Sunday, 5 December 2010

My little tweedy pie

Apparently, rules are meant to be broken. Today I have broken several vintage clothing "rules" and all in connection with one item.

Saw an overpriced, moth-eaten, stained tweed piper's jacket at the fleamarket this morning. My market companion looked wordless askance at the manky garment I waved in front of her, but I was smitten. Fitted shape reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood (are you SURE this is a man's jacket?), beautiful cuffs with raised darted details, complete set of original horn buttons, pocket flaps set just so on the hips, two back vents and the most lovely colour.

If pieces of vintage clothing have a history then this had been in a fight at a wedding (where its owner was playing the bagpipes), in the course of which it got blood on it and the sleeve lining tore, and has been but away for moths to feast on ever since.

On inspection, I discovered more and more moth damage, no matter: hey, I can sew, I can darn. Quiet words with the seller secured a hefty discount. Stains (blood?) on the lovely duck-egg blue tweed fabric an awful lot more difficult: so it's in the washing machine (aaagh!)

Golden rule: never wash a jacket - if the fabric doesn't shrink the interfacings will, it will go horribly out of shape and the colour will run - but I HAD to, dear reader. Although the remedy for moths is to put the garment in the freezer, mine is too small and too full of Quorn - yes really - Quorn mince, Quorn pieces... So it's in there on the cold woollen cycle with baby shampoo instead of detergent and my fingers are crossed.

I did do one thing right: I darned the holes before washing it. If you don't do this, a hole you could get the point of a pencil through beforehand you can get your head though afterwards. I might be looking at a mangled wreck of shrunken, bleeding, felted tweed in half an hour, but at least there won't be any holes in it.

P.S. Readers, it worked! One of my most successful salvage operations. I only wish I had taken some "before" photos to go with these "after" ones…

Sunday, 28 November 2010

I feel a new fad coming on...

Oh my word! My poor photography cannot do justice to these amazing shoes – in the flesh they have a wonderfully surreal look, like there's some kind of forest theme going on.

I bought them today at a vintage fashion fair. The seller claimed they were 1940s but I don't think so, I've never seen '40s shoes with heels that high, I'd date them to the early-mid 1970s.

Although I'm not sure why, I'm really in the mood for surreal fashion right now. Trompe l'oeil and a Schiaparelli shoe hat perhaps?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Wall art

These are two children's vintage jigsaws hung on the wall as art. I don't think anyone was going to be too challenged by the world's easiest puzzle: only three pieces and the name as a clue!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared

Walking along the street today I saw a woman with a clothes rail. Right there in the middle of the busy pavement with all the people passing by.

There was a psychedelic A-line shift on the rail, the woman told me she was selling the dress on behalf of her friend in Germany and that the friend had made it for herself. I bought the dress and when I came back along the street she was gone. No sign that she had ever been there.

Great dress though, but not home made at all.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Baby, it's cold outside

It's dark, it's cold and it's the penultimate day of October. Thoughts turn to coats, where they have been for some weeks already to be honest.

I had a quick scout around the Dorset town of Wimbourne Minster today. I've had no luck there previously, but today The God of Charity Shopping planted a lovely coat there on the rack in 'Julia's House'. £7.50 for a 1960s coat made of heavy Dongeal tweed in a brown and cream herringbone weave, excellent condition with a lovely wrap collar detail. Thanks very much!

Alongside eveningwear (see previous post), second hand emporia are awash with vintage coats at all times of year. When I pick up a new coat in a shop they feel so lightweight and flimsy to me I cannot imagine them keeping anyone warm. (This may be the time to tell you that I am rather cold blooded. This always prompts the comment, 'But you're from the north - you should be used to the cold!' My answer is, 'That's why I don't live there anymore.' Sorry north, love you and all that but just cannot bear being cold.)

