The Fabric of India at the V&A

Muslin border decorated with beetle wings (click image for source)
Muslin border decorated with beetle wings (click image for source)

A very dear friend got V&A Museum membership for Christmas and I was delighted  that she wanted to cash her present in early by suggesting we go to The Fabric of India exhibition.

I love saris. In TV programmes about India, I’m always struck by the beauty of the women who wear them: even girls from the disadvantaged sections of Indian society tend to have a kind of flawless delicacy that’s offset not just by swathes of the rich colour but also the cropped blouses worn underneath which expose the back and the narrow, short sleeves which flatter the arms. The V&A exhibition is not about the sari though. Some garments are for babies and men, princes and grooms. There are floor and wall coverings featuring the poppy and other flowers, themes from a variety of religions (there’s a very Indian-looking Jesus!) while the noble elephant – the nation’s undervalued beast of burden – is appliqued or printed in several of the designs.

This exhibition has given me a very necessary remedy for my lack of knowledge about fabric, beginning with information on how silks and cottons are woven, coloured and decorated. Embroidery and block printing are explained, and displayed are some very intricate pieces invested with centuries of traditional methods and hundreds if not thousands of hours of work. I used to dabble heavily in tye-dye; in fact for most of my late teens (i.e. the Fat Years) I’d be dressed in Indian dresses bought in ‘head shops’ which I’d tye-dye (along with half the kitchen) but the colours rarely survived much washing so I find it hard to believe that the use of wax and dye-fixers is so effective, but it clearly is, as most of the exhibits date back to the mid-19th century and some are centuries older.

The short videos were very helpful. I was mesmerised by the story of the rearing of silk caterpillars.  After spending their early days indoors, they are taken outside and become the foie gras of the fabric world, feasting non-stop and growing up to 12 times their initial size in a month (I know it’s Christmas, but don’t get any ideas!).  When all the leaves of a tree are munched bare, their human masters gently transport the caterpillars to trees new!

I particularly liked a film clip of a man producing (at quite a speed) the chain stitch, both hands working on each side of the fabric which is stretched taught over a frame. The hooking action of the bottom hand reminded me very much of the movement of the bobbin case in the modern sewing machine (you can see a similar demo in this video on YouTube). I also enjoyed the film about the growing cotton boll, pretty as a magnolia flower.

Next year I’ll be making some garments from saris for a client who’s had them passed down to her by her mum. When she showed them to me, I surprised by their variety in weight and designs – there are lots of possibilities for giving them a new life. I was very curious what the modern day collection of Indian garments at the V&A would offer but I didn’t see any refashioned saris.  Instead I found this delicate chambray-like khadi.  Isn’t it lovely?

Rashmi Varma, 2015. This natural-dyed 'Khadi' has the traditional look of a sari but the convenience of a fitted-garment: the pleats are sewn in and there's a side zipper.

Rashmi Varma, 2015. This natural-dyed ‘Khadi’ has the traditional look of a sari but the convenience of a fitted-garment: the pleats are sewn in and there’s a side zipper.

After the exhibition when I got home, I began working with raw silk for the first time.  The colour is Christmas tree beetle-wing green.  So far it’s been one of the easiest, most forgiving fabrics, for a brute like me. It stays put while cut, the stitches sink in and become invisible (though they’re easy to remove when discovering a mistake). But the best bit is that the rough layers grip each other so there’s no need for a walking foot or for those adjustments you make when the top fabric runs ahead of itself.

WIP: Raw Silk Bamboo Shoot Dress

WIP: Raw Silk Bamboo Shoot Dress

The Fabric of India exhibition is until 10 January.

With thanks to Jo 🙂

Vivienne Westwood at Danson House

1 sleeveA small but important collection of Vivienne Westwood designs, on loan from the V&A, can be seen at Danson House in Bexleyheath until 31 October.  Danson House is a beautiful Georgian villa sitting grandly atop of a very scenic park on the south-eastern edge of Greater London.  It’s a stone’s throw from Red House, the home of the ‘Arts & Crafts’ founder William Morris and both of these relatively little-known gems can be explored in a day.  However, when my friend and I visited Danson House, its setting and the summer weather pretty much stole the show so we spent hours lingering on the sunny terrace of the tea-room with a view of the boating lake and despite the distant tear of traffic, we felt transported to a different time…  Jo wondered who would’ve been lucky enough to live in such splendour.  An information tour of the house answered her question: this was the home of the owner of a plantation in St Kitts. Like much of this country’s Georgian heritage, the elegance was sponsored by slavery.  But it belongs to the people of Bexley now.  Tickets are £8, half price for National Trust and English Heritage members.

