Last year I decided to enter a sewing competition. As you do. And what do you know? Unlikely as it seems, it appears that I have won first prize, a brand spanking new Bernina 330 sewing machine. I am beyond excited, and not a little bit gobsmacked!
The competition was advertised in Sew magazine, and was organised by Bamber Sewing Machines in Eccles. I paid the princely sum of £18, and for this I was sent a pattern (Butterick 4790 – better known as the Walkaway Dress featured in last year’s Great British Sewing Bee) – as well as the fabric required to make it, a yellow ditsy floral cotton poplin. The rules were simple – use the provided fabric to make the dress in a size 12. Each person entering the competition could enhance and embellish their dress as they saw fit, but they needed to use the fabric provided and it had to be a size 12.
Now, while there will always be a place in my life for ‘quick and dirty sewing’ – whipping up a simple A-line skirt, for example – my real passion lies in couture sewing. I love couture’s perfect marriage of form and function, whereby even the humblest garment can be turned into something truly beautiful and unique through an attention to detail and carefully chosen finishes. If I’m putting time and effort into sewing a garment, I want it to be as perfect as possible. For me, sewing isn’t about speed, it’s about finish, and whatever I make needs to look as good on the inside as on the outside.
This is one of the reasons I decided to enter the dress competition. Not only did the competition allow me plenty of time to create the dress, but it also gave me the opportunity to play with some fun couture techniques and finishes to really make the dress my own. As everyone who entered was supplied with the same fabric, this would be a real test of how good my sewing actually is. By entering the competition, I could challenge myself to do the best job I was capable of. It never actually crossed my mind that I might win!
And so I set to work.
After cutting out the pattern (itself a mammoth undertaking due to the amount of fabric involved!), I sewed the different parts of the dress together using French seams. I love French seams! I think they give a garment a lovely neat and professional looking finish. I do have an overlocker, and I do use it, but my preference is always for a finished seam wherever possible.
Having sewn the component parts together, I created a full lining for the dress. I line pretty much everything I make; in my opinion, it provides a much nicer finish to a garment, helping it to last longer and hang better on the wearer. And with the fullness of the skirt on this dress, I thought a lining would give it a nice bit of body. And so it did!
Finally, crazy fool that I am, I hand finished the hems on the dress and the lining. Boy did that take some time!
The first real design decision came in choosing what bias binding to use to finish the outer edges of the dress. I initially considered using the plentiful fabric remnants to create my own, but I decided that whilst it would look very pretty, self-binding wouldn’t provide sufficient contrast, meaning that the dress might look a bit drab and washed out. I eventually plumped for a bright orange binding (I do love orange!), which was carefully stitched down by machine and then finished by hand. I’m a sucker for punishment!
The competition rules stated that we could enhance or embellish the dress as we saw fit, but I didn’t think it really needed too much pimping up. For me, the beauty of the Walkaway dress is in its simple clean lines, and the fabric we had been given had quite a delicate pattern. I didn’t want to detract from this by adding too much trim, so I decided that, in this instance, less is definitely more. But the big question was – how to embellish it without overwhelming it?
Now it has to be admitted that I have an irrational love of ric rac, and because of this, I really wanted to incorporate some into the finished garment. And whilst on a sewing course earlier this year, my lovely friend Cindy Dahlin showed me some divine little flowers and leaves she had made by intertwining two strands of ric rac.
I immediately knew that was the trim that the dress needed; all the other ladies on the course agreed – and so the decision was made!
I chose two contrasting shades of pink to pick up the colours of the flowers in the fabric, twisted them together, pressed them flat and attached them by hand to the dress, allowing a little bit of the orange binding to peek out at the edge.
Finally, I decided that the orange of the bias binding needed pulling out a little more, so some skinny ribbons were created using binding remnants, tied into a bow and attached to cover the spot where the ends of the ric rac trim met on the neckline.
I followed the pattern pretty much to the letter (a first for me!), but when it came to the closures at the front of the dress, I departed from the instructions. The dress, if made to the pattern, would be closed with three poppers, sewn onto the bias binding at the waistline, meaning that one front panel of the skirt would have to lie on top of the other. Not only would this totally spoil the line of the trim, I also had some doubts about how secure a closure poppers would be – I felt they were highly likely to fail my “donut test” (which consists of imagining how something would fit were I to go on a sugar bender and polish off a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts in one fell swoop…), and had visions of the dress pinging open at inopportune moments.
