The Peplum Blouse

A while back a friend wore a peplum blouse she had made from Simplicity pattern 1666 and it looked fabulous on her. I remembered really liking the way peplums looked on a much younger me when I had the body I wish I had appreciated more. For reasons I can’t explain, no warning buzzers went off in my head telling me that maybe this wasn’t going to be the best option for my current body.

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As the pattern envelope clearly shows, peplum = flounce. Putting a flounce on my curves is not a good idea, as I discovered when I made my first mock-up. That mock-up was dated January 2015 and there are no pictures of me in it. That said, this project wasn’t a total waste of time. I learned some interesting things I want to share with you now and I developed a neckline and collar that I’m looking forward to tweaking and using again.

I made the pattern for the first mock-up by starting out with my master bodice pattern for the shoulders, armscyes and princess seams and I tapered the pattern pieces at the bottom to conform with the corresponding area in the commercial pattern. Then I adjusted the peplum from the commercial pattern to fit to the top pieces. The peplum doesn’t go all the way around the body in this pattern. The center front panel extends to the hem and the peplum is attached at the front princess seams. I used the neckline from the Simplicity pattern and I think it’s a keeper, but I eliminated the cap sleeves.

When I showed the mock-up to Sarah Veblen, she suggested we try using inverted box pleats extending down from each of the vertical seams (princess seams, side seams and center back).  The second mock-up seemed like an improvement so I made a wearable mockup in a cotton print. I wasn’t happy with it. Sarah admitted it wasn’t a great look for me.

Peplum Wearable Mockup

One thing she suggested was eliminating the box pleats at the front princess seams. I was only too happy to do that, because getting those puppies attached with the pleats intact was nerve-racking. That was an improvement, and I’ve worn the wearable mockup with that change. I asked Sarah whether things might improve if I added a collar and she thought that might balance it out better. So, I mocked up a rolled collar, tweaked it in consultation with Sarah and set out to make a final version of the blouse.

The first thing I did was make a clean copy of the peplum pattern with the pleats clearly marked. I used color-coding and arrows to make sure I understood how they got folded.

The straight of grain is at the front princess seams and so center back is the area with the most bias. Pleats and bias don’t necessarily play well together, but I had chosen a stable cotton shirting, which helped.

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I’m pretty sure the side on the right is the “right” side of the fabric, but I like the side on the left better and so that’s what I used as the right side.

When making a pattern with pleats, it’s important to true the seamlines and then add the seam allowance. To do this, you pin or use temporary tape to hold the pleats closed, then cut away any ragged places on the line or curve at the hemline and the top seamline. If you don’t do this, you can end up with the hidden part of the pleat hanging below the rest of the hem or some other unevenness.

I thread-traced all the pleat markings so they would be exact and visible from both sides.

Another thing I learned is that pleats tend to behave better if you hem before pressing in the pleats, so I did that. I used the method Janet Pray of Islander Sewing Systems teaches in her shirtmaking class for the narrow machine hem. This consists of pressing the hem up at the hemline (this one was ⅝” from the edge) with the tip of the iron, then crimping by machine at ¼” and using the stitching line and the pressed fold line as the guides for double-folding the hem.

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Pressing Peplum at ⅝”

I then used Wonder Clips (Janet Pray does not use pins or anything else) to keep it all in place and sewed from the right side. I find it helpful to use the blind hem foot on my machine helped me to keep the stitching at the same distance from the edge.

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I finished all seam allowances with a three-thread serge finish and made an all-in-one facing for the neck and the armholes.

The part of construction that I thought would be tricky was attaching the peplum to the front at the princess seams. This is similar to an inset corner, so I pulled out all my sewing reference books and articles I’ve collected on inset corners and cut some scrap fabric to make samples. Almost all the techniques I’ve read about involve snipping into the inside corner and opening it up to almost a straight line, a method that’s given me mixed results. Louis Cutting’s method uses double-sided fusible web and topstitching, which works very well, but this garment wasn’t one I wanted to topstitch.  The technique I was most interested in using is one I’ve made samples of before that I learned from a class taught by Susan Khaljie.  It’s her technique for sewing a basque waist. After reviewing all my other resources, I decided this method is the hands-down winner. (Yes, I did use an Islander industrial shortcut and a couture technique in the same garment.)

