Getting Creative With Your Clothes

First of all, thank you for all of the comments on my last post. I was so happy to read that so many of you find sewing to be such a help. I’m a real believer in the fact that any activity can be turned into an opportunity to practice self-care. Even something as simple as brushing your teeth can be a chance for some mindfulness meditation. So it’s no wonder that something as creative and involved as sewing can provide such a wonderful avenue for managing our day-to-day struggles. Sewing gives us boundless opportunities to pour ourselves into creating beautiful clothes. And there is so much that we can do give them that extra special edge.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about learning to sew has been the ability to make my clothes a truly individual creation. When I’m working with any pattern, one of the first things I do is try to come up with ways that I can make the garment totally personal to me. This extra level of creativity is, to me, one of the most important ways in which I connect to sewing as an activity that really lifts me out of the doldrums. And over the course of the past two years, I’ve come up with a few go-to ways to add that extra bit of quirkiness to my makes. In the name of both creativity and self-care, I wanted to share some of them with you today. So here is a list of my favourite ways to get super creative with my makes:

1. Highlight Shapes and Break Up Busyness with Piping

My first foray into piping was for the Big Vintage Sew-Along last year. I’d never thought about using piping before but the shape of my chosen pattern was just screaming for something additional.

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The dress’ front panels are perhaps the most interesting thing about the garment. To make the whole thing in one fabric would essentially hide this detail. Sewing some piping into these front panels ensured that the shape was one the first things you notice when looking at the dress. Plus it gave me an opportunity to really develop my colour palette. I was keen to replicate the sailor-esque colours that were so popular during the 1930s. Paired with the white buttons and blue crepe fabric, the red piping really hammered home the authentic 1930s look that I was shooting for.

Piping is also a super effective way to get creative when trying simply to break up a busy garment. I had this problem when I was sewing up the Simplicity 1221 vintage apron. I had chosen a really beautiful fabric that I was super keen to use. I also knew that I wanted to make the version of the apron that had big ruffles attached to the sleeves. All-in-all this promised to turn out an overly busy creation where the details were lost to the distracting fabric.

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The way that I contended with this was a return to my trusty piping method! I attached some white piping in between the front panel and the ruffled straps. This super simple addition served to give the eye a bit of a break from the dots, flowers, and strawberries.

Piping is definitely one of my favourite methods for really getting creative with patterns. It’s simple to do and always looks super effective. Not to mention, everyone will be super impressed with your skills!

2. Choose an Extra Interesting Lining

I honestly hate attaching lining so much. It really is the worst thing. I’m working with lining on my Cocktail Hour project and it is seriously horrible. Somehow I always have issues getting the lining to match up with the shell fabric correctly. Just about the only time it has gone right for me was with the Beignet Skirt. This skirt was one of my first makes, inspired solely by the fabulous fabric I found to use as the lining.

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I discovered this William Morris fabric in my local fabric shop while I was living in Colchester, and I was honestly blown away by it. Looking at it, I knew that it would be too busy as an actual garment (although I’m sure there are a lot of people who could actually pull it off!). But as a lining, how perfect! I remember posting this make and getting comments about why I would hide away such a fabulous fabric. But, honestly, it never even occurred to me that I was hiding it. As far as I was concerned, I knew that it was there. And this extra secret detail was exactly the sort of thing that made sewing such a perfect creative outlet for me!

I’ve hoarded the remnants of this particular fabric ever since and recently used it on my Tyyni trousers as another cute hidden curiosity!

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So if you’re looking for a seriously easy way to give your garment that extra bit of quirkiness and you have lining or pocket opportunities, definitely think about fabric choice. It’s your chance to go a bit crazy and use that gorgeous fabric that you weren’t quite sure what to do with!

3. Experiment with Colour-Blocking

I’ve only just started working with the potentials of colour-blocking (and I’m not even sure that my approach really counts). When I picked up my amazing Harry Potter fabric, I was pretty well settled on having a go at making the Zadie dress from Tilly and the Buttons. One of the best things about this pattern is the neat use of shapes. As with the Big Vintage Sew-Along dress, I knew that the shape would get lost in using the same fabric for the whole garment. But, since the Zadie dress demands knit fabric, piping wouldn’t really be an option. So I set about finding a plain fabric that would complement my fabulous Harry Potter knit.

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This dress still isn’t finished due to various construction issues. But I love the black fabric against the mustard yellow. Once again, it stops the garment from looking too busy, while also drawing the eye to the shapes. Not to mention that it is yet another way to achieve that additional level of creativity with a pattern. There’s something incredibly satisfying about looking at a pattern and thinking up ways to make it even more interesting! I’d be super interested to see any examples you have of using colour-blocking. This is something that I’ve only just started to think about – and I do struggle a bit with knowing whether or not colours really fit together. So I’m always looking to you fabulous sewists for inspiration!

4. Work with Patches

This discovery was very much a happy accident. If you were following the blog back in spring, you’ll remember that I was working away on the muslin for my wedding dress. This project, more than any other, really honed my skills when it came to achieving perfect fit. Unfortunately, at the very end of the project (I was literally trimming down the back seam as a final step), I accidentally cut through the main fabric on the back of the dress. This left a massive hole right in the centre-back.

Needless to say, many tears and much sadness followed. But then a thought occurred to me. Why not just patch it?! Since it was a pre-wedding dress make in navy blue – with white polka dots – I figured that dotting some red heart patches around the dress would be a fabulously appropriate addition. I was honestly terrified that it would make the dress look super kitschy but it ended up working perfectly!

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I’ve become such an advocate of cute patches. And they were super easy to make. I simply drew some heart shapes onto paper (for a more complex shape, you might want to find a template online), attached them to the fabric and cut out the number I wanted. I attached iron-on interfacing to them in order to stop fraying and then top-stitched them onto the dress. The whole process took me about an hour and I honestly couldn’t imagine the dress without them!

