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.

IMG_0168

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.

IMG_0667

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.

IMG_0164

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

IMG_0163

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.

IMG_0166

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.

IMG_0161

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.

IMG_0169

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.

IMG_0135

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.

IMG_0162

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.

IMG_0672

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?

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.

2pc front

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.