the silk-linen dress of doom

Half-shaped, no hemming yet, no lining.
Half-shaped, no hemming yet, no lining.

The Creativ[E!] Festival in 2013 was the first time I bought serious garment fabrics. Oh sure, I was a regular at Fabricland (I have a two-year membership, after all) and enjoyed pawing through the mountains of poly to find the occasional linen or wool. I’d go hunting for cute prints on Queen West and in various online fabric shops. But I didn’t really know what I was missing.

The Wool House and Sultan’s Fine Fabrics both had booths, and while I had passed them up in previous years because their fabrics weren’t eye-catching from a distance, that time I found myself spending 30, 45 minutes fingering a bolt of alpaca or ooohing and aaahing over a lovely soft shirting fabric. It was hard to restrain myself. And in fact, I didn’t. Or only in the broadest theoretical sense, in that I didn’t bring home a few metres of absolutely everything.

I did bring home a few metres of a nice light italian wool, two beautiful and dirt-cheap wool-silk ends, 1.5 metres of outrageously expensive flannel-weight alpaca, and two metres of a gorgeous linen-silk. Light creamy yellow, somewhere between ivory and sunshine, tending to ivory, with a very subtle twill weave giving a slight chevron effect close up. All the softness and sheen of silk with the stiffness and body of linen. It would have to be something special. A sheath dress, I thought; the body would hold a nice shape and the weight and fibres would be perfect for summer. There being no rush to make such a dress in October, it basically sat (together with the bemberg rayon lining I got to go with it) waiting for Spring.

We waited for Spring for a long time in these parts, but I wanted the dress to be ready for the first really nice day so it came off the top of the Someday Shelf. And the Built By Wendy Dresses book and the included sheath dress pattern came off the bookshelf along with it. I mean, why buy a new sheath dress pattern when you’ve already got one you’ll never use? Right?

(Slick segue to book review here)

I was not about to cut into my beautiful and irreplaceable linen-silk without making a muslin first, so I cut out the pattern from some leftover heavy-weight polyester. As it turns out it wasn’t the best choice: while the poly fabric was about the right weight it draped very differently and as a result, this was not really a good test of the linen-silk fit. The poly test muslin, by the way, is going to be finished into a winter version–in the fall.

There were a number of problems with the poly and linen-silk versions:

bloggish-8-31. The raglan sleeves don’t fit at all. This is a deficiency noted by other reviewers, and I wish I’d read those reviews before committing to this pattern. There were several inches of excess fabric at the front neck, and just around the shoulder seam both front and back. This was after I’d taken down this seam to a small based on the muslin fit–and I’m not small! I’m 5’8″ and my shoulders are not narrow. So I took out about two inches from either side of the front neck piece and resewed it. My raglan sleeves now have a bit of a bend but the front of the garment lies flat. It still isn’t perfect and the front and back shoulder seams are still looser than I’d like, but I worried that if I made this any smaller, I wouldn’t be able to raise my arms.

2. There was no back shaping. Others have also noted this, and added back darts. I decided to just shape the centre back seam, taking it in by about an inch on either side at the waist and tapering up to the shoulder and down to the hips. This worked fine.

3. Even grading up to a large at the bust was not large enough. I had to let out the darts, lowering the dart point by 1-2″ on either side to give myself more space.

bloggish-9-44. The waist was a bit too baggy, so I brought it in at either side by about 1/4-1/2″.

5. And the skirt pattern, for some ungodly reason known to perhaps no one, was a-line. What kind of sheath dress pattern has an a-line skirt? Ideally, your hem will be pegged a bit, narrower at the bottom than at the hips by 1-2″, to make that lovely flattering hour-glass shape. So I altered this as well.

6. The back of the neck is about 2″ too high.

This is an awful lot of altering for one sheath dress pattern, and some of it just seems sloppy. There’s no excuse for the poor fit of the raglan sleeves nor for the weirdly baggy shape of the skirt. It’s called a sheath dress because it’s supposed to fit like a sheath.

It was my first effort with an invisible zipper, though, and I do have to say that this part worked out very well. I made an invisible zipper! It’s invisible! And it zips! Properly! This has nothing to do with the book, by the way, which contains as its entire instructions on this step, “Install zipper.” If you’ve never installed a zipper before, good luck to you.

