Tag Archives: side-placed zippers

A Newly Defined ‘50s’ Frock

I have finished making a new dress from an old pattern, which isn’t anything too unusual for me.  What is unusual is the spell which this pattern cast over me from the time I first saw it last January, and then purchased it from an Etsy shop.

The length of this dress as shown on the envelope is very 1950's.  I'll be making it in knee-length.

The back of the envelope, showing the back yoke detail.  Don't you love the handbags that the artist included?

The back of the envelope, showing the back yoke detail. Don’t you love the handbags that the artist included?

Copyright 1957, this pattern has intrigued me for both how modern it looks, and how quintessentially “1950s” its various details are – such as:

1) Kimono sleeves in three-quarter length.  Cut in one with the bodice, kimono sleeves were common in the ‘50s, and now seem to be making a comeback.  Three quarter length is extremely flattering for most women, and was popular then and now.

2) Side zipper.  This dress goes over the head and needs that side zipper to accommodate the wiggle room needed to accomplish this method of dressing.  A back zipper would completely ruin the effect of the four-buttoned back yoke.

3) No pockets.  While pockets are lovely inventions, this dress would lose some of its slim and flattering line should pockets bulge out from the side seams.

4) Mid-calf length.  This length looks great in the pattern illustration, but not so much on me.  One of the beauties of these vintage patterns is adapting them for current wear – so I opted for knee-length instead.

5) Bound buttonholes.  Although this pattern is called “easy to make” on the back of the envelope, it still calls for bound buttonholes.  And, oh, they add such a nice detail.

Now to the specifics.  I found this black and white herringbone alpaca wool (made in the USA) on Britex Fabrics’ website, and purchased it on sale a few months ago, specifically for use with this pattern.

This is the swatch I ordered from Britex sometime over the Summer.

This is the swatch I ordered from Britex sometime over the Summer.

I wanted to make the dress using couture techniques (learned in the online Craftsy course The Couture Dress taught by Susan Khalje.)  This meant that I would 1) make a muslin for fitting and pattern tracing; 2) underline the entire dress with silk organza; 3) eliminate the separate neck facing; 4) finish all the interior seams by catch-stitching them to the underlining; and 5) line the entire dress, which I did using Bemberg instead of china silk (more on that in a bit).

There were a number of decisions/problems/successes involved in making this dress. First, the nature of the fabric is that there are slight imperfections in the weave, and it is quite loosely woven, making it quite susceptible to raveling.  When I laid it out to cut it, I wanted to avoid any obvious imperfections front and center.  Patterns with kimono sleeves demand large expanses of fabric and thus do not allow a lot of jiggling of their placement.  I can honestly say that I had JUST enough fabric and not an inch more than I needed!

One of the first problems I realized I was going to have concerned the buttonholes.  I quickly discovered that the loose weave of the fabric meant that I was not going to be able to make bound buttonholes using self-fabric for the “strips”.  I considered using a plain black wool for these strips, but I thought that would be too much of a contrast.  Well, now I know why I save all kinds of scraps from previous projects – you never know when one of those random pieces of fabric will come in handy.  I spied a scrap in my fabric closet and quickly decided that one part of the weave would be perfect to delineate those buttonholes:

I used the "gray"portion of this windowpane check for the buttonhole "strips".

I used the “gray” portion of this windowpane check for the buttonhole “strips”. Click on the photo to see this up close.

An inside look at the buttonholes in progress

An inside look at the buttonholes in progress

And an outside look...

And an outside look…

When it came to deciding on buttons, I could not find any I liked.  But I remembered some buttons I had sewn onto a RTW jacket several years ago (to replace the ones that came on it.)  They have a “herringbone” look to them – it’s very subtle, but effective.  The jacket is one I haven’t worn in a couple of years, so I just robbed the cuffs of their buttons and used them on my dress.  (Now I guess I know for sure I won’t be wearing that jacket again!)  But – the buttons are perfect for this dress.

My buttons of choice!

My buttons of choice!

Choosing to use couture techniques was a “dress-saver”.  The larger seam allowances took away the panic I might have felt, once I realized the fabric frayed so easily.  And finishing off each interior seam with catch-stitching controlled the fraying and helped the seams to lay perfectly flat.

Eliminating the separate neck facing was also a bonus to ease construction.  First of all, I wanted to widen the neckline, which I worked out in my muslin.  Using the seam allowance and hand-applied, under-stitched lining for the neck facing made it lay flat, and of course, it’s not itchy either!

The "couture-constructed" neckline, before the lining is attached.

The “couture-constructed” neckline, before the lining is attached.

Even though I did not have “plaids” to match, I needed to pay close attention to the rows in the herringbone weave, so that none of them were crooked.  This is where Clover two-pronged pins (recommended by Susan Khalje in The Couture Dress class) came in handy and helped me keep those rows lined up evenly.

