New dress: Megan Nielsen Karri in upcycled denim for Sewing Bee Round 2

Alright folks – I’m going to tell you this upfront. Fasten your seatbelts, because this is going to be a longggg post. I have so much to say about this project. First – I got through Round 2 of the Pattern Review Sewing Bee! Yayyy! I really wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but I was very fortunate to be one of the 26 sewists who made it through to the penultimate round. This means, of course, that I am in the throes of Round 3 – it’s all about pattern matching and I reckon this is going to be extremely tough to get through, but – first! – let me tell you about the challenge for Round 2.

The brief for the round was to repurpose denim garments and make a brand new garment plus an accessory. All in 6 days! The source of the denim had to be from garments (no stash fabric at all) and you had to take photos of the original garments as part of the entry.

The idea from the judges, I think, was to make us use a source that was available in some form to everyone, regardless of the Covid situation in their area. However, many people, like myself, have been using the extra at-home time during 2020 to Marie Kondo their areas (kind of) and I had actually been pretty efficient in getting rid of all old and excess denim along with lots of other bits and pieces. I had one pair of black jeans left that I’d outgrown (out, not up) and that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. First question was – what was I going to make?

Okay, I’ve kind of spoiled that with the pics. A dress. I made a dress.

Denim sourcing

I have been very efficient (most unlike me!) in clearing out old clothes this year and so only had one forlorn little pair of black jeans I could use. I don’t have family close by to beg and borrow from, so I headed to the thrift store and picked up three more pairs of jeans: one black and two white – and then once back again for one more black pair. I’d originally been planning an all-black dress, since that’s what I started with, but when I got to the store I noticed there were a lot more white jeans – perhaps it’s not as popular? – so I changed my plan. I also made sure to buy jeans from the smaller sizes rather than the plus range. There was a much smaller selection in plus sizing and I know that can be an issue for people who are looking for clothing in this range. It’s hard to come by and the trend for upcycling doesn’t help, since the larger sizes have more fabric.

Pattern and Sizing

There are lots of ways to tackle this challenge. When I was thinking about jeans, I thought about their status in modern times as the “universal” garment and also their history as a working man’s uniform. It seemed an interesting and fun idea to take this most mainstream of items and repurpose it literally into something at the other end of the spectrum – a fitted dress.

I bought the Megan Nielsen Karri pattern when it was released a couple of years ago and thought it was an unusual and clever design. I hadn’t gotten around to making it, but I thought of it pretty quickly because of all the small pieces – it seemed like a good bet for repurposing. The dress is pretty close-fitting, with princess seams and a full lining. I knew I would need to do a bit of work on the fit, but I was game! Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that the pattern only goes up to a 42.5″ bust and a 44″ hip, which is a size below me. I didn’t even think about it, to be honest, because I normally fit into most sizing ranges, even if at the top end. I know Megan Nielsen is in the process of adding extended sizing to all her patterns (and I in fact used the Curve Cottesloe swimsuit pattern recently), but this isn’t one that’s already been done, sadly. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it fit!

Fitting and alterations

You only get six days to finish and upload your project, so I knew I needed to get cracking. The pdf took a few hours to stick together and cut. I decided to work with my regular sizing process and that was to pick a size based on my high bust – in this case the Large – for a good fit at the shoulders and armscye, and then work out from there. It’s a close-fitting dress and I actually don’t make a ton of those, but it helped in the mathematical sense as I didn’t have to factor in much design ease. Based on the measurements, I knew I need 4 inches at the bust and 5-6 inches at the waist. The hips would grown accordingly too, but I wasn’t too worried about those because of the flared skirt.

First thing was therefore to make a 2 inch full bust adjustment (FBA). Doing a full bust adjustment has a few knock-on effects, including the width of the pattern, which I needed to do anyway, so it was definitely the primary thing to tackle. I have had some issues with princess seams before and the reason is that once you go past a certain size of adjustment, the pattern piece distorts too much. Above is a good example. On the right is my first FBA, using the method in the instructions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this method, but on a 2″ FBA, the piece warps out of shape. The best place to see that is the armscye. Can you see how crazy that shape has gotten? How do you even true that? That has tripped me up before. The pattern piece on the left is my second attempt, using Jenny Rushmore’s Craftsy class (Jenny Cashmerette). I’ve used this class before and it is excellent. I highly recommend it for anyone – I’ve done quite a few FBAs now and I still learnt plenty. There is only a slight difference in how you approach the adjustment – mostly to do with where you cut into the pattern – but look at the difference in armhole shape. Much better!

