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Holidays in Velvet

I have never made myself a dress for Christmas before, but since this was our year to spend with Claire’s family and they had a ‘Progressive Dinner’ planned (which entails starting dinner at one house with drinks and apps, moving on to another home for the Christmas meal and then a final house for dessert and presents), I figured this was as good a time as any to whip up some festive attire. Truth be told, the Christmas dress only came into being after I walked into The Fabric Store  last December and saw a roll of the most luxurious black velvet laying on one of the tables. It was so soft, the fabric had a gorgeous drape, and the velvet had so many dimensions. Black is my least favorite color to wear so I pretty much never ever sew it unless it has a print, but this velvet was too special to not make an exception- when the light hit it you could see all the texture of the cloth while the deep black color seemed to emit golden hues at certain angles. What made me more in love with the fabric was that I immediately knew what I wanted to make with it, which is pretty rare for me. I had bought a Big Four pattern when there was a massive sale on them at Joanns. My Dad had come down to visit me in Savannah for the weekend and since I didn’t have a car, he happily drove me to the grocery store, Target, and Joanns so that I could grab some notions that my local fabric store down the street didn’t carry (f I hadn’t mentioned it before, my Dad is exceptionally sweet and I wish I had a photo of him patiently sitting next to me holding my basket of thread and zippers as I thumbed through the $1 bin of patterns).

Anyways, one of the patterns I nabbed was this Simplicity 1585 Project Runway dress with raglan sleeves. The Project Runway patterns are great because they give you lots of options for adding details and design elements to what is otherwise a simple garment, and this one had some really cool options for adding piping and ribbon. The style lines of the dress seemed like they would suit my black velvet beautifully. My fabric wasn’t super heavy or thick, but I still thought it would best suit a pattern without a lot of bulk and gathers, and because of the way the lines of the skirt flowed, velvet seemed like a match made in heaven. Turns out, nothing is heavenly when you are sewing with velvet :/

I re-upholstered an armchair in velvet last year and had to do a fair amount of machine sewing for the piping and seat cushion but I didn’t have any trouble with it at all- maybe because it was a heavy weight fabric and backed by sturdy cloth, it behaved like any other upholstery fabric I had worked with before. My precious, supple black velvet on the other hand? Totally different story. I found a little bit of helpful information about sewing with velvet on the Threads Magazine website, but nothing could have quite prepared me for how frustrating it would actually be! I imagine that sewing with velvet knits is a little less complicated because you can just power through most all the seams with a serger and be done with it, but my velvet required a lot more attention than that.

my dressform after a very brief encounter with this velvet dress- all seams were sewn, this was just the leftover dander clinging to the inside!

The biggest thing I learned about velvet during this project is that it is MESSY; I was constantly wiping teeny tiny little threads of black off my sewing machine and work space. I guess this is because the threads in velvet fabric are short and piled as opposed to long and woven, so when you cut it, the hairs are no longer attached to anything and they just fall all over the place. My velvet also behaved a little bit like silk when I was cutting out the pattern pieces, but because I was on a tight timeline with a little less than three days to make this dress before we left town, I didn’t want to spend too much time cutting it out. So. I cut it on the fold. I would NOT recommend this! Cut your slinky velvet out in a single layer like a responsible seamster!

 

The next biggest thing I learned about sewing with velvet is that it doesn’t want to be sewn!  You think I’m kidding? It’s as if the fabric had a life of it’s own. When sewing two pieces of velvet together, they just don’t want to stay in place and have a tendency to slip and slide out from under the needle. I tried pinning my layers all kinds of different ways but it still wouldn’t behave, so then I tried a tip from Threads Mag that suggests you use a fabric adhesive on the seam allowances of your pieces, press them together, and then sew. This worked about 80% of the time, but it took a lot of extra work and patience and it of course made things even more messy. To keep the glue from spraying all over my cutting table, I would place paper underneath the edge of the piece of fabric I was spraying, but soon enough that paper would become tacky with glue and wind up transferring itself onto my hands or other parts of the fabric. Add to this all the tiny hairs of stray velvet that was covering my workspace already and you can imagine what a sticky mess it was. I was surprised that the glue didn’t really ruin any of my fabric, though- there are a few places where there is still glue within the seam, but mostly it wiped off pretty easily, and the glue itself tended to lose it’s bond after several minutes, so if you mistakenly glued any pieces together, you could pull them apart without too much trouble.

