My friend Kara bought this striped Cape May fabric one day, while I was persuing Joann Fabrics for some notion or other. She really loved it and asked if I would help her sew a dress. I said “Of course” and then tried really hard to find a pattern that was what she was after: a simple strapless column dress. This is what we ended up with (below) and I am really happy with the result, but it took me a bit of thinking to get there. I’m pleased for two reasons: firstly, because it’s the first project I’ve completed that really had an element of self-design/ground-up work in it as I’ll explain, but secondly because she really liked it and also because her boobs didn’t fall out when she wore it to a friend’s wedding reception. These things all make me happy.
In case you were wondering about the somewhat industrial setting, it’s my basement, which has the only good light in the evening, thanks to the previous owner who had a workshop down here. I quite like the contrast of glam lady in harsh environment. Anyway, back to the beginning – trying to find a pattern. It was surprisingly tricky to find a simple column dress pattern and so I ended up deciding to use one of my many books to fashion the dress. “Sew many dresses, sew little time” has the sort of punny sewing title that makes my teeth hurt, but it’s actually a very interesting book, which mixes and matches various bodices, skirts, sleeves and collars to enable you to create your own dress. A lot of the samples are very attractive, which is not always the case in this kind of book, and the instructions are very thorough, although you do have to flip around a bit, depending on what you’re making.
Now, my friend has a completely different shape to me: she has broad shoulders and slim hips, whereas I have smaller shoulders and wider hips. This was something that really appealed to me – trying to fit someone with a different body shape to myself. The good news was that the shape she had envisioned – a strapless bodice with maxi skirt – was probably one of the simpler combos in the book, so I got to making up a muslin right away. I tried combining the “strapless bodice” pattern with the “straight skirt” pattern, but extended the skirt and removed the back vent shape. I took Kara’s measurements and ended up blending between three sizes, which involved a bit of guesstimation and shape/line redrawing.
The bodice was comprised of six pieces: front, back, 2 x side fronts and 2 x side backs. I tried to maintain the overall shape of each piece as I resized and redrew them. The skirt had both back and front darts, which I duly placed in the muslin, but then when it came to stitching the bodice to the skirt, the two pieces somehow didn’t match up at all. I checked and re-checked my tracing and numbers, but the skirt front seemed like it was way out for some reason and much narrower than either the skirt back or the bodice front. So I ripped open the front darts, adjusted the width, and we tested it like that.
The dress has a side zipper from bodice top down into the skirt, and I also attached some boning which we removed when fitting to see what was preferable. These options for fastenings and structural items (and others) are all explained in the book and I found it straightforward to add them in.
I have to say I was pretty pleased with the fit for a first attempt! I thought it was quite a flattering shape, but it did need some work. I had drafted a gentle curve for the skirt piece when I worked on the pattern, but that just billowed around Kara’s slim hips and it became clear a simple column skirt would work better. I marked off a hem for her that would work for flats or heels and we decided on a fairly high side slit for movement – particularly with a close-fitting column skirt. We also draped the fabric on her and agreed that a horizontal-striped bodice and vertical-striped skirt would work best.
This was partly because of the fabric itself. Oh, the fabric! I’m not entirely sure how you categorise this fabric. It’s described as a “textured knit fabric” with composition 95% polyester and 5% spandex on Joann Fabric’s website. To me, it feels like a thick ponte with only a little stretch (almost stretch-woven like) that has had a texture applied to it. It was brushed soft on the inside, but quite stiff on the right side. This actually made it rather good in terms of structure for this dress and we decided to forego the boning for that reason. However, it was almost impossible to press and finish. How do you do it with these types of fabrics? You’re supposed to use a cool iron, but even a warm iron had as much effect on the seams as if I’d used a plank of wood to press them with. Actually, a plank of wood might have been an idea… And I suppose a hot iron would have melted them. Any suggestions/tips gratefully received incase I have to work with this kind of fabric again in the future. I was seriously considering gluing them down at one point. Urk.
Anyway, fitting done, I got down to applying changes and getting to the fabric cutting! I decided that I would just cut a straight column skirt to match the width of the finished bodice and because of the stretch factor, to also forget the darts in the skirt. The other aspect to take into consideration was the pattern of stripes. It’s obviously quite a strong contrast pattern and I was aware that any darts or tucks would alter the stripe effect. In that sense, Kara has the perfect figure for this dress. If it were me, I would 100% need darts to fit around my curved hips and it simply wouldn’t look as good.
I did decide to line the bodice in a reasonably stiff cotton lycra knit. There were numerous reasons for this: to hide and finish the seams since it was going to be very hard to finish them normally; for comfort from the inside; to bolster the structure even further, given the lack of boning, and keep everything “in place”; and also just in case the fabric was a little transparent. 🙂
I basted the pieces together and we did a second fitting. It looked pretty good as a column and I had left the side seam of the skirt open under the invisible zip, so we could figure out where to start the side slit. The only problem was the bodice was too loose… and by around 3 inches! I think it was a combination of Kara’s workout regime, plus the fact there was a bit more stretch in the fabric than I anticipated. I’m still not sure why it was 3 inches, but I knew one thing for sure – the last thing I wanted was for that dress to fall down at an inopportune moment.
This is where I really had to puzzle out the alteration approach. Initially I thought, “Oh well, I’ll just lop the extra off the back”. But then I realized that that would pull the front seams out of line to somewhere around the armpit region. This is not a desirable look in a bodice. I also had the issue of the stripes. Since the bodice pieces aren’t straight rectangles, but irregular curved shapes, it was going to throw all my careful stripe-matching into disarray.
Again, the important match was clearly at the front, since that’s where you tend to look most and notice these things. Therefore, I decided not to touch the front pieces at all, but divide up the 3 inch reduction between the other bodice pieces. Not that I wish to bore you with technical details, but the other factor I had to bear in mind was that the waist circumference was perfectly fine. So I only needed to shave the top of the bodice and grade down, keeping the waist circumference intact. Whew!
I made my calculations and just went for it – and luckily, it worked out. The side and back seams aren’t as perfectly matched as they were, but they’re also not bad. I’ll take them! I put in the invisible zip and then tried to figure out how to approach the final exposed skirt seams and hem. I was running out of time a little since we were both going on vacation and decided that, since my pressing attempts weren’t getting anywhere, I would leave the seams and hem raw. One thing I will say for this fabric is that it will n.e.v.e.r. fray. So I cut the hem very straight and called it finished.
I’m going to reinforce the zip a little now that the dress has been worn, didn’t fall off and may be worn again. I’m also going to take another look at seam finishing methods. Maybe I can finish them with binding? I’m not sure, but again, any suggestions welcome! Overall, I found the process really interesting and am really chuffed to have finished with a wearable garment that my friend likes. And doesn’t she look gorgeous in it? Stunner!