Clover "fork" pins

Clover “fork” pins

Finally, I decided to use Bemberg lining fabric instead of China silk because I thought it might be a bit more substantial for this somewhat heavy weight wool.  When I was deciding what color to make the lining, I considered ivory, black, and even a bright color, such as red.  But I settled on deep gray, and it seems just right.

In fact, everything about this dress seems just right.  It is delightfully rewarding when a pattern does not disappoint – and when it turns out to be a complete winner, well, that is reason to make it again (which I will)!

I can wear this dress as a sheath, unbelted, but I love it with this Coach black belt.

I can wear this dress as a sheath, unbelted, but I love it with this Coach black belt.

The back view

With a touch of emerald green for the holiday season

With a touch of emerald green for the holiday season.

With green gloves for a '50s' look!

With green gloves for a ’50s’ look!

And another back view.

And another back view. Alpaca is a very warm wool – so this dress is very cozy.

For now, however, my sewing room is “gift-wrap central”.  The colorful ribbons, paper and tags are cheerful tokens of a season of blessings and family and home.  To all of you celebrating the season, may it be a time of great peace and love for you and yours. And, as I  take a couple of weeks “off”, I send a heartfelt Merry Christmas from me to you…


Filed under bound buttonholes, Buttons - choosing the right ones, couture construction, kimono sleeves, side-placed zippers, Uncategorized, underlinings, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, woolens

Give me Liberty . . .

. . .  and I’ll make a dress!  Of course, I’m referring to Liberty cottons, one of the great fabrics of the world.  There is, as most of you already know, more to Liberty than just cottons – they make silks, too, and one look at their website will introduce you to the full range of Liberty products, appeal, and mystique.  It is so exciting to me to realize that this company, which was founded in 1875, is still producing some of the finest quality fabrics in the world. Their most famous fabric is that cotton, more properly referred to as Tana Lawn.  Here I quote from The Liberty Book of Home Sewing (about which I’ll tell you more shortly):

Tana Lawn   Synonymous with Liberty, this 100% cotton fabric has a very fine thread count and soft, silky feel.  New print designs are created each season, heritage classics are continuously reworked, and there is also an array of coordinating plain colors.”

It just so happens that I lucked into two pieces of Tana Lawn, originally purchased by a relative in the ‘60s, and tucked away, unused, into a bureau drawer.  When the contents of that drawer were being emptied about a decade later, I was the happy recipient.  At that point in time, Tana Lawn was only 35” wide, so in order to make a dress or blouse, it was necessary to have a good bit of yardage at one’s disposal, to compensate for the narrow width.  Of course, the piece I liked the best had the least yardage:

I find the colors and design of this cotton so appealing.

It sat in my fabric drawer for about another 12 or 15 years, until I finally made it into a dress for my daughter when she was about 8 years old.

The only reason I saved this dress is because of its vintage Liberty fabric.

The second piece had a bit more yardage to it, but it, too, sat in my fabric closet, until last Summer, when I finally decided I would make myself a dress.

This is the same fabric design in different colors.

I knew it would have to be sleeveless, and I envisioned a simple belted bodice with some fullness in the skirt.  The only pattern I could find which came close was this Butterick one:

I chose this pattern primarily for the bodice in View A (the blue one).

Then I began making alterations to it:  a few soft pleats for the skirt instead of all that fullness; I wanted to add pockets in the side seams; to add pockets, I had to move the zipper from the side to the back, which also made it easier for me to fit the pattern pieces onto the narrow fabric. Finally, I wanted it lined, which I did with a very lightweight white cotton lawn.  Here’s how it turned out:

I did not have enough fabric left to make a self belt, so I have worn it with one I already have, until I can find one I like better!

I really like the back of this dress.

Here is a close-up of the back neckline.

Well, it seems I am always rediscovering pieces of fabric in my extensive collection, and although I have known this fabric was there, it always seems like a new discovery when something so pretty surfaces again.  I purchased this piece of Tana Lawn in Bermuda (probably at Trimingham’s, now unfortunately out of business) sometime in the 1980s.

I still love this fabric over twenty-five years after purchasing it!

I could never decide on a pattern to use for it – those ’80 styles were just too awful.  So this fabric is another one of those “Thank goodness I never made this!”  Although it is also just 35” wide, I have a plentiful 4½ yards so I should be able to pair it with a vintage pattern from the ‘50s or ‘60s – I’m still looking and deciding…  Ideas, anyone?  (Interestingly, Liberty apparently changed their production in the early 1990s, and now their Tana Lawn is 44” wide.)

Now, about that afore-mentioned book:  last Summer I was browsing books on sewing and fashion on Amazon, and The Liberty Book of Home Sewing popped up for pre-order.  Being a complete push-over for any books which showcase beautiful fabrics, I signed up for it and it arrived in October.  Of the 25 projects featured, my favorites are the vintage ‘50s look apron on the cover and the peacock pincushion.

