Thursday, January 19, 2012

2011 In Review -- Part 2: Dresses

Moving right along with the "what I sewed in 2011" theme, next up is dresses.  It's funny, I started the last post feeling like I had sewn piles and piles of skirts last year, when in fact I only finished four.  On the other hand, I felt like I didn't spend much time on dresses last year, but when I started looking through my closet and the photos I took in the last 12 months, I realized I actually finished three dresses in 2011, and heavily modified one purchased dress.

Part of the disconnect there is that for years, I sewed mostly costumes and gowns.  I always ended the year with a gown/cocktail dress for the semi-formal Christmas party MB's office throws every year (for instance: 2008, 2009).  But this year, his office changed plans for the party and ended up making it casual (I wore the blue satin skirt from the last post), so my sketch for the gown I wanted to make this year has gone unmade.  Without that bookend to my year, it felt like I didn't do all that much dressmaking.

The other part of it is that while I did sew or modify four day dresses in 2011, as of now only one of them is in rotation in my closet.  But I'll explain that as I get to each dress.

The first dress I sewed in 2011 was actually part of my fall 2010 sewing list that I didn't quite get to before the end of the year.  I'd wanted a 1960s-ish wiggle dress for awhile, something that looked like wool without the itchiness that would necessitate a lining and add bulk.  When I found a synthetic brushed flannel in this awesome gray-brown, the whole project came together.

I started with a muslin pattern I made years ago (possibly originally based on McCall's 5232? honestly can't remember now) of a princess line dress that I know fits me -- and with my 28J bra size, getting a princess seamed dress to fit smoothly is no easy feat.  I folded the full skirt of the muslin in from the hipline downwards, since I knew I wanted it fitted, and then fiddled with the seams to get the fit right once I could try it on.

Once I had the fit perfected -- tight and wiggly and very Joany -- I added a band of the same fabric to the underbust.  I found some buttons that matched the fabric beautifully and played around with the placement (since they're non-functional) until I found the most flattering location.  I put a looooong invisible zipper at center back, quite nearly the whole length of the dress, so that it would open up enough to easily get into and out of.  I also played with the hem length quite a bit, eventually going with a couple of inches above my knees, a bit shorter than I usually do, but it felt like it worked for this dress.  I experimented with a few inches below the knee too, but it ended up looking too much like a costume rather than like a nod to the 60s.

I unfortunately didn't have a single real photo of this dress on me, nor do I have a dressform to photograph it on (but that's a topic I'll get to in the next few weeks here), so I figured out the timer on my camera and took a couple of shots in front of my front door (one of the few bits of blank wall in my house with a flat surface nearby; I have a feeling we're going to get to know this bit of wall real well on this blog, lol).  You guys will have to forgive my photography and photo-editing skills, just as a general rule.

I love the way this dress looks on me.  I feel like I stepped out of MadMen, but the length still makes it feel modern.  I wore it a lot in the first half of the year, but as with so many other things, my hip joints decided that wiggle dresses are right out, and I had to retire this dress from daily wear.  I'm holding on to it in the hopes that my hip joints will be able to handle this sort of fitted dress again someday, but for now it languishes at the back of my closet.  On the bright side, knowing that I could no longer wear this without pain helped quite a lot when I set out to make the houndstooth pencil skirt mentioned in the last post.

The second dress I made in 2011 was another of my pre-Paris sewing projects.  I really liked the idea of a black jersey dress for travel, the sort of dress you can wad up and throw in your suitcase, then pull it out, give it a shake, throw it on with heels and some accessories and look amazing.  I looked around at pictures online of travel dresses to get a basic idea of shapes and styles, and then dove in without any other guidance.

I started with a black light-weight cotton-poly jersey, more silky than tshirty but still stretchy, that I found at JoAnn's.  It doesn't wrinkle at all, no matter what I do to it, so it's perfect for this sort of dress.  I cut it into a really basic tank dress shape to start out with, no closures, just pull over my head.  It was rather baggy to start out with, especially with just the side seams for shaping, so I added a strip of fabric at the underbust, which I turned into a drawstring casing.  I put a bit of ribbon through it so I could cinch in the underbust, then did a little shirring at the shoulders.

Somewhere along the way, I'm not quite sure when or how, but the shoulder-to-underbust length got a bit too short.  If I tied the underbust tie nice and tight, I could make it stretch downwards and fit, but it naturally didn't want to hang in quite the right place.  I did end up wearing it once in Paris, layered with a jean jacket and scarf, but I wasn't thrilled with it and haven't found myself reaching for it from the back of my closet.  Over the summer I pulled it out and took my seam ripper to the underbust portion.  So now it's back to baggy, but I still feel like there's a kernel of something good in there.  For now, it's in back in my sewing stash, but I'd like to take another swing at it in 2012.

Apparently the third time was the charm when it came to dressmaking in 2011.  The third dress was a sundress I made shortly after getting back from Paris (though I seem to remember delusions of grandeur about somehow finishing it before the trip).  For the last few years I've really wanted a soft cotton dress in a black woven fabric with little red flowers.  I looked for months and months for fabric that matched what I imagined, looking locally, on my trip to the LA fabric district, and online, but couldn't find anything.

