The value of these simple and inexpensive instruments has been proved in too many cases to need any argument in their favour

So I finally made a costume which, when shown to the husband got the following reaction, “Amazing, can I try it on, I want one!” Its taken a while, he has a bit of a costume phobia to be fair, however it turns out he is more than willing to dress up as a 1854 Lifeguard.

Today’s life jackets are light, simple to put on and fairly easy to wear, I own one which I wear when coxing.

However early life jackets were a different story “personal flotation devices” in one form or another date back nearly as far as boats. They where not part of the standard equipment issued to sailors until the early 19th century, despite the fact very few of them could swim and many were press-ganged into serving, they worried they would use them to try and escape! I have a distant relative who fought in the battle of Trafalgar (seadog stock that I am) and I find this fascinating.

However when formal lifesaving services started to be established, the need for reliable PFD’s started to become clear. These brave men and women (see Grace Darling, who took a rowing boat out in a storm and saved lives…in early Victorian skirts and petticoats, she rocked) were heading out in terrible conditions trying to save lives while risking their own, again many could not swim, not that swimming would make much difference is a storm, however the need was established.

Captain Ward, a Royal National Lifeboat inspector created a cork vest in 1854 to be worn by all lifeboat crews. It was designed to allow some freedom of movement for rowing or swimming but more importantly, should they go overboard keep them on the surface and give them a fighting chance of getting back in the boat alive, this is the style of lifejacket I am recreating.


This style of life jacket was worn for about fifty years and was responsible for saving many lives before being replaced by a new design using kapok, a soft, fibrous vegetable material, which made the jackets much lighter. These are styles worn on the titanic that helps most people visualize them, thanks to the many retellings of this story!

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.25.56

Back to our Life jacket: You can see an original serving cork life jacket from this period and learn more about the history of life jackets here:

To make my replica I’m working from the original design for this jacket, in addition to this I was able to visit the RNLI Henry Bloggs Museum In Cromer and have a closer look at another replica, the husband kindly modeled, although it should be noted he is wearing it back to front as unlike modern life jackets this jacket does up at the back.





The first challenge is sourcing the cork, as this is the main ingredient!

So what is cork, other than something, which comes in the top of wine bottles? Well Cork is a bark tissue primarily from the cork oak tree, it is both impermeable and buoyant material. It can be harvested again and again (every nine years or so) without killing the tree making it fairly sustainable

Our cork came from Portugal where about 34% of the worlds cork supply comes from, each piece was cut and shaped to match the original design before being shipped to me saving me a lot of work and mess!

If you want to see pictures of the cork extraction process try this site:

You will open your next bottle of wine with a new respect for cork!

The first thing I needed to do was draw up a pattern based on the original drawing, which has lots of helpful notes and measurements for construction, the jacket is a one size fits all number with adjustable shoulder and waist straps.


The based of the jacket is Canvas, the original is quite a dark tan coloured canvas and a colour which is quite hard to find now, as most canvas is sold in a milky cream colour more like artists canvas, you could dye it to suit but I managed to find a good match for the original in a weatherproof cotton canvas which I have used before for making turn of the century explorers outfits. The husband didn’t mind these ether, although sometimes I feel like I am hogging all of the glamorous costume jobs! (Give me cork and canvas over feathers and sequins ANYDAY)

The buckles and eyelets were brass and I needed to find both a good tactile and visual match, this took some hunting on the buckle front, as the design in the original patent is quite distinctive, After much searching I finally found a match which also had some weight to it, the eyelets were matched to the buckles rather than solely to the design, so the belt fastening would function properly.

Next the cork needed to be cut to allow them to be stitched to the canvas vest, Rather than stitching through the cork you cut a slit into each piece then run the thread through this to hold it firm. I imagined a small light hack saw would do the job, but cork is quite hard and I had to keep up grading! I marked each piece with chalk first, checking they matched both the reinforcement stripes on the vest and each other before cutting. It dint have any spare cork so could not risk any mistakes!


Next the cork pieces needed to be matched to their place on the vest and lines chalked on the vest to ensure they are stitched in the right place, a few millimeters in the wrong direction and the whole thing will look wrong.


The original jackets used twine to stitch each cork piece to the jacket; I used a similar looking thick cotton thread. The cork is stitched so that when the jacket is worn it does not move, I stitching the cork to the canvas by running the thread through the slips and tying it off on the inside. This get harder to do the more pieces you have attached, as the jacket will only fold inwards and the whole thing has to be fully flipped flat to access the wrong side, cork is also quite heavy so the whole process is quite physically hard. Once completed the whole jacket weights about half a stone, 4kg, which makes it seem impossibly heavy for something which is meant to keep you afloat! It is also quite large, it makes my husband xx ins larger around he chest when worn which would make it harder to row in, perhaps one day we will be able to test this theory out, wouldn’t that be fun…


Life jackets were sold to merchant ships by the RNLI in wooden chests, and seeing the size of the completed jacket you would need a good sized chest to keep a few in!

