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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The Weaker Sex? 1915

Having just moved before Christmas and this being my quiet time of the year I have been having a bit of a clear out, one of many odd items sold on eBay was this magazine from 1916.


Brought as a prop I have never read it, however my attention was grabbed by the cover article.

Scan 2

Is woman the weaker sex? Is there, in fact a weaker sex at all? The writer of this article maintains that so far from woman being unfitted for the many strenuous tasks she is now undertaking, they are almost a rest-cure to her after the toil of domestic duties. This being so, is it likely that in time to come she will fold back to the few overcrowded occupations that were formerly her lot.

In the midst of the WW1 anniversaries, it is amazing also how many of these costumes I have recreated in the past year, maybe it’s just my customers but there has been a real interest in women’s war time.

Anyway I’m just going to leave this here for your perusal, enjoy.

Scan 3

Scan 4

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Styling Austen, The Regency Fashion show

This post is based on a presentation for The Glasgow School of Arts Crafting the look Fashion styling conference, click below to find out more about it

For those of you who have lived your whole life in a cave, Pride and Prejudice, the infamous novel by Jane Austen was first published in 1813. It has now been one of the nations best-loved stories for over 200 years.

The story follows its protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage in the society of the landed gentry of early 19th-century England.

Long before Bella Swan tripped into the lives of teenage girls, before even Scarlett O’ Hara suffered, struggled and captured our hearts, there was Elizabeth Bennet.

Lizzie’s mix of intelligence and cheekiness has made her, as Jane Austen herself put it “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” for 200 years.

Although the story is set at the turn of the 19th century, it retains a fascination for modern readers, continuing to top lists of the nations most loved books. It has become one of the most popular novels in English literature.

Continued interest in the book has resulted in a number of dramatic adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories imitating Austen’s memorable characters and themes. To date, the book has sold some 20 million copies worldwide.

It is not hard to see why the story, which is both funny and romantic has remained so popular, many of the themes the story covers still resonate with young people today.

It is always hard working on project themed around a much-loved book, but this was the task that faced myself and my wonderful team of volunteers, once the Jane Austen Festival director had agreed to our show proposal.


The Jane Austen Festival started in 2000 as a small event run over a weekend at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. The 2011 event ran over two weeks and attracted over 600 people just to participate in the promenade around the historical Georgian town centre.

People travel from all over the world to observe or take part. The festivals aim is to bring people together, to celebrate the work and world of Jane Austen, and to attract new audiences to her work. In 2013 the festival wanted something special to mark Pride and Prejudice’s 200th Anniversary, what we came up with was a fashion show with a difference.

This was to be a show on a grand scale, one which would be shown to an ever-growing group of costumed promenaders as well as being shared with fans across the world.

Many, if not all of the audience would be in costume, they would have read the book numerous times, many of them will have made their own costumes or at least know their Regency fashion better than most, our show had to live up to the expectations of this challenging audience.

Everyone creates a picture in their minds when reading a book, Jane Austen herself had a view on how her creations would be dressed, as she writes following a trip to a gallery.

“Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself — size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow”

And then there are the many film and TV adaptions, which have added to the story and defined each characters look, often inline with fashions of the time it was filmed, they often but become so popular they become almost inseparable from the original story.

However we didn’t want the show to be too safe, we wanted to challenge the audience’s expectations as well as recreating key moments in their favourite story.

My first step was to reread the book and read, watch and listen to as many adaptations a possible, creating a bible of key moments and references to fashion, from this we selected the scenes we felt would work best on stage.

The show itself was structured in the same way as a standard Fashion show, starting with daywear working through to evening wear and ending with the wedding dress but throughout the show, we planned short narrative sketches from the story. We were fortunate that many of our models had acting experience and were able to swap from standard catwalk modeling with a regency twist to playing (in some cases more than one) character.

No new costumes were made for the show, aside form Lizzies wedding dress which I will get to later. We had an open submission for models and outfits, alongside this we had my own studio’s stock of costumes. This was all we had to work with and as such, the narratives sketches had to be created out of what we had, although, we knew there were some “moments” which simply could not be left out.

I am going to look at three in more detail

The first is Lizzie’s “muddy heam”

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.26.52

Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise”

It is the reaction of Bingley’s sisters that most people remember

“And her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain; and the gown which had been let down to hide it, not doing its office”

This moment is so important as this is when Mr. Darcy first starts to fall for Lizzie, so enamored is he with her pretty flushed face he simply states

Her dirty Petticoat quite escaped my notice”

But that first image of Lizzie, on the way to see her sister, enjoying her walk is able bring to mind what follows and that is what we focused on,

We knew we didn’t need to tell the whole story just to tell enough and let the audiences imagination do the rest.

So for this sketch Lizzie wondered across the stage bonnet in hand, admiring the nature that surrounds her and oblivious to her muddy hem and dirt caked boots


Image credit Justin Gist Preuninger

Image credit Justin Gist Preuninger


This required a little help from the model herself, Katie who was dressed in a Regency day dress and was sent into Bath to find puddles and dirty her heam and boots.

