I broke my wrist last Thursday. My right, and I’m right handed, at the start of what are typically my two busiest months of the year.
I was booked solid with alterations, bespoke creations and embroidered veil orders and one split-second stumble backwards rendered me on my arse in every sense. I have a Colles distal radial fracture, more technically known as A Proper Number.
By Friday lunchtime, I’d found that I could accomplish many routine tasks with my left hand, even if brushing my teeth was more like punching myself in the face. Crucially I could still sew, with the exception of some techniques, BUT I couldn’t cut fabric.
The largest scissors I could wield were my tiny stork-shaped embroidery scissors which barely nibble fabric, and I couldn’t exert enough pressure on my rotary cutter to get the blade through even the lightest tulle.
So, painstakingly (and painfully), I typed out a message with one thumb, dropping my phone on my foot a couple of times, to the A-Level student I’d told the previous week that I couldn’t take in for work experience.
Krishal came over almost immediately and I liked him even more quickly than that. Actually, everything was speedy. He’d said he was a fast learner and I threw him in at the deep end with techniques he’d never used; he swam with them all. Rotary cutter, narrow-hem machine foot, seam ripper: all nailed first time.
Get this: he’d never used a seam ripper (aka stitch unpicker, the Ctrl+Z of sewing) because he’d never needed to. He’d never sewn a thing wrong. Ever. Including on his first A-Level project, an ambitious cocktail mini-dress with crinoline underskirt in fabric he dyed himself.
Not only that, but he’s taught himself French and Japanese, because he wants to work in Paris and Tokyo. And he’s a gifted musician. And tennis player. And 5,000m runner. Oh, and he’s been approached by a modelling agency.
We’ve been geeking out about sewing AND linguistics AND Disney films (these are a few of my favourite things 🎶) and I think I want to adopt him.
A week on, I’m sustaining fewer facial injuries while cleaning my teeth and I can now cut fabric again. Far from simply shadowing and observing me on work experience and making cups of tea, Krishal has been doing skilled work for which I have paid him the rate I would receive for the same jobs.
He is clearly someone who will go far. Of his mum and dad refuse to surrender their parental rights to me, I at least hope that one day, while jetting between his Paris and Tokyo ateliers, Krishal remembers me and that he was once – literally – my right hand man.
“We recently attended a wedding and the bride wore THE DRESS I brought to you a few months ago. I could have screamed!!”
So began an email from one of my brides whose dress I’m altering later this year. Imagine. You’ve just spent more money than you’ve ever spent on one item of clothing that you’ll probably only wear once, on arguably the most significant day in your life with all eyes on you… and someone has beaten you to it.
I imagine the feeling must be similar to that felt by Captain Scott’s Antarctic party when it finally ended the near 900 mile expedition at the South Pole over a year after setting out, only to find a note from their rival Norwegians informing them they’d beaten them to it by 35 days. But without the prospect of imminent death from hypothermic exposure.
Shop closures reduce choice
The closure of many traditional bridal boutiques – all but one within three miles of me in the last few years – is limiting choice for brides so the chances of buying the same dress as a friend or relative has increased.
Brides usually come to me for bespoke dresses because they have a good idea of what they want but it doesn’t exist in boutiques. A secondary reason is that they want the peace of mind that no-one could possibly have the same dress (or whatever) as them. But I digress.
This bride is actually the third customer I’ve had in this predicament, although hers was all the more galling because the dress in question was already the third one she’d bought and had to return. The silver lining is that she now has a new dress, completely different, but absolutely stunning, and we’re working on incorporating some of the meaningful details she loved.
Each of my other brides handled the predicament differently. The first asked me to completely restyle the back of her dress, removing most of it and dropping the flare point of her fit-and-flare skirt section (below). That made it sufficiently different from the bride with the same dress, plus there wasn’t a lot of crossover of guests attending each wedding.
The other bride’s dress doppelganger was closer to home: her new sister-in-law. This meant that a lot of guests – my customer’s entire family – would attend both weddings.
However, she decided to wear her dress anyway. You know how people complain that wedding dresses look completely different on the model? My bride reasoned that their different body types, flowers and accessories would make enough of a change that not many people would notice, and she didn’t mind too much if they did.
Why can’t I part with it? Yellowing, with a spool holder thick with layers of glue, it’s still in perfect working order. This little Singer Tradition sewing machine isn’t the byword in Vorsprung Durch Technik. It has a fiddly front-loading bobbin, I’ve never managed to get the needle threader working reliably, and it clatters along well below the top speed of my later machines.
