Tag Archives: dressmaking

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

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!

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.

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."

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!

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.




Filed under couture construction, Love of sewing, Quotes about sewing, The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized

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…


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

A Dress for the Duchess

Do you ever read a book and feel enchanted by its storyline, or its life lessons, or because it speaks to you on many different levels of meaning?  How often is that book a children’s book?

Since I started writing this blog, I’ve been thinking a lot about the influences that the written word can have on the process of sewing – and vice-versa – and I have found my thoughts  going back time and again to a skinny little paperbound book first published in 1986.  My daughter was five years old at the time, the perfect age to have this small story by William Steig read to her.  Its title is Brave Irene.  If you sew and you haven’t read it, you should; even if you don’t sew, you should read it.

This book is still in print and available on Amazon, of course!  The publisher is Farrar Straus Giroux.

Quite simply, it is the story of Mrs. Bobbin (how perfect is that name?), a dressmaker who has just finished a fancy pink and lacey gown for the Duchess to wear at the evening’s Ball.

Mrs. Bobbin, the dressmaker, puts the final stitches in the ball gown.

However, Mrs. Bobbin is too ill to get the dress to the palace.  Her young daughter, Irene, takes charge – putting her mother to bed with blankets and tea – and then, with the dress carefully boxed and tight in her arms, setting off to deliver the beautiful dress to the Duchess.   Everything that can go wrong, does.  It is snowing mightily, and the wind is so strong that Irene can barely walk with her large precious parcel.  Suddenly the wind grabs the box and whips the dress out of it.  Away it flies.

“How could anything so terribly wrong be allowed to happen?  Tears froze on her lashes.  Her dear mother’s hard work, all those days of measuring, cutting, pinning, stitching … for this?  And the poor duchess!  Irene decided she would have to trudge on with just the box and explain everything in person.”

As if this humiliation were not enough, Irene steps in a hole buried beneath the snow and hurts her ankle.  At this point she just wants to go home, but forward she persists, ignoring her pain and searching for the palace in the swirling snow.  Finally she sees its glittering lights, and as she approaches it, she sees the most wonderful sight: the beautiful gown is spread out on a huge tree trunk, held in place by the hateful wind which had torn it from her.

So – Irene and the dress arrive at the palace with much fanfare.  Needless to say, the ball is a wonderful success with the Duchess in her glorious new gown and Irene, in her simple dress, is just as glorious.

The Duchess in her new gown . . .

. . . and Irene, brave and honorable, enjoying the Ball!

The next morning Irene is accompanied home by two footmen, a doctor for Mrs. Bobbin sent by the Duchess, presents from the Duchess to Mrs. Bobbin, “along with a note saying how much she cherished her gown, and what a brave and loving person Irene was.”

Here are the things I love about this story:

1)   The art of dressmaking is in full display, with pride in accomplishment and recognition of the intricate, time-consuming, and complicated work that goes into the construction of such a gown.

2)   Irene’s love for her mother and understanding of the immediacy of delivering this important dress to the Duchess instill in her a take-charge attitude.  We all know those times in our lives when we must take charge – they choose us, we don’t choose them.

3)   Irene was not going to give up, even when she thought all was lost!   She was determined to do the honorable thing.

4)   Irene attended the Ball (as an unexpected guest of honor) in the only clothes she had with her – her simple dress.  However plain her attire, her attitude made her radiant.

5)   Sometimes a piece of clothing will take on special significance because of the circumstances under which it is worn.  I daresay Mrs. Bobbin’s beautiful creation was thus for the Duchess!

A couple of years after this book was published, I made a “Duchess” dress for my daughter to play in.  Here it is:

A dress for playing out the storyline of  “Brave Irene”.

Here is the back of the dress, with its beautiful bow.

And then a couple of years after that, I needed to make a contribution to a fund-raiser at my son’s school.  So – I put together a “Brave Irene” auction item, which consisted of another “duchess” dress, this one a little fancier, with lace flourishes and silky ribbons.  I lined a sturdy, new cardboard box with shiny white paper, addressed it to the “Duchess c/o the Palace” (with Mrs. Bobbin’s return address, of course!); placed the dress in the box, with a new copy of the book, and a wool scarf for “Irene” to wear on her journey.   In retrospect, I should have included a tomato pincushion, too, and maybe a tape measure ….

Mrs. Bobbin’s dress form (called a “dummy” in the book).

Whenever I read this simple story, I wonder if William Steig might have been inspired by this quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer:  “What a strange power there is in clothing.”   Indeed!


Filed under Dressmaker details, sewing in silk, Uncategorized