Why Don’t You . . . ? Create an Evening Envelope
In the mid-1930s, Diana Vreeland’s weekly words of advice in her Harper’s Bazaar “Why Don’t You … ?” magazine column ranged from mildly extravagant to completely out of this world.
If there’s anything we need right now, it’s a little whimsy, in portions great and small. The current cocktail of colder weather, rollercoaster world events, and lives lived mainly on screens, needs a bit of sugar. My aim is to give you a spoonful—or 12—and inspire you to create your own bits of happiness.
Inspired by Diana Vreeland
For the next few months, I’ll be taking some of Vreeland’s wildest gems and reimagining them from a sewist’s perspective—and yes, I’m specifically using the word “sewist” as a descriptor. Like Vreeland, I believe in the artistry of fashion, life, and words. I’m all about what looks pleasing to the eye, in all aspects of life. To me, sewist is where artist and sewer meet.
Because the holidays are coming up in minutes, and they’re looking a lot different for everyone this year, I’m sharing some inspiration from Vreeland’s holiday gift suggestion from December 1936: “Why don’t you . . . give a length of exquisite brocade—enough for an evening envelope, to bind a favorite book, or make a little jacket?”
Gift-making mad dash
In December 2016, a friend of mine threw out this holiday gift challenge in a text chain: “BIG gift-giving this year. I have to make up for the last two years.”
I replied: “Oh, it’s on. Like Donkey Kong.”
And that’s how, on December 14, 2016, I found myself tearing my stash apart, looking for enough glitz to clothe not one, but four girlfriends in holiday cheer—because I am an overachiever with a fierce competitive streak. I can admit that about myself. I might even be proud of it.
A midnight blue and burgundy brocade became a smart lined evening jacket from a vintage McCall’s pattern. A geometric plush cotton woven and a lavender basketweave wool went toward two cropped versions of By Hand London’s Victoria blazer. The pièce de résistance, for my gauntlet-throwing friend—and the only one of our bunch who knew Olympic gift-giving was about to happen—was an Alice and Olivia wool-cashmere in a Simplicity Cynthia Rowley designed princess-seam, wool-bound, three-quarter-length jacket.
Below is not the coat made for my gal pal, but, it is that glorious fabric. Spoiler alert: I never saw hers worn.
If you’re doing the math along with me, that’s four fancy jackets in a little over two weeks. As I put the final stitches on who-knows-which hem in the car, my husband, Rob, said: “Can you promise me something?”
“Of course,” I replied angelically, the dashboard illuminating my flushed and frantic face.
“Never do this again.”
Moral of that story: Rob was right. My gauntlet-throwing friend had apparently run out of time to take on her own challenge, and my other three unsuspecting girlfriends were totally surprised and empty-handed. We’re one of the few couples in our bunch that are sans kiddos, so I didn’t really expect anything from our holiday-harried friends. Giving is not about getting, and all that . . . and, more to the point, I won handily.
Sew for a friend
But there was one friend I left out of that tornado of jacket making—part of our gang who couldn’t make the trip for our traditional celebration. Deep in the throes of my slam stitching, Rob asked if I might include our faraway friend via mail. He got an icy stare in return. This year, I’m taking Rob’s and Vreeland’s advice and I’m making good on that missing gift.
When Vreeland penned this suggestion 84 Decembers ago, I’m sure she imagined the receiver would whisk the prize to their seamstress or tailor, maybe their interior decorator, (or, I guess, their on-call bookbinder?) to do magic and turn it into something luscious. But why stop at a box of yardage when you’re a sewing enthusiast? Maybe there’s someone in your life deserving of a yard or two of something quietly shimmering in your stash. Maybe there’s a friend worthy of your fabric and your time.
In that case, let me suggest one of my favorite patterns: Vogue 1493 by Koos Van Den Akker.
