REVIEW: My visit to the LCF World of Womenswear Pattern Cutting

IMG_20160710_140852Last month I was lucky enough to get a place on the Womenswear Pattern Cutting: Intensive course run by the London College of Fashion.*  Although I had a fair understanding of the subject and certainly enough to be able to realise my knitwear designs from idea to finished pattern, there were a few gaps in my knowledge that sewing experience and fudging with commercial patterns couldn’t fill.  I realised that the only way for me to really, truly understand pattern cutting was to approach it from a design perspective: bringing it together with garment construction and drawing/illustration, where it belongs.  Too often, pattern cutting is divorced from the so-called “creative” areas of fashion design because it isn’t perceived – or presented? – as glamorous, interesting or creative in its own right, but the truth is that it is all those things and more.  What could be more magical than bringing a drawing to life?

I knew I’d love pattern cutting because I find the technicality and engineering of knitting fascinating: when you are able to understand HOW something is constructed, a whole new world of creative possibilities is opened up to you and your ideas are imbued and infused with all the more depth because of it.  There is a sense of mastery about the ideas generated by a mind capable of harnessing all aspects of a discipline’s creative power.  It is like having an infinite vocabulary for ideas yet to be conceived, knowing that you will be able to say exactly what you want to say in the way you want to say it.  You become the purest possible conductor for the electrical fire of ideas, and your light shines all the more brightly for it.

Such is my philosophy about the creative arts, and you now have an idea of how excited I was to turn up at Lime Grove on Monday 11th July!

In short, there’s very little that we didn’t cover within the realms of pattern cutting.  In week 1 we had skirts and trousers: all styles we drafted fell within the four basic silhouettes of circle, rectangle, triangle and inverted triangle.  LCFWPCI_introtoskirtsThus a circle skirt, on account of its drape and flare, is a triangle shape; a tulip or peg-top skirt would be an inverted triangle.  Pencil skirts are rectangular; puffball skirts are circular.  And of course there are infinite variations possible by adding frills, yokes, godets etc – but we had our four silhouettes and the foundation of all shaping and styling is how to add flair (not to mention flare) to them all.  Techniques for adding volume and suppression were repeated throughout the three weeks, across all areas of design detail.

Week 2 was THE most intensive by far.  We covered bodices, collars and all manner of dart manipulation.  Jane Steadman, our teacher, warned us that we’d need a good breakfast to cope with the content of week 2, and she wasn’t kidding.  (I recommend something high in protein.)  In fact, self care and lots of food is highly recommended throughout: when the course is marketed as intensive, LCF really do mean it.  There was nothing watered down about the content or delivery of this course.  You need to turn up with your game face on every day.  If you can put the majority of your life on hold for the three weeks, so much the better.  Chances are it will take over your life anyway, so why not invite it in?!

For a course like this you need a teacher who can double as the font of all knowledge, and we had that in Jane.  There are rare and blessed times when you realise just how lucky you are to have a gifted teacher, and my classmates would agree.  Pattern cutting is a dying skill, and with that comes the frightening prospect of lost experience and expertise.  Acutely aware of this, Jane encouraged us to get as much as we could out of her and turn up early for class.  Once I cottoned on to the kind of woman and teacher she was, I drank in as much as I could.  All my early starts were worth it, and she was glad to see me.  It meant that I could share a few design ideas and get valuable 1-2-1 tuition long before the others arrived.  Over time, I hope to share them on this blog.  The list of projects and ideas lengthens…but back to bodices.


I always like a nice bodice on a dress, and going into so much depth with the two methods of dart manipulation (slash and spread, pivoting), made me appreciate them all the more. Because dart manipulation has next to no place in knitwear, I am fascinated, and have been for a long time.  And the method of tuition we had – where both were given equal billing, and exercises were repeated using both techniques – conferred a sense of power and control.  It’s that vocabulary thing again, and how important it is for self-expression.

BowToThePatternMasterCollars, facings, necklines, and button stands featured here too.  Of these the collars were the most detailed, and personally I will need to practice drafting these a few more times; they have had virtually no place in my clothes making life to date and there are a few more steps involved than with several other drafting processes.  This new appreciation, coupled with Jane’s humour and entertaining stories about this history of garment features, has made me sit up.  As an aside, this could be a little project for me, if not visual research.  It’s very safe to say that collars interest me far more now than they ever did before!

