Carol Alayne

In association with Tailoring for Women Ltd.

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Archive for 2009

Bright ideas for a new year

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Happy New YearThe winding down of another year always produces such mixed emotions.  They seem to be ignited by the curious late December conflict between the abundance of free days and the sudden overflow of dizzying preparations.

The thing I look forward to most during these times, however, is a few quiet days alone in the studio.  It gives me the chance to reflect on past garments created and the changes throughout the year…and to give the place a proper sweep.

I like to take time reviewing the materials and sketches from the past year’s projects.  Some have special memories.  Some, future possibilities which have value and are worth holding on to.  A bit of trim, a drawing, a length of cloth or a beaded motif…all will be stored safe for the moment when just the thing is needed. The pressing boards will all be freshly covered, and the tools given a sip of oil and a brisk polish.  Everything clean, in its proper place, resting for a new start.

Brighter hopes and new ideas can be a product of these slower, and sometimes darker times.  In the midst of some pretty gloomy business forecasts these days, I find some benefit in this down-time to create and plan some ways around the challenges of running a business.  This process often sparks more exciting projects in which to become involved.

There is much to look forward to in this next year.  The recent exposure I received, courtesy of the V&A and the BBC, has born fruit and I will be making presentations for a number of executive MBA programmes.  Most of all I will look forward to breaking new ground with a series of film ‘shorts’, the result of some memorable collaborations with colleagues in the fields of design, textile history and the craft of tailoring.  Also, I am ready to launch  a limited edition garment – an outdoor piece inspired by the countryside that will be practical and elegant for the working woman.  There will be more to come in January.

So, here’s to a new year full of challenges and rich in the variety of work.  But for now I am grateful for a few more days of rest to take in the blessings of the season.

A very Happy New year to you all.

TfW, Jaeger and the V&A

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

V & A montageI was thrilled recently to speak alongside a representative from the global brand Jaeger about women’s tailoring.  We were both making a contribution to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s continuing series of lectures on fashion which has involved iconic figures such as Zandra Rhodes and Twiggy.

Jaeger is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary.  It is an iconic brand which has always specialized in the use of natural fibres, including the so-called noble fibres such as angora, vicuna and alpaca; it was also the first company to use camel hair.  Clients have included Vivienne Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, and even George Bernard Shaw who was particularly fond of a one piece structured ‘jump suit’ which allowed complete freedom of movement. Nowadays Jaeger is at the forefront of high quality manufacturing using state-of-the-art machines that simulate the sewing actions of a live craftsman.

My part in the event was to fulfil a contrasting role. I expounded upon the art of bespoke for women, its history and its processes.  From the initial measurements, drafting of the paper pattern, preparation of the fittings and internal structures through to the final finishing and pressing.

Working on this presentation reminded me about how the relationship with one’s client is both intimate and integral to the process.  Mark Twain talked of Clothes making the man” (or woman!), and we know that this is very much evident on the high streets today. Hand crafted garments however give the opportunity for a client to give full and uninterrupted rein to their desires, and the opportunities for personal expression are much more subtle.  The quality of the rapport between client and tailor therefore cannot be underestimated.

At the reception after the presentations we had the opportunity to talk one-to-one with audience members and show in greater detail some of the intricacies of our practice.

Photo: thanks to Simon at

All in a day…dress

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I am afraid that the blog posts had to take a slight seat to oneside over the past couple of weeks.  The V&A seminar,  an invitation to speak on the BBC’s iconic radio programme Woman’s Hour, and a new commision from the King’s Singers have all given life an added spice just in time for Christmas.  That is excluding the daywear pieces I have had to see through for my regular clients.

I don’t know why, but there appears to be a resurgence in the orders for daydresses amongst my clients.  This one will be sent off to Amsterdam in the next couple of days.

It makes a change from the 2-pc jacket with trousers or skirt, maybe due to the use of the dress as an alternative to stretch the wardrobe.

The lure of the daydress is its practicality.  It can be as versatile as a suit, and its sense of tailored femininity gives a figure enhancing simplicity.

I see the advantage in its flexibility;

  • can be worn from day to evening
  • is easily accommodated and accessorised with staple garments
  • comfortable, with less fit and constriction at the waist
  • with colour and detail it can enhance proportions

It has an inbuilt convenience too when it comes to travelling; much easier to pack than a suit.

