Delia Grinstead


1 Pencil mummy“She noticed she walked differently now, not with her usual bouncy gait but more levelly, because of her slim skirt.”

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

March’s been rough.  Slight but cutting professional disappointments, rubbish progress with my running, gloomy weather, mess from renovating work and, inevitably, finishing my coat to a standard that doesn’t satisfy.  March is always a month I  struggle with because my birthday is at the end and in the run-up I tend to evaluate my achievements of the past year and find them underwhelming.  Which is why it was absolutely wonderful to have been treated to a novel by one of my favourite authors, Anne Tyler, serialised on Radio 4, in 10 episodes that I was able to “rewind” whenever I missed anything because I was running the sewing machine too noisily (Anne Tyler is my literary equivalent of chicken soup).  1 Pencil sideI read ‘Ladder of Years’ when it was published  in the 1990s and again more recently so there were no surprises in the plot but, oh my, the first half of this story never fails to amaze.  It goes like this: while doing the family shop, Delia Grinstead is asked a favour by a handsome stranger.  He’d like Delia to impersonate his girlfriend so that his glamorous ex – who happens to be in the supermarket shopping with her new partner – is made jealous.  Delia complies, her life gains a bit of momentum and the next thing you know, she walks out on her family and starts a new life as a secretary in a different town!

Both the narrator and the actress reading Delia have wonderful voices which I could hear in my head as, for the purposes of this photo-shoot, I minced in my new pencil skirt imaging myself an efficient, unapproachable secretary on her coffee break.  I occasionally think of “doing a Delia” myself, i.e. taking a long walk to a new life.  No way am I going to.  It’s just a revenge fantasy I pull out when I’m having a bad day 🙂 But I’d like to know: is this normal amongst women who disappear into family life and Anne Tyler just picked up on it, or did the author plant the idea in my head!?

Another case of pencil

I couldn’t resist making this skirt out of my coat wool and lining.  Just when I thought there were no further observations I could make about this pattern, a few cropped up during the making so here they are in case you’re making a pencil yourself.


  • To create the siren silhouette, use your basic skirt block but narrow the hem by a total of about 8cm compared to the widest part (the hip).  This difference is easier to achieve if the skirt is long.  Here’s a chart of measurements for a RTW version: Boden pencil skirt.  You can see how the hem and hip circumferences vary and also depend on whether you choose the long (L) or regular (R) length.1 Pencil skirt, inside out
  • Of course, a skirt that’s narrow at the hem will be hard to walk in so you will need a slit or a kick pleat.  Here’s my lined kick pleat tutorial if you’re making a skirt with lining.  Inside out, the final result looks like this:
  • Another way to lengthen the distance from waist to hem is to raise the top with a grown-on waist.  It’s a flattering option for those with a high waist but I’m wary of this for myself on account of the widest part of my hips being 30cm lower than my waist.  I’d look high-waisted but stumpy.  On the other hand, with a heart-shape-hipped figure, it would emphasise long legs.  Which hip shape are you?
click on pic for source

click on pic for source



If your wool skirt has a waistband, I recommend using Petersham ribbon.  Wool next to skin can be scratchy as I found on my previous make when I kept pulling up my tights so skin and skirt wouldn’t be in contact.

Pattern placement

If you’re using large scale checks like these, consider their placement tactically according to body parts you wish to emphasise or hide.

  • dark bands of colour should go across the widest part if you want your hips to appear narrower, and vice versa.
  • consider at which part of the squares your hem line will lie.  I find that cutting a square in half creates an impression of shortness.  The ideal is three quarters down a pale block.  Unless your legs are really long and you don’t like that (who are you?!)

P. S. I love drinking from this mug my friend gave me.  Not just ’cause of the buttons but the china is lovely too.1 Mug


After making the universally popular Polar Bear, I was keen to see how the Burda 9596 Pattern for a girl’s coat would turn out in a different fabric.  My brief was to make a fun and smart cover-up for those colder days that await us in the next 6 months of our so-called British Summer Time.  I wanted to use corduroy.  As a little girl, I loved the corduroy flares that my grandmother had made me, and when I’d grown out of them, she converted one of the bell-bottoms into a pencil case for me!  There was something very friendly and tactile about those velvety ridges.  

It took me a while to find the right fabric.  The shops had a limited range of corduroy in colours too dull for childrenswear, though some great needlecord samples came in the post from Brisbane Moss and Myfabrics.  But a trip to Goldhawk Road proved decisive.  I found a vivid purple at Orya Textiles and though I had some misgivings about the thick ridges (5 wale  is the kind of thick corduroy used in upholstery), I spotted some lime-green cotton satin  a couple of doors down in Unique Fabrics and, being a big fan of purple and green together, I grew determined to make the two work.  The total cost of the fabrics came to £20 with another £4 for the buttons from MacCulloch & Wallis

View A of the coat is  quite fancy – with a peplum, topstitching and contrast cuffs.  Much as I love it, I realized that the lime and white polka dot fabric that I’d bought for the cuffs would have been too much!  So I made a last minute decision to go for the subtler View B with the length of View A (so as to keep the swingy skirt).  I used the polka dot fabric for making the bodice lining, i.e. the inside parts that don’t need to be as slippy, whereas the sleeves and the skirt were lined with lime cotton satin.  The only other modification to the pattern was the coat hook I added (pretty essential in a coat, I think).  It was made from a tube of fabric and inserted between the collar and the back facing (pattern piece 14).    

I’d say that there a three parts to making the Burda 9596.  The first involved cutting out the 15 pattern pieces, marking them and applying the interfacing.  This seemed to take ages.  It was nerve racking having to stick to the grainlines so carefully: the up and down ridges would have given away the slightest mistake.  But the second part – machine stitching – was relatively quick and straightforward.  It’s a real moment of joy when the first sections come together and the coat begins to reveal its character!  

The last part involved lots of handstitching.  After a couple of hours of sewing the lining to the thick coat hem (which I haven’t done entirely evenly), my fingertips were so sore I had to take a day off before being able to face the buttons.  

My daughter has named her coat Violet and seems pleased with it, though wondered why the lining is in two fabrics (the spots alone would have done!).  She also pointed out that the coat is too big.  I wish I’d know that a spring coat doesn’t need to accommodate layers of warm clothing underneath,  or I might have graded it down.  Hopefully, by the time I get to make Burda 9596 again, I’ll be closer to being a pro sewista and will manage to pull off a perfect version!

Finally, a couple of literary references that kept popping into my head as I wrote this.  For the youngest readers and their mums, my daughter and I recommend “Corduroy” by Don Freeman.  This  beautifully illustrated story features a teddy bear in corduroy dungaress and a kind girl called Lisa. 

Corduroy also features in the opening lines of one of my favourite  Anne Tyler novels, “Ladder of Years” :

This all started on a Saturday morning in May, one of those warm spring days that smell like clean linen. Delia had gone to the supermarket to shop for the week’s meals. She was standing in the produce section, languidly choosing a bunch of celery. Grocery stores always made her reflective. Why was it, she was wondering, that celery was not called ‘corduroy plant’?