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.


1 Clownie 6

Tamara's blouseIf you watched the second series of The Great British Sewing Bee, you may have been charmed by the 1930s blouse made in Episode 6.  Tamara’s blouse in muted, natural colours particularly evoked the era for me.  When I found out that the publishers Quadrille had made many of the patterns from the series available for free download from here, I printed out the pattern and took a sneaky peek at the instructions in the book that had been kindly donated for my Sewing Bee Challenge.  This is the result:

1 Clownie 4

I have mixed feelings about it.  I’d disregarded the advice to make this from something drapey and went instead with poplin (I ripped up a dress I made two years ago so you could say this is a genuine refashioning project).  Although the flowers are exotic, the largeness of them makes me feel like I’m the kind of chintz sofa that was fashionable in the 1980s and can now be found fading away in dilapidating English conservatories.  I also feel rather broad and puffed, like I’m wearing a clown suit.

On the other hand, it’s a look I suspect would work quite well with a pencil skirt, heels and Winehouse-style make-up.  It’s worth giving this a go, even if just to scare the kids!

1 CollarPattern changes made: I added shirring to the centre bottom of the sleeves (in the pattern, the area is cut away).  I also pleated the sleeve head rather than gathered it.

Sizing for this pattern (and other downloads from the book) can be obtained from here.  It’s pretty standard.  According the chart, I’m a 14 but I made 12 anyway.  The muslin I made fit perfectly on the waist though had to be taken in a good 5cm in the shoulders and under the armpits.  The instructions aren’t available from the download.  For that, you have to buy the book and even then, there isn’t that much detail and there certainly aren’t enough diagrams.  I mean, I’m still not sure what a placket is supposed to look like.

You’re all very welcome to snigger viciously at my pathetic attempt at it:1 Oh, plack it!

Should I decide this blouse is a keeper, you can bet I’ll be replacing the placket with an invisible zip.  Boy, wasn’t the 20th century clever with its inventions like the zip!?  And rockets.  But best, zips.

1 Leftovers mmm

1 1930s Blouse

“You Have One Week” The GBSB Challenge

Sewers, you have a week to make a garment inspired by the current series of

The Great British Sewing Bee.”

may pat claWhat, do you think one week is a bit mean?  Well of course it is but how do you think those poor contestants must have felt when told to make a silk nightgown to fit a model in 5 hours?!  I was hiding behind the sofa at that point.

Sew Your Own Wardrobe by Tessa EveleghLuckily, no judges will be allowed to scrutinise and pick apart the efforts of this challenge.  In fact, all who submit a picture of their creation by the final of the GBSB next Tuesday will be entered into a draw to win a copy of the book The Great British Sewing Bee: Sew Your Own Wardrobe by Tessa Evelegh, kindly donated by Quadrille Publishing.  After the deadline, I will prepare a blog post of your entries and publish it on Wednesday 9th April alongside the name of the winner of the draw.

The Rules

1 Make a garment inspired by one of the tasks on the show.

2  Email me a photo of the garment, preferably being worn by either yourself, whoever you made it for, or on a dummy (no hangers).  The deadline is Tuesday 8th April 9pm GMT.  Multiple entries ok, and I’d be particularly be happy to see Before and After pictures if you’re refashioning.

3 Make sure you include any text you would like me to publish with your photo, e.g. why you chose that particular task or who you most want to win the series.  If you have a blog, make sure you include the link.  I’ll email you back to confirm I’ve received your entry.

4 If you have a blog, you may like to display this button to show you’re taking part.  Just copy the text below into your widget area.


That’s it.

If you like, leave a comment below telling us you’re joining in.  Or what tasks during this series have most inspired you to have a go?

Now, much to my delight, the second series of the GB Sewing Bee has been longer than the first, with many more projects.  So your memories of the early shows may be a bit hazy.  I know mine are – or maybe it was hiding behind the sofa that made me miss parts.  Luckily, all the episodes are available to view on iPlayer till April 15th.  So if you need a little reminder of the story so far, here are the links (available to all in the UK):

Episode 1 where we meet the contestants, a boring wool skirt is revamped and a silk nightgown is made.

Episode 2 where the contestants are tested on their ability to match patterns.  Do you pleats match?  Can you cut up two shirts to make a new one?

Episode 3 jersey T-shirt refashion, leggings and a wrap dress (gulp!).

Episode 4 sewing for little people plus a prom dress.  Can you make a fancy dress costume out of a pillowcase, a sweatshirt and jogging bottoms?

Episode 5 anorak and velvet trousers.

Tamara's blouseEpisode 6 Vintage heaven.  The beautiful blouse with collar and smocking that we all plan to make some day.  Well, it’s time 🙂

Episode 7 The Semi Final.  Make a garment copy and the dart-it, pleat-it, tuck it, drape-it dress.

All episodes can apparently be viewed outside the UK via Media Hint – a free download that works with Chrome and Firefox.

Good luck!

And sewers?  Try not to have too many tea breaks.  I find it trebles project time!


You can download sewing patterns for many of the makes in the show from here.

So Zo’s review of Sew Your Own Wardrobe can be found here.

GBSB Judge May Martin’s How To Tutorials which could give you ideas can be found here.

In Series 1, the task that most inspired me to do a copycat was this skirt.

