My latest sewing project started as so many often do: with an Idea. At a few points in my vintage hunting, I would come across vintage painted mexican skirts or vintage square dancing skirts that had images of dancing couples, with the figures wearing actual miniature skirts. I was so smitten with the 3D quality of them – the idea that there was a miniature world within the skirt, like when you hold up two mirrors opposite each other, creating smaller and smaller landscapes inside.
*Warning: Photo heavy post ahead!
Despite my love for the concept of wearing a dress made up of mini figures wearing their own dresses, I never actually managed to get my hands on one. I was always just a second too slow or it was just a smidgen too small. But, when I saw the latest Jane Austen designs by Peacoquette on Spoonflower, the seed of an idea started to blossom into a reality: Make. My. Own.
The design for this dress was *relatively* straightforward (famous last words): Find a border print of dancers of some kind and embellish the heck out of it. As the intricacies of this dress were really going to live within the border print, I opted to go with an existing vintage pattern to save myself a bit of hassle when it came to drafting. I thought that Retro Butterick B5708 pattern would suit my vision perfectly. I loved the shoulder ties, where the full bows would balance out the detail I was planning to incorporate into the full skirt.
I found the perfect print for what I was looking to do – a series of designs by Peacoquette, which depicted an illustration of Jane Austen’s Pride and Predjudice, drawn in 1805 and turned into a perfect, seamless border print. She had an array of variations of the fabric, and because I can’t do anything simply, I opted for a mix of the dancers and damask to create something truly unique. Even better in my opinion, on some versions of the fabric, Peacoquette has overlayed quotes from Ms. Austen’s famous novel in a font made from her handwriting. So, although not true vintage, it still feels like wearing a piece of history.
I spent ages trying to decide on the right combination of fabric. I knew I wanted a mixture of prints, but didn’t want to overwhelm the dress or give the eye too many options of where to look. In the end, I opted to use the damask print for the upper bodice, keeping the simple blue along the waist and incorporating both border prints into the skirt design.
After I made the decisions regarding my fabric combinations, I set to work laying out the pieces, matching my straight grain, and cutting everything out. I cut out two of each piece for the bodice, as I was using the fabric as my lining as well. Because of the shoulder ties, you would see the lining regardless, so it made sense to have continuity in the print.
I carefully marked my darts and stitch lines, and set to work putting the bodice together. I went with a vintage size 16 for this pattern (listed as 36 bust, 28 waist) and used a standard 5/8″ straight stitch, except on the curves, when I used a 3/8″ stitch.
The trickiest part of the construction for me was where the fabric met in the deep V at the front and on either side under the arms. I stitched up to the large circle, which would be my pivot point, and did a strong backstitch to reinforce the area.
I then turned the bodice inside out and understitched along the collar as far as I could go, followed by a good pressing of the shoulder ties. When I put it on my dress form, from the back things were looking good… (just imagine some ominous music starting to play in the background…)
As I was so excited to get to what (I thought) was going to be the complicated aspect of this design (i.e., the intricate skirt), I jumped in head first without making a toile. Despite looking deceptively like a simple pattern, I learned something about this pattern: There are 5 different dress options for Retro Butterick B5708. However, they are all supposed to come from the same pattern. This resulted in MASSIVE amounts of extra fabric in my upper bodice pieces (yeah, those pleats are not part of the original design, but without them, the bodice gapes HUGELY at the front).
Now, my bust falls squarely in the bodacious category, so when there is a HUGE surplus of material in the bust area on me, you know there’s an issue. We ended up having to unpick everything and remove several inches from each piece and bring the ‘V’ in the front up about two inches (after all that work getting that part perfect! Grrr).
Even then, there was very little bust curvature, so we solved this problem by adding two pleats onto each side of the upper bodice. First, we put a pin at the very center of the bodice, fitted the top on me, and then carefully adjusted the pins to ensure both sides were even. I stitched the pleats in place on the underside, and voila! A bodice that actually fit!
Finally, I opted to stitch the shoulder ties in place once I figured out the correct placement – this bodice gave me so much grief, I wanted to be secure in the thing when I finally wore her. I pinned the two straps in place once I had the torso length where I wanted it. Then, I cut out four small rectangles of fabric and, with right sides together, sewed along three sides. I inverted them, stitched the edges together, creating a loop. I then put these loops over each shoulder tie and tacked them in place, so that each side looked like a lovely bow (that wasn’t ever going anywhere).
