Every time I see or hear the word “culottes” I smile a little inside because I love them so much now as an adult, but MAN I used to hate them as a kid. Growing up in the deep south as mixed race, I was shuttled between my parents who resided on the literal white and black sides of town, respectively, and I stuck out a lot by merely existing. But I also often felt like I was invisible. I learned how to make myself small and quiet, always respectful to figures of authority, never begging for attention. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted people to say nice things about me, but unfortunately that wasn’t the kind of regard that most strangers paid me. They would say things like “where are you from, can’t be from around here” or “are you adopted?” or more commonly, to my mother, “my goodness she is so clean and well behaved!”, which I knew from a early on not to take as a compliment.
So rather than make myself known and therefore susceptible to backhanded compliments (or bold faced ignorance), I tried to blend in as much as I possibly could. Unfortunately, my mother, with her coiffed, dyed mullet, her 9 inch long “tail” and her high heels, wasn’t interested in blending in AT ALL. In any other major metropolitan city she would have been considered a fashion icon in the 80’s with her daring style, but in Birmingham, AL she was like a beam of electricity that most parents of the kids I went to school with tried to avoid at all costs. She would not listen to me when I said that I wanted to wear those handmade floral jumpers that practically every girl in the second grade started wearing at seemingly the same time (to this day I am convinced that all their grandmothers got together and had a jumper making stitch n bitch of the exact same McCalls pattern)- instead, she put me in neon striped knee socks and button down shirts with a big paisley scarf tied in a bow at the neck. She kind of went through a private-school-girl-with-the-volume-turned-up phase with me during my first years of elementary school (even though I went to public school). Of course, the me now would be EATING those looks up: “Yaaaaassss, honey! Wear those houndstooth stirrups and read them for filth in that cafeteria!” But back then, wearing funky styles that set me even more apart from all my peers was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. My most hated garment that my Mom picked out for me was a pair of knee length navy wool culottes. She liked to pair them with those aforementioned knee socks and my pink leather ankle boots and I HATED IT! All the other kids I was going to school with were wearing pretty dresses with giant bib collars, their initials monogrammed in pink, ruffles sewn onto every hem in sight, and here I show up in penny loafers with a sweater tied around my shoulders, my hair in cornrows and beads, looking like a preppy baby DJ for MTV. It was awful.
In hindsight, those were actually the good old days, because when I was 8 my little brother Nick came along. Money got much tighter and I was lucky to get new back to school clothing from KMart, much less have my Mom shop for outfits from department stores that she wished she was wearing. KMart has come a long way these days and although it’s been a minute since I shopped in one, I’ve seen the commercials- they have pretty cute fashion now! But when I was a kid, the selection was abysmal, and even I could tell the difference in the quality of a pair of their jeans compared to say, a pair from JCPenny. And don’t even get me started on having to wear the Payless version of KEDS shoes! When I was lucky enough to get a real pair of KEDS (which literally ALL the white kids in my school were wearing), I would wear them til they were in stained tatters on my feet, then I would carefully peel off what was left of the little blue rubber label on the back and carefully glue it with Elmer’s onto my new $5 shoes. I wasn’t fooling anybody, but I think my friends respected the fact that I was putting forth the effort to not appear as poor as I was.
So now here we are, decades later: my Mom doesn’t dress me anymore, and I have somehow survived every awful fashion phase the 90’s and early 2000’s could muster. But I find myself instantly, surprisingly, inexplicably drawn to culottes ALL THE TIME! One of my favorite items/patterns in my closet is a culotte jumper (basically a combo of both what I wanted to wear and what I was forced to wear in 1st grade) that I sewed a couple years ago which I have duplicated at least twice, and I also consider these Flint pants to be a culotte contender in the flowy linen I chose for them. Mind you, there is a fine line between a culotte and a palazzo pant (the latter reminds me of my years in show choir where some high schools would forgo the typical sequined dress for flowy polyester pants to ‘shake things up a bit’ lol) so I always try to keep my culottes ankle length or shorter, which also helps to balance out the proportions on me a bit more since I am petite and can easily look swallowed up by skirts and pants with a lot of fabric.
I came across the Winslow Culotte pattern by Helen’s Closet a long time ago- it’s been pinned on my “Patterns To Sew” board pretty much since it came out. But I never actually bought the pattern because I already had a Big 4 culotte pattern in my stash that I bought for like, $3 at a Joann’s sale, and I hate several of the same patterns in my arsenal. But there was something about the Big 4 pattern that wasn’t quite right to me, so even though I was yearning for that silhouette, I was never inspired enough to actually pull the pattern out and make it. When I was in Vancouver recently, I got an invite to come to the Blackbird Fabrics studio to record an episode of the Love To Sew podcast (dreams really do come true!) and Helen was wearing her Winslows, and I was like ‘scuse me ma’am, WHAT ARE THOOOOSE?!?! They looked like a skirt at first glance, but of course they were actually pants that fit loosely in the hips and thighs, with perfectly placed pleats, that, in the right fabric, flowed and swished around the body with ease. They immediately evoked for me the image of someone taking a casual stroll down a warm, breezy beach in Greece. How could I say no to that?!
