Alison Willoughby’s Skirts (and book giveaway)

by Stacey H. on 22/02/2008

in Art+Design, Books

‘My World: The New Subjectivity in Design’ Featuring the work of Alison Willoughby, Danny Brown, Committee, Doshi Levien, Neutral, Peter Traag, Wok Media (this review is limited to Alison Willoughby – 10 Skirts) at Pratt Manhattan Gallery (finishes Feb 23)

photo courtesy of Zacheta National Gallery

Alison Willoughby did her BA in Glasgow in Printed and Knitted textiles from 1996-1999 and her MA in London at The Royal College of Art in Mixed Media Textiles from 1999-2001, where she completed her dissertation on the kilt. Study of the Gaelic garment eventually led her to the circle skirt, a simple garment made from just one perfect circle. Lain flat, Willoughby saw this as a canvas for applying materials: badges, pins, pieces cut from fabric, silkscreens. When a circle is cut out of the middle of the original large circle, the flat canvas suddenly becomes a 3 dimensional wearable object even without subsequent shaping – a skirt.

Her approach is perfectly illustrated by the piece “One”, a 3’ tall stack of fabric circles cut from old bedspreads, shirtings, batting, corduroy, twills – all skirts-to-be:

photo courtesy of Zacheta National Gallery

This piece reveals the underlying concept of the 10 skirts in the exhibition (a part of “My World: The New Subjectivity in Design” at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery), which are hung from the ceiling of the gallery, all the better to witness Willoughby’s penchant for layering more than one circle for a petticoat effect.

Embellishment is what really sets her skirts apart, and she frequently carries the circle theme through by creating concentric circles of colored pin badges, or by sewing on smaller circles of fabric, or by sewing on other shapes of fabric in circles.

49 Sensational Skirts: Creative Embellishment Ideas for One-of-a-kind Designs by Alison Willoughby, published by Interweave Press (April 1, 2008).

The show at the Pratt gallery is a nice opportunity to see her work in person, but Alison Willoughby doesn’t just want you to see her work – she wants you to make it yourself. Her new book, 49 Sensational Skirts compiles some of her ideas and techniques and makes them friendly to the home crafter – even to those with no sewing experience.

While first and foremost a book about embellishing skirts, the book does include a basic circle-skirt paper pattern, a glossary of sewing materials and simple machine techniques, and complete information on making or applying closures (ties, snaps, and clips). She also includes a tutorial on silkscreening, transfer foiling, and fusible webbing. The projects range from simple embellishment that can be done in a matter of hours to those involving hundreds of folded fabric pieces sewn closely together in geometric patterns.

Though she gives clear instructions on reproducing her designs, one thing that rings clear throughout is Willoughby’s desire that people make the skirts their own. She encourages the use of second hand ready-made skirts as a basic canvas and of being creative with embellishment. Though all of her ideas and the color photography illustrating them provide inspiration for wearable skirts with a strong sense of individuality, she wants you to use them as a point of departure for your own explorations.

Read more: Recent interview with Alison at Whip Up

To celebrate Alt Crafting month – win a copy of Alison’s book by leaving a comment here answering the following questions: (comments will close Sunday Midnight)

what is the most innovative way you have decorated/embellished an outfit?

If you decorated/embellished an outfit such as in the vein of one of Alison Willoughby’s skirts would you want to wear it or hang it on the wall?

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rachelle February 22, 2008 at 5:37 am

1) I’m not very innovative, per say, but I have enjoyed dyeing clothing, adding custom screen prints and scribbles with fabric paints and markers, and embellishing with my sewing machine.

2) I would definitely wear it. Nobody ever comes over to my house, so I’d be the only one to see the art. If I wear it, it would get much more appreciation.


2 Edie February 22, 2008 at 5:46 am

I think the most innovative decoration I’ve done on a garment has been my hats. I make a baseball cap and embellish it with embroidery, buttons, beads, kids’ jewelry, etc. Recently I began making caps using organza and fresh flowers.

If I made an embellished skirt ala Alison, I would wear it!


