a peacock dress

Yes, peacocks! When I first described this fabric to friends – apparently they were picture peacock-colored fabric. So needless to say they were surprised to find actual peacocks all over me!

Anyway, this dress was a labor of love – following both couture techniques included in the pattern, as well as others I have picked up along the way on other classes and looking at historical garments. Basically, during my August vacation, I visited the newly opened Silk Road Fabrics in Auburndale, MA… and was simply blown away by this cut silk/rayon velvet patterned with roses, vines and yes, peacocks. The sheer black background was tried over a number of different colors of silk charmeuse… but ultimately this bright lime green won out. With the addition of some black silk organza for interlining, I was ready to get started… and this was the winning dress pattern:

Interestingly, this pattern is based on a vintage bias-cut dress from the 1930s – one of my favorite decades for fashion! All of the fitting is done through a pair of three darts:  one diagonal front dart, one back vertical dart, and one horizontal dart. And of course, it says right on the pattern “no allowance made for above waist adjustment” (or something like that… you get the idea!) So basically no easy way to do a full bust adjustment (FBA.)

Would I let this deter me? Well – for a few days, yes. I made an initial muslin (with no adjustments) and tried on and debated for about a week about whether or not the bias cut would allow me to get away with skipping the FBA. Ultimately I decided it it was worth the extra effort (math, redrafting, additional muslins, etc) and invented my own bias-cut FBA. (I’m sure others have done this before but I couldn’t find any online tutorials – or suggestions in any of my dozen fitting books.)

First of all – I should mention that this dress is a single pattern piece with a center back seam. However, other than the zipper place at the left side, the pattern is a mirror image at the center front. (i.e. it could be placed on a fold if it weren’t for the bias grainline)

So for my bias FBA – I only worked on redrafting the left side of the pattern. I split the pattern lengthwise from neck to hem, running through the bust apex marked on the pattern. I spread the pattern apart about 1.25.” Normally it would be between 1.5 and 2″ but I did want to allow for the extra ease provided by the bias grainline.

You can just see the extra space from widening the pattern at the center bottom of the photo.  To get the shaping I needed for the FBA, you can see how much I widened the main front dart. It starts just below the bust apex and curves back, ending at the lower hip. This made for a VERY wide dart – but it worked perfectly during the subsequent muslin fittings. The dark lines on the right side of the image are the final darts – the paler lines and everything on the left side of the photo are the original markings.

I didn’t add any extra length to the pattern pieces – normally I would add 1/2″ to 1″ but again I figured the bias drape would weigh the dress down and stretch out the fabric.  Fortunately I guessed right! It took three muslin fittings to perfect this –  but hopefully you’ll agree it was worth it!

Wrong side of the charmeuse is up... the velvet layer is below it, also with wrong side up.

With the muslin perfected, it was time to transfer all the cutting lines and markings to silk charmeuse. I decided to baste the velvet and charmeuse layers together to work them as one so that meant basting all the darts, zipper markings, and matching dots & notches. As both fabrics were incredibly slippery, I used weights to keep everything in place and basted everything while it was flat on a table. Difficult to see – but most of the dart markings have been basted in the photo above. Around the cut edges I used pins since the sewing time was nearly constant – there wasn’t much worry about losing pins or layers separating.

Following the traditional couture methods, all the darts were basted together by hand and then machine stitched. This was especially effective since I was working with velvet which has tendency to creep while sewing. (One of these days I’ll buy a walking foot!) From that point on I pretty much followed the instructions, working the two fabrics as one throughout the process. For the facings and zipper placket, I also used the two fabrics to keep the finishes consistent. The zipper placket, which is inserted into a cut slit at the left side, was a new technique for me but not too bad when following the pattern instructions. I did have to hand-sew the actual zipper in several times as the drape of the fabric kept fighting against it as soon as I tried on – but finally on the third attempt it was laying properly.

After not too much more time, the dress was finished except for hem and armhole trim. I lucked out on some great red beaded velvet trim which worked for the armholes. It was a bit wider than I hoped for, but the rich red color really helped the roses in the dress to pop. Lorrie at Unique Boutique Boston was kind enough to mark the hem for me (and be the first one to ‘wow’ at the gown which was very gratifying!!) and after a bit more hand-sewing… all was finally finished!

