Merchant & Mills Sewing Book


If your style is more normcore than girly girl, you might feel like the sewing world doesn’t cater to you – after all, more often than not, sewing boxes and accessories come plastered in Cath Kidston-esque bright floral prints, and many sewing shops stock endless reams of ruffles, sequins and other fussy trims. Sewing books also often go in for this super-feminine style. Not so, however, in the case of this new sewing manual from Merchant & Mills, who sell sewing notions, patterns and fabrics and are known for their stripped-back, utilitarian aesthetic.

This book offers a no-nonsense approach to sewing and is all about celebrating craftmanship and creativity. Carolyn Denham and Roderick Field set up Merchant & Mills in 2010, hoping to, as their website says, ‘elevate sewing to its proper place in the creative world’ and encourage women and men alike to make ‘a clear statement of individuality and experience the satisfaction that comes from making clothes that compete in style and quality with top-end retail, paid for in time more than hard cash.’

Of course, high-end clothes are usually set apart by the details – the flawless darts and tucks, the perfectly matched seams, the flattering fit – and this manual aims to help you achieve this finish at home. As you might expect, then, the level of detail in this book is truly second to none. Without ever being boring or dry (aside from the odd bit of dry humour, that is) it features pretty much everything you need to know about great sewing. From fabrics to stitching styles, fastenings to must-have sewing tools, this manual covers it all.

The book also features 15 projects to get stuck into, ranging in level from nice-and-simple to a bit more advanced – for instance, I’m tempted by the pillow cushion with sweet cotton ties, but might just leave the oilskin shoulder bag until I feel a bit more comfortable sewing with different materials.

One of the main things I took away from this book was the importance of pressing correctly. It can be so easy to concentrate so much on the actual construction of the garment that the finishing touches, like pressing, get forgotten, or are just done as an after-thought. However, this book reiterates that pressing your seams, darts and tucks properly – and this includes not over-pressing, which can distort the fabric – is the key to a professional-looking end product.

I know the phrase gets bandied about a lot when a latest must-have sewing book is released, but this truly is an essential book for all dressmakers of all skill levels.

Men’s Shirt Refashion

One of my favourite parts of the Sewing Bee is the refashioning challenge – making something old into something new and unexpected is a pretty impressive skill, and one that I am yet to master. For my first refashioning project, I kept it simple and decided to turn my boyfriend’s denim shirt into a skirt with an elasticated waist (the shirt was in a bag destined for the charity shop when I nabbed it, just to make that clear – it’s best not to go stealing your other half’s favourite shirts!). Here’s how I did it:

  1. Refashioning a men’s shirt into a skirt is quick and simple, as the main construction has already been done for you (no hemming needed, joy!). If the shirt you’re using doesn’t have pockets, you’re in luck. All you’ll need to do is measure the length you want your skirt to be, from the hem upwards, then add enough at the top to make a waistband – this should be the width of your elastic, plus a 1cm seam allowance – and draw a straight line with tailor’s chalk across the width of the shirt when you’ve measured the correct length to mark your cutting line.
  2. If, however, your shirt has pockets like mine did, you’ll need to unpick these and remove them, as they’ll get in the way of creating your waistband. Once I’d unpicked mine, I noticed the denim underneath the pocket was darker than the rest of the shirt, meaning I’d need to chop more off – if this isn’t the case with yours, then you can just carry on with the measuring and cutting. If you’ve encountered the same problem, however, you might need get be a bit creative and use the rest of the shirt to make a waistband (I’ll come to that later).
  3. Once you’ve cut the unneeded top half of the shirt off, it should start looking a bit more skirt-like. As the shirt I was using was fastened with poppers, and I didn’t want any embarrassing popper-bursting situations, I sewed up the length of the closure – it would probably be worth doing this with a button-up shirt too to avoid it gaping when you sit down.
  4. Now it’s time to create the waistband. Those of you using the simple, turn-down method will need to fold and press 1cm of the top inwards, then fold down the width of the elastic (plus a bit of wiggle room) inwards as well, and topstitch. Make sure you leave a gap of a couple of inches so you can feed your elastic through. In fact, as I’m lazy and I hate fiddly things like this, I left four gaps – at both side seams, and front and back - which made it a lot easier.
  5. If, like me, those pesky pockets mean you can’t create the waistband the aforementioned way, then not to worry, as it’s still super simple – all you need to do is cut the sleeves into four equal pieces to be sewn together to form the waistband. I measured carefully to make sure the seams would match the centre front and back and side seams of the shirt, and sewed all four pieces together to form a loop. Pin this makeshift band to the shirt, right sides together, and sew all the way around. Then rest of the steps are the same as before. See, told you it was easy.
  6. Once you’ve threaded the elastic through, sew the two ends of the elastic together, sew up the gaps you left to thread the elastic through, and voila – your shirt will be reborn as a rather fetching skirt!

