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.

IMG_0228

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.

IMG_1262

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.

IMG_1260

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.

IMG_1261

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.

PTPE.Haute Couture Fashion Show.2016-290

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.

IMG_0729

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.

IMG_0732

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.

IMG_0731

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.

IMG_0734

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.

 

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?

Rediscovering the Lost Art of Dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberty Shirtdress

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Dots

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

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

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

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.