One of the most intriguing aspects of couture dressmaking is that the techniques and the sewing procedures have really not changed much in over 60 years, perhaps even longer. There seem to be very few short cuts when it comes to MAKING a quality garment. (And, although sergers are handy and have their place, they are unnecessary – nay, unwelcome, even! – in the world of couture dressmaking.) Thus we come to our second half of The ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G…
M, of course, is for MUSLIN. Although many of my fellow dressmakers around the world refer to this as a toile, in the States we call our test garment a muslin, after the basic cotton fabric, purchased cheaply, which is used for its construction. Once I started taking classes with Susan Khalje, I learned the true value and versatility of this basic part of dressmaking. Subsequently, my muslins are written upon with abandon, torn apart, discarded when too many fitting issues are revealed, and regarded with a certain restraint, for what they can and cannot do. They CAN help you fit your pattern to your particular shape and needs. They CAN be a test run for the construction of your garment. They CAN suggest to you if the design you have chosen is right for you (although not always). They CAN’T mimic the flow and drape and weight of your fabric. So – as always – one needs to use her sewing brain to compensate for the lack of this important detail – and make a best guess as to how the finished garment will actually fit and look.
How many muslins does one dress need? Sometimes, several!
A is for ACCURACY. Accuracy in marking straight-of-grain, seams, notches, darts, buttonholes, buttons, center front and center back, fold lines, pleats, tucks, pockets, etc. etc., is absolutely paramount for a successful garment. This is often time-consuming and tedious work, isn’t it? But have you ever had to go back to your tissue pattern to see exactly where a notch or seam junction are? That’s also time-consuming. I try to do it right the first time, but sometimes I miss. So – I am always striving to increase my accuracy when it comes to marking my fashion fabric.
Just for example, the most important ingredient in making successful bound buttonholes is precise marking.
K is for KEEP. When you have a workable muslin pattern which has been successfully made into a finished garment, and you have notes and diagrams, and suggestions written on it, KEEP it. You never know when you might want to use it again. I think I have kept all my muslins – in large plastic zip-lock bags for the most part – except for one. I could not wait to get the muslin for what I call my Ghost Dress out of my house! I will never make this pattern again! The moral of the story is, Keep the good, discard the bad…
I also like to keep extra buttons, and at least a little bit of extra fabric and trim (if appropriate) for each of the pieces I complete. One of these days, I’m going to put together a notebook of fabric swatches, so that I can keep a record of all these yard goods which have stolen my heart.
I is for INNER WORKINGS. The inside story of any couture dressmaking is a story of attention to details. Interfacings, inter-or-under-linings, linings, seam finishes, bar tacks, waist stays, boning, pad-stitching, even labels (and the list goes on and on) – give your garment a professional look. Skimp on this part of dressmaking and results will be compromised.
Here is just one page from the 1957 Vogue Dressmaking Book which shows some “inner workings.”
N is for NEEDLES. Using the correct needles will go a long way in making your sewing experience a pleasant one. I have only recently started using real basting needles for attaching silk organza underlining to the fashion fabric – and what a difference it makes.
These are excellent basting needles!
Of course, everyone knows the importance of changing your machine needles frequently. I even find that my hand sewing needles sometimes need to be “retired” if they start to show signs of losing their sharpness – or get a bend in their spines.
All in all, sewing needles are amazing things! The magic within them has been recognized by artists, poets, and, of course, by dressmakers, for centuries. Samuel Woodworth summed up their charms and inextricable human connection in this charming quote:
“The bright little needle – the swift-flying needle, the needle directed by beauty and art.”
G is for GET ON WITH IT. Sometimes the most difficult part of dressmaking is getting started. Starting a new project – especially a complicated one, can be daunting, but the only way to get started is to . . . get on with it.
So, there we have it – the ABCs of D-R-E-S-S-M-A-K-I-N-G, a simplified synopsis of a very complicated and diverse undertaking. Dressmaking has it all for those of us who love to sew fine fashions – and find joy in the process.