3 Kari February 22, 2008 at 5:51 am

I think the most innovative decoration I’ve added to an outfit was a simple statement, added with a black fabric marker to a plain white skirt. I also added a touch of lace at the hem, and voila! my Craft: skirt was born.

I’d have to say, I’d do both! I’d wear it AND display it as art. That’s my favorite kind of creative endeavor these days – functional items that are aesthetically pleasing as well. Why not!?!?! lol


4 Ellen February 22, 2008 at 6:35 am

I used ribbon to embellish a dress… to give it more definition in my waist. I then pinned on small fabric flowers that I’d made.

I’d wear it… but maybe hang it on the wall when I wasn’t!


5 Bree February 22, 2008 at 8:01 am

I’ve been embellishing items with portions of bulk coffee bean bags, sometimes appliqueing them, sometimes using large portions of the stenciled bags. I just love some of the stenciling on these “burlap” sacks!


6 Natalie February 22, 2008 at 8:13 am

I’ve created a scarf from freeform crochet and fabric scraps. I didn’t have a pattern in mind; I just thought about the various elements and put it together. It turned out to be quite wearable. Very organic-looking…

I wouldn’t think twice about wearing Willoughby’s skirts – I can’t wait to try making some of the skirts from her new book. Thanks for the contest!


7 Clara February 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Alison’s book, having become acquinted with her work after viewing it in Selvedge…a great mag.


8 eve February 22, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Though I love the embellishments in Willoughby’s skirts, I’ve only ever added purchased trim to garments. Except hats, I like mine with stuff stuck on and sticking out!

And clothing is definitely for wearing. I think that we become the walking display in the wearing.


9 Stephanie February 22, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I love using buttons to add details to a garment.

I would definitely wear the skirt and make a mini version to frame as art. I love making skirts and am excited about this book.


10 Clara February 22, 2008 at 10:33 pm

I realized while I was excited about the chance to receive Alison’s book, I didn’t answer the questions!
I’ve applied buttons to garments and strip floral pins, but nothing too elaborate.
And depending on the weight of the skirt or if the material was fragile, would determine if I would wear the work of art out. Fabric on fabric? Sure…glass?…wall art.


11 Arlene McComas February 22, 2008 at 11:07 pm

1. I love decorating clothing with vintage findings…lace, buttons, ric-rak and ribbons, beads and baubles of all kinds.
2. Wear then hang, wear then hang, wear then hang. It is either on me, or on the peg rack in my room.
(I also like to do fussy fun silly things for my 6 granddaughters – and they wear or toss on the floor – they are kids after all)


12 jeanetta February 22, 2008 at 11:31 pm

i love exposed seams and ragged edges so i love to do applique but leave the raw edges showing. And i am all about the wearing.
i am very excited about this book andcant wait to get a copy. i hope its from here :)


13 Jenna Z February 23, 2008 at 12:59 am

I’ve splattered bleach onto the skirt to leave nifty patterns. And I love adding a tule ruffle under the edge of a premade skirt to add a flirty fun look!


14 Elizabeth February 23, 2008 at 1:06 am

The most inventive thing I’ve ever done (and accomplished) was an embroidered mitten. I knit the mitten and then spent some time just fooling around with embroidery. For the record I copied some medieval drawing of a phoenix. (Don’t ask where it has disappeared to…I think it’s under my refrigerator…looong story).

Would I wear it? Yes. I don’t think you should own clothing you don’t wear. It certainly wouldn’t be an every day thing, but I like to wear something crazy at least a few times a week. It let’s me run away from the normal every day grind of school work etc.


15 vanessa February 23, 2008 at 2:37 am

Whipup is fantastic, I love it.
I don’t want to sound critical or anything, but The Royal College of Art is in London, not Glasgow……….. I know, because I went there! If she was in Glasgow, she was probably at Glasgow School of Art…………..
Anyway, I apologise that this comment is a bit petty………


16 geriann February 23, 2008 at 4:33 am

I actually am an artist after Ms. Willoughby’s heart. I embellish handsewn a-line skirts with all kinds of fun. I use 100% recycled materials (I’m currently obsessed with polyester). I am very inspired by scrips and scraps and vintage EVERYTHING! Following is a link to one of my favorite creations (that I kept for myself):

I come from a long line of creative and practical people so for me creating something that is both practical and aesthetically beautiful is very important. I wear my skirts and think that there is no better way to display art than on your own body – another wonderful creation!


