Category Archives: Vintage Fashion

Sew a Kaftan

I was in the process of sewing a summer top when I saw a challenge on Instagram to sew a kaftan from a free tutorial by the British duo known as the Stitch Sisters. The international challenge was called #sewingsansfrontieres.

A kaftan or caftan is a long, flowing loose robe or tunic-like garment with wide sleeves found in many cultures, and  popularized in the Western world by designers such as Christian Dior and Balenciaga in the 1950s and adopted by hippies in the 60s and celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor in the 70s.  They can be worn for lounging, as a swimwear cover-up, and for about town.

More recently the caftan has been worn by women as diverse as Rihanna and Hillary Clinton, and was the subject of a New York Times article “Let it Flow!  #Pantsuit Nation is Now Caftan Country”.

The home sewist has had plenty of caftan patterns to choose from.



A pattern isn’t needed for the Stitch Sisters Kaftan.  The kaftan is made up of rectangles cut to size with sizes from 6 to 22, and bias binding for the V-neck.

4 simple pieces

I started with a pareo or wraparound sarong from a garage sale.  Sold in the 1990s, these pretty rayon rectangles still had the tags on showing how to tie them.  I snagged a few for $2 each.

This one is a colorful tropical print measuring 43 inches by 64 inches: enough fabric for a knee length version.

My measurements fell into the size 14, but I decided to size down to a 12.  I figured a hip size of about 47-48 inches would provide me with enough ease. I cut a length of 37 inches leaving 6 inches to cut the 2 sashes from the entire long side of the rectangle. I cut 2 and 1/2 inch strips for the sleeve cuffs and doubled them adding just 1 inch to the sleeve length.

With a cotton I might have saved time with simple pinking sheared seam allowances, but I wanted a finish more resistant to fraying of the rayon. To encase all raw edges, I used Hong Kong bound seams for the center and sleeves, and mock French seams for the side seams. I used ready made binding from my stash.

neat insides

My usual summer attire is khaki shorts and a top, so this is different for me.  I do think I lack casual dresses, and might add a few to my list of possible makes.  I didn’t win a prize, but I had fun participating, and received a wealth of inspiration seeing the variety of caftans made, including tunic top versions.  They can be found on Instagram with the hashtag #stitchsisterskaftan.


Top from Vintage Simplicity Dress Pattern 8183

It was the summer of 1969.  Young and old came together and watched in awe as American astronauts succeeded in landing on the moon.  It was also the summer of  the Woodstock music festival in New York and of two nights of shocking murders in California which were later found out to be committed by the Manson Family.

In my world, I was in elementary school with the summer off.  I was listening to “In the Year 2525″ by Zager and Evans, ” Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies and Donovan’s “Atlantis” on my transistor radio.  My library’s reading program for kids was titled “books are out of this world” and my reading consisted of books like “The Happy Hollisters” and the Beany Malone series.

The jiffy pattern, Simplicity 8183, of a darted dress with a low cut H-shaped back was released in 1969 for summer sewing.

I have a bunch of vintage patterns from thrift store shopping, but I actually set out to buy this one after seeing it on the “We Sew Retro” website.  I bare arms and legs but don’t have any clothes with an open back.

This will be my blue summer – I’m not talking about moods but fabric.  I picked up yardage of two different shades of chambray at an estate sale.

I decided to start on my chambray summer sewing with a top made from this pattern.  It’s sized for a 36 inch bust, and I’m bigger than that.   I started by doing a full bust adjustment to the pattern after I traced it off on medical pattern paper.  I made a mock-up using a sheet – too tight!  I added 1/2 inch to the seams.  I kept the front and back waist darts, but I made them shallow as I wasn’t going to use a zipper and didn’t want the top to be too fitted.

The fabric frays easily so I sewed french seams to enclose the raw edges. I planned on swapping bias binding for the facing pieces.  After I started working on the top I had the idea to substitute red piping as an accent around the very long neckline.   For the armholes I made  bias binding from the chambray fabric.

I had scraps around from the denim skirt refashion so I made the strap from denim.

