My First Appleton Dress

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The Appleton Dress before hemming

I was in college when Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress found its way into almost every woman’s closet, but when I tried it on the store I didn’t think it was for me. So, when Jenny Rushmore introduced her line of sewing patterns for curvy women, Cashmerette Patterns, with a curvy-friendly version of the wrap dress called Appleton, I bought a copy of the pattern but wasn’t sure I’d ever make one for myself. Then I saw how fabulous it looks on my lovely friend Stephanie King of Siouxzeegirl Designs and she let me try hers on. It looked really nice, so I decided to give it a try.

It may seem odd, but the biggest mental barrier I had to overcome besides my skepticism about how the dress would look on me was my past difficulties with starting from someone else’s pattern. I knew this is a very well-drafted pattern, but my experience has been that when I start with someone else’s pattern I have to make a ton of adjustments to get it to fit me. And I did have to grade across sizes to get the hips to fit without falling off my shoulders. I actually made two mock-ups and almost ended up making a third, which seems absurd for a knit dress, but I couldn’t help myself.

My job was made easier by the fact that my dress form is now padded to resemble my figure pretty closely. This was another thing I had resisted doing because i didn’t think I wanted to live with a reminder of the shape my body is in now. But, I agreed to participate in a pilot class on draping that Sarah Veblen was developing and so I made a basic dress sloper out of heavy weight muslin from my bodice and skirt master patterns for a workshop several months ago. Sarah draped out pretty the wearing ease until it was quite form-fitting. I installed a heavy-duty separating zipper down the back and had my new dress form cover. I then proceeded to stuff the space between the muslin and my dress form with foam pads from Fabulous Fit and batting. I got really frustrated in the draping class and convinced myself that I’m no good at draping and this entire exercise was a giant waste of time that would have been better spent sewing. Then when I was working on this project, after trying on the first mock-up, I put it on the dress form and the next thing I knew I was draping adjustments.

For the mock-ups, I used cotton interlock knit from Joann’s (with a coupon, of course). The first mock-up gapped at the bust and clung in all the wrong places, so those pictures will not be posted anywhere.

In the first mock-up, I noticed that the side seam was more toward the back than my master pattern’s side seam, plus it swung to the back at the hips. Because I needed to increase the circumference there, I decided to bring the side seam in line with the side seam on my master pattern so I could be sure the final version was hanging plumb. Here is a side view of muslin number 2.

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That was all well and good, but I made a mistake that is typical for me, which is to add too much to the hips and taper below that and end up with what I refer to as the jodhpur effect. One of the suggestions Sarah Veblen made in a mentoring session was to have the skirt flare out a bit instead of dropping straight from the hip. That adjustment really helped.

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As you can see, there is no center front marking and no horizontal balance lines. The pattern does not have center front marked, which makes sense because it’s different on different types of figures. I had marked horizontal balance lines on my first mock-up but Sarah told me that wasn’t necessary in this dress, which she had fitted on other students. Still, when I was working to adjust the first muslin it helped to work with the front and back independently so I could get them to be as level as possible.

Another thing that I did early on was lower the waist so that the ties went around my waist. The pattern is drafted so that the wrap is higher than the natural waist, almost Empire height. The problem with lowering the waist was that it created gaposis at the bust. So, I put the waist back where it wanted to go.

Sarah suggested that I might want to add shaping darts to the back. Darts were my nemesis during the draping class, but I could see how the fabric really “wanted” to have them added.

 

As you can see, I pinned the darts to the outside, which is not what I was supposed to do. It got the job done here, but I’m trying to learn to make my fingers manipulate the fabric so that the dart intake is toward the dress form. I’ll get there. Eventually.

I wanted to make this dress in an ITY knit, but the ones in my collection were in quantities suitable for knit tops, not a dress. I had trouble finding ITYs (only because I was looking for them!) and then I found this lovely rayon-Lycra knit from Stone Mountain & Daughter. I was hesitant, thinking that Rayon is too drapey and possibly clingy for a dress on me, but this fabric has a lovely dry hand and worked beautifully.

