hobby and I mostly was sewing for myself. Then it didn’t really matter too much that one or two things were not completed on time, and safety pins saved the garment on the day. True, it would have been nice to be more rested at the event, but last minute frantic stitching was all part of the fun, after all.

 It is different however, when you start making clothes for other people, especially if you are being paid for it. Then it is other people depending upon you, your skill and its outcome; if you do not manage to deliver the item on time, as finished goods of immaculate quality, it is not only the other people that suffer the consequences – your reputation suffers as well.

 And that really clinches it – when your livelihood depends on your reputation, you cannot ignore the time factor. Your creations may be of outstanding beauty and quality, but if you fail to produce them within the agreed deadline, you will find fewer and fewer people will place their orders, and their trust in you. I have had more than a few clients coming to me complaining that they have placed orders with other costumiers, have paid, and are still waiting for the outcome – in one case  the seamstress was 2 years behind her deadline, and that was considered more or less normal. I was puzzled at first, but after some market research I understood the reason.

 In the last few decades there have been very few established historical dressmakers in the UK, and people did not have a great deal of choice – they would go to a well known company and if that meant they had to wait for months, or years, for their quality garment, they did – there was simply no other option. And the dressmakers, knowing that, felt secure and grew complacent.

 However, recently there has been a surge of newcomers to the business of historical dressmaking – talented people who knew they need to get an edge in order to survive; they needed to provide quality services and quality products for their businesses to be noticed – and to thrive.  And that competition factor has changed the dynamics of the UK professional dressmaking scene situation completely.

Don’t get me wrong – competition is not a bad thing in business. It drives progress and improves quality of everybody’s produce and service – if a business cannot keep up with it, they will disappear. But it also means that lots of businesses have had to re-think their strategy and improve.  Some did – and as their work standards rose, their businesses soared. Some didn’t – they either went out of business, or still exist thanks only to a few loyal customers – surviving, but not thriving and expanding.

 In this article I will endeavour to provide some advice how to manage your time better; whether you use the time freed for your private pursuits or for working on more projects, it is up to you! Although I am writing with professionals in mind, especially those dealing with bigger orders, I do hope that the advice I am able to give will also be helpful to all of you who treat sewing as a hobby and do not have to meet imposed deadlines.

 Whereas it is not too much of a problem to improve your time management when working on small, individual projects, the moment I went ‘pro’ changed things a lot. When I first started my business it was easy to plan as I did have quite a lot of time available, and since I was costuming part-time, I took on only the commissions I wanted, and worked at a leisurely pace. When I went full-time, I realised that in order to stay afloat and to expand, I needed to improve my timing.  I managed to get out of the procrastination habit within a few months, (well, almost completely, I do sometimes enjoy a bit of a good old bout of procrastination), and soon candle-lit sewing and finishing garments mere seconds before the deadline became things of the past (almost…)

 However it is the bigger orders that have been the most difficult to manage, and the learning curve here was steep. My first big project was my wedding gown and my bridal party, comprising outfits for 2 bridesmaids, 1 matron of honour and my mother in law, all bedecked in late Victorian finery .   I didn’t really do too well on that, as I was stitching lace to my veil the day before the wedding, and the final work was completed at about midnight before the wedding – and not without my bridesmaids’ help!


the Bridal party, all ready on the day.

 My next two big commissions were a bit better – I was making 4 complete sets of Elizabethan and Tudor clothing for children – and a commission that should have taken me perhaps 3 weeks took 5 for the first order and just over 4 for the next one. 






 It was an improvement, but not enough – I needed to get my act together and identify the factors that were slowing me down. My next big order worked much better – and I will be using mostly the examples from that to show how to manage your time efficiently.

 My order was for a set of 12 early 16th cent robes, (‘rock’ or ‘wappenrock’ – the inspoiration board: ), in the German style, with headwear, plus two Durer gowns. The contract was signed in January, the event was in the south of Germany at the end of August. Loads of time! The deposit was paid in February, fabrics bought in March, so now I could relax till August, you might think.  Taught by bitter  past experiences, I decided to manage this one better – so that everything would be done on time – more, in fact – with time to spare.   And with just a few slight changes, it was done – I finished the last plumed cap the day before the event and even had time to make my own German beret to fit in with the crowd when we delivered the order and spent a day  at the tournament. Not only that – I actively enjoyed making all the gear in a stress-free and relaxed way – a win on both fronts!


all tarted up in the new beret:-)

The client in his new attire at the event –


 The work in progress and some tournament pictures can be found here:

  and a post on the event – here

 And so, there we go…

  • Plan.  Not just in your head, but on paper/screen.

planning …

Write down all the things you need for a particular costume/set, down to the last set of hooks and eyes, the last point and aiglet ( I forgot the last ones and was very lucky when they arrived with just a couple of days to spare…  Have all the components ready, ideally before you start.