You can find the technique on page 95 of Susan’s book, Bridal Couture. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever sew a wedding gown, if you have any interest in sewing with lace and making beautiful evening wear, this book should be in your library. (Hard copy is out of print, but the e-book version is excellent.) Essentially, what you do is sew two straight seams perpendicular to one another. Here are the front and back of the sample I made for this garment.

The couture method has you reinforce the inside corner with a patch of organza and for less elaborate garments you can use fusible interfacing. I had trouble getting such a small amount of fusible interfacing to stay put on this textured fabric so I ended up skipping this step. The next step in preparing the corners is to stay stitch along the stitching lines of both pieces, shortening the stitch length so that you have tiny stitches right at the corner. I used a 1.1 stitch length at the corners. That allows you to clip the inside corner, getting right up to the stitching. It also provides a guide for final stitching.

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Stay stitching the corner

The next step is to pin so that the corners match on both pieces.

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Then finish pinning one of the seams. When you stitch, part of the time you will only have one piece under the machine. That’s where my finger is in the picture below.

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After sewing both seams, this is what it looks like.

And this is what it looks like when completed. Whew!

img_2241So, here’s the finished blouse.

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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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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.

 

The Fussy Bits

I know much of my sewing is fussy, but what I think of as the fussy bits are those fine details that can make the difference between a garment I am proud to wear and one that falls under the Five Foot Rule – they look okay but only from at least five feet away. And nobody, but nobody, gets to look inside. Here are some ways I’ve found to avoid the dreaded Five Foot Rule.

Hooks and Eyes

One of the most valuable resources I’ve stumbled upon in my online research for sewing techniques is a series of papers published by the Cooperative Extension of the University of Kentucky. These well-illustrated guides often answer the nagging questions I have that nobody addresses in classes or books and that makes me feel dumb for not knowing the answer. For example, there are plenty of resources that tell us how to sew on a hook and eye but nobody really gets into exactly where they should be placed or when you should use the round eyes, as opposed to the straight eyes that come in the packages. And when you have pieces that meet instead of overlap, which way do the hook prongs point, out or in? In “Hooks, Eyes, Snaps, and Tape Fasteners,” Professor Nadine Hacker answers these and other questions about the nitty gritty details of closures.  So, now I know that the straight eye is used when the garment pieces overlap, as they do on waistbands and at the top of lapped zippers, and the round eye is used when the pieces meet, as they do in this bias collar.

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This is still a work in progress. It needs a good pressing, but you get the idea. 

Following the instructions, I set the round eye so that it just barely extends beyond the edge of the collar. 

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I have a lot of trouble getting the hook to line up with the eye, so I engage the two pieces to and sew the hook on while it is attached to the eye. Oh, and the prongs point away from the fabric on which the hook is sewn. 

To get the hook to stay put while I’m sewing the first few stitches, I use a Clover fork pin.  More about these handy little tools in a moment. 

Here are two of the hooks and eyes sewn in. Perfection is still an elusive goal, but these are a lot better than what I was doing before.  

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Strategic Snap Placement

Another fussy bit that was tripping me up was snap placement. In this asymmetrical jacket, I had to put in a pin to keep the underlapped front from hanging below the overlap at the hem.

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I tried adding extra snaps at the neckline, but it didn’t fix the problem. Finally, I asked Sarah Veblen what to do. Her solution was ridiculously easy: add just one more snap, but place it where the problem was occurring. 

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Sarah demonstrated this in a workshop by adding the plastic snap just above the hem at the edge of the underlap side. It works like a charm. I’ve also come around to preferring plastic snaps to metal ones.