Men's Shirt Refashion Skirt

Top Gap Skirt River Island man’s shirt Bag French Connection Locket Disney Couture Shoes Dune Sunglasses Accessorize

Have you ever refashioned a men’s shirt? What did you do with yours? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Chic on a Shoestring by Mary Jane Baxter

Chic on a Shoestring

When I saw the title of this book, I knew I had to have it - I never buy anything full price, am regularly in the charity shops looking for bargains, and don’t usually buy anything I could sew for a cheaper price myself, so I’m always eager to learn more ways to be chic on a shoestring. This is the first book from milliner and maker Mary Jane Baxter, and is full of simple, fun, vintage-inspired projects, peppered by fantastically quirky illustrations by Sam Wilson.

Every turn of the page uncovers a must-try make and lots of inspiration. I’m itching to create the 1950s-paste-jewellery-inspired necklace, the easy slouchy top made from vintage silk scarves (ingenious!) and the cute ribbon corsage. The book also features handy hints and tips on how to hunt down bargains to upcycle and customise. I love how quick and easy the projects are – they’re great for when you don’t have much time for crafting but still want to indulge your creative side. Plus, any book that aims to help me build a fab wardrobe without spending a fortune is a-okay with me.

Chic on a Shoestring Book

Paisley Taffy Blouse

Colette Taffy Blouse

Paisley is most associated – and not always favourably - with the hippies of the 60s and 70s and, I’ll be honest, it’s not really a pattern I’m usually drawn to. However, there was something about this fabric – I just couldn’t leave the shop without it. I think it might be the touches of neon green. Because it’s such a bright print, it’s been in my stash since I bought it in December, but as we’ve had a few sunny spells I thought it was time to start some summer sewing.

I received the Colette Sewing Handbook for Christmas, and decided to give the Taffy blouse a go first. As it was somewhat similar in construction to the sorbetto I was quite comfortable with a lot of the techniques involved. I haven’t, however, ever sewn a sleeve before, despite having quite a few projects under my belt now. Thankfully sewing my first ever sleeves was a fairly pain-free process, so that’s something to check off my list and do more of in future.

Overall, I think this is a great little pattern, especially for a beginner. I only have a couple of gripes – firstly, the size of the sleeves. Now, I know the book says to use a light fabric, and I’ve used a heavier cotton, so this is probably my fault, but the sleeves really are huge! In fact, I’ve had to put a few stitches in at the sides to tame them. If the correct fabric was used though, I’m sure they would be lovely. My second – and final – gripe is the size of the neckline. I have narrow shoulders, so I altered the pattern slightly when I traced it to account for this, but the neckline is still quite wide and does slip down on occasion. Having checked out some of the other Taffys on the blogosphere, it seems this is a common problem, so keep it in mind if you decide to make a Taffy.

I think this top will get lots of wears during the summer – I’m planning on wearing it with a floaty, high-waisted skirt and sandals when (or if) it starts to really hot up.

Colette Sewing Handbook Taffy Blouse

Fabric Fine Fabrics in Taunton Bag Vintage Necklace Mawi at ASOS Sunglasses Accessorize

If you fancy putting your own spin on this 1970s fabric, here are some pretty paisleys to get you started…

Paisley Fabrics

1 Basket Full of Posies from Spoonflower 2 Paisley Elephant Drops from Spoonflower 3 Paisley Print Chiffon from Minerva Crafts 4 Small Paisley from Fabric Rehab 5 Persnickety Paisley from Spoonflower

April Wish List

1 Blush gold chevron fabric &  2 Triangle geo fabric from Spoonflower 3 Dune laser-cut leather flats 4 Salme colour block dress sewing pattern 5 Monica Vinader pendant 6 Salmon polka dot fabric from Fabric Rehab

Unless you’ve managed to eschew all clothes shopping for the last four or five months (and if you have, I salute you) you’ll probably have noticed that pink coats are the most popular way to keep warm right now. The fashion blogger cover-up du jour, you’re not anyone if you haven’t got a pink coat (which, come to think of it, means I’m not anyone). Being petite of stature, I’ve always shied away from wearing pink, mainly because I don’t want to look like a pre-teen off to an after-school disco (at least until you look at my face). Although I’m girly, I’m not quite that girly.

