Wearability: sleeveless black dresses

Time for another review of how some of my projects have worn over the years. This time I’m looking at three different black dresses, all sleeveless.

The oldest is Vogue 1410, a Lynn Mizono design. I made it in 2014 and it’s still going strong. It’s a very clever pattern. The insides are finished beautifully with French seams and the hem is adjustable to four different lengths by way of buttonholes and buttons on the inside of the side seams. I added side seam pockets to my version but otherwise made it up as the pattern instructed, scorching my fingers pressing the tiny hems around the neck and armscyes.

Here’s the second shortest length. This is flattering but I find it is a bit too short for comfort most days. The shortest one is much too short to be wearable and the second longest doesn’t look good on me.

When I made this I didn’t expect I’d ever wear it at the longest length, but to my surprise I find this is the best of all. It reveals the lantern shape of the skirt and feels modern and architectural. But best of all it is easy to throw on, requiring no great thought about choice of footwear or matching with other pieces.

The dress has an elastic cord which pulls it in under the bust. When my son was small he found it soothing to play with, so wearing the dress now reminds me of him as a baby.

The black fabric is a little faded after six years; otherwise it’s in good condition. I’ll definitely remake this one when it finally falls to pieces. But I’m going to finish the edges with bias tape next time to save my fingers.

Next up is an old favourite, Burda 117 02/2012. I’ve made this pattern many times, tweaking it in every iteration. This version is made from a dirt cheap mystery black scuba bought in the Birmingham Rag Market. It’s probably polyester with lycra.

It doesn’t show well in the photos but the pattern has lots of diagonal seamlines. This is a great pattern for colour blocking but I have preferred my solid versions. The scuba fabric is perfect for the style: thick enough to provide coverage but still with plenty of stretch. When I wear this I feel smart but still very comfortable. This version has become a staple for work days, especially in winter when I put a long sleeved black t-shirt and thick black tights under it.

I made the pattern again more recently in a grey ponte, slightly thinner than the scuba, and it’s not as good. The grey fabric is showing wear already. But the scuba is indestructible; a good thing because I think I’ll be wanting to wear the black dress for years to come.

The last dress of the three is the least successful. This is Vogue 1501, a Rachel Comey design. The pattern didn’t appeal to me on first release but then I read a few blogs where people raved about their versions. What sold me on it was the promise of an interesting shape that was still easy to wear. The bodice only attaches to the skirt at centre front and the rest floats free so it’s a summer-only dress.

I was very pleased with it when I finished it, but the weather turned just then and I didn’t get a chance to wear it until the following summer. And since then, for some reason, it has mostly stayed in the wardrobe. I think it’s a little too fussy for me. The bodice doesn’t stay in place particularly well, and the fabric is too warm to go with a sleeveless style. I normally like a garment with shoulder pads, but they don’t seem appropriate for the sort of hot sunny weather when I’d wear this.

I’m not sure what to do about this one. I probably should have made it out of linen and skipped the shoulder pads but it’s too late now. I can’t bring myself to part with it just yet so it will stay in the wardrobe a while longer while I try to come up with a way to wear it.

Wearability: summer dresses

I keep meaning to write more wearability posts. I blog about garments I’ve made when they’re new, but rarely come back to record how they proved in the long term. The UK has just had the hottest May on record, so this post covers three different summer dresses that I’ve been wearing a lot recently.

I’ve chosen this group of three because they’re the same colour and they’re made from very similar fabrics, allowing me to concentrate on the differences in the patterns.

The oldest of the three is a Style Arc Toni I made in 2018. My original blog post is here. I’ve made the pattern a few times but this one is my favourite version. The dress is just below knee length (shortened from the original pattern length). It’s sleeveless but has dropped shoulders that provide a lot of coverage. The main features are the side drapes and the high collar which runs into a deep and narrow v neck. There are pockets hidden in the side drapes.

A woman in a garden wearing a white sleeveless dress with draped sides and a high collar

This is an easy dress to style. I’ve been wearing it with trainers or flipflops and no accessories other than my chunky titanium bracelet.