I haven’t seen a lot of use of patches out there. So, once again, let me know if you’ve used any in the past. One of the great things about using patches is that there are so many available to buy online! The hardest part is deciding where they might be appropriate to use. So if you have any inspiration to provide, please send it my way!


So there we go. Some quick and (relatively easy) tips for kickstarting your creativity. For me, this goes hand-in-hand with last week’s post about sewing for self-care. While making the pattern as written is still a super joyful process, I honestly get most involved in finding ways to add a truly personal touch to my makes. Not only is it the perfect method for developing your sewing skills, it is also a great reminder of how fantastically creative you are. Happy accident or purposeful decision, be brave and take a chance!

If you have any of your own tips to share, please leave a comment or send me an email. I’m always looking for new techniques to try out!

 

My Vintage Life: Bradshaw Crandell And The Evolution Of Pin-Up Art

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Happy Friday, love bugs! I hope that you are enjoying the last few days of April. Things are action stations for me right now, trying to sort out my visa so that I can finally head over to my fiancé in the US. It’s all starting to move at long last, which is great! Although this means that I really need to step up the pace on my wedding dress making. I finally got around to taking the photos of my muslin yesterday so watch out for those next week!

Anyway, on to this week’s instalment of My Vintage Life. Since starting Sew for Victory, I often get asked about my sources of inspiration. For anyone who enjoys or admires vintage style, inspiration really is key. I tend to spend a lot of time perusing photos on the internet and watching classic films as easy ways to increase my exposure to a wide variety of vintage fashions. But, for me, probably the most effective way to obtain inspiration is looking through genuine vintage magazines. I’ve collected quite a few over the past 18 months and they provide not only an insight into the every day lives and priorities of women living in decades past, but also a mine of pictures and illustrations that offer a clear portrait of popular fashion choices. The portraits used in, or on the cover of, vintage magazines particularly intrigue me. I’ve always wondered at the stylistic choices made – why a particular cover star has been featured, why the fashion selection has been made, why this or that pose has been chosen. For any popular magazine, such choices are always purposeful.

As I started to dig around for more information, I came across the name Bradshaw Crandell. Crandell was perhaps the most successful magazine cover artist through the 1930s and 1940s, working with an incredible array of Hollywood’s most elite stars to capture their image. His work is pretty astounding and I think taps into what was going on with popular culture at the time. Although Crandell didn’t typically work in what we would identify as the pin-up style (more about this below), I can’t escape the feeling that there are some fairly major overlaps between his art and the proliferation of a pin-up culture. So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and a look at Bradshaw Crandell’s life, legacy, his contribution to the evolution of pin-up art.


 

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John Bradshaw Crandell was born in 1896, in what is identified as the Golden Age of Illustration. This period (late 1800s to early 1900s) was a period of incredible productivity and achievement in book and magazine illustrations, largely a consequence of new technologies that allowed for the cheap, mass reproduction of images. These developments were capitalised upon by professional artists, looking to make a name for themselves in the production of magazine or postcard illustrations for popular consumption. Raphael Kirchner, an Austrian artist, was particularly successful in exploiting the Golden Age with the production of what can be identified as early pin-up postcards and magazine illustrations. His relatively sexualised images of beautiful women were incredibly popular and, as World War I began, particularly favoured by soldiers.

Crandell was very much part of the legacy left by illustrators such as Kirchner. His aptitude for art was recognised early, although he failed to graduate from both Chicago’s School of Art Institute and Wesleyan University. But he never stopped being a student of his craft – he worked relentlessly at the fundamentals and could not abide inaccurate or careless work. This dedication to hard work undoubtedly served Crandell well as he moved forward in his career and, eventually, once he had attained true celebrity status.

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Lana Turner by Bradshaw Crandell (1943)

Crandell’s career truly began in 1921, after he was contracted to create a cover for Judge magazine. Although he had previously been hired to provide illustrations for a Lorraine Hairnets ad, it was his work for Judge that served as a launching pad for his unprecedentedly successful career. In 1925, Crandell created the John Bradshaw Crandell studios but, by 1935, had decided to drop his first name. The new Bradshaw Crandell went on to produce some of the era’s most famous magazine illustrations – including cover portraits featuring Hollywood stars such as Lana Turner (pictured above), Rita Hayworth, and Bette Davis. At the time of World War II, Crandell also turned his hand to producing ads for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and Pontiac, amongst others.

By the end of the 1940s, Crandell was virtually a household name. His celebrity portraits, in particular, made him a popular figure – so much so that he was used in an advert for Lord Calvert Whiskey. Crandell died in 1966 but his work is very much remembered – He was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2006.

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Bradshaw Crandell’s Ad for the Women’s Army Corps (1943)

The appeal of Crandell’s work is so interesting to consider. Disclaimer: I know very little about art from an artist’s standpoint. I can’t paint and I’ve never studied art. But it seems to me that Crandell’s portraits and his legacy are not deemed exceptional purely on the basis of his (considerable) talent. Clearly – even to the uninformed among us – he has some serious artistic abilities. What’s interesting to me, however, is thinking about the extent to which Crandell’s legacy exists because of the social and cultural dynamics at play while he was producing his portraits. Essentially: was Crandell just in the right place at the right time?

Crandell is not typically remembered as a pin-up artist. Pin-up art is traditionally identified as portraits or pictures of women that are sexualised (but not pornographic) or incorporate a degree of (usually not so subtle) eroticism. The resurgence of pin-up photography as a contemporary phenomenon means that pretty much everyone can conjure a mental image of what we mean by pin-up art. Little of Crandell’s work portrayed his subjects in this traditional pin-up manner. But he walked a line between the overt eroticism that we now identify with the term ‘pin-up art’ and pictures that, while sexy in their own way, would’ve been acceptable to a more traditional female audience. The origins of the term ‘pin-up’ are enough to inform us of the typical audience for the more sexualised pin-up portraits and illustrations – these were designed as pictures for men to literally ‘pin up’ on their walls, made acceptable by the fact that they were not pornographic but still appealing in their sexual content. The women portrayed in these pictures were sometimes celebrities, sometimes unknown and unnamed girls. Crandell provided a different kind of pin-up to the world.