So anyway, charity shop, market, vintage shop, online... you've got your choice of places to find your winter coat, that's no problem. There's a lot of choice so you're going to have to be prepared to try them all on. Here are some tips to help you out:
  • If you're going to be wearing it over big winter woollies or a work suit, make sure the fit allows for them - especially across the shoulders and back.
  • Conversely, just a dress underneath? Make sure the coat isn't too big.
  • It should fit across the shoulders, if you can't move your arms forward together it's too small, same goes if the hem lifts up at the centre back. If the join where the sleeve meets the body of the coat is slithering off down your arm it's too big.
  • Similarly, if the front of the coat is dropping down making the front look as if it's longer than the back, it's too big. The exception is woman wearing a man's coat: army coats, utility, workwear etc - it's meant to be oversized.
  • Missing buttons? Easier to replace the whole lot than to match the missing one.
  • Dropped hem? Easy to fix.
  • Torn lining - not quite so easy to fix. If the lining is torn at the hem it's usually because the previous owner caught the heel of their shoe in it or got it stuck on a chair leg. If the lining is torn at the back of the neck this is where the coat has been repeatedly hung up without a hanger and the weight of the coat has torn the lining; this needs to be repaired carefully and make sure there's a hanging loop, chain or tape attached to the inside of the collar just above the lining at the back of the neck, not attatched to the lining alone. Torn lining under the arms is the most difficult to fix, it's worth putting some strips of iron-on interfacing behind the tears before sewing to reinforce the area.
  • If the lining is shredded (looks like a cat clawed it), it's had it and will need replacing. A coat without a lining does not hang properly so don't think you can just cut the lining out and it will make no difference.
  • If the pockets are torn or there are holes in them, either fix them or sew them up. Nobody will see the inside of your pockets so it doesn't matter if the fabric matches and this will help you reinforce them so they don't tear again. Before sewing the holes up, put your hand through the hole (wearing a washing up glove might be a good idea, just in case!) and search around the hem where the lining is attached to the coat to retrieve any object which may have fallen out of the pocket. If you find weights, leave them alone - this is the sign of a good coat and will help the hem of the coat hang well.
  • Get it dry cleaned ASAP. If it has metal, glass, ornate or fragile buttons, either take them off (leaving the loose threads so that you can see exactly where to put them back afterwards) or cover them in aluminium foil before dry cleaning to protect them.
  • Check for moth damage. Moths love wool and other good-quality cloths.
  • Ahem - does it smell? May smell a bit musty, that might just be the shop or a long time in storage (especially attics and garages) - a clean and an airing outside in the fresh air will sort that out. Look in the pockets for mothballs, they really pong and the smell is a bit trickier to shift.
  • Is it an even colour all over? Take it to the front of the shop and inspect it in the natural daylight. I have often found one shoulder and arm of a coat to be faded where it has hung in a wardrobe for years. There's nothing you can do about this and suede coats are particularly prone to it.
  • Trenchcoats, macs and suede coats are worth waterproofing onced cleaned. Camping and outdoor shops sell shower-repellant spray for fabrics and shoe repairers sell showerproofing sprays for suede.
  • Is the belt missing? If it's meant to have a belt it probably won't hang properly without one, but you can usually get away with a leather belt instead.
I think I'll leave it there for now. I could go on all night... I will post some of my favourite coats tomorrow. They always seem to have a story behind them. I used to wear a coat of my dad's when I was doing my A-levels and on my art foundation course. It was a black wool coat with a single button and an astrakhan shawl collar. He was big burly man so the coat was huge on me. My mother took to hiding it and telling me she'd thrown it out to stop me wearing it (didn't work of course!) The pockets were so big I could get a pint glass in each pocket when I had to leave the pub early and get the bus home when we went out after college.

