Monthly Archives: November 2011

D + D = A+

The term “dressmaker” conjures up intriguing, dreamy thoughts for me – and maybe for you, too.  I’ve always liked the connotation of it – obviously a female craftsperson, skilled with a needle and working with patterns, creating clothing for women and children.  It is a term which spans decades, even centuries, in its relevancy (in the 18th century the term “mantua maker” was interchangeable with “dressmaker” and often the preferred term.) I have two 19th-century trade signs hanging in my sewing room, both for Dressmaking & Millinery, and simply their presence gives me inspiration.

One of my inspirational trade signs for dressmaking

Mistress Spekman's sign which now adorns my sewing room

When compared to “fashion designer”, a “dressmaker” might seem to some a bit provincial or less exciting or less creative…

Well, think again.  There is a wonderful entry on “The dressmaker” in a small book entitled 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School (available at Barnes and Noble, where I found my copy).

A little book filled with great information

To quote:

“Dressmakers differ from fashion designers in that they do not design wholly new fashions, but copy or adjust the fashions of the day [or yesterday!  my addition….].  Often they add flourishes such as ruffles, flounces, covered buttons, spaghetti straps, and ribbon trims.  Today, such highly feminized, applied details are still referred to as dressmaker details [my emphasis] whether or not created by a dressmaker….”

The list of possible dressmaker details is a long one, and includes such additional things as choice of fabric, buttonhole treatment, combining two or more patterns (for example, a blouse from one pattern and skirt from another), topstitching, linings, etc.  Hopefully, you can deduce that the possibilities are almost endless, infinitely creative, and require an excellent understanding of fashion design and purpose to be successful.

Here is an example of my own added Dressmaker Detail.  I made this evening muff as part of my merchandise for a recent fine crafts boutique/fair.  I made it up in black silk velvet, with a kelly green silk lining.  Made according to the pattern (circa 1959) it was pretty, but not as elegant or eye-catching as I had hoped.

This velvet muff with silk lining was not quite as special as I had hoped.

So – I added this constructed bow, which I made out of the green silk – a dressmaker detail which (I think) turns it from nice to  “wow”.

The added silk bow makes a big difference!

Dressmaker           +             Details             =

Absolutely what makes sewing so enjoyable.


Filed under Dressmaker details

Thank goodness I never made this!

I kept thinking that at some point years ago I had purchased yardage of bright pink and navy blue silk to make a dress, but I had never used it.  In my fabric closet I found three yards of pink Moygashel linen and a small quantity of navy blue linen, but I could tell from the odd shape of the blue fabric that it was just leftovers from some other garment (I think a navy blue suit I made for myself in the mid 70’s).  So – I didn’t think this was the fabric I thought I was remembering.

This was really bothering me and from time to time, I would look again in my fabric closet, hoping to find proof of my suspicions.  I found lots of other fabric, but not what I was looking for.  I had just about determined that I simply was mistaken,  when just a few weeks ago, I came across an unmarked white bag in one of the drawers of the high chest in our living room.  Now, I had looked in this drawer just recently, as it was stuffed with fabric scraps, some unfinished projects (I hate to admit this, but it’s true!), and a few patterns.   The white bag had just not caught my attention, as it seemed almost empty.   I took a peek inside – and voila!  Gorgeous pink and navy crepe de chine silk – and this God-awful pattern, which obviously I purchased to make up in pink and navy.  No wonder I lost interest in sewing for myself in the 80’s!!!

1980's Butterick pattern which I did not make - thank goodness!

I am absolutely delighted to have rediscovered this fabric – there are about three and half yards of the pink and a half yard of the blue, and it has a fine hand to it.

Pink and blue silk which I found in my fabric drawer

I still love the combination of these two colors, and in the right mid-century style, I think this fabric will finally one day meet its destiny!


Filed under 1980's dress patterns

Seeing stars? No…dots!!

Polka dots, to be precise!  My love of polka dots must have started when I was about 6 or 7, when I received my Toni Fashion doll for Christmas.  She was dressed in a red and white polka dotted dress, with a lovely tan coat, red hat, and high heels.  Here she is, over five decades later: 

This dress could easily have been featured in Vogue Pattern Book for February/March of 1957!

Christian Dior, who died in 1957, was a big fan of polka dots.  Here’s what he said about them in his Little Dictionary of Fashion (first published in 1954 and now available on Amazon, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2007):

“…They are lovely, elegant, easy, and always in fashion.   …According to their color, they can be versatile…  Black and white for elegance; soft pinks and blues for prettiness; emerald, scarlet, and yellow for gaiety; beige and gray for dignity.”

