The Belated Spoonflower Challenge Dress

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The latest addition to my self-designed wardrobe is a dress made from organic cotton sateen in the print called Entangled, which was designed by Heather Dutton of Hang Tight Studio and sold on Spoonflower.com. I intended to wear it in the ASG Chicago Chapter fashion show last October as part of a group challenge with other members of my neighborhood group, Sew Chicago. We had voted on the print and we could choose to make any garment using any of the fabrications and colors that were offered in this particular print. I really like the print and  I wanted to be part of the group on the runway, but I was the co-coordinator of that show and the dress didn’t get finished in time.

I tried it on for Sarah Veblen later that fall and she pinned out some of the fullness in the side seams and contoured them toward the hem. Nice improvement, but when I realized that making that change meant resetting the invisible zipper on one of the seams, it remained unfinished for months. I rationalized that this is a summer dress and there was no point in finishing it in the fall or winter. Then came the crunch for the Haute Couture Club of Chicago fashion show and the next thing I knew there was just barely enough time to get it done so I could wear it at the ASG National Conference in Indianapolis.

As you can see, the dress has a curved Empire seam. It dips quite a bit in the back.

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When I used this design again for my Little Black Dress, which is more fitted in the skirt, I modified the curve so that it didn’t dip as much.

I was really excited about the way this print worked on the collar. I had seen a striped cotton dress on a mannequin in a store last summer that had a collar like this one. The stripes were vertical in the body of the dress and horizontal across the front of the collar. I knew this print would give a similar effect and that it would be a piece of cake to draft the pattern.

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It’s basically a Peter Pan Collar without a break in the back with the front edges extended to overlap a bit and shifted over to the side to go over one shoulder.

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I used small release pleats and tiny darts to control the fullness from the relaxed silhouette I was going for.

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I lined the dress in light blue Imperial cotton batiste. The overall effect is a dress that’s amazingly comfortable to wear.

 

A Big, Bold Departure from My Norm

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This is a dress that really surprised me. After the Haute Couture Club of Chicago fashion show I was mentally and physically exhausted, but I still had another huge project ahead of me. I had taken on the task of designing and editing a cookbook for a bride-to-be and co-hosting her bridal shower, which was six days after the show in New York. I was feeling good about the fact that my dress for the wedding was pretty much done and really looking forward to sewing without a deadline for a while when I learned I was going to be invited to the rehearsal dinner. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but the only thing I could think of was that I had no idea what to sew and was fresh out of inspiration.

Not that it matters, but I didn’t want to wear the same silhouette to both events. Then there was the question of fabric. I didn’t really want to do black again, although I have a very nice black eyelet that would have been perfectly fine for a summer evening dinner party on the patio of a hip Brooklyn bistro. With all those negatives floating around in my head, is it any wonder I was uninspired?

The one thought that did develop was that I wanted a print in silk or linen, but I couldn’t find anything that appealed to me.  Clearly, I needed a mentoring session with Sarah Veblen to get me on track. Over FaceTime, I went through a pile of fabrics I have in my collection that could work, and we discussed each one. Most of the fabrics I have that could be made into cocktail or evening wear would work in any season other than summer. Other fabrics failed to spark any enthusiasm.

In discussing other possibilities I mentioned how much I liked this blue and green leaf print from Sawyer Brook and then quickly explained that I’d dismissed it because it was a large scale print with bold colors which brought it outside my comfort zone and the fabrication was wrong  —cotton sateen with stretch. Cotton can be a perfectly lovely fabric for a summer dress that’s a little bit dressy, but I’m not a fan of Lycra in woven fabrics. It interferes with the drape and makes the fabric overly heavy. It also makes the fabric uncomfortably warm, destroying its ability to breathe.

Once Sarah saw the print, she insisted that I order the fabric. Her answer to the fabrication objections was that I should underline the dress in cotton batiste and not line it.

