Slow fashion: sewing a dress from hand-woven fabric
I’ve been thinking about my wardrobe recently; the clothes I own, the gaps I’d like to fill. Over the last couple of years, most of my textile work has been concentrated on knitting. I love knitting, and I love knitwear, but there aren’t many situations where a head-to-toe hand-knitted outfit would be a look I’d go for.
Years ago I used to sew a lot. I worked as a tailor’s assistant for a while and, whilst I learned a huge amount, sewing all day every day for months depleted my desire to sew in my own time.
Since then I’ve taken on the occasional project. My wedding dress in 2018 was a bit of a feat: a simple shape, but with an integral boned corselette and swathes of heavy, shiny upholstery linen.
I didn’t sew again for at least a year. Last year made a simple naturally dyed silk dress to wear to a friend’s wedding, and a pair of trousers out of some tough red velvet that had been used as a throw by various family members over the years.
Over the past month I’ve struggled with wrist problems that have prevented me from knitting (and at times from doing anything other than read all day). I know that I need to look after my joints, probably more than most people. And yet this isn’t the first time I’ve ignored the warning signs and hurt myself. I’m still learning to properly look after my (sometimes mutinous) body.
The point is, I couldn’t knit, and wanted to plan some creative work that would be easier on my hands. And so it occurred to me; I could weave fabric to sew with. I bought my rigid heddle loom a few years ago to make scarves from hand-spun yarn. I made quite a few and enjoyed it, but they never sold well and I already have many scarves of my own. So the loom had lain unused for a year or so.
I had never thought to use the loom to make fabric to then sew garments from. Yes, I’ve woven a couple of cushion covers, but to sew something I could wear felt different. And it meant that I could make something substantial using a lot less yarn than a similarly sized knitted item. Weaving is nice and efficient, both in yarn usage and time taken. It’s a very different process to knitting. A lot of time goes into the set-up (where knitting requires almost none) – but you can fly along once you get going.
I took some time choosing the yarn I wanted to use. I wasn’t going to be able to start for a few days (because wrists) so I spent a while simply staring at different yarns next to each other. I like to use different yarn (or at least a different colour) for warp and weft, to keep things interesting and create a rich, visually textured fabric.
The first yarn I settled on was a skein of gorgeous, naturally tweedy Jacobs yarn that was kindly given to me by my friend Emma, the dyer behind Woolly Mammoth Fibre Company. Woollen-spun, at 400 metres to the 100 gram skein, I knew I wanted to do something special with the yarn, but couldn’t think of anything to knit.
After a lot of dithering, I decided to combine it with some of my own naturally dyed Mendip 4-Ply yarn – spun from locally sourced wool with locally sourced dye here in Somerset. With some help from another friend, I settled on a pale sage green dyed from dandelion and geranium – one of my very favourite colours.
I wove the fabric over the course of three days. I filmed the first stages of weaving the fabric for my podcast – you can watch the process on YouTube if you’re interested!
Now I have to admit here: I am not a particularly experienced or skilled weaver. I have done a fair bit of plain weave, mostly with textured, irregular and fundamentally forgiving yarn. This was my first attempt at creating an even fabric with sticky woollen-spun yarn, and the result is far from professional. In places it’s uneven, the selvedges are wonky and there are a few skipped warp threads. That’s fine. I love the fabric, I can still use it, and I am still learning. My next try will be better, and the one after that even more so.
Before sewing with the fabric I draped it on my mannequin over a silk top, and sketched it to practise the way fabric falls, and how the light hits it. It's been a long while since I've dedicated any time to drawing, and I'm going back to the fundamentals to try and improve.
I decided to make a simple dress, and waste as little of the fabric as possible. The process of making the dress itself is in a video on Patreon, which is a subscription-based channel where I share exclusive videos and other content. I ended up sewing the dress almost entirely by hand, with the exception of using the overlocker for the neckline and hem. Perhaps taking umbrage at having not been used for a few months, my sewing machine is demanding a trip to the mechanic – and I won’t be doing that for a while.
The hem and neckline are finished with home-made bias binding, which nicely encases the raw edges, and the selvedges are within the side seams. There are little belt loops which allow me to wear a belt or (as I have in these photos) a tie at the back for a closer fit. I can also wear it without, for a looser, really comfortable fit. I really like this length of dress, and it’ll fit perfectly into my cold-weather wardrobe with layers of tights and cardigans.
Though it’s a thick, pure wool fabric, the dress is surprisingly cool to wear even as I sit in the garden under unblemished blue skies on a glorious May day.
I’ve found this project a complete delight and I’m definitely inspired to weave more fabric. In fact, just this morning a new heddle arrived for my loom. It will allow me to make finer, denser cloth, which will be ideal for a wide variety of uses, including more garments! I have some flax that I’ve been meaning to spin up for a long time; maybe I’ll get on with that for some summery fabric!