I don’t dress up very often… but as I was the guest of honor at the party I wore it to – I must say it felt fabulous to be wearing such a stunning dress!


a little black dress, part quatre

This is the dress that never ends! Except… just maybe the end is now in sight!

After months of languishing on a hanger on the back of a door, it’s been rescued and progress has been made. Since the bodice had been sewn to the skirt with any pressing, I opted to take out that seam, press and trim all the seams to 3/4″ or so, and then sew the bodice back to the skirt.  This actually took several attempts – or at least touch-ups – as I tried to exactly match all the seams and pleats… but as with every other step on this dress, it turned out to be worth the effort.

After pressing the waist seam,  I got to work catch-stitching most of the interior seam. It may be a while before I add a lining so I wanted to make it wearable in the interim! This step was slow going but easy… most of it got finished while watching a movie on Hulu. (The Relic… if you must know. There’s something about cheesy sci-fi monster movies that I love!)

Moving on, with most of the seams taken care of, I followed the directions to staystitch and then press the neck and armhole seam allowances to the inside, then clip curves, then press again. With a deep V-neck in front and back this didn’t work perfectly but it certainly helped. All those edges got the catchstitch treatment, too.

Switching to Peter Benchley’s The Creature in the background (yeah, I know, extra cheesy monster) I went ahead and inserted the zipper using a lapped application, stitched by hand. Since I had been having trouble getting the dress on and off, I moved the zipper higher up the side to give more of an opening at the bust. I was mostly winging it… but luckily it did the trick.

A quick try on of the dress… and eek… a tad bit tight around the hips. I’ll try it with spanx tomorrow and hope for the best! If all goes well, the only remaining steps are fixing one of the side pleats and hemming. It may actually get worn tomorrow…

Well, I’ll also need a lint brush and a fresh pressing ;o) Silly cat loves being near when I sew lately!

Oh – and if I never say anything further about this dress… the neckline is so spectacular. Strapless bra required – but wow, will the effect be stunning. I’m already trying to think how I can use it other ways…

a little black dress, part trois

A not-so-great photo of my matched seams – horizontal seam is the waist. Above is the front bodice dart and below are two of the front skirt darts.

Four uninterrupted hours of sewing… how’s that for a lovely Saturday? I was invited to join one of the guild’s other neighborhood gatherings today, so I packed a small box with miscellaneous unfinished projects, put it in the car with the machine and away I went.  The little black dress had been sitting in a pile since whenever in January I put it aside so it went in the box! Once I started to unpack turned out that was the only complete project I managed to get in there. Duh!

Anyway…  during my time today, in addition to some lovely conversation, I finished basting the entire dress together and then moved on to actual sewing the seams on the machine. Wow… only 15 or so hours later and four pieces of fabric are starting to look like a dress! All joking aside, it’s been interesting constructing a gown using such painstaking methods. One of the more tedious steps was matching the seams and darts between the bodice and the skirt. Of six points, I think I was perfect on two, darn close on two, and not so close on two. I will definitely red0 the last two… the darn close ones are still up for debate. I haven’t yet pressed the seams – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the mis-matched points miraculously re-align with steam & pressure ;o)

Better picture and better matching - too bad it's the back!

The other minimally fun step? Taking out all the basting stitches! Keep in mind that every seam and dart has three rows of basting stitches which have now been sewn through with the machine stitching. Tweezers would have been helpful and the seam ripper was invaluable! That step alone took about 3 of the 4 hours I was working on it today. Taking out any kind of stitches will never be my favorite step!!!

The tally so far:

  • Muslin fitting ~ 4 hours
  • Prepping underlining & lining – 4.5 hours
  • Constructing dress & removing basting stitches – 5 hours

Still to be done:

  • Perfect matched seams
  • Turn seam allowances to inside and tack down
  • Zipper
  • Lining
  • Hem

I need to stop making lists…. looks so much worse that way!

a grey wedding guest dress, finis

I was smiling more before work. This is my post-lecture exhausted look... and yet, the dress still rocks!

Last stitches in, photos taken and it’s time to call another project done! (Okay, okay… I may need to touch up the hem a bit, but we’ll see what happens overnight!)

