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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!

Pleated Pants in Pink

I have always been quite fearful of sewing pants for myself, which makes very little sense considering I have successfully made nearly a dozen different versions of jeans over the past couple of years. Somehow Closet Case’s Miracle Jeans patterns (here and here) have seemed like a walk in the park compared to starting from scratch with a brand new pattern that has no sew-alongs or hand-holding to accompany it. I’m not scared of the actual construction so much as getting the fit right, and I am sure this fear comes from a lifetime of experience trying to buy RTW pants in commercial stores. I have never, I repeat, NEVER bought RTW pants that fit me perfectly. They have run the spectrum of I can’t believe you’re wearing those out of the house to I guess they look okay if you pull your shirt down over your butt, but never wow, those pants look amazing on you! Either the pockets gape at the sides or they are too tight in the thighs or, most often, the waist is huge while the hips fit snugly, leaving me with a big gap of space between my waistband and my actual body. Doesn’t matter the style- jeans, pleated, flat-front, darted- if they didn’t have an elastic waistband on them then they weren’t going to fit my body very well.

With her patterns, Heather helped me (and hundreds of other people around the world) craft a pair of jeans that fit our bodies beautifully and made us feel and look amazing, but for some reason in my head these successes seemed to only apply to jeans making- I couldn’t imagine those concepts translating to the world of trousers at large. Intellectually I knew this didn’t make sense, so I gave myself a bit of time to work through my fear without adding too much pressure to jump into pants making. I started reading blog posts about people’s journeys making their own pants. I pinned pants patterns that interested me and seemed suitable for my style and shape. And I bought myself a copy of the much heralded Palmer and Pletsch’s Pants for Real People. Some of the material in it is pretty dated, but on the whole the information is reliable and very helpful.

There are a few standout lessons I learned in reading this book which I was able to apply to these pink pleated pants. Number one (and perhaps most important) is tissue fitting. I always side-eyed the tissue fitting concept because I couldn’t comprehend how substituting pattern paper for fabric would translate to anything useful; pattern paper seems too thin, stiff and delicate to temporarily mold to your body. But with tips from the book I was able to get a better understanding of why you tissue fit- it is but one step in the process of creating a pattern that works for your body, and it is super helpful. First of all you are instructed to tape the crotch seams of both the front and back pants pieces to keep the paper strong during the fitting process, which addressed my initial concern about the paper not holding up well to fitting on the body. It is also recommended that you use a length of thin elastic tied around your waistline to keep the paper pattern pieces from falling off and to give you a visual reminder of where your actual waist is in relation to the pattern pieces. You pin the seams of the pattern wrong sides together and then (very very carefully) try them on and make your way to a mirror so you can assess the fit and look. The paper doesn’t necessarily give you a great idea of what your final pants will look like, but it does show you most if not all of the fit issues that the pattern will have, particularly if the waist/thighs/calves/crotch are too big/little, loose/tight, high/low. Once you see where the pattern needs to be adjusted, you make marks on the pattern paper and then add in or take out “fabric” as needed.

Many of these adjustments were familiar to me because I would make them when muslin-ing (or just working directly from my fashion fabric), but making changes on the paper pattern streamlines the process, takes less time than muslin-ing, and keeps you from potentially ruining your fabric. The two most awesome adjustments that I learned about from the book are 1. changing the crotch curve and 2. adjusting the waist height of the pants. Deepening the back crotch curve creates more room in the seat for fuller butts like mine (you can do the opposite if you have a flatter derriere) and WOW what a huge difference it made! I deepened mine by 1/2 inch from the seam allowance and it made for a pant that fit my curves in the back while still giving me plenty of room to walk and sit and bend- they look super fitted but they don’t feel tight at all. Amaaaaazing! Raising the waist of the pants was another impressive fix- it’s a quick and dirty way to keep the pants from sagging or gaping and seems to be a good solution to fixing a swayback as well. Since you have a band of elastic around your waist, it’s easy to see where the paper pattern should be adjusted in relationship to where you want the waistband to be. When I was tissue fitting these pants, the back came up super high on me, several inches past my natural waist, so I was able to cut that chunk out to make them sit better, giving plenty of room for ease and wearability.

After my initial tissue fit, I added more room to the hips, adjusted the width of the legs and calves and adjusted the length of the pieces between the waist and the hip (this created a shorter depth of crotch since mine hung down a little lower than what felt comfortable or looked good) on my paper pattern, then I cut out the new pattern pieces using a black textured fabric that I hoped would be a wearable muslin. Unfortunately, halfway through the process I realized that my fabric was of pretty poor quality and that I would probably never wear them once they were finished, but I didn’t mind- I got some great practice with that first pair and once I saw that the fit was getting closer to what I wanted, I was excited to move on to my pink fabric anyways. I installed my zipper using the Closet Case method she shares in her Jeans Making e-Book, then I basted the pant legs together, tried them on, and made a few more tiny tweaks in the hip and thigh area. After that it was smooth sailing- I just needed to create and attach my waistband and hem the bottoms.

Now the real exciting thing for me here is not that I used the Palmer Pletsch method of making pants, but that I used a BURDA PATTERN TO MAKE THEM. Yep, you read right! (I blame Renee). I have mentioned a dozen times on this blog how much I hate Burda patterns. I love the styles but MY GOD the instructions and construction techniques are just awful- too sparse, sometimes written incorrectly, no line drawings or photos (at least with the online patterns I have purchased) and no additional details on construction techniques whatsoever. When I first started getting into sewing a lot a few years ago, Burda enticed me with all their pretty photos, fashion forward designs, and inexpensive patterns, and I accumulated quite a few of them, even making a couple of dresses that turned out sort of okay, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was NOT the intended demographic for their patterns. With the exception of a few simple designs, their patterns are generally not for beginners who are unfamiliar with how to construct a variety of garments. I remember buying a cargo shorts pattern of theirs a few years ago which essentially began with the words “insert your front fly zipper” and no actual instructions that followed. I was like *#^!)#&%$%?!?!?!?!- aren’t you supposed to tell me how to insert a front fly zipper, Burda??? I looked up instructions online but I was too out of my depth, having never made a zip fly before and getting incredibly confused when the details of my pattern pieces didn’t match up with the tutorials I was finding. Needless to say, I threw that project in the Butthole Bin and hadn’t tried another Burda pattern since.

