A Pin Up Dress in Raw Silk

I have a crazy story about this fabric. It was included in one of about 3 other gigantic bags full of used men’s clothes and old fabric remnants which was “gifted” to me by someone I didn’t know very well. I had offered to teach some friends how to sew a simple project at my house, suggesting they bring a friend if they wanted, and one of them brought someone who basically used my house as a Goodwill. Someone in this individual’s family used to sew and they had inherited some bags of (mostly unusable) fabric…which they in turn gave to me. They included about a dozen men’s button up shirts, too,  just in case I wanted to “use them for scraps or something”. Initially I thought that the gesture was thoughtful, albeit misguided, but soon it dawned on me that the person could have cared less about whether or not I was actually interested in what was in those bags- they just dumped them on my floor without a second thought because they didn’t want it taking up space in their house anymore. As you know, I am all about recycling fabric and clothes that have more life in them, but not everyone’s trash is someone else’s treasure- sometimes it’s just trash! A better way of handling this situation would have been for them to ask me ahead of time if I had any interest in their stuff before lugging it all to my house. Or at the very least, they could have brought the bags and asked if I would like to go through them to keep anything that might be of use. As it turned out there was hardly anything worthwhile in their giant pile of stuff when I rifled through it a couple of days later, mostly jagged fragments of cloth that had already been cut into and some stained men’s clothing, which was now of course my responsibility to get rid of. I threw away the remnants that couldn’t be salvaged, delivered everything else to charity, and kept one of the few shining lights in the pile, a narrow three-yards-long cut of a jewel-toned raw silk, for myself. I couldn’t imagine what I would use it for, but it was in great condition and I couldn’t stand to throw it out.

Ultimately this story has a happy ending because, even though I never wanted the fabric in the first place, I did end up making something beautiful with it, which seems almost worth having to deal with that annoying situation…almost. What is it with people giving crafters their discards in hopes that they can magically turn them into something beautiful? Maybe I am just sensitive about the assumptions that non-makers tend to put on us (since you really enjoy sewing it would be a cinch for you to make something for me! and my personal favorite, you should sell your items! I would buy them! so you need to SELL THEM!!!!!) but I tend to regard things outside of my wheelhouse with a bit more respect and sensitivity than people show to me. In my experience, questions invite dialogue while presumptuous declarations just show ignorance.

ANYWAYS. This dress! It’s awesome! I was genuinely surprised at how gorgeous the fit was when I went through all these photos- I hadn’t worn this #redcarpetDIY dress yet and it had been almost a year since I made it, so my memory was poor. But I feel like a bombshell in it! And that is NOT a familiar feeling for me. Cute? Sure! Pretty? Thanks! Glamorous? Aw, shucks! But sexy? Nope, not me. Well, not me unless I am wearing this dress apparently. It’s a pretty simple silhouette and that’s why I was so attracted to it. I love Gertie’s books because they have so many great classic blocks included in them, and though I don’t fit perfectly into her drafted patterns (the bust is always WAY bigger on me despite my measurements matching up with the sizes), I have found that the extra work needed to alter the fit is always worthwhile because they suit my style well and I know I will use them over and over again.

This dress was the first time I used boning in a bodice, and since it was kind of an experiment to see how I liked the process, I used the cheap plastic kind. It’s fine for this dress which probably won’t get TONS of wear since it’s so dressy, but I make all my boned bodices with steel wire boning now, which is much stronger and curves to your shape better than this plastic does (on me, at least- mine came in a roll and it was impossible to get the curve out of it before I sewed it in the dress).

I followed the instructions for making the bodice of this dress in Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book with the heart shaped neckline. The instructions were pretty good and definitely gave me a solid foundation for the concepts, but I feel like there were a few important bits of information left out. For example, I don’t recall any mention in the book of using an additional fabric to give your bodice more support, so the first few dresses I made with strapless bodices just have a shell with a boned lining attached, as opposed to a shell, a lining and another layer of sturdier fabric, either made of muslin or hair canvas, sewn inside of that. (And if this information is in the book and I just missed it, apologies- either way it’s still a great book!) I didn’t even know that a THIRD layer to give the bodice more of a sturdy foundation was a thing til Renee mentioned it to me. Without this additional layer of a stronger fabric, particularly for softer, drapey-er fabrics like the ones I used, the bodice can be a bit flimsy. I don’t have a big bust so I can totally get away with wearing this dress and not worrying that anything is going to pop out, but it would still be nice to have a more supported bodice when there are no straps to hold it up. Also Gertie illustrates a simple plan for how to lay out your boning placement across the bodice, but she doesn’t explain when and if you should deviate from that plan, and there are several patterns in the book that, as per the illustrations, have a different boning layout than the one she describes in the instructions. It’s unclear when you should make those adjustments and why- maybe it’s up to the discretion of the maker? Regardless, more information would have been helpful.

