Gertie’s Secretary Dress

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I have talked here at length about how much I love Gertie’s pattern books. Hers were the first patterns that fit well to my body, that provided an aesthetic that I loved (I was exclusively into vintage fashion when I picked up sewing again several years ago), with instructions that were relatively easy to follow. I still have my very first dress that I ever made from one of her patterns and it continues to get compliments whenever I wear it (and most people think it is a vintage find). Her second book, Gertie Sews Vintage Casual, was great for providing my closet with lots of wearable sweater knits and cute separates, so when she announced the launch of her third book, Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book, I was over the moon with excitement. This book promised to tackle the sometimes complicated task of making linings, explaining when a dress needs them, why they need them, and all the different ways to use them to enhance the overall look, fit and feel of a beautiful handmade garment. I pre-ordered the book on amazon and was utterly thrilled when it showed up on my doorstep the day that I dropped a piece of IKEA furniture onto my big toe; I was immobile and confined to the couch with nothing to do but pore over every page, which I did!

The new book does not disappoint. I really appreciate that each of Gertie’s books contains new information- she doesn’t just recycle the same text with new patterns- and includes lots of tricks and tips on how to get the most out of your sewing practice. The Ultimate Dress book is chock full of information about fabrics, facings, laundering techniques and how certain textiles work together or alone to create specific silhouettes. The patterns are mix-n-match with several bodices, collars, sleeves and skirts to choose from, which allows the reader to design their own looks by mixing up the pattern pieces.

Thankfully I took Gertie’s advice at the beginning of the book and committed myself to making a muslin of each garment I wanted to make before sewing it up. And that was a VERY GOOD DECISION. I don’t know if the sizing is different from the first two books or if I am just a more meticulous sewist now than I was a few years ago, but HOLY COW my measurements were way off! WAAAAY off. The bust in these garments is like, 3 cup sizes bigger than my my own  (I am a solid 32 B), but everything else fit way too tight. Years ago this would have scared me off immediately and I probably would not have made a second attempt at any of the patterns, but now I know better than that; patience is indeed a virtue!

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before and after of size 4 muslins

It took a while to get it right, but I did my first SBA ever using the sloper bodice from this book. Gertie’s instructions are not particularly detailed on this topic- the book basically describes how to make a FBA, and then for an SBA it just says to do the same steps, but by overlapping the pattern cuts instead of expanding them. But maybe that’s really all there is to it, because I followed her basic outline for the steps and the results were great. Not only did I have to do an SBA on these patterns, but I also had to move the bust darts down, bring the waist darts in towards the center, and add more width at the bodice sides and back. The armholes were also extraordinarily tight and the neckline was really high, so I had to provide more room in those areas as well. It took me four rounds of adjusting and muslin-making to get a fit in the basic bodice and pencil skirt that felt comfortable and looked good, and even after all that, I still had to make additional adjustments to provide a bit more room in the waist and in the cap sleeves, which had me hulking out of them if I did so much as take too deep of a breath. I don’t normally struggle with patterns being too tight on me- usually my fitting issues are that the patterns are much too big and need to be taken in a lot. Thankfully my fitting skills have been expanded by working with these patterns and I am feeling particularly competent now 🙂

anyone familiar with the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Muslins?

these adjustments are like Goldilocks and the 3 Muslins

I focused a lot on making the pencil skirt aspect of this dress fit like a glove. I LOVE pencil skirts, but because of my waist to hip ratio, I often feel like they don’t look very proportionate on me. I have to grade up at least 2 sizes from my waist to my hips, so the bottom part of the skirt is always at least two sizes wider than my top half, and the silhouette just seems to swallow my legs up. Jessica Rabbit always looked amazing in her curve-hugging dresses, which perfectly fit her waist, skimmed her big thighs, and then tapered in at her knees and calves. But Jessica is a cartoon. Was there a realistic way for me to achieve this look and still like, walk and sit down in the garment? I figured I would never know unless I tried, so I cut out my skirt to fit my waist, graded to a size larger in the hips (ultimately I pushed the seam allowances out at the hips even more so that it ended up being a full two sizes larger) and then graded back in to the size of my waist measurement for the bottom portion of the skirt. This worked beautifully! It gave the curve-hugging shape I wanted from top to bottom, but because there is a generous kick pleat in the back of the skirt (Gertie knows what’s up), it didn’t restrict my movement at all. Once I finished the basic construction and tried the garment on, I thought to myself, WOW! I DID IT! I CREATED THE PERFECT JOAN FROM MAD MEN DRESS!!!!

But my excitement simmered down pretty quickly once I sewed my zipper into my dress.

Turns out, the dress looked perfect on my body…but I couldn’t really like, get into the dress easily. Which turns out to be a pretty important thing. I had to practically dislocate my shoulder in order to pull the garment over my shoulders since stepping into the dress was absolutely impossible. At first I tried to convince myself that it was fine- who cared if it took a lot of work to get into or out of a dress? Once it was on it looked great, and that’s the important part, right? But I had forgotten about peeing. Peeing is also important! Perhaps even more important than how it looks, considering how often I have to do it! I realized that there was NO WAY I would be able to pee without taking the entire dress off of my body, and as I said, taking the entire dress off my body was damn near impossible. So what to do? I knew the cause of my dilemma- it was the tapered bottom half of my skirt! It was two sizes smaller than my hips, so of course I couldn’t pull it up over them- even with the long kick pleat, there was simply not enough room in the dress to accommodate these hips, which DO NOT LIE.

