Dress, 2013

The story begins all too familiarly with a wedding invitation and everything in my closet suddenly seeming very old and boring. I also thought it might be fun to sew something modern for change, since for the past few years I have been making almost exclusively period stuff, save the bridal gown of course. The ultimate indisputable argument in favor of a new dress was to empty some of my overflowing stash on it.

I remembered having once bought a piece of black organza with a beautiful cut velvet pattern. My plan had been to use it on top of a light toned satin in a 50's inspired circle skirt dress. After a bit of digging I found it from the storage, and also a lot of greyish lilac satin. The combination of them was darker than I had originally thought, but it had a nice gothy charm.

One day I happened to walk by a shop in Tampere and ended up trying on a tulle petticoat just to see the silhouette and get inspiration for the dress project. Only the petticoat happened to be so perfect that I just had to buy it. True, I could have made it myself cheaper, but I'm not overly fond of gathering tulle and I had so many other things in line for the time it would take. And it was actually made in the shop, not in China, which is always a nice thing. The tulle petticoat is fabulous, it's so poofy that it literally stands by itself and the only downside is the space it takes in the crowded closet.

My original idea when buying the black organza had been, I seem to recall, a bustier dress, but now I got into my head that a transparent shoulder part and elbow-length sleeves would look stylish. To my great disappointment I had to give up the idea as the organza piece turned out too small, but I managed to get the tiniest cap sleeves instead. I wanted to cut the shoulder part on bias to get it fit better and hopefully have some stretch. The sleeves had to be cut on the straight grain, however, to keep the sides of the sleeve head on bias. The skirt would of course be cut as a full circle, so it's length was determined by the fabric width. I calculated that I would get a knee length hem.
50's dress
I decided to build the dress over a boned coutil base which would also function as the bodice lining. I happened to have a just large enough leftover piece of black coutil, too. I imagined I could lift the pattern straight from the strapless top I had made for the Winter Fairy-costume, but obviously I had been momentarily really skinny at that time, as when I tried it on now the zipper almost wouldn't close and there was some extra flesh spilling over the top edge.

So, once again I ended up in a fit of thorough pattern drafting madness including one mock up. At first I was just going to add a bit on the top of the side-front shaping seam, but I ended up making a lot of other alterations on it too. I also added a center front seam to get a small vertical bust dart towards the center front, which really improved the bodice fit and brought a nice corset-like flair. As the circle skirt would start at the waist I realized that for once I wouldn't have to worry about getting a flat stomach, and happily curved all the front seams outwards from the waist down. The tight fitting bodice became at once much more comfortable, and I could even get the waist smaller now that the abdomen did not fight back - something I have also noticed in corsetry. Indeed, the silhouette created resembled a victorian corset a bit.
50's dress
When I was happy with the mock up version I though it safe to cut the coutil. I sewed the tapes with hooks and eyes at the center back opening at once to be able to try on the tight bodice which would be hard to pin. I made boning channels on all the seams and the center back edges. I cut bias strips of the coutil and sewed them on top of the seams for the boning channels. As I wouldn't make a separate lining I first tried to sew the boning channels on the top side beneath the satin, but on the side-front seams I became worried that the boning on top on the bust would show through the satin, so I put the boning channels on the underside instead. I still left out the boning channels in the side seams so that I could alter them after fitting if necessary.

Despite having made the mock up I still had to tweak both the side- and the side front seams. On the mock up the side front seams had looked okay, but on the stiff coutil they looked more like Madonna's iconic bustier than the smooth curve I had in mind. Seeing them was quite a deja-vu from the similar unpleasant surprised I had had with my Mother's finished corset.

