Saturday, August 27, 2011

Make Yourself a Dress, Part 1

It's been a few years since I've really sewn, aside from the odd hem. But back in college I probably made a half dozen skirts, a few tote bags, several blankets, two amateur but respectable quilts, and a zillion random little gifty things. But never before have I sewn from a pattern. The urge came because I have (or rather my trampy conjoined erotica-writing twin, Cara, has) a conference coming up in a few weeks, and we're in the market for a new dress.

Front of my 1951 vintage Simplicity dress 
pattern. I'll be making the style on the left.
As a soft-around-the-edges Irish-style lass, I look best in structured, non-clingy silhouettes. Jersey is not my friend, and neither is anything that won't hide bra straps. For my first Harlequin party last summer I stumbled across The Perfect Dress for myself at Macy's, a total retro fifties housewife number, with cap sleeves, a fitted waist, modest neckline, and a knee-length party-type skirt. Sadly, and despite the whole Mad Men craze, I haven't had especially good luck finding many more such dresses, off the rack. But as I was scouring Etsy, ogling vintage remakes but lamenting their prices (which are fair for handmade clothes but still way out of my budget) I thought, "Hey, make your own dress, stupid!" So I added the word "pattern" to my search for "1950s party dress", and so the project began.

Over the next few days, you're welcome to watch my progress. I could easily fail, since as I said, I've never worked from a pattern before. My sewing machine is basic but reliable, and despite living with a fashion major whilst in art college, my limited command of sewing vocabulary requires frequent consultations of the internet for definitions, diagrams, and how-to videos. But I have faith! So, let's get started.

Make Yourself a Dress, Part 1: Get Your Shit Together

This is the crucial, duh step my younger, more now-now-now! self would have fudged, but thankfully I've matured enough (and have been taught about the virtues of patience in abundance by the publishing industry) to realize that before you begin every project, you need to gather your materials.

1. The pattern. Most important by far (well, that and a sewing machine). As I said, I ordered my pattern from Etsy, from a site with quite a selection of vintage patterns. I actually bought two party dress patterns: a 1956 Butterick, and 1951 Simplicity. The one I'll be making this weekend (barring a hurricane-related power failure) is the Simplicity. (If you order vintage or pre-owned, make sure the seller specifies that the pattern is still "uncut".) While browsing, I had the additional step of figuring out what size I would have been, sixty years ago. The Gap thinks I'm a 6 and H&M thinks I'm an 8, but Simplicity says I land right between a 16 and an 18 in early 1950s sizing, going by my bust-, waist-, and hip-measurements. I went with the pattern for the 18, since it's far easier to take a dress in than to add to one.

The back of my Simplicity pattern's packaging, with helpful sizing and materials info.

My dorky owl fabric, ordered from the highly
searchable and addictive
2. Materials. The sizing information is displayed on the back of the pattern's packaging, along with tons of other valuable stuff, such as how much fabric to buy (depending on the size) and of what material, and all the notions you'll need (closures, trim, thread, etc.) I knew I wanted a kitschy pattern, but since I'm an amateur, I took the advice of the masses and chose a non-directional one, meaning unlike stripes or plaid, it won't matter if the pattern doesn't match up perfectly at the seams. Here's my shopping list (specific to my pattern and size, but it'll give you a sense of the checklist):
  • 5 yards cotton, linen, rayon, or other non-stretch fabric (I ordered 5½, to be safe)
  • 2½ yards chiffon, satin, or tulle (amount suggested by the helpful lady at Joann) to fill out the skirt; not included in the pattern, but I wanted this lining for both volume and aesthetic
  • 12-inch invisible zipper, color to match the dress
  • 2 yards wide satin ribbon, for belt / bow at waist, in contrast color to main dress
  • 3 spools thread, color to match the dress
  • seam binding (I actually skipped this, on the advice of the sharp little old lady stationed in Joann's pattern department, who said it's more trouble than it's worth)

3a. Tools. Most of these I already owned, but here's a basic list, all available at a fabric store like Joann:
  • Sewing machine, with various basic accessories
  • Hand-sewing needles
  • Many, many straight pins and a handy cushion in which to stick them
  • Tape measure (best to have this before you settle on a size)
  • Fabric scissors (or just sharp, clean everyday scissors)
  • Water-washable white pencil (for marking dark fabrics)
  • Seam ripper (dear God, do not forget this one)
  • Ironing board and iron

3b. Pattern tracing tools. For tracing your pattern onto your fabric, for accuracy. I'm actually doing this step the old fashioned way, cutting slits in the pattern for marking the fabric (I'm using a dark, chocolate brown fabric, so tracing carbon wouldn't help me much, hence the white pencil). But here's the shopping list, just to be helpful:
  • Pattern tracing paper (this is for if you want to make a copy of pattern, to preserve the original)
  • Tracing carbon (sometimes included with the pattern, also easy to find at Staples)
  • Plastic, non-serrated tracing wheel

4. Other essentials. Some equally important steps and materials:
  • Coffee or similar stimulant
  • A well-lit room with plenty of space to spread things out on the table or the [recently swept] floor
  • Comfy clothes, as you'll likely be kneeling and bending and leaning over a lot
  • A good mood; don't attempt this when feeling impatient or irritable
  • Hours of calming-but-upbeat tunes (I used to sew and knit exclusively to Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails, but luckily I've since graduated to Martin Sexton, Neko Case, Joni Mitchell, and the Mystery Jets)

All my materials, ready to go!

So that's Part 1. In the next step, I'll tell you how to prepare the pattern and the fabric, before we actually begin the hardcore sewing of the damn dress.


  1. I still associate Pink Floyd's album Animals with quilting. When I made a patchwork quilt back in high school/college, that's what was in the CD player.

    Good luck with the dress. I've made a few things from patterns in the past and am just not smart enough for them. Zippers get me, every time.

    The owl pattern is fabulous.

  2. You might try Shabby Apple for retro style dresses. I just recently came across them and like the look, though I haven't ordered from them yet.

  3. Ridley—don't mention the Z word to me. Sends shivers down my back…and not the sexy kind romance heroines enjoy. Tricky motherlovers, those zippers.

    Nicole—thanks for the tip! If this dress does me in, I'll be sure to check it out.