Perfecting techniques

I haven’t managed to buy new needles for the sewing machine yet so haven’t got much further on the latest project. Thanks all for the advice and encouragement! I will definitely try out different needles with this fabric and the petroleum jelly trick.

However it occurred to me that this dress isn’t particularly ambitious in that it doesn’t incorporate any techniques. There’s a lot of advice out there that you should try something new with every project, but I find I actually enjoy doing the same things a few times in a row because I definitely improve each time. It’s so satisfying to eventually produce a garment where everything lines up nicely and neatly. (I have managed this exactly once so far, on my fourth version of McCalls 5799, the world’s simplest A-line shift dress so I am certainly not claiming to be any sort of perfectionist – it’s just nice when it does work out.)

Years ago I was told that a good dressmaking exercise for beginners is to take a simple pattern and make it five or six times, altering it slightly each time. The lady who was giving this advice started with a basic blouse and did a sleeveless version, a wrap version, a couple of others I don’t remember, and ended up with a shirt-dress. It’s a great idea – pity I don’t wear blouses. But maybe it would work with a dress with a waist seam – you could do a sleeveless version, add sleeves, turn it into a skirt by taking the bottom half and putting a waistband on, and then there are collar and neckline variations. Anyone out there done that? Did you get bored? I’m wondering if I have a dress pattern in my collection that would lend itself to this. It might be a good way to reduce the fabric stash as well.

Anyway I should stop procrastinating and start cutting out what I’m working on right now. And buy needles. And, erm, fabric for the Vogue fall 2010 patterns I ordered because somehow I have nothing in the stash that goes with them.

Creases and needles

My latest project has been slow to get started because of a problem with creases.

It started with the metallic drill I bought in London a few weeks ago. I’m a sucker for anything sparkly and this fabric is both sparkly and yet subtle enough to wear to work. It’s supposedly 93% cotton and 7% ‘metal’ which didn’t sound plausible to me.

I thought that would go nicely with Vogue 8644.

As usual I put the fabric through the washing machine before starting to avoid shrinkage. I didn’t have space to dry it easily as it’s quite a long and wide piece. In the end I draped it over the clothes horse. That wasn’t wide enough and I didn’t want to let it hang over a corner so I didn’t lay it out flat, just left it sort of crumpled up. Experienced sewers are probably wincing. In fact if you have strong opinions about the correct way to treat fabric, better skip the rest of this.

It dried in amazing crinkles along the cross grain. I wish I’d photographed it now, Issey Miyake would have been impressed. The effect was quite attractive but obviously it wasn’t going to be possible to sew with.

I bashed away at it with a very hot iron and lots of steam and completely failed to remove the creases. My iron’s steam function is a bit feeble so I put it through the washing machine again on the very short cycle to get it to a state where it was damp but not too heavy to handle, and ironed it again as soon as it came out. This made very little difference.

The next day I put it through the machine again on the longest cycle on the grounds that a good soak might help. When it came out I pegged it to the washing line along the selvedge and pulled on it from the other selvedge so I was pulling on the cross grain. That actually started to reduce the creases a little but my arms got tired. Also the weather was so warm it started drying out. So I ironed it again on the highest setting with steam and the occasional cup of water thrown onto it. This has removed enough of the texture that it’s just about usable.

I don’t know if it’s the metal fibres that make it so resistant to ironing. I pulled a scrap of the fabric apart. The metal fibres are wound round the crossgrain fibres and are very fine indeed. It was quite difficult to remove one without breaking it. To my surprise they really do seem to be metal – the one I extracted bends and holds its shape just like a very fine wire. On checking my books I discovered that you should never iron fabrics with metal fibres because ‘they may melt’. Mine certainly aren’t melting though!

Amazingly, despite all the abuse, my fabric was still on grain when I squared up the ends and folded it in half. That’s an impressively tough fabric. Which raises the question, what sort of needle is going to be able to sew through it? I’ve got a collection of different sizes of universal needle, but I doubt they’ll manage.

I was searching the web to see what other sorts of needle are out there (rather hoping for Teflon-coated needles) and came across this fascinating page from Schmetz (although I wish they said a bit more about the manufacturing process). Teflon-coated needles don’t seem to exist, but it sounds like what I really need is a denim needle. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to find one in town.

New horizons

I can’t remember the last time I sewed something that wasn’t a sleeveless dress. After I finished the balloon dress I’d run out of planned projects and inspiring fabric so I had a rummage through my old copies of Burda and checked out the online pattern stores in the hope of finding something different to spark some creativity. This shirt, 122 from March 2010, appealed:

I have never made a shirt before but this one looks quite easy. The lack of cuffs and buttonholes is a big plus (I never get good results with my machine’s buttonhole function) and for once Burda have provided instructions for a pattern that make sense to me. Of course just because they seem to be clear now doesn’t mean I’m not going to run into horrible trouble while constructing the shirt, but it’s a start.

Having picked a pattern out of Burda I nevertheless also picked up Vogue 8644 and Colette Patterns’ Lady Grey coat. The Vogue is yet another sleeveless sheath dress, but this one has pockets so I’m claiming it counts as different. The Lady Grey coat is something I want to sew but I’m not totally sure my skill level is up to it. I bought it so I could read the instructions. They seem very straightforward but I keep hearing dire warnings in the blogsphere about attempting anything tailored without using ‘proper’ tailoring techniques so I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not.