Nowadays my criteria for a good coat is not how much beer it can help me smuggle onto public transport - you can work that one out for yourselves!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Plants and flowers

For some time now I have been making collages using leftover scraps of vintage fabric. The Autumn Leaves picture (left) I made this afternoon and is part of the plants and flowers series.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

New jewellery

New pieces of jewellery made from vintage buttons and buckles. I will be selling these on my stall at Frock Me! on Sunday (24th October).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Visit me at Frock Me! this Sunday

I will have a stall at Frock Me! this Sunday (24th October) at the Corn Exchange in Brighton. Opening hours 11am-5pm.

I'll be selling vintage clothing, bags, jewellery and a new range of hand-made brooches.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Printmaking with old junk

Found objects: kitchenalia, old coffee tin, clockface. Two colour screenprints on brown parcel paper.

Good-quality, posh white paper holds absolutely no charms for me. I love printing on parcel paper, aluminium foil, wallpaper...

See more of my prints at:

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Collecting vintage shoes

It took me longer to get into buying - and wearing - vintage shoes than any other type of item I collect. I have often read that you should never buy second-hand shoes, that they will be moulded to another person's feet and will harbour diseases. There are plenty of collectors who buy shoes never wear them, but and display them around their homes instead.

The 1930s snakeskin shoes shown in the first photograph are one of my two oldest pairs. It really is asking a lot to expect something to last that long and they are quite hard to find. These shoes came from an antiques fair, the others from a specialist vintage fair.

I look for shoes with the minimum of wear: having survived this long they can just crack and fall apart as soon as you wear them, and if they are moulded to the shape of another foot they won't be comfortable.

It's crucial to try them on: sizes have changed a lot over the years and people used to have smaller, narrower feet generally. If they don't feel comfortable in the shop/market then DON'T buy them - they are very unlikely to stretch or "give" and you will be in agony when you try to wear them!

Firstly, when I get my new (old!) shoes home, I clean them inside and out. Baby wipes work well on leather and skin shoes, a brush for suede to get the dust out and suede cleaner or dry shampoo for any small marks. Leather often hardens and dries out with age so then I have to treat them with saddle soap or "leather food". I clean the insides too and spray them with antibacterial spray.

If they need new soles or heels it's worth taking the shoes to a reputable cobbler rather than to a chain. The cobblers I use find it interesting to work on something different for a change and really take pride in what they do. I also know that I will be able to ask them to replace buckles and repair stitching.

These formal green court shoes are also from the 1970s but you can find a very similar style, with a slightly lower and more tapered heel, from the 1950s.

The red shoes (above) are late 1960s leather and snake Mod t-bar Mary Janes by Russell and Bromley. The three pairs of platform sandals shown here are typical 1970s styles, but you do sometimes see original 1930s' platforms made popular by Hollywood actresses of the time. The 70s' versions can be really heavy to wear, making them difficult to walk in and painful when (not if!) you kick yourself in the ankle - so try them on to check for this.

If you want to be head-to-foot vintage for an event or, like many collectors, you live and breathe it, you will certainly be looking at vintage shoes. If you don't like your vintage to actually LOOK too vintage, then modern shoes can still be in keeping with your outfit or a good contrast to it. If you like the look but don't like the idea of old shoes, UK chains such as Office and LK Bennett do great retro styles every year.

There are some real finds to be had if you do take the vintage route though. Amongst others:
• Fake fur or wool-lined boots with moulded weatherproof soles making the winter much warmer, cosier and drier;
• Original army surplus plimsoles and heavy leather boots;
• Proper cowboy boots;
• Glamorous 1950s and 1960s stilettoes;
• 1950s mules with lucite heels;
• 1960s brightly-coloured mod shoes and boots.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Upholstery for beginners

These are pictures of my first upholstery project - and yet another good use for old curtain fabric. (Maybe I ought to be working for some kind of curtain marketing board, if such a thing exists...?)

This 1960s dressing table stool had been covered in off-white vinyl when we found it in a market. It cost the princely sum of £5.

Firstly, I prised off the dome-headed tacks holding the vinyl in place on the underside of the stool using the claw (forked) end of a hammer, with an few extra tugs with the pliers for some rusted ones. The foam padding covering the wooden seat was in very good condition, so I didn't need to replace it.