If I had done as the trained sewist in me knows I should have, I would have checked for reviews of the pattern before embarking. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one having this issue – several of my fellow comrades in sewing had a similar problem with excessive fabric in the bodice (hindsight is a beautiful thing). I really loved how Draped in Cloudlets from We Sew Retro opted to solve it with a bit of embroidery!
If you are embarking on a dress from Retro Butterick B5708, just know that you will likely have to make major alterations to the bodice. I would highly recommend making a toile first, adjusting the bodice and armholes as needed, and going from there.
So, let’s review:
Kara Fail #1: I didn’t read reviews of the pattern before I attacked the project.
Kara Fail #2: I didn’t opt to make a toile.
Sigh. Learn from my mistakes people…
Moving onto happier subjects, my vision for the skirt ended up coming together really well! For the skirt, I knew I wanted to combine the two different border print fabrics, where the majority of the skirt would be blue, with insets of the damask and text print and a continuous line of dancers along the bottom. This involved learning some pattern matching skills. First, I created a skirt plan, measuring the blocks of dancers and cutting careful panels of the text print pieces, with four dancers each.
In this case, with Sewanista’s expertise, we opted to have one long bolt of the blue fabric and overlay the text print panels on top, which would mean much less fabric movement and a greater chance of success with seamless pattern matching.
For each panel, we cut about an inch of extra fabric on either side, and then used Sewanista‘s clever trick of quickly flicking the fabric back and forth to trick the eye into not seeing the movement, which helps to you to get the print lined up perfectly. See it in action in this handy video:
Once we were happy with the placement, we then folded under the seam allowance of the text printed panel and pinned the two edges in place, so that the dancers and ‘horizon line’ along the base of the border print matched.
To tack everything in place first, I used a slip basting technique, where I could slipstitch the folded edge of the text panel to the long blue panel. The advantage of slip basting first, is that we can baste the seams together from the right side of the fabric, thus ensuring everything was perfectly lined up.
We anchored the thread in the top layer and, working left to right, pulled the needle out through the folded edge. We then picked up a small stitch on the blue fabric, and brought the needle up through the folded edge again, about 1/4 inch above the caught stitch. We continued this up to the top of the dancer print, forming a perfect ladder. It’s important to keep the stitches very small and as even as possible..
We did this all the way across the length of the blue fabric, on every panel. Then, we turned the fabric to the wrong side, where you see a series of diagonal baste stitches, and used these stitches as a guide to secure the panels in place on the sewing machine.
After we were happy with how everything had lined up, we trimmed the excess blue fabric and cut our slip basting stitches. Voila! Perfectly matched all the way around, where the two border prints now look seamless. In total, the skirt was now 3.5m long, which would give me a fabulously full skirt.
Now this is where the fun part came in… For the embellishments, I needed to be a bit careful not to overdo it (I can go a little glitter crazy. Eh hem). It can be REALLY easy to get addicted to adding more and more and MORE, which can go from amazing to tacky pretty quickly. I wanted to periodically step back and assess the balance of all of the elements, to make sure it wasn’t visually too heavy. To keep myself in check, I decided to do each embellished element in batches – i.e., I would start with making miniature skirts, and add them to the full 3.5 length of fabric, step back, and decide what was next.
Before getting started, I needed to stock up on supplies:
- Fray Stoppa: This is absolutely genius stuff. When applied to the edge of a fabric, it holds the threads in place and keeps that fabric from fraying.
- Fabric glue: I would use this to adhere elements to the garment that couldn’t be stitched on. Although I haven’t tested them all yet, the glue apparently bonds many types of fabrics (or things to fabrics) and is apparently machine washable. It worked really well on my basic Kona Cotton.
- Hand needles (“straws”) and matching thread: For hand beading
- Seed beads (in cream, pink, and sky blue)
- 3mm silk ribbon (in cream, pink, and sky blue)
- Adhesive rhinestones (similar)
- Adhesive pearls (similar)
- Small swatches of silk chiffon and silk habotai
I was able to find all of these materials in two local shops – Textile Traders and Collins Craft. If you live locally and haven’t discovered Collins Craft yet, run, do not walk, and check it out. Every time I walk in there, I start itching with ideas. I’m fairly sure you would also be able to find many of these materials online, but in this case I preferred to hold them in my hands and get a good sense of their quality and true color. Also, you know, Perth. Shipping fees. Nuff said.