A big goal with this top was to keep my bra from showing.  Initially, I tried to get the strap on the top to cover my bra, but it wasn’t quite working so I raised the back 3 inches.

I tried machine stitching a little section of the piping to the inside of the shirt, but didn’t like the way it looked.  I wanted a clean look to the front of the top as if I were using facing.  Instead I invisibly hand stitched the neckline, armholes, and hem.

view of inside

The finished top:

It has a front too.

I had a devil of a time getting the strap straight, and unpicked it a few times.  The thread is a great match, so both my fabric and nerves were fraying.  I think I was trying to attach it too close to the curve.

In the photos of me wearing the top, I noticed some strain lines across the back and I was thinking of removing the strap.  It was a cute part of the design that attracted me to the pattern, yet I raised the back and don’t really need it.  I also belatedly thought of making a strap with buttonholes on both sides that can be buttoned on or left off.

What do you think?

I wish you a happy summer of ’17.  I doubt it will be as historically memorable as the summer of ’69 but I hope it will bring you memorable days of enjoyment with family and friends to look back on.





The Dress Doctor Part 2

Last week, I reviewed the book I bought at an estate sale,  “The Dress Doctor” by Edith Head.  Miss Head won 8 Oscars for costume design, and dressed most of the leading ladies in Hollywood movies in the 1930s through the 1960s.

This week I’m going to get personal, and show some fashion examples from my own life.

Prescriptions for Dressing drawing by Edith Head

At the end of the book, Miss Head offers her prescriptions for dressing for everything from sports to housework.  (Sorry Mrs. Cleaver, high heels are not appropriate for doing the dishes).

Pictured above is her prescription written in 1959 for dressing for amusement parks. Let’s see how our clothes stacked up some years later, in the mid 1960s at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

Disneyland in the mid 1960's

Pretty much spot on! My mother and I, the towheaded girl, and the hand-on- head woman are all wearing what could be described as sport dresses or simple street dresses. I’m not sure about the redheaded woman – could she be wearing shorts? The pig is dressed up a bit more but is still within the rules as hats and gloves are optional, assuming that the dress code for males is the same.

Within about five years of this date, the dividing line for which clothes are appropriate for school, work, and play had blurred and changed. The fashion prescriptions of Miss Head, which had been the norms of society, would be discarded by young and old alike as a new casual style of dress took over.

My Favorite Guinea Pig drawing by Edith Head

Miss Head advises to experiment with clothes, and to be objective when trying on an outfit. “If it were possible to have a Polaroid camera along, snap your own picture and develop it at once, you’d make fewer mistakes”.  Just imagine lugging a big Polaroid camera into the dressing room, snapping a shot, waving the picture, and waiting for it to develop!  Of course this wasn’t practical, but this advice certainly works in the age of the “selfie”.

I fit Edith’s Head category of “too short” and her advice to my figure type is to use one color, never cut the body line, omit belts or use narrow belts, avoid a too-long dress length, and keep the silhouette slim and simple.

I decided to try my own experimenting in a department store dressing room.  It’s the store with the big balloons.  I’m keeping in mind Miss Head’s advice to accentuate my good points, and camouflage my figure faults.

Now, I wouldn’t ordinarily post unflattering photos of myself as I have a feminine sense of vanity about my appearance.

1960's tot admires her bracelet

And I know the importance of the right accessory.

1960's little girl loves her new bracelet

You’re never too young or too old to develop your own style!

Back to my experiment:  Here I try on a tent or trapeze shaped dress. The fabric is linen which is what I liked about it.

dressing room unflattering tent dress

trying on linen tent dress






All wrong! Too long for me, and even though the dress is so big and baggy it still manages to cling in an unflattering way to my high hip or haunches. Maybe I could wear this shape if the dress was belted, and hit just above the knee.  I find that waist definition is important for my figure.

Next I try on a knit top with a draped neckline, and a gathered skirt.  Better!

Polyester Outfit in Dressing Room

Cons: they are both polyester, the skirt is unlined and doesn’t have pockets, gathered skirt adds bulk to waistline, top is wrong length to wear untucked.

Pros:  draped neckline on top is flattering, like the deep blue color of the top, skirt will go with all solid colored knit tops.

I didn’t buy any of these pieces.  I feel fortunate that I have sewing skills, and can make/alter a garment to be more to my liking.  As I’ve gotten older and  the letters in my closet have changed from S to L, I find that the fit is “off” on most of the clothes I try on.

One of my favorite stories from the book is about the clothes for Connie Stevens, who was playing a small town girl in the movie “Rock-a-Bye Baby”.  Her co-star, Jerry Lewis, suggested that since her character didn’t need fancy clothes, she could just go the the store and buy something to wear.  When Jerry was shown the result of her shopping trip he said to Miss Head, “Make ’em!”  Apparently, the clothes weren’t very flattering, even to a young, slim starlet.

“Ready-made clothes are made to fit anyone and each individual has figure differences.  In making your own clothes, you can adjust to those figure differences, play up your good points, see that the waist fits at the waist, the shoulders are exactly the right width, the darts in the right place.”

“Clothes are the way you present yourself to the world; they affect the way the world feels and thinks about you; subconsciously they effect the way you feel and think about yourself.”

According to Miss Head, the most essential thing that clothes should do for you is to make you feel comfortable and assured.  Now that’s a prescription that never goes out of style!

































Calendar Towel Aprons

Most of us remember calendar towels from our childhoods or have given or received one as a gift at Christmas.  The idea is to hang the printed linen or cotton towel from the included dowel for the year, and then to take it down and  use it as kitchen towel when the year is through.

Calendar Towel and Hand Beater

Introduced in the 1950s they feature many different themes such as food, birds, lighthouses, covered bridges, patriotism, and flowers, and often have a homey, retro quality.  They are collectible for their scenes, as well as in commemoration of a particular year.  My interest was spurred when I was given one, and then I began to look for others.

Calendars repeat themselves, and the calendars for the years 2009, 1998, 1987, 1981, 1970, 1959, and 1953 are the same as the current year of 2015.  Next year will be a leap year, and only a 1960 or 1988 calendar will have the same layout.  I found this chart for recycling calendars which was inspired by a Simpsons episode.

I’ve been enjoying this 1970 apple themed calendar towel in my kitchen this year.  Besides being charming and retro , it’s also an accurate calendar for 2015.

1970 Apple Calendar Towel

Apple Pie Calendar Towel

I love calendar towels with verses.

Calendar Towels

Often these towels end up forgotten and unused in a drawer. I have seen calendar towels made into cute tote bags and pillows, but the simplest thing to make is an apron.  These are so quick and easy to make with a sewing machine or even by hand stitching, that you can whip one up in time for your holiday cooking.  So search your linen closet, find an old towel, and let’s get started.

I folded in a wedge on both sides at the top and stitched it down.  I chose not to cut off any part of the towel.

From Towel to Apron - Folding in Sides at Top

Then I sewed on a neck strap to the top, and finished by sewing on a strap on either side at waist level to tie in back.

Apron Neck Straps

My neck straps are about 20 to 22 inches.  I originally cut them several inches longer to be sure I had enough room to fit them over my head and also to be able to turn under an inch on each end.

Apron Waist Ties

I cut two waist ties for each apron.  The length of one apron’s ties is 32 inches, and the other I made a bit longer at 37 inches.  Plan on adding an extra 2 inches for turning under the edges for a neat finish.  I sewed the straps to the apron with a little rectangle.

Stitch on Straps with Rectangle


I made the first apron with a quilt theme towel and a cotton measuring tape ribbon I bought at the dollar spot at Target.  I also made and applied a dark red bias tape trim around the entire towel for a pretty finish.

1990 Calendar Towel - Rocking Chair and Quilt Theme

Cotton Measuring Tape Ribbon from Target Dollar Spot

Calendar Towel Made into Apron with Bias Binding


For the second towel to apron conversion I paired  my fruit themed towel with a strawberry print fabric to create the ties for the neck and waist.