Aside from that issue, I found the construction of the bodice pretty straightforward once I altered the pattern pieces for the bodice (I didn’t use a SBA, I just took the seams in where needed and it worked fine). The skirt took some work, too, but I am more familiar with adjusting that type of garment so I knew how to make the changes I wanted- basically I just baste my skirt pieces together and try it on over and over again, altering the seam lines until they look and feel right. I made my first pencil skirt from another of Gertie’s books and it has served me well, but I started from scratch with this pattern block in case it was drafted differently than her previous books.

Unfortunately I could not manage to get my skirt darts and bodice darts lined up properly in the front! When I moved them on the skirt they made the skirt fit differently, and I didn’t want to rearrange the seam lines on the bodice because I had already sewn it together and I was too lazy to take it apart. So the front lines don’t match up at all. WHO CARES! Since I have such a significant curve in my hips, the seams on the sides bulged a bit in weird ways once I got the fit right, so had to cut notches in the seams to make them lay flat. It makes the skirt hug my body perfectly but the insides look wonky- it’s hard to finish a seam with notches cut into it. My solution was to use bias seam binding on that area, carefully sewing the edges of the little triangles created by the notches, but it still doesn’t look very clean to me. It’s okay though- next time I will probably just serge those seams individually (right and left side) close to the seam line and see if that gives the seam enough flexibility to stretch around my curves.

One other issue I have with the way this dress looks is the top of the heart shaped bodice- it has a little fold on either side of center that I can’t get to straighten out for the life of me! I trimmed and notched those seams and I also used a small length of basting stitch on the lining at the center front to gather the middle of the “heart”, as suggested in the book- still has a tiny fold. No idea what I did wrong, but it could just be an issue with the raw silk- it was pretty good to work with but certain areas had different characteristics, and maybe it’s just a little stretchy in that area.

For a dress that looks as painted-on as this one, it is surprisingly comfortable! Or at least it is standing up- I can’t remember if I have tried to sit down in it yet. I used this same pencil skirt block matched with a different bodice from Gertie’s book and I had to drive to an audition in it the other day. You guys. It was hysterically uncomfortable! I had to squeeze my knees together super tight just to drive my car and at one point I considered unzipping the entire back of the dress so that I would have room enough for my legs to move around freely. But that seemed like a dangerous prospect- what if I couldn’t zip myself up in the car by myself or I broke the zipper and had to have my whole backside exposed to the CBS lot before I could get help?? As long as you aren’t driving, this dress is manageable- all you have to do is sit on the very edge of whatever seat you are in and keep your legs either crossed or zipped up tightly at the knees and thighs. This must be how Marilyn Monroe walked around for an entire decade. The book suggests using a waist stay for this dress but I didn’t see the point- the skirt isn’t heavy and it is fitted to my body so closely that there isn’t much wiggle room leftover. Also the bodice isn’t really strong enough to be held up by a waist stay- I think the stay is most beneficial in something more rigid than mine turned out to be.

Okay, so that’s the dress! Not bad for my first attempt at a boned bodice! I made this bodice twice more over the past year but I am still perfecting my construction. I have another dress like this lined up in my cue, this time a boned strapless bodice attached to a circle skirt, and I will definitely use an additional sturdy fabric coupled with the lining and a waist stay. And I might play around with the neckline a bit, but the heart shaped bodice is so just so pretty- I might not be able to stay away from it!

11 replies
  1. marcy harriell
    marcy harriell says:

    Oh my god. I had someone who learned that I sewed give me 50 suede elbow patches in three shades of beige once. In los angeles, actually. Maybe it’s an LA thing. Dumping Goodwill in your living room is no joke. Uh uh.

    THAT DRESS! It’s beautiful. If you can stomach going back into the bodice, twill tape around the neckline might help the little folds. Or bedazzle that neckline! Or do nothing! Whatever you need to do to wear this out, cuz she’s pretty! (And have you seen Gertie’s bombshell craftsy course? If you want kick ass info on boning/bodice/superfungeek stuff, it’s amazing.)

    Also, THOSE PINK PANTS. Also, this: “In my experience, questions invite dialogue while presumptuous declarations just show ignorance.”

    Okay I think i’m done now.

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      MARCY!!!! THIS LITERALLY MADE ME LAUGH OUT LOUD AND SPIT OUT SOME OF MY EGG! #fiftysuedeelbowpatches
      Thanks so much for the tip about the twill tape, and even more thanks for the gertie craftsy class- if it’s got your seal of approval then YES I AM VERY INTERESTED. I am gonna put it on my birthday list! I miss you, I can’t wait til I am in nyc and you have some free time to traipse around the city with me 🙂

      Reply
  2. Renee
    Renee says:

    You look pretty marvelously busty to me in this dress. So, it’s doing whatever it’s supposed to for a real hourglass figure! I wonder if the top was slightly off grain? That can lead to weird folds. Or, if it’s a little bias some stay tape / twill tape/ interfacing along the top can stabilise it to prevent folds or coapsing. The fit across your back brings a small tear of joy to my swayback big booty eye.

    And, I love this color. LOVE this color!!

    I have friends who dump all kinds of crap on me. Usually curtains that they think can use. Ummm, nope. I can’t.

