The Cartographer’s Guide to Dress-Making

Paper Dress made from maps

I live in a small village which is blessed with not one but three – three – second-hand bookshops.  Amongst the shelves of nearly-new thrillers and bodice-rippers, travel guides and cookbooks there is a large, open-fronted cupboard marked ‘Ephemera: Misc’.  It’s here I gravitate towards and where I’ve found a myriad of wild and wonderful books, maps, charts and music scores over the years which have steadily formed a small paper drift in my studio, waiting for inspiration to strike.

One of my recent buys was this Collins Graphic Atlas; I’ve no idea of the age but it was certainly pre-decimalisation, given the princely sum of 5 shillings…

Vintage map book

It had pages and pages of beautiful old maps and charts of the constellations in each hemisphere (I think I’ll frame these two as a set; I can’t bear to cut them up..)

Map book


Inspired by amazing paper dresses like these, I decided to have a go at making a piece of art for my friend’s newborn daughter to hang in her nursery.  Armed with scissors, a bone folder and  - of course – a nutritional glass of wine, I set about playing with ideas and choosing the loveliest and most interesting maps.

The hardest bit was working out how to create a pleated dress shape.  It took me several false starts to think it through (use rough paper till you get the hang of it), but eventually; ta-da!! the perfect concertina box pleat;

Dress making with vintage maps

To save you the brain strain I experienced, here’s a guide below for how to make a box fold.  Essentially, you need to measure out and mark up your map or paper with alternate widths of 2cm/1cm, and then score them lightly using a bone folder to make folding easier.  The grey dotted lines below indicate where you fold the paper inwards to make an inverted fold; the red lines show where you fold away from you to build up the raised pleat areas.  Once you have made your box pleats, flatten the top end and gently spread out the bottom edges to create a fan effect like in the picture above.  Give it a whirl..

How to make a box pleat

Once the dress shape is made, the rest is fun and just needs imagination and a bit of playing around.  I made lapels for the dress using the edges of a map, folding carefully to match the borders, and using a punch to cut out a large decorative button (this can also cover a multitude of sins when you’re sticking it all together)

Assembling a paper dress

As you see above, I made little puffed cap sleeves by cutting semi-circles and lightly gathering and glueing them – but then decided later not to use them.

I assembled the dress together and then glued each part in place onto a sheet of white watercolour paper, layering it up, piece by piece.  It needed one final touch, for a tiny but determined person with the world at her feet and a life full of adventure ahead…

Matilda and her dress

And here it is!

Matilda's Map Dress

Good luck if you decide to give this a whirl; although I used my book of maps, any gift wrap, patterned or even plain paper would look good.  And do let me know how you get on…

handbag logo

Harry’s Ark

Most of the projects I do for and with Harry take minutes or hours; we are notoriously distractible and not genetically completer-finishers. Not at all. This one however was a monster; it began when Harry was just a few days old, and was finished a year later – at last, Harry’s Ark (with apologies to Noah) is ready for the rains to come!

In the early, fuzzy days of new motherhood I decided I wanted to make Harry a toy that he could play with over a number of years, that would look good even when it was retired to the playroom shelf, and maybe, just maybe, might become a family heirloom and entertain others in the future.  I must have been mad; let’s blame the raging hormones and sleeplessness.

I settled on the idea of a Noah’s Ark, as a sort of boy’s equivalent to a Dolls House.  My creativity may be strong but my woodworking skills are not, so I searched Ebay for old model boats or half-built and abandoned projects that I could makeover.  I found the base for Harry’s Ark this way; a beautifully shaped, nearly complete hull of a boat that was discovered in someone’s late grandfather’s workshop.  This gave an added poignancy to the project and I like to think he’d have been pleased to see it finished and put to use.  I built the body of the ark using random doll house components bought online (pillars, doors and windows) and balsa wood for the walls and pitched roof.  Miniature cedar shingles glued to the balsa create a folk-art style roof, and I used malleable stained glass leading for the roof top and edges.

I added eye-hooks along the hull and threaded a waxed washing line and curtain rings to give the impression of buoyancy aids (amazing what you can repurpose!).  A cheap ladder from the pet store intended for budgerigar cages provided the perfect ramp for animals to board the ark.  Stitched scraps of hessian filled with rice make good food bags / sandbags, and join straw bales and barrels to make a collection of props for Harry to use when playing.  Harry helped me to gather tiny twigs through the winter, which I chopped and glued to fill the roof cavity and add a decorative top to the ark walls.  I nailed a tiny model dovecote to the roof and added miniature birds and a weathervane (the forecast of course is always rain but you never know…).

I was determined that this should be a properly usable toy and not an ornament, so designed it to come apart into several pieces (above).  When Harry was tiny he played with the base alone, then I mounted it onto castors and added a rope so he could pull it around.  Now that he is 2 and more dextrous, he marches the animals in and out of the ark and positions them along the roof, slams the doors and zooms them up and down the ladder laden with buckets and miniature carrots and grain sacks.  Being a boy, many animals regularly plunge to their doom in the sea, and the emergency services are frequently required to rescue lost dogs and sheep.  Not very biblical perhaps, but great fun nonetheless.

We bought a few pairs of Schleich animals to start him off, which cost a couple of pounds each; I thought that in time this would be a good pocket-money investment, with Harry able to add new animals one (or maybe two) at a time, and find the odd one in his Christmas stocking.  With that in mind, I customised an Ikea box using transfer paper, so we can document and then store each new arrival….

The ark is still a work in progress, and I suspect always will be; bits occasionally drop off after vigorous play, but more often additions are requested and made; our next project is a feeding trough and some nets to trawl the ocean; I’m thinking fishnet stockings might be the obvious candidate for recycling here but am pretty sure I don’t have any lying around (not these days, at least…)

What was your best-loved toy as a child, and has it survived? I give our ark a 50:50 chance of longterm survival, but actually it doesn’t really matter – sometimes the very best toys get loved to death and destruction, and that surely should be seen as a sign of their success..

The Playroom Safari

Harry’s now at the age where hand puppets are becoming interesting; they can bring stories to life, steal food from his plate (who knew that giraffes are partial to bananas, or that crocodiles lose all sense of decorum when faced with a square of toast?). They can whisper secrets furrily into one’s ear, and seem to Harry to occupy a realm somewhere between make-believe and reality.

We’ve amassed a small safari of animals over the last couple of years, including this incredibly lifelike rabbit below (‘it looks like roadkill‘ shuddered my husband, as I whipped the admittedly rather squashed bunny out of my suitcase after a recent business trip).  The trouble is that like all soft toys they tend to get buried at the bottom of the toy box and discovered only by chance, usually looking somewhat crumpled and adorned with lost Cheerios and ancient stickers.

The solution; to mount them on the playroom wall, hunting-lodge style.  Each animal has been carefully (if not very imaginatively) christened and allocated a position, and now our very own safari surveys the playroom and its members are regularly invited down for play.  It’s perhaps the only habitat in which you will see crocodiles, giraffes and elephants co-existing in such harmony…far more harmony than a bunch of toddlers, that’s for sure.

How to make these: After experimenting with various poles and mounts, I discovered these papier-mâché hands (1) which duly fill the puppet heads to max effect when glued to a piece of MDF (2) –  strong cardboard would work just fine. Glue together, paint white all over with a soft bristled brush (3), allow to dry and then drill a small hole before mounting on the wall with pins or nails (6).  I added these name tags (4), made from wood offcuts and blackboard paint and strung loosely over the hands.