I’ll admit it. I love a Royal wedding. The music, the ancient church, the flowers, everyone wearing hats and dressed in their best, the pomp and circumstance (and no one does ceremony like the English). And, of course, the wedding dress. Whether ruffled (Diana), festooned with lace (Kate) or modern and simple (Meghan) they are all astonishingly beautiful.
While the designer gets all the accolades and attention, it is the women behind the scenes – seamstress’ and embroiders – that turn dreams into dresses. Their work – their craftsmanship and artistry – has always fascinated me. The Gown by Jennifer Robson brings life and personality to some of these anonymous women and gives you a glimpse into their working lives and what is actually required to create such beautiful gowns.
London, 1947. World War II is over and won but life is still a struggle. Rationing is very strict (rationing lasted much longer in England than in the US after the war), damage from the Blitz still scars London and the losses and horrors from the war are raw and fresh. Into this austere atmosphere a wedding is announced – a royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and her dashing soldier, Philip Mountbatten. While there were complaints about the extravagance (the Princess carefully saved her clothing ration cards in order to pay for the dress), the celebration turned out to be just what the war-weary country needed.
Quinn shows us the careful and intricate work that goes into making the gown (designed and created by Norman Hartnell and his fashion house) by introducing two of the (fictional) embroiders, Ann, a plain English girl who lost her entire family in the war and Miriam, a sophisticated French woman escaping a difficult past. As the two most talented women in the workshop, Ann and Miriam work tirelessly to create and embellish the exquisite details for the gown. The novel flashes forward to the present several times as the granddaughter of one of the women unravels her Nan’s secret, leading her to modern day London.
The friendship that blooms between the women as they support each other is one of the highlights of the book. Quinn expertly evokes the atmosphere of a London feeling downtrodden but unbowed and still optimistic and joyful at the wedding of two young people. Quinn based the story on actual events and was able to talk to one of the women who worked on the Princess’ gown and that authenticity shows. This is historical fiction at its finest.
If you’re a fan of the Netflix series The Crown (and you should be, it’s excellent!), you’ll see the gown in the first episode of season one. The producers of the show spent $37,000 to make an exact duplicate!
Just like dress styles or design ideas, crafts go in and out of fashion. I order crafts/sewing/art books for the library and I’ve noticed a recent upswing in the popularity (reflected by the number of books being published) in some “old-fashioned” crafts. What’s fun about them is that a younger generation is taking these crafts and interpreting them with a modern twist. Here are some examples.
Embroidery. The somewhat fussy image of embroidery and hand stitching is giving way to a looser, more irreverent style that often borrows from mixed media artists.
Macrame. Maybe it’s the “boho” movement in interior design, but macrame is back and it’s going far beyond plant hangers. Sleeker and more sophisticated, it’s enjoying an artistic resurgence.
Sewing. Sewing is suddenly cool. Younger sewers have discovered the joy of creating clothing that really fits, made in the materials in colors they want. Movements such as Project 333 and Me Made May have fueled the desire for intentional clothing instead of mass-produced clothes from the mall.
Crafts. Crafts in general are enjoying new popularity as people again discover the joy of working with your hands. “Offline is the new luxury” as we search for an antidote to the technology we’re surrounded with.
Hey crafters! Have you finished making gifts for the coming Christmas season? No? But you’ve started them, right? Um – do you at least know what you’re going to make for the lucky people on your list? Oh dear – Christmas is just a little over three months away – you need to get busy! Here’s some great new crafting titles to help you out.
Embroidery Companion by Alicia Paulson – Alicia’s new book is just as fun and charming as her popular blog Posy Gets Cozy. Clear instructions for a variety of lovely projects, with personal stories sprinkled throughout (including the adventures of Clover Meadow, Alicia’s corgi), you’ll be reaching for needle and thread in no time.
Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts by Martha Stewart – Martha sets the standard – highest quality workmanship and precise directions covering a wide range of techniques and skills.
More Last Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson – The first title (Last Minute Knitted Gifts) created a sensation in the knitting world with several of the patterns in it becoming iconic; you can expect the same from this one. The patterns are simple yet sophisticated and modern and cover a range of moods and wishes. One note of caution – your idea of “last minute” and Joelle’s idea might not be the same!
One Ball Knits: Gifts by Fatema Habibur-Rahman – Here’s a great way to use up some of that leftover yarn you might have hiding in a closet. A nice variety of fun and useful projects for everyone from babies to grandparents make this a go-to source. And who wouldn’t love to receive a warm pair of slippers this winter?
Simply Sublime Gifts by Jodi Kahn – Whimsical yet stylish, these crafts are fun, inexpensive and quick to make; many require no sewing. Ideas range from baby onsies to fabric notecards to the amazing Wonder Bread wrapper apron shown on the cover.