‘Make a shift dress in a day’; a summary of the workshop.

Last year when shiftWorks showed at the NCCD in Sleaford, a member of Seam collective was invited to run a workshop on making a shift dress in a day. On Saturday 15th July this year, I ran the workshop on the top floor in a large, sunny room with 6 participants.


couple on tube
National Centre Craft and Design, Sleaford


The ladies had all come with various requirements for the day; a gentle reminder of some sewing basics like following a pattern, personal development in dressmaking skills, and learning how to adjust and fit patterns in a relaxed, but supportive environment.

The day got off to very quick start with the plan that the paper patterns would be cut out, appropriate adjustments made and fabrics prepared ready to start sewing after lunch. For 4 ladies, the adjustments were quite simple, but for two participants, we had to do more detailed pattern adjusting and whilst we managed that in the morning, we didn’t have enough time to make a proper toil before moving onto the dress. The decision was made to concentrate on the fitting and pattern adjustment, make a toil from the fabric brought to the class, and then construct the new, altered shift dress after the workshop.

couple on tube-3

At 12.30, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed our pre ordered food in the open planned cafe on the ground floor of the NCCD surrounded by inspiring contemporary craft displayed in the shop.

During the afternoon we started to construct the dresses working at a fast pace but within people’s capacity, referring to prepared samples and demonstrations as required.

couple on tube-7

couple on tube-4

couple on tube-5

The afternoon passed by very quickly and at 4pm, the time we were due to end, the sewing machines were still stitching but the dresses were taking shape and the last moments of the day were being fully utilised with zips going in and final fittings being discussed.

couple on tube-8

The day had had some challenges, but it had been fun from start to end. I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity to meet a lovely group of ladies and teach at the National Centre for Craft and Design.


Using colour

To make my stitched drawings I use rayon embroidery thread and now have a collection of approximately 100 colours. However, this vast collection of colours are still not perfect for my needs and just like an artist who may use paint, pencils or pastels, I have to manipulate my threads so that I can achieve a realistic finish that will cause a discussion about the work.

reels thread
Reels of rayon embroidery thread

After carefully studying the colours in the image, I choose 2 different threads, one for the top and one for the bottom. With my selected colours on the machine, I then play with the tension so that I can alter how much of the bottom thread comes through to the surface, allowing the correct tone. Whilst colours may appear solid, they never are and a much better result is achieved through this process.

Before I use the colour on the work, I test the mix of threads with altered tensions on a spare piece of dissolvable fabric stretched in a hoop.

colour threads
Test colours in little squares on dissolvable fabric

I will never get true to life colours with threads but with this technique, I can get as close as I need to to make the image work.

lady and pushchair photo
Original photo
lady pushchair thread
Free machine embroidered drawing



Sorry for the delay in posting

It is time to start posting again and I do apologise for the delay. March and April were very slow due to a persistent chest infection – as the consultant said “a nuisance disease” which, as a friend suggested, is vaguely reassuring but irritating when there is work waiting to be made. Then there is the determination to try and catch up which means that I am unable to pull myself away from my machine to edit photos of the work and find interesting things to blog about.

So here is the work in progress. What you can’t see is the mound of threads, written notes about colour choices and bobbin cases stacked one on top of the other.

couple on tube
Work in progress, ‘Couple on Tube’, free machine embroidery

During the past few months I have started to make a list of possible tips that I could share on my blog: how to make a repair or make a change to a part of a drawing that isn’t correct, how to do small details like lettering, what materials, threads and needles to use, how to choose the correct colours and the effects of altering the tension.

couple on tube
The drawing so far…

Drawing people

I have had some pretty rubbish attempts at drawing people on paper and whilst at uni, it was suggested that I should avoid it altogether. Also, I am not a painter so the thought of attempting to make images of people in a painterly way with threads is daunting. Realising that I am taking  a new and difficult direction with my work, I have spent some time researching other artists who use thread as their medium for portraits.

Cayce Zavaglia (online image)

Photorealistic hand embroidered drawings by Cayce Zavaglia, a textile artist who originally trained as a painter. Zavaglia moved to embroidery when she wanted to make work that reflected an embroidered piece from her childhood. Over the years she has developed a very difficult technique that enables her to blend colours in thread as if they were paint, allowing for tonal qualities usually seen in classical oil paintings.