17 Marsha February 23, 2008 at 4:40 am

I’ve knit small flowers, attached pin backs to them, and worn them on hats, coats, and tops.

And I would definitely wear an embellished outfit rather than just hang it on the wall!


18 Denise February 23, 2008 at 6:54 am

Given the right inspiration I might just start wearing skirts again!


19 Thien-Kim February 23, 2008 at 10:09 am

I just bought a pair of creme shoes for $1. They are just yelling for embelishment. I haven’t decided what exactly I’m going to do yet, but it will involve some metallic purple paint. I have, however, painted and beaded outfits to make it more me. I don’t have the budget to purchase unique or high end clothing, so buying items that are mass produced and cutting it up, painting it, or adding beads makes it more ME!


20 Connie February 23, 2008 at 10:54 am

I have knitted flowers to add to outfits, I have added ric-rac to skirts and ruffles to the bottom of jean skirts. I have just recently started to love skirts, so I would wear it instead of hanging it on a wall.


21 tiff February 23, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Oh geez, i would so love to embelish some clothing, apart from fabric applique on clothes, and painting t-shirts at school, i sadly never actually get passed thinking about it. I did look at some fabric pens the other day in spotlight and did a bit of fantisizing.
If I did create a skirt like willoghbys i would wear it and hang it on the walll?


22 Leah February 23, 2008 at 4:38 pm

Most innovative I’ve done – screen printed a zebra’s stripes around a skirt.

Those skirts are art, so they’d be on my wall!


23 Katie February 23, 2008 at 10:23 pm

what is the most innovative way you have decorated/embellished an outfit?
– Honestly I’m still new at sewing so the most embellishing I’ve done is adding some fancy trims or doing a quick machine applique with WonderUnder. This article has definitely given me some wonderful ideas though.

If you decorated/embellished an outfit such as in the vein of one of Alison Willoughby’s skirts would you want to wear it or hang it on the wall?
– Totally wear it! I’d have to show that baby off to the world. If I hung it on my wall I’d have to clean before inviting everyone over. Besides, my husband would indubitably say “Why is your skirt hanging on the wall?!”


24 edwina February 24, 2008 at 2:45 pm

Hmm I like to needle felt feathers to wool and stitch them onto things including a brown wool skirt for winter. But, here is the thing, I usually don’t wear them, but I enjoy the process. I guess I get a little self conscious.


25 Caroline February 25, 2008 at 3:58 am

I have added ribbons, rhinestones, trim and patches but nothing as cool as hers. I would love to wear them…gotta show them off! On the wall the just look like their calling out to be worn or a like a store or something lol


26 di February 25, 2008 at 4:00 am

Innovative embelishments: I have a basic A line skirt that I’ve made at least a dozen times now, but my favorite embellishments to the basic pattern have been inspired by Pattern Magic. My boxy skirt is probably the most successful and my favorite.
I would definitely wear one of Alison’s skirts. A special skirt, plain black T and my favorite boots is my fail safe, feel good and look stylish outfit.


27 Silver March 1, 2008 at 1:56 am

Innovation: The most innovative way I’ve embellished an outfit is with my dreams. ;) I haven’t managed to make any of them into reality yet, as more “sensible” — and last-minute — sewing usually takes precendence, but someday I’ll let those crazy embellishment dreams blossom into the real world…

Wear vs. display? I’d definitely wear my embellished items — that’s the point, IMO! Funky clothing is a way for me to express visually that I’m a pretty funky person … in a good way, you know. ;)


28 Wendy March 1, 2008 at 10:40 am

Innovation? I’m usually pretty plain-jane about my clothes. Most of what I’ve done involves adding seams (just for fun) in random places… embroidery… applique… lace…

I’d probably display my items on the wall when I wasn’t wearing them :)


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