This week Deco doyenne Tamsin Smith, aka Tammy Twinkletoes, tells Natasha Francois about her penchant for swing dancing, why she loves natural fibres and how there’s nothing like the exhilaration of creating a dress from scratch!
[Photography by Stuart Attword]
Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m an Art Deco-loving seamstress, Fashion Designer and swing dancing teacher based in Napier ‘the Art Deco capital’.
Since moving here in 2017 we have set up the Hi-De-Ho Swing Dancing School where we teach Charleston and Lindy Hop, plus my art deco repro label Tammy Twinkletoes has been able to come off the back burner and take centre stage! I now sew for delightful vintage lovers the world over, primarily creating made to measure pieces.
Napier provides a fabulous backdrop and inspiration for my designs, and this year I’m getting even more involved in the Napier Art Deco Festival; teaching dance, speaking about making your own outfits and with the focus on fashion this year, I am also busy planning a collection for the catwalk!
How long have you been making things? Were you always creative/ crafty as a youngster?
I’ve been sewing since before I could read! I started out making felt animals – my kindy teacher was fabulously patient and taught me enormous amounts. She used to call me her little sewing machine. I was always sewing instead of doing other kindy activities.
It was my mum who taught me to use a sewing machine; in fact it was my fault she had been forced to learn to sew in the first place – nothing off the rack ever fitted me as a child.
Did you study fashion design?
I studied fashion at AUT and majored in Costume. The absolute highlight of my studies was spending a semester in Rochester, England where the tutors were incredible. The focus that semester was on tailoring and they brought in a guest teacher for the duration who had been a Saville row tailor. I wish I had been even more of a sponge during that time! We spent hours learning pattern drafting and hand tailoring techniques, and would go on day trips to London where we snuck into places like Harrods and tried to sketch the clothing on their racks without being caught!
Where did the fascination with Art Deco design come from and why did you decide to make it the focus of your label?
Art Deco was not something on my radar until I started Swing Dancing and got invited at the last minute to go to the Napier Art Deco Festival in 2013. I had three days to put together my wardrobe for the extended weekend. I had finally found a style designed for my body shape, that was fun and carefree and I spent that first festival flitting about with no shoes, no bra and no cares.
Each February the Napier Art Deco Festival celebrates the city’s heritage. For a week the city is an idealised version of the 1920s/30s where every day is sunny, every night is filled with music and dancing, the drinks flow, and a small NZ city is completely transformed. The streets fill with vintage cars, vintage planes perform overhead, jazz bands set up on street corners and to dress in modern fashion puts you in a minority.
From that weekend I started researching and sewing, falling more in love with the architecture and deco motifs. The following year I had a wardrobe sorted and won best dressed at the Fashion competition.
How did the idea for your own label come about?
It was a natural progression from sewing for myself, to sewing for my friends, to sewing for anyone anywhere in the world! The name itself, Tammy Twinkletoes was a nickname growing up.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Recently I’ve been doing more 1930s styles, and with summer on the way I’m loving fresh, joyful colours – greens, yellows, whites etc. The seasons certainly influence me, but my style is always driven by the challenge of finding an original fashion plate with some interesting seaming – I get the overwhelming desire to work out how on earth the garment works! How do you get a zig zag panel seam sewn? If that piece is on the bias, then is the other one? How would the back look, and how does it close – there must be hooks there or else your head wouldn’t fit through the neckline! Those are the sorts of questions that get me going.
What are your creative inspirations?
Mainly fashion plates from the era, I love the 1920s and 1930s source books and have these on just about permanent loan from the library. I also love studying original garments; there is so much to learn.
What’s the first piece you remember making?
I remember making a pencil skirt for my intermediate school graduation. I had never sewn a zip before but somehow fudged it and I wore that skirt until I grew a bottom and it no longer fitted.
The first Art Deco dress I made was for the 2014 festival, I still wear it at every opportunity! Made from offcuts of silk, the design was hugely decided by what shapes I could cut from the scraps! This dress won me the dubious title of ‘best ladies reproduction’ in the Costumes and Coiffure Competition at the festival, and was really the dress that started it all!
Do you mainly make dresses or do you make other pieces as well?
Dresses are certainly what I do most as they were the predominant garment of the 20s and 30s, but I do sew other items too. Waistcoats are popular with the gents and I often sew skirts, trousers, and one-off headpieces.
Are the majority of orders custom made/ one offs?
Yes, I dream of having more stock in my Etsy shop, but at the moment it’s all I can do to keep up with custom orders. I also have selected pieces for sale at local shop Charleston Chic. Lee-Anne there has been so welcoming and supportive, so please if you are in town pop in and marvel at her gorgeous collection. It’s a treasure trove of Art Deco original fashion, items handmade in Napier and all things 1920s and 30s.
Tell me about the process involved in making Tammy Twinkletoes pieces. What materials do you use? And how long does each piece take to make?
The process starts with an inspiration image, the customer may have found a fashion plate or an outfit from a period TV show that they want recreated. Sometimes I am copying exactly, each pleat and button replicated. Other times it’s the sleeves from one image and bodice from another and skirt from my imagination. Once the design is agreed on I’m ready to make the pattern.
First off, I pad the mannequin out to the client’s measurements and drape and pin the design in calico. From the pieces of fabric I then create a paper pattern. If it’s a complex piece, I will test the pattern by sewing a mock-up before cutting into the real fabric. Most of my customers are now off shore (thanks all you Aussie and American Ladies!) so I ask for a comprehensive list of measurements for them to take and am able to complete the garment without a fitting.
I like to use all natural fibres of a high quality; linen, silk, cotton and viscose are all popular. Some customers choose to supply their own material, but I also offer the service of sourcing beautiful fabrics.
I have a couple of ancient industrial machines (my overlocker dates just about to the era of the clothing I create – it’s from the late 40s) on which I sew up the garments. A complex piece can take up to 30 hours from pattern to completion. I don’t shy away from handsewing hems and adding handstitched beading, so it can be very labour intensive. But the making is what I love.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The process! There is nothing like the exhilaration of creating a stunning dress from scratch and there’s always a thrill in sending it off to the other side of the world and getting pictures back of it being worn and looking even better on its intended than it did on the mannequin!
Where can people learn more about your work and purchase their own pieces?
And selected ready-made items at
Charleston Chic, Shop 1 Upper Tennyson Street, Masonic Hotel Building, Napier
Hi De Ho Swing
Napier Art Deco Festival