On dressmaking...

At some point last year I got bitten by the dressmaking bug. I think it started when my sister asked if I would make her a dress for Christmas (I'll show you that one in my next post). Because she wanted it lined and with a zip down the back, it led to me spending hours and hours thinking about dress construction and the neatest way and the best order in which to do things (yes, I'd know these things if I'd ever followed a dress pattern, but I'm happier if I work it out myself...otherwise I fear that I'll get stuck halfway through, not understand the next critical instruction in the pattern, and end up with bits of unstitched dress sitting hopelessly on my work-in-progress pile for the next decade). These thoughts were what got me through countless hours on the rowing machine and numerous spinning sessions...and in between thinking all these technical thoughts (think Eeyore having technical thoughts...that's how sharp and whippy they were), I became obsessed with thinking up ideas for shift dresses: shift dresses with buttons and piping, ruffles and pleats, fancy yokes and other things.

And once I'd tackled my sister's dress, a dress that had been floating around my head like a lump of cement puzzling me for so long, I felt so elated that Ilaunched myself instantly in to making one for myself of an entirely different design. With so much trial and error the final dress looks absolutely nothing like my original sketch, but I'm pleased with it all the same. I've found that using rolls of baking parchment appeals to me more than newspaper. I have done this and later realised that there was a really awful news story on the other side and afterwards I felt awful for the victim's family that what had been written about their trauma was later being used to do things as mundane as making dress patterns...does that make sense? Either way, I somehow found myself gravitating toward baking parchment next time, which is no bad thing as it being transparent can be helpful, even though it's impossible to sellotape together, hence the pins.

I'd originally wanted it to be a swing dress with big pleats coming down from the horizontal seam that runs along the upper back, but in my inexperience, I only later realised that I would have needed a similar amount of volume at the front to make this work visually. But despite the stress of having to constantly re-think, re-cut and learn on the job, I loved making this dress. Making the ruffles and covering the buttons delighted me and I completely fell in love with the process of binding the arms and neck - it was so satisfying when it actually went right. I also loved mastering darts, which you can see (hopefully not too obviously) in the picture above).

It is made entirely from midnight blue wool suiting...with no lining and no zip - it slips on perfectly over the head, so in that sense this was relatively simple.

Here it is full length - it finishes two or three inches above the knee.

I used my blind hem foot for the hem...what an ingenious device it is - it does give a perfect finish, but actually, for those rare times when you do have time to spare (are there any of them?) then I'm thinking that hand finishing a dress could be almost as nice as hand finishing the binding on a quilt.

My learning curve with dressmaking is steep...more like a severe zig-zag up (and sometimes down) a flight of stairs than a gentle curve. I'd really like to throw myself into it in the way that I've been able to with other types of sewing - I love the learning through total submersion route - but frustratingly I don't feel justified in running myself up an entire wardrobe when fabric is relatively expensive (in that you need more than a nice little fat quarter to cover an entire person...or even part of a person) and this type of project is entirely self-indulgent...but I do have a couple of things planned for summer wear...and a couple more things to bestow upon Zebra-girl and I have a sketch pad full of dresses that I'm hoping one day will come off the page.

If you too have been bitten by the dress bug (and so many of the blogs that I read are suggesting that this is indeed an infectious condition and perhaps a general affliction for 2010), then do go and have a peek at my Flickr favourites, as it's almost entirely related to the most scrumptious items of handmade clothing that I've come across and that I'm finding utterly inspiring.

Additionally, you might like to visit The Sew Weekly, where one clever bean is attempting to sew one piece of new clothing for herself each week from vintage patterns. The idea of having 52 new items of clothing perfectly fitted and tailored to your own tastes by the end of December sounds utterly dreamy.