Anyway here is the completed life jacket; I’m rather pleased with it




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2015 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 22 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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“Oh, dear. Ill-conceived love, I should warn you, is like a Christmas cracker: one massively disappointing bang, and the novelty soon wears off”

“Oh, dear. Ill-conceived love, I should warn you, is like a Christmas cracker: one massively disappointing bang, and the novelty soon wears off”




I was given a random but rather wonderful Christmas present yesterday, a bulk load of vintage Christmas crackers.


I should say I have always been rather transfixed with Christmas crackers; I spend a good deal of time every year admiring them. I think my Nana was the same, I remember as a child she would always have one of those large table crackers, but we were never allowed to pull it, however after much pestering sometime she would careful open one end so we could have the treats from inside.


These crackers where given to me by my uncle and were most likely originally owned by my Nana, my mother remember having the small crackers on the Christmas tree as a child.


They are a little newer than the first crackers, made in 1845-1850 by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith, but many of them are made by the company he started which still sells crackers made in Britain today!



My crackers date from the 1950s and 1960s, the crepe paper ones I’m guessing are a little earlier the foil ones could be later.



I have no idea what to do with them, I suspect not many have survived so I defiantly wont be pulling them, Ideas on a postcard!


And what crackers did I have this year? Well as much as I do love a cracker I also love value for money, so this year I made my own AND the contents was a surprise, even to me! How? Well I filled my crackers with Kinder surprise, Lego mini figure packs and scratch cards, they are with out a doubt the best crackers I have ever pulled and still cost less then a fancy ready made box.


Next year I may get the crepe paper and loo rolls out and try and recreate these vintage wonders!


Merry Christmas all!

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Caress the detail, the divine detail

“Caress the detail, the divine detail”

Vladimir Nabokov

A couple of weeks ago I was showing a friend the sights in Peterborough, including our vintage shop, which is stuffed with cut price treasures, when we discovered this bodice.

My first thought was that it was an original late Victorian bodice which had been reworked for the theatre or some such, but Carolyn felt it was in fact intact, we couldn’t agree, so the only sensible thing to do was to to buy the thing and investigate further (plus it fits me a treat so if needed could be but into service in some way?)

Anyway, here it is;


it was a while before I could find the time to have a good look at it (and even longer to find the time to write this up) but here we are!

You would think with a name like “Holmes” I would be faster on the uptake of mysteries…


The main fabric is black silk taffeta, it is trimmed with velvet ribbon. It has purple satin with black lace overlay at the front and cuffs, this was the bit I felt had been added later. You can just about see round the cuffs and collar it has a silk chiffon gathered trim.


This is the bodice inside out, it is lined with a cream striped cotton, as you would expect for a garment of this period. The lining and outer fabric are seamed together and the raw edges hand finished, again right for the period.


It has a patch on the wearers left inside front, made of the same fabric as the bodice. This is in fact a hand stitched 5cm square pocket with the opening lining up with that of the bodice, perhaps for a pocket watch? it would have sat just above the bust.


Here cuffs on the right side, and inside out…


They are Hand stitched and with the raw edges of the chiffon covered with a brown cotton tape which would have matched the boning casing.


The sleeve head, inside and out, it is hand stitched and finished


The stitching on the sleeve head is quite tidy, as is that of many of the seams


the collar, which has some patches of wear allowing me a closer look at the purple satin and the lace


Fibres from the frayed collar show both fabrics to be natural, the collar does not appear to have been be added on later.


the stitching on the lapels all looks to be of the same age and completed at the same time by the same hand.


Stitches throughout are made with a black cotton thread.


Some of the stitching is quite messy, its possible it may have been done by a different hand or perhaps was rushed in order to finish, it feels like a home made garment though it is made with some skill, with areas of more rushed work, such as theses lines of tacking which are holding the top two lines of black velvet cotton trim onto the hem.


The whole bodice used to have brown cotton boning casing on the front, back and side seams, which matches that on the hem and cuffs, but the boning has been removed and only one casing remains, this may have been done to allow it to be worn much later for fancy dress.


It looks like they may have decided to add another two lines of trim after the first, or that they ran out of time and had to tack this on in a hurry, but it looks to have been done at around the same time.


Trims were often removed for a garment to be undated or to updated another garment, so it may also have been to allow to to be easily removed.