With the fabric selected, it was time to develop a pattern. I wanted a full skirt, which was achieved by slashing and spreading copies of my basic armscye princess dress pattern pieces. Instead of a waist seam that would cut me in half and add bulk where I’m plenty bulky enough, I wanted to achieve the transition from a fitted bodice to the full skirt with fairly generous release pleats. I also wanted a wide, gently curved neckline and a rolled collar that had overlapping ends on one shoulder.

I was scheduled to share a day with my friend Steph King from Siouxigirl Designs working privately with Sarah Veblen before attending her class Exploring Fashion Design—Design I in mid-May. Steph brought several muslins and I had planned to do the same when we originally scheduled the session. But, with the leaf print dress project that needed to be completed before June 10, that became the only thing I was going to have time to work on that day. Grouse, grouse grouse!

Before flying to Baltimore, I drafted the pattern and mocked it up in muslin. I left the release pleats for Sarah to place and drape on me. We decided the dress needed a third pleat on each side at the front princess seam. That required angling the princess seam outward from above the waist to the hem. It also required some working out of the construction process, which ended up to be sewing the princess seam first and then pressing and clean finishing the seam allowances. The next step was to sew the release pleat, which started at the seam and branched out below.

We took a critical look at the collar and ultimately decided to eliminate the overlap at the shoulder. Instead, I connected it at center back. Sarah suggested a silk dupioni undercollar, which I interfaced with soft stretch fusible. The upper collar is underlined like the rest of the dress.

Sarah had told me to bring the fabric with me so she could help me lay out the pattern. Because of the scale and complexity of the print, I ordered lots of extra fabric. Ordinarily, I order three yards of fabric for a dress and I have plenty left over. I ordered five yards and don’t have much of anything usable left over. I knew that strategic placement of the pattern would require full pattern pieces for the front and back as well as the collar, because each piece had to be laid out on a single layer of fabric.

Sarah walked me through her thought process in placing pattern pieces. One of the primary goals was to break up the white areas. Next, it was important to avoid having the print march across the dress. This is not a print where we wanted to match motifs at seamlines, but we wanted transitions that weren’t jarring. If I had been left to my own devices on this step, I would have spent a lot of time wondering and questioning my decisions. Instead, Sarah guided me in placing each piece. She left me to pin and cut and then come up with an idea of where the adjacent piece should be placed while she worked with Steph or did something else.  I’m pretty sure all the placements I suggested were changed, but each time the reason for the adjustment made sense.

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The last decision to make was where to place the collar. We rejected having black at center front and knew we wanted to avoid white there. We opted for that pretty blue and found an orientation that worked. It took hours to get this thing placed and cut!

After hand basting the batiste to the fashion fabric, construction was fairly straightforward. I mentioned the process we worked out for the princess seam release pleat earlier. The other four release pleats (two on each side front panel) start and stop in the middle of the fabric with the starting points staggered. For these, I started with a locking stitch, then sewed for about an inch with very short stitches (1.1 on my machine). I then switched to a regular stitch length, returning to the short stitches an inch before the end. At the end, I used a locking stitch, stopped with needle down, raised the presser foot and pivoted then stitched over the last inch with the same short stitches.

The cotton batiste underlining really makes this dress work. It controls the stretch in the fashion fabric, which was the primary reason for adding it, but it also makes the skirt in the area below the release pleats fall in nice soft folds.

This is the first garment I’ve made in a long time that isn’t lined. Because it’s a summer dress and it already has that extra layer of underlining, Sarah advised me to not line it. The seam allowances are serge-finished. The side seams are pressed open and were serged before stitching. The princess seams were serged together after stitching, pressing and clipping the curves where necessary. Those seam allowances are pressed toward the center.

When working on the design, Sarah advised me to make a facing with the cotton batiste I used for underlining. I drafted an all-in-one facing for the neck and armholes and interfaced the batiste with soft stretch fusible. In drafting the facing, I was overly timid about its depth. For next time, I’ll draft a facing pattern that is more generous. In this one, I made sure I anchored the bottom edges by hand sewing them to the underlining. I also anchored the pleat intake the same way.