Finally, week 3 covered dresses, sleeves, and a bit of draping for a cowl neck.  A cowl can be drafted flat too, and of course we used both methods for comparison, which was extremely useful.  There was no way in the world that we could’ve covered draping in any depth – nor did we want to, we were all so tired! – but it was fun to do and I’m already looking at the draping courses offered by LCF.  Maybe next year, if I’m VERY lucky…

DraftingAFlyZipperI would recommend this course in a heartbeat.  Whatever you need to save up, however much time you need to carve out – do it.  You won’t regret it.  My only wish or suggestion would be the addition of a garment construction course to support the content delivered in the three weeks.  References to sewing up, calico samples and how our drafts related to the body were thorough and constant – I should interrupt myself here to say that drafting and creating pattern pieces that resemble commercial patterns are not the same thing.  The draft is the mapping and calculation of the elements that become the final pattern: thus it is possible to have drafts for several skirt styles on one sheet of paper, as we did for the yoked skirt story above.  The final pattern pieces, balance marks and notches are traced off onto clean sheets of paper and have seam allowances and key information added, e.g. “Style 001, back bodice, size 12, cut 1 pair”.  All this was fully contextualised within the design and realisation process – but to follow through on this, I think that a few of my peers would’ve liked if not benefitted from some sewing to consolidate our learning, but certainly NOT at the expense of any of the course content as it stands.  Definitely something separate, because there is nothing baggy or flabby to trim away.

In this respect I felt very fortunate to have a respectable bank of dressmaking experience.  This isn’t to say that someone without it is at a disadvantage – but it does substantiate some aspects of pattern cutting training because practical subjects are all about the doing.  My only other recommendation here is to get Pattern Cutting and Making Up by Martin Shoben and Janet Ward (ISBN 9780750603645).  Many pattern cutting books don’t discuss garment construction (partly due to the student target audience, groomed for working in industry), but this is the only one that does.  There are some useful techniques in here and it helps to join everything up in your head: why, when and whether to.  Again, Jane had a huge array of samples and working examples to demonstrate each key point.

Which reminds me: You will have a LOT of stuff to bring home at the end of the three weeks!  I needed help carrying mine.  I highly recommend buying at least two adjustable cylindrical carry-cases, like these ones here: you can sling them on your back or over your shoulder, and you won’t be sorry you got them.  I have since bought several and categorised them for reference (#geek).  The other, not-so-geeky takeaway from the course was this collection of cute 1/5th scales of the blocks, which we used for homework:

DSC_0380They now live in my special pattern cutting pencilcase, which is quite separate from my beloved Snoopy one made by my mum.  Oh yes.  New world, new order.  And since finishing the course I’ve felt so much more confident about creating the styles that I’ve always wanted.  Professionally, it’s going to make my teaching better because I feel more comfortable about combining knits and wovens in different ways, and the ideas I’ve had are going to form part of what I teach the second year fashion and textiles students.  On a personal level, I’m not sure if I’ll ever buy a commercial pattern again!  Maybe if I feel it’s too complex to fathom, but seriously…the content of this course is such that, when you leave the bubble and go back into the real world, your eyes will see so readily how several fashion styles were created.  If you have time in the last day or two of the course (or are a swot like me and get in early as often as you can), have your measurements taken and draft your personal blocks for when you get home.  This personal bonus probably outdoes anything I will do for my students, which is saying a lot!  It means that there’s no faffing around with fitting and adjusting; even when you’ve got yourself into a routine and know which pattern companies you like, cutting out this step is a dream because you have more time for the creative stuff you like best.  With that empowering knowledge, plus this beast of a tome to keep you company, you will fall in love with sewing all over again.  I know I have.

ThePatternCuttingBible* Please note that this post has NOT been sponsored.  All views are entirely my own.

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Preparing for Harvest

The academic year has ended, and apart from graduation the focus is entirely on September and preparing for new and returning students.  It’s also time for me to regroup and turn my attention to design work due out later this year, months before anyone else is really thinking about wrapping up warm.  That said, London and June have been in the midst of an argument for a few weeks now, and we’re all waiting to see whether the summer weather will win!

Early spring and summer has made me think of planting seeds, or nurturing young plants as they make the most of the warmth.  It’s one way of understanding my lifestyle of working behind the scenes on a design, or on projects that I will have to wait to reveal.  For sneak peeks of these, take a look at my Instagram feed – at the time of writing, the tiny bits of knitting will make a lot more sense and you’ll see what I’ve been building up to!  I could say something about finding pockets of time to do things, but it feels more like the quiet moments in a composition: those few bars’ rest that aren’t rest at all, but part of the music.  The poetry of silence that resets the ear and welcomes the time, rhythm and colour of the next movement.

I’d also like to share a small accomplishment of mine: drum roll please!

PurpleRib4These 16 rows of rib might not look like much, but for me they’re the equivalent of a marathon runner coming down the back straight.  Finishing this second sleeve is the final bend; picking up stitches for the front band and sewing up is the home straight.  Blogging about it and wearing it to death is the finishing line and beyond!🙂

This purple cardigan has been hanging around for so long, it can’t help but be a reward in its own right. I’ll need it for the colder days of harvest, when it’s time to wrap up warm against the brisk notes of the autumn wind.

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Adventures in Yarn Dyeing, Part One

Last week I tried two things for the very first time: drafting a bodice block and dyeing yarn.  It’s safe to say I’ll be doing both again!

