Wednesday, April 22, 2020

. . . And a Great War Dinner Dress

So I considered nicknaming this dress the plague dress, partly because I made it using a pattern from 1918, when influenza was killing tens of millions of people across the world, and partly because I started  it just as COVID-19 was breaking out in China and finished it while quarantined at home. And also, this thing PLAGUED me. (See what I did there?)

But then I realized that it might be too soon to flippantly refer to this dress as my "plague dress", even if it's jokingly and affectionately.

Let me tell you, there were points when I did not feel affectionate towards this thing. At all.

Let's start at the end, though, because I want to reassure you all that there's a happy ending (hooray!):

Yes, that is a painting of my cat behind me.

Let's jump back to the beginning. I was researching various patterns for the 1910s and came across this one. It looks cute and pretty and young here in the illustration. I was a little wary because, frankly, the pattern is expensive and this is just an illustration, but I liked that there were various options, for long or short sleeves, for a chemisette with collar, for an over-bodice, and for an over-skirt. I figured that, one way or another, I would get my money's worth out of this. The size was a little big, but I was aware that I would have to alter the pattern anyway, so that didn't deter me.

Once I got the pattern, I immediately went to work on the pattern pieces for the bodice. As you can see above, the bodice consists of two pieces in the front and two in the back that cross over to make a v-neck and are gathered to a waistband. I figured this would be pretty easy--when you gather to a waistband, you can cut your waistband to just the right length and gather your fabric to the waistband accordingly--there's room for error, basically.

From experience, I knew I would have to alter the length of the shoulder seam (that is, the seam from the neck to the tip of the shoulder). On the pattern, it was 5"; I needed it to be 4". I also knew I needed to take some height out of the shoulder seam (shortening the distance from waist to shoulder). So I did those things using some tracing paper and moving around my pieces until I had the measurements I wanted.



WRONG. It was not going to be that easy. Why would it be that easy? I made a mock-up using my altered pattern, and it was very wonky. It pulled and bunched at the crossover point rather than laying nicely over my torso.

I went back to the drawing board, almost literally, and started working with my altered pattern. I added some width to the side seams, then changed the angle of the side seam a bit. I fiddled with this and that and the other thing and even totally redid the pattern for the back and recut it. And that was worse. I went back to what I'd had and kept playing with it, and eventually I got to something that I thought was good.

The next step was the skirt, which was...remarkably painless. I mean, it was too long because I'm 4'11". Before I started, I took 4.5" off the length of the pattern pieces for the skirt. You can see below that I turned the hem up again quite a bit--another 7", in fact (you can see the shadow of the hem in the picture). Yeah. That's right. I took up the hem about a foot. (Who the bloody hell was this dress made for, a giant? Or maybe it was really meant to hit closer to the ankle--but I wanted it to hit just above the ankle, like in the illustration.)

I should also note that the skirt pattern was about 2" too narrow at the waist. Since the skirt is not gathered, the measurement along the top had to match precisely with the waistband (which, in this case, is slightly above the natural waist). So I added a bit to the very top of the front and back panels.

With all that done, I moved on to the fashion fabric, a pretty sky-blue cotton voile. I cut out all my bodice pieces from the blue voile and from white cotton lawn as lining. I flat-lined them and turned over the edges that form the v-neck line. Here, I'm hand-sewing the gathering stitches along the bottom of one of the bodice panels--with Penny the cat helping me.

And here is what I ended up with. It looks pretty good on the hanger, doesn't it? The gathers are pretty even, which is something I have trouble with.

And below we have the bodice with the sleeves. If you look closely, you can see the hook and eye at the center front, where the panels cross, to make it easier to get on and off. You'll also see the tab there on the right side of the photo (actually on the left side when worn). The closure is up the left side of the dress, and I was having some difficulty with it because it was fiddly. The waist is higher than the natural waist, so it's awkward to get in there and close it up. I started off using hooks and eyes, but it was gapping open, so I switched to a snap tape that I had, which worked much better. But I also added this tab to make it close more easily and more neatly.

Great in theory. But it meant patching on a length of waistband, which was awkward. And having the hook-and-eye at the center-front cross-over point was awkward too. And there was still bunching and pulling at the crossing point, which was awkward. Awkward, awkward, awkward.

Oh, I should note that I also had huge problems with these sleeves. To me, they're a very weird shape, with a sort of bell at the wrist and a slit along the back of the sleeve up to the elbow, and I had played with the pattern to take off a few inches in length, but I ended up making them too short. I kept fiddling with the sleeves and got super frustrated with them, but there they were. Again: awkward.