Manic steaming and pressing was to no avail, so at last ripped the boning channels out of the bust curve, pinned them anew about 1,5cm shorter and sewed them back in a violent manner. One seam got a small tuck in the process, but I decided to ignore it. But when I tried the bodice back on, the bust curve was perfect. This was a very useful lesson to learn.
As the back was shaped with only one side-back seam, the coutil crumpled a bit at the midway of the side back piece (where one should always try to put a seam in a close fitting bodice, especially with my hip curve). I added an extra boning channel there, which helped a bit. I also had to take in a bit still at the side seams, as often happens when fitting a tight bodice. Now I was at last happy with the bodice base and after copying all the alterations on the patterns I moved on to the organza.

I had already begun drafting the organza shoulder part while working with the bodice pattern. I sort of combined my good old basic dress pattern block and and a fitting blouse pattern, and drafted a joining seam to match the top edge of the bodice lining. I made a mock up of a thin but crisp material, tried it on with the bodice mock up and pinned the joining seam. The mock up looked so promising that I cut the organza with just 1cm allowance on the shoulder and sleeve head, leaving a bit more allowance on the joining seam of course. I cut the full circle skirt at the same time. As I didn't have any extra material I could not really match the pattern but just tried to get all the pieces fit in.

While planning the dress construction I had first thought to finish the shoulder part seams and edges on narrow black binding or possibly a transparent one, but then asked myself why couldn't I just finish them by hand. Really, if I had made the insane amount of organza hemming in the striped polonaise a few short seams would be nothing. Moreover, as the material was black the stitched wouldn't even show so they wouldn't have to be so tiny and neat.

First I closed the shoulder seams, flat felled them by hand and made a narrow hem on the neck. I also hemmed the sleeves. Bias cut pieces are always a bit surprising as they stretch in opposite direction than you are used to, as I found out several times during this project.

I had worked a lot to get the coutil bodice fit, and yet there was more tweaking on the way with the organza. After finishing the shoulder seams and neckline I asked my friend Riikka to pin the shoulder part on the coutil bodice and the sleeves on.
The surprise number one was that the bodice was so tight that there was some extra flesh spilling over the top edge, and the shoulder blade also needed some moving allowance. Thus the organza had to be wider and gathered quite much, with the back width I had drafted being barely enough. The shoulder part also settled lower than I had thought, so the sleeves had to be gathered more than I had planned. I also had to curve the organza edge a bit more at the side fronts.

After the fitting I basted the new joining seam line and some matching points. Then I sewed the sleeves on. I was a bit too hasty and careless as I had to do a bit of unpicking and re-sewing, where I made my second mistake: I was too lazy to unpick the whole sleeve head, so I just fixed one part and finished with back stitching, which left tension on the seam. At this point I ignored it.

I also made another very stupid decision by finishing the shoulder part back slit edges with a binding which I cut straight. I suppose I reasoned that a straight cut binding would not stretch and thus keep the edges on the length measured at the fitting, but without any stretch it of course also looked terrible.

I sewed and unpicked the back edge of the organza a few times before I got the gathering on the right place, below the shoulder blade. I had imagined the bias cut to give more moving allowance for the shoulders, but as already mentioned, bias cut can take an inexperienced seamstress by surprise. Even though the back pieces had some extra vertical and horizontal stretch, lifting your arm causes also diagonal tension on the back pieces, which now met with an unyielding straight grain. Finally, after gathering all the extra allowance I could below the shoulder blade the shoulder began to have a bit less tension. I should really learn more about human anatomy, as it does play a great role in fitting.

When I began to pin the front edge on the coutil I met with another nasty surprise. It seems that back in the fitting the coutil bodice had been a few centimetres too high, and now settled lower, as the front of the shoulder part was hopelessly too short. I once again cursed my damned hastiness on fittings, and wondered why I had not been alarmed at all by my basted seam lines settling several centimetres off.

Well, happily I had just pinned the front and whats more, not yet trimmed the large seam allowances at the back, as the straight seam did not need any cutaways. So, I once again unpicked the back joining seam and steamed and scratched furiously with my nails to get the needle marks away. Luckily they vanished quite well, and the velvet patterns disguises the rest. Then I closed the seam for the last time with the organza over 1cm longer. The front part with the curved seam was a bit trickier, and I had to adjust the sides a bit still.

