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.

 

 

 

 

Adding Variety to My Favorite Knit Top

One of the great hands-on workshops I attended at last summer’s ASG Conference was Jennifer Stern-Hasemann’s half-day class called “Beyond the Boatneck.” Jen is a great teacher as well as an excellent designer and patternmaker. She sets a low-key, no-stress tone in her classes and is a joy to learn from.

The class description talked about pattern variations for her Tee pattern, but it actually was a pattern drafting class. I look at her approach as akin to a mom with young children sneaking veggies into a casserole. So many sewists – even experienced ones – are intimidated by the thought of patternmaking, but routinely make pattern adjustments. Whatever works, right?

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The class materials included a booklet that has color photos and step-by-step instructions for drafting six new necklines and converting the tee into a tank top. Jen sells the book on her website, which is almost as good as having her patient guidance in class.

Most of the neckline changes can be achieved by swapping out a single pattern piece. As I explained in an earlier post, the Tee achieves its flattering shape with seams that form upper and lower parts of the front and back and an upper side front panel that acts as a dart.

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The neckline variations are made by making a new upper front pattern piece. If the neckline is narrower than the original boatneck, the back piece needs to be widened at the shoulder to correspond to the combination of the upper front and side front pieces.

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I was excited to make patterns for the variations in the book. Here are my patterns for the scoop neck (yellow in the upper left), v-neck (lower left) and crossover (right).

At the same time, I was struck with an idea that wasn’t in the book – a draped neck. I attended the workshop with my dear friend and Partner in Crime, Steph King. As soon as I had the words “drape neck” out of my mouth, Steph started tracing her center front piece and cutting strips for slashing and spreading it into a draped neckline. I waited until I got home to do mine.

My first draped pattern piece looks like this. The shoulder is at the upper right of the picture and the horizontal seam that connects the upper front to the lower front is now curved.

Drape Version 1

I cut two of these on the fold so I could use one as a facing, which is what I do most of the time with this pattern. The result was a seam at the neckline, which is okay but not fabulous.

Faced Drape Neck

I love this drapey rayon knit from Marcy Tilton’s web site. It has all my colors in it and feels like a warm weather print, so I made this top with short sleeves. it looks great on the dress form, especially after I’ve futzed with it so the seam doesn’t show. When I’m wearing it, I’m not static like my dress form and movement will make the neck seam visible from time to time.

After seeing that eliminating the seam in the front neckline would have given me more of the effect I was going for, I decided to set aside my fears about dealing with what I think is a very strange-looking pattern piece when a drape neck forms its own facing by folding over. In thinking it through, I realized that drafting this type of pattern piece doesn’t require mastery of any mysterious geometrical gymnastics. It’s just a matter of tracing the pattern piece I’d drafted by slashing and spreading and flipping that over to make a mirror image, then overlapping them so that the two halves of the new piece meet in a straight line that the fabric can be folded over there and sewn in place. It ends up looking like this:

Put togetherIt’s not marked in this picture, but the straight line on the left is Center Front, which is cut on the fold of the fabric. That “V” at the shoulder was the bit I had found intimidating. From a patternmaking point of view. it’s really no big deal. It’s what forms naturally when melding the two pieces together. Construction – especially on a serger – can be a little tricky.

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I didn’t take any pictures of construction, but as you can see from the labeled picture above, the tricky bit is sewing that V-shaped front shoulder seam onto a straight back shoulder seam and making sure none of the fabric scooches away when under the presser foot and leaves a hole. This is especially tricky with slippery and drapey fabric like the rayon-Lycra knits I want to use for this type of garment. Add to that the fact that it’s a knit and I want to serge it together and I start to wonder whether this was such a great idea after all.

After clipping into the V as far as humanly possible, I tried serging the pieces together and got a hole the first time. Unstitching a serged seam is such an unpleasant experience, I decided to do whatever it takes to avoid doing that a second time. My solution was to baste the shoulder seams by hand. Before you groan and say “hand basting a knit, are you crazy?” remember that (1) these are very, very short seams. We’re talking just a few inches. And, (2) I did a lot of hand stitching on my Miss Fisher top, which is a knit. Besides, hand basting takes a lot less time and is way less frustrating that unstitching a serged seam over and over again.

The basting did the trick and I was able to complete construction with no problem.

This approach is definitely a keeper.

Next, I got it into my head that I wanted to try adding a collar. It’s been a few years since I’ve been wanting to try this particular collar. My lovely friend Marie wore a top made of McCall’s 6796 to a sewing group meeting once and I immediately bought the pattern.

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The neckline on the pattern is pretty high and for that reason I took the pattern out and put it away several times. But last month I decided to try this collar with the J. Stern Tee and the scoop neck variation. After walking the neck seam on the tee and the collar, I did a bunch of slashing and spreading that gave me the little extra I needed in the back and the lots of extra I needed in the front.

img_0189-1  After trying a mock-up with the scoop variation from the workshop, I decided the neckline had to be a little bit less scoopy. So I made a modified scoop neck pattern piece and adjusted the collar accordingly. I tried it out in this great rayon-Lycra knit from Sawyer Brook in a color they called Bluebonnet, but didn’t think it worked well. So, I made the top with the modified scoop neck but no collar.

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It’s okay, but I had this picture in my head and this wasn’t it.

The thing is, I had bought enough of this fabric to make a twinset and so I had plenty left over to try the top with the collar again. In a mentoring session with Sarah Veblen, she said she thought the neckline needed to be higher for the collar and I said i thought it needed to be a bit narrower. She agreed and, with her help, we came up with the modifications I needed to make a slightly higher, slightly narrower semi-scoop pattern piece. With the somewhat narrower neckline, I had to make a new back piece as well. Instead of making the collar smaller, I decided to see what it would look like with some overlap. I then draped the collar onto the assembled  front, side and back panels on the dress form and liked what I saw.