The bodice is in good condition, with some signs of  wear and a couple of very small holes on the elbow of one sleeve as shown.


To be extra extra sure about the construction date I unpicked a small area on the front to have a look inside but I could not find anything which would prove it to have modern alterations, it all matches.


To conclude; ether, it was made and changed by the same person around the same time by fully deconstructing and then reconstructing it, perhaps to add the purple to move from full to half mourning?

Or it has always had the purple lace front? Perhaps it was made to be half mourning and they had to rush the last bit to have it ready in time?

Or it was made for a very early Victorian production by a costume designer using original fabrics and thread on a short time scale

I don’t know, all I know is that I lose!

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Process and Collaboration

This blog post is about process, and collaboration.

The process of concept to finished artwork, and a collaboration between myself and the very talented hair stylist Toni Tatlow, who created the period inspired styles for my forthcoming book. Toni works at P Kai hair in Peterborough.

At the beginning of this year Toni contacted me about a hair styling completion she was planning to enter and I offered to make an outfit for her model to wear.

We started with this catwalk pic Toni had as inspiration;

source unknown

source unknown

I didn’t have any fabric like it in my stash, but I did find these two fabrics, which we both liked;

IMG_1716 One is a sheer cotton stretch jersey; the other is a Vintage 1970s liberties stripe satin.
































Playing around with the shapes in Toni’s inspiration picture and these fabrics I came up with this;



Which I liked, until I started thinking about nightwear and then I became obsessed with not making it nightwear, so of course everything I did made it look like nightwear!


I started playing round with the fabric and the scissors on the stand and created a 1920s style straight dress with handkerchief hem gores and an over sized wrap style jacket with a belt. My friend Korina and I just kind of snipped at it, drank tea, snipped at it some more, until it came together, this is it nearly finished;




And this is how it looked in the final shoot,

Photo by Kai, Model; Lauren Wright

Photo by Kai, Model; Lauren Wright


Isn’t it wonderful how creative minds work together!?


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Where do handbags go to die?

My mother gave me this purse the other day; she has had it since she was a child, when she was given it to play with by her mother.


All children play at being grown ups (silly things) Cooking, cleaning and shopping. Just as my Grandmother did with my mother, I was given my mums old purses to play with. Generally purses old enough to no longer serve a fashionable purpose are those which end up in the dress up box, I remember mine being bright and plastic, I guess they must have dated from the 1960s and 1970s.

My mother grew up in the 1950s; this purse looks to me to date from the 1930s.

It is made from soft brown leather and lined with brown moire silk; it has a deco style flip up fastener, which is classic 1930s.



It has a hand strap on the back and inside it has a matching pocket mirror.




It also has a coin purse with a clip clasp, which is lined with white silk.


Although it doesn’t have a label, it is clearly a high quality item.

With the current trends for vintage and throwaway fashions I think the age old process of old clothing and accessories being handed down to children may have changed, plus they now sell children’s purses for just this purpose!

The only instructions I was given on being gifted this treasure was “not to sell it on eBay” which I don’t plan to do, however don’t judge me too harshly, I have a very small house and am given rather a lot of unwanted treasures!

I don’t want to become the Junk lady from the Labyrinth!

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This purse I hope will live once more when I next get invited to a 1920s or 30s themed event, its rather too lovely not to share!

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The pages are still blank

“The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible”

Vladimir Nabokov

I am trying to finish writing a book.

It is hard work and I am at the bit just before the end, when there is only boring bits left to do, the deadline is staring me right in the eye and I keep losing sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

However I have taken a small break from weeping/writing to show you some of my process.


This is how my book looked just before Christmas.

The reason it lives in a cardboard box is mostly because I have moved three times in the last year, everything lives in boxes. Just in case.

However this is my research, 5th scale, standard size patterns, model patterns and so on. And this is the story of how this turned into a final draft of a book

This is my studio


The stuff on ether side of the table is unfinished sewing projects, fabric, packages incoming and outgoing etc.

The first thing I needed was space. Time for a tidy up.


Thats better.

There are 15 costumes in the book each is a section in my research file including historical context, ideas for opening quotes, making instructions, 5th scale patterns, full scale patterns, model size patterns, adjustment notes and toiles. I needed space to coordinate all of this by project so I could work through and type up the needed bits, which looked at bit like this when I was ready to start.


The files go right all the way around the room, leaving only a space in the middle, which spent most of the time I was working in it being filled with finished costumes.


It took a lot longer than I expected to get my studio space back! But it is quite nice now all the the pages of the book are in the computer, rather than being EVERYWHERE.

I only have a couple of days left before I hand in, wish me luck!

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