It’s not even my most cherished machine. That accolade resides with the early electronic machine I inherited from my beloved grandma, with the once-working metal toy machine used my mum a close second. I also have two beautiful, decorated handle-wound antique Singers, both in need of a good service (and me a good lesson in how to actually use them).
After several years lying fallow under my desk next to a further two spare machines, it was time for this one to find a new home. But I couldn’t do it.
This was the machine my parents, grandparents, siblings and in-laws had clubbed together to buy me for Christmas over a decade ago. The machine two of my best friends from my NCT commune, Siân and Fiona, had taught me to use. The machine that accidentally changed my career and a fair chunk of my life.
I’ve been sewing since I was 5 but sewing machines terrified me. All those sharp things hammering away, grabbing and tugging at your precious fabric. No thanks. My grandma ended up making most of my GCSE Textiles project because I just couldn’t get my head around the machines (she got an A). So I did everything by hand.
I had time and it was just a hobby. Then another great friend had a knicker-making workshop for her hen do. We only had a couple of hours. There was no avoiding using a machine. I took a deep breath, winced a bit and my tense, clawed toes nudged the pedal. Bbbrrrrzzzz. Done. Elastic in.
I did it! That was so easy! That was so quick! It wasn’t me that had been the problem; I just hadn’t had the right machine! It went straight to the top of my Christmas list. I remember thinking this was going to change everything.
Siân and Fiona taught me everything. How to thread it, rethread it when I snapped the thread again, why I kept snapping the thread in the first place, how to change the feet, the stitch type, stitch length and tension. I could run up outfits for my toddlers while they were at preschool in days; dresses for myself once they were in bed.
Friends asked me to make things, then friends of friends, and before I knew it, I had a viable business. A year later, Siân also started her own sewing business and we continued learning together: new techniques, overlookers, coverstitchers, embroidery machines.
More machines have followed in the eight years since and I’ve realised I’m far too sentimental to sell the one that started it all. I do need the space though, so my yellowing Singer Tradition is now on permanent loan to a the mother of a very good friend, whose daughter is going to teach her to use it. Her daughter, my very good friend, is Siân.
This week’s tea-spitting moment was brought to me by the otherwise utterly awesome dressmaker Sarah Hambly casually mentioning in her Grammies fashion round-up that Anitta’s Atelier Versace look was, “Vintage, from 2003.”
(If you missed me literally spitting my tea at this, you can catch it below and here.)
Here’s a confession: I believed she was right. I’d assumed that ‘vintage’ stemmed from the French word for 20, ‘vingt’. The uproar in the comments prompted me to check my facts.
I was wrong.
Or possibly not because I can’t find an actual, to-the-year, official definition.
A good year
My beloved dictionary of etymology informs me that ‘vintage’ is actually born of the pre-1425 Old French ‘vendange’, meaning a yield from a vineyard. A grape harvest if you will, as evidenced by going even further back to the Latin ‘vīndēmia’, which itself is formed from ‘vīnum’ (wine) and ‘dēmere’ (to take off). You can see where we also get our words ‘vine’, ‘wine’ and ‘vintner’. And why we talk about wines having a “good vintage” (or not), first recorded in 1746.
No mention of any age, 20 or otherwise. Oops.
Despite the word being used for nearly 100 years (since 1929) to describe something being of an earlier time, I can’t find a firm definition for how old something has to be to be be officially ‘vintage’. At least, not one with universal agreement.
Contrast this with ‘antique’, which seems to enjoy broad acceptance as meaning aged 100+ years old. Just a quick Google of definitions of ‘vintage’ throws up anything from 20 to 93 years or more.
It also depends on what we’re talking about. Cars have clearer definitions, with only those manufactured specifically between 1919 and 1930 considered vintage, regardless of how old they are at any given time. At odds with the above, cars are officially ‘antique’ at just 45 (11 more months to go for me then), and ‘classic’ at 20.
For clothing specifically, it depends whom you ask. I suppose traders have a vested (pun intended) interest in maximising the critieria to allow them to sell more so it makes sense for them to include items as young as is credible, albeit tea-spittingly so. Other sources (e.g. Farm Antiques) says most antiques dealers consider 40 years to be vintage.