It’s great for very hot weather. It hangs from the shoulders and otherwise doesn’t touch the body. The high collar and dropped shoulders provide a lot of sun protection and it still looks fairly smart. What I’ve never managed is to make it work on cooler days; it looks awkward with a long sleeved layer underneath and very peculiar with tights or leggings. Oddly my dark grey version of this dress doesn’t have the same problem.

The one thing I don’t like about this dress is the armscye. It’s not got any shaping; you just stop sewing the side seam at a certain point and put your arm through the resulting gap. I normally sew the side seam up higher than the pattern says to, but even so there is a risk of bra band exposure because the dress is so unfitted. And the end of the side seam is a weak point that takes a lot of stress; I’ve had a couple of my Tonis tear there. It ought to be possible to adjust the pattern to improve this. I shall have a try next time I make it.

The next one is McCalls 7727, a dramatic fabric hog of a shirt dress. Original blog post here. The top half is a fairly standard shirt dress with a yoke, concealed button placket, long sleeves, princess seams, and a stand collar. The unusual feature here is the enormous circle skirt with a high-low hem. The back of the skirt is almost floor length. There are pockets in the side seams.

A woman stands in a garden wearing a white dress with long sleeves and a wide skirt

I usually wear this one with the belt from the photo above and trainers.

This looks like it ought to be a lot of work to wear. The length can certainly be a nuisance: it drags on stairs and sometimes catches on the backs of my shoes. And I always wear the dress with a half slip in case a sudden gust of wind makes the skirt fly up. It’s certainly not for days when you want to fly under the radar. However despite all that it always puts a smile on my face when I put it on. I made this thinking I probably wouldn’t wear it all that much but found it is a regular pick for hot days. I occasionally think about making a version in black poplin too, although the prospect of cutting out those enormous panels has meant I’ve not done it yet.

When I make this again I’ll make the skirt a tiny bit shorter at the back and longer at the front. I’ll also line the yokes and use flat felled seams on the sleeves so when I roll them up there aren’t overlocked seam allowances showing.

The last one of the three, Burda 116 9/2014, is much more recent. I made it in January this year. Original blog post here.

It has long sleeves ending in elasticated bands, a deep shirttail hem, a drawstring waist, and a lot of pockets. The collar is unusual. It’s a band collar but ends before the button placket. The placket itself is concealed and runs to just above the waist.

This one is the least successful of the three. It’s comfortable but I’ve yet to find a way to style it really successfully. The original version in Burda was worn as a dress with bare legs and the top two buttons undone, carefully photographed. In practice that means it’s open almost to the waist and requires a concealing layer underneath, so no good for very hot days. One button undone looks wrong with the unusual collar. All done up is definitely a Look and needs a jacket over the top. OK if in the mood but not easy to wear.

Worn over trousers it tends to look like a protective smock and not a dress. The best thing I’ve found to put with it for cooler weather is my black fake leather leggings. I should have made the dress in black instead of white as it would have been much more versatile. It’s saving grace is the elasticated cuffs – a detail I am going to steal for other projects.

Three white dresses is enough for my wardrobe. When they wear out I’ll definitely remake the white Toni, and probably the McCalls. The Burda won’t get remade, but I’m not throwing it out right now either.

Top 5 of 2018: Misses

top 5 of 2018 logo

Continuing with the Sewing Top Five of 2018 series, here’s the post I always find the most interesting to compile and to read other people’s version of: the misses. This year I had a very hard time coming up with a list of five misses which I guess is a positive! None of these are complete failures. Rather they are things I haven’t worn very much or am not totally satisfied with.

The first is my Vogue 1548 dress. I said at the time I loved it and I still do, but I have only worn it three or four times. It’s a dress I can only wear to work, not on a weekend, and it has a strange problem for work wear: the lining is so ultra slippery that it affects my posture when sitting and that eventually becomes uncomfortable and annoying. Such a shame. Replacing the lining would be a pain but I may have to in order to make it wearable.

Vogue 1548 front

Next up is something I’ve worn a lot despite the bad fit: Vogue 1573 jeans. The pattern is hugely oversized even by Big Four standards. Like most people I almost always need to go down one size from the chart; on these I should have gone down two sizes in most places and maybe three on the waist. The waistband is cut in a way which means important bits end up on the bias, which doesn’t help. At the time I said that I’d like to try grafting the seam detail on these onto a pattern that fits me. But since then I’ve gone off that idea as well; the seamlines aren’t in a flattering place on me. The reason I still wear these is that they’re only pair of black jeans I own.

