Bloomsbury, grief and learning to make my own clothes

A woman in reclines outside wearing a white shirt, tie and hat
Painter Vanessa Bell photographed c1914 was a member of the Bloomsbury Group. She made clothes in her own style © The Charleston Trust

I’ve written about fashion for more than 20 years, six of which were as men’s critic for this paper. And yet, at the time, I had no experience of making clothes. It was all on the fly.

This all changed two years ago, when I began working on a book about the Bloomsbury Group and fashion, written during the research for my exhibition on that topic, which opens at the new Charleston museum in Lewes, East Sussex, next month. I now wear more garments made by my own hand than by anyone else.

The Bloomsbury Group was a loose collective of writers, artists and thinkers that formed in the 1900s just as fashion was changing from Victorian to modern. As with other areas of their lives, when it came to dressing, they refused tradition.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, escaped the rigid control of their upbringing when they fled their family home in Hyde Park Gate for the less fashionable neighbourhood of Bloomsbury in 1904. They were both already in their twenties, and with their freedom came freedom of living, the foundations of the Bloomsbury Group. They would say to their friends, “bring no clothes”, “no clothes”, or “don’t trouble to dress”, words that were shorthand for their rejection of the old ways.

Back then, home-sewing was a normal part of women’s lives. Bell made clothes in her own style, along with the free-spirited decorating she did at Charleston, the farmhouse she shared with fellow Bloomsbury Group member Duncan Grant.

I had another impetus for wanting to learn how to make clothes. In mid-June of last year, my mum, Pat Porter, died from a swift and vicious blood cancer. The following month, I made my first garment. Sewing helped with grieving. Mum had made clothes and furnishings her whole life. I was taking on her actions to remember her.

A man sits on a chair in a top and shorts
Charlie Porter photographed at home for the FT by Nishant Shukla

I started with a T-shirt, ordering both linen and a pattern from Merchant & Mills, an excellent fabric and home-making specialist based in Rye, East Sussex. Yet I soon realised I didn’t want to follow the pattern and make someone else’s design, because, as Woolf wrote in her diary in 1921: “I like clothes, if I can design them.” I cut the back panel too wide and too long, then sewed the back encroaching on the front. The result is like a T-shirt version of a frock coat, a favoured garment of mine since the first collections of Alexander McQueen.

It was surprisingly easy. Pinned properly, the crewneck ribbed collar went in without puckering, using an old sewing machine borrowed from my sister Sarah. Shoulders took their three-dimensionality like alchemy. I have made nine versions since, always contrasting different linens for front and back, sometimes making patchworks of offcuts, other times extending the tail even longer. When I walk, it trails in the wind.

Crucially, I had no interest in perfection. Bell was known for her cavalier approach to home-making, preferring to fasten her garments with a safety pin. I followed her lead: my seams were precise, but without an immaculate finish. Home-sewing patterns suggest we finish a garment as if it were appropriate to go on the shop floor. But if I am making just for myself, I can be free from these constraints.

Tailoring was next. I made my own pattern following the lines of a parade jacket, then cut it from blue waxed cotton from Merchant & Mills. I sewed it all by hand, a little ribbed collar instead of lapels. When it came to the sleeves, by accident I set the first at a 45-degree angle. I should have unpicked it and set it again, but liked how it pushed the arms forward, and pushed the shoulder back.

I now sew all my tailored sleeves skew-whiff. I’ve since cut my own patterns from prisoner’s jackets, or specific Japanese kimono designs, mix-and-matching the sleeves between, as a result forcing puffed, leg-of-mutton shoulder shapes. It pleases me.

Making clothes has become part of my daily life. I wake early, sewing in the mornings, or through the day on weekends. It has moved beyond an act of grieving to become a generative pleasure.

I am also experiencing agency. I have often felt passive in my relationship with fashion, reliant on the decisions of others, whether it be the whim of a designer or the choices of a store’s buyer. The frustration of this passivity fuels consumption, from its sense of never quite having what you think you want.

Now that I am making my own clothes, I try to source good-quality, responsibly made materials. As well as Merchant & Mills, I’ve bought from the Cloth House in Camden, and metres of patterned poplin from a pop-up deadstock room at Liberty. I am experimenting with undergarments cut from butter muslin, bought from my local grocer, Leila’s Shop.

It isn’t necessarily cheap, but nor should it be if its makers are to be paid properly. Still, the total cost is piecemeal compared to luxury fashion — about £50 or £60 for a hand-tailored jacket.

So far this year I’ve only bought at retail one jacket, one sweater, and that’s it. When I wear my own stuff, people ask, who made that? If I go shopping, I now understand better why so much of what’s on offer is anodyne, because the make is so perfunctory. When I see something special, I turn it inside out — I want to know, how did they do that?

A painting of a woman in a long orange dress
‘Vanessa Bell’ (1915) by painter Duncan Grant, another member of the Bloomsbury Group © Todd White Art Photography/The Charston Trust

If there are setbacks in my own sewing, I push past them. My inability to make pockets just means I now always carry a little bag. My focus is on experimentation, trial and error, and making my own.

In March, my father, Tony Porter, died unexpectedly. Since then, I have been cutting cocooning shapes from either poplin or linen. There’s no pattern, just two rectangles, one larger than the other, manipulated in places to create volume at the back and to hug at the front. There is comfort in creating my own cocoon.

I knew none of this would happen when I started the project two years ago. Philosophy is not just written on the page, it can be acted out, daily, if we so choose. Sewing is now a central pillar of my lived philosophy, joining other forms of making, such as cooking, gardening, DJing, writing. The Bloomsbury Group were about change, and, by studying their radical actions, I have changed myself.

‘Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and the Philosophy of Fashion’ is published by Particular Books on September 7. The exhibition Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion opens at Charleston Lewes on September 13.

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