One of my mistakes in making this dress (and oh boy, there were many!) was thinking I could add all those cute details (like the piping around the arm seams and the keyhole at the neck) using a satin contrast fabric on top of the velvet. I gave it the old college try, but working with the glue and the piping and two finicky fabrics was more than my poor little maker psyche could handle. The nail in the coffin was finally completing one side of piping and realizing that, aside from being uneven and wonky looking, the velvet combined with the satin piping looked an awful like a velour Adidas track suit from the 70s. And obviously that was NOT the look I was going for. Ultimately I abandoned the piping and the final result of the dress is better for it, but I will most definitely be making this dress again in the future with a less finicky fabric and using the piping as intended.

I made a quick muslin of the bodice of this dress sans sleeves since most Big 4 patterns don’t fit me right out the box, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was an exception, save for taking in the seam allowances in the back (I have a ‘small back’ in pattern adjustment lingo and have had to take in fabric at the back zipper on every dress I have ever made). The only real issue I had with the pattern were the sleeves, so of course I was kicking myself that I didn’t include these pieces in my muslin from the very beginning. It’s hard to tell if the sleeves were wonky because of my fabric or because of the design; as drafted the short raglan sleeve version has two pleats at the cuff in addition to gathers on either side of them, and they are connected to a band in contrast fabric (mine was the cream colored satin). For the life of me I could not get these sleeves to work. My velvet fabric seemed too bulky to accommodate both the pleat and the gathers, and because the sleeve is so small, it was also hard to get fabric adhesive on the seam allowance properly, so I had to resort to using pins again to keep the pieces together under the needle. As a result, the fabric slid around so much that I couldn’t successfully sew a consistent seam allowance along the edge and the sleeve ended up looking pathetic- it hung down lower in some places than others, it was weirdly puffy around the shoulder, and it was also too tight around my arm. I spent HOURS on these sleeves before realizing that the only way to save the dress would be to omit the satin sleeve cuff and the pleats, loosen the gathers, and use a cuff made out of velvet instead; the velvet tended to work better with self fabric than satin. When I finished the sleeves and tried the dress on, it was ten times better than before- the sleeve lay smoothly off the shoulder and didn’t look too billowy.

Finally, I had a bit of trouble with my invisible zipper- I could not manage to get it to lay smoothly at the very bottom where the two back pieces of the skirt connect together again. I am pretty good with invisible zip insertion so I am just gonna blame this on the fabric, too. I don’t think it’s bad enough to notice unless you’re looking for flaws, and nobody does that on Christmas day! If I were ever to wear this dress to a red carpet event though, I would definitely try to figure out how to make it lay flat.

All in all, this make was pretty successful considering that I had never worked with this kind of velvet before and it was brand new pattern to me and I had time constraints. I feel very elegant in this, because for one, velvet is an extraordinary fabric to wear, and two, this pattern works well on me. The skirt is flowy and I love the way the high bodice looks and feels. I also love the design of the collar and the keyhole at the chest, which gave just enough of a peekaboo to be interesting without making me feel self conscious. The finished garment has a vintage A Doll’s House vibe to it, which was probably due to my color and fabric choices, and I really love how it turned out. I will absolutely make this dress again (but not in velvet!) and I will absolutely sew with velvet again (but not in this pattern)! I am super interested to try out some different types of velvet next. I have a couple of yards of a beautiful, sturdier purple velvet from The Fabric Store that I think would make a great pair of cigarette pants, and I am also interested in getting my hands on some stretch velvet and using a super simple pattern which will let the velvet take centerstage. But not anytime soon; it’s been almost a month and I am still recuperating from this dress!