Vogue 1573 action shot

The next one is arguably not a failure at all because it’s easily my most worn make of 2018: my ikat kimono dressing gown. But I made it very slightly too small in order to be able to match the pattern on the rather expensive and narrow fabric I chose. That was a false economy: I’d spent ages looking for the perfect fabric in the first place and I wear the end result most days, if only while cleaning my teeth. It would have been worth buying the extra length and making it generously sized.

Ikat kimono

This next one is a miss for a combination of things: a fabric that’s not quite right, a pattern that doesn’t really suit me, and sewing mistakes. It’s Style Arc’s Mara shirt dress made up in cotton poplin that is a little too light in weight for the style. I messed up sewing the sleeve vents which annoys me every time I wear this. But fundamentally I think this style doesn’t really suit me. It might be better without the belt and the breast pockets, and with a different length hem. This one will probably go to the charity shop next time I have a clearout.

Style Arc Mara front view

The final one really ought to have been a success. I’ve made Burda 116 08/2011 several times before in this exact cotton poplin fabric from Tissu, and they were all great favourites. The originals wore out some years ago and I didn’t replace them because they are impossible to cycle in and at the time I was commuting to work by bike. Several years passed and I switched to getting the bus, so this year I returned to the pattern and made another. But the new one just doesn’t look as good as the originals. Maybe it’s the shade of pink, maybe it’s that I’ve changed shape and can no longer get away with such lightweight fabric, maybe it’s the styling. Anyway I wore it in the summer heatwave but I suspect it’ll be purged before next summer.

Burda 116 08 2011 front view

I don’t think these five have a lot in common, although I do note that every single thing I made this year was a neutral colour (silver is totally a neutral) except for the pink and blue dresses above, and they are the two biggest disappointments. Since I stopped dying my hair fewer colours seem to suit me. Those are the only two I will likely get rid of, so that means that the rest of the year’s output has done pretty well.

Next time: highlights and reflections.

Top 5 of 2018: Hits

top 5 of 2018 logo

I’m away from my sewing machine at the moment so Gillian’s Top Fives of 2018 blog series has come along at a particularly good time. It’s been a good year for sewing though: I’ve made fourteen things but had a hard time narrowing the hits down to just five.  I’ve decided to choose the things I’ve worn the most rather than the most technically challenging or dramatic projects. And because they’ve all had a lot of wear I now have more to say about what works about these projects and what doesn’t.

First is Style Arc’s Juliet shirt made up in white cotton poplin. I made it in the summer but it’s kept going for autumn and winter, worn over a long sleeved white t-shirt. I like the extra-long length and the asymmetric tie. Next time I’d make the sleeves full length as the three-quarter length is slightly annoying.

Style Arc Juliet

Then there are my silver jeans The pattern was originally Burda 103B 07/2010 but it’s been modified quite a bit from the original. Any slim legged jeans pattern would do; the silver foiled fabric is what really makes these. Unsurprisingly it’s fading; they’re more of a dull silver now than the mirror like finish shown in this photo, but they still get worn about once a week. I find they work best with a very casual top and boots.

Burda 103 07 2010 front

McCalls 7727 shirt dress doesn’t seem like a practical pattern with its dramatic high-low hem but I have worn this a lot more than I expected to, and I really love wearing it. It’s made from the same cotton poplin as the Style Arc Mara shirt. The length is slightly too much in real life: it drags on stairs, and it catches on my shoes. I’d also do French seams on the sleeves next time because the overlocked seam finishes show when I roll the sleeves up. But a dress which caused someone to mutter ‘Princess Leia’ as I swished by in it has got to be good.

Vogue 8956 was my first project of 2018. The day we took the pictures was very sunny and the fabric is black wool flannel which soaks up light so it was hard to get shots where any detail is visible; this one is about the best. The skirt is very warm and practical, and the wrap front stays put surprisingly well. I think this is a really good pattern. It’s easy to sew and the end result is no fuss to wear despite looking very dramatic.