And there are many variations;

  • Shirtwaist, a dress with a bodice (waist) like a tailored shirt and an attached straight or full skirt
  • Sheath, a fitted, often sleeveless dress, often without a waistseam (1960s)
  • Shift, a straight dress with no waist shaping or seam (1960s)
  • Jumper dress (American English) or Pinafore dress (British English) is a sleeveless dress intended to be worn over a layering top or blouse. Jumper dresses exist for both summer and winter wear.
  • Sundress is an informal sleeveless dress of any shape in a lightweight fabric, for summer wear.
  • Tent, a dress flared from above the bust, sometimes with a yoke (1960s, renewed popularity after 2005)
  • Maxi dress, a long, formfitting, floor or ankle length dress.
  • Wrap dress, a dress with a front closure formed by wrapping one side across the other and knotting the attached ties on the side, or fastening buttons. This forms a V-shaped neckline and hugs a woman’s curves. A faux wrap dress resembles this design, except that it comes already fastened together with no opening in front, but instead is slipped on over the head. (1970s; renewed popularity from late 1990s)

Here is something with a wholly different sense of ‘attitude’ which was commissioned from me during my time at Hardy Amies.

I feel that a tailored daydress is a very good start when planning a wardrobe, and also a welcome addition to a set of staple garments already in place.

Press, presentations and processes

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Business Sense MagazineIt’s been a busy week so far.  I was thrilled to be featured alongside Sir Martin Sorrell and ‘Dragon’s Den’ Duncan Bannatyne in Business Sense Magazine, the National Westminster Bank’s national periodical.  The rest of my time has been spent focussing on my presentation at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) with Jaeger.  The process of tailoring is something which tends to take place away from public scrutiny, so being given such a prominent platform demands careful thought about why the art of bespoke is so unique.

It seems to me that the distinctive experience my clients seek is comprised of the knowledge and integration of three important and fundamental elements. Physiology, technique and …psychology.

Physiology is all about understanding the shape and proportions of the body, not as an object frozen in time, but as a dynamic entity that Body Shapeschanges and flows as it moves.  Most textbooks illustrate body types in 4 or 5 basic postures, but the devil is in the difference.  I have yet to find a client whose shape fits these proportions precisely.  I often give group seminars and set the participants the task of finding someone in the room that matches their own body shape.  It hasn’t happened so far!

Technique is something which takes time to develop.  It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach a competent level of skill in any chosen activity.  This may be so, but I find that I still look to expand my own skills base, and that is after over 20 years in the trade.  The art of tailoring is still grounded in techniques that were developed in the 19th century, although the records show evidence as far back as the 13th century.  Modern materials, the change in life styles and modern body proportions all influence the ways in which these techniques have to be applied so they have to be constantly revisited and refreshed.

Tailoring is a relationship business.  We have to dress the body and the mind.  So, the psychology of the relationship with ones client is paramount.  This is all the more so as the current changes in society affects the role of women and how they wish to be perceived.

I was speaking with a former CEO of a global PR firm the other day who mentioned how he always emphasised the need for his staff to think of the image they portrayed when they visited clients.  “They have to realise that if they are charging a four figure sum per day, the first impression they give their client as they walk in the room is vital, and this is dependent largely upon how they look”.

A potent statement when you consider how this simple matter can undermine the huge investment that has gone into training the company representative.

Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free…

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

It’s time to sing that chorus again.  With the evenings drawing in and the temperature  falling,  we will need to think of bundling up in a few more layers when we go out.  For those who plan ahead, the ever reliable overcoat waiting in the back of the wardrobe can be taken out for an airing and a good brush…an old friend with lots of memories, here again to keep you snug.

Overcoats come in all sorts of styles; topcoats, peacoats, cover coats, crombie etc.  They are as wonderful a garment as they are essential, and can give real authority to a wardrobe.  Like a piece of sculpture, they help make you look smart and poised. I feel they are the epitome of style and good taste when the weather begins to turn.  Worn over a business suit or daywear, they come in a range of weights and fabrics.  Camel hair, cashmeres, wools or the luxurious vicuna can be styled into any design from above knee to ankle length.  The longer the length the better the protection.