However, it seems since the pink coat became a must-have, the colour has undergone something of a revolution. No longer only seen in pretty floral designs, pink has been given a bit of a grown-up makeover of late, and is can now be found gracing graphic, geometric prints that offer the perfect balance of femininity, sophistication and edginess. So, this spring and summer, I may just embrace this new, modern way of wearing pink.

91 Magazine’s New Issue

91 Magazine March 2014

I’ve long been a fan of 91 Magazine – when I first stumbled across it, I couldn’t believe all those lovely articles were available to read for free. As a writer myself, I know how much hard work goes into producing articles like those – the research, the editing, the photography and, inevitably, yet more proofreading, fact-checking and editing – and it’s something that is increasingly being undervalued in a world where free (but not necessarily good) content is readily available online.

So, when the editor announced that she would be charging a mere £2 each issue – or a bargain £7 for a year’s subscription – it came as no surprise to me. In fact, I applaud what must have been a really difficult decision to make; people have become accustomed to reading online without it costing them a penny, so it must be tough to step away from that level of readership, but overall I see it as a brave and much-needed step for online publishing. Writers, editors, designers and photographers deserve to be rewarded for their efforts, and we shouldn’t expect them to produce quality work for nothing – after all, you wouldn’t expect to stroll into a cinema and see a film for free, or visit a hairdressers for a cut and blow-dry without paying for it, would you? So, well done Caroline, and here’s to many more issues of your fabulous magazine.

Anyway, onto the new issue itself. This one features all the swoon-worthy photography, enviable (yet not unachievable) interiors and interesting craft projects we’ve come to expect from the magazine, including ideas for adding stylish copper accents to your home, a guide to seeking out the best vintage goodies, and several mouth-watering recipes that I’ll definitely be giving a go.

It also includes my interview with Lyndsey Goodger, proprietor of the online interiors boutique, Rose & Grey, for the Ladies Online feature (warning: you will want everything on her website).

If you fancy a sneak preview, you can take a peek at the new mag and read back issues on Issuu. Alternatively, you can buy and read the full issue or get the year’s subscription on

Picture 9Picture 2Picture 4

Idols and Illusions Exhibition at RWA Bristol

Gawping at photos of celebs dressed to the nines for big events has never been my thing – this may be controversial, but I think it’s actually pretty easy to look good at a glitzy bash. After all, the stars spend bundles of cash and dedicate goodness knows how many hours to looking swish for these things, so they bloomin’ well should look their best. That, to me, isn’t what style is all about. What really interests me is celebrities who look chic off-duty – those who still look ultra cool even when they haven’t done all the preening, primping, styling and general beautifying that goes on before a star-studded awards ceremony.

These days, Twitter is awash with stars’ ‘makeup-free’ selfies, and gossip sites are bursting at the seams with photos of famous peeps at the supermarket, gym, coffee shop – heck, just about anywhere, really – so there’s no shortage of candid snaps. Yet long before the internet existed and these shots were ten-a-penny – yes, I know, it’s hard to imagine, but do try – we mere mortals still had an insatiable desire to see actors in their everyday lives, away from the glamour of film sets and red carpets, and the movie studios knew it. So, to keep the fans happy and the money rolling in, they took publicity stills of their starlets and leading men that were supposedly natural, but were anything but – actors and actresses were contractually obliged to pose for these supposedly candid shots, and all were carefully set up to convey both a feeling of ‘just like us’ normality, and the sense of unattainable glamour that Hollywood thrives on. The golden years between 1925 and 1960 produced some of the biggest names in Hollywood history – Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando to name just a few - and all posed for these staged behind-the-scenes photos. These iconic images have had a lasting influence on style today – people all over the world still try to emulate the timeless off-duty looks of the elegant stars of yesteryear, and create countless Pinterest boards populated with these publicity photos.

If you’d like to see these images up close, rather than on a Pinterest page, I suggest you head to the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol to see the Idols and Illusions exhibition pronto. This extensive collection of images lent by the John Kobal Foundation features more Hollywood icons than you can shake a stick at, including Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart, in all their stylish glory. Although as much thought has gone into these images as a red-carpet outfit, it’s still fascinating to catch a small glimpse of the charmed life of the rich and famous. It seems our infatuation with the lives Hollywood’s beautiful people is an enduring one. The exhibition runs until 16th March 2014.

