After the craziness that was the making of the Dahlia Dress (which took a good 6 months to complete in between all of the travel and 12 zillion pattern pieces), Sewanista and I thought it was a good idea to try for a quick win – follow a fairly straightforward pattern and quickly reap the rewards. Ohhhh when will I ever learn that when it comes to my sewing projects, nothing is ever as simple as I expect…
As usual, what started out as a simple pattern with an elegant draped collar turned into a fairly frustrating project that required a bit of creative problem-solving. Anyone who watches Project Runway will know, it always starts and ends with fabric selection. I learned the hard way that Tim Gunn is a very very wise man…
Choosing the pattern was easy – I have a collection of vintage patterns in my sewing room, just waiting for the day when inspiration strikes and they’re lifted out of their packaging to be made new again. Still exhausted from my previous project, this 1960’s pattern (Simplicity 4468) was a no-brainer because, although she had a beautiful collar detail, she was otherwise very simple and as an added bonus, Sewanista had made her before and declared her to be a snap (can you almost hear the ominous music starting to play? Yeah, famous last words.)
On one of my many forays into Fabulous Fabrics, where I wander around and stroke the rows and rows of stunning fabrics (most of which I cannot afford), I came upon this lovely organza on the sale table. There was at least 7 yards of it at a ridiculously discounted price and I giddily scooped it up. I knew the sheer fabric, cut on the bias would create a lovely diagonal stripe pattern that would then flare out into the fullest skirt imaginable (remember my two-crinoline minimum rule…). Because she was sheer, I chose a shimmering apple green silk charmeuse as my underlay.
Each pattern piece was cut twice – once from each type of fabric. Rather than sewing the charmeuse as a lining (where you sew the pieces together and then attach them to the outer layer of the dress), I chose to stitch together the sheer layer and the underlay first, stitching the fabrics together right-to-wrong side and then constructing the garment. As both the organza and the charmeuse were incredibly slippery fabrics (should have been my first clue that this was going to be no easy task!), doing it this way helped me to secure them together first, in the hopes it would prevent further issues down the track. I used my trusty water soluble marking pen to mark dart positioning and stitch lines.
The bodice drapes into a cowl by sewing along several folds at each shoulder. Using my marks as a guide, I pinned the folds together, did a quick hand-sewn stay stitch to ensure that my placement was correct, and then secured them in place with a standard straight stitch on my Bernina. I was lured into a false sense of security because, at this stage, all appeared to be going well…
When I went to put the bodice on my dress form, however, I realized the issue that I failed to consider when I started this project. The sheer poly-organza I chose had the most beautiful spring and lift. The shimmering charmeuse I bought had the most stunning drape. Long story short, those fabrics wanted to fight each other the entire rest of the way of this sewing journey. (I didn’t even take a photo at this stage, that’s how bad it was – imagine a fistfight between two dueling relatives, just in fabric form).
Many people probably would have walked away and scrapped the dress at this stage out of sheer frustration, but Sewanista and I would not be thwarted. What do you do when your fabrics are in competition and refuse to drape together?
Using strategically place clusters of beads, we were able to weigh down the lift of the organza and create the draping effect we wanted. In addition to being functional, the beads added a design feature and a bit of extra sparkle, which never go amiss in my wardrobe. For a bit of additional security, I also hand tacked the two fabrics together – they were going to be married, whether they liked it or not!
To save you from my heartache, I highly recommend looking into the characteristics of your fabric before purchasing to ensure they’ll fit within the primary design features of your dress. This is something I tend to do subconsciously, but I think I was blinded by color and a sale over sense. As a scientist, charts and graphs always work wonders for me. I found the most fantastic tips for choosing fabric based on weight and drape here:
So see the organza all the way on the left and the charmeuse allllll the way on the right? Yeah, it was destined to be a problem. Ah well, hindsight and all!
Once we sorted out the bodice issues and had it draping as it was originally intended, I was able to sew in the rest of the elements, including the adorable puff sleeves. The sleeves were the only feature where I chose to use the green charmeuse as an actual lining, stitching right sides together and then turning them inside out, so that the edges would look finished.
Lo and behold, she was starting to look like an actual dress! Well, a bodice. I then measured out 4 meters of the outer and underlay fabric, basted them together, and put my ruffler to work. On the tightest setting working very slowly, I created a full skirt that would make Dior proud.
At this stage, she was looking more like a gown for a 7ft tall woman who appreciated a paper-bag waist, so next step was to attach the skirt to the bodice, them the dress, and get on with finishing touches.