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      RIGHT??! The dress is doing the magic it needs to do because I am not wearing a push up bra with this thing at all and yet…va va voomage. I swear I have a small bust! I wear a B cup! I can go to the gym without a sports bra and be fine and not punch myself in the eye or anything! (not that I go to the gym without a sportsba). (mostly). (huh?) ANyways, thank you for the bias tape tip- Marcy said the same thing so I am gonna have to try it on my next one! Also, CURTAINS?!?!?! NOOOOO! A lot of curtains are manufactured with a fire retardant sprayed on them that apparently doesn’t necessarily wash out easily- do people not know this??? WHat am I saying…look at who our president is! Every time I am shocked at the public’s stupidity I remind myself who our president is and then I just side-eye everyone for the rest of the day.

      Reply
  3. Hélène Martin
    Hélène Martin says:

    Jaw-dropping! Raw silk is one of my favorite fabrics and you really made it sing. And your updo is such a great match for the style. Way to not let the weird men’s shirts get you down.

    Reply
  4. Claire
    Claire says:

    Why is “you should sell your stuff/make something for me” almost everyone’s reaction? I ran into a friend from college (who I hadn’t seen in forever) and like the second thing he said to me was “are you still sewing? You should sell your stuff on Etsy.” Anyway enough complaining. Once I got a huge bag of zippers that someone had cut out of their old clothes before throwing them away. Soooo it’s been a while since I’ve had to buy a zipper.
    This dress is gorgeous. I love the texture that the raw silk gives to the sleek silhouette. Very glamorous!

    Reply
  5. PsychicSewerKathleen
    PsychicSewerKathleen says:

    What a beautiful dress! The colour is so lovely on you. I really like Gertie’s work too. I’m taking a course with her (Sailor’s Blouse) online through Creative Bug and just love her style. I don’t actually own any of her books or patterns because that classic ’50’s style just never suited my shape (I’m 62 years old so I honestly know that for sure!)

    I know what you mean about people’s reaction, “you should sell your work” My husband’s carvings are brilliant but we certainly wouldn’t SELL any of it! Then we wouldn’t have it to enjoy – there isn’t an amount of money that would spur me to let go of them to be honest. Why is value assigned by whether it’s “sellable” or not?

    Reply
  6. Saki
    Saki says:

    This: “You should sell your stuff” makes me eye roll so hard. My general response is to ask if they are willing to spend $70 on a t-shirt, because that would be how much I’d need to sell it for (at wholesale, not retail) in order to make minimum wage. But I’m also learning that people, even with good intentions, have all sorts of impractical business ideas for others that they themselves would never implement. I actually *have* sold my stuff as an independent designer in the past, and as expected, it’s not the most lucrative career path. At this point, I’ve chosen to not sew as a career anymore because it makes me devalue it as a skill and hobby. /rant

    Anyway, your dress is absolutely stunning! First words out of my mouth: “(gasp) I want one!” So you may have convinced me to pick up Gertie’s book!

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      Yes, to everything you said. I am finding that our culture, in a round-about way, doesn’t really value self care very much. I feel like the main consensus is, why would you spend time doing something that doesn’t make you money, while my thought process has always been why should I try and turn this therapeutic and fun personal hobby of mine into something I have to capitalize on? That said, I know lot’s of people who have taken things they loved and turned them into outlets to make money, and I am ALL FOR IT. But the difference is that you should get to decide if and how you go down that path, and the default assumption by others should never be to turn a career into a hobby. There are lot’s of ways to do what you love without sacrificing the relationship you have with you personal art and craftmanship! ANYWAYS, thanks so much for reading and I am so glad you like the dress, and I think you would find a lot of really cool stuff in Gertie’s book! Clearly you have a solid background in sewing so I don’t how much those books would actually teach you about construction (I have all three of them!) but there is plenty of inspiration to serve you for a while to come!

      Reply
  7. mz kat
    mz kat says:

    WOW !! I’m such a fan of this dress!

    After seeing your version, I made Gertie’s Secretary Dress, and boy do her patterns hug the figure! Now I’m inspired to give the strapless bodice a go. =)

    I really hate it when people automatically assume I want to sell my clothing or that I want to make something for them. Sewing is a special hobby of mine. I have my own sewing plans, thank you!

    Reply
  8. Abbey
    Abbey says:

    Beautiful dress! The fit is really fabulous and the color looks great on you. Way to make lemonade out of lemons (or lemon peels, apparently). =) That person had some nerve dumping their stuff on you like that; you were far more gracious about it than I would have been!

    Re: the folding at the top of the bodice, my guess is that if the silk had a strong layer (or two) of support fabric underneath, like coutil or heavy muslin, it wouldn’t buckle at that edge. Further reinforcing the curved edge (twill tape, as some other folks have suggested, would be a good choice) would help too, but I think that the silk isn’t sturdy enough to hold up to the combo of the snug fit + curved edge without a strong underlining. That’s nothing to do with your sewing, of course; few formal fabrics could stand up to that bodice without the same issue! Definitely try that if you make this dress again (which obviously you should, as good as this one turned out). =)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *