Take 2 saris, Frida and #therefashioner2018 competition.

This is my entry (well first and main part of…) for this years Refashioners competition. If you haven’t already come across the Refashioners competition you can read all about it over at The Makery. There is also still time to enter…if you’re very quick!

I first came across this competition last year and I love it! Portia not only does an amazing job of organising it and lining up a fantastic set of prizes, it is also super ethical and very inspiring to see how everyone interprets the brief.

Last year I already had an idea for a jacket that I fancied making when the competition came up. I realised my idea could work perfectly made from suits (using suits was the brief for last year). You can read about this entry here.

This year we have complete freedom with the type of garment to up-cycle. The theme this year is ‘inspired by’. I constantly collect images and tear sheets for clothing ideas that inspire me. However when I read the brief nothing that I wanted to recreate sprang to mind straightaway.

The competition launched a couple of days before my planned visit to see the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A. I didn’t immediately make a connection with this for inspiration, however after visiting I felt compelled to work around Frida Kahlo as my theme.

Frida Khalo’s influence on fashion has been undeniable over the past few years. Her style is iconic. It’s actually hard believe she died over 60 year ago. Before visiting the exhibition I had seen the film and was aware of her story and her art.

After visiting the exhibition I felt I had more of a sense of her as a person. What a truly inspiring person she was, her inner strength must have been immense. She suffered with polio as a child and had a leg that never developed properly. She suffered a near fatal accident when she was 18 that affected her and left her in pain for the rest of her short life. She was unable to bear children and her husband was continually unfaithful to her. Even with all this going on she managed to create evocative art that is now probably more well known and recognisable than that of her husband, who was a famous muralist of the time. Her determination and passion for life and art must have been unshakable for her to lie in bed in pain and create paintings like she did. She stood up for what she believed and dressed the way she wanted to.

The exhibition of her clothing was wonderful to see, it struck me how ornate and richly textured her clothing was. On reading more about her clothing I discovered that she liked to mix indigenous garments from different regions of Mexico, which was predominately beautifully hand woven or embroidered. When permission was granted in 2003 to unlock her bathroom in her former home garments were discovered that were from Europe, America and China. She clearly had a passion for clothing and style. It is even indicated that she altered and made some clothing, perhaps a refashioner herself!!

I have recently been thinking about my ‘brand’ of sewing to help me better communicate with my audience. All modern marketing gurus tell you to define and narrow down  your customer as closely as you can.  It’s something that I really struggle with because the thing I love about sewing is the individuality. To me my offering is entirely available to any age, sex, race, size and style. I completely love teaching and meeting fellow sewists from all walks of life. I love that sewing is so versatile it can cater for everyone. It can be as uniquely individual as you are.

So with this entry even though a slight irony I would like to celebrate individualism ..something that Frida Kahlo had plenty of! Something that is also demonstrated with the entries in this competition.

This is my inspiration picture. There was an outfit almost identical to this in the exhibition which was described as hand spun wool, woven in two panels with a square cut opening for the head. One panel formed the bodice and the other was used for the sleeves. The embroidery was cross stitch and design described as ‘tree of life’.

Initially I planned to recreate the whole outfit with a slightly adapted skirt shape. Obviously choosing to make clothing with a certain amount of volume isn’t particularly conducive with refashioning. However I struck on a great idea. Living in Leicester which is quite multicultural with a large Asian population I thought it would be easy to find second hand saris! All I had to do was ask my Asian friends and customers to point me in the right direction.  However I drew a blank! I had a mooch around the regular charity shops but had no luck. So with time not on my side I took to the internet.  I found an amazing shop specialising in used saris…in India. Nevertheless they had a black sari and number of other beautiful ones that were hard to resist. I also found a second hand black woolen poncho online.

I probably paid a bit more that I had hoped for a refashion project. However I needed larger fabric and I am happy that I really have used my supplies to the max! Check out the blog posts to follow with what happened with the remains. This poncho was £28 pure wool and completely undamaged.

I wasn’t completely convinced I was buying a pure silk sari because this one cost £20. When it arrived I was overwhelmed, it indeed was real silk and as I opened it I revealed this gorgeous blue edging and embroidered panel. The condition was OK, there was a few small holes dotted about, however with so much fabric I was confident I could work round them.

This sari was also £20 and in very good condition, again real silk. This was a slight impulse because I just love this shade of green and the design was just to lovely to leave behind. I hadn’t really thought how or even if this would be part of the refashion outfit. It did end up very much part of the project. There is more to come.

I needed to start on the embroidery as soon as I could. I am not keen on missing deadlines and I knew I was pretty much in unknown territory with how to tackle the embroidery. I tried various different ways of mapping out the design with the photograph beside me and some squared paper. The scale went very pear-shaped so I resolved to measuring each element of the design from the photo and transferring each part scaled x 4 to the paper. I stopped following the squares, as they were too large.