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I was able to attach the facing to the neck seam and armscyes completely by machine. I first attached the facing at the neck on the outside of the dress, with the collar sandwiched in between. With the underlined fashion fabric, interfaced undercollar and interfaced facing, there was a pretty hefty stack of layers to deal with and even more when sewing over the shoulder seams.

After stitching, pressing and clipping the curves where needed, I understitched all around. The key to understitching is to make sure the seam allowance and facing (or lining) are flat on the bed of the sewing machine and any clips to allow for curves are spread out so they can do their job. And it’s really important to make sure that the only things under the presser foot are the seam allowances and facing. In another project, I kept catching bits of the collar and decided I needed to take a break.

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To attach the collar, attach the facing and understitch, I used directional stitching. That is, I started at the shoulder seam and sewed to the center front, then sewed from the opposite shoulder to center front and repeated the process in the back.

The facings are drafted with ¼ inch subtracted at the armscye from the shoulder, tapering back to the original seamline at the princess seams. This encourages the facing to stay hidden. To attach the facing at the armscyes, the facing is already turned to the inside of the dress, but by doing this step before the side seams were sewn, I was able to attach the lower part of the facing to the lower parts of the arsmscyes without any fancy gymnastics.

 

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Things get pretty weird looking when you get toward the shoulder seams. You have to reach in between the fashion fabric and facing and pull the work down through the opening at the bottom of the facing to pin and sew the rest of the seam. The way to avoid having to redo this step is to make sure that anything that isn’t supposed to be sewn stays tucked into the tube and the only layers under the presser foot are the underlined fashion fabric and the interfaced facing. Frequent stops with the needle down to feel for that ridge of excess fabric and readjust as needed prevents having to spend quality time with the seam ripper.

The way to make this process go smoothly is to pin and sew one side (front or back) to the shoulder seam, then pin and sew the opposite side. When pinning the second side, the work can slide out easily and because it’s sewn in place it stays where it belongs and creates a path that shows where the new stitching is supposed to end up.

When done, it looks like a fabric sausage.

After turning it out, it had to be pressed with favoring so the facing remains hidden. I understitched as far as possible and pressed again.

Every sewing project gives me grief at one point or another and this time it was the zipper. It’s an invisible zipper at the side seam, which I’ve done before and shouldn’t have been a big deal.

As much as I love the print and enjoy wearing the finished product, I’m still not a fan of stretch wovens. When the fabric arrived, it had some stubborn creases that resisted steaming and pressing and could only be removed with a vinegar and water solution and additional thorough pressing. The finished dress also developed quite a few creases in my suitcase and required thorough pressing before I could wear it. It’s pretty difficult to avoid woven fabrics with stretch these days, so I may just have to learn to live with these annoyances.

In the end, I think that overcoming the lack of inspiration, lack of enthusiasm for the fabrication and hesitation about wearing a big, bold print turned out to be worthwhile. I love the swishiness of the skirt and will keep this silhouette in my repertoire.

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My Little Black Dress

IMG_0230I needed a dress for an evening wedding in New York this month and, for once, I started early.  I brought a muslin, the fabric I wanted to use and the embellishment I was thinking of using to the You Choose Your Focus workshop Sarah Veblen taught here in Chicago in February.  The details of that workshop and the design of the dress are here.

With the pattern work done, the next step was to cut and then hand baste the silk organza underlining to the black silk and wool matelassé fashion fabric. This step seemed to take forever. The fashion fabric was pretty wiggly and underlining was still a new process for me. I found myself pulling out stitches and repinning organza to fashion fabric until I thought I’d lose my mind. It didn’t help that the clock was ticking on the fashion show I was co-chairing and work got really crazy. What I now know can be a relaxing, almost meditative part of sewing was none of the above for this project.

