Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
Monthly Archives: January 2011
January 22, 2011Posted by on
Last fall, I had the privilege of creating a 1950s retro wedding gown for a friend’s co-worker. Camille, the bride-to-be, had wisely decided to contact me almost a year before the wedding date to begin the process of having her dress custom made. At the initial meeting, she gave me a rough hand-drawn sketch of the style she had in mind, and we discussed elements not included in the sketch (fabric, hair-style, veil, heel height, etc).
I recorded her detailed measurements (a full page worth, not just bust-waist-hips) and she departed with the task of finding the proper undergarments for her dress.
Like most brides, Camille had the goal of losing some weight before her wedding day. Therefore, we postponed a mock-up fitting until it was closer to the actual date. That gave me the time I needed to research the pattern, draft it, and go fabric shopping; and it gave her plenty of time to find the perfect lingerie and shoes.
I started my quest by examining vintage sewing patterns and Fifties style-lines. I narrowed my models down to two vintage pattern envelopes (both from 1957) that best captured the look Camille depicted in her sketch. From those two designs, I was able to thumb through my own collection to find patterns with the same seam-lines, piece together two dress patterns, and draft a sleeve pattern from scratch.
We knew that the dress needed to be a soft white (not bleach white or yellowy ivory), so I hunted for a cotton lace that was soft to the touch and could be tea-dyed to the desired color. After extensive searching, I got lucky when I found a white, vintage-looking cotton lace for sale online. I ordered the lace from the fabric site and a 1950s style petticoat from Petticoat Junction. (Later, when lace was in season in the fabric stores, I did see the exact same lace on the shelf, but at a higher price.)
With the hybrid pattern, I was able to start making a mock-up in the size that would best fit her measurements. I used a cheap bed sheet and some old scraps of lace from a past project to construct a prototype dress with only one sleeve, which allowed Camille to simultaneously see two versions of the dress when she came for her first fitting.
The mock-up fitting gave me the chance to mark the neckline, sleeve & hem, zipper placement, and adjust a few seams so that everything worked with her undergarments. And Camille was able to decide that she liked the ¾ length sleeve for her dress. With the pattern perfected on her actual body, I was ready to cut the dress from the real fabric.
But first, I had to play mad scientist and attempt to dye the lace with tea. I experimented by dyeing some small swatches of the lace to test the time needed in the tea to achieve the desired color. Then I bought a large white plastic trashcan that was big enough to hold the amount of tea needed to submerge all the pre-wet lace at the same time. It took an entire box of “pitcher size” teabags to brew a tea strong enough to achieve the color I needed. When the timer went off, I transferred the dyed lace into my washing machine full of plain water and spun it out before putting it in the dryer. The tea bath had given the lace a wonderful vintage appearance.
I repeated the tea-dyeing process with the tulle for the veil and then bravely took a chance with the store-bought petticoat so that everything would be a matching soft white color. (Fortunately, the satin taffeta fabric I bought to go under the lace was already the perfect color and didn’t need any dyeing.)
Once all the fabric was prepped, I eagerly began cutting out the actual dress for assembly. I cut the lace sleeves and skirt with the finished hem length on the scalloped edge of the material, which eliminated the need for a sewn hem – especially time-saving since the skirt’s hem measured 5½ yards around! The only lace edge I had to “hem” was the neckline, which I finished by adding a section of the scallop onto the edge of the neck.
The satin taffeta underskirt was a different pattern shape, and, therefore, needed to hang for a few days to let the bias stretch with gravity before I could mark a hem to line-up with the lace overskirt and petticoat.
I finished the back of the gown (from waist up) with shanked buttons of vintage shell from my collection of old buttons. During one fitting, it was unanimously decided that the best way to complete the retro dress was to add a handmade matching lace belt with a small silver buckle right at the waistline – a perfect 50’s accessory. The shoulder-length veil and cute round-toed heels in a subtle blush-pink were the perfect complementary details without being distracting.
Camille had her wedding on a perfect autumn night in her own backyard with a small group of family & friends as witnesses. She made her entrance from the stairs of an apartment above her garage and descended to her waiting groom beneath a beautiful old tree. Her soft white dress glowed in the warm light of the decorated backyard. It was wondrously nostalgic – like Audrey Hepburn had stepped out of an old movie.
Wedding photography by Jamie Coupaud.
January 17, 2011Posted by on
Misconception: Altering a store-bought garment is easier for the seamstress than sewing one from “scratch.”
This is a common belief that is easy to accept because it seems so logical. After all, it makes sense to think that since half the work is already done, lots of time will be saved by not having to cut and sew the garment.
In reality, however, alterations to a finished piece of clothing can actually be twice the work of starting at the beginning. This is because the garment must first be taken apart before the alteration can be made (unless the alteration is simply shortening a hem). Once the outfit has been taken apart, the alteration can be made and the outfit must then be re-assembled. Any detail, like beadwork, must be redone. This is why bridal alterations can double the price of a store-bought dress.