I coloured the design in with my kids felt pens and was pretty happy with how it looked. I wasn’t sure what to do next. Luckily I joined an embroidery group a few months ago so I took my design and fabric to show Jayne our very talented teacher. A slight look of horror crossed her face when I described what I wanted to do! By the end of the class I was practicing and testing out methods. The project seemed doable.

I had a romantic notion that I would sit of an evening on the sofa filling in the design little by little until it was completed. That was NOT however how it was going to be! Because the design is cross stitch on a wool base cloth I had no weave or lines of any sort to follow to enable me to keep the design square and even.

I made a toile of the garment shape which was very simple but I needed to know I was happy with it before I started working on the embroidery. It would have been a complete disaster to embroider all the panels and then find the top shape wasn’t right. I wanted the top to look as close to the original as possible. The sleeve length is the same, the squared neckline and the slight curved appearance at the front hem. I drew around the pattern with tailors wax ( I find this wears off less quickly) and cut roughly around the shape of each panel. I also marked all the seam allowances on. The design runs close to the edge around the neck, shoulders and sleeve edges, so it was important to keep the embroidery the right side of the seam line.

I began work on the front ‘tree of life’ first, starting with a central line of tacking stitches to keep a check on the symmetry. The only way I could work was with the panel spread out on the table, both the hand drawn design and the photo by my side and an extra light. Constantly measuring as I stitched. There was several Sundays spent like this during the morning…..

and the evening……

Bit by bit the design started to take shape.

The embroidery is no where near as neat as a proper cross stitch on a countable cloth. I appreciate purists may not approve. However I am quite pleased with the overall effect.

The next stage was to make this into the top. I planned to line the whole thing, essentially bagging it out. I worked out I could machine all edges if I left the lining open at one side seam. Even though this was a really simple top to make I was transported back to my early days of sewing when perfectionism had taken hold and I was not confident that I wouldn’t ruin what ever I was working on. I feared accidentally burning it on the iron or trimming something dangerously close. There was no time or fabric to recreate a ruined panel!

Luckily there were no disasters and the construction worked out well. I had to make a back and front with classic shoulder seams because there was not enough fabric in the poncho to cut it in one piece. I stitched the shoulders of both outer and lining so that I could under-stitch the neck edge. Then I stitched the cuff edges together before the side seams. Finally I had to contort the garment through the gap in the side seam lining to stitch the hem edges together.

There are a few discrepancies on the embroidery spacing, especially near the shoulder seam. I think I actually found it harder to embroider the edges because I needed to make the other side match. I also discovered that Perle thread loses its gleam when unpicked!

I love the vibrancy of these embroidery colours. In the original photo she wears a skirt with a blue panel and a decorative green ribbon stitched around on the waist and hem. Having the blue panel on the black sari was a stoke of luck. I decided to make this into my favourite trouser pattern. It is one I originally drafted and have adapted several times. I love this version with deep front pleats and side pockets. It has a mock fly front and simple darted back.

I placed the pattern on to see if I could get the blue border to run continually around the upper edge of the trousers. I could… I felt like I had won the lottery!

The trousers came together pretty swiftly. I had to pay close attention to the blue panel, lining up at the side seams, pocket opening and front fly.


The last thing to consider was the top to wear underneath. Frida is wearing hers with a fabulous big necklace and nothing else. It is possibly a slightly closer fit on the body too.  I made the neckline about as small as I could without needing to add a back neck opening. The finished garment feels like a cross between a coat and a jumper so I decided a very simple top made from the green sari would be the perfect answer.

This is actually the pattern I drafted to wear with last years refashioner outfit. I just omitted the notch neck line, it has a small button fastened opening at the back neck.

This sari also had beautiful borders that I wanted to make good use of. A simple top like this meant I could lay the pieces against the edge. I left the hems completely un-turned. I quite like the fine floaty nature of the fabric un-turned. I had to ensure I was spot on when stitching the under arm seams and the sides seams. There would be no trimming a small step off the side seam. Apart from the neck edge and armholes I used french seams to construct this top.

This is the end of the official outfit. However I was keen to try and use as much of the fabric as I could. I’d been thinking about a blog post tutorial for a simple messenger style handbag. The remaining black wool seemed like the perfect opportunity to do a trial run.

It translated into a lovely bag with the addition of some simple silver fitments. Unfortunately these are not pre-loved.

I did use some of the left over green silk for the lining. It was slightly tricky to work with as it is so fine compared to the wool. Definitely a usable bag.

These are the remains of the woolen poncho. I am not going to make anything else using this for the competition deadline. I think I will be able to get a purse or maybe two from these remainders. I would like to find a way to use the grey border trim. Perhaps I will add this to my Christmas gift makes this year.

All in all I am happy with all these makes. I am in love with finding used sari’s as a fabric source. I am looking forward to wearing my Frida top when the weather turns colder. Very happy I managed to complete before the close of the competition and I’m feeling inspired by all the individual refashioners out there!

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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...


  1. Jenny Ryerson on October 19, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    This is beautiful. You’ve done a great job. I love the inspiration and the way you went about making it happen. Your embroidery looks fantastic especially given the time you’ve had to do it in. Great job.

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