In addition to the underlining, the bias collar is supported by soft stretch fusible interfacing, which I fused to the silk organza before basting it to the fashion fabric. The dress is lined to the edge in silk charmeuse, so I also fused interfacing to the  the area around the neck and armscyes in the shape of what would have been a facing.

Once the fabric was underlined, I loved the hand of the combination and the way it behaved. The princess seams in the bodice went together beautifully. Once those were done, I was sure the skirt seams would be a breeze. I was wrong. More about that in a bit.

The collar/neckline seam always requires directional stitching and on this dress I was concerned about getting the point at center back right. This was a bit more challenging than usual because there is no center back seam in the dress. I followed Sarah’s instructions that included careful marking of the point and machine basting then checking the placement. Once I was satisfied that things were where they needed to be, I went back over the machine basting with a normal 2.5 stitch length. After checking it again to be sure it was right, the final step was to sew at 1.1 stitch length from about an inch away from the point, stop with the needle down and pivot and then continue for about an inch on the other side.

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With the part I was worried about behind me, I proceeded to sew the skirt pieces together. That’s when the trouble began. The first seam was off by more than 1/4″ by the time I got to the end, so I unstitched, steamed the pieces and made sure they matched when I repinned them. I stitched again after adjusting the tension on my machine and the same thing happened. I knew that if I couldn’t get the vertical seams to match there was no way I was going to be able to get the four-way intersections of vertical seams and Empire seams to come together. I was in a panic. All I could think to do was hand baste the seams before sewing them on the machine. I did this with one seam, saw that it worked and called it a night.

A couple of people suggested using a walking foot and Sarah confirmed that that should solve the problem. I’ve used a walking foot before and I don’t know why I resisted at first. Turns out that was the perfect solution. The walking foot is my new best friend. Here is how those four-way intersecting seams turned out.

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This made me think about those new machines that have built-in even feed and I had to push those thoughts out of my head! This is not the year for a new machine

The next dilemma was the zipper. You can’t install an invisible zipper with a walking foot. That’s where hand basting was necessary. I sewed the first side of the zipper into the side seam as usual with the invisible zipper foot. I then hand basted the second side and made sure the Empire seam was aligned before sewing that side on the machine.  Here is the result.

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Whew!

The next step was to attach the lovely trim from Soutache. Sarah had demonstrated how to clip the net backing until it fit the shape of the neckline seam. I clipped the rest of the netting and pinned the embellishment on the dress form so the placement would conform to the dress with a body inside instead of a flat surface.

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There are a LOT of beads and buttons in this trim!  I tried to sew each one before the fashion show, but I ran out of time. That’s why I needed my friends to rescue me with hemming and temporary stitching of the lining at the neck seam. After the show, I finished stitching every bead and every button to the dress and trimmed away the last of the stray netting at the edges. I then reattached the lining at the neck edge and understitched.

The dress is now ready to wear to the wedding. I’m also going to get another chance to model it in the ASG National Conference fashion show. This will be my first time in a fashion show at Conference. It should be fun.

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Sarah Veblen’s You Choose Your Focus Workshop

Last weekend I took another quantum leap in developing my sewing and personal design skills. As always, Sarah Veblen was at the heart of this experience.

Sarah was here in Chicago to teach a workshop she calls “Choose Your Focus.” Instead of having a predetermined topic such as fitting or jacket fit and construction, this workshop provides an opportunity for each participant to work one-on-one with Sarah with whatever project or projects are at the top of that person’s wish list. It is basically private instruction in a group setting. This is the second Choose Your Focus Workshop I’ve attended and it definitely won’t be my last.

All levels of skill are welcome in these workshops and Sarah is more than capable of meeting each participant’s particular needs. Everyone’s experience in these workshops is unique. Steph has shared her perspective on her blog, 10 Sewing Machines & A Serger, and she also generously allowed me to use her workshop pictures in this post. I always start out with the intention to document with pictures, but often don’t follow through.

