Costume Study Day at Smallhythe Place

Terry's Beetlewing Dress
Costume Study Day
One of the fascinating displays at National Trust property, Smallhythe Place in Kent, once the country retreat of actress, Ellen Terry.

I recently spent a fascinating day at National Trust Property, Smallhythe Place near Tenterden, Kent, participating in a Costume Day.

Smallhythe Place was the country retreat of actress, Ellen Terry, who lived from 1847-1928. Ellen was one of the first modern stars of the British stage, frequently acting alongside Henry Irving in a stage career which spanned sixty-four years.

The day began with a talk on Edward Godwin, who had a huge influence on Ellen, and whom she described as ‘the only man she ever loved’.  Godwin was an architect, designer and writer and through his association with Terry became interested in all aspects of theatre and designed many costumes for her.

Smallhythe Place houses one of the largest selections of 19th Century theatrical costume. One of the most interesting aspects of the day for me was how much work and care goes into ensuring that the costumes are preserved. We received a very interesting hands-on demonstration  which taught us how to fold and wrap vintage textiles, making and utilising acid-free tissue paper pads and rolls to support the garments and eliminate sharp creases. There was also an interesting talk on pest control – oh the horrors which those pesky critters can wreak!

Costume from Shakespeare's Cymbeline
Ellen Terry’s costume from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

We were given the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the costume store – heaven!! The dresses were stored flat in long, conservation boxes and were well wrapped in tissue, and the room was kept at a certain temperature at all times. We were able to observe a number of garments closely, including costumes from  Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and Ibsen’s ‘The Vikings’.  It was incredible how much detail was put into each costume – there were fine decorative techniques which would have been impossible for an audience to observe once the costumes were being worn on stage. There was also a fabulously well-preserved dress by Worth, which had been made for the actress Lillie Langtry.

Costume from Ibsen's The Vikings
Ellen Terry’s costume from Ibsen’s The Vikings.
Lillie Langtry's stunning dress from Worth
Lillie Langtry’s stunning dress from Worth.

After lunch, Veronica Isaac, Assistant Curator at the V&A, gave a lecture entitled ‘Highlights from the Wardrobe of ‘The Painter’s Actress’. This was a fascinating insight into the very colourful life of Ellen Terry. She was the daughter of travelling actors and had a very unconventional upbringing, beginning her stage career at nine years old when she played Mamilius in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. When she was sixteen, Ellen married the artist GF Watts, who was forty years her senior. The marriage broke down within the first year, and Ellen eloped with Edward Godwin, with whom she had two children. Watts refused to divorce Ellen and, as a result of the elopement she was estranged from her family. Godwin left Ellen after seven years following financial difficulties.

Ellen and Edward were both part of the aesthetic movement which celebrated beauty and art over more practical considerations. In terms of fashion the aesthetes rebelled against corsets and restrictive clothing, wearing looser garments which harked back to the fashions of the Regency period.  This is Ellen Terry’s Liberty Dress, which is made from silk and wool and features hand-embroidered tambour work  in colour tones which are in harmony with the aesthetic movement. The dress is on display in Smallhythe Place.

Liberty Dress
Ellen Terry’s Liberty dress.

In 1877 Watts finally agreed to divorce Ellen and she married the actor, Charles Kelly. The marriage lasted two years.  In 1878 Henry Irving made her his leading lady when he took over the lease of the Lyceum Theatre. With the Lyceum Theatre Company she toured the United States and Canada and remained working with Irving until 1902.

The last part of the day was a tour of Smallhythe Place itself.  The highlight of this for me was the opportunity to see the famous ‘Beetlewing dress’ which Ellen wore in 1888 as Lady Macbeth. This amazing dress is decorated with the iridescent wings of 1000 beetles. The dress recently underwent a major restoration at the hands of costume conservationist, Zenzie Tinker. Close inspection revealed that the existing dress was actually made of two separate dresses. It required over 700 hours of painstaking work to restore it to its original glory, reattaching hundreds of beetle wings, strengthening the fabric and piecing the two dresses together to restore it as closely as possible to its original form.