And so I elected to use hooks and eyes instead, to ensure the skirt stayed fastened (no matter how many donuts were consumed!) and to allow the two front panels to lie edge to edge when closed. They were attached using a modified tiny blanket stitch, using green silk buttonhole twist – which was also used to create bra-strap carriers and swing-tacks to attach the lining to the outer dress fabric at the hem.
The dress was now completed…
… but I still felt that something was missing. And as is often the case with dressmaking projects, there was a fair bit of fabric left over after cutting out. Now given the cost of fabric in Switzerland, and the fact that I’m a quilter, I am somewhat obsessive about not wasting fabric. So I decided to use some of the fabric remnants to make a co-ordinating little clutch bag, which I lined with orange striped fabric, and embellished with the same ric rac trim as the dress and an orange button to match the bias binding. I think it complements the dress perfectly and completes the outfit.
So here’s to my winning walkaway dress! I never imagined I’d win, but a lovely new sewing machine is sitting in my mum’s spare room as I write. I can’t wait to go and visit her so I can get sewing with it. And I hope that this might persuade other people to take the plunge and enter sewing competitions. Because, as I found out, you never know…
As I mentioned in my last post, RR’s lovely cousin Miss L got married last month, and I spent the summer sewing away to create two different outfits I could wear to her wedding. My fair weather option was a beautiful 1950s-inspired sundress with contrasting collar and cuffs (which I was happily able to wear – it was a glorious day!) – but as you can never really count on the weather in England, I also had a chilly day standby option – my beautiful peplum dress.
Back at the start of the summer, when I initially made the toile for this dress, I had plans to make it in a beautiful blue and white heavyweight stretch cotton.
But as I was making adjustments to my pattern, it occurred to me that this fabric would be far better suited to a summer-weight coat instead. And once I had this thought, I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t envisage it as a dress fabric anymore, it was definitely coat fabric! So although I loved the pattern, and the toile was fitting beautifully, I needed a Plan B.
Cue a morning of fabric rummaging, as I made my way through my dressmaking stash, and hit upon what, if it worked, could be an absolutely stunning option. The remnants of my pink bouclé fabric I’d purchased last year for my couture sewing class with Susan Khalje, and which ended up becoming my Marfy jacket.
Me in my Marfy jacket
At the time, at Alice’s insistence, I’d bought enough of this glorious fabric to make a matching skirt, but had never quite got around to it. And now I realised why – this fabric was just crying out to be made into a beautiful dress instead! Especially when paired with a divine purple silk satin lining I’d picked up at The Silk Society on Berwick Street on my last trip home.
The only problem was, the pattern called for 2.3m of fabric, and I had a mere 1.3m left. And the fabric has a directional weave, limiting my layout options. What’s more, I’m a bit OCD about pattern matching, so I wanted the weave to follow through across the width of the dress. Nothing like trying to make things easy for myself, eh?!
But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say! And so I cut my pattern pieces out of silk organza underlining, spent pretty much an entire weekend playing with the layout until I managed to get it all to fit.
And without including any hem allowance, leaving out the collar, and scrapping any idea of a belt.
Still, a hem can be faced, a collar wasn’t absolutely necessary, and I don’t much like belts on dresses anyway, so this wasn’t a huge issue for me!
So I basted the organza to the bouclé fabric, took a deep breath, and cut. And then very slowly started to sew.
At first, it all seemed to be going like a dream. I used the same couture techniques I had learned from Susan to make my jacket (using a silk organza underlining, then catch stitching all the hem allowances down to the underlining to control any fraying), and used a walking foot to make sure the fabric didn’t slip as I was sewing it.
The dress was almost finished, and fit like a glove, when the unthinkable happened.
When trimming back my seam allowances, just before catch stitching the final seam, I accidentally cut off the skirt vent on one half of the back of the dress. I just wasn’t concentrating, and before I knew it, that little rectangle of fabric was no longer attached to my dress, but sitting forlornly on my sewing table, asking me what the heck I was thinking of.
It has to be admitted that at this point some Very Very Bad Words were uttered, and I can neither confirm nor deny whether they rhymed with “Oh bucket!” They may well have done, and worse too!
Still, I’d invested a lot of time into this dress, and the fabric could in no way be described as inexpensive, so what’s a girl to do? Gather the scraps and try and carefully piece them back together to make some kind of vent facing, which could then be sewn back onto the dress as if nothing had happened.