Finally, I wanted to mention Craft Hope for Haiti - what an amazing idea! For those of you who are yet to come across it, it's an etsy shop that has been set up to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders. Crafters are able to donate items to the shop where others can buy them: in doing so gaining a little lovely tangible loveliness while giving money directly to DWB. This way 100% of the profits is able to be passed on. What an amazing way of enabling both the buyer and seller to give far more than we might otherwise be able to afford to in order to help in this dire situation. I have donated 6 Tabitha Bag PDF patterns - which I was delighted to find were all sold almost instantly - as well as one organic cotton baby bib (which is yet to sell - you can find it here - I'm happy to post worldwide and postage will not be taken out of your payment - that bit is paid by me). If bibs aren't your thing, then do go and look elsewhere in the shop if you are in need of a little self-gifting or have birthday presents to buy as it is filled with so many lovely things.

It should also be said that the success of Craft Hope for Haiti has been entirely down to two stay-at-home, homeschooling/pregnant mums, who have been so inundated with people wanting to donate things that they, and the small team of helpers that they have managed to scramble, have been working round the clock, at the expense of their own families, to upload all these things onto Etsy - in the last week they have raised over $20,000.
Wishing you a lovely weekend,
Florence x


  1. I love that dress! What an elegant dart. A kind Christmas elf gave me Cal Patch's book 'Design-It Yourself Clothing': it talks about pattern-making in a way that seems accessible even to me as a total sewing novice. I think she used to be a designer for Urban Outfitters; I found it really interesting to hear about garment construction from an industry insider.

  2. Well done you - that dress looks fab. I took 'needlework' lessons at school to 'O' level (God that makes me sound sooo old), so I'm OK with basic dressmaking. I wouldn't however dream of starting from scratch in the way that you have done. You must be so pleased with yourself

  3. I love your dress. I'm so impressed that you worked it out from scratch!

    I have major dress envy now.

  4. Oh what a perfect post Florence. I love dressmaking and like you, am finding my way as I go. The dress is beautiful and has almost made me throw my knitting to one side in order to begin a dress for myself. I do agree with you about the cost of making oneself a wardrobe of gorgeous garments, but I think it will be so worth it as I am sure these dresses will last so much better than the ones form the shop (I could write a book of excuses such as these!). Glad to see I am not the only headless model in blogland this week! x

  5. Your dress is utterly fabulous - I am in awe of your sewing ability (& more than a little green!). Have you tried freezer paper? You can even iron it onto your fabric & then peel it away leaving no residue; I can send you some to try if you like?
    Chris x

  6. I do agree with you that the best way of learning is by doing because you get to understand the processes but it can be scary! I'm terribly impressed with your dress; the way you have 'built' it completely from scratch and how it obviously fits you perfectly. When I was a teen I would work from clothes I already had, which I liked to do because you do learn about why you do the things you do and how something goes together. I went on to use patterns which have both pluses and minuses. Haven't done anything for ages though! However doing it ALL yourself is brilliant - it really is 'your' dress. You've done a fantastic job! It used to be much cheaper than it is now. It always makes me laugh when people suggest sewing to 'save' money. It can still be done but it's not easy - especially when you want what you have made to be really special. I think pattern cutting for me will always be elusive - all those tricky measurements (I never know how to take them properly as even skinnies are squidgy and I never know how tight the tape measure should be held).

  7. Hello Florence,
    i love the dress. you have made, it's gorgeous. i too have affection for the blind hem foot, great for suiting though i prefer to hand sew for lighter fabrics and cottons... but of course it is great for curtain hems too.
    The Sew Weekly looks interesting, though a dress a week is some achievement. I do have a whole load of vintage dress patterns in a drawer somewhere but fear the clothes would not suit me these days.
    pleased your pdf's sold so quickly ... it is amazing how much the crafthope shop has raised .so inspiring too.
    wishing you a happy weekend x

  8. Loving the dress. I definatly obsess about things before I make something, currently planning/obsessing about an a-line skirt made from Amy Butler fabric a la Boden skirts! Just can't decide which fabric to go for and gulping a bit at the cost of her fabric (£10/m) in case I get it wrong. I'm tracking my attempts to be crafty at hereswhatIdidtoday.blogspot.com and I have a wish list on there of what I want to do including what I've made to date. Would love you to check it out, still early days blogwise and haven't found my blog writing style yet but I'm getting there!