Terry's Beetlewing Dress
The famous Beetlewing Dress, which Terry wore as Lady Macbeth.

Learning Lingerie

My first attempt at lingerie
My first attempt at lingerie

After a few trials, and many errors, I have finally finished my first attempt at making lingerie.

I’ve been inspired by a wonderful book I bought on Amazon – The Secrets of Sewing Lingerie by Katherine Sheers and Laura Stanford. It covers knickers, bras and camisoles, amongst other things, and contains lots of helpful information on choosing fabrics, tips and techniques for sewing lingerie and applying lace, and a really helpful list of suppliers. It also has paper paper patterns in the back of the book for each of the projects.

The Secrets of Sewing Lingerie
The Secrets of Sewing Lingerie by Katherine Sheers & Laura Stanford, published by Kyle Books

As I’d never made lingerie before, I thought I’d start with something simple – a camisole made in a silk crepe remnant, and matching mini briefs.

Silk Camisole
Silk Camisole

The camisole was quite straightforward. It was cut on the bias and required French seams and the application of lace at the front of the bodice and round the hem.  The book gave instructions for a reverse hem which allows you to quickly add a trim whilst preventing any fraying. You have to press a 5mm hem to the right side of the garment then lay the lace trim along this edge, aligning the decorative top of the lace trim with the raw edge, and then top stitch 2-3mm from this edge. It sounds simple now, but took me ages to figure out – I think I was having a blond moment!

The camisole also required a hand-finished shell edge. I hadn’t done this before but it turned out really nicely. I used silk embroidery thread to sew this stitch, which gives a lovely finish.

Shell edging and fine gold  rings and sliders from MacCulloch & Wallis
Shell edging and fine gold rings and sliders from MacCulloch & Wallis

One of the biggest problems I came across was sourcing supplies. The camisole required 12mm rings and slides for the straps and I really wanted to use brass findings for a more luxurious finish. These were difficult to source in the UK, and quite expensive. In the end I bought them online from London-based  MacCulloch & Wallis, who can always be relied upon for any manner of sewing-related items. They arrived in a couple of days and are excellent quality – far, far superior to the clear plastic ones that were available in my local haberdashers.

I made more stupid errors with the shoulder straps, cutting them shorter than the book instructed. I also had problems with turning the straps – can anyone tell me whether there’s a secret knack to using a rouleau loop turner? It never seems to work for me, so any advice would be very gratefully received.

The camisole turned out beautifully and was an excellent project for using up a remnant of gorgeous fabric.

My first attempt at making the mini briefs can only be described as disastrous! The pattern pieces had to be cut on the crosswise grain and I got my wires crossed and cut them on the bias. I thought this would be ok as the elastic would pull them in, but this was not the case. As I worked with the briefs they got larger, and larger and LARGER!!!  Briefs they certainly weren’t! By this time I was in a bit of a fix as I didn’t have a lot of fabric left – not enough to make another pair of mini briefs, but I really wanted a matching set. I went back to the book and found I could just about squeeze out a pair of tie-sided minis, which turned out really nicely – in the end!

Tie-sided minis
Tie-sided minis

I learnt loads from this project – working with difficult fabrics (cutting out with a rotary cutter definitely helps, and machine sewing on top of a sheet of tissue paper), shell edging, applying a gusset and attaching elastic are all valuable new skills. It’s definitely inspired me to sew more lingerie, in fact I’m hoping to work my way through the book. But firstly I think I will definitely have to spend a few hours sourcing fabrics, trims, decent lingerie elastic and fastenings. That involves shopping – what a pity!  🙂

Has anyone else had a go at making lingerie? If you can recommend any suppliers for lingerie notions please let me know.


A Visit to Shepton Mallet Antiques Fair

Shepton Mallet Antiques Fair
Shepton Mallet Antiques Fair
Shepton Mallet Antiques Fair – a fantastic place to source vintage fabric, textiles and sewing patterns.

I’m currently on a quest to source vintage trims and fabrics for the 1920’s and 30’s inspired lingerie and loungewear I’m endeavouring to make. So last weekend I took a trip to the IACF Shepton Mallet Antiques Fair for inspiration.