Sometimes the most important elements in a garment are the finishes – they can take it from looking like a homemade project to a couture one-of-a-kind piece. When I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I’ll also try to keep my finishes true to era. I have this hilarious image in my head of someone trying to date dresses I’ve made centuries from now, unsure of how to marry the 60’s pattern and finishes to the modern fabrics to where in the world did those whackadoodle beads come from?
First order of business was sewing in a waist stay. If you like a full skirt, waist stays are really helpful in cinching the waist and streamlining the bulk at the waistline from all of that ruffling. It also serves as an internal stabilizer for a garment – anchoring it at your waist and avoiding the riding up/slipping down that can lead to a lot of wiggling, hiking, fidgeting in a dress. Trust me, they are your best friend.
For my waist stay, I used a 1-inch grosgrain ribbon. I measured my natural waist (27.5″) and added a bit of extra length so I could finish the edge, add in ease, and add a hook and eye. You want your waist stay to fit very snuggly. Then, I hand-sewed the waist stay to the seam allowance of the skirt and folded over each end and hand-stitched in two hook-and-eyes so I could secure it to my waist when worn.
With my waist stay securely in place, I tacked the two layers together and then opted to do a partially hand-sewn zipper, which were fairly common in the 1950’s and 60’s. As an added bonus, due to the nature of the fabric, hand stitching gave me much more control over the slippage between the over and underlay. Although I’m always nervous that hand-sewing isn’t as secure as machine sewing, Sewanista showed me her hand-sewn dress dummy that has survived over 30 years with fabric that is stretched more tightly than anything I would ever wear and still be able to breathe in. To be safe, I did a tight backstitch and reinforced the stitches at the waist, where there is always the most strain (especially in my dresses. What can I say? This gal likes it cinched).
At long last came the hem, which is usually the time in a dressmaking project that I breathe a sigh of relief. But, this dress wasn’t done with me yet (will I ever learn?). After fighting against several different hem options, hampered due to both the sheerness of the poly-organza fabric, which shows everything, and the fact that she was so very springy (this really was the Dress That Never Would), the only thing for it was a hand-stitch rolled hem. Have you sensed a theme with this dress yet? Hand. Sewing. A lot of it.
However, this was my first hand sewn rolled hem and I’m always excited to learn a new skill. It involves folding over the edge of the hem (inwards – you want the roll to be on the inside of the dress). Then, 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 around the whole hem.
One hugely handy tip I was taught by the clever Sewanista was to use a sharpie and create two lines on your thumbnail. As I went along my 4m hem, I could keep the fold perfectly even and ensure that I didn’t accidentally roll too much or too little at any point in the process (cause let me tell you, once this hem was done she was NOT being unpicked and done again).
The trick worked perfectly – It took me a few hours one evening in front of the tv, but I was able to get a perfectly even hem (the stripes definitely helped to confirm that I hadn’t twisted it at any point). From the outside of the skirt, the hem was virtually invisible. I’d call this one a success!
As ever, the most fun part of dressmaking is getting to twirl around in something you created, particularly one that took as much effort as this seemingly simple dress. I love bringing a dress to life with styling, which is the way she always feels like she’s really mine (yeah, because the hours upon hours of tears, needle sticks, and hand-sewing apparently didn’t do it for me). But, I’m happy to say she fit like a glove and feels like a dress that was truly earned.
A pinch of madness
When combined with creativity
Could produce sheer magic.
Although she wasn’t as simple to construct as I first imagined her to be, I’m thrilled with how she turned out and will appreciate her all the more knowing the work that went in. As with any sewing project, you have avoid being so regimented that you can’t think outside of the box now and then when things don’t go according to plan. I love the iridescent beads on the bodice that catch the light and remind me that we can all use something to anchor us now and then.
Though they were perhaps never meant to go together, I actually love the unlikely marriage of the organza and the charmeuse. It almost glows from the effort of having to resolve their disparate purposes, as if proud of their ability to settle their differences.
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.
Organza & Charmeuse Fabric: Fabulous Fabrics
Vintage Pattern: Simplicity 4468, Dress 1 (one available here & here)
Additional fabric & notions (piping, zippers): Textile Traders
Sewing Marchine: Bernina Activa 220
Handbag: Mo-Mo’s Vintage (similar here, here & here)
Earrings: Anniversary gift from my Mr. (similar here & here)
Headband: Forever New (similar here & here)
Belt: Anthropologie (similar here & here)
Shoes: Jimmy Choos, thrifted (similar here, here & here)