I went on a journey with this one, yall. For the record, “went on a journey” is my euphemism for “worked on a project that was so challenging it made me want to beat my head against a wall while cry-laughing.” Sometimes the difficult journey a project takes me on is due to a tricky fabric or fit issues or confusing construction techniques, but the challenges this book brought me were brand new!
I’m sure most adventurous sewists are familiar with the Pattern Magic books, but if not, here is a brief rundown: written by acclaimed seamster and fabric manipulation sorcerer Tomoko Nakamichi, the series (Pattern Magic Volumes 1-3 and Pattern Magic: Stretch Fabrics) has now been translated to English and includes information on how to alter a simple Bunka bodice block by slashing and spreading, adding length/width and distorting the pattern block’s shape to create intriguing 3-D wearable art from fabric. The photographs in the book, created at half size for mini dressforms, are remarkable, and once I got three of the books for Christmas a couple of years ago, I spent a substantial amount of my holiday pouring over the pages multiple times, my mouth hanging open. I had simply never seen anything like the shapes Nakamichi was creating, never even knew most of the designs were possible. After glancing through the pages and trying to get an understanding of what was required to actualize the designs, I knew it was going to take a lot of brain power to stumble through the confusing diagrams, so I kept putting it off. But recently, after suffering through a couple of horrendous pants makes and feeling depleted and frustrated, I found myself in between projects and decided to slow down and dedicate my weekend to figuring out how to be a pattern magician.
Unfortunately this book does not come with a PDF file or paper print out for the bodice block that all the patterns are based on. There is a page at the end of the book with the bodice printed at half scale (which you can use to create the projects at half size) and it is suggested that you photocopy that sheet of paper at 200% to get the full scale size of the pattern. I happened to be devoted to not leaving my house the weekend that I worked on this, so instead of taking the easy route and driving 5 minutes to a copy shop with the book, I sat down in my craft room with a ruler, my math bracelet (for all you non-instagrammers, math bracelet is what Claire has started calling my measuring tape for some reason), and some gridded pattern paper. OK, so, truth be told, I wan’t committing myself to this task out of sheer stubbornness. After perusing the pages of this book for two years, I realized that, even though it was in English, it still felt like it was written in another language. As someone who struggled with complicated mathematical concepts in school, I knew it was going to take a while to fully grasp some of the images and equations shown in the diagrams. English is my jam, I have always loved literature and reading and expressing myself through words, and math has always seemed a bit antithetical to that. If I made myself sit down and blunder through the trickiest parts from the start, then maybe that would make all the steps to follow a little bit easier. Right?
These are the diagrams given to sketch out your Bunka bodice block. In addition to the images above, there were like two sentences of instructions beneath them which basically said “Use these diagrams to make the bodice block” LOL. there are virtually NO instructions in the whole book, and the few words provided that are meant to instruct made absolutely no sense to me. It’s as if Yoda was the ghost writer for this thing- as few words as possible! The instructions say specifically to work through steps 1-14 in order to graph out the preliminary lines of the bodice. Step 1 asks for the length of the bodice (I assumed my neck to waist measurement) which seemed simple enough. But once I drew that line and looked for a number 2 with a circle around it? Well, it’s nowhere to be found. The numbers on the diagram skip around and then it appears that letters are thrown in for good measure, so I didn’t have a linear guideline to follow. I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but I did not find this explanation in the actual book. And then out of the blue I see this symbol that looks like the planet Saturn, and I have NO IDEA what that symbol is supposed to represent. There is no key on the page. What does Saturn equal?! I am still not sure if this was so difficult for me because of something that got lost in the translation of the book or because I comprehend language better than numbers and symbols, but somehow I eventually figured it out by substituting some arbitrary number; the Saturn symbol looked like it was supposed to represent some part of the shoulder length, so I threw in an approximate measurement and figured that I could adjust it once I made my muslin.