  • Run a trial.  Not always possible, but if you are making a few similar garments, make one and time it – from drawing the pattern, cutting the fabric down to the last stitch and iron

timing … each phase of making a coat is measured

I was lucky – one of the coats and one dress were needed in May so I could use them as examples. Once you have timed how long it takes, allow for mistakes, coffee breaks, admin, procrastination (it doesn’t hurt if you have 20min of Facebook browsing allowed for… 🙂 , and add at least an hour for the unexpected.  Once you have a figure, you will be able to plan how long it will take you to finish all the remaining items.  I worked out that it would take approximately a day to make 1 coat in this case.

  • Be prepared for the unexpected – think of all that can go wrong and assume that “Murphy ‘s Law” will apply. Have a contingency plan in case your machine breaks down, you get ill, you have a family emergency, or whatever. If you have friends who live nearby and can be on standby with their equipment or just able to help, have a chat with them and inquire if they might be able to lend their machine or give you a hand if needed. Most likely it won’t be necessary, but it will give you an amazing sense of calm and security! If you can afford it – buy a second machine. Even if it is an absolutely basic, cheap model, as long as it can do a straight stitch, you are covered. Stock up on machine needles and threads so that you don’t need to waste time going to the shops when you run out of blue thread… 

hardware at the ready

  •  Also allow for the things going wrong at the customer’s end.  The Durer dresses for ladies were made with remote fitting options – I got the measurements, sent the toiles, and then the ladies were supposed to send back the toiles with any corrections and email the pictures. In the case of the first dress I waited quite some time for the return of the toile as they forgot they had to post it….  so do factor things like that in, and be prepared to chase your clients up- they have to understand that fittings, remote or in person are necessary and their delay may mean the delay in completing the order.


the toile took its time – but in the end it was all done ahead of schedule:-)


another Durer dress, also made with remote fitting


  •    Once the time arrives and you get going, try to shave some time off the original timing by working in batches.  If you have garments of the same size, cut them out together at the same time. The majority of my German coats were generic sizes – S, M, L, XL. I would cut out one size at the time, so 3 garments, machine stitch them and then hand finish them. Working this way meant I was able to make 3 coats in 2 days, if I worked my usual 10 hour day.
  •  Allow for rest.   Schedule lunch breaks, time for exercise, walk, reading a book. If possible, do allocate a day or two for rest during extended projects – just a plain ‘no stitching’ day, spent with your loved ones, or on a day trip – anything to get you out of the workroom and recharge your batteries.  It is worth it – you will go back to work with renewed enthusiasm. In the worst case, that extra time can be used if you happen to fall drastically behind.
  •  If you are having problems staying within the original allocated time, do not panic. Take a few minutes to calm down, switch off your computer, go for a walk. Rethink your strategy – ignoring the problem and hoping it will be all right in the end will bring you more stress and more late night stitching.  Face the problem, identify the factor that seems to cause the delay and deal with it. Find a solution, ask for help – if necessary, swallow your pride and call that friend to come over to give you a hand, (warning – it does not work if the friend is very chatty and talks more than actually helps…)  sometimes you can plan an unhurried ‘stitch and bitch’ sessions and  combine work with  pleasure


Lucas and Eleanor helping out with some silk bunting for a friend’s wedding


more bunting fun!


  •   Stay in touch with the client. Inform them about your progress – when they see you are keeping to the schedule and see the effect of your work, they will worry less.  You can either send a mail once a week or call – or, like me use Facebook. I simply added photos of each finished garment as it was completed and the client could not only see the progress but show their appreciation and give an early feedback too. In my case after the first two coats the feedback was – “loving the slashing!” So I was able to adjust the remaining designs to incorporate more slashing on the coats – it took me maybe 20 minutes more, but it was worth it. 




slashing on sleeves…


slashing on sleeves and back


  • If the worst happens and you do fall behind – again, grit your teeth and contact the client as soon as you realise that you may not be able to finish all of it on time. If it is early enough, they may be able to find someone else – or, if they are well organised, have a contingency option for just such occasions. It is much better to warn early, finish most of it and know that the client had time to deal with the situation rather than turning up at the event and informing them then and there that you were able to only do 9 out of 10 garments…  so communicate, communicate, communicate…..