The fabric I wanted to use was the offcut from the bottom of a pair of 1970s curtains my friend Ali had me shorten for her. Because it was a lighter weight than upholstery fabric, I covered the stool with a layer of canvas first, to strengthen it. The vinyl I had taken off served as a pattern to cut out the canvas and the outer fabric. I used a staple gun to attach both layers of fabric to the underside of the stool - because it is a bowed shape (I never choose anything too easy for a first go at anything!) I started from the middle of each side, pulling the fabric taught, rather than at the corners.

Having secured the sides, the corners of the canvas were folded over squarely and tucked in, like "hospital corners" on a bed sheet. To avoid extra bulk, the corners of the outer fabric were turned in the opposite direction to the ones on the canvas layer.

The stool turned out really well, which is always very encouraging for a first attempt. And it cost the equivalent of two lattes at my cafe of choice, plus an hour of my time. I'll probably do an entire couch next, knowing me.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Take a letter

Although I'm a trained graphic designer, I wouldn't need to be to notice the prevalence of old shopfront display letters in interior design these days.

Quite a nice selection is shown here (left) at the lovely TicToc Cafe, Meeting House Lane, Brighton.

I have even seen them on sale in TKMaxx, but these are reproductions in fiberglass or tin, with a distressed finish to fake age and wear. Individual salvaged letters are going for quite a lot of money in the antique shops I visit, as are pieces of printers' woodblock type and even tiny pieces of hot metal type.

I used to have a studio over a printing works and when they sold up they couldn't get a buyer for all their trays of metal type (sadly, they all went for scrap), but then I suppose they weren't trying chi-chi dealers in architectural and industrial salvage...

If you would rather see these items being put to use in print than interior decoration, you will be glad to know that there are folks out there buying up trayfuls of salvaged type and printing letterpress in their own homes and studios. Flowers & Fleurons, to name but one - I will post more on them in the near future.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Beautiful bugs

Wow! I spotted (it wasn't difficult!) these beautiful insects made from upholstery fabrics in the windows of interior designer Nina Campbell's shop on the King's Road, London. They are huge - each one is about a metre long.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Collage is alive and well

One of mine (left), Julia Trigg's work currently on show at Castor + Pollux and some great stuff by Jacob Whibley.


Julia Trigg also exhibited in my Open House, Nine by Nine (see above) in May this year. At the bottom of the page you can also see one of my children's dresses and one of my screenprints on wallpaper - more about that in a future post. (Page from Absolute Brighton magazine, May 2010.)

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Betty, the retired racing greyhound

I adopted Betty via the Retired Greyhound Trust when she was three years old and the racing kennels at Billingshurst, where she had previously lived, was sold. Not having the temperament for racing, she had stayed there as one of a couple of extra dogs along with the racers.

Although already house trained and great on the lead, she had to be taught to use the stairs and could only be let off the lead in an enclosed place - she could still run pretty bloody fast even into her old age. Only once did she respond to another breed of dog: we met a German Shepherd which had been a guard dog at the Hove greyhound track; the owner said his dog would remember every dog it had ever met, having been stationed next to the traps to stop new dogs being substituted for the ones checked out by the vet before the races.

Betty retained her athletic musculature throughout her life, along with a distinctly regal bearing, despite being extremely lazy - only venturing from one of her several beds around the house when she smelled cheese or some other delicacy. I used to take her to the design studio every day, where she had a bed under her own desk and performed a very valuable meet-and-greet service, popular with (almost) all of out clients. Many friends - and my partner - who claimed not to like dogs, loved her because she was so un-doglike: she didn't drool or jump up, never barked or howled and she had the most gentle nature imaginable. She was more like a large cat crossed with a small horse than a dog! This meant it was really easy to find people eager to look after her when we went on holiday.