Below is the Cashmerette piece after the adjustment and before I traced off the new piece so you can see how it looks.

Okay, so here, is my first muslin, snapped in the glamorous bog. It’s not tooo bad, but I immediately spotted something I had completely forgotten to take into account, which was my bust apex. You can see very clearly all the extra fabric pooling on the upper half and the bust point is nowhere near my apex (the pink dot). I had forgotten to lower the apex, which I always need to do with a B cup draft. Back to the drawing (and cutting) board.

Lowering or raising the bust apex is another thing where people say “Oh that’s easy!” and it is if you have a small adjustment to make. I needed to lower it two inches. It’s not difficult to lower it: you cut out a rectangle on the piece and literally lower it the requisite amount and tape it on. You then repeat the action with the corresponding bust piece, as in the pic below. The difficult part is trueing the lines as you get some weird shapes going on. I just did my best and then made a full second muslin.

The full muslin looked pretty good and the bust was much better. I felt it was a little neat, but decided just to work with the seam allowance as time was running out and I really needed to crack on with cutting out the denim. I also thought the front of the waistline was dipping but I figured out later after cutting the denim that I had inadvertently added on an extra seam allowance in the alteration process. Luckily it was in a place I could remove it neatly without a knock-on effect to anything else. One other note is that I realised that some of the denim had spandex in it. This caused some issues working with the fabric, but as far as fitting goes, that gave me some leeway and I was pleased to discover it.

My final big fit adjustment was for the waist. As I mentioned, I needed an extra 6-ish inches. The FBA had added 2 inches to each side of the bust. However, I felt the best idea was to add it to the side seams evenly. Therefore, I reduced the waistline of the front upper pieces to 1.5 inches extra each and added 1.5 inches to the back side pieces. I then replicated the adjustment on the skirt by adding 1.5 inches to each side seam. This gave me a total of 4 x 1.5 inches, which of course equals 6 inches.

Cutting and working with the denim

I had to be a little creative with my cutting because of the nature of the challenge, but also the point is to repurpose for environmental reasons, so it was important to me that I use as much of the jeans as I could. There is also a real sentimentality in using clothes that someone else has worn and I felt it was wrong or weird just to treat them as fabric. Working with the denim was fairly arduous – you have to seam rip the jeans in the first place and then press them flat. Some pieces, through a combination of wear and spandex were a bit warped did NOT want to flatten, but I persevered and got what I needed with a mixture of brute force and cutting around problem areas. It was also strangely rewarding – it really felt in some parts like you were breathing new life – or shape – into something.

As an overall concept, I ideally wanted the dress to be unrecognisable as jeans from a distance, but on closer inspection there to be a few hints as to where it came from. One way I did this was to cut the black skirt pieces and the sleeves so that the original side seam from the jeans ran down the middle of them. This is probably the biggest giveaway. As you get closer you also notice that the different parts of the dress are made from different denims that don’t quite match, but I think from far away the effect is unifying enough.

Another way I tried to reflect the source fabric was by topstitching all the white seams as you would in any denim garment. I didn’t use topstitching thread, although I considered it, but it’s pretty effective when you get up close and personal.

Construction

The Karri instructions were excellent and really cover everything you need to know about making the dress. There are also some excellent tutorials on the Megan Nielsen website to further elucidate some of the trickier aspects. Here are just a few notes I made:

  • The spandex really helped me out when I was sewing the princess seams – it gave me just a little ease, which made those stretches easier. A little tip is to go back and check you’ve snipped all the way through to the stitch line. I had only snipped to the staystitching line and the extra 1/8″ or so made quite a difference in getting a smooth fit and fewer puckers.