But when I realized that I wanted to make a pair of trousers for myself using the Palmer Pletsch technique, I had a lot of trouble finding a pattern that matched what I wanted. I was looking for a peg-leg trouser, something high waisted with a loose-ish (but not wide) leg that could be rolled up at the ankle, dressed up or down. I wanted pleats, too, a detail that ladies with curves are not “supposed” to wear since pleats can accentuate areas that you “should” want to hide. But of course, as mentioned in an earlier post, I am moving away from all those “rules” and experimenting with clothing that has aesthetics I am attracted to as opposed to details that I think will “work” for my body (/excessive use of quotations). The Big 4 companies didn’t have what I was looking for and neither did any of my fav indie pattern designers, but I found several pattern contenders when I reluctantly started sorting through the online Burda catalogue. I could vaguely hear Renee’s voice in the back of my head rattling off all the amazing Burda patterns she had successfully made over the years, and I started to gain a little more confidence. It had been years since I had last attempted a Burda pattern and I knew my skills as a sewist had grown a lot since then, but I had also noticed that as a I got more comfortable with the craft, I liked to challenge myself more. So. Maybe it was time to give Burda another chance. I chose the Pleated High Waist Pants 02/2012 #103A, (why do they choose the most confusing way to name/categorize their patterns??) added the damn seam allowance (I shouldn’t hate this as much as I do because I already trace all my pattern pieces- adding seam allowance is really not that big a deal for me…and yet!) and went to work.

This is me demonstrating how comfortable and easy it is for me to do a squat in these pants! I do squats in heels all the time, by the way!

Guys. It wasn’t that bad! I used my trusty Closet Case construction method for inserting my zip fly, adding and subtracting certain details to my liking, then I proceeded as usual for any other pair of jeans using the fitting adjustments described earlier in this post. With a solid foundation on how to construct a pair of pants, I didn’t even need Burda’s measly 7 sentence “instructions”, and maybe that’s how most Burda patterns are intended to be used- you use them with your own basic understanding of how to make the garment and they just supply the drafted pattern pieces. I guess there is reason these patterns are so cheap! I would still prefer to have a regular set of instructions included with my patterns, but I know now that I am capable of working from my own knowledge, and I love that the world of beautiful Burda patterns is now open to me again.

As for the pants, I LOVE them! I realize that I have been saying I love my makes way more consistently now which feels so exciting to me. And it’s true! These pants fit great, they are super comfortable, and I freaking love the gorgeous pink color of the fabric. On my last trip to The Fabric Store, the lovely Sara immediately led me in the direction of this hot pink raw silk when I told her I was looking for a bottom-weight fabric for some trousers. This fabric was a little more lightweight than what I was initially looking for but once I saw it, I obviously couldn’t say no (pink is my favorite color, next to yellow, and next to gray. I have three favorite colors, sue me). It ended up working perfectly with this pattern, and raw silk is probably a smarter fabric to wear in a Los Angeles summer than what I was looking for anyways. This is one of the (many) things about The Fabric Store that I love- everyone in the store is knowledgeable about the fabric and they also have really good taste, so whether you are looking for something specific or needing help narrowing down your options, they can steer you in the right direction. The color of this fabric is as brilliant in person as it is in the photos, it has a spectacular hand (soft with just the right amount of nub) and drape (a lot of body without being stiff) which works really well for this pair of pattern.

I didn’t use the waistband pieces of the Burda pattern, mostly because they made absolutely no sense to me- I couldn’t tell where they connected to each other and which piece was supposed to be cut on the fold. Instead I decided to use my waistband from the Ginger Jeans pattern, which was already curved and adjusted to fit my waist perfectly; I shaved off a little of the width and it worked like a dream on these pants. I played around with the idea of adding belt loops but eventually nixed that idea because I wasn’t sure if I would actually wear a belt with them. After wearing them once I can say that a belt is totally unnecessary and I am so glad I didn’t do the extra work of adding them, cause sometimes I am just lazy.

brushing my shoulders off, obvs.

Now that I have successfully made a pair of pants using a fitting technique I had never tried before and a pattern company that I historically hate, I am feeling kind of unstoppable, like I need to make ALL the pants! I already have a project in mind for my next pair- I want them to be a high waisted wide leg pant in another fun color, like yellow or robin’s egg blue. I wish I had some of this raw silk in every color because it would work for SO many projects, and I can only imagine how beautifully it would sew up into a dress. But let me slow down and take it one cut of fabric at a time…I already have two #recarpetDIY projects on the horizon in addition to one of the Pattern Review winners for best dress of 2016 lined up in my queue. And I have like three pairs of shoes that I am ready to try my hand at, too, now that spring sandals are in all the shops and I am feeling newly inspired.

Sigh. Sew little time, sew many projects 😉

edit: OMG I forgot to say: The top is a Grainline Studios Lark Tee in a knit fabric from Michael Levine’s which was just too pretty not to buy when I went shopping there a couple months ago- didn’t blog about it because these tees are super easy and there isn’t much to say about them, but it’s a great pattern with lots of options and I love how this one turned out!