Finally I have a pattern I bought last month at the Hay Festival from Merchant and Mills – yet another sleeveless shift but this one has an asymmetric seam feature. The pattern is unusual in that it’s a cardboard pattern, not paper, and comes with very detailed instructions suitable for complete beginners. The idea behind the range is that in the shop there are samples of the designs made up in every size, and you try them on before buying a pattern, thus no need to make a muslin. This appeals to my laziness! The designs are very simple classic dress styles. These patterns are beautifully packaged in a cardboard tube.

Having acquired some patterns I then needed fabric to go with them. I didn’t succeed in finding anything for the coat, but I did get this peacock blue muslin for the Burda shirt:

and this metallic drill for the Vogue sheath dress:

I also got some lovely silk to use for the top half of the asymmetric dress but I need to find a toning fabric to go with it for the bottom half, so I’ll save that for later.

Now I’m off to iron and cut out the blue muslin. And try not to think about what on earth I’m going to use to interface the collar. Advice most welcome!

Balloon dress planning

Bottega Veneta balloon dress
I have always really liked this Bottega Veneta balloon dress from 2006. Excuse the terrible picture quality! There’s a better picture here on

The only thing I don’t like about it is the colour. I see this in bright orange (yes, I’m probably mad. But I have resolved to sew only what I really want to wear and right now it seems to be the weather balloon look).

I spent some time wondering what type of fabric would work. It needs to be not too drapey but not too stiff either. I found some orange cotton poplin in John Lewis which I thought would make a good lining with some body, and then spent a while looking for a fabric for the top layer with no success at all. I considered silk and chiffon but didn’t find anything I liked that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. In the end I decided to go with the poplin for both the fashion fabric and the lining.

I didn’t want to try to draft a pattern from scratch. Burda had a suitable pattern in the May 2010 issue but the neckline’s different, it has an empire line seam, and there are no shoulder yokes:

I considered trying to eliminate the empire seam but decided that was far too much like hard work, so my version’s not quite the same shape as the original.

When I traced the pattern I altered the neckline and added extra seam lines to make shoulder yokes by laying the pattern pieces for Vogue 8319 over the top of the Burda pattern and drawing new lines in roughly the right places. Not scientific but it seems to work.

So that’s the planning and preparation done. Next up, some very orange pictures of the finished dress.

Cutting splashy prints

Last month I bought a very large, bold print to make Burda 015-05-2010, a simple pullover knit dress.

I knew I’d have to be careful about how I placed the print so I bought a bit of extra yardage – 2m instead of the 1.5 the pattern called for. My first thought was to place the centre of the flowers on my top half, offset to one side (but hopefully avoiding the bust point!) but I wondered if other ways could work. Here are some variations I found on Polyvore

The ones with the motif at waist level appeal but probably wouldn’t work with the waist seam on this pattern, so I decided to stick with my original idea. Let’s hope it works out.

I wanted to keep the skirt of the dress fairly plain to contrast with the top. After a bit of fiddling I came up with this layout

I’m using the stripes in the pattern at the top of the skirt piece but the bottom is plain navy blue. There is enough room to cut the skirt piece out twice like that. The two top pieces obviously have to be cut on the fold so I shall be cutting it like this:

I’m currently letting the fabric relax before getting the shears out. I haven’t tried that before, but it’s recommended in a book on sewing with knits I got recently and it certainly can’t hurt. I’ve been caught before by knits shrinking after cutting. How much this one will manage to relax when laid on carpet remains to be seen.

I can’t start sewing today because I haven’t got the right notions yet. As ever with Burda the pattern calls for something called Vilene Bias Tape which I have never seen in a shop. I’m hoping that strips of iron-on knit interfacing will do instead, but I do need to buy some elastic for the waist, so there will have to be a trip to the John Lewis haberdashery department next week. Such hardship!

Transparent fabric leads to more shopping

I cut my fabric – pale peach coloured cotton – and lining out at the weekend. The fabric seemed a little more transparent than I remembered but I persuaded myself it would be all right because I am lining the dress. I had another worrying moment when I couldn’t find a zip in anything like the right colour but I figured hey, it’s an invisible zip, so white will probably do fine. Then I started wondering if I could add pockets to the dress, but realised they’d show so decided not to. Even that didn’t make the penny drop.

Tonight I cleaned and set up my machine with the right needle and matching thread, and started trying out stitches on some scraps of the fashion fabric. Only at this point did I realise that there’s no way I am going to get away without underlining this dress because the seam allowances show through the fashion fabric! You can see it even when I lay the fabric on top of the lining. I couldn’t get a photograph that showed the effect, probably because I’m working by artifical light, but it’s definitely there to the human eye.

So tomorrow I will be dashing to John Lewis in my lunch hour and hoping I can find something suitable to underline the dress with. I don’t really know what I’m looking for. My sewing books suggest that batiste, organza, and lawn are all suitable choices but I don’t know the difference between them. Also with John Lewis you tend to have to just take what you can get – it’s great there’s a fabric shop close to my office at all, and the staff are really good, but it’s better for very fancy fabric than basics.

Failing getting anything tomorrow I’m going to see the V&A Quilts exhibition with my mum at the weekend, and we’re planning to make time for a bit of fabric shopping in London too. I might even be able to get a zip in the right colour! I find London’s dangerous unless I go armed with a shopping list. I am only looking for two things this time:

  • Jersey in either a very bright colour or a bold print for BurdaStyle 105-05-2010.
  • Orange china silk for a balloon dress that I haven’t found a pattern for yet. I suspect I’ll be combining McCalls 5799 and BurdaStyle 106-05-2010. I’m aware I’ll probably look like I wrapped myself in a parachute but I do love orange and the 1980s.

Maybe the policy of not sewing unless I have a vision of something I really want to wear is paying off. Now if only I could reduce the fabric mountain in the cupboard too.