When clothing is made from “scratch,” a seamstress can control the number of alterations by making a mock-up first and doing the alterations during the stages of construction before the garment is completed.
Alterations are often an annoyance to a professional seamstress who enjoys building clothing from the beginning of the process. A tailor shop usually employs a group of seamstresses that specializes in alterations and may be more experienced at building custom suits for men. In most cases, those employed in a tailor shop are paid a flat rate per alteration, making it more profitable for them to be exceptionally fast with alterations and repairs.
January 15, 2011Posted by on
While I believe that bridal & formal store chains have their value, it has been my personal experience that there are many things they won’t tell you or explain to you until it is too late. This means you will need to know enough on your own to work “around” them.
Over the years, after examining & fitting so many wedding & bridesmaid dresses from chain stores, I have made an interesting observation – one that almost always guarantees the customer will need alterations. The sales clerks will convince you that you need a dress at least one size bigger than you actually do. When they determine your size, they only measure bust, waist, and hips. Then they refer to a size chart that shows the standard body measurements that are used by the company to make the dresses they carry in the store. In most cases, your bust & waist measurements will fall into one size, while your hips will be in the next size or two up. So you are told to order the size that fits your hips, since “you can always have the rest taken in.”
Unless the skirt is a form-fitting pencil style, the hips should not determine the size you order. It is always best to use your bust measurement when ordering your size because it’s the part of the dress with the most fit. Formal dresses typically have extra-large seam allowances, and can be let out an inch or two if there is an area that fits a little too tightly – provided there is no beadwork in the area that needs to be let out. Straps and hems almost always need to be shortened no matter how well the rest of the dress fits. (And if the sample you’re trying on fits, don’t let anyone convince you to buy a bigger size!)
I consulted with one bride who had tried on a spaghetti-strap dress at a chain store and it fit her almost perfectly. Then they measured her and told her she needed one size larger according to her measurements. She questioned them about it since the sample had fit so well. They told her the sample was probably “stretched-out” from being tried on by so many people.
Trusting their advice, she ultimately had them order the larger size, and it wound up being about two sizes too big in the bust – the only part of the dress that was supposed to be tight! She didn’t learn how expensive the alterations would be until she had paid for the dress, and then it couldn’t be returned or exchanged.
She learned that many of the clerks at chain stores do not know much about the construction of dresses and are only following the company procedures when helping you choose your size. Unfortunately for you, this almost always guarantees the store makes a profit from alterations in addition to the sale. By the time you have your heart set on your dream dress, you have to be willing to pay for the necessary alterations – which can often cost as much as the gown itself.
I was like many a bride-to-be and did not know what style gown I wanted to wear on the Big Day. I decided to go to a chain store, but only because there was no charge to try on dresses. I had a general list of styles I knew I did not want, so I suspected many of the dresses I took into the fitting room probably wouldn’t thrill me. Because I am so small, all of the dresses available were one size too large. So I knew that no matter what, any dress would require alterations.
The night I tried on wedding gowns was during the week, so it was a very light customer night with only one other betrothed in the store with me. The sales floor associate would only pause for a few seconds to tell me that I looked “beautiful” each time I emerged in a new dress to consult the mirror. It seemed she was only out to make a sale and really didn’t care which one I chose. A few times I tried to tell her why a style was “wrong” for my body, at which she would disagree with a quizzical look on her face. She apparently had little to no training on how to dress different body-types.
After analyzing the different dress styles on my body, I was able to decide which looked best on me. While the cut & silhouette of the off-the-rack dress was great – despite being too big on me – there were other things I didn’t like about it. Mainly, the cheap, scratchy tulle (or net) on the outside felt horrible when I put my arms down at my sides. I also noticed many of the fake pearl beads covering the bodice & scattered over the rest of the dress were loose – I had already seen a few roll away as I stood there. The dress had not even left the store and it was already losing beads! The materials were cheap, and the machine-sewn beadwork was poorly done.
There was only one thing I could do. I decided to make my own dress in the same style, but with a sheer organza overlay instead of scratchy tulle, and with prettier & more secure hand-sewn beadwork. It fit me perfectly, and it was the first of many other wedding dresses I have constructed. I also made my veil.
After learning of the plight of so many women in their dealings with bridal chain stores, I realized there were many who would appreciate all that is a custom dress.
January 10, 2011Posted by on
I am going to share a personal project about what I gave my 2½ year-old niece for Christmas – a tutu! It was one of the cutest little things I think I have ever made! In order to make it easy for her to put on by herself, I decided to gather the ruffles onto an elastic waistband. And (because I simply can’t do anything the easy way, gosh darn it!) I made it the way tutus are made for professional ballerinas - which means it was a pain in the neck to do, but it stood straight out to the sides – with no drooping! =)
It was adorable on my baby dressform:
That’s 15 yards of tulle ruffle on an 18 inch waistband!
Here it is in front of a darker wall were the light pink underlayers show up a little better:
And here she is a few days after Christmas wearing her tutu:
I think she likes it. =)
Update: See Part 2 of the toddler tutu.