Then one day I found myself in the quilting cotton section --  home of cheap, stiff, badly printed cotton that really isn't suitable for dressmaking, for the most part.  But as I was looking at a black and white polka-dot fabric that consisted of really nothing but a black print on one side of white fabric, somehow inspiration struck.  What if I dyed it?  I made my first foray into dyeing purchased fabric in 2010 (for my Hit Girl skirt) and absolutely loved the results.

So I bought a couple of yards of the black-with-white-polka-dots quilting cotton and a packet of red dye (I love the iDye products but I can't say for sure if I used it for this project, as my local JoAnn's tends to have a pretty limited selection of colors) and threw it all in my washing machine.

The results were a wonderfully customized fabric that was bright orangey-red on one side and black with red polka-dots on the other side.  The dye also seemed to have improved the drape of the fabric, even more than just washing it would have.  If I remember correctly, I dyed the fabric before the Paris trip but didn't get around to sewing it until some time after we got back.

When I finally got back to this dress, I decided to use Vogue 8648 as a jumping off point.  I wanted to do the full-skirt option, but when I started laying out the fabric, I realized I was a bit short on the yardage.  Since I was worried that I wouldn't be able to replicate the exact dye shade I had achieved the first time around, I decided to just "make it work" as they say.  I made a muslin of the bodice, adjusting the princess seam over the bust to the curve that I know works for me, and shortening the underbust to waist length (a tad more than I should have, turns out), then cut out all the little bodice pieces, trying to waste as little fabric as possible.  I narrowed the skirt to 3/4 of a circle and shortened it to just barely knee-length, to try to get as much out of the yardage I had.

I love the way this dress turned out, though of course I can see all the small faults.  The skirt is just a touch longer in the center front and back than on the sides, which really only becomes apparent when the black petticoat I usually wear with this slips down a bit and shows at the sides but not in the front.  I don't think anyone else has ever noticed, but in some photos it's a bit more obvious:

I used hem tape for the first time with this dress, since I was trying to get every last inch out of the fabric.  I really liked hem tape, and have used it a few times since, but the idea of having to pick that all out is what's stopped me from fixing the length issues.  Like I said, I usually wear a net petticoat with this, but occasionally I'll layer it with my old muslin peasant skirt instead, and the skirt still has a nice amount of loft.

I would definitely like to make this pattern again, and have a white cotton sundress idea bouncing around that it might be perfect for.  The straight-skirt view is probably not a great idea for me, but there are a lot of skirt variations that would work well with the bodice.  If I made it again, I wouldn't shorten the bodice pieces quite so much, and I would of course buy enough fabric this time, but otherwise I wouldn't change much.

Later in the summer, I finally broke down and bought my first dress from ModCloth.  As a general rule I really like the ModCloth styles, but I've been a bit leery of their construction and fabric quality, and of course nothing has fit me off the rack for nearly 20 years now.  But I saw that they were having a sale, and their Brunch At My Place dress jumped out and yelled "buy me!"  It had just the sort of 60s shift feeling I'd been longing for, and I loved the lace fabric.  It was on sale, they had a few left in my size, so I gave in and bought it.

Of course, shift dresses aren't a great shape on me -- without structured waist definition, I can look a bit like a lumpy sack of potatoes, as my grandma (whose figure I inherited) has always said.  So when the dress arrived, I wasn't surprised that it looked kind of meh on me.  But sewing skills to the rescue!  The fabric is dark enough that I was able to put in two long, thin elliptical darts without losing the basic line of the dress.  I pinned and fussed until I figured out where I wanted to put the darts, running from my bust point to my hipline, and taking out a total of about 6" from the waistline.

Thankfully ModCloth had cut the lace on the grain (thank you ModCloth!) so I was able to use the geometric nature of the lace to perfectly line up the darts.  I repeated the darts on the lining as well, which is made from a thin jersey material that thankfully doesn't fray, so I was able to leave the seams unfinished inside.  Once I was happy with the darts, I chopped a couple of inches off the bottom and rehemmed it, to give it a more 60s mod feel on my 5'1" frame.

While I was in there chopping up the dress, I also took the ties off the sleeve ends, turned under an inch or so, and threaded elastic through the casing I had just made.  The sleeves are much less fussy that way, and stay at whatever elevation I push them to.

I wore this dress quite a lot last fall, usually with opaque black sweater tights.  When tights started to become an issue for my hips in early December, I cut the top off that pair and turned them into stockings (which I'll have a separate post about soon), which I wear with garter clips to keep them up.  I haven't worn this dress with my tights-turned-stockings yet, and I'm a bit worried it's too short to comfortably wear with garters, so this may become a warm weather dress, at least until I get some better/shorter garters.

So for all that, the black-with-red-polka-dots sundress is the only one I still wear with any frequency.  Thankfully in southern California, even January offers a few days when it's warm enough to wear a sundress, but I would like to get some of these others back into my rotation, if I can.

Next post, I'll tackle the costumes I made in 2011!

(Model: me.  Photographer: me, plus my handy dandy timer.  Makeup from Faerie Organic, lipstick from Afterglow in Courage, nail polish from No Miss in Miami Red, shoes from Gabriella Rocha. Special co-star: my front door.)

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