1 bubble skirt1 granny maxiThe Georgian period has been a very inspiring one for Westwood who shares its dedication to opulence, elegance and a fetish-like dedication to honouring the female form.  I admit I found the foil and jersey maxi dress that you see here a touch granny-ish, but was nevertheless charmed by the simplicity of some of these items typical of VW’s 1990s output.

The most impressive piece in my opinion was the green gown inspired by Rococo painters and by the typical French mid-century design of a type of dress named ‘le sac’ which has pleats of fabric at the back of the neckline falling to the floor.  Westwood never simply copies; she subverts which is evident in the lack of symmetry.  The gown is romantic and retrospective on the right side – with that unexpectedly unusual sleeve I so long to copy!  But the left side is modern, bold, confrontational even.  This dress was once worn by Linda Evangelista, the cruellest-looking of the supermodels!

1 robe a la francais

‘Le Sac’ or Watteau Gown, Back View, Mid-18th Century, France

1 gown

Westwood ‘Watteau Evening Dress’ Les Femmes Collection, 1996

1 Marge n' Jo

Savage Beauty

1 McQueen polished varnished clam shellsMy first opportunity to scrutinize Alexander McQueen designs came via the Isabella Blow Exhibition at Somerset House last year so I arrived at “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the V&A, keen to see more leather or wool (my favoured materials of late) and hoping to get inspired to take a more daring approach in my own pattern-cutting.

The exhibition intends to emphasise how McQueen took his influences from nature and there’s a lot of it in use: feathers, shell, wood, beaks, hair and horn.  We’re talking more than just trim: one whole coat seemed like a bubbling  eruption of dark hair coils which my friend dubbed “the Dr Who Monster”!  The other angle of interpretation is Romanticism.  Four rooms are named Romantic Exoticism, Romantic Horror, Romantic Nationalism (this would be of the Scottish kind) and Romantic Naturalism.  In the last, I spent a while admiring a hessian full skirt embroidered with straw flowers of the kind I haven’t seen since I was a child when they were a popular design on straw handbags.  There were dresses and bodysuits inspired by the kimono and sleeves of silks printed in the style of chinoiserie but updated to more vibrant palettes.  It’s a winner of a room, full of freshness and calm.

Not so Romantic Horror, a mostly black collection from McQueen’s days at Givenchy when he apparently imagined the creations of a disturbed surgeon who dismembers women and recreates them as animal hybrids.  Here the female form towers imposingly in her raven-plumed ball gown or in her leather-bandage dress with beak epaulettes.  She’s not so much frightening as dressed for defence, but from what?

If I entered the first room, or two, looking to learn from and to copy – a simple twist on tailoring can create an immediate swing from the traditional to the original – by room three, I abandoned such schemes.  My mind instead was shouting “who the hell has the balls to wear this stuff!?”

Of course, many of these are display pieces which made McQueen’s reputation without making it to a production line.  Nowhere is this more obvious than with the pair of wooden legs shaped like gnarled stiletto boots and carved extravagantly with grapes and vine.  They were made by a either a prosthetist or a wood carver (or both).  McQueen had a myriad of highly accomplished collaborators without whose skill he wouldn’t have been able to realize his visions so prolifically.

1 McQueen tailoringI got told off!  Apparently, I shouldn’t have been wearing my skinny leather rucksack on my back but in my hand like a bag in case I should bash into someone.  Later I did  notice a couple of men in the crowd carrying backpacks on their chests, like papooses, so as to comply with the regulations… go on London, just TAKE our dignity!  The guard who pounced upon me had all the charm of a Cold War James Bond villainess which put me in a nervously rebellious mood and so with shaking hands I took a couple of contraband phone pics of appalling quality (left, also the polished, varnished clam shell dress at the top).