My favourite project was unplanned: a friend of my mother’s gave me the white cotton sateen fabric from her stash and there was just enough for Style Arc’s Toni dress, a pattern I’d already made up twice. It’s intended for drapey fabrics but it works really well in this heavy cotton with very crisp interfacing in the collar. I wore it a lot in the summer. Despite the sculptural shape it’s actually very comfortable and being cotton it washes well. When I first made it I was concerned that the drapes didn’t stay put when I moved but I no longer notice that.

White Style Arc Toni front view

So that’s it for the successes…next time the failures!

Vogue 1548: weird but wearable

Vogue 1548 front

This is my Vogue 1548 dress, yet again. I finally have pictures of it on me rather than on the dress form or the floor.

One of the things that drew me to this pattern was that the style looked as if it might be fairly wearable in day to day life. I made it up in a black wool and polyester blend gabardine from Croft Mill. This is a lovely fabric that looks good but is surprisingly tough. It can tolerate a lot of pressing without picking up iron marks, and takes a pleat well but doesn’t crease much when worn. At the time I wrote this there was some left here.

Vogue 1548

So how is the dress to wear? The sleeves are a little restrictive, which is visible in the pictures. The skirt is quite short. I added 3cm to the skirt length on top of the usual 5cm I add to bodices, and I would not want the dress to be shorter. The waist seam of the dress is well above the natural waistline which disguises the length in photos, but I was very conscious of it when sitting. Altogether it’s a dress that you can’t just forget you’re wearing. But it was comfortable enough for a day in the office and I really enjoyed wearing something with such a definite Look. It kind of reminds me of the clothes in the Nikolai Dante comic strip.

Vogue 1548 back

The sleeves are very long. I’d normally add 5cm to Vogue sleeves, and here I added nothing at all. I like a long sleeve, and I think the original is meant to have them a bit on the long side. On the pattern photo and the runway photos they are well over the model’s wrists. But I think the pattern length is excessive even allowing for that. I also think the cuff circumference is larger than it needs to be.

Other than the sleeve this pattern runs smaller than most Vogues I’ve made: which doesn’t mean small. I still went down one size from the measurement chart.

A lot of the pictures of this dress you find on the Internet show the plastron partially unbuttoned. This doesn’t work for me at all. The neckline edge of the buttoned side ends up sticking up in an annoying way – picture below – which it doesn’t on the original dress. I wonder if my bodice length alterations have messed up the way it hangs.

Vogue 1548 front half done up

The bodice was not easy to sew. It has very deeply curved princess seams and sharp Dior darts. It was difficult enough in the wool shell fabric; the lining was even worse. My darts have ended up pointy despite loads of pressing. They’re also in the wrong place, which was my laziness in not making adjustments. The plastron hides all; another reason I love it. But here is what it looks like without.

Vogue 1548 front without plastron

I haven’t got a good picture of the pockets I added to the skirt, but they’re ordinary side seam pockets. I put the pockets in upside down at first by mistake because the skirt pattern piece is much wider at the top than the hem. The pleats take all the width up to produce the dramatic tulip shape. As always I wish I’d made the pockets bigger. But I got the height right this time.

So the verdict is that I love this dress. I won’t wear it every week but it won’t be stuck at the back of the wardrobe either. And now I’m off to sew my next project: something so simple it has no pattern and where most of the seams are straight lines.

Mappamodello Arab-Islamic Work Dress

Arab-islamic work dress front

One of my Christmas presents was an unusual sewing pattern ‘book’ called Mappamodello. It contains patterns for very geometric styles developed by the designer Nanni Strada in the 70s. The dress above is her ‘Arab-Islamic Work Dress’. It’s the only one I’ve made up so far but I suspect there will be more in the future.

I’ve described the object as a book but once you unpack it what you actually have is two very large pieces of paper. One is the (huge) pattern sheet, and the other includes brief notes on the history of each of the styles and some photographs and technical drawings of the designs. The only thing resembling sewing instructions provided is the key on the pattern sheet. The pattern for the dress I’ve made up didn’t entirely match the photographs and diagrams, but I found the process of reconciling the differences enjoyable. Having said that I made a fairly major mistake with this one which I would have avoided if there had been a photograph or a diagram of the back view as well as the front. More on that in a moment.