My not-so-new job has kept me away from posting regularly like I used to, but it’s been a crazy, eventful and educational nine months in post and I hope – HOPE – that I have enough of a grip on things to get back into a writing routine.  It’s much easier to find time now that the graduate showcase is over (take a look here if you want to see the culmination of hard work by a group of talented people), and of all the things that I could have done this Monday morning, I chose to write.

PreInspirationThe yarn dyeing came about as a consequence of similar circumstances.  With all the students finished up and only Graduate Fashion Week on the horizon, a group of us came up with the idea of skill swapping as a means of enjoying each other’s relaxed company and actively appreciating our areas of expertise.  My contributions were intros to hand knitted socks and domestic machine knitting.  In turn, I asked how to learn how to dye yarn and draft a bodice block based on my own measurements.

I should probably be more explicit than I was at the start about having never dyed yarn: I’ve NEVER dyed ANYTHING.  Very truly.  Not even in the bath or washing machine at home.  The last thing I ‘dyed’ prior to this was my fingertips when mashing down turmeric root in a mortar and pestle!  Thank goodness that came off after a couple of days or so; I had the left hand of an 80-a-day smoker😦

So: I turned up last Thursday 19th with five hanks of Rowan Creative Linen in white, bouncing with excitement, a bellyful of beans.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about anything changing colour! – or nervous.  Not that it wouldn’t turn out as I wanted; the nervousness that accompanies treading uncharted waters, the feeling that you get as you swell up to fill a new space in the world, a space held in trust for you until you’re strong and brave enough to understand it’s always been yours.  Discovery, excitement, trepidation, awe.

These feelings fuelled my elbow grease as I scoured the yarn, removing any coatings or residues from previous unknown processes.  Here’s a short video of me doing this:

The yarn was put into an acetic acid solution first, then well rinsed under running water.  Somewhat embarrassingly, I can’t remember whether it was hot or cold water – only that I kept scouring until I heard my colleague (find her beautiful print work on Instagram at @printmaking_paradise, including a snap of how her machine knitting turned out), say those magic words, “That’ll do.”

Next we followed an adapted recipe for the relevant dye type (cellulosic fibres like cotton and linen are treated differently from protein based ones like wool and cashmere) and I finally chose a colour.  I’d spent the day so far trying to remember what gaps were in my hand knitted wardrobe.  Unsure, I settled on a sea green/marine/turquoise vibe.  I later found out that I’d just got away with that guess: longline cardigan, yes; cropped wrap cardigan, still awaiting buttons, yes; summer sweater, NO.  Phew!  And this mental survey included the stashed yarn for incumbent projects.  Gosh, I have way too much yarn AM good! * high fives *

We threw in a wee bit of electric blue in case the colour came out a bit too green; green doesn’t love me as much as I love it.  Once the water had reached the correct temperature, in went the yarn.  No going back.  I may have likened this to a “Loch Ness monstery pit of aqua”.  Guess I can’t be articulate all the time!  Good thing I don’t do podcasts😉

Stirring and a bit of guesswork ensued: how long to keep it in and would it be the depth of colour I had in mind?  I’d gone for the medium range of the spectrum to play safe, but it’s always a tricky thing as people can have interesting ideas of what ‘medium’ is.  I guess that’s part of the process and the charm of textiles.  Most interestingly, it was the only time the knitting, engineering area of my brain felt a bit poleaxed; it made me realise just how structured and binary knitting is or can be in comparison to other textile arts.  You have knit, you have purl.  You have front loops, you have back loops.  You cable left or right.  Textured patterns have a right side, a wrong side, or can be reversible.  The creativity of knitting is borne of a profound understanding of how the structure is engineered.  My brain and personal experience relate it to Lego and music.  You have your bricks and your notes, your eyes and ears, your theory of how the relationships work – now go off and compose.  Technicality doesn’t forego manipulation and innovation; it enriches creativity to result in masterful, original works of art.

My way of dealing with the unknown is to let it wash over me.  It’s the only sensible option: how can you compare something you don’t know to something you do know?  Of course your brain wants to make sense of it as it grapples with new concepts and you try to execute tasks correctly – more than once I mused about cooking and recipes as I stirred the dye pot – but you have to welcome that openness and receive it on its own terms, its own merit.  This open space, this stretch of uncharted waters, can only be trodden with trust.

YarnOnDryingRackThis is true even on the most mundane or microcosmic level, boiling right down to whether or not the yarn you’re dyeing turns out beautifully, let alone the shade you had in your mind or imagination.  Trust begets synchronicity.  Worry and fear can’t coexist with trust and faith.  I have no real idea of what colour my yarn will be when I go to work and into the print room tomorrow, and I can’t remember whether it’ll dry darker or lighter than its shade when wet.  To the left is a shot of the freshly dyed yarn on the drying rack as a sneak peek.  I could’ve gone in today to find out, but I didn’t.  I chose to write.


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