Working So Jaquard!

HA! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!

I made eyes with this amazing fabric twice at The Fabric Store before I finally took the plunge and got a cut of it. I had no idea what I would make with it, but I knew it wouldn’t take long to figure something out. I am learning to let a fabric speak to me first instead of trying to tell it what it should be and ignoring its qualities. Like many jaquards, this fabric has a LOT of body, it holds its shape beautifully and it doesn’t wrinkle, but this also means it doesn’t respond to ironing very well, so a pattern with lots of folds and gathers and tucks isn’t a good choice for it. Initially I imagined this fabric in a classic fit n’ flare shape- I wanted to take advantage of the volume it would exhibit in a skirt- but I have been feeling a little bored with this silhouette lately. I love fit n’ flare but I have made a this style of dress several times over the past few months and I needed to change it up just a bit. I brought this yellow and blue tear drop jaquard fabric with me to Savannah and let it marinate in my closet a bit while I waited for inspiration to hit.

And hit it did! While glimpsing over my BlogLovin’ feed, I read this post by Handmade Jane on a blouse she made from a Danish indie pattern company called How To Do Fashion. One quick scroll over to their pattern shop and I was SMITTEN! HTDF has a vintage aesthetic with uncomplicated silhouettes that have a really dramatic effect. I love pattern designer Nanna’s use of fabrics- she seems to be a genius at marrying her designs with the perfect classic print, color and textile to elevate the whole look.

These are two of the looks that immediately caught my eye on HTDF’s website, and I am posting them here because I actually made up versions of both of these designs, so I can talk to you about my experience with all of them. I will focus this post on the two-piece outfit in grey above (my version of the red polka dot dress will come in a later post)!

As you can see, both looks above are attributed to the pattern No. 8 Svaneke. I thought it was a pretty good deal to get this many different looks/options in one pattern, and I purchased the hard copy because PDFs were not available for this particular design. The pattern arrived in a large envelope with a How To Do Fashion clothing tag for my finished garment and the pattern printed on thick, high quality paper. In the above blog post, one of Handmade Jane’s complaints was that instructions were not included in the printed version of the pattern. I personally think this is a big plus because it wastes less paper, and the instructions are easily available on the pattern’s website- you can print the instructions out if you need a hard copy or you can download them as a PDF and read them off your computer, tablet or phone (which is my preferred method). So kudos to that! On the other hand, the pattern pieces are printed on both sides of the paper, so you can’t cut the pieces out. This is actually not a problem for me because, unless it’s a one-size-fits-all kind of pattern, I copy all my pattern pieces onto paper so that the original pattern can stay intact and I have the option to make different sizes/adjust the fit/loan out or sell the pattern in the future. I realize that this method kind of negates the “not wasting paper” rule of thumb, but on the other other hand, printing on both sides of the pattern paper is also less wasteful. I guess it’s just a personal preference, but for me, the HTDF printed patterns are spot-on for my needs.

The instructions, however, were another story! There were a couple of issues for me with these patterns when it came to figuring out how to make them. One was that the actual instructions are a little more bare bones than I am used to. Ultimately I was fine with it- I have been sewing for long enough that I can figure out how to make pretty much anything come together without too much hand-wringing, but I would not suggest that a beginner try and tackle these patterns unless they were okay with having to figure out a lot of stuff on their own. It is certainly not an impossible pattern for an inexperienced sewist to complete, but heads up: they might need to phone a friend. As Handmade Jane wrote in her blog post, some of this might come from the instructions being translated into another language, which is totally understandable.

But my main beef with the pattern instructions has to do with the photos used for the styled and completed garments. As seen in the picture of the two-piece grey outfit I posted above, the outfit consists of two pieces: a crop top and a matching pleated full skirt. The beautiful skirt is what actually caught my eye in the photo and I loved how it looked with the voluminous fabric- I thought this design would look perfect with my own jaquard textile. However, if you take a closer look at the line drawings for the pattern pieces, you will see that the skirt is actually gathered at the waistband, not pleated. I assumed that there was simply not enough room to show all the different versions of the skirt in the line drawing, and that instructions would be included in the pattern on how to make the pleated skirt shown in the picture, but once I got the pattern pieces, I realized this to be false.