Emily Tul (online image)

Tul works with thread, fabric and paint and focuses on faces because she is  intrigued with what they show us about a person (or what they don’t). Tul works large and then crops the work suggesting an element of confrontation.

Julie Sarloutte (online image)

Sarloutte is a French artist whose work is a mixture of traditional and pop culture. I love her use of bold colour which resembles a pixilated version of oil paint. Her inspiration come from her life, cinema and the media.

These artists have different approaches to their subjects and use thread in very different ways. One makes very intricate photo realistic portraits, another works very large and interrupts the image to encourage deeper questions and the final one uses intense colour to add to the emotion portrayed. But in each work, the thread is successfully used to lead us in to the soul of the sitter and allows for further engagement with the viewer.

I am also fascinated by people and their relationship with the world around them; a relationship that only they know and we can only guess at or wonder through our interpretation of any emotion shown. This is why I felt so compelled to photograph and draw the couple sat opposite me on the tube in London. Whilst my picture is being drawn with the machine, I do hope that I can share some of that wonder with the viewer and if that does happen, then perhaps I will know I was right to have another attempt at drawing people, but this time with sewing machine and thread rather than marks made on paper.

‘A couple on the tube’ (work in progress, free machine embroidery, Julie Heaton)

Back to work …

It has been a while since I have picked up my work and switched my sewing machine on, but today it was time to start. A very difficult Christmas period is over, my self assessment is in and last year’s photos have been edited and labelled.

It still surprises me when things get hard, but every time there is an issue in December, the month of the anniversary of Carl’s death, numerous weeks can be really hard, my confidence and resolve weaken and work remains untouched. It has happened before and will happen again, but at least I have learnt that it is ok to take some time out and allow the sad feelings to pass.

Such breaks also allow me to realise just how important my work is to me. Without it I can dwell on things that aren’t necessary, but stitching makes me feel good, it awakens my inner self and brings back my passion for creating. The drawing I have returned to is one that I started in 2015 but then stored away whilst I completed last years exhibition pieces for ‘Shiftworks’ and Newark Park.



The drawing is taken from a photograph of a couple who were sat opposite me on the tube train in London. The lady looked into space and her husband had his head turned away for the whole journey. Not a word was spoken between them. I couldn’t resist taking the photograph and will endeavour to complete the whole image …



Bronchiectasis – the finished shift dress

I have finally completed my free machine embroidered shift dress and safely delivered it to Penny Wheeler. Monday it was packed ready to send to the National Centre for Craft and Design, Sleaford, where shiftWorks will run from 12th November to 8th Jan, 2017.

Throughout the project, the dress threw up quite a few difficulties in the design and the construction. However, the text for the care label was actually quite easy to choose and draw because the instructions for looking after the condition are pretty standard, although trying to manage them every day can be tricky.



The final stage of sewing the panels of the dress together involved hand stitching. I decided to use red thread because I wanted to strengthen the link with the body; it was also a good contrast. Stitching through some rather inflexible, but fragile fabric was quite a challenge and not helped by my lack of tolerance for hand sewing. With persistence the dress was finished …

Bronchiectasis shift dress, free machine embroidery

Make a shift dress in a day at the National Centre for Craft and Design

This week I have been preparing a workshop that I will run at the NCCD in Sleaford. Whilst being very used to running classes at Art in Action over the last nine years, this is my first full day workshop where I can share my passion for working with a sewing machine. During the class students will be guided through the steps of a commercial pattern and helped to make a shift dress in a day.

I love dress making. Once, I would make all my own clothes including wedding and bridesmaid dresses for friends. However, as for many of us, time is short and passions like dress making get put on hold. To my delight preparation for this work shop has meant having to take off the free machine embroidery foot and raise the dog teeth (a part of the machine needed to help feed fabric) so that I can make technical samples and a few dresses as examples.


This class will run to coincide with the NCCD’s celebration of textiles and whilst ‘shiftWorks‘ is being shown in their gallery.