It took me over two hours to complete, 30 minutes of which I spent looking for my compass tool, and once I found it I realized that what I meant to be looking for was a protractor because it’s been 80 years since I needed to use either of those things and I had mislabeled them in my brain. My shoulder lengths (aka my “Saturns”) were off of course, and once I sewed the bodice muslin I had to adjust the bust dart a bit, but…it worked! I FIGURED IT OUT! The muslin fit, which felt like such a massive victory, and I was very proud of myself!
I was excited to move on to the manipulation of the bodice for the Knot Dress because I figured that creating the bodice out of these wacky symbols and numbers would indeed be the toughest part but….no. The next part actually had me near tears in bafflement. The only thing that kept me going was googling “pattern magic knot dress” and seeing that at least three sewing bloggers had figured out the pattern manipulation and none of them had used the words “difficult”, “frustrating”, “confusing” or “fuck”. In fact, one of them described creating the pattern as “simple”. Flames may or may not have shot out of my head when I read this, I’m not sure because I think I had a rage blackout immediately after I saw that word in relation to this pattern, but once I came to, I decided to use it as a motivator. If they could figure it out, then I was determined that I could, too, damnit! I had already gotten so far!
In one last desperate cry for help, I brought the book to Claire, hopelessness etched deep into my brow. “This doesn’t make sense, honey! It doesn’t! Help me see how it makes sense, cause all I see right now is a lie!” Bless her heart, Claire, who is not a sewist and gets as frustrated as I do with confusing diagrams, very calmly looked at the picture and basically said “it looks like you need to add a piece here.”
That was it, yall. I just needed to add a piece here.
It turns out that after you draft your Bunka bodice, you have to make some slash and spread adjustments to it, then you draft the skirt onto the pattern piece, and then you have to slash and spread the bodice again, then you have to add the bow piece onto it, and then you have your final pattern piece from which to cut out your fabric.
Were they attempting to create a cheaper book by providing fewer pages? Was that why the book seemed so in favor of pictures over words? Do diagrams cost less money to print than paragraphs? (These questions are rhetorical). Drafting the sloper and then adjusting the pattern for the Knot Dress took me two days to complete, and I know for a fact that if they had given me just 6 more sentences, I could have been spared so much frustration and headache. Initially I thought that the “magic” in the title was referring to how beautiful all the garments looked- like, oh wow, these things are so magically beautiful! But after stumbling through every aspect of bringing this pattern to life, I realized that nope, the magic is in reference to WHAT YOU NEED TO HAVE SPRINKLED ON TOP OF YOU BY A TINY FAIRY IN ORDER TO COMPLETE ANY OF THE PROJECTS. But guess what.
I AM AN OFFICIAL MAGICIAN, NOW, BOYYYYYYYYYYY!
I was resigned to thinking that my finished muslin was going to be ill-fitting and wonky, and the fact that I had gotten that far would have been all the success I needed after the whole ordeal, so you can imagine my surprise when I tried my muslin on and saw that it fit me PERFECTLY. There are two tucks in the back which give some gentle shaping to the waist and bust area, but aside from the darts at the front bust and the drafting of the skirt, which creates a subtle flare at the hips, there isn’t much to this dress in the ways of fit. And yet it works! All based on a simple bodice sloper! I love how it skims my figure without feeling like a tent and it has a bit of swing to the lower half. It looks feminine and structured at the same time. Seeing how well it fit from the start definitely felt like magic!
Apologies for the photos that follow- I didn’t have time to iron the dress, which had been tightly stuffed inside my closet, before we took these pictures!
Essentially the pattern of this dress has the shape of a simple shift, and to add in that magic, you slash and spread the dress out at the center bust, adding enough fabric to create two tubes which make up the ties of the bow. In theory it’s simple, but without any explanation or real instructions it took a while for my brain to grasp the concept. But as soon as I started sewing the pieces of my muslin together, it all made sense and was constructed in a tiny fraction of the time it took me to draft everything out.