This project went surprisingly smooth considered I never worked on it with ideal space, lighting and even a table for the sewing machine and iron. My biggest worry along the way is that I couldn’t move my arms enough due to both a tight armsyce and a bit of pull across the bodice fronts. However, after clipping around the armscye seam, nearly all of the tension was relieved. It is still on the high and tight side, but it’s now only awkward getting in and out of the dress, and not while wearing it, even with the sleeve lining stitched in place.

Some notes on construction & pattern changes:

  • Bodice pieces and waistband were cut to a size 14 with no changes. Skirt pieces were cut to size 16 and the top 2″ or so were tapered slightly on each piece so they would meet the size 14 waistband when joined together.
  • Bodice front was lined in self fabric, eliminating the need to hem the top edge
  • Bodice back neckline was faced in self fabric that had been interfaced. A full bodice back lining was also cut, slipped beneath the facing and hand-stitched in place.
  • The waistband was also interfaced… note to self: do not skip this step – it made all the difference!
  • 3/4 length sleeves were shortened an additional 1 1/2″. The original length is just awkward and bunchy. Now the sleeves are just below elbow length. I’d probably experiment with above-elbow length next time which would likely require shortening another 3″.
  • Sleeve hems were turned up about 1 1/4″, lining were cut a bit shorter and turned up 1/2″ before being hand stitched in place at the hem and at the armsyce.
  • I forgot to lengthen the torso anywhere – so I just ended up attaching the waistband with 3/8″ seams to add a total 1/2″ in torso length. This seemed to do the trick, although the tied band is now a tad narrower than the waistband at the side seams.
  • Skirt was about as basic as it gets! Each side of the center back kick pleat is fully lined and then lapped and tacked in place inside.
  • Self lined bodice was worked as one layer when adding bust gathers and attaching to waistband. This made it a bit tricky putting in a side seam zipper – a few extra stitches needed to be ripped out so that zipper ended up between the correct layers. Although it would break up the back line (which really is very pretty) I’d be tempted to convert this to a back zipper if I made another lined version.

Hips. Ugh. But the dress is still pretty!

Altogether, this probably took about 6 hours, maybe a bit more since I was generally distracted while working on it. I used a bit under 2 1/2 yards of 60″ suiting fabric and less than 2 yards of grey synthetic lining. Matching thread, invisible zipper, some handstitching in silk thread. Interfacing was Pellon Ultra Weft.  Cost… no more than $15, including pattern.

I plan on wearing the dress to tonight’s lecture at work, and possibly to work itself, so I’ll be able to test the stability of the hem and general wearability of the dress. However, if the quick try-on (even with pins sticking me in my arms and legs) is any indication – this could be an absolute go-to pattern. I love the neckline and the sleeve possibilities are pretty wide. I can also see converting this to a fuller skirt below the waistband.

The one issue I have is whether or not I should try adding some additional ease for my larger than B-cup figure. The bias drape of the front bodice works for this one, even with a lining, but I wonder if I should play with that on the next version. And yes, there will be a next version!

EDIT: **Wore it tonight… not a single problem or fitting issue. Score one for the sick girl sewing in bed!**

a grey wedding guest dress

All the necessities: machine, iron, laptop, cutting, pincushion, pattern, fabric... and of course extra pillows and a fuzzy blanket!

No, Vicky’s wedding dress isn’t done yet… but I have made some headway in a dress for me to wear to the wedding. After being sick with a cold all weekend, I finally had a burst of energy on Sunday night. Since the sewing machine and iron were already in the bedroom, I decided to see how far I could get in making a gown while still saying in bed.

Frighteningly enough… one can get pretty far!

I did ask Tom to bring up the old cardboard cutting board and used that on the bed to cut out the dress pieces. I had found New Look 6912 on my last trip to Joann’s and really liked the draped neckline, plus the fitted torso. I went with the waist ties and the 3/4 length sleeves – and as usual, I also planned to fully line the dress.

I love the neckline. End of story.

In several hours of working on it last night, while staying in bed and watching random movies on Hulu – I managed to get the entire gown constructed – minus sleeves, lining and invisible side zipper.  I was really liking how it fit and how it looked hanging up against the wall.

Fast forward to this evening… and I managed to get the lining cut out & sewn, plus the zipper installed and sleeves added. Now, I haven’t clipped or pressed the armsyce – but I’m just not as crazy about it as I thought I’d be. I’m now rethinking sleeves.  Except that it looks really good on the hanger. Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll wait and look at the photos again tomorrow on a larger screen.

