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?
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 When it comes to Design, choose one that is “smart for [many] seasons” rather than “one that’s soon outdated.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
My Sewing Fairy Godmother
Time away from home – as in a vacation and/or a trip with a specific purpose – can hold many possibilities and promises, including treasured time with family and friends, new adventures, a change in routine, and, of course, exposure to new and different places, people, and history. For me, and for many of you, it also means a forced hiatus from sewing, which is a change in routine that is not always welcome.
Thus, after returning earlier this week from 30 days away, I felt a great sense of calm and happiness when I went into my sewing room after such a long absence. It took a few days to start a new project, but now I am cranking away at Fall fashion sewing, littering the floor with scraps and threads and pins. My room, which I had left neat and tidy and clean is now scattered with patterns and muslin and fabrics – in other words, it is back to normal.
I have come to know, however, that references to, and examples of, sewing and fashion seem to show up in the most unusual places – even on vacation (or “work” trips) when you least expect it. It is like my “Sewing Fairy Godmother” is looking after me with these charming and fascinating bits of whimsy to keep my focus sharp and my sewing homesickness at bay.
Consider that these two charming dress forms, both size 4, adorned one of the rooms in the spacious and lovely house located high (very high) in the massive and stunning peaks of Colorado (USA) where we just spent the past month.
One form was set in each corner of the room.
To make this even more meaningful for me, the forms were the perfect size for our 4-year-old granddaughter who was with us for part of our stay. Wouldn’t one of these be a nice addition to my sewing room!
Other fashion vignettes were found throughout the house, such as these glove forms tucked into a corner cupboard.
Do you see the needle and thread hanging on the hand at the right?
And among the art books on display was this volume which I read cover-to-cover, only wishing there had been more photos of my favorite best-dressed women throughout the ages (such as Babe Paley, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Coco Chanel, Mona von Bismarck) – and where was Bunny Mellon? Despite its shortcomings, I found it a fascinating synopsis of fashion and its leading ladies from 1940- 2002.
“The Best of the Best Dressed List” is the focus of this book, with a foreword by Eleanor Lambert who started the International Best Dressed List in 1940.
So when else has my Sewing Fairy Godmother been looking out for me? She must be tenacious, as it took almost two years for her to prove her existence to me. It all started over two years ago, when in a weak moment I agreed, after much consideration, to be President of my Garden Club from June of 2015 – June of 2017. My biggest concern was that my duties in this role would greatly impact, negatively, the hours I could devote to my sewing. And, this turned out to be correct. I had many frustrating hours when I was in meetings, planning for meetings, hosting meetings, running meetings, doing all sorts of unimaginable things for the Club, all of which meant I was not sewing for big chunks of time. However, I persevered, tried to keep a positive attitude about it all, and do a good job.
Then – I had a Eureka moment when I was on a “business” trip for the club early this past May, attending the Annual Meeting of the Garden Club of America. Among the perks of this Annual Meeting is a wonderful multi-vendor boutique, which is set up in the host hotel. One of the vendors specialized in French fashion jewelry. Although her jewelry was lovely, it was one of her props that caught my eye – a wooden sign, with the phrase “COUTURE MODE” spelled out in stylized block letters.
When I approached her about it, she told me she had purchased it in Paris several years ago and it was “not really for sale” – but she would think about it. She gave me her card and told me to stay in touch. Well, did I ever! By the beginning of June, she had agreed to sell me the sign. It now hangs in my sewing room, where I enjoy it daily.
A focal point of my sewing room – I love this sign!
If not for being Garden Club President, I never would have been at that meeting, and I never would have found this sign. So, thank you Sewing Fairy Godmother, for knowing better than I, that opportunities and inspiration are sometimes long in the making or found in unexpected places.
Filed under Dressmaker forms, Fashion commentary, Love of sewing, Uncategorized
Tagged as fashion sewing, love of sewing