As soon as I got the muslin right and made a couple of adjustments for fit, I went to cut out my fabric and I realized that what I had purchased was much too flowy and drapey. This dress requires a certain amount of stability in it’s fabric so that the integrity of the silhouette and bow are not lost, and my graphic printed rayon, while lovely, was not going to lend itself to the best version of this pattern. I rifled through my tiny stash and came across this cupro with a sandwashed effect that I purchased from Blackbird Fabrics. I had purchased three cuts in different colorways, 2 yards of black, 2 yards of blue and 3 yards of olive. I knew I needed at least 3 yards for this dress (it’s a real fabric eater because of the bow ties) but I didn’t like the idea of the dress in olive. I was beside myself with frustration, determined not to have to buy MORE fabric for this dress after just having gone to The Fabric Store, but at a loss as to how to remedy the situation (as mentioned before, my stash is pretty tiny). And then, with both piles of black and blue cupro on my cutting table, I wondered if I could use both by color blocking the dress, which just so happens to be drafted with a center seam. The black and blue looked really good together on my table, and I liked the idea of having the bow tied so that the opposite color was displayed on each side. It felt like a bit of a bold move but I had nothing to lose except fabric, and I am a bit of a risk-taker with my making, so I went for it.
Everything went smoothly until I realized that I had cut one front out on the wrong side of the fabric. It was SO HARD to keep the sides straight because the cupro looks the same on both sides at a glance, but as soon as you hold each side up vertically, the difference is super obvious (meaning I couldn’t get away with just using the wrong side of one of the pattern pieces because it would bug the HELL out of me). I didn’t quite have enough fabric to cut a new piece out of, and I didn’t want to rearrange my entire idea so that the color blocking was different than I had envisioned. I was married to the look I had created in my head and refused to compromise. My only alternative was to puzzle the remaining fabric I did have into the shape of the pattern piece. It took what felt like forever, but I managed to get it done with just one seam that I was able to hide behind the bow.
I had to figure out the finishings and construction method as I went along, since of course the book wasn’t offering me any help. I french seamed everything I could on the inside, and I covered the raw edges in the front center where the ties are formed in bias tape- it was too tricky to sew that part into a french seam. My cupro was relatively easy to sew with- slippery like a silky rayon, yet manageable- but the edges looked like they would fray over time so whatever was exposed got bound, frenched or, in the case of the back center edges where it zips, serged. The area where the bow ties emerge from the dress form a little tuck in the front which is really pretty and gives the dress some visual depth, but it’s hard to keep in place. Unfortunately there is no way to tack down the area on the inside without it showing through to the front, but as long as the bow is tied tightly and securely, the tucks don’t seem to move too much. I might make a line of stitching right down the creases to help make it more stable.
For the neck and armholes, I used self-made bias binding out of the cupro and applied it to the openings, and for the hem I simply ironed, folded twice, then sewed down. The drape and silkiness of the cupro made the hem pretty wavy and I ended up having to take it out and redo it to get it even (the dress is not a cut on the bias but I still let it hang for a while on my dress form before tackling this part). It’s still not perfect, but I don’t think it’s too visible.
Although I put in a substantial amount of work to bring this dress to life, it still took less time than some other projects I have under my belt and it was worth every second! I love the effect of the finished dress- it’s fun and feminine but the muted colors keep it from going over the top so it doesn’t look too costumey (something I worried about when looking at all the images in the book as a whole).
I would absolutely make this dress again, but I am also interested in tackling something else cool from the book. When I finally finished this dress I immediately pulled the books out again to choose what I wanted to make next, assuming that since I had successfully completed one project, the rest would be a breeze. Turns out, not so much,! Each design is so unique and the techniques that work for some have nothing to do with the others. Looking at the pattern instructions was like starting over from scratch! The good news that I already have the bodice block completed and adjusted for my shape, so whatever I tackle next will go straight to the manipulation phase. I might need a bit more recuperation time for my brain to heal from all the hard work it exerted during this project, but I must admit, I am already getting antsy for that cool neck-tie-that-blends-into-the-shirt project. Wish me luck!