Other notes on the book:

The general sewing and dress information in the front of the book is decent, but not targeted to beginning sewists. The patterns do not have seam allowances included–you have to add them before cutting. No information on seam finishing is included, so a good basic knowledge of garment construction will be required to know when and how to do this. The dresses are unlined; for the sheath dress, I needed to add a lining (and I am tired of it in advance). The ideas for altering the basic patterns to make different kinds of dresses are interesting and a good spark to creativity, but it’s unlikely that any of the ideas included in the book will be perfect as-is, especially since the book is now a little dated (and so is its fashion sense). However, once you get an actual dress pattern fitted properly, it’s likely that you could alter it in any number of ways to make different kinds of dresses.

Also, there are no photos of the finished garments, and the drawings included seem a little suspect. It would have been nice to have photographs to see how the actual finished garments look, rather than someone’s artistic conception of it.

(insert nice transition back to dress post here)


All of my alterations and markings on the pattern worked fairly well, and the lining was much easier to put together and fit. So hurray. But before I put the lining in, I wanted to add a little something. I love embroidery and I love clothing with little embellishments and details, and I’m always wishing I had the time to make some of those little (but greatly time-consuming) additions. Well, if a linen-silk sheath dress isn’t reason enough, what is? So I took my stack of torn-out magazine pages and decided on some fabric flowers a la Dolce and Gabbana (sort of), only without the background painting, since I can’t paint, and not as all-over.  Vogue Patterns had instructions on how to make your own fabric flowers, so…
mmmay-8-2Some of them I made from leftover linen-silk, lightly painted with lilac acrylic paint; the others I made from cochineal-dyed wool from a natural dyeing class I took last fall. I used fray-stop on the edges, gathered and beaded them, and the linen-silk ones were also embroidered to help them stand out against the dress. I played around with the placement a bit with safety pins and tacked them on between the dress and the lining. It took a while, but I think it was worth it, and if I ever get tired of the flowers I can cut them off.

I guess this is where it comes in handy to have a mountain of craft supplies in the house. If you are ever struck with the wish to embellish a dress with handmade beaded flowers, you can! Without leaving the house.

Titled: Multitasking. Artist's statement: We were hungry.
Titled: Multitasking. Artist’s statement: We were hungry.

Fun fact: It took about eight hours to cut, paint, stitch, embellish and tack on the seven flowers I have on my sheath dress. If I were to sell this, at minimum wage and without counting materials, that would be at least $80 in addition to whatever the dress itself would cost. Let’s pretend that I didn’t take a full day first figuring out the cut of the pattern, and just count the second day of putting together the shell–and then another day of putting together the lining and attaching it to the dress. So twenty-four hours altogether=$240 + materials = $300 at least and that’s if I’m paying myself minimum wage.

A) I am wearing a dress I could never afford to buy in a store.

B) If you’re wondering why high-fashion dresses cost $1000, there you go. This would be a forty hour dress, with the background painting and all the flowers, at least, and those folks aren’t making minimum wage (nor should they). Forty hours at, say, $30/hour = $1200, plus materials. See?

Here is the finished product, and it is finally warm enough in these parts to even wear it. Yay! The rayon lining makes it so soft and comfortable to wear, and the purple/pink of the flowers highlights the yellow in the linen-silk. I love it.

I will never again make a sheath dress with raglan sleeves, but this dress is a reminder to me to slow down on the finishing side and take the time to add those little details.  It’s part of what makes sewing your own clothes so worthwhile.

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6 thoughts on “the silk-linen dress of doom”

  1. Gorgeous. I sewed in high school but am too impatient for it now: I barely mend. I’m a sucker for nice fabrics, which is why I buy fewer-but-better pieces. I appreciate a good seam and reading about your craft makes me value it even more. Love the flower embellishment: that D&G dress is one of the best of the season.

    1. Thanks, Jen. 🙂

      The D&G dress is gorgeous, but you know in two years it will be unwearable. Still, the skill behind it is tremendous. And being able to have clothing made out of something other than polyester is a big draw for sewing for me. It amazed me, when I started paying attention to labels, how often even nice clothing in fairly expensive stores was made out of crappy synthetics.

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