So that’s exactly what I did! I am a quilter, after all…
Gathering the scraps
Matching pattern and sewing together to make a large enough piece for the vent
Attaching the new vent onto the bottom of the centre back seam
Buoyed by my success, I wondered whether I could repeat this exploit to create a collar for the dress too. I mean, it didn’t strictly speaking need one, but it would be a lovely addition if I could. So, after a whole day’s work with silk organza, fabric scraps, needle and thread, I created this lovely piece of FrankenFabric…
… which was just big enough to allow me to cut out the collar piece. Yay!!!
Finally, I added the hem facing and attached the lining, to create my glorious, beautiful, learning experience of a dress.
Finished peplum dress
Lovely little side peplum
Magnificently pieced bias-cut collar
Divine (and exceedingly flattering!) little cap style sleeves
With my Marfy jacket (sporting newly attached trim!)
And after all that, this is all the fabric I had left.
So the fabric may not have been cheap, but at least nobody can accuse me of wasteful extravagance, can they?!
After a seemingly endless summer (it was so hot I couldn’t even leave the apartment for days on end!), I have to say I’m very glad that autumn’s now upon us. It’s my favourite time of year, when the leaves start to turn, there’s a chill in the air in the mornings, and all around you can smell the grape harvests from the vineyards being pressed to make lovely Swiss wine.
RR and I left a very hot and humid Switzerland at the start of September for a 2 week break in England, and by the time we arrived home again, the days were crisp and clear and bright, making me think of autumn walks and pumpkin soup and fruit crumbles. Mmmmmmm!!!
Last Sunday by the lake
Plum and cinnamon crumble with walnuts – yummy!
We do try to get back to England together at least once a year, but this time we had a wonderful reason for our trip – RR’s lovely cousin Miss L was getting married We’d been looking forward to this wedding for a long time, and I was determined to find the perfect outfit to wear – made by me, of course!
And so, at the start of the summer, I made up a couple of toiles to trial possible dress options – a beautiful 1950s-inspired Butterick sundress, and a more elegant Vogue peplum dress.
I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to wear, and as they were both very different styles, and I was making them in very different fabrics, I decided to make both. Especially as I wanted to have options for both a chilly, damp day and a warm sunny one, given that you can never rely on the weather in England!
As it happened, it was a glorious day, and I ended up wearing my beautiful retro sundress, made up in a gorgeous Art Gallery cotton fabric. I chose a matching off-white Art Gallery solid to make up the collar and the cuffs, and to cover the buttons down the front bodice, and I lined it all with a lovely white cotton voile, bought at hideous expense from my local fabric store, but so soft and breathable it really was the ideal choice.
Butterfly Bliss from the Rapture range by Pat Bravo.
I did initially try to pattern match when I was cutting out, but the dress called for so much fabric that in the end I think I’d have had to buy an entire bolt, and even then it would be touch and go. As it was, I had to buy extra to get it all to fit. But I don’t think you really notice, and I absolutely love this dress, pattern matching or no!
Seeing as I had previously made a toile, the dress went together really quickly and easily. The main problem was wrestling with all that fabric when I was sewing! Oh, and hand-sewing the hem took the best part of a weekend. But I do so love the look of a hand sewn hem…
Retro sundress – bodice
Retro sundress – bodice close up
In the end, the biggest problem I had was trying to find the right shoes to match. After all, shoes make the outfit! I spent an entire day in London trawling Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street in a vain attempt to find the right colour shoe in the right style with the right height heel. It appeared that such a shoe didn’t exist. I could find the ideal style in the wrong colour, or the right colour with sky high heels that crippled me just to look at them! I was resigned to having to wear wellies or my trusty Converse sneakers to the wedding, and was about to drown my sorrows in a large G&T when my lovely friend Nic posted a link for me to a wonderful company called Upper Street, who create customised shoes to your own design. I immediately called and made an appointment to visit their Shoe Lounge in central London.
OMG!!! What a revelation!!! No more battling the west end crowds and trawling all the shoe shops to find what you need. No, over a glass of bubbly and with a yummy macaron or two to sustain you, you can sit in the comfort of their elegant Shoe Lounge, surrounded by shoe-spiration galore, and create your ideal shoe from scratch with the help of one of their lovely designers.