Next came the challenge of hemming. Again, I’m really spoiled by working with master patterns developed with Sarah Veblen because when the horizontal balance lines are parallel to the floor, so is the cut edge of the fabric at the bottom. Hemming is a straightforward process of turning up the fabric an even amount all the way around and stitching. Not so on a pattern that is not customized to a particular body.

 I could have asked a sewing friend to pin the hem for me, or even paid my dry cleaner to do it, but I wanted to get this project finished and move on to what’s next. My first attempt was to use the contraption that stands on the floor and you squeeze a bulb so chalk dust spits out on your dress as you turn in place. That didn’t work at all. So, I resorted to the technique I’ve used for fitting myself or having Sarah analyze my fit issues long distance – setting up the tripod and camera and using a 10-second delay to take a series of pictures.

First I pinned where I thought the hem should be, then I looked at the pictures and saw where it was uneven. I made adjustments to the pinning and took more pictures. After two rounds of this, I got it to where I was satisfied.

For the actual pinning, I found it was much easier to mark a few reference points with pins on the dress form and then work on a flat surface. When I got it to where it looked straight to me, I trimmed where the hem allowance was deepest, pressed and stitched. I adjusted the pattern, but where the hem ends up on any individual dress will probably vary with the type of knit I’m using.

As you might be able to tell from this picture, I’m still shying away from having the ties go across my tummy. So, my solution is to tie them at the side so that they only go across the back. The other thing I debated was whether to add a hidden snap in the front to prevent unscheduled appearances of lingerie. I was worried that it might pull, but I tested it out with a small safety pin and discovered it’s not noticeable. So, I’m adding a small nylon snap for security.

The dress is incredibly comfortable to wear and, now that I’ve done the pattern work, will be pretty quick to sew again.

 

 

 

 

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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Princess Seams – A Curvy Body’s Best Friend

There’s no getting around the fact that princess seams are the key to garments that flatter a curvy figure. Darts and tucks and gathers are fine, but they have their limitations. Even in combination, the silhouette they produce is boxy in comparison to the silhouette that princess seams can achieve. 

Okay, so there are shaping darts in addition to princess seams in the bodice on the right, but you get the idea.

The reason for these differences is easy to see in the patterns. Here is a standard darted bodice. The one on the right has the dart intakes cut out and the one on the left has the dart legs meeting the way they would in fabric. 

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As you can see, there is only one place the darts can create three-dimensional shaping. Darts point to the fullness they allow the fabric to make room for, and that one place in most bodices is the bust. That’s fine if your body only curves in that one place and everything else is pretty straight, but how many women are built like that? I never was. 

Here is what the front and side front pieces of the jacket I’m working on look like when they’re flat.

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The negative space between the two pieces runs from the armscye almost all the way to the hem and the side front piece makes quite a number of turns as it is joined to the front. That allows for a fair amount of contouring in very specific areas. 

Here is an edge view of what the pieces look like when pinned together.  It’s impossible for them to lay flat on the table for almost the entire length of the seam. 

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Now that you’re convinced that princess seams are the best option for a flattering fit (I hope), let’s talk about construction. I know a lot of sewists shy away from princess seams because they seem intimidating. But now that I’ve had a lot of practice sewing them, I don’t think they’re difficult to deal with.

There are a lot of methods out there for sewing princess seams and there really is no wrong way to do it. If it works and it feels comfortable, then it’s the “right” way to go about it.

First, a word about patterns. My patterns were developed under the guidance of Sarah Veblen, who doesn’t build ease into her princess seams. Commercial patterns almost always have ease and so if you are using one that does, you need to allow for that. The part of the seam that has ease is usually marked with dots and so it’s easy to figure out where the seamline is supposed to match up.