Coats often have an interesting history.  For example, the polo coat originally started out as a simple camel-hair wrap coat, like a large blanket.  It was something the riders threw over their shoulders, like a bathrobe, while waiting to resume play. Originally it was called a ‘wait’ coat but in the 1920s, when English polo players were first invited to play in matches on Long Island (NY), the swagger of these coats didn’t go unnoticed, and they soon appeared on East coast campuses. By 1930, polo coats had supplanted the raccoon coats at the Yale-Princeton football game; a decided stamp of approval.

This coat for one of my women clients has a ‘button-tab’ collar.  It’s an unusual design that evolved as a means of keeping out the chill wind.  The lapel and top collar roll-line open and cross over at the center front fully covering and protecting the upper chest and neck area.  With an under collar from matching cloth, instead of the melton collar one sees in most men’s tailoring, it looks equally smart whether open or closed.

To emphasise the accents in this colourful Donegal tweed, and to add an eye-catching finish I  hand-worked each button hole in a different colour silk twist.

My own worsted wool overcoat, inspired by the ‘swing’ style of the 40’s, has a magnificent autumnal check and finishes just 3″ above the ankle.  It covers all skirt lengths and is one of my cosiest items.  Real weather…..bring it on!

L for Leather

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

CorsetWhat do  Lou Reed’s jacket, the waistcoats for the UK’s Olympic shooting team, and our latest commission (a corset) have in common?

All are orders that used leather.

Genuine leather is one of the oldest and most luxurious of all natural materials and can be both functional and decorative.  It is made from the hide of an animal, including birds and reptiles, by a process of tanning; the word comes from the Latin for oak bark, tannum, and it is from this that the tannin used in the process was originally extracted.

Tailored garments initially bring to mind wools, cashmere, silks, cottons and linens. These all go through a similar process of cutting, padding and pressing to make the traditional fitted clothes with which we are all familiar.   So, there is a certain degree of uniformity throughout, irrespective of the fabric type.  Leather too can be used in a similar fashion, although it requires a different set of skills and tools because of its unique properties.  Hides come in many different shapes, sizes, textures and colours, and much care has to be taken in selecting and matching them, particularly if more than one is used in the same garment.

A leather needle is essential for both machine and hand work.  Its 3-sided point enables one to cut or pierce the skin instead of puncturing it.  Weights are used for pattern layout, and prior to sewing, the parts of a garment are set in place with clips, glue, or sometimes even a stapler.

The process of sewing too has its own peculiarities.  Depending upon the weight of the leather you may have to use a heavier thread or a longer stitch, so it is always worth testing the settings on the equipment first.  A teflon or  “walking” foot on the machine is a necessity, and seams should be glued and flattened with a dry iron or a small roller after the loose ends of the thread have been tied instead of being back-stitched.

Over time a you will need to apply a little after-care to your garments, and for this be sure to keep a tin of dubbin or a bottle of neat’s foot oil to hand!

Almost any item can be made from leather, and  it will be suitable for most seasons or occasions: check out the corset above!

A fashion guru

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Hirofumi KurinoI had a great treat the other day.  A visit from the fashion guru Hirofumi Kurino, Creative Director of United Arrows; one of the biggest clothing retailers in Japan.  Our meeting was arranged by a mutual friend, and what made it all the more special was that he knew well this area of London, Spitalfields, where my studio is based.  So it also gave him the opportunity to visit some old haunts, and pick up some samples of richly coloured African fabrics.

It struck me during our conversation that in order to become a succesful and authentic fashion leader one needs the foresight of a soothsayer coupled with the academic rigour of a social historian.  We spent much time talking about the degree to which one has to anticipate trends and how they are often cyclical in nature,  re-emerging sometimes after years of lying dormant.   He explained how he created his long term view from watching closely the stimuli of everyday events; street culture, political influences, the emergence of new social movements.

He is also a huge music fan with a collection of over 3000 vinyl albums;  another indication of how important it is to him to preserve a solid core of authenticity.  “Fame will lose its appeal and we will be in for simpler times with less fuss” was his prediction.

One of the best three hours I have spent for a long time.

Imagine my surprise when I saw him make an appearance talking to the designer Deryck Walker as part of the superb documentatary about the current demise of the Harris Tweed industry shown recently by the BBC (Trouble Looms).  For those in the UK you may still be able to catch it on the BBC’s  iPlayer.