The designs are all one size and entirely flat in the sense that there are no seams or darts. They work by wrapping around the body and fastening with ties. The size is adjusted by fastening the ties more or less tightly. Most of the styles are very fabric-efficient and they almost all include pockets. You can see some of the fitting ties on the Arab-Islamic work dress in the back view below. If you’re familiar with the Walkaway dress it’s a similar ‘apron’ style. I was a bit cynical about the ‘one size fits all’ claim and added a few inches of length to the pattern for insurance. It probably wasn’t needed but does give a nice deep hem.

This particular style is supposed to be wearable in two different ways, but this relies on making the back neckline identical to the front neckline so you can turn the dress around 90 degrees and stick your arms though the neckline slits, tying the top neckline slit ties over your shoulders. The original ‘sleeves’ undo at the underarm, and those pieces then wrap over your chest and back, and presumably tie at your sides. As you can see I didn’t make a slit on the back of the dress so I haven’t got anywhere to put one of my arms through when I turn the dress around. I don’t think I’ve lost too much as wearing it that way doesn’t look very comfortable in the model photo.

Arab-islamic work dress back

I think the style I have made up is one of the earliest in the series. There are several very similar dresses in the book and it’s interesting to compare the later ones with the earlier. The shape of the neckline and sleeves evolves, the ability to wear the dress in two ways is dropped, the pockets become more complicated, and some purely decorative features creep in. I suspect the later versions make slightly more practical garments! Mine shouldn’t be worn without leggings and a t-shirt underneath because of all the gaps.

The book doesn’t go into any detail about fabric choice. For one or two of the designs it mentions ‘glazed cotton’ or ‘lacquered cotton’ which sounds to me like crisp fabrics. Accordingly I made my dress up in a polycotton poplin on the grounds that it’s got a crisp hand and is cheap enough for an experiment, but I think something with a bit more drape would actually have been better. By the way you need wide fabric for this style – 150cm/60″ – which limits the choices. I couldn’t find wide poplin from any of my usual sources and ended up getting it from eBay. The dress is mostly one huge pattern piece nearly the whole width of the fabric and well over two metres long. It makes efficient use of fabric. I only had small scraps left over.

Arab-Islamic National Dress front

So does this pass the wearability test? I’m not sure. These photos were taken on a bitterly cold and windy day so you are not seeing the dress or me at their best. It does feel a bit like wearing an academic gown only not as warm. Despite the book’s claim that the styles work for all seasons I think this one is only for spring and early summer days.

This all sounds rather negative but I really enjoyed the process of working out how to make the dress up. I’d like to give some of the more sophisticated versions a try, using better fabric. I think there’s a great dress in here somewhere.

Arab-Islamic National Dress front

And in other news, I am in the current issue of Vogue Patterns magazine! Very flattered: thanks Vogue!

Wearability: trousers

A while ago I muttered something about some day reporting on the wearability of some of the more unusual designs I’ve made. And as we’ve been unable to photograph any new makes for the blog for a couple of weeks it seems like a good time for that post. I’m going to concentrate on trousers this time around and have picked out three patterns I’ve made in the last 12 months.

The clear winner in the wearability stakes is a surprise: my Burda wrap trousers. This is style 120-112-2013 made up in black satin-backed crepe. I made these in September and they come out at least once a week despite being slightly too large. I think the thing that works so well about these is that they’re unusual enough that they give the impression I’ve made an effort. In practice though they’re just as easy to wear as jeans.

Burda 120-11-2013 front

Second place goes to my neoprene Vogue 1378 skinny trousers. The big problem with these is that they lack pockets and so are not a lot of use for wearing to work. In addition the fit is not perfect: I could do with making the back rise higher. But recently these have starting getting a lot of wear because they are warm and almost entirely waterproof. I need to look out for more of the thin neoprene I made them out of! If I’d made these in a doubleknit I doubt they’d be such favourites.

Vogue 1378

The pair that have barely left the wardrobe are the Apple Peel leggings from Pattern Magic. They’re neither good trousers nor good leggings: too form-fitting to be worn alone, but they don’t work under skirts or dresses either. They also require frequent adjusting! They were a fun experiment but definitely not a wardrobe workhorse.

Apple Peel Leggings front view