Why would you include a photo of a garment with a pattern if you can’t actually make that particular garment? I hemmed and hawed for a while over what to do and eventually decided that I would just need to create a pleated skirt using my own drafting expertise experimentation. I was definitely annoyed at having to spend so much time essentially re-creating a pattern that I spent good money on (the total amount for this pattern after shipping and taxes came out to be around $30USD), but I had my heart set on the cute silhouette of this crop-top and full skirt pattern, so I wasn’t going to turn back now. I cut out skirt pieces using the pattern from my By Hand London’s Brilliant Bouquet Dress and after I had spent a couple of hours playing around with the pleats and making them even all the way around (I didn’t have a dressform in Savannah so I had to do all my adjusting and fitting on my body while standing on top of a bed because it faced the only decent-sized mirror in my apartment), I sewed the skirt together and felt fairly pleased with what I had created with my limited knowledge. And then a few minutes later while perusing the How To Do Fashion website’s blog, I came across a tutorial for making the No.8 Svaneke skirt pattern into the pleated skirt shown in the pictures.

COLOR. ME. ANNOYED. It turns out that the pleated skirt is a hack of the original gathered skirt in the pattern bundle! Sigh. I think that including a picture of a hack in a description of a pattern without any mention of it being a hack is misleading; all versions shown in the photos should be included in the instructions and pattern bundle, or at the very least, some mention of the hack should be written into the description of the pattern instructions so that the maker knows exactly where to go for the info to create the garments that are shown in the product description.

Anyways, enough about the instructional snafu! A little knowledge and growth isn’t a bad thing for me, and now I know that I can make a beautifully pleated skirt without too much hassle! I thought that large pleats for my skirt would be better suited for my fabric than thinner ones, so I started in the middle of the front of skirt and worked my way out, and once I was happy with how those pleats looked, I mirrored them for the other side. I played around with the placement for quite a while until I was satisfied with how they laid around my hips, then I sewed the waistband and zipper on. In the original pattern, I believe that the skirt waistband is supposed to be lapped (I didn’t follow those instructions so I can’t quite remember), but because of my thick fabric, it created too much visual bulk. So I decided instead to have the waistband edges meet at center back above the zipper and use two hooks and eyes to close it.

Despite having to create my own skirt from scratch, the crop top is what required the most amount of work. I made the top as instructed from start to finish, but realized I didn’t like the amount of width around the bottom of the blouse. Unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room to play around with the seams because the blouse closes with an invisible zipper in the back and needs to be wide enough to get it over your torso. Although I love the boxy look on the model in the photos, I knew it would look much better on me cinched in a bit more at the side seams, so I needed to figure out a different way to close the back of the blouse. One option would be to use a separating zip so that it could open completely and I could get in and out of the blouse with ease, but I didn’t want the zipper to detract from the rest of the shirt and the matching skirt, and detachable zips seem to be pretty bulky and visible. My other option was to create a button band on the back edges of the blouse with buttholes and buttons, but that seemed like more work than I was willing to put into such a simple blouse. Ultimately I compromised- I used a button and loop method so that I could use the original blouse pieces as-is without having to add interfaced bands. I cut out and attached a piece of fabric the length of the back center piece and about 2 inches in width, and then attached 8 loops of white corded elastic evenly spaced along the edge. I then sewed them to the seam allowance of the back left bodice piece and folded it under. On the opposite bodice piece I sewed corresponding buttons close to the edge, and voila! Easy button closure without all the hassle of buttonholes and bands!

no idea why i look so sad in this picture. i think i might have resting sad face?