After I had my supplies, it was time to get to work! Thank goodness for Christmas vacation and endless episodes of Top Chef on Hulu. I spent 3 days straight camped out at my dining room table, hand beading and ladder-stitching like a madwoman.
I started by making what felt like 12 zillion miniature skirts (really, it was only 9, but it felt like more do to its fiddly nature). For these skirts, I used a sheer mauve silk chiffon that Sewanista pulled out of her bag of tricks and cut small rectangles that were slightly wider and longer than the skirt on the dancer.
Then, on either side of the rectangle, I sewed a hem, using a hand-rolled hem technique that I introduced in my last sewing post. For this, you fold over the edge of the hem and, holding the fold with one hand, you catch a stitch just under the fold, then run your needle through the top fold (one layer only), and catch again at the bottom of the fold, creating a series of U-shapes. You then pull the thread gently every so often too roll the fabric, and continue on along the whole hem.
I kept one edge as a standard rolled hem. For the other, I pulled the thread tight, so that it ruched the top of my “skirt” into a series of folds. I hand-stitched the skirt onto the dancer, using a standard stitch at the top and a ladder stitch along the sides so that the edges would tuck under. I kept the bottom of the skirt loose to give it that 3D effect, as if she were dancing, and have it billow as I moved.
I opted to make a 3D skirt for only one of my dancing ladies. As for the other one, I wanted to play a bit more with rhinestones and ribbons to give texture and volume. This was where my fabric glue came in. On a disposable plate, I put a small bead of the glue. Working quickly (as this stuff isn’t joking about it’s “quick dry” properties), I dabbed a toothpick into the glue and dotted it onto the fabric where I would place my rhinestone.
As I’m very comfortable with scalpels (occupational hazard), I actually found it much easier to remove the rhinestone with a scalpel, and place use it it onto the bead of glue I had just added onto the fabric, though it would work just as easily with a knife or anything that comes to a point. I repeated this across the figure, until her “necklace” was complete. I used this same glue+scalpel technique to give the other female dancer a tiara, this time using the adhesive pearls. I got a bit cheeky and added a rhinestone to the center (cause what’s a tiara without some bling?)
Next, I decided to add pink ribbon to her feet, to give the appearance of being laced up her legs and finished with a pink bow. I cut tiny pieces of the pink ribbon, and put Fray Stoppa on each end. I then hand stitched the ribbon to her leg, using tiny, tight backstitches. I brought the ribbon to the other side of her leg and folded it over, once again stitching it in place.
Once I had all of my ribbons laced up (so to speak), I made a series of tiny bows from the pink silk ribbon. My itsy, bitsy bow tying skills were top rate by the end of it. Once again, I cut the ends and dipped each in Fray Stoppa. Then, using the fabric glue, I glued a bow onto each of her feet, and finished it with a few stitches through the center of the bow to keep everything together, completing the ankle ribbon effect.
Continuing with the ribbon theme, I wanted to attach a cream ribbon detail to her sleeves. Once again, I cut and handstitched three small pieces of ribbon to each sleeve and used a toothpick to apply Fray Stoppa at my stitch lines. I then twisted the ribbon once and hand stitched it to the top of the sleeve to give it a puffed effect. I trimmed the ribbon right to the edge and added a dab more of Fray Stoppa.
For my next trick, I decided it was time to get down to some hardcore hand-beading. Apparently I am a masochist. I haven’t done a ton of hand beading before this project, but I was about to get a crash course in it. As each lady was holding a bouquet of flowers and/or had a flower crown in her hair, I decided to use the blue and cream beads for one dancer and use pink and cream beads for my other and create flowers out of beads.
The main thing required for this was patience and good lighting. I simply used one bead per stitch, and follow the flower print. I did one color and then filled in the gaps with white.
For my Pink Lady, I used the same technique, except I carried the beads over into her flower crown as well. I then added one small dab of glue to the corner of each sleeve, and finished it with a pearl.
As much fun as it was to embellish the heck out of the ladies, I didn’t want to leave the gents out in the cold. One of the male dancers has his back facing you while the other is side on, holding a handkerchief. So, I decided to use buttons and white fabric to give the guys their own 3D effects. For the first gentleman, I stitched two small buttons to the back of his tailed jacket. I used collar buttons (the smallest I could find) to keep things to scale as much as possible.