Helen thankfully let me ogle her pants for a bit and then suggested I make them in a tencel twill like she had, since the weight and drape of the fabric were perfectly suited for the pattern. I meandered over to the wall of fabric in the studio and my eyes settled on this pumpkin colored tencel twill (after my initial disaster with the orange Dickensian corduroys from instagram, I was looking for something in the same color family to replace them with). The tencel twill was soft and supple and flowed just as nicely as Helen’s fabric did, so I made a mental note to put a couple yards in my shopping cart when I got back to my hotel and could place an order at Blackbird. As a US customer I had always admired the Blackbird merchandise from afar, thinking that shipping and customs would be too expensive, but Caroline assured me that she ships UPS so there was no customs, it was totally affordable, and my package arrived within a week!
The Winslow pattern is simple, the instructions straightforward, and the result is an absolute hit! I am so in love with everything about them, from the color and texture of the fabric, to the length (the Winslow’s come in 3 lengths: knee, ankle and floor), to the pleat placement, to the waistband. I normally use a curved waistband block for all my pants, but I used the pattern piece as drafted for the Winslows, and because there is so much ease from the waist to the hips, it looks great on my shape and works well for the pattern.
I did have some issues with the pockets but it’s because of my own preferences and the finishes I decided to use. The pockets are drafted as expected, roomy and well placed on the garment and inserted at the side seams. However, because I was using french seams for most of my finishes inside the garment and decided at the last minute to use them on the pockets as well, the corners are a bit bulky. I have french seamed pockets successfully before, but I was in a real hurry to finish these pants so that I could wear them to Claire’s surprise birthday movie and in my rush I might have breezed over some areas that needed a bit more care than I gave them, lol. As a result, the fabric around the sides of the hips gets caught up in the pockets and doesn’t lay smoothly so they poof out a bit, which I don’t like. The pattern suggests you use bar tacks on the tops and bottoms of the pocket openings to keep them in place, but again, because my seams were so weirdly bulky, I omitted this step so that I wouldn’t draw even more attention to them.
Now if these pants were made out of a stiffer fabric, the pockets would probably lay down just fine and not cause any poofiness at all, but in this flowy tencel, the pockets just kind of collapse on themselves, creating bulk at the sides. These pants made me realize that, because my curvy hips tend to obstruct the flow of side pockets, I actually prefer the kind of pockets whose tops are drafted into the top of the waistband, which keeps them laying flat in the front while still accessible on the sides. The pockets of my JNCOS jumpsuit mentioned above are actually drafted like that, and even though the front of the garment has waist pleats and lots of fabric, the pockets stay put and keep the silhouette looking smooth on the sides (can you tell that “hip bulk” is a real trigger for me? insert eyeroll…y’all know what I blame this on, don’t you! hahaha). Another way to avoid pocket frump on the sides might have been for me to use a silk fabric for the pocket pieces, which probably would not cling to the fabric of the pants as much and would lay down a bit smoother than these do. Ahhh, hindsight!
So guess what I’m gonna do- I’m just gonna cut the pockets out and french seam the pants straight through the opening! I know, I know, I love pockets as much as the next person and I’m always complaining about RTW that doesn’t incorporate them smartly (or at all), but what I love even more than perfect pockets is learning more about my own needs and tastes for my future makes. I am 1000% going to make another pair of Winslows, and I think they will be in black tencel like the ones I fell in love with that Helen was wearing, and I will make adjustments for the pockets to suit my needs perfectly, and they will be GLORIOUSSSSS! In the meantime, pockets or no pockets, NOTHING will keep me away from this pumpkin spiced goodness! They match well with so many things in my closet, and although so far I have only dressed them casually with clogs, a t shirt, and my jean jacket, I think they would be fire paired with some heels and a button down, or maybe a silk blouse. And also paired with the the camel colored cashmere swing coat that’s on my list of makes in the new year? Whew, that could be HOT!!!!! These are some bold ideas for a little kid who never ever wanted to stick out….at least I know I am making my Mom proud!
Somehow I managed to save this post so that I could publish it at the same time that my episode of Love To Sew podcast airs, which is today! Blogging a project inspired by Helen and Caroline seemed like a nice tribute to their awesome work in the sewing community, and a way for any of you readers who haven’t heard about the podcast yet to take a listen. It’s basically shop talk for all things sewing, with lots of really great topics covered, interviews with guests from all realms of the sewing world, and a LOT of good laughs. Both Helen and Caroline are so enthusiastic and encouraging, and their interviews, while always fun, also feel intimate and thoughtful. I feel like I am making new friends every time they have someone new on the show, and I can’t say enough about the positive impact that this sort of media has on the sewing and crafting community at large. Thanks again for having me on the show, y’all! And thanks to Claire for taking these pretty pictures of me!