For my “going away” outfit when I was married in 1973, I made a beige silk suit with a red and beige polka dotted blouse.  Sadly I no longer have either the suit or the blouse, but… never one to throw away any scrap of fabric that can be used for something, I found a piece of the silk blouse fabric in one of my “fabric” drawers.  It was an odd shape, but the more I looked at it, the more it became apparent that I could actually make a scarf out of it.  Here’s what I did:

I cut the silk into two pieces, each with a true-bias end. I marked it with chalk to get a precise cutting line.

I joined the two pieces together with a flat felled seam and hand-hemmed around all four sides.

Here it is finished and ready to wear.


Last summer when my husband, Tom, and I were in California to see our son, Nate, I made a memorable trip to Britex Fabrics on Geary Street in San Francisco.  I knew when I saw this fabric, I wouldn’t be able to leave the store without it:  pure silk charmeuse  – by Dolce and Gabbana, no less!

Here it is propped over two pegs.

They also carried the matching silk chiffon.  I have been looking for the right pattern to make a blouse out of the charmeuse, and the chiffon is now this scarf, which gets comments whenever I wear it!

In my opinion, dots are stars!

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Filed under Polka dots, Scarves

I love coats!

I never realized I love coats so much until I started looking at Vogue patterns on eBay.  It seems like every other pattern that appeals to me is either just a coat or a coat and dress or a coat and skirt or a jacket/coat that can be made in various lengths. One of the first ones I found was this one:

1957 Swing Coat from vintage Vogue pattern

One of my first eBay purchases - a vintage Vogue pattern from 1957

It was a “buy it now” offer rather than an auction – and I thought long and hard before I decided to go for it.  For one thing, there was only a front view of the pattern envelope, so I couldn’t tell what the back of the coat looked like.  When the pattern arrived, I was so excited – the back view of the long version has a high belt, which I think is such a great detail.  The swing of the coat looks lovely, too!  In fact, coats like these were called “swing” coats back in the 50’s.  They were also called “clutch coats” as the front fastenings were minimal or nonexistent, so you had to “clutch” them closed with your hand.

This pattern is copyrighted 1957.  The description on the back of the envelope says “Flared back coat in regulation and shorter length.  High front and back belt, optional.  Tapering kimono sleeves may be worn pushed up.”  (OH, YES!!!  Don’t you love this?  All the better to show off classy bangles and gold cuffs!)  I love the term “regulation length” although I have yet to find a reference to exactly what that means.

I immediately knew I would make this coat in its long version, but not sure what type of fabric I wanted to use.   That would take a few more weeks of deliberation. More on this and other coat patterns that I love in a future post.


Filed under Coats, Vogue patterns

Fifty Dresses begins…

A couple of years ago my daughter, Susanna, asked me what I’d like to do with the rest of my life.  It was a great question – but I didn’t know how to answer it.  I did, however, know what I did not want to be doing for the rest of my life – and that was the “full-time” volunteer work that had gradually taken over my days, often my sleep, and certainly my sense of balance in my day-to-day living.  But it was more complicated than that.  I had to admit that the work I had done and was doing (mostly for The Philadelphia Antiques Show, a major fundraiser for the University of Pennsylvania Hospital) had given me countless friendships, a peculiar source of “identity” and respect, and a sense of accomplishment.  I had to figure out if I really wanted to “give that all up”  – and if so, what would I replace it with?  That was the key question that I could not answer.

How I have come to Fifty Dresses is my “rediscovery” story, a crazy concurrence of events which provided me with an answer to that question which I never could have imagined.

Here’s what happened:

  •  Mad Men on AMC.  The story line is captivating, but it was those early 60’s fashions that really caught my attention.
  • A chance sighting of a book display in a Barnes and Nobel for A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff.  The cover illustration of 1950’s style prom dresses piqued my interest.  I bought the book, loved the story, and it started me thinking about vintage clothing and about many of my clothes from my childhood (which my mother made for me) and from my teens and 20’s (which I made for myself).
  • A random search on Google to find an obscure kitchen item lead me to make my first purchase  on eBay, which meant that I had to set up an eBay account and a PayPal account.  Once those were in place, I thought I’d do a search for Vogue patterns, then vintage Vogue patterns.
  • I started to dig out old Vogue patterns which I had sewn with in the 1970’s and had kept because I loved them so much.  In doing so, I found a beautifully tailored  red linen jacket which I had completed except for buttons and handworked buttonholes. I figured if I could sew like that years ago, I could do it again.
  • I went shopping for an outfit to wear to the Preview Party of The Philadelphia Antiques Show.  I found exactly one dressy jacket that I liked.  It was an Armani (!), it was $1,295, and it would need another $100 in alterations to fit me properly.  It wasn’t even silk!!   That’s when I knew it was time to start sewing again…

You’re invited to follow my adventures in sewing from these mid-century patterns and my observations about what I call the Golden Years of Fashion – the 1950s through the 1970s.


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