Sunday, 27 January 2013

1920s dress - skirt patterns

I’ve been unwell this week, and amid all the generally feeling under par, I had to admit that the project I was working on just wasn’t going to come off. So I sulked for a bit, then put it away and set about concentrating on my 1920s dress.

A quick sketch of would-be pattern pieces convinced me that a single tier of long panels, like those on the Met’s Poiret dress, was not what I wanted.

Paul Poiret dress with long panels over the skirt

Instead I’m going for two tiers of shorter panels. The effect should be rather like the Philadelphia Museum’s dress, except that both tiers of panels will hang loose from the dress, whereas on this dress the top ‘panels’ are part of the dress.

Dress with two rows of panels

Having decided on the panel dimensions, I needed something to fill them with. As I don’t have the time or inclination for a lot of beading, this will involve painting the designs onto the panels with fabric paints. My first idea was to use Dover Publications’ “Ancient Egyptian Cut and Use Stencils”, but although I found some suitable images, the detail was too fine for what I wanted.

Then I remembered two books I have by the quilter Barbara Chainey; “Egyptian Treasure” and “Inspired by Egypt“. These contain patterns based on examples from the Tentmakers of Cairo, and turned out to be perfect for what I wanted.

I drew out some designs, and then coloured them in to get a better idea of the effect.

My original designs

Then I tried arranging them in the pattern I had in mind for the skirt.

The proposed layout on the skirt

I was reasonably happy with this, but the stems on centre panel at the top looked too straight compared to the more sinuous designs of the other panels, so I added a couple of buds on curved stems.

The first panel redrawn with more curly bits

Then I drew out the designs again, making a few tweaks where I felt that lines were too close together, and went over the lines in black pen to make them clearer.

Outlines only

Next it was time to start a trial piece. I’m using a fine ivory satin crepe for the dress and the panels, crepe side out. I cut a piece and pinned it over a wood frame, holding it in place with three-pronged drawing pins. The fabric has a slight stretch in it, so I will have to bear this in mind when I come to do the real pieces, to ensure that they are not distorted.

I laid the frame over the black line drawing, face down, and traced the designs onto the wrong side of the fabric. Fortunately all of the motifs are symmetrical, so tracing onto the wrong side doesn’t matter. Then I turned the frame right side up, and went over the faint pencil lines with outliner.

Outliner, also called gutta, is a gel-like substance. It soaks into the fabric and forms a barrier which the fabric paint can’t cross, so you get a clearly defined shape. Outliner can be clear or coloured (usually gold or black), and is applied through a nozzle, like icing a cake. Whereas coloured outliners remain part of the finished design, clear outliner washes out. I used clear outliner to mark the shapes in the design. Although it looks reasonably neat in the picture, my lines vary in width quite a lot, with blobs at the ends of lines. Just what effect this will have will only become obvious when I add the fabric paint.

Outliner drying on the fabric

But that's the next stage.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

1920s dresses

I’m busy sewing at present, but what I’m working on may or may not come off, so I don’t want to post about it until I’m sure. So instead I’m posting about my next project, which is a 1920s style dress. This is currently at the ‘research’ stage, which gives me the perfect excuse to drool over lots of gorgeous dresses, and share the images here!

When I say ‘1920s style’ I don’t mean full-skirted dresses like this.

1925 Callot Soeurs dress

I mean the archetypal, straight-up-and-down, beaded ‘flapper’ dress.

Front, side and back views of 1928 silver beaded dress, Alexandre Vassiliev collection

This is beautiful, but it would be impossible for me to replicate all the sequins and beading. Also, I want something which has movement when I dance in it.

1920s fringed and beaded dresses, Alexandre Vassiliev collection

The pink dress has the most amazing long beaded fringe down the front, with three different shades of pink beads, going from pale to dark.

Long, shaded fringing

It was my birthday recently, and I was lucky enough to get the book “Fashion” from my mum and dad. Covering 3,000 years of fashion history, this is definitely a ‘tome’; it is massive, and heavy, and absolutely stuffed with illustrations. Happily for this particular project, it has a whole section on 1920s dresses, including the 1925 Edward Molyneux “Reptile” dress, and a detailed double-page spread of a 1925-28 Reville and Rossiter fringed and tasselled dance dress.

"Reptile" dress

Unfortunately, however beautiful long stands of beading look on a dance dress, they can easily get tangled: I once spent the better part of an entire dance show backstage, trying to untangle another dancer’s long-fringed beaded hip belt! So instead of fringing, I’m looking for something which moves, but won’t get tangled, like this.

Voisin dress, c1925, V&A

The two dresses below have a similar outline to them, with rows of beaded motifs hanging separately from the main dress, and this is the look I’ve decided to go for.

1925 beaded dress, Philadelphia Museum

1920s Paul Poiret dress, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ll base the pattern on the 1925 dress in Janet Arnold’s “Patterns of Fashion: Volume 2”, not that there is a lot of complicated pattern drafting involved.

Finally, I also want an Egyptian theme for the dress, partly to go with my Assuit shawl. There was a craze for Egyptian-inspired designs after discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, so this is in keeping with the period.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Left-handed sewing

Some months ago at a vintage fair I came across a book from the 1950s or 1960s. I can't remember the title, but it was something to do with left-handed sewing. As I'm left-handed, I had to have a look.

