Freehand Cutting with Chinelo

1 Chinello Freehand Cutting Dress31 the demon eyes of tony blair bodiceIt was my birthday a few weeks ago.  Instead of a present, I asked for a course: the “Freehand Cutting Workshop” taught by Chinelo Bally, the runner-up contestant in this year’s Great British Sewing Bee who stumped so many of us with her flair for speedily making beautifully fitted clothes out of…. well, certainly not sewing patterns!

I rarely go on sewing courses.  I prefer to learn at home from blogs and books in the splendid company of the Blogstalker and Radio 4.  However, there really isn’t much published about freehand cutting and part of my husband’s “birthday-deal” was a promise of coming home late to find the children fed and the dishes done – none of that “you’re home, great, we’re starving” crap.  So you see, I couldn’t resist…  🙂

For the workshop, Chinelo had hired out a studio in Bow, East London; also present was a studio assistant who very kindly allowed us to stay beyond allocated time until we’d finished.  We gathered around a large central table piled with different fabrics out of which we were to make peplum tops or skater dresses (same basic bodice design with different ‘skirt’ lengths).  The form the workshop takes is that Chinelo leads you to chalk certain measurements onto folded pieces of fabric (bodice back and bodice front in one sandwich of layers), then it’s straight to cut and sew (gulp!).  The fabric, zips and bias binding are all provided though I took my fabric remnants home and made my own binding once Chinelo was happy that the dress fit me.

We began by taking our measurements: firstly, the ones with the tape horizontally on the body then measuring with the tape vertically on the body.   For some reason, I have never before carried out this procedure in this logical order (what about you?) and it helped visualize what would happen next when we plotted these measurement on the fabric.

One of the strengths of the workshop is Chinelo’s teaching.  She’s dynamic, thorough and quickly spots whenever a student goes off track in her measurements.  There were 12 students in the class and I think we all felt we’d had our tutor’s undivided attention.  Just as importantly – for it was Saturday afternoon – we had fun!

So what have I learnt about freehand cutting

  • It achieves a perfectly-fitted bodice.  Those of us who follow Winifred Aldrich’s Basic Block instructions in “Metric Pattern Cutting” always complain of too much ease.  Well, this method works.
  • The same procedure can be used to create a close fitting skirt with an added on knee-level fish-tail which follows on from the peplum/circle skirt design principles
  • It’s quick and cheap compared to faffing with commercial patterns that require so many alterations
  • You have no hard copy to adjust from if the fit isn’t perfect.  The range of designs that can be achieved is somewhat limited, e.g. it’s not a technique you would use if your ambition is to create this:1t Running Top
  • With printed fabrics, i.e. graphics, you might find it difficult to control where certain elements will end up on the body.  Imagine my horror (actually, laughter) when I first opened up my bodice front and found revealed – where I kind of imagined my bust points would be – what looked like little red demon eyes of Tony Blair!   😯Help I'm wearing Demon Eyes on me Nipples!

With sewing courses, I suspect that how much you get out of it is dependant on how much work you’re prepared to do afterwards.  Chinelo does make her tutorials available online to those who like to learn from home so I’ll certainly use the freehand technique to make my next skirt.  But it will take months of self-study before I can be nudged out of my paper pattern comfort zone to make anything more complex.

Tailoring at Morley College

Pocket Flap and Wonky Mouth

Apparently, it takes around 180 hours to make a bespoke tailored jacket.  The course ‘Tailoring for Men and Women’, which I’ve just finished at Morley College, teaches the basics in 3 hours of every Tuesday for 11 weeks.  Using a combination of three tailoring methods – custom, machine and fusible – students produce a half-jacket sample including pockets, canvas (the bit that doesn’t show but acts as a kind of skeleton), sleeves with shoulders pads, lining and buttonholes.  Gulp!

And no, mine isn’t quite finished… 

But here’s the first attempt at a pocket.  Practice makes perfect, eh?

I’d been looking for a course like this for some time.  Although being self-taught has served me fine when it comes to dressmaking, I’d imagined tailoring to be a dark art, not something you can pick up using blogs and books alone.  I enrolled with some trepidation: the course stipulated that intermediate sewing skills were essential.  Were mine up to scratch?   Would  I lag behind or get confused by terminology (“er, Miss, what is a whipstitch?!”).  Will I be exposed as not knowing my arse from my shaped elbow?!

I arrived to a full class and a mixture: mostly of sewing enthusiasts looking to take their skills to a next level, a couple of fashion students, a couple of professionals including a wardrobe mistress and a textile expert who sells her work at craft fairs.  Our tutor, Claudette Davis-Bonnick, a tailor and pattern cutter of great experience, explained that tailoring is about building structure into all the important places.  But you begin with a quality 100% wool that can be shrunken and stretched as necessary.  The way you then handle this fabric and press it is just as important as the way you cut and sew it.  Think molly-coddling, not throwing it around like a pizza dough!

As the course progressed to the practical, Claudette gave many tips and explanations as to why things are done a particular way.  This was an aspect to the course I very much valued.  Not only do you benefit from a wealth of someone else’s experience, I personally find that when someone backs up their method with a reason, the message gets imprinted in my memory so that I hardly need to take notes.  For example, I’d always assumed that on a shoulder pad, one end is pretty much the same as the other.  In fact, in a typical, semi-circular shoulder pad, there is a flatter, pointy end like the leg of a croissant and a  more rounded, plump end like that of a Cornish pasty (I’m starving, can you tell?!).  The elongated end goes on the back, the plump bit goes at the front.  It’s plump because its job is to fill in the hollow of the shoulder!

I’m missing the course already.  I loved being a student again, especially as Morley has a bustling, stimulating environment like of the colleges of youth!  In the cafeteria, I was introduced to Sweet Potato Pakora Sarnies: I’m thinking of re-enrolling just to get me some more of them!  And I’ll really miss the College library.  It has a well-stocked fashion section where I was able to get my mitts on textbooks I’d been reading about for ages in other blogs. 

If you can get to Waterloo, I hope you too try some of Morley’s Fashion courses.  There’s everything: corsages, corsetry, costume, even a Pattern Magic course (Jane reviewed it here).  My class was next door to Modern Bridal and Couture Evening Wear course which we tried to spy on through the door glass.  When I gatecrashed, one of the students, Suzan, kindly allowed me to photograph her perfectly fitted, flawlessly made dress (from own pattern and Liberty fabric).  

Thanks to my fellow students for allowing me to take pics of their work-in-progress.  And wasn’t it fun to be able to chat sewing?!

Now, if someone can just point me in the direction of carrying on alone.  Do you have tailoring books or blogs that you recommend?  Or is it just like dressmaking in that you start off a bit rubbish and get better with practice?