Tag Archives: couture sewing techniques

A Winning Walkaway Dress

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.


clutch bag

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…

The Peplum Dress

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.

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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


Et voilà! 

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


Side view


With my Marfy jacket (sporting newly attached trim!)


Matching bag…


… and matching shoes

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?!

Marfy Couture Jacket Finally Finished!

After a bit of a sewing hiatus this summer, my Marfy couture jacket is finally finished!

Woo hoo!!!!!

I started the jacket back in June, when I was fortunate enough to travel to Baltimore to take a week-long couture sewing class with Susan Khalje. I had a fantastic time, learnt more than I thought possible, and left with an almost-completed jacket and a list of things I needed to do to finish it up.

Here’s how things looked back in June…


The exterior was all done. The lining was almost put together, apart from the sleeves. All I had left to do was finish the inside of the jacket, finish the lining, and attach one to the other.

When I got home, I put the jacket on my dress form in my sewing room, and I’m sorry to say that there it stayed until the end of the summer. I did have a bit of a crazy summer, and, after all, it’s hard to find the motivation to finish making a jacket when it’s way too warm to wear it.

Come the beginning of September, I decided it was finally time. There was a bit of a nip in the air in the mornings and it was clear that autumn was on its way. Ideal jacket-and-jeans weather was on its way. I decided my jacket Needed Finishing, and the best way to do it was to tackle one job at a time,

First up, finishing off the lining by attaching the sleeves to the main body of the lining…

… and may I just say that this was probably the hardest part of the entire jacket – that silk charmeuse is one slippery fabric! There’s absolutely no give in it, and just when you think you’ve managed to ease the sleeve into the sleeve-hole (for want of a better word), you realise that you’ve managed to rotate the whole sleeve by about 45° and the blasted thing’s all wonky, so you have to take out the basting stitches and start again. It literally took a week to get it right, by which point I was seriously considering leaving the sleeves unlined!

Then, catch stitching the seams of the jacket exterior to the underlining…


… hand-overcasting the arm-hole seams…


… and giving it a good pressing.


After the trauma of attaching the sleeves to the lining, attaching the lining to the exterior of the jacket went like a dream …



… and then it was time to create and attach the patch pockets…

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Et, voilà! My jacket was finished! I think it’s gorgeous, but then again, I could be a wee bit biased!

I’ve decided that, for now, I’m not going to add any trim. I haven’t found anything I like enough, I’m not sure that it really needs it, and, to be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that adding a trim is really ‘me’ (I’m more of a jeans and sneakers kind of gal). There’s always the possibility of adding something at a later stage, if I choose, but for now I’m more than happy to wear my beautiful, perfectly-fitting, hand-crafted jacket with pride, all the while planning my next couture sewing project 🙂

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(Fabric from Mendel Goldberg, 72 Hester St, New York, NY100o2)

A Wonderful Week of Sewing

Last week was one of the most exciting and fun weeks I have ever had. It was the week of my Couture Sewing class with Susan Khalje in Baltimore, and it was truly wonderful. I learnt so much, met some absolutely lovely ladies, and came away with an almost-finished jacket and even more enthusiasm for sewing (if indeed that was humanly possible!)

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Front and back views of almost-completed jacket

All the ladies on the course had come with different goals. I wanted to make a fitted jacket with pointed lapels, Ms BH was making a Marfy coat-dress, Ms JL was making a beaded skirt, while Ms Bd’E was using exqisite fine lace to make an elegant evening top. The other ladies were making dresses – evening dresses, sundresses, smart dresses – all very different styles, but all utterly glorious.

The first day was spent getting acquainted, refining the fit on our toiles and – for those of us who needed to – going fabric shopping at A Fabric Place in Baltimore.

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Ms T’s bias dress

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 Ms V’s elegant slim fit dress

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 Ms K’s feminine sundress

And if I thought the patterns were gorgeous – oh my – the fabrics my fellow sewing students were using were just divine!


Miss C’s gorgeous fabric (on roll)

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Ms JE’s (left) and Ms JT’s (right) fabric choices


Ms V’s silk and cotton


Ms K’s beautiful blue floral fabric

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Ms JL’s glorious beaded fabric

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Ms BdE’s delicate lace

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Ms M’s beautiful floral and lace combination 

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Ms E’s divine blue

By the end of day 1, I’d learnt more about fitting than I thought possible, and, in the process of having my own toile fitted, I  discovered why it was that dresses, tops and jackets never fit me properly. Now I’m tall (5’10”, 177cm), so I always have to add length to a pattern when I’m making my own clothes. In the past, I’d always used the lengthen/shorten here lines on the pattern pieces (which are always below the bustline). What I learned from Susan was that, given my figure (small frame, narrow shoulders, full bust), I actually need to add the length above the bust to accommodate its fullness. She cut my toile horizontally above the bust, we patched in a 1 1/2″ strip of muslin – et voila! My toile suddenly fitted! Needless to say, this was an absolute revelation, and I’m so excited to think that such a simple alteration as that will have such a huge impact on my future sewing projects. Wow!


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First toile fitting – needs more length in the front

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Taking jacket in at the back

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 Adding length above the bustline

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 Wow, it fits!!! 

As the week progressed, everyone’s projects really began to take shape. New techniques were learnt (bound buttonholes, hand-picked zippers, bodice-boning, attaching sleeves…) and refinements were made to patterns where necessary.

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Ms BH’s bound buttonhole

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Inserting a hand-picked zipper

Apart from the fitting adjustments to my toile, there was only one area of the jacket pattern I consciously changed. Neither Ms BH nor I much liked the sleeves on our pattern (too loose, no structure) so Susan helped us morph a sleeve pattern of hers onto our respective coat-dress and jacket. It was a three part sleeve (a concept I had never come across before), and it suited our patterns beautifully!

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Spot the difference!

On left of picture (right hand side of jacket) – unaltered toile, with icky, shapeless sleeve.

On right of picture (left hand side of jacket) adjusted toile with new, elegant fitted sleeve

We all supported and encouraged each other, opinions were sought (and given!), Ms BH and Miss C lent out their dressforms and work progressed beautifully.

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And slowly but surely my jacket started to take shape…

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Using deconstructed and altered toile to cut out silk organza underlining


Cutting out from my fashion fabric – eek! Pattern matching was not easy…

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Basting underlining to pattern pieces

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It’s getting there…

By the last day of the course, Miss C had finished her beautiful dress, and all the rest of us were well on our way.

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Ms E

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 Ms K

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Mother and daughter Ms BH and Miss C

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Ms T

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I left for the airport to begin the long trip home feeling absolutely shattered but elated by what I had managed to achieve, and certain in the knowledge that I would be back to learn more as soon as I can manage.


(With many thanks to Ms M, who took a lot of these photos and has kindly allowed me to use them here…)