The ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G, Part I

Those of us who do fashion sewing sometimes have difficulty identifying what we do in a single descriptive word. A “sewer” (not those stinky things that go underground that happen to be spelled the same way) can be one who sews many different things, right? The term “sewist” is a somewhat new word, made up of sew + artist, which really doesn’t describe anything specific to my way of thinking. Most of us are not “designers” (and not all designers can sew), although most of us use some design techniques in our fashion sewing.   Some of us may be “sewing professionals,” a term which covers a broad range of endeavors, such as being a custom clothier, a sewing teacher, a writer about sewing, or even a retailer involved in the sewing industry. The term “seamstress” implies one who sews on a machine, as in a factory; although this person may be very talented in certain techniques, her job does not leave room for innovation or creativity. And that is why I like the term “dressmaker” so much. In one word it expresses many things explicit and implied. And although it is a term much used until the 1960s and not much since then, I consider myself a Dressmaker; maybe you do, too?

This wonderful Vogue book, copyright 1957, still used the term "Dressmaking" in its title.

This wonderful Vogue book, copyright 1957, still used the term “Dressmaking” in its title.

A dressmaker is one who makes custom clothing for women (oneself included.) She usually works from a commercial pattern, and then uses all her creative, design, and technical skills to create a one-of-a-kind dress, blouse, skirt, coat, etc. I have devised this ABCs of DRESSMAKING to define some of the important aspects and practices of dressmaking, especially in the couture sense.

D is for Design. This seems like it should be common sense, but it cannot be said too often that you should choose a design that is going to work for you. Unlike ready-to-wear that we get to try on, when we sew, we are working from patterns that we think will be flattering, but we really will not know until it is finished (a muslin takes some of the guesswork out of this, but not entirely.) Most of us have our own personal style that we know is flattering to us. Even if you want to diverge a bit from it (which is fine), it’s probably best not to go too far afield. Also, beware of trends that may not be flattering. (An example of this from a couple of years back is the revival of the peplum, a look that not too many of us can wear very successfully.)  When it comes to Design, choose one that is “smart for [many] seasons” rather than “one that’s soon outdated.”

The first page of the book pictured above tells the reader why she should be using Vogue patterns, but it also suggests some of what it means to be a "Dressmaker."

The first page of the book pictured above tells the reader why she should be using Vogue patterns, but it also suggests some of what it means to be a “Dressmaker.”

R is for Risk. Let’s face it, fashion sewing can be risky. We can be sewing with really expensive or “difficult” fabric or vintage fabric, which is now no longer available – or sewing with a complicated design/pattern – or making something for a very special occasion – and the outcome is entirely in our hands! It takes bravery, confidence in one’s skills, patience, and a willingness to take a risk to grow in our dressmaking, but the rewards are manifold.

One of the Dressmaking signs I have hanging in my sewing room.

One of the Dressmaking signs I have hanging in my sewing room.

E is for two things: Engineering and Embellishment. I have said this before, but it bears repeating – sewing is engineering. I love to read pattern instruction sheets, especially for something that is complicated, and I bet many of you do, as well. It’s fascinating to see how patterns go together, how different fabrics demand specific approaches to that process, how the pattern pieces need to be manipulated to fit one’s particular form. A well-engineered pattern is a beautiful thing, and it takes a sewing-engineer’s mind to know how to best bring that pattern to life in a stylish and successful fashion. It takes a dressmaker.

Another one of my signs, the first one I purchased and still my favorite!

Another one of my signs, the first one I purchased and still my favorite!

Embellishment is almost synonymous with the term dressmaker. “Dressmaker Details” include such things as ruffles and frills, ribbon, or braid, but also those little touches that add so much to a successful garment, such as well-chosen buttons, interior trims, non-boring linings, covered snaps, bound buttonholes (when appropriate), and the creative manipulation of, or addition to, a pattern to get the effect you want. A creative dressmaker can start with something basic and make it unique – and couture – by adding just the right embellishments or details.