After I made the new closure, I took in the side seams about an inch or so, angled up towards the sleeves, and I much prefer the way the blouse fits and looks now! The sleeves and bust of this blouse are a teensy bit tighter than I would prefer, even after letting the seams out a bit, so if I make this top again I will go up in the bust at least one size and keep the adjustments I made to the side seams, and I might shorten it just a bit so that you can see more crop when my arms are down at my sides (as you can see in the pics, you can’t really see much belly skin unless my arms are raised).

All in all a super cute outfit that definitely looks different than anything else I have in my #redcarpetDIY wardrobe! I love the little sliver of skin that shows between the hem of the blouse and waistband of the skirt, and I love the unique and dynamic look of the jaquard print; up close it looks like yellow teardrops with a spot of blue inside, but from just a few feet away the pattern meshes into a haze of trippy polka dots. My favorite color to wear is yellow so I am in total love with the subtle brightness this fabric lends- coupled with the blue accent, it’s not overpowering, but it definitely makes a statement.

Peaches N’ Cream N’ The Fabric Store

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For those of you who grew up in the 80’s like me, you might remember a special Barbie Doll that made her debut wearing a floor length ruffled gown in a gorgeous shade of peach. The dress had a white sparkly bodice with sheer layers of polyester that cascaded into a wave of gathers at her feet, and a long, peach colored boa wound through her arms, the perfect accessory for this doll made in the era of TV’s Dynasty.

I was obsessed with this doll, and I didn’t get obsessed with toys very often. I knew we were poor and, from a young age, I understood it’s implications- asking for things that I knew my parents couldn’t afford seemed not only pointless, but also hurtful. I felt sure that they would give me the world if they could, so why make them feel worse than they already did? Still, this doll’s aesthetic tapped into some deep need I had, a need to exude wealth, class, and importance, to appear to be like all the other girls that I went to school with. Peaches N’ Cream Barbie represented the kind of woman who didn’t worry about money or holding down two part time jobs to make ends meet- otherwise she would not be dressed so extravagantly. She seemed confident and capable, the life of the party, good at holding court with esteemed individuals, which was something I aspired to. Why wouldn’t I be obsessed with her?

Although I never imagined that my wish would come true, Peaches N’ Cream Barbie ended up on my Christmas list, which, since my parents were not together anymore, needed to be duplicated so they could each have a copy. My mother, pragmatic as she was, must have sensed the magnitude of having this doll in my life, because on Christmas morning of that year I tore off the wrapping of a box to find, instead of the sweater or package of underwear I usually got (she, like many Moms without much disposable income, used Christmas as a way to replenish more of my needs than my wants), a beautiful Peaches N’ Cream Barbie Doll! But…she was black. For some reason I hadn’t been expecting that. To be honest I am not even sure I knew that Peaches N’ Cream Barbie CAME in black, because the black dolls didn’t end up in the commercials very often. I was thrilled that my Mom bought her for me, but I also had conflicting feelings stirring up inside that I had no idea what to do with. My Mom, (who is white), had always made it a point to buy me black dolls. I think she was trying to make up for the fact that I went to a predominantly white school, lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I only got to see my Dad (who is black) two weekends out of the month because that’s the way the custody battle went. She didn’t want my Southern white surroundings to damage how I felt about myself, and she understood the importance of me seeing myself in the things I played with. I know that now, and I appreciate it deeply. But at the time, I hated it. It was simply another reminder that I was different from everybody else in my life.

I pet my news doll’s beautiful dress and combed her dark hair that was straight and glossy and not like mine at all and waited for my Dad to pick me up and take me to my grandma’s house to celebrate Christmas with him and my cousins. There, I joyfully opened up toy after toy after toy- not an item of clothing in site- and stared in disbelief as I ripped the paper off my last present and found yet another Peaches N’ Cream Barbie, this time the one with blonde hair. My white Mom had bought me the black Peaches N’ Cream doll and my black Dad had bought me the white one (clearly my parents were not on speaking terms at this point in time). There was a sense of relief that I finally had the “right” doll, the one I had been hoping for all along, but in the coming weeks, as I held the two dolls in my hands, each exactly the same save for their coloring, I was suddenly faced with the real root of my dissatisfaction. I liked the white one because that was the one that all my white friends had, and that made me feel normal. But the doll itself didn’t make me feel normal- she looked nothing like me. It was like playing around with a fantasy that I had no say in creating. And the black doll didn’t look like me either; her skin was darker than mine, and she still had hair like the white doll, just in a different shade. I didn’t see myself in either of the toys, but I felt shame for liking the white doll better and frustration for not understanding why. Of course now I know that this is what happens when you live in a white supremacist society, but back then I just felt alone. I decided to make my dolls be cousins related by marriage for a while, but eventually they started kissing and became secret girlfriends, which is what happens when you also live in a homophobic society, but I digress.