I love Vreeland’s phrase: “evening envelope.” I’m sure she meant some sort of purse—but if ever there was a jacket fit for the words “evening” and “envelope,” this is it.
I’ve made this pattern multiple times for myself and others. Speaking from the marathon experience of making four fancy jackets in two weeks, this pattern is, by comparison, easy—as long as you follow a few words of advice. You’ve got to think ahead to save time, and I’ve done the thinking for you.
Create a beautiful envelope jacket
Here’s what I do to make this envelope beautiful for the receiver, and gentle on my holiday psyche:
Choose a fabric that is ready to be the star right out of the gate—not one that requires fussy print matching or plaid matching, or that has a directional print. This large-scale floral has an organic scattering of blooms.
Plus, it has a beautiful, icy-hued “wrong” side. A good wrong side is something you’ll want no matter what you choose for this unlined jacket.
The open sizing of this jacket makes it the perfect pattern for gift giving. It’s meant to be roomy, so you don’t really need to spoil the surprise by asking for measurements. My digits put me at a size M, but the XS fits with room. I’d say go down at least one size.
Let’s talk pattern pieces. The envelope trumpets 13 of them. In reality, half of those pieces are duplicates, with intricate markings for right- and left-side bias appliqué work. If you’ve taken my number one piece of advice, your chosen fabric won’t need all of that extra trim to shine. Skip that fussy work. You’ll only need seven of those pattern pieces, and six if you’re going to take my next piece of advice and skip the pockets.
I know, I know, we all love a pocket. But this evening envelope should have its own actual evening envelope, shouldn’t it? How about a smart little sequined clutch held casually out over the loose sweep of the hem? The wearer’s other arm could be draped on their partner. Or the banister of a grand staircase. Or the back of their favorite Zoom chaise lounge. Pockets—who needs ’em?
Skipping the pockets means skipping the bound interior seams. This unlined pattern calls for a lot of intricate inner seamwork, since the guts will be on display. But a flat-fell seam works beautifully as well. On this fabric, with its contrasting deep blue and ice blue sides, a flat-fell seam won’t snag the eye the way pressed-open-and-bound seams would.
Speaking of skipping, those vents can go, too. The better to flat-fell those seams. No vents also means an easier hem. It could be folded up and pressed, or it could be a faced hem, as I chose.
The pattern doesn’t call for a contrast fabric, but changing up the vibe on the self-lined, origami sleeve band makes the most eye-catching feature of this pattern pop. When you choose a fabric with a beautiful wrong side, you’ve got a contrast fabric in the bag. If your star fabric is in short supply, or if you want to play with print mixing, you could also use a different fabric here and on the collar band. I’ve also saved fabric many times by facing the sleeve band. I went for speed in this instance and cut on the fold for a self-lined band as patterned.
Because I skipped the vents on this jacket, I could insert the sleeve flat, and flat-fell the whole side and underarm seam, as you would in a classic dress shirt. This sleeve doesn’t have a lot of ease, so you’re not losing much loft by inserting it flat.
In woven fabrics that hide stitches well, I’ve chosen an overlocked seam on the armscye and sleeve band. For this fabric, binding the raw edges was the way to go.
The origami sleeve bands are the most time-consuming aspect of this jacket, no matter what you do to pare it down. I know I’ve advised you to merrily skip all manner of things in this pattern. However, you must, and I mean you must, mark every notch, dot, and square on these origami sleeves. Definitely mark and reinforce the seamline at the triangle point on piece 6. Those markings will save you time. There’s no skipping steps here. This is where you complete each step to save time.
You’ll find the look of each finished sleeve band is the biggest payoff.
I hope I, and Ms. Vreeland, have persuaded you to do a little holiday stitching this year, when most of us are looking forward to distanced and digital gatherings. This jacket is going off in the mail, and I’m hoping to see my friend swathed in an evening envelope on a Zoom call.
There’s no reason the holidays can’t be special when we have the power of sewing—and a little more time at home.
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