The first morning, the group gathers and each participant discusses what she hopes to accomplish in the workshop. Often we’ve emailed Sarah in advance to give her an idea of what we will be bringing, but this is everyone’s opportunity to crystallize their thinking and Sarah’s opportunity to formulate an idea of workflow and how she can most effectively help the participants reach their goals. Some topics come up that will best be handled with a demo, which the entire group will benefit from watching. This exchange also allows other participants to learn from the other projects that are being worked on.

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I arrived with a list of projects in order of priority that I placed into two categories: “required” (a/k/a “gottas”) and “extra credit.” The workshop was three days long, but I only had 2½ days because of a volunteer commitment. Factor into that my lack of speed in all things sewing and patternmaking and I knew that I needed wiggle room in my list of goals.

At the top of my “gotta” list was finalizing the design, pattern, fabric, embellishment and construction methods for a Little Black Dress to wear to a wedding in June and, I hope, model in the Haute Couture Club of Chicago fashion show that I’m co-chairing in April. I had chosen a lovely matlesse that I bought at A Fabric Place outside Baltimore (known as Michael’s Fabrics online) when I had worked with Sarah at her home studio a while back. I had questions about whether I should make the collar out of a different fabric and whether I should go with my original plan to add a few black faceted beads or use the fabulous embellishment piece made of beads and covered buttons that I bought at Soutache quite some time ago with no idea what I would do with it.

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The verdict was to use it on this dress and Sarah demonstrated to the group how I should handle it. The collar will be made of the same fabric as the rest of the dress. I also asked about underlining—yes, with silk organza—and confirmed that I will be using China silk lining.

I also had questions about fabric choice, closure placement and design details for the dress I’m making to wear to the luncheon portion of the upcoming fashion show and to a bridal shower I’m co-hosting the following week. (It’s going to be a ridiculously busy spring). Those questions were answered and I was able to check that item off my list.

To finalize the design of the LBD, I assembled the muslin pieces that I had cut last fall before the workshop began. The body of the dress is derived from my sheath pattern, which has armscye princess seams. I wanted a curved Empire waist seam that dips lower in the back, but not so low that it reaches waist height and accentuates my most prominent feature. (My derrière draws quite enough attention without any help.) I wanted to use the 60’s-esque collar that I’ve worked with before, only I wanted it to sit higher in the front and extend a little farther out on my shoulders and then follow a dip in the neckline in back and trail off in points. In preparing the muslin, I made the front of the neckline what I thought it would end up being, cut the collar longer than I would need and only attached it from the front to the shoulders so that Sarah could drape it.

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After some testing, we decided to make the front neckline a bit wider and Sarah worked her magic on the back.

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This is exactly as I had envisioned it!

The next step was to transfer the adjustments to the pattern. This is an area where I still am prone to doubts and confusion. As the workshop progressed, I got more confident about drawing new lines with the Fashion Ruler that don’t pick up every single pin placement mark. (It’s only pencil! I have a lifetime supply of erasers!) I’m just so worried about making a mistake that will throw off the entire garment when I sew it. I got better at this as the workshop progressed and was able to draw lines where I thought they should go. This confidence came from knowing I could ask Sarah to check my work right away. Call it a crutch if you must. I prefer security blanket. In any event, the whole point of participating in these workshops is that we don’t have to guess and compound our errors until we end up with a mess.

Anyway, Sarah ended up doing much of the pattern work on the LBD and I did more on my own on the next project.

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The final step was to test out the collar on a quick mock-up of the neckline on Day 2 of the workshop. It worked perfectly. I’m now ready to cut the fashion fabric!