2 degrees East

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Yukiyo SugiyamaI said good-bye to one of my assistants this week.  Having graduated with her second degree, an MA in arts administration from Goldsmiths College, she has to fill her suitcase and return to Japan.

Yukiyo (Sugiyama) spent almost 3 years of study and work experience here in the UK during which time she immersed herself in ballet, opera, theatre, museums and galleries.  She still somehow found time to help me in my studio, and in particular with planning my own Japanese trips.  She returns to Tokyo to run the new concert hall at the Ueno Gakuen (a music university in Tokyo) which came to prominence recently when one of its students,  Nobuyuki Tsujii, won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

To add to her souvenirs I thought that a light weight business suit would make a welcome change from her customary jeans and t-shirt.  This charcoal grey fresco suit will be ideal for those sticky summer Tokyo days with humidity levels you could cut with a knife (‘fresco’ is a type of open weave used particularly for tropical suitings).  This particular fabric is cool to wear and also has a crease resistant quality that can withstand the most rigorous packing regimes!

Ganbatte. Good luck, Yukiyo.  We will miss you very much.

Revival of the fittest!

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Victoria and Albert MuseumFrom 18th – 20th September the Revival Meeting takes place at Goodwood.  A celebration of vintage cars, airplanes and clothes, all resonating with the theme of calling back to years gone by.

As the fashion world goes through its cyclical stages once more,  ‘vintage’ is a word that seems increasingly popular, covering anything within the time span of 20 – 80 years old.

Near my studio in Spitalfields there are a number of outlets that specialise in vintage clothing.  Absolute Vintage is one such example.  Over time, these garments have had many a good outing as well as changes in ownership and some will benefit from a ‘tune up’.  One of my clients purchased a crepe dress from Love Saves the Day (New York City) to wear both for her daughter’s wedding in Knightsbridge and a gala opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In order to bring it  back into its prime it required a certain amount of dying, shaping and re-beading, but the result was striking and original, with no danger of anyone else turning up wearing something even remotely similar.  (Check our post about ‘the A word‘)

Alternatively one could have something made specially that embraces this trend towards nostalgia.  In a recent post I mentioned a couture piece we made that reflected the designs of André Courrèges.  We have recently extended this to similar garments from a range of different fabrics.

Working with vintage clothing also bings considerable benefits when it comes to training new talent.  Some of the older techniques used are seldom to be seen on the high street where mass marketing loses much of the subtlety in construction.

So why not embrace a little bit of history…there is still many a good tune played on an old fiddle.

Photo: thanks to Victoria & Albert Museum

Stop Press!

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Paper boyWe reached a milestone recently.  One that you helped to create. For just over a year we have been writing about tailoring for women, and it is incredible to see how our audience has grown.  Our goal was to try to create a hub of information that addressed some of the prevailing practical issues for women when it comes to selecting tailored clothing, and to help you make better informed decisions.  Judging from our Google rankings it has reached way beyond our initial expectations…and cultural boundaries.

From India to Canada interest has been stimulated, and not only amongst our immediate client base.  Discussions have been opened with other craftspeople from the trade, a regular stream of apprentices and work experience students has materialised, opportunities for exchanges between clients and non-clients have been created, and our blog has acted as a talking point for several internet based forums.

This resource has also led to the creation of a number of opportunities for extending our business.  In September we will be visiting clients in New York City, October will see a feature in National Westminster Bank’s ‘Sense‘ magazine, and in November we have the exciting opportunity of opening the seminar on women’s tailoring at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London alongside Jaeger and Evie Belle.  As a result we have received mentions in the online magazines for both Vogue and Elle, and the influential Fashion United blog.

Some of our most popular items to date have been Dressing the Fuller Figure, Restore, Refurbish, Restyle, Resurrect, Remodel…and the A Word, Variations on a Seam, Folding a Jacket, and more recently Trouser Roles.  The credit crunch too stimulated a number of posts, and there appears a regular stream of visitors to the more technically based features in Briefing for Bespoke.

So, thank you all for making this possible, and finally, do let us know if there are any subjects you feel we are missing!

Photo: thanks to Media Bistro


Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.



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