I have been contacting fashion and textile historians this morning for more authoritative clarity but have had no luck yet; I’ll update the blog when I can.
UPDATE: 10 February 2023
I’ve had a response from the V&A’s assistant curator in its Textiles & Fashion department Claire (no surname offered). She tells me: “Apologies in advance not to be of more assistance. As far as I’m aware it’s not a term we have a specific working definition for at the V&A.”
That’s actually helpful in itself and good enough for me: ‘vintage’ seems open to interpretation.
While spitting my tea was the appropriate initial reaction, I can wipe down my cutting mat and go back to enjoying a fresh cup. 🫖☕️
Have you ever been asked to work for no/less money? How did you respond and how did you feel afterwards?
The Un-Wedding posted this on Instagram today, and it chimed with some recent conversations with fellow designer-dressmakers who have been asked for discounts, or even to work free in exchange for “exposure”.
I’m either not famous enough or too scary looking to have ever been asked to work for nothing by an influencer or celebrity, and the vast majority of people do recognise the value of what I do. (Actually, one influencer didn’t even tell me about her YouTube channel until after she’d booked me).
Who even does that?
However, on the odd occasion I’ve been asked for a discount, it’s been for wedding dress alterations. This tends to be the last thing to be paid for when planning a wedding, because alterations typically happen as close to the big day as possible so your body is the size and shape it will be on the day.
I’ve become a lot stricter – nay, assertive – about discounts, because every single time I’ve agreed, I’ve resented the customer, hated the work, and gnashed my teeth with every stitch. I’m not out to rip anyone off or obsessed with making as much money as possible; I’d have stayed in corporate PR if I were.
I usually do put in a lot more work than agreed for the sheer fun of it, and on the odd occasion I’ve even waived my fee entirely just because I wanted to.
Top ‘reasons’ people have expected a discount
Below are the reasons I’ve been given for why I should agree to a discount and my response to each:
1. “We’ve overspent on everything else and run out of money.” (Three instances of this)
Think back to before you booked a single thing. Would you have called me – a stranger – and asked me to buy, say, your cake, or pay for the extra flower arches? Because that’s effectively what you’re asking me to do now.
2. “The alterations are costing more than half what I paid for the dress!”
Your dress was an absolute steal but is three sizes too big for you, eight inches too long and will need to have most of the lace removed, replaced and re-beaded by hand.
3. “If I pay that much, I will cry.” (Actually the same person as 2, above)
The work you need will take me around three days in my busiest month of the year when im already starting work at 5.30am and finishing around midnight, and if two of those daysare unpaid, I will show you bloody crying.
4. Calling me after the fitting: “Can we round it down to £xxx if I give you cash?”
Err, oh. OK. I was caught off, in a flap and acquiesced. But why should cash necessitate a discount? It actually creates work for me because I have to make a trip to a real-life bank to pay it in. Plus I’m far too socialist to not declare any income on my tax return.
This particular person had also given me an unwashed dress to take in that she had worn clubbing and needed for her hen do (lots of fiddly work to the underarm section) and was condescending to her lovely sister in every appointment.
She also spent one fitting on the phone boasting about how much money she’d got another supplier to come down by. I agreed to the discount but hers was the only name I’ve ever made a mental note of to never work for again.
Same same but different
There are some inquiries that might sound or feel like asking for a discount but aren’t, so please don’t feel afraid to ask (and vendors, please don’t feel offended of you encounter them). Asking for a starting price or rough estimate isn’t rude and neither is surprise when finding out the cost.
Not many people have ever bought anything wedding-related before they plan their own so it’s not reasonable to expect anyone to know what things cost.
Manners for makers
A discount means a compromise on fabrics, my time or both, and you can’t do that with couture. Moreover, I’m not willing to do any of those and still put my name to the result.
Even MORE-over, asking for a discount is rude. Either you value my work or you don’t.
Aah, that was cathartic. Therapy I didn’t know I needed.
Fifteen years ago, I was excitedly, a little smugly and absolutely bloody FINALLY making my betrothal to my favourite human official: I changed my relationship status on Facebook to ‘Engaged’.
The effect was immediate. In addition to the flattering influx of likes, comments and messages of congratulations, the adverts in my newsfeed changed. Wedding dress boutiques, honeymoon destinations, venues, and, most noticeably, ways to lose weight. This diet, that meal replacement, hashtag ‘Shredding for the wedding’.