Stuart Skirt

So, tonight The Great British Sewing Bee reaches its final, only 3 weeks after the show’s start.  4 episodes!  We wait decades for a show like and that’s all we get.  How apologetic!  Did the commissioning team have doubts that anybody would watch?!  Oh, how I wish I’d been on that commissioning team.  I’d have demanded that the show based its format on the worst excesses of the Roman Empire – think Gladiatorial  Combat – with an exit policy straight out of the song Hotel California, i.e. you can never leave.  If it’d been up to me, those contestants would be sewing for our viewing pleasure forever unless a self-sacrificing member of the audience volunteered to step in and proved a like-for-like replacement.  So, for example, a handsome amateur tailor of Matrix-style costumes could take the place of Mark, a fellow-blogger could replace Tilly and as for the lovely Stuart, he’d only be allowed to leave if some kind of sewing equivalent of Paul Hollywood could be found. 

But enough of my sick fantasies.

Daughter and I had the idea to design this skirt after the Tulip Pocket Embellishment made by Stuart in Episode 2.  I was curious to see how long it would take: as somebody who’s thinking about sewing professionally, I try to keep in mind how long a project takes so should I get a commission, I’d know to charge more than the minimum wage. 

Here’s the breakdown of the Skulls as Pockets applique, a total of 1 hour 40m not including the making of the skirt.

Design of skulls: 10 mins

Making and attaching the skulls: 1 hour

Sewing the ric rac bodies on skirt:  30 mins

I did also spend some extra minutes looking for bits, blaming the kids for taking my stuff, coaxing Blogstalker off my work and lint-rolling the residual hairs….

After I finished, daughter immediately named this her “Funnybones Skirt”.  And then I remembered that the skeletons in the book had a dog.  How brilliant it would have been to have the skelly dog on the back of the skirt!?  But that’s the sort of idea you get when you have the benefit of time.  As Ann said, “I like having time to think.” 

I made the pattern for the A-Line skirt by first making a Basic Skirt Block and then adapting it.  I’ve been asked if the formula can be used for a child’s skirt and having now tried it, I’d say yes, but it helps if there’s a real difference in waist and hip measurements otherwise the skirt will be more of a tube and will slide off!  The other thing to bear in mind is that the dart has to be shortened: here I made it 7cm.  One advantage of sewing a girl’s A-Line skirt is that it’s so quick: this one is lined and it took an hour!

The Great British Sewing Backlash

For an oversensitive creature like myself, the downside to The Great British Sewing Bee is that our gentle pastime is attracting attention outside our circles and provoking derision and sneers!  Oh yes, what the world right now needs of its women is delivery from nuclear perish; perhaps one brave volunteer could ensnare into a honey trap and disarm the-not-as-cute-as-we’d-thought Young Kim?  Not – as my favourite radio show mocks – sit sewing with programmes about retro midwifery on the bleedin’ telly!

And you, Punt and Dennis? 😥

Whilst I rarely wish to take part in Guardian-bashing, I’m bristling (a bit) at its treatment of TGBSB.  In his TV round-up, Andrew Collins skims over the content and whines “I don’t care!”  And the Guardian’s TV guide previews  the programme with an incredulous: “Who still has time to sew?!”

Er, I do! 

For the past two weeks, I’ve been looking after a varying collection of 8 to 13-year-old children, some of them mine.  It’s a nice job, requiring not much more than checking for blood, providing meals and a daily airing.  During this time, I was faced with the usual conundrum of what to do when a child has a friend’s birthday party coming up: do I buy or do I sew? 

Option 1: My Usual Stand-by

What do you buy a child who has everything?  Well, more of everything…   A packet of Moshi monsters and a novelty pen from my most-adored stationers.

Total cost with card and giftwrap: £7.50 to £10, depending on whether the Moshis are on sale.

Advantages: quick, easy and once the gift is bestowed, you can forget about it, unless… you’re the type to be guilt-ridden about adding to the plastic toy reject mountain.  Catholics and hippies are particularly prone here, and I’m a bit of both…

Option 2: a Personalized Cushion Sewn by Someone with Too Much Time on Their Hands

Total cost: slightly cheaper than option 1 if you don’t count the hourly sewing rate.  You need to buy (or make or reuse) a cushion pad.  I’ve also used an old concealed zip but you wouldn’t need one for an overlap design like on this Space Invader cushion.  For the fabric, most of us have stash, though I found that the Guitars remnant I’d  set my heart on simply didn’t provide a good enough contrast (see right).  Instead, I bought half a metre of a “dragster cars” print from Rolls and Rems.

Time taken: 3 hours, half of which was spent planning and unpicking the concealed zipper from an old dress.

Advantages: unique and useful.

Disadvantages: the uncertainty.  Will Sonny like it?  My kids reckon yes and strangely, I find I care less than I would with the plastic toy mountain.

Option 3 would be some money in a birthday card, but then the question would be how much money?  I wouldn’t hesitate to give a tenner to a child of 12 or older  (so they could treat themselves to some fags and alcopops 🙂 )   But turning up to a-nine-year-old’s party with money seems like handing in an entrance fee.  What do you think?

 My New Favourite Font

I’ve made personalized pressies many times before but one thing I’ve learnt from planning this project – which will speed things up if I make a cushion like this again – is to adapt the design to the age and gender of the kid.  Out went the rounded letters, in with the Collegiate Border font.  It’s a good one as it won’t use up much of your printer ink.  The free download is here.  For 7cm tall letters like mine (on a 41cm square cushion pad), select a font size of 200, print and cut out to make templates.