Aligning Intersecting Seams

For intersecting seams, I rely on the Clover Fork Pins I mentioned earlier. Susan Khaljie recommends these clever quilting tools for matching stripes and plaids in fabrics that have a lot of play in them and are resistant to staying put with ordinary pins. They hold the fabric exactly where you need it and they work wonders when matching intersecting seams. I use them to align the seam of my two-piece sleeve to my shoulder seam and to align the princess seams on the bodice and skirt of an Empire waist dress.

The connected end slants upward and the prongs lay flat so you sew right over it.

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Mitered Corners

Corners are another area that can get really messy. Turning sewn corners will be the subject of a tutorial down the road, but for now I’d like to go over mitered corners. Specifically, using a miter for the corner formed by the hem and vent of a pencil skirt. This is a fussy bit that’s actually fun to do and the results are nice and tidy. 

The first step is to mark or press the corner, in this case the hem and the vent extension. I’ve marked where the creases intersect with pins. Next, you make a diagonal fold where the two creases meet and press lightly, taking care not to stretch anything out. The pins are lying directly on top of the creases.

You then bring those two pins together, and create an odd-looking point. I always have to remind myself that I’m now working with right sides together, whereas the creases were made working from the wrong side.

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The diagonal fold line is where you need to stitch. 

At this point, I test out what I have by turning the corner. This test run is important because the next step is to trim, which cannot be corrected easily. Ask me how I know.

The rough turn test shows that the miters are in the right place and the only thing keeping these puppies from looking good is all that extra fabric inside. So I turn them back and trim off the ends to get rid of the little dolphin noses.

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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?

The Disorienting Experience of Constructing the Tulip Dress

Time has an annoying habit of flying by, whether you’re having fun or not, doesn’t it? I really am sorry so much time has passed since my last post. The first few days were spent away from work with friends. I should have known those days would be too full to finish another post. Then it was back to work in full immersion mode and I didn’t emerge from that for another three weeks. Okay, enough about that. We’re here to talk about sewing.

What I promised to tell you about last time was sewing the two-piece tulip dress, which was quite an adventure. Looking at fabric cut in the pieces you see below, plus all the other pieces that didn’t fit into the frame, made me think of a jigsaw puzzle with no picture to give a hint as to how to put it together. I also found the sheer number of pattern pieces daunting. Both the bodice and the skirt have princess seams, so that’s 14 main pattern pieces right off the bat.

Puzzle

Then there are the facings for the shaped bodice hem and the front and back facings for the neckline, plus the cap sleeves and lining pieces that look pretty strange, at least in the bodice, where they hang down from facing pieces.

Back facing and liningLike I said, daunting.

This is where painter’s tape became my best friend. I usually use it to label my pattern pieces and distinguish the right side of the fabric from the wrong side. In skirts, I need to add arrows showing me which side is the princess seam and which is the side seam so I don’t repeat the mistake of trying to sew a side seam to a princess seam. For this project, the notes on the tape were more detailed and still I found myself having to refer back to the pattern to figure out which way was up. Add to that the complication that I actually cut this dress out last summer and put it aside until this spring, because linen isn’t exactly a three-season fabric in Chicago.

Once the pieces were cut and labeled, I tested some fusible interfacing on swatch “sandwiches” to find one with the right amount of body to support the neckline and retain the shape of the hem on the bodice piece. I chose fusible tricot for the neckline facings and fusibles with less body for the hem facings and the area around the invisible zippers (one in the side seam of the bodice and the other in the back of the skirt). This is where I should mention that linen worked particularly well for this design. I tried the same neckline in a light silk (broadcloth maybe?) and it tends to collapse when I move.

Silk Tulip Top

So, if I want to make it again in a a fabric with that much drape, I need to give it a little less length. Or, should I say height?

As I mentioned in my last post, the key to achieving the shape I was after in this neckline is two curved darts in the back.

Back Facing

It looks like a bear to sew, doesn’t it? But the method I use for sewing any dart accurately actually makes sewing these darts pretty much routine.