If you can get to the V&A by August the 2nd but are reluctant to pay £17.50 for a ticket, think again!  Gone are the days of fashion exhibitions displaying static rows of frocks.  The game has upped somewhat.  Almost each room here is a built set and a couple are rather elaborate.  The music is wonderful too (and adds to the effect of this being a staged event).  Sarabande by Handel in the “Widows of Culloden” hall; while in the “Cabinet of Curiosities”, the largest of the rooms packed to the rafters with exhibits, we’re served the eerie lullaby sung by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (my favourite ‘pregnancy movie’ 🙂  )  As for the ‘hologram video’ of a Widows of Culloden bride Kate Moss spinning slowly like a dust mote, it’s worth a quarter of the admission on its own…

1 kate mossThe postcard of Moss in the silk mille feuille wedding dress is one of four I picked from the selection in the seriously tempting Savage Beauty gift shop (those trying to rein in their expenditure are advised to wear blinkers as they pass!).  Also included is a postcard of the golden feather coat which reminds me of the opera The Magic Flute, then there’s  my perfect kilt dress and one from the Naturalism collection.  If you think these would be good on your mood board, leave me a comment below and I’ll draw in early April then post them to the winner.

Link: Cabinet of Curiosities Images

Link: Booking is essential so check availability here

                     Link: Woman’s Hour interview with ‘Lee’s’ sister and his biographer

1 papagena

1 romantic naturalism

1 romantic nationalism

We Don’t Know the Maker’s Name

Imagine what the high street looked like several hundred years ago?  Each of the shops would have had some kind of a sign but the levels of literacy were low so instead of writing, a statue at the front often indicated what kind of business could be found within.  Some dozen such decorative statues greet the arrivals to the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, displayed opposite the entrance on a mustard-coloured wall, like enormous Monopoly tokens.  An ornate key indicating a locksmith; a roll of tobacco; a cobbler’s giant boot.  But what kind of business would have been advertised by a bear (the statue is wombat-sized but nevertheless a beast with bared teeth)?  The answer: a barber’s, because bear fat was sold as a pomade to shine hair.

1 Crimean Quilt, Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art GalleryI wouldn’t write about an art gallery exhibition on a sewing blog were it not for the fact that  some glorious quilts share the space with the paintings and the corn dollies, pub signs and ship figureheads.  The Crimean Quilt (right) is as colourful as a Turkish rug but rather than woven, it was patchworked by recuperating soldiers who used some ten thousand pieces of felted wool, mostly salvaged from uniforms (facings n’ all) and pieced using the “inlay method” so that the stitching is invisible.  It’s believed that these hours of careful craft helped soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress and served as a diversion from gambling and drink.  Kind of why I sew too 🙂

One of my favourites exhibits is the Bellamy Quilt on loan from Carrow House Museum, Norwich.  On a background of shimmery velvet, it is appliqued and embroidered with dozens of motifs such as of a Norfolk seal and a spotted, blue-eyed cat that must have been of some significance to its two makers.  In this case, we do know the makers’ names.  They were Herbert Bellamy and Charlotte Springall.  A year after the quilt was made (1891), they married.  It’s a story I’d love to know more of.

There’s a lot here that is interesting, but beware: much of it won’t be the sort of thing you’d exactly covet.  I mean, a picture made of hair?!  I walked away from that one pretty quickly.

Though thinking back, it was probably baby hair, not… you know…

Another sewing-related discovery was the term “cabbage”.  This describes the small leftover fabric pieces which a tailor was entitled to keep after his job’s done.  George Smart used cabbage to make little cloth statues as well as collage pictures such as the one below and this earned him a certain level of fame.

1 Goosewoman by George Smart, paper and fabric collage

James William, Patchwork Bedcover, C19

James William, Patchwork Bedcover, C19

If folk art seems like the inferior cousin of art proper, then its charm is that it’s often approachable and does delight.  I could have done with two more rooms of British Folk Art.  I wonder how many pieces may have been binned for not fitting in with fashions of the present day and market forces.

So it might be worth a look in your lofts or asking the gran: got any pictures made of hair?

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

Ouch, my yummy chums, I’ve failed you!  I’m sorry to have to postpone the VW Challenge by a couple of weeks as I’ve not been able to give it the attention I’d intended to.  Our builder recently announced he’s ready to work on our son’s bedroom – which has for years served as storage for everyone’s stuff –  so my sewing machine has been locked away and I’ve been making myself busy as an excavator of rubbish and stripper of wallpaper!  I’m not finished yet either… 🙁Hello Sailor in white leather

Midweek however, I managed to shower off the dust and escape to the City for an exhibition I’d booked a while back: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: from the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (at the Barbican until 25 August, then on tour).  Now, museums and galleries rarely permit photography but this time I was virtually invited by the gallery staff to take pictures as long as  I didn’t use a flash.  Whose call this was – the organizers’ or JPG’s or some third party’s – I don’t know, but the decision suggests strong confidence in the content of the exhibition without fear that the publishing of numerous, amateurish phone cam pics like mine might put off prospective visitors.

