Dresses of a year

Before you have children, everyone tells you that once you do your time will disappear. And you think, ok, sure, but you really have no concept of how things will change in your life. How much longer everything takes with a small person in tow. How your own time pretty much condenses to the few hours between dinner and bed, plus the unknown length of nap time. But that time can add up into some pretty serious chunks of sewing (as long as you adjust your tolerance to mess and don’t mind the only time the dining table gets cleared is when you want to cut out fabric…).

Herewith projects sewn, photographed but unblogged in 2016 because some things have to give. In roughly chronological order.

170107dresses7Three Seamwork Kennedy dresses. (Yes, there are only photos of two.) I quite like this pattern, although it is a tad short. I was really unsure about the sack-like trapeze silhouette, but this pattern convinced me as long as it’s fitted around the bust and shoulders, it’s ok. These were in my nursing stage so I added the exposed zippers, which worked well but now I no longer need access are of an awkward length (almost to the natural waist where they’d probably look better ending just below the bust). The first was made in a polyester textured navy and white stripe stretch fabric from Spotlight, inspired by this Karen Walker dress. I raised the back neckline so it doesn’t have the V and ties. I’d wear it more if I hadn’t used a gold bias binding around the neck and sleeves which is very scratchy. The purple tropical print was the second and most successful. This is a silk/cotton blend with a seersuckerish texture bought at The Fabric Store years ago. Made for the Canberra Sewing Crew’s autumnal high tea and worn heaps, even to work with tights and a blazer. For the third version, I lengthened it into a maxi dress for my birthday picnic. I love the look of this but the feather fabric (“peachskin” from Girl Charlee) is a) slightly sheer and b) quite sweaty so it really needs a slip underneath and since I don’t have one, has hardly been worn.

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One Acton dress pattern testing for In The Folds. In the few years I’ve been regularly reading sewing blogs, there have been two or three kerfuffles about pattern testing so I signed up for this as much to see what was involved as for the pattern (although I do like the silhouette and wouldn’t have volunteered for something I wouldn’t wear). I thought Emily wrote a good blog post about her process (after the fact) and I was impressed with how she ran it – especially having a closed Facebook group for all the testers so we could see each other’s progress and get quick feedback from Emily on muslins, fitting and the like. The top of this is a cotton-spandex knit from Spotlight, originally bought to make leggings, and the skirt is silk from that same long-ago trip to The Fabric Store as the purple tropical print above. I also modified this slightly for nursing, extending the straps at the front to the waistline and attaching them to the top of the bodice with press studs (I think I’ll go back and sew them on now to make them more secure). I sewed this right before winter and it promptly got too cold to wear a floaty silk skirt so it hasn’t been out of the wardrobe much. I’d like to make another version, View A this time with the plain A-line skirt.

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One chameleon two-piece ball gown. The problem with all the ball gowns made so far is they get worn once or twice then never again, not being especially practical dresses. This year’s was going to be totally different. I used the short version of Vogue V8921, which hits about knee-length, and used the pattern to draft a maxi skirt, gathered at the waist instead of pleated, that buttons at each side seam behind those crossover panels. The dress is made of silk jersey (from Mood, more on that in a moment) and the skirt of polyester chiffon with a burnout floral pattern from Spotlight that I dyed blue. I was thrilled with the execution, which came out as a whole how I imagined, but I was displeased with my fitting skills. It was these photos that made me realise my post-baby body needs an FBA on patterns not a larger size. The dress on its own is too large in the back, so the crossover panels droop badly and pull the side seams to the front. It’s sitting on my sewing desk waiting for some large darts to be put in back in the hope that will fix many of its problems.

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One glorious emerald Anna dressThis was a pretty quick, I-need-something-glam-fast dress to wear to Fashfest and it’s turned out to be one of my two favourite makes of the year. I just feel fabulous every time I wear it! It’s the tried-and-true Anna bodice with a scooped out back plus a self-drafted pleated skirt (if by self-drafted you mean “lie fabric next to ruler and pleat until it’s the right width”). But the thing that really makes it is the fabric: more of that silk jersey from Mood. I’ve wanted to sew with this for years but it’s always been prohibitively expensive – until one late night browsing the Mood website for something else entirely I stumbled across it at 15 per cent of its usual price (A$11 a yard!) and, well, the only question was which colour to buy. I got 3.5 yards each of three colours (I still have a bright red/orange to sew) quick smart. But the next morning when I thought to share this bounty with instagram, lo it was changed to 15 per cent OFF the regular price, per haps alerted by my order? This stuff is an absolute dream to sew and it feels like wearing a waterfall. I’ve worn this dress so much. (Yes, it does need some bra-strap-holding thread chains in the shoulders; I know this but haven’t bothered.)

