In my youth, I had an ocelot coat (fake of course) which I had bought when shopping with my mother, in of all unlikely places, Bathgate (a fact I did not reveal to anyone remotely fashionable.) I wore it for about ten years, from approximately aged 19 – 29. It therefore accompanied me through the adventures of my youth and into the first years of my marriage. I had other coats of course: a stone coloured, narrow wool coat with a neat, blonde fur collar; a dark brown maxi coat of Harris tweed; a green anorak that I bought when I met John to walk the dog in; and a red suede coat that was a present from a boyfriend. But the ocelot was my favourite. It attracted pickpockets: I fought them off three times (well, I did not do any actual fighting, but I grimly held on to my bag and made a lot of noise.) Eventually however it would no longer do, and I sadly made the unworn parts into cushions.

For the past 40 years, I’ve been looking for a replacement. There are, in my view, slightly more exacting requirements for a coat than for cushions. Its fabric’s colour and pattern must suit you. Its neckline must be flattering. For me, it should be slim-line and naturally minimalist. It’s buttons must be an appropriate size, shape and colour It must be a style and colour that is suitable.

John goes to Wickes for some DIY tools in Burgess Hill. I elect to go into Miss Mabel’s, a medium sized emporium which has many small sections selling an eccentric collection of stuff.

And there is The Coat. It hangs on a hook, calling to me softly. Beside me in the cafe section, there is tea, fragrant, piping hot in a pretty delicate Chinese patterned cup which doesn’t match. There are gluten free scones – not as good as an exacting scone-maker would prescribe but tasty enough, and I wonder briefly if I should have some first. But I know from experience that in this kind of shopping you have to focus on what you want, and if you see something you want, buy it at once. This is no time for dithering. I go straight to the coat. It is in cool shades of black, white, beige and grey. It is in a style that suits me – straight up and down, no visible pockets or belt. I try it on. It fits. It is very light, warm and comfortable. It is well within my budget and I think, I’ll have it.

(NB No ocelots were harmed during the making of this coat or this story; except perhaps that it reinforces the idea of fur being acceptable to wear, though both of these coats were of course artificial. )



It’s recently been that time of year when, in my case anyway, I swap over the summer and winter wardrobes. As I laboriously, over several days, carry out this task, it occurs to me that since we have chosen to have only drawer space in our bedroom, and use the wardrobes in two other rooms, I could just leave the winter wardrobe permanently in the front bedroom and the summer one in the back,(or vice versa). After all, it does not involve a massive trek. I do not need to call a taxi in either case.

But when it comes down to it, I find I just can’t do it. It’s obviously one of the rituals of my life.

I shunt the clothes to their new locations without examining them, but as I take each one out to wear in the following days it, I look it over very critically. Some do not pass this first inspection and are consigned to the charity bag, or cut up straight away. Perhaps they look too worn; old-fashioned; faded; or don’t fit any longer beyond the point that I can be bothered to alter them. Sometimes I just don’t fancy them any more. I’m not sentimental about my clothes (or stuff in general.) (When you’re asked ‘What would you save from the burning house? I think, the people and the animals. Everything else is replaceable.)

The first wearing is also a trial of the garment. If it’s not comfortable; if the shoulder slips off; if the material is too stiff; shiny; coloured; boring etc ; if the trouser legs are too short; then even though presumably it was also that the previous year at the end of the day I put it to be disposed of. This year I seem to dispose of as many garments as Henry VIII dismissed Queens.

Once they’ve gone, comes the good part (as no doubt Henry Tudor also found.) I look for the gaps in my wardrobe and set about filling them.

During my perambulation through my wardrobe, I come across The Dog Blanket Dress. ( A white wool dress I made, of which the result was not at all flattering .) It has sulked in the wardrobe ever since. I have never worn it, but could never quite give it up. Looking at it gloomily, I realise that it is the top half of the garment which doesn’t suit me. The bottom half is just a plain straight skirt. I have enough material left to try once more for a good outcome. (No-one can accuse me of a lack of patience and endurance!)

I cut off the bodice. I iron on interfacing in to the new waistband. I attach the waistband to the skirt and fit it to me. I pin in the darts by eye and sew them. I attach a dot of glue to the tops of the truncated zip so the zip fastener does not go skiting off into oblivion! The result doesn’t seem too bad. I hang it up in the Winter wardrobe. With a black cashmere cardigan, a small black leather handbag, black boots and a pearl and onyx necklace it should do nicely.