The second is not from the book at all but the BBC’s 1990’s adaptation for television, in which Mr. Darcy, played by Colin Firth takes a dip in his lake and emerges in that wet shirt.

To do this properly we knew we needed a wet shirt and thankfully one of our Models, Richard was willing to stick his head under the tap and slip into a soaking wet shirt just moments before walking onto the stage, dripping wet, in his breeches and stockinged feet, he made a good many peoples day. He was so popular we had to have a second showing. He could almost be accused of milking the attention.

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.31.10

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.33.03

It’s uncanny, right?

Lydia is an eternally popular character, I like to think we all have a Lydia side and her elopement with the handsome cad Mr. Wickham is one of those moments which could not be missed out.

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.27.35

Much as we wanted this in the show we did not have access to any uniforms and so on the day of the show, when Bath is filled with “officers” we sent our own giddy group of boys and girls out to find us a Mr. Wickham. Up until the last moment we were not sure if it was going to happen, but thankfully Mr. Wickham was able to join us and return our Lydia’s Hankie.


Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.27.27

Sadly our Mr. Wickham had a ball to attend, and no doubt many other girls to seduce and so was not able to stay for the second half of the show, so when It came to Lydia’s wedding we had to make do with his jacket and Lydia showing off her wedding ring to the audience. Which worked very well, again proving how little of the narrative has to be involved for the whole story to be told.

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.27.17

As our models and outfits came from all over the world to take part, the whole show had to be styled and ordered on the day of the show, before this we had a basic plan on the outfits, models and key narratives we wanted to include.


Image by Owen Benson Visuals

Image by Owen Benson Visuals


On the day models had to be matched with outfits, ordered to allow time for changes, allowing for a total lack of zips and the presence of corsets!


Image by Owen Benson Visuals

Image by Owen Benson Visuals


Accessories multi tasked, covering tattoos, giving the models a way to give catwalking a regency feel, marking the occasion and often helping to tell a part of the story


Image by Annie Lucas

Image by Annie Lucas


The over all look was more of a collative decision, overseen by myself and the producer, Kirsten Stoddart, with everyone mucking in to make it look and feel the part. As well as creating a feeling of collective ownership, the book after all is owned, loved and imagined anew by each fresh reader.

We didn’t want the show to future the classic catwalk strut and pose, live music from the BBC production helped set a more suitable pace and fans, reticules and even quill pens allowed for more regency poses. Stairs had to be negotiated carefully and delicately with long gowns and trains adding to the gentle pace which allowed the audience to admire the details.

It was important for us that our show reflected a wide range of different people, just like the story, our only requirement for models was a wiliness to take part, and much like the fuss created by Mr. Bingley arriving unexpectedly at the Bennet household, the buzz backstage included everyone turning their hand to what they could, be it sewing, hair, make up or helping with the show plan. It simply would not have happened without everyone involved’s hard work and ideas.

Alongside this and reflecting on the theme of inclusion we wanted the fashion of Austen’s devoted readers to play a part, we chose to do this by taking the audience through 200 years of changes in fashions, both in dress and in reading, the one constant being the continued popularity of Austen’s work.

We also wanted to ensure we started by telling the audience not to make any assumptions about what they are about to see, starting with the modern day and rewinding 200 years of readers fashions taking them back to 1813.

The show opens with this song



To this, Richard appears, wearing a kimono loaded with swords, worn over jeans and a t-shirt, reading the graphic novel of Pride and prejudice with zombies, sadly not captured on film, shown here is a picture from the rehearsal

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.33.34

At a fast pace models then tag team a copy of Pride and Prejudice, each reader is shown fitting the book into their life with music from their era. This gave us about 30 seconds to “pitch” each decade or era to the audience




The film starts in the 1990’s, which I ended up modeling;some of you may remember this film;

Only when we have returned to regency times then did the piano start and the story begin

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.36.03

Both the story and the show end with a wedding, the book features four weddings, we have already spoke about how we portrayed Lydia’s and before we finished on lizzies wedding we also show Jane’s wedding to Mr. Bingley.

Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 19.45.17

The one dress made for the show was Lizzie’ s wedding dress; Annalise Harvey Bridal and Occasion Design created this especially for the show.

Rather than being a replica of the type of dress worn for weddings at this time, this stunning design it is a reinterpretation made by a true fan of Austen’s work. Read more about the design here;

I have worked at the festival for the past three years running last years regency fashion show was by far my biggest challenge,  I spent much of 2014 locked away, as I have been busy working on a book on recreating Georgian and Regency women’s clothing, which will be published later this year

Creating so many styles over a short period has required a clear out so if you have been inspired to go to the festival, many of the dresses from the show are for sale in my Etsy store

Should you want to you can see more stills from the show here

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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 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 2014. 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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