All images from

February Wish List

Monochrome and Turquoise

1 Black floral cotton from Fabric HQ 2 Stripe cotton from Minerva Crafts 3 Sewing scissors print fabric from Frumble Fabrics 3 Turquoise ring above-knuckle ring from Regal Rose 4 Turquoise earrings from Not On The High Street 5 Chevron fabric from Plush Addict 6 Abstract print cotton from Minerva Crafts 7 Bird print fabric from Fabric HQ

Although I’m never usually one to sew according to trends, I was reading the glossies (well, the website of one of the glossies) one idle lunchtime and came across a feature on monochrome – apparently it’s very in right now, dahling. Which is lucky, because it’s one of my favourite looks.

Monochrome fabrics look delicious with a pop of colour from jewellery or a bright scarf – a cheerful hint of turquoise would look super stylish with a black-and-white backdrop. This is a trend I can certainly get on board with – the question is, do I start with stripes or chevrons?

Sewing Your Style

When you’re faced with a full-to-the-brim fabric shop, with shelves crammed with beautiful prints, bold solids and everything in between, it can be tricky to narrow it down – or even stick to just buying what you came in for in the first place.

The fabric-shopping equivalent of those back-of-the-wardrobe items that still have the tags on, impulse fabric buys can end up languishing in your stash, never seeing the light of day. Which is why it’s good to have a game plan. Take stock of your style and you’ll be able to judge whether that must-have fabric will be something you’ll enjoy wearing, or just a waste of sewing time.

Think About Cost-Per-Wear
Think back over the past week – what pieces did you wear the most? Which didn’t you wear at all, or even consider wearing? Why did you make those choices? We all have our favourite garments; the ones that never get boring, even though we wear them time and time again. Take a look at them – are they similar in any way? Are you gravitating towards certain colours, or a type of print? Keep these favourites in mind when you next go fabric shopping, and go for fabrics that are similar but different enough to add something to your wardrobe. Although it may seem a shame to limit yourself, it makes sense if you’re on a budget and want to make sure you’ll actually wear what you make. This is all about curating your style and making sure every make is one you’ll love and use to the full.

Hone Your Colour Palette
A dressmaker in a fabric shop is like a kid in a sweet shop – we just want it all. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to wear it all. For example, although I adore a girlie floral pattern, perhaps in pink or turquoise, I know that in reality I prefer to wear graphic, modern prints, polka dots and stripes in black, grey and neutral tones, with accents of bottle green, burgundy red, navy and mustard yellow. I’m also partial to a splash of neon in the summer. I do my best to stick to these colours, however tempted I may be by others, because I know I’ll get more use out of the resulting garment. Get to know your wardrobe, get to know what colours you love to wear, and you’ll be far better equipped to narrow down your options when you’re faced with rolls upon rolls of gorgeous fabric. In theory, anyway.

Get Inspired
Gone are the days where fashionable folk had to look to trend-led, glossy magazines for some sartorial inspiration – now it can be found at the click of a button, on blogs, Pinterest and Twitter. This makes it even easier to find your individual sense of style, so take advantage as much as you can – create Pinterest boards of your latest must-haves (mine have recently included mustard cardigans,  neon and neutral pairings and printed trousers), stills from stylish films and TV shows (Amelie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mad Men, for example) or images of celebs whose style you like (I’m a fan of Rachel Khoo, Zooey Deschanel and Rachel Bilson) and find your own take on their look.

Look for inspiration in unlikely places too – interior design blogs, for instance, can be a great source for colour combos and on-trend patterns. The beauty of sewing is that the world is your oyster when it comes to dressing how you want – you can choose the style, print and colour and don’t have to rely on the high street – so you can pull together a lot of different elements to create a look that is every inch your own.

All Things Nice: Named’s SS14 Collection

1 Lupiini Tie Back Top 2 Pihla Blouse 3 Apila Shorts 4 Vanamo Two-Piece Dress 5 Kanerva Peplum Blouse  6 Leini Dress 7 Kanerva Button Back Shirt

Scandinavian clean lines and edgy details – sound like your dream wardrobe? If so (and you’re handy with a sewing machine) you’re probably already a fan of Finnish pattern label Named, founded by sisters Saara and Laura Huhta. Turning their love of fashion, design and DIY into a career (those lucky things), Saara and Laura released their first pattern collection for fall/winter last year and are back with a spring/summer range featuring their trademark simple cuts and interesting design elements.

This new collection is called All Things Nice and, as the title might suggest, is inspired by the long and carefree summers of childhood. The patterns are anything but childish, though – although relaxed and loose-fitting, making them ideal for balmy summer days, the designs are sophisticated, feminine and modern. Many of the patterns in this collection are 2-in-1 – for example, the Kanerva shirt comes with a peplum version, and the Apila shorts come with a pattern for classic carrot-leg trousers. See the Named lookbook for summer sewing inspiration – I’m a fan of the Apila shorts and Leini dress.