A few things learned while sewing in bed:

  • Use a pin cushion. Containers can spill and pins in bed doesn’t make anyone happy.
  • A bolt of muslin makes a great ironing board.
  • The machine may sound really loud but really no one else in the house can hear it.
  • Bad movies make it easier to focus on sewing.
  • Cats are not helpful to the sewing process. No matter how much they also enjoy being on the bed.

And lastly… a few notes about the dress until I get pictures loaded. The pattern details are above. The fabric… well, it’s sort of a heathered green-grey, more on the grey side in a polyester (blech!) spring suiting that I snagged at Joann’s for a whopping $1.50/yd. Yep – under $4 for the dress fabric. I don’t remember exactly how much the lining and notions cost – but I do remember that my entire bill was about $27 and that included the dress & lining fabrics, thread, zipper, extra zipper/thread for the little black dress, and the latest Threads magazine. Not bad eh?

Now to try it on again in the morning to decide the fate of the sleeves… and possibly the dress!

a little black dress, part deux

Well, unsurprisingly to me, I haven’t gotten much further on the dress. But I have managed to both take some pictures of the journey and get them downloaded on my computer. That’s a small little success right there!

My starfish-shaped bodice. They had themselves some serious darts in the 1950s!

Our most recent class chat was Sunday evening, two nights ago.  As I had a busy day and not much time to get ahead with sewing before the chat, I put the laptop nearby and continued to alternate basting pieces and typing for an hour. I was able to get the entire bodice hand-basted together just before our chat came to an end… and lo and behold… the darn thing actually fit pretty well.

A few notes while they are still relatively fresh in my mind:

  • It took about one hour to baste the entire bodice together. This includes side seams, shoulder seams and six bodice darts.
  • I need to continuously remind myself that this is a 1950s vintage pattern. It was meant to wear over 1950s lingerie (aka bullet bras) which I do not currently wear. (Nor do I plan to… but that’s a whole other topic.)
  • It’s a fine line between getting a good high bust point and maintaining the vintage look while still being able to wear the dress comfortably over modern skivvies.
  • The bodice will be comfortably snug when finished, especially with the lining layer thrown in there. However, I always find that linen relaxes on the body so I’m keeping that in mind relative to the ease of the finished dress. We’ll see how the cotton batiste underlining effects that…
  • It’s going to take some really delicate yet manipulative pressing to get the bust just right. But if I’m patient and take some time on it it will be worth the effort.
  • Lastly… keep the orange and white cat away from the little black dress pieces. A single cat hair is too much.

I will baste the skirt darts and side seams next but won’t bother trying those on. The muslin from the waist down has been just ducky so far. Once all the basting is done, it’s time to whip the whole thing together on the machine and starting turning all those seam allowances to the inside. And add a zipper. Here’s hoping it’s as quick as it sounds in the directions….

a little black dress

Not surprisingly, I’m juggling several projects, but the one currently getting the most attention is my little black dress made of linen. I’m taking Susan Khalje’s online class through Pattern Review and am both learning a ton and having way more fun with the meticulous steps than I had expected. The pattern I chose is Vintage Vogue (reprint) 1137. The finished dress will be 100% black linen from Joann’s, underlined with black cotton batiste (because I had 4 yards just sitting around). Lining is yet to be determined.

The muslin fitting stage was the most tedious so far – primarily because I had to alter a single front bodice piece to fit 3 cup sizes larger than the pattern, using only one vertical dart and one horizontal dart on each half. So… five muslin bodice fronts later, I was finally happy with the result. Not ecstatic-jumping-for-joy-happy but more of a subdued yeah-this-will-work-happy. And while part of me wishes I had kept track of the hours that went into that portion of the project, let’s just say it’s probably better not knowing!

Earlier this evening I had some time to work on the next few steps – namely marking the seam lines on the underlining, cutting out the underlining and the linen, and then basting each piece to it’s underlining along the seam lines. I can report that all of that took roughly 4.5 hours. I’m pretty sure the basting took about 1.5 hours of that… but I wasn’t paying attention when I started the first piece.

The gory details of the steps… along with photos are up next. Oh, and basting the pieces together to see if my yeah-this-will-work muslin did the trick after all!