I’ll let you know if it turns out well. I just hope it doesn’t morph into The Dog Blanket Skirt.


I was thinking that there is a very small selection of clothes styles that really suit you, especially if you are a small woman like me. Fortunately I have an oval shaped face, so almost every style of neckline suits my face – but square or boat shaped necklines make me look shorter, so I avoid them.

I suit:

straight skirts, with a waistband, a back zip, and a slit or pleat in the back seam, coming to 2 inches below my knee;

shift dresses, ideally with a V neck and sleeves to just below my elbow, fitted to the body and the back seam opening at the hem

trousers that have a waistband at the actual waist, darted to fit, zip in front, straight legs narrowing to the cuff, no pockets or any design details.

Long, straight jackets

classic coat, long enough to cover the underneath outfit

short, rounded edge jackets worn with a long skirt

Channel type jackets

V necked fitted T shirts and jumpers.

Any frills or flounces, or ‘pretty’ accessories look ridiculous on me

Because I want attention on my face, I generally wear shoes and boots in black leather.

I like scarves which I wear knotted round my neck with the ends dangling down to give an elongated look.

I am able to wear quite dramatic jewellery and not be over-powered by it.

Pleats, gathers, waist details make me look fat.

I’ve been thinking about this because some years ago I bought a brown and white randomly patterned suit. The skirt was made up of 6 gores which widened at the hem, topped by a jacket with a large wide  collar and adorned with two pockets at the hips. I was never terribly comfortable in it and the skirt was first to go. I bought some fine brown wool with a tiny white stripe in it, and made a shift dress as I have described above, The dress was fine, and it went with the jacket (just about.) The trouble was, I could always find an alternative in my wardrobe which suited the dress and me better than the jacket, ie a winter white very long and straight knitted alpaca coat/cardigan; a mushroom coloured long coat/jacket worn with a silk scarf that contained both the brown and the mushroom. I came to really dislike the jacket. I wear my clothes in rotation (obviously I can decline what the wardrobe offers me, but I rarely do,)  and it seemed to me it was no time at all until the unloved jacket was waiting reproachfully to be worn.

Last week I snatched it off its hanger and stuffed it in a carrier bag for the charity shop. Such a relief to be rid of it. Everyone makes mistakes, the saying goes. This was definitely one of mine.




Last week while atendng a concert in the Brighton Dome we noticed that there was a sale of vintage clothes nearby and time to go to it. It was interesting.

I am a fan of charity shops. I often buy things there, which given the price you’ve paid, I then happily hack about, restyle, mend or do whatever’s necessary. Since I am small, any size can usually be adapted to fit me.

Vintage is a different matter however. For a start, the price you pay is significantly higher, almost as much as for a new article although in fairness, generally the vintage item has been, in its day, of superior quality.

Then the shape of woman, both in its natural form, and in its presented form, is quite different nowadays. Women used to be smaller, ie less tall, and thinner. Many older dresses are of such diminutive proportions there is no prospect of the modern woman squeezing into them. Undergarments are different too. Women wore corsets and had nipped in waists; they wore bust flatteners, or these peculiar pointed bras of the 1950s.

Plus lifestyle has changed. I can recall my own mother wearing a lovely suit to go shopping (for groceries). I have searched high and low for a similar material to no avail – it was of a fine wool, with a small houndstooth check in beige and cream. With this she wore high heels, cream leather gloves, and a beige pillbox hat with a veil. Well, we’re not going to grace Sainsbury’s in that ensemble, are we?

I tried on one coat (£175) because it was in a beautiful fine wool plaid that reminded me of my mother’s suit, in cream, beige and pale blue. It was immesely heavy to put on. It’s shape was peculiar – I don’t know what you would call it – the arms were sort of half magyar and didn’t hang well, and it came to my ankles. For £175 I’m not going to undertake a difficult re-making which may not be successful in the end.

But it was interesting to look at the clothes and reflect sadly that clothes one had worn in one’s youth were now ‘vintage’. There was a coat of that lovely colourful loosely woven tweed that was fashionable in the 1960s and which I coveted at the time (Bernat Klein); (it had sagged and was baggy, but I recalled that this happened to those worn at the time, so it wasn’t surprising); those brilliantly coloured psychedelic long dresses of the late 60s I think; pillbox hats; trim little duster coats with fur collars. There were some ladies shopping who were already wearing vintage. They looked – well, slightly odd; but interesting – adding to the gaiety of the nation.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that what I like is modern clothes, made to fit one’s actual figure, comfortable, and perhaps making a nod in the direction of vintage. Inspired by period pieces, but not actually one!




