Unexpectedly, I needed an evening dress.
I’m not really into New Year’s Eve events, being more of a stay home and watch a movie kind of girl. The years I did go out, it was only to a friend’s house, and dressing up wasn’t necessary. This year, I was invited out to dinner at Edwin’s in Shaker Square, followed by The Cleveland Museum of Art’s New Year’s Eve party.
I promptly thought: Eeeeeeek! I have NOTHING TO WEAR!
Possibly you don’t believe me. I am a reasonably accomplished seamstress, after all. I love dresses, too, and they are incredibly fun to make! However….I am sorry to say my evening wear selection is a bit sparse. I don’t go out much to places where such sartorial loveliness is required. I have one dress suitable for weddings, and it is a lovely, 1960s Butterick design made in a charcoal faille with silver threads. It was a bit too lightweight for the forecast, unfortunately. New Year’s Eve had light snow predicted and highs in the lower 30s. Brrr. I just hate to be cold! If only I could be both warm and pretty. But….I do have a lined velvet bolero.
You remember the bolero, right? It was one of my first posts, “She Wore Blue Velvet”. Well, it just so happens, there was about a yard and a half of velvet leftover from that project. Can you believe it? Either I had originally planned to make a matching dress or I just bought too much. Thank goodness for excess yardage!
It was enough to whip up an emergency sleeveless shift dress, with some of the lining scraps to create a rever collar. I can hear you say, what’s a rever collar? I didn’t know what it was, either. A rever collar is created when you add a triangular section to the neckline of your pattern. After your fabric is cut, this triangular section is reversed and folded down to make a collar. Super pretty, huh? I fell in love with the concept and this dress was the perfect opportunity to try it out.
I know, I know, questionable wisdom, trying out a new technique on a dress that has to be finished in five evenings. But it was soooo cute! So naturally I threw caution and good sense to the wind and began work.
First, I followed the steps to creating a pattern in this great book, The Pattern Making Primer by Jo Barnfiled and Andrew Richards. If you don’t own it, you must go out and get a copy- it’s amazing! There is some wonderfully clear and helpful information inside about ways you can alter patterns. The photos show all the steps and the chapters are dedicated to specific pattern piece alterations: sleeves, collars, gathers, etc.
Then, using my altered pattern (I used Laurel, by Colette Patterns) I cut my new dress front. Spiffy! I put all my darts in first, before I do my side seams, because I find that it helps head off a few fitting issues before they happen. I know by now that my bodice darts need to be longer and often higher than most patterns suggest, and my back darts also need to be fuller a couple inches further down than many patterns indicate because I’m long waisted. With the Laurel, it also helps me to add about an inch and a half to the top of the shoulder and extend the waist length by two inches because my long torso throws off the fit on this particular pattern.
This is my third version of this pattern, and if you make a pattern a couple of times you really get to know it. I made my first Laurel in a blue suiting, which is where I figured out my fitting adjustments. I later made a second one in a double knit, which you should definitely try! It lends itself very well to experimentation and can be treated like a woven but without the fraying and extra zigzag finishing on the edges.
As I mentioned in my earlier bolero post, velvet is a little tricky to work with. It slides around, it has a pile, and it frays with handling. Building on my prior experience with this luxurious fabric, I opted to finish my seams with a zigzag stitch to halt the fraying, and for extra durability, I used french seams. It won’t do to have your velvet dress come apart at…er, the seams… because it frays! I do love a good french seam, because they’re such an elegant way to finish a seam once you wrap your head around the idea of sewing it the opposite way with wrong sides together and then doing a second seam on the inside to encase that first seam.
Everything was coming along so well, and then I had trouble on my back. I’m not being metaphorical. The back of the dress was all weirdly lumpy. I’m not sure if I made a mistake with my back darts, my zipper, or something else, but my fabric was rolling right at the waist line just above my backside. I checked to see if I had cut off grain, but that wasn’t it. I was in despair. This dress had to ready in 48 hours and I had a problem. What to do? Naturally, I went to bed. I’m a woman of action, after all!
I’ve heard you can sleep on a problem and your brain will work on it creatively while you dream. I find this to be remarkably accurate. Often I will find a solution the next morning, as if the sewing fairy left it under my pillow. (If the sewing fairy is not a real thing, it should be. Where else do inspiration and missing buttons materialize from?) Anyway, my solution was simple: add a second dart next to the first, longer and curving toward the hip, following the weird bumpy fabric. Lots of vintage dresses have pairs of shallow darts at the back, and it creates a more sculpted form. Elegant, historically accurate, and not much trouble, this dart did the trick! I like this solution much better than tearing out the sides and original dart and redoing them, which I was glumly considering before bedtime that night. I can tell you that velvet does not hold up well to lots of seam ripping. It messes up the pile and encourages fraying. My advice is to go slowly, carefully, and double check everything when working with velvet. It will not forgive you.
I hemmed my dress by first encasing the edge in bias tape and then stitching the hem on the tape. I did the same thing with the armholes. On a sleeveless dress, this is the way to go! It’s very tidy and the tape adds durability. Bias tape rocks.
Now, for the collar. If I was doing this strictly by the book, I would cut a lining following the entire neckline. It would elegantly fall to the upper chest and shoulder blades, finished with bias tape, and make for a very pretty interior. Um, yeah, no, I didn’t do that. The trouble is, my lining is a vintage 1980s remnant of thin poly charmeuse that Grandma made a lovely blouse from for my mother. I remember that blouse; it was always one of my favorites. Unfortunately, I used most of my remnant on my bolero lining. If I had opted not to line the sleeves, perhaps I would have had plenty of lining left for the neckline, but at the time I had no clue that over a year later I’d suddenly need more of that lining. You know what they say about hindsight! Ugh. If only I could time travel!
Only a small amount remained, and it was enough to line the collar, but that’s all. With some very, very carefully planned cutting I could line the front neckline and the lining would stop half an inch below the visible neckline. As you may have noticed from my earlier posts, I improvise pretty well when I need to…because I sometimes do really dumb things and I need to improvise to fix the dumb things that I do! So, here I improvised by having my collar lining stitched to the underside of the collar where you can’t see it, and I hand stitched it at the v point in the center of the neckline. I don’t like it, but there isn’t enough fabric left to properly finish with bias tape. It would roll up and be visible to all whenever I move, so stitching it down was my only option. This is emphatically NOT the way it should be done, but it did work. The velvet camoflages the stitching fairly well unless you look closely. Being evening wear, it will be dark anyway, and we know you can hide a lot of sins in the dark… no, not that! Sewing sins! That’s what I mean!
My dress was finished at 10pm on December 30th, with less than 24 hours to go before showtime. I do not reccommend attempting to make a dress less than a week before you need it unless you have impeccable skill and nerves of steel! My nerves and skills were certainly tested this week! But, if you are going to do that, keep it simple with a minimum of pattern pieces and try to use one that you have made before and worked out the kinks already…and it doesn’t hurt to have a back up dress in case it all goes sideways. At least now I have two party dresses. Anybody having a party? I’ve got a dress!
Happy Sewing, and Happy New Year!