Way back in the mists of time, I made a dress for my Textiles GCSE. This particular course took the approach that you should focus on the creative, imaginative side of sewing, and that you shouldn’t get too bogged down in the dull, pedantic details. Construction, fit, sizing… boring! Who needs to worry about those things? Let your imagination run riot, and we’ll bodge it together somehow! This rather devil-may-care attitude may explain why I ended up with a dress which, though I was sure it would fit me, ended up having to be modelled by the tallest, thinnest girl in the class (when we eventually managed to inveigle her into it and get the shoddily-inserted zip to fasten). My fabric choice didn’t help: why I thought it was a good idea to make the dress partially out of stapled-together pieces of my father’s old flying charts, history does not relate, though I suppose I have only myself and my misguided belief in my own artistic ability to blame. I still remember the expression on the poor model’s face as the photos were taken for the record. She hated me. If only she’d got to wear the brown ball-gown with the three-dimensional animal head appliqué which one of the other girls had made: at least that would have been less humiliating than an ill-fitting shift dress made from scratchy, aeroplane-smelling pieces of paper, topped off with a hessian waistcoat. Oh, did I forget to mention the waiscoat? It had no shaping at all, but what it did have was a motley collection of foreign stamps glued all over it. Seriously, there was no piece of obvious travel-related imagery that I didn’t pile onto that ensemble: thank heavens I didn’t think of making a hat. If I had done, it would probably have been shaped like a zeppelin. Or, more likely, a battered duffel bag. Looking back, it’s a miracle I even passed that course.
The outcome of the whole map-dress debacle was that, despite being the proud possessor of an A-grade in textiles, I still had absolutely no idea how to decode a pattern, and then make something wearable from it, let alone a garment in which I would be proud to be seen in public. I stumbled through a couple of skirts a few years ago, but one makes me look rather like one of those knitted toilet-roll covers with a doll stuck through the middle, and the other stalled catastrophically when I started to improvise a lining, got stuck and promptly hid the abortive garment in the bottom of my sewing box for the next five years. What I did manage to do, though, was to read a lot about how I should be approaching dressmaking. I haunted web forums, pored over books on technique, took note of what other, more accomplished people told me. Some of it must have paid off because, not that long ago, I completed a dress which I shall be wearing to a friend’s wedding this weekend. There may be photos taken of the me in the dress, and I have promised not to wear a bag over my head as part of the outfit. From this, you may deduce that I’m actually pretty happy with the results. I didn’t get it all right, not by a long way, but I’m fairly sure that the other wedding guests aren’t going to spend the day sniggering at me, so I’m putting it down as a success.
The pattern I used was Simplicity 2209, otherwise known as the Passport dress. I used some rose-print cotton from Ikea, which, admittedly, I chose largely because it was cheap and would be easy to replace if things went horribly wrong. Fortunately, there were no catastrophes: I had learned my lesson about measuring twice and cutting once, tracing the pattern onto fresh tissue, and grading between sizes where necessary (my waist has got thicker post-Eoin, which I think is nature’s way of telling you that you either have to stop making “Misses” patterns, or get to the gym post-haste). I had to learn several new skills: there was an invisible zip to insert and interfacing and bias binding to apply, after I had dealt with the pleats at the waist, and the rather unusual darting of the bodice. I thought about trying to make a full-bust adjustment, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it (it was only later that I read this helpful post on the subject) so I settled for erring on the large side, and then adding darts at the armscyes to reduce the inevitable gaping. It worked fairly well, but I may think about some gathering next time. I was also pleasantly surprised by how straightforward the zip insertion was. It seems that, as with many things, the trick is to watch a lot of youtube videos on the subject beforehand: I found the instructions in the pattern so much more intelligible after I had seen the process demonstrated visually. As you can see, I decided to leave the bias binding visible at the armscye: the pattern directed you to turn it all to the inside, but I liked the idea of the colour contrast, and chose cherry-red binding specifically.
Turning up the hem evenly on my own proved something of a challenge: despite having a dressmaker’s dummy who could obligingly model the dress while I pinned it up, it took quite some wrestling until I had it done neatly. I did, however, remember to make a neat, double-turned hem, so as to avoid flashing horrid overcast edges whenever I sat down. Things were, apparently, going well. It was at this point that, drunk on my own power and success, I decided to add some rickrack, retrospectively, to the hem. Of course, I hit the computer and found several helpful tutorials, like this one which, you will notice, directs you to apply the rickrack before sewing the hem. Funnily enough, they all advised this. “Never mind”, I thought, “it can’t really be that hard to apply a narrow little bit of trimming to an already-sewn hem”. Several hours of pinning, tacking and sweaty-palmed snail-paced sewing with my face pressed as close to the machine as possible, I can tell you that you should definitely, positively, absolutely apply the trim first and sew the hem second. It’s still not quite right, and I nearly took my eye out on the thread take-up lever on more than one occasion. Learn from my mistakes, people: I do these stupid things so you don’t have to.
Having untangled myself from the rickrack, I surveyed the results: despite the trimming headaches, the dress was wearable, even flattering. I decided to complete the outfit by making a button necklace in the same manner as my first one, but in red and pink tones to complement the floral print. This time, I wove in a couple of pearl and crystal beads from my stash, to add a little extra sparkle. I realise that wearing a handmade button necklace with a dress you sewed yourself may be overkill, but I like to fly the crafty flag defiantly.
I usually try to avoid photographs of myself at all costs: I tend to look like a pig in a wig, but I feared this time I may be edging closer to “hippo crossed with a sofa cushion”. Fortunately, the lovely Samgoose proved to have some excellent camera skills. Here I am, modelling the dress with an optional Eoin-shaped accessory:
Photographs by Samantha Nagtegaal
It’s not going to win any tailoring prizes, but at least this dress shows I have come a long way since GCSE textiles. I have high hopes for the next garment…