The algorithms that determine the ads you see on social media might be more sophisticated these days. When we changed our relationship statuses again to ‘Married’, I started getting ads for fertility treatments and nursery furniture; my husband to ‘Meet hot singles online in your area.’
However, these algorithms remain slave to market correlations, including that planning a wedding also often means wanting to lose weight. A highly unscientific poll I’m running on Instagram currently says two thirds of people saw more weight loss ads after they got engaged.
Reasons for deliberately changing your body are complex and personal so this isn’t a post about whether ads for weight loss treatments are right or wrong, nor whether anyone should or should not lose weight.
But the issue is close to my heart. Brides sometimes come to me because they dread – or have had – horrible experiences in bridal boutiques. In my own case, I have come through eating disorders so it would have been good to have not had to see these ads.
TIL how to stop weight loss ads on Instagram
So, I thought it would be useful to share a tip I learned today to avoid seeing weight-loss ads, on Instagram at least:
From the menu on your profile page, go to Settings > Ads > Ad Topics. If you’ve not done this before, it’s quite interesting to see what The Algorithm thinks you’re interested in based on your Meta (i.e. Instagram, Facebook, Messenger) activity. If your list was anything like mine, it should also reassure you that the social media companies actually know bugger all about you.
Tap on one you’re not interested in (my first one was Stargate 🤷♀️) and you’ll be given to options about it: ‘No preference’ and ‘Show less (sic) ads about this topic’. Even if its slovenly grammar makes you twitch as much as it did me, tap the second option and that should do the trick.
You can then also search all of the ad topics; the one you need is ‘Body Weight Control’. Choose the second option again and you should hopefully start seeing the adverts diminish, rather than your mental health.
You know the little embroidery scissors that are shaped like a bird? I’m not sure I even registered that the bird is a stork, but this week I learned why.
Midwives’ umbilical chord clamps used to be shaped like storks, for their association with delivering babies. It seems a clever marketing person noticed that midwives would often work on embroidery projects while waiting the hours and sometimes days for a labour to progress and expanded the range to embroidery scissors in the same shape.
I’m pretty sure midwives today have a bit more to occupy their time, and the appeal of the novelty ornate scissors has spread beyond their original niche.
If you’d like to see the video I made about this, including the story of my youngest’s birth, and the Nutella I hadn’t realised was on my chin, you can find it on my TikTok here.
I am utterly stunned to learn this evening of the death of my favourite wedding dress designer Ian Stuart, at 55. You can read more about Ian’s illustrious career here, but I want to record what his work has meant to me personally.
Ian’s designs caught my eye years before I was even engaged; his website was the one I least wanted my then boyfriend (now husband) to spot in my search history.
Once I was engaged, I coveted his pale green Bellini dress for my own wedding but, before I could even find a stockist (or my bridesmaids try to tell me the swirl lookes like a cat’s bottom), my mum vetoed the green.
In the early noughties, his was the rare voice in boutique bridal proclaiming, “You CAN wear colour,” and his work has massively influenced how I approach my own.
Ian struck that elusive balance between veering from the beaten bridal track – where I go – with mass appeal and therefore phenomenal international commercial success.
He remains the only wedding dress designer whose dresses I have actually bought, just to study and admire. I own three. One – Pompadour, in coral pink – I actually wore once I’d restyled it into a cocktail dress for a friend’s military Christmas ball (the dress code wasn’t clear on dress length so I went with both long and short).
Another, his beautifully opulent, silk Flower Bomb, featured in the V&A’s retrospective exhibition of wedding dresses through the decades. Mine, acquired just this summer, hangs in the window of my sewing room, where I learn something new on fabric manipulation, pattern cutting and structure from it every day. I will never wear it – it’s four sizes too small for me for one thing – but it remains my favourite.
I would eagerly await each new collection from Strawplay onwards – Belle Epoch, Runway Rebel, Killer Queen and more – and would pore over each dress in every colourway until I could recognise any of them in the wild (autistic much?). I’m still not over the brand’s sudden, quiet liquidation a few years ago.
I continue to check my saved search I’ve had on ebay since 2005 every day. I’d still love to get my hands on Gainsborough, Crazy Daisy (I can’t even find images any more), Bluebird and Sevruga, and I’d LOVE to study how Harlequinn is constructed.
My heartfelt condolences and all my love go to Ian’s family and friends.