Calendar Towel and Tea for Two Fabric for Ties

I didn’t turn the straps. Instead, I folded the edges of the fabric strips over toward the center and then in half again lengthwise to envelop the raw edges.  I then stitched them down.

Apron Strings


Fruit Calendar Towel Apron in Retro Kitchen

Two Calendar Towel Aprons

I’ve never understood the point of half aprons; they don’t cover the most spilled upon region.  These do the job, and are fun to wear.

Do you anticipate giving or receiving  a calendar towel for 2016?


What My Mother Wore – Fur

The luxury item every woman wanted in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s was a fur coat, especially a mink coat.  Fur was a status symbol popularized by the actresses of the day.  Glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and others wore fur in their movies, and were photographed attending gala events wrapped or adorned with furs.1940s Fur Coat NYC

Besides mink, muskrat, fox, raccoon, beaver, squirrel and rabbit were commonly used to make coats, capes, and stoles.  From the end of World War II through the 1950s the popularity of furs soared and became an important accessory for the fashionable woman.

Growing up,  I remember watching the rerun of an  “I Love Lucy” episode from 1951, The Fur Coat, with my mother in which Lucy doesn’t want to take off a beautiful mink coat even to sleep.  I also liked to pet the furs my mother  brought with her from New York which mainly stayed in the closet.  I was especially enamored with a little scarf-like stole with a head with a mouth clasp that clipped onto the fur.

Mid 1950s - Suit worn with Fur Stole

In present day, the wearing of fur is controversial, and is more likely to bring the wearer scorn than admiration.  Animal rights organizations have brought the realities of the cruelty of the fur industry into the public’s consciousness.  Synthetic fur became available in the 1950s and is an alternative that is being used by some designers.

What do you think today’s coveted fashion items are?

What My Mother Wore – 1940s Sporting

I remember my mother referring to the Triborough Bridge which connects the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx in New York City.  But I don’t remember her talking about the Hell Gate Bridge.  It connects Astoria to the Bronx and is very distinctive looking with its masonry towers.  It looms hugely in the background in many snapshots of my mother.  From this bridge, I was able to place these photos as being taken in Astoria Park.

Betty B 1942 Hell Gate Bridge Queen, NY,Sporting Outfit

It is July 1942, and she is dressed to play tennis.  She is wearing a striped shirt that appears to be a knit shirt like a polo shirt.  Her white overalls are wide legged, and she is wearing saddle shoes.  A long, lightweight coat is thrown over her shoulders.  The top part of her hair is gathered back and  blowing in the wind. The rest hangs in thick curls. The tennis racket and ball are held in one hand.

Betty B 1942 NYC Tennis Outfit

I imagine the shirt to be red and white striped and that the socks are red to match.

Betty B 1942 Astoria Park NYC, Tennis

Those are cool sunglasses!

I don’t know if she played much tennis that day, or had a winning technique, but her photographer sure scored  some great shots!

What My Mother Wore – 1942 3-piece separates

To say my mother lived in New York City is a little vague.  To be more exact she lived in Astoria, Queens during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  Those were great years for her and she loved Astoria.  At that time Astoria was predominantly an Italian and German neighborhood.  As the daughter of Italian immigrants she fit right in.

Betty B 1942 NYC Park

During the World War II years,  austerity and utility were themes that were emphasized in women’s fashions.  When I think of the 1940s I think of  a severe look with shoulder pads like Joan Crawford wore.  But in looking at what my mother wore in the 1940s, I don’t get that same impression. I do see a tailored look, but it’s still soft and pretty with a contemporary knee length hemline.

Betty B 1942 NYC

This is a lovely but practical ensemble with a white blouse, high-waisted pleated skirt, and matching jacket with dark trim on the cuffs and down the center.  She is wearing dark gloves, a dark bow in her hair, button earrings, and classic spectator pumps.  She did a great deal of walking, but still wore high heels as she was obviously interested in being stylish and looking her best. I love this outfit- it’s perfection!