This is the cover of the hardback book, showing the frilly '50s' style apron.

And here is the whimsical peacock pincushion project.

What I really like about this book, however, are the full-page representations of Liberty cottons; the Glossary of Fabrics, which includes a little history about each featured design; and the Foreword, which includes a history of the production of Tana Lawn.

Here is one page of the Glossary of Fabrics.

Finally – one last thing:  when I purchased my Liberty fabric in Bermuda, this label came with it:

This tag is small, but packs a powerful message! I'll definitely be sewing it into whatever dress I eventually make.

What is it about a label that can give a fabric or pattern purchase – and ultimately the finished garment – its own persona?  How can something so small add so much validation and completeness to the dressmaker’s labor of love?


Filed under 1980's dress patterns, Liberty cotton, side-placed zippers, Uncategorized

Can you zip me up, please?

This is a completely unscientific observation, but it seems to me that the zipper has made a fairly substantial migration over the years – from the side of the dress – to the back of the dress.  If that sounds confusing, let me explain a bit more, by showing you some of my dress patterns which date from the 1950s.  All of these dresses feature a side zipper, placed a few inches under the left arm and extending a few inches below the waist (or, in other words, these zippers open within a garment seam.).

I love the clean lines of this dress from 1957, with the "yoke" effect which extends into the kimono sleeves. The back of the envelope shows more detail.

You can see from this back view that, although the top back yoke buttons, a side zipper is still necessary to get the dress on!

The front on this dress only opens to the waist, so a side zipper enables one to step into it. This pattern is dated 1957.

The back detail on this evening gown from 1958 would have been interrupted by a center back zipper, but a side zipper preserves the designer's intent.

I love this dress design from 1957, which simply would not work using a center back zipper.

Patterns from the last half of the 1960s start to feature more and more zippers which are placed in the center back of the dress, and by the 1970s, it seems, almost all zippers were center back ones.

This design from the early '60s would work with either a side or center back zipper, but the pattern calls for a center back one, thus showing the start of the transition.

The dress on this pattern is actually my next project! It is a design by Jacques Heim from the 1970s. I'll be inserting a 22" neckline zipper in the back of this dress.

A casual look at vintage clothes from this time period also seems to support this observation (with the occasional exception to the rule, of course.  I actually saw a side-zippered dress at J.Crew one day this week, but it’s not the same, really, as the dress is sleeveless and the zipper parts at the top, under the arm.)

To try to understand some of the dynamics of this zipper conundrum, I went to my 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School book (by Alfredo Cabrera with Matthew Frederick) to see if I could find any entry on zippers.  Here is what I found on page 64:

“Center back zippers are like fine crystal:  best reserved for special occasions.  When a student designs an interesting garment and is asked how the wearer gets into it, the common answer is, ‘center back zipper.’  This solution is favored by inexperienced designers because it doesn’t require an invasive change to a garment.  But a back closure is rarely a satisfactory solution; it’s a fussy, frustrating concern when one has only fifteen minutes to dress for work.

“Back closures are a remnant from an era when women wore corsets and hoopskirts and had maids to truss them up in back.  Today they are more appropriate in association with major events.  On her wedding day or Oscar night, after a woman has spent a lot of time and money on her hair and makeup, she is more likely to want to step into her dress than pull it over her head.  A center back zipper implies a fitting sense of occasion.” [my emphasis]

Side-placed zippers are different from center-back zippers both in name and detail:  side zippers are called “dress” zippers and have bottom and top “stops”, while zippers for the center back (or skirts, pants, shorts) are called “neckline” or “skirt” zippers and, of course, open at the top with a stop just at the bottom.  (Skirt and neck zippers can easily be made into dress zippers by putting a few tacking stitches to anchor the two sides together right above the pull.)  Back in their hay-day, dress zippers were available in lengths from 10” to 14”. Skirt and neckline zippers are still available in lengths ranging from 6” to 24”, but they are now called “all-purpose” zippers.

So why, since the ‘70s, have most side dress zippers been replaced by neckline zippers placed center back?  I guess there are several potential answers to that question, including:

1) a lot of us would rather step into our dresses than pull them over our heads even if we are not dressing for a special occasion.

2) laziness or ignorance  (both kind of strong words, for which I apologize to anyone offended!) or practicality on the part of designers.

3) it’s just become the accepted way of closing a dress.

4) the invisible zipper made application of the zipper easier and the finished look more streamlined.

5) Huh? What’s a side zipper?

I’m sure there are lots of other explanations but my favorite one is a bit more romantic…   James H. Boren put it succinctly thus:  “A dress that zips up the back will bring a husband and wife together.”   I’d say that is a “fitting sense of occasion”!


Filed under kimono sleeves, side-placed zippers, Uncategorized, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1950s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1960s, vintage Vogue patterns from the 1970s, Vogue patterns