There were still some issues with the fit left. With all the re-doing on the joining seams the shoulder line had somehow moved frontwards, and now the sleeves were too tight at the back and gapped at the front. There was also tension on the sleeve head stitching like I mentioned earlier. Again, happily I had not neatened the sleeve head seam allowances yet, so I took the sleeves off and steamed the shoulder back to normal. Without the sleeves the shoulder part felt much better on. I still wanted the sleeves, though, so I begun very carefully pin them back. I had removed the gathering threads as they tightened the sleeve head too much and too irregularly, but the organza had somewhat settled into the gathered shape so they settled quite well. I pinned the front side myself and Jarno helped a bit at the back. Jarno was of great help during all the numerous fittings, as I couldn't close the hooks at the back myself.

The re-fitted sleeves were less gathered and they didn't feel so tight anymore. There was one mistake left to fix still: The center back slit binding had been ugly to begin with, and now that I had lengthened the back a bit it gapped terribly. I ripped it off, cut new binding tapes on bias this time and pressed the extra stretch away which also made them more attractive narrower width. I gathered the organza to match the measured tapes, and sewed them by hand on both sides as it was already too late for loud machine sewing. The bias tape finishing looks much better and still has some stretch so that it settles nicely on body.

There was still to flat fell the sleeve head seam and hem the tiny bits on the sides after the sleeve ends, and add a button and a loop at the neck. Then I moved on to the gray satin.
I cut the skirt to match the organza top layer and the bodice pieces with the fixed coutil base pattern. Then I placed the organza bodice pieces on the satin ones and sewed them together at the edges. At this point I was beginning to be in a hurry to get done with the damn dress and move one to the other things scheduled for my holiday week (not to mention the wedding coming along), so I didn't have enough patience to baste the layers together. I closed the bodice seams, pressed the seams open and decided to stitch them on both sides so that they would stay neat. Some stitching also added to the corset-like flair.

I sewed the stitching in a hurry before running to the baroque dance class, and managed accidentally sew though my fingertip. I felt that all the difficulties I had had with the dress culminated on that broken needle in my bloody finger. Happily the damage was not very serious, as the needle had safely passed the bone and only torn my fingernail, and the broken needle had obviously not left any splinters inside the fingertip as it healed amazingly fast. But as you can probably imagine, when I attacked the dress again the next morning with a bandaged finger I was mainly determined to get it finished and fast, no matter if it wouldn't be perfect.

I stitched the rest of the back and front shaping seams, but at this point I had still left the side seams open. I pinned the front and back on the coutil base to see whether my side seam lines still matched after the fittings and inserting the boning. After pinning the side seam lines I closed and stitched them too. At this point I noticed that the organza did not lie smoothly over the satin everywhere, especially at the bust area the satin was crumpled under it. But as I had already trimmed the seam allowances and stitched the seams I decided to leave it like that, and just sewed it on the top edge of the coutil base with the organza shoulder part between. On the curved front seam I had to unpick and re-sew at places.

I pressed the seam allowances at stitched them on the coutil base. Then I pinned the center back pieces on and pressed the edges to turn under, but still left them open at this stage. Then I moved on the hem.
Perhaps as a some kind of compensation for all the trouble I had had with the bodice the skirt went together very easy. I sewed a pleat on the center back on both layers, cut it open at the top, joined the layers as one and inserted a zipper there. Even the invisible zipper which can be a bit tricky sometimes succeeded at the first try, and the waist circumference I had cut by estimation was just perfect. I joined the layers at the waist and sewed them on the bodice edge, and pressed at stitched the seam allowances upwards.

Now I could finally try the almost finished dress on with the tulle petticoat. The skirt continued behaving well and seemed to be pretty much even length, so I, or rather the poor wretch I would bribe or threaten to assist me was saved from the tedious operation of hem leveling. Despite the cosmetic flaws on the bodice the dress was beginning to look quite pretty, which lifted my motivation level a bit.