  9. You really are very clever,I've only ever made clothes from bought patterns I wouldn't know where to start on making my own.Love the dress by the way.


  10. Love this dress, Florence. I used to make so many things from my own designs but I've sort of lost the habit (not least because really good material is no longer the cheap option for a smart wardrobe) - I know what you mean about the thinking process though.
    Managed at last to get Sew Hip, and am finding the article on machine feet so useful in sorting out a little box of same that someone gave me.

  11. Beautiful Florence and great links too thankyou. Every year I venture a little bit further in the direction of clothes making...(last year I made about 3 things for myself)but would love to do more. It does feel a bit like jumping off a cliff though I have to admit!

  12. Drop stitches not bombs (I love the name)- I have had that book on my wishlist and am so pleased to hear that it's accessible to the non-pattern-followingly-minded. It may just find its way into my shopping basket now... the only thing that's putting me off is whether you have to spend hours putting together templates of your shape that may be even harder than putting together an actual dress - have you tried this bit?

    Chris - the freezer paper is such an amazing idea - thank you. I can't believe it hadn't occurred to me. I actually found some in my local shop the other week (which amazed me as I'd thought it was only available in the US or online at Cottonpatch) - I bought it thinking about stencil prints, but I'm liking your idea for it even more. Thank you so much for your really kind offer though.

    Siobhan - you're so right - I often steer away from giving people other than family handmade gifts in case they think that I would be doing it because it's the cheaper option...I don't think anyone would quite imagine how much things cost by the time you've paid for material, thread, interfacing, pattern paper etc...making your own rarely seems to be the cheaper option.

    Ginny - I think I'd be inclined to agree...it's a perfect finish, but by hand just seems even better somehow...also it really hurts my head trying to fold the material in the correct way to go under the foot - it's so counter-intuitive.

    Louise...I'm about to come and check out your blog...but I'm sure that I've seen Amy Butler for £8 p/m in the UK...I'll try and remember where...and then perhaps you can make two skirts instead of one.

    Lina - you're spot on with the cliff analogy - it feels different from all other sewing. Not least because while a bag can accommodate a mistake by shrinking a quarter inch at times, it takes so much longer and is so much less fun to make one's body compensate for a sewing mistake in the same way.

    Thank you so much for all your lovely commenty goodness - it seems I have almost written another blog post in my comments section...oh dear. x

  13. Louise - the skirt is lovely - although your blog wouldn't let me comment for some reason. Either way the place I was thinking of for cheaper Amy Butler was Doughtys Online where they charge £8.99 pm...so not as reasonable as I remembered as I think they sell it in John Lewis or Liberty for £8.50. x

  14. wow - I am in envy!! This is amazing!! Saw this on flickr and couldn't believe this was handmade - you are very good indeed, loving also the colour and detailing!!


  15. Wow, that dress is QUITE lovely! I adore the top - it looks absolutely gorgeous, and it looks like it fits you perfectly! I am in awe that you just figured it out yourself.

    By the way, I totally understand about the newspaper being used for something so in contrast to what's printed there. In addition to trivializing the news, it's messy stuff! I plan to invest in a roll of tracing paper soon for patterns.

  16. Wow! The dress is perfect! Love the detail. Something quite 'Anthropoligie' about it :)

  17. Oh, that is so cute! So simple and yet just so wearable. I, too, have been bitten by the dressmaking bug this year although I have to say that I religiously follow the pattern and come out in a cold sweat if something goes wrong! Well done!

  18. Blimey, Florence, you're keeping yourself busy! The dress is stunning - that is kind of how I hoped my abandoned good times dress would turn out, but didn't! Maybe I could send it to you and you could turn it into something lovely ;) I'd say you've inspired me to pick it up and start adapting it, disregarding the pattern, but I know I'll just end up in the same sorry state again.

  19. A wonderful dress, I would love to have one just like it. - especially one that just slips over my head. Another pattern making option, aside from freezer paper, that you might like to try is a light interfacing. I use it a lot and it is very durable and forgiving as things get altered. It is also fairly cheap for its size and can be drawn on easily. Good luck with myour next project.


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Florence x