… and more shoe-spiration…
… everywhere you look, shoe-spiration!
Seriously. You can choose shoe shape, heel height, straps, buckles and zips, what the shoe is made from, what colour it is. You can even have a custom inscription on the sole of the shoe itself. And although it costs a little more than say Hobbs or LK Bennett, it’s a lot less than a pair of Louboutins. Wow!!!
Needless to say, I ordered a pair A peep toe court shoe with a kitten heel, made from off-white snakeskin.
My first custom-designed shoe!
Such a cute peep toe!
They’re simple and elegant and will go with pretty much anything – the ideal summer shoe! I picked them up four weeks later, just before the wedding. They were (and still are!) perfect, and totally made the outfit (along with the cute Furla bag that had caught my eye on my way to collect them…)
Matching bag from Furla
And so, without further ado, here’s the full “look” in all its glory. Ta da!!!!!
And although I’ve run out of time for this summer, I know that I’ll be making this dress again and again, in fact I have the ideal fabric stashed away for it for next summer. And, fortunately, it will go perfectly with my beautiful new shoes.
A retro sundress and a glorious pair of custom shoes. What more could a girl want??!
Now I’m not usually one to moan, but by heck have I been grouching and grumping around the place these past 2 weeks. Summer’s hit us here in Switzerland, and it’s hot. Really hot. Deeply, unpleasantly, airlessly hot. It’s been well into the 30s every day for 2 weeks now, with pretty much no breeze to speak of. It’s the kind of weather that is physically and mentally draining, where you only feel clean for about the 30 seconds after you get out of the shower, and it takes at least an hour to summon up the energy to make dinner, let alone eat it.
Yup – we’re in the middle of a heatwave. La canicule as they call it here. And – guess what – I really do not like the heat!
Last Monday, I finally persuaded RR to hook up our portable air conditioner for the summer, so I can now get some relief by sitting in a chair right in front of it, but as soon as I move the wall of heat hits me again. This means I’ve barely moved from the dining table for the past week…
But I’ve been keeping myself occupied, nonetheless. RR’s lovely cousin Miss L is getting married in September, so, of course, this means plenty of sewing to keep me busy over the summer. I’m not only making Miss L and Mr D a quilt as a wedding gift (of which more at a future date), I’m also planning to sew myself an outfit to wear on their big day.
And so, while the weather’s been all hot and bothersome outside, I’ve been narrowing down pattern and fabric options, and I’ve got it down to a shortlist of 2.
Option 1 is a classic and elegant Vogue pattern for a sleeveless sheath dress with a cute little peplum detail at the waist, and a separate belt to tie in the back (pattern number Vogue 1399)
I was thinking to use this beautiful white and navy cotton print, which I bought from Harlequin Fabrics in Leamington Spa when I was back visiting Mum earlier in the year.
It’s reasonably heavy weight, so I think it will give the dress a nice amount of structure, and it also has a little stretch to it, so it should be comfortable to wear.
My second option is something altogether different – a Butterick Retro pattern for a 1950s style dress with a fitted bodice, flared, panelled skirt, and lovely detailing with turned back lapels, faux buttons on the bodice, and pointed turn-back cuffs on the sleeves (pattern number Butterick 6018)
For this option, I’ve kind of earmarked some beautiful Art Gallery fabric –Butterfly Bliss by Pat Bravo, and I think it would look super-cute if I made the collar and cuffs in a plain white lawn as a contrast to the main fabric.
I’d originally bought this to make a dress for my niece, the lovely Miss B, but as she has yet to send me any of her measurements, I thought I’d appropriate it for me… Hee hee!
So – pattern and fabric choices narrowed down, I started work on a toile for each one. Sitting at the dining table. In front of the air conditioner!
Here they are on my sorry excuse for a dress form (it’s fine for holding my works in progress but no good at all for fitting; no matter how I adjust it, I just can’t get it right – it seems I have odd proportions! One day I’ll get a custom one made just for me, with all my lumps, bumps, and wobbly bits, but in the meantime, the one I have is better than nothing…)
1st toile for V1399
1st toile for B6018
Now, both toiles need a little adjustment (the Vogue one more than the Butterick one) and that is (hopefully) going to happen tomorrow, when I trot off for my new sewing class. The weather’s also due to break tomorrow, so fingers crossed, I should soon be able to get sewing
Here’s hoping, anyway!