It turned out to be a guide for home economics teachers, on how to teach left-handed children to sew. The introduction began with the words,
"With the correct tuition, there is no reason why the left-handed child cannot learn to sew as well as her right-handed classmates."

Humph! The cheek of it. I didn't buy the book.

Most of my sewing tuition came from my (right-handed) mum, and I don't remember having any problems swapping over what she taught me to the other hand. In fact, the only things which I can really recall as troubling me were certain embroidery stitches, especially French knots and bullion knots, which just came out as flat stitches (more on this later).

It's just as well that I was able to manage, as most sewing books give very little thought to left-handers, beyond the 'hold a mirror next to page' approach. Really? By the time I've got the book in one hand and a mirror in the other how, exactly, am I going to hold fabric and a needle?

Some years ago Mr Tulip spotted Sally Cowan's Left-Handed Sewing in a bookshop, and bought it for me. Although only a slim volume, it contains instructions and diagrams for a number of hand sewing stitches, plus other useful information. For example, I had never noticed that the cutting layout diagrams on commercial patterns are laid out with the assumption that you will be pinning from right to left, so the pieces tend to have the wider end to the right and the narrower end to the left.

There seems to be some debate over whether sewing machines are left or right-handed. One theory is that as both Elias Howe and Isaac Singer  (the inventors of the sewing machine) were left-handed, they designed their machines to use their less dominant right hand to crank the machine while the left hand did the fine dexterous work. Other people claim that machines were designed so that the stronger, right hand did the hard work of cranking. I've no idea which is correct, but I can't imagine using a machine with the balance wheel on the left and the needle on the right. A few, early machines were made this way, and to me they just look so, so wrong.

'Left-handed' sewing machine.Scary!

The one thing which left-handers really do need for anything which involves cutting cloth is a proper pair of scissors. Most left-handed scissors have the blades arranged the same way or ordinary scissors, but with the handles moulded to be held in the left hand.

Left-handed scissors (bottom) with blades aligned the same way as ordinary household scissors, and snips


Most people will find these scissors to be perfectly effective, and they have the advantage that they can be sharpened using a normal scissor sharpener. However the pressure of your hand means that the blades will be at a very slight angle to one another. True left-handed scissors have the blades transposed, like these ones from Morplan.

True left-handed scissors (bottom)

In the long run these are more comfortable to use. However you do have to learn how to use them, as the transposed blades mean that the cutting edge is several millimetres away from where you expect it to be. Practise first on some scrap fabric before you use them to cut out anything important.

After scissors, this is my best left-handed find ever!

Left-handed measuring tape

A left-handed tape measure really is one of those things which you didn't realise you needed but once you've got one, you can't imagine how you coped without it. It's natural for me to hold the end of a tape measure in my right hand and pull it out with my left; getting this little wonder from Anything Left-Handed put an end to having to read the numbers upside down!

Finally though, back to the embroidery stitches. While checking out the links for this post I came across "The Left-Handed Embroiderer's Companion" by Yvette Stanton. This may finally be the answer to my problems with bullion knots, so I'm going to order a copy.

Left-handed knitting, though. Now that is a different matter altogether.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Decorating Meroe’s dance dress

This post is certainly well overdue. The dress was finished in August, but I didn’t post about it at the time, then other things happened for me to post about, and somehow it got overlooked.

The dress didn’t start off as a dance dress. It was originally a plain blue, jersey dress, which Meroe bought. She must have been able to see its potential, because on a hanger it doesn’t look much at all. Once it’s put on a dress form, though, it looks much better. When I took these photographs I was in the process of sewing a bra into it, hence the black straps.

The original dress

Meroe wanted a blue and silver colour scheme, with small sections of beading in the ruched areas, and most of the decoration on the bodice and around the hips.

I found a brooch and some earrings which I thought would be a good starting point for the design. To these I added various types of beads, blue and silver sequins, and some sew-on embroidery stones.

Various trimmings

I originally planned to trim all the edges of the bodice with rope beading, but came to the conclusion that this would look too much. There was also the problem that if I beaded the edges of the wide horizontal back strap, the vertical straps would rub against the beading, and possibly break it. Instead I left the edges of the back strap plain, and concentrated on decorating the area in the centre. As well as proving a focal point, this also had the advantage of covering any bumps where the bra strap fastened underneath!

The back completed

Another of the small jewellery pieces was attached to the bodice immediately below the bust, and as with the back panel, different combinations of beads and sequins were sewn on to form radiating lines of varying lengths.

The top completed

A third piece was placed on the back of the skirt, towards the left hip, and the same starburst effect added.

The brooch was placed at the top of the vertical drape, and the top part of it was outlined with silver beads. The outline then continued down the drape in broken sections. The brooch formed the focal point of the design and again, rows of beads and sequins radiated from it.

The brooch decoration

With hindsight, I would have chosen a different design for the decoration, namely one without straight lines. The rope beading around the edges wasn’t a problem, but it was very difficult to keep the radiating lines straight on stretch fabric, and to keep enough give in the stitching so that they wouldn’t pucker when the dress was put on. I had to keep putting the dress on the dress form, to mark the lines and to check that what I had completed so far was correct, then take it off to do a bit more. At one point I even tried sewing it while it was on the dress form!

The completed dress

Finally, though, here’s a picture of Meroe wearing the dress.

Meroe