Browsing antique fairs is one of my favourite pastimes, and I’ve made it my mission this year to visit as many as possible. I can’t resist stalls selling any form of vintage clothing or textiles, and my husband usually abandons me whilst he looks out for furniture he can revamp, or all manner of ‘manly’ things! This time he was on the hunt for a pocket watch which he could place on the dashboard of the 1973 VW Camper he’s restoring.

It’s strange how antique fairs seem to vary geographically. I’m a frequent visitor to the IACF Fair at Ardingly where there is a huge European influence, with lots of shabby chic and traders selling large items of furniture brought over from abroad. Shepton Mallet was quite different – there were far fewer large items and the emphasis was more on what I would describe as ‘proper’ antiques. This may have been partly due to the weather – the wind was very cold and most of the dealers had wisely chosen to stay under cover.

Many of the stalls were under cover
Many of the stalls were under cover.

My first find was a gorgeous 1930’s sewing pattern which I snapped up for a bargain price. I can envisage this made up in a gorgeous silk fabric. The instructions on the pattern envelope are sketchy so it will be quite a challenge to see how this turns out when I get round to making it up. Our ancestors must have been incredible seamstresses to cope with such brief instructions, unmarked pattern pieces and incredibly intricate design details.

1930s sewing pattern
This wonderful 1930s sewing pattern is going to be challenging

There were numerous stalls selling vintage lace, trims and textiles, so much so that I was slightly overwhelmed by the choice! Some stallholders had painstakingly removed panels of embroidery or beading from antique garments which were beyond restoration and these were just stunning to look at and examine in such close detail – the amount of work and hours these must have taken is just beyond belief.

La Cammionette Bleue
There are always beautiful treasures at La Cammionette Bleue

There were so many potential treasures that I was reaching that stage of indecisiveness where there was a good chance I would come home empty-handed, apart from my gorgeous sewing pattern. Luckily I came across one of my favourite traders; Liz runs La Cammionette Bleue and specialises in vintage and antique textiles and costume – she always has beautiful finds on her stall and is friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable about her stock. Three yards of beautiful fabric caught my eye, and it turns out it was original 1930s fabric – just perfect for what I had in mind! It shall soon be either an elegant  1920s kimono, or ‘Coolie Coat’ as it was then known, or an item of pretty loungewear. This find was enough to spur me on to purchase some vintage lace trim as well.

My beautiful 1930s fabric and lace trims.
My beautiful 1930s fabric and lace trims.

I didn’t go home laden with packages but I bought enough to get two more dressmaking projects underway. If you love textile crafts and have a penchant for vintage textiles I would strongly recommend that you pay a visit to an antiques or vintage fair. Part of the thrill is never knowing what you will find, and even if you come home with a full purse, your creativity will be fired by all the gorgeous items you’ve spotted.

Hello world!

Hi, well here it is my very first post, and hopefully the first of many. I’m looking forward to sharing my sewing successes and disasters with you. My plan for this year is to sew as many outfits as I can and finally make inroads into my huge fabric stash. Yes, I’m a bit of a fabric hoarder but I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not a lot of point in having a cupboard full of gorgeous fabric if I’m the only person who ever sees it!

I think my fabric hoarding stems from fear – the fear of cutting into a stunning fabric and ending up with a garment that doesn’t fit properly, or doesn’t suit me. Experience definitely helps here. When I think back to the number of items I’ve made in the past in styles or colours that don’t flatter me, or chosen unsuitable fabrics for the pattern, I honestly cringe! Plus I was sewing through the 1970s and 80s when, in my opinion, fashion design generally was not at its best.

This year I plan to sew from both modern and vintage patterns (I love the 1950s), and, if time  permits, I also want to create patterns by draping on the stand. I want to learn to create my own unique designs rather than recreating items on sale in High Street stores. One thing I’m really keen to do is to learn how to make lingerie, particularly vintage-inspired styles.

I will be sharing my successes and disasters on this blog. Sewing can be a lonely pastime and I’m really looking forward to joining an online community who share my passion. Please feel free to join me on my journey and comment and share your experiences with me. I’m really looking forward to talking to you all.