  A few extra points on time management for business:

  • Take note of how long it takes you to make each new garment. Have a little notebook or a file and write it all down. Next time someone books you for a similar commission, you will be able to book a precise slot.
  • Tend to overestimate the time necessary rather than the other way round. I usually add at least a day to the expected time – and if I finish early, I can either take on a last minute commission from my waiting list, or simply enjoy a day off.

enjoying a short break in between the stitching – a walk with the hubby

  • I know it is tempting to book everybody in, as the allure of the prestige, or money, or both can be strong – but be realistic and do not overbook. In my experience very few people are discouraged from booking because they have to wait – most will wait and will respect you for respecting other people’s orders – they know that when time comes, you will be concentrating on their commission only, and not trying to squeeze in 3 other clients in between.
  •  Always sign a contract with a detailed specification of the garments. A proper contract protects you as well as the client, and sets up clear parameters for the order and your working relationship with the client. Set a price on any changes your client may want to introduce – but above all, do not be afraid to say no to them if the contract have been signed. I have recently been dealing with a difficult customer who placed a  big order. I received about 200 emails before the contract was signed, but they continued after the final designs were agreed on, as the client was fond of browsing the net and every site she visited gave her fresh ideas. At some point, after about 327 emails, I simply had enough. I asked her either to stick to the original, with a few changes that were feasible at that stage – or the contract is null and void, and I will return the deposit. She opted for the former and the order was completed to mutual satisfaction. If I hadn’t signed the contract, I suppose I would still be negotiating the designs now… 
    •  The last but not the least – enjoy your work.  Not only take pride in its outcomes, but relish the process too. Even when the labour can be dull or repetitive, you can brighten it up and still enjoy it – put on your favourite music when sitting at the machine, listen to an audiobook when hand stitching ( I personally love it – either listening to books, or to a language course  – time flies away!), if the weather is nice, go and stitch outside in the garden or in a park.  It is your business, work, hobby – but it takes a great deal of your life too, so have fun!

stitching and bitching while working on corsetry projects with Julia from Sew Curvy

   Recommended reading – 4hr work week, by Timothy Ferris. The idea of spending only 4 hours a week stitching is completely alien to me, but there are really good tips on time management issues – well worth a read!

And a couple of links to other bigger commissions …

Robe a la Polonaise en Fourreau


Well, we have done the Francaise and l’anglaise style, time for a little polonaise… The idea for this one sprouted as soon as I saw the fabric at the market – a lovely silk brocade in ivory, yellow and green, in a fitting 18th century pattern.  the fabric was bought and put aside for the project. The project itself was kick-started by an offer to participate in a bridal photo shoot organized by Lavinia from Events in a Box. The venue, Harrowen Hall,  was an 18th century mansion, so apart from the modern dresses, they wanted something ‘more period’ . A perfect occasion to showcase the 18th century collection – and the polonaise was scheduled.

 There was a complication ( there always is something, isn’t there?). The shoot was to be on the 18th April ( my birthday!)  and on the 13th I was having a surgery on my shoulder….   the other gowns were to be worn by models provided, but this one had to be modeled by me.  still possible, if I sewed most of it before the op, and finished the neckline after the op – I needed to make the bodice a bit bigger than usually, to accommodate the dressing – I gathered a size bigger would be ok, I would simply lace my stays loosely.

  The making of the frock was surprisingly easy – and pleasant.  The pleated back looks complicated, but it was rather straightforward pleats, and stitching them down was relaxing. I used the pattern from Janet Arnold and bodice pattern from the l’anglaise.


pleats pinned down


back lining piece determines the final shape of the top fabric


back cut out


securing the pleats with stitching


half way through!


pleats done!


inside the bodice part

 Once the pleats were done, it was time to get the front of the  sleeves and the front part of the bodice sorted.



sewing the parts together – seam pinked


Next – the skirts were pieced and hemmed. Here showing the pocket slit


pleating the skirt at the waist…


pleated skirt attached to the bodice


back of the dress

 Finishing the bodice was next. the silk parts were hemmed and mounted onto the linen lining.


bodice front hemmed


pinned onto the lining…


and stitched together

sSeeves were next on the agenda


pinning the sleeve


sleeve insertionImage


finishing the lining inside the bodice


the innards


sleeve cuffs were decorated with self trim and linen lace


hooks and eyes in place…

  And that was more or less it –  the skirt were polonaised using inside tapes, as indicated on the pattern – and most importantly, the dress, though as planned just  tad too big for me, worked perfectly with my shoulder dressing:-)  fortunately the big dressing ( pictured below) was removed the day before the shoot…. no way I would be able to fit anything over that! well, maybe a Robocop costume… 🙂


the big dressing after the op…


all put together 🙂

Petticoat was made as well – in ivory taffeta, with a flounce. For skirt supports I used a big bumroll/ false hips, and the gown is of course worn over the stays.

Alas, the models provided for the other dresses were about 2-3 sizes too small so it was a challenge to get the frocks looking good,but  the photographers  worked wonders and we did get a few great pictures – please excuse the modern bridal headgear –  showcasing work of another company too! 🙂

Photography, Shears and Mockford – and indeed that was our first shoot together – little did we know we would end up working regularly on a variety of projects!