– Working with the denim made for a fair bit of bulk – I graded and clipped everything I could and used a lot of steam, as well as my clapper, and it worked out well.
  • For the sleeves I decided to go quite a different route. I’d been concerned about trying to gather the denim and particularly with that big flat felled seam down the centre. After easing in the bodice it occurred to me that this might be the way to go with the sleeves, given the denim had a little stretch. So instead of gathering them, I stitched a staystitch line around the piece just under 5/8″ and clipped around. I then pinned it in and stretched the clipped seam, as with the princess seams. And you know what – it worked! Whew! That definitely saved me a bit of a headache there.
  • The Karri dress is fully lined and this was a bit of an uncertainty for the competition as the garment was supposed to be made from “denim”. However, I regard lining to be a finishing in the same way as a facing or binding, which was definitely okay, so I threw caution to the wind and made the lining – in a lovely tana lawn. I was a bit nervous as I haven’t done too make linings, but the instructions were great and the tutorial on the website held my hand the whole way. It’s so lovely!

Accessory

As you can see, I made a hat for my accessory. I considered a belt as well as a bag, but I really didn’t have much denim left after the dress and I was keen to use up my small pieces. I went scouring the internet for hat ideas and came across this Teardrop Pillbox pattern by a designer called Elsewhen. I don’t know if the middle of a contest was a great time to try something completely new, but it’s supposed to be a challenge, so I thought what the heck and bought the pattern.

I’m not going to go into huge detail here because I think making a hat merits another post and I’d also like to have another go, when I’m not under a 24-hr deadline. I’ll definitely post something more detailed when I do though.

As far as the contest goes, I used my black denim scraps for the main hat and managed to get a half-decent teardrop shape for my first attempt, I think. Since I only had small pieces I ended up with a front centre seam, but I don’t think it matters and actually mirrors some of the details in the dress. For the decoration, I had the “jean-ius” idea (hoho) of using two of the pockets for fan/bow decorations. It worked nicely, but they were not very easy to attach to the hat!! This is definitely something I will look into after the competition, as there must be some efficient ways to finish the decoration. All in all, I was pleased though, and it’s definitely got me interested in learning more about proper millinery.

Overall

This was such an interesting challenge. It sent the contestants into a bit of a flurry in terms of sourcing denim and figuring out how to deal with it, but I think everyone had fun working it out. I’m really pleased with my dress and will definitely wear it, which is something I wanted to bear in mind while making pieces for the contest.

I think it would be really fun with a neon belt and just throwing a denim jacket over the top and some boots will give it quite a different feel. I’d also like to try the Karri pattern again, with a different fabric and some piping to accentuate those design lines. It’s a good pattern!

Overall, if I’d had a little more time I’d have done a couple of teeny tiny tweaks – there is still a little too much length at the waist, for example, but, honestly, I’m super happy with the finished result. Talk to you soon!

9 thoughts on “New dress: Megan Nielsen Karri in upcycled denim for Sewing Bee Round 2

  1. Love seeing these pictures with more detail! Had no idea of all the seaming that was involved! Now I’m seriously eying that pattern…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – a lot of seaming! It was a little hard to capture in the photos. Some of the other Karri dresses I’ve seen have been lovely, with piping to accentuate the design lines.

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  2. Wow, you certainly deserve your place in the next round and thanks for all the construction and alteration information, I find your blog posts really useful. The use of black and white denim was an inspired choice. Used denim is my favourite fabric. No need to feel bad cutting into a still wearable garment because from behind the counter of a charity shop I can tell you people bring in bags and bags of the stuff at a time seemingly without any regret. Also, don’t hold back buying the bigger sizes because the purpose of the shop is to make money for charity not to provide cheap clothes for plus sized hard ups. We have sales targets and get stressed if they are not met. Your responsibility now is to give the dress plenty of wear and do the fabric justice.

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    1. Hi Helen, thank so much for your lovely comment. It’s my first time ever using used denim, so I’ll have to check out some of your denim projects for inspiration! I looked at a few of your garments this morning and they look really interesting and cool! It seems a bit different over here in the US when it comes to charity shops. A lot of what I thought are charity shops like we have in the UK are more like commercial enterprises – in fact there have been a few scandals with some of them recently since people were donating thinking they were charity enterprises and it turned out they weren’t really. Sort of a “read the small print” situation. Of course there are some goodwill stores that sell things for charity – I just don’t have many round here. In which case I would definitely not feel bad, as you say!

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    1. Haha, thanks Linda. Yes, it was a bit of a long one, given the nature of the challenge. This contest is definitely tiring, but it’s also pushing me to learn new things, so it’s enjoyable.

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