lining

I took to asking the sewing community for ideas on how to solve the issue, but it seemed like people were as stumped as I was. For a while it seemed like the only solution was to insert an additional zipper at the side seam of my skirt, from the hip to under the arm. But I was really nervous to go this route. I didn’t want the zipper to mess with the smooth lines of the garment, and it also just seemed like a lot of work to do after having nearly completed the dress already. An even easier solution was to have a longer zipper in the back, but the one I was using was already 24″, the longest size that I could find at a fabric and notions store. And then I decided on a whim to take a look at wawak.com and see what variety of zippers they had on their site. BINGO! 30″ invisible zippers, just enough room to zip past my butt and to the top of the narrowest part of the skirt. I ordered 4 of their 30″ zippers, ripped the old zipper out of the dress and then I waited patiently for the new ones to arrive in the mail, which they did a few days later.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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The dress glides on my body easily, but my poor lining has really been put through the ringer; I had to unpick the hand stitched lining several times because of fit adjustments and changing the zipper, and then when I took the photos for this blog post, I was shocked to see that the back of the dress was gaping a lot, which I was unaware of since I couldn’t see my body in the mirror very well from behind. I unpicked the lining and the zipper again and this time re-sewed the zipper with more seam allowance, eliminating some of the extra fabric that seemed to be pooling on my upper back. I think I got rid of most of the excess, but I wonder if the bodice neckline is still a little too high in the back- if so, it’s something I can live with but I will definitely address that fitting issue on a future make.

before I (hopefully) fixed the excess fabric in the back!

before I (hopefully) fixed the excess fabric in the back!

Here are the final details of the dress: fabric is a lightweight woven (blue + white + flecks of tan) wool from The Fabric Store, and the lining is made of habotoi silk from Dharma Trading Company. I chose the basic bodice and pencil skirt pattern from Gertie’s Ultimate Dress book and paired it with the peter pan collar (my first success after many failed attempts in the past- those collars are tricky to get just right).

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For the little bow at the neck of the collar I wanted to use a fluttery black fabric, but I realized while rifling through my stash that I didn’t have any. None. Nada. Black is clearly not my favorite color. Which was annoying, because it meant I had to go out and purchase a quarter yard of something appropriate in order to complete the dress. But I am glad I stuck with my gut and didn’t go with some other color I had in my stash- I think that black is the perfect accent to the light blue wool and it also goes with my very favorite pumps (funny how I own no black clothing or fabric but my absolute favorite pair of heels are black suede).

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I obviously learned a lot in the making of this dress: how to do an SBA, how to line an entire dress, how to line the sleeves of a garment, how to insert a beautiful looking collar, how to make a 5/8″ seam allowance work overtime in a too-tight garment, how to get the perfect silhouette in a pencil skirt, how to launder wool by steaming it first before cutting into it, how ridiculously frayed silk gets when it has barely been handled, and how to get the seam underneath the bottom edge of an invisible zipper perfectly flat and pucker-free. But I know that my Gertie education is far from over, and I am sew looking forward to tackling more beautiful projects from this book!

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15 replies
  1. jeanne e.
    jeanne e. says:

    your dress turned out fantastic! well done! i am more of a quilter/craft sewer, but i have been enjoying following your adventures in garment sewing…your blog has been giving me some inspiration. thank you!

    Reply
  2. Nilla
    Nilla says:

    You did a great job, the dress fits like a glove! I think I might have given up at some point, but it really is all worth it. I hope you’ll have lots of fun with your new dress pattern 🙂

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      Thanks! I made a sort of commitment to myself a few months ago to start sewing more slowly and carefully so that I could focus more on the quality of my makes as opposed to the quantity, since I have a habit of thinking about the next thing I am going to sew when I am still in the middle of the thing I am currently sewing. That is the ONLY reason I made three dress muslins! But you are right, it was totally worth it, and I figure that the payoff is getting better at the details which will eventually get done more quickly as my skills improve. Let’s see if I am still in this mindset in 6 months 😉

      Reply
  3. Hannah Ellis
    Hannah Ellis says:

    OH WOW! This is stunning, you’ve done a fantastic job!! You’ve also inspired me to try this silhouette again – I have a similar waist – hip ratio and I haven’t been excited about all the fitting tweaks. Having seen yours though, I’m convinced it’ll all be worth it 🙂

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      Oh yay! I am so glad you might give this look another go! I figured this was worth all the work I put into it since I really do love this silhouette too and could wear it again and again and again in a million different fabric choices. I used to call my favorite looks my “Lisa Outfits”, named after Lisa on the simpsons since they never changed their clothes unless they were at church or a costume party, lol… this is definitely a Lisa Dress for me!

      Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      I saw the gorgeous Joan dress pattern and put it on my pinterest board to buy in the future but now that I have this secretary dress with all the fitting adjustments completed, I’ll probably just stick with it- there is also a little add-on tutorial in the book of how to add the little ribbon bow detail at the side of the neck that I might try for a future make…!

      Reply
  4. Renee
    Renee says:

    BAM. It looks awesome. And good on you for your patience in fitting the muslin and thinking of a longer zipper. Moving the darts down was so smart. I always struggle with that when making an FBA since the dart should end 1 to 1.5 inches from my apex. I always forget that when making changes.

    Reply
  5. SewingTidbits
    SewingTidbits says:

    This dress looks gorgeous on you!! By the way, I’m a fan of a very tappered look for my pencil skirts and that a 4″ difference between the hip and the hem circumference gives you the right look and is still practical (with a long vent).

    Reply
  6. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    I experienced the exact same fitting problems when I made my sloper from this book! The bust was huge on me and everything else was extraordinarily small. I’m so glad you posted this review; I thought I was going nuts! I’m thinking this is more of a problem with the smaller sizes, as reviews I’ve read of dresses made on the larger end of the sizes mention it being roomy. Perhaps the smaller sizes were graded too small in manufacturing or weren’t tested out as much as the larger ones were. Either way, thank you so much for writing this. Your dress turned out absolutely lovely and you did a fabulous job fitting!

    Reply

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