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Rita Hayworth in The Loves of Carmen by Bradshaw Crandell

What’s truly interesting about Crandell’s work is the manner in which he provides a sort of pin-up that crosses gender lines. With his portraits, Crandell was able to appeal to both the soldiers on the front lines – men who wanted pin-ups of their favourite movie stars – and the women left back at home. When looking at his portrait of Rita Hayworth, for example, her curves and beauty – very much accentuated by Crandell – clearly appeal to a more stereotypically pin-up culture. But Hayworth’s obvious vivacity, and the lack of an overt eroticism in the picture, would make this an appealingly aspirational portrait for women.

While Crandell did occasionally work in a more traditionally erotic pin-up style (see his portrait of Liberty, below), the fact that he is remembered for his celebrity portraits speaks to his success at seizing on the characteristics that made pin-up art so popular and making it his own.

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Spirit of Liberty by Bradshaw Crandell (1940)

I highly recommend taking some time to browse Crandell’s portraits. You’ll end up with a very clear picture of his incredible talent and the way in which he managed to simultaneously defy and subscribe to the pin-up style that dominated popular portraiture during the period. His celebrity portraits provide images that are aspirational in a way that dramatically increased his popular appeal – sexually aspirational for male consumers and providing a type of aesthetical and social aspiration for female consumers. Although the more overtly erotic style of pin-up art would continue to enjoy cultural supremacy, Crandell’s legacy very clearly continues. When we look at the types of celebrity images we often see plastering magazines today, they walk a very similar line to Crandell’s portraits – not alienating in their sexuality but simultaneously aspirational across gender boundaries. It is the ability to obtain this type of popular appeal that can make or break a celebrity and Bradshaw Crandell’s work shows just how successfully images can be used to offer a broad and multifaceted audience exactly what it wants.

My Vintage Life: Lux Radio Theatre

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Thank you all so much for the response to last week’s post on Norma Shearer and pre-Code Hollywood, as well as the introduction of My Vintage Life. It’s been a big week on Sew for Victory with this, plus the launch of the Sew for Victory Book Club. Your comments and support has been fantastic and I’m happy to know that you’re enjoying these new features!

I’ve had an incredibly busy week sewing-wise. On top of finishing the muslin for my wedding dress, I’ve now completed my version of the Baltimore Dress from Decades of Style – I’m planning on posting pictures of the muslin next week and a post about the Baltimore Dress should follow relatively soon after that! One of my secrets to productive sewing is having something great to listen to. An interesting podcast will usually motivate me to get to the sewing table, even when I’m really feeling a loss of motivation. It was on a hunt for something new to enjoy that I came across recordings of the Lux Radio Theatre. I had never heard of this grand radio production that ran from the mid-1930s through to the mid-1950s – this is particularly surprising given that recordings of the programmes are easily accessible online. I started working my way through the recordings and could not escape the feeling that such an incredible treasure trove needed to be talked about! So it’s to the story of the Lux Radio Theatre that we now turn…


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For those living in the 1930s and 1940s, radio provided an essential source of entertainment and information. It’s difficult to imagine, in our era of unprecedented technology, that there was a time when even radio was a luxury. In 1921, there were just five licensed broadcasting stations across the entire US. By 1924, this had increased massively to 500. A similar pattern shows the dramatic growth of radio ownership among American households, increasing from 40 percent in 1930 to 83 percent in 1940. Other than trips to the cinema, radio was everything in the way of entertainment. Comedies, dramas, musical performances – all were broadcast via radio to households across the US. Given these figures, it was perhaps natural that someone would seek to exploit the opportunity to bring together America’s two primary forms of entertainment – radio and film.

The Lux Radio Theatre began broadcasting on 14 October 1934, as one of the most ambitious radio productions in history. The project was a conceptualisation of the Lever Brothers, makers of Lux Soap, who sponsored the programmes for the duration of its production through to 1955 (if you listen to the productions, trust me when I say that you will hear more than you ever could have hoped to about soap and complexions). The show was a weekly hour-long radio broadcast, initially created with the purpose of adapting successful Broadway plays for radio. Each week, actors and actresses would perform these adaptations live in New York before a studio audience, broadcast via radio to – at the show’s peak – an estimated 40 million listeners. During the first two seasons of the show, a number of great Broadway plays were adapted – including Smilin’ Through Berkeley Square and Way Down East.

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The first two year’s of Lux Radio Theatre productions proved a remarkable success – a success upon which the show’s producers and sponsors were determined to capitalise. They decided to broaden the scope of the programme – and widen its audience – by relocating the entire production to Hollywood and, rather than adapt Broadway plays, produce adaptations of successful Hollywood films. From here, incredible success was almost inevitable. On 25 May 1936, the Lux Radio Theatre presented its first programme from its new base in Hollywood, with an adaptation of The Legionnaire and the Lady (based on the film Morocco), starring Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable. Listening to this first adaptation, it is easy to feel why the production was a remarkable coup for all involved. The listener is given the opportunity to hear the most famous Hollywood stars acting live in a condensed and radio-appropriate version of an incredibly successful film. There’s the odd fumbling of words from the actors but this just adds to the sense of being right there, watching these performers do what they do best. Nothing like this had been done before and, in my opinion, modern radio productions would struggle to evoke the same effect on their listeners.

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Cecil B. DeMille

A large part of the Lux Radio Theatre’s success is undoubtedly owed to its long-time host – Cecil B. DeMille. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s worth going and doing a little digging. DeMille was perhaps one of the most interesting figures to work during the period we term ‘classic Hollywood’. He was an incredibly prestigious film maker and is often created as being the founder of American cinema. Lux Radio Theatre brought him on as host when they moved to Hollywood and he stayed with the production for almost a decade. As a man who would’ve been known to almost every movie-going American in the 1930s, DeMille added a definite level of authenticity to the production. When you listen to the episodes that he hosts, he often drops in anecdotes or converses with individuals with whom he has previously worked. At the end of The Legionnaire and The Lady, for example, DeMille introduces Clark Gable with this story:

Host: And now– And now a word about a certain young actor before he steps out on the stage. I want to tell you a little story of him. When I was casting “Madam Satan” six or seven years ago, I was looking for a villain. Somebody had given my script girl a screen test of a young man and she kept dinging the life out of me to see it. I asked her if he was a villain, and she said she thought he could do anything. Eh, so I looked at it and decided he was not a villain, but that he had definite possibilities. So I showed it to the other executives at the studio. When I asked them about the young man a day or so later, they said he never could succeed in pictures. I asked why not. They said, “His ears are too big.” … But evidently– Evidently, those ears were no obstacle to the triumph of Clark Gable.

These types of stories – with which every production is dotted – fantastically heighten the sense that you are listening to the ‘real’ Hollywood – hearing from those figures that stand at the very heart of this flashy, gaudy, and impenetrable metropolis of fame and fortune.

Over the course of its production, the Lux Radio Theatre adapted some of the best known Hollywood films and employed the most famous personalities in starring roles. Mostly, productions attempted to retain the original cast unless the stars were totally unavailable. In many instances, the production of films would be halted temporarily by the studios in order for the stars to be available for recordings of Lux Radio Theatre. Stars such as Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant, all starred at various points in Lux Radio Theatre productions. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. For many of these stars, however, appearing in the radio adaptations was no simple matter. To actors used to multiple takes for any one scene, the idea of acting live with no second chances was incredibly intimidating. However, the offer of $5000 for an appearance often quelled the fears. In addition, these radio productions offered an opportunity to promote any upcoming projects.

One of my favourite parts of the episode is right at the end, when the main stars of the adaptation come out to speak with the host. There’s typically a bit of back and forth conversation, sometimes a song if one of the stars is a singer, and a promotion of future films. Although these interactions are always scripted – and typically feel so – there’s something truly endearing about them. At the end of the adaptation of Burlesque, for instance, stars Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler talk with Cecil B. DeMille. Although this takes up perhaps just five minutes of the whole episode, it’s incredibly heartwarming listening to this husband and wife acting partnership interact with one another. This, more than anything, truly does give the sense that the listener is somehow penetrating those barriers traditional perceived to stand around Hollywood and its best and brightest.

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That fact that we have access to the recordings of every production of Lux Radio Theatre is incredibly fortunate. The archive of episodes provides potentially days of entertainment for those interested in classic Hollywood or classic radio productions. I can’t quite put across how impactful it is, for someone who is fascinated by the 1930s-1940s Hollywood era, to listen to these live recordings of radio adaptations based on Hollywood’s greatest triumphs. One of the biggest difficulties when researching those periods that we associate with the word ‘vintage’ is, I think, attempting to humanise and bring life to the people and events that we read about. Even watching classic films fails to bring this humanity – as with any actor who does a half decent job, the portrayal of a character on screen will always serve as a kind of wall between the audience and the person behind the actions and words. I read a lot of biographies with the explicit purpose of attempting to understand more of the ‘real’ Hollywood or the ‘real’ actors. The Lux Radio Theatre productions offer a different way of bringing some humanity to these people whose names we all know. The fumbling of words, the demonstrable nerves, and the genuine real-life moments that pervade almost all of the productions shine a new kind of light on the Hollywood of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.


If you want to listen to the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts for yourself (which you absolutely should!), they are available via public domain from a number of sources. I have been listening via this archive.

 

 

 

My Vintage Life: Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood

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Welcome to my new weekly post series – My Vintage Life! I’ve been deliberating for a while about how to streamline my vintage lifestyle posts and create something that is a predictable – but hopefully still super interesting – weekly feature. That’s where My Vintage Life comes in! This will be where I post about a whole range of topics related to vintage lifestyle, fashion, and history. I work hard outside of Sew for Victory to remain constantly learning – through podcasts, books, films, and anything I can get my hands on. To me, wearing vintage style is totally connected to a passion for the bigger ‘vintage’ picture. It’s impossible to separate the popular fashion of previous eras from the larger social and cultural dynamics at work – the interplay between all of these different bits and pieces of history is something that I find hugely interesting and love to talk about when I get the opportunity.

I’m hoping that My Vintage Life can serve as a place to write about all things vintage-related. Fingers crossed that these posts will spark an interest in you and perhaps send you into a Google hole for a while! If you have any suggestions for future posts – perhaps a film you’ve watched or a vintage icon you love – please shoot me an email or leave a comment. Alternatively, post on Instagram or Twitter using #myvintagelife and @sewforvictoryuk and I’ll be sure to see you pics!

Anyway, enough of introductions! This first post is dedicated to one of my current fascinations – Norma Shearer and Pre-Code Hollywood.


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Norma Shearer was, in many ways, the quintessential classic Hollywood actress. Beautiful, chic, and – at least in her later films – quietly seductive. She was born in 1902 and entered the film industry in the middle of the Roaring ’20s, while silent cinema still dominated. After a shaky start in the industry, Shearer worked hard to improve on her acting skills and accelerated to stardom following MGMs first official film production, He Who Gets Slapped. With the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the entire Hollywood film industry underwent a dramatic shift. Talkies became the new standard and a number of incredibly high profile silent stars struggled with the transition (Marion Davies, for example, who was plagued by a childhood stutter). An aside: if you’re interested in this particular period in Hollywood, definitely watch (or re-watch for the millionth time) ‘Singin’ In The Rain‘. I think it actually does a wonderful job of giving some insight into the high anxiety that talkies brought for both studios and performers. Plus, there’s Gene Kelly and a whole lot of dancing. Norma Shearer shifted to talkies with ease. In fact, it was in the early years of talking films that she made what I would argue are some of her best films.

Up until the introduction of the Hays Code (officially called the Motion Picture Production Code) in 1934, Hollywood was pretty well unregulated with regards to censorship. Local laws attempted to put some restrictions on the types of content that films could include, but it was relatively easy for studios to ignore these regulations without consequence. Between 1929 (when sound pictures became the relative norm) and 1934, this relaxed attitude to censorship was embraced by Hollywood which, in turn, churned out a number of films that included profanity, sex, and violence (although all of these films would seem pretty tame in comparison to what we see on screen today).  This was the period during which Norma Shearer came into her own as an actress portraying promiscuous and sexually liberated women. Her 1930 film The Divorcee is, in my opinion, her best. She is endearing, spirited, and incredibly convincing as a woman who discovers that her husband has had an affair. Her character counters her husband’s infidelity by sleeping with his best friend and, following their divorce, proceeds to really live it up with whole lot of partying and sex. It’s a fantastic film – not least because it is not a film that you would expect to come out of 1930s America. Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress as a result of her performance.

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The Divorcee (1930)

Another amazing pre-Code film starring Shearer is A Free Soul. She stars alongside both Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore and – again, in my opinion – totally outdoes both of them (although Barrymore won an Academy Award for his role and Gable’s performance is largely credited to have put his star on the rise). With regards to Shearer’s role, the clue is very much in the title. She plays another sexually liberated woman who gets involved with a gangster (Gable) – a gangster who her lawyer father has successfully defended in trial. The film doesn’t have the power of The Divorcee (perhaps because all of the mobster stuff just removes it from reality, while The Divorcee feels very rooted in real world emotion and reactions) but it’s still a fantastic watch. Not to mention it is a mine of inspiration for anyone interested in some beautiful 1930s women’s fashion!

For those feminists among us (hopefully everyone reading this), things take something of a downward turn after the introduction of the Hays Code. The Code was created as a response to both the uncensored nature of many Hollywood films and a number of scandals that had plagued Hollywood off-screen – the rape, and subsequent death, of Virginia Rappe and the implication of acclaimed actor Fatty Arbuckle in the crime was perhaps the most notable scandal. The Code introduced a strict set of ethical criteria that all films must follow. Among these were prohibitions of “pointed profanity…this includes the words ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Jesus…,” “any inference of sex perversion,” and “any licentious or suggestive nudity.” The Production Code Administration enforced the Hays Code strictly and Norma Shearer’s film roles began to reflect the censorship that now dominated Hollywood productions.

That’s not to say that she didn’t make some great films. She received critical acclaim for the performances in many of her films and was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award six times in total – two of these nominations, for Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette, came after the enforcement of the Code. But where Shearer had dominated films as the sexually liberated ingenue during the pre-Code period, she was now consigned to playing somewhat more subdued and conventional female roles. The best example of this is her character in The Women (1939). Let me begin by saying that I adore this film. It’s one of my favourites. An all female cast including Joan Crawford – what could be better? If you are able to overlook the fact that literally (and I’m using that word in the correct sense) every conversation is about men, it’s a fantastically progressive film for its time.

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The Women (1939)

It’s actually through The Women that I developed an interest in Norma Shearer. I came to the film after listening to the You Must Remember This podcast series on Joan Crawford (if you haven’t listened to it, you must!). Joan Crawford undoubtedly steals the show in this film. But, looking around for more information, I was amazed to read about Norma Shearer’s cinematic history. In The Women, Shearer plays another wronged wife. Rather than seize her independence in the face of her husband’s pretty shameless infidelity, however, Shearer’s character seems to limp reluctantly towards a divorce. It feels as though the divorce is a consequence of her twisted sense of loyalty (that she must allow her husband to make his choice and give him the freedom to pursue his affair in the hope that he’ll end up coming back to her), rather than a purposeful decision to move forward as her own person. The fact that every scene in the film revolves around the situation between Shearer’s character and her husband only adds to the sense that she is playing subordinate to his will and desires the whole way through. In contrast, Joan Crawford’s character is powerful, ruthless, and awful. But she reflects far more of Shearer’s pre-Code roles than anything subsequent to the enforcement of the Hays Code. And Joan Crawford’s character is by far the most memorable and interesting part of The Women.

I think Norma Shearer is easily one of the most fascinating figures from the period that we’re talking about when we mention ‘classic Hollywood’. But what’s most interesting about her is how dramatically her story represents the shifts that Hollywood went through during the 1920s and 1930s. She saw out the transition from silent films to talkies and continued to make her own successes as Hollywood moved from the pre-Code to the post-Code era. When you watch her films, you’ll see that her talent speaks for itself. But it’s difficult to work through her filmography without feeling that something dramatic was lost after 1934. This is a woman who best dominated the screen when handed the complicated characters – women with obscure motives and muddy pasts, whose men were generally secondary to some bigger picture or larger determination to be free. These types of female characters didn’t disappear completely – Joan Crawford in The Women is a great example. But it took a while for such complex and (at the time) controversial women to once again assume the role of heroine.


If you’re interested in learning more about Norma Shearer or pre-Code Hollywood, there are a number of places that you can look. I’d definitely recommend working through her filmography but, in addition, make sure to check out Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle. It’s a great survey of pre-Code Hollywood in general but it gives special focus to Norma Shearer. Gavin Lambert’s Norma Shearer: A Biography is also a great read!

Check back in next Friday for another My Vintage Life. And remember to direct any suggestions for future posts my way – @sewforvictoryuk on Instagram and Twitter or email me: laura@sewforvictory.co.uk

Make Your Own Shoulder Pads: Tutorial

Happy Wednesday, sweet peas!

I thought that I would take a break from working on my newest sewing projects to write up a short tutorial on how to make the queen of all retro garment features – shoulder pads! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that shoulder pads live and die with ’80s fashion. Journey back a few more decades and shoulder pads were all the rage, as evidenced by my recent Big Vintage Sew-along make. V9127 was, in fact, my first run-in with real life shoulder pads and, despite my fears that they would give me an American football player vibe, they elevated the 1930s silhouette to a totally new level of authenticity. And, believe it or not, they are so easy to make from scratch.

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I worked with a pattern provided through V9127. But after measuring up and reading through my various sewing manuals, I’ve managed to condense the process into a few simple steps that should be workable for any garment.

What You Need:

  • Cotton Batting – I got a pack of 45″ x 60″ from Sew Essential which worked perfectly.
  • Lining Material
  • Thread and an embroidery needle

1. Measure Your Seams and Make Your Pattern

The key measurement that you’ll need for this project is the length of your shoulder seam – from neck to arm hole. You’ll want to take about half an inch off of this measurement as the total width of your shoulder pad (so, if your shoulder seam is 4.5 inches, you’ll be working towards a 4 inch wide shoulder pad).

Once you have this measurement, you’ll need to construct your pattern pieces. The first thing you’ll need is a circular base – draw a circle that is twice the length of your intended shoulder pad width (so, using the measurements above, your circle would have a diameter of 8 inches, and a radius of 4 inches).

Now for the confusing bit. You will need 4 semi-circles of decreasing size, with the first the same diameter and radius as the circle you’ve already made. The next three will be 1 inch smaller in diameter (essentially taking 0.5 inches off of either side of the diameter – when we place the pieces together, you’ll see the importance) and 0.5 inch smaller in radius than the previous.

So working with the above measurements, your first (and largest) semi-circle would have an 8 inch diameter and 4 inch radius. Your next largest would have a 7 inch diameter and a 3.5 inch radius. Your next semi-circle would have a 6 inch diameter and a 3 inch radius. And your final, smallest semi-circle would have a 5 inch diameter and a 2.5 inch radius.

Ultimately, you should wind up with a set of pattern pieces that looks something like this:

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2. Cut Everything Out

Pop your pattern pieces on the cotton batting and cut out. Remember that you’ll need two of each piece, since you’ll (hopefully) be making two shoulder pads!

You’ll also need to cut out two pieces of lining fabric that you will use to cover your shoulder pad. You can use the large circular pattern piece to do this but will want to make these pieces of fabric a little bigger than the base piece. This is because the lining will need to cover the shoulder pad and be stitched down (so essentially, you need a seam allowance) – I would suggest adding about 0.5 inch total to the diameter of the circle for this purpose.

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3. Pin Your Pieces Together

This is super easy. Start with the circle as your base. And proceed to place each semi-circle along the diameter of this circle, lining them up so that they are stacked pretty centrally. You’re basically constructing a tower out of your pieces. Once pinned in place, it should look something like this:

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4. Stitch The Pieces Together

You’ll need a thickish needle and any spare thread that you have lying around. Then work your way around the outer-edge of each semi-circle, stitching it down to those underneath. You can use any kind of stitch that works for you, as long as it’s secure. I used a basic cross stitch.

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5. Fold And Cover

Now you need to fold the loose half of the circle over and place the padding on top of you lining fabric, ready for stitching.

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6. Machine Stitch The Lining Over The Padding

Fold the lining over the top of the padding and pin down. You’ll then need to stitch around the edge, keeping nice and close to the padding, using whatever seam allowance you gave yourself when cutting out the lining fabric. I would suggest doing an additional line of stitching close to the edge of the seam allowance, for extra security. You could also use a bias binding on this outer edge if you’re concerned about fraying.

The finished product should look like a cornish pasty!

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7. Insert Into Your Garment

Place the shoulder pad along your shoulder seam so that the width of the pad runs centrally along the seam. You can then hand stitch along the seam, securing the shoulder pad in place, and keeping the stitches invisible by using the ditch that already exists. It’s also a good idea to tack the corners down somewhere – this will depend upon the shape of the garment, but tacking to the armholes is a good method. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t want to do this, it’ll just mean rummaging inside your dress/jacket when you put it on so that you can get the shoulder pads in the right place.

8. Be Bold, Bright, and Very Boxy!

Wooohooo! You’re done! And now you can rock that vintage style with appropriately square shoulders. Enjoy!

Big Vintage Sew-along: My Make

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The day is finally here. After many hours of plotting, planning, and making, I can actually reveal my make for the Big Vintage Sew-along! Presenting my version of Vogue 9127:

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When browsing the selection of patterns for the Big Vintage Sew-along, this 1939 design immediately struck me as the most interesting and unique. I adored the structure of the garment and the fabulous panelling. Although I anticipated that this might be quite a complex make, I figured that it would give me a valuable opportunity to learn some new skills and put my own twist on the pattern.

I knew immediately that I wanted to make this pattern in a way that emphasised the unique shape of the dress. The examples provided by the drawings on the pattern sleeve and the photos on the website were all made up in one colour – although beautiful, this approach makes it difficult to see the fabulous design of the panels. I decided straight away that I wanted to have a go at using a contrast piping down the seams to really play with the shape. And I thought a sailor vibe with the colours would really give the dress a little extra va-va-voom.

Although adding the piping was pretty complex (the panels are sewn overlapping, rather than with traditional seams), it was worth the extra effort. Not only does it really elevate the dress to a truly unique piece, I think it successfully shows off those swerves and curves. I totally adore it. And I selected exactly the right fabrics, with both main fabric and piping fabric from Sew Over It’s collection of crepes (in this case, navy blue and red).