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One Cotton + Steel + Chalk fab floral dress. Like most of the rest of the sewing sphere, when I saw the Rifle Paper Co. collaboration with Cotton+Steel I had to get some. 2016 has been the year I discovered rayon properly – its drape! its feel against the skin! – so for me there was no question about the substrate and Miss Matatabi only had red left by the time I finally went to buy some. Lucky I love red! I wanted to try out the Cotton+Chalk Rosie dress pattern that came with a Simply Sewing magazine and am happy with the pairing of fabric and pattern. I also love the piping I added at the waist panel. I’m not happy, however, with the fit – I just couldn’t work out the sizing properly and even though I took the side seams in heaps the neckline gapes something shocking plus the zipper bulges. I think part of the problem is the bodice is too long – I’m working on a new sloper so I can try to adjust these things before I get sewing. But these issues haven’t stopped me wearing this a whole lot as a casual dress. (Psst… I can’t remember how I discovered this but Rifle Paper Co is doing another fabric collection, this time inspired by Alice in Wonderland. I think it’s out a bit later this year.)

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Two Cynthia Rowley rayon sundresses. These are a really wearable muslin and the actual planned dress, and I’ve worn them both heaps. The spotty one (at right) is the other of my two favourite makes for the year, but I’ve failed to get photos apart from a windy, footless impromptu few at MONA in Hobart. The pattern is Simplicity 1873, which I’ve had for years and made up once before, in a perfectly pattern-matched plaid taffeta that was much too short – a problem exacerbated by a flighty skirt. This time I lengthened the skirt (or maybe used the pieces from view A instead of C?), scooped the neckline out ever so slightly and added pockets (and colour blocked the skirt on the spotty version). There was a bit of faffing around with the seam allowance in the side seam but I’m really happy with the fit. I also love how full the skirt is – the front has three panels, with the seams hidden in the pleats. The orange/purple zebra-esque fabric is rayon from Spotlight, bought originally to make a Sewaholic Cambie with to imitate this dress from an episode of Awkward:

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but I couldn’t face fitting that pattern properly (again), so used it as a muslin for this one. I cut it on the crossgrain for the direction of the orange zig-zags and then didn’t have quite enough for the skirt so one of the back two panels is pieced. I was worried about the weight of the extra seam (it’s about two-thirds of the way down) but it turns out to be a total non-issue. The red spotted fabric is a rayon crepe from Tessuti and seen all over Instagram. I took both dresses on a recent work trip to LA and was secretly thrilled when another of the reporters asked if the spotty one was Gorman (how good is it to be able to reply, “No, I made it”?).

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Miscellaneous un-selfish sewing. First birthday Oliver+S field trip cargo pants (minus the cargo pockets and adding adjustable elastic) made from a worn-out pair of my jeans. Christmas and first birthday Oliver+S Pinwheel tunics and dress. Seamwork Almada using vintage kimono silk for trim.

Not pictured: Tote bags from a Japanese bag book for all the women I give Christmas gifts to. A dopp kit from the Grainline Portside set for my brother. Two True Bias Sutton blouses (and fabrics bought for a third, which totally counts, right?). Metres and metres of birthday bunting. Three MadeIt Patterns Groove dresses. Second birthday Brindille and Twig Pocket Raglan Dress and Big Butt Pants matching set. Two balloon ball covers traced from one a cousin gave us. Bandana bibs for a dribbly teether.

Golden gown

150627gown03This year’s Midwinter Ball was winter wonderland themed, so naturally my mind went to creams, whites, silvers, blues and sparkles. Lots of sparkles. Basically, Elsa dresses, right?

There might be no cape and the sparkles are rather subtle, but in the end I am completely thrilled with this gown.

150627gown10(Yes, I always wander around the bush in near-zero temperatures wearing sleeveless ball gowns. Don’t you? My photographer said it all put him in a rather Picnic at Hanging Rock frame of mind. Fortunately, no disappearances occurred.)

150627gown06This is the Simplicity 2580, view D again. It’s such an easy sew! Well, apart from the bit where I sewed the right-side-out bodice to the wrong-side-out skirt. This also happened on the earlier green version so that step must just come at the point where my brain’s had enough of this sewing lark. Plus the doubled over front bodice piece, forming the cowl, makes it confusing to tell which is the right side and which is the wrong side.

150627gown09I made no changes to the pattern apart from adding in back darts. They’re a little lumpy because I did this right at the end, catching in all the overlocking and elastic on the waist seam, but I’ve now added the darts to my traced pattern so they can happen in the proper order next time.  Otherwise, I’ve used clear elastic on the shoulders and waist, overlocked all the exposed inside seams, hand-stitched the neck and armhole facings and machine-sewed a double fold hem (on account of running out of time to hand-stitch).