My next project was to address yet another issue that has cropped up with my two-piece sleeve pattern. When I attended Sarah’s workshop last November, I corrected my basic two-piece sleeve pattern so that it fit well and had a total of ¾” ease evenly divided between the front and back when it is set into my basic jacket pattern. However, I’ve been using this as my all-purpose sleeve pattern and when I walked my pattern pieces to make a two-piece dress last month I noticed that the sleeve pattern had too much ease and it was not evenly distributed front to back. Both garment patterns were derived from my basic fitting bodice pattern but there have been some adjustments along the way and now there are differences. When I made this discovery, I prepared muslin pieces for my fitted blouse pattern and my topper pattern and brought the lining pieces for my two-piece dress bodice, along with all three patterns. I also started the project of making a full set of pattern pieces for each of my garments, instead of reusing side panel pieces and sleeves for multiple garment patterns.

I tried to make a mock-up of the sleeve before the workshop by putting in one adjustment to the sleeve pattern to even out distribution of ease, but I did what I almost always do—I added to the piece that was supposed to be made smaller and subtracted from the piece that was supposed to be made larger. I’m amazed at how often I defy the odds in that annoying way. Sarah straightened me out and I made a new test sleeve.

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I now have a two-piece sleeve pattern that works as it should for my fitted blouse pattern, my two-piece dress and my topper pattern. The topper pattern is going to be a building block for upcoming blouse projects.

That brought me to the end of my must-have list. Amazingly, I was able to make substantial progress on my extra credit.

I consulted with Sarah about my plans for developing a “flowy” blouse pattern from my topper pattern for a lovely teal hammered silk and a gray and cream striped rayon that have been aging in my collection for quite some time.

I can’t get the true color of the silk, but the picture is a close-up of its texture. I’ve been wanting to do that trick with the rayon that uses stitched-down tucks to hide the stripes at the shoulder, extending down just a bit. We decided I’d do that at the sleeve cap as well.

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The blouse will use the front pleat from Vogue 1412 that I used in my shirtdress and have a shirt-tail hem or a curved hem with side vents.

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The striped version will have a variation on the neckline from View B of Vogue 1412 and the teal silk will have the shirtdress neckline and collar. For both, I wanted sleeves similar to the one in Vogue 1367, a scaled-back poet’s sleeve. IMG_0673

Development of the sleeve required me to merge the two-piece sleeve pattern together and make the necessary design changes. Sarah worked closely with me to get this done. I then mocked it up and Sarah worked on getting it into the topper armhole.

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We decided on a series of tucks, which are going to be a lot of work but will achieve the effect I’m after. I now have a pattern for the sleeve and cuff and instructions for working with the tucks.

Sarah took this opportunity to give us a demo on her method for attaching a continuous sleeve placket using a bias strip of fabric.

With this checked off my list, I couldn’t believe there were still a couple of hours left in the workshop. I started on my second “extra credit” project, which is to draft a trumpet skirt. The shape will be similar to this picture, but without godets.

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I got a little bit of the way into it, but realized I was tired and that would make me prone to even more mistakes than usual. Still, I have a process plan and Sarah answered my dumb questions about the pattern work so I can pick this up after my “gotta” sewing projects are done.

As always, the workshop time flew by and all too soon it was time to say good-bye to Sarah and get back to the real world where sewing and design have to share time with earning a living and volunteer commitments. I’m really amazed at how much I accomplished and I have renewed energy around my projects. All that, plus I got to spend time with a group of talented, dedicated home sewers who always inspire me and never fail to offer encouragement. Who could possibly ask for more?

Rediscovering the Lost Art of Dress

IMG_0434Reading The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski opened my eyes to a great deal that I hadn’t known about how women and girls learned to dress appropriately in the past and how well-educated women carved out careers for themselves in home economics departments of leading universities in this country long before women entered male-dominated professions in large numbers.

One thing the book reminded me of is how comfortable shirtdresses can be to wear and how perfect they are to fill that gap between dressed up and casual. Professor Pski herself favors  this style and shirtdresses were a mainstay of my mother’s wardrobe as well as my own back when a dress was the most casual thing I could wear to the office on a weekday. And so I was inspired to develop a pattern for a shirtdress.