I added some extra contrast details to pull the piece together, using notions kindly provided by Sew Essential. The white buttons really bring home the sailor theme – emphasised by the fabulous 1930s dress gloves that I found in a vintage charity shop. I also put in a red zip to tie in with the piping. The pattern comes with a couple of options for belting – I opted to go with a sewn-in belt, so that I could cinch my waist. I found that doing this and piping the panel at the top of my back gave the dress added impact when viewed from behind.

One thing I loved about this pattern was the feeling of authenticity. Instead of a zip, the pattern gives an opportunity to use hook-and-eyes. I also got to make my own shoulder pads for the first time ever (a tutorial on this will be coming soon). I was a little concerned that the shoulder pads would make the dress look too boxy but, in the end, they gave the dress a truly 1930s silhouette. Delicious!

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My experience with this pattern had its ups and downs. I’ve only been sewing for about a year, so I’m still finding that every new pattern introduces me to skills that I haven’t yet developed. This pattern threw A LOT of new skills at me – added to which I’d already decided to take a chance with the piping. Fitting the panels together and making the front pieces symmetrical was a challenge. But I found that taking a slow and steady approach really benefitted me and allowed me to keep the patience needed to turn the piece into something great. There was nothing here that totally exceeded my abilities and ultimately the pattern turned out a gorgeously authentic 1930s dress that gives me a huge amount of pride.

I would absolutely recommend this pattern to anyone wanting to get involved with the Big Vintage Sew-along. In addition to contributing to a wonderful cause (pattern profits go to The Eve Appeal), this dress gives a real feel for vintage style. While I would caution beginners to take this piece slowly, it is well worth the extra time and effort required to develop the needed skills. So take this pattern, get creative, and venture into the 1930s!

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Inspire a Style: Gene Kelly

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Since starting Sew for Victory, one of the most consistent questions I get is about the origins of my love of vintage style. Obviously the word ‘vintage’ means different things to different people. For me, it’s representative of various eras – although the 1940s is where I find most of my inspiration. One thing I consistently associate with the idea of ‘vintage’ as a style and a lifestyle are the classic films that brought me to a love for these periods long past. Of all the stars in all the films, it is Gene Kelly who taught me that 1940s Hollywood isn’t something that has to remain solely on my TV.

Who?

Many of you will already be well acquainted with Gene Kelly. Born Eugene Curran Kelly in 1912, Gene was not originally destined to grace Hollywood with his incredible dancing and acting skills. He studied economics and law at university, eventually dropping out to teach dance and work as an entertainer. After a stint on the stage, it wasn’t until 1941 that Gene gained a contract with Hollywood giant MGM. His first starring role was alongside Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal. From here, he eased into a lucrative film career, perhaps best known for his roles in An American in Paris (1951) and  Singin’ In The Rain (1952).

Gene’s incredible dancing skills – putting him up alongside Fred Astaire as one of the greatest dancers in Hollywood – and his easy charm turned him into a Hollywood legend. His athleticism is absolutely clear to anyone who watches his films. As the era of Hollywood musicals faded so too did Gene’s career at the heart of the film empire. But he had firmly embedded his name in the history of 20th century film. He died in 1996, aged 83.

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Why?

It is obviously a little out of left-field for me to pick a man as a style inspiration. One of the clearest principles of style from the 1940s – and other ‘vintage’ periods – is an obvious distinction between genders. However, we are now firmly in an era where these restrictions do not (and should not) apply. It is always a good idea to look outside of your conventional boxes and see what you might find!

To me, Gene Kelly is totally representative of the 1940s Hollywood fashion of the male film stars. Smart and refined, this is a style that is all about clean lines, high-waisted trousers, and accessories. The use of accessories by men (tie clips, bow ties, caps) has seen something of a resurgence over recent years, albeit by a select part of the population. When we look back to the male film stars of the 1940s, it becomes clear from where this resurgence finds its inspiration.

Beyond this, what I really love about Gene Kelly’s style is the fact that – even with its refinement and elegance – there is an easy-going fun that you can’t escape. Perhaps it is partly in the attitude of the characters he plays, or the fact that he can’t go five minutes without breaking into song and dance, but this is a style of almost lazy chicness. Gene Kelly is the epitome of ‘wear the clothes, don’t let them wear you’. And that fact is sufficient to warrant him a place as a true style inspiration.

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Gene Kelly in 1949 musical ‘On the Town’

What?

So where to start in replicating this style? Apart from whipping up your own tuxedo (no easy feat, I’m sure), there are a few key ways in which its possible to draw some direct inspiration from the gorgeous Gene Kelly.

One core part of Gene Kelly’s wardrobe is a blazer-style jacket. Made up in linen and paired with a waistcoat, this would be the perfect addition to any 1940s garment line-up. Burdastyle’s 01/2014 #125 blazer pattern is a wonderful example of a 1940s style blazer pattern, with a fabulous front chain fastening as an added vintage detail. If you decide to go this route, be sure to join Male Devon Sewing’s #blazerof2016 challenge and bring Gene Kelly’s fashion legacy fully into the modern age!

For waistcoats, you needn’t look further than Simplicity 4762 for a variety of options. If you have a penchant for knitting needles, you could go a step further and whip up a cashmere or wool slipover (also known as a sweater vest). Free Vintage Knitting provides a variety of vintage knitting patterns for men’s vests. Worn with a collared shirt and a pair of wide legged trousers, you really don’t get much more 1940s!

Finally, make sure to take a look at my bow tie tutorial for a quick and easy route to making up your own personalised bow ties. Bow ties are such an effective way to add that vintage style to any outfit and are definitely the fastest way to replicate Gene Kelly’s fabulous style with your own crafting skills.