150627gown08The fabric is a viscose/elastane/lurex knit from Tessuti; cream with gold woven throughout. I was lucky enough to have a friend heading up the highway to fabric shop so I gave him three options from Tessuti’s website and asked him to stretch-test them all. It’s a pretty stable knit, quite like a ponte, and is so comfortable to wear I think this ball gown qualifies as secret pyjamas!
150627gown13Once all sewed up it just needed something extra to lift the plain colour. After visiting four fabric shops one afternoon I found some suitable lace mesh at Spotlight. With the help of my mother I fiddled around with the placement of a few of the flower bunches then hand-sewed them down (in the very pleasant company of Phryne Fisher). I love the subtle embellishment the lace appliqué adds, lifting the dress without being overpowering.

All dolled up for the ball - photo by Mick Tsikas
All dolled up for the ball – photo by Mick Tsikas

I like this pattern so much I’m plotting a few more dresses from it and contemplating drafting a cross-over/faux wrap front bodice to make it baby-feeding-friendly. I’m also debating whether to cut this particular gown off at knee length after attending CBR Frocktails to make it a bit more wearable. There aren’t too many occasions where one can sport a full-length golden gown!

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150627gown01The other best part about this gown? There was enough fabric left over to make a birthday present for my one-year-old odd-daughter. The pattern is Brindille and Twig’s t-shirt dress which I hacked to add the colour-blocked skirt band (there wasn’t enough width in the gold scraps to get the full skirt out of) and a Peter Pan collar. I also had to cut the back in two pieces instead of on the fold. The sleeves and skirt band are in black ponte and the collar is a lighter-weight jersey because I thought two layers of the thicker knit might be too bulky. A very quick sew after all the puzzlement of making new pattern pieces for my changes.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

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If there’s one thing sewing is widely acknowledged as being good for, it would have to be making you realistic – and appreciative – about your body. Once you get a few garments done and start to learn some fitting and adjustments, it seems that suddenly everybody is able to acknowledge their short torso, full/small bust or rounded shoulders – whatever it may be that makes them a unique body. And you learn that what is, is, more or less.

I’ve spent much of the past 18 months cranky at my body for not doing what I wanted it to do. Being cranky at your flesh for what ultimately turns out to be a (fixable) medical issue really is a waste of energy and emotions. But try telling that to the irrational brain that’s used to being in charge of things. Now this body is finally doing what I want, yet that hard won knowledge about it might as well be thrown out the window. The outside flesh is even more alien to me right now than the little guy growing inside.

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For a few years now I’ve walked around with the knowledge of my bust/waist/hip measurements in my brain. Maybe it changes by a centimetre or two with a kilo here or there, but generally I can look at a pattern and have a pretty good idea what size I’ll need. I’ve been the same RTW dress size for years (you know, as much as brand variance allows, but I know the size needed from the shops I love). Now? Not so much.

This has all come to a head because the annual ball is looming. I wanted to avoid the stress of last year so figured I’d buy a gown. Something stretchy or empire line, because I honestly have no idea what shape I’ll be on the night. Online searches appear to reveal that pregnant women either a) aren’t supposed to go to black tie events or b) can’t wear sequins, lace or anything gorgeously spangly. Bah to that! I joke to everyone that I’ll make Kim Kardashian’s sofa cover. I’m still not convinced I want to sew anything. For months I’ve been too busy napping to sew; the only things that have emerged from my sewing room are an oversize Finalyson for me, a baby quilt for my brother, half a Kielo dress and a tantrum at my continuously unthreading overlocker.

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So I head to the shops for a last ditch try for something RTW that has space for a bump, looks elegant and doesn’t cost a fortune. Halfway through the expedition I remember I basically haven’t been clothes shopping since starting to change shape. I had an early burst of enthusiasm when my tummy looked like it only contained a large dinner and bought some delightfully stretchy Metalicus dresses, but that’s it. Remember how I said I’ve been the same RTW size for years? Yeah, the fourth gown in a row in “my” size where the zipper wouldn’t get within cooee of doing up and I agreed that wasn’t the case any more. Turns out just because I’ve been squeezing into my same old bras and clothes doesn’t mean I’m the same size or shape.

That experience combined with contemplating stash patterns to sew a gown made it really finally hit me: I don’t know my measurements any more. I don’t know my body any more. I don’t know what adjustments need to be made. That stomach I’ve been admiring in the mirror each morning, willing to poke out more? It means real change. People say your ever-changing body while you’re incubating a new human is a way to prepare yourself for the loss of control babies bring to life. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. It’s tough. But I suspect the first step is to drag out the measuring tape and reset the numbers in my head – this week and next week and the week after…

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PS – I sewed this dress after writing the bulk of this post. It’s view D of Simplicity 2580 in a polyester stretch crepe from Spotlight and I’m happy enough with it that I’ll make the full-length version for the ball. The construction was super easy, with the front bodice self-lining to make the cowl work nicely and as a bonus encases all the bodice seams. Bit the bullet, took those measurements and wound up sewing a size larger than “normal” (Simplicity’s size 20 here). I added clear elastic to the shoulders and waist seam, and hand stitched the neckline, sleeve facings and hem. I’m generally happy with the fit, although it’s a bit baggy in the back which I’m hoping adding a couple of darts to the next version will fix.

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