Persons of my former acquaintance (low life types of feeble intellect and little discrimination) have occasionally had the temerity to suggest that yours truly is a silver-tongued deceiver who could with artful cunning apply a positive spin to any chosen subject, or conversely ruin some poor innocent’s reputation with a few well chosen, carefully planted, deceptively mild phrases.   You, gentle reader, being an intelligent person of taste and sound judgement, know that this accusation is a foul calumny, and that your humble correspondent deals only with shining truths and accurate analyses.

It has occurred to me however that I may have – inadvertently – presented you with a picture of myself as an accomplished and successful dress maker.     In this scenario, completed projects are  disgorged by my sewing machine with all the ease of an aeroplane ejecting parachutists.   According to this legend, emerging from my sewing room is an unending triumphant procession of elegant dresses for me;  silk dresses for my  granddaughters, velvet capes, quilts to go on their beds, pretty pyjamas and dressing-gown for all the ladies of the family, kilts for the boy, handbags to order, curtains, cushions, throws and mats for new houses, aprons for all and so on, all articles greeted with cries of delight by the grateful recipients.

Well, yes.   But we can all make mistakes; it’s neither easy nor invariably successful.

The week I’ve been making myself a cream wool dress.

I’ve adapted the pattern to my exact requirements – it’s a shift, very plain, with a zip at the back.   I’ve made three versions;  a brown wool with faint white stripes;    a greenish plaid;    and a sleeveless red linen version.   They’re all reasonably satisfactory and I’ve worn them a lot.

I had bought the cream all wool tweed fabric at a wonderful mill in Oxfordshire while staying with my friend Elizabeth nearby.   I did wonder if it was the right colour, weight and texture, but concluded it would be OK and proceeded to make it up into a classic shift, with a V neck and three quarter length sleeves.   It took ages.

I am NOT pleased with it.

The material looks like a dog’s blanket.    When I press it, there is an aroma of sheep.   The material is several shades of yellowish cream away from the winter white I need.   Although exactly the same as earlier models, it makes me look fat.   I’ve fiddled endlessly with it, and still the neck won’t sit right.    Although I know that the shoulders and arms are both exactly the same length, the way it sits on me it looks as if one sleeve is longer than the other.   It’s a DISASTER, darling.

I consider taking it to my lovely craft group and lamenting my failure to them.   They are all proper ladies.   They wouldn’t laugh.   They’d all do their best to help and encourage me.   Plus, one of their number is that magician, Alison, who can make anything out of anything and the insides of whose garments are as beautifully finished as the outsides.    But I’m sick of the thing.   I don’t want to work on it, talk about it, even think about it any more.

You can generally incorporate anything into your wardrobe, even if in its basic state it doesn’t suit you, by judicious selection of things to wear with it.   After extensive, time-consuming and messy trials, I discover it only looks tolerable with one garment – a very long, lean-line, creamy white knitted alpaca coat/cardigan (purchased from the Alpaca shop on the A 22.)   The reason this suits it is because it HIDES most of it.   With a black and cream silk scarf (a gift from Nan Wylie) to give vertical emphasis and conceal the neckline, and a cream necklace of biwa pearls, made by Joanna and gifted by John, plus black leather boots and black leather gloves (bought in Biarritz) it looks tolerable.

However it only looks OK if I keep the coat on.    This combination is too hot for most interiors, and not warm enough for outdoors.   The coat is too long to wear anything over it.   In addition, though I’ve lined it, it’s itchy.   Basically, it feels like you’re wearing a hair shirt.

The white knitted coat has shoulder pads, and as I wear it with other things I need to retain them;   they are not detachable.      The  dress has shoulder pads which I included in a vain attempt to make the neck and shoulders look OK.   They are inside the dress, attached to sleeves and shoulders and between the fabric and the lining.   To remove them would require a major reconstruction.   In consequence, the outfit looks like something General Patten might have worn.