Of course, I had some specific requirements for this shirtdress. First, I never liked wearing dresses that have buttons all the way down the front, because there is always pulling and gapping when I sit in them. I also liked the idea of having release pleats to control the transition between the fitted bodice and a flared skirt.

Vogue 8970 pretty much fit what I had in mind in terms of the shape.

IMG_0136The blouse pattern Vogue 1412 provided the solution I was looking for to avoid having buttons all the way down the front.

IMG_0135This pattern has a few buttons on a placket and transitions to a pleat that extends to the hem. I opted for a facing rather than a placket, but incorporated the pleat.

The first order of business in developing the pattern was to get the shape of the skirt. I had a false start trying to trace the side seams of V8970, but quickly found that adapting that pattern to my armscye princess sloper either wouldn’t work or would be much more trouble than it had to be.

Going from the sheath pattern to the shape I wanted for the shirtdress was pretty simple. Yes, there was math involved, but just to the point of approximation.

The method consists of cutting the existing pattern into strips, from hemline to a horizontal balance line (HBL) that will be used as a pivot point. Each strip needs to be cut to, but not through, the point where one of the cut lines meets the HBL to form a hinge. Here is an example of how this works.

IMG_0138I decided how wide I wanted the dress to be at the hemline, subtracted the total circumference of my sheath pattern at the hem (not counting seam allowances), and divided that number by four. After rounding for convenience, I subtracted the width of each pattern piece at the hemline to arrive at how much I needed to add to each pattern piece. Then it was a question of cutting strips of equal width to the HBL, cutting the hinges, placing more pattern paper under the work and spreading the strips the same distance apart from one another at the hemline. I think I opted for ½-inch spreads to distribute the additions evenly throughout each pattern piece.

I left center back and center front alone and worked only to one side on those pieces, whereas the side front and side back had to have new graininess drawn after the process was completed. Then I taped it all down and arrived at pieces that look like this at the bottom.

SkirtSpreadHere is what the pattern looks like in the hinge area.

ShowHingeThe picture above also shows the extension for the center pleat, which is cut on the fold, and the extension for the opening where the buttons and buttonholes are placed.

I had a friend mark the placement and depth of the release pleats for me in the side front and side back panels. Here is how that looks on the pattern. Shirtd_SF_Top

I added in-seam pockets to the pattern and was good to go.

This was another project that I intended to complete in the summer of 2014 in linen. When I didn’t get to the sewing in time, I made the first version of the dress with 3/4 sleeves and turn-back cuffs out of a Liberty cotton lawn lined in white cotton batiste.

Liberty Shirtdress

I ran into some issues with buttonholes, so I opted for button loops. I drafted the collar pattern myself and, although I love wearing the dress I decided that next time I would raise the back neck and make corresponding adjustments to the collar. I did that in this linen version, which I finished in July and wore for the rest of the summer.

Linen ShirtdressYou can see the release pleat clearly in this solid fabric. As you can see, I overcame my buttonhole issues for this version. The buttons on both of these dresses are from Soutache.

I’m much happier with this neckline and the way the collar sits in the back. I definitely want to use the collar again, maybe in a blouse next time.

I have some cotton shirting I want to use for another version of this dress with a Mandarin collar. I also have some crinkle rayon that I think would look nice with a shawl collar. As you can see, this is becoming a staple in my wardrobe.

Connecting the Dots

Blue SheathOkay, time to take the two-piece dress pattern and convert it to a pattern for a sheath dress. No big deal, right? Well, not a really big deal but there were issues.

The first hurdle was to decide where the bodice pattern leaves off and the skirt pattern begins. Why wasn’t it just a matter of extending the bodice piece? Isn’t that how we’re told we can convert commercial blouse or shirt patterns into dress patterns? Yes, that is what we’re told, but it doesn’t work on me.

First, let’s take a look at the two-piece dress sloper, or master pattern.

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See how the bodice is nipped in a bit, but not as much as the waistband on the skirt, then flares out? If you continue that flare the silhouette wouldn’t be anything close to a sheath.

