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.

Frankenpatterns – Cute Name, Wrong Vibe

Frankenpatterns is a word that some sewists are using to describe projects they make by combining elements of two or more patterns. I have some issues with the term. First, this isn’t anything new. I know there are some experienced sewists who never deviate from a pattern, but many of us have been pulling details from one pattern and grafting them onto another without thinking we were doing anything out of the ordinary. A case in point is this two-piece dress that  I made by combining my sloper, or basic fit, bodice pattern and the neckline and collar from Vogue Pattern 8667. V8667, Misses'/Misses' Petite  Dress

IMG_0003FYI, the collar is just a rectangle cut on the bias. The pattern doesn’t say to interface it but I always interface my collars and I think it helped with this one.

I also used the same neckline for a black silk two-piece dress with no sleeves and no collar. Black 2 pc dress

The other problem I have with Frankenpatterns is the name itself. When patterns are combined well, I don’t think the results are monstrous at all. As an example, here is the first jacket I made from my sloper.

Asymmetric JacketThe pattern I used is out of print, Butterick B5292.

untitled This was my first attempt to apply my sloper to a pattern in a way that required more than just a bit of tweaking. I have to say that when I first placed the sloper pieces on the main pattern pieces, I was intimidated.

Here is what one of the front pattern pieces looks like with my jacket sloper on it.

Sloper Front to Original 2Here is the back.

Back Sloper to OriginalI made this jacket before I made the basic jacket pattern you see here so the contrast was even greater at the time. I also didn’t have a full set of helpful landmarks on my bodice sloper at the time. All I had marked was Center Front and Center Back, which I knew I had to line up with the corresponding landmarks on the commercial pattern. Since then, I’ve added a bustline and waistline on every piece by marking them on the front and then walking the adjoining seams to get them to connect at the same level all the way around. Had I done that to my sloper at the time and made corresponding markings on the commercial pattern, I might have felt more confident.

Because this is an asymmetric jacket, there was a lot to be added beyond Center Front. I used my own side front and side back pieces and my own sleeve pattern, so I didn’t have to worry about any of the differences on the other side of Center Front.

I don’t have a tapered back seam in my bodice or jacket patterns, but the commercial pattern does. I wanted to lay out the back piece on the fold, so I lined it up with the marked Center Back and ignored the tapering in the pattern. So, I was able to ignore everything that was going on on either side of Center Back. I just needed to use Center Back as a point of reference.

As you can see, my sloper is quite a bit shorter than the pattern. I’m average height (5’5″ and a bit). Pattern grading increases both horizontally and vertically. If only that were true with changes in people.

Basically, the only things I needed to figure out were the distance between the shoulder point and a line extending up from Center Front on the front piece and the corresponding distance from Center Back on the back piece. Then I needed to draw in my shoulder seams at my correct angle and stop where I needed to stop in order to come out with a neck seam that was the same length and shape as the neck seam on the commercial pattern. I also needed to make sure that the shoulder seam is the same length in the front as it is in the back.

Here is how my drafted pattern looks overlaid on the commercial pattern.

Front New to originalBack new to Original2I was a little concerned about how short the shoulder seams are, but I wasn’t feeling confident enough to change the neckline and create accurate corresponding changes to the collar stand. When I was sewing the jacket I thought that was a dumb decision because my bra straps might make unscheduled appearances. The next time I make this jacket, I’ll bring in the neckline just a bit and make the corresponding change to the collar stand.

If the seamlines in these pictures look narrow to you, it’s because I like to use 3/8″ instead of 5/8″ seamlines. Only recently I’ve switched back to 5/8″ for sleeves and armscyes because of the method I use for setting sleeves. Yes, it does seem my sewing gets unnecessarily complicated sometimes, but I really do have reasons for these choices. The other odd marking you see on the back pattern piece is the extra Center Back foldline. This is actually a shortcut so that I can use one pattern piece for both the fashion fabric and the lining and still get that pleat in the center back of the lining.

Here is what my pattern for this jacket looks like when compared to the jacket sloper.

Left Front Sloper to NewBack New to Sloper Detail

And here is the finished product on my dress form.

Blue Asymmetric JacketThe fabric is a silk suiting that was lovely to work with and is a delight to wear. But, the jacket could have used more structure. I lined it to the edge in a silk charmeuse print, but with the hidden snaps leaving impressions on the fabric, a front facing would have been a better choice. Still, I love wearing it. And I don’t think it bears any resemblance to a monster.