I present myself in my entire ensemble to my husband who looks at me cautiously.   He can see I am not happy.    He is deceived by the outer accessories and assures me that it is fine.   I remove the coat and scarf and I see him hesitate.   Then he says it’s not too bad;  I’ve spent a lot of time on it.    I can see he’s looking at my derriere.   He says, maybe it’s not the most flattering garment you’ve ever made…   can you take it in around the hips?   I think, what he actually means is, it makes your bum look HUGE, and I feel, with frustration and fatigue, positively tearful.

John takes me out and we buy a grey dress and jacket.

So what should I do with the Dog Blanket Dress?   No self respecting dog would have anything to do with it.



We’re heading into Winter now.    I love the changing of the seasons.

One day, it seems we’re in summer:  bare legs, sandals, dusty air, the grass dry underfoot – and then one morning you go out and sniff, canine fashion and there!   You can smell Autumn, far off but still coming inexorably onwards, cool, damp, slightly smoky.   My spirits always rise.

After Autumn, Winter, and with it the enticing prospect of withdrawing into private space;  the sitting room with its lamps on and the fire burning;  a pile of books;  scones and tea;  peace;  time to recharge the batteries.

Then there’s the wardrobe switch.   By September I’ve had enough of the flimsy clothes we brought out with such anticipation a few months ago (and this year have actually worn) – the strappy T shirts, the linen trousers, the silk dresses, the cotton blouses.

I physically move some of my clothes from one room to another over a couple of days, switching 6 or so at a time.   You take out the cool climate clothes with mixed reactions.   Some may have been purchased late last season and never worn.   You’ve forgotten all about them and greet them with excitement.   Others you haul out and wonder why you didn’t fling them out last year and dither whether to discard them now, or put them in the ‘wearing’ wardrobe and see if they will still ‘do’.   As you bring out the winter clothes, you match them up, seeking new combinations, and making mental lists of which new accessories – leather boots, a sweater, a new scarf, will give a little fillip to your collection.

This is a serious business indeed!   My birthday is in December, so I’m a winter woman.   In cashmere, tweed, wool, leather boots and gloves, perhaps a fur hat, I feel most comfortably myself, so perhaps it’s just as well I live in Britain, and can wear these clothes practically the whole year!





Watching a programme on Africa with many butterflies reminded me of a nightdress I had in my twenties.

I had one of those jobs I quite often had in those halcyon days where I had very little to do other than smooth some harassed, ambitious businessman’s life;  be a sympathetic companion;  look good;  deal with whatever presented itself and not alot else.    In fact I could spot trouble coming from afar off and could counsel when to act and when just to sit tight and although that doesn’t look energetic, it is quite a valuable skill.   I was really quite good at apparently not doing much with some style, and I could always exert myself when the need arose.   I’m not sure in today’s leaner times whether such jobs still exist.

But this particular job had even less to do than normal and I had hours on my hands.   So I embroidered.

It took 6 months of labour at about 3 – 4 hours per day to make a white cotton nightdress trimmed with lace and with mother of pearl buttons, entirely hand worked, French seams and all, and embroidered with a cascade of butterflies.   I used a book which belonged to my brother and had life size paintings of all the butterflies of the world and which I copied carefully and matched the thread colour  exactly so that the embroideries were accurate in size and detail.  (I have recognised in North Australia and South Africa butterflies which I had embroidered. )   I worked perhaps 30 butterflies overall, no one repeated, over the front, back and sleeves of the garment.   Those wings which have a diaphanous sheen, I partly embroidered to suggest that fleeting colour.

I knew this nightdress was impressive when I saw the care with which the chambermaid would drape it across the bed in hotels.   I was offered, and declined, £50 (in the early 1970s) for it by a wealthy and avaricious Edinburgh lady who had only heard of its beauty from a friend who had seen it.       I was offended with the friend for even discussing it;  and when the would be purchaser obtained my unlisted telephone number and rang me up and doubled her offer, not only did I decline once more, quite decidedly;  I wrote the former friend who had supplied my number off my list of acquaintances.

In those days when young mothers had babies, they were not cast out of the hospital at the earliest opportunity.   I wore that nightdress on some of the days spent in hospital with each of my three children and it attracted a great deal of attention.   No-one had anything like it;  nor even had seen anything like that before.

In the end of course, though it had laundered beautifully and given years and years of wear, the fabric became thin and could no longer be repaired.   But the embroideries themselves were good, and they were cut out and appliquéd to children’s garments, to tray cloths, and to a cushion that I made for my mother.

I enjoyed making it, and I enjoyed wearing it.   It did not occur to me at the time that it represented both my idle existence, and my industrious application.