There’s another problem lurking here. I’m one of those women with a tilted waist. And, because of my shape—lots of tush, less of me at the waist—the center back seam is not the same length as the center front seam. You can get a sense of that tilt from this picture, which also approximates the way the two pieces overlap as worn.

SideSeamOverlapHere’s where working with horizontal balance lines that Sarah Veblen teaches us to use comes to the rescue. When developing a pattern from one that has been fitted using Sarah’s method, there are two things you know for sure. The hem will be parallel to the floor, making hemming a breeze, and the horizontal balance line or lines (HBLs) used in the fitting process will also be parallel to the floor/perpendicular to center front and center back. HBLs are drawn somewhere below the bust on blouses and jackets and in the hip area on skirts and pants. That means I was able to use everything above the HBL in the bodice and everything below the HBL in the skirt for my sheath dress mock-up. The mystery was what the pattern needed to look like in between those HBLs.

You may be wondering why all the angst about something I’m going to mock up in muslin and can fine tune anyway. For one thing, I was still reeling from all the trial and error that had gone into getting a good fit before I started working with Sarah. A big chunk of that time was spent trying to make a sheath dress, and that includes a workshop in which everyone was close to finishing a dress at the end of the weekend and I was still getting a muslin repinned that never made it to a completed garment. In other words, this project had even more baggage than usual associated with it.

In consultation with Sarah, I chose a point on the bodice and a point on the skirt to attach the two pieces. I drew a line perpendicular to center front at that point and walked the adjoining seams (front princess, side seam, back princess) until the line was extended all the way through each of the two garment patterns.

Here is the connecting line on the skirt side front. This picture also gives you a clear view of how much tilt there is to my waist.

Skirt Join

Here is how I ended up connecting the bodice and skirt front pieces.

Connected

Once I mocked up the dress in muslin, I used a fit appointment with Sarah for fine-tuning. We added more shaping to the princess and side seams and everything looked good to go. After transferring the markings to the pattern, I proceeded to make up the dress in a fabulous variegated silk from Emma One Sock. I even used nail polish to make the pull on a black invisible zipper to blend in with the fabric.

ZipperPullBefore attaching the lining, I tried on the dress and absolutely hated what I saw in the mirror. There was nothing wrong with the fit, but it was definitely not flattering.

Before tackling this project, I had asked a couple of teachers, including Sarah, whether a sheath was not the right silhouette for me. That’s why I had opted for the two-piece dress in the first place. Having the skirt hugging the waist underneath the bodice and the bodice skimming over the area between the bottom of the rib cage and high hip seems much more pleasing to me than what I think of as the sack-of-potatoes look when that area is covered by a continuous layer of fabric. But I was told not to give up on a sheath and so I had invested even more time and money and I was feeling as if it was all wasted.

I put the dress on my dress form and walked away from it. Later, I wondered whether adding a collar would help by diverting attention away from the problem area. I played around with some extra fabric, cutting it on the bias and draping it along the neckline on the dress form. It certainly gave the dress a different look, but I just didn’t know. I went on to work on other projects while the dress stared back at me from the dress form.

The next time I saw Sarah, I put the dress on to show her and while she would never in a million years use a term like “sack of potatoes,” she understood why I was unhappy with the dress. Her solution was to add a design element as an “interruption” in the area I was unhappy about. I was skeptical, but it actually worked.

ButtonTab TabBackIt’s just a self-fabric partial belt or tab that sits next to the front princess seam on each side with a decorative button from Soutache, my favorite ribbon and trim store which is right here in Chicago.  The belt crosses the side seam and disappears into the back princess seam on each side. It’s subtle, but I think it’s effective. At least it got me to finish the dress.

Sarah thought I should also add the collar, which surprised me. But that’s what I ended up doing. Here is the result.

Wendy Blue Sheath Sep 2014I’ve worn this dress several times and I feel great in it. I’m planning another one with a different neckline and collar.