She loved being made a fuss of and being told she was beautiful, trips out in any form of transport (cars, trains, buses), walks on the South Downs, eating leftovers and sleeping. She most definitely did not like us making her wear paper Christmas crowns or any form of headgear, something that made the rest of us roll around with laughter - she was a very serious and dignified dog (which, of course, made it even funnier).

Betty lived a long and happy life and died in her sleep in March this year at the grand old age of 14. I shall never forget her but I am planning to get another greyhound: I regularly check the Retired Greyhound Trust's website, where they list the dogs ready for re-homing, at

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The cocktail hour

Eveningwear is a great way into buying vintage as it is surprisingly easy to find great items, dresses especially, in excellent condition. They may have been worn only once and will usually have been kept in a dry-cleaning or garment bag in a wardrobe away from the two biggest enemies of old clothes: UV light and moths, as well as the wear and tear of everyday life and laundering.

The New Look silhouette of the fifties with its fitted bodice and full skirt (first picture) is great if you want to show off your waist; "wiggle dresses" of the fifties and early sixties (see the green one with diamante dress clips at the waist, second picture) suit those with bigger busts and/or hips; straight-up-and-down Mod shifts of the sixties with block colours and bright prints are great if you have a boyish figure (not shown here as a boyish figure is something I do not have!) Another common shape from the sixties is a very flattering A-line shape, usually sleeveless with intricate beading or embroidery like the pale blue one shown here.

All styles look great with either modern shoes and minimal accessories or the full vintage look with shoes and jewellery from the same era.

There are two very important things to look out for. Firstly, the original owner may have had only one night out in the lovely dress you've just spied on the rail, but it may well have been one hell of a night - look out for stains, more often than not a post-dinner coffee. These fabrics aren't usually washable, so check the garment thoroughly before buying. Secondly, make sure it fits - and if it doesn't, have it altered. Gaping armholes, straining seams and fallen hems will be much more noticeable on ornate, shiny or sparkly fabrics.

Where to buy? This is the good news. Those charity shops full of dull and dowdy stuff have yielded so many of my evening dresses - the dresses of the fifties, sixties and seventies shine out from the rails like beautiful sweet wrappers. Specialist vintage shops always have eveningwear in stock but they will put more out on the shop floor closer to Christmas and New Year's Eve (and may put their prices up at the same time).

To sum up:
• Visit all the charity shops in your area often
• Examine garments closely for stains (drinks, food, sweat, rust, even blood), missing buttons or broken zips, damage and evidence of moths
• Try on to check for a good fit. Don't try it on over your jeans or a bulky belt!
• If it needs repairs or alterations, factor that in to the total price you are willing to pay
• If you're in a market and there's no mirror, get someone to take a photo of you using a digital camera or phone. Some stallholders will let you go off to look for a mirror if you leave a bag or something behind
• Don't forget the rear view
• Think creatively: maxis can be shortened easily, buttons changed, decorative trimmings can be removed (but check how firmly they are sewn on and if it will leave a mark)
• If you aren't sure, ask them to hold it for you while you go away and think, or put down a deposit
• If it's cheap, don't put it back and come back later - she who hesitates is lost!

Oh - and take off jewellery and your watch when trying on vintage eveningwear, it's easy to cause damage if you catch the fabric.

Done all that? Found your frock? Now get out on the town and show her a great time!

Photographs by CJ Taylor.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Treacle & Co

My new favourite cafe (and they do seem to be springing up thick and fast despite the recession...) is Treacle & Co on Church Road, Hove, East Sussex.

Its blue and white tiled interior indicates that it was either a fishmonger or a fish and chip shop in the past. It has been wittily furnished with salvaged furniture and all sorts of curios. The highlight for me is the women's toilet: wallpapered with black and white cuttings of animals and one single colour picture of a goldfish (apparently the men's toilet features maps of the world).

Oh yes, and there are big fat cakes if you like that sort of thing, and nice coffee.