Growing up, leaving Alabama, spending my 20’s in NYC- all of it helped me start unpacking the harmful rhetoric that I learned as a kid and replacing it with values that embraced all my different identities. I am still in the process of forgiving myself for not being prouder of who I was at a young age, which is hard- it’s even difficult to write these words here on my blog. But I do it because, if I have learned one thing since leaving Alabama, it’s that I am not alone at all. There are so many people around the world who have struggled to name their identities, to find a place that feels comfortable, to accept that this place might not be comfortable for others, and to not apologize for it. And if my words can make any of those people feel less conflicted about living their lives proudly and boldly, then it makes talking about it completely worthwhile.

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So here I am decades later, a grown, Barbie-less woman, when I enter The Fabric Store and come across the extraordinary textile you see here. I am immediately drawn to it and I realize that it’s because of the colors- the peach and white combination of my youth holds the same amount of power over me now. And when running my hands over the soft material on the roll, I flip over a corner to find that it’s reversible! Well, maybe it’s not reversible- it’s possible that one of these sides is meant to be the “right” one and the other is meant to be the “wrong” one. But see, I know better than that now. Barbies don’t have “right” skin tones and fabrics don’t have “right” sides. Which is why I used both.

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I thought that the graphic print and stable weight of this fabric would look really cool with a structured bodice, and then I remembered how great the cut-outs on the Bonnell Dress from Dixie DIY were. So I coupled the top from that dress with my circle skirt block, drafted with instructions from Gertie’s first book, Gerties’ Book for Better Sewing. The result is a perfect fit’n flare design that looks absolutely phenomenal with the body of this fabric! I don’t normally combine prints or think outside the box with my fabric choices, but this fabric made it pretty easy. It is so soft and airy and has an almost quilted feel to it because of the way the fabric is made- it looks a little like a double gauze, with two lightweight pieces of fabric tacked together through the lines of graphic print, the colors reversed for each side.

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The bodice from the Bonnell Dress is a very straight-forward make with great instructions- a fully lined bodice with cut outs on each side that connect to a waistband, closed with an invisible zipper in the back.

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Trading the gathered skirt that goes on the original dress with a circle skirt was easy, and I omitted the pockets to save time. I used french seams for both the skirt and bodice to keep the insides tidy since this fabric has a tendency to fray, and when it was all done, the completed dress looked almost reversible! The only thing to give it away is the invisible zipper, which isn’t so invisible on the inside, but I could probably still get away with wearing it inside out if I danced the whole time that I wore it. Which is not outside of the realm of possibility for me.

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I debuted this dress a couple of weeks ago at an event for an organization called Campus Pride, which promotes creating safe spaces on college campuses across North America for LGBTQ students through education, leadership and community. As you can imagine, it was a huge honor for me to accept the Voice and Action award along with the other recipient, Miss Lawrence, and it was a pleasure to meet so many amazing students, mentors and staff at the ceremony. In my speech, which Autostraddle will be publishing later this week, I talked about intersectionality and how my various identities as a queer, biracial woman of color sometimes inform one another; it was a happy accident that I wore this particular dress to the event, which seemed to embody a lot of the things I discussed that night.

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Thanks again to The Fabric Store for the gorgeous textile, to Campus Pride for giving me an opportunity to speak, and to Claire for the lovely photos!