S is for Seams. This is about as basic as it gets, but those seams must be sewn well and finished well for a successful finished garment. One of the techniques I learned in the couture sewing classes I have taken with Susan Khalje is, for me, the method to achieve successful seams. That is – thread basting along seam lines to use as your sewing guide, rather than relying on the seam allowance markings on one’s sewing machine.   This is the building block for successful dressmaking.  And then, finish those seams on the inside to control bulk and add to the wearability and durability of your garment.

S is also for Steam. As in ironing. A good steam iron is worth its weight in gold! Steam is useful in so many ways – here are just a few:   1) When sewing with wool or most dry-cleanable fabrics, a good place to start is steaming your fabric before you begin to lay out your pattern pieces. Even if you have pre-washed cotton or linen fabrics, a good initial steaming of your yardgoods will insure a better outcome. 2) Steam newly sewn seams flat to set your stitches before spreading the seam open for its second pressing. 3) Contours can be set beautifully with steam, especially when using a pressing ham and/or a seam roll, or draping your work-in-progress on a dress form.

Te Vogue Dressmaking Book has an entire section on pressing, with guidelines still appropriate almost 60 years later. Click on the image to read the page.

The Vogue Dressmaking Book has an entire section on pressing, with guidelines still appropriate almost 60 years later. Click on the image to read the page.

And then, S + S  is for Sewing Sense, which is what every successful Dressmaker must develop. This subject is so vast it warrants its own blog post sometime in the future!

So now I am halfway through the ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G. Part II is yet to come…

17 Comments

Filed under couture construction, Dressmaker forms, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, Vogue patterns

17 responses to “The ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G, Part I

  1. I consider myself a “stitcher” and a “costume technician” but I think I’ve been called all of the terms you mentioned plus a few others.

    Currently, I’m working on my third mockup for a cocktail dress I plan to wear to my cousin’s wedding in September. It’s going to be made from matte gold sequins, so the pattern has to be perfect before I cut the real thing!

    • Matte gold sequins! Wow – hope you won’t upstage the bride! (Aren’t you glad you’re not making the wedding dress?)
      It’s interesting – the “Stitchers” I know are all needlepointers, or cross-stitchers, or embroiderers. I wonder if different terms are used in different areas of the country?

      • I think if I used regular sparkly sequins for my dress it might be more “upstagy” and disco-ball looking, but the matte gold just has a nice overall shine to it. And yes, I’m very glad I’m not making any of the wedding party’s attire!

        The term “stitcher” is definitely an industry term in my case – it’s all over job listings and resumes in film and theatre. I’ve only heard the blanket term “needle work” applied to the hand-sewing crafts you mentioned, but I also don’t really have any connections in those social circles so I’ve never heard the term “stitcher” applied to them.

  2. Very clever post. Dressmaker is probably the best description for those of us who create custom garments.

  3. hmm.. love the post.. you have me thinking where do I fall in..lol ..which category.. which title..lol

  4. Oh, I was sorry to have this post come to an end! So informative and entertaining. I’ve been using the term “sewist” instead of “sewer” because of 24 years working for water/wastewater engineers (you can just imagine). But now I am determined to earn the name of “dressmaker”! Better get started on a dress…..or at least finish that top I’ve started.

  5. Mery

    You keep me inspired. The Vogue quotation reminds me that it really pays not to compromise. I notice you didn’t mention the hidden “L.” It’s in the frame and some of the other letters. We know it’s there. It must be. Without love there would be no flair, and certainly Aida’s dress wouldn’t be nearly as appealing if it had only technical precision.

    • Yes, Mery, love (of sewing and in general) is a huge component of successful sewing, I think. Of course the other L word is lunacy – and we might be a little guilty of that, too, with all our fabrics and patterns and plans!

  6. Sew Joanie

    I agree. Sewist is one dimensional. Dressmaking fits what I aspire to accomplish. Thanks for giving me something to think upon and enjoy.

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