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With this sewn, I then added the facing assembly and finished construction. Unfortunately, I got confused about which was the fashion fabric and which was the facing in the top panels and the finished product has the collar opening on the left instead of the right with the front overlapping the back. Sigh. The next time I do this I won’t take off my painter’s tape labels until after the whole thing is assembled. Another live and learn moment. Still, I’m pretty happy with the result.

Bluebonnet with Collar

Inspired by Miss Fisher

I adore the Australian TV series Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries. Set in the 1920s, the series has much to offer in the way of engaging characters you can’t help caring about, but the bonus is that the costumes are absolutely fabulous. I’m talking rivaling Downton Abbey fabulous, and that’s saying something. The show had a three-season run that can be streamed here in the US on Netflix and sometimes found on PBS. After watching an episode all the way through, I would often rerun it so I could stop and sketch costumes that inspired me. In one episode, Miss Phryne Fisher appeared in a pair of black wide-legged trousers and a black top that had a mesh inset at the top and sleeves made of the same mesh. I had to have one of my own.

The pattern I used as a starting point is my knit version of my basic fitting bodice, which has armscye princess seams. I know, fussy for a knit but the shaping is worth it. Besides, I managed to make this project quite a bit fussier.

The pattern work was pretty straightforward. Buy a strapless bra. Try on a muslin from another garment and trace where the bra ended. I drew a line  across the front pattern piece that was above that point and made two new pattern pieces with seam allowances.

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Miss Fisher’s version of the top has a jewel neck, which I tend to avoid. Still, I think I could have gone a bit higher on the neckline for this.

The black knit has been residing in my fiber archive collection for some time. The mesh inset is a Pointe d’Esprit that sang out to me on Marcy Tilton’s web site. She has an entire section on her web store devoted to mesh, lace and net.

I had never worked with mesh before and so I did some reading and tested some seaming options on scraps. I decided to baste the mesh on the sewing machine and then finish the seams with a narrow hem on the serger. It gave me the effect I was after.

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Of course I needed to sew down the seam allowance on the seam separating the mesh from the knit so that it would stay hidden, but when I tested topstitching I didn’t like the way it looked. That’s where this project started getting more involved than I had planned.

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I remembered from an online class taught by Susan Khaljie that in couture, the generous 1-inch seam allowances are attached to underlinings with catch stitches. I didn’t have underlining to work with, but I wasn’t using a tissue knit so I figured I could just catch a thread or two in the body of the garment in each catch stitch and it wouldn’t show on the the outside. The results were nice and smoooth. That’s when I got carried away and decided to use the same treatment for the princess seams and the hem.

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Yes, that’s the point at which I asked myself if I was completely crazy to do this much work for a knit top, but it’s not just any ordinary knit top.

I considered binding the neck edge and sleeves with a strip of the knit fabric, but I decided that would be too heavy. Instead, I opted for a bias binding of China silk. Of course, that was attached on one side by machine, then wrapped around the edge, pinned and sewn to the inside by hand.

So, it’s definitely a fussy project but I enjoyed the process of experimentation and discovery and I really enjoy wearing the finished product. So far I’ve worn it with black slacks, but I’m contemplating a black trumpet skirt (the current term is fit and flare) in a drapy rayon crepe that I think will look great with it too.

 

Best Knit Top Ever – J. Stern Designs Tee

This is hard to believe but there actually is a pattern on the market that works for me straight out of the envelope. It’s the Women’s Tee from J. Stern Designs. There are two versions of this pattern. One is in Misses sizes and the other in women’s, or plus sizes. Unlike basic tees that are essentially shapeless, Jennifer Stern-Hasemann designed a knit top with panels that act as darts, a boat neckline and a shirt-tail hem. The combination is flattering and a joy to wear.

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I was introduced to this gem at a workshop Jennifer taught here in Chicago. She brought samples of her tees in every size and I was astonished when the first one she had me try on fit beautifully. All I needed to do was shorten it and I was good to go. That NEVER happens.

Since then, I’ve made five different versions of this Tee, four with ¾ length sleeves and one with short sleeves. My favorite fabric for it is ITY knit. ITY stands for Interlock Twist Yarn. It’s not clingy and sews like a dream. It’s one of a very few polyesters I enjoy working with. Most of my ITY knits come from Marcy Tilton’s web site.

I don’t have a coverstitch machine, so I hem my knits on the sewing machine. Typically, I stabilize the hem allowance with fusible knit or fusible bias tape, turn up the hem and sew with invisible thread using a serpentine stitch.

IMG_0509The invisible thread I like to use is MonoPoly from Superior Threads. It’s made of polyester rather than nylon and doesn’t melt when pressed. It’s only when you get this close up that you can see the stitches.

For neckline finishes, I either line the top panels with self fabric or a lightweight knit lining, or I apply a self-fabric band using the technique from Lynda Maynard’s excellent book, The Dressmaker’s Handbook of Couture Sewing Techniques.  She also teaches this technique in a Crasftsy class called “Sewing on the Edge Finishing Techniques.”

Jen Stern-Hasemann has introduced a workbook called “Beyond the Boatneck” which has neckline variations for her Tee. She is also offering a class on PatternReview.com by the same name. I bought the workbook but I haven’t tried any of the variations yet. I’m pretty fond of the boatneck.

It’s really nice to have a go-to pattern like this when I need something that’s fairly quick and pretty much foolproof.