A difficult project…

Drawing the white fabric

During the time that I was drawing / making the white fabric of my dress, I had felt excited about making the final image that would form the main design. A toil had been made to so that I could plan where the circles representing the  enlarged bronchi and normal sized artery could go.

Toil to work out placement of design

Whilst happy with the placement of the circles over the chest area, it soon became clear that trying to draw a small section of a CT scan image into the markings wasn’t going to work.

Bronchiectasis  on CT scan
Thread drawing of CT scan 








I didn’t like the drawing of the CT scan detail so I removed it. Feeling disappointed, I knew that I had to rethink my ideas. I quickly realised another important reason for the project, that feeling of disappointment when you are told that something is medically wrong and how you may feel when you suddenly take on this new label / diagnosis and the implications for your future wellbeing.

The base for my design is a shift dress, it is made from delicate thread that has been worked obsessively. Instead of the detail, I would pare the design down and make two simple circles in the same colours that are seen on a CT scan image. The dress will also have  a label and come with instructions for care – just the same as if the dress was hanging on a rail in a shop. However,  this would have been one dress that I might not have chosen.

Making an image from the CT scan

Whilst many projects initially seem like a very good idea, I often find that the early days are quick to throw up problems, and make you wonder how it might work out. I had a simple idea – I would make a dress entirely from drawn thread and include an image from my CT scan that would represent bronchiectasis.

First I needed to get hold of my CT scan images. I started by contacting the consultant who supported my project, and he directed me towards the radiology department, where a seemingly complicated process of gaining consent to access records eventually resulted in me getting a copy of my CT scan. Once I had the disks another problem arose – how to read the images so that I could recognise the diseased lung from the healthy tissue. The consultant radiologist at Southmead kindly agreed to meet me and explained that there was a classic shape that signified the disease: a signet ring. In healthy lung tissue the bronchi which allow air to pass through the lungs are the same size as the accompanying blood vessels. In bronchiectasis the damaged bronchi have an enlarged lumen, which provides the signet ring appearance.

Transverse image CT scan

Transverse image of CT scanWith a basic understanding of what I was looking for, I printed several different images from my CT scan. I cut, arranged and rearranged images and then made some samples in free machine embroidered  1/4 scale blocks on dissolvable fabric.

Transverse image as seen on scan
Abstracted image with scan detail
Geometric design showing signet ring appearance 

Bronchiectasis and my next creative project

Last year I was diagnosed with mild bronchiectasis. Whilst this was disappointing news it did help me to realise that the symptoms of shortness of breath, tiredness and chest pains did have cause, and weren’t due to the usual exhaustion that can be felt by anyone trying manage my various roles in life after being widowed.

Sitting in the consultants room receiving a diagnosis was very peculiar; whilst I had had several tests at the GP and the Respiratory centre at Southmead hospital, I still didn’t expect a label, a named cause and an actual reason for the symptoms, especially because I run, cycle and have never smoked.

My first reaction was to google ‘bronchiectasis’;  I know that we are always told not to do that for health related concerns, but I needed to know just what I was dealing with, how to minimise exacerbations and how common it was.  (I used the British Lung Foundation and some other reliable forums as listed below). My second reaction was the realisation that I had found the subject for my next creative project: my shift dress that I was about to start making for Seam’s project ‘Shiftworks‘.

So back to the enjoyable research – here is an image from a great day out with some  members from Seam, at Clothworkers (the behind the scenes storage facility used by the V and A in London). During our visit, the staff presented some dresses for us to examine; a close up view of some iconic 60’s shift dresses.

Clothworkers , V and A

I particularly liked Stephan Willats’ Mondrian inspired PVC dress, Andre Courrage’s dress of cotton and machine embroidered organza and Foale and Tuffin’s ‘Double D’ dress. I now needed to consider how I could use one of these designs to help inspire a dress that would be made with my usual drawn thread technique and how to show a design that related to ‘bronchiectasis’.

British Lung Foundation – easy to understand information about the condition

Life of Breath  – exploring breathing and breathlessness at the interface between arts, humanities and medical practice (online)

NICE  guidelines on best practice for patients with bronchiectasis (online)

Radiopaedia.org –  terminology and CT scans (online)