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So whether you’re searching out this style for your fella or yourself, be sure to remember that everything should be done with a light touch and a light heart. Watch Singin’ In The Rain while you sew and I guarantee that lightness won’t be far beyond your reach.

“You dance love, and you dance joy, and you dance dreams. And I know if I can make you smile by jumping over a couple of couches or running through a rainstorm, then I’ll be very glad to be a song and dance man.”

– Gene Kelly (1912 – 1996)

Inspire A Style: Gene Tierney

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I’m back in the UK and, while I work on finally making progress with my Joan dress, I thought I would stop in with another instalment of Inspire A Style. This time featuring Gene Tierney, one of my favourite 1940s starlets!

Who?

Gene Tierney was an American actress who starred in a number of films throughout the 1940s, and into the ’50s. Acclaimed as one of Hollywood’s greatest beauties, she acted alongside a number of the most famous stars of the time – Humphrey Bogart, Ginger Rogers, and Spencer Tracy among them. Perhaps her most acclaimed role was as Laura in the film of the same name.

Gene Tierney is also known for the ups-and-downs of her personal life. Suffering from depression and ill-health, Tierney contemplated suicide in 1957. Her journey to overcome her mental health problems – as well as the story of her career – are documented in the amazing autobiography Self Portrait (highly recommended!).

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Why?

Gene Tierney is the epitome of 1940s glamour. Hollywood starlets of the era obviously had access to some of the most glorious garments and stylists. Other than her effortless beauty, it is this style that makes Tierney such an inspiration for anyone who wants to replicate this vintage style.

In many respects, then, Gene Tierney’s position as a fashion role-model is not the product of her personal style. But it is rather a consequence of her fortunate place at the helm of Hollywood. However, she is far from a one-dimensional personality. I think that her personal battles dictated her approach to her career, and this is something that will always inevitably flow over into other areas of life – including, in my view, style. Whether as a representation of inner battles, or as a superficial cover for them, there is always a story. And Gene Tierney perhaps best represents this fact.

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What?

Gene Tierney represents a lot of what I love about 1940s glamour. There is a certain simplicity to many of her looks, a simplicity that separates this era from those that followed. Simple, well-constructed gowns were the order of the day, paired with pearls or diamonds. Throw in some gorgeous bright reds and deep greens and this is a style that pretty much anyone can replicate. Gene Tierney is also someone to look to in attempting to replicate 1940s hairstyles. Perfect curls!

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So where can a seamstress look for patterns to replicate the Gene Tierney look? My first recommendation would undoubtedly be Decades of Style’s Belle Curve dress – to me, this totally epitomises the 1940s style and works perfectly for communicating some Hollywood glamour. I sported my version over Christmas and received endless compliments!

There’s also the glorious Doris dress from Eliza M Vintage. Worn strapless, and paired with a set of pearls, it would be perfect. I’ve made up patterns from Eliza M before, and they are so well constructed and easy to follow. Definitely recommended!

Finally, get yourself a set of heated rollers, pop your hair into some soft curls, and you’ll be ready to go! Gene Tierney in the 21st century! And I’m sure, once in this look, you will find yourself closer to the courage and determination that characterises her story.

“Life is like a little message in a bottle, to be carried by the winds and the tides.”

Gene Tierney (1920-1991)

Sew for Victory: A History

Happy Wednesday, lovely people!

While I continue working on my Beignet skirt (progress has slowed a little while I’ve been stuck in IT training), I thought I would take the opportunity to give you a little insight into history behind the blog name!

If it’s not already clear from the vintage-inspired style here, I LOVE history. I spent five summers working as a tour guide in a stately home and, even though my career life is totally unrelated, I’m still pretty much taken with all things historical. My decision to take up sewing was totally motivated by a desire to dictate my own style – inspired by the eras that I love and without reference to current fashions and trends. So, when starting this blog, I thought what better than to take a dip into one of my favourite periods – the 1940s – for name inspiration.

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The Sew for Victory campaign finds its origins in the Second World War, as part of America’s efforts to mobilise women to become involved in the war effort. It rings with similarities to campaigns here in the UK, like the famous ‘dig for victory’ efforts. For me, titling the blog in honour of this historical chapter has two purposes. The first is, clearly, to get across that this is a sewing blog, with a vintage theme. The other ties with my day job as a PhD Human Rights researcher. Sewing – as with other ‘domestic’ pursuits – has an aura of the problematic about it when it comes to talking about women’s rights and their advancement. Obviously, it’s tinged with the idea of domesticity, and reminds us of a time when women didn’t have a choice but to become specialists in these activities. As a feminist who also has an interest in these traditionally domestic interests (I LOVE to bake and knit #granny), I used to find it difficult to reconcile my love of the 1940s housewife image with my unwavering belief in gender equality. But what we, as modern sewers, do differently is make a choice. We’re empowered because it is our decision to be business women, or academics, or mothers, or sewers, or artists, or scientists. We choose. I choose to sew and bake because I love it. I choose to pursue an academic career in a male-dominated field because it is my right to do so. And if I choose to forgo that career to work full-time as a mother, that it also my choice.

There is no superior path. Only choices. The Sew for Victory campaign is a relic from a time when women didn’t have a choice – but they used the space they had to mark out territory in the wider world. They used the avenues open to them and pushed for more. And I want this blog to be a reminder to me that I owe my choices to those women. So, in that sense, I’m sewing in recognition of the victories won, but also the victories that we’re still waiting for.

Whether you’re reading this because you’re a sewer, non-sewer or my mother (hello Mama Clarke!), and whether you’re a woman or a man, you’re so so welcome here. I love this community and everything I’ve already learnt from it – in such a short space of time. So thank you all for being here, taking the time to read my musings on life, and sticking by my side while I sew for victory.

Love you all x