I don’t usually use many pins in my sewing, but I’ve discovered that having a fair number of pins in a princess seam is very helpful. How does it help? It helps me avoid spending quality time with my seam ripper. Whatever adjustments need to be made can be made by moving pins, not unstitching. I think of it as sort of a dress rehearsal. By the time I get to the machine, it’s smooth sailing.

I start the pinning at both ends. At the cut edge of the hem, the cut edges go together just like a front and back go together at a side seam. No big deal.

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At the top of an armscye princess seam, things are more interesting.

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The picture above shows how the front and side front fit together at the top when the side front has been trued. You know exactly where to place the pieces at this end. Below are two side front pattern pieces, one for the fashion fabric (on the right) and one for the lining. Notice that I had forgotten to true the lining piece. 

IMG_0844Commercial patterns leave that point on the pattern piece, so when you pin your fabric together a little tail of the side panel sticks out and you never know how much of a tail is supposed to be left hanging. There are two ways to deal with this issue.

My preferred fix is to correct the pattern. Sarah taught me that to do this, you simply pin the pieces together as sewn and cut off the tail.

The first step is to mark the seamlines if that hasn’t been done already.

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  Here are the pieces laid out on top of one another. Notice that the pin goes into the intersection of the princess seam and the armscye seam. This is the end result we’re going for. 

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Here are the pieces pinned as they will be sewn. Notice the tail where the point of the side front is folded at the seamline. 

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When the tail is cut off, the pieces go together as they should. No guesswork needed.

 

If you’d rather not change your pattern, there is another solution. It’s one that has to be used every time you use the pattern, but it works fine.

Mark the intersection of the princess seam and armscye seam on both adjoining pieces. I’ve used a Chalkoner to do that here. 

Insert a pin at that intersecting point on both pieces. Now the pieces are positioned correctly at the top. 

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Once I’ve established the proper placement of the top and bottom of the seam and have pinned the pieces together there, I work my way into the middle.

If I’m left with places that are going to pucker, I take out one or two pins and pat the fabric into place to see where it needs to go. The curvy areas are on the bias and so the fabric has a tendency to shift. A little extra handling is usually all that’s needed to find how the two pieces fit together. I know they will fit together because I walked the seams in the pattern and I cut as accurately as possible. 

If the fabric still doesn’t settle into the right spots, I check the edges to make sure they are aligned exactly. Small corrections in alignment will often help the fabric find its place. If nothing is working and it looks like I have a ton of extra fabric in one piece, I double check to make sure I’m not trying to attach a side front to a back piece or a side back to a front. That would explain the problem. 

Once the pins are in and I’m satisfied that the pieces are where they need to be, it’s off to the sewing machine. I like sewing with a 3/8″ seam allowance most of the time and I find it especially helpful when I’m sewing curvy princess seams. I can tell you that sewing princess seams in stiff muslin with 1″ seam allowances is no fun at all, but after a little practice, sewing natural fiber fashion fabric that has some drape in it with 3/8″ seam allowances is a piece of cake. I just sew slowly and keep my eye on the guideline directly across from the needle, not ahead of it. I sew with the machine set to stop with the needle down so if I need to stop to readjust, the needle is anchoring the fabric. 

I also like to sew from the hem up. That means on one side the curvy side panel will be against the feed dogs and on the other side they will be on top. That doesn’t matter as long as I have the pins in place and I’m using my hands to guide the fabric. 

After pressing the princess seams as sewn (but only with the tip of the iron not going much beyond the stitching line), my favorite way of setting in the shaping is to use a June Tailor Board along with an iron that gives plenty of steam.

The seam allowances on this wool fashion fabric, which I’ve underlined with silk organza, pressed open and stayed that way without requiring any clipping. When the seam is on the curved part of the tailor board, if I see ruffles in the seam allowance after pressing, I use that as a guide for clipping.

After the seam allowances are pressed open, I press on the right side over a ham and use a silk organza press cloth.

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With the princess seams done, my project is transformed from flat fabric to a three-dimensional object that holds the promise of becoming a garment I will love wearing.