Gentleman #2 got a handkerchief, which took a bit more planning. Thanks to Sewanista’s stash, I had access to a few different fabrics to choose from. We ended up going with white silk habotai, which had a good amount of structure. However, it frays like mad, so once again, Fray Stoppa to the rescue! To start, I drew a square onto the fabric using the fray stop (with a disposable plate underneath to protect the table). After it dried, I cut a series of triangles, making sure to keep my cuts inside of the Fray Stoppa, which would eventually be my handkerchiefs.
I folded over the top edge of each triangle, and folded under the upper right corner. I placed this onto the fabric and, using a ladder stitch, secured it in place onto each gentleman. My fingers were getting pretty battered by this point, so I was happy all of the hand sewing was coming to a blessed finish…
I then did minor additional touches – like adding a few beads to the men’s trousers as buttons and adding a tiny pearl to their waistcoats. Once it was complete, I decided it was better for my sanity not to total up the number of hours it took me to add all of the embellishments to the skirt, but I would say it was well over 40. For the most part, it was actually really fun and therapeutic. And totally worth it, as I was absolutely thrilled with how she turned out.
Next, it was onto ruffling the skirt, attaching it to the bodice, and putting the finishing touches on!
As the skirt was in one long panel, it needed to be ruffled to fit (and to give me the full skirt that my heart craves). My ruffler (Bernina Ruffler Foot #86) is one of the best sewing machine accessories I ever invested in – particularly as I make a lot of full skirted garments and it saves me the headache of doing it by hand (which is never perfectly even. Which drives the perfectionist in me bonkers). Here’s a quick video of my ruffler foot in action:
As this was not my first full-skirted rodeo, I knew to scale down ~3.5 meters of fabric to my waist measurement. My ruffler on the tightest setting (#1, i.e. pleats with every stitch), with a stitch length of 2.5, brings my skirt length to a perfect 28″. Because of the gathers, there is a bit of wiggle room here, so you can maneuver the fabric a bit to get it to the perfect length. But, I highly advise ruffling a few small test swatches and doing the math to figure out your perfect scale before ruffling your irreplaceable fabric.
Last but not least, I added the finishing touches of a blue bow to the top of the bodice (truthfully, it actually covered an accidental mark on the dress. But I think it was meant to be there all along). I finished by adding a covered zipper to the back and a simple rolled hem, and dissolving all of my water-soluble marks with a few quick spritzes of water.
I was nearly giddy when I stitched on a hook and eye and put her on my dress form for final photos. I almost couldn’t believe she was DONE. A quick visit with my steamer, and this beauty would be ready for a night on the town!
This was perhaps one of my favorite projects to style, possibly because of the time and energy that went into even the tiniest of details (trust me, the length of this blog post is directly proportional to the time it took to construct her). I have definitely embarked on Big Sewing Projects before (case in point, The Dahlia Dress), but I think this one really gave me a true appreciation for the attention to detail on the vintage I love so much. The time that goes into hand beading. The hours spent hand stitching elements on a dress. These are not things to be taken lightly – nor are they things I will ever take for granted again…
I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Of all of the dresses I’ve made so far, I find this one to be the most transportive. As if the world around me turns into a ballroom, and Mr. Darcy has caught my eye across the room in a silent request to dance. Between you and me, I don’t really go for the whole ‘dark and broody’ thing and would probably respectfully decline Mr. D, my eyes on the shy, quiet man in the back of the room. And like the dancers that line my skirt, we would bow and dance and twirl into oblivion…
As usual, if you have any questions or want additional details on a particular technique used to make this garment, feel free to ask away in the comments section.
Upper Bodice Fabric, damask print: Peacoquette Designs via Spoonfower
Waist and Skirt Fabric 1, dancers on blue: Peacoquette Designs via Spoonflower
Skirt Fabric 2, Dancers on damask with text: Peacoquette Designs via Spoonflower
Vintage Pattern: Retro Butterick B5708, Dress B (pattern available here)
Beads, Rhinestones, Pearls and Ribbon: Collins Craft
Additional fabric & notions (thread, zippers): Textile Traders
Sewing Machine: Bernina Activa 220
Handbag: Vintage (similar here & here)
Headband: Modcloth (similar here & here)
Necklace: Gift (similar)
Vintage Gloves: Modern Millie Vintage (similar here & here)
Shoes: Delicious (similar here, here & here)