For a moment I even considered hemming the organza by hand, but then came back to my senses, remembering both my to-do-list for the week and the sad fact that a perfect hemline would be utterly wasted in the same garment with crumpled bodice. So instead I stitched a supporting thread near the edge to help with turning the hem, but it was hopelessly too tight (as my machine, like most, hate organza), so I had to unpick most of it and just try to press a hem without burning my fingers too much. The hemming didn't end up quite as even and narrow as I would have hoped, but then again it's dark so it doesn't get much attention anyway.
Though the circle cut organza had looked even when I tried the dress on I did not trust the heavier satin to stay so for long, so I put the dress on a hanger to wait for a few hours. Then I pinned the tulle petticoat inside the dress the throw the hem out and began pinning the satin where it hit the organza edge. I cut away the extra, put the dress on the hanger again, and went round and round it clipping away the longer parts. Finally it seemed even enough, and I neatened the hem with overlock and a narrow stitching.

For the last thing I pinned the bodice top layer edges on the coutil base. As the hooks and eyes made machine sewing too tricky I sewed them on by hand on a small stab stitch. I have become quite like the look of it though my period sewing, and imitation of decorative running stitch finishing features at the moment on modern clothes too. By practize I have also learned to get it even enough quite effortlessly, and a stitching in heavier thread that goes through all the layers makes the edges nicely firm like no bag lining trick. I extended the edges to cover the hooks, but as the garment is quite tight they gap a bit anyway, but I suppose it's hard to avoid.

Though the dress is rather pretty I'm not satisfied with it at all, as the bodice flaws do show annoyingly. On the afterthought The organza might have settled more neatly over the satin if I had cut it on bias too, but I wouldn't probably have had enough fabric for that. Of course I could also have basted them and generally done that stage with more care. After having worked with silk organza once I also have to say that I might have been more successful with quality materials, as polyester organza is just very unforgiving. But then again, what I had wanted in the beginning had been an inexpensive machine washable dress, and so one is stuck with polyester.

While we have dwelled in detail with the imperfections of the bodice I also have to state that I am not happy with the shoulder part either - the unforgiving, shiny organza again shows all the bagginess and tightness. On the first wearing the neckline also began to chafe. The famous moving allowance for the shoulder blades also shows as bagginess at the back, especially as the velvet pattern stiffens the organza. One of the lessons learned with this dress is that bias cut still doesn't mean the same things as lycra.
As I am on this century rather addicted to black I had planned to accessorize the dress with black, and add a black velvet ribbon tie at the waist. But the finished dress turned out darker than I had anticipated while choosing the satin. Under the black organza it mysteriously lost the lilac hue almost completely and looked just dark grey.

On the baroque dance group where I had the dress with me I wondered whether I could wear it in a wedding after all, but then our dancing master suggested cheering it up with red accessories. I initially frowned at the idea of red, as I don't really have any red accessories, and had decided to to buy anything new. But then I realized that pink always works with gray, and moreover I already had a fabric rose, ribbon and a very cute little handbag I had never used all in matching light pink. Light pink is powerful in adding the pastel toned flair even in small quantities, and the dress began to look a lot more fitting for a wedding, even in spite of my black bolero.
For evening occasions the dress can be combined with black for a more sophisticated look. The skirts also look nice even without the tulle petticoat.

For my hair I did my usual 1770-esque thing without the side rolls. I know I should try to learn how to do more things with my hair, but I've just gotten very lazy about it.

Despite the numerous challenges and the fact that it took me much longer time than I had thought I'm still basically happy that I at least finished the dress. I learned many things and the result is wearable after all. In the world filled with cheap badly made dresses shipped from the far east it doesn't stick out, though of course as a dressmaker I guess I should be ashamed of showing up on a flawed creation of mine.

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