So here they are…

Jean Paul Gaultier for Grace Jones

This is Grace Jones’ dinner jacket.  Do you like how the collar is formed from what looks like facing which also connects to the back sleeve? I love that contrast of the two textures of black fabrics.


Leopard Lady

What appeared to be a dress incorporating a real leopard skin 🙁 turned out at close inspection to be thousands of beads 😯


Fish scale detailBlack mermaid

 A white version of this siren-like number was worn by Marion Cotillard.


Silver mermaidSilver mermaid detail

Another mermaid dress shimmering like the insides of oyster shells.


Peacock Suit  Hood top and trousers

A couple of favourites: a Can Can jacket and…  yeah, I know you’d need a top with that one!


Finally, a surprise trip down memory lane with memorabilia from Eurotrash, a show which made Jean Paul Gaultier (one of the presenters) a household name.  20 years ago, Eurotrash pioneered bad-taste TV – something we’ve had enough of already – but I loved it for the playful attitude of JPG and the fantastic chemistry between him and co-presenter Antoine de Caunes.  I used to laugh like a hyena as they took the mick out of each other, and everyone else, but mostly the British in their exaggerated French accents.

1 Eurotrash

And yet, nothing could be more British than some of the designs here.  The celebration of subversive as opposed to traditional beauty.  The punk dandy; the Pearly Queen Suit (in brown) and DMs all done with that essential British ingredient which is humour.  Jean Paul Gaultier, we know you like us!

camo ballgown

Isabella Blow

I didn’t think I’d like Isabella Blow, whose collection of designer dresses and hats is currently at Somerset House.  There’d been nothing to warm me in the portraits I’d seen, most showing her expressionless if not rather po-faced, and usually wearing one of her antelope-spike hats.  I admit I have an aversion to fashion, seeing it as a preoccupation of the rich who dress eccentrically to detract from an inner vacuum, with followers who seemingly dress identically when they should be making their own!

So did I have my prejudices overturned? 🙂

Not initially.  In the first display room, a familiar sight of a mismatched zip (ooh, at least  5mm, girls) spotted on the back of a lace Alexander McQueen skirt had me feeling rather smug.  “Blimey, he must have done that before he had people to do it for him,” I thought.  Even less impressive was a fashion feature in The Face showing a child clad in nowt but glittery Agent Provocateur knickers.  Clearly, we’d travelled into the past: a suspicion confirmed when one of the displayed documents turned out to be a fax (I’d forgotten they existed) which referred to the rather mundane  but very relevant matter of Blow’s expenses.

Amber Anderson photographed by Nick KnightHowever, you soon start to feel luck at being able to circle, and study closely, such giants of design as you see here.  I would have loved to touch some of the exhibits (like the fluffiest collar ever, on right) but I’d been warned off by repeated signs.  “No Photography” either, sadly.  As there wasn’t a catalogue of the exhibition on sale, here are some personal highlights which I’m trying to entrust to memory:

– One Philip Treacy hat, or ‘head sculpture’ if you will: a scarlet velvet number worthy of a female cardinal (if there was such a thing).  All parallel pintucks curling up in a sphere.  In a video clip, Blow very sweetly offers the theory that such hats “lift” faces like hers.  “Anyone can find a husband if they wear a Philip Treacy hat!”.

– An ice-smooth, silver shift dress, matched with a two-pronged headdress and the most pointed ever silver trident.  A she-Neptune outfit perhaps?

– A McQueen python-skin suit: a pointy-shouldered jacket and pencil skirt.

And if you think I’m just some sucker for power dressing, how about:

– The Jun Takahashi shocking-pink Burka printed with skewered-headed teddy bears (see it here)?  Very low Taliban-approval rating but Lady Gaga also gave it a go.

Looking around, I did in fact start to wonder if I haven’t lived when I haven’t partied  in frocks like these!

The exhibition veils over the ending of Blow’s and McQueen’s symbiotic relationship and you wouldn’t guess by the triumphant catwalk-show ending that Blow’s last years were ruined by depression, money worries and disappointment at her infertility and divorce.  I think this is deliberate.  We have to let this collection celebrate Isabella Blow and use our imagination to wonder at the rest of the story.

If you can, do go.  Till 2nd March.