A lot of the fabrics I work with are drapey and some are also slippery, and I was getting frustrated with the way my darts were turning out. I’d mark them carefully, usually with a tracing wheel, plus snip marks at the cut edge. Then I’d pin them across and get everything lined up, but when they came out of the sewing machine only the side I could see as I was stitching followed the markings. The hidden side almost always came out all wonky. Couture’s answer to this problem is hand basting, but I was still in avoiding hand basting mode when I tackled this problem. The solution that works for me is actually pin basting, which looks something like this.

Pin BastingDepending on how wiggly the fabric is, I might weave each pin through twice. I also always put a pin across the work at the point so I can see clearly where the stitching needs to end.

Once the pins are in with the heads facing me I slide them toward me as I sew with the marked line centered between the toes of the presser foot and remove each one as I get to it. I always set the machine to stop with the needle down, so everything stays pretty much where it is supposed to be.

Dart StitchAs for the big debate about whether to start sewing darts at the cut edge or the point, I think there is something to be said about both approaches. For the most part, I start at the cut edge, but for really narrow darts or times when when hitting the point exactly as marked seems critical, I start at the point.

One cool trick I tried out while sewing the tulip dress was using paper to keep the cut edge of the lining fabric from disappearing into the machine. This doesn’t happen often with my machine, but with China silk lining, why not try an ounce of prevention? Some teachers say you should use a paper stabilizer for the entire seam on certain fabrics, but I recently saw a teacher use just a small scrap of paper at the beginning of the seam. It works like a charm.

Paper on MachineThis is what it looks like from the back.

Paper BackFor some seams, I used paper at both the beginning and the end. You could do the same with a dart, using paper at the point if you think it would help.

When you finish the seam or the dart, the paper tears away easily. And, if it doesn’t, that’s why we keep a pair of tweezers handy.

Tear Paper

My general approach to construction order once any darts I might have are sewn and pressed is to sew the princess seams so I have full front and back units. I know some people like to stay stitch and clip (or just clip without stay stitching) the curved part of princess seams, but I find that working with 3/8″ seam allowances and fabrics made from natural fibers that are pretty cooperative allows me to manipulate the curves with a few pins and stopping to manipulate the fabric with my hands. I love the tactile experience of sewing and this is a big part of it. When I press the princess seam allowances open using the curves on a tailor board, I can tell what areas need to be clipped and so I just do the clipping right there.

Usually, the next order of business is to get the zipper sewn in while the garment is flat. We can talk zippers another time.

This was the first time I tried a shaped hem with facings. As  I was approaching that step, I asked myself why I had thought a shaped hem was a good idea. How was I ever going to get each one of those curves to look the same? The answer, of course, is to mark the stitching lines using a rounded corner template. Curve 2Except I forgot which template I had used to make the pattern(!) In fact, I forgot I even had the one I used. Remember. I said I cut this garment out months before I started to sew it.

Right curve

One option for marking the stitching line would have been to draw it on the pattern and use a tracing wheel and waxed tracing paper. Had I done that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have wasted all that time trying to figure out where that particular curve came from. What I ended up doing is tracing the template with a chalk pen made by Bohin that makes a very thin line. Sarah Veblen told me about this. It’s one of those wonderful tools quilters know about and garment sewists find out about later. Here it is with my trusty roll of painter’s tape.

Tape and Chalk PenOnce the line was drawn, sewing the curve slowly with smaller stitches got the job done.

Sew Curved CornerThen I followed another tip I picked up recently, which is to trim curves using pinking shears instead of making a bunch of snips or clips one by one. How great is that?

Trimmed 2Next, I pressed the seams open over a tailor board. I know it sounds weird, but I got in the habit of doing this after taking a workshop a while back and it seems to make points and curves turn more easily and allow you to favor one side when you do the final press.

On Pt Presser

Press Open Curve

Turned Curved CornerThe one thing about constructing this dress that was exactly like every garment I make is that it took much, much longer than I had thought it would. A lovely friend of mine tells me that the reason I always underestimate the amount of time something will take is because I’m an optimist. I’m going to go with that.

The thing is, after all that time and no small amount of anxiety, I really enjoy wearing this dress.

Linen Tulip Dress