I also had massive issues with the skirt. The mock-up went so well that I thought to myself, Why don't I cut out the blue fashion fabric and stitch it at the side seams, unpick the mock-up skirt from the mock-up bodice, slip the mock-up skirt inside the fashion-fabric skirt, stitch them together at the top and bottom, and have a nicely lined skirt?

Can you guess what happened? Yeah, it didn't work.

One of two things happened: either I wasn't careful when cutting out the muslin mock-up skirt, or the very light blue voile warped as I pinned and cut it. In either case, the two layers did not match. I got so far as adding in a messy, crappy placket for closures before I realized that what I was doing wasn't working. I had to take everything apart, back to the four flat pieces of fabric. I carefully matched the pieces up and realized just how off they were in comparison to one another. And somehow, something was off, and the back panels seemed to be missing the seam allowance. I had to carefully piece in more fabric, which, thankfully, ended up being invisible because the stitching actually sat right at the seam line. It's hard to explain, but anyway, it was a pain.

The pieces of the skirt were uneven at the bottom, too, but I measured it out to make sure it was even all around and then, instead of cutting any of the excess off, I just folded it up into the generously wide hemline. The result was actually really successful.

It looks pretty good here, but the fit was still off, and I didn't like the sleeves. The way I'm standing pretty purposefully obscures the problems. I wasn't satisfied, but I moved on and decided that the overbodice would make things better. (Spoiler alert: it didn't).

This is the fabric I bought for this project. It's a little hard to tell here, but it's a pale yellow crinkle chiffon. It's extremely light and slippery, and warps very, very easily. I could literally make it ripple just by breathing on it. It was kind of a nightmare to work with, but it's actually pretty, so I stitched and stitched because it all had to be hand-sewn, and I had to stitch every damn edge, turn it out (I did two layers), and then topstitch it because there was no other way to keep it it place. It took me about a week to do all that.

And these were the pieces all done:

And this was the result:

Ugh. Yeah. I look uncomfortable because I did not like it. I was disappointed and I was close to just kind of shutting it in a closet and writing it off as a failure. But I really didn't want to do that, and all of a sudden the realization came to me. The sleeves were really awkward; the armscye started too low. That is, the side seam needed to be longer and reach a little higher into my armpit. And maybe if I just added something to that seam, it would fix the issues. So I went to work, creating a crescent to add under the armpit. I stitched it into one side of the bodice, lengthening the side seam. And it was like effing magic. It made everything fit a hundred times better. The bodice lay much more nicely. There was no more pulling at the center front. The sleeves looked better (though I still didn't like them). The gathering looked better. Even on the hanger, it just hung better. Here, I switched to the puff sleeve option because I didn't want to redraft the long sleeve (the puff sleeve could just be gathered to fit the new, smaller armscye; I'd have had to do all kinds of crazy things to the longer sleeve).

I was thrilled. I fixed it! I figured out the issue I'd been having all along. But you could see that fillet of fabric under the armpit. It looked bad, and I didn't like that. I luckily had plenty of the fabric left, so I just started over with the bodice.

This is what my remade pattern pieces looked like after all my alterations. Look at all those taped-on pieces!

It actually didn't take too long to remake the bodice. I was also able to make a neater waistband and match up the bodice side closure more neatly with the skirt closure.

I was SO happy with the result. It looked really sweet and tidy. There was still some pulling at the cross-over point, as you can see here:

But by pinching more of the fabric at the center front down into the waistband, it reduced the pulling, as you can see here:

I was finally happy with my dress. Now it just needed some embellishment. I ignored the over-bodice I'd spent so much time making. Instead, I went back to one of my original ideas: a waistband of a brocaded silk ribbon (that I got for like $5 on a Facebook group!). The yellow contrasts nicely with the blue, and I love the colorful little flowers. As I was trying it on with the ribbon waistband, I got a flash of inspiration and really roughly pinned the rest of the ribbon around the bottom of the skirt, and it looked GREAT. So I went ahead and stitched that on--I used every last bit of that three yards or so of ribbon.

The last step was the chemisette and collar. I had some black lace fabric that I decided to use for this. I think the dress looks lovely without it, but it has a more historical vibe with the chemisette and collar. It was a pretty quick project, though the lace was difficult to stitch (all those damn holes).

And at last, we had a completed dress. To show it off, I put on my American Duchess period-correct shoes and put on a wig.

Oh look, it's me holding my cat in front of the picture I painted of my cat, while wearing a historical costume. Height of cool.

So, ultimately, I ended up being very pleased with how this dress turned out. It was touch-and-go there for a while, but I persisted. I learned a lot of things here. I learned not to overlook issues at the mock-up stage and not to just shrug and declare it good enough. I also learned that I need to pay attention to that under-arm seam, something